December 24, 2005
Vin sat, watching the others as they made their way into the what Josiah called the "library." It was a big room, one of the largest in the mansion, and an old oak desk dominated one corner of the space – "Josiah's den" as JD had call the corner when he had given Vin a tour of the mansion yesterday morning.
The newest member of this group of hunters, Vin was ensconced in a comfortable leather chair close to the fireplace, the burning wood snapping and popping, pouring warmth into the room. There were two leather couches in the room as well – one facing the hearth, the other at right angles to it – and the other five men slowly filled them, except for Larabee, who opted for the matching chair at the other side of the fireplace.
Someone had put up a Christmas tree last night, or perhaps earlier in the day, and the lights were on, helping to push back the winter darkness beyond the large windows. There were six presents under that tree as well.
Tanner allowed himself a small smile. One of them was the gift he'd picked out earlier in the day for Larabee. It wasn't how he had expected to spend Christmas this year, but yesterday evening JD had asked, not so innocently, if they were going to be exchanging gifts for Christmas, and they had all agreed to pull names, so each man was only buying for one of the others. A wise decision, since they all had to do their shopping earlier today, on Christmas Eve, and the stores and Denver malls had been packed with other last minute shoppers.
Vin hadn't expected to be included in the ritual, having only been there for a day, but the men had apparently been serious when they had asked him to stay. He was one of them, they said, so in had gone his name, and he'd had to draw one, so he could go shopping the following morning.
He wondered who had gotten him, and what they might have bought him. They didn't know him, had no idea what kind of gifts he might like. But it didn't really matter. Whatever he received, it would be more than he'd gotten for several years, and the company of these men filled a deep, lonely hole in his soul, especially Larabee.
Vin had been delighted when he'd seen that he'd pulled the blond's name. It felt like he'd known Larabee his entire life, although he had just met him forty-eight hours earlier. Still, he was confident that the gift he'd picked would be well received, he just didn't know why.
Nathan and Rain were the last two to make their way into the library, Nathan taking a seat at the end of one sofa, Rain opting for the floor so she could lean back against her husband's legs, even though Buck had tied to give her his seat next to the Black man.
On the second sofa, Josiah leaned over and turned on one of the floor lamps, and JD jumped up from his place next to Buck and hurried over to turn on some Christmas music, which he turned down so it wouldn't compete with the conversation. Before the youngest member of the group had made it back to his seat, Mrs. Potter swept into the room, pushing a serving cart in front of her. On it was coffee and a variety of sweet desserts that filled the room with enticing aromas that had all of the men's mouths watering in anticipation.
She made her way around the large room, passing out cups of coffee and handing each a serving of whatever they picked to enjoy. Chris and Vin were the last to get their coffee, both men opting for thick slices of rum cake.
She glanced over at Josiah, saying, "I'll be heading back to the B-and-B, see if anyone there wants seconds."
Josiah nodded. "Thank you, Mrs. Potter, and Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to all of you, too," she said with a smile, then pushed the cart out and headed back to the other half of the large mansion, where she managed The Strays Bed and Breakfast, the public face of the hunters' haven.
The men settled back, enjoying their coffee and treats for several minutes, the conversation casual and scattered. But once they had finished Josiah cleared his throat to capture their attention.
"Well, since this was JD's idea, I think the boy ought to go fetch the gifts and hand them out," Sanchez stated.
"I second the motion," Ezra agreed from his place next to Josiah.
"Don't mind if I do," JD replied with a smile, hopping to his feet and heading straight to the tree. He leaned over and picked up two brightly wrapped gifts and brought them back over, handing one to Ezra and the other to Nathan. He returned to the tree, bringing back two more brightly wrapped packages, handing the first one to Chris.
"Damn, this is heavy," Chris said in surprise as he accepted the package from JD.
JD grinned. "Yep." He set the second gift in his empty spot.
Buck immediately reached over and shook JD's present.
"Hey, that might be breakable! Be careful," JD snapped at the older man.
"Just making sure it wasn't tickin', kid," Buck defended, but he was grinning.
"Right," JD grumbled, shooting Buck a look before going back for the last two gifts, which he delivered to Josiah and Vin. Then he picked up his package and sat back down.
Buck looked concerned. "Uh, kid, I think you missed one."
JD shook his head. "Nope, that's it."
Buck shook his head, too. "No, there's got to be one more…"
"Why?" JD asked, too innocently.
"Because I don't have one!" Buck said, sounding a little hurt.
JD shrugged. "Go check for yourself."
Buck glanced around at the others, but they offered him no explanations. With a huff he pushed to his feet and stalked over to the tree. He checked, then knelt down on the floor to get a better look under the bottom boughs.
With a grin, Chris eased silently out of his chair and slipped a thin box onto Buck's empty spot. He just made it back to his chair before Buck stood and swung around, his expression one of utter disappointment. "Josiah, ya forget to put my name in that hat this morning?"
Josiah smiled sadly. "Must have, brother… sorry."
Buck shuffled back to his seat, then saw the present waiting for him. He brightened, grinning as he snatched it up. "Ah, now, that wasn't nice, boys."
"But highly entertaining," Ezra told him.
Buck plopped down, holding his present, beaming.
"Who's first?" JD asked, glancing around at the men.
"I am," Buck snapped. "Ya made me work for it, so I'm opening mine first." And with that he torn the paper off and started to lift the lid on the thin, narrow box. He stopped, glaring at each of the men as he said, "This better not be a goddamn tie."
"Oh, just open it already," JD told him. "You're holding up the parade."
Buck glared at the kid, then lifted the lid and looked down. A huge grin broke across his face. He looked up, meeting Chris' eyes. "You evil ol' dog," he said.
Chris smiled. "Thought you'd like it."
"Oh, yeah, I like it," Buck said, dropping the lid back into place before JD could lean over and see what was inside.
"What is it?" the youngster asked.
"Nothing you need to worry about, kid," Buck replied, his chest puffing out. "Next!"
"Oh, no," Ezra interrupted, shaking his head. "You simply cannot leave us hanging like this, Mr. Wilmington. Give."
"Tell 'em, or I will," Larabee growled, but there was no anger in the words.
Buck wagged his eyebrows, then announced proudly, "Massage."
"A massage?" JD echoed, confused. "What's the big deal?"
"All depends on who's doin' the rubbin', kid," Vin drawled. "An' where."
"Amen to that, Junior," Buck replied, his eyes twinkling, a silly grin on his face.
JD just sighed and rolled his eyes. "Fine, I'm going next!" He opened his box and gasped. Reaching in, he lifted out a beautiful hunting knife with an antler handle. "Wow," he said, holding it up and watching the firelight glint off the surface of the sharp blade.
"Indeed," Ezra replied, grinning as Buck shifted slightly farther away, in case the young man dropped the weapon.
"We knew you didn't have one of your own," Rain said. "So when Nathan pulled your name, I suggested it. We hope you like it."
"Like it? I love it! Great idea!" JD replied, his eyes going to Nathan and then Rain, as he added a heartfelt, "Thank you!" Then he suddenly looked worried. "But we didn't put Rain's name in the hat."
Nathan smiled, reaching out to rest his hands on the woman's shoulders. "Not a problem," he said. "I took care of that earlier."
She returned the smile, looking over her shoulder at her husband and then holding up her wrist to show off the diamond tennis bracelet that now adorned her wrist.
"Very nice, Mr. Jackson," Ezra complimented.
"What'd you get, Ezra?" Buck asked.
The dapper man opened his gift, carefully removing the paper rather than tearing it open as the other two had done. He opened the box and frowned, then pulled out another, smaller box that was also wrapped. He repeated the process, but when he opened the smaller box his eyes rounded with surprise. Reaching in he carefully picked up the beautiful pen that rested in the smaller box. He held up, enjoying the way the firelight glinted off the bronze filigree design that wrapped the silver writing instrument. "Beautiful," he said.
JD smiled. "Glad you liked it. Took me three hours to find something I thought you might like, and I wasn't too sure about that."
"Well, you were right, Mr. Dunne, I do indeed 'like' it – very much."
"Well, I've waited as long as I can," Josiah said and opened his gift, which turned out to be an old book. The older man's eyes lit up. "Is this an original?" he asked, his voice touched with awe.
"It is," Ezra acknowledged, looking more than a little pleased with himself.
Josiah glanced over at the man. "How—?"
Ezra held up his hand. "We all have our talents, Mr. Sanchez," he said.
"Well, thank you," he said.
"What is it?" Buck asked, unsure why an old book would get Josiah so excited, especially when he had so many of them already.
"It's a text I've been looking for quite a while," Josiah replied. "I was starting to think that I'd never find an authentic copy."
"I noticed the hole in your collection," Ezra explained. "Luckily Mother had a… friend who was able to help me acquire it."
Buck just shook his head, then said, "You're turn, Nate."
Nathan smiled and opened the large but light box he was holding. Inside was what looked like an invitation. He opened the card, his gaze flying to the ladies' man. "You serious?"
Buck grinned. "As a heart attack. You two deserve some time away from here."
"What is it?" Rain asked, her curiosity piqued.
"A weekend at the spa… at the Broadmoor in the Springs."
Rain squealed. "Really?" she asked, looking at Buck.
His smile widened. "You two have a good time."
Nathan's grin was almost as lecherous as the ladies' man's when he said, "Oh, we will, don't you worry about that."
"That just leaves you two," Josiah said, smiling as Rain swatted her husband's knee.
Vin started in on his package before Chris could, pulling out a leather bound journal that had been hand-tooled with a collage of symbols.
"Merry Christmas," Josiah said. "And welcome to the fold, brother."
"It's beautiful, 'Siah," Vin said, running his fingers over the designs. He could feel the warding power they embodied, and knew he could use the journal and not worry that it might fall into the wrong hands.
"Glad you like it," the older man said, deeply pleased that the younger man had recognized the true value of the gift. Vin Tanner would be a valuable addition to this little band of hunters.
"That just leaves you, stud," Buck said, leaning forward, curious about what the blond had received.
Chris huffed out a breath and tore the paper off the heavy box. He opened the top and pulled out a piece of cardboard, then removed a small bronze statue from inside. It was stunning – three fleeing mustangs being pursued by a rider on a running horse. The workmanship was incredible, and Chris would almost swear that the cowboy bore a striking resemblance to him, but knew that just wasn't possible. He looked up, meeting Vin's eyes. "This your way of callin' me a cowboy again?"
Vin offered a half shrug. "Just seemed t' fit."
Chris nodded. "It's… beautiful," he said, and it was. And he knew it would look perfect on his mantle at the ranch, but how Vin had known that he had no clue. "Thank you."
"Yer welcome… Cowboy."
Chris rolled his eyes and the others laughed.
The phone on Josiah's desk rang and the big man pushed himself up and crossed the room to answer it. Few words were exchanged, but the others could tell from the sound of Josiah's voice that something important was going on.
"You're sure?" Josiah asked, then paused, listening. "All right, we'll check it out." Returning the receiver to its cradle he turned and faced the others. "Looks like the fates have sent us a job for Christmas, brothers."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
December 25, 2005
The following morning the seven men sat, gathered around the large kitchen table. They had already eaten, and the dishes had been cleared away. Now they waited while Josiah, who sat with a large, old book open in front of him, continued to read. The others sipped on their coffee, waiting for the older man to tell them what they were facing.
Eventually Josiah looked up and sighed. "That call last night was from a good friend of mine… Seems there might be a draugar on the loose in Michigan."
"What's that?" JD asked, glancing at the others to see if any of them knew, but it appeared that only Josiah, Nathan, and Vin had any clue what the creature was.
"Viking undead," Josiah replied. "Draug were believed to live in the graves of dead Vikings, being the body of the dead, but there have actually been several types reported over the years – sea-draug, land-draug, haugbui, even a blood drinking vampire-like version."
"What, exactly, are they?" Chris asked, all business.
"Apparently no one is really sure, other than some brand of undead," Josiah replied.
"How do we kill it?" Buck asked.
Josiah took a deep breath and let it out slowly before he said, "All draug possess superhuman strength and the ability to increase their size at will – up to about eight feet tall. From what I can find, hunters who have encountered them say that they also have some immunity to usual weapons. Draug kill their victims through various methods, including crushing them with their enlarged forms, eating their flesh, and drinking their blood."
"That's just wonderful," Ezra muttered under his breath.
"Animals feedin' near the graves of a draugar are sometimes driven mad by the creature's influence," Vin added. "So some say they're shape-shifters, too, but I don't think that's true. They can definitely take on the appearance of seaweed, or moss-covered stones on a shoreline, though."
"They are also noted for the ability to rise from their graves as wisps of smoke," Nathan added. "But I don't think they can cause harm until they take a shape."
"The draugar is a nearly unstoppable monster, and possesses only a handful of weaknesses," Josiah said, taking the conversation back. "According to one legend, a man drove a draugar away using a mixture of herbs and his own semen."
Buck looked pained. "We gonna have to do that?"
"That man was burned at the stake as a witch," Josiah added, his gaze on Buck. Then he glanced around the table. "The only definite weakness a draugar has is fire and decapitation. Fire is a vulnerability shared by most of the corporeal undead – a sign that nature itself rebels against their very existence."
"So we find it, chop off its head, and torch it," Chris stated.
"Hopefully," Josiah said. "However, decapitation only works after the creature has been wrestled to the ground and defeated. But decapitation and burning are the only known methods of permanently destroying a draugar."
"What aren't you telling us?" Ezra asked suspiciously.
Josiah fought back a small smile. "There's only one sure way to defeat a draugar. A hero, one who is pure of heart, and in good standing with God, must face the creature with only his bare hands, for it is only by wrestling a draugar into submission that one can hope to defeat the monster. Then the creature must be decapitated, preferably with the draugar's own sword or axe, and the body and head burned to ashes to ensure it does not return."
"Some people take the extra precaution of driving a wooden stake through the corpse before decapitating and cremating it," Nathan added, "which is probably why it's sometimes identified with vampires."
"It's been suggested in the lore that a draugar is susceptible to weapons forged of cold iron, but whether that actually works or not is anyone's guess," Josiah added.
"So we need somebody pure of heart to hold it down so we can cut its head off," Buck summed up. "Where the hell are we going to find somebody like that?"
Everyone except Buck glanced at Vin.
"What?" the hunter asked, looking decidedly surprised and uncomfortable with the implication.
"Well, Mr. Tanner, you are the only one of our company who… glows," Ezra stated. "In my visions, at least."
"I don't glow!" Tanner argued, looking affronted.
Buck grinned. "Don't know about that, Junior. I saw a glowin' full moon makin' a beeline for your bedroom from my and JD's bathroom couple nights back…"
Vin blushed a deep red. "Larabee was hoggin' the damn tub! I just borrowed yours."
"And forgot your clothes?" Buck asked.
Josiah raised his hand, saying, "If we could get back to the matter at hand?" The unspoken "children" was clear in his tone of voice.
The men looked back at the older man, most of them chuckling.
Later, as the hunters headed off to gather the supplies they might need, JD grabbed Buck's arm, jerking him to a halt before he got out of the kitchen. "Not to blow my own horn or anything," JD stated, "but don't you think I'm, uh, you know, kind of pure of heart?"
Buck thought for a moment, then patted JD on the shoulder, saying, "Son, there's a difference between being pure of heart and a virgin."
"What?!" JD yelped, then hissed, "I am not a virgin."
Buck grinned. "Are to."
"I am not," JD argued. "Besides, how would you know anyway?"
Buck pulled himself up, puffing out his chest as he replied, "JD, I'd know by the smile on Casey's face."
JD blushed deep crimson and stormed off, muttering under his breath. Buck watched him go, chuckling softly to himself. "Yep, definitely still a virgin," he said, following after the younger man.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
December 26, 2005
The seven men made their way down the steps of a small corporate jet. Vin shook his head. He'd had no idea Josiah owned a jet stashed at Centennial Airport in Denver. It belonged to the business, he'd been told, but Tanner knew it was really a way to get the hunters from home to wherever they needed to go as quickly as possible. The story about the builder of The Strays finding a bottomless pot of gold seemed a little more plausible to him now.
They rented two cars in Pellston and set out for Bliss, Michigan, about half an hour north of the airport. When they arrived, they drove to a dirt pullout across from the Bliss Township Cemetery, where Josiah's friend met them a few minutes later.
"Nice to see you Josiah… boys," the older man said, taking in the seven men. "I'm getting too old to be tackling something like this," he added, shaking each man's hand. "Local talent's all busy, or away for the holiday, so…"
"You know who this was?" Josiah asked his friend, who had chosen to keep his identity a secret.
The old man nodded. "Albert Jaap. Family fancied themselves the progeny of Vikings; guess they were right."
"How many people have died?" Josiah asked.
"Four, so far," the old man replied. "Hoping you might see to it that's all that do, too."
Josiah nodded. "Where?"
The old man handed Josiah a piece of paper with directions. "They buried ol' Bert on land that had been in the family for generations, ever since they come over in the 1800s and settled here."
"We'll do what we can," Josiah promised.
"Be careful," the old man warned. "The bodies that have been found… well, looks like they were crushed, then chewed on for a while…"
"We'll be careful," Josiah assured him.
The hunters climbed back into the two cars and started for the location the old man had given them. They were all quiet, each man lost in his own thoughts concerning the upcoming battle they knew they were facing.
Then, in the lead car, Ezra, who was sitting behind Josiah, who was driving, asked, "Does it strike either of you as odd that this event took place near a small lake and not the seashore?"
Nathan turned in the passenger seat to look at him as he said, "Well, the Great Lakes are large enough for shipping, so it's similar…"
Josiah glanced into the rearview mirror. "What are you thinking?" he asked the younger man.
"Well, typically sightings have been along coastal areas in regions once inhabited by Vikings… This Albert Jaap might have had Viking blood in his veins, but if that was all it took, then don't you think there would have been many more reports of draug from the upper Midwest and in, say, Iceland and Greenland?"
"He's got a point," Nathan said, looking over at Josiah.
"Yes, he does. The problem is, there just isn't anything in the lore that explains how a draugar is created. The oldest records we have imply that it was due to dark magick, and later, witchcraft. Nothing in my background research on Albert Jaap suggests any affiliation with witchcraft. He was an electrical engineering graduate student at the University of Michigan."
"But your acquaintance referred to him as 'ol' Bert,'" Ezra replied.
Josiah chuckled. "If he knew you, and you died today, he'd call you 'ol Ez,' too," Josiah explained.
"God forbid," the well-dressed man muttered under his breath, but Nathan and Josiah heard him.
"Albert Jaap was twenty-seven years old when he died," Josiah added.
Nathan looked thoughtful for a moment, then asked, "What about his parents? If he was that young when he died, did they out live him? Maybe they wanted to bring him back, and it backfired."
"Albert's parents were both killed four years before Albert died. Car accident during a winter storm; they were struck by a drunk driver who lost control of his SUV and hit them head-on."
"What about girlfriends?" Ezra asked.
Josiah met the younger man's eyes in the mirror. "I didn't find any references to a wife or a girlfriend in the reports of his death."
"Boyfriend?" Ezra offered.
"Also nothing, but a significant other isn't something we can rule out," Josiah agreed.
"How did Japp die?" Nathan asked.
"Drowned," Josiah explained. "He was canoeing just before going back to school in the fall and… something happened. The authorities assumed that it was an accident, since he was out alone. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as drowning. There wasn't anything to suggest foul play."
The three men settled back into silence.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~*
It only took the hunters twenty minutes to reach the spot, which was an isolated woodland area not far from Lawrence Lake. There were no neighbors close by, the nearest nearly half a mile away, and the couple who had lived in that house had been the first to be killed.
Their seventeen-year-old daughter had been living with them as well, until she had left for college two weeks before they died. At least she hadn't been there when her parents had gone to the lake, and run afoul of the draugar.
The third and fourth victims – Mike Erikson and Lonny Thomsen – had both been fishermen who had come to the lake to fish. When Erikson hadn't returned home, his wife had panicked. The police had investigated, finding the body. Thomsen was reported missing when he failed to meet up with friends at nearby O'Neal Lake. As with Mr. and Mrs. Bronstads, both men had been crushed and well chewed when they were found.
Josiah was sure that they were looking for a draugar, but Ezra's comments on the drive haunted him. How had Albert Jaap becomes a draugar?
They quickly found Jaap's grave, and those of his parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. The earth around all of the graves, save one, was undisturbed. Albert Jaap's grave, however, looked like someone had stomped around on top of it and dug into it – someone very big, and very heavy.
"I don't suppose those might be moose tracks," Ezra asked hopefully.
Vin grinned and shook his head. "Nope."
"I was afraid you were going to say that," Ezra sighed.
"Could mean he's out right now," Nathan stated, his gaze sweeping over the landscape.
"Best we just wait, then," Vin said. "Reckon we might not know where he is, but we sure as hell know where he's comin' back to."
Josiah nodded. "Vin's right. If Albert is out and about, he could be anywhere in the area, but eventually he'll make his way back here, by dawn or by dusk, depending upon when he rose. They walk for twenty-four hours, then have to return to their graves for another twenty-four."
"Let's hope he's a night owl, and it's dusk then," Buck said, "because it's going to be colder than a witch's tit out here if we have to stay all night to wait for dawn."
"If he doesn't return at dusk, can't we just come back right before dawn?" JD asked. He didn't relish the idea of spending the night out in the cold, either.
"He don't come back at dusk, maybe we ought t' go lookin' for him," Vin said.
Buck glanced up, taking note of the overcast skies. "Won't be enough light to look," he said, then added with a grin, "Unless o' course you want to do your glow-thing."
Vin huffed out a breath, but he didn't argue.
"Buck's right," Josiah agreed, a slight smile on his lips. "If he's not back at dusk, then we know he'll be back at dawn. We'll come back then. There's no use all of us freezing our asses off if we can't hunt."
Chris shook his head. "We leave, he might find another victim."
"The only other neighbors moved into town after the Bronstads were killed. There shouldn't be anyone out here," Josiah said. "But maybe we can borrow the Jaap's home, spend the night here."
"Would keep us close," Nathan agreed.
"Might lure him to us, too," Chris added.
"One can only hope," Ezra replied drolly.
The men walked over to the house, and within minutes, had found the spare key that was hidden in the base of a decorative garden gnome. They let themselves in.
The house was modest, but clean and tidy. It was two stories, with the kitchen, living room, and dining room downstairs, along with a small storage room and a spare bedroom. Upstairs there was a master bedroom with bath and two other bedrooms, one of which had been converted into a sewing room.
Josiah informed the others as to Albert's age at death, as well as the untimely death of his parents.
"This place looks pretty clean. How long ago did ol' Bert die?" Vin asked.
"Albert Jaap drowned back in August. But after his parents deaths he rented this place out to retired couple," Josiah explained. "They also had a teenaged foster son. They moved to Grand Rapids, to be close to their three biological children after the father had a mild stroke just before Thanksgiving, so this place has been vacant for just over a month."
"Won't do us any good to go snooping, then," Buck sighed. "Whatever's left probably belonged to the renters."
"The furniture belonged to the Jaap's," Josiah said. When several of the others looked surprised to hear that, he added, "The home was listed as furnished in the newspaper ad JD found."
"Perhaps there might still be something of the Jaaps in the attic," Ezra suggested.
"Why don't you 'n' me go take a look?" Vin suggested.
Ezra looked a little surprised, but he nodded and said, "Very well, Mr. Tanner."
"We'll take a look around outside," Chris told the two men.
"Think I'll see if I can make us something to eat," Nathan offered. "We brought along enough, I should be able to come up with something."
"We'd appreciate it, Nate," Buck told him, heading out after Chris, JD on his heels.
Josiah followed Nathan into the small kitchen. "Think I'll see if there's coffee to be made."
"Josiah," Nathan said, "who owns this place now that Albert's dead?"
"A cousin of Albert's; lives down in Douglas, Michigan. It's listed as being for rent again, but given the recent deaths…"
Nathan nodded. "I wouldn't be all that interested in the place, given that, either."
Josiah found an unopened can of Folger's in the cabinet. He went looking for a can opener, and opened it. A few minutes later the aroma of brewing coffee filled the small space.
By the time Chris, Buck, and JD came back it was late in the afternoon. They hadn't found anything of particular interest, although Chris was pretty sure of the path the draugar was taking to and from the property. Ezra and Vin were still up in the attic.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Once in the attic, Vin and Ezra set about looking through the collections of boxes and large plastic tubs that were stacked in the space. Most held the flotsam and jetsam of a family's life. Old Christmas lights and ornaments filled several of the plastic tubs. Old clothes, decades out of style, filled boxes and an old suitcase. Two boxes held the treasured remnants of Albert's grade school career, complete with report cards, class projects, and collection of childish drawings. In another box were discarded, but once beloved toys – baseball mitt, toy soldiers, ragged stuffed dog, and others that reminded Ezra of the characters in Toy Story and Toy Story 2.
There were old lamps, an old shoe-shine kit, and a stack of old fishing gear. There was even an old canoe, leaning against the wall in one corner of the space.
"I am not finding anything of interest," Ezra said, still holding the stuffed dog in his hands. He guessed that it was supposed to be a Bassett Hound, since it had long, droopy ears, and sad-looking eyes. So sad, in fact, Ezra couldn't imagine returning it to the jumble of abandon toys.
"Me, either," Vin agreed. "Found a box of old papers, but they're all from the seventies."
Ezra snorted. "A time best left to the faded mists of memory."
Vin stood, his hands on his hips as he glanced around the space. "Could 'a made a nice room out 'a this," he said. "If they'd tossed all this junk."
"Indeed," Ezra agreed, standing as well, the stuffed toy tucked under his arm.
Vin grinned. "Y' find yourself a friend?"
Ezra glanced down at the toy, his cheeks reddening slightly. "I supposed I did. It looked so… forlorn. I just can't leave it up here to succumb to the ravages of moths and time."
"Anybody ever tell ya you're an ol' softy?" Vin asked.
"No," the gambler huffed. "And I assure you, that is as far from reality as it can possibly be. I was thinking I might be able to sell it… to a collector."
Vin nodded, but he looked for from convinced. "Whatever you say, Ez."
"Ezra," Standish corrected. "Now, since this has proved to be a colossal waste of our time, why don't we go downstairs and we what we can find in the way of an editable meal?"
"Sure," Vin replied, still grinning. He turned and headed to the stairs, starting down.
Ezra followed him, but as he reached to turn the light off, his hand brushed an old backpack that was hanging on a hook. Light exploded inside his head, then, a face appeared, twisted with rage… A dark forest, foreboding and cold… Vin, running… An overpowering sense of danger… Black wings, beating…
The gambler jumped and gasped, the stuffed dog falling to the dusty floor. "W-what?"
"I asked if y' were all right?" Vin said, looking concerned.
"I'm… I'm not sure."
"Y' have a vision?"
Vin bent over and picked up the toy, handing it to Ezra as he said, "Reckon we better go tell the others."
The gambler nodded, following his teammate down the stairs to the second floor. Finding no one there, they proceeded to the ground floor, where the others were seated around the dining room table, eating. They took seats, Vin announcing, "Ez had a vision."
Josiah looked concerned as he noted the stuffed toy in the man's hands. "You get a hit off the toy?" he asked.
"What?" Ezra inquired, then realized he was still toting the toy around. He huffed out a breath and set the dog on an old hutch, then said, "No. It was a backpack, hanging on the wall in the attic."
"What did you see?" Josiah asked.
Ezra drew a deep breath, then let it out slowly before he said, "I'm not exactly sure."
"How's that work?" Buck asked.
Ezra shot the man a look, and tried to explain. "There was a flash of light, and an angry face, but I couldn't be sure if it was a man or a woman, it was… distorted somehow."
"Anything else?" Nathan asked.
"A forest, but I have no earthly clue where it might be." His gaze slid to Vin, then back to Josiah as he added, "And I saw Vin, running through that forest."
"I've run through a lot 'a forests," Vin admitted and the other chuckled, except for Ezra.
"I could sense danger, but I couldn't see what that danger was, or if it was targeting Mr. Tanner specifically. And black wings…"
"Like a bat?" JD asked.
"No, more like a large bird, I think."
"Maybe it was Albert, chasing Vin," JD offered.
"I— I simply cannot say," Ezra told them. "You now know as much as I do."
Chris glanced over at Vin, a cold chill chasing down his spine as he did. "We'll watch your back," he promised the younger man.
Vin nodded. He had no doubt Larabee would do just that.
"I'd like to take a look at that backpack after we eat," Josiah said.
Ezra nodded. "But I'd appreciate it if someone else went up to fetch it."
That made the others smile.
"I'll go get it," JD offered, then smiled at Josiah adding, "As soon as I'm finished. Josiah makes great chili.
"That's Hormel," Nathan told the young man.
"Oh," JD replied, looking a little sheepish. Josiah rolled his eyes.
Buck laughed. "The boy's a bottomless pit!"
"And entirely undiscerning," Ezra added.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
After they had eaten, JD climbed to the attic, bringing down the backpack. He gave it to Josiah, who went through it, looking for anything that might explain the vision Ezra had experienced. The tote was essentially empty except for a small pocket knife that had rusted, and an old library card for the local public library, in the name of Albert Jaap.
"Ezra," Josiah called and the younger man came over. "I was hoping you might see if anything else comes up…"
Standish didn't look excited about touching the object again, but he nodded and took it from Josiah. Light exploded inside his head, then, a face appeared, twisted with rage… A dark forest, foreboding and cold… Vin, running… An overpowering sense of danger… The black wings… The edge of a knife blade, dripping with blood…
Ezra dropped the backpack and took a step back.
"Ezra, what is it?" Josiah asked, coming to his feet and moving swiftly to the younger man's side. He reached out, wrapping one arm around Standish's shoulder and guiding him to a chair.
"It… It was the same, except…"
"Except?" Chris asked. He shot a concerned look at Vin, but Tanner seemed relaxed and calm.
"I saw a knife, the blade edge of a knife… It was dripping with blood."
"Any idea whose?" Nathan asked, sounding concerned.
Ezra shook his head. "I can't really say."
"But Vin's the only one you see in the vision," Chris clarified.
"That's true," Ezra replied, glancing over at Vin, who just shrugged.
"Ain't no use worryin' 'bout it now," the newest member of the team decided.
Chris stood and walked over to stand next to Josiah. "I don't think he should deal with Jaap."
"I'll be fine," Vin said from his seat on the sofa.
"You might end up dead, too," Chris growled. "That's not fine in my book."
"Ez said this ain't the right forest, so whatever he's seein', it ain't about this," Tanner argued back.
"Better safe than sorry," Buck added. "We can take care of Jaap."
"We're going to need Vin," Josiah corrected, but he didn't sound happy about it.
Chris shot Josiah a hot look.
Josiah held up his hand to forestall the argument. "This is going to take all of us," he corrected.
Chris cursed under his breath, then stalked out of the living room, through the kitchen and out of the house. Vin rose and followed him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Outside, Chris kept walking until he reached the small fenced in area that held the graves – seven of them, he noticed, and hoped the number wasn't some kind of omen. He knew he was being unreasonable, but he couldn't stop himself.
"Headed someplace in particular, Cowboy?"
Chris turned. Vin was standing there, grinning at him. He scowled, wanting to be angry, but the anger he'd managed to hold onto as he'd stormed out of the house fizzled and died under the light behind that grin, and he wondered briefly if Ezra's vision was more metaphorical and real. There was something about Tanner that just radiated goodness. "Vin…"
Tanner held up his hand to stop the blond. "I know yer worried," he said. "But I ain't so easy t' kill."
"I've already lost too much," Chris said a little thickly. It made no sense that he felt this connected to the man, and he'd only known him a few days.
Vin nodded, understanding what Larabee wasn't saying – that he wasn't sure he could handle any more losses, even the loss of a friend. "This draugar is gonna take all 'a us, but it ain't gonna kill me."
"You're the only one who's going to try taking him on alone."
Vin flashed the older man a quick, not-quite-cocky grin. "Hell, all I'm gonna do is get 'im on the ground. The rest of ya are gonna do the real work."
"Just be careful. Whatever it is Ezra's seeing—"
"We'll deal with it when it happens," Vin told him, his voice quiet but sure. "One monster at a time, Cowboy."
"You keep callin' me 'cowboy' this might be your last monster."
"You planning on telling me why you're so hard t' kill?" Chris asked.
"One day," Vin replied with a shrug. "Just remember it's true."
Larabee nodded, knowing he could trust the man, even if he had no idea what Tanner's secret was. He suspected it had something to do with the strange tattoos he'd seen on Vin's back when they had swam laps in the indoor pool at the B&B, but he was more than willing to wait until this hunt was over before he cornered the man and got the whole story out of him.
"Come on, we might as well do a quick check around the place, just in case," Chris said, starting off.
Vin followed him, an affectionate smile on his face. For the first time since Chief had died, he felt like he had family again, and it felt good – damn good. He knew most hunters worked alone, or sometimes in pairs, but he thought Josiah was on to something, bringing together a team to do the work. He just hoped that the truth didn't frighten Larabee and the others away.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The seven men waited as the sun dropped closer to the horizon. The wind had picked up and they were all cold, but there was really little they could do but wait and see if Jaap turned up. They were ready, each man carrying a cold iron weapon, as well as a small arsenal of their personal choosing. Vin sat slightly away from the others, watching the trees, and Josiah made is way over to the man.
"'Siah," Tanner greeted without really looking at the older man.
"Vin," he replied. "I have to ask you a question, son."
Vin looked up at the man, meeting his eyes.
"From what I can tell, Ezra's visions are accurate. He might not have all the details, but what he sees is the truth," Sanchez stated.
"Powerful gift," Tanner replied, nodding. His gaze shifted back to the trees, his gaze sweeping over them, looking for any sign of Jaap returning to his grave.
"Yes, it is," Josiah agreed. "You've heard that, in an earlier vision, he saw you… glowing."
"Yep, he told me," Vin replied, trying not to sound concerned.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" Josiah asked.
"Prefer not to, t' be honest."
Josiah nodded. "Maybe another day, then," he said and started to turn away.
"I ain't a monster," Vin added quietly.
Josiah turned back to Vin. He reached out and rested his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "I never thought so, son. It's just, in this business, it's best to know who you're working with. One of the reasons this team works so well is because we're all touched by the paranormal, in one way or another. Some of us are more aware of our gifts than others, but it's true nonetheless. Chief trained you, so I know without a doubt you can be trusted, but we all have gifts, and the men who are working with you…" He glanced over at the others, then back at Vin. "…well, we trust you with their lives. It might not be so bad if you trusted us with your secrets. They won't change how we feel, Vin. You're one of us."
"Another stray," Tanner said with a small smile.
"That you are, son," Josiah replied, giving Vin's shoulder an affectionate squeeze. "And we're glad you found your way home."
Vin thought for a moment, then he nodded and said, "Reckon it's only fair y'all know the truth… After we get back?"
"Sounds good to me," Josiah told him, taking a step away, but then he stopped and asked, "Can you do what we're asking of you?"
Vin nodded. "I'll get him down, you and the rest 'a the boys stake him and chop his fuckin' head off."
"That's the plan," Josiah said with a small smile. "But, Vin…"
"'M always careful, J'siah."
Sanchez could read more in Vin's eyes than he suspected the younger man realized. Vin had more to live for now that just himself, and that was good as far as the older man was concerned. Tanner wouldn't do anything foolish, anything that might get himself killed. He wouldn't do that to Chris and, knowing that, seeing it reflected in Tanner's blue eyes, set Josiah's mind at ease. Chief was a good man, and a great hunter, but he had a certain disregard for his own wellbeing that had made him reckless. He'd met other hunters like that, John Winchester springing to mind, but John had his sons to rein him in, at least some. He had a hunch that, without Chris, without all of them, Vin would be more like Chief had been. Now, with Larabee and the rest of them in his life, he was more like John. And that would have to do, for now. As Tanner got to know them better, he's bonds with all of them would wear away that edge of recklessness. At least he hoped it would.
Around them it was quickly getting dark, and still no sign of Jaap. "Come on," Josiah said to Vin, "we might as well head back to the house. He won't be here until dawn."
"Yep," Vin agreed, rising and following the man to the old house, the others trailing them inside.
Once settled in the kitchen, they shared coffee and decided on a watch order, the rest heading off to find someplace to sleep.
Buck and JD were taking the first watch, so they made themselves more coffee and settled in at the kitchen table. Ezra and Josiah retired upstairs. Chris and Vin opted for the second bedroom upstairs. And Nathan settled in the downstairs bedroom, which Buck and JD would use when he and Josiah relieved them at ten.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
It was about an hour before dawn when Ezra and Chris roused the rest of the hunters. They each gathered their weapons, then made their way out to the small graveyard. It was bitterly cold, but the wind had died down to almost nothing. The sky above them was clear, which explained the iciness of the air. Snow was predicted later that afternoon, but that was hours away, and the clouds were nowhere to be seen.
As the sky just began to lighten in the east they heard it, the sound of heavy footsteps moving through the brush and trees, getting closer to the house with each step. The draugar made no attempt to conceal his presence as he headed home to his grave, and rest. And there was no need for it to try.
By the time it reached the edge of the open backyard, they could hear it breathing, panting really, like it had been running, and maybe it had.
It stopped at the edge of the woods that grew right up to the border of the lawn behind the house. There the creature paused and cocked it head, listening for a moment, then it started forward again. It was carrying an ax in its hand, the weapon hanging down, unneeded, perhaps heavy in a tired grip.
It crossed the lawn, heading for the small collection of graves, but stopped at the small wooden fence. It titled its head back and sniffed the air, brow furrowing.
"Time fer a nap, Bert?" Vin asked, stepping out from behind some nearby trees. In one hand he was holding a cold iron weapon Josiah had been able to procure for him.
The draugar pulled itself up, its body immediately growing larger as it peered menacingly at the hunter. The effect was much like watching a cat puff up. The ax came up to rest on the monster's shoulder, ready to be swung at the man facing him, and swing it he did as soon as Vin took a step closer, and with all the force it could muster.
Vin leaped back, well out of the path of the blade.
But in a move that was both faster and more graceful than any of them had expected, the draugar switched its grip and brought the ax flying back in the opposite direction. Vin was still clear of the arc of the weapon, so he only leaned away from the blade this time. And, as he did, he shifted the shoge in his hand, getting ready to use it.
The draugar roared and started toward Vin, growing another foot in height as it did. Vin moved away from the trees and out onto the open brown lawn of the backyard so he would have the room he needed to maneuver. Holding the length of chain close to the middle, he began to swing the bladed end of the Japanese weapon in a circle over his head. And when the monster approached him, growing to its full size as it did, Vin let the bladed end of the length of chain fly. It sailed toward the monster, the chain wrapping around the handle of the ax the draugar carried.
Vin jerked on the chain, surprise allowing him to yank the weapon out of the creature's grasp before it knew what had happened.
Its weapon torn from its grasp, it roared and bared rotting teeth, starting forward, intent on grabbing Tanner.
But Vin was ready. "Now!" he yelled and Chris tossed him a second shoge.
Vin snatched the handle of the bladed end with one hand, the other grabbing the chain. He swung the weapon, this time the open iron ring at the end making a whistling sound in the cold morning air.
The draugar paused, confused by the weapon, or perhaps sensing that it was made of cold iron. It snarled and roared again, trying to reach out and grab the chain as it flew past, but Vin was much more agile than the creature. He snapped the chain back, then forward as he bent forward, the length snaking toward the monster, coiling around its legs at the knees.
Vin jerked with all his strength, but the monster refused to fall.
"Damn," the hunter hissed as he raced in, the blade clutched tightly in his hand.
The draugar looked down at the length of chain that encircled his legs, then up at the rushing man. It swung its arm like a club.
Vin tried to avoid the hit he saw coming, but couldn't twist completely under it. It was just a glancing blow, but it was still enough to send him flying off his feet. He landed hard in the grass.
The draugar reached down, trying to untangle his legs.
Vin rolled over and came up on his feet. He reached for the iron knife he was carrying in a sheath on his belt. Drawing it, he charged the creature, launching himself and landing on the monster's back. All he had to do was get the monster on the ground, then the others could come in and finish it off.
The draugar snapped back upright, hands grabbing for the man who was now on his back, but Vin slipped one arm around the monster's neck and held on tightly with his legs. The creature roared again.
Vin brought the butt of the knife down on the crown of monster's head as hard as he could. The blow sent the draugar to its knees. It whipped its arms to the back, trying to reach the man, striking Vin in the ribs.
Tanner grunted, hearing bone break. He brought the knife butt down again on the top of the monster's head.
It roared and threw itself backward, falling to the ground, Vin trapped beneath him.
But as soon as it was on the ground, the others raced forward. Chris grabbed the creature's ax. Buck and JD rushed in, each using a shoge to ensnare the creature's arms. They lunged back, pulling the monster's arms open wide, but it still bucked and writhed, trying to pull free.
Nathan and Josiah rushed in, Josiah placing an iron spike in the center of the draugar's chest. Nathan swung a sledge hammer, driving the spike into the monster's chest. This time it screamed and writhed harder, trying to crush Vin, who was still trapped beneath it.
"This way!" Ezra yelled at Buck and JD and the two men sprinted toward the creature's feet, dragging it upright and off of Vin.
Tanner scrambled out from under the creature as best he could with Ezra's help, but the pain from his ribs made it almost impossible for him to see what was happening. He crawled away, then stopped, sinking back, his butt resting on his heels as he waited for the black and yellow lights exploding in front of his eyes to clear.
As soon as Vin was out of the way Chris stepped up, swinging the ax, cutting through the monster's neck. The draugar's head dropped onto the lawn. Buck and JD released the chains and the creature's body fell over as well.
Josiah and Ezra quickly salted the body, then poured gasoline over it and set it ablaze.
Nathan turned to check on Vin, his eyes rounding with surprise as he saw something swooping out of the trees, a plum-colored cape whipping around its body. "Vin!" he yelled. But the thing was already upon the man.
The others turned just in time to see a shining blade being thrust into Tanner's back. Vin arched back, his mouth open in a silent scream of agony.
Chris and Buck were the first to reach the hunter, tackling the attacker to the ground. It fought wildly, but a hard right hook ended the fight, the creature's neck snapping back with an audible pop.
Nathan rushed in, grabbing Vin, but he was completely limp.
The others quickly uncovered Tanner's attacker, discovering a young woman, her neck broken in the fight.
"What the hell's going on here?" Buck demanded. "Who the hell is she?"
"I need some help," Nathan snapped before anyone could reply. "Help me get him into the house."
As the others moved to help Nathan, Vin's body convulsed once, a flash of blinding blue-white light erupting from his body in a circular pattern that rushed away in less than a second.
"Jesus!" JD yelped, jumping back. "What was that?"
"Don't know," Chris said, reaching to help Nathan lift Vin. "Come on!"
Josiah and Buck moved in to help as well, the four of them picking Vin up and carrying him toward the house.
JD bolted forward, racing to get the door open for them.
Vin struggled reflexively in their grips, and Chris growled, "Calm down, Tanner, it's just us."
Ezra stood in the yard, watching them go, his mouth open as he tried to accept what he had just seen. He shook his head, unable to comprehend it. Then he salted the girl's body, doused it with gasoline and set it ablaze as well.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin was lost. He was in an overgrown forest, lying on the ground, and it was dark. He crawled forward on his belly, inching over the rough ground as time passed, overlapped, retreated. Wriggling through the pine needles and plants, he had no idea how far away he'd escaped from the draugar.
Just keep movin', he commanded his failing muscles. The others will take care of Jaap. Keep movin'…
But then he stopped.
This wasn't the Michigan woods.
The first faint traces of sunlight drew a painful grunt from the hunter. Vin instinctively sniffed the faint breeze that passed by him. Freedom waited somewhere close by, but freedom from what was the question.
He tried to remember what had been happening…
He'd been in Michigan… on a hunt with Chris and the others… A draugar. He'd faced the monster, had gotten it down onto the ground… His ribs.
He took a deep breath, but only a faint tinge of pain remained. He thought again. The monster had toppled back onto him… He'd been clinging to its back…
But the more he thought about the hunt, the more drained he felt. It was as if just thinking about it was causing his life to slip away… But he had no choice.
He remembered the sound of the iron stake being driven into the monster's chest, and then Ezra, helping him away from the creature… His ribs had been in agony at the time… Then…?
The burst of fiery pain in his back… and…?
Nothing. He was here, wherever here was.
Grinding his teeth against an acute spasm vibrating through his energy-drained body, he started forward again on his belly.
Chris, he thought, where are ya? Where the hell's the rest 'a the guys? What the hell happened?
Hands suddenly gripped his body, startling Vin. They lifted him, but he couldn't see who they were. Familiarity prickled along the hunter's awareness.
Where are y' takin' me?
They could be monsters, he thought, and a surge of adrenaline hit his system, giving Vin the strength to twist weakly in their hands. One of the men growled something unintelligible and he stopped his struggle.
A cacophony of images and sensations rushed past his consciousness, confusing and frightening, and Vin retreated deeper into his own mind, and waited.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In the kitchen, Nathan and JD cleared off the table, the others lowering Vin onto the flat surface, belly down. He groaned, but did not regain consciousness. The knife remained in his back, blood soaking the material around the blade.
"Get my bag," Nathan ordered, pulling off his coat and tossing it out of the way. He pushed up the sleeves of his sweater and took the medical bag from Josiah. "Go get the trauma kit out of the car," he instructed, and it was JD who hurried away. "I need towels. And put some water on to heat," he added, digging into the bag for scissors that he used to cut away Tanner's clothes until he was naked from the waist up. Running at angles along the edges of Vin's shoulder blades was an intricate tattoo that looked like it was made up of characters from an alphabet, one that none of them recognized. The knife blade was embedded to the hilt just to the right of Tanner's spine.
"Should I call 9-1-1?" Buck asked.
Nathan nodded and the ladies' man started to step toward the phone, which was mounted on the wall next to the hallway into the living room, but Chris reached out and grabbed the man's arm, stopping him.
"Just take it out," Larabee said, green eyes locked on Nathan's brown.
"But—" the physician started to argue.
"Just do it," Chris instructed.
Josiah stared at the blond, noting the slightly unfocused look to the man's eyes. "Chris, are you sure?"
"Do it," Josiah said, his gaze shifting from the blond to Nathan.
Nathan looked like he might argue, but then he stepped up and carefully pulled the blade from Vin's body. The tip dripped blood onto Vin's back just as Ezra stepped into the room.
"Oh God," he breathed, his knees giving way.
Josiah managed to grab Ezra before he hit the floor. "Easy," he said, guiding the younger man to one of the chairs that had been pulled away from the table.
"Here you go, Nate," JD said, coming in with the trauma kit.
"What the—?" Nathan yelped, jerking back as a crackle of the same blue-white energy seared over the wound, sealing the skin. The knife fell to the floor.
"How—?" Buck started to ask, but he stopped, looking at Chris. "What the hell is he?"
"I don't know," Larabee replied quietly, shaking his head.
"He's not a monster," Josiah said into the stunned silence. "That's what he told me. He said he'd tell us about his… situation, after this hunt."
"Well, nobody human can do that," Buck argued, looking half angry and half afraid as they watched the wound knitting itself closed.
Nathan ignored them all, carefully examining the healing wound. "Help me turn him over," he instructed and Chris and Josiah did.
Nathan checked some more, watching as the bruises on Vin's sides slowly began to fade away as well. The younger man's vital signs seemed normal, but when the physician tried to rouse him, nothing happened.
"Uh," JD said, picking up the knife, "there's some kind of writing on the blade…"
Josiah took the weapon from the younger man and carried it to the sink, rinsing off the blood. He dried the blade and studied the inscription on the metal. "It's old Norse runes," he said. "I need to check some of my texts, but I think it says 'soul thief.'"
"That can't be good," JD said, glancing around at the other men.
"What do we do?" Nathan asked. "He's stable… damn near healed up from what I can see, but I can't wake him."
Josiah thought for a moment, then said, "Wipe the place clean, then let's get him home."
Chris didn't look happy, but he nodded, he and the others moving to erase their presence in the home as best they could. Two hours later they moved Vin to one of the vehicles, leaving him there with Chris while the others buried Albert Jaap's ashes and charred bones back in his grave. They tossed the girl's remains in with his as well. By the time they left, all that remained of their visit were two circles burned into the brown lawn.
They headed straight to the airport, hiring a man there to return the vehicles for them. They boarded the plane and headed home.
Vin never once regained consciousness.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
By nightfall they were back at the mansion in Colorado. Vin was lying in one of the beds in the infirmary, Chris sitting beside him, watching. Nathan and Rain came by every half an hour to see if Vin's condition had changed, but so far it hadn't.
In the library, Josiah was pouring over his books with Ezra's help, while JD worked on his computer. Buck cleaned their weapons and put them up, then made sure the rest of their equipment was ready to be used at a moment's notice.
"I think I have something," Josiah announced. JD and Ezra came over, standing behind the older man and peering over his shoulder at the open book he was using. "This is a linguistic text of Elder Futhark, which is thought to be the oldest version of the runic alphabet," Josiah explained. "It was used in the parts of Europe that were home to Germanic peoples, including Scandinavia. Other runic versions developed from it."
"You were able to translate what was on the knife?" JD asked.
Josiah nodded. "The first set of symbols definitely translate as 'soul,'" he said. "But the second set… At first I thought it might be 'thief,' but now…"
"What?" Ezra asked.
"I'm thinking they refer to the blade itself, so a better translation would be 'stealer.'"
"Soul Stealer?" Ezra asked. "Could that be the name of the weapon?"
"It wasn't unusual for people to inscribe their weapons with names or titles," Josiah agreed. "It was believed that such a naming conferred the strength or power of the name on the weapon. Runes themselves have been used in magick work since they were created. So, yes, I think Soul Stealer is the name of the blade."
"Might it also be what the knife can do?" Ezra asked, walking around the desk to sit in one of the chairs at the side.
Josiah nodded. "It is possible."
JD's computer started to beep and he hurried over. "Oh my God," he gasped, then pulled out the power supply attachment and carried the laptop over to the desk. He sat it down in front of Josiah. "That's the same knife, right?"
Josiah looked at the photograph on the screen, then at the blade lying on the desktop. "Yes, it's the same blade…" He quickly skimmed the article that accompanied the photo.
"Well?" Ezra asked when Josiah looked up.
"The blade was part of a collection at the University of Michigan. It was stolen last year, along with a few other artifacts… It was originally discovered at a dig in the Faroe Islands – islands the Vikings settled in the seventh century CE. They never did find out who had stolen the artifacts, but the local authorities thought it might have been students."
Josiah nodded and JD took the computer back. "I'll see what I can find out about the investigation," the computer whiz said. "University systems are pretty easy to hack."
"Albert Jaap would have been a student there at the time," Ezra said thoughtfully.
"I was thinking the same thing," Josiah replied. "We need to do some more research on Jaap, and this blade, but first we all need to get some sleep. We're no use to Vin if we're too exhausted to think straight."
Ezra and JD nodded their agreement.
"I'll go find Buck," JD said.
Josiah watched JD go, then glanced over at Ezra and asked, "You all right?"
He nodded. "The face I saw in the vision, it was the girl's… and the knife… But I don't understand what the forest is, or how it's tied to this."
"You'll figure it out," Josiah told him. "We'll figure it out."
"In time to help Mr. Tanner?"
"I hope so," Josiah told him, standing and walking around the desk to join Ezra. "There's something special about that boy…"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Late the following morning the hunters gathered in the infirmary where Vin lay, still unconscious. Josiah stood at the foot of the hunter's bed. "Boys, we have a problem," he stated.
"Just spit it out, Josiah," Buck told him. He was already more than tired of waiting.
The older man nodded and said, "The blade the girl used is cursed," he explained. "It was created for a Viking, Balli, who wanted a weapon that would scare the crap out of the Irish monks who had settled on the Faroe Islands, a place he was intent upon taking for his own. Since the monks were worried about their immortal souls, Balli had a witch curse the blade so it would steal the souls of its victims, denying them paradise. Over time, the blade became known as Soul Stealer."
"You saying you think hat knife stole Vin's soul?" Chris asked, looking worried.
"I'm not willing to go that far just yet," Josiah told him.
"Who was the girl?" Buck asked.
"Tonna Bronstad," JD supplied. "She was the daughter of the first two victims."
"It seems Miss Bronstad was heavily involved in occult practices," Ezra said, then added, "And obsessed with one Albert Jaap."
"I called and talked to my friend," Josiah explained, and the others knew he meant the old man who had met them in Michigan. "It seems there were rumors in town about Albert and Tonna being lovers."
"Wasn't he a little old for her?" Buck asked, making a face.
"The relationship started last year, when Tonna was sixteen, which is the age of consent in Michigan," Josiah explained.
"And I was able to find out that Jaap was being seen at the university health center," JD told them. "He survived lymphoma when he was a kid, but was diagnosed with osteosarcoma when he was nineteen. He'd been in remission for a few years, but it came back when he was twenty-six."
"Around the time he and the girl got together?" Chris asked.
"If she was in love with him, and she was into the occult, maybe she tried something to save him," Nathan suggested. "And ended up with a draugar."
Josiah nodded. "I think you might be right, brother, and the blade was a part of it. One of the legends associated with the blade has to do with a Faroe islander who was severely injured in the eleventh century, when Sigmundur Brestirson was sent to the Islands to take back possession of them for the King of Norway. This young man was dying, but his brother, at his sister-in-law's behest, used the blade to steal the dying man's soul. His soul was then transferred into the body of an orphaned boy. When the child reached puberty, the sister-in-law married him, even though she was many years his senior, but he claimed to be her husband."
"So Vin's soul might still be trapped in the blade?" Chris asked.
"I can't say for sure," Josiah replied. "I'm trying to find out more about the blade, and the rituals from that time and place."
"How's Vin doing?" JD asked Nathan.
"For the moment he's holding his own, but he's weak and getting weaker."
"I'm going to take Ezra and JD, see what we can find," Josiah said. He looked at Nathan. "Let me know if you think we need to move him to a hospital."
"We're doing everything we can for him here," Nathan said.
"What can I do?" Buck asked, wanting to do something other than sit around and wait some more.
Josiah thought for a moment, then said, "I hate to do it, but maybe you ought to go through Vin's things, see if you find anything that might help us."
"Like what?" Buck asked, not at all sure he wanted to do that. He flicked his gaze to the unconscious man, making sure Tanner wasn't glaring at him.
"You'll know it when you see it," Josiah said, then glanced over at Chris and added, "Unless you'd rather do it?"
"I'm staying with Vin," the blond replied.
Buck sighed, but he nodded. "All right, I'm on it." He shot a look at Chris, who offered a nod, letting him know that he trusted the ladies' man. It helped.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck pushed the door open and stepped into Vin's room. He glanced around nervously, then huffed out the breath he'd been holding. He wiped his suddenly-damp palms on his jeans before starting forward.
He wasn't at all sure what Vin Tanner really was, but he knew Tanner had a hold over his best friend, and the ladies' man would do anything in his power to ensure that Chris didn't suffer another loss.
But he sure as hell wanted to know what Tanner really was.
He was methodical, moving through the room clockwise from the door, checking everything he found. The dresser held only clothes, knives, and medicines – homemade from the looks of the small glass jars and tin containers. There was nothing under the bed except a duffel bag full of larger weapons, and nothing between the mattresses, under the pillows, or inside the pillowcases.
In the closet he found were more clothes, more weapons, and a small wooden chest full of small bags of herbs and various powders. There was also a smaller, locked wooden chest which Buck pulled out and set on the bed to be checked later.
On the mantel of the small fireplace there were three framed pictures, all five by seven inches, except the oldest, which was smaller, and of a single man. He didn't recognize anyone in them, except for Vin. The others in one were American Indians, and one was a group shot of a military team.
The bookcase was still empty, except for a Cussler paperback and several more weapons, scattered across the empty shelves. That just left the small desk.
Buck sat down and opened the single drawer, finding the leather journal Josiah had given Vin for Christmas, along with a couple of pens, and a laptop. He pulled the computer out, set it on the desktop, and opened it. It was password protected, so he shut the lid, knowing he'd have to ask JD to get into the damn thing.
With a sigh, he pushed the chair back and stood. Walking back to the bed, he reached out and gave the small lock on the chest a tug, expecting to find it secured, but it popped open. With a surprised grunt, he twisted the lock off and opened the top of the chest.
Inside was a small collection of important objects and memories – pictures, medals, a few pieces of Native American jewelry, and a box that held several identical necklaces – the design on the circles medallions hanging from either gold or silver chains were all the same, but Buck didn't recognize it, although he thought it might be the same kind of writing that was tattooed on Vin's shoulder blades.
At the bottom of the chest were several leather-bound journals. He pulled them out and opened them, but he couldn't read any of the writing that filled the pages, although he recognized several drawings of monsters scattered throughout the pages.
"Damn, kid, can't you give me some kind of a clue here?" Buck muttered. He shook his head and, taking the journals, returned the rest of the items to the chest and closed the lid, but he left it on the bed, in case Josiah wanted to take a look later. Then, taking the journals and the laptop, he left Vin's room, as clueless as to the man's real nature as he had been when he'd started.
He headed to the library, finding Josiah, Ezra, and JD there, doing what they did so well – research. He handed JD the laptop.
"Vin's?" the younger man asked.
Buck nodded, then walked over to hand Josiah the journals. The older man opened the top one and frowned when he saw the writing.
"Recognize it?" Buck asked, curious.
Josiah's frown grew deeper. "I think I might…"
Buck smiled. "Great. What is it?"
"It looks like a variation of Enochian," Josiah replied, peering at the pages, his brow wrinkled in concentration.
"What the hell is that?" Buck asked.
Josiah took a deep breath and tore his attention away from the text. He looked up at Buck and said, "In the sixteenth century one of Queen Elizabeth's consultants was man named John Dee. He was a scientist, I guess you'd say, but his passion was alchemy. He was close friends with Edward Kelley, a self-proclaimed seer and spirit medium. The two men claimed that the language was taught to them by angles."
"Angels, huh?" Buck said, then chuckled and shook his head. "Right. Anyway, there's a chest up on Vin's bed," he said. "I didn't see anything that jumped out at me, but you might want to take a look. There's a bunch of necklaces in there that have the same design on them, which is a little strange, I guess." He pointed to the journals. "The design might be one of those letters. Ain't that the same kind of writing that's on Tanner's back?"
Josiah thought for a moment, then nodded. "You might be right, brother." He stood. "I'll be right back," he told JD and Ezra.
The two men walked back out across the yard to the servants' quarters and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Josiah checked the contents of the chest on Vin's bed, then paused to examine the pictures on the mantel. There was one of Vin, Chief, and another shaman, and Josiah smiled upon seeing the older man. He still missed him. The oldest picture looked to be Chief when he'd been a young man, many years ago.
On a whim, Josiah reached out and took the more recent picture of Vin and Chief down, then pulled the backing down. On the back of the picture were three names, beginning with Chief's full name, the name of the other shaman in the photo – Joseph Lonetree – and a third name, Darrow Lonetree, but that man was not in the photograph. Below the names was the message: If I'm in trouble or dying, take me to one of these men. Vin Tanner.
"Damn," Buck sighed. "I never even thought to look at the back of the pictures."
"You're still learning," Josiah told the man, clapping him on the shoulder. Then he replaced the back of the frame and returned the picture to its place. "I have to go make a call."
"You know that other man – Joseph Lonetree?" Buck asked.
Josiah nodded. "I do indeed."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In the infirmary, Chris sat next to Vin's bed, watching the younger man. He couldn't escape the feeling that very little life force actually remained in the hunter. Vin's chest rose and fell with forced, shallow breaths, as though breathing took all his remaining effort and energy.
"Come on, Vin," he said quietly. "You've got to fight this."
"It's like all the energy's been drained out of his body," Nathan said softly, confirming Chris' impression.
"He's getting worse, isn't he," Chris stated.
Nathan checked Vin's temperature, then covered Tanner with a third blanket to help fight an increasing drop in his temperature. "I'm afraid he is."
"How can a knife do that?" Larabee asked.
"Cursed objects can do a lot of strange things," Nathan replied, slipping into teacher mode. "More important than how the knife did it, is how we put that energy back."
It was Vin's helplessness, his absolute vulnerability, that frightened the two men. The hunter had been reduced to a shell, and it brought to life their worst nightmares of being struck down by the evil they fought. The fierce energy Vin so obviously possessed, strong enough to carry him through the worst situations, had been stripped away from him, stolen.
Chris looked up at the Black man and asked, "Is he dying?"
Nathan nodded. "Slowly… But Josiah will find something, you wait and see. I've seen him uncover information— Well, you know how he is. It's his gift."
Chris nodded. He had seen the older man find references to things in ways and places he knew he'd never be able to. He and Buck were more hands-on, but that couldn't help Vin right now.
"Did Vin say anything to you about himself?" Nathan asked.
Larabee shook his head. "Was planning to, but he didn't get the chance."
"I've never seen anyone heal like that."
"Anyone human, you mean?" Chris asked, his voice taking on a harder edge.
"He's human," Nathan told him, meeting the blond's stormy green eyes. "I can see that much, but he's…"
"Special," Chris supplied. "And I'm not letting him die without—"
"None of us are," came Josiah's voice.
Nathan and Chris turned, seeing Josiah and Buck coming in to join them.
"What's going on?" Chris demanded.
"I just got off the phone with an old friend of Vin's. He's a healer, and he thinks he can help," Josiah supplied. "If we can get him there in time."
"Where is he?" Nathan asked.
"Southern Oregon, along the coast," Josiah told him. "I've already called, the plane will be waiting for us when we get there."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Don't you think I know he's dying?" Chris snapped as he paced in the small meeting space in the plane. Josiah balled his fists in frustration, but remained silent. "I know, Josiah. I know," Chris repeated, quieter this time. He also knew the older man only wanted to help.
"Chris—" Josiah began.
But it was Nathan who cut in from where he sat at the round table. "If he goes into respiratory arrest—"
"Nathan, please," Josiah interrupted and sighed. "You know as well as I do that a hospital won't know how to treat him."
"And a medicine man will?" Chris snapped, angry, but not sure where to direct that ire.
"I think so, yes," Josiah said.
"Who is this guy?" Buck asked. He was also seated at the table.
"Darrow Lonetree," Josiah supplied. "He's a healer. His father, Joseph Lonetree, knew Chief. They used to hunt together from time to time. I met Joseph a few times before Chief died. Vin has a picture of himself with Chief and Joseph. He wanted to be taken to them. Darrow thinks he can help, and I'm going to trust him."
"This is crazy," Chris said, stopping and dropping into one of the empty chairs.
"Look, if Vin wrote down the names of three people he was supposed to be taken to if he was hurt or dying, and Darrow Lonetree is the only one still alive on that list, then I think we have to honor that. Chris, I'm asking you to trust me," Josiah said. "Trust him. We know the physical injuries aren't the problem, they've already healed. But that blade did just was it was created to do – it stole his soul, and it's killing him."
"Josiah—" Chris started, but he was interrupted by the captain's announcement that they were landing. The men stood and returned to their regular seats until the plane was on the ground.
"We're ready to go," Ezra said a few minutes later from the open doorway of the plane.
"Chris, I know this is the right thing to do," Josiah said as they headed off the plane.
Chris knew Sanchez had some kind of a gift when it came to "knowing" things, but he was scared, and that always left him angry and snappish. Still, he didn't have a clue as to what else to do. "All right," he sighed. "Let's go."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Less than two hours later the hunters watched while two young men carried Vin into an earth lodge. Tanner was on the same stretcher they had used to get him off the plane.
They had landed in Medford, Oregon. Vehicles had been waiting for them at the airport, and they had made the drive to the Westeskiwin Reservation in record time. The reservation abutted the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, and the land was a verdant green, with tall evergreens covering the sides of the mountains, dominating the mix of hardwoods. It was warmer than the hunters expected, probably close to fifty degrees, and the skies were overcast and threatening rain. Ezra stood, studying the landscape.
"What?" Josiah asked.
"This is it. This is the forest I saw in my vision," Ezra said quietly.
Josiah nodded. "You don't know how glad I am to hear you say that."
That brought a small smile to Standish's face. "I just wish I'd seen something in the vision that would tell me Vin was going to be all right."
"He will be," Josiah said with assurance, and Ezra believed him.
For his part, Chris was focused on the earth lodge. Close to fifteen feet in diameter, the dome-shaped structure was supported by a sturdy log frame and covered with what he guessed was sod. Hung with a brightly colored blanket, the doorway opened to the east. The other Indians living in the small Westeskiwin Reservation community watched the whites with a mixture of curiosity and impartiality. They were a mixture of native peoples and a few whites and mixed race. Josiah had told them that the citizenry constituted a small religious community, practicing the spiritual paths of the Westeskiwin, with influences from other religious and esoteric philosophies.
A man pushed back the blanket and left the lodge, coming over to join the hunters. He looked to be in his early- to mid-forties, his black hair showing a little gray. Dressed in jeans and a thick flannel shirt, he wore hiking boots and carried a walking stick that was topped with an unusual glass triangle. He was tall, and slender, with an almost feminine attractiveness.
"I'm Darrow Lonetree," he said when he reached them. He extended his hand.
Josiah took it, saying for the others, "We're friends of Vin's." He made quick introductions, then added, "Thank you for helping us."
"I hope I'll be able to help, Dr. Sanchez. I owe Vin Tanner a great deal."
"I know I couldn't tell you much about what's going on when we talked on the phone, but I'm sure it has to do with this." Josiah reached down and picked up a briefcase. He opened it to reveal the blade. He gave the shaman a quick history of the cursed knife, and described how Vin had been stabbed, and how he had healed.
Darrow nodded, seemingly not surprised by any of the story. "I've heard about weapons like this," he said, "but I've never seen one before."
"You still think you can help Vin?" Chris asked, his tone holding a challenge.
"I only need to know that it's Vin to try my best, Mr. Larabee." Lonetree offered a thin smile. "As for succeeding… well, we'll have to wait and see. That will depend more on Vin than on me."
"You're a shaman?" JD asked, liking the man despite his doubts about what they were doing.
"No, I'm a healer," Darrow corrected. "My father was a shaman. Maybe in time I will be as well. Only time will tell."
"Can we see Vin?" Nathan asked. He wanted to make sure Tanner hadn't gotten any worse.
"Yes, of course. I'll need your help, all your help," he added, glancing around at the men. "You'll have to share your strength with Vin if we're going to get him through this."
The hunters didn't understand exactly what Darrow meant, but they each nodded their willingness to do whatever was necessary.
They followed Darrow to the door of the earth lodge. Nearing the structure, Chris noticed a subtle but real shift in the atmosphere, although he was at a loss to decide what it was, or how he knew it.
Buck shivered once. "You feel that?" he asked the blond.
"It's like we're stepping across the threshold of an energy field," Ezra said. Strange, he thought. I wonder what it is. Even Josiah and Nathan had taken a few steps on their toes as they had neared the lodge.
"We're, uh, not going to have to get naked or anything, are we?" JD asked hastily, just short of the entrance.
"What, you didn't bring your swim-trunks?" Buck teased the computer expert as they entered the structure, surprising himself as a surge of hope rolled through him.
"What?" JD squeaked.
"He's just pulling your chain," Nathan assured the younger man, clapping him on the shoulder.
Once inside the earth lodge they paused, allowing their eyes to adjust to the low level of light and the mixture of steam and burning sage that filled the air in the structure. The heat was slightly uncomfortable, but they followed Darrow's directions, taking seats in the dirt where he pointed.
"Sort of like a movie, huh?" JD asked quietly after he settled himself next to Buck.
The ladies' man nodded. "Just hope it's one with a happy ending."
"Amen to that," Josiah said with a sincere earnestness.
What little light there was in the circular earthen room came from a fire burning in a shallow pit dug into the dirt floor at the southern point of the circle. Josiah sniffed the air, trying to identify the odors drifting from a small cast-iron pot near the door. The scents rose, mingling with the steam curling out of a second, smaller pit of heated rocks currently tended by a middle-aged Indian man at the western point of the circle.
Josiah's brow wrinkled. He and the others sat in the north. It was familiar; something he'd read once, or maybe something Chief had told him? The four directions – north, south, east, west, each with their particular elemental associations… It was a concept common to several mystical belief systems, but how could it help Vin?
Wait and see, he decided. It's all connected at some level. Everything comes down to energy, and Vin needed all the energy he could get right now.
Stripped except for a small breechclout someone had put in him, Vin lay on an elaborately woven blanket, his head pointing to the east. His legs were spread slightly, his ankles circled with animal fur and bound with leather straps to wooden stakes set into the ground. Chris frowned, but said nothing. The two young men who had carried Vin into the lodge finished wrapping Tanner's wrists in an identical fashion, tying them to a second set of stakes, holding his arms out away from his body. When he was secured they nodded to Darrow and left.
For what felt like the millionth time since he had found Vin's handwritten note on the back of the photograph, Josiah hoped that this man knew what he was doing.
Darrow began chanting softly, breaking through Josiah's worry. They watched as the healer set a small piece of leather on the dirt floor next to Vin and opened it to reveal several ritual items. Taking three eagle feathers bound together with braided horsehair, he continued to chant while waving them along Vin's body, just above the hunter's ashen skin. Darrow frowned.
Josiah felt Chris shift beside him. His green eyes were locked on the healer, watching every move the man made.
"He's gonna make it. I mean, I haven't even had a chance to beat his ass at pool, or set him up on a date," Buck said softly, watching the shallow rise and fall of Vin's chest. "So why am I so worried?"
"We're all worried," Nathan replied quietly.
"But this… feels right," Ezra offered from where he sat next to Josiah.
Darrow set the eagle feathers aside and reached for a small pot filled with thick, pasty red clay. Scooping out a small amount with his fingers, he drew a single red line down the middle of Vin's body from the crown of his head to the top of the breechclout. Next, the healer took a pot of white clay, added a small amount of water from an old glass mustard jar, and stirred the mixture with his finger. Then, with the contents, he drew a series of circles, half on either side of the red line.
"Chakra points," Josiah whispered as he watched.
"Is that good?" Buck asked.
Josiah shrugged. He cleared his throat, hoping the healer wouldn't mind an interruption. "Darrow, can you explain what that means?"
Darrow continued to draw out the circles as he spoke. "These are the doorways of souls. One of Vin's souls has run away. When it returns, and we see which doorway it uses, I'll know what I have to do next."
"But why would a soul desert the body? I mean, how could it? We call that dying, unless you mean something like astral projection?" Nathan questioned.
Lonetree smiled indulgently. "We each have many souls – the soul of the Body, the soul of the Heart, the soul of the Mind, and others. Who can say why a soul does what it does? But when one runs away, the other souls become sick and confused. They try to find their missing brother, and they abandon their tasks. When the soul of the Self runs away, the person dies, but that is the Soul-of-all-souls.
"When a single soul runs away, the soul of the Body tracks it down and brings it back. But if the physical body grows too weak, then the soul of the Body cannot find the lost soul, or defeat it, and the man dies."
"So you're trying to help Vin's the body find his missing soul?" Buck asked, not sure he believed any of it, but nonetheless hoping it worked.
"This is to help the physical body. We'll give Vin the tools of the earth and the spirit world, then, when his Body is ready, it will go hunting. When he finds the runaway soul, they will fight, since the departed soul won't want to come back. If the Body wins, the souls will return together through one of these doorways."
Vin, who had lain perfectly still, barely breathing, moaned slightly.
"The Body prepares now. It won't be long. He's stronger than I thought," Darrow said, lighting a small sprig of dried leaves with a lighter. He chanted as the smoke curled into the air, mixing with the steam and sage.
While Darrow waved the sprig over the hunter's unmoving body, Chris watched the subtle changes occurring in his friend. A sheen of sweat broke out across Vin's face and chest, and his muscles began to twitch, tugging against the restraints…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin knew something out of the ordinary was happening, but he wasn't exactly sure what it was.
He snorted. As if anything had been normal since he'd reached his eighteenth birthday. His grandfather, Chief, Joseph Lonetree, and others, had awakened him to many powers greater than himself. And those powers must certainly be in play now, he concluded. How else could he explain the fact that he was standing in the middle of what looked like a primeval forest – in nothing more than a leather jockstrap?
He glanced around self-consciously.
In one hand he held the traditional bow of his grandfather's ancestors, in the other, a standard military issue M9 Beretta. Slipping the revolver under the leather thong holding the breechclout on, Vin started forward into the dimly illuminated foliage. In the distance he heard the bark of a wolf stretching out to a long call. That was his objective.
He tracked the animal meticulously, cautiously, his body moving swiftly and silently over the forest floor in the ancient tireless trot of his native forefathers. The pine forest was unlike the landscapes where Vin had honed his abilities, but it was close enough, and nothing escaped the man's attention.
Sensing the nearness of the creature, he slowed from a trot to a careful walk, his moccasin-shod feet nearly silent on the accumulated layers of dried pine needles and leaves. The wolf was close.
A low snarl froze him for a fraction of a moment, long enough for the large silver-gray canine to leap. Blocking the beast from his throat with the bow, Vin fell back onto the ground, landing hard enough to knock some of the wind out of him.
Rolling sharply to the side, Tanner scrambled back from the animal before it locked its teeth onto his arm, a stab of pain numbed his right leg as the animal's claws caught, laying open three neat furrows on his thigh that immediately filled with blood.
Vin struck the wolf with the bow and it released his arm, scrambling back.
He tossed the bow aside and crouched to meet the animal's angry blue glare with one of his own. The wolf charged, teeth snapping again for his throat, but the hunter jerked to one side, his foot thrusting out to catch the animal's soft belly. The wolf collapsed, shaking its large head, its pink tongue lolling from one side of its mouth.
They circled each other, each watching for an opening. The wolf leaped and Vin grabbed for the M9, shocked as the animal mutated right before his eyes, becoming a large golden eagle, its talons stretching out for his face. Only Vin's highly trained reflexes kept the bird from blinding him.
Twisting hastily down and away, one of Tanner's hands snapped out, snaring the bird by one leg. With an unearthly scream, the eagle remolded itself back into the wolf, and Vin found himself holding one leg of a very angry, snarling set of fangs.
Dropping the gun, Vin grabbed the side of the wolf's face, twisting it just in time to divert the teeth from his throat, but they sank into his shoulder, and Vin moaned in pain.
The animal struggled in the man's grip, both of them falling to the ground.
Lunging to straddle the thrashing wolf, Vin dug his fingers into the thick fur and hung on with all his strength while the animal fought wildly, trying to dislodge him.
Feeling his strength ebbing, Vin used what was left to hug the beast to him as tightly as he could. "Please, brother," Vin said through clenched teeth, "don't fight me."
The wolf calmed, finally laying still in his grasp, panting heavily. A soft whine escaped the animal's throat.
"Easy, friend, I don't want to hurt you," Vin told the animal.
The wolf tilted its head back slightly and released a long, mournful howl, and Vin found himself echoing it with a cry of his own.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris forced himself to just watch as Vin's body twisted savagely on the blanket. Sweat dissolved several of the white circles, slowly washing them away, and Darrow explained that those doorways were now closed to the souls.
The attendant dribbled more water across the hot rocks, increasing the steam in the lodge, the rising heat echoing the climb of the hunter's fever. Outside they could hear rain falling.
The others had long since stripped off much of their clothing, and what was left clung, sodden, to their bodies. The smoke from the burning leaves and powders stung their eyes, but it was Vin's suffering that hurt the most.
Chris had to constantly fight back the impulse to scramble over to the man, but he knew there was nothing he could do to help him. Still, the obvious pain Vin was suffering was nearly intolerable for the blond.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin felt the first ripples of change washing over him. A swift panic swelled in the hunter, but the change was faster, and he found himself merged with the large wolf before he could react. From this new perspective, he sensed the eagle, and reached out to embrace it, hoping to quell the disorientation that was shaking through him, but it winged away from his consciousness.
What was happening? How could it be happening? He must be going crazy.
Memories flashed through his mind.
A hunt… Bringing down the draugar… The pain when he'd been stabbed in the back… The rush as a part of himself had fled.
The wolf stood, its legs weak and trembling, and shook itself. Vin was trapped. Tilting its nose upward, the animal tested the wind and set off at a slow lope. The hunter tried to control the direction, but all his efforts failed.
Then, recognition dawned. Something had happened to him. Something he couldn't bring himself to remember, and the wolf was fleeing from that memory.
As they picked up speed, Vin felt a second change begin. The silent fall of the padded paws began to ring on the increasingly hard-packed ground until it was a steady beat. Looking out through the animal's eyes he realized he was taller now, and he could feel the long, stretched out movement of muscles now more compact.
He was a… horse?
The large chestnut snorted and stallion shook its head, forcing itself on faster and faster along the top of a high, crumbling ridge. Below, a canyon opened up to high desert. It was breathtaking, and Vin found himself momentarily lost in the vision, swept up in the feel of the animal's power and stamina as it raced along the ridge. He didn't see what was coming until it was too late.
Reaching the end of the ground, the stallion gracefully collected itself and leaped, sailing out over the canyon lip.
Vin yelled, the sound drawing out into an eagle's cry, and he dipped his wing feathers and soared back up on a thermal… Free.
Oh, man, he thought, crazy, definitely crazy…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A scream broke through the sounds of Vin's labored breathing and the soft chanting Darrow maintained. Vin convulsed, bucking violently against the restraints. Jackknifing at the circle just below his navel, the force pulled one of the stakes holding his wrist out of the ground.
"Josiah?" Nathan questioned.
Chris carefully studied Vin's features. Was that a smile he saw flit across the man's face?
"Is he okay? I think it's over," JD said, more to himself than to the others.
The scream fell off into an agony-ridden groan as the Vin's body went limp. Darrow and his assistant were already moving. Knives flashed in their hands, cutting free the rawhide straps. The pair lifted the hunter and, supporting him upright between them, dragged him out of the lodge.
The hunters scrambled to their feet, following them out.
Raising his hand to shield his eyes from the late afternoon sun slicing through the clouds, Nathan sucked in a breath when he realized what was about to happen. The two men were headed directly for the river running through the community, Darrow still chanting.
"Darrow, no!" he said, starting forward.
"Nathan, wait," Josiah said. "It's out of our hands now. Let them do what they have to."
"He won't survive. He's too weak. That water's cold, it'll stop his heart," the physician argued.
Josiah shook his head. "He won't die. They know what they're doing."
Nathan wanted to argue, but he knew Josiah was right. Still, he couldn't help but grumble, "I hope to hell you're right."
"Me, too, brother," Josiah replied.
The six hunters watched as the men lowered Vin into the river. Sliding below the surface, Vin bobbed back up a moment later, floating face down. The assistant dove in, swimming to the injured man and rolling him over so he floated on his back. The remaining circles were gone, but the red line remained.
Darrow smiled. "The Body has won," he said as they joined him at the edge of the river. "The missing Soul is back."
The man guided Tanner's unconscious body to the edge of the riverbank and lifted it out. With Chris' help they carried Vin to a waiting cot, set up near a medium-sized fire, ringed with flat stones, and burning in the center of the open community space.
On a folding chair near the snapping flames, an old man sat, sipping on a cup of coffee, watching.
"Now what?" Buck asked.
"Now we let the body rest," Darrow told him. "Tomorrow it will be time to reunite the souls."
"How do you do that?" JD asked.
"I won't. He will," Darrow said, nodding at Vin. "If he can. It's not an easy thing to do. The pieces of his Self have been torn apart, only he knows the reason. Once he's whole, then he'll be ready for the final healing."
"Final healing?" Chris asked. "Why don't I like the sound of that?"
"He must face whatever caused his soul to run away," Darrow explained. "I'm going to get something to eat, then get some sleep. You should do the same. We'll leave him outside for now, where he's close to the earth and the sky. Someone will move him inside before it is too cold." Darrow turned and walked off toward a small trailer parked near the river.
"You were in there a long time," the old man said when Darrow had left.
"Several hours," Ezra said, glancing around as he realized it would be dark soon.
"Feels more like years," Buck commented as he sat down in one of the chairs circling the fire.
"Let's see how he's doing," Josiah said to Nathan, who nodded.
They walked over to where Vin lay, now dry and covered with blankets. Nathan lifted them and made a quick examination. "Pulse is still a little thready… Respiration's shallow, but steady. His color looks better, but he's still weak… I'm surprised he's alive, to be honest."
Chris reached out, touching Vin's bare shoulder. "I don't know why, but I don't want us to lose him."
Josiah patted Larabee's back. "He's a stray, and we're all too damn stubborn to die."
Chris smiled, as did the others. The blond leaned his head down until his forehead touched Vin's. "You hear that, Vin?" he whispered. "You're too damn stubborn to die. Don't you dare prove Josiah wrong."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin remained unconscious as the sun slid behind the mountains in the west. The ground was still damp from the earlier rain as some of the local residents erected two four-man tents for the hunters, both close to a small cabin where Vin had been moved to, and where they had access to a kitchen and a bathroom.
Josiah made sure he thanked the couple who were giving up their home for their use. The weather was rather pleasant for December, but they all knew it would fall to freezing overnight. Their gear would keep them warm enough, though, and the tents were waterproof.
It was decided that Nathan and Chris would stay inside the cabin with Vin, leaving the others to split up the tents. Buck and JD set up their beds in one, Josiah and Ezra taking the other.
They used the small kitchen in the cabin to fix themselves dinner, eating in relative silence, then they each took a turn in the bathroom before heading off to their beds.
Nathan stopped to check Vin one last time before he headed to the sofa. He hadn't been surprised to find Chris had set up his sleeping bag at the foot of Tanner's bed.
The last one in bed, Larabee found the succor of sleep elusive, and he settled for several hours of tossing and turning before rising at dawn and, after checking on Vin and finding him still unconscious, began a circuit around the small community to work out the kinks.
He returned an hour later, intercepting Buck and JD as they were setting up breakfast. He followed the men over to where a small table had been set up just outside the tents. Ezra sat at one end of the table, pouring himself coffee from the waiting pot. As the others held out their cups he filled those as well.
Nathan still sat with Vin. JD went to fetch him, and the Black man pulled the blanket up to cover Tanner's chest, then joined the others. Josiah dished up the pancakes and plates were passed around.
Chris was surprised to discover he had an appetite.
When they finished, Buck and JD gathered up the dirty dishes and carried them back to the cabin to be washed.
Darrow finally emerged from his home and returned to the earth lodge, carrying the top of a copier-paper box containing several small plastic containers full of colored sand. The mix of modern and traditional drew a tired smile from Josiah.
Excusing himself from the table, he walked over to the healer. "Mind if I join you?" he asked.
Darrow shook his head. "Of course not, he's your friend."
They entered the lodge. The fire still burned in the pit, but the steam and smoke had dissipated, leaving the air warm but fresh, and touched with a clean, earthy smell. The stakes and blanket were gone. The healer pointed to a spot next to the small fire-pit. Josiah walked over and stood, watching in silence while the man carefully smoothed the dirt floor with a broom made from dried pine needles. That finished, he opened one of the containers of sand and poured some into his hand.
"This is the path of the Self," Darrow explained. "Vin will begin here…" He poured out a circle of red sand and then placed a small mound of yellow at the center. "…and travel through the Land of Shadows."
Darrow began moving about the lodge, using sand of various colors to construct a complicated pattern over the floor. "The Land of Shadows is a very dangerous place. There are beings there who wait for lost Souls. They try to confuse the Soul so it can't find its way back. Then the Homeless-One can take the Soul's place in the vacant body."
"But Vin can find the scattered parts of himself in this Land of Shadows?" Josiah asked.
"Yes, I think so."
"Can we help?" he asked.
Darrow completed the work, finishing next to Josiah with a three part design of eagle, horse, and wolf heads. "This is a map of sorts. It will be up to him to find his way, but you and the others will sit in the map. That will call to him, make the path clearer. When his Soul returned it entered through the Warrior's door, so his Warrior spirit has not been broken. He is a strong man."
Josiah nodded. "I had that impression, although I haven't known Vin all that long."
Darrow nodded. "He is both easy to know, and impossible to know – no matter how long you might know him."
That put a smile on Josiah's lips. "Words I will hold close."
Darrow grinned as well. "Where Tanner is concerned…" He nodded.
"He promised to tell us the secret he carries," Josiah said quietly, hoping Darrow might save Vin the trouble.
But the healer just nodded again. "It is best that he tells you. And with luck he'll get the chance."
"If he doesn't…?"
"Then I will tell you," Darrow agreed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Positioned inside the earth lodge like before, the six hunters watched the same young men carry Vin back into the prepared lodge, laying him down on a new blanket in the center of the space, Tanner's head pointing to the west rather than the east this time.
A little while earlier, two older women had come to the cabin and, after chasing Chris away from the bed, had cleaned Vin from head to toe. When they had finished, the two young men were already waiting to take Vin to the lodge.
Now, the two youths tied leather straps around the hunter's body, binding his legs together, and trapping his arms along his sides. When they left, the others heard the soft beat of hide drums begin outside.
The six men exchanged concerned glances as Darrow prepared a glass of water, stirring in several powders as he chanted softly. Then, reaching under Vin's shoulders, the healer lifted the hunter's head far enough to pour a small amount of the liquid into Vin's mouth.
Vin moaned, coughed quietly, but came awake enough to drink the rest of the contents with Darrow's help.
When the glass was empty, Darrow laid Vin back down on the blanket, then removed two large quartz crystals from the pocket of his jeans. The healer slipped them into Vin's sweat-damp hands, curling the hunter's fingers around them.
Over the next hour Vin's restlessness increased and he occasionally fought inside the straps, but rather than the physical throes of the day before, a series of emotions battled themselves across the man's face.
Watching, Josiah thought he understood better what was happening. First Darrow had guided Vin through what had amounted to a physical healing the day before, and now Tanner was fighting through an emotional one. The older hunter understood how a mind could be lost in the deep seas of emotion. He had dealt with his own nightmares often enough. Who might return from such a journey, however, was impossible to predict – a whole man, a shell of what had been, or some perversion that was neither. He wished he knew Tanner better, then he might be better able to decide what he expected.
A period of quiet followed each emotional crisis, or perhaps it was better thought of as a catharsis. During those times, Vin's eyes flickered at an accelerated rate beneath his closed eyelids as he lived out his journey through the Land of Shadows in apparent fast forward.
The overwhelming sobs that shook Vin were almost more than they could stand. Only Darrow's stern warning to "stay back" held then in their places, and even then Buck had to reach out to keep Chris from going to the suffering man.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin ran, pure desperation singing through his veins. Fear like nothing he had never known kept him moving, but he could not identify what it was that had terrorized him.
But, deep inside, he knew what it was.
Still, he continued to run. Then, behind him, he heard the faint echoes of wings following him, gaining ground. It spurred his rapidly failing stamina and he pushed on. He could not let it find him.
The trailing wing-beats grew louder.
It was angry, he knew. And it didn't just want to kill him. It wanted to destroy his soul, but it couldn't seem to find him…
He'd wanted it gone for as long as he'd known the truth about himself. But there had been no way to destroy it…
Ducking behind a thick tree trunk, Vin gripped the M9 tighter. How could he kill it? Even Chief had been hard pressed to defeat more than one of them at a time, and he'd been one of them…
Okay, so it was difficult, but it wasn't impossible. He glanced down at the M9. He doubted the gun would be of much use, knew it wouldn't.
If it caught him first…
He shoved the thought away.
A whipping sound of air in the leaves behind him snared his attention. Spinning, the hunter had no time to think as Buck and JD appeared. But they were dressed like they had just stepped out of an old TV western. The clothes clashed with the weapons they carried. Then, before Vin could say a word, Buck raised the draugar's ax, and JD his new knife, ready to attack.
Survival instincts, honed to perfection, took over and Vin watched in detached horror as his M9 rose in his hands. Breathe… release… aim… squeeze. Repeat.
Buck jumped twice before collapsing to the forest floor. Two more shots and JD went down next to the ladies' man.
Vin fled. He pushed through brush and young trees, then leaped a gully and slid in behind a boulder, nearly colliding with Josiah and Nathan. Again the clothes the men were wearing brought the hunter up short – roman togas? Then the physician smiled, the expression practically blinding Tanner to the scalpel Jackson started to thrust at him. Vin was firing again before he could stop himself. And the two men fell to the forest floor.
Vin spun, desperate to escape the unfold horror. "Ezra, please—" he started. Standish was wearing some kind of military uniform, but that made no sense.
"Bastard!" Standish repeated, his fists clinched into tight balls, his face a mask of pure hatred as he stared down at the two bloody corpses.
"Ezra, wait. I—"
The man lunged for him. Vin easily sidestepped the attack.
When Standish turned for a second attack, he was holding a knife, the same one Vin had been stabbed with, although how he knew that, Vin wasn't sure.
"Listen to me!" Vin yelled. "Ezra!"
Standish charged. Vin ducked and twisted away, but the weapon opened a shallow furrow in Vin's back along his right shoulder blade. He jerked away, tried to duck another blow that opened another furrow along his left shoulder blade.
Vin lunged blindly away, rolled, and came up on his knees. He did the only thing he could: he fired.
Ezra fell to join Josiah and Nathan.
"Very impressive," he heard Chris say.
Turning, Vin faced the blond. "Chris, help—"
"They weren't trying to kill you. They thought you were the monster."
"No!" Vin screamed, lunging at Larabee. But Chris struck and ducked under his arm, coming up behind Tanner. The blond raised his own gun and fired, hitting Vin mid-back, the bullet exploding through Tanner's chest. A wave of excruciating pain shuddered through Vin's body as he fell.
The sound of people running toward them echoed up through the ground, and Vin pressed his face tight against the cold dirt as a new terror began to unfold.
The other five hunters arrived, jerking to a stop when they saw their fallen friend.
"It's all right," Larabee said. "I've got it. This monster's toast."
No! Vin screamed, but his voice was trapped inside his ruined body. He's lying! I'm not a monster!
"Nice job, Larabee," Vin heard himself say. His gaze shifted and he saw himself walking up to join the others. "Fuckin' monster…"
The realization was staggering. He was looking at himself, the true monster he had always feared, and his friends had no way to know. They were unprotected…
"Thank God," Josiah said.
"Vin, we were so afraid—" JD started, but Buck cut him off.
"Damn, stud, you made that look downright easy!"
"No problem at all," Larabee agreed with a grin.
Run! Vin scream at the men in vain. Run, damn you! It's not me!
The standing Vin smiled a friendly, crooked smile, then his M9 snapped up with sharp efficiency. He fired twice, and Buck and JD fell over. Ezra yelped.
Before any of them could react, the standing Vin re-centered the weapon on Josiah and fired. The older man jerked back against a tree where he hung for a moment, finally sliding to the ground, a streak of red marking his course.
Ezra cried out.
No! Run, Ezra! Move! Run!
Standish and Nathan went down in violent death. Vin squeezed his eyes shut, but he couldn't block out the images. My fault, he mumbled to himself. All my fault…
Chris was frozen where he stood, a look of utter disbelief on his face.
The standing Vin chuckled. "You're next, Larabee."
No! Vin screamed, struggling against the paralysis that kept him on the forest floor.
"Why?" The blond's voice was a pleading whisper, filled with the aching pain of betrayal. "For God's sake, Vin, why?"
It's not me, damn it! Vin cried out. Kill it, Chris! Hurry! Kill me! Kill me!
"Good-bye, Chris," the standing Vin said coldly.
How he managed to pull himself up off the cold forest floor, Vin was unsure, but he lunged forward as his twin's hand began to rise, a primitive scream tearing from his throat as his fingers wrapped around the twin's wrist. The M9 fired. Larabee leaped back, but he was uninjured.
The two Vins grappled, the twin reaching out to snare the injured man in his arms. "You'll be mine, Vin. Trapped forever!"
"Run!" Tanner yelled at his new lover. "Run, Chris! Now!"
Larabee hesitated for a split second, then bolted into the shadows of the trees.
Vin watched him escape from the corner of his eye, realizing that everything that taken on a red hue. Startling black wings erupted from his twin's back. Then the twin raised his hand, his fingers curled like an eagle's claw, and he plunged them into Vin's his already mutilated chest, grabbing the his soul. The twin laughed as he squeezed the very essence of Vin's being in his fingers.
"You're mine!" the twin gloated, pulling the helpless Vin out of his body.
"Don't matter… Larabee's alive," Vin replied in a feeble whisper, feeling a sick blackness beginning to seep into his being.
The twin laughed, the sound echoing through the forest. "He's in my world now, Vin. There's no escape for him here."
No! Chris had to live! If Chris lived, the others would as well. The world needed them. It couldn't all be for nothing. These men were too important to be wasted like that. He could not let that happen.
"I'm right here, Vin. It's all right. I'm here." The words echoed in from somewhere Vin could not identify, but their truth was undeniable. Chris was free. He had failed his new friends, his new family, but Chris had escaped. There was still hope.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"I'm right here, Vin," Chris murmured. "It's all right. I'm here." Buck gripped the blond's shoulders, keeping him from collapsing face first onto the dirt floor of the earth lodge. Larabee jumped slightly, thinking he had been half-dozing, half caught up in the sound of the drums and chanting. He looked at Vin and was amazed to find the man's eyes shut, his body relaxed.
"Hey, where've you been, stud?" Buck asked, concerned.
"Huh?" Larabee replied, wishing the fog that was wrapping his brain would fade.
"I thought you were going to join him for a minute," Josiah added, jerking his chin in Vin's direction.
Larabee looked at the older man in utter confusion. "What're you talking about, Josiah?"
A wave of concern passed over Buck's features. "When Vin was so scared, you…" He trailed off, shaking his head. "You don't remember any of that, do you?"
"Well, you sort of glazed out and started talking—" JD started to explain.
"I don't like the sound of where this is going," the blond stated.
Darrow chuckled. "You are afraid to face the truth, huh? You couldn't stay out of the Land of Shadows, my friend. It was a dangerous move, but it looks like no harm was done, to either of you."
Chris stared down at Vin. He did remember something… fear, overwhelming fear. It was Vin's fear, but he had been there, too. And whatever it was that had Vin so spooked had come after him. But Vin had stepped in, diverted it… Vin had faced it to spare him. Chris shuddered, wondering just what the hell was going on.
Darrow untied Vin, then prepared a second glass of water, this time with a sprinkle of a single white powder, and a mint leaf. Vin drank the concoction without objection. And, when he finished, the healer called out to the men outside. The drums fell silent and the same two young men who had brought Vin in that morning entered the lodge and carried the hunter back to the cot by the campfire.
It was colder this afternoon, but as long as they were close to the fire they stayed warm. They settled into chairs, some of the women bringing them cups of coffee, for which they were all grateful.
As Josiah sat with his friends, he wondered what the last phase of the healing would be like. Although this hadn't appeared to take as much out of Vin physically, it was clear that he was still frightfully low on energy. He was still fighting, but would that be enough?
The older hunter tried, but he couldn't conjure anything in his imagination that he thought could chase Vin's soul away. Still, something had managed it. Maybe it was just the fact that the blade had been cursed. Maybe if it hadn't been for the curse, Vin would have just been physically injured. He wished he knew more about the blade, but the information had been limited.
He knew Chris had gotten a hint of what had Vin so spooked in the encounter earlier in the Land of Shadow, but he didn't seem ready to talk about it just yet, and he knew better than to press the man. Larabee wasn't going to talk until he was ready to talk, and no amount of cajoling from the older hunter was going to change that.
Still, whatever it was, it must be… profound, and Josiah wondered if it might not have something to do with whatever made Vin different, the reason he's insisted that he wasn't a monster. He probably ought to talk to Darrow about that…
There was so much about Vin they didn't know yet. And much of it might be walled up, hidden so deeply Josiah wasn't even sure Vin could see it any more. But Chris had seen something today, something important, of that Josiah was sure.
Sitting next to Josiah, Nathan studied Vin's face. Tanner's color was better, and he was breathing easier. But even in sleep, or unconsciousness, pain creased the man's face, drawing the skin tight across his cheekbones. It was far from over, and there were no guarantees, not yet, but he was feeling a little more optimistic.
Reaching out, he pressed his palm to Vin's cheek. The man's skin was slightly warm, but not enough to make him worry.
"How is he fairing?" Ezra asked.
Nathan nodded. "Better, I think, but I wish he'd wake up."
Sitting at the foot of the cot, Chris fought back his own swelling frustration. Every fiber of his being cried out for this insanity to be over, but he knew it wasn't.
Still, there were monsters to be fought and, damn it, he wanted this man at his side – whole and healthy. He needed Vin, he knew that, even if he didn't quite understand why. He needed Tanner's presence, his calm assurances, his discipline, and his council. He needed his friendship. To even think that he might lose all that was too much.
Chris watched as Nathan's hand slipped down to rest on Vin's exposed shoulder, absently rubbing at the tension coiled in the muscles. He knew Tanner's skin was slightly warm, a reminder of the fever still subsiding.
Darrow walked up to join them. He looked down at Vin and nodded, as if in response to some internal conversation he was having with the unconscious man. "The last healing will be the hardest," he said quietly.
"But Vin's still alive, so there's still a chance it'll work out, right?" JD asked.
"As long as there is life, there is hope," Darrow agreed.
Larabee gave a slight nod at that. Vin would face whatever it was, and he would deal with it, overcome it, beat it, whatever was necessary. He would get Vin back, whole and healed.
"You hear that, Vin?" Josiah said, leaning over closer to the unconscious man. "You're going to beat this, because we need you. You're a part of us, son, and we don't let a brother go easily, so you keep on fighting."
"You think he heard?" JD asked.
"I don't know, JD. I hope so," Josiah replied.
"Yeah, me, too," Buck agreed, his gaze shifting from Vin to Chris and back. For Chris' sake, he added silently.
The men began to drift away, Buck drawn to one of the younger, pretty girls who lived in the community, Josiah and Nathan to the cabin to get something going for supper. Ezra trailed after them, grabbing JD was he did, guessing that Chris might appreciate the time alone with Vin.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The raspy voice was barely above a whisper and at first Chris thought it was a breeze moving through the nearby trees, but looking down he saw the firelight reflected in the open blue eyes.
"Don't let me hurt anybody," Vin rasped out, all his energy focused on communication. He had to make the man understand. "They might… come… kill me… if it comes to that… too dangerous… promise."
"Who might come?" Chris asked, moving to the head of the cot and gripping Vin's shoulder tightly. "Vin, you're not making sense. Who might try and kill you?"
"Powers…" Vin said, his eyes starting to roll back. "Kill me… Kill me first."
"Kill you? Vin, what the hell are you talking about?" Chris jumped when a hand gripped his shoulder. It was Darrow Lonetree. "Did you hear him? What—?"
"Come with me," Darrow said. "We need to talk."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Larabee wondered how much Darrow had heard of the strange conversation, and the man wasn't offering anything. He wasn't sure how far they had walked from the community, but when Darrow stopped the distracted hunter collided with the healer. Stepping back, he apologized.
"Sit," Darrow instructed, his expression saying he took no offence.
They were standing on a large granite boulder, worn smooth by the passage of ice over it when Darrow's ancestors had first begun to wander over the North American continent. There was a sense of power in the stone, and Chris welcomed it, even if he didn't understand it. He was simply too drained to dwell on details.
The two men sat together, facing west while the last traces of sunset illuminated the horizon.
"What did he mean?" Chris asked softly. "I don't understand what's happening."
"He's seen what might happen," Darrow explained.
"You mean the future, something that's going to happen?"
"Something that might happen," the healer reiterated.
"Does that mean we can change it?" Chris asked, the slight feeling of relief not enough to make the terror building in his gut subside. Something was coming, something dangerous, something that wanted Vin.
"He can change it," Darrow replied.
"But he thinks it's going to happen," Chris ventured.
Darrow nodded. "I believe Vin saw a path that was built for him in the Land of Shadows. What lies on that path has made him run away from a part of his soul. There are many worlds inside this one we walk through, you are a hunter, you know this to be true."
"I do," Chris agreed.
"Yesterday you stood in two of those worlds, this one and the Land of Shadows."
"But what is the Land of Shadows?" Chris asked.
Darrow was silent for a while, and Chris decided the man was deciding how much to tell him. When he finally spoke, Darrow voice was low and sounded far away. "The Land of Shadows is a place where Souls travel… sometimes in life, sometimes in death. It is a place where other creatures also dwell, creatures that were once human, or those who never had a human shape, but who share the same faults as human beings."
Chris' mind went back to some of the talks he'd had with Josiah and Nathan as the two men had taught he and Buck to be hunters. "Like the astral plane?"
"That is but a single trail in the Land of Shadow."
It was too complicated, and Chris had gotten too little solid sleep the past couple of days to follow it. "What does this have to do with Vin?" he asked.
"Vin must face what he has seen there, what it is he is running from." Darrow reached out and rested his hand on the hunter's shoulder. "He'll need you there to do that, all of you, but if he fails you'd do well to heed his warning."
"And kill him?" Chris asked, aghast. "I can't. I—"
"He will be nothing if he fails, a ghost that hasn't died. There are powers loose in this world, and in the Land of Shadow. Some would call those powers evil, but my people believe it is more complicated than that. If Vin fails, that power will work through him."
Chris shivered in the cool evening air. The healer knew more than he was saying. Still… "I can't kill him."
"Chris," Darrow said, his voice ringing with an uncanny resemblance to Vin's. "I'll understand if y' can't, but y' have t' let me do what I have ta. Darrow's right, it's a complicated mess…"
"Vin?" Chris asked shakily, staring at the healer's glazed eyes and finding his friend's eyes staring back at him. This is getting too weird, even for me!
"Promise me, Chris. If it looks like it's goin' t' hell, it is, 'n' y' won't interfere."
"Interfere with what, Vin? I don't know what—"
"Chris!" the voice snapped. "Y' have t' trust me. I know it won't be easy, but I can't allow the Powers or the Fallen t' use me against y' 'n' the others."
"Powers? Fallen? Vin what're you talking about? You were stabbed with a cursed knife. Some part of your soul—"
"I know what happened," Vin's voice interrupted.
"Well, I'd appreciate it if you'd share some of it with me!" Larabee growled.
"I will, Chris, I swear, but first I have t' make peace with… let's call it m' legacy," Vin's voice said. "Just trust me. When the time comes, allow me m' own choices. I swear I'll only do what best fer you 'n' the others."
"I trust you, Vin. I do. But I don't understand this. I don't want you to sacrifice yourself for me." The hunter's head dropped. "I don't want to lose—" He looked back up, meeting the eyes of the healer. "Please, I need a friend…"
"He doesn't want to hurt you," Darrow said, his voice returned to normal.
In the distance, a faint call of an owl echoed in the gathering darkness. The two men listened.
"That's a bad sign, right?" Chris asked.
"No, it's a good sign, one full of power," Darrow said with a small smile. "You see, there are forces working on our side as well."
Chris sighed. "I'd just be happy to know who the damn sides are."
"Soon," Darrow promised. "Now, come, I will take you back to Vin. They will have moved him back into the cabin, and you must eat."
Chris almost said he wasn't hungry, but that wasn't true. He was starving – for information and he knew just the man to talk to.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris returned to the cabin to find Ezra and JD sitting on either side of Vin's new bed, a small rollaway that was in the living room of the cabin, close to the open kitchen and the fireplace. The two men were talking to the unconscious man in quiet, reassuring tones. Nathan and Josiah were seated at the kitchen table nearby, cups of coffee in front of them, keeping watchful eyes on the threesome. Buck, it seemed, was gone, and the blond had a pretty good idea what might have captured his attention.
"Where've you been?" the computer expert asked.
"Talking with Darrow," Larabee explained. He looked at Josiah and asked bluntly, "What the hell are Powers and Fallen?"
Josiah leaned back, his face going a little pale. He huffed out a deep breath and asked, "Where did you hear those terms?"
"From Vin," Chris told him. "At least I'm pretty sure it was Vin. He was speaking through Darrow… Josiah, what the hell is going on here?"
Josiah and Nathan exchanged glances, then Sanchez leaned forward, resting his arms on the table as he said, "The Fallen are one of the terms given to the band of angles who fell with Lucifer."
"That's real?" JD yelped in surprise.
Josiah shrugged. "I suspect there's some truth to the story, but what, exactly, and to what extent…? We'll probably never know."
Nathan nodded his agreement with Josiah's assessment, then picked up the explanation. "Here on Earth, the Fallen fell in love and lay with human women," he told them. "The offspring of those unions are called nephilim. They grow up like ordinary children, but when they reach adulthood their talents begin to manifest."
"Talents?" JD asked.
Nathan shrugged and shook his head. "No one is really sure. I've heard they have the gift of tongues, can call angel fire, some have wings—"
"The tattoos on Vin's shoulder blades!" JD said excitedly.
"Tattoos are not wings," Ezra scolded the younger man.
"So Vin's one of these… nephilim?" Chris asked, looking from Josiah and Nathan to Vin and back.
Josiah looked over at the injured man as well, his gaze lingering there as he said, "It's a possibility, I suppose."
"Then what are Powers?" Larabee questioned.
"There are ranks of angles. At the top are Seraphim, then Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Powers, Virtues, Principalities, Archangels, and angels. Think of Powers as Heaven's special ops forces," Josiah said. "Shortly after the first nephilim was conceived they were supposedly sent to Earth to destroy the Fallen, but the Fallen proved to be more difficult to find and kill that expected. Once the nephilim began to be born, their mandate was expanded to include destroying the nephilim as well, but, since not all the Fallen were ever found, new nephilim are always being born, and some of them have children… If it's true, then it's a pretty complicated mess."
"So these Powers hunt the Fallen and the nephilim like we hunt monsters," Chris summed up.
"Essentially, yes," Josiah agreed. "All three have learned how to hide in human society, and not all the Powers are supposedly happy about the situation. There's a myth about a nephilim being born who will be able to redeem the Fallen so they can return to Heaven. Now, what that would mean for the rest of the nephilim is anybody's guess. Lore suggests the Powers hunt nephilim when they first come in to their talents, because they're most vulnerable then."
"Not very sporting of them," Ezra said, frowning. "Their victims are what, eighteen to twenty-one years old?"
"More than likely and, no, it's not very sporting," Josiah agreed. "But their aim is to smit all of the Fallen and their prodigy. How they do it, I guess, isn't up for question."
"So much for angelic, or even heavenly, behavior," Ezra cut in sourly.
"But how does Vin fit into all of this?" Chris asked.
"Maybe he is one of them," JD said hesitantly. "I mean, maybe he's a Power, or a nephilim."
"Which one?" Ezra asked. "And why not a Fallen."
"Would a Fallen glow?" JD asked.
Ezra thought about the vision he'd had and shook his head. "No, I don't think so, but what do any of us know?" He looked down at Vin and added, "What I do know is Vin Tanner is not evil, whatever he might be."
"He's no monster," Chris agreed quietly.
"No, he's no monster, but I suppose it is possible that he's one of the three," Josiah said. "He has a story to tell, that much is certain, but until he's ready to tell it – until he's healed – we'll just have to wait."
"You don't understand," Chris said, meeting and holding Josiah's eyes. "He told me I might have to kill him."
"What?" Ezra demanded. "You cannot—"
"I know that, Ezra," Chris snapped, green eyes flashing at the younger man. "But the way he said it… It sounded like I might not have any choice, and I want to know why."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Fires in three small pits inside the earth lodge burned lowly. The one closest to Darrow snapped when he added some dried pine needles, their aroma filling the air. Vin lay on a buffalo hide, his head pointing north, his hands stretched out to east and west, bound as they had been for the first healing. However, both the hunter's ankles were tied to a single stake set in the south. A white headband was tied around Vin's forehead, highlighted by his slightly flushed face.
Seated on the dirt floor near Vin, the six hunters were distributed around the compass points. JD sat at the east, Ezra at the south, watching with a concerned expression, while Nathan sat at the west, and Josiah the north. Buck was sitting between Ezra and JD, while Chris sat between Nathan and Josiah, and Darrow sat between Josiah and JD. That just left the southwest quadrant between Nathan and Ezra unoccupied.
Darrow nodded to JD, and the youngest of the hunters lifted the lid on a small bowl of burning herbs, allowing the smoke to drift up and fill the earth lodge with a fuzzy haze. Chris felt his perceptions waver momentarily, but the sensation passed.
Darrow nodded to Ezra, who added woodchips to the small fire pit that had been dug near where he sat.
When Nathan's turn came, he dipped a willow branch he held into a pot of water sitting in front of him, flinging the drops over Vin and the others. Josiah reached into a smaller pot sitting in his lap and scooped out a small amount of the white ash it contained. Using one hand for support, he leaned forward, smudging the ash across Vin's forehead, just below the headband.
Buck was next, and Chris watched as his long-time friend hesitantly picked up a knife that rested on a rabbit skin next to him. Taking the tip of the blade, he paused for a moment, then he cut a short, shallow line into the palm of his hand. He frowned, allowing the blood to well up as he replaced the knife. The ladies' man then stuck his finger into the small pool of blood, and after receiving a nod from Darrow, he moved forward and mixed the blood with the white ashes on Vin's brow.
Chris watched as the tautness of the hunter's body increased, every muscle apparently poised for battle. And maybe they were.
The healer moved forward. Opening a small piece of folded wax-paper, he poured a portion of a brown powder into his mouth. Then, covering Vin's lips with one hand, forcing the hunter to breathe through his nose, Darrow leaned forward and gently blew the powder into the man's nostrils.
Tanner's body bucked upward and he fought against the restraints. His face, frozen into a mask of pain and fury, reflected the firelight, adding an unearthly cast to his already flushed skin. His lips curled off his teeth in a feral snarl, and a low growl echoed out of his chest like a wolf's.
Darrow poured the remainder of the brown powder into the fire where it sparked, sending a cloud of smoke rolling throughout the earth lodge. Chris and the others coughed and the blond felt the same waver in his own perceptions. A moment later he would swear he could hear the heavy beat of wings.
Chris winced as the sound of beating wings grew louder and louder, nearly deafening him as he sat in the earth lodge. He squeezed his eyes shut, his hands coming up to cover his ears, then, suddenly, there was silence.
And he wasn't sitting on the ground inside the earth lodge any more. He was… floating?
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris opened his eyes. All around him was a golden white glow he couldn't see through. But he wasn't scared. In fact, he felt perfectly safe, perfectly at peace.
Then, as he was peering at the brightness, images began to form. Chris squinted, trying to see what they were.
He sucked in a breath. He could see Vin, running through the forest. Tanner was breathing hard, sweat dripping off his face as he leapt over a small tree that had fallen. Behind him, a man chased after Vin.
Then, as Chris watched, black wings exploded from the stranger's back and he swooped forward, grabbing Vin, who struggled, but could not escape the man's grasp.
The man grappled with Vin until he could finally force a kiss on the hunter. Vin fought, wildly, but he was obviously getting weaker and weaker. As the kiss continued, Vin stopped struggling. Finally, the man lifted his head, and two things immediately struck Chris. The first was the blood dripping from the man's lips as he smiled, and the second was the man's glowing red eyes.
Then, as Chris watched, the stranger's eyes rolled up and his body burst into flame, disappearing into a spray of black ash.
Vin fell to the ground, his sides heaving as he stayed on his hands and knees, his head down. Then, with a groan, he pushed himself up to his feet. He glanced around, smiling, blood on his lips as well. He stretched out his arms, and started to laugh. When he looked at Chris, Tanner's eyes were glowing red.
Chris shivered, knowing that whoever was in his friend's body, it was no longer Vin Tanner.
The images faded and Chris glanced around the brightness, confused. "Vin!" he called.
"Come with me," a voice commanded.
Chris twisted, but he wasn't anyplace, couldn't see anything, and he had no idea how to find the man who had just spoken to him. "How?" he asked, looking again for the source of the voice.
In the next instant he was standing in a meadow he knew very well. It was on his land, the highest part of his ranch. It was also a place he'd wanted to take Vin, knowing the man would appreciate the wild beauty of the place.
"I'm here, Cowboy."
Chris turned to find Vin walking up to join him. He was dressed in just the breechclout he was wearing in the earth lodge, and he looked tired and drawn. "Vin, what's going on?" he asked, reaching out to grab the man's arm. He felt real, solid, and it gave him a real sense of relief to have Tanner there with him.
Vin sighed, then said, "Reckon it's time we had that talk."
Chris chuffed out a laugh. "You're kidding, right? Where are we? I mean, we can't be in my meadow… can we?"
"Wish I knew, Chris," Vin said as he glanced around. "Ain't exactly sure where we are… Let's walk."
Chris hesitated. "Vin, we're in Oregon, you're fighting for your life."
Vin stopped and glanced over his shoulder, then nodded. "That's true, but we've got the time."
"How do you know?" Chris asked.
"I have given it to him," said the voice.
"Who the hell is that?" Chris asked, looking around, but seeing no one else there with them."
"My father," Vin said simply. "Come on."
"Your—? Vin, wait up!" Chris hurried after the man, catching up to him and reaching out to grab his shoulder. As soon as he touched him, they were back at The Strays, in the library. The blond glanced around. "This is getting old."
That brought a grin to Vin's lips. "I'm sure it is," he said, then he sat down on the hearth, cross-legged. "Don't know how long I've got, so let me tell it."
Chris nodded, walking over to join Vin, taking a seat in the same chair he'd used when he'd opened his Christmas gift.
Vin looked down, staring at the dancing flames as he said, "My mama was just a girl when she got pregnant, and not much more than that when the leukemia killed her… Grandpa couldn't tell me who my daddy was, and I didn't find out 'til now. Grandpa died when I was twelve, and I ended up in foster care. After a bad placement I landed with a retired hunter and his wife… Weird crap started happenin' t' me the day after my eighteenth birthday. I didn't know what the hell was goin' on. I was afraid t' take m' trouble to Dawson and Mary, so, I ran… straight into Chief. He reckoned I was a nephilim."
"Josiah told me what they are," Chris said, nodding. Maybe they were finally getting someplace. "Are you?"
Vin took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. "No, not exactly."
"Then what are you? Exactly." Chris leaned forward and rested his hand on Vin's shoulder, giving it a supportive squeeze. "I don't care, you know."
Vin gave him a small smile. "Appreciate that."
"He is my son," the voice said and. a moment later, an angel appeared.
"And who, or what, are you?" Chris asked, beyond caring who had turned up this time.
"Michael," Vin said.
Chris just looked confused.
"The Archangel Michael," Vin said. "Think of him as the general in charge of God's army."
"Oh-kay," Chris said, fear making his skin tingle. "So, what's the problem?"
Vin looked up, meeting Chris' eyes. "Josiah tell you about the Fallen, too?"
"The Fallen had sex with human women, because they were stranded in this world."
Chris nodded, trying to put the pieces together. He glanced at Michael, but couldn't really see anything but brightness and golden-white wings. "Let me guess, angels have rules they have to follow?"
"And Michael broke the rules?"
"No," the angel said. "Human free will have set events in motion. We have reacted to those events. How they will unfold, no one can say for certain. Many knew that the time of demons and monsters was at hand. Plans were made, to gift the world with those who could fight them."
"There are a lot of hunters out there, right now, fighting the monsters," Chris said. "Human hunters."
Michael nodded. "We are aware of you, and know that you do God's work. But in the times ahead we knew there must be a handful of… champions, if humanity is to survive the coming dark time."
"The Seraphim, the angels at the top 'a the hierarchy gave Michael and each of the other archangels leave to lie with a human women," Vin finished for his father. "They fathered seven champions. The Powers and the other ranks of angels, they don't know. To them we're just nephilim. But some of the Fallen learned the truth. The most powerful of them, the most evil, are hunting us—"
"Hunting the champions to turn them to their own ends," Michael interrupted.
Vin's eyes flashed as he looked at Michael. "And if the Fallen find me, use me, or any of us, t' help Luc—"
"What will happen will happen," Michael said, rising up, his golden-white wings beginning to beat harder. "You are strong, Vin Tanner, and now you have the family you have longed for. Do not let your fear keep you from doing what you were born to do. Embrace who you are." And with that he was gone in a flash of blinding light.
Chris sat in silence for a moment, then asked, "So what happened? That knife, it was cursed…"
Vin nodded. "It tried to steal m' soul, but m' soul…"
"Is complicated," Chris finished for him.
That brought another small smile to Vin's lips. "Something like that, yeah." He met Chris' eyes. "I never asked for this, Chris. I don't want it… When she stabbed me, the curse— The two halves of m' soul, the human 'n' the angel, they were torn apart. The Fallen, I saw them, they're tryin' t' find me, and if they do, they'll use me t' kill you 'n' the others. I can't let that happen, Chris."
"I know that," Chris said. "But you can't give up, either. We'll protect you."
"It's not that simple. The Fallen they're here. There. Wherever the hell I am when I ain't here."
"Vin, all you have to do is come back to us. We'll fight this, all of us, together. Can't your father help?"
Vin shook his head as the sound of wing beats could be heard in the distance. "No. He's got another battle to fight."
Vin looked worried as he said, "Chris, y' just have t' promise me, if a Fallen get's hold 'a my body, y' have t' kill me. Y' won't have much time, either."
Chris leaned forward, his eyes locked on Vin's. "I can't kill you."
"Won't be me, no more, Cowboy."
There was a flash of light and they were standing in the woods. Vin looked around as the sound of wing beats grew louder. "Run!" he yelled at Chris.
Chris recognized the woods. They were back in Oregon, and he knew what he was about to watch – the Fallen, taking over Vin's body. "Darrow!" he yelled.
"Run!" Vin yelled at him as he leaped over a fallen tree. The wing-beats grew louder.
"Darrow!" Chris called again. "Darrow!"
In his own consciousness, Chris understood. The cursed knife had split Vin's soul in two, separating the human from the angel, and somehow the Fallen had discovered that fact, had discovered the weakness. If the Fallen could take Vin's body, he was sure it would have access to his angel-ness, whatever the hell that was. Where was Darrow?
The beat of wings was growing louder.
"Run!" Vin yelled.
But it was too late. An explosion of force and malevolence caught Chris in a maelstrom of confusion, throwing him into a world of tumbling iridescent black chaos.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When the noise and tumult subsided, Chris found he was sitting in a space-less void. Colors swirled around him, but it gave no sense of depth to the place at all. He was holding Vin's body, but the hunter was dressed in white buckskins, elaborately decorated with blue and silver beads. He was unconscious.
The others were there as well, surrounding them, watching while Chris continued to hold the man who had so quickly become his best friend. Then, almost as if his eyes were growing accustomed to the place, he could make out the faintest traces of the earth lodge. It was as if they were in the structure and somewhere very far away at the same time.
"What's that?" JD asked, pointing to the location of the doorway Tanner's soul used to re-enter the hunter's body.
Chris looked and saw a thin filament of silver floating out from the doorway. Following it upward with his eyes, he saw Vin floating above them, watching. This Vin wore the same ritual buckskins, but they shimmered with an ephemeral glow, and golden white wings were unfurled behind him, beating slowly as he hovered in place.
"Vin?" he said.
"Let me go, Chris," came the reply and Chris looked to see another Vin walking up to join them. "I'm too dangerous now. The Fallen know the truth. Y' have t' let me go."
Chris gripped the man's body tighter, realizing that he was the only thing binding Tanner to the world of the living. "I can't, Vin. We need you. I need you. And if what Michael says is true, we have to stand between the monsters and all those innocent people out there."
"If I come back, the Fallen loyal t' Lucifer will try 'n' find me. They can use me against you, against the other champions, against Heaven. I can't take that chance. I just can't."
"That's not your chance to take, Vin," Josiah said. "It's ours, because you know every one of us will give his life to make sure that never happens."
Vin's head cocked slightly to one side, an eyebrow arching. "Y' really want t' take that risk, J'siah?"
Nathan's jaws clenched. "Damn it, Vin, don't you get it? Chris isn't the only one who cares about you. We all do. You're one of us. You're family. You make this circle complete!"
And, glancing around, Vin realized that he stood in the empty southwest quadrant between Ezra and Nathan. Directly across from him hovered the other half of his soul, taking the position Darrow filled in the earthly earth lodge. The healer, however, was still there as well, almost lost in the glow coming from his angelic form.
"My father told you that, one day, you would have to accept that part of you that came from the Source of All," Darrow stated.
"It didn't come from God, Darrow," Vin argued. "Came from Michael, an' he's just an angel. Seems t' me they ain't a whole lot different from the monsters I hunt sometimes."
"Still, the Source created them, and it created us. We are all connected."
Tanner's attention abruptly shifted to the man on his right. "Yeah, Ez?"
"I don't want you to die, my friend," the man said. "None of us do."
"I know" Vin replied. "I don't want t' die. I just don't want t' be responsible for any of you dyin', either."
"Please, Vin," Buck said. "He's lost so much already, he can't lose you, too. We can beat this, together. I swear we can. Now, come on home…"
"I could be responsible for all yer deaths, Buck. How can I take that chance?"
"Every time we go on a hunt we risk ending up some monster's pawn, or its next meal," Nathan argued. "You know that as well as we do."
"We're more powerful together than we are apart," JD added with youthful certainty.
Darrow pointed to Vin's unconscious body, laying in Chris' arms, then to his angelic soul, still hovering above, the fine silver cord binding them together. Vin looked down to find one binding him to his body as well. "Things are changing," the healer said. "Demons are walking the earth with purpose, and the Fallen are gathering for war. So are the angels. There's a reason why you, and those like you, were born, Vin. My father told you this, but now you need to really hear it."
Chris could sense they were reaching Vin, he could feel it, but he was afraid it was only making Tanner's conviction to protect them by not returning all the stronger.
"You're nothing but a selfish bastard," Larabee spat, letting the fear he was feeling spill out sounding like anger. Laying Tanner's body aside, he climbed to his feet and, looking past Nathan, he yelled at the specter of Vin who stood in their circle. "You have daddy issues, fine, but you didn't strike me as the kind of man who ran out on his friends, his family."
"It's t' protect—" Vin started, his voice tightening.
"Bullshit! You're running out on us, and on yourself. You're afraid to face the fact that you might have a real purpose in this world!"
"We all do, Chris! I'm just tryin' t' protect ya!" Vin looked around the circle. "I don't know how the hell it happened, but y'all are family." He met Chris' eyes. "M' brothers—"
"No!" Larabee yelled. "Don't you talk to me about family. You don't walk away from family, Vin. Not by choice!"
Vin was confused. He could feel himself being pulled toward his body, and his hovering soul. And then he realized who he really was, an expression of his human soul. And he knew in that instant that he had to embrace his angelic soul if they were to return to his physical body, together. If he refused, the physical self would die.
Vin shook his head. The path that had seemed so clear only a moment before faded into a tangle of fear and uncertainty. He wanted to protect these men, especially Chris, but if doing so hurt them, then it couldn't be the right thing to do… could it?
Then, sensing a new presence, Vin jerked his head around, expecting his father. But it was Chief who stood nearby, dressed in the traditional garments of a shaman from his tribe. He stood, firmly grounded, on a grassy hill, like those from Vin's past, where he'd learned to hunt from the man.
"They're right, Vin. A warrior doesn't turn his back on his tribe, as strange as it might seem."
"Even if it's t' save 'em from harm?"
"The future is never fixed, Tay'ah," Chief said, using the ceremonial name he had given Tanner.
Confusion wrinkled the hunter's face. "But if there's even a chance… Help me," he pleaded, looking at the old man. "What do I do?"
"You have a warrior's spirit, Tay'ah, let it guide your actions. It always has."
Voices washed over the two men like breezes. Vin recognized the tones and timbers… Chris, still angry… Buck, coaxing… JD, frightened… Nathan and Josiah, calling… Ezra, bargaining…
Chief nodded, and Vin knew he had to make his choice. He looked back at Chris, who was again holding his body tightly in his arms. The love radiating from the man, from the gathered group, was tangible, and the realization of their bonds shook the very essence of Vin's soul.
"Yes," Chief said, "they love you."
"And I love them, too, but damned if I know why."
"Because you are all part of a greater pattern, and love is the strongest force that holds the pattern of the whole universe together," Chief replied. "The Source of All is love."
Vin snorted. "Y' sound like a damn New Ager."
"It is still the truth," Chief told him. "Even white people get a few things right."
"They are a part of you, and you are a part of them," Chief went on. "Once you understand which part, you will know what to do."
"Can't you just tell me?" Vin asked hopefully.
"Look, and you will see for yourself."
And, at that moment, Vin saw his friends as they existed in some greater amalgamation: Buck the flickering fire, ready to burst into hot flames in his anger at the monsters, yet gently warming JD, nurturing him… JD, a playful breeze, incorruptible, yet promising a storm that would one day build against the creatures that threatened humanity… Nathan, flowing water, caring and compassionate, ready to heal whatever was necessary to set the world right… Josiah, their ground, a man who knew about the horrors that existed out there, and still allowed himself to love, to dream… Ezra, quicksilver mind, and a wounded heart, his spirit was still healing, but his will was focused… And Chris, passion and perseverance; he knew what he had to do and he did it, yet he was still so fragile, the pain of loss having left his heart no more than spun glass… Vin knew he couldn't be the one to break that fragile hope.
Vin felt himself rising, floating closer to where the other half of himself hung on steady wing beats. That part of himself that was of his father called to him in his own voice. He had known that part since he'd been born, even as he'd tried to deny it. Still, it remained a part of him.
He moved closer, feeling the tug between them like gravity, an invisible force that reached out, pulling at him.
So, what was he? Human or champion, as his father had named him.
No, he realized, he was…. Spirit.
"Yes," Chief said, his voice echoing in Vin's consciousness. "You are their warrior spirit, the faith that refuses to give up, even when everything is lost. If they lose their spirit, their faith, the body won't fight, the breath will still, and the spark of life will die away. There will be no ground left to walk or build on, no more water to give and sustain life…"
The tug between he and his angelic essence became stronger now, and Vin let it carry him closer to his other half. In the instant they embraced a flash of blinding light rushed toward Tanner's body, and the bindings of bone and muscle that ached to be infused drew them in.
He rushed inward, imploding into a new, fused reality…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin's body arched against the straps restraining him in the earth lodge. Falling back, he gasped in a deep breath of air, immediately crying out at the sharp burning pain it ignited in his chest. He hurt everywhere.
Chris looked at the others, wondering if he looked as tired as they did. Only Darrow seemed to have taken the experience in stride, and Chris had no doubt that they had all witnessed Vin's death and resurrection.
Darrow stood and walked over to the bound man, cutting him free. When he finished, he called once to the young men waiting outside. They entered, carrying blankets. Handing one to each of the hunters, Darrow covered Vin himself, then turned to Josiah, saying, "All of you need to get some sleep."
Josiah nodded, his eyes already closing.
They each took a blanket and curled up right where they were, falling immediately into deep, healing sleep.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris woke, surprised to find himself still in the earth lodge. He wasn't sure what had woken him, but then he noticed an uncomfortable feeling of being watched.
Forcing his eyes open, the first thing he noticed was the absence of the others. While they must have all fallen asleep rather quickly under the blankets Darrow had given them, Chris had woken several times, watching Vin as he rested, wanting to be sure the man was really back with them to stay. It had probably been nearly dawn before he'd given up the fight and lain down to really sleep.
He looked at his watch. And that had been less than three hours ago.
He heard Buck's voice drifting in from outside the lodge, then the others as well, punctuated by JD's laughter.
Rolling his head to the side he found a pair of blue eyes regarding him, amusement only half-buried in their depths. What would become known as the infamous Tanner stare had worked its mischief for the first time.
"Mornin', sleepyhead" Vin said, his voice weak.
"How would I know? You stared me awake. Do you know how annoying that is?"
Vin's eyes crinkled at the corners. Obviously he did know.
God, it was good to see him awake! Chris didn't even try to hide the silly grin he knew was decorating his face. "How are you feeling?"
"Tired," Vin admitted.
"But that's it?"
"Good," Chris said, reaching out and pressing his hand to Vin's cheek.
"Ain't got a fever."
"Just checking," Chris said. "Got something I want to say," he added.
"Speak your piece," Vin said.
"I'm only going to say this once, and you damn well better file it away, understand?"
Vin nodded, meeting the blond's eyes.
"You're part of my family – period. I don't know how, or why, but that's the way it is. I don't care who your father was, or what that makes you. As far as I'm concerned, you're Vin Tanner, and that's the end of it. Got it?"
"Got it," Vin replied.
"Good," Chris concluded.
Vin's answering grin was quickly replaced by a grimace.
"Are you all right?" Chris demanded.
Vin shook his head, then, pulling into a fetal position, he buried his face in the crook of his arms, his body starting to shake.
Chris reached out, grabbing one of Tanner's shoulders. "What's wrong? Should I get Darrow?"
"Fallen," Vin responded through clenched teeth. "They're gettin' closer."
"What?" Chris yelped. "I thought—"
"Y' thought wrong," Vin forced out, rolling over onto his back. "This ain't over yet, Cowboy."
Chris' mind raced with possibilities. "Vin, you're not ready to rejoin the war just yet. Can't we take care of this?"
Vin shook his head as he panted and huffed out a breath. "No, y' can't. We have to find someplace t' make a stand. As long as I'm weak, I'm a danger t' you 'n' the others."
"I accept that, but you're in no condition to—"
"Chris," the hunter growled, "don't make a damn bit 'a difference what condition I'm in, we've got t' kill 'im, or—" The sentence was cut short by a sharp intake of breath.
Chris ground his teeth together, then offered what comfort he could. "Vin, listen to me," he said after the hunter was resting more quietly, "you need a few days to rest, at least a few hours—"
"Hear me out. I'll talk to Darrow. We'll find a place to make a stand. But let us see what we can do. If we don't come up with something, I'll leave it in your hands; you call the next play."
Vin weighed the idea. It was risky. If the Fallen found a way to control him… "On one condition," he said.
"Darrow secures me in here until we can leave, so I can't escape, just in case they find a way to… take me over. And—"
"That was one."
Vin pinned Chris with a serious glare.
"All right, what else?" Larabee asked.
"I want yer word that, if they do take me, you'll kill me. I don't want t' be out there, hurtin' people."
"Vin, I don't—"
"Ya promised me, remember? I just want t' hear y' say it again." The words drained the small reserve of energy he'd built up, and Vin let his eyes fall closed while he panted for breath.
Chris sighed and nodded. The man was right. "We'll make sure that doesn't happen. You have my word on that. Now, get some rest. I'll go talk to Darrow and the others."
A soft call from the earth lodge stopped Chris before he left. He paused at the door. "Did you say something?"
"I said, be careful," Vin repeated.
Chris smiled briefly. "We will."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Darrow!" Chris called across the dirt road.
The man's head snapped up, immediately focusing on the source of the disturbance. Spotting Larabee, he crossed over to meet him. "What is it?" the healer asked.
"Vin's awake. He said the Fallen are coming for him. Is there someplace—?"
Darrow cut him off. "He'll need to be watched until we're ready. I'll take you to a place first, then we can bring him."
Chris nodded. He was trusting Lonetree a lot more than he really wanted to, but he knew he had no other choice. This was completely beyond him, beyond all of them, it seemed.
They hurried to the cabin the hunters were using. Darrow nodded to Josiah and the older man followed them back outside. Chris told Sanchez what Vin had said.
Josiah looked at Darrow, saying, "I'll stay with him. You have a place?"
Darrow nodded. "We do." Then he looked at Chris. "Get the others. Have them bring whatever weapons they have, just in case Vin fails. And hurry, we won't have much time."
Chris opened the door, snapping, "All of you, with me, now. Bring your gear."
The men immediately rose and started collecting their weapons, then came out. Josiah was already in the earth lodge, and Darrow called to the two young men who had been helping him, speaking to them in Westeskiwin. They nodded, then headed for the lodge as well.
"Are you ready?" the healer asked the hunters.
"As we'll ever be," Buck told him.
"Come with me," Darrow told them, setting off at a jog.
They walked and jogged for a several minutes, depending on the terrain, heading deeper into the forest until they reached a small clearing inside of which a stone medicine wheel had been laid out. Darrow invited them into the structure, then quickly arranged them around the circle. "Wait here in these positions. No matter what you think you see or hear, do not leave this circle or your place within the circle. Understand?"
They all nodded.
"I will see that Vin is brought here," he told them as he stepped outside the circle of stones that ringed the space. There he stopped and turned, looking at the five men. "Remember, do not leave the circle. Stay where you are, and wait."
"Go," Larabee told him.
When they were alone, JD glanced around, asking, "What's going on?"
"Vin said the Fallen are still coming after him," Chris said. "Darrow seems to think this is where it all needs to come down."
"Well, I hope for all our sakes he's right," Ezra said drolly. He didn't like being out in the open like this, but it seemed that Josiah and Nathan were willing to go along, so he would as well.
"This is holy ground," Nathan said. "Best we can do on short notice. Angels can pack some serious hurt, Fallen or not."
"Like what?" JD asked.
"Angel fire is their primary weapon," Nathan explained. "It'll burn anything. But they also use swords."
"How do we fight them?" Chris demanded.
"Big hose?" Buck offered, then held up his hands in a gesture of apology when Chris cut a hard glare in his direction.
Nathan thought for a moment. "There are things, but we don't have any of them with us…" He sighed. "I have a hunch this is going to be between Vin and the Fallen."
"Then what can we do to help him?" Ezra asked.
Nathan shook his head. "I don't know. Just… be here, do whatever he asks us to do."
"Won't they just… smite us?" Buck asked, looking concerned now.
"Maybe," Nathan replied. "Guess we'll just have to wait and see. But I doubt Darrow would just leave us standing here to be smote."
"Damn it!" Larabee kicked a pine cone, sending it sailing out of the circle. "We haven't come this far to lose him now. There has to be something we can do."
"We won't lose him," Ezra said. "Of that I'm certain."
Chris rounded on the younger man. "And how the hell do you know that?"
Ezra met and held the angry green eyes. "I don't know how I know, Chris, but I do."
"A vision?" Buck asked him.
"No," he replied. "A… knowing."
"Great," Chris muttered, but Ezra's certainty did make him feel slightly better.
A sound in the trees had them all falling silent. A few moments later Josiah and Darrow arrived, supporting Vin between them. Darrow helped the hunter into the circle, then pointed Josiah to his place. The older man walked over to stand where he'd been shown.
Vin looked weak and tired, his expression distracted. One of the young men arrived, carrying a folding chair, which he handed to Darrow without stepping into the circle. Darrow opened the chair and placed it in the center of the circle. Vin sank into it with a grateful sigh.
"Vin?" Chris questioned, disliking the expression on the man's face.
"They're still looking, gettin' close—" He stopped short, shifting to a more comfortable position. He looked up at Darrow. "Can I do this?" The last came out in a whisper.
"You can," Darrow told him. "Trust who you are, Vin. Trust that all of you are greater than you would be alone. Now, I must go."
"Thank you," Vin said, reaching out his hand, which Darrow took. "Your father would be proud."
"I hope so," Darrow replied, his tone sad. Then he turned and left them.
"Vin, what do we do?" Chris asked.
"Stay where Darrow put you, and don't do anything," he said, making sure he met each man's eyes. "Promise me."
They each nodded in turn.
"This isn't goin' t' happen here, exactly."
"Then where?" JD asked.
"Same place I was before, I reckon." Vin looked at Chris. "You being here, that's fer me – t' give me strength – but this is fer me t' do, an' I give ya m' word I'll do m' best, but if I fail…"
Chris nodded. He knew the promise he'd made, but he still wasn't sure he could do it, or even how it might be done. Still, it seemed to be enough for Vin.
"Vin, do you think your father—"
"I hope not," Tanner interrupted. "Too damn many angels 'round here as it is."
Several long minutes passed.
Vin had leaned back in his chair, apparently dozing. The others stood, waiting. JD shifted from foot to foot, his gaze darting around the forest. Josiah and Nathan had readied their weapons and stood in what amounted to at-ease stances, waiting patiently. Buck stayed in motion, his knees flexing slightly, shoulders rolling, fingers curling and uncurling as he waited. Ezra and Chris were as still as statues, but their eyes moved, watching for shadows.
Vin's eyes opened with a start.
"What?" Buck asked.
"He's waitin' fer me," Vin said.
"The angel?" JD questioned.
Vin nodded. "But he ain't no angel, JD, he'd Fallen – nasty son of a bitch, too. Some of 'em aren't that bad, some of 'em, and some of the nephilim are downright good people, but this one…"
"Where's he waiting?" Josiah asked.
"In the trees," Vin replied, strangely relaxed now.
"He's here, right now?" JD yelped, looking anxiously around.
Vin nodded, stretching out in his chair and folding his arms over his chest. Taking a deep breath he added, "Just waitin' for… somethin'." He reached up and fingered the medicine bag Darrow had slipped around his neck when he had come for him at the earth lodge, then closed his eyes. "I appreciate yer help, fellas."
"Hell, Vin, we still don't know what the hell to do," Buck said.
"Yeah," JD added.
"Stay put, an' think 'bout me kickin' some Fallen ass," Vin said, "'cause here he comes."
There was a sudden flash of blinding light and they all turned their heads away. When they could look back, Vin was sheathed in undulating liquid light, black tendrils snaking through it, trying to wrap around his body.
"Oh my God!" JD squeaked.
"Stay where you are!" Josiah barked, seeing Chris and JD starting to take a step toward Vin.
"But, Josiah—" JD started to argue.
"It's his fight," Josiah stated. "Let's do what he asked, brothers. Think about him defeating this thing and coming home to us. Think hard."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The attack, when it came, was sudden and violent. Vin couldn't see his foe, but he could sense the Fallen, swooping toward him, surrounding him… and a moment later he was sucked into the same vision he'd been trapped in before.
The sky above him darkened menacingly and thunder growled in the distance. He ducked into the trees and ran as fast as he could.
Lightning exploded above him, but Vin ignored it. He had nothing to fear from the Spirits of the Sky and Storm. Not here. Here they were his allies.
Reaching a clearing in the forest, he easily leaped over a foot-tall ring of stacked stones, landing inside the large, open circle. These stones ringed the same clearing where the others stood, but they were absent from this space, although Vin could feel their presence echoing from the material world.
Four pine trunks lie on the ground, each pointing to one of the compass points from the edge of a fire pit that had been dug at the center of the space. Where each trunk touched the outer circle of stones, an animal skull sat on the stones – silent sentinels, staring vigilantly out at the forest.
In the central pit, a fire burned fiercely, the dancing orange and red flames casting a warm glow over Tanner. A small, crooked smile lifted his lips and he moved closer to the fire, only stopping when he was standing next to the pit. The forest shimmered with power now. This was his place.
He looked down at the soft moccasins he wore. They disappeared under soft, faded jeans. A simple white T-shirt completed the outfit, except for the web-belt that was snug around his waist, his M9 and knife resting on it in holster and sheath. The mix of White and Native was not lost on him. It was proper. He had accepted the mingling of his two heritages long ago. And now he accepted all of who he was, embracing his angelic side, bequeathed to him from his father, as well as his humanity, a gift from his mother.
He concentrated for a moment, and his wings broke free, spreading out behind him, the same golden-white as his father's. He was ready.
Succeed or fail, there was nothing more he could do.
The beat of wings alerted him to the Fallen's arrival. It emerged from the shadows of the thick trees. Vin wasn't sure how he know the creature's name, but he knew it was correct. "Asb'el," he greeted.
"You have learned much, Vin Tanner," the Fallen said, stopping outside the circle of stones. "But you cannot hide from me."
"Not tryin' t' hide," Vin replied. "Yer too late; m' soul's healed."
"Healed, perhaps, but weak," Asb'el said, moving closer to the edge of the circle. The man was tall, lean, and handsome in a dark, dangerous way. His face was angular, nose sharp and slightly too large for his face. Vin could imagine the man easily fitting in with the emperors of ancient Rome.
"Y' can't enter this space," Vin said softly. He saw many sets of glowing eyes, watching the exchange from the blackness of the forest. His grandfather and Chief would call them Spirit Guides, and he hoped that they, and his friends, would bring him the power he needed to force the Fallen away.
Asb'el glanced down at the short stone wall, then back up at Vin. "This barrier cannot keep me out."
The Fallen cocked his head to one side and stepped closer, pausing in front of the cougar skull marking the western point of the circle. He took a step back when an angry snarl rolled out of the empty eye sockets, echoing over the landscape like thunder. A large, female cougar stepped free of the old bone, blocking the Fallen's path.
Vin wasn't sure how he knew, but he was certain that the cat was an embodiment of the spirit of his mother.
Asb'el met Tanner's intense gaze. "That is impossible. There was no wildlife in the circle."
"Says you," Vin challenged, his hand slipping to the handle of his knife. "There's more here 'n you'll ever know, 'n' you are not permitted t' cross. Go, now, or I will destroy you."
Asb'el walked along the wall to the southern point of the circle. Another sharp snarl stopped him, and he was forced on by a snarling pack of wolves that stepped free of the wolf skull. Vin knew that it was his spirit, and the spirits of the other hunters, his new pack.
Asb'el continued on around the circle, dropping into a defensive stance when he reached the east position. A screeching eagle swept out from the small skull, striking at the Fallen's face. Vin recognized his angelic spirit and smiled.
Hurrying past the bird, Asb'el reached the northern point.
A loud snort warned him another beast was coming. He took a step toward the circle and a large horse charged free of the skull bone, keeping him at a respectful distance. The Fallen dropped into an attack position and the animal lowered its head, pawing at the ground.
Vin sucked in a soft gasp as his earlier experience made sudden sense. The horse was the Spirit of his Body, grounded in the material world. The eagle was his legacy from his father, his Angelic Spirit. And the wolf was his Soul Spirit, that which was willing to sacrifice itself for the protection of his pack, his family… He was all three, so he had faced all three, and had run as all three.
Asb'el moved, finally stopping in front of the cougar skull again. He glared at Vin and demanded, "What is this magic!"
"Not magic," Vin snarled. "Y' have no power over me here, Asb'el. Y' can't steal m' body, or m' soul."
Asb'el considered his words, calculating the resolve in the Champion's blue eyes. He settled into a relaxed posture, greenish-grey wings uncurling behind him and he lifted into the air. "I can wait. You are already growing tired. I am not."
Asb'el had seen his physical weakness, and it was true. The fire in the pit was already burning lower than it had been before. If he didn't force the Fallen away, soon, he might be too weak to keep him out.
But fighting angels was still new to him, and he wasn't at all sure he could defeat Asb'el. Still, he had to try. Fear, however, nipped at the edges of his resolve.
Call, and the Spirits will come, a voice told him.
Vin glanced around. Chief?
"Who do you address, Human? Your teacher? He is dead, and no use to you. Yield to me, come out and taste defeat."
A wave of sensation washed over Vin, like a shimmer of electricity had passed over his skin. He looked at his hand, finding his fingers curled tightly around a prayer staff. It wasn't Joseph Lonetree's, or Chief's, but he knew what to do with it.
He smiled; the oak staff was almost as tall as he was, and the quartz crystal at the top reflected the lightning that still flashed overhead. He shook the stick, wolf claws making a sharp ticking sound against the wood. Eagle feathers danced on a length of braided horse tail-hair and the wind picked up, whistling through the evergreens. A swatch of wolf fur held more claws in place below the crystal, and another band of the fur rested just above his hand, the material soft and warm against his skin.
A soft whisper touched his ears, and Vin knew what it was he had to do.
Raising the staff above his head, Vin shook it again. Lightning fissured the dark skies, dancing like St. Elmo's fire above the trees. "Leave," he said. "Now."
Asb'el looked up, then the Fallen's face split into a cruel smile. "You are weak, Champion. I believe I will stay."
Vin stomped his moccasin-clad foot and the ground trembled. The vague outlines of the animals guarding the circle swirled out of the fog curling through the trees, their cries competing with the thunder to force the Fallen away.
Lightning flashed, striking the ground near the Fallen.
Abs'el looked back at Vin, the first sign of fear showing in the Fallen's eyes. "You cannot defeat me."
Not alone, no, but I ain't alone, he acknowledged silently, knowing Abs'el would hear him. He could feel the power of the others, open and available to him, and he drew upon it.
Vin held the prayer staff in his hand and concentrated on forcing Asb'el out of his mind space. Nothing existed but him and the fallen angel. Nothing could interfere. Nothing else mattered. He focused his will, grabbed the power the others offered, and sent it flying toward the Fallen.
A blinding flash forced Vin to close his eyes and a deafening crack of thunder knocked him off his feet. He felt himself falling, the prayer staff slipping out of his fingers as the dancing colors sucked him away.
His last thought was a humble, "Oh, shit."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Concentrate!" Josiah called to the others. The clearing was growing darker, and the hunters waited. They watched the light around Vin ungulate, flaring brightly at times, going dark at others.
In the distance, the first growls of thunder echoed in the mountains, sending a cold chill racing along each of their spines.
A moment later, a strong wind whipped through the clearing, kicking up dust and debris. The small bits of dirt and dead plant matter stung the hunter's exposed skin, like hundreds of tiny insect bites happening all at once. Each of them leaned into the wind, their arms coming up to protect their faces.
The liquid light that surrounded Vin flared brightly. They could hear the roar of a mountain lion, then the snarls of wolves. They tried to look around, but the whipping wind kept them from spotting any wildlife. The air crackled with static electricity.
"How long?" Chris bellowed at Josiah.
"No idea!" the older man shouted back.
Then they felt a shock wave pass over and through them, knocking all of them off their feet. In the next moment they saw Vin and another man rise into the air on widely spread wings. They each carried flaming swords and came together with the clash of steel on steel. They circled, came at each other again, this time Vin's sword cleaving the other man's body from neck to mid-chest.
The man screamed and exploded in a rain of black ash.
Vin tumbled to the ground.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin staggered through the howling storm, trying to find shelter. Above him the sky ripped and cried, lightning snapping whip-like to strike at the tree tops. These Spirits were a different bunch. Thunder rumbled, vibrating through the ground, nearly shaking the hunter off his feet.
Great, he thought. Where the hell am I?
The last thing he remembered was the Fallen, Asb'el… He'd had a prayer staff and he'd called on the spirits to help him, to force Asb'el out of his mind, but he'd somehow lost control, and now he was… lost?
Or totally fucked.
I knew I shouldn't've played around with this stuff, he chided himself. But it worked, at least for a little while, and it felt right. So how had he ended up here?
Chief? he called silently.
There was no reply.
He stopped, taking shelter near a large felled pine. There was no rain, only lightning, and dark shadows clinging forebodingly to the forest around him. Now and then the sounds of animals echoed out of the trees, threatening and close, but he wasn't sure it they were friend or foe.
This was not a safe place, not like the medicine wheel had been.
If he could find the prayer staff, or the medicine wheel, maybe he could get back to where he was supposed to be.
Which is? he asked himself.
Hell if I know, he replied to his own thoughts.
You must be one with the Soul Spirits – all of them.
Embrace all of your power, Vin. It belongs to you.
The wind picked up and Vin found himself being pelted by rocks, sticks, and other debris. He reached out, clinging to the rough tree trunk, pine cones and larger rocks beating painfully against his back. He ducked his head to protect himself, and tried to inch farther under the cover of the trunk, but there wasn't enough room.
A loud growl echoed over the thunder. Squinting to keep the grit out of his eyes, Vin scanned the shadows, trying to locate the animal that had made the noise. With a growing sense of panic, he watched as a large grizzly bear emerged from the trees. The bear rose, padding forward him on its hind feet. Vin recognized Joseph Lonetree's Spirit Guide.
A wolf trotted out to join the bear, its blue eyes regarding Vin intently. And that would be me, Vin knew.
A loud snort caused Vin to scramble around on the ground. A large stallion stood behind him. One hoof struck the earth, its huge head shaking from side to side.
Chief... he called silently.
An eagle's cry sounded as the bird swooped down and settled on the log next to Vin. The hunter looked down at the long talons and swallowed hard. But then he knew the truth, these three were his own souls, all his Spirit Guides. They were each a part of him somehow.
All he was missing now was…
He stood, drawing a deep breath and opening his mind to his truest nature, his deepest self, as well as to the legacy his father had given him. The animals disappeared, sucked into the center of his being, and his wings unfurled behind him. A moment later he felt a sword appear in his hand.
Nearby Joseph's Spirit stood, watching him, and beside him stood Chief, his own wings outstretched, their rich golden-brown hue clear even in the shadows.
The sound of distant howls wrapped around him, warm and comforting, and Vin knew the others were there with him – in spirit if not in body in this place.
Vin held his breath, waiting to see what happened next. Before his chest started to burn, a pack of large wolves trotted into the small clearing.
"Brothers," he greeted them.
One, a large black wolf with green eyes chuffed out a noise, and Vin smiled. "Yes, you are my brother."
Remember, Vin, Chief said inside his head, life is a journey. There are many beginnings, and many ends. When you need them, you can call on the Spirits. Own them, and they will aid you. Trust your inner voice, it cannot lie.
The wind whistled louder, and Vin forced himself to remain standing, his wings arching against the force of the wind. The storm raged on. But then, in a sudden flash, the storm was gone, and he was in the center of the medicine wheel once more, and scattered around the wheel was his new family.
The Fallen, Abs'el, was standing right in front of him.
Before he really had time to think, he was in the air, his sword meeting Asb'el's. The force of the blow almost left his arm numb. The angle fire that blazed along their blades flared blue-white.
They each swung again, but this time Vin reached out, touching the souls of his friends, drawing on their willingly given energy. He felt it surge through him, creating a bubble around the medicine wheel that trapped Asb'el inside it.
"No! This is not possible!" the Fallen yelled, raising his sword and swooping forward in an attack.
Vin met him, blade to blade, and then, in a lightning fast movement, he swung the blade back around and brought it down again. It struck Asb'el where his neck met his shoulder, penetrating his flesh and not stopping until it had cleaved his heart.
The Fallen screamed and exploded into black ash that was immediately blown away on the wind.
Vin felt his wings retract and he dropped out of the air, landing with a grunt in the dirt.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris sprinted forward in the suddenly-still clearing. He hit his knees next to Vin's unconscious body.
Nathan was there as well, reaching for Tanner's neck, feeling the man's pulse. It was there, stronger than ever. He immediately began checking the man for injuries.
"Well?" Larabee demanded after several moments passed and the physician still hadn't said anything.
"Not finding any injuries," Nathan said, continuing his examination as best he could in the darkness.
"Vin?" Chris called, his own pulse still racing. Hands shaking, he lifted the unconscious man to rest against his chest. "C'mon, Vin, wake up."
"He needs to rest, then eat," Darrow said, walking up to join them inside the medicine wheel.
Buck gave JD a hug, the pair following as Josiah and Nathan lifted Vin and carried him back to the village, Darrow leading the way, Chris and Ezra flanking the injured man.
They took Vin to the cabin they had been using and put him to bed. He never stirred, remaining deeply asleep.
Nathan and Josiah worked quickly to examine the unconscious man again, this time in the light, while Chris stood at the head of the bed, watching. As far as he could see there were no visible injuries to the hunter, but he did notice that the line of tattoos that had decorated Vin's shoulder blades were gone. How or why that had happened he had no idea.
"Pulse is elevated, but strong," Nathan announced, pulling the covers up to Vin's shoulders. "Respiration's a little rapid… I think he's okay, just exhausted. And he probably needs a few good meals."
Josiah took the blanket folded at the foot of the bed and covered the hunter with that one as well, then reached for the light switch. "Chris, I think you should stay here with him, we'll see about getting something going he can eat. We'll come back in a couple of hours to wake him."
Chris nodded, watching the two older men leave. Nathan drew the bedroom door shut behind him. Beyond the closed door he could hear the others entering the cabin, and moving around in the kitchen. He moved to the side of the bed, smiling down at Vin and tugging the blanket up to the man's chin.
"Rest," he said quietly. "We're all here, and you're going to be fine." He said it like he knew it was true, and in some corner of his mind, or maybe his heart, he knew it was.
Making his way to the chair in the corner, he pulled it over to the side of the bed and sat down. Then, reaching out, he let his hand rest on the crown of Vin's head as he sat and dozed, waiting for the others to return.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Three nights later
Chris sat, watching while Vin slept, something the hunter had been doing a lot of over the past seventy-two hours. They had flown home yesterday, and were back at The Strays, for which Chris was grateful. He'd had enough of Oregon.
Darrow had done more than he'd thought possible to help Vin, but he'd still been more than ready to leave.
He smiled as he saw Vin was dreaming, his eyes flicking rapidly beneath closed eyelids. Chris hoped it was a pleasant vision.
And while he believed Nathan when he said Vin still needed sleep, he wished the man would really wake up for longer than it took to eat, and put an end to the nightmare once and for all. Until he woke up and stayed awake for a few hours at a time, they would all continue to worry.
Things at the B&B had returned to what passed as "normal." They trained, they waited for leads to send them on hunts, and they waited for Tanner to wake up. The Christmas gift Vin had given him sat on the nightstand next to Tanner's bed. Chris hadn't been back to the ranch yet, and he was determined not to go until he could take Vin with him.
Vin's restlessness increased, and Chris reached out to lay a comforting hand on the man's arm. Vin came awake with a start.
"Easy," Chris said, leaning forward to take hold of the man's shoulders and press him back against the bed. "You're back home, everything's fine."
Tanner's blue eyes locked on Larabee's green ones. Vin was scared, Chris realized.
The blond watched while the hunter fought to regain his composure. Must have been one helluva nightmare, Larabee concluded. Deciding it might be better to give the man some privacy, Chris released his hold, only to get no more than a fraction of an inch away before one of Vin's hands trapped his wrist in a tight vise-like squeeze.
"Don't leave," Vin whispered.
Chris smiled slightly. "I'm not going anywhere."
Vin's hand relaxed slightly, but he was still reluctant to let go, so Chris closed his free hand over Vin's and held on.
"It's over?" Vin asked.
Chris' heart hurt at the uncertainty that rang in the words. "I think so. The Fallen is gone, destroyed. Darrow said you're whole again."
The blue eyes closed for a moment as the hunter silently recited a prayer to the Spirits. When he opened them again, he started to speak, but only got as far as, "Chris—" before he was interrupted.
"You should be resting, not talking." The blue eyes asked for understanding and Larabee nodded. "We all get scared, Vin. If we didn't, knowing what we do, doing what we do, we'd go crazy."
Vin nodded. He understood that kind of fear, but this was another.
"What you've been through, it's got to have some effect, but it'll pass – in time. We'll be here to help you, if you'll let us."
Chris smiled. "Damn, I'm starting to sound like Josiah… Look, get some more rest. I'll check with Nathan, and if he says okay, I'll go get Mrs. Potter to fix up some soup or something for you. That has to be better than sugar water via a direct tap."
Another nod. "It's good to be… home," Vin said softly, eyelids falling closed again.
"It's good to have you home," Chris whispered.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin walked across the library, heading for the snapping fireplace. Past the French doors he could see the snow-covered backyard. It had a certain beauty to it, and he paused briefly to enjoy it. Glancing around at the books and the furniture, he was surprised by how familiar the old house felt, and he'd only been there for a couple of day, and that had been… weeks ago?
A lifetime, he decided, still finding it hard to reconcile everything that had happened. He wasn't sure he understood it all. It was too complicated, too unreal, like a dream that faded from his memory, and he couldn't distinguish the boundaries anymore.
Nathan wasn't happy about the speed with which Vin had abandoned his bed, but anything that smacked of hospitals made him nervous. After all, he was completely healed – physically, at least.
Admittedly, he was still a little weak from the lack of recent exercise, and a dogged fatigue still haunted him, but the conditioning program he planned to start tomorrow would return his strength and flexibility in no time.
And an hour on the firing range, earlier, had proven he hadn't lost his touch with a weapon. He was almost ready to rejoin the war against the monsters, but he knew he was still low on a different sort of energy.
He could feel it returning, slowly, but there seemed to be something blocking the last steps to his return to total health. Maybe it's the nightmares, he thought. They still crept in from time to time, but they were getting easier to dispel.
No, it was something else…
Nagging doubts and worries still haunted him. How could they be sure another Fallen might not come for him? And, if it did, would he be able to defeat it?
He sat down and stared into the dancing flames. What's the point? he asked himself. Y' can't worry 'bout things y' got absolutely no control over. Y' just have t' react when they come up, not dwell on 'em, waitin' for 'em t' happen… There's enough t' deal with without that.
It was guilt, pure and simple. He'd always blamed himself for who and what he was, and more recently for putting the rest of these men through his—
"In here," Tanner called.
Josiah had welcomed him back into the fold, and he, as the leader of their merry little band, had reason not to. Surely if Josiah had thought he was a threat, he wouldn't have made it so clear that he was wanted, needed, even.
Josiah came in carrying a tray with coffee and something else. "I have something for you," he announced with great seriousness.
Vin's eyebrows climbed. "Oh?"
"Coffee," he stated, "with lots of sugar – just don't tell Nathan I'm enabling your addiction."
Vin grinned. "He'll never hear it from me."
"Good man," Josiah said, carrying a mug over and handing it to Vin. Then he returned to his desk and sat down. "I also have something here from Darrow," he added. "He said the decorations gave it its power, although its strength comes from the object itself. It arrived yesterday."
"He say why he sent it?" Vin asked, curious.
"Nope." Josiah picked the object up from the tray and held it out so Vin could see it. It was a horse effigy, the slightly elongated body carefully polished and decorated with a series of painted medicine designs sacred to the Westeskiwin.
Vin knew it must have taken the healer a great deal of painstaking time and dedication to reproduce the designs in such fine detail. It was most definitely a thing of power.
Vin rose and walked over to accept it.
"He just said his father and Chief wouldn't let him rest until it was done," Josiah explained with a slight grin.
Vin smiled, feeling his throat tighten. He recognized the symbols of his various Souls, and the six stars that represented his new family, or tribe, or pack; he wasn't sure yet which was the better description. It was a thing of power, and love.
And Vin felt the last wall to his healing melt away as he realized he was loved by his new friends and family. He was a man, not an angel, not a monster. Just a man, and he had his faults. But he was also loved. And if they could love him, accept him, then surely he could do the same for himself.
"It's beautiful," Vin said quietly, turning the fetish over in his hands.
"Yes, it is," Josiah agreed. "It's a work of art."
Vin nodded. "Guess this was what I needed t' put this all behind me."
"You think that's the right decision?" the older man asked.
Vin looked up, meeting Josiah's eyes. "Ain't sayin' I ain't learned from this. Know myself better now 'n I ever thought I could. It helped me make m' peace with who, 'n' what, I am. Now it's time t' move on."
"I'm afraid you might find that's not as easy as it sounds," Josiah cautioned him.
Vin smiled, walking back over to stand near the fireplace. He leaned on one hand, braced against the mantel. He closed his eyes for a moment, pulling up words he'd committed to memory a long time ago. And, when he spoke, Vin's voice flowed with a storyteller's cadence, breathing life into the words.
"I climb the black rock mountain, steppin' from day t' day, silently… I smell the wind for m' ancestors, pale blue leaves, crushed wild mountain smell… Returning, up the grey stone cliff, where I descended, a thousand years ago, returnin' t' faded black stone, where mountain lion lay down with deer. It's better t' stay up here, watchin' wind's reflection in tall yellow flowers. The old ones who remember me are gone, the old songs are all forgotten, 'n' the story 'a m' birth… How I danced in snow-frost moonlight, distant stars t' the end 'a the Earth, how I swam away, in freezin' mountain water, narrow mossy canyon tumblin' down, out 'a the mountain, out 'a deep canyon stone, down the memory, spillin' out, int' the world…"
Josiah smiled. "Like you… being born again."
"Yeah." Vin was surprised by Josiah's insight, but then he'd known all along that Josiah could see deeper into folks than he let on.
"I'm glad you decided not to die, brother," Josiah said.
Vin fought back a smile at the words. "Me, too," he agreed. "But I might be more trouble than I'm worth."
"Somehow I doubt that," Josiah countered.
"Doubt what?" came JD's voice from the doorway. Walking over, he slipped onto one of the sofa, looking from Vin to Josiah and back again.
"Ah, ain't nothin'," Vin replied, sitting back down in the chair.
"What's nothing?" Buck asked as he strolled in.
"That would be… nothing, Buck," JD said, then chuckled at his own joke.
"Shouldn't you be resting?" Ezra asked as he too joined the gathering.
"Rested enough for a year, at least," Vin retorted.
"We'll just see about that," came Nathan's warning tone.
Vin grunted. "I feel fine, Nathan."
The Black man shot a look at Josiah, who nodded. "All right," he said, not wanting to push the man if there was no need for it.
"Looks like anybody's invited to this shindig," Chris said, entering the library from the door behind Vin, causing Tanner to jump.
"Damn, Cowboy!" Tanner bellowed. "Don't ya know better 'n t' sneak up on a man like that!"
The others laughed when Chris casually grabbed Vin's shoulders and growled, "You still callin' me a 'cowboy'?"
Vin looked perfectly innocent as he said, "I call 'em like I see 'em… Cowboy."
"Hey, JD, you'd better go grab a camera," Buck chortled. "When they kiss and make up it'll be one for the family album."
Larabee shot him the finger and a glare.
Vin ignored the blush he knew painted his cheeks, basking in the warmth of the people he treasured. Looking up at the blond, he could see the humor in the man's eyes.
Chris snorted and walked over to drop into the other chair. "So, this mean you're back to normal?" he asked Vin.
"I seriously doubt 'normal' is a descriptor befitting anyone in this room," Ezra replied drolly.
"Speak for yourself!" Buck replied.
Vin, however, nodded.
Chris looked over at Josiah. "Well, if that's the case, I think I'll take Vin out to the ranch for a couple of days."
Josiah nodded. "Probably be a good idea. He could use a little more rest."
"I'm sitting right here, y' know," Vin grouched.
"Can we go, too?" JD asked. He enjoyed the time he got to spend at Larabee ranch.
"More the merrier," Chris told him.
Josiah cleared his throat and added, "Might be a good idea if we all took a couple of days off then."
The ladies' man nodded. "Just what the doctor ordered," he said.
Nathan chuckled. "Well, me and Rain are going to put that Christmas present to use, so the rest of you have a great time. We'll see y'all in a week." And with that he was gone.
Chris glanced around at the others. "All right, get your bags packed and we'll head out."
Vin stood, still holding the horse fetish, which he planned to set on his dresser in his room. "Time to find a place for that statue."
"Time to introduce you to your new home away from home," Chris corrected.
Vin nodded. "Sounds good."
"You two go on ahead, the rest of us will lock up here and meet you there is a couple of hours," Josiah said. "You want me to bring some steaks?"
Chris nodded. "Everything I have is frozen."
"Okay, we'll bring the fixing for supper," the older man said as Buck, JD, and Ezra headed out to get their things. Chris and Vin followed them.
Josiah sat back, smiling. All was as it should be, and his little pack of hunters was stronger for adding Vin. Champions, he thought, wondering why the angles thought they would need seven of them. "Like they say," he muttered to himself, "the times they are a changing."
 "Where Mountain Lion Lay Down With Deer," in Storyteller, by Leslie Marmon Silko (Arcade Publishing, 1981).