The following is an excerpt from my story, “The Price of Power” appearing in the Trials anthology.
“College Station, Texas,” the ancient sign read, “Population: 106,000.”
Not anymore, I thought.
Gary Stockton, the leader of our deadmining expedition, stood beside me in much the same way as a mountain would. At six foot seven, he towered over me by nearly two feet.
“What do you think, Elise?” His voice was deep and sounded like he was grinding rocks to sand with his throat. With a neck like his, he probably could have.
Great chunks of pavement jutted from the earth in all directions like a mouthful of broken teeth. There was no way the wagons would get through the wreckage.
I shrugged, already tired and irritable. Moon mages don’t get along well with the sun and it hits me harder than most. With the rising sun, my eyesight was already going downhill and I was feeling the tingling chill of my power evaporating. By noon, both would be all but gone, as would my ability to draw power from the power sink at the Enclave. I’d be on my own with only the power I’d stored in my amulets.
Behind us, two set of boots clomped. “Maybe there’s another road we can take,” Derek said.
Javier spat. “Not without backtracking.”
Derek and Javier Rocha were Gary’s partners. They claimed to be twins, but Derek was taller and Javi was thicker. Both had skin the color of old leather. Javi’s hair was dark. Derek’s was currently an aggressive shade of blue that he kept hidden under a battered hat; he’d lost a bet to Javi before we set out. The three of us made up our night-time security.
Gary took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He looked over his shoulder. “Sandra? The map please?”
Sandra Warfield, our quartermaster, climbed down from her bench. She wore tan coveralls that shushed as she walked to the rear of her wagon. She reached inside and produced the map, spreading it out across the tailgate.
Gary pointed to a thick line marked with the number 6. “If we wanted to try another road into the city, we’d have to go back to here — half a day lost.”
“What about the smaller roads?” I bent low, squinting, and traced my finger on the map. Our destination was Easterwood Airport. “They’re probably still there.”
Gary rubbed his chin. “Okay.” He straightened and stretched, scowling at the broken road. “Let’s move, people. We’re spending daylight.”
The way was rougher than I thought it would be, but I was right about the smaller roads. They were clear, for the most part, though overgrown, cracked, and narrow.
Around noon, Mack’s voice drifted back to me over the creaks and rattles of his wagon.
“We’re here, Elise.”
Mack was our medic and he’d taken a shine to me not long after we’d met. He never spoke about his last name or the burn scar he kept hidden under a dirty, blue bandanna, and I never asked, so we got along fine.
We forded a shallow creek, and followed a service road that had regressed to little more than a wagon-wide gap in the trees. We soon rode out onto a wide expanse of flat land and I felt concrete under Celeste’s hooves — a runway. The land around was eerily silent — no birds, no insects. I hadn’t heard an animal other than the horses for more than a day.
Great chunks of the Easterwood terminal had collapsed, and as we rode past, I saw the scars of fire damage. We settled in a small hangar that had held up better than the rest of the airport. The rusty sheet metal had holes in it, and the hangar doors had fallen down, but it would give us walls and a roof we could shelter under.
Derek and Javi couldn’t wait to explore the nearby college campus and took off shortly after we’d set up camp. Gary and Mack at least waited until after lunch before leaving.
Mack borrowed Celeste, promising that he’d take good care of her, and I settled into a chair by the campfire, stuffed on cold sausage and cheese. I didn’t mind staying behind. I’d pulled the third watch, so I’d been up since well before dawn. Full and tired, I fell asleep in the shade.
* * *
By the time Celeste clopped back into camp, the Moon had already begun Her trip across the sky. My eyesight was back to normal and the tension I’d been carrying before sunset, the fear that my eyes wouldn’t return to normal when the sun went down, was gone.
Mack led Celeste into the hangar, took off her saddle, and cleaned her hooves. I walked over and she whickered in greeting.
“Find anything interesting?” I said as I gave Celeste some feed and brushed her coat.
He glanced at his pack. “Bandages and a few odds and ends.” He straightened. “Gary’s got some locations he wants to go back to. Good salvage.”
I took my time with the brush, whispering silly stuff to Celeste, as I settled her down for the night. The skin of my hands glowed against Celeste’s darker hair and I activated my Glamour amulet. Tonight — a night shy of the full Moon — I’d be glowing nearly bright enough to read by if I didn’t damp it down. The full Moon was a powerful time for me and my skin shivered to be out underneath Her light.
By the time I was finished with Celeste, the smell of beans and bacon filled the air.
The cookfire crackled just outside the hangar. I poured myself a cup of hot water and dropped a mesh tea ball filled with loose leaves in to steep. I slid my chair into a patch of moonlight and sighed.
Gary reached into a pocket and pulled out a walkie-talkie. “Javi,” he said into the transmitter, “you and Derek are about to miss another exhilarating round of beans-n-bacon.”
Sandra scowled at Gary, and I snorted.
“Don’t listen to him, Sandra,” Mack said. “You’ve elevated beans-n-bacon into an art form.”
“Thank you, Mack.” Sandra turned to Gary, pointing a spoon at him. “You hear that? An art form. I should be charging you…” She trailed off.
I followed her gaze to Gary, who was staring at the silent device in his hand.
He glanced at us. “Javier, Derek, respond.”
The fire popped, sending sparks into the sky.
“Derek, Javi, come in.”
“Why don’t they…” Sandra stopped.
Gary glanced at me. There were any number of things that might keep either of them from replying. Dead batteries. Damaged gear. Accidents happened. The only things I could think of that would prevent both of them from responding involved the words “collapse” or “trapped” or were armed with claws and teeth and burned to death in sunlight.
“Can you track them?”
I thought about it. “If I had something of theirs, like hair or fingernails, I might be able to. Otherwise, no.”
“Blood and blades!” Gary stood. “We should go look for them.”
“We only know the direction they took when they left,” Mack said. “They could have gone anywhere after that.”
Gary scowled, and dropped back into his chair.
“We can’t leave them out there,” Sandra said.
“We won’t,” Gary said. “But we can’t track them in the dark either.” He raised the walkie-talkie again. “Javi? Derek? Please respond.”
He let out an explosive breath. “We keep the fire up all night. We watch in shifts in case they come back.” He raked a hand through his hair. “And we go after them at first light.”
* * *
By midnight, I was the only one awake. I tossed another log on the fire, grabbed my telescope bag, and walked into the night. At a clear, dark spot away from camp, I sat on the concrete with my legs crossed and unrolled a square of thin, brown leather in front of me. The wind whispered past, carrying the scent of wildflowers and wood smoke. I arranged my amulets on the leather, aimed the telescope at the Moon, and looked through the eyepiece.
For an instant, I saw Her in crystal clarity and my breath caught. She was beautiful. My skin prickled and I reached for Her. She entered me in a rush and I gasped.
The blue-white of Her light seared through my eyes and every hair stood on end. Power flowed through me like a river, cool and inexorable, threatening to carry me away with it. Part of me wanted to go, to lose myself in Her and drift away.
I shuddered, fighting for control. Her presence filled me and I exhaled, long and slow, a pleasant warmth building deep inside me. One by one, I filled my amulets, starting with my prime. The moonstone warmed against my chest as she charged and I spent extra time caring for her, checking for surface scratches and cracks in the stone. I ran my thumb across her rounded edges a final time then tucked her back inside my shirt.
When my amulets were charged, I drank in Her power. She tingled across my skin like the caress of a lover. My toes curled and my body trembled, overcome with sensation. I didn’t want to stop, even when I knew I should. I was full of Her, but She was so close. I could handle it — I knew I could. She felt so good, one last pull couldn’t —
I tore my eyes away from the eyepiece and slumped onto the concrete. Heart pounding, I shivered from my core as the feeling subsided, leaving me breathless. I rolled onto my back, panting.
“That was close,” I whispered. A lingering flash of pleasure shuddered through me and I closed my eyes.
Metal grated on stone in the darkness and I snapped my eyes open. I drew my kukri knives and stood, looking out into the night.
In the distance, a figure shuffled toward me.
I sheathed my knives and hesitated. I didn’t want anything to happen to my telescope. If it fell and broke…
Hating myself, I took a minute to properly stow my telescope in its bag and then raced for the hangar.
“Mack!” I shouted, setting the bag with the rest of my gear. “It’s Javi!”
I led Gary and Mack at a run back into the darkness. When we found him, Javier bled from dozens of cuts and bites and I wrapped a Healing amulet around his wrist as Gary and Mack carried him back to camp.
“Set him there.” I pointed to a patch of hangar floor and went to my gear. I’d need a Charmed Circle for a proper healing. Celeste whickered nervously at the scent of blood, but I couldn’t spare more than a quick word of reassurance. I pulled a lump of chalk from my bag.
I ran back to Javi and drew a wide circle with the two of us inside of it.
“Derek,” Javi moaned. He tried to raise his head.
“We’ll find him,” I said, easing him back. Javi’s forehead was warm, and gritty with sweat and dried blood. “You rest.”
“No.” He shook his head, his voice strained. “Derek…” he trailed off. The timbre of his voice changed. “He fought, Elise.”
I turned, looking at his face with mage sight. An opaque mask clung to his face and head. A chill ran through me. He had some kind of conjure on him.
“He fought, but, in the end, he told me what I wanted to know of you.”
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