A month later I emerge from the cave known as Nano. I thought this would be THE year. I would write 50k and buy the t-shirt to commemorate my accomplishment. Instead I hit 40k so I can’t buy the shirt . I’m still really happy with it and very close to finishing up the draft for book two in my series. Yes, I started with a word count because I’m a rebel but 40k new words is nothing to scoff at.
As it is November 30th I’m taking a very short break from my Arizona Witches series to bring you the latest in Conjuring Misery. Real talk, it’s been my turn on the serial all month so if I don’t get my part back to co-writers: Jami Gray and Dave Benneman soon, they may murder me and feed me to the pigs.
The shadow hovered over me chilling my bones. A shot echoed through the canyon. I turned in time to see the witch’s bird spiral out of the sky. That should make a tasty morsel for the scavengers of the desert. Gently, I eased Daisy Bell to a halt, praising her for her part in the ruse. Turning her back we jogged back to find the weird sisters. I chuckled as I approached. “The Weird Sisters, appearing nightly at Kittie’s Cabinet Of Amusements. Step right up, for the paltry price of one thin dime, ten cents, one tenth of dollar, see the unusual, the strange, the otherworldly. They’ve come all the way from the dark side to entertain, delight, and amaze.”
“Smoke warned me about giving you full artistic license.” Snake shifted the stogie around her smile .
“Never interrupt the pitchman honey.” I whirled the end of my red scarf over my head. “That’s right folks! She walks, she talks, she throws fire like a volcano. Fun for the whole family…”
Smoke grabbed the end of my scarf as it passed her and gave it a yank. “You can stop the full hillbilly yahoo act now.”
“Who’s acting? You’ve pushed me over the edge.” I raised my shotgun over my head and urged Daisy Bell on. “Yeehaw.”
Another tug nearly dismounted me. “Whoa Daisy. Are we going to kill us a witch or not?” I tugged my scarf out of Smoke’s hand and repositioned it over my scar.
“Not so fast, cowpuncher.” Smoke moved her ass in close and helped fix the scarf she so ruthlessly dislodged. “One of these days you’re going to have to share the story behind that.”
Snake nearly choked. “A blind miner couldn’t miss it.”
“Don’t we have something we should be doing besides jawing about my fashion accessories?”
“He’s right,” Smoke muttered. “We oughta git.”
“You ain’t off the hook gambler man.” Snake ejected her spent shell and replaced it. “You owe us a story.”
At that, the two of them rode into the slot canyon. With me trailing slightly behind. Snake traded hats with me, then dismounted. With her ass tied to a sage brush, she ran in a crouch up the right hand side of the canyon, keeping to the shadows.
Smoke motioned for me to dismount. “Keep the mule on your right and your head down.”
She did the same and I followed her deeper into a certain trap. The hair on my neck danced a jig and I twitched at every imagined sound or movement. Snake had long since disappeared, but we kept plodding along. My eyes ached as I searched the cliffs for a sign of Donoma. I had nothing but itchy skin. The walls got closer and steeper.
Smoke stopped. “Something’s not right.” Her hands started to glow. “MOVE! MOVE!” She pushed me ahead of her.
Leaving the mules to fend for themselves. We kept our heads down as the canyon walls collapsed around us. We stayed just ahead of the worst of it. One good sized stone knocked Snake’s hat off my head and deadened my left shoulder. I dove into a crevice. Smoke followed, landing on my back. Scree rained down around us.
When the noise stopped I couldn’t stop coughing. With Smoke on top of me and choking on dust, breathing became a battle. I twisted to get a hand free and pulled my scarf over my mouth and nose. “I think you can get off me now.” I sensed Smoke struggling. With my free hand I started to dig us out from under the loose stone burying us in the landslide. I pulled and crawled out from under Smoke pushing piles of rock as I fought. Finally, I was able to turn over and sit up.
I grabbed Smoke’s shoulders, pulled her free of the debris, and turned her over. She was blue. The hand was wrapped around her throat. I grabbed the disgusting thing and tried to wrench it off. It refused to be dislodged. I reached for Dragon Breath. Getting her free of her sheath in such tight quarters proved a challenge. Smoke wasn’t moving and I feared the wrath of her sister if I didn’t do something and do it darn fast.
I unbuckled my belt, pushing the sheath toward my feet and managed to clear Dragon Breath. Without another thought I impaled the unholy thing strangling Smoke. A scream echoed through the canyon. The hand shriveled, turned to dust and fell to the ground.
I shook Smoke’s shoulders. Risking my life I slapped her face. The second time I hit her I may have gotten carried away, but she sucked in a large breath and her eyes fluttered open. She went into a coughing seizure that wracked her whole body.
When she got it under control she looked at me with a question in her eyes. “What happened?” she wheezed.
“The ha, han, hand.” Words were failing to form in my mouth so I used my own hand to illustrate.
I nodded. “It choked you.”
“That bitch.” Smoke looked around. “Which way?”
“I pointed the way we’d come.”
She turned, then turned back giving me a hard look. “Where is the cursed thing now?”
I held up Dragon Breath. “I couldn’t pull it off you so I stabbed it.” I swallowed hard. “It shriveled up and turned to dust.”
She gave me a forced smile. “Fascinating.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Thanks. Now we got to git. Snake’s facing down that powerful bitch alone. I won’t underestimate her again.”
I nodded grabbed my sheath and started digging us out. My gloves were shredded in seconds and my hands bled soon after. Seeing a small beam of light penetrating the dust I dug harder. Smoke at my side. I pushed her out the small hole we created. My view improved as she wriggled out, Once clear she drug me through. The canyon looked completely different than it did before the hammers of hell dropped on us.
I stared up trying to spot the landmark we used earlier.
Smoke spat out the dust that accumulated in her mouth during our frantic digging. “Where’s Snake’s hat?”
I shrugged and pointed at the impossibly small opening we just crawled out of. “In there?”
She grinned and climbed over a pile of loose stone.
“What?” I followed after her.
“And the shot gun?”
“You’re in for a beating when she hears you lost her hat.” She kept moving up the side of the canyon. “You might have assuaged her loss with the shot gun, but you don’t even have that.” She shook her head and moved higher.
I heaved myself up to the ledge she stood on. “But, but I…”
“A beating, that’s all I’m saying.”
“I’ll get her a new hat.” I panted climbing in Smoke’s wake.
“She was pretty attached to that hat. Even I don’t know why.”
Smoke looked down to me a finger pressed to her lips. The playful expression gone from her face. Her hands started to glow. I drew Dragon Breath and held my breath.
Leaving Sam in Smoke’s capable hands, I slithered up the steep canyon wall. Keeping Pearl at the ready, I braced my free hand against the stone. Under my fingers the seemingly solid rock surface trembled. Not bothering to spare the breath for a curse, I spat out my half smoked cheroot, and hustled for the nearest ledge. Racing against the inevitable, I sent a quick plea to whoever was paying attention for Smoke and Sam as the canyon walls fell.
The walls bucked just as I cleared the ledge’s edge, throwing me forward. The hard ground made my knees sing and I spat out a mouth full of dust. Behind me a rising roar of disaster left my ears stuffed with cotton. A heavy cloud of dust settled over my skin and I stayed on all fours, head down, until the worse had passed. Not the smartest move, especially considering who was waiting for me, but the situation wasn’t leaving me much choice.
Shaking my head caused a miniature dust storm. A few more furious blinks cleared the grit from my eyes. Even Pearl, still clutched in my hand, carried a grimy layer.
A brutal kick to my stomach sent Pearl skittering away and me doing my best damn impression of a scalded cat, complete with furious hiss. My spine hit the hard packed ground and I kept rolling, trying to stay clear of the evil dervish doing her best rain dance impression.
Unintelligible words accompanied the spittle flying from twisted lips, and Donoma’s eyes were wild and dark. Guess plucking her familiar’s feathers scrambled the witch’s eggs.
Another dodging roll gave me a chance to palm the knife strapped at my hip but brought me to the end of my possible escape. Keeping my blade out of sight, I got my feet under me as I crouched against the curving wall of the shallow cave.
Magic amassed around the approaching witch. I could feel the heavy drag of power as it curled around us. There wasn’t enough time to recognize which spell she was calling forth, so I stuck to the tried and true protection spell.
Her magic hit my spell in a shower of black sparks, raising every hair on my body. My fierce grin faltered when it didn’t bounce away, instead it clung, seemingly mid-air, to my magic, tendrils slowly boring their way through the protective layer.
“What the hell?”
Hearing my question, Donoma laughed, her cackles carrying a shrill edge. “Weakness has no place here. The Blood Star only chooses the strongest to serve.”
My hand tightened on my knife’s hilt as I studied the attacking magic. When thin threads began to float toward the wall behind me, I realized I was facing a very twisted version of a webbing spell, a magic meant to harvest the power of the one held trapped.
Not about to become this bitch’s next meal, I began weaving the complex counter spell. Not an easy feat since I needed to keep her distracted from what I was doing on the arcane level. Time to add in a little slight of hand.
“Explains why it left you.” I shifted my grip on the knife as I slowly straightened. I needed her closer because between the dueling magics, I didn’t have much space to move. Trapped with my back against a wall wasn’t ideal.
She obliged and inched forward, fury wiping away any traces of humanity. “It was stolen from me!”
I shook my head, never taking my eyes off her. “You can’t have it both ways. If it serves strength, it can’t be stolen. Means the cursed thing choose to go with another. Why do you suppose that is?”
Strangely, my logic broke through and brought her up short. “I gave it to him.” For the briefest moment the woman who once was reappeared, but it was short lived. “He kept it from me, betraying me. For what? That cow was nothing.”
Taking advantage of the crack given, I dug in and added pressure. “Obviously Diamond Jim felt differently since you got tossed out on your ugly ass.”
All that bitter jealousy broke the damaged barriers doing their best to hold it in check. It flooded forth with an ear shredding scream of rage. She lunged forward, hands curled into claws, the dark aura of her power spreading from her like tattered bat’s wings.
I held my counter spell steady, funneling it into the blade in my hand. The rise of magic swept out in a harsh, punishing wind. The attacking witch flinched, squeezing her eyes closed. Her shrieks of pain as the wind whipped around her echoed through out the canyon. Seeing my opening I stepped forward to meet her. Letting her get those claws on me wasn’t my first choice, but I needed her close. Too dependent on her magic, she didn’t even try to dodge the knife’s threat.
Nails warped into deadly talons shredded the leather of my duster and tore brutal furrows into my skin. Her stained magic didn’t waste time, spreading icy tendrils through my blood. Gritting my teeth against the agony spreading under my skin, I forced my hand with the knife to move even as I grabbed a handful of matted hair with my free hand, locking her in place.
The blade sank deep, and at the first taste of tainted blood triggered my spell. She jerked, trying to escape. I tightened my hold on her hair with a furious yank, bending her neck at an awkward angle. Her maddened shrieks left me wincing, but I hung grimly on, determined to give my magic the time it needed to work.
The moments stretched endlessly as I struggled to hold the witch in place and fight off her invading power. Fighting a battle on two levels rapidly sapped my energy. I just needed to hold on a little bit longer. I almost missed when my spell finally detonated, releasing inside the cage of the chimera’s body.
Unfortunately I didn’t get much time to enjoy the fireworks as magics collided and tore apart the physical container because her spell reacted violently, twisting viciously, tearing through my inner wards and leaving as much damage as possible as it sought to destroy the one tearing it apart.
My legs folded, and I sank to my knees, hands still clutching the slowly disintegrating form of Donoma. Pieces of what once was the witch began to flake away in a silent incendiary storm. As darkness sucked me under, I swore I heard Smoke calling my name.
The gravel kept slipping under my feet as I tried to reach my sister. Loose rocks and slanted canyon walls were not conducive to trying to run at anything faster than a jog. I tried anyway and found myself falling to my hands and knees more than once, I didn’t have a choice, I wouldn’t lose Snake. After my fourth stumble Sam made his opinion known.
“Woman if you knock yourself out on a rock you won’t be able to help her.”
I scowled at him and kept up my pace. We managed to make it to Snake with what skin remained on our bloody palms. I crouched down next to Snake and saw the black that tinged the skin around her closed eyes, mouth, and nostrils. No. My mind stopped not able to comprehend a world where I wouldn’t get to steal a puff off of Snake’s stogies. Pain erupted in my cheek and my mind suddenly cleared, Sam stood before me his hand raised ready to slap me again.
My eyes narrowed. “I wouldn’t do that again.”
“Is she dead?”
The anger melted away as grief fought and easily won the competition of my battling emotions. “She’s close.”
“Close ain’t dead. You’re magic. Do some magic.”
“It’s not that simple.” I protested, misery coating every syllable.
Sam deflated, “So there’s nothing you can do?”
I looked down shaking my head “No—wait.” My head snapped back up, the emotion that clouded my mind moments ago cleared, leaving me with a long forgotten memory that was suddenly forefront in my mind, clear and sharp.
Meemaw stood in the yard. A corpse before her, no not a corpse, but not far off. Mama had told me to stay inside, that tonight would be dangerous but I couldn’t. I’d needed to see that ritual and now I knew why.
“Sam you got a shovel?”
His lip trembled, “What’s the point of magic if there’s nothing you can do?” He held up his sword, his shoulders bowed in grief. “This will have to do.”
“Well if you want the hole you’re about to dig to be a grave keep going that pace.”
Sam was quick on the uptake, he looked over and gave me a quick questioning glance. At my nod he dropped to his knees and started to dig. With Sam preoccupied I looked down at my sister.
“If you die before the ritual, I swear to god, I will go to the crossroads and bring you back as a cursed hand.”
The hole Sam managed to dig with Dragon Breath was about two feet deep and five and a half feet length wise. Just big enough for Snake and a few friends she was about to make. We dragged the barely alive Snake and stuck her in the pit.
I looked at Sam. “You may not want to stay here for this.”
His jaw tensed, his eyes narrowing in a look that said shooing him off would be a waste of time.
Instead I pointed to a boulder thirty feet away. “Fine, go and sit there. Do not let your feet touch the ground and do not move until I tell you it’s safe.”
“Yes Ma’am.” Sam tipped his chin at me before going to sit cross legged on the boulder.
A brief moment of doubt nearly crippled my resolve. I’d only seen this ritual performed once before, when I couldn’t have been more than six. Then I remembered that Snake would do whatever it took to rescue me and I had to do the same.
So I sat cross legged at the top of the farce of grave next to Snake’s head. Closing my eyes, I went back to the crossroads. This time I didn’t travel down any of the roads. Instead I made a call, a call for death’s minions. Like all of my magic, there was no set spell, no known words, just a primitive knowledge leading me to sing the strong, guttural, song.
My eyes stayed shut initially but I felt them come. Skittering, crawling, and slithering over me to get to Snake. Once the last itch of tiny legs and smooth bellies left me I opened my eyes. Snake was covered in rattlers, scorpions, black widows, and gila monsters. Death didn’t like giving up a killer and for better or worse that was what Snake was, I was, and I suspected Sam might be underneath it all. But Death like all the great powers that be did enjoy a trade. Why have one killer when you could have hundreds?
My song ended but the creatures that had come far and wide to heed my call remained placated, entwined with one another in the pit. Magic charged from me scanning the near life less form that was Snake. It pulsed and found Death’s tendrils, I coaxed those tendrils, showing them the bounty I offered them. Death slid from Snake appraising the offering. It felt like hours while it inspected every living thing in that pit but then it made it’s decision. In a flash that was impossibly bright and somehow completely devoid of any light the offerings let out a communal screech and turned to dust.
Snake sat straight up gasping for air in a way that sounded perilously close to a death rattle.
“You did, did not just do that.” She tilted her head back to meet my eyes.
“For you I would kill all the spiders in the world.”