Before Nell Ingram met skinwalker Jane Yellowrock, she had no one to rely on, finding strength only in her arcane connection to the dark woods around her. But now she has friends in the newly formed PsyLED team to keep her grounded—even if being part of the agency responsible for policing paranormals comes with dangers of its own....
After training at the PsyLED academy, Nell returns home to her woods to find the land feeling sick and restless. And that sickness is spreading. With the help of her team, under the leadership of agent Rick LaFleur, Nell tries to determine the cause. But nothing can prepare them for the evil that awaits: an entity that feeds on death itself. And it wants more....
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I pulled up to Soulwood and let the truck lights shine on my house and garden. The trees were leafless, stark branches reaching up to the sky and down to the earth, roots thick and gnarled and digging deep. Leaves were piled against the foundation and against the garden fence. The three acres of grass needed to be cut, despite the time of year. Following on the heels of an early cold spell, the fall had been warmer than usual, and a second growth spurt had left the lawn unkempt and shaggy, the garden full of raggedy weeds and dead plants. I had never let my house and garden go untended for so long. It had been four weeks since I had been home, and then only for a long weekend. Now, the week before Thanksgiving, I was finally home from the training center for the Psychometry Law Enforcement Division of Homeland Security, known to its graduates-which I was one of, though I wouldn't go through formal graduation ceremonies until just before Christmas-as Spook School.
I opened the door of John's old Chevy C10 and the scent of home-rich loam, the creek out back, the tart scent of fall flowers, and the welcoming aroma of a wood fire from somewhere nearby-stopped me. I closed my eyes and simply breathed. The land around Richmond, Virginia, was practically lifeless, the air stank of exhaust, and the traffic roared from everywhere, the constant, distant drone of vehicles. Here, at the end of the dead-end road near the top of a low mountain, it was quiet and alive. The last of the leaves were falling, rustling across the ground, pushed by a steady, light breeze. The creak of the windmill that pumped my water sounded lonely but peaceful.
I left the truck door open and took two steps to the lawn, kicked off my shoes, and let my bare feet settle into the grass. Oh . . . home. Home, to Soulwood.
The earth reached up to me, knew me, and took me back into itself the way a mother hen gathers a chick beneath her wings. I stretched out on the lawn, face and body in contact with the ground, hands extended to my sides, and reached deep into the earth. I spread myself across the life there, rich and fecund and content. I didn't know what I was, not really, not yet, but I knew my land, and it knew me. I was home.
I sensed the new cell tower on the top of the hill between my property and the church. Sensed the turning of the windmill that pumped my water. The presence of the spring that fed the rivulet and the small pool out back. Sensed deer, squirrels, rabbits, and foxes, the fox family having broken up and separated into four overlapping but individual hunting territories.
This was my magic, simple and dark as it was: to read the land that I had claimed, and that had claimed me, to know what it needed. To heal it and be healed by it. And to feed the earth-though I seldom spoke of that part of my gift, that part that felt so good, yet was sinful by every human standard I knew.
But something in Soulwood was wrong, just as wrong as when I'd left to start Spook School. Then, there had been an evil something skittering around beneath the ground, a darkness that was my fault, and that I had no idea how to fix. I had hoped the problem would resolve itself, but it was still there, the soul of a cruel, violent man I had fed to the land, a soul that my woods hadn't absorbed, hadn't used, and I didn't know why.
The evil that had been Brother Ephraim was gathered tight on the edge of the woods, a hole in my awareness of the earth, deep and stark and quiet at the moment, somnolent. The foul soul now rested on the border where my property met the compound of God's Cloud of Glory Church, just over the crest of the mountain, the polygamous church I had grown up in.
The church, Brother Ephraim, and his cohorts had shaped, defined, and confined my life and my understanding of myself for every moment until Jane Yellowrock came into it. The rogue-vampire hunter had disrupted everything I was and everything I had by showing me that I could fight back. That I could take a stand.
It was ultimately because of her that I had fought back against the church. Ultimately because of her that I had fed the body and soul of Brother Ephraim to the land. Had taken a job as consultant with the Psychometry Law Enforcement Division of Homeland Security, working with Jane's ex-boyfriend, PsyLED special agent Rick LaFleur. And had later gone to Spook School so I might join PsyLED and fight evil paranormal things. The irony of me being an evil paranormal thing wasn't lost on me.
I still wasn't sure if I hated or loved Jane Yellowrock for all the changes in my life.
I was careful not to make Brother Ephraim aware of me. I had a feeling that his disembodied soul was just as dangerous dead as the churchman himself had been alive. Well, not man. Creature.
To get better contact with my woods, I placed my cheek on the night-cold grass, pressing my palms flat on the ground, reaching deep, communing with my land. I breathed out, searching lower into the earth, listening, feeling the magic that was Soulwood. The old magic of the woods was a strong and profound power, a deep well of energy, strength, and contentment. The power had weight and mass and a greatness that reminded me of God, but wasn't. And a magic that might become self-aware. Despite Ephraim's dark soul, this old power still held sway over Soulwood, and it seemed more alive, more interested, and, maybe, more conscious than before I left.
I lay in the grass, eyes closed, arms out, long enough for the mouser cats to find me, one settling onto my back, one curled around my head, the third walking up and down my legs, mewling. My mousers had missed me. I returned my thoughts to the boundary of the woods and to the blot of darkness. It was different from before. It had grown in size, had taken over a larger part of the land. I had to do something about it sooner or later. I knew the land could subsume it. I had seen it happen not that long ago in North Carolina, but I hadn't succeeded with Ephraim. Except for the blot, the land was happy and growing and satisfied. It was good to be back, peaceful, here on my land.
I tracked the energies of the earth out, and saw an odd glow to the east. Shimmering yellow with sparks of red and green and blue. I extended my senses, reaching out for it, but it faded like a candle on a foggy night.
Something trailed across my senses, like a cold, dead hand, smelling like a week-old corpse. Gripping the power of Soulwood, I whipped away from the foul sensation. Jerked myself clear. And saw the evil that was left of Brother Ephraim. It was awake, aware of me. The darkness gathered itself, shaping like an arrowhead, pointing at me. Using the land like a mental rope with knotted handholds, I began to withdraw, pulling myself back to the surface. Easing my way through stone and water and earth.
The malevolent arrowhead shot at me. Pierced me. Wrapped itself through me. Pulling me down. I yanked away, but the malicious soul twisted itself into me, stinking of death and maggots and the grave. Touching me where no one had ever touched me. Opening me. My deepest self. Violating me.
I couldn't draw a breath, couldn't move. My heart stuttered and missed a beat. Pain spiraled through me. My guts roiled as if the roots that had once grown inside me were twisting and stretching and growing, fast. Something electric sped through me-the awareness of death. I was dying. And I could almost hear the dark soul howling with satisfaction.
An electric spark, hot and flashing, hit me, flowed through me like electric lava. Ripped the evil thing off me, out of me. I wrenched free of the earth and to my feet. Cats tumbled off me, claws catching in my clothing, scraping my skin. Yowling.
I raced to the truck. Heart pounding, I climbed on the hood and sat, hugging my knees, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Shivering. Below the ground, I heard rumbling, as if boulders tumbled and broke in a flood, carried by massive waters. A vibration, like a small earthquake, shook and rocked the land, a battle of great forces.
It was Brother Ephraim and . . . and Soulwood.
Low in my belly, I could feel the clash of wills, a skirmish, a battle. Death and life in one place, occupying the same space, and not enough room there for both. Soulwood was trying to protect me, defend me. The wood had never done that before. I rubbed my palms up and down my icy arms, as if to remove the crawly feel of maggots on my flesh, a sensation that I usually associated with vampires or dead opossum. I sat, waiting. Breath fast, heart pounding.
Belowground, the battle ended as abruptly as it had begun. The darkness of Brother Ephraim yowled and raced away, back to his hole. Curled around himself in the small space he had carved out of the earth at the boundary of the church land. Beneath me, Soulwood settled.
Electric shocks still cascading through me, I bent my legs in a yoga posture, sitting on the warm truck hood like a child. I gulped and caught up on breathing and tried to figure out what had happened. Whatever it was, it was over.
But just in case, I stayed on the truck, trying to calm my mind and my body, both of which had gone into flight-or-fight mode-settling on flight, which seemed cowardly but had kept me alive, so I wasn't complaining. Unwilling to touch the earth with my feet, I sat there long enough for the truck's lights to dim. I was pretty sure it needed a new battery, or maybe a new alternator. It wasn't holding a charge. I had the money and the plans to take it into town this week and get it checked out.
But first I needed to find the courage to get off the truck, get unpacked, and let my family and PsyLED Unit Eighteen know I had made it home safely. The special agents were already established in the brand-new Knoxville PsyLED office, where I had a tiny cubicle waiting on me. But only if I got inside the house. Right. I could do this.
Dropping my arms, I let gravity take me, and I slid off the hood of the Chevy and inside the cab. Grabbed up my shoes and yanked them on, protecting myself from the land with a layer of leather. I cranked over the engine, to let it run a bit and charge up the battery. I was underdressed for the amount of time I had spent in contact with the land, and I was shivering. But at least the maggoty sensation was gone.
Feeling the long drive in my achy muscles, I left the truck running and made trips up the seven steps to the porch, stomping to build up body heat. I carried luggage filled with fall clothing that needed to be washed and mended and I dumped it all in no particular order at the front door, along with my umbrella and raincoat. My potted pansies and sage and chives I carried to the back porch, to be repotted. The soil in the pots had been dug out of Soulwood land, and the plants were in need of fresh soil, though that was as much for me to put my hands in when I was away from Soulwood as anything helpful for the plants. The soil and the contact it provided with my land had kept me sane while I was away for the weeks of training.
My weapons gear came next, from where I had stashed it behind the cab seat for transport. I had a newly issued service weapon, a Glock 20, locked in the plastic carrying case the weapon had come in, along with two magazines, each loaded with fifteen rounds, and a speed loader. It was a large case. There were also two boxes of ammunition, one standard, one silver-laced hollow points for vampires and were-creatures. My fitted body armor-a Kevlar and Dyneema composite, threaded throughout with a lining of thin silver foil to provide protection against weapons of all kinds, from gunfire to vampire claws to werewolf teeth-went on the porch floor beside the pile of other stuff. Gear, not stuff. Talking like a special agent was harder than I had expected. The silver-plated stakes-I couldn't afford solid sterling-and the ash wood stakes in their special sheaths went beside the weapon case, with the two vampire-killers, the fourteen-inch steel blades silver-plated. As a probationary special agent, I was already expected to fight my way out of any paranormal problems with guns and blades and magic. I had the training, the bruises, and the strained muscles to show for it.
I was no longer just a consultant; I had graduated under "special circumstances" at e3/GS 2 grade level. Technically, because I had passed background checks, stringent physicals, and weapons training as well as course work, I was a special agent, with an official title, a badge, and everything. However, because of my speciation classification and because I had no undergraduate degree and only a GED, I would be a probationary employee in PsyLED. If I survived the first full year of my employment in the paranormal branch of law enforcement, I'd move up to permanent employment, a higher pay grade, and access to greater levels of classified material.
To get here, most of my deepest, most private secrets had been released to the world of law enforcement I was now inhabiting. I didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Not yet.
Now lots of people knew that I wasn't human. I had magic. I was categorized as "nonhuman, paranormal, undifferentiated" by the government medical experts and biologists-undifferentiated because I didn't fit into the most common categories. I wasn't vampire, were-creature, witch, arcenciel, Welsh gwyllgi-pronounced something like gwee-shee-or even any of the other, lesser-known paranormal creatures that were being identified. So far as the biologists at Spook School knew, my sisters and I were a genetic family singularity, with Mud and me being the most alike and least human. I'd have kept us all a secret if I could have, but a paranormal-hating group called Human Speakers of Truth had outed us. I still hadn't told my family, proving me a bona fide coward. I was putting that off as long as possible.