Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: Firewalker

Book 2: Stormwalker Series

I knew she was a Changer the minute she walked into my little hotel. Wolf, I thought from her gray white eyes, but her human features were Native American. Her dark skin and black hair made her incongruous eyes all the more terrifying. So did the fact that she was shifting even as she raced across the lobby, grabbed me by the shirt front, and slammed me against the polished reception counter.

I looked up into the face of a nightmare. Half-changed, her nose and mouth elongated into that of a wolf’s, fangs coated with saliva jutting from bloodred gums.

I had no defenses. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, no storm to channel to fight her with. The wards in my walls functioned to keep evil beings like skinwalkers and Nightwalkers from entering the hotel, but Changers weren’t inherently evil, just arrogant. But when provoked, they tended to attack first, ask questions of the shredded corpse later.

I brought up my fist to slam her jaw, but she shook off the punch and hung onto me. I couldn’t scream for Mick, because Mick had vanished into the night three weeks ago, and even the magic mirror didn’t know where he was.

There was no one was in the hotel but me and my new manager, Cassandra, in her neat turquoise business suit, her blond hair in a sleek bun. The tourists were out or not yet checked in, the saloon closed. It was just us girls: a crazed Changer, a powerless Stormwalker, and a witch who stared across the reception desk in shock.

“Janet Begay,” the wolf-woman said, her voice clotted with the change.

“Who wants to know?” I tried to kick her off, but she held on to me, claws poised to tear out my throat.

On the other side of the desk Cassandra crossed her arms, placed her palms on her shoulders, and started to chant. An inky cloud snaked out of her mouth, shot across the counter, and wrapped around the Changer. The Changer snarled. She shoved away from me and leapt over the counter at Cassandra.

Cassandra went down with the wolf-woman on top of her, the two grappling in a tangle of raw silk and black leather. I charged behind the counter and grabbed the Changer by the hair, her sleek black braid giving me something to grip. I pulled, but she was damn strong. She had Cassandra’s head in her hands, ready to beat her skull on the Saltillo tile.

I grabbed a talisman from my pocket, clenched it in my hand, and screamed, “Stop!”

The Changer halted in mid-slam. Cassandra’s head fell from her slack grip and bumped to the floor.

I waved the talisman—a bundle of rosemary bound with wire and onyx—in the Changer’s face and said in a hard voice, “Obey.”

The Changer straightened up, fangs and claws receding, her face becoming human again. Her eyes remained gray, the fury in them electric.

Cassandra rose beside her in the same rigid compulsion and fixed me with a frustrated stare.

Oops. But I couldn’t release Cassandra without also releasing the Changer. Mick and I had made this spell for emergencies, such as a horde of skinwalkers attacking. It was a blanket spell that wouldn’t stop the attackers entirely but might at least slow them down until help arrived.

“In there,” I panted, pointing at my little office behind reception. “Go in. Sit down.”

The Changer marched inside, still growling softly. Cassandra followed her like a robot.

The Changer and Cassandra sat next to each other on my new sofa, both women radiating fury. They looked odd together, the sophisticated hotel manager, only a little disheveled in spite of the fight, and the Changer in black leather pants and jacket. Both struggled to break the spell, bodies swaying a little as they willed their muscles to obey. But the talisman held both Mick’s dragon magic and my Stormwalker magic, a potent combination, so they’d have to put up with it.

“Who are you?” I asked the Changer.

“Pamela Grant.”

“Cassandra Bryson.”

“What are you doing here?”

Cassandra started telling me about whatever job she’d been doing before the Changer attacked, but Pamela said, “I was sent.”

“Who sent you? To do what?”

They both started talking at once. I tuned out Cassandra and focused on Pamela. “I have a message for you, Stormwalker.”

“Is that all? Then why did you attack me?”

While Cassandra protested that she had no intention of attacking me, Pamela said, “I had to, to pass on the message. Then this Wiccan bitch tried to paralyze me.”

“What the hell is this message? You couldn’t just tell me?”

For answer, Pamela pulled out a short-bladed knife. My eyes widened, and I shook the talisman. “Stop! Obey!”

Cassandra went rigid. Pamela came at me, her eyes fixed, as though she listened to a voice more distant than mine. I realized as she jumped me that she was under another compulsion spell, one strong enough to cancel out mine. That couldn’t be good.

I fought. Cassandra remained seated, eyes fixed in agony. Pamela pinned me to the desk with her strong body and extended my left arm across the top of it.

“Cassandra, get her off me!” I shouted.

Cassandra sprang to her feet but fell back as though an invisible hand had shoved her. At the same time I smelled a bite of sulfur, hot wind, fire—the scents of dragon magic.

I stared at Pamela in shock as she nicked my palm with her knife. She flipped my hand over and squeezed a puddle of my blood onto a pristine piece of Crossroads Hotel notepaper. Dipping my forefinger in the blood, she forced me to write the words, Help me.

As soon as we’d formed the last “e” in “me,” Pamela went limp, and her eyes rolled back in her head. I lowered her slumped body to the floor, my palm stinging where she’d cut it. As the compulsion spell released her, the Changer woman drew a peaceful breath.

I straightened up. My veins burned like fire, and my temples started pounding as the compulsion spell latched onto me. I understood now why Pamela hadn’t simply relayed the message verbally or at least reached for something as conventional as a pen. She’d needed to transfer the spell through my blood.

Help me. The words screamed at me from the paper and brought my own fears boiling to the surface. I’d been worried sick about Mick, even though I’d told myself he’d simply gone off to do whatever dragon thing he needed to do. Mick came and went as he pleased, he always had, although lately he’d been nice about telling me where he was going.

Pamela’s message meant that Mick was in trouble. Trapped. Ill. Maybe dying. If Mick was begging for my help, he was in deep shit, indeed.

My head turned of its own accord, and my gaze moved out the window to the west, where the distant mound of the San Francisco Peaks, the traditional boundary of the Navajo lands, lay in misty silhouette.

The spell made me want to race out of the hotel, leap on my Harley, and ride off toward the mountains, now, now, now. But Mick would want me to be smart. I needed supplies, I needed to plan, and I’d need help. The fact that the spell let me calm myself and think this through meant that I was right.

I forced my gaze back to Cassandra, who was still sitting stiffly on the sofa. I lifted the talisman, broke it, and said, “Be free.”

Cassandra leapt to her feet, face dark with rage, and kicked the inert Changer in the buttocks with her Blahnik heel. “That’s for calling me a bitch.”

Pamela opened her eyes. The white in them had faded to human brown, and though she retained the arrogant scorn of the Changer, she no longer looked terrifying.

She pushed herself into a sitting position and smoothed back hair that had fallen from her braid. “Hey, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to sleep with you.”

Cassandra flushed and folded her arms, but she didn’t look as offended as she could have.

“She was under a spell,” I said tightly. “And now it’s gone. Right?”

The Changer woman rubbed the back of her neck. “Finally. Your boyfriend is damn strong.”

“Can you give me more specific directions than ‘head west’?”

Pamela shook her head. “I was on the northwest side of Death Valley when your dragon man’s spell grabbed me. But there must be a memory cloud spell on the place, because I don’t remember exactly where. I was doing some hunting, minding my own business, and the next thing I know, I’m digging my way through a tunnel and talking to a dragon. He couldn’t talk back; he just invaded me with that damned spell. Bastard.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“Middle of last night; then I rode straight here.”

“Mick was alone? No other dragons around?”

“One was enough. I’d never seen a dragon before, never believed they existed.” Her eyes flickered to gray and back to brown again. “Imagine my surprise.”

That was Changer for “It scared the shit out of me.” Changers didn’t like to admit fear. Fear meant weakness, submission, and they took dominance-submission roles very seriously.

Pamela pulled herself to her feet with lithe grace. She was tall for a Native American, but most Changers were tall. She towered a good foot over me. “Compulsion spells make me hungry. Is there anything to eat in this godsforsaken town?”

“The saloon’s closed until five,” I said while I stared again at the clear blue of the western sky. “But there’s a diner in Magellan. Two miles south.”

“It’ll have to do. Come with me, Wiccan?”

Cassandra gave her a withering glance. “In your dreams, wolf-girl.”

Pamela gave her a half smile, shrugged, and sauntered out of the office. Cassandra followed close behind, her spiked heels on the lobby tiles a staccato contrast to the thud of Pamela’s motorcycle boots. Through the window, I watched the Changer woman walk out of the hotel, mount her bike, and ride off toward Magellan.

Once she was gone, Cassandra returned to my office and shut the door. She looked none the worse for wear for the fight, except for a faint bruise on her lower lip and one strand of fair hair fallen from her bun.

“What are you going to do, Janet?” she asked. “You can’t charge off looking for Mick on the word of a Changer.”

“It’s not just her word.” I pressed my fingers to my temples where the spell throbbed mercilessly. “I have to go. I have no choice. Mick must be desperate, or he wouldn’t have sent her.”

“Don’t go alone.”

Cassandra’s eyes were light blue, beautiful in her pale face. She was from Los Angeles, where she’d held a high-profile job at a luxury hotel chain. Why she’d wanted to move out to the middle of nowhere to help run my hotel I had no idea, but I never asked. She was good with the tourists, knew the hotel business, and she put up with my magic mirror. I didn’t want to lose her by asking awkward questions.

“I won’t be going alone,” I said. “Can you keep things together here?”

“Of course.”

Of course she would. Cassandra ran this place better than I’d ever could.

“Keep an eye on the Changer,” I said.

Cassandra gave me an odd smile. “Oh, I will.” She turned and walked out of the office, smoothing her hair as she went.

I flopped into the chair behind my desk and put my head in my hands. I ached all over, would ache until the spell took me to Mick.

I glanced at the framed photo of my father that rested on the desk, a slim Navajo in a formal velvet shirt, his hair neatly braided. I’d taken the picture on my last visit to Many Farms, and he’d insisting on dressing up for it. My father didn’t believe in candid shots. His wise eyes held no advice, only quiet confidence that I’d know what to do.

I did know what to do. Or rather, who to turn to. I hadn’t seen Coyote, who would have been the most help, in a long time, not even in my dreams, and I had no idea how to summon him. Jamison Kee, a mountain lion Changer, was the man in Magellan I trusted the most, but he had a wife and stepdaughter to take care of, and I couldn’t bring myself to put him in danger.

That left the one man I didn’t trust, but he was powerful as all get-out. I didn’t understand his power, and neither did Mick, but if I could convince him to help, I knew I’d have a potent ally.

I pulled the phone toward me and punched in the number of the sheriff’s office in Flat Mesa. The deputy at the desk put me straight through. The phone made a couple of clicks, and then the sheriff’s voice sounded in my ear.

“Jones,” he said. Dark, biting, laconic.

“Hey, Nash. It’s Janet.”

There was a long silence.

“Fu*k,” Nash Jones said, and he hung up on me.

Return to Firewalker

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