Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: Shadow Walker

Book 3: Stormwalker Series

Nothing quite makes your night like falling two hundred feet into a sinkhole.

My motorcycle spun as the solid pavement of the highway opened up under me, and then I was falling down, down, down into the bowels of the earth. An avalanche of rocks, dirt, trees, and the speeding sheriff’s SUV followed me into the abyss.

My bike and I separated, and it smashed against the side of the hole and broke into many pieces. I tried to stop my fall, to grab on to roots that protruded from the breaking wall, but I fell so fast, my hands could close on nothing. The SUV ground its way down with the boulders, metal groaning, glass flying to mix with the shower of dirt and gravel.

I’d been wearing padded leather against the January cold, which protected me somewhat, but all my padding wouldn’t help me if Nash Jones’s SUV fell on top of me. I tried to reach into myself and draw on my magic, but I’m foremost a Stormwalker, which means I can channel the power of a storm, but I need a storm to be present to work the magic. The night, though raw with cold, was stubbornly clear.

I also had Beneath magic in me from the world below this one, but I had to be in a steady frame of mind to temper it with my Stormwalker magic. If I didn’t I’d blow up the sinkhole and me and Nash with it.

Falling a couple hundred feet down a sheer drop with an SUV did nothing to put me into a calm frame of mine. I could only flail and claw, gasping for breath as dirt leaked under my helmet and threatened to suffocate me.

I don’t know why I didn’t die. Maybe the gods and the universe had other plans for me. I tumbled over and over, and at last came to rest on an upthrust boulder, while mud, roots, grass, and gravel poured on around me. A bone in my arm snapped, the pain sharp and numbing.

The sinkhole proved to be a wide one, and the SUV landed about five feet from me, wedged on its side between two colossal boulders. I sprawled like a bug on top of my mud-coated boulder, amazed that my heart still beat.

The landslide ceased but sent up a choking cloud of dust that cut off all air and light. The SUV went silent except for the creaks and hisses of engine parts.

I pulled off my helmet with my good hand—which sounds easy. What I really did was fruitlessly claw at it, crying with fear, until it at last unstuck from my head.

I thanked every god and goddess who might care that I’d bothered with the helmet. Sometimes I rode bareheaded, which was perfectly legal in this state, but I’d been traveling back from Chinle, and I didn’t like to ride on the interstate without my helmet, especially at night. If I hadn’t bothered with it, my brains would now have been wet smears on the rocks around me.

It was pitch-black down here, the moonlight blotted out by the dust. Coughing, I crawled to the SUV, drawing breath through my teeth when I touched the hot metal of the engine. The vehicle was wedged in tight, the passenger door facing upward. I climbed onto the door, my hurt arm clenched against my side, my legs clumsy. The window glass had broken away, leaving a gap in the darkness.

“Jones,” I croaked. It didn’t even sound like a word, just a guttural noise.

Nothing moved. Everything inside was dark, the sheriff’s radio and computer interface dead. The SUV was nothing but a silent hunk of metal, plastic, and fiberglass. I groped for Nash, half-falling into the slanted cab.

Sheriff Nash Jones had been chasing me out on that lonely highway, because when I’d taken the turnoff to Flat Mesa, I’d driven right through his speed trap. I hadn’t been paying attention, thinking about the nice day I’d spent at Canyon de Chelly snapping photos, after an equally nice visit to my father in Many Farms. I’d flown past the clump of cedars on the deserted road, and Nash had burst out from behind them, lights flaring, to pursue me like a hungry lion.

Damn you, Jones, don’t you have anything better to do with your nights than parking behind a tree with a radar gun? You seriously need to get laid.

I touched a warm body, Nash Jones in an unmoving huddle against the far door. I tugged off my glove and found his face, his neck, but I couldn’t feel a pulse. I put my fingers under his nose and exhaled in relief when I felt a tiny breath touch my skin. He was alive.

Now what?

No radio, no cell phone, because I’d left mine behind at my hotel, and Nash’s, once I dug it from his belt, didn’t work. The piece of magic mirror, which had been ground into the mirror on my motorcycle, must have been smashed along with every bit of my bike. The mirror was why I hadn’t been carrying my cell phone—magic mirrors were more reliable.

The full magic mirror, which hung over the bar in my hotel, would know that its slice had fallen into the sinkhole, that is if the damned thing was awake. It liked to nod off at the worst of times. I hoped it was screaming at the top of its obnoxious voice that something was wrong, alerting Mick, my dragon shifter boyfriend, and Cassandra, my Wiccan hotel manager. Only the magical could hear the mirror, and I wanted them to hear it now.

Without being able to see past the dense cloud of dust, I had no way of knowing how far down we were. Or whether we’d continue to fall if the rocks shifted. Had we hit bottom, or had the rubble built a shelf that would stabilize awhile before again breaking apart?

I’d read somewhere that sinkholes were formed when groundwater finished eating away at the roof of gigantic caverns far below the surface. Once the layer is gone, then up to a thousand or so feet of rock above it collapses straight down, dragging everything on the surface with it and leaving a sheer-faced sink for everyone to ponder. The upland deserts are riddled with the things. They’re very interesting when you read about them in a book, not so much when one forms right underneath your feet.

Was this SUV rigged to send out a distress signal if it crashed? Nash’s deputies would notice that they’d lost radio contact with him—wouldn’t they? I had no idea where police technology stood these days, or whether Hopi County had enough money to keep up with the rest of the world. All I knew was that every communication device in the SUV was dead and silent. Nash himself still wasn’t moving.

“Come on, Mick,” I whispered. “Cassandra. Someone.”

The truck shifted and my heart raced, my adrenaline off the scale. I felt my Beneath magic wanting to strike out in response, to get me the hell out of there. The magic was as tense as a coiled rattlesnake and just as deadly.

I closed my eyes to try to still my mind, but my heart was still pounding so hard it made me sick. The Beneath magic responded, bright and white and strong enough to destroy the world. I didn’t want to destroy the world: I wanted to get out of this damned hole.

I jumped when I saw light flicker through my closed lids. I popped my eyes open, hope flaring. Was it the moonlight filtering through dust, or the flashlights of rescue workers?

Neither. The glow didn’t come from the surface, but from the rocks around me. As I watched, thin lines of light began moving across the boulders. The lines looked like petroglyphs, pictures left from the ancient people of this land, but these glowed with phosphorescent-like light.

The lines thickened, multiplied, still glowing faintly, and then under my watching gaze, they sprouted skeletal hands. I went utterly still. Bony fingers started flowing across rocks, making no sound, groping, searching.

I gripped the seat of Nash’s truck and swallowed bile. I’d never seen anything like them before. Were they the gods of Beneath trying to get out through a vortex down here? Or was this some new horror?

I touched my Beneath magic again, my only weapon. Using it might either rip a hole in reality or make my brain implode, but I knew with ever-increasing certainty that I didn’t want those skeletal fingers touching me.

The hands multiplied as they poured across the surface of the boulders, sliding through them like fish through water. The sickly light increased until it lit up the inside of the cab, illuminating the blood black on Nash’s head and face. His skin was pasty, his lips bloodless. He’d die if I didn’t get him out of here.

Mentally, I closed my fist around a ball of Beneath magic and drew it to the surface. Oh, it hurt. It hurt like holy hell, as though someone had thrust a lit firework into my chest. I held on to the magic as hard as I could, knowing that if I lost control of it, I could kill me, Nash, and every living creature within five miles. But at least I could try to send up a signal, like a magical flare.

I opened my imaginary fingers, releasing a bit of light. The skeletal hands stopped, fingers moving slightly, each hand pulsing in exact time with the other. Like a heartbeat, I realized. My heartbeat.

In panic, I let out more of my magic, and the moment I did that, the hands oriented sharply on me.

The scream that came out of my mouth was more of a croak. I closed my mind over the Beneath magic, frantically shutting it down. As soon as my magic retreated below the surface, the hands stopped, stilling, waiting.

Shit, shit, shit. If the Beneath magic excited them, and I had no storm, then I was essentially screwed. All I could do was sit here with the dying sheriff and watch the hands fill the sinkhole to the right and left, above us and beneath. They started moving again, enclosing the SUV in a bubble of light, and I was so scared I wanted to puke.

A face appeared in the middle of the unnatural glow, an animal face, long-nosed and pointed-eared. It looked more like a glyph of an animal rather than a real one, but I grasped at the hope.

“Coyote? Damn it, help us!”

The animal faded, but the bony fingers didn’t. They were touching the SUV now, sliding through the metal and fiberglass, and the whole truck began to groan.

I grabbed Nash and lifted him the best I could, cradling him against my chest. I feared to move him, but I feared those hands even more. Nash himself was some kind of magic void—which meant that his body somehow negated all magic thrown his way, even the most powerful stuff. Whether he could negate these evil hands, I didn’t know, but I had to take what I could get. They were all around us now, crawling across the hood toward the broken windows.

I couldn’t sit here and do nothing. The hands had homed in on my Beneath magic, but maybe, if I was fast enough, I could take them out before they could touch me.

I reached down into myself for the ball of white magic again. Coyote had told me he didn’t want me to use my Beneath magic unless I tempered it with my storm magic, but Coyote wasn’t here, was he? And it wasn’t my fault there was no raging storm overhead. I was stuck in a sinkhole with weird petroglyphs coming for me, and I wanted to go home.

I had to let go of Nash—I knew from experience that he could negate my magic, even the strongest of it. I laid him gently against the far door and braced myself on the dash to push up through the broken passenger window.

I screamed as I threw the snake of Beneath magic at the hands on the truck. Screams echoed through the sinkhole—my screams—absorbed by the hands and thrown back at me. The hood of the SUV melted, hoses breaking and fluid erupting. And the hands kept coming.

I had drawn back for another strike when red light and sudden heat burst high above me. Hot orange light poured down the hole like a thousand bonfires strung together, burning the dust into little yellow sparks.

The skeletal hands froze, and as I held my breath, clenching the Beneath magic, they retreated. In the distance, I heard the bellow of a gigantic beast and then felt a downdraft as a huge dragon flapped his wings.

I started to laugh, tears streaming down my face. “Mick,” I tried to shout, but all I could manage was a clogged whisper.

“Mick,” I whispered again. “Down here.”

Return to Shadow Walker

Buy the Book