** Most Recent Update 12/31 1100 EST. 5th draft. Cleaned up some overly long sentences, fixed a couple typos and poor word choices that I missed on prior passes. No new content, just cleaning things up.
Chapter 1: Rebirth of a Tortured Hunter
Cold. So Cold. Jenny thought as she carefully put the invoice back on the clipboard. Despite the gloves, she rubbed her hands together and held them in front of one of the air vents blowing warm air. Not enough heat. "Carl, I can't believe they paid so much to deliver a battery the size of my smartphone. Two hundred miles round trip, and they paid a thousand dollars?" Jenny shook her head.
Carl smiled. "You aren't thinking about it from their perspective, Jenny. Service companies can only fail to provide timely service a certain number of times per year on a typical contract. If they fail more than 'x' number of times, they might pay penalties, lose bonus money, or possibly lose the contract when the next round of negotiations comes up. We might have cost them a thousand dollars, but if that part hadn't gotten there on time, the real cost to them in the long run might have been a lot more than a thousand dollars."
"I suppose that makes sense." Jenny leaned forward a bit and put her face closer to the heater, reaching over for the twentieth time to make sure the fan was turned all the way up and the heat at the highest temperature setting. "I'm sorry I got upset with you for taking the call and cancelling the dinner and movie date. I was really looking forward to tonight, but I can understand now why you took the call. It would be bad to be unreliable when something like this comes up, I imagine."
Nodding a little, Carl replied. "They understand if I can't take a package every now and then, but I can't turn down an important package without a really good reason. I've never turned down a critical delivery request. In fact, I've turned around mid-delivery from another job to make a critical delivery for this company. Half a dozen packages like this every year adds ten percent to the company gross, and about fifteen percent to the net." He paused. "Can we make up for the busted plans tomorrow night? Dinner and a movie, your choice for both." He checked the mirrors as he nodded. Why am I nervous? There was no clear reason for him to feel nervous, but for some reason, he was. It wasn't because of Jenny, he was sure.
It's just a bad night to be on the road, I guess. The weather and traffic station had been playing reports every ten minutes for the whole trip. Carl had kept it on that station the entire time because of the incoming storm. It was coming in from the west, behind them, but it shouldn't be a danger, since the route home was a mostly-straight four-lane road with speed limits over forty-five miles per hour almost the whole way. According to weather reports, the storm was only moving at fifteen miles per hour. If they had been delayed an hour, they would have been traveling in the leading edge of the huge storm as they left their delivery site. They hadn't been delayed though, so the nervousness seemed out of place. He didn't really feel threatened by the encroaching storm. Wary, but not threatened. He decided he would do a tarot reading later that night if the feeling didn't pass. There was nothing he could do while driving.
"Any movie?" Jenny sat up a little straighter, and turned her head towards him with a grin.
"Any movie." What have I set myself up for? He tried to remember if there was anything playing that he knew he would hate. He didn't think so. "However I reserve the right to tickle you mercilessly after the movie if you choose a chick flick." He held his right hand out towards her and wriggled his fingers, but quickly returned his hand to the steering wheel. Too dangerous to play games in icy conditions, even if the roads seem OK. Hands at ten and two. "Anyway, I'm glad you came with me, Jenny, it's always nice to have someone to talk to on the longer runs. I'm sorry the heater doesn't work better. I should have warned you to bundle up a bit more."
"That's OK, Carl, I was planning on staying the night at your place tonight anyway. I imagine I'll find a way to warm up." Jenny winked at him, and then stuck her head back down next to the heater.
Their relationship had really been doing well for the last year, and it had nothing to do with the ritual magic that had brought them together. He'd even worked through the Paranet to ask Warden Dresden, just to be sure an attraction ritual to try to find a good match for him wouldn't be considered coercion. Dresden had said that no, if there was no specific individual targeted, an attraction ritual was just an exaggeration of himself. He even seemed intrigued by the potential of using ritual to lend a magical weight of perceived truth to online dating service ads.
At the same time, because of his responsibilities as a Warden, Dresden had insisted to see the ritual performed, not just the plans for the ritual. Mind control magic of any sort was extremely dangerous to use, and Dresden explained that he wanted to be able to say he knew with no room for doubt that there was no mind control magic involved in this ritual, if anyone were to ask him about it later. It was well known throughout the magical community that mind magic was very dangerous to utilize. It was very possible to do something that might get a death sentence put upon you by the council, and not even realize it if you weren't very careful. Dresden had explained how an apprentice of his had nearly been sentenced to death as a result of her efforts to help her friends using mental coercion. Doesn't hurt me to listen to cautionary tales every now and then. At least he seemed to care.
Carl also knew that Dresden had added a little power of his own to the ritual. Carl could barely light a match with his own innate magical potential, but the detail of his ritual work was, in Warden Dresden's own words, 'extremely impressive.' I never believed that wizards with significant powers of evocation had such difficulties with electronics. I thought it was just a story. He made me a believer when he sneezed in the kitchen and the coffee maker and microwave died. Carl pulled his thoughts back to the road and did a mirror scan. After verifying that there were no road dangers, he allowed himself to think beck to the ritual again. He knew exactly what that ritual should have felt like with his own power energizing it, and it had been greater than that. Even though Dresden had given no sign that he had helped add a little bit of power to the ritual, there was no doubt he had. A tarot reading later that night had proved it. I'm surprised he didn't overpower it. Rumor has it that he has the power of a bulldozer and the subtlety of a marching band of bagpipes. Obviously not all the rumors about him are true, or he's learning subtlety faster than new rumors can catch up to him.
A week later, Jenny had responded to one of his very honest ads in an online dating service. As he read her initial contact that was filtered through the dating service, he had felt the magic stir in the bracelet that had been the secondary focus of the ritual. As soon as he felt the magic react, he quickly examined her own ad, and was happy with what he saw. He didn't rush headlong into a quick response. He wanted to be sure that he would be a good match for her, not just a one-way match where she would be attracted to him. He had done three tarot readings over three days to determine if they were a good potential match, and the answers had come up solidly in the 'yes' category each time.
"Earth to Carl, you there?" Jenny was apparently waiting for a response of some sort.
"Sorry, Jenny, I spaced out there for a bit. I was just thinking about how lucky I am." He paused. "Despite your ice cold feet. Where did all that Florida girl heat go?"
Jenny smirked. "Apparently it is possible to take the Florida out of a girl, and replace it with Toronto. I have to admit that I'm a bit scared what this winter might bring."
I just wish she had any sort of magical potential. He thought. Some of the careful questions I asked made it clear that she believes in magic. Her grandmother's ring has some strong magical resonances; it was certainly a ritual object at some point in the last few decades. I'm sure it is still carrying a small amount of stored power despite clearly not having been touched by magic for a long time. "Winter is no joke up here. This is the first big storm of the season. It's going to either amaze you, or scare the hell out of you." I hope you like it here, but if you don't, I'll pull up roots and move. "My mother said she would love to take you out shopping again if you want to go out for another trip to look for more cold weather clothes. I think that would be a good idea. What you've gotten so far is a solid start, but you want multiples of important things. Hats, gloves, scarves, boots, thermal underwear, over boots, over pants, and even an extra heavy coat. They will get wet, and you do not want to put them back on wet before going out in the cold. That can be deadly."
Carl turned slightly to catch Jenny's eye. "Jenny, I'm sorry if I seem to be pestering you about this, but I'm being deadly serious here, not making fun of you as a Florida girl. Hypothermia can hit you in minutes or even seconds in bad weather if you aren't ready for it. After Hypothermia hits, your body and brain don't work right any more. Think of it like heatstroke in reverse."
"I don't think I have hypothermia right now, Carl, you don't have to use such a big hammer to pound safety knowledge into me." She was a bit irritated but that vanished as she reminded herself again that he was just worried. The first ten times were enough, but he's sweet, and he obviously cares.He doesn't harp on me about anything else, and I suspect if I make it through the winter without having some sort of major cold-related malfunction, I won't hear about cold weather dangers again. Much. "Sorry, that was a bit rough-edged. I agree that I need more things, Carl, but I needed another paycheck first. Your mother and I have already made plans for Thursday."
Keeping his eyes on the road, Carl tilted his head down and to the right in her direction in a nod of acknowledgement. "Sorry to be annoying about it. I'm just worried. If you have a bad winter, it can be scary. Pretty much everyone up here knows at least a few people who moved to another country after a bad winter, just to get away from the cold here, especially transplants who came here from warmer places."
The back of his neck itched, and Carl scratched it absently. What in the hell is going on? He listened to another weather report and looked at the sky. There were no clouds. It was getting colder very quickly. He was pretty sure that it wouldn't get too cold to snow before the cloud cover arrived and started helping to hold in heat.
"More tea?" Jenny asked while thinking to herself. More tea for me even if you don't want any.
"Yes, please." He chuckled. "I still remember your reaction to hot tea when you came up to visit the first time." To be fair, iced tea the way she makes it is pretty good too. I really enjoyed it on the three days this year when it was hot enough to sweat.
"Very funny. Right now I don't really care much what it tastes like. It's hot, or at least warm." Chamomile tea is very nice though, for reasons I never expected. Jenny reached over for the tea. As she lifted the thermos, the van hit a little bump in the road, and she dropped it. Shit. It rolled under her seat. "My hands are cold, Carl, sorry."
Quickly scanning the mirrors and the road ahead, Carl spoke up. "No worries. The road is straight and, nobody's ahead or behind. Go ahead, unbuckle and grab it, but please buckle back up quick, I don't want a ticket. That would cost me a lot with the miles I drive."
"One quick de-belt and re-belt coming up!" Jenny raised the inside arm on her captain's chair and hit the latch on her seat belt, releasing it. She quickly, carefully moved between the two seats, feeling under her seat, muttering under her breath. "Where is it?"
It was hard to keep his eyes on the road as Jenny searched further and further under her seat, feeling for the thermos. Even with thermal underwear under loose jeans, which were, in turn, under loose sweat pants, her position on hands and knees was suggestive enough to get the blood flowing to his second seat of male thought. Down boy, that's for later, if we're good. He managed to drag his eyes back to the road.
There were a couple clunks of metal on metal as Jenny's groping hands knocked the thermos against the metal post supporting the passenger side chair. "Got it!" Jenny called out in a slightly muffled voice. As she backed up, pulling her arms and the thermos from under the seat, she looked over her shoulder at him, and wriggled her bottom at him suggestively.
Carl found himself staring, but ripped his gaze away, and back to the road. There was a curve coming up. "Keep doing that, and I'll pull this car over right now and give you a spanking, young lady!" Enough games. I know this curve, I've seen officers waiting here. "Need you in the seat before the curve, Jenny."
"Promises, promises." Jenny set the thermos on the dash, jamming it in place. "OK, Carl, just trying to warm things up a bit before I sit back down." She smiled to herself. I can tell by your voice and your eyes that it worked.
As she sat in her seat and reached for her seat belt, Jenny heard Carl exclaim "Fuck!" loudly and felt the van sway slightly and begin to slow as he started to adjust the wheel and carefully hit the brakes. What? She looked up and saw around a dozen elk standing in a line crossing the road, staring at the oncoming headlights of the van. The elk were crossing the road, barely around the curve to where Carl couldn't see them as he was approaching. Even though he had slowed a lot for the corner, the road was slick, black, and very shiny. Before the curve, the ice and snow had been patchy, the road sanded and salted by trucks in preparation for the storm. Where the elk were crossing, the road appeared to be black and shiny, almost like obsidian. There would be almost no traction on the black ice. Oh, no. She froze, staring straight ahead, seeing that they were certainly going to hit some of the elk.
As he was trying to figure out what seemed like the best path that would carry them through the line of elk and keep them on the road, Carl snapped out in a loud voice "Seat belt, NOW, Jenny." I hate elk. If I keep straight, I'll hit at least five of them. It looks like only one of them is in the farthest oncoming lane, I'll hit that one if it doesn't move, and try to bounce the van off of it towards the center of the road.
He was an expert driver, literally. He even had the certificate. To get it, he had taken combat driving classes four years ago, not because of any real need for it, but because he drove for a living and wanted any advantage he could get. Some of his deliveries took him into unfriendly, high crime areas, but physics could be more dangerous than carjackers. Curve. Black ice. Elk. Jenny's still not in her seat belt. She's mentally locked up. After a brief moment of not-so-rational thought, Carl acted. I can't steer sharply right now anyway. Carl gripped the wheel tightly with his left hand and loosened his right hand from the wheel. He then carefully slapped his right hand over her face, to block her vision, clearly startling her. He called out, "Seat belt, Jenny, NOW!" loudly before slapping his hand back to the wheel and slowly, carefully adjusted his trajectory as he nursed the brakes, barely touching them. He looked at the speedometer. Forty miles per hour. This will hurt.
Jenny had bounced back in her seat, pushed back more by her reaction to him covering her eyes than by any physical pressure from his hand. She looked at him with wild eyes and then looked down, rapidly started trying to get her seat belt on. As her hand crossed her waist with the seat belt, inches from completing the connection, the van hit the first elk.
The elk were not cooperating as Carl guided the van towards them. They had started moving around, slowly at first on the ice, and then trying to run after he got within about twenty yards. Elk had no special skill for walking on black ice, and the ones that tried to run fell over on their sides, or lost their balance and went sprawling with long legs pointing in random directions. Instead of a line of elk standing still, staring at the van, there was now a line of chaotically sliding and spinning elk in various poses. Carl was locked into survival mode, all of his concentration on the van, the road, and the elk. He lost track of Jenny. There was nothing else he could do for her other than make the wreck as survivable as possible.
The clasp of the seat belt jerked out of Jenny's grasp as the van's front right wheel thumped over the torso of the first elk. No! She bounced up and out of her chair, smacking her head on the roof of the van, hard. Jenny fell into a pile, her lower body on the floorboard in front of her seat, her upper body laying limp on the seat itself.
After the van ran over the first elk, it immediately hit two more elk that were not laying down, glancing off them in quick succession and throwing the van into a slow spin on the ice. For more than two seconds, Carl had zero control over the van. After those two seconds, the van left the road, passing through a gap in the protective barrier that had apparently been damaged by another recent wreck and not yet repaired. The van somehow left the road with the nose facing into the gap in the protective barrier, and Carl risked a single hard pull at the steering wheel to straighten the tires, hoping to find some traction, hoping there was a soft shoulder to let him stop the spin before they went over the ledge he could see approaching.
The van responded, the spin slowing down as it hit a spot of snow and frozen grass. There was a heavy impact as the van hit something in the grass he couldn't see, and completely stopped rotating, though it's forward motion was not slowed by much. Somehow a thought managed to make its way into his mind. Probably one of the broken barrier supports, tall enough to hit a tire, too short to see in the snow and grass.
Then the van hit the ledge beyond the barrier. Carl's mind froze as the van went into full airborne flight. The van's right side front tire had collapsed at some point after hitting the first elk, and as the van went airborne. The uneven level of the front end, combined with the uneven ledge started the van spinning again. This time it was a slow spin, clockwise along the long axis; the right side of the van was rotating down, and the left side was rotating up.
Carl could only stare in stupefied horror as his van fell, spinning slowly in the air like an American football, towards a short, frozen waterfall in a stream around twenty feet below the level of the road. He had lost all sense of up or down, but he didn't need to know up or down to see that large rocks were in front of his windshield as the van fell. The last thing he managed before darkness enveloped him was to desperately pull the keys out of the ignition, cover his face with both hands, pull his legs back away from the pedals and make a short prayer to a god he hadn't believed in for twenty years. God help us.
Very nearly perfect. If any human had heard that voice in their head, they would have been physically ill. The thoughts were cold, rancid, and dark. It would be clear to any listener that compassion was outside the experience of the mental voice. Sanity itself might be a fleeting memory to a man or woman hearing the thoughts of this being, even after brief exposure.
The plan still seems overly complex. The second mental voice was just as replete with foulness as the first. I wish there had been a more viable method to act more directly on the target.
The first mental voice took a moment to respond, carefully phrasing its thoughts. The primary target is too well guarded against direct assault. Even most points of potential weakness at one or two points removed are being carefully monitored by the target or his allies. You know this. We agreed on this path. Do you dissent after the path is chosen?
Words chosen with extreme care were spoken in return by the second voice. No, I do not dissent. I merely express displeasure that our target is so well guarded that we much work at such a distance. Chaos is beautiful in many ways, but when it comes to planning, it is less than welcome.
I can agree with that sentiment, but it is not a valid concern until we must plan again. It is now time to act. Assist me; we must restore the environment rapidly, before witnesses arrive to complicate matters.
Two dark shapes crossed the road rapidly. As they passed the elk on the road, and all signs that the animals had ever existed disappeared. A few pained and terrified animal squeals punctuated the eruptions of darkness from their bodies. A stretch of highway barrier raised itself out of a nearby ditch and fitted itself perfectly into the gap that the van had just passed through. The black ice on the road disappeared, and ice and snow, sand and salt were blown back onto the road from where they had been piled earlier. The dark shapes rapidly, effortlessly, climbed down the steep slope to stand next to the upside-down van.
The human managed to disengage the engine of his vehicle. The first voice commented. Unexpected foresight in the face of disaster. These humans almost seem intelligent sometimes.
It may have been an accident. The other voice was clearly not convinced that humans were of noteworthy intelligence.
It will wake soon, we must finish preparations. Remember to double-think each action. We cannot act upon this one directly, or our involvement will certainly be detected.
Both beings rapidly began melting ice and shifting boulders, refreezing the boulders into place again after their positions were adjusted, carefully blocking any possible exit for a human from the van. The fuel tank of the vehicle was torn open and the fuel disposed of, consumed by the same cold darkness that had consumed the elk.
After verifying that everything was organized correctly, one of the two dark forms pulled a small cloth roll out of the amorphous darkness at its side, unrolling the cloth until a figurine was visible. The figurine was gently placed next to the middle of the van, where the roof met the frozen stream. Every action with the figurine was slow, deliberate, as if the small wooden figure was incredibly delicate.
Care had to be taken. The figurine had been extremely difficult to acquire, and it was hungry.
Carl hurt everywhere, and was upside down. He knew he wasn't thinking right. He felt cold as hell. What happened?
His eyes didn't want to open, but eventually they did. After a few moments, he was rewarded with a fuzzy, grainy view of reality that seemed off-balance somehow. Everything was moving, slightly changing position all the time. Concussion? Eyes aren't tracking right.
I'm hanging from my seat belt. I can't feel my legs. There must have been a wreck. That would explain the rocks sticking through the windshield.
He saw a figure laying on the roof of the van below him, curled up a bit, laying on her side, relaxed. "Jenny!" She didn't answer. "I'll let you sleep while I figure out what to do, Jenny."
She seemed to nod back at him.
He tried to move his arms. They both worked, but his right arm hurt like mad. Probably broken. Need to get help. There was something else I needed to do first though. Oh, my head. Is it broken?
Carl took a few moments with both hands to feel around his head and neck for holes or things that were just soft or wrong in some way. Moving his arms made it clear that there were broken ribs on his right side. He ignored the bloody bits of glass that rained down onto the floor as he brushed it out of his skin and scalp. Everything seemed OK. Except my brain, an arm, a couple ribs, and my legs.
He looked up at the roof of the van then realized, again, that he was upside down, and the roof was down. How long have I been out? Am I hypothermic too?
My hands would be pale and tingly if I was hypothermic. They don't feel tingly. Carl looked at each of his hands carefully for a few seconds. Still a healthy color.
Still too cold. I don't have forever. Have to act.
His left hand reached towards the base of the seat belt, where it was bolted to the floor. He twisted his left arm, wrapping the tight seat belt twice around his arm for more support before he gripped the belt hard with his left hand, and flexed his arm, taking up all the tension he could, trying to make the left arm like a bar of steel. When he was ready, he pressed the seat belt release with his right hand. There was a brief falling and twisting sensation accompanied by a spike of pain to the right forearm and right ribs. Then there was darkness again.
When he woke, he was hanging from his right arm. His left shoulder hurt like hell, but he still had sensation in his left hand, which was still wrapped in the seat belt. It couldn't have been long. I'm still hanging by the arm. I can feel my legs now, at least. Pins and needles. They must have just had the circulation cut off.
Jenny was still in a fetal position, sleeping, so he left her alone.
He began looking for a phone, either his or hers, and found both of them to be broken, completely powerless.
I'm going to have to do magic. If Jenny figures it out, so be it. He thought about it for a moment, and then looked at Jenny's grandmother's ring. It will take me a while, but I can recharge the ring. Not that it matters to Jenny, but having a small source of magical power can make a huge difference, especially right now.
Out loud, he apologized. "I need your grandmother's power, Jenny, it might save us both." Jenny didn't object, so he took her grandmother's ring. When he touched it, the silver ring was cold. "Florida girl, you need to work on that heat."
Need a place to draw the ritual diagram. Despite the unsteady world and occasional doubling of everything, he managed to clear off a mostly flat area of roof in the back of the van.
A strange thought struck him. I should check if there are any houses or buildings nearby. Why didn't I already think of that? Concussion. Duh.
Carl dragged himself over to each door in turn, and looked out the broken windows. It was very dark. Why can I see in the van? He looked back to see where the light was coming from. The overhead light, in the roof of the van, at his feet was lit. How long will that last? He looked out into the extremely heavy snowfall. The storm. There was a storm coming, I think? He could see no buildings. No smoke. He heard one car pass by. It sounded far away.
Cars. Help. He tried to open the back and side doors, but couldn't. Feeling out the windows with his good left arm, trying not to stress his right ribs, he found rocks, huge rocks, pressed against the doors. None of them could open more than a couple inches. The rocks were also blocking the windows enough that an adult would never be able to make it past them. The front doors on either side were similarly blocked. The windshield was pressed up against a bunch of rocks too. Every window was sufficiently blocked by large rocks that he couldn't crawl past. Trapped. No choice. Need a summoning ritual. Summon help. Power it with the ring.
He was starting to shiver. Hypothermia? Have to hurry. Need a writing tool and ink. There was red ink by Jenny.
The red ink was pretty thick, but it would work. It took him a minute to think of where he could get a good writing tool that was precise enough for a ritual diagram. Jenny's purse has a makeup kit in it. He found her purse and retrieved one of the little brushes.
Carl laid down on his stomach next to his working space and carefully placed the ring, before starting to build the diagram from the inside out. Every few minutes he would go back and collect more of the congealed ink. In about thirty minutes there was a simple diagram.
The ring powers the signal.
He read the runes that defined the signal again. Nothing complex. Help.
Probably the simplest ritual he had ever designed, and the fastest. He had taken some shortcuts with how certain parts of the symbols were written, but he could see the way the power would flow. Something is missing. Limits and protections? Rules? The ring doesn't have much power. I don't have time to do it all over. The ink in the diagram is frozen anyhow, and the spilled ink by Jenny is nearly solid too.
This doesn't feel right, but I don't think I could survive long enough to do it twice. After a brief moment of hesitation, Carl placed his finger on the activation point and powered it with all the energy he could - barely enough to activate the power siphon on the ring. He could feel the ring's power as it activated the signal.
Carl crawled back to Jenny and lay next to her, unzipping his jacket and draping it over her. "Help will be here soon, Jenny. They will bring blankets and hot tea. Here, I'll make your hands warm with mine." Carl took Jenny's cold hands in his own, and kissed her forehead.
Almost immediately, the small wooden figurine began to move, slowly standing to its full height of six inches. It cautiously walked into the van through the broken side window. After entering the vehicle, it scanned the interior quickly, and then walked over to the ritual diagram. The figurine walked around the diagram three times, looking at it closely, and then walked over to Carl, who was shivering uncontrollably, eyes closed.
With a cruel smile, the figurine said "Help" and touched Carl's forehead with his hand. The figurine disappeared and Carl's eyelids popped open.