Moss rimmed the Gateway to Hell. Dusted by belched ash, fed by fluorine-tainted roots, the delicate green covering dared to challenge the unforgiving slopes. Khalil bent down to examine the tiny velvet plant struggling to survive and flourish on the sides of Iceland’s Hekla volcano.
The basic nature of life, his old tutor used to say, is struggle. Life will succeed, in some form, until life finds the abyss. With a whiff of breath, Khalil cleared one bloom of gray ash. The delicate villi cast a faint astringent scent.
Good, no taint. The abyss had not yet arrived to this rim of Hekla. He pushed to his feet and glanced around. Time and eruptions had altered the topography, but nothing blunted his memory of one night when blood and sweat slicked these rocks.
When Constantine had died.
Now, six years later, strange powers stirred again, and Khalil did not believe in coincidence.
The chill twilight seeped past his barriers of cotton knit, denim, and down. He ignored the minor discomfort, concentrating instead on first casting his circle. His hands drew from front to sides to back. On his left hand, the topaz of his Mage ring glowed in the coming darkness; on his right wrist the carnelian embedded into the thin steel-fiber band heated. The energy embedded within the stones joined in spirit with low, slow vibrations as familiar to him as his own heartbeat.
“Winds of the east, seas of the west, fires of the south, stones of the north be my guides.” With his pulse and breath delving to the deeper rhythms of nature, the mage united with the flow of Gaia.
His skin tightened and tingled. His mind found colors in black and shadows in white. Scents – not only moss and icy air and bird dung, but veins of ore and sparks that winked out on heat –filled his nose, while his mouth tasted ash and bitter fluorine. Each sense exploded with the nuances underlying the common description of sweet or pungent or refreshing.
“Raw earth and unfettered air spin together. Fire and water join to mist.” Low vibrations coursed through the earth in a hum felt rather than heard. The boundaries of Mage and nature blurred, ever so slightly, creating a connected mesh of energy.
He would be warned to any – both natural and unnatural – who might attack.
Disturbed air twisted across his skin in cold eddies. Someone taking the precaution of stealth approached. The muscles at the base of his spine tensing, Khalil stood and turned. His fingers touched the topaz clustered within the ring’s intricate weave – his mage stone – to focus the swirling power within him. He held it in check, waiting for the newcomer to reveal himself.
A man, six five if he was an inch, and sturdy as stone, edged around the rim of the caldera. He was dressed in denim and flannel faded to mere tints of color. At his waist dangled a pick ax and he carried a shotgun that might have been old enough to have been used at the OK Corral.
“Come to stare at the crazy who thinks he’s seen a wolf, when none exist in Iceland?” demanded the stranger. The business end of the gun gestured downhill. “Well, you seen him. So leave.”
“I want the wolf.”
The man’s eyes narrowed into his leathered face. “Where’s your gun? You want a trophy, you need firepower.” He patted the gun in hand. “At least a .270 Winchester.”
“I’m not after trophies.”
The man gave a snort and spat into the ash. “Greenie, right?”
“Global Wildlife Haven.” Khalil admitted his more public persona. “My name’s Khalil. Are you Emil?”
The man grunted at his name. “Call me Penny, like everyone else.”
“Poorly funded American volcanologist. Barely got a penny to rub with a Euro.”
American. That explained the accent.
“You might have seen my camp on the way up,” Penny added.
“I saw a tent and a rain collection tarp.”
“That’s the HSH.”
“Home sweet home.”
Living here alone and primitive could have addled the man’s eyesight and sanity. Khalil’s fingers tightened around the topaz. “You told Ingrid that you saw a wolf coming out of the volcano?”
“Sounds crazy,” Penny admitted. “Is crazy. Iceland’s never had wolves, and how could one survive here with nothing to eat but lava and occasional bird. But I know what I saw, wolf right over there.” He shivered. “I know what I didn’t see, too. Something cold and evil came out, too. That critter is a vicious beast. How you plan to stop him? Talk him into tranquility?”
Khalil shrugged. “I’ll think of something.”
“Your hide. I’ll be back to pick up the bloody pieces.” He paused. “Or the incinerated ones. Hekla’s active and violent, and she only gives a thirty to eighty minute warning. Recorded the first rumblings on my way up.” He pivoted on one boot and disappeared around a cairn.
Khalil waited until he was alone, the flesh of his face tightening in the cold. As night fell, his eyes adjusted to the dark. No stars, but the moon lit up the stark landscape. Two slivers to full.
He didn’t believe in coincidence. Not in the coincidence of a wolf appearing on the caldera of the mouth of hell, where no wolf had existed. Not in the coincidence of an Icelandic member of GWH hearing Penny’s report and forwarding it on. Not in the coincidence of Penny’s appearance or the rumbling volcano.
Perhaps some answers would become clearer when he located the wolf. He set the alarm in his watch for twenty minutes, and then circled the rim of the caldera, studying the so-far unbroken ring of plants. He took care not to brush any of the struggling plants.
Years had passed since he’d fought the mage battle here, but the landmarks were as familiar as his palm. He passed the ledge where Constantine had savagely whipped Khalil’s Tracker and closest friend, destroying both flesh and magick. The rock still carried the stain of Ram’s blood.
Overhead, a gyrfalcon rose with a screech. Something ahead disturbed her rest.
Pulse matching his speed, Khalil hurried forward. His boots made no sound on the broken shale, and he zipped his down vest to prevent any telltale flapping. His black jeans and grey knit shirt would blend into the rock. He could have added a concealing glamour, but he didn’t want to squander the magick energy – not when he might need defense. Or a fight.
The gyrfalcon circled, wheeling against the leaden sky, and, with a screech vanished against the moon.
Khalil tread carefully through the struggling plants that softened the volcano’s side, searching for the reputed wolf. His boots displaced a pebble, and the faint scratch gave away his position. From his right a menacing growl slid into twilight like a blade through flesh.
He avoided a crater in the surface, and then rounded a jagged cairn. The click of claws on the ash-slick rock followed him. As he closed to the rim of the crater, the click faded, then returned. Closer. The source of the growl stalked him.
Twin points of iridescent yellow beaconed out of the dusky rocks. Scents of putrid meat and musty fur curdled the back of his throat.
Impossible. Iceland had no wolves; nor could the stark sides of Hekla sustain the predator. He rubbed his hands on his jeans, warming his fingers in the deepening cold. No sense in trying to outrun a wolf. Strange territory would not hinder its speed.
And he had not come here to run away.
He eased closer to learn what he could about the fanged foe. The yellow snake-eyes followed his silent steps, and then flared orange. The wolf had caught his scent.
Turning to face the predator, Khalil rubbed the topaz. The focus settled inside him, bringing clarity and calmness. His senses elongated, absorbing the latent energies around him, in rock and tiny flower, and bubbling lava beneath.
It also united him with the anger and confusion of the wolf. He could smell decay. Taste the desire for raw flesh and the hunger of starvation.
And something more, something profoundly wrong.
Before he could pinpoint what had repulsed his stomach and crawled at the fringes of his power, another snarl menaced from behind him.
Two wolves where none should exist?
The first wolf moved out of the dark. Eyes led teeth and snarls. The gaunt wolf stalked closer, while his brother circled to cut off escape. No route down the mountain, while Khalil’s back burned from the caldera’s spit of smoke and sulfur.
Wolves were predators, but hunger drove these two. Hunger, and . . .
The topaz in his Mage ring vibrated against his finger, and Khalil sucked in a breath. Magick. A twisted energy clung to the wolves’ aura, muddying the natural green shades. More than hunger drove these two. More than hunger had placed them here.
Had they been merely transported or had the wolves been fabricated from the sinew and blood of something near dying? Both near impossible feats, the skill known only to a few of the living. And one of the dead.
Or so he had thought.
Either way, the manner of creation did not make the wolves any less dangerous deadly. What imperative command had they been given? To attack? To maim? To kill? Were they sent for him?
Khalil shifted to keep both closing wolves in view. His breath quickened behind his tightened throat. He had no desire to destroy nature’s creatures – they were the innocent in this.
Of course, he also had no desire for them to destroy him, either.
Both wolves sprang. Fetid breath, death-bearing muscles hurtled onto him, staggering him backward. He sidestepped one, kept his throat from the other.
Couldn’t save his arm. Teeth buried deep as bone, tearing flesh and muscle. Burning saliva streaked along nerves. His fingers lost movement, splayed wide.
The wolves came in unnatural concert, springing together as if one master controlled the puppets.
Khalil leaped backward. The wolves followed, undeterred by the rising stench from caldera and the night growing impossibly dark. He twisted. They missed him. Sliding on the rim of the volcano, their nails scratched and scrambled for purchase, while Khalil tottered on the edge of the hell. Heat poured from deep buried lava, coating him in sweat and ash. His feet found purchase at the edge of the volcano, the heat burning through his soles.
Snarling and snapping, the wolves also regained their footing. They changed tactics, no longer charging, but circling him, keeping him near the gagging sulfur and the precarious edge.
They would not stop, these two, if they had been sent for his destruction.
Feinting, his energy-connection flowed outward to the rocks surrounding him. That awareness saved him.
The pressure of wolf paws reverberated through the rock and ash, tingling through him. A second early, he felt their spring and ducked. Wove around a cairn of rock.
Nails grazed his side. Hot breath slid past his throat. His torn arm ached, and the loss of blood made him dizzy. His side, where one had scraped nails into his ribs, burned. The dirt of their nails held more pain than venom.
“I need five minutes protection,” he murmured to the still, black air.
The haze of ash and smoke shifted under a sudden breeze wafting up from the volcanic vents. Visible within the cleared spot, a small outcropping of rock jutted from the inside wall of the volcano, below the lip, but still above the fatal lava.
“Thanks, Cosmos.” He’d been hoping for an ally to distract the wolves or a sudden eclipse. He got a ledge.
Nearer the wolves crept, their muscles rippling beneath the spare flesh, their eyes burning. They lunged. One for the Achille’s tendon to disable him. One for the throat to slaughter him.
Khalil dropped over the side of the volcano, twisting and angling to land on the single ledge. His shoes dug into the slippery surface, sticking to the mark. His body pinwheeled, over the edge, aiming for the death below, but he pulled his center of gravity back and stayed on the ledge.
Above, the wolves prowled, howling their frustration, clever enough to realize the ledge would not hold them as well.
Khalil’s undamaged hand dug into his pocket, and he pulled out a mirror and a polished onyx. He would need the additional power of focus. Wiping the sweat from his face, he knelt on the crumbly ledge. He laid the mirror in the dust at his knees. The small mirror, only three centimeters and old, held the latent spell he had cast before coming. A precaution, intended only to stop a reviving evil. He rested his injured hand beside his knees and set the black stone within his palm, then, using his good hand’s muscle, he wrapped his injured fingers around the stone. The slick onyx became the only bit of coolness within his new inferno.
His other wrist lay against the stone, and a sharp arc of energy coursed between the two focals. Power flowed through him, delicate strands invisible to most, seen as shimmering colors to him.
“Uriel, light of destruction and fire of will. Shield power beneath mercy.” He wove new threads of rich amber, tempering energies, into his creation.
“Be this by my will,” he murmured, passing his hands across the mirror.
The ancient silver and mercury dimmed to anemic moonlight, shimmering against the only other light in vision, the black orange of lava.
A flash of power sealed the will, blinding him for a moment. The wolves at the rim shifted back with a growl.
They had been perched at the edge, he realized, ready to leap, despite the fact the action would mean not only his death but theirs.
Destruction at any cost. A difficult deadly imperative to imprint.
He tucked the mirror and focus stone together in his shirt pocket, and then called softly upward. “Do not leap. I am coming to you.”
One wolf snarled, and he could hear the two pacing, their nails clicking like knife on bone. They waited, but he would have no more than a moment when his feet touched ground.
He glanced at the wall of the volcano, and let out a breath. The promise of getting to the surface was easier said than accomplished. Especially with the use of only one and one quarter arms.
Still, it must be done.
He grabbed at a knob of rock a foot above his head, then winced at the heat pouring into his palm. This was going to be every shade of unpleasant. Still, he pulled himself up, using his toes against the uneven rock as leverage. Centimeter by centimeter he worked upward, toehold and handhold by toehold and fingerhold. Sweat burned across his eyes, nearly blinding him, and his throat scratched from the heat and ash and exertion. His injured arm provided balance and the occasional brace.
When the top of his head reached just below the rim of the caldera, he paused. In a normal rock climb, he would be able to scramble up, his body emerging centimeters at a time, maybe sprawling in the need to regather air and energy. But, as soon as part of him appeared above the rim, the wolves would be on him. He would not be allowed the luxury of a slow arrival.
Instead, he brought his feet up, until he crouched together, every part as close the rim as possible. He drew in air, touched his forehead to the hot rock. “Allow me your strength,” he whispered, and felt the impossibly deep and immeasurably slow shift of power into the soles of his feet. “Propel me.”
The muscles in his legs bunched, then released in an explosion of energy. He leaped upward, driven by muscle and lava, springing onto the top of the caldera.
Before his feet touched, the wolves attacked. Their eyes, harsh and deadly, their fetid scent erupted in the volcanic night. A mouth opened for his throat. A tooth snagged his tendon.
“Avant!” he shouted, his hand pressing against the pocketed rock and the mirror. Power circled him, riding outward on a sonic boom.