The Nightcreature Novels Book #8
A storm beneath the Thunder Moon is both rare and powerful. My great-grandmother believed that on that night magic happens. She neglected to mention that magic could kill.
Mid-July in northern Georgia was an air conditioner salesman’s wet dream. In theory, the creek behind my home should have been balmy. In practice, it wasn’t. Nevertheless, I dropped my robe and waded in; then I lifted my face to the full Thunder Moon and chanted the words my e-li-si, my great-grandmother, had taught me.
“I stand beneath the moon and feel the power. I will possess the lightning and drink of the rain. The thunder is your song and mine.”
I wasn’t sure what the chant was for, but it was the only one I remembered completely, so I said those words every time I came here. The repetition calmed me. The memories of my great-grandmother were some of the few good memories I had.
According to her, a chant spoken in English was worthless. Only one spoken in Cherokee would work. Unfortunately, she’d died before she could teach me more than a smattering of the language. I’d always meant to learn more, but I’d never found the time.
She’d left me all her books, her notes—what she called her medicine. But I couldn’t read any of the papers she’d gathered into a grade school binder, so they accumulated dust in the false bottom of my father’s desk.
I’d loved her deeply, and I mourned her every day. I missed her so badly sometimes a great black cloud of depression settled over me that was very hard to shake.
“Someday,” I whispered to the night. “Someday I’ll know all those secrets.”
Lightning flashed, closer than it should be. The moon still shone, though clouds now skated across its surface. Thunder rumbled, a great gray beast, shaking the hills that surrounded me.
The Blue Ridge Mountains had always been home. I could never desert them. The mountains didn’t lie, they didn’t cheat or steal, and, most important, they never left. The mountains would always be there.
They were as much a part of me as my midnight hair, my light green eyes, and the skin that was so much darker than everyone else’s in town. My ancestors had been both Indian and African, with a good portion of Scotch-Irish mixed in.
Once upon a time, the Scots had immigrated to Ulster and begun farming. When times got bad, as they so often did in Ireland, they'd come to America where they'd first been known as Irish. However, when the wave of Irish came after the famine it was no longer fashionable to be Irish--had it ever been back then? From then on the Scottish immigrants preferred to be called Scotch-Irish, not Scots-Irish as one would expect, but a purely American term.
My toes tingled with cold, so I rose from the water and snatched my white terry-cloth robe from the ground. I slid my arms into it, and the silver glow of the moon went out as if snuffed by a heavenly hand. The wind whistled through the towering pines, sounding like an angry spirit set free of bondage.
I stood at the creek and watched the storm come. I liked storms. They reflected all the turmoil I’d carried within me for so long. However, this storm was different from those that usually tumbled over my mountains—stronger, quicker, stranger. I should have started running at the first trickle of wind.
Lightning flashed so brightly I closed my eyes, yet the imprint of the sky opening up and the electric sheen spilling out seemed scalded into my brain. The scent of ozone drifted by, and the thunder seemed to crash from below rather than from above.
I opened my eyes just as the lightning flared again far too soon. A horrible, screeching wail followed, and a trail of sparks tumbled from the sky in the distance.
“I got a bad feeling.” I watched the roiling sky until the cell phone in my pocket began to buzz.
I don’t know why I’d brought the thing. Half the time I couldn’t get a signal out here. The trees were so high, the mountains so near. Often I got back to the house and realized I’d dropped the phone either at the creek or somewhere along the path. Nevertheless, I was too much my father’s daughter to ever leave home without it. Dad had been the sheriff in Lake Bluff, Georgia, too.
“McDaniel,” I answered, wincing as needles of rain began to fall, the wind picking up and driving them into my face.
The connection crackled, the voice on the other end breaking up. Lightning flashed again, and I wondered if I should be out here with a cell phone pressed to my head. I started for the house and—
Thunder shook the earth. The wind whipped my long, wet hair into my eyes. The world went electric silver as lightning took over the sky.
“Grace! You there? Grace!”
I recognized the voice of my deputy, Cal Striker. Cal had spent most of his life in the Marines; then he’d retired after twenty and tried to relax back in the old hometown.
Except Cal wasn’t the relaxing type. I could understand why, after tours in Iraq, and most recently Afghanistan, the pace in Lake Bluff had driven him bonkers. He’d begged me to hire him for the open deputy position. I’d been happy to.
“Right here.” I wasn’t sure if Cal could hear me. Above the wind and the rain and the thunder, I could barely hear me. “What’s the matter?”
“We’ve got—” Crackle. Buzz. “Over on the—” Snap. “—problem.”
Hell. What did we have on the where that was a problem? With Cal it could be anything. From a kitty cat up a tree to a domestic disturbance complete with shotguns, Cal handled every situation with the same calm surety.
Cal was a big fan of Chuck Norris, which had led to no small amount of teasing from the other officers, and someone had taken to leaving Chuck Norris jokes on Cal’s desk. I thought most of them were hilarious. My deputy did not.
“You’re breaking up, Cal. Say again.”
Hurrying in the direction of home, I skidded a bit on the now-slick trail, hoping I wouldn’t fall on my ass and wind up covered in mud. I didn’t have the time.
The house was dark. The storm had knocked out the electricity, probably all over Lake Bluff. The phones would be ringing off the hook at the station, where at least we had a generator. I don’t know why people thought the sheriff’s department could do anything, but whenever we lost power the switchboard lit up to tell us all about it.
“Grace.” Cal’s voice was much clearer now that I’d escaped the interference of the towering pines. “Look to the north.”
I squinted, then frowned at the orange glow blooming against the midnight sky, right about where that weird flash of sparks would have landed.
“I’m on my way.” I hurried into the house.
With no electricity and no moon spilling in through the windows, the place seemed foreign. Corners of furniture reached out and smacked my shins. I could stop and light a candle, try to find a flashlight, although it probably wouldn’t have any working batteries, but I was possessed by a sense of urgency.
I kept seeing that orange glow in my head, and I didn’t like it. Forest fires were dangerous. They could sweep down the side of a mountain and right through a town. They’ve been known to jump highways and waterways, leaving behind acres of blackened stumps and devastated dreams.
I stumbled up the stairs to my room, found a towel, tossed the damp robe into the tub, then put on the same uniform I’d just taken off. As I shoved my .40-caliber Glock into the holster, I stepped onto the second-floor landing. The window rattled, and I turned in that direction.
A great black shadow loomed, and my fingers tightened on the grip of the gun. Wings beat against the glass; a beak tapped. I couldn’t catch my breath, and when I did I emitted a choking gasp that frightened me almost as badly as the bird had.
Then the thing was gone, and I was left staring at the rain running down the windowpane. How odd. Birds didn’t usually fly during bad weather.
Heading downstairs, I dismissed the strange behavior of the wildlife in my concern for Lake Bluff and its citizens. I hoped the deluge had put out any fire caused by the lightning, but I had to be sure.
I ran through the rain and jumped into my squad car, then headed down the long lane that led to the highway. Once there, I hit the lights and the siren. I wanted everyone who might be stupid enough to be out right now to see and hear me coming.
My headlights reflected off the pavement, revealing sheets of water cascading over the road ahead of me. The trees bent at insane angles. My wipers brushed twigs, leaves, and pine needles off my windshield along with the rain. I glanced in my rearview mirror just as a huge tree limb slammed onto the road behind me.
I fumbled with the radio. “I have a ten-fifty-three on the highway just north of my place. Tree limb big enough to jackknife a semi.”
My dispatcher, Jordan Striker, was mature beyond her twenty years and as sharp as the stilettos she insisted on wearing to work. She was Cal’s daughter, and while the two of them didn’t see eye-to-eye on much, they shared a sense of responsibility to the community that I admired.
Jordan’s mom had hung around Lake Bluff after the divorce, but the instant Jordan turned eighteen, she was gone. I never did hear where.
Jordan dreamed of attending Duke University. She had the grades but not the money, which is how she’d ended up working for me.
“I’ll send a car as soon as I can,” she continued. “Everyone’s out on calls. Storm’s something else.”
“Try the highway crew. We need to get that tree off the road. Some dumb ass who doesn’t have the sense to stay in during a mess like this will run aground on the thing, and then we’ll have a pileup.”
“The world is full of dumb asses,” Jordan agreed.
As I said, wise beyond her years.
I continued toward the area where I’d seen the orange glow. The sparks had appeared to fall near Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in the spine of mountains known as Wolfpen Ridge. Despite the name, there were no wolves in the Blue Ridge, hadn’t been for centuries.
Static spilled from my radio, along with Cal’s voice. “Grace, take the turn just past Galilean Drive. Careful, it’s a swamp back here.”
I followed his directions to the end of what would have been a dirt road but was now a mud puddle. Illuminated by the flare of headlights from his squad car, Cal wore a yellow rain slicker and the extremely ugly hat that came with our uniform. A hat I never wore unless I had to.
With a sigh I slipped into my own slicker and slapped the wide-brimmed, tree-bark brown Stetson wannabe on top of my still-damp hair, then joined Cal at the edge of the tree line. “Where’s the fire?”
“Not sure. I saw it. So did you. So did everyone in a mile radius. But by the time I got here, nothing.”
Considering the wind and the rain, the fire had probably gone out. However, the proximity of the town required us to be certain. All we needed was for the thickness of the trees to protect one small ember, which would smolder and burst into flames the instant we turned our backs.
“You sure this is the place?”
Cal nodded. He wasn’t a particularly tall man, maybe an inch more than my own five-ten, but he was imposing, still ripped, despite two years out of the Corps. I doubted I could even get my hands around his neck, if I was so inclined. Cal wore his light brown hair in the style of the USMC, and his face was lined from tours spent in countries that had a lot more sun and wind and sand than we ever could.
“Ward Beecher called it in,” Cal continued. “Said all the trees were ablaze. He smelled the smoke.”
Ward Beecher wasn’t a nut. He was the pastor of the Lake Bluff Baptist Church. I doubted he was much of a liar, either, and he lived not more than half a mile from this spot.
“There’s nothing now.” I walked around the clearing. The trees, the grass, the ground were all dripping wet; I couldn’t find a single charred pine needle.
“ ’Cept this.” Cal indicated an area in front of his car.
I joined him at the edge of a fairly large hole, which reminded me of photos I’d seen of meteor sites. Except there wasn’t a rock of any noticeable size to be had.
“Could have been here forever,” I said.
He didn’t sound convinced, but what other explanation was there? The hole was empty. Unless—
I went down on one knee, ignoring the mud that soaked through my uniform—I was already drenched— and studied the ground.
“You think someone was here before us?” Cal asked. “Took whatever it was that fell?”
I didn’t answer, just continued to look. I was the best tracker in the county. My father had made certain of that. But sometimes, like now, being the best wasn’t any damn good at all.
“The rain’s washed away the top layer of dirt,” I said. “An elephant could have come through here and I wouldn’t find a trace of it.”
I straightened, my gaze drawn to the tree line just as a low, bulky shadow took the shape of a wolf. I didn’t like that one bit. We’d had a little problem with wolves last summer.
Werewolves, to be exact.
I hadn’t believed it, either—until some really strange things had started happening. Turned out there were werewolves all over the place. There was even a secret government society charged with killing them.
I’d thought they’d all been eliminated or cured—no one had died a horrific, bloody death in months. But maybe I was wrong.