Enjoy this exclusive sneak peek of Ascending Mage 2: Changeling Hunter.
Chapter 2 – Had Enough Yet?
The Toyota Highlander turned west off Highway 83, climbing the asphalt road leading up a steep hill. Ember peered through the windshield of her rented SUV, noting the empty guard house that once was a shade of mustard, the sagging chain-link perimeter fence overgrown with weeds, the unpatched cracks in the paved streets, and the aging buildings with peeling, faded white paint.
“The whole place looks like a heap of tosh,” she thought aloud.
The Air Force Station was a Cold War relic, retired 31 years ago when its radar and communication facilities became obsolete. Equipment and personnel were transferred to the significantly larger Minot Air Force Base on the opposite side of the Magic City. The buildings that remained behind were mothballed and eventually sold to the highest bidder.
Houses which previously boarded officers and young families were now in the process of being renovated and rented out, mostly to young men who had arrived from out of state to work the oil patch. The boom in western North Dakota was in full swing, and while jobs were abundant, living quarters were scarce. Men earning six-figure salaries working twelve-hour days on fracking crews or driving tanker trucks had little choice but to sleep wherever they could find a landlord willing to rent them a room.
The west-facing windows of all the buildings still glistened with morning dew. The concrete block barracks with its rusting fire escape appeared to be empty. A small wooden building that once served as the station’s nondenominational church was being used for storage. The grey tin mechanics’ garages were locked up tight.
All except one, supposedly.
Ember idled the Highlander as she surveyed the semi-abandoned facilities until she found what she was looking for. Off by itself, set apart from all the other outbuildings was a rusted tin structure about 15 feet tall and 150 feet long. Five massive overhead doors faced the street, their panels chipped with blistering aquamarine paint. One of the doors had two panels missing, making it look like rectangular eyes on the face of a hulking robot whose existence had long outlived its function.
She brought a scrap of paper to the steering wheel so she could review it without taking her eyes off her surroundings. The handwritten note had been slipped under her apartment door sometime late last night:
Meet me here at 6 am. —D
A crude illustration was sketched on the reverse side. Ember had followed the directions to the letter, and they led her here, where a star was drawn on the paper.
She glanced at the clock embedded in the dash panel and confirmed that she wasn’t late. It also meant that she still had a couple of hours before she was expected at work in the embassy. A lot could happen between now and then.
Ember parked the Highlander on the cracked cement pad in front of a faded steel walk-in door. Before she got out, she gave the area a final 360-degree review to ensure she was alone. She would be stealthy in her approach. She was sure that the idling of the vehicle would mask her arrival. Satisfied that she was taking all the proper precautions, she popped open the driver’s side door. The door chime on the SUV happily pierced the still morning air. She cursed the vehicle’s trumpeting announcement. So much for being sneaky.
The walk-in door was made of reinforced steel but held a collection of dents. It was slightly ajar, its lock broken.
Against her better judgment, she pulled the door open the rest of the way and slipped inside the abandoned garage.
The light switch near the door was unresponsive when she tried toggling it. Electricity had been severed to the building years ago. The only illumination came from the morning sun, peering in from the broken overhead door panels—the giant robot’s eyes—and what light that could sneak past her silhouette in the doorway. She stepped in and aside to let her eyes adjust to the dim interior.
At one time, three decades ago, the garage would have smelled of oil and grease and diesel exhaust fumes. Tandem axle military trucks painted olive drab or woodland camouflage would be parked in the stalls, each being serviced by a crew of young enlisted Airmen in overalls. Rock and Roll might have played over the radio—music that now would be considered classic, but at the time were top hits.
Now, the building was populated by mice and barn swallows. The stench was unmistakable for both. As Ember’s eyes acclimated, she walked cautiously. Dried bird dung and feathers matted the floor, especially beneath the mud-and-grass nests they constructed along the rafters and below the trusses of the loft. Scrap metal and broken boards were strewn throughout the building, along with stacked cardboard boxes whose corners were gnawed through by mice. When she brushed up against a rolled-up carpet, fine dust scattered into the air. Ember somehow managed to resist sneezing.
She heard her attacker two seconds before the strike arrived.
Ember spun, the cloud of decaying carpet dust billowing around her. The attacker’s fist swung for her face, but she stepped back in time to avoid connecting with it. A kick followed the punch, landing just next to her hip. A heavy boot ruptured the rotting cardboard box, its mouse-nest contents bursting as if they were made of gunpowder.
Use your surroundings. Ember didn’t hesitate. She plunged her hand into the chewed-up paper and fibers, grabbed a fistful of the fine material, and flung it at her attacker’s head.
Her aim was true; the powdery material exploded in the target’s face. A cough, a gag, and a woman’s voice swore an obscenity.
Any of my hard parts are weapons. Any of their soft parts are targets. Ember followed up with an elbow to the woman’s solar plexus. It was a mistake.
Dust got in her own face then, and Ember was momentarily blinded. Worse, her hit wasn’t hard enough to bring the other woman down. Worse still, the woman replied by shoving Ember backward, hard.
Ember tripped over the stacked boxes, falling on one of the rolled up carpets. Spider webs and demolished mouse nest clung to her long hair. She gagged, coughed, and reached for something to help her back on her feet. Her hand found a wooden chair leg covered in the slime of fresh bird poop.
She got to her knees just as her attacker jumped through the debris. Ember brought the chair leg up as hard as she could, striking across the other woman’s leg.
The woman went down hard and yelled, “Fucking bitch!”
Continuous motion. Ember threw herself at the woman before she could get back up. They rolled over decades’ worth of mouse feces, swallow feathers, and bird dung. Birds squawked in alarm above, making for the only exits. Their fluttering wings knocked loose fine dust particles and created a whirlwind around the humans who invaded their sanctuary.
Ember was winning. The other woman outweighed her and was an impressively skilled fighter, but she also had a fistful of fine dust and mites in her eyes, nose, and throat. Taking a chair leg to the shin probably didn’t help.
“Had enough yet?” Ember spat the words triumphantly. She used the wooden chair leg to pin one of the woman’s arms. Ember kept her knee on the woman’s sternum so she couldn’t break free from the slimy concrete floor.
Dark eyes glared back at her, and the woman showed her teeth. Her incisors were sharp points, and her cuspids were growing longer. The woman’s face became broad and feral, her whiskered nose black above a toothy maw. Fur punched through her skin and clothes disappeared. Those dark eyes now reflected like a pair of angry mirrors.
The whole shift happened in less than a second.
Ember was thoroughly familiar with changelings, but she rarely met one who could fully shift in under a second. It took incredible discipline and years of practice to perfect such a transformation so quickly—while being pinned to the floor, no less.
She was tossed like a rag doll. Ember skidded on her butt along the uneven concrete floor, coming to rest against a rusted grate. The chair leg clattered uselessly into the shadows.
The 140-pound mountain lion stalked a wide circle around its prey. Its ears were flat against its buff-colored head, and its lips snarled to show the sharp canines that would soon crush Ember’s larynx if given a chance. Its claws clicked against the cold floor.
The walk-in door was fifty feet away, with no shortage of obstacles. She would never be able to outrun the cougar.
Ember struggled to her feet and looked for anything she could use to defend herself. If she could just stun the creature, or distract it long enough to get outside, maybe she could lock it in, somehow.
The changeling wasn’t going to give her the chance. The mountain lion opened its jaw and emitted a frightening scream. It pounced at its prey, claws extended.
If not for the cement block support column at her back, Ember would have crumpled to the floor against such a force. It wasn’t much of an improvement to be pinned against that column, especially as the recipient of the full brunt of a cougar’s lunge.
She brought her arm up to protect her throat and felt the lion’s jaws latch on. Teeth designed for tearing through animal hides closed in around her forearm. The lion’s claws raked across Ember’s other arm, shredding her skin like tissue paper.
Bloody hell, this was such a bad idea.
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