Enjoy this exclusive sneak peek of Ascending Mage 2: Changeling Hunter.
Chapter 1 – Ruined With Rot
It had been such a perfect summer day, right up until someone shot him.
A brisk breeze was coming from the northwest, making the expressionless faces in the nearby sunflower field restless. Thin cirrus clouds raced as streaks high in the periwinkle sky above the Missouri Coteau.
It was Saturday morning and Evan and Brandon were tending their salsa garden, each on his hands and knees as they worked to finish the chore of pulling weeds while the day was still reasonably cool. Water seeped from black, rubber soaker hoses laid out in snake-like spirals around the plants in the garden, bubbling and hissing fine droplets of cold drink to turn the rich soil dark.
By afternoon, the temperature would be sweltering, but they would be on their way to the lake by then. The housemates had banked up, and were cashing in, two weeks’ vacation from the lignite mine where they worked. They would be spending that hard-earned downtime camping and fishing at Lake Sakakawea.
Evan had worried their flourishing garden would suffer in the unforgiving July sun while they were gone, but Brandon insisted that the plants would survive. They compromised by pledging to drive home every few days to turn on the hydrant and check their mail. It was only an hour’s drive from their rural property outside of Underwood, North Dakota to the cabin they rented near the south shore at the park district.
Evan’s iPhone rested at an angle atop a nearby fence post, the better to catch the weak Wi-Fi signal from the house. Pop music streamed from the tethered Bluetooth speaker, filling the air with last year’s big hit from The Black Eyed Peas. Honey bees hovered among the tomato blossoms, undeterred by the “boom-boom-boom” lyrics of the catchy song.
“Another one of the Sun Golds is ripe! Want this one?” Brandon was holding a deep orange cherry tomato between his thumb and forefinger, a bright grin reaching his eyes.
Evan looked up from the habanero plant he was kneeling by. “Did you get one yet?”
“Not today,” Brandon admitted. “But there’ll be more when we get back from Beulah Bay next week. You can have this one if you want it.” The willowy man stood up and stepped between the galvanized wire cages. When the chorus came on, he swiveled his narrow hips and snapped the fingers on his free hand to the beat.
Evan shook his head and admired the show. “You’re going to get stung by one of those bees if you keep that up.”
“No way! Them chickens won’t copy my swagger.” Brandon dropped the tiny fruit into Evan’s outstretched hand, then danced back to the tomato plants to resume weeding. “I’m so three-thousand-and-eight.”
“What does that even mean?”
The cherry tomato was not quite crimson, but this variety would never get fully red. Evan studied it only a moment before he popped the orb into his mouth. An explosion of sweet flavor burst across his taste buds when his teeth crushed into the juicy flesh. “Oh my god, that really is great, isn’t it? You really can’t buy tomatoes this sweet.”
The other man grinned at Evan and nodded, though he was too focused on lip-syncing to the song to voice an opinion.
Fergie had just started belting out her portion of the lyrics when the phone exploded. Tiny pieces of metal and plastic shrapnel scattered across the garden.
“What the fuck!” Evan spun around to see the top of the post splintered where the phone used to be. “I think my iPhone just overheated!”
“Woah. Do you think we left it out in the sun too long?” Brandon picked up a shattered remnant of the smartphone’s innards. He stood up and pulled out his own phone from the back pocket of his jeans—the phone was a twin to his friend’s—and held the two side by side. “Look how deformed it is!”
Without the music to mask its report, the second gunshot was unmistakable.
Brandon’s phone flew apart from his hand and shattered before it hit the ground. Blood sprayed at once from a wound that went clear through his palm, exposing splintered bones. He stared at his mauled hand, mouth agape as his mind struggled to compute what his stunned nerves prevented him from feeling.
Then he screamed.
Evan didn’t have time to think, only to react. He pulled his t-shirt off and wrapped it around his friend’s hand. Blood already began to soak through before he had a knot tied around Brandon’s wet, slippery wrist. “Keep pressure on it! I’ll get the car!” He started to run toward the house but stopped mid-stride.
A figure was approaching casually toward the garden, dressed from head to toe in hunting camouflage. A black AR-15 rifle was in the hunter’s hands, its muzzle pointed at them.
Confusion threatened to paralyze Evan as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. The stranger’s face was veiled in a pattern matching the rest of his full-body camo. A strip of burlap was woven around the firearm, breaking up its unmistakable shape. Evan turned back to Brandon, who was clutching the cotton mitten around his right hand.
“Run!” Evan had to shout it three times, and even then, his friend stood like a beanpole until Evan grabbed the man’s forearm and pulled him away. They ducked behind the wooden fence at the edge of their property and ran into the neighbor’s sunflower field.
The sunflowers weren’t tall enough this early in the season to hide them, but there wasn’t any time to think of a plan, just to react. Someone was trying to kill them. Why anyone would want to murder them was beyond Evan’s comprehension.
“Why?” Brandon breathed the same thought aloud as they ran. “Why did someone shoot me?”
“Probably some junkies,” Evan guessed. “Some meth-heads trying to rob us. They probably didn’t think anybody was home.”
The breeze was stiff on their faces as they ran, hunched low. The main road was up ahead a quarter mile, and they would follow it until they got to the Gappert’s place. Richard and Darlene Gappert were their nearest neighbors, about three-quarters of a mile down the road.
The collective daisy-like faces of the plants shunned the intruders. The sunflowers were only interested in following their illuminating god as it chased across the southern sky. Despite their apathy, one of the plants managed to trip Evan as he ran bare-chested through the bristly leaves.
A bee stung his exposed shoulder and some part of him wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Only minutes ago, he had been chiding his best friend about upsetting the bees, and now he was the one who attracted the stinger. After they got to the Gappert’s and called the McLean County Sheriff, he knew Brandon would get a laugh out of that little irony.
When they got to the ditch along the road, they were both sucking air. The makeshift bandage around Brandon’s hand was seeping with a steady flow of blood. His own shirt and jeans were splattered with dark streaks. He had been exerting himself, increasing the blood flow when he should have been trying to keep his heart rate in check.
Evan thought back to the safety training they received at the Falkirk Mine. “We need to keep your hand elevated. Keep applying pressure. And we have to slow down your heart rate.”
“Kinda hard,” Brandon wheezed, “when we’re running.”
“Okay, then sit here in the ditch. I’ll run over to Dick and Darlene’s and come back for you.”
A rusting, corrugated culvert jutted from an approach between the road and the section line trail that bordered the sunflower field. Brandon parked himself on a patch of curlycup gumweed, using the steel cylinder as a backrest. He laid his arm on the culvert and placed his uninjured hand over the blood-soaked knot of cotton. His face was pale and sweaty, and he was breathing hard.
Evan glanced back across the sunflower field to their house in the distance. Not more than a couple hundred yards away, a camouflaged figure stalked the trail they had cut through the flat field.
He dropped down and began to crawl over to Brandon. Evan felt sweat drip down his arm and when he placed weight on his right hand, a wave of pain burned from his shoulder. Only then, did he realize that it was blood and not sweat that trickled from a wound in his shoulder. Some part of his mind remembered stumbling minutes ago and feeling a bee sting.
“You’ve been shot too!” Brandon groaned.
Among the flat prairie fields, there weren’t many options for concealment, and they would never outrun the shooter.
“He’s following us,” Evan hissed. “We need to hide! Can you shift?”
“It’s been a while,” Brandon admitted. “But I think so. Think we can both fit in the culvert?”
“You will for sure. Do it.”
Evan watched as his friend grimaced. After a moment of concentration, his lean body began to shrink, and his face became narrow and flared. Brandon’s ears migrated to the top of his head as they became triangular. Hair and skin and clothes were replaced with short, ruddy fur across his backside, white fur along his front. The stylish skinny-jeans that minutes ago had been shaking to hip-hop were now a bushy tail. The blood-soaked bandage melted away, and his damaged hand was replaced with a paw to match the other three, though this one was bleeding.
They hadn’t considered the injury, and Evan had already donated his shirt to form the bandage. He would need to kick off his shoes and use a sock to aide his friend. He picked up the fox to help him into the culvert where he would be safe. In his fox form, his friend weighed maybe 25 pounds and was easy to slide backward into the rusty cylinder.
Brandon looked past Evan toward the sunflowers and his fox-eyes grew wide with alarm. A half-second later, a hole appeared between his eyes and his body went first rigid, then limp. Black matter and red fur splattered the yellow gumweed growing along the embankment.
Evan dropped his best friend’s body and fell backward. His mouth opened in a silent scream as he looked up at the silhouette leering above him.
The hunter’s Mossy Oak head cover concealed everything but a pair of rage-filled eyes. A hint of gun smoke escaped the muzzle brake of the rifle before the wind stole it away. The barrel was pointed at him.
Evan squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the trigger to be pulled. When he closed his eyes, he saw Brandon’s face. He opened them and blinked up at the killer. “Why are you doing this to us?”
The hunter said a word, but the head cover and wind conspired to muffle his voice. When the killer took his hand off his rifle’s foregrip to pull down the mask, Evan seized his chance to escape.
He launched himself at the stranger, catching him by surprise. The man fell backward, swinging his rifle like a club and barely missing Evan’s head. The hunter fell into the sunflower field. Evan ran up and over the road to the ditch on the opposite side.
As he ran, Evan focused his thoughts on shifting. He and his best friend didn’t practice their abilities as changelings often, choosing to live their lives full-time as regular humans. Their families never understood their lifestyle choices, but he and Brandon understood one another. They had that, at least.
He grunted as his bones creaked and slid. Coarse fur sprouted from his skin as his body morphed from its human form. He was on the north shoulder of the gravel road when he dropped to all fours. Evan would be able to run fast, to get away then. His senses became sharper, his eyesight just a little better, his nose more focused, his hearing more acute. He knew that even in human form, changelings had elevated senses when compared to NonDruws, but in his animal form everything was more primal, more instinct-driven.
If only he would have practiced his shifting, he might have been fast enough to get into his coyote form and run away. He was too slow, though, and no sooner was he transformed into a coyote did he smell the hunter. He heard the rifle’s action and a deafening crack.
The bullet crashed through his rib cage and dropped him. Evan rolled twice down the ditch and came to rest as a crumpled heap, his neck twisted beneath his body. It hurt to breathe. A strange texture confused him. It felt like a fire was alive in his chest.
The growing haze of pain made it hard to make sense of the human who approached from downwind. Before Evan inhaled his final breath, he thought of his salsa garden and how they had left the water on. Those sweet tomatoes would be ruined with rot.
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