Hernando stormed into the ranch house, his temper barely in check. “Janice. Janice, what are you doing? Where is that boy? We should already have the ritual under way!”
An eerie silence answered him. The furious energy animating Hernando drained away as he walked cautiously into the great room, eyes scanning the room and nearby kitchen for any signs of Janice or the rancher’s son. The building smelled faintly of smoke. An uncomfortable feeling settled in his stomach and his hand absently went to the sack of coins he’d taken from the pay box and stuck in his coat’s inner pocket. There was barely any gold left there, which he’d put aside for the ritual. Most of it was silver coins and offered him little extra power if things turned against him.
“Janice?” He called once more. Softer. He wasn’t expecting a response and he didn’t get one.
Careful, cautious steps took him through the dining room and into the kitchen. The bucket from earlier was no longer by the sink and he saw the edge of a puddle of water spilling out from around the kitchen table. Edging over to the kitchen wall, Hernando peered past the table. Sure enough, Janice’s body lay on the floor there, her skin unnaturally pale.
No enemy was crouched there, waiting, so Hernando allowed himself to relax. Just a bit. When he knelt down by Janice he discovered that, although her head was still attached to her body, her throat had been cut open. It hadn’t been immediately apparent, since there was no scent of blood or gold anywhere on her body. The inner flesh was almost the same color as her skin. There was a vaguely familiar whiff of metal in the air but it mixed with the smoke and he couldn’t pick it out.
He saw the bucket, lying discarded under the kitchen table. An odd place for it to wind up but it rested on its side, so it may have gotten kicked or just rolled there. Another odd detail he couldn’t figure out.
There were differences from Larry’s killing, too. Janice had been impaled through the chest, leaving a wound almost as wide as two fingers together. There were also slashes at bother her wrists. The entire body was damp, suggesting the puddle nearby had started when water was poured over it. Danica had mentioned Larry being wet, although he’d dried out by the time they investigated. Hernando poked two fingers into the puddle and smelled them. There was a vague smell of blood iron in the water but not a strong one. Curious.
Digging his fingers under the body, he lifted it just a bit and looked underneath. There was a deep gouge in the floor, roughly under the hole in her chest. He lowered Janice back into place and studied her again. The body looked like it lay where it had fallen, arms akimbo, although there were signs her legs, at least, had thrashed about, leaving scuffs and splinters on the wooden floor. He checked her hands for injuries but found none. Finally Hernando stood up and studied the kitchen and dining room again with a critical eye.
No matter how he looked at it, there hadn’t been a fight. No furniture was moved or broken, no scorching marked the walls, there was no smoke or blood or any indication of violence beyond what had killed Janice. That suggested she was taken by surprise or met someone she knew, and he knew he hadn’t killed her and Danica wasn’t capable of it.
Not because she didn’t want to, but because Janice was heavier in weight of metal and her elder in order of Changing. Either one of those would give her significant power over Danica, both together was impossible for such a young gold drinker to resist.
But Janice’s body hadn’t been posed like Larry’s was. Was it some kind of ritual? Had his coming just interrupted the last part of it? Or was the change in the posing of the body a part of some grand design he simply couldn’t see? Whatever it was, Hernando decided, it didn’t matter as much as finding Danica and getting out of there as fast as they possibly could. He had few advantages left to spend against this mysterious foe and he didn’t want to loose any of what remained today. It was time to cut losses and leave.
There would be time to rebuild their reserves of blood and gold. Foolishly staying to try and exact revenge or recover what was lost when he knew so little about the situation as a whole was just going to get him killed.
With that decision firmly made, he turned back towards the ranch house door to go out and look for Danica. He only got as far as the dining room before a deep rumbling swept through the room, like an earthquake but somehow less intense. Hernando swayed on his feet but managed to keep them but he heard a clattering noise from the loft.
Hernando froze, hand on his sword hilt.
The rumbling passed quickly, lasting little more than five seconds, but Hernando didn’t move for nearly a minute. He stood motionless, weight on the balls of his feet, straining his enhanced hearing to its utmost. Was someone in the loft? Or had something fallen over up there during the shaking? It wasn’t impossible but nothing on the ground floor had. He strained his memory to try and remember what Janice had told him she’d seen when she looked around up there.
He couldn’t remember any of it. There was no way to know whether there was anything up there to fall and clatter without going up there himself and that was something he wasn’t anxious to do. So, after no noise came from the loft for a full sixty count, he decided to just leave the house. And perhaps chain the front door shut. The slaughterhouse had plenty of chain to work with.
He was five feet from the door when Danica flew in and nearly bowled him over, her short arms wrapping around his waist as she screamed and yelled in fear. Or perhaps frustration. Either way, trying to stay quiet or pretend he’d left looking for Janice long ago wasn’t a viable strategy anymore. “Calm down, Danica,” he snapped, trying to pry her arms off so he could move freely. “What is the matter with you?”
She finally let go of him, took a deep breath and said, “I just met two people who had the rancher’s son with them. I tried to get him back but one of them turned into a tree and the other sang. They collapsed the canyon and nearly buried me alive. I came to find Janice and see what happened to her. We need to find those two and pay them back.”
“No, Danica,” Hernando said, his tone harsher than he intended. “We’re leaving.”
“Hernando!” Danica seemed horrified. “We can’t leave, you said we’d be Changing the rancher’s children and adding to-”
“Janice is dead, same as Larry,” he snapped. “All her gold is gone and there isn’t a drop of blood in her veins. We can’t afford to spare the resources now.”
Danica froze. “What?”
“You’ve been changed for two weeks, so you haven’t learned this yet but we’re ‘gold drinkers’ because we have to drink a little gold with blood iron in order to keep it under our control. The ritual starts you with a fair amount in reserve so you haven’t needed it yet.” He pointed to her wrist, which she was absently rubbing as the late afternoon sunlight glinted off of it. “And sometimes we have to spend it on things like that. That gold is going to flake away with the blood you healed yourself with. All it’s power is gone. I try to keep a stockpile in my veins but changing you and Larry ate up most of the coin I’ve found so that stockpile is running low. We don’t have much to replace it with. Now Larry and Janice are gone and I can’t reclaim their gold so we’re not changing anyone else until we can get more one way or another.”
“So… so we’re just going to leave when those two killed Larry and Janice?” She demanded, folding her arms over her chest. “You said gold was the king of metals, greater than even iron’s power to kill magic! It should let us kill two people! Gold is the ultimate power!”
“It is,” Hernando said between gritted teeth. “But we can only use that power if we have gold. And right now we don’t.”
Danica’s face screwed up in a way that told him a tantrum was coming.
He opened his mouth to head off whatever she was about to say. It didn’t matter. Before either of them could get a word out a clear, brilliant tone rang out through the great room. Both of their heads swiveled around to latch onto the sight of a single golden coin, bouncing once, twice, then a third time before rolling along the wooden floor. For a brief moment Hernando felt the siren call of the metal. He fought it down and shook his head to clear it, only to find that in the brief moment it took Danica had started towards the rolling coin, her eyes wide.
“Danica! That’s bait!” He took a single step towards her but then his feet turned towards the coin, forcing him to stop himself before he fell into the same trap she had.
She reached down to scoop up the shining piece of gold. A loud, whistling roar filled the room and a winged spear flew down from the loft, the jet of fire from the sulfurite embedded in the head wavering in odd ways, until it struck her square in the back and drove her to the ground. The coin bounced free from her hands and rolled away. With a direct threat to focus on Hernando found it easy to tear his attention away from it and look up to the loft.
The fire jet from the spear arced up and stopped at the hand of a figure there. The glare from the flames made it impossible to see him clearly. But it was a man, in a short brimmed hat and a suit, with one hand outstretched as if to grab the fire out of the air. In less time than it took to describe the propulsive blast from the spear went out. Danica tried to push up from the floor but failed. The point must have driven into the wood below her. It couldn’t have been some power of the spear itself. The sulfurite in it was dull and dark. Instead, an angry bead of red-orange light hovered a few inches away from the man’s palm.
With a single motion Hernando drew his own sword, a cup hilted saber, and ignited its own sulfurite crystal. The weapon’s fuller filled with fire. The man in the loft ignored Hernando, leaping down to land on Danica’s legs with an ugly snapping noise that interrupted her attempts to push herself up and pull the spear point free of the floor. With a single stomp on the winged langets of the spear he drove the head deeper into her back. Hernando was in the process of lifting his arm to launch an arc of flame from his weapon when he remembered what the man had done to the blast from his spear.
Cursing his own stupidity, he hooked his thumb around the vent lever of his sword and pulled, expelling the sulfur power of his weapon harmlessly and shaking it to make sure it was extinguished. The man turned his back on Danica and faced Hernando with a wry smile. “Not a bad decision,” he said. His voice had a strange tension to it. The man himself was on the short side, dressed in a tailored but worn blue suit with a sword of some kind at his waist. The bead of fire still hovered over his left hand as he took a step towards Hernando. “Now I’ve accepted a commission to bring the lot of you in but how I do that is up to you. If you – either one of you – choose to renounce your gold, pass back through the Change and turn yourself in as humans I can assure you fair consideration will be given to your circumstances. You probably didn’t choose to Change. But otherwise… well, you sound like you’ve already seen the other two of your group.”
Hernando laughed, bitter and flat. “And who are you to make such demands?
The other man reached up with his free hand to push back his hat a couple of degrees, so as to better make eye contact. “Just the best firespinner for hire in ten counties. My name’s Roy Harper.”