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Ann Gimpel is a USA Today bestselling author. A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago. Since then her short fiction has appeared in several webzines and anthologies. Her longer books run the gamut from urban fantasy to paranormal romance. Once upon a time, she nurtured clients. Now she nurtures dark, gritty fantasy stories that push hard against reality. When she's not writing, she's in the backcountry getting down and dirty with her camera. She's published over fifty books to date, with several more planned for 2018 and beyond. A husband, grown children, grandchildren, and wolf hybrids round out her family.

Blood and Magic by Ann Gimpel

Magic didn't just find Luke Caulfield. It chased him down, bludgeoned him, and has been dogging him ever since. Some lessons are harder than others, but Luke embraces danger, upping the ante to give it one better. An enforcer for the Coven, a large, established group of witches, his latest assignment is playing bodyguard to the daughter of Coven leaders.

Abigail Ruskin is chaperoning a spoiled twelve-year-old from New York to her parents' home in Utah Territory when Luke gets on their stagecoach in Colorado. A powerful witch herself, Abigail senses Luke's magic, but has no idea what he's doing on her stagecoach. Stuck between the petulant child and Luke's raw sexual energy, Abigail can't wait for the trip to end.

Unpleasant truths surface about the child. While Abigail's struggling with those, wraiths, wolves, and dark mages launch an attack. Luke's so attracted to Abigail, she's almost all he can think about, but he's leery too. The child is just plain evil. Is Abigail in league with her? It might explain the odd attack that took out their driver and one of their horses. In over his head, he summons enforcer backup.

Will they help him save the woman he's falling in love with, or demand her immediate execution?

CURATOR'S NOTE

USA Today bestseller Ann Gimpel writes "dark gritty fantasy" stories that she says push hard against reality. I think they shine a light on another corner of reality, and make us see the world in a slightly different way.

Ann found me online years ago, as she was one of the masterminds behind that limited edition boxed ebook set which included several of us in this bundle (me, Ann, Melissa, Caridad, and Pauline). We figured out that we had similar tastes in fiction, which is why we're doing a variation on the set here at StoryBundle.

Ann's Blood and Magic is set in the 1800s, but it's not steampunk. It's historical fiction with magic. Alternate history, in its own way, or maybe Weird Western. No matter how you label the story, you'll enjoy reading it. Ann makes the wild West (and hers really is wild) live. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

REVIEWS

  • "Beautifully written, great world building. This is the beginning of a magical series set in the 1800s. The world building is impeccable. I was able to smell the stench of the wraiths in the air, and hear the pants of mad wolves on my heels. I felt the lack of understanding of those who had no magic. Characters became living, breathing entities. Territories became real places on the map."

    – Goodreads Review
  • "1860s history never seemed so alive with action, drama, suspense and romance as it does in this book. I loved it. A little paranormal, a lot crazy and a smidge of the mysterious. More please."

    – Goodreads Review
  • "Wow! I didn't realize that the 1860's could get any more deadly and dangerous. Just everyday problems of traveling from New York city to the Utah territory got worse when you add the paranormal. I did like the idea of steampunk making it maybe not our old west, but another. I can't wait for the next one in the series."

    – Goodreads Review
  • "This is an amazing story about love and magic in the pioneer days. It's a paranormal romance with extremely erotic events. It's definitely a steamy read, but the writer doesn't just focus on that. You experience heartbreak when a child is lost and suspense all throughout. A well developed read. I can't wait until I can get my hands on the next in the series."

    – Goodreads Review
  • "I loved every minute of this book. It can only get better. This book had me chomping at the bit from the minute I read the description. There is so much action and magic it is fascinating."

    – Goodreads Review
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Prologue

A village west of Boston

1830

Luke ran as if the devil dogged his heels. Breath caught in his throat. His lungs burned. Running and crying weren't a good mix, but Ma was dead and he couldn't help himself. The thing Ma had turned into danced behind his eyes and filled his mind with terror. His foot twisted sideways into a pothole and he nearly fell. Panting, he came to an abrupt halt and sucked air hard into lungs that had forgotten how to cooperate. When the world quit spinning, he straightened and rubbed his eyes until Ma disappeared and all he saw was the rocky, pitted road, slimed with mud from the rain.

"Good thing I stopped," he muttered. The turnoff to Aethelred's was behind him—not by much, but any time wasted wasn't good. Luke always avoided the town wizard with his long, white hair and penetrating dark eyes that looked right through you, but today was different.

Pa's words rang in his mind. "Run like the wind, son. Bring Aethelred. He's our only hope…"

Luke shoved strands of wet black hair out of his face and started up the steep hill to the school where some of the village youth studied mage craft with the wizard. Branches grabbed at his damp wool clothing almost as if the trees were alive. Shudders wracked his body. Magic made him uncomfortable. He didn't trust what he couldn't see.

Darkness closed as he huffed up the hill, and Luke's heart stuttered in his chest. Was it night already? If it was, then he was too late. He twisted his head wildly about. Trees were blocking what little light the gray day provided.

Thank Christ! I still have time.

He winced and tried to take back the Christ word since he wasn't supposed to swear. Once his Ma would've scolded him, but not anymore.

The hill ended abruptly. At the far side of a clearing stood an imposing stone house with smoke curling from one of its chimneys. Shutters covered the windows. The air around the house shimmered, but Luke ignored what felt like a warning to stay away. He pelted across the scrub grass and up the front steps. Before he could knock, the door creaked inward.

Aethelred eyed him shrewdly. "Well don't just stand there with your mouth hanging open, lad. Did you finally come to your senses about your magic?" The mage quirked a brow, his black robes fluttering about him.

"Pa sent me, he…" Luke choked out, but his tongue had taken root and refused to form words. He tried again. Wizard or no, Aethelred couldn't read his mind. Or maybe he could. Luke cringed away from the uncomfortable thought and forced his next words. "Pa said you've got to come. There's trouble—"

Aethelred drew his brows together into a thick, white line. "Wraiths. I see them in your head. Tell me quick, lad. Who'd they get?" He blew out an annoyed-sounding breath. "Your Pa's a right fool to send you off so close to dark. Is he wanting to lose his only son too?"

"Ma. They took Ma." The words burst out of him. Luke squeezed his eyes tight and bit down hard on his lip.

"Get inside." Aethelred yanked on Luke's arm and slammed the heavy oak door behind him. "What'd your Pa do?"

"Nothing yet. He said we had to burn her. That you'd have something to add to the fire so she'd, uh, stay dead." In a burst of brazenness he didn't know he possessed, Luke tugged at the wizard's sleeve. "Come on. We've got to hurry."

"You should've arrived earlier. They walk at night." Aethelred shrugged Luke's hand off. "Too late now, lad. We'd never make it back to your farm in time."

Luke ran for the door, intent on flight. If the wizard wouldn't help, he needed to get home, be there for his Pa and sissies. He pulled the latch, but it wouldn't open. Aethelred's arms closed around him from behind.

"Damn you," Luke cried, struggling to get free. "I've got to warn Pa and the girls. We never had wraiths before. Pa, he didn't know. He thought he was supposed to let Ma rest through two nights."

To his shame and horror, great gasping sobs tore out of him, leaching the air from his lungs. Luke didn't want to be fifteen anymore. He wanted his mother back, wanted the world to be right again, where your parents knew what to do. Where whether your family lived or died didn't rest on a half-grown kid's shoulders.

"It's not fair." Aethelred apparently read his thoughts easily, which amplified Luke's discomfort a hundredfold. "But if you go back to your farm, your Ma will get you. You'll end up one of them."

"Come with me."

"I think not." Aethelred released him and turned away.

"But you know magic…" Luke's voice trailed off.

A very large raven perched on a rafter squawked, "Know magic, know magic."

Luke startled. He hadn't noticed the bird until it spoke.

The wizard snorted. "Of course I know magic. It's a precarious magic, though—and not within my ken—that'll save someone from wraiths once they've risen."

"I can't abandon my family."

Aethelred looked hard at him. Luke tried to meet his gaze, but couldn't. It was as if the old man was sifting through his soul, hunting for something. "You have talent for magic," the wizard said. "I've told you that before. I could train you, but you must welcome the call to waken your power." He hesitated for a long moment and then asked, "Are you willing?"

Luke shook his head. "No. The answer is still no. I've got to go home. Try to help." His shoulders slumped. "I still wish you'd come."

Aethelred sighed. "It doesn't work that way, lad. If we go, you'll be the first one your Ma singles out."

"Not you?"

"Not me," Aethelred agreed, then added, "I'm not her blood."

"If you can protect yourself, do the same for me," Luke demanded, anger edging out fear.

"It doesn't work that way," Aethelred said sadly. "You're her blood kin. Blood calls to blood from the other side."

Luke moved a few steps farther into the wizard's home and paced in a restless circle, his hands clasped behind him. Mercifully, Aethelred let him be.

It didn't take long to solidify his decision, and Luke stomped forward until he stood dead center in front of the wizard. He forced himself to meet the man's dark gaze. Despite being taller, it was painful to hold his ground. Power fairly oozed from Aethelred until the air thickened with the feel of it.

"I'm going home," Luke said. Terror ground at the edges of his sanity, eroding it one filament at a time. Looking at the wizard hurt his eyes, so he gave up and dropped his gaze to his boot tops. "Is there something—anything—I can do to protect myself?" Luke's heart hammered against his ribcage. His breath came fast and hard.

The wizard blew out an annoyed-sounding grunt and muttered, "I suppose I can at least do that much for you." He unfastened a heavy gold chain from about his neck. "Take this. When you run into trouble—and you will—grasp the stone and call for the goddess. She may help you. Other than that, light a torch. Wraiths avoid fire, unless they've summoned their own to hurt you." He pursed his lips into a hard, flat line. "They have to be wraiths for a while before they learn to call upon fire of their own, so you're likely safe on that front."

Luke gazed at the smooth, dark stone hanging from the chain. Something warm and inviting glimmered in its center. His fingers shook so hard he had trouble with the clasp, but he finally managed to tuck both stone and chain beneath his wet top. They felt soothing against his skin. "Thank you," he managed through suddenly chattering teeth. "I've got to leave now."

Before I lose my nerve and can't go at all.

The door behind him opened, scraping against its hinges, even though no one had touched it. Spinning sharply, Luke ran for all he was worth out the door and down the steps.

The raven's cries of, "Fool, fool, foolish lad," followed him until he was well into the trees.

Panting and with a stitch in his side, Luke didn't slow until he was almost home. So much time had slipped away, it was long past full dark. He'd puked up what little was in his stomach hours before, but the taste of sickness lingered in his mouth. Leaving the road, he crept along a familiar path that led to a cave he went to when he wanted to get away from everyone. Some of the straw there might make a torch—if it wasn't soaked through.

It had been tough to manage his fear while he'd been running. Once he slowed to wend his way under low-hanging evergreen boughs, terror threatened to paralyze him. What if his cave was some sort of channel the wraiths used to emerge from their underground lairs? What if…?

Stop that, he chided himself. I could've stayed with Aethelred. I didn't.

Luke bit the inside of his mouth until he tasted blood. The coppery tang broke through his inertia and he surged forward, pulling rushes and tree limbs away from the cave's hidden entrance. A faint, wavery light shone from within. Horror gripped him, tightening his gut, and he spun on his heel to flee.

"Pa? That you?" His sister's thin voice surprised him. Tamra sounded terrified, as if she was barely hanging on.

Yanking more of the cover back from the cave's entrance, Luke called, "No. It's me."

"Luke!" she exclaimed, followed by, "Where's Pa?" Her seven-year-old voice shrilled with fear.

"Don't know."

Gotta be careful, they might've gotten her…

Luke paced the length of the cave. Warily, he watched his sister and the smoky fire sputtering next to her. Aethelred said wraiths avoided fire, so maybe, just maybe, Tamra really was his sister, not some undead horror in sister form.

"Luke—" She gazed up at him out of eyes the same bright blue as their mother's. "Hold me," she whimpered. "I'm s-scared."

Unable to deny his littlest sister—not when she sounded like that, so anxious and so alone—he swallowed his dread and knelt next to where she huddled under a tattered blanket. The minute he was on the ground, Tamra threw herself against him, mewling with fright.

"Hush, hush," he murmured, smoothing her hair and reassured by the all-too-human warmth of her small body. Ma had been cold as death after the wraiths took her. "Tell me what happened."

Tamra pushed herself slightly away from him. Her wispy, blonde hair stuck out at odd angles, and her eyes shone with tears. "We—well, Pa—was waitin' for you to get back…"

"Waiting," he interrupted, and then he kicked himself. What earthly difference did her grammar make now?

"You been to school, I ain't."

He hugged her. "Go on, Tam. Sorry."

"It was gettin' dark." Tamra cleared her throat. "Pa, I think he figured it'd been wrong to send you off so close to dark and all. And he was just pacin' up and down the cabin somethin' fierce. Then…then…" Her voice trailed off. "I can't," she mumbled and squirmed back against him.

"You have to. I need to know."

Her small head nodded against his chest. The rest of her body trembled. Voice muffled against him, she went on, her words halting. "Ma, she walked into the big room just like always, even though she'd been laid out dead in the bedroom all day. She was smilin' and she sort of sidled up to Pa and put her arms 'round him. He had this…look on his face. It was awful. He screamed at me, told me to run.

"I…" Her voice broke. She tried again. "I wanted to go to Ma. So bad. But I did what Pa said."

He tightened his arms around her. "Where're Lilly and Marta?"

"Pa, he sent 'em to the Waverlys' farm so they'd be safe. I was supposed to go too, but I didn't want to leave Ma. So I snuck back."

My sisters. They're all still alive. Thank the goddess I came back.

"Did you ever tell anyone about this cave?"

She shook her head. Tamra had followed him one day, tracked him without him knowing. Lilly and Marta weren't nearly as adventurous, preferring to spend their time spinning, cooking, and sewing when they weren't in school. Because Tamra was youngest, their mother kept her home, saying she'd be lonely if all three girls were gone. Tamra had chafed at Ma's edict, and Luke planned to tutor her once the winter crops were in. Suddenly that felt like another world.

Was it safe to spend the night here? Maybe, if he stoked the fire… When dawn came, they could head for the Waverlys' house, half a league away. Tamra wriggled in his arms.

"We need to build up the fire, sissy. Where'd you get something dry?"

"Didn't. That's why it's smokin'."

"What'd you light it with?"

"My flint."

"I've got to get some tinder in here. Do what you can to keep it burning till I'm back."

Tamra let go of him. "I understand," she said, her quavering voice solemn.

Luke's heart went out to her, and he swore he'd do whatever he had to, if it meant keeping her safe from harm.

He stayed within a few paces of the cave. Every rustle in the thick undergrowth made him jump. He longed for a torch, but darkness was his friend. As soon as he was back inside, he whittled strips of wood, paying them into the fire. Tamra wrapped herself in the ragged blanket and fell into an uneasy sleep, twitching and moaning.

He tried to stay awake, but the fire warmed the cave, and he caught himself dozing a time or two. When he woke again, his mother and father stood on the far side of the flames with bodies like tall, thin puffs of smoke, their eyes gleaming unnaturally bright.

"Luke," Ma cooed, holding out her arms. "We found you. Come here so I can hold you, son of mine. I'm lonely."

Mouth agape, Luke glanced from one to the other. Pa's eyes were strange, tracking in opposite directions, and they weren't blue anymore, but a muddy charcoal. Luke looked closer. Ma's eyes were the same red-rimmed smoke shade and both his parents had long, blood-red claws where their fingers used to be. Luke's stomach clenched. If it hadn't been empty, he'd have vomited.

"Your Ma, she told you something," Pa said, his voice gravelly and odd-sounding.

Out of the corner of one eye, Luke saw Tamra edge toward their parents. "No," he cried sharply and snaked out his arm to grab hold of his sister. "You have to stay on this side of the fire." When he pulled her close to him, she was shaking, her eyes round as small moons.

"I-I think I was knowin' that," she whimpered. "It's just…"

"Hush," he said. "I understand."

Luke's hand crept under his woolen tunic. He grasped the amulet and called for Danu, mother goddess of the Earth. Aethelred just said to call for the goddess. Since he hadn't said which one, Luke hoped against hope Danu could help them.

A hissing intake of breath from the far side of the fire shocked him. "I'm your ma. You pay attention to me." The wraith didn't sound nearly as friendly this time. Nor anything like his mother.

Closing his eyes, Luke sought Danu again, begged for her protection—and her wisdom. He thought he felt…something from the amulet, but he could've imagined it.

The things that had been his parents roared their fury from the far side of the fire pit and reached out with spectral arms. Tamra made another run for Ma, and he dragged her back. Nerves on edge, frayed like old rope, he finally turned away since he couldn't bear to look at what had become of his parents any more. Tamra tried to talk to him, but he shushed her. He didn't want to disrupt what had become an internal litany as he pleaded with Danu for help.

Hours passed. Luke paid out the wood, a bit at a time. He maintained a thin line of flames between them and the wraiths, but the feeble fire flickered ominously. Could it last through until dawn? That was looking less and less likely. Fear for his other sisters nagged him, but he reasoned if Ma and Pa were here, they weren't at the Waverlys' farm, so Marta and Lilly should be safe. He added them to his prayers as a hedge against a phalanx of unknowns.

Luke cast a desperate eye about for something else to burn, but didn't see anything. Tamra had used up the straw to get the fire going. Only a couple chunks of wood remained, and it was still black as pitch beyond where Ma and Pa had planted themselves.

"We're runnin' out," Tamra whispered, clutching his arm and pointing to the few remaining shards of wood.

The husks of his parents leaned closer, their mouths curved in feral grins.

They're practically salivating. They've figured out there's not enough wood. Soon as the fire wanes, they'll be on us.

Luke cursed himself for a fool, his anger flaring. All his prayers had done was keep him from coming up with a real solution.

Tamra twisted and stabbed a grimy finger in front of her. "What's that?"

An odd light, all colors, and yet no color he could name, oozed through the rocks at the rear of the cave. "I don't know," he muttered. As he stared, mesmerized, the otherworldly glow grew to such a brilliance it hurt his eyes. The amulet, still clutched in his hand, warmed and began to throb.

The fire made a wet, gurgling noise and guttered. Like a hunting dog on red alert, his father jumped the pit, grabbed Tamra, and hauled her toward the mouth of the cave. His sister wailed piteously, writhing and kicking in Pa's grasp.

"No!" Luke screamed. "Noooooo…" He let go of the amulet and lunged after the pair, grabbing Tamra's feet and yanking as hard as he could. Tam screamed louder. Luke kept on tugging. As Ma lowered her face for the kiss that would steal Tamra's soul, the amulet turned red hot against his chest.

The brightness coming from the rear of the cave pulsed with energy.

His father cursed, words he'd never used before spewing from him, but at least he loosened his grip on Tamra. Luke sprinted toward the rear of the cave holding his sister close. His mother shielded her own body with her hands, but the light curled around her, creating noxious-smelling smoke.

The brilliance was so intense, Luke had to shut his eyes. When he pried them open, Ma and Pa were gone—and so was the mysterious light. The cave sat empty, except for him and Tamra, who was dangling from his hands and still screaming.

Repositioning his sister, he cradled her against him. "Ssssh, hush," he murmured over and over.

"I wet myself," she sobbed, face buried against him.

"Never mind. I would've too, if it'd been me."

"Put me down so I can get my drawers off."

A burnt smell, different from the fire pit, rose and he realized it was his own flesh, scored where the amulet rested against it. He rubbed at his breastbone, but that made it hurt more.

"They're gone," Tamra mumbled from somewhere behind him. "You saved us, Luke." She was still snuffling, but seemed in control of her fear.

Luke readied himself to sit out what remained of the night. He'd just settled against a damp, curving wall when an unpleasant thought struck. "The wraiths. We ran them off here, so they've likely gone after Marta and Lilly." He recognized the ring of truth as soon as the words were out.

A dim version of the curious light in the cave returned, almost as if it agreed.

"If Ma and Pa are truly gone," Tamra sounded much less scared than she had earlier, "we might could take the horse to the Waverlys'."

Of course. Why didn't I think of that?

"Great idea." Luke realized he should've taken the horse when he went after Aethelred—not that it would have altered the outcome. But Abel was a plow horse and rarely ridden, so it never occurred to him.

He pushed heavily to his feet. "Let's go get Abel. We'll toss a blanket over him. In fact, bring that one." He pointed to hers, wadded in a heap near the wall.

Nodding, she scrambled up. "Think it's safe?" she muttered and peered at the odd light, still suffusing the cave with its comforting warmth.

"Truth?"

"Yes, I'm wantin' the truth." Tamra drew herself tall, a solemn light in her eyes.

"I don't know how safe it is." He swallowed hard. "Probably not safe at all, but we have to warn the Waverlys." He hesitated. "There's something in this cave taking care of us. Let's hope it follows us out of here." He took Tamra's hand. "Come on."

It was black as pitch outside. And cold, but at least it had stopped raining. A slender thread of the multi-hued light floated out of the cave and wrapped itself around the two of them, rather like a length of shimmery rope. Its soft glow was welcome, and Luke managed not to stumble as he led the way to the moss-coated shed where Abel was tethered.

Clucking softly to the horse, Luke tossed the blanket onto his broad back. He untied Abel's halter, and then boosted Tamra up. She ducked to avoid the shed's low-hanging roofline. Luke led the horse out, vaulted onto its back, and turned its head toward the Waverlys' farm. They bounced unpleasantly once he whipped Abel into a ragged trot. When he looked down, Luke was surprised to find his free hand still clutching Aethelred's amulet.

A lighter gray painted the far horizon, and pink streaks formed, pale as seashells. "Hurry," Luke urged, gripping Abel with his knees. "Hurry." Tamra's small body, rigid with determination, pushed against him. He stared down the deserted road, willing the Waverlys' farm to appear.

The glowing rope unwound itself and stretched outward into a straight line.

"I think it means for us to walk from here," Luke muttered, not understanding how he could possibly know that, but knowing it all the same. He wrapped his arm around Tamra and jumped down.

"Abel's leaving," Tamra whispered urgently.

"It's all right. He knows the way home." Luke looked around nervously and followed the ghostly light's trail, with his sister clinging to his side. The amulet warmed again in his hand. He clutched it so hard it cut into his flesh, and blood trickled down his palm.

The road turned a sharp bend. Light shone from the windows of the Waverlys' rambling, two-story farmhouse. Folks used lanterns sparingly because it took a lot of work to render the fat to fuel them. Did all that light mean Ma and Pa were somewhere close? The fine hairs on the back of Luke's neck stood on end, and he combed the dark for any sign of the wraiths.

Tamra gasped, "Luke! Look there," and clung even tighter to his hand.

Outlined in the light of the coming day, Ma and Pa grinned at them from the far side of the Waverlys' front yard. They weren't as…solid as they'd been in the dark of the cave, but they leered and beckoned, calling for their four children.

"Blood knows its own," Ma crooned, her voice simple and terrible. "I birthed you all. Come to me now." The farmhouse door opened, and then thudded shut. Luke heard raised voices inside and understood one of his sisters tried to go to Ma, but had been pulled back. His parents shambled toward the farmhouse, their eyes glistening brightly.

"Go," he hissed at Tamra. "Run onto the porch and get inside." He placed his body between his sister and his parents. Acid curdled his empty stomach and tears stung his eyes. He wanted Pa to be, well, his Pa again. And Ma… She'd fed him, cared for him… How could she have turned into the atrocity advancing across the yard?

Tamra's footsteps pounded as she raced for the porch and safety. Another slam of the door told him she was in the Waverlys' capable hands. With the glowing rope of light in place around him, and apprehension chewing a hole in his guts, Luke shut out the rest of the world and faced the wraiths.

"You shall leave here," he called out sternly, except it wasn't his voice. Someone else spoke through him. It terrified him, but that didn't matter. What did was sudden understanding he'd been picked to kill the wraiths that had been his parents—or be killed trying.

His head whirled, but power humming through him kept him on his feet. Things grew disjointed after that. Pa leapt toward the porch. Before Luke could react, Ma jumped him and he had to push her chill weight off himself again and again. Then it was Pa he grappled with, and then Ma again. In a distant corner of his mind, Luke wondered which was worse: killing his parents or letting them kill him.

He struggled to his feet for the hundredth time, or maybe it was the thousandth. He'd lost count. His head pounded, and his heart ached as if he'd been stabbed.

The amulet grew hot, blazing hot, and the shimmering cord tightened about him. Fire erupted from his outstretched hands, but his parents—and something else he couldn't quite make out—were finally fading, scattering in the light pouring off him. In moments, they'd be gone.

"Ma, Pa," he moaned, surprised to hear his own voice. "I love you. I'm sorry, so very sorry…"

Something constricted his throat, choking off his air, and the other voice took over his vocal chords again. "You are banished from the light," it shouted. "You shall not return. Not ever."

After that, saying anything became a struggle because the magical cord cut off his wind. The stench of his own burning flesh filled his nostrils, gagging him. Gasping for air, he collapsed in the wet mud of the yard.

* * * *

When Luke came back to himself, he lay on a sofa in the Waverlys' familiar front room. Aethelred bent over him, wrapping soft bandages around his hands. "You came after all," Luke said weakly.

"That I did," the wizard replied. "You called for the goddess, and she sent me to help things along. Hold still now so I can finish with your hands. One was burnt nigh on down to bone."

"Are they gone?" Luke was almost afraid to ask, but he had to know.

"Yes," Aethelred replied, and a savage note chimed beneath that one word. "You did it, lad. They'll not be bothering any of us, not ever again." The wizard hunkered down and looked right into Luke's eyes. The amulet was back around his neck and this time his piercing gaze didn't hurt. "I'm sorry they're lost to you, but we saved your kin from the half-life of the damned. There couldn't be a better outcome."

"Others," Luke croaked. "There must be other wraiths." He looked blearily at the wizard. It was hard to think because his brain felt swaddled in wool.

"Yes, there are other undead, but they're not your kin. It makes a difference. Once you're better, we'll—"

"Can we see him?" Tear-stained voices interrupted the wizard.

Aethelred frowned against his white beard. "Those sisters of yours have been nattering on ever since I carried you in here and laid you down."

Footsteps clattered on wooden risers. In a flurry of long hair, wet cheeks, stroking hands, and soft words, his sisters surrounded him.

"All right," Luke said gruffly. "I really am all right. No need to fuss so." He disentangled himself from the bevy of embraces, afraid he'd cry.

Recognition of something wrong sank slowly into his befuddled brain, and his eyes widened. "Tamra, where's Tamra?" He staggered to his feet and stared stupidly at the corners of the room as if she might crawl out from under a piece of furniture.

Joad Waverly moved in front of Luke and placed gnarled, work-stained hands on his shoulders. "It was my fault," he said. "I wouldn't let her in."

"But I heard the door—" Luke began.

"Yes, and I slammed it. I'm sorry, son." Joad's nostrils flared. "Tamra'd been out of doors in the dark with…with what was left of your folks. Couldn't risk it." He shook his head sharply. "I had Clare and your other sisters to think of." The big man let go of Luke and turned away.

Luke sat down hard because his legs shook so violently they refused to hold him upright. The tears he'd fought against earlier rose hot and bitter. Anguish roiled through him and he sobbed helplessly, beyond caring if it made him look weak. Marta and Lilly hovered, trying to stand in for the father and mother all of them had lost.

"Once you're a bit better, you'll be coming with me." Aethelred spoke as if it were fact.

Throat thick, Luke swiped ineffectually at his streaming eyes with a bandaged hand. "I can't," he croaked. His littlest sister, the one he'd sworn to protect, was lost to him. "I've got to take care of them." He gestured toward Marta and Lilly wedged on either side of him.

"Where would you be taking him?" Joad asked, and pushed a hand through his thick, dark hair streaked with gray. His brown eyes caught the wizard's gaze and held it.

"To my school."

Joad nodded. Exchanging glances with his wife, he blew out a sharp breath. "Me and Clare, we thought as much when we saw all them lights out in the yard. We'll look after the girls and both farms till Luke can get back here. Least we can do."

Shaking long, gray hair out of her lined face, Clare echoed, "Yes, it's the least we can do."

"I couldn't let you," Luke protested. "My family's my responsibility."

"Go, son," Joad said. "Soon as you're strong enough. Things will be all right here."

A strange desire mingled with Luke's grief. It was so foreign it took him a few moments to sort it out, to realize he wanted to learn about magic, needed to learn. Just like he needed to eat and breathe. Whatever he'd awakened in the cave called to him, sang to him, dared him to pluck the strings holding his inner knowledge captive.

"I feel it too, lad." Weariness creased Aethelred's forehead, yet his eyes shone with hope. "It won't go away. You have no choice after tonight. The call, it comes to each of us in its own fashion. The way your magic found you, well, it was harsher than most." He exhaled softly, his dark eyes full of warmth as they rested on Luke. "Rest now. There's time yet before we must leave."

Luke's eyelids felt suddenly heavy and he let them close. The warmth stealing about him was probably Aethelred's doing, but he didn't fight it. Burned, weary, and heart sore, he called up images of his parents and sister. Once he'd bid them farewell, he let the wizard's spell carry him away.