"Weirdest readings you'll ever see." Dr. Toby Harris looked up from his computer and winked at Beth McGuire, his assistant for that afternoon, before clearing his throat and raising his voice. "Colonel Jenkins, could you come over here, sir?"
The colonel hurried. Unlike his predecessor, he valued the input of the civilian scientists and interns at the Hawk's Nest Meteorological Station.
"Harris, please tell me you're programming the computer for video games," he said in a deceptively soft voice, after studying the readings that scrolled up the screen and repeated themselves.
"I've double-checked the program and the back-ups, sir," Beth said. "It's all real. No glitches or false echoes of any kind."
"But it makes no sense. Look at that." The colonel turned to a map that etched itself in color coding across the triple-size screen at the front of the room. That the computer displayed a visual without manual orders meant the situation had risen to a high priority rating--high enough for computer over-ride. And had risen too quickly.
"Exactly. Magnetic readings off the scale, high and low pressure cells with no discernable causes, all centered around mountainous regions." Toby typed new instructions into his own console, still studying the big screen. By this time, the readings had attracted the attention of most of the other scientists in the day shift, and small groups of whisperers formed all around the room.
"It's like whatever is causing the change is occurring at each spot, not some all-over weather pattern affecting the whole country at once," Beth offered. She shivered and rubbed at her wrists. Maybe it wasn't her imagination, after all, when she woke from strange dreams she couldn't remember, with her scars itching? Maybe she hadn't imagined the blue sparks she saw dancing across her scars before she was fully awake?
"Simultaneously? It would have to be a very powerful, wide-spread effect, whatever it is. There doesn't seem to be any indication of a central point where it could be coming from." Colonel Jenkins shook his head, never taking his eyes off the big screen as more bits of information were added with each passing second. "At least it looks like the effect has leveled off. Is it all over the globe, or just the continental U.S.?"
"Continental only." Beth sat back from her terminal. Her wrists itched. Not enough to hurt, but enough to distract her from her work. Power of suggestion, or reality? She didn't dare look at them. Chances were good, even if blue sparks of power danced across her scars, no one in the room would be able to see them.
Except another member of the Hunt -- and what were her chances of that? It had been seven years since she arrived on Earth, brought by the Hounds of Hamin, and she had yet to meet or be contacted by any other members of the Hunt. The few times she managed to reach the dreamrealm, she hadn't even sensed any other people, much less seen them moving among the shadows or heard voices.
Surreptitiously, she slipped her fingers in the cuffs of her sleeves and massaged all around her wrists. For once she was grateful for the dress code that required all workers, even the summer youth interns at the meteorological station, to wear long sleeves and either dress trousers or skirts while on duty. Her fingertips tingled at the contact, and she longed to tear at her skin with her nails, or bury her arms in ice to her elbows. Or sit and stare and concentrate until by force of will alone, she made a Hound appear from thin air.
Did she want a Hound to appear? Was it time for the Hunt to gather? Did she want her cousins and the other refugees from Gahlmorag's attacks to see the lump she had grown into? Her physical appearance was in direct opposite proportion to the brilliance of her mind. She looked like the typical fourteen-year-old, overweight, unpopular, super-brilliant geek. Unruly hair versus hyper-organized mental processes. Slow, clumsy limbs versus lightning-swift imagination. Acne blotches all over her skin versus...hmm, she couldn't find a comparison.
"McGuire, are you listening?" Colonel Jenkins asked, leaning over her.
"Hmm? Sorry. I was..." Beth ducked her head and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear while she scrambled to get away from her usual silent self-loathing. "I was trying to remember where I'd seen these readings before."
"Before?" Comprehension dawned across his face. "Good thinking. Harris--"
"Already on it, sir." Toby's fingers danced across his keyboard. "If such readings ever appeared since we've been able to record meteorological patterns, we'll be able to find them. Eventually," he added with another sideways grin for Beth, and a roll of his eyes.
"If the equipment was sensitive enough to catch it," she added softly.
What if these readings had been beyond the ability of Earth's science to record them, until now? What if the odd energy readings meant something more than just weather--interference from another dimension of reality, for example?
Beth forced herself to wait until her silent count reached fifty. She clenched her hands in the pockets of her skirt to keep her fingers off her wrists and concentrated to slow the furious pace of her heart.
"Colonel, could I be excused? I missed lunch today, and I'm feeling a little faint."
"Of course." He nodded, barely glancing her way.
Beth hurried out of her chair and across the room to the door. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of Colonel Jenkins slowly sinking into her vacated chair. She smiled, and hurried to the outside door. It banged open, as loud as the pounding of her heart in her ears as she raised her face and hands to the sun coming through the windows on the opposite wall.
"The Hunt!" she whispered, her voice breaking at the excitement that tightened every muscle in her body.
Beth Ann McGuire closed her eyes and remembered. A seven-year-old, frightened child named Bethayna Jaym. Lost on the mountainside near the McGuires' summer cabin. Drenched and shivering in the aftermath of a storm exactly like those that covered the country and so puzzled Toby Harris and Colonel Jenkins.
She held her wrists before her eyes. The scars ran in thin, neat, parallel lines, white against the tan of her skin. They seemed to glow in the brilliant sunshine, but she wanted to see the blue sparks.
"I have to get ready," she whispered.
In the section of windows where trees blocked the sunlight, she caught her reflection. Beth studied her pudgy cheeks and dull complexion full of red blotches, her tangle of hair that kept sliding free of the twisty, her slumped shoulders and wrinkled shirt. She tried to look at herself as another problem to be solved. A science project. Her prize was to be able to stand proudly with the other members of the Hunt and to be physically fit to do battle with Gahlmorag when they returned to their homeworld.
"Don't think about the rest of it," she muttered as she headed down the long, curving hallway from the control room to the living facilities of the station. She was only a third-level Firstborn. She would leave the logistics of how to get home and how to find the rest of the Hunt to the first-level Firstborn. Her job was simply to be ready.
First step: renovate her appearance and improve her physical health and fitness.
Today was June twentieth. She had until the end of August before her summer internship at the meteorological station ended and she had to go home, back to her high school where she was a geek and a lump that the nice girls pitied, the nice boys ignored, the vicious girls taunted, and the loser boys only paid attention to when they couldn't get more popular girls to take them seriously. Her brains hadn't been worthwhile until she won her scholarship and the internship. And she wouldn't have even attempted that if Mr. Gagliotti, the advisor for the Gifted program, hadn't pushed her. Even now, Beth thought she entered her application just because to him, she hadn't been invisible.
After that, things changed. She earned the surprised notice of the other students in the Gifted program homeroom, who didn't even realize she was there until Mr. Gagliotti announced her achievement. That had been interesting. And then there had been the scorn and not-so-subtle accusations of cheating or unfair help, from the ones who thought other members of the Gifted program were more deserving. Beth ignored them, just like they had ignored her all year.
The popular kids in the science club at school had finally swallowed their pride--worn down by the insistence of their advisor--and invited her to join them. Not that she was desperate enough to be grateful for the crumbs of acceptance they grudgingly held out to her. She was a member of the Hunt. She didn't need the approval or admiration or acceptance of the mere mortals of her high school.
Even though it would have been nice.
"I'm a member of the Hunt," Beth whispered, as she flashed her ID card with the barcode across the scanner at the electric door, that let the security system track everyone's movements when they went from one section of the station to another. "It's about time I started acting like one."
The door hissed open and Dr. Terri Hunt started through the door. Her sharp-boned face brightened in a smile, even as she skidded to a stop to keep from running into Beth.
No one could ever call Terri pretty, but she had an attractive neatness and sense of confidence that Beth admired much more than a keen fashion sense. Besides, she had seen Beth sitting in the corner at the orientation get-together last week and shook off a handful of other eager-to-impress interns to cross the room and introduce herself.
"Hey, shift can't be over so soon, can it?" Terri said, gesturing for Beth to come through the door.
"Low blood sugar. I missed lunch," Beth said, glad she had made up that excuse -- and relieved she remembered it.
"That's not good. Gotta keep that incredible brain of yours at top speed." She winked and stepped through the door, most likely heading for the control room.
"Terri -- when you're off shift -- could I ask you for some advice?" She couldn't believe how her voice trembled.
"Sure. What's wrong?" Terri stepped back through the door, and led Beth down the hall a few steps, taking them out of range of the sensors so the door closed. The concern that put a little wrinkle between her eyes warmed the girl and calmed her nerves.
"Everything." Beth pulled out a wad of hair that had come loose of her twisty and gestured down at her wrinkled shirt and shapeless dark pants with the embarrassing elastic waistband -- gripping a non-existent waist.
"Uh huh. Girl stuff." The older woman's eyes sparkled. "It's about time that swan started pushing at your ugly duckling shell. Promise never to tell a soul?" she said, lowering her voice nearly to a whisper.
"About what?" Beth leaned closer, barely curbing the urge to look in both directions to make sure they weren't overheard.
"Back when I was your age, I was...well, to be painfully honest, I was in even worse shape than you, honey. If you're willing to put in a lot of hard work, reprogram that amazing brain of yours to a new lifestyle, we can make the outer package nearly as stunning as what's in here." She tapped Beth's forehead. "You trust me?"
"Absolutely," she said on a sigh, and grinned.
"First step -- go take care of that low blood sugar, and think hard about what you put on your plate." She gripped Beth's shoulders and turned her around, to head down the hall. "I'll meet you after shift in your room, and we'll set up a plan."
"Thanks, Terri." Beth's voice cracked as the woman flashed her ID at the scanner and the door slid open.
"Let's see how much you thank me when I've made your off-duty hours a living nightmare." She winked again, and hurried down the hall.
Beth stifled a giggle. She had always loathed girls who giggled. Her adopted father always said it sounded like they had helium instead of brains. Well, maybe by the end of this summer, she would look more like a girl with helium for brains. Those were the kinds of girls who fought vampires and other monsters on TV and in the movies, anyway.
And Gahlmorag was a lot worse than anything Hollywood could ever come up with.
Her high spirits plummeted and her scurry down the hallway slowed to a determined stride. From now on...she wasn't preparing to go to the prom, she was preparing to go to war.
One benefit of spending her evenings with Terri and meeting her for early morning walks and "strategizing" was that Beth spent practically no time at all with her roommate, who made a lie out of the adage that beauty and brains never went together. Crissy Phipps had an amazing talent for compartmentalizing her life, devouring salacious gossip magazines and lounging around the tiny pool in a string bikini that could have been mailed in a business envelope, in off-duty time -- and then performing with professional attitude and demeanor, and dress code, that made Beth wonder for the first few days if she was rooming with Dr. Jekyl and Ms. Hyde. To top it all off, Crissy was nice. Beth would have preferred if her roommate was like the "pretty people" at school, who snickered at her clothes and hair and offered, in loud voices the entire cafeteria could hear, to give her fashion advice, or even fix her up on blind dates. Instead, Crissy offered to share her magazines and makeup -- somehow, her brilliance couldn't seem to digest the fact that such a practice was a health hazard. And Beth never caught the skinny, perky, too-cute-for-words girl giving her disgusted looks or mocking her behind her back.
Beth had learned long ago not to trust the "pretty people", even when they seemed to be as honestly nice as Crissy. She was glad to spend her time with Terri and put her makeover into the woman's hands. Still, when she got back to their room that first evening with the short, sleek haircut Terri gave her, Beth couldn't help preening a little under Crissy's admiration and assurance that it was 'so cute, and it makes your eyes bigger and enhances your cheekbones'. She had forgotten she had cheekbones, along with hip bones and other bones that she hoped to excavate, under the influence of Terri's exercise and eating plan.
The constant off-hours exercise made her feel more alert on duty, and let her sleep better, sometimes straight through the night. In contrast, Beth remembered her dreams of blue lightning and the Hounds of Hamin that much clearer when she woke in the morning. After the third night of this, she took to getting up a half hour earlier, and went to the picnic table outside, where she was to meet Terri for before-breakfast exercise, to write down all the details of her dreams. If the Hounds of Hamin appeared in her dreams, then that had to mean something.
Beth's parents sent her a big package of goodies for her birthday in July -- junk food, as well as movies to watch on her notebook computer and several books by her favorite authors. She fought the temptation to keep her absolute favorite candy for herself, and took all the food to the lounge of her dormitory to share with the other interns. To her surprise, Crissy was upset that she hadn't told anyone it was her birthday until then. When Beth returned from her nightly exercise with Terri -- which, after four weeks, had graduated from brisk walking to jogging -- she found the other girls gathered in their dorm room for an impromptu party.
"Honestly, McGuire, somebody would think you didn't like anybody here," Trish Silverfoot said in her usual lazy drawl.
"The exact opposite," Beth stammered, glad she had taken a shower and changed into a T-shirt and shorts before coming to the room.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Crissy asked with a giggle.
"I'm not used to anybody liking me, so I don't much try anymore." The moment those words left her lips, Beth wished she could reverse time and take them back.
Please, can't you do that? she thought, wishing a Hound was in the room. Her wrists itched and a few blue sparks danced along the scars, but she had no response beyond that. Of course, what could she expect? She was a third-level Firstborn. Only the most talented and strong of the second-levels and the Firstborn of the Firstborn were able to summon a Hound at need. The only time Beth could ever expect to see a Hound was when her life was in danger, or another, stronger member of the Hunt summoned it.
"Yeah, well, we've all been through that. People make fun of you because you're brilliant, huh? I bet they hate you for ruining the curve and making everybody else look like dweebs in science club." Penny Williams lounged against the wall, sitting on Crissy's bed, holding an enormous bowl of popcorn.
Fortunately, the party was supplied with diet sodas in flavors that definitely weren't available in the machines on the landing of every floor. Beth looked at the other refreshments -- popcorn, flavored rice cakes -- and realized someone had left the research station and gone down from the mountaintop to the nearest town to get everything. She found it hard to breathe for a moment. Except for her parents and a couple teachers in school who willingly kept her brilliant mind a secret, no one had ever made that much effort on her behalf before.
"Nobody knew, up until the principal had to announce to the whole school that I got my internship here," Beth said. She settled down on the edge of her bed, glad to be able to concentrate on opening her can of diet ginger ale, to keep herself busy for a few seconds. "A bunch of people sitting right next to me in class even said 'who's that?' when the announcement came over the PA."
"The original invisible woman," Trish said with a snort. "You're lucky. My school is so small -- there's only two hundred in my graduating class next year -- they called an assembly. A bunch of jerks thought it was a joke, because there was no way I could be that smart. I have five brothers, and all of them are either dumb jocks or juvenile delinquents. Sometimes I swear I'm adopted."
"Or from another planet," Penny added with a grin, and raised her can of diet grape in a toast.
"Guilty on both counts." Beth caught her breath, and then the next moment nearly collapsed in relief when the other five girls burst out laughing, taking her words as a joke.
This wasn't part of the job description. Mark allowed himself a wry grin at his incongruous thought, and turned his mind back to the business at hand.
Namely: One police lieutenant out in the middle of a stormy night. A ramshackle cabin on a thickly wooded mountainside. The whole scene put together by a designer for a grade B movie; heavy on the shadows and mud. And a missing child, the five-year-old granddaughter of Mayor Elayne Juniper.
Mark wiped his streaming face with his waterlogged hand and tugged his cap lower on his head. His hunch had proved right again, he knew, but could not help wishing his instinct had warned him about the storm that settled over the mountainside half an hour after he started climbing. His resistance to most colds did not make his sopping suit--minus a coat--any more comfortable.
Overhead, lightning flashed and burned, thunder snapping at its heels. The heavy electricity in the air made Mark's scalp tingle and sent a hot shiver of apprehension down his back. Vague memories of old, faded nightmares tugged at the edges of his concentration, and he could not afford that. Not now, with reinforcements at least half an hour down the mountain and the roads turned to sludge by the storm.
The forest turned noonday bright white for an instant and all sound vanished. Mark threw himself into the mud, his ears aching as if he had reached the mountain peak without adjusting for air pressure.
When he looked up, the tree next to the cabin had been neatly sheered in half, smoking in the rain. One long limb poked through a window. Shreds of light streamed out past the torn curtain that whipped in the grasp of the wind. The echoes of shattering glass penetrated the howling gusts.
He thought he heard a little girl shrieking in terror.
Mark moved in closer and bent to crawl under the tree to the window. He listened for voices, anything at all from the cabin. The sound of the child crying had died away, and he could not be sure it was not his imagination.
Finally--impatience said too long, caution and regulations said too soon--he crept up the incline of the shattered trunk and peered through at the bottom of the window. He smelled the blood before he saw the broken glass and felt the thin wire of fire along his palm and fingers.
The lantern sitting on the table could have been the sun, with his eyes used to darkness and shifting shadows. Mark blinked and looked away, trying to see the whole cabin through a three-inch gap in the window. A shard of glass sliced his cheek but he ignored the hot trickle down his chin and kept searching.
He found the little girl huddled in a bunk directly to his left, shivering enough to move the blanket wrapped around her. He chanced another look around the cabin. There was no one else there. But who lit the lantern then? The idea of kidnappers was not far from his mind, or anyone else's, even though the child had reportedly wandered away from a family picnic. The lantern did not threaten to blind him this time. Mark climbed into the cabin, past the length of tree limb still intruding into the cabin. He slid down to the floor and crouched in the shadow of the wood. His heart picked up its pace a bit and he scowled at the sudden leap of adrenaline all through his body. He looked again at the child, almost within arm's reach. Shards of glass lay under the bunk.
No wonder she started shrieking when the window broke.
A floorboard creaked under his foot as he moved across the few feet of open space to the bunk. It sounded like a screaming gunshot to his heightened senses.
The girl squeaked and pulled away from him when he touched her arm, but she didn't scream as he had feared she would. Her face shone a pale white blur in the shadows beyond the lantern light, made even whiter by her fear and the probable chill from her damp clothes. She looked like a rag doll his little cousin had left out in the rain one night.
It had been twenty, twenty-five years since he had thought about his family, left behind so long ago. Another lifetime. Another world.
"It's okay, Becky. I'm here to help you. See? Policeman." He pulled his badge folder from his pocket, rubbed the mud off, flipped it open, and hoped it caught enough light to be recognizable.
For a moment, she continued to stare, wide-eyed and trembling, then his words penetrated to wherever she had retreated. A tiny spark of life returned to her eyes and she reached out and touched his badge with one mud-crusted finger. Tears welled up in her eyes and he knew for sure she was about to start wailing again.
"Let's go see Grandma," he said, to cut off the cry, and reached out his arms for her. She practically leaped at him, fear giving strength and sharpness to her tiny fingers, which threatened to pierce his shirt. Mark shifted her so she sat on one hip, tucked into the crook of his arm, and leaving the other one free to maneuver.
The creak of the floorboards under his steps was drowned in the roaring flash of light that seemed to burst through the roof. Mark saw the stove turn white, traveling from the chimney pipe down. He threw himself towards the window, putting Becky under him as the stove exploded and the roof flew away into a thousand shattered pieces.
A little voice somewhere told him he had been hit in the leg. Mark didn't really care. His whole body buzzed and throbbed with the energy that seemed to have flowed from the sky directly into his flesh.
He wondered if this was death. It wasn't so bad--except he was sure he had something else to do before he was allowed to die. Then the light vanished from under his eyelids.
Cold rain on his face and the sound of a child crying broke through the black haze that clogged his eyes and ears and brain. His wrists itched. That alone drove him into moving his arms and starting the blood flowing again. It was an aggravating itch, like the time Sandor and Dandova teamed up against him and put sand and itch dust in his festival clothes.
"Sandor!" His voice cracked and broke and the world spun around him as Mark fought to sit up.
The child's crying stopped. Mark opened his eyes to a blur of dark shadows and faint glistening wetness.
Sandor. And Dandova. How could he have forgotten? Mark pushed his cuffs off his wrists with fingers that seemed to have lost their bones. The soft, blue-white glow in the scars on his wrists didn't surprise him at all. It shamed him.
Nearly thirty years was a long time--but no excuse, even then. He was Firstborn of the Firstborn. Marac Kale, born to lead his clan.
He had wanted to forget.
A lightning flash short-circuited his tumble into a well of guilt. It illuminated the blasted remains of the cabin. The corner where he huddled with the child was the only part not reduced to char and splinters.
"Y'okay?" he asked the little girl, who sat on his chest, even more like a wet rag doll than before. She nodded, a blur of movement underscored by another flash of lightning, further away now. "Let's get out of here."
Somehow, his leg made no complaint as he climbed back to his feet. He looked down and saw the blood still moving in a slow trickle down his torn pants leg. He shifted Becky so he could bend over. A splinter of wood as thick as his little finger protruded from his calf. But he felt no pain. Mark studied it a moment, and buried memories scrambled to the surface. He grinned, half in shame, and gritted his teeth as he braced himself. He pulled it out. No blood followed. No pain.
His wrists still itched, but didn't bother him as much. The glow died down after the first few steps and he didn't bother pulling his cuffs back down to cover them. Becky clung to him like a monkey and never made a sound as he stumbled out of the wreckage and down the mountainside. Ten minutes and fifty yards later, they met the reinforcements coming up.