The driver of the cab kept looking up into the rear view mirror at him, and despite the warm dry heat of the Arizona late winter he kept the plastic panels between the front and the back of the cab firmly shut.
Lex didn't care. He'd been picked up in a bad section of town, and he'd eventually been forced to offer the cab driver $300 to drive him outside the city. In advance.
Still, the cab driver was nervous. He obviously didn't trust the young man in the back seat. Lex sat with his hands held in front of him, looking out of the window into the now dark night. Except for the horizon glow over his left shoulder the lights of Las Vegas were gone.
It wasn't dark in Lex's eyes though. Viewed through invisibly woven spells, he could see every detail of the road, and something was urging him onward.
I have a bad feeling about this, the voice said, but Lex didn't reply. He could feel her out there, the familiar presence. Lia was nearby.
The cab driver pulled to a stop, and Lex glanced at the road ahead. There was a cattle guard in the road, and above it was stretched a heavy chain from which hung a "No Trespassing" sign.
"Can't go any farther," the Cabbie said.
Sora's voice, through Lex's body, flickered a glyph at the chain and frowned when it did nothing.
It's protected, the voice relayed.
Can you do something about that? Lex asked silently.
Not without looking at it.
He opened the cab door without thinking and got out, walked over to the chain. It didn't even have a lock, and so Lex reached out to grab it and throw it aside.
As soon as he'd touched the metal, the cab behind him roared. He twisted around to see the cabbie pulling back down the road they'd come up.
Lex dropped the chain and started to run, but the cabbie swung the car around and pealed out, showing him with loose bits of gravel and sand from the road.
Sora's voice pushed at him to relinquish control, but Lex didn't allow it. The cab didn't matter. He turned back to the chain.
How are you planning to get us home? the voice inquired, but Lex didn't have an answer.
He started to unchain the opening between the fences before he realized that it didn't matter now that the cab was gone. He ducked under the chain and started to walk up the dirt road.
There were animals out at night. Rabbits and mice watched him from the brown grass and under the scrubby juniper bushes. They paused as he came into view, hoping that pausing in the dark would protect him.
He wasn't after them though. All he cared about was finding Lia, and the familiar feeling of her was getting slowly closer.
He was walking slightly uphill, and after fifteen minutes or so on the dark road he took off his coat before it became drenched in sweat, but he didn't pause until a gust of wind floated down from above him carrying words.
". . . waiting out here in the dark . . ."
Just like one of the mice he'd passed, he froze as the voices continued.
". . . back to the fire . . ."
". . . angry at us . . ."
". . . stupid . . ."
". . . not going to happen anyway . . ."
". . . dangerous, out here alone . . . killed Bybreak . . ."
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, and Lex bit his lip.
It's a trap, said Sora's voice, stating the obvious. Lex though, could feel Lia, just up ahead. Only a little bit past the ridge line.
Without movement to warm him up, his sweat soaked clothes felt like ice.
Time for some new tricks, he told the voice.
Slowly he turned around, shielding his hands from view behind his jacket and began to sketch out the runes that the voice fed him. The first set was a minor magic to keep his feet from making noise. Then a minor rune of invisibility, one that would make the shadows around him deeper (Any more, the voice warned him, and the witches will be able to sense the magic that went into it). Finally, he sketched out a circle in his mind, filled it with the basic runes that he would need.
You'll need more, Sora's voice said, sketch out five or six . . .
Alex reached out, his hands on either side of the circle, and concentrated. Carefully he felt around the edges of the circle. There should have been nothing to feel, the blue lines were only faint traceries of energy, but there was. With his fingernails he slowly peeled away the top of the circle, and everything in it peeled away as well.
Two identical rune circles floated in front of him.
Oh, said Sora's voice. I didn't know that was possible.
He copied the rune a half dozen more times, and then gathered them together, holding them like a stack of plates, each floating about half and inch from the next.
Time to go, Lex thought.
He slipped off the road and around the left side of the hill where he thought that the witches waited. Even with the magic, he stepped carefully, not wanting the rustle of his clothes or the sound of scraping against a plant to give him away.
There they were, leaning against the rocks, with a view of the road. Two women, young looking, both with dark hair and wearing heavy wool coats. They were obviously supposed to be keeping watch for him, but neither of them was paying much attention. They were still murmuring back and forth, and every once in a while one would glance down the hill.
They were looking right into the glow from the Las Vegas lights, Lex realized. Whenever they looked down the hill, their eyes had to adjust to the light, and he could have made it most of the way up the road before they would have spotted him.
He took the top magic circle, sketched the activation rune with one hand, and gave it a flick. One of the women yawned.
Another rune, another flick.
The first woman leaned heavily against the rock, and slid to the ground. The other looked at her in surprise for a moment before collapsing herself. They barely made a sound and they weren't hurt, they were just asleep.
Lex frowned. If either of them had hurt Lia, he wouldn't just be putting them to sleep.
He crept up the road slowly, examining every bush and stone for signs of life, and listening carefully for any further giveaway sounds.
He crested the hill, and saw a flicker of light.
A bonfire had been built in the middle of the road, just before it ended before a small house. It was the house, the tiny one from his dream. The tall cactus was there, half illuminated in by the bonfire, but the house looked empty and dark. There was no light coming from the little window, like there had been in his dream.
Around the fire were women, all bundled in clothing, some with their hands out toward the fire. One or two of the faces illuminated by the fire Lex recognized from that night in the mansion with Soraperion.
There were at least ten, and there was already magic in the air. Around the red-orange glow of the burning wood he could flashes of blue.
There was no sign of Lia, but the feeling of familiarity was almost overpowering. It was there in front of him somewhere.
One of figures was holding something, and she suddenly looked up at him and Lex saw that it was Bliss.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, and at the same moment he felt something wrong beside him.
He threw himself to the left, and something whistled through the space where his head had been. It was the Native American, the one from the mansion, the one that had gone with Bliss into the hole after Soraperion. He was dressed in black, like a ninja, and in his hands he carried a wand or staff or some wooden dowel. He raised it, and Lex automatically flicked one of the spell disks he'd been carrying at the large man.
A split second to sketch the activation, and it flashed to life, wrapping itself around the man in a glowing string of blue runes. The man shook his head, as though he were trying to stay awake, and the spell fell to pieces. He didn't look tired.
He's protected too, the voice shouted in his head.
Lex's hands clenched, and in the left palm he felt dirt crunch. He flung it up at the man above him just as the staff came down again.
The rod hit him in the shoulder with a sharp crack, and Lex fell backward, howling with pain. At the same time, the dirt had hit the Native American in the face and it was obvious that his eyes weren't protected from that. He stumbled back.
Sora's voice didn't wait for Lex to recover. He slipped into enough control to cast without having to feel the pain.
He flung out the arm that had just been struck, causing Lex to cry out in pain, but also sending the remaining spells down the hill toward the women standing around the fire. He sketched out the activation, and the things burst into spinning disks of azure light.
Lex rocketed to his feet, jerked upright through his telekinesis, and at the same time he grabbed at all of the empty dirt that he could see and shoveled it up with his powers. The Native American was pelted with more dirt, and then with a gout of fire from the next set of sketched runes.
The fire had no more effect than the sleep spell had, but the dust forced the man to shield his face.
Another telekinetic blanket caught a slew of spells from around the fire, and he quickly started to itch again. Crap, he thought, but Sora's voice had a solution this time. A complicated rune of protection, a word, and it went away.
Why didn't you do that last time? Lex thought, annoyed.
No runes, no speaking, no movement, remember?
Right, he thought and went back on the attack.
More useless fire sprang from his hands, but that was only a distraction. With his telekinesis he grabbed the man and jabbed as hard as he could.
It was like a wire effect from one of those Chinese movies. The Native American popped up and backward, flying up at least twenty feet before falling heavily to the ground.
Sora's voice was already sketching heavy protection spells, the first few of which caught fire, ice, hissing bolts of electricity and javelins of darkness.
Me them, you him? Sora's voice asked.
Fair fight then, the voice responded.
At least one of the women had been caught by the flying sleep spells, and now a series of loud explosions occurred in the air in front of those remained. Some, like Bliss, seemed unaffected and others shrugged it off but four of the women went sprawling backward into the dirt. Only one tried to sit up, but was caught with a purplish bolt of something to the head and went down again.
The Native American rushed back into the fight as the witches returned attacks while Lex's hands sketched his next moves. The wooden rod came down at his head, but telekinesis stopped it dead, and jerked it back, twisting it in loops.
The man twisted his arm, trying to compensate, but the telekinesis didn't have to worry about things like arm joints. Already off balance from the sudden stop he toppled over as the staff was ripped from his grasp. It hung in the air for a moment, and then began to attack the Native American, hitting him viciously over the head until he stopped trying to get up.
Lex's hands finished their complex dancing, leaving a crescent of linked runes. They pulsed momentarily and expanded, growing diffuse until they'd melted away.
Then there was a rumble, and the ground around the fire shook. Fingers of sharp stone shot up in the midst of the witches, throwing them around like dolls, and from their points they glowed with electricity which arced out, slicing through the dolls.
Only Bliss was left standing, untouched in a circle of clear ground, the lightning ignoring her. She looked at her scattered sisters, and then slowly bent her knees, leaning back into a position that reminded him of a karate pose, placing the hand mirror that she was holding on the ground at the same time. She didn't kick or punch though, she just raised her arms into a defensive posture and looked at him.
She hasn't attacked us yet, Sora's voice pointed out. She's just stood there for the entire time.
I wonder why? Lex thought to himself and then out loud he called, "Why didn't you attack with the others?"
Bliss shrugged slowly. "It's good for them, to be in a fight against someone creative with magic. They spar amongst themselves, but only know a few tricks and think they've mastered magical combat. You have the range of a Mage, the speed of cheetah, the creativity of an artist."
His mouth opened a bit, and she gave him a level look. "Why so surprised?" she asked.
"I didn't expect you to answer my question."
"How will you ever learn if I don't?"
He looked at her closely for the first time. She was smiling, just as every other time he'd seen her, but she seemed serious enough.
"Are we going to fight?" he asked her after a pause.
They stood facing each other for a few more moments and then he asked, "Uh . . . should I count to three or something?"
"You can start whenever."
Sora's voice murmured, That sounds bad.
So Lex raised his arms and hesitated at the still form of Bliss.
Then he sketched the first blue line in the air, and her arms whipped into action.
The first of Lex's shields were just getting up when the first of Bliss' attacks struck them. Instead of vanishing they clung to the invisible barriers, pressing on them and eating away at them like acid. A jab of telekinesis disrupted the spell that was eating away at his defenses, but it was all that Sora's voice could do to work up new protection spells before the next volley of light and heat hit him in a shower of iridescent bolts of lightning.
All of the other witches that he'd fought had been slow. They'd chant something, and Lex would have three or four spells sketched and away before they'd finished their first. Now the tables were turned. The ground around him splintered and cracked. The dry bushes burst into flame for a moment before disintegrating away to dust. The air filled with the smell of ozone. And Bliss never hesitated, continually throwing spell after spell at him.
Sora's voice finally managed to throw an attack between multiple protection spells, but it did nothing. Bliss almost negligently canceled it out with a flick of her wrist.
So Lex lashed out with his telekinesis, driven by the resurgence of adrenaline as beams of energized air flickered around him.
Bliss countered that as well.
And then she hit him back with her own telekinesis.
Lex threw up a blanket around himself but Bliss poked at it with her own abilities, blows that made what he'd done to the Native American look like a friendly pat. They were sharp pokes too, as though she was forming her abilities into two foot long needles.
Lex concentrated, trying to harden the blanket into a wall, but each time his concentration slipped Bliss was right there, probing and the jamming her powers home, ripping his shirt to shreds, and his skin beneath it.
She's . . . better . . . than . . . we . . . are . . ., the voice managed in between spurts of heavy concentration, and Lex could feel that he was correct. Her attacks were layered, building up from the energy of previous attacks, and their defenses were not. Not to mention that if Lex himself lost concentration, she could rip his defenses apart with her telekinesis.
The door, Lex thought back, but it looked hopeless. It was behind Bliss, much too far, and with each volley of destructive magic it looked even more out of reach.
Then then sky moved. Flickered, a bit, behind where Bliss stood.
Something resolved out of the darkness, like it had been just made. Lex and the voice were busy with other things, but for a moment it seemed to Lex like another attack. Perhaps another witch hidden by the darkness.
It didn't aim for them though. It lanced straight for Bliss and passed through her magical barriers like they didn't exist. The runes composing them turned from blue to red in an instant, and then faded completely.
Bliss had a moment to look around, and then she screamed.
Whatever hit her seemed to burst apart, a mass of inky blackness and claws, and the attacks against Lex ceased.
Lex ran for the door. Sora's voice, suddenly free for attacks, began to rain spells back at Bliss. Some of them were cast aside, but some finally found their mark.
Lex was almost there, almost to the door, and the presence of Lia . . . even though it was weird now. It echoed oddly, as though she wasn't just behind the door. But Lex didn't have time for that. He reached the handle, not even considering that it could be locked, and flung it open.
Golden light was through the door, and he flung himself into it, warmth seeping up at the same time that everything faded to black.