I’d had new gravel put down the week before, which made the trek to the highway more challenging since it was like walking in shifting sand. I was usually a lazy-butt and drove to the mailbox, but I knew if I did that I’d earn an intensely withering look from the demon. Plus, she’d probably make me run ten times the distance in penance.
A chill wind wrapped around me, bringing with it the tang of pine and damp. Tugging my gloves back on, I cast a look up at a sky that had gone from light grey to dark and yucky in the past hour. The tops of the pines that surrounded my house swayed with a rising wind accompanied by a rush of sound like a distant roaring crowd. I didn’t have to check the weather forecast to know that more snow or other nastiness was on its way. This would be a fine day to stay inside and do energetic things like sit on my ass and catch up on TV.
The air went still when I was about a hundred yards from the house. The crunch of the gravel beneath my feet seemed to shout out into the sudden silence, and I slowed. Looking up again, I frowned as I saw that the trees had gone utterly still. That’s odd. Even if the wind died surely they’d still be swaying a bit—
An icy wind slammed into me before I could finish the thought, nearly buffeting me off my feet. I continued to stare stupidly at the trees. Still as stone. Why aren’t they moving?
“Kara!” Eilahn’s shout yanked me out of my absorption. I swiveled my head to see her running hard toward me, arms and legs pumping like a cheetah on steroids. “Run!” she yelled.
That wind. Oh fuck. Realization and horror slammed into me, and I dug my feet in and started sprinting for the house. Now I could feel the arcane menace in the unnaturally cold wind. I’d felt that before. I needed to get behind the safety of the wards now.
The house wasn’t all that far away, but running in the fresh gravel was a nightmare of uneven footing and shifting purchase. I briefly debated running along the side of the driveway but quickly abandoned that idea. There were so many sticks and pine cones and who-the-hell-knew-what-else that I’d be more likely to trip. Eilahn was still running all-out toward me, and I kept my focus on her as my lungs began to burn. I was a reluctant runner at the best of times, and speed had never been my strong suit.
But right now I could feel the lick of the arcane at my heels as it reached for me, and it spurred me like nothing else ever could. This was a summoning—of me. And I knew without a doubt that if it succeeded, I was well and truly fucked.
Eilahn reached me and spun in a move that no human could ever duplicate, managing to grab me and throw me over her shoulders at the same time. I let out a shocked Oof! but I didn’t resist. Right now I didn’t give a shit that I was in an exceedingly ignominious position. The pull seemed to be clawing at my essence and I could see the portal forming behind Eilahn—a slit in the fabric of the world surrounded by a greedy vortex of power. Tendrils of power began to snake out from the portal, gaining substance with every second, like tentacles in the maw of a kraken. The air seemed to shriek in protest, groaning like a building on fire. I tasted sulfur and ozone. I’d seen hundreds of portals, but I’d always been on the calling end. It looked a lot different from the you’re-coming-with-me-now end, and I didn’t like it one bit.
A tongue of energy whipped out and snaked around one wrist, and I let loose a girly yelp of horror, shaking my wrist to try and shed it. But this wasn’t a physical thing that could be dislodged. “Eilahn!” I shrieked. “It has me!”
Yet even as the words left my mouth Eilahn performed another inhuman move—somehow twisting and pulling me off her shoulders and launching me into the air.
My girly shriek shifted to a shocked scream as I hurtled through the air in a collision course with the porch of my house. I had barely enough time to remember to tuck my limbs in, and then I was through the wards and crashing into an ungainly, rolling tumble onto the porch.
I came to a stop and gasped for breath, distantly aware that several parts of my body hurt, but far more viscerally aware that the horrible pull was gone. A heartbeat later Eilahn gave a magnificent bound and landed in a crouch beside me. I shot a worried glance down the driveway, only to see that the tendrils had pulled back into the portal, and it was already beginning to spiral closed. Within three heartbeats it was gone, blinking out of existence with a pop that I felt more than heard.
“Are you hurt?” Eilahn asked, worry darkening her eyes. “Forgive me for throwing you. I could think of no other way to get you within the wards in time. Another few heartbeats and the portal’s hold would have been too strong to break.”
“S’okay,” I managed to croak. “Rather be broken than summoned.”
Eilahn’s lips pressed together as she ran her hands over me. A moment later some of the concern in her face cleared, and she sat back on her heels. “Nothing appears to be broken, though you will be bruised.” Then a whisper of a smile touched her lips. “It is good that I have been teaching you to fall, yes?”
I let out a strangled noise and cautiously pushed myself up to a sitting position, absurdly glad that the rocking chairs I’d purchased a few weeks ago with the grand intention of creating a “picturesque” front porch were still sitting in the shed out behind the house waiting to be assembled and painted. Being thrown into those would have sucked the big one. Who the hell was I trying to be picturesque for anyway? No one ever came to my house, and that was usually more than fine with me.
“You have no idea how much it kills me to admit this,” I said, “but, yeah. That whole tuck and roll crap paid off.” Oh, the joy of being thrown to the ground by a demon. Over and over and over.
The demon chuckled low in her throat. “Your praise brings me great joy.” Then she suddenly turned with a cry of dismay and scooped the cat up from the steps. As I watched, she cradled it to her chest, murmuring in an unfamiliar language, though I was pretty sure she was saying the demon equivalent of, “Oh, my poor widdle fuzzywuzzykins! Were you scared by that silly flying lady? You poor baby. Mommy will protect you and make it all better! Oh yes, she will!”
After a few seconds of reassurance she set the cat down, then turned to gaze down the driveway, a mixture of unease and anger in her expression. “The danger to you grows. Yet I am not convinced this attempt is connected to the attack from earlier this morning.”
“It’s fucked up, no matter what,” I said, leaning back against my house. This was the fourth time I’d barely escaped being summoned. Two weeks ago I’d been walking to my car after getting groceries when I’d felt that blast of icy wind. Eilahn had appeared out of nowhere, tossed me into the backseat of my car, and taken off like a bat out of hell—leaving behind a grocery cart filled with a week’s worth of food. “Am I wrong, or does it seem like whoever’s doing this is getting better at it? I used to be able to just run away from it. This one felt like it was right on top of me no matter what.”
She turned to me, worry darkening her eyes. “You are not wrong. With each attempt they refine the summoning. I do not think it will be possible to simply run from them anymore. It would not have worked this time, save that I was able to quickly get you within strong wards. Soon it will take only seconds to lock onto you and bring you through.”
The words were like a punch in the gut. “So, basically, if I step outside the safety of wards, I risk being summoned?” I heard the anger in my voice, and I hoped she knew it wasn’t directed at her.
Eilahn shook her head. “No, they will not be able to attempt another summoning for a while. It is not a constant threat.”