Low Midnight Page 62

Well then, he thought, I guess it’s up to me. He started walking.

Amelia said, We’ll need to take care of those men with guns.

Give them a light show, a flash or a bang or something. Won’t need much to scare them off.

Fortunately, she’d brought along some of her reliable standbys—one of them was a thumb-sized quartz crystal, charged with magic to give off brilliant light. And simple, non-magical packs of gunpowder, good for making noise. Surprising, how much of this was just stagecraft.

Layne’s eyes widened in surprise, and Cormac kept his slow pace forward, his gaze focused. His grin showed annoyance.

One of the henchmen called out, “Layne—Layne what’s going on, you want us to—”

“Just hold it,” Layne called back, brusque and clearly nervous. His hands flexed at his sides, as if reaching for a gun. Regular Old West gunfighter. To Cormac he said, “You better watch it. You don’t want to end up dead like Kuzniak, do you? You watch it, Bennett, wait a minute—”

When he was just shy of arm’s reach, Cormac moved fast, left hand flashing out to grab Layne’s collar while his right hand punched hard into his nose.

Layne choked out a cry and tried to stumble back, but Cormac kept hold of his shirt, keeping the guy upright while he stepped in for a hard knee into the groin that dropped him like a rock. This time, Cormac let him fall. Kicked him in the gut for good measure, then fell on him, putting a knee in his back, twisting his arm to immobilize him.

“Layne!” His guys called out, but it had happened so fast they were dumbstruck.

Keeping hold of Layne with one hand, he reached into his pocket for the quartz, which he threw straight up. It lit up with the glow of a sun, a flash like a bomb going off. There were a couple of shouts and screams, and the sound of a couple of grown men tearing through the underbrush, fleeing as if chased by devils.

Cormac gave Layne’s arm an extra twist and waited a moment to see if he was going to struggle. He didn’t. The guy’s face was smashed into the ground, and his breath came out in crying wheezes.

That, Amelia said. That was lovely.

The plateau had gone still. The snow was already slacking off. Just a late winter flurry. Kind of peaceful. Cormac wanted to get the hell out of here. Get inside, get warm, have a drink.

He searched Layne’s pockets, jeans and coat, and found it in the inside coat pocket. Spared little more than a glimpse at it—a Maltese cross, a couple of inches across, made of highly polished bronze, exactly the right size and shape to match the imprint in the book—before slipping it in his own pocket.

He slammed Layne’s face into the ground to stun him before getting up and backing off.

Slowly, Layne rolled to his back. Blood ran down his face from a couple of wounds, a scrape on his forehead and a cut lip. Not to mention that smashed nose. He curled around his gut, moaning in pain and swearing with every breath.

Some coherent phrasesbroke through. “You can’t take that! That’s mine! It’s mine!”

He was beat up, not broken, and his guys would crawl back to check on him soon enough. All Cormac had to do was be gone before they got brave. He was done here.

“Some advice,” Cormac said. “There’s no gold up here, or if there is you aren’t going to get it out with magic. Magic’s not going to make you rich, and it won’t make you strong. You mess around with it long enough, it’ll make you dead. Especially if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Go back to your black market and your drug running or whatever the hell it is you’re doing. And leave me alone.”

Layne didn’t say anything, just lay there groaning, spitting curses. Cormac walked away.

Chapter 25

HE WAS glad for the couple of miles of walking. Gave him a chance to burn off the adrenaline and a bad case of nerves. He stretched the hand he’d used to punch Layne; it was sore, but not busted. The skin was scraped up. He was tingling all over, fight response still burning through him, waiting for the next blow. The walk gave his heart a chance to slow down.

Amelia was quiet. Maybe thinking hard like he was, about what would have happened if they’d kept going, brought down that lightning spell on Layne’s head—and had it strike them instead. It wouldn’t even have looked like murder, just an unlucky bit of chance, getting struck by lightning in the foothills. Accidental, however mysterious, just like the other deaths. The perfect weapon in a wizards’ duel—the one no one even knew was there.

When he reached the Jeep, he wasn’t done moving. He drove east for a while, out of the hills and to the plains, flat scrubby farmland covered by a dusting of new snow. Dawn was breaking by then, the overcast sky going pale. He stopped, pulled over, sat there watching the sky get lighter through the windshield, until the gray clouds turned pink with the rising sun, and the snow in the fields sparkled, crystalline with ice. The sun itself broke over the horizon, an unreal shape burning orange, peering through a clear space for ten or fifteen minutes before disappearing behind clouds.

It’s beautiful.

He agreed. But he also thought, of course. He took it for granted that a sunrise was beautiful. Just like sunsets. And the mountains, a bull elk walking through a morning mist, a hawk soaring on the hunt. It hardly needed mentioning.

Are you ready to look at what we won, then?

He found the amulet in the pocket where he’d shoved it. In the morning light, they finally had a chance to study it.

The thing was simply crafted, with only moderate skill. The bronze cross shape had a lead border soldered around the edges, roughly done, bubbles and irregularities visible in spots. A wire loop had been soldered on. The bronze itself was clean, polished, front and back. When he held it up, he could see his reflection, a wavery, yellow-tinged version of himself.

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