Book: Black Wings IV: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

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NIGHT OF THE PIPER

 

Ann K. Schwader

 

Ann K. Schwader’s fiction and poetry have recently appeared in Searchers After Horror (Fedogan & Bremer, 2014), Dark Fusions (PS Publishing, 2013), Deepest, Darkest Eden (Miskatonic River Press, 2013) The Book of Cthulhu II (Night Shade Books, 2012), Fungi (Innsmouth Free Press, 2012), A Season in Carcosa (Miskatonic River Press, 2012), The Book of Cthulhu (Night Shade Books, 2011), Twisted in Dream (Hippocampus Press 2011), and elsewhere. She is a 2010 Bram Stoker Award finalist.

 

 

THE NIGHT WAS THE SNOW WAS THE WIND, and all of it howled. Barefoot and shivering, she stood alone under a broken moon whose face was not the clean silver she remembered, but a festering wound. Only desolation met her gaze: no huddled cattle here. No snow fences or barbed wire.

Only the wind’s madness, and something worse twisting through it.

At first, it resembled the wail of an ancient flute…but voiced by nothing human. Nothing her mind could bear. Clutching both arms tightly about herself, she dug her teeth into her lip as a shadow coalesced from the night and the snow. It was a malformed thing, skinny and hunchbacked, and it capered as it played upon its instrument.

More shadows appeared in the distance. Slinking along the ground, whimpering and fawning, they crept toward the piper—and her—with gathering fire in their yellow eyes—

Whuff!

A gust of Rottweiler breath tore Cassie Barrett out of the dream. Gasping, she reached out with both hands and hugged two black-and-tan heads close. Jupe and Juno, still whuffling anxiously, began to lick her face.

Not again. Digging her fingers into fur, she held on tightly. Oh, damn, not again.

 

The gray light of a late November afternoon slanted across her kitchen table. Glancing down at the pile of mail—mostly holiday catalogs—her ranch foreman had just brought in, Cassie noticed a brightly colored flier. More junk. Frowning, she pulled it free and turned for the wastebasket—

Then stopped, her grip creasing its glossy paper.

There on the cover, in Santa Fe orange and turquoise, danced a creature far too reminiscent of last night’s terrors. PIPER WITH A PURPOSE, the copy read. Authentic Ancient Designs for a Stronger Community.

Cassie flipped the paper over. To her relief, she found no more art, only details. A charity workshop project founded several years ago in the Four Corners area, PIPER WITH A PURPOSE offered job skills training, housing assistance, substance abuse counseling, and other services. Native Americans seemed to be its primary focus, but anyone in need was welcome.

COMING FOR CHRISTMAS! the copy promised. Now opening in SHERIDAN, WYOMING!

Cassie’s stomach knotted. Sheridan was where she bought groceries and ran errands for Twenty Mile.

Her foreman glanced up from his own mail. “Something wrong?”

“Just junk.”

Of all the people she’d rather not explain bad dreams to, Frank Yellowtail topped the list. Not that Frank wouldn’t believe her.

The grandson of a Crow Batce Baxbe, a “man of power,” he had no trouble drawing correlations between the dreaming and waking worlds. Or between this world and other phenomena. The Outside.

In her three years here at Twenty Mile, Cassie had had her fill of the Outside.

Frank continued to look puzzled. Reluctantly, she handed the flier over. She did not want to admit to nightmares about Kokopelli, for Gawdsakes—

“You too?”

Cassie stared. Either Frank could read minds—which she couldn’t quite believe, Batce Baxbe grandson or not—or he was confessing to bad dreams himself. Bad dreams about a tacky Southwestern icon.

Either way, it couldn’t hurt to nod.

Her ranch foreman looked both embarrassed and relieved. “Not sure why, but I’ve had the same nightmare two or three times lately. The thing in them doesn’t exactly look like this”—he tapped the flier—“but it’s close. Same flute, same hunchback.”

Cassie looked at the gaudy Kokopelli again. Did it even have a hunchback? At first glance, no. This was the smooth, cute, sanitized version from every tourist trap in Taos…then, a few seconds later, it definitely wasn’t.

Blink. Blink. Shift.

She glanced away from the flier in Frank’s hand. “Sorry.” A hopeful thought struck her. “Maybe they’ve already got a billboard or something. We might have both seen it on the way into town.”

Frank shook his head. “There’s no billboard.” He hesitated. “Maybe these dreams are what Grandfather used to call ‘frost-bite.’ It happened to him a lot.”

“Frostbite?”

“You get frostbite once, cold bothers you more for the rest of your life. You get close to the Outside—”

Cassie nodded, feeling queasy.

“Question is, what’s a Kokopelli shop doing this far north? I thought he was strictly a Southwestern thing. Or at least, I hoped he was.”

Frank shrugged, shoulder blades prominent under his denim jacket. Then he handed Cassie the flier and turned to leave. He still had horses to feed.

Or maybe he didn’t like this conversation any more than she did.

After he was gone, Cassie poured herself coffee and sat down with the flier, Kokopelli side up. Blink. Blink. Shift—

Cursing, she flipped the image over quickly. She’d always found Kokopelli a little creepy, but the rock art image had never actually frightened her before.

Maybe anything Anasazi could spook her after last year’s field school at Zia House.

Taking a big glug of coffee to banish memories, Cassie started reading. This PIPER WITH A PURPOSE was only the latest in a series of workshops, including one in the Santa Fe/Taos area. Frank’s niece Julie Valdez, still working on her anthro grad degree from the U. of New Mexico, might know something. If PWP was peddling “authentic ancient designs,” it could be looking for academic inspiration. An e-mail was definitely in order.

Reading further, she found that PWP also welcomed what every other charity outfit did: cash and volunteers. Cash especially, of course, but extra hands for the holiday season were also needed.

Nothing like on-site research while giving back to the community.

By the time she finished, the windows were dark and both Rotts had joined her, looking for dinner. Cassie laid the flier aside with relief. Protective, intelligent, and uncomplicated, Jupe and his sister Juno deserved all the attention she could give. In her limited experience, dogs and the Outside did not get along—which had probably saved her life at least once.

After their meal, though, she’d fix herself a sandwich and hit the Internet. If she ever hoped to understand why Kokopelli haunted her dreams, she needed to know a lot more about him.

 

Hours later, she had all the facts anybody could want (and then some) about fluteplayer images in Southwestern rock art. Kokopelli was not one mythic figure, but several: Chu’lu’laneh at Zuni, sometimes; Ghanaskidi for some Navajo; Nepokwa’i for certain Hopi and Tewa. The sleek, genderless gift shop version came from Hohokam ceramics. Otherwise, Kokopelli was very male—with petroglyphs to prove it—when he wasn’t shape-shifting into a locust.

Kokopelli was associated with rain, hunting, mist, snakes…and, big surprise, fertility. He was a shaman and a trickster, like Raven or Coyote. His image showed up all over the Anasazi regions of the Four Corners area, wherever people had lived.

Nobody seemed to know how old Kokopelli was. Some sources attributed him to the Anasazi or older tribal groups. Others linked him to Mesoamerica, possibly the Mayans.

And not one gave her a clue about her nightmares.

Staring down at the useless pile of notes on her desk, Cassie rubbed her stinging eyes and shut off her computer. If she wanted real answers, there was only one place left to look: at the bottom of her closet, in a box she’d rather forget about entirely.

Tossing boots, an old jacket, and an even older quilt aside, she felt her hands shaking as she hauled it out. According to its logo, the battered container had once held beer. Now it held the legacy of Daniel McAllister, caretaker of Zia House—and former professor of Southwestern archaeology, contributor to the Chaco Project.

Former living human being. Or at least, she profoundly hoped he wasn’t still alive.

Cassie had met McAllister a year ago last August, when Julie Valdez (and her uncle Frank) had convinced her to sign up for a field school in need of extra paying participants. Cassie had had enough anthro coursework at the U. of Wyoming to qualify— and a fascination with the Zia House specialty, Chaco Canyon.

Frank Yellowtail mistrusted the school. Due to a couple of missing students the year before—and the director’s inability to account for them—Zia House had lost its accreditation months ago. Unfortunately, this hadn’t happened until after Julie’s advisor had signed her up, and the university didn’t give refunds. The more her uncle learned about the disappearances, the less he liked the idea of Julie being down there alone.

Even then, Cassie suspected, he’d caught a whiff of the Outside.

She had caught the same scent at that year’s work site—which was also the site of last year’s troubles. Just a small cave in the side of a wash a few miles from Chaco, but the school’s director called it a “new paradigm” in Chacoan outliers.

Within the next few days, that paradigm had claimed two lives: another student, and Daniel McAllister.

She had found McAllister’s box in the back of her Jeep while unpacking back at Twenty Mile. C. BARRETT PLEASE OPEN, it read on all four sides in black marker. Taped to the top was an envelope, also with her name on it.

Cassie had detached and hidden the envelope before carrying the box inside. Nearly a week later, she’d finally read his letter.

To Ms. Barrett, with my deepest apologies

What followed was an account of McAllister’s unpublished discoveries during the Chaco Project—and for years afterwards, though by then he had neither the academic credentials nor the cash to travel much. During their only real conversation at Zia House, he had hinted at Southwestern links to much older myths: older than the Maya, the Olmecs, or humanity itself in North America.

Maybe on the planet.

In several heavily annotated pages, McAllister laid out the evidence behind these hints. Tunnels under kivas, and the strange metal artifacts that he’d found there. Sketches of carvings from caves—not outliers, no matter what Zia House’s director had claimed—where there should have been nothing. Inscriptions in strange, writhing glyphs, though the Anasazi were illiterate. Petroglyphs that tracked neither the sun nor the moon, but the rising of Aldebaran.

Myths from the stars. Mythic beings (gods?) from the stars, cross-referenced to texts Cassie had never heard of. At least she recognized a few names now: Yig, Tulu, Tsath-something-or-other. McAllister had included more sketches. Some resembled petroglyphs, though the articles she’d read on Southwestern rock art said such symbols could never be explained. They were mysteries, fading contacts with ancient spirituality—

What the hell?

At the bottom of the next-to-last page capered a sickeningly familiar form. Sketched from a petroglyph, it boasted an elaborate headdress of twining, writhing…feathers, she hoped. Like most Kokopelli images, this one’s instrument formed an extension of its face.

Unlike most, this extension had a life of its own, twisting away from the flutist toward a crudely indicated group of other figures. Some had two legs, most had four. All the four-leggers looked canine.

The two-leggers were cowering away. Unsuccessfully.

Kiva tunnel wall, Casa R., Chaco, McAllister’s marginal note read. Poss. plastered over after creation? Binger p. 58—Nyar’la’a?

Swearing again under her breath, Cassie laid the pages aside and opened the box. On top of a stack of field journals lay a worn manila envelope marked BINGER, WESTERN OK 1928. Inside that was a pamphlet.

An Ethnographic Analysis of Certain Events

Her mind flashed back to that strange conversation with McAllister. He’d loaned her this monograph overnight, telling her it might explain that “outlier” where two grad students—three, by the end—had gone missing. She never had the chance to return it. In the end, she’d just stuck it in his box and tried to forget it.

She couldn’t forget her brush with what it described, though. Tsath in K’n-yan, decadent and terrible—an underground city older than humanity, populated by the degraded spawn of those beings from the stars. K’n-yan could be reached by many gates. One had been inside a mound in Binger, Oklahoma.

Another had been a few miles outside Chaco Canyon.

Cassie started flipping through the monograph. Page fifty-eight listed several “gods” worshipped in the very lowest…oldest…levels of K’n-yan. Yig Serpent-Father. Tulu, who resembled the Moche “Decapitator.” He of Tsath, a toadlike thing less revered than feared. And, near the bottom of the list, Nyar’la’a: forms unknown, possibly infinite.

Messenger of the exiled gods, the anonymous author had noted. Bringer of chaos and nightmare. Associations: ritual music, wild beasts, madness.

She read the entry over again, closed the pamphlet, and slipped it into its envelope. Then she laid the envelope on top of McAllister’s field journals, shut the box, and shoved it as far back into her closet as possible.

It was only after that that she noticed McAllister’s letter on the floor.

Wincing as her conscience bit hard, she carried it back to her desk. She did not want to finish rereading it tonight. Daniel McAllister had not filled all those pages—possibly on the last night of his life—merely to answer her questions about South-western mythology.

He had done it because he had no one else to tell. No one else who shared his experiences with the Outside.

Nobody but the director of Zia House, who had embraced it and been destroyed.

Now the Outside might be sniffing around Twenty Mile again, and she didn’t want to think about it. Better to keep on believing that her nightmares (and Frank’s?) were random nuisances. PIPER WITH A PURPOSE was just another charity project selling Southwestern gifts—

A project out of the Four Corners area. Kokopelli country.

Nyar’la’a.

She didn’t even know how to pronounce it, but the word made her skin crawl. Switching on her desk lamp, Cassie turned to the conclusion of McAllister’s letter.

Well, Ms. Barrett, that’s the worst of it, at least as much as I dare put down. I hope you’ll find this useful. I hope even more that you’ll never have to, but there are plenty of Magda Hudsons in this world.

She bit her lip. Dr. Hudson was the reason McAllister was dead now. Hudson and her brand-new Chacoan paradigm.

Once you’ve seen these things for what they are, you can’t ever look away. At least I couldn’t. The world we think we live in now is just a skin—a modern skin—and every so often something else breaks through. Something too ancient to care about us monkeys, even if it bothers to notice us in the first place. Better it doesn’t.

I doubt I’ll be writing more field journals after tonight, so I’m handing these on. Read them or burn them, but for God’s sake don’t publish.

His signature was a ragged scrawl. After a few moments, Cassie folded the pages back into their envelope, then shoved the envelope behind the bookcase next to her desk.

But not so far she couldn’t reach it again.

 

This time, there was no moon at all in her darkness. No suppurating sores of stars. There was only the glow of a newly kindled campfire, barely reaching the blackened walls of the cave she stood in.

Even so, pale images were beginning to manifest themselves from those walls. Ragged and primal, more ominous than she had ever imagined petroglyphs could be, they danced in the air for a moment before beginning their slow spiral upwards.

As the flames below leaped to meet them, a too-familiar wailing began.

Pipers all, the maddening notes of these figures rose as they did—swirled as they did, higher and higher, toward some unseen point overhead. Each figure was uniquely malformed. Some capered on two legs only, some locust-like on six, others on writhing tangles of lines. Almost all were hunchbacked. Their instruments—less pipes than appendages—elongated and curled in the firelight, driving her into shadows.

As they reached the very top of the cave, the pale figures began to converge. Writhing limbs wound themselves around and through each other. Headdresses intertwined. The humps and bulges of a dozen bent spines deformed even further, curving as one.

And now, suddenly, that image-cloud no longer gyrated overhead. The campfire illuminated one figure only—a twisted, still-shifting thing that did not shine in those leaping flames.

Instead, its very darkness diminished all light.

The music of its single pipe rose wilder than ever. Somewhere outside, a multitude of canine throats answered. The cave entrance, which had seemed desperately far away before, now felt all too near…too full of unblinking eyes and crouching furred bodies. Belly-crawling like fearful pups, they pressed past her in the shadows, converging at the feet of—

Aroo! Aroo!

Jupe’s voice and Juno’s frantic tongue woke Cassie almost simultaneously. Reaching out at random, she grabbed Juno’s neck and held on as she shook off the dream. Jupe stayed bristling by her second-floor window, howling from the depths of his heart at something outside.

Cassie bit her lip. Releasing her grip on Juno’s ruff, she reached one hand under her bed.

The .44’s snub nose caught on the carpet for one heart-stopped second, then came away clean. Swinging the heavy pistol onto her quilt, Cassie took several long breaths before getting to her feet and cocking the hammer back. Only then did she tiptoe toward the window, terrified and curious.

Jupe was quiet now, but he hadn’t backed off and his hackles were still high. Parting the curtains, Cassie looked down.

The yellow eyes of a coyote stared back.

 

Wrapping her hands around her third mug of coffee that morning, Cassie slumped in her desk chair, staring at the e-mail on her screen. Julie Valdez hadn’t wasted any time responding to the questions she’d sent last night.

Strange you should mention PWP up in Sheridan. We lost a lecturer to them just this past summer—she’d only been with the dept. 3 semesters. Tenure-track, too, but she got recruited and off she went. Said she wanted to do more for her people. Not sure whose rolls she was on, but it must have meant a lot to her. PWP wasn’t offering squat for pay.

Like her uncle, Julie didn’t mince words.

She said she’d been hired as a creative director, whatever that means for nonprofits. She was interested in rock art—did a lot of documentation and photography between semesters. Maybe PWP wanted some fresh designs?

I’m not sure what she’s doing up your way now. Nobody here’s heard from her for a couple of months.

Cassie’s coffee turned to acid in her stomach. Relax, she told herself. Quit looking for trouble between the lines.

Still, she scrolled quickly.

I never met the guy who recruited her, but he must have been some salesman. The dept. secretary said he blew in like something out of a Hillerman novel—definitely on the rolls—and claimed he had an appointment. Went up to her office, talked to her for maybe thirty minutes, left whistling. She handed her resignation next day and was gone by the weekend. Didn’t even finish out summer session!

I was pissed at her at the time—had to cover one of her classes— but later I got worried. She was always pretty passionate about her work, but that was it. Never drank, never partied. No boyfriend. I finally asked around the dept. until I got her address—a Sheridan P.O. box. No e-mail, even though she had a laptop.

I wrote her a couple of times, asking how the program was treating her. Got one reply on a postcard, then nothing.

Sorry I can’t help more. Keep me posted, OK? PWP doesn’t sound like a bad program, but I’m not sure what might be going on with this gal. Who knows, maybe she’s the director there now. If you’re thinking about volunteering, here’s her name and address. Good luck!

Cassie took a long sip of lukewarm coffee. Then she wrote the name Julie had provided at the bottom of the PIPER WITH A PURPOSE flier and slipped it into her back pocket.

How do I not need this? Let me count the ways

But first, she had a call to make.

 

It took some doing to get away from Twenty Mile unnoticed. Cassie didn’t want to lie to Frank: lying to your foreman was a bad idea, and he’d always been able to read her way too easily. Still, it might be better for all concerned (including Julie) if he didn’t find out about her going out to PWP—not until she’d started volunteering there.

After that, she hoped he’d understand for the sake of charity.

Or curiosity.

Or frostbite.

The wind was screaming by the time she found the turnoff to the workshop. Grabbing the wheel whenever her old Wagoneer caught a gust, she bumped along nearly a mile of dirt track before reaching the site. Aside from another orange and turquoise Kokopelli—on a sign about twelve feet high—it was an unimpressive place, all prefab and trailers. The main facility might have been a tech school once. Several aging double-wides clustered nearby were probably PWP housing assistance.

Despite the weather, a couple of people in heavy jackets sat on the front steps of one of these. When she pulled up to the main building, they disappeared inside.

The brown paper bag they’d been sharing remained behind.

Cassie tried not to notice, though she locked her vehicle before heading inside. The wind nearly tore the front door from her hands—and once she’d gotten it shut, she wondered why she’d bothered. Heat didn’t seem to be a high priority. She guessed they were using propane and hoped to God that their system was maintained better than the rest of the place.

Plywood panels, more or less painted, divided the building’s cavernous interior. The front section was office space. From the back came voices and intermittent noise from equipment, manufacturing or maybe packaging. Whatever it was, she wished she had earplugs.

“Need some help?”

A teenage girl edged around the nearest partition. She looked Native American or possibly Hispanic, rail-thin and very tired. Her grubby sweatshirt and jeans hung from her body.

“I’ve got an appointment to see your director about volunteering,” Cassie said. “For four o’clock, but I think I’m a little early.”

The girl stared at Cassie for a moment. Then she pointed down the hall (or what passed for one) with a skinny finger.

“Second from the back.”

Before Cassie could thank her, she ducked back into her cubicle. Smoke from a freshly lit cigarette rose from behind the plywood. Mentally shaking her head, Cassie headed toward the back, noticing as she did so that some of the partitions featured artwork. Most of it was spray-painted, with or without stencils.

Rock art images. Some she’d never seen in any archaeology magazine.

Lots and lots of very strange pipers.

She started averting her eyes, though she knew this was stupid. Sure, a few looked too much like McAllister’s sketches, but his had depicted actual rock art. Maybe workshop artists had been practicing newly discovered designs on the walls here. Julie’s missing lecturer might have supplied a few.

The second cubicle from the back had an actual door. Cassie hesitated, then knocked.

Strains of a solo wooden flute drifted out to her.

“Come in.”

It was a male voice, well-educated and bland. Professionally bland. She pushed the door open to reveal a fully office-sized space, with Navajo rugs covering most of the cement floor. All the walls here were white, more or less. There were only a couple of bookcases, mostly empty aside from what looked like Anasazi artifacts and the CD player emitting the Native American music.

The desk itself sat far to the back in one corner. Like the door, it bore no nameplate—only a cardboard tent with MARCUS GRAY in felt-tip marker. An elaborately carved and feathered flute on a stand completed the desktop décor.

“Ms. Barrett?”

Cassie nodded and took the folding chair in front of the desk. The man watching her reeked of Sixties-era social worker. Even in corduroy jeans and a sweater, she felt overdressed.

“I understand you’re interested in volunteering for the holiday season?” When Cassie nodded, he drew a yellow pad toward him and began making notes. “Have you done community service work before?”

“Not since Girl Scout cookies.”

Gray didn’t react. Perfect non-judgmental mode. “How did you happen to hear of Piper With a Purpose?”

She described the flier, willing her hands not to clench in her lap. “I’m intrigued by Southwestern archaeology,” she added. “Especially rock art.”

Was that a flicker of interest in those faded eyes?

“This workshop is primarily about helping people in the present—answering the needs of the community. Helping our clients make better life choices. Most know nothing about the cultural symbols we use, though many of them come from that culture.”

Not up here in Wyoming, I’m guessing.

“However, we do encourage them to explore spiritually.” He reached out a hand to the feathered flute. “There’s an incredible richness in these ancient cultures. The designs we use help to promote that, bring it into modern awareness.”

One finger stroked a feather. “I think our clients are better for it.”

The back of Cassie’s neck prickled. If she’d learned anything about the Outside, it was that some ancient cultures should stay buried.

“They certainly seem interested,” she finally said. “The wall murals I saw on the way to your office…I’ve never seen anything quite like them.”

Not since my last nightmare, anyhow.

Marcus Gray brightened. “We’re proud of those designs. All authentic—though you won’t find some of them in the standard texts. They’re recent discoveries from sites very much off the beaten path.”

The folded flier in Cassie’s pocket crackled as she leaned forward. Now or never.

“I heard you hired a creative director some time back. I’m assuming she contributed some of those designs?”

Gray’s hand froze on the feathers.

“Dr. Lyn Trujillo, from the University of New Mexico.” Cassie’s throat tightened. “She’s a friend of a friend. From what I hear, you were lucky to recruit her.”

Or someone was. The man sitting across from her certainly didn’t match the description from Julie’s department secretary. He looked about as Native American as Cassie herself did.

So who was the mystery salesman?

“I’m afraid that arrangement didn’t work out, Ms. Barrett.” Disapproval crept into Gray’s voice. “She only lasted a few months here. We can’t afford to pay much, and the non-material rewards of the position weren’t enough, it seems.”

Cassie bit her lip. She hoped she looked embarrassed rather than alarmed.

Or suspicious.

“That’s too bad,” she managed. “I never met her, but I heard all about her rock art documentation. I was looking forward to seeing what she came up with for you.” She hesitated, trying to sound hopeful. “Unless those mural designs in the hall weren’t—”

“Some of them.”

Whatever enthusiasm she’d seen in those eyes was gone now. Before she could ask more questions, Gray passed her a clipboard. It held a standard volunteer information form and a cheap ball-point pen.

“Given our holiday rush,” he said as she worked through it, “you’re welcome to start whenever you wish. We ask for at least two-hour sessions, preferably at least twice a week.”

Cassie agreed to start the next day, listed her preferred hours, and handed the clipboard back. Gray didn’t rise to see her out.

Strains of his office music—minor, plaintive, disturbing— followed her down the hallway. The lights had dimmed since her arrival. One overhead fluorescent was in its death throes, flickering shadows across the murals. After the first couple of panels, Cassie shifted her gaze straight ahead and walked quickly, telling her imagination to shut the hell up.

By the time she reached her Jeep, she was losing that argument.

Sundown this time of year gave the wind an extra edge. Her numb fingers fumbled her keys into the dirt. Muttering under her breath, she crouched to retrieve them—then sprang up as footsteps thudded toward her from the main building.

“Hey! You almost forgot this!”

Before she could react, the skinny teenage receptionist thrust something at her and ran away, veering toward the cluster of double-wides. Cassie didn’t even think about following. She unlocked her vehicle and slid in fast, locking all four doors before driving away at the maximum sane speed for conditions.

Thin snow had joined the wind by the time she reached the highway, snaking across it as she pulled over and flicked on her overhead light. The receptionist’s gift—a battered blue spiral notebook—lay on the passenger seat.

Cassie flipped open the cover. Lyn Trujillo, Ph.D., in shaky blue ink. Her Dream Journal.

 

Several hours later, fortified by a few sips from a stiff rum and Coke, Cassie switched on her desk lamp and took a deep breath. Trujillo’s journal, she reminded herself, was no different from the serious weirdness McAllister had left her. It might be one more minor artifact, recording somebody’s brush with the Outside. It might be nothing at all.

Blue spiral notebooks don’t bite.

And even if they did, they’d be outmatched. Jupe and Juno had followed her upstairs after dinner tonight, just as they’d been doing every evening lately. Before that flier had shown up, Cassie had blamed the approaching winter solstice: cold darkness meant hole up with the pack.

Now she wasn’t so sure. Maybe Frank’s frostbite wasn’t limited to humans.

Flipping past the oddly formal title page, Cassie found that Trujillo had started her journal in late August—not immediately after arriving, but while she still might have been in contact with Julie or other colleagues.

Gray says we are all “here”—who knows if he means PWP or Wyo. or this planet—to explore our spirituality, so here goes. For three nights now, I’ve been having the first spiritual dreams of my life. No clear details, just the sensation of something incredibly old & powerful. Sometimes I see rock art images, but nothing I can draw after I wake up. Not sure why the art’s there, but isn’t that how it is with dreams? I’m going to leave this journal by my bed from now on. Maybe sketching sooner will help.

Two days later, Trujillo sounded frustrated.

Still nothing. Nothing I can use for my designs here, anyhow. I’ve shown Gray all the books I brought with me—hundreds of petroglyphs & sketches—but he keeps asking for something fresh. Authentic but fresh. Says to get in touch with my own “deep understanding” of the culture this art came from, though how I can do that when the Anasazi weren’t even literate is beyond me.

Gray asked me tonight how my work is coming along. I think he meant my dreams, partly—he asks everybody about their dreams, even the clients. Maybe he’s a Jungian or something. Some of the clients really get him going. The stuff they come up with!

There were no entries for several days after that. Then, in the middle of an otherwise blank page, Trujillo had drawn a bowed tangle of lines with a single protrusion emerging from the right side, toward the top. Two more protrusions at the bottom seemed meant as feet.

The scribble was dated September first.

I hope Gray’s happy, Trujillo had written on the facing page. That damn flute tape—he told me listen to it before bed, so I did & what do I get? Same dreams I’ve been having off & on ever since I got here, but now they’ve got a soundtrack. Did manage to see one of the glyphs a little better, though. Tried drawing it when I woke up, but it’s nothing worth working with.

Cassie took another look at the scribble.

Then she reached for her rum and Coke and started flipping pages.

Kokopelli first appeared in the entry for September eighth. Trujillo was complaining about PWP’s logo. How, she wondered, could she create anything fresh with the biggest cliché in the Southwest in her face everywhere she went? Admittedly, the items this workshop shipped out bore some very interesting variants—

It was bound to happen, she wrote two days later. The ancient spiritual presence in my dreams is now Kokopelli. Or something similar, though I’ve never seen real petroglyphs quite like what I saw tonight. Fortunately.

There was a bonfire or something—a fire in a cave. Glyphs all over the walls, & they were all Kokopelli & they weren’t. There were flutes, & a wind. Then the glyphs started dancing

Please, Cassie thought, let there not be coyotes.

There weren’t, but only (she suspected) because Trujillo’s alarm had gone off shortly afterward. At the bottom of the page, Trujillo had drawn a whole line of her dancing glyphs: two-legged and six-legged, hunchbacked and not. Almost all had flute-like appendages, and a few looked intertwined.

No need to dig out McAllister’s field journals. Cassie had been through most of them by now, and he’d made his own sketches. Images from tunnels running under certain kivas, from the backs of obscure caves and shadowed, inaccessible cliff faces.

Nyar’la’a.

Well, I’ve finally come up with a few designs Gray likes, Trujillo wrote about a week later. Says I’m finally in touch with that “deep understanding.” He’s already ordering stencils for stuff like coffee mugs—if I can come up with something really striking, he’ll do holiday cards. Or a new cover for those flute CDs the shops in Taos love.

I know I ought to be thrilled—this is what I’m here for, right?— but I’m not. We lost two clients last night. One overdosed & one hung himself. Same night I dreamed most of this art Gray’s so high on—I was working up the prelim sketches when I found out. I wish I’d torn them up, but I needed something for this morning’s meeting.

By the end of September, Trujillo’s handwriting looked ragged. Her sketching, however, had improved.

Started the pencil work today for that hallway mural Gray wants. It’s going to take a couple of evenings, but at least the clients will be helping with the painting. I’ve cut stencils for a lot of that—Gray’s suggestion. Stencils and spray paint, though I hate having paint around. We’ve got one or two huffers—pretty damaged—& they don’t need temptation.

She’d added a couple of images Cassie recognized from her visit to PWP. One, she noted, had impressed Gray so much he was using it for the CD covers.

Not sure it’s worth it, though, she wrote a day or two later. The dreams are getting worse. Sometimes in a cave, sometimes outside, but always the damn flute & the glyphs & now coyotes. They howl like mad when the big one starts assembling itself—no, HIMSELF. Definitely HIMSELF.

Started work on the mural tonight after dinner.

The rest of the page held sketches, most still similar to those in McAllister’s field journals. The last, however, showed HIMSELF in the act of forming. Cassie flipped the page and reached for her rum and Coke again.

The glass was empty.

I told Gray to keep that paint locked up. I’ve rounded up all the cans now & pitched them—the mural’s nearly done & what isn’t yet I’ll do—but too late for…Cassie raised the notebook, squinting, but the name was illegible. We’ll be lucky if the county doesn’t shut this place down. Maybe it should. The clients aren’t making progress, & the dreams they tell Gray keep getting sicker.

One girl I work with (good artist, when she’s sober) says there’s screaming in her trailer almost every night. Nightmares. She wants to leave, but it’s too cold on the street in town.

Cassie scanned down the page. Trujillo’s handwriting was a mess, but the same couldn’t be said for her dream sketches. By mid-October, she’d switched to colored pencils and felt-tip pens.

Sickly green moons. Festering holes of stars.

And rising up against them, twisted and lean and hideous, something that raised its face to those stars…tore at them with straining appendages of that face—

Cassie flipped past, to the end of the notebook, then dropped it on her desk. There were no more words to read anyway. Trujillo’s final entries hadn’t even been dated, though she had obviously been trying to communicate something. More dreams? Waking hallucinations?

So much for artistic inspiration at PWP.

Whatever Lyn Trujillo had hoped to accomplish there, Marcus Gray was right. The arrangement had not worked. Cassie was starting to wonder exactly how badly it hadn’t—and how that receptionist had gotten hold of something so personal as Trujillo’s dream journal.

Three client deaths. At least. And Gray said Trujillo wasn’t there any more, that the non-material rewards hadn’t been enough—

Muttering a few choice words, Cassie dragged McAllister’s carton out of her closet and put the notebook inside. Jupe and Juno seemed to approve. Both Rotts settled close beside her chair, sighing themselves to sleep as she booted up her computer.

And began a very difficult e-mail to Julie Valdez.

 

Aside from her own nerves—and that God-awful road out to the facility—Cassie’s first week volunteering went well enough. To her relief, she wasn’t asked to manufacture any Kokopelli products, though she’d been told that some were handmade in-house. Instead, she spent her two hours per shift packing boxes for mailing.

The intermittent racket she’d heard on her first visit turned out to be a conveyor belt that carried boxes past the workers, allowing ample time to check packing slips and select items from stock kept on shelves behind them. In theory. In practice, the belt was down more often than not—and even when it wasn’t, her fellow workers were none too helpful. Most were PWP clients: recovering addicts, possibly recovering alcoholics, and psychiatric cases.

The few volunteers from town, mostly church groups, never showed up more than once or twice.

There were a couple of staff members as well. They wore denim shirts with the garish PWP logo and looked more like prison guards or bouncers. Other than fixing the belt when it broke down, they did almost nothing. Equipped with folding chairs, cigarettes, and a cooler full of Pepsi, they just sat and watched the clients.

A few of these—generally the psych cases—hummed along to the piped-in work music. It was always solo Native American flute, like the stuff she’d heard in Gray’s office, and it wore on her nerves. After her first day, she kept a pair of shooting earplugs in her jacket pocket.

After her second, she wore them almost continuously.

Cassie drove home dead tired on Friday afternoon, fighting the wind and the road and her lack of decent sleep. She had volunteered for five days straight. For the past four nights, the music she’d blocked at the workshop had returned in her dreams, woven through the voices of coyotes.

She needed a hot meal. And a very hot shower.

The scent of the first—followed by two ecstatic Rotts—greeted her as she walked through the door. Cassie knelt and hugged both dogs, then headed for the kitchen. Frank Yellowtail was already there, settled at one end of the table with the day’s mail and a mug of coffee. She poured one for herself and joined him.

Since the dreams had started—or at least, since they’d admitted to them—she and Frank had been eating dinner together often. The idea had been hers, but he’d been more than willing to help out. It was easy enough for her to shove a casserole in the oven or start a pot of soup before leaving for PWP.

Easier than coming home to darkness, anyhow. She suspected Frank felt the same.

Cassie set her coffee down on the Sheridan Press, which had been left folded open across her placemat. She frowned: Frank generally lacked patience with news outside the cattle business. Since when had that changed?

The article’s terse headline didn’t help much. Woman, 31, Found Frozen to Death.

Judging from the accompanying photo, it was the kind of story most papers ran this time of year to help the Salvation Army kettles. The sad fact was that transients got wasted and collapsed in alleys all year round.

Lyn Trujillo, a former client of Piper With a Purpose

“No.” Cassie’s hands tightened on the paper. She picked it up to examine the photo, then shook her head. She’d never met Trujillo. That blanket-wrapped form slumped against a Dumpster could have been anyone.

I’m afraid that arrangement didn’t work out, Ms. Barrett— “This had to be a mistake.” Cassie pushed the article in Frank’s direction. “Trujillo was their creative director, not a client! There’s no way she could have ended up like….that. Julie said she didn’t even drink—”

She stopped short at the look on his face. Damn.

Lacking children of his own, Frank was a devoted uncle. From past experience, Cassie knew all too well how he felt about her getting Julie involved in anything strange.

“I know,” he said. “I called her this morning. We had a good long talk.”

Which meant, it turned out, that he knew all about her recent e-mails to his niece. Why she’d really started volunteering at PWP, and what she she’d learned from Trujillo’s dream journal. Not surprising that Julie had wanted her uncle’s opinion on that. Frank’s grandfather had been a powerful dreamer, and Cassie suspected he’d inherited some talent.

Not a good thing, lately.

“If you want to see that journal yourself,” she offered, “I’ll get it. I should have let you check it out in the first place.” To her surprise, Frank shook his head.

“You’d better leave it alone, too. From what Julie told me, nothing in it could make any difference now. Trujillo got too close.”

Cassie nodded, wincing at another touch of frostbite.

Frank looked at her sharply. “Maybe you should quit volunteering there.”

“Don’t you think I haven’t already considered it?”

The words burst out with a surprising mix of anger and fear. Staring down at the article to avoid his reaction, Cassie felt a cold certainty: she did have to go back to PWP. Whatever had happened to Lyn Trujillo—and several clients—there wasn’t like last year at Zia House. It wasn’t something lurking in some remote cave.

Whatever Trujillo had seen in her dreams had a toehold right here.

After a moment, Frank picked up the paper and threw it on the floor.

“I figured you’d say that.” His face was expressionless now. “You and Julie, when you get an idea into your heads—” He sighed. “There’s something going on out there, all right, and we both know what it feels like. Maybe there’s nothing to be done about it, either.”

Cassie swallowed the desert in her throat. Frank was making good sense, but he didn’t know the whole story. He only knew what Julie had told him.

Not what Marcus Gray had announced this afternoon.

“You’re probably right,” she finally said, “but I’ve got to keep going for a while longer. The Little America in Cheyenne just placed a huge order, so there’ll be an all-night packing party on the twenty-first.”

Frank Yellowtail frowned. Twenty Mile had its own bad solstice history.

“We’re going to have a special visitor that night, too,” Cassie added. “The director won’t say who, just that he’s very important to ‘the mission of our program.’ Like a founder or something.”

Frank wasn’t frowning any more.

The creases in his face looked more like crevasses.

 

In the end, they’d compromised. She would cut back on her hours and carry her cell phone whenever she was at PWP. She would also keep her nose out of Trujillo’s dream journal. In return, Frank would back her decision to keep volunteering until the twenty-first.

When she asked what “backing” meant, he handed her the keys to his pickup.

“We need to swap vehicles, at least on the days you’re going out there.”

Cassie blinked. Frank had recently traded off his ancient green monster for a two-year-old Ford half-ton in gleaming black. She’d never borrow it for a grocery run, let alone that miserable drive out the workshop.

“Why?”

“To bring the dogs with me,” he said, avoiding her eyes. “If you call.”

For a moment, the statement didn’t make sense. Then she nodded.

“Coyotes.”

Though they were smart about them, Jupe and Juno hated coyotes—and most of the “song dogs” around Twenty Mile stayed clear of the big Rotts. Cassie wasn’t sure what one coyote under her window and a whole pack in her dreams (not to mention Trujillo’s) meant in the waking world.

Still, coyotes did seem connected with whatever was wrong at PWP. And Frank would no more risk the dogs than she would. If he thought they might be useful in a crisis, or prevent one—

Cassie had handed over her Jeep keys. She carried her phone and cut her hours and tried to ignore Marcus Gray’s bursts of irritation.

But now, well into the evening of the twenty-first, she was starting to regret her decision.

To begin with, she’d never had to work with all PWP’s clients before. Not counting yet another church group (which had disappeared within the first two hours) there had to be at least thirty people here tonight. Some looked intoxicated or high or both, though the staff wasn’t paying much attention. They were too busy catering to tonight’s special visitor.

The guy had arrived around sunset, escorted by Gray himself. Lean and wiry like a cowboy—and busted up like one, too. His back twisted under the flame-colored Western shirt he wore with black Levis and silver-toed boots. His black felt hat—sporting the flashiest concha band Cassie had ever seen—rode low over his eyes, obscuring his face.

Feathers fluttered at the back of his belt. The ornamented flute from Gray’s office, or one suspiciously similar, had been stuck through it casually.

Trujillo’s recruiter?

Whatever he did for PWP, Gray’s mumbled introduction left it a mystery. Cassie hadn’t even managed to catch the guy’s name above the rumble of the conveyor belt, and Gray hadn’t stuck around for questions. Instead, he had muttered something else about a phone call and disappeared—leaving the visitor to account for himself, which he didn’t. He seemed to prefer working to talking, which was fine with Cassie.

For the first few hours, anyway.

The belt was running fine tonight, miracle of miracles, but she could still hear the usual work music above it—and she hadn’t had the time or privacy to put in her earplugs yet. At least half a dozen people were humming along, some even swaying as they packed the CDs Gray had such high hopes for.

Glancing at Lyn Trujillo’s cover art as the jewel boxes slid through her hands, Cassie shuddered. Were there coyotes lurking in that unfocused background?

“Break in five minutes, people,” shouted one of the staff. “Let’s get these boxes sealed for the truck.”

As the zip of packing tape replaced the belt’s rumble, Cassie glanced at the workroom clock. Ten-thirty already. The minor wail of the flute was giving her a headache, setting her nerves on edge and tweaking her paranoia. Glare from the overhead lights threw shadows she couldn’t quite account for.

The air smelled funky, too. She wondered again about the heating system, and headed outside as soon as possible.

Even the wind had to be better than this.

After detouring around a knot of smokers—not all of them favoring tobacco—near the back door, Cassie worked her way around the building, staying close to the wall. She’d been right about the wind. It was nastier than usual tonight, buffeting what few security lights still worked. By the time she reached the parking lot out front, she was shivering persistently.

Frank’s pickup was still safely where she’d parked it, though, in the farthest space from the front door. Relief washed through her. Why not just leave? the voice of reason suggested. Hop in, go home. Bail from this creepy situation.

Then she noticed another parking space, directly by the door. It was empty… except for DIRECTOR stenciled in white paint.

Fishing in her pocket with numb fingers, Cassie grabbed her cell phone and flipped it open. As it sometimes did, the two-word curse of rural America appeared onscreen.

No service.

 

To her surprise, everyone who had gone on break was actually back when the conveyor belt started up again. Dirty looks directed at the two staff members told her why—or at least how. The why of nearly everything about this evening was turning mysterious as the clock’s hands crawled toward twelve.

Starting with where the hell Marcus Gray was, on this Very Important Night he’d been ranting about for the past week.

Focus on what’s going on here. Now.

Tonight’s special visitor wasn’t working so hard, though everyone else seemed to be. PWP’s clients were packing CDs and other Kokopelli merchandise as though their messed-up lives depended upon it. Some looked twitchy, sweating profusely in the chilly room. Others were zoned out, slaving away in their own private worlds.

The visitor was walking among them now, though he didn’t seem to be saying much. Maybe he was whispering. Certainly he was leaning in close, touching some of the women who looked particularly nervous. The teenage receptionist she’d met on her first day here was following him around like a starving puppy.

As the woman next to her reached out for his sleeve, Cassie turned away quickly. The woman’s expression when she glanced back chilled her.

Passive. Sheep-like. Glazed.

Meanwhile, Cassie’s temples were starting to throb. The work music had grown louder, piercingly insistent, and she was sure now that the heating system had problems. At least the overhead lights weren’t glaring any more. They had dimmed noticeably since their return from break, though neither the staff nor anyone else seemed to have noticed.

Eleven-thirty now.

Eleven thirty-five. Was the belt speeding up?

At eleven-forty, the staff hauled open the rolling door in one wall. A large van had been backed up to the other side. With more speed than she’d have thought possible, both staff members and a few of the fitter male clients started lifting boxes onto handcarts for the van. Wind from the open door howled past unnoticed.

By eleven fifty-five, the job was almost done. As a final box went in at midnight, Cassie heard the conveyor belt stop…and the work music, more intense than ever, rising to fill the auditory void. She dug in her pocket for her earplugs.

As she palmed them, another sound began, weaving through the flute recording and the wind outside. It was rasping and ancient, yet a part of her recognized it even before she glanced across the room.

Gray’s feathered flute wasn’t stuck through their visitor’s belt any more. He was playing it, his body curved over the elaborately carved tube almost like an extension of the instrument. What came from it was less music than breath—a wordless ritual, an artifact out of time before civilization. Or thought.

Or humanity.

Most of the people around her were already swaying in place. A few moaned. The young receptionist gasped softly, then sidled around her table and began slow-stepping toward the music, head thrown back and long hair streaming.

Moving toward the center of the workroom to join her, their visitor played louder. Other women—then a few men—began to copy the girl’s steps. It looked like the most natural thing in the world, a physical evolution of the music.

A ceremony in the making.

Every frostbitten nerve in Cassie knew that much, even as her own body began to sway. Forcing herself down on her knees behind one of the tables, she fumbled with the earplugs she’d manipulated so easily moments ago. One nearly slipped from her grasp—but the effect was astonishing. Cut off from the wail of the visitor’s flute, she found herself back in charge of her muscles.

And in danger of being noticed by anyone still paying attention.

Easing back up, Cassie tried to copy the rhythm of those closest to her. Her earplugs hadn’t gone in perfectly: enough of the music leaked through to let her follow along, maybe too well. Shuffling and slow-stepping through the dimming light, the knot of PWP clients and staff swept her up. Wind gusting through the loading door pushed them all along, following the flute-player toward the only other door in the room.

Most of them had used it on their way back from break. Now it gaped open onto a pitch-black corridor far longer than any Cassie remembered in this building. As the dancing crowd disappeared inside, she felt the first stirrings of panic.

What had Daniel McAllister said about “many gates”?

Still the visitor with his flute played on, ever-changing yet somehow monotonous. Caught up in the rhythm, the others swayed after him into the darkness, some moaning under their breaths. Ahead—but how far ahead?—hints of dim light flickered against the walls.

The scent of piñon pine grew stronger as they approached. Piñon smoke…as from a newly kindled fire. Cassie’s panic rose even as her feet carried her along. This was nowhere in the PWP complex, she was certain. This was a waking dream, a collective primal nightmare, a footnote from Trujillo’s last desperate scribblings.

This was a wound in the modern skin of the world.

Abruptly, the corridor ended in a cave some cringing part of her already recognized. A small central campfire threw shadows on the soot-blackened walls, summoning pale ghosts of petro-glyphs. They danced in imitation of the one who capered and piped in the firelight, throwing sparks from the conchas of his hatband and the silver-mounted toes of his boots.

Men and women all around her joined in that dance. Someone even had a hand drum, its soft malignant heartbeat growing stronger as the flames leaped up.

Cassie struggled against that rhythm. Like a swimmer fighting current, she forced herself away, toward the nearest curve of stone. Other bodies flowed into the gap she made. The dance and the music and the flames began to blend, calling malformed petroglyphs from the walls to writhe in the air above their heads.

And as they did—as the shadows writhed with them—the piper’s flame-colored shirt turned to actual fire, enveloping him for an instant.

Murmurs of awe and terror rose from the other dancers. Out of that brief conflagration, something taller, leaner, and far less human was unfolding. Still piping, curved over and around the appendage of its instrument, it shook its…head, surely … until tatters of black felt and silver fell away.

Cassie pressed herself further into the shadows.

Turned her own head away, but not quickly enough.

“Nyar’la’a!” The syllables tore themselves from a dozen straining throats at once. “Nyar’la’a!”

A sudden gust of wind blew through the cave…blew down from the distant ceiling which was no longer solid, if it ever had been. Live coals spattered from the fire. Cassie glanced up. Through whatever the smokehole had become, she could see stars. Too many stars, even for rural Wyoming. Too many stars in very wrong colors, torn by a wind which blew out of somewhere unimaginably desolate, inconceivably cold.

“Nyar’la’a! Nyar’la’a!”

More voices, this time—and not all of them human. There were dozens of coyotes somewhere outside this cave, lending their responses to the wind and the chant. The rising, writhing chaos of it all. Biting her lip to focus herself, Cassie picked up the rhythm of the dance again, swaying back toward the corridor which she desperately hoped still existed.

“Nyar’la’a!”

She had almost reached the darkness when something landed on her shoulder. A large, beefy hand—staff, probably—hauled her backwards, toward the firelight and discovery. Cassie grabbed onto a protruding rock ledge, then kicked back with all her strength. Her captor howled. She kicked again, to the kneecap, and his grasp loosened. Twisting away, she bolted down the corridor.

And nearly gagged on the chemical stench spewing into the air behind her.

Glancing back over her shoulder, Cassie cursed and redoubled her speed. There were people coming after her, all right, but pursuit was the least of her problems. Or theirs. Whatever ancient nightmare had manifested itself tonight, it hadn’t been real enough to turn gas line into solid rock.

 

Freezing wind hit her in the face as she jumped through the loading door. Cassie landed hard and scrambled to her feet, intent on getting as far from the facility as possible. PWP hadn’t maintained its heating system to start with. A broken line wouldn’t help, and if any of that fire in the dream-cave had actually been—

What the hell?

Still several yards from the parking lot—let alone Frank’s pickup and some chance of leaving—Cassie stopped dead, staring into the night around her. Pair after pair of narrow yellow eyes stared back.

Associations: ritual music, wild beasts, madness.

Already two for three.

From where she stood, she could see coyotes ringing the area. Lean shadows just beyond the security lights, they sat back on their haunches and watched her, apparently waiting for her next move.

Did coyote packs ever attack human beings?

Moot question. The natural laws of the rest of the world no longer applied out here, and her gut knew it. She had seen things tonight that nothing in McAllister’s notes or her own brushes with the Outside had prepared her for…nothing wind and sky and earth were meant to contain.

Without warning, the closest coyote threw back its head in song. It was a weird, tormented wail unlike anything she’d ever heard around Twenty Mile, and it penetrated her earplugs effortlessly.

As the rest of the pack joined in, Cassie bolted for the parking lot.

She expected pursuit, strong jaws dragging her down, but it never came. What did was the blast of a propane explosion—then a second, smaller blast as the delivery van’s gas tank caught. Running for her life now, she headed for the farthest space out. The comforting bulk of a Ford half-ton…if she could only unlock it in time—

Headlights flashed on to meet her.

Jeep headlights.

Frank Yellowtail scrambled from the driver’s seat, then reached back inside for a shotgun from the rack. His mouth started moving as Cassie reached him. Shaking her head, she pulled out both earplugs and gasped her thanks.

“How’d you know to come?” she asked, as he passed her the weapon and headed for the Jeep’s back cargo door. “I tried to call you, but—”

“The dogs told me.”

Cassie frowned. Rather than asking her for his keys—or just climbing back into her vehicle and getting the hell out of Dodge— Frank was opening the door for Jupe and Juno. Both wore their heavy leather leashes, which he grabbed as they emerged.

And started barking challenge at the coyote ring.

“What’s that mean?” she yelled over the Rotts.

“Every coyote around our place started up about an hour ago. The dogs went nuts, started giving it right back—and then they stopped. No more barking, no more howling. No more coyotes. It didn’t sound natural, somehow. When Jupe started in on the front door, I thought we’d better get out here.”

He glanced down at the furious dogs. “All of us.”

Despite the weirdness of the situation, Cassie sighed. That door had taken a lot of abuse in the past couple of years—but the idea of Frank waiting at the house for her call was reassuring. She needed reassuring right now.

Speaking of right now, why weren’t they leaving?

Frank pointed past her to the coyotes. “We met more coming in. A lot more than I’ve ever seen around here—bigger, too. Like wolves.”

In the fitful light from the propane fire, Cassie saw his expression change.

“I don’t think they’re going to let us leave,” he said. “Not until this is over.”

Cassie wasn’t sure what ‘‘this” was, but she kept both hands on the shotgun. Things looked pretty much over to her—aside from the damn coyotes, anyway. The main PWP facility blazed like a torch, and the wind was spreading flames to a couple of the trailers. Surely nobody in there was still alive. There wasn’t even any screaming, the way you’d expect—

Abruptly, the coyotes fell silent. So did Jupe and Juno, though they stood their ground, the fur on their necks and shoulders bristling.

A line of shadows was emerging from the holocaust of the main facility. Some new and terrible wailing twisted itself into the wind, rising above it tunelessly. Ragged bursts of mad laughter responded.

Cassie’s breath caught. At the head of the line, lean and hunched and utterly inhuman, capered the image of her nightmares.

She did not understand how any of those following it…him, oh yes, him … could still be alive, or even if they were. Stumbling, dragging ruined limbs behind them, they staggered through the wind and the night like unstrung marionettes. Thick black strands trailed from their leader’s headdress. Coiling and whipping in defiance of the wind’s direction, they lashed back at random into the line.

Shrieks followed.

Cassie bit her lip, hoping none of them were hers.

The coyotes were on the move now. Whimpering, they broke their ring and belly-crawled toward the piper, flattening themselves at his feet. He danced over them heedlessly. Rolling clear (most of them, anyhow), they trotted along beside the others, causing some of them to flinch away.

Cassie pressed herself closer to Jupe and Juno.

Blink. Blink Shift.

Shadowy petroglyphs, two-leggers and four-leggers and Kokopelli himself, dancing forever on a kiva tunnel wall no one was ever meant to see. The faithful record of a primal nightmare…or a primal memory. Daniel McAllister’s sketch from the last night of his life.

The world we think we live in now is just a skin—a modern skin—and every so often something else breaks through.

She blinked again. The line was turning away from the facility, away from the flaming outbuildings and the road. Its leader was drawing farther ahead, and the coyotes with him—yet the others kept staggering along behind, into the snow-flecked void and the shifting wind. It blew from true north now, a Canadian blast carrying the first flakes of a storm.

Jupe and Juno snuffled at her knees. When she didn’t move, Frank Yellowtail laid a hand on her shoulder.

“I think it’s over,” he said. “Let’s go while we still can.”

The distant shriek of a fire engine punctuated his words. As she loaded the dogs back into her Jeep and coaxed its engine to life, Cassie tried not to think what those would-be rescuers would find in the morning.

What they would not find, she knew, would be tonight’s visitor. He, like Marcus Gray, was already on some other road, spreading chaos ancient as the stars she dared not look up at yet. And with every PWP workshop, every coffee mug or greeting card or flute CD, another little piece of this world would fall apart.

Nyar’la’a. Messenger of the exiled gods.

Whatever the message had been tonight, she hoped she never understood it.

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