Mark Costanzo looked at his watch. “All right, boys,” he said over his shoulder, “the campsite should be should be pretty close by. Keep a lookout for the landmark. It’ll be dark, soon, and we need to establish camp before it’s too dark.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Costanzo,” came the chorused reply of eight voices.
He had been a scoutmaster for nearly ten years. As a boy, he had gone as high as possible in the scouts and become an eagle scout. Then college, work, marriage, and children had intervened and he had outgrown the scouts. Or so he had thought.
When the opportunity to become a scoutmaster had presented itself, he had jumped at the chance. He loved the time he spent outdoors, and returning something to the organization that had been so important in his own life was a bonus. That he got to share his own love of the scouts with his sons was icing on the cake.
“Mr. Costanzo? Isn’t that one of the landmarks?”
He turned around. All eight boys had stopped and were clustered around Noah Dennis, who pointed at a tree to the right of the path that had a wedge-shaped chunk cut out of it at a point about four feet off the ground.
“Looks like it,” Mark said. “Good catch, Noah. This is where we leave the trail, boys. Watch for snakes.” He looked up at the forest canopy. The light would soon be growing dimmer. “And let’s double-time it before we lose daylight.”
He walked ahead of the boys, poking the ground in front of him with his walking stick, looking for unseen dips, holes,or roots that could cause a turned ankle or, at worst, broken bones. He was confident that nothing of the sort would happen. These were good kids—good scouts—and had learned a lot from him in the time he’d been their scoutmaster. He wouldn’t have brought them out into the woods had that not been the case. They were definitely ready for their first overnight expedition.
He knew there was a clearing up ahead near a small stream. He had picked this site earlier in the year when hiking on his own, and had cut the wedge in the tree himself to mark the point to turn off the easy trail. It would be challenging for beginning scouts, but not so hard that it would discourage any of them.
As they trudged through the woods, he listened to the boys’ banter. It’s a good thing we’re not out here hunting, he thought. Every animal for miles around knows exactly where we are. He smiled. Which is a good thing.
He remembered his own first overnight camping trip all too vividly. Every slight sound had been Bigfoot or a wolf or a bear, and he’d gotten almost no sleep. And he was sure his then-scoutmaster, Mr. Harris, had gotten little, either, between the many false alarms.
He glanced back to see that the boys were keeping up with him, but were a little spread out, so he slowed his pace just a bit to allow Sean to catch up. He was the least athletic of the boys, but Mark had seen a lot of improvement in just a few short months.
Another fifteen minutes of walking brought them to the edge of the clearing that was their destination.
“We’re here, guys,” he announced, to a chorus of enthusiastic but tired cheers. They had been walking for several hours, and even he was tired. But tired would have to wait. There was a lot of work to do before they could rest.
“Scott, I want you and Will to go find the stream and collect some rocks for the fire. Sean, you and Cory clear a spot in the center of the clearing for the fire. Noah, take Tom, Zach, and Warren with you and gather firewood.”
He watched as they scattered in several directions doing as he instructed. He followed his own two sons, Scott and Will, to make sure they found the stream with no problem. Watching them carefully poking the ground in front of them with stick as he had done, he felt a swelling of pride. He followed the rustling and excited voices to find the four boys he had sent on firewood duty gathering dry sticks and larger pieces of wood. They looked up as he approached, but he nodded and kept going.
He made his way back to the clearing and watched the two boys as they dug a shallow pit and ringed it with the rocks that Scott and Will brought. They had cleared the leaves from around it first, just like he’d taught them, and made sure there were no low limbs overhanging the site.
It only took twenty minutes for them to get everything ready. It was full twilight, now.
The boys got the fire lit quickly, and soon there was a warm, blazing fire around which to erect their tents.
By the time they had the tents erected, it was fully dark, and the forest was full of the sound of the evening chorus: crickets, night birds, frogs from the nearby stream, the crackling of the campfire. He inhaled deeply. God, I’ve missed this.
Before he was married, he used to spend almost every weekend hiking and camping. Jennifer had accompanied him at first, but after Scott was born, the trips stopped altogether. Now that both boys were old enough, he was glad to share his passion with not only them but the other boys as well.
He rummaged in his pack and pulled out two packages of hot dogs that had been packed with ice, and buns. “Who’s ready for dinner?” he asked.
“Me!” came the response from all eight boys.
He sent them into the woods with their flashlights to find suitable sticks to use as spits. He brought out small packets of ketchup and mustard while waiting.
“Mr. Costanzo?” yelled one of the boys. He thought it sounded like Zach.
“What is it, Zach?” he called back. Looking toward the voice, all he could see were several flashlight beams moving rapidly as the boys flashed them around.
“Can you come look at something?”
Frowning, he stood up and brushed off his pants, then bent down to pull his own flashlight out of his pack. Probably mistook a stick for a snake, he thought.
“Dad, is someone else camping out here?”
Mark walked outside the boundary of their own campsite in the direction of the voices and the flashlight beams.
All the boys were clustered together—a little tighter than they would be if it were daylight, he thought—and stared off into the pitch black of the forest.
“What are we looking at?” he asked as he joined them.
“Over that way, Dad,” said Will. “Looks like a campfire.”
“Everyone turn off your flashlight for a minute.” They all complied, and stood for what felt like a long time in the complete darkness. He looked in the direction they were pointing and blinked his eyes rapidly to accustom them to the darkness.
In the inky depths of the forest, light was visible from a long distance, but because of all the trees, all he could see was a faint glow. He brought out his binoculars and tried to make out more detail. But it was no use. The glow wouldn’t resolve.
He didn’t think anyone else was out here camping. The location was remote. Still, he had found it, so it wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Hello!”
One of the boys whispered, “Crap!” and Mark smiled. Probably should have warned them.
They all stood silently for a full ten seconds. There was no response. Not even an echo. At the sudden sound, all the birds and insects and frogs stopped, but started up again when he did not repeat his shout.
It’s probably just another campsite, he thought. But it could be the start of a forest fire. Better go check it out to make sure, one way or the other.
“Tell you what, boys. I’m going to go check it out. You guys stay here. I’ll be right back.”
He shined his flashlight on the ground in front of his feet, gripped his walking stick with his other hand, and set off in the direction of the distant glow.
He went slowly in the dark, testing each step with the stick before risking his feet.
As he drew closer, he could see that there was too much light for it to be a simple campfire. It looked more like the beginnings of a forest fire, or at least a large bonfire. Idiots, he thought. Probably some moron started a campfire and left it burning when they left, and now….
He was close enough now to catch glimpses of the light source between the trees. It was indeed a large fire, but something was wrong.
Where’s the sound? And the heat? And the flickering? I should be close enough to hear and feel it, not to mention smell it.
He rounded a large oak trunk and stopped. What he saw didn’t make any sense.
In a small clearing in front of him, a fire blazed brightly, but it gave off no heat and no sound. In fact, the flames were frozen, unmoving. The hair on the back of his neck and his arms stood up. He suppressed a shiver. What the hell?
He stayed far enough back that he could see the entire clearing, but walked around it counterclockwise to see if he could get a closer look at the fire from the other side. There was something in the flames. He couldn’t tell what, but it looked like a young tree trunk, or maybe a short telephone pole.
He continued until he was almost directly opposite where he had begun. The shape inside the fire was clearer, now. It was a tall pole. There was an enormous pile of wood around the base of it, and the frozen flames reached at least three quarters of the way up the full height of the pole. There was still an indistinct, dark shape inside the flames, and he came closer as he strained to see what it was.
When he did, he screamed.
He backpedaled so fast, he stumbled and fell heavily onto his back. Without pausing he choked off another scream and crab-walked backward as fast as he could.
He heard a strange noise and realized it was his own panting.
“Dad?” one of his sons called. It was too close. Probably within 20 yards. “Are you okay? I heard you scream.”
He gulped a couple of times, still unable to take his eyes off the frozen fire in front of him, then yelled, “Scott? Go back to the campsite and stay there, you hear me? Do not come over here. I’m coming back.”
“What did you—?”
“Do it!” he shouted. “I’ll be right there.”
He stood up and deliberately looked away from the horrible sight in front of him. He ran a hand through his hair and tried to lick his lips, but found that his tongue was bone dry. He ran as fast as he could safely run through the trees in the direction of his own camp, his walking stick forgotten behind him.
When he reached the campsite, the boys were all clustered together, facing the woods from whence he had come. Scott stood apart from them, concern twisting his young face. As soon as Mark was in sight, they all started talking at once.
“Guys, be quiet for a minute, I need to think.”
“Are you okay, Dad?” It was his younger son, Will.
He looked down at his son and tried to smile, but it felt feeble when he did. He hoped it didn’t look as fake as it felt. “I’m fine, son. I’m just…a little….” He ran his hand through his hair again, unable to find the right word.
He squeezed his son’s shoulder affectionately. “I’m okay.” He turned toward the rest of the boys and said, “Listen up, fellas. We need to break camp right now and head back toward the van.”
Amid choruses of “But we just got here!” and “At night?” and “Why?” he raised his voice and shouted, “Quiet!”
Stunned, the boys looked up at him, confusion and hurt in their eyes.
“I’m sorry to ruin our weekend, but…there’s something pretty bad over there, and I need to get us out of the area as soon as possible and call the police.” And maybe the FBI, PCIU, CIA, and any other alphabet-soup agencies I can come up with.
“What was it?” Sean asked.
“Never you mind,” Mark answered. “Let’s break camp. Collapse those tents and let’s get that fire doused.”
From behind, he heard Scott say to Sean, “I’ll never get my camping badge.”
It was so absurd, Mark burst out laughing.
Nick Damon and his partner Javier Ellis picked their way through the underbrush. Terence Yamato and his team were somewhere behind them, making their way more slowly because of all their equipment.
“Why can’t these things ever happen somewhere it’s less difficult to get to?” Nick asked.
“Because that would be easy,” Javier said jovially.
Nick had been just settling down for an enjoyable day of football, beer, more football, and more beer when his phone had rung. Twenty minutes later, he and Javier were in Nick’s car headed toward the Tennessee border. Although they were based in Atlanta, the Georgia office of the Paranormal Crimes Investigation Unit, or PCIU, was responsible for all of Georgia. A scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts had reported a grisly crime with a paranormal element at nearly midnight.
They rounded a bend on the rough trail through the forest and finally saw what they had been hearing for quite some time. A mob of crime scene investigators and other law enforcement officers were clustered around an area roped off with yellow crime-scene tape about 30 yards ahead. A man with salt-and-pepper hair and a dark beard broke away from the crowd when he noticed the two approaching men.
“Agents Damon and Ellis?” he asked as he approached.
“I’m Nick Damon, and this is Javier Ellis,” Nick said as they shook hands with the man.
“Detective Ed Montgomery,” the man said. “Fannin County sheriff.”
“What’s the situation up ahead?” Nick asked.
Ed shook his head. “Even if I tried to describe it, it wouldn’t do it justice. You’re just going to have to see this one with your own eyes.”
Nick raised his eyebrows. “That bad?”
“That weird,” Ed corrected. “Never seen anything like it in 25 years of law enforcement. Hope never to again.”
Intrigued, Nick gestured for Ed to lead them to the scene.
The clearing ahead was crawling with police officers and sheriff’s deputies. So much for getting any kind of useful forensic evidence. Why can’t the local yokels….
His thought trailed off as he drew closer and saw.
Nick saw Javier cross himself and mouthe “Madre de Dios” out of the corner of his eye.
Without being prompted, they ducked under the crime scene tape and approached.
A woman was burning at the stake.
Well, she would have been burning if the fire weren’t frozen in place.
In the center of the clearing, a large pile of wood had been stacked around an upright pole. Tied to the pole was a young, naked woman. Her hair had burned off and she had once had pale skin sprinkled with freckles.
Most of her body from the waist down looked like burned meat. Her head was thrown back and her face was contorted into a rictus of agony.
And the entire scene had been frozen in stasis.
“Jesus,” Nick said.
“At least,” said Ed. He stood to Nick’s right, Javier on his other side. All three were staring agape at the scene.
“Now you see why we called you in,” Ed said, his voice sounding oddly distant. “I mean…what could do something like that other than magic?”
Javier said, “There are several species of thaumatofauna that could freeze a person like that, but…I doubt any of them could arrange the scene like that.”
Ed turned to face Javier. “Tomato…what?”
Javier glanced in Ed’s direction and smiled. “Thaumatofauna. Magical animals. You know, stuff like cockatrices and centaurs and the like.”
“Oh,” Ed said. “I saw some of those at Zoo Atlanta a while back. And a mermaid up at the Chattanooga Aquarium.”
Nick interrupted before the conversation got completely off-topic. “Has anyone tried approaching the scene?”
Ed turned to face him. “No way. With it being frozen like that? We didn’t even think about it. Why?”
Nick shrugged and put his hands into his pockets. It was chilly out here this early in the morning. “There are two basic types of stasis spell. One of them has an area effect—it freezes everything within the boundary of an area. The other is more subtle and only freezes the specified targets of the spell.”
All three men turned to look at the scene. “Can you tell which one this is?”
Nick nodded. “Yeah, it shouldn’t be a problem. I have a spell that should clear it up pretty fast.”
“After that, we’d like to interview that scoutmaster,” Javier said.
Ed rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. “He’s pretty freaked out. I don’t know how much you’ll get out of him that we haven’t, but I don’t see a problem.”
“What about the kids?” Javier asked. “Did they see this, too?”
“No, thank God,” said Ed. “The scoutmaster”—he consulted his notebook—”Mark Costanzo, investigated the glow the kids noticed and immediately broke camp and he and the boys hiked back to where they had parked their van.”
Nick tuned out Javier and the talkative detective and stepped a bit closer to the edge of the perceived edge of the area under statis, closed his eyes, and began the calming process that would allow him to cast the spell with minimal negative effects. He reached out with his thaumic sense and probed at the edges of the spell in the clearing. When he could sense the entire thing in his mind, he pushed his reveal spell onto the clearing.
He heard a few people in the crowd gasp as the spell took affect, and opened his eyes to see what it revealed.
“My God,” Ed said. “What the hell is that?”
“That,” said Nick, “means we have a big problem.”
The entire clearing was outlined in strands of red, black, and yellow filaments that glowed neon bright even in the light of day. They were interwoven, braided, and knotted. Everywhere Nick looked there was a neon strand. They seemed to erupt from the fire, the pile of wood, the woman’s body, the stake, even the leaves and blades of grass.
Javier cleared his throat and said, “Well, that answers that question, anyway. Area of effect.” He turned and clapped his hand on Ed’s shoulder. “It’s probably a good thing none of you got any closer than this to the fire. You might have been caught in the spell.”
Ed never took his eyes off the fire, but his face drained of color. He nodded, wordlessly, looking like he might lose his lunch. And maybe breakfast, too. And possibly dinner the night before.
Nick turned away from the scene and addressed everyone in the vicinity. “All right, attention, everyone. What you see is the result of a magical spell I cast on the scene.” He singled out two uniformed cops who looked less freaked out than the rest, pointing to each in turn. “You and you, I want a barrier erected a few inches away from the edge of the neon strands ASAP. No one, and I mean absolutely no one, is to breach the barrier.” He met the eyes of each person present as he said this.
The two uniforms he had appointed were the only two that moved. They hurried off, presumably to fetch yellow crime-scene tape and something to support it.
A balding man wearing a badly fitting suit much like the one Nick himself wore spoke up, derision in his voice. “Or what, Mr. G-man? You gonna arrest us for violating your crime scene?”
Nick walked slowly toward the man. Everyone else had fallen deathly silent, watching. In his mind, Nick heard Javier’s voice. Dwayne Upchurch. Ed’s partner.
Nick sent a silent Oh, crap to Javier. When he reached the derisive man, Nick stopped just inside the other man’s personal space. “Or, Detecive Upchurch, you could get caught in the spell that caused the scene to freeze or in the one that set the fire. Either way, it could be very, very unpleasant.”
He took a step back and once again looked around the clearing trying to meet the eyes of everyone present. “This is not about territory. It’s not about juris-fucking-diction. It’s about preventing any law enforcement personnel from getting needlessly injured.” No matter how big an idiot they are, he thought, but didn’t add.
Nick looked one more at Upchurch, but the man was looking down at his feet, his hands in his pockets. He continued to address the entire group.
“There is a magical and psionic forensics team a few minutes behind us. They will determine how to safely breach the boundaries set by the spell so that both your own forensics team and ours can examine the scene thoroughly and safely.” He glanced briefly back at Upchurch and added, “Of course, if any of you just has to see what’ll happen, feel free. But remember that the nearest ambulance is miles away.”
He turned his back and walked back toward where Javier and Ed were standing.
That could have gone better, Javier said telepathically. His tone made it plain he thought Nick had mishandled the other man.
I know, but we don’t have the time to hand-hold every territorial asshole with zero sense who thinks safety procedures are a matter of jurisdiction.
Ed glanced over Nick’s shoulder as he approached, shook his head a little in what Nick thought was a rueful gesture. “I’m sorry, Agent Damon. Dwayne doesn’t mean—”
Nick sighed. “I know, Ed. And please call me Nick. It looks like we’re going to be working together for at least a while. And I’m sorry I had to make an example of your partner, but everyone here has to understand that we’re better equipped to handle this kind of investigation.”
Ed blinked. “How did you know he’s my—oh!” His eyes grew wide and he looked at Javier.
Nick smiled. “As you just discovered, Javier is telepathic. He told me as I was walking over.”
Ed laughed nervously. “That’s…weird. But I’ll bet it comes in handy.”
Javier grinned. “Sometimes.”
“We don’t get a lot of psionics out here in Fannin county.” As he spoke, his eyes kept shifting nervously toward Javier.
Javier coughed to cover up the laughter he was trying to suppress.
You owe me five bucks, Javier said to Nick telepathically. It only took about twenty seconds after he found out until he thought it.
Extortionist, Nick thought back at Javier.
“You probably have more than you’re aware of,” Javier said. “It’s currently thought to be about four to six percent of the population.”
Ed frowned, but didn’t say anything. His eyes once more jumped to something behind Nick. “Here comes Dwayne. I should—”
Nick put a hand on Ed’s forearm. “No, let him come. We need to clear the air.”
Nick turned to face the approaching detective. The man had a displeased expression on his face. Behind him, Ed said, “Dwayne, these are—”
“I know who they are,” said Dwayne as he approached. “Feds.” He spat into the leaves as though trying to clear a bad taste out of his mouth.
Javier smiled and held out his hand toward Dwayne and, without thinking, the man shook it. “Special Agent Javier Ellis of the PCIU. This is Special Agent Nick Damon, my partner. We’re from the Atlanta office.”
Javier’s friendliness seemed to diminish the man’s belligerence.
Nick held his hand out. Dwayne glanced at it for just a moment too long, then looked deliberately back at Nick. Ed nudged Dwayne, who finally took the proffered hand. Whatever was between them was not over by a long shot. Well, whose fault is that? Nick thought. You embarrassed and belittled him in front of his partner and subordinates.
Ed turned back to the neon-limned crime scene and said, “So, Agent Damon was about to tell me what all this means, exactly.”
Agent Damon had been about to do no such thing, but he took the hint and turned so he faced the spell as well.
“What this spell basically does is outline other spells with colors without changing anything. All it does is show where there are traces of magic. The brightness of the glow denotes the strength and the color denotes the type of spell it is, within fairly broad categories.”
He pointed to a cluster of red filaments, and noticed that some of the other cops on the scene were gathering closer so they could hear, as well.
“The parts that are red, like these here, are offensive spells, designed to attack another person or object. Without knowing exactly what spell was used, my reveal spell is able to nonetheless tell that it was meant to do harm, so it highlights it with red.”
He glanced around and located a small cluster of yellow, which he indicated by pointing at it. “Yellow lines indicate a spell component that is intended to alter the human psyche. In other words, to make a person do something they wouldn’t normally do or to force them to remain calm. If I were to cast my spell in most prisons, you’d see an awful lot of yellow because most prisons have a pacify spell cast over them to keep the prisoners in line.”
“What could he have been forcing her to do?” asked Ed.
“That’s a good question. And I have no idea. Our forensics team will try to unravel exactly what spells were used and for what purpose when they get here.
“Now the black strands are very interesting. I’ve almost never seen them because they’re what we call a ‘death clause.’ It means that the spell stays in effect until the death or destruction of the subject. Javier and I worked on a case recently where…a man was murdering people using fire. He crafted the spell in such a way that it gathered power and funneled it into the victim and kept getting hotter and hotter until the subject died. Then the spell would stop.
“These look…a little different. I’m not sure how, but again, our forensics guys may be able to make a determination of that after they are able to examine the scene.”
“Is that all?” asked Detective Upchurch.
Nick ignored the belligerent tone and nodded. “Yes, that’s all, for now.”
Upchurch walked away without another word.
Nick turned to watch him walk away. “Well, I could have handled that better,” he said to no one in particular.
He turned back to the other two men to see Javier nodding slightly in agreement. But Ed was shaking his head.
“Don’t let Dwayne get to you, Nick. He’s a hothead. Has a thing about the Feds coming in and taking over.” The man watched his partner’s back as he walked away. “Case a few years ago. Feds came in and took all the credit and Dwayne did most of the work.”
“Well, I can assure you we’re not interested in credit or jurisdiction or any of that crap. What we want is to catch the sick shit who would do something like this.”
Nick heard the sound of many feet trampling the underbrush and smiled at Javier and Ed. “Sounds like Terence and his team are here. Now maybe we can find out something interesting.”