Cold fire

Catalina’s fingers were cold, too cold to work the stiff latch on the gate. She cupped them together and blew on them, trying to let the warm vapor of her breath loosen her joints, then stuffed both hands into her armpits. Hopping up and down to keep her feet warm, she glared at the gate.

She didn’t want to be out here.

She had a perfectly nice warm bed, twenty minutes walk behind her, where she ought to be cuddled into her pillows, a heavy blanket pulled up over her nose, dreaming of warmer days. But the summons had come a full hour ago, a bird tapping on her window when it was far too early for any birds to be flying about, and so she was already late.

She pulled her hands out and blew on them one more time, then tried the latch again. This time it opened, although the freezing metal felt like fire on her bare skin. She shuddered, pulling the gate open just enough to squeeze through, and entered the garden.

It was winter inside, of course, trees barren of leaves, ground brown and dry. The dirt path led forward before branching off in either direction. Catalina glanced down each path, seeing little in the dim light, then up at the sky. The blackness of night was slowly being replaced by the growing blue of impending day, but the trees hid the horizon. Which way was east?

She should have paid more attention on her approach, but she’d been following the trail left by the bird, like a spark of light in the sky, and the bird hadn’t exactly been considerate in its journey. Since she couldn’t fly herself, she’d had to wind around, backtracking more than once, and working her way around obstacles in her path.

Eenie-meanie-miney-mo… She turned from one side to the other. The left path looked a little darker. Maybe that just meant the trees were heavier, thicker, in that direction, but maybe it meant that the sun was rising to the right, too. Either way, she needed to make a decision and quickly. And if it was wrong, well, she’d just be a little later.

Folding her arms and hunching her shoulders against the cold, she hurried along the path to the right.

Inwardly, her grumbles were continuous. So stupid of her not to have checked the weather before she left the house. At least it wasn’t raining. But what a miserable time for a summons. So inconsiderate.

Outwardly, the garden was entirely still, not a sound to be heard but for the soft pad of her feet on the path. No birds chirping, no rustles of small animals in the brush, no wind in the trees, and none of the sounds of the town outside the garden walls. The stillness left a niggling feeling of anxiety on the back of her neck and she had to resist the urge to break into a run. It would do no one any good if she arrived too out-of-breath and exhausted to assist with whatever trouble had arisen.

And running… well, running invited chasing. Predators liked creatures that ran.

The bird hadn’t been a big bird. She didn’t know what kind it was — it had been too dark to understand it as anything more than a unnatural repetitive sound at her window and then a tiny black shadow against the sky as she followed it. Who would have sent a small bird for a summons?

Not Jeremiah. He liked cats. Not Adeline. She was fond of breezes. Not Trevor. He was much too flamboyant to use a small bird. Michael, on the other hand, was sensible enough to pick up a telephone and call. And Martha wouldn’t bother with a summons, she’d simply whisk Catalina to the location where she was needed. If she was needed. It wouldn’t be like Martha to need help anyway.

One of the youngsters, perhaps? Catalina didn’t know very many of them, and none of them well enough that she would expect to be their first choice in a summoning should they need help. But a summons in the dark of night practically screamed novice-in-trouble to her, so perhaps.

She paused. The wind was drifting her way, carrying with it a smell.

Fire.

Her mouth went dry.

Not the worst smell, she told herself fiercely, beginning to hurry again, feet moving in a rhythm very, very close to a run. Not carrion, not sewage, not—goddesses forbid—the ugly iron tang of spilled blood. Maybe it was just a campfire. Someone trying to keep warm on a cold night. Building a fire. Wood and flame, nothing unnatural, nothing…

She broke into a clearing in the woods.

… disastrous.

She threw up her hands, hurling a shield into place before her, blocking the impact of the heat and acrid smoke before it could reach her. She wasn’t the first one here. She recognized the back ahead of her as Michael, and before him another two figures, black outlines silhouetted against the raging inferno.

Pushing her way forward, her shield battered by the sheer power of the blaze, she drew up next to Michael. She glanced his way. He didn’t turn his eyes toward her, completely focused on the fire, lips moving in a steady chant, sweat dripping off his brow, hands held up in front of him as if he were pushing the fire back into its source.

“Who’s here?” she shouted at him.

He didn’t respond until she squeezed next to him, sliding her shield in front of him. The minor break in the intensity of the heat gave him time to take a gasping breath. He blinked at her, not seeming to see her for a second, then shook his head, breaking free from the fire’s grasp.

“Who should I summon?” Catalina asked, changing her question.

He gestured with his chin toward the outlines. “Pretty sure that’s Trevor and Martha,” he said, his voice a hoarse croak. “Think Martha called us.”

“You know what happened?”

He lifted a shoulder. “Gateway to hell, I’d say. Someone demanded fire, no safeguards, maybe?”

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