We’re back with the following to last week’s Chapter 8 of CONJURING MISERY, the creative efforts of Dave Benneman, Camille Douglass, and Jami Gray in producing a combination UF/Western serial…

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Snake

Well damn and double damn. Gambling Man might actually have a point in regards to the Night Bird. Maybe she was a chimera, capable of wearing multiple faces. It would explain how Diamond Jim’s shuffling corpse managed to find its way to the poker game. I sucked in a lungful of smoke, then carefully smothered the tip against a boot heel before tucking it away. It also meant we had a more problems than a tick infected hound.

I grimaced and looked to Smoke. “We’re going to have to share,” I warned Smoke though our silent bond, the one that allowed us to work together without giving everything away. At least when we were in close proximity. Wasn’t worth shite when we couldn’t see each other though.

“You sure we really need him or you just feeling sorry for him?”

I wasn’t surprised by her callous sounding question. If you didn’t know her, you’d never guess that Smoke’s heart held mushy bits and pieces. She was damn good at hiding it, but it was why we were here. For her family, she’d burn the world to ash. And our young nephew was the best of our clan. For that alone, I’d help her light the match. Still, it wasn’t easy explaining the gut instinct telling me Sam had a part to play in this drama. An important one. “Yeah, we need him.”

I could practically her her sigh. “Fine.”

I turned back to Sam, who was watching us carefully, a curious expression on his face and offered him a choice. “You want the long or short version?”

His gaze slipped pass to the shack behind me and his throat bobbing as he swallowed, then it came right back as his shoulders straighten. “Whichever gets us out of here the fastest.”

Short version it is, then. “The bastard who hired you—”

“Your Uncle Jinx,” he supplied helpfully.

I glared at him and let out a growl, “The bastard who hired you double crossed a powerful family, one that’s been itching to take mine apart for years.” Centuries, actually, but that was more than Sam needed to know. “Instead of owning up to his debt, he decided to pick up another job in hopes of earning enough to pay back the first one.”

“By working for Mendes,” Sam filled in.

I nodded. “Unfortunately, as soon as Jinx gave the Sullivans an opening, they took it. They set a curse on our youngest nephew, Cyrus. As soon as his ma found out, she sent for Smoke and I. We did some digging and discovered the one thing that will break the curse is the Blood Star. We’re here to get it, bring it back, and save Cyrus.”

Sam blinked. “Cursed?”

“Cursed,” Smoke snapped drawing his attention. “The bastards set a black magic spell on an innocent nine year old.”

He shook his head. “You sure it’s Jinx’s fault.”

I bared my teeth in a fierce grin and watched the color leech from his face. “Jinx and the Sullivans.”

Sam’s fist clenched, but he showed spine by asking, “Then why is he paying me to find it?”

“Because Jinx doesn’t like putting his ass on the line if he doesn’t have to. By hiring you, you draw all the attention and while you’re drawing the attention of beings like Donoma or Two Crows or whatever she’s calling herself, he can sneak in, grab the prize and leave you swinging in the wind.”

Deep red rode over Sam’s face and his voice dropped in a cold hiss. “I don’t like being played.”

I shrugged, perversely happy to see him pissed off. “Then switch the hand your dealt.”

His jaw flexed, his eyes bright with anger. “And if I decide to use my wish to pay back your uncle?”

Instead of answering directly, Smoke asked, “Do you know how the wish part of the stone works?”

Sam looked uncomfortable. “I assume it’s similar to the stories of those genies?”

She shook her head. “It’s not a simple matter of stating the wish, you have to want it with every fiber of your being. If you don’t truly want it, that’s when things go bad. Very bad.” Her eyes flashed. “When you utter your wish, there must soul deep intent. Without it, you’ll be wishing you never uttered a word.”

Sam’s lips thinned as her explanation sank in and then proved his intelligence by asking, “You’re saying Jinx wouldn’t put Cyrus first.”

“Hell would freeze over first,” I snarled, trying unsuccessfully to bank the ever present fury boiling in my veins.

“So why is he still breathing?” For the first time I caught a glimpse of Sam’s ruthless streak.

Good damn question. “Meemaw.”

He arched a brow and Smoke explained, “A mother’s love is the damnedest thing, but if we don’t save Cyrus, even our grandmother’s love won’t be enough to save Jinx’s sorry ass.”

Sam studied us both, absently tapping the hilt of his pig poker, and I could see the wheels spinning in his skull. “You truly believe the Star will lift the boy’s curse?”

I nodded.

“If it doesn’t?”

I shared a dark look with Smoke, then turned back to Sam. “Then I’ll personally deliver my soon to be departed uncle to the Sullivan clan as payment, and respectfully request they lift their black curse from Cyrus.” It was what I wanted to do from the start. Well, the first part, the second half of my plan was a bit different than what I was sharing.

“My dear Lady Snake, forgive me for pointing it out, but why not go with that plan first?”

“Same answer as before—Meemaw.”

“Must be a formidable woman,” he muttered.

“More than you know,” I shot back. “So, now that you know why we’re hunting the Star, are you in or out?”

He didn’t hesitate. “In.”

“Good.”

Overhead a harsh caw cut through the air. We all looked up. I wondered if that was Donoma. Obviously following the same train of thought, Sam asked, “So now what?”

Resettling my hat, I answered, “Now we go bird hunting.”

Smoke

“How exactly do you plan to go bird hunting?” I asked my sister. Curious as to how she planned to track a shadow of smoke.

She gave me a confident smile. “I figured you’d have a plan.”

I rolled my eyes. “Any chance the chimera left anything behind?”

“Spit?” Sam offered helpfully.

I thought about it for a moment. “That won’t do it. It was discarded deliberately so no direct link.”

We looked around the shack but after a few minutes the search proved futile.

Sam stood from where he’d been looking under the bed. He grimaced when he looked directly at the tortured corpse. “Well Smoke, looks like all she left behind was spit and a dead guy.”

I stopped and stared at him a moment and then made eye contact with Snake.

Her face twisted up. “Hell no.”

I tilted my head to the side. “You have a better idea?”

“You’ve gone this long resisting that temptation. It’s not worth it.”

“It’s inevitable Snake. Not making a habit of it, but we both knew I’d likely do this one day. I’ll risk it for Cyrus.”

She wanted to argue. Her face turning red from the strain of not doing so, but she finally nodded.

“Uh ladies? Do what exactly?”

“Walk death’s path,” Snake spoke sharply before I had the chance to answer.

***

Diamond Jim’s place had truly become a place of dark magic. Jim’s murder, the revenants, the rising, and Villalobos being tortured to death meant this place would need to be sprayed down with holy water, sprinkled with salt and have a holy man say prayers over it for a year to get rid of the oily energy of the place. It made it the perfect place to perform the spell. I’d been blessed and never had to touch the darker arts. Grey? Sure, but I’d never sought a murderer through the dismembered hand of their latest victim.

Snake had found an ax behind the shed and had been kind enough to do the honors of liberating Villalobos’ hand. The left one of course. Sam looked like he was ready to change his mind about our newly cemented friendship. Then his spine straightened and he accepted that magic wasn’t always clean or easy. I sent him to my saddle bags to grab some Palo Santo sticks I always kept on me. Time for him to see where the names Smoke and Traveler came from.

“Snake, Sam, please sit over there,” I pointed to the far corner of the room. Truth be told I shouldn’t have them in the house, but I was too chicken shit to do this alone. My somber tone met no argument as they both went to stand in the far corner of the room. Neither sat, alert and ready if something went horribly wrong. Snake understood what was at stake. Sam was doing what he did best, reading the room.

The fire came back to my hand and I burned the ends of one of the sticks Sam had retrieved for me. Blowing out the flame I began the process of weaving intricate patterns in the air. The patterns stayed in my mind’s eye visible only to me. I searched for the path, the door that I had never entered. Out of nowhere I felt the song burst from me. High pitched and chaotic, not a thing of beauty, a thing that came from death itself and the song lent itself to the Smoke patterns I weaved and there it was before me. The path to Villalobos’ death. Dark inky magic lay thick on the passage. No desire to follow this course to its end I reached out to the magic to lead me to its owner.

The moment I touched the magic it clung to me like a cancer dragging me to death. I struggled, but I was in its domain. Prey being dragged limply to its doom unable to struggle. I’d underestimated my enemy and now the way was coming to an end. Just when I was about to go gently into that good night I felt hands grip both of my shoulders and Snake’s song came crashing over me. Even Sam joined the song. Some ditty about a man being caught in bed with his mistress. No magical qualities to it whatsoever, but it pulled me from death back to the living. With one last thought I reached out and stole a handful of the filthy magic and departed my travels.

I jerked so suddenly I fell back, bringing Sam and Snake down with me. No time to apologize I scrambled to my knees my hand’s flame had turned black from the Chimera’s magic. Grabbing the dismembered hand with my own I pushed the flame into it. A tracking spell mixed with a path. The bloody lifeless lump suddenly went rigid and pushed itself from my own landing on the ground. It spun around several times before landing on the ground in a fist the index finger pointing East.

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