Juliana Norris lay in the dirt at the top of a hill, tracking the necromancer through the scope of her rifle as rocks dug into her belly. Dry, dead grass scratched at her arms and a brisk breeze carried the scent of smoke from the herbs the death wrangler burned below her. Shifting her weight for the hundredth time in an effort to get comfortable, she watched the old man pace and place bundles of smoking herbs in a pattern she was certain wasn’t as random as it looked. An oversized suit hung on his thin frame making him look emaciated. The tattered cuffs spoke to many long nights spent in cemeteries with the dead. But tonight they weren’t in a graveyard; they were in the Dead Zone.
The Dead Zone was the result of an accident at a germ research facility that some dumbass politicians decided should be relocated to America’s heartland about a decade ago. Less than five years after they opened the doors, the outbreak occurred. A quick response from the government kept the epidemic from becoming global, but every mammal within fifty miles succumbed to the plague, humans included. The Altered hadn’t been affected regardless of their species. All the reasons for this were unclear but the most obvious answer would be their magic made them immune. Affected or not, the Altered had cleared the area just like everyone else. Recently a few Altered stragglers had begun to move back into the area and with them came rumors of zombies rising in the night.
Every now and then, the Agency or local law enforcement would someone out to investigate the claims, but it usually led to nothing. Lately, the rumors had been more rampant than usual and a scouting group had been sent through the area. They had reported in the day before with an actual sighting. So here she was, playing guard duty to a necromancer. She’d tried to convince her boss it was a waste of time and resources to send the death wrangler. She could have just put them to sleep her way. One quick shot to the head and the zombies would cease to be a problem. Even the undead needed a brain to function. Apparently, however, it was bad PR to kill them for good without giving the mage a chance to put them down humanely.
As soon as the necromancer finished preparing, he would cast a spell to summon all the undead in the area. The zombies would come straight to them. She supposed that was one bonus of him being here, at least. They wouldn’t have to spend the whole night tracking down the undead. Once they’d gathered, he’d perform an incantation and lay them all to rest at once. That was the plan anyway. Unfortunately, things so very seldom went according to plan.
The badly sung chorus of a song about a man with a big gun came over her earpiece and she smiled. Correction, that’s why she and Nathaniel were here. Nathaniel West—werewolf, Realm Walker, and general pain in her ass—was singing the song in a voice low enough it was barely audible.
“Cute,” she said and located him with the scope of her rifle.
“Fitting,” he corrected. He lay on the hill across from her in much the same position as her own, his rifle scanning the area in a mirror to hers. As his scope found her and he raised two fingers in a half-hearted salute.
As the sun disappeared behind the horizon, flashes of light near Juliana’s position caught her attention. She turned on her gift so she could see the signature of anything creeping around. Several blobs of chartreuse lit her vision. Pixies. She hated pixies.
She glanced at the scene below to gage the mage’s readiness. The magic rose in a circle around him. The hair on her arms stood on end, but the spell had yet to build the strength needed to summon the undead. One of the green blobs nearby flitted closer. Juliana narrowed her eyes and watched it until it hovered beside her rifle.
“You bite me, you little shit, and you’re going to regret it.”
A tinkling laugh with an undercurrent of mania filled the air. The pixie darted forward and sharp pain radiated from the back of Juliana’s hand. A tiny, perfectly formed bite mark appeared on her skin. Cursed pixie. The laughter gave way to high-pitched shrieks as she snatched it from the air. Juliana didn’t speak pixie, but she had a feeling it was something along the lines of, “How dare you? Unhand me at once.”
Pixies had a bad habit of going invisible and biting people. You couldn’t punish something you couldn’t find. They could hide from sight all they wanted, but they couldn’t hide their signatures. Maybe since she’d caught this one, the rest of the cursed creatures would leave her in peace.
Chanting rose from below as the necromancer began to call the undead. “Get lost, pixie,” she said and opened her hand to release it. It hovered in front of her a moment more, still shrieking and then darted off into the growing darkness. She looked through her scope to find the area below now bathed in a sheen of red magic. Juliana opted to keep her gift up rather than switching to the night scope. After a few minutes, gray signatures appeared at the edge of her vision, moving across the fields to the necromancer.
There weren’t many of them and they were tightly grouped together which made keeping them in sight easier. She resisted the urge to look over her shoulder to reassure herself nothing was creeping up behind her. Nathaniel would warn her if something was. Keeping her scope trained on the corpses as they shuffled along, she occasionally glanced in her partner’s direction to make sure his back was safe. There were six signatures all together. No seven. A small signature hovered close to the ground. What was that? A baby? That would make the night perfect. A baby zombie. Why did she always pull the shit assignments?
“They got a freaking dog with them,” Nathaniel’s voice hummed over her earpiece. “I think it’s a Pomeranian.”
She huffed out a laugh in relief. A dog, not a baby. She’d seen weirder things than a zombie Pomeranian. Nothing she could think of off the top of her head, but she was sure there was something. The figures shuffled along, arms in front of them making them look like some Hollywood throwback rather than any natural zombie she’d ever seen. “Gods, could they get any slower?”
“Remember, they’re all science. No magic.”
Juliana tilted her head from side to side in an effort to stretch her neck muscles. The scientists that worked in the research facility had been, among other things, trying to recreate the Altered with pure science. The result was vampires that caught fire in the sun and zombies that moved at roughly the speed of a turtle in molasses. If they’d bothered to consult any actual Altered, they could have learned magic can’t be duplicated with science. It simply couldn’t be done, as the abominations below her demonstrated. Or maybe the scientists had been told and they just didn’t care. And look how well that had worked out for them.
“How’s our wrangler holding up?” she asked. His signature told her little of how the man was faring.
“Stone cold and chanting.”
Her attention shifted back to the zombies and their pet. They stopped at the edge of the circle of the mage’s power and twisted their heads jerkily from side to side as if examining the air in front of them. Cold fingers of unease ran up Juliana’s spine and she frowned. They shouldn’t have been able to detect the circle.