Nila’s head swam. The spirits unearthed by the quake swirled around the site, beating at her with their cold, non-corporeal fists and even colder energy.
She shouldn’t have come back. The bar exam was in two days. Two days!
What the hell was I thinking, coming home to this…this mess?
Thinking wasn’t part of the equation. That was the problem. At least she hadn’t been thinking about what she was getting into. When she’d heard the desperation in Rides The Wind’s voice when he phoned her, she’d responded the way any granddaughter would. She’d grabbed her one and only business suit, thrown a couple of sweaters and jeans in her duffle, jumped in her beat-up car and drove the hundred-and-twenty-two miles straight home, keeping the speedometer on her seventeen-year-old Nissan at ninety the whole way.
Now that she was here, though, every fiber of her being, every one of her six souls, screamed at her to run. Get as far away as possible. Go back to her apartment, pass the bar exam and forget she’d ever been a shaman. Forget she was the Fire Path Nation’s soul catcher.
Nila drew her psychic shield closer, tightening it against the wild spirits and nearly closing off her Sight—the sight that allowed her to see entities and spiritual beings on other planes as well as this one. If she couldn’t See them with her shamanic Sight, she could pretend she didn’t feel them either. Their energy, chaotic and angry, was understandable. These spirits were old, older than any she’d ever encountered, and they’d endured a trauma she couldn’t imagine. But even though a part of her wanted to help them, she couldn’t. Not after what had happened to Bil—
She stopped herself from thinking his name. Don’t go there. You can’t.
As a soul catcher, she wasn’t allowed to speak or even think the lost boy’s name. Souls who hadn’t crossed over to Mother Wolf were unbound spirits. Spirits who existed in the current plane, struggling to stay there instead of moving on to their next life. Even thinking their name could draw them to you, make them haunt you.
As if I’m not haunted anyway.
Nila rubbed the wolf pendant hanging at the base of her throat. Seven years and she still thought of the boy daily. Still wrestled with the grip the night of his death had on her. How could she ever hope to start over if she kept torturing herself with the past?
How could she not torture herself after she’d failed so miserably to put him out of his pain? To bring justice to his father?
The crack in her shield, no more than a tiny fissure after all this time, pulsed and swelled. The cold energy of the ghosts seized on it, slipping icy fingers under her skin and trying to pry it wider. Fighting against it, Nila lurched backwards.
Next to her, the anthropologist and his dog noticed her stumble and then right herself as she locked her knees. Dr. Hunter’s heavy brows banged against each other as he frowned. His face was handsome, prominent jawline hidden under a few days’ worth of beard. He was tan and lean, the hair under his cowboy hat weeks past due for a trim.
But his eyes…they were a clear blue. As clear as the Oregon sky on a sunny day, and Nila could see his souls, all four of them, vying for her attention.
Staring at him was far more pleasant than Seeing the spirits. His physical and mental souls were strong and bright, glowing like translucent rocks lit from within.
The other two, his emotional and psychic souls, were dimmer, more opaque. Obscured to her Sight as if someone had thrown a blanket over them. His aura flashed in fits and starts like a radio station fading in and out. Nila could barely get a read on him.
Which meant he was hiding something. He’d buried some type of painful memory deep within.
Haven’t we all?
The shaman in her was compelled to help him, as it always was when she came across someone hurting so badly, but again, she couldn’t go there. She couldn’t help her own souls, much less someone else’s.
An unbound spirit swarmed between them, shrieking and cutting off further analysis. It sucked the air from around her, freezing her skin and choking her with its heavy misty energy.
Fingers reached out, the unbound spirit determined to attach its energy to her. A ghost rider who wanted to suck her energy away. The ground rolled under her feet, the world dipping and heaving. Was it an aftershock or had the ghost managed to rip open her shield?
Nila’s knees buckled, but before they hit the ground, Dr. Hunter grabbed her elbow and prevented her fall.
“Miss Willopah.” He searched her face, a dozen questions etched on it. “Are you all right?”
The shrieking and beating of the unbound spirits stopped. The ghost rider disappeared.
The ground grew solid under her feet and Nila closed her eyes and reopened them slowly, letting her Sight fully see the man holding her.
Her breath caught. Nathan Hunter glowed before her, his sudden protective energy shutting the spirits out completely.
She knew she should say something and opened her mouth to do so. “I…uh…”
Good, Nila. Real smooth.
Clutching his arm, confusion knitted into her souls. By the spirits, was he a soul catcher too? Was that why his psychic soul was jacketed by a barrier? Why his energy was even now wrapping itself around her in a warm, golden glow?
Could he See her souls and guess why one was black?
She started to pull away and her limbs rebelled. His light flooded her body with peace. A peace she hadn’t felt in seven years. “Are you…a…”
His aura flared to life, concern turning it an orangey-red, stopping her question. Opening her psychic shield a fraction, she probed with light mental fingers to see if her spirit could talk to his. After several heartbeats, all she felt was the heat from his body, his warm breath caressing her face. A slight hum under his skin, signaling an interest in her.
The normal male makeup of lust and desire fueled by testosterone.
Disappointed, she slumped. He wasn’t a shaman, a soul catcher, like her. He was just an ordinary man, albeit one with latent empathic skills and maybe something more. Something that blocked the spirits from communicating with her.
Nila gave herself a mental shake. She was gawking at the man who still held her. A man who was about to desecrate her ancestors’ land by digging up the bones and running scientific tests on them.
While she understood and appreciated how much science had improved the world, she found no value in a stranger, a non-Fire Path man, handling her ancestors’ bones and gathering data on them. What good would that do anyone, especially the current members of her tribe? Clothes, shoes, and education…those things would help. Not another depressing history lesson.
Worse, this man was unknowingly about to put his souls in danger from the unbound spirits. She doubted he believed in ghosts—in her experience, scientists rarely did—but that didn’t matter to the ghosts. Especially angry ones like these. The theft of their bodies through whatever had befallen them had turned their spirits into ghost riders. Ghost riders, who would resort to body thievery in return.
On the other hand, maybe they wouldn’t bother him. Maybe his abilities, latent or not, were enough to keep them at bay. They were certainly keeping the spirits away from her.
Lightning jumped from one rain cloud to another above Starved Rock to the north. Soft thunder rumbled in the distance. A storm was coming.
Hold onto him, the shamanic magic she drew unbidden from the earth advised her. If she released Dr. Hunter’s arm, the spirits would come after her again, demanding she right the wrong that had been done to them. They wouldn’t cross over until she helped them.
Which, damn everything, placed Nathan Hunter right in their path if he stayed.
Ghost riders were drawn to shamans because of their healing energies. They were also drawn to weak-willed souls, or souls who had been acutely damaged, because they were easier to lock onto. Like a disease locking onto a person with a compromised immune system.
Nila looked down at the ground, shutting off the Sight. Before the death of the boy, everyone’s spiritual troubles had been her problem. Her magic had demanded she heal and comfort and carry the souls of the dead to Mother Wolf and protect those still living.
Now she had to ignore the call of her blood, block the souls calling to her, large or small. She couldn’t save anyone any more. Couldn’t protect them. It was too risky. She could lose her own souls in the process.
A child’s mummified skull lay half exposed near her right foot, mouth open as if in a scream. She resisted the urge to call out to his spirit. To try and comfort him. She could not fix what had happened. If she couldn’t handle one little boy’s death seven years ago, how the hell could she manage dozens, if not hundreds, of spirits, all bubbling with pent up rage and hate?
Blood would call to blood and they would recognize her as one of their own. They would suck her into their world. What good would that do anyone?
Nila shuddered. Grandfather would have to find another shaman to tackle this mess. She had a bar exam to take.
Keeping one hand on Dr. Hunter’s arm, she rubbed her forehead with the other and called up a firm sense of strength and purpose. There were other soul catchers who could handle this. Other lawyers who could stop Swift Water and Hunter from further destroying this sacred site.
But first, she would find out all she could about Hunter’s plans. She could at least appease her grandfather with that.
And maybe she could figure out what he was. What his latent ability was.
Once more in control of her emotions, she smiled her most charming smile at the anthropologist. It was shaky, but the best she could do. “I’m a little dizzy. Could we continue this discussion somewhere else? Away from this area?”
Staring into her eyes, he opened his mouth to say something, then stuttered. He blinked, the move purposeful and exasperated as if he had to force his eyelids to obey the command. Her smile often did that to men.
At least the ones like Hunter who didn’t see her heritage as a disease.
His gaze bore into hers and Nila struggled not to look away as her confidence rocked back against his arresting stare.
He can’t see my souls. He doesn’t know.
After a second, he seemed satisfied by what he did see and gave her one brief downward nod. Facing the other two men, he motioned for them to start walking. “Let’s go.”
The men exchanged a look, the lawyer opening his mouth to argue, but Dr. Hunter waved him off. “We can discuss everything in the foreman’s trailer.”
The lawyer shook his head, not one to like being overruled, but he and the foreman started walking. The two put their heads together and Nila heard the lawyer’s disparaging comments about her whispered under his breath.
Whatever. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard those ugly terms.
The dog ran a few steps in front of her, occasionally stopping to whine at the spirits.
I know, boy. You’re right to be afraid of them.
As Dr. Hunter walked beside her, Nila looked over her shoulder at the massive grave of her ancestors behind them, once more calling up her shamanic vision. The sight was horrifying, in and of its own.
But what turned her blood to ice were the swirling, angry ghosts, freed from their earthly prisons and able to roam. They wanted blood. They wanted revenge.
Chilled, Nila looked away.
They wanted hers and Dr. Hunter’s damaged souls.