Killing Land (Rune Alexander Book 8), p.1
By Laken Cane
Copyright © 2016 Laken Cane
All rights reserved.
Proofreaders: Kelly Eurton Reed and Elizabeth Shottenkirk
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For those who love a berserker, dream of a cowboy, and miss a friend.
For those who will always carry hope in their hearts.
Table of Contents
About Laken Cane
She lay on the ground, unable to move.
Her eyes were closed.
She kept them closed. If she didn’t look, she could pretend her berserker was lying at her side.
That he’d chosen her.
She could pretend the cowboy was leaning against a tree, slapping his hat against his thigh to rid it of dust.
That he’d chosen her.
She could pretend Lex was glaring at nothing, her sightless eyes dancing in the quiet beauty of her face.
That she’d chosen her.
But when a sound forced her to open her eyes, the only other person in the graveyard was Roma, lying on the cold ground a few yards away, seizing.
Rune crawled to the girl, glancing around the area as she went.
Tombstones, old and crumbling and mossy, embraced by nests of debris and overgrown with dry weeds, showed the cemetery’s neglect.
Wormwood was never neglected—the ancient graveyard and home of the Others was full of magic and mystery. It was respected, feared, and very well-tended.
Yet surely she was in a little visited part of the huge Wormwood, because where else would the path have thrown her?
Nikolai was nowhere to be seen, but the sun was high and he’d likely gone into the ground to save himself.
She wondered if he regretted leaving Skyll and losing the sun.
No one else was there.
Just the slingshot girl.
“Roma,” Rune said, her teeth clacking together like an old Halloween toy. Her hands shook when she reached out to smooth Roma’s hair.
She knew better than to mess with a seizing person. She could only wait.
Roma’s clothes were torn and ragged, with missing pieces that looked as though some long-toothed creature had grabbed on and tried to pull her away from Rune.
She remembered hearing Roma scream, and she remembered she hadn’t been able to help the girl. Or see her.
The path home had been treacherous and unkind, and she was nearly certain she hadn’t made it back with all of her mind, strength, and body intact.
She’d left her heart behind, but that wasn’t the fault of the path.
She took a deep breath and did the one thing she was almost afraid to do. She checked to see if her monster was still with her.
She shot out her claws—they ripped through the quiet, cold air, along with the sound of her relieved cry. She dropped her fangs.
And all was well.
She ran her tongue over her fangs, carefully, and stared at her claws for a few long seconds before pulling them back in.
Roma eased, finally, and lay in a deep unconsciousness.
Groaning from the effort, Rune stood and then began to search the area. Her clothes had fared little better than Roma’s, but she didn’t care. They weren’t clothes she’d ever wear again.
Newly healed wounds had ripped open, and new scars dissected old ones. She was bloody, filthy, and bereft. But she was fucking home.
She gave a little shout of joy when she realized she still had the shotgun strapped over her chest. She pulled the strap over her head and gave the gun a quick inspection. It seemed unchanged.
Olson hadn’t lied. Those guns really didn’t die.
The cemetery was eerily silent, and though night was hours away, the silence was strange for Wormwood.
There were always Others in Wormwood.
But she’d been so slow getting back, the Others had likely thinned out.
She put a hand to her chest. “Shit.” She turned in a slow circle. “Gunnar! Gunnar?” She felt like she’d been searching for the ghoul for most of her life. Sometimes she found him…
Sometimes she didn’t.
Gunnar didn’t come slinking from behind the trees.
He lumbered toward her, shaking his head like a colony of mites had taken up residence in his ears. When at last he reached her, he sat on his haunches and stared at her accusingly.
“Sorry, dude. The path is a son of a bitch.” Then her breath hitched as she gazed unseeingly into the distance.
The portal was closed and the path was no more.
Her people, her crew, were gone forever.
She’d never see Z again.
But she had seen him, and she had loved him. There was comfort in that.
She’d gotten a second chance.
A second chance to tell Z she loved him. That she was sorry.
The sudden call of her crow cut through the heavy, gray silence of the graveyard, causing both her and Grim to flinch.
The crow landed, his talons encircling her outstretched arm like sharp, dangerous bracelets.
“You made it,” she murmured.
He cawed gently as he twisted and tilted his head to survey the cemetery. He eased his way up her arm and though she would never have thought it possible, he flattened his wings, became somehow less huge, and perched upon her shoulder.
There was magic in her crow.
His weight was warm, solid, and calming.
With Grim at her side and the crow on her shou
To find her people so she could break down in the safe circle of their arms.
Who was going to hold her when she thrashed in her sleep, lost in the terror of her nightmares? Who was going to be overbearing and arrogant and bossy and try to force her to be safe?
Not the berserker.
But she shook her head and pushed the thoughts away. She refused to dwell on the berserker, the cowboy, or the little blind Other.
Their choices were their own. They’d hurt her, but that was okay.
“Fuck ‘em,” she whispered. But she didn’t mean it.
She was heartbroken, not angry.
She needed to be angry.
Roma stirred, and Rune waited patiently as the girl opened her eyes and got her bearings.
It didn’t matter how tough a girl was.
Walking the path would kick her ass.
“Let’s go.” She held out her free hand to help Roma to her feet.
After Roma stood, she hit her front pocket with the palm of her hand, and then gave a quick grunt of joy as she pulled her slingshot free.
Rune pressed a hand to her stomach.
She was back. She was home.
And she was the cure.
It’d take the remaining Others a little while to heal, but they would heal.
“I’m starving.” Roma rubbed her abdomen and looked at Rune with wide eyes. “Starving.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I’m never hungry. I don’t get hungry. I eat to fuel my body, but I don’t get hungry.”
“Something changed on the path over.” And Rune wondered what had changed for her.
Roma nodded. “I’d like to eat.”
“Soon as we can. Roma…”
“What are you? You’re not human.”
Redness climbed the girl’s cheeks and she looked away. “I’d rather not say.”
“Oh.” Rune shrugged. “Sure. It’s not my business.”
The silence was uncomfortable for only a moment.
“You’re very pretty,” Roma said. “Even with your…” She motioned at Rune’s body. “Shabbiness and dirt. And scars.”
Rune’s shoulder dipped painfully as the crow shoved himself off her and took to the sky. Grim gave a grumpy bark, his head low.
Rune had no idea what to say to Roma, so she changed the subject. “Grim is hungry, too. And thirsty.”
The crow circled above, a black speck against the dull, gray sky, as though scouting the area for them. He flew back in seconds and then away again, coming back every few moments as though to assure himself that she was still there. Or maybe it was to assure her that he was still there.
They walked for just a couple of minutes before the land tilted in a gentle incline and the trees began to thicken even as the gravestones became sparser. The only sounds were strident birdcalls and the dry scampering of small animals.
And then they stepped from the edge of the trees and found themselves on the top of a hill, and Rune held her breath as she surveyed the few scattered homes that sat in quiet disrepair below.
“This isn’t Wormwood,” she whispered.
Roma’s eyes lit with panic for a second. “We didn’t make it to your world?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know where we are.”
Roma took a step closer. “What will we do?”
“I’m going to leave Grim with you, and I’ll follow the roads. I’m fast, remember. I’ll find people and bum a phone.”
“I’m not letting you go alone,” Roma said, frowning.
Rune patted her arm. “I’ll be fine.” She hefted her shotgun. “Even if I didn’t have my monster, this baby would destroy any enemy stupid enough to fuck with me.”
“Then you should leave it with me.”
“Well, hell.” Rune was nearly certain Roma was smirking as she took possession of Rune’s deadly weapon. “I’ll want that back, Roma.”
Roma waved her slingshot and tossed the shotgun back to Rune. “My slingshot is the only weapon I need, Princess. I just wanted to touch the gun.”
“I’m not Princess.” Rune squeezed the shotgun, a little relieved. She didn’t need the gun, but she sure did like it. “Not here. I’m Rune. Call me Princess again and I’ll send you back to Skyll.”
Roma paled. “I must stay here to take care of you. That’s my duty now. You saved my life so—”
“Relax, Roma. I couldn’t send you back even if I wanted.” She smiled at the girl, then knelt beside Grim. “Take care of each other. I’ll be back with a car.” And with her crew. She hoped.
Before Roma could say another word, Rune took off, leaving behind the dog and the girl. The crow—Shiv Crow, as she had named him—flew away and disappeared.
As she ran down the hill, she kept images of Ellie, Jack, Raze, and the twins in her mind.
The only crew she had left.
She ran with most of her considerable speed, but still remained alert to her surroundings. The countryside was quiet and as far as she could tell, appeared empty of people.
Still, she’d spotted houses, so surely there were people.
She jumped a ditch and began following the road. It took her seconds to reach the first house. It wasn’t a house so much as a shack. The roof was half caved in, the old wood was rotting, and it was missing its front door. There were two windows facing the road. Both had a few shards of filthy glass holding valiantly to the broken wood of the frame.
She called out anyway. “Hello? Anyone there?”
No one answered.
It was the same with the next two homes, but finally she reached a dismal mobile home that had once been white.
The front yard was cleared and two metal chairs had been placed around a handmade brick firepit. Beer cans had been emptied, crushed, and then tossed into a rusty barrel.
She adjusted the shotgun strap over her shoulder and walked farther into the yard. There were no sounds, and other than the ashes in the firepit and the gentle scent of smoke hanging in the air, the trailer appeared abandoned.
“Hello,” she called. “Hello?”
She climbed the surprisingly sturdy steps of the small deck before reaching out to knock on the metal door.
When no one answered, she tried the door. It was locked, and she didn’t force it. Her gut told her the place was empty.
Back on the road, she ran a little slower, head swiveling as she peered into the woods that bordered one side of the road and the field that bordered the other.
She rounded a curve and spotted a small bridge ahead on the left, and before she reached it she decided not to veer off but to keep on the road.
Ten minutes later she came upon clusters of houses—small, single level homes situated on both sides of the—finally—paved road, but they appeared to be in little better condition than the ones she’d encountered earlier.
And there were people.
Smoke swirled lazily from some of the chimneys, and she heard the sharp distant sound of male laughter and the very distant sound of country music.
She slowed to a walk.
But for some reason, she didn’t feel better.
Uneasy, she walked the road between the houses, alert. Unsettled.
Shiv Crow cawed from far above and she paused to watch him, taking deep breaths, forcing herself to relax.
She was in her world. She was.
She just had to figure out exactly where in her world she was.
Mailboxes, old, metal boxes with broken flags and hanging doors sat on listing and weathered posts. Some of them sported legible names—Devon Adams, Ruby Shannon, Alice Corbin—but none of them gave her any real information.
When she heard loud veh
Rune Alexander did not run and she did not hide.
No matter how badly she might want to.
Two pickup trucks, both of them in better shape than any of the houses she’d seen, roared suddenly into sight.
She pushed at the knot in her stomach and moved to the side of the road to wait.
From her peripheral vision she spotted movement and glanced across the street in time to see two people, a man and a woman, walk out onto their porch. The screen door slammed shut behind them.
The trucks stopped a few yards from her. The drivers decided it was a good time to have a contest on who had the loudest vehicle, and for the next two minutes they sat in the street and revved their engines like obnoxious teenagers.
She didn’t move.
More people left their houses, some of them walking down the street to stand beside the trucks, some hopping up into the truck beds, and some of them hurrying to the porches of their neighbors to gather in little knots and stare at Rune.
She looked down at her clothes and then reached up to smooth her hair, wondering why they found her so…alien that they needed to stare.
“A stranger,” one of them said, answering her unasked question.
The doors opened at pretty much the same time, and five men climbed from the trucks.
They were dressed too lightly for the weather. One of them wore a blue jean jacket with the sleeves ripped out, one a black Guns-n-Roses T-shirt that was two sizes too large, and the other three were in zip-up hoodies.
All five were armed.
All the people who’d congregated around the trucks were armed.
More people arrived and just that fast, it was a party.
And she was the party crasher.
“Well now.” One of the drivers, a large man with greasy brown hair and at least six silver crucifixes around his neck walked toward her. “What have we here?”
“Not an abundance of originality,” she replied.
He stopped walking and frowned. “What?”
Another man stepped up. “Who are you?”
She ignored the question. “I’m lost. What town is this?”
The two men looked at each other.
“You don’t know where you are,” the first man said, skepticism in his voice. “How’d you get here?”