Illuminated, page 1
A Djinn Wars Holiday Novella
Dark Valentine Press
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Christine Pope
Published by Dark Valentine Press
Cover design by Lou Harper
Ebook formatting by Indie Author Services
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems — except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews — without permission in writing from its publisher, Dark Valentine Press.
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Cloudcroft, New Mexico, two and a half months after the Dying
Sarah Wright cast a wary eye at the sky, sure she had seen a shadow pass overhead. Of course there was nothing to see, just as there had been absolutely nothing every other time she’d stopped in her tracks, sure that the shadow of a hawk or an eagle would turn out to be something much worse.
Maybe someday she’d stop startling at every little thing. Maybe.
Still, it didn’t hurt to pause here on the top step before the entrance to the Lodge resort, to let her gaze sweep the area once more. Just in case.
The fountains that had once danced in the pond at the entrance to the historic hotel were now still, and algae had begun to bloom in the water — until the first few hard freezes came along, followed by a few half-hearted storms, ones that had brought flurries of snow, not enough to stick. It was strange; usually by the middle of December, Cloudcroft would have experienced at least a couple of decent snowstorms. But this year the snow came and went, although the cold was severe enough that the algae in the pond was long gone.
Sarah reflected that she should be gone, too, unless she wanted to be trapped up here all winter. The mild weather couldn’t hold forever. Problem was, she had no idea where she was supposed to go.
Frowning, she let herself into the building and went past the reception desk, past the portrait of Rebecca, the hotel’s resident ghost. The place was supposed to be haunted, but Sarah had never seen hide nor hair of Rebecca in all the time she’d spent here. Ghost stories were good for bringing in tourists, but if Rebecca really existed, you’d think she would have made an appearance by now. Even ghosts might want some company after the end of the world.
The air was chilly — it got cold up here at the top of the world, at nearly 8,500 feet — but Sarah knew she’d only fetch another shawl or sweater if she became too uncomfortable. Luckily for her, the hotel had a good supply of wood on hand pretty much year-round, just because the tourists from the flatlands liked to see a fire going at the lodge, even at the height of summer. Even so, she was trying to be careful with the firewood, since she’d have to make it last a good long time.
Tourists. Once upon a time, they’d driven her nuts, even though it was the tourist trade that put a roof over her head. Clogging the narrow road up here to Cloudcroft, jamming her favorite restaurants, idling along while they gawked at all the sights. It had been a relief to go down the hill to Alamogordo or Tularosa, someplace where the streets were a little wider and you didn’t feel as if outsiders were pressing in from all sides. Now, though, Sarah would have welcomed the most obnoxious Escalade-driving Texan. At least that way, she would have known she wasn’t alone in the world.
She passed through the large lobby with its overstuffed furniture and enormous fireplace, and went out to the gazebo. In happier days, people used to get married here. Now, though, the garden and the gazebo were empty, the wind rustling in the pines, the neglected grass bare and yellow. A month ago, fallen leaves had coated the lawn, but they’d mostly blown away by this point. Those leaves had told her that time was running out. Snow came early at this elevation, most years. She had long overstayed her welcome, and knew it. One day a real blizzard would come along, and she’d be snowed in, trapped because she’d been too scared to go and see what had actually happened to the world outside Cloudcroft.
There really wasn’t anything keeping her here. Lord knows the town was littered with abandoned vehicles whose former owners wouldn’t be needing them anytime soon. All she had to do was find one with the keys still in it, pack up her things, drive down the mountain, and…
…and what? As far as she could tell, the whole world was dead. No electricity. Nothing on the TV or radio. Not even anything on the ham radio setup her neighbor Kyle was once so proud of, and which still occupied the cramped spare bedroom of his small house. Thank God he’d showed her how to use it, back when she was a little girl and her father needed someone to babysit her. Kyle’s grandkids were all in Abilene, so he was only too happy to spend time with Sarah, patiently explaining how the radio setup worked. She’d been fascinated, had never forgotten those lessons.
Which was why she knew no one was out there broadcasting. Or at least, they weren’t broadcasting any signals she could pick up. Kyle had warned her that with the mountain peaks all around and the crazy air currents up here, the radio signals weren’t always as reliable as they would be down in the flats. Still, after more than two months, you’d think she would have been able to hear something. Anything. Even a garbled transmission would have told her someone else was alive out there. And maybe that would have been enough to hold the despair at bay.
However, as far as Sarah could tell, she was the only person left alive in the world. How that had happened, she couldn’t begin to guess. Clearly, she was immune to the hideous fever that had claimed everyone else…but why? Like most of the people who lived up in Cloudcroft, she was fit enough, had spent most of her life hiking and climbing in the summer, skiing and skating in the winter. But being in shape sure hadn’t saved any of her friends and neighbors.
Or, presumably, her father. He was the chef at the Lodge’s restaurant, had gone down the hill into Tularosa to pick up a load of pistachios and pecans from some local farmers. At that time, there had been scattered reports of a strange sickness hitting the larger cities, but nothing to cause too much alarm. Sarah guessed now that some of those reports must have been suppressed in order to prevent widespread panic, because it had all happened so fast. A few hours after her father left, guests began keeling over while eating breakfast, or out on the golf course, or on their way to check out early because they suddenly weren’t feeling well. They burned with a fever like nothing she’d ever seen before.
And then…and then their bodies turned to ash, and they were gone.
She’d been working at the reception desk because she didn’t know what else to do with herself. Two years of community college completed, but not enough money to finish her degree at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Besides, going off to school would have meant leaving her father alone, and she hadn’t wanted to abandon him. Not when it was only the two of them, and had been for most of her life.
Anyway, he’d never come back from Tularosa. And neither had anyone else.
During those terrible two days, she’d fought the panic within her, the knowledge that she’d be next, that she’d start
What frightened Sarah the most, however, wasn’t the empty hotel, or the abandoned town outside the Lodge. Not the silence on the radio, or the worry that, even with scrounging from every house in town and the little market down the street and the Family Dollar, she still might not have enough food to get through the winter. She hadn’t ever stopped to think about how much of the modern world’s food supply depended on refrigeration. The power had cut out on the third day, as though the outside world had managed to hold on for just a little bit longer than tiny Cloudcroft, and though there had been plenty of food in the hotel’s freezers, Sarah hadn’t been able to save it.
The weather hadn’t gotten truly bad yet, but she’d lived here all her life and knew what lay in store for her. She didn’t want to think about what the highway would be like with no snowplows to come along and clear away the drifts that accumulated with every storm.
No, what really scared her were those elusive shadows at the edges of her vision, strange movements that couldn’t be explained away by telling herself a bird had just flown overhead, or a sudden gust of wind had set a tree branch dancing. It could be her imagination. Sarah wanted to believe that. She was reacting to things that weren’t there, simply because her brain couldn’t deal with the reality of being alone in this town, alone in the world.
That had to be it. Because the alternative was even worse than being by herself, the only person somehow lucky — or cursed — enough to have survived that hideous fever.
If she wasn’t imagining things, then she feared that, crazy as it sounded, someone was watching her.
Kamal al-Sayid watched Sarah go inside the hotel and shut the door behind her. A frown was pulling at her pretty brow, and he couldn’t help but notice the way she kept sending furtive glances to either side, as though she’d managed to detect his presence, had realized she wasn’t quite as alone here in Cloudcroft as she’d thought.
How she was able to do such a thing, when he’d been very careful to use his djinn glamour to keep himself nearly invisible, to always remain at the very periphery of her field of vision, he was not quite sure. Part of him wanted to go to her, to explain that she had nothing to fear. He would have to do so soon enough, for he could not keep up this furtive surveillance forever. But he still wished to observe her, wanted to be quite sure he had made the right choice.
Oh, she was lovely. That fact could not be disputed. And, from what he had been able to see so far, quite resourceful as well. Each day she ventured forth from the hotel where she’d made her home and went from house to house, gathering up what nonperishable goods she could find so she might bring them back with her. Although there were plenty of abandoned cars available, she did not use any of them, but instead took an electric cart that had once been used by the hotel’s staff, and which she could recharge at the end of each day, using the power provided by a bank of solar panels installed on the top of the maintenance shed.
She undertook all these missions with a pistol hanging from a holster at her hip, and a small hunting rifle sitting on the empty seat next to her. Although she must have known that she was the town’s only inhabitant, it seemed she was not willing to take any chances.
Because she went about armed — a gunshot wound could not kill a djinn, but simply because something was not fatal didn’t mean it wouldn’t still hurt — and because Kamal was still trying to ascertain that his decision had been the correct one, he was in no hurry to approach her. His fellow djinn had already claimed their Chosen and gone on to Taos, where a community was forming, but it was not as if he’d been given any set schedule in which he must do the same. Why shouldn’t he bide his time?
Some of his fellow djinn referred to him as the “scientist,” which to an elemental was not precisely a compliment. However, Kamal saw nothing wrong with his approach here. Once he had gone to Sarah and made her his, then they would be bound together for all eternity. Was it so very strange that he might wish to have ample evidence of her character before making such a fateful decision?
Yes, he had observed her even before the other djinn had set the Heat — as the mortals called the fatal disease that eradicated most of their kind — upon the world. But he had watched her in her old life, watched as she did her best to be diplomatic with demanding guests at the hotel, or cooked and cleaned for her father, who spent his own days cooking for others and so was not terribly inclined to do the same when he got home from work. Observed her as she laughed with friends, or hiked alone on her days free from work, always tackling the steepest trails, the most difficult rock climbs, as though she had to prove she had the strength to face such things, even when her everyday life seemed so very mundane. It was that strength which had drawn his attention toward her, as much as her beauty.
He was glad to see that same strength now as she faced a world forever changed. From time to time, he’d seen her struggle with the possibility of leaving this place, of going down the winding road cut into the side of the mountain…but so far she hadn’t. Did she fear what she would find? Or was it simply that she wanted to stay in a place which was familiar to her, even if that place was now so terribly isolated from the rest of the world?
Going down the hill would have solved nothing for her. They were all gone in Tularosa, in Alamogordo, in the Air Force base at White Sands, and over the mountains in Las Cruces beyond that. Perhaps there had been Immune in those towns and cities — in fact, Kamal knew there must have been, since the Heat was not one hundred percent fatal — but the other djinn, those who wished to see the end of humanity, would have been diligent about making sure any survivors were wiped out. If Sarah had finally decided to leave Cloudcroft and see these things for herself, then he would have been compelled to reveal himself and stop her. Until he had formally made her his Chosen, she would be fair game for those vengeful elementals, and he could not allow that.
No, it seemed he must reveal his presence in the very near future. Sarah could not have known that she was perfectly safe here, that his presence had ensured the others of his kind stayed far away. Even so, he had seen the fear growing in her, a fear not only of being trapped here with the first bad storm, which had expressed itself in the way she sometimes lingered by the sturdiest of the abandoned vehicles in town, as though trying to screw up the courage to climb behind the wheel and drive away from this place, but also the furtive glances which signaled a worry that someone was watching her, impossible as such a thing might seem.
He did not want her to be frightened.
Perhaps it would be best to go about this slowly. There was no reason to tell her he was a djinn… at least not at first. Once she got used to him, then he could tell her the truth. And eventually he would have to take her away from Cloudcroft, since it had been decreed that the Chosen and their djinn must live apart in their own communities, but he had some time.
All he needed was time enough to make her fall in love with him.
Another meal of canned vegetables and biscuits with no butter…although at least she shouldn’t run out of jam or preserves anytime soon. There was no electricity, but the hotel’s gas for heating water and cooking was supplied by a set of very large propane tanks, and so Sarah hoped she should be able to have hot food for the foreseeable future. The water came from a well, and so there was no shortage of that, either. Unfortunately, she had to pump it by hand — the building had a manual override on its water system — so hot showers were a thing of the past. But at least she was able to have a lukewarm bath twice a week, although the process of heating enough water on the stove to fill her bathtub was laborious, and took her more than an hour each time. Still, it could have been worse.
The warm firelight danced off the walls, reflected in the glassy eyes of the enormous stuffed bear that stood by one of the sets of French doors leading to the deck and the garden beyond. More than once that damn bear had scared the living crap out of her when she was distracted and not paying attention, but Sarah didn’t quite want to go to the effort of carting it out of here and storing it in the maintenance shed. At least it provided a little company.
She set down her bowl of creamed corn and reached for the glass of wine that sat on the table in front of the couch. Before the apocalypse, she wouldn’t have said she was much of a wine drinker — beers while out with friends had been her poison of choice — but between the cellar here at the hotel and the stock at the Noisy Water Winery in Cloudcroft’s tiny downtown area, Sarah knew she was set for alcohol for at least the winter. They’d been expecting a shipment from the beer distributor when the Heat struck, and so she’d polished off the hotel’s available supply in the weeks immediately following her involuntary exile.
However, she made sure never to have more than one glass of wine at a time. Just enough to take the edge off, to give her something to drink with her meager dinners besides water from the well. Then she’d re-cork the bottle and put it back on the bar, which still had a decent collection of other liquor. However, scotch and whiskey held even less appeal for her than wine, so she hadn’t touched any of that stuff. It would have been so easy to spend her days drunk, trying to erase the bitter reality of her world. She didn’t want to do that, though. Her father might not have been around anymore, but she still didn’t want to disappoint him.
by Christine Pope / Romance / Science Fiction & Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes