Shadowspell Academy: The Culling Trials, Omnibus, page 1
The Culling Trials, Omnibus
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About the Authors
Copyright © 2019 by K.F. Breene & Shannon Mayer
All rights reserved. The people, places and situations contained in this ebook are figments of the author’s insane imagination and in no way reflect real or true events.
“Damn it, Wild, hold her tight or she’s going to gore me!”
“Easier said…than done…old man…” I labored to hold on as Bluebell, our fifteen-hundred-pound longhorn, tried to swing her great head around and get a look at my dad, who was sewing up a gaping hole in her side. She’d had a run in with Whiskers, our massive bull, unfortunately named by my sister when she was younger. Whiskers wasn’t known for being easy on the ladies. He was probably still pissed about the name. “She’s in a really…really…” I flexed my hands around the smooth horn, cursing under my breath as my fingers slid closer to the tip. “Bad mood!”
I barely heard him huff out a laugh.
I gritted my teeth and dug my heels into the loose soil, pushing against the metal of our makeshift chute for leverage. The ramshackle affair groaned and crackled. Bluebell stomped her foot in impatience or maybe pain, and a splatter of mud flew up and slapped my face. The glop of rank-smelling muck slid over the corner of my mouth and infiltrated my lips before I could close them. I fought not to gag, settled for spitting to the side and tried not to taste what had just landed on my tongue.
Much as I loved being a farm girl, moments like these made me wish for a house in the city. Houston. Dallas. Anywhere in Texas but the great nowhere I called home, a quarter mile from the nearest neighbor and a tiny town five miles beyond that. The moment was fleeting, and I spat again, clearing the last of the sludge from my mouth.
That had better be mud…
I craned my neck to get a view of my dad.
“Johnson, you good?” I hollered.
His failing body had a harder and harder time keeping up each year, an open secret in our family. A cripple before his time, he couldn’t dance out of the way of a pissed off cow like he once had. Dad was in his mid-forties, but moved as if he were a hundred plus. But his hands were still steadier than anyone’s, though, when it came to stitching up the animals. . . assuming I could keep the cow’s big butts in our crappy cow chute, of course, something I wasn’t excelling at in that moment.
“Good,” he called out, strain in his voice. “Just slow going. Thick hide on our ol’ Bluebell, you know.”
Bluebell jerked to the side, dragging my feet through the mud. With a growl and a heave, I yanked her back to nearly straight and held on. The chute groaned and the weld closest to me began to open. If it broke free, we’d be wrestling with Bluebell in a whole new arena.
“Come on, you fat cow, stop fighting!” I growled, as frustrated as a woodpecker on an iron post.
She let out a bellow and jerked her head toward him again. My knee bashed into the metal panel and I yelped, barely keeping my grip on her horn. Bluebell shifted gears fast, slamming her shoulder into the panel and using it as leverage. Damn it, smart cows were going to be the end of me. The other end of the panel swung out and smacked my dad, sending him flying.
He yelled, and there was the distinct sound of a body hitting the mud.
I’m sure he hoped it was mud, at any rate.
“Tell me you didn’t break your neck!” I called out, breathing hard and pushing aside a sudden spike of anxiety. My knee throbbed, but I barely felt it over the worry. “Dad?”
There was a good five seconds that felt like a heck of a lot longer where he didn’t answer.
“I’m fine,” he grunt-laughed, and I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. His dark hair and ballcap slowly appeared above the cow’s shoulder again. “I didn’t see that one coming. One day, we’ll get a proper chute. One of those big head gates maybe.”
“We sure will. Just gotta start playing that lotto.”
“I keep telling you to get a ticket. With your luck, all our problems would be over.”
I laughed and pulled on Bluebell’s horn again, adjusting my grip. If only that were true, I’d scrounge up a few bucks and make the long trek into town tomorrow for a stack of tickets. Sadly, it was my older brother, Tommy, who’d always been the lucky one. Whole lot of good it had done him in the end.
A black cloud settled over me at that wayward thought, and grief, old but still raw, churned in my gut like soured milk. I shook my head to dislodge the heavy pallor and forced myself to focus on the task at hand. What had happened to Tommy was in the past. Too late to change it.
I bent my head and wiped the sweat from my face onto my upper arm. The end of summer in Texas was as hot as the devil’s thong and about as humid. The rain the night before hadn’t been any help to us.
“Stop daydreaming, Johnson,” I said, a little too seriously. My hands slid farther, sweat making them slick. “I can’t hold her much longer.”
You’d think that after losing his wife and oldest son long before their times, my dad’s outlook on life in general would have dimmed. No, that pessimism was left to me. I no longer even had my best childhood friend to help carry the load. At least Rory, the kid I’d grown up with, had found a better life. He still had a future, unlike Mom and Tommy.
I just wished he hadn’t forgotten me so completely.
“Almost got it done, Wild, just two more stitches,” Dad said.
I breathed slowly, my muscles spazzing after holding Bluebell’s horn for so long. “Fat head,” I grumbled at her. “You’re lucky one of us likes you.”
She let out a long, low moo, rolled her eye closest to me, and I relaxed my hand, thinking she was calming down.
As soon as I let off the pressure, Bluebell jerked her head to the side, and my fingers slid to the ti
He couldn’t move fast enough; I knew it. I clutched with my fingernails, my upper body shaking with effort, nails digging in as I snarled with the effort.
Dad limped away from Bluebell, hunched over, but two steps were enough to put him out of her range. I let go of her and she whipped her head to the side, her horns ripping through the space where he’d been standing only a moment before.
I backed up and bent at the waist, hands on my knees as I blew out a few deep breaths. My body trembled from my shoulders down to my calves. I was going to be sore in the morning.
Who needed the gym when you had to wrestle with cows on a regular basis?
“Good job, Wild. I finished up that last stitch. Keep her and that calf of hers separate from the others for a few days before letting them back in with the rest of the herd.” Dad spoke over his shoulder, his instructions given in a pain-filled voice as he limped toward the house.
I understood why. If he stopped to talk, he might not get going again. The last time, I’d had to carry him into the house. It had been more than humiliating for him. What father wanted his teenage daughter to care for him like that? Certainly not a Texan, a rough neck, born and bred.
“Got it.” I stood upright and stretched my hands over my head, my back cracking with a long series of pops that sent a shiver down my spine. I patted Bluebell on the forehead and scratched her behind one ear. “You’re a turd, you know that? The man was just trying to help you.”
She mooed at me and licked my jeans like nothing more than an oversized dog, her horns carefully kept away from me now that she wasn’t being restrained.
“Total turd,” I muttered as I checked to make sure my dad was out of the small corral before I let her loose. She’d go for him, even now that he wasn’t bothering her. He was basically the vet around here, and she didn’t like going to the doctor.
I watched as he slipped through the main gate and latched it behind him. He didn’t talk about what ailed him, just called it The Sickness, as if that meant something. And honestly, it must’ve. At least to my mother when she was alive. But to the kids, no explanation was given, and if we asked, we were punished, or he’d just shrug and walk away. We didn’t think he’d outlive our mother. But life has a way of randomly kicking you in the gut. My family got kicked more often than most.
I chewed my lip as I looked out over our sprawling ranch. Dad’s optimism couldn’t change the fact that our bills kept mounting while our revenue slowly decreased—only money would do that. Maybe I should start playing the lotto. Couldn’t hurt at this point and it wasn’t like the few dollars a week I’d spend would save us in the end any other way.
I sighed and unlatched our makeshift chute, letting Bluebell into the small corral.
“There you go, turd,” I muttered, patting her hip as she went by.
She mooed softly at her six-month-old calf, who’d hid in the corner of the corral while we worked, and he ran over to her, rubbing against her head as she licked him all over.
I worked to get two of the panels unlatched and lifted them, balancing them on my shoulder, and then carefully made my way to the side of the corral to stack them with the others.
“What a waste of a life.”
I startled at the unfamiliar voice, and turned slowly, seeing a solid man with a crew cut and aviators leaning against the fence. I hadn’t heard the crunch of tires on gravel.
A glance behind him, then a sweep with my gaze, told me why—he didn’t have a car. Or at least not one within sight.
I frowned. Strangers out this way were rare, but walking strangers rarer still, especially if they didn’t have one holy book or another clutched between their palms.
Stalling for time, I headed to grab another panel, assessing him while I did so. He was five foot eight or nine, a few inches shorter than me, with a lean body poised in such a way that there was no mistaking the loosely contained power coiled within him. He reminded me of the mountain lions that occasionally came through the farm. Even when they were still, you could see the potential in them to launch at you with the blink of an eye. Sideburns crawled down his square face, otherwise clean of stubble.
Although his clothing was dark and non-descript, he wore a patch on his right shoulder, the symbol done up with red lines in a series of angles. At this distance, I couldn’t make out the details, but even still, a memory floated up out of the darkness. A patch on one of my mom’s old jackets.
Web of Wyrd.
“Girl,” the man said, clearly short on patience.
“I’m eighteen, mister,” I said before I dropped the panel. Metal clanged, giving me a moment to turn. “Call me woman. Or lady, if you’re interested in a fat lip.”
He stared at me across the space, and the push of his focus nearly made me step back. Cold shivers worked up my spine, everything in my body screaming danger!
“Derelict, then,” he said. Our versions of compromise didn’t line up too well, but he didn’t give me time to say so. “Where is the boy?”
“Didn’t take to the vocabulary lessons in school, huh?” I took two slow steps, outwardly loose and relaxed, and leaned an elbow against the nearest fence. I didn’t trust the raging energy I felt pulsing from him, even from the distance. It spoke of a predator, and if I spooked, that would make me the prey. I didn’t know much about people, but I knew a great deal about animals—he was not someone to turn your back on and live.
“The boy has been summoned,” the man said. “I must speak with him.”
“Can’t. He’s not home from school.” I checked my watch. “He’ll be getting loaded up on the bus. I wouldn’t mess with the bus driver, Ms. Everdeen, though. She isn’t allowed to smoke during her school run, and it makes her so cranky, she grows horns to hold up her halo.”
The stranger’s lips pulled to the side in a smirk, and he minutely shook his head. “It’s a pity you elected not to go to school. You’re a natural.”
He took a step back and I couldn’t help a confused frown. I didn’t have the money for college, but why should he care? Is that what he’d meant about a waste of a life? Because when you were flat broke, and your family depended on you to survive, staying on the farm was a matter of necessity.
“See that the boy gets the envelope,” the stranger said, walking toward the long driveway. “I’ll be around later to discuss the particulars.”
“What you really need is to discuss those sideburns with a barber,” I mumbled, watching him silently make his way along the fence.
I blinked and swept my gaze out over the farm. A pang of regret hit me thinking about college. All kids dreamed about what they wanted to be when they grew up, and I hadn’t been the exception. I’d never thought mediocre grades and a penchant to talk back would keep me from setting my footprints on the moon, or becoming a vet, or once, when I’d been in a really down moment, becoming a mortician. And I’d been right—the grades hadn’t held me back. My sense of duty had.
Well, that, and a serious lack of funds.
I probably should’ve tried harder in school. Kept my mouth shut a little more. Then maybe I could’ve gotten a scholarship like Tommy had. Then again, look how his big break had turned out. His chance at a better life had turned into a death certificate. No, I was better off with the farm. At least I knew the dangers here.
Replaying what the stranger had said, something about the envelope he’d mentioned but neglected to give me twanged my memory banks. A cold sweat popped along my skin and I turned back to the stranger to ask him a question, only to see…nothing.
He was gone.
“No way,” I said softly, taking a few steps toward the driveway and road far beyond. The land was flat and cleared—I should’ve still seen him. Even if he’d started running, he couldn’t have disappeared that quickly and I would have heard him on the gravel if he’d sprinted. Yet…there was no sign of him.
A strange tremor worked through my body,
An hour later, after I’d finished the last of the chores outside, I stood in the kitchen of our rundown, termite-ridden, hundred-year-old farmhouse, heart and mind racing, as I stared down at the pockmarked and cracked kitchen table. The clutter that usually choked the surface had been cleared away to Lord knew where. The kitchen counter had been set to rights, everything tucked into cabinets, or maybe the garbage can. The mostly empty canisters of sugar and flour were lined up, nice and tidy.
There was no way my father had done this, not with the knocks he’d taken in the pasture. The twins wouldn’t have bothered even if they were home.
A hefty manila envelope lay in the exact center of the table, and when I saw it, one of the last memories I had of my older brother rushed over me.
“You guys will never believe what I got!” Tommy set the fat manila envelope on the clean kitchen table like it contained a bar of gold. He stepped back and fist pumped the air. “Guy came up to me and said it was special delivery. It’s not mine yet, but, Dad…” he grinned like a maniac, “all our prayers have been answered. This is what we’ve been waiting for.”
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