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Wheels of Fire

CHAPTER ONE

Streamlined shapes of bright metal hurtled across asphalt, machines that roared, whined and howled, leaving hot air and deafness in their wake. They were without a doubt louder than any dragon Alinor had ever encountered. But instead of scales, these monsters were covered with flashy, bright endorsement decals for Goodyear, Pennzoil—


And, since the sport of automotive racing was more expensive with every passing year, such other odd sponsors as pizza and soft drinks.


The cars were no longer just racing machines; now they were, in effect, lightning-fast billboards. While these machines used many of the products they hawked, Alinor could only marvel at some of the strange connections made between the sport of auto racing and the things humans consumed.


The decals flashing under the sun only emphasized the vehicles' speed; they moved too fast to be seen, much less read. As car after car flashed by Alinor's vantage point, he was left with a vague impression of shapes and vivid colors. Presumably commercials had imprinted those shapes and colors in the minds of humans vividly enough that there would be instant recognition.


Alinor marveled at the sheer power of these metal beasts. The only other creature that could approach those speeds was an elvensteed, and then only if one wore a car's metallic seeming.


Sun beat down upon the track, numbing the brain, and Alinor yawned, pulling a red SERRA cap tighter over his head. Last night's final preps had taken more out of him than he had anticipated. Even for one of the Folk, two hours of sleep wasn't quite enough. He stretched a little and glanced at his watch; the team had been out here in the pits since just after dawn, and even the workaholics would be wanting to pull the car in and break before too long.


I hope, anyway, he thought, combating the sleepglue that formed on the inside of his eyelids. That break better happen soon, or I'll fall on my nose. 


In spite of his fatigue, he had to grin a little as he looked around, contrasting himself with his surroundings. Hallet Motor Speedway is not where you'd expect to find one of the Sidhe hanging out. Not even one who's a founding member of the South Eastern Road Racing Association. Strange days, indeed. 


Not that there weren't more elves and mages in the pits and driver's seats back in SERRA territory than anyone could ever have dreamed. Roughly a third had some connection with magic, and there were a few, like young Tannim, who were known for wandering feet. But for the most part, the elven drivers and mechanics of SERRA never left their home states and tracks, much less traveled to the wilds of Oklahoma.


Quaint little state, he had thought during the trip in, though "little" referred more to the size of the cities, not the square mileage of this new land. In many ways this was refreshing to one of the Sidhe, seeing so much wilderness with so few humans around to destroy it.


He hadn't had any trouble adjusting; so far as the natives and pit-crew were concerned, Alinor was just another mechanic. No weirder than most, since mechs were a breed unto themselves.


If for some reason I had to hide, this would be the place to come. There's no sign of Unseleighe Sidhe, and I haven't encountered anything hostile. I could set up a woodshop . . . maybe become a raving Baptist out here in God's country; that would really throw any pursuers off. He shook his head, pushing the dismal mental picture away. Eck. What a truly frightening thought.


Some of the Folk, the Low Court elves, couldn't go too far outside the influence of their chosen power-nexus, and most of the rest were content with the many challenges on their home ground. But Alinor prided himself on the fact that he was not ordinary in any sense, even by SERRA standards; the only other elven mechanic that could match his skill was Dierdre Brighthair, and she couldn't challenge his mastery of metal-magics. Even Sam Kelly had been impressed by what he could do.


Of course, I am a few centuries her senior, give or take a few decades. And I've been a mage-smith for a long, long time. 


He wished, though, that he could work some other kinds of magery; a little magic that would loosen Bob's tongue, for instance. Excessive conversation had never been one of the man's character defects, not for as long as Al had known him. He knew Bob was no idiot, that quite a bit must be going on in the young human's mind. The problem was that what actually came out appeared to be carefully edited or just doled out unwillingly and uttered with extreme caution. If Bob had said five words since dawn, Al would be surprised.


Their car banked around a corner and screamed past them, kicking up a brief bow-wave of hot, dry, exhaust-tinged wind, motor howling like a Bane-Sidhe. Then the beast of metal and gasoline dopplered away, swinging around for another lap.


"Hot," said Alinor, strolling the few paces away from the edge of the track to where Bob sat on an oil-drum, his red coverall immaculate, despite the hundreds of adjustments made on "their" engine since it first went out this morning. He leaned up against a tire-barrier and pulled his cap a little lower over his eyes, so that the brim met the top of his Ray-Bans.


"Eyah. It's that," Bob Ferrel replied, without taking his gray eyes off the track or the frown off his lean, weathered face.


Al sighed. Bob was in full laconic Maine-mode. Like talking to a rock. Actually, I might get better conversation out of a rock. "Nice track, though."


"Eyah."


Considering that this out-of-the-way track was a lush little gem, that was hardly an adequate reply. When I know people who would kill to work here. . . . "Guys back at Fayetteville would be green," he offered.


"Eyah."


All right, new tactic. See if he's at least listening to me. Alinor tried the path of absurdity to get something like conversation out of his human partner. "I heard they're going to bring in topless camel races next Saturday."


Now Bob finally turned his head, just barely enough to give Al a hairy eyeball, despite the glasses. "There's a ping in number three cylinder I don't like," he said sourly. "I want you to look at it when they bring it back in."


Blessed Danaa, you might have said something.


Alinor stiffened and instantly became all business. When Bob said he heard something, a SERRA mech listened to him. Bob, like young Maclyn's mother Dierdre, could tune an engine by ear. "I can look at it now," he offered.


"Do that," Bob said, tersely. "We've got a reputation riding on this."


Bob took that reputation a little more seriously than Al did; after all, a High Court elven-mage like Alinor could conjure anything he wished to out of the molecules of the air and earth around him, just by studying it long enough to "ken" it. Bob, when he wasn't partaking of elven hospitality, had a living to make. The old-fashioned way, he once joked, in a rare instance of humor. And Bob Ferrel had every intention of dying a wealthy man.


Not that I blame him, Al thought absently. He's the kind that hates charity. 


The elven mechanic lounged back again, but this time every bit of his concentration was bent on the car careening its way back towards them. Or rather, his attention was bent on what was under the hood; a cast-aluminum engine block of elven make from the "shops" at Fayetteville, another one of the Fairgrove facilities. Al knew this particular block so well he could have duplicated it in an hour. He should; he had kenned it himself.


Not that he wanted anyone outside of a select company of SERRA members to know that. 


He set his mind ranging inside the inferno of the howling motor, wincing away just a little from the few parts of iron (not so dangerous now, but still uncomfortable), winding his probe into cylinder three. He gave brief mental thanks to Tannim for teaching him those human mageries that made it possible for him to probe through and around Cold Iron at all.


In a moment, he had identified the problem. As the bright red car rounded the far turn, he corrected it with a brief surge of magical energies. He pulled his mind out of the engine and looked up as the car roared by the pits.


Bob was smiling as he pushed his own cap onto the back of his head.


"What was it?" the scrawny mechanic asked, running a hand over his sandy hair before replacing the cap.


"Not the cylinder at all," Al replied. "Piston arm."


"Ah." Bob relaxed still further. It hadn't been a failure of the block, and so he was content. Bob's design had been the one used as a prototype for this block, and he took design flaws personally.


Now I'll get some conversation out of him. . . . Al waited, and Bob remained happily silent, contemplating the track with a smile instead of a frown.


Al burst out laughing, and Bob favored him with a puzzled stare. "You're incredible!" he chuckled. "Anyone else would have been throttling me to find out what the problem was and how I fixed it, when you know damn good and well the arm's steel and you know we don't handle Cold Iron happily or well. But you, you just stand there, and say `ah.' "


"You'd tell me when you got ready to," Bob replied, unbending just enough to give Al a "man, you're crazy" look.


Al shook his head. He was far too used to the volatile temperaments of his hot-blooded Southern compatriots. Any mech from the Carolinas would have been foaming at the mouth by now and describing my parentage in terms my mother would take extreme exception to. Not Bob. Not even close. This cold fish from the rocky coast of Maine was just as icy as the elven Nordic-derived "cousins" who'd settled there. About the only thing that got Bob's goat around here was the area itself: landscape and the climate. Al thought the rolling hills were marvelous—and the heat was a nice change from the mountainous country of home. Occasionally the residual magic left over from the times when the Indians flourished here came in handy. Though—in fairness, he wouldn't want to live here for very long, even if it was a nice change.


Not Bob. He couldn't wait to get back to "where I don't bake and I don't have to look at so much damned sky."


" ` 'E's pinin' for the fjords,' " he muttered.


"Eh?" said Bob.


"Never mind. I was just thinking you're a lot like the liosalfar that fostered you."


"Ah," said Bob, his icy gray eyes softening a great deal. "Good people, your cousins."


Al sighed. Another typical understatement. At the tender age of eight, "Bobby" had been rescued by one of the alfar from freezing to death in a blizzard. He had been running away from a father who had nearly beaten him black for failing to come immediately when called. It wasn't the first time a beating had occurred, but it was the last.


Acting on a tip from a human, Gundar, Bobby's foster father to be, had put the house under snowy owl surveillance for several weeks, waiting, at times in agony, for the right moment to intervene. The beatings had become more severe with time, coinciding with an increased consumption of straight bourbon whiskey, chased with cheap grocery store beer. Even at that age, little Bobby could see the correlation between Daddy's "joy juice" and being beaten; when Father was on a roaring drunk, Bobby made himself scarce, which further angered the old man.


Granted, the father had been under a severe strain; the fish cannery, which was the town's sole employer, had just closed. Daddy must have suspected something going wrong with the company long before that, for the start of the layoffs had been when the drinking started as well.


Ultimately, though, Bobby neither knew the reasons nor cared about them. All he knew was that Dad was drinking, became a frightening, crazy man when he drank, and Mother was just as afraid of him as Bobby was.


In the end she stopped trying to protect him, instead fleeing for the shelter of her mother's house when Bobby's father became "turned on." That meant leaving Bobby alone with him, but perhaps she had trusted in the frail hope her husband wouldn't hurt his own child.


The end came on a bitter December night, when Joe Ferrel was at the end of his unemployment benefits, the cannery closed for good, and at the end of the month they'd be out of a home as well when the bank foreclosed on the mortgage—


But that's no excuse to half-kill your son, Al thought angrily, his blood still running hot at the memory, as would the blood of any of the Fair Folk at the idea of mistreating a child. Good thing we got him out of there when we did. After the foreclosure, there was no telling what would have happened. . . . "Bobby" probably wouldn't have lived through it. How can they act like that? Treating their own offspring like possessions to be used and discarded at their pleasure— 


He forced himself to calm down; most humans loved their children, treated them as any elven parent would. And for those that didn't—well, there were other possibilities, not all within human society.


Like what had happened to Bob. Bob was grown up now, and safe—had been safe the moment Gundar found him. The situation had been perfect for a changeling-swap: take the boy and leave a lifeless, frozen simulacrum in his place. Easily done, and the exchange left no traces in the human world, for why run a tissue analysis on a frozen corpse when it was obvious why the "boy" had died?


And Bob found a new home with those who loved and cherished children, even those not of their species. A home where the rules were strict, but never arbitrary, and punishment was never meted out in anger. A place where intelligence was encouraged to flower, and where his childish delight in mechanical things was fostered, nurtured and educated, even if the liosalfar were sometimes baffled by the direction it took. Clockwork and fine metal-work they understood—but cars?


Still, he was given free rein, though he had been asked to keep his engines of Cold Iron somewhere where they wouldn't cause disruption to fields of magic, and physical pain to his foster relatives.


So things had continued, until as a young man, he eventually got a real job in the human world—for no human could live forever in the elven enclaves. Even Tam Lin had known that. The job had been at a human-owned garage whose proprietor knew about the liosalfar and approved of them, an American Indian of full Mohawk blood that considered them just another kind of forest spirit. Soon, thanks to native ability and understanding of physics and mechanics gained from his foster-kin, Bob became the resident automotive wizard.


Things might have rested there, but for Henry Winterhawk. He could have kept Bob ignorant of the existence of SERRA and reaped the benefits of having that kind of genius at his disposal. Instead, he asked Bob to bring his foster father in for a conference about his future.


Gundar knew all about SERRA, of course, but he had simply never thought of it as a place where Bob could fully realize his abilities. Winterhawk had been a little surprised that the elves knew about the organization, though—he'd thought the magic being practiced down there was entirely human in origin.


I wish I'd seen both their faces, Al thought with amusement. The Great Stone Face meets Glacier-Cliff, and both of them crack with surprise. Must have been a sight. 


So now Bob was with the Fayetteville shop, and was helping Al baby-sit the first aluminum-block mage-built engine to go into entirely human hands, hands ignorant of its true origin. Keeping the secret under wraps had been a job in itself; more than once Bob had showed ingenuity in the area of creative deception.


Even if you had to pry conversation out of him with a forklift.


"Don't you ever ask questions?" the Sidhe asked, perplexed. "Not about cars, I mean, about us—my foster kids have been eaten up with questions every time they've run into a different group of the Folk."


Bob thawed a little more, and some of his true age of twenty showed through. "You don't mind? Gundar said not to be a pain in the ass, but you people are a lot different from the alfar."


Al laughed aloud. "Hell, no, I don't mind. Not even close. In Outremer we're Scottish Celts, for the most part, both the human fosterlings and us, and you should know the Scots—if you won't tell us something on your own, we'll find it out. That's why Scots make such good engineers. I'm used to it. Ask away."


"How did you people ever get involved with racing?" Bob asked. "I know about the Flight; Gundar told me about that—but it seems damned weird to me for you people to leave Europe because of Cold Iron everywhere, then turn around and start racing and building cars."


Alinor chuckled. "Two reasons, really. First, we've always measured ourselves against you. I—don't suppose you've studied old ballads and stories, have you?"


Bob shook his head.


"Well if you had, you'd find a lot of them with the same theme—the elf-knight challenges a human to a duel, either of wits or of swords, the fight goes on for quite some time, the human wins and carries off some sort of prize. Usually gold, sometimes a lover." Lost and won a few of those myself, before I got tired of the Game. "We did that quite a bit, although needless to say, the times when the human lost were never recorded in ballads." Al eased the bill of his cap up with his thumb and gave Bob an ironic look over the rim of his sunglasses.


Bob smiled wryly. "What happened when the human lost?"


"Depends on what he—or she, believe it or not—looked like, what skills they had. Usually they had to serve us a year and a day, human-time. Some of the knightly types with big egos and small brains we taught a little humility to, making them act as servants. Generally we had them get us things we needed, news, new fashions—or we had them find the kids that were being mistreated and tell us who they were."


Bob's eyes brightened. "Then what?"


Al shrugged. "Depended on the circumstance. Worst case I ever heard of was a little German town with a real high birthrate. They'd had a witch-scare and killed off all the cats, so the rats had gotten so bad they started biting the kids in the cradles. We stepped in, then, and we got rid of the vermin. But that meant the Black Death missed them entirely."


"So?" Bob said. "Sounds like a good thing to me—"


"It would have been, except that they exported dyed and woven wool, worked silver and other metals, wine—luxury goods. But after the Death, there weren't as many people around to buy their exports. Prices dropped. Food was more expensive, without serfs to till the land. Things got bad. Half the youngsters in the place went around with welts and bruises."


"That sounds familiar—" Bob ventured.


Al snorted. It should. It's even survived into this day and age. "Place called Hammerlein. Hamlin, to the English."


Bob shot him a glance that said quite clearly that he thought Al was pulling his leg. Al shrugged. "Ask Gundar. His German cousin was the Piper. We ended up with so many fosterlings we had to spread them out over a dozen Underhill kingdoms."


"Sonuvabitch," Bob said thoughtfully. "Say, when you Folk went up against humans in combat—wasn't that a little one-sided?"


"We did have a bit of an edge where armor and practice was concerned," Al admitted. "But when it came to a duel of swords, humans had an edge too, in that they were fighting with Cold Iron." Al smiled reminiscently. I can still remember the thrill of evading an edge by the width of a hair. . . . "Put a kind of savor to it, coming that close to the Death Metal. Well, dueling and challenging people at crossroads went out of fashion for the humans, partially because knights were like Porsches—expensive to maintain."


Bob laughed. "Eyah. You don't risk a Porsche in a back-country county-fair drag-race."


Al nodded. "That was when some of us moved. For a while we played at other things, but the Church was making it hard for us to stay hidden, and it just wasn't the same—and besides, there was more Cold Iron around with every passing year. So, in the end, almost all of us moved."


"The Flight." Bob cocked his head to one side and wiped a trickle of sweat from his neck. "Then what?"


"We `rusticated,' as my father is fond of saying." Al sighed. In many ways, those days had been halcyon, if a little boring now and again. "Then the Europeans followed us across the sea, and rather than compete with them, we went into seclusion, at least on the East Coast. Found places we weren't likely to be bothered. Eventually we set about recreating the Courts in the wilderness." He looked out over the heat-hazed countryside. "For a long time, this was enough of a challenge. It was like starting over, and for the Indians that lived out here already, well, we fit right into their beliefs. No problem. Before the horses came up from Mexico, our elvensteeds would counterfeit deer, bear, or anything else big enough to carry us; it didn't matter that deer and bear wouldn't take riders. After all, we were spirits, and our spirit-animal-brothers would do things no ordinary animal would do. For some reason, perhaps that they were closer to natural power than any white man we knew in Europe, picking fights with them just wasn't any fun. It didn't feel right. So we cohabitated, in harmony, for a couple centuries."


Bob gazed at him thoughtfully. Though the human didn't say anything, Al knew the keen mind was absorbing everything he said. The young man was quite interested—probably because he'd only heard the alfar side of the story. The Nordic elves never moved from their chosen homes; instead, they had created places where humans passed through without noticing where they were—places that weren't quite in the "real" world, but weren't quite Underhill either.


"Then the Europeans caught up with us. At first we sympathized with them, these settlers who were trying to make homes with next to nothing, and certainly no magic, in the wilderness. We had done it ourselves, so we knew it wasn't easy. But with them came Cold Iron, so we had to keep our distance from them. When their settlements came too close to our groves, we played tricks on them, appearing to them as demons in order to frighten them away."


Al saw the hint of what might be the edge of a wry grin of amusement. Like a shadow drowned with sudden light, the hint of a smile faded, replaced with Bob's familiar unreadable expression.


"For a while that kept us entertained. Until they started throwing knives and shooting at us . . . which put an end to that silliness. Especially since a lot of their weapons used steel shot as well as lead."


"I can see that," Bob commented. "I'd say Cold Iron in that form would ruin any elf's day—and you people aren't immune to a lead bullet if it's placed right."


Al nodded. "All we could do then was avoid all humans. The Indians were slaughtered, absorbed into the white population, or relocated, so we lost our allies there. As more humans invaded the areas we once inhabited, those Low Court elves unfortunate enough to have located their groves near human cities had serious trouble. The rest of us transported our magic nexuses and Low Court cousins to places even the humans wouldn't want. Isolation, and seclusion, became necessary for us once again. And, once again, we were bored silly."


"Bored?" Bob said. "Eyah, I can see that. Live long enough, you do about everything there is to do."


"A hundred times. And get almighty tired of the same faces," Al agreed. "Now the story gets local, though. A few human lifetimes after that, we started seeing those new-fangled horseless carriages around Outremer. And people were challenging each other with them." He sighed, remembering his very first look at a moonshiner-turned-race-car, the excitement he'd felt. "Well, what they were doing—races along deserted country roads or on homemade tracks—that was just like the old challenge-at-the-crossroad game, only better, because it was not only involving the skill and wits of the driver, it involved the skill and wits of the craftsman. There's only so much you can do to improve armor past a point of refinement, but an engine—now, there's another story."


Bob's attention wandered for a moment as their car roared past, then came back to Al. "So your lot began racing? Fairgrove, Outremer, Sunrising, that bunch?"


Al nodded. "I was all for it from the beginning; I was a smith, and I hadn't had anything to do but make pretty toys for, oh, a couple of centuries. Some of the rest wanted to use elvensteeds shape-changed, but the fighters really squashed that idea."


"Wouldn't be fair," Bob said emphatically. "Elvensteed damn near breaks Mach one if it's streamlined enough."


"Exactly. We wanted a challenge, not a diversion. So, we started making copies of cars from materials we could handle, learning by trial and error how to strengthen them, and copying your technology when it got ahead of ours." Al sent a probe toward the car, but the engine was behaving itself, and he withdrew in satisfaction.


"You wouldn't have dared let people get too close, early on, though," Bob observed. "One look under the hood, and you'd have blown it. So that's why you stuck to club racing?"


Al nodded, with a little regret. "We still don't dare take too much out of the club." He sighed. "Much as I'd love to pit the Fayetteville crews against the Elliot team, or the Unser or Andretti families, or—well, you've got the picture. Best we can do, Bob, is send you fosterlings out there and take our triumphs vicariously."


"You're here," Bob pointed out.


"I'm one of a few that can be out here," he said soberly. "Lots of the Folk can't even be around the amount of iron that's at the Fairgrove complex, much less what's in the real world. I can, though it's actually easier to handle Cold Iron magically when it's heated. That's why I try and do my modifications while the car's running. Cold Iron poisons us, but like any poison, you can build up a tolerance to it, if you work at it. I worked at it. I still have to wear gloves, and it still gives me feedback through my magic to have to `touch' it, though. And I'd have third-degree burns if I handled it bare-skinned."


Al held up his gloved hands; the Firestone crew thought he had a petroleum allergy. That was a useful concept, since it would explain away blisters if he accidentally came into contact with the Death Metal.


"We could get only so close to the real cars in the beginning," he added. "When the manufacturers began using alternative materials—like fiberglass bodies, carbon fiber, aluminum parts—it became that much easier. Some humans despise the concept of the `plastic car.' We've been encouraging it for decades!"


"Eyah," Bob said, laconically. "Never could stand disposable cars myself. I always thought a car should last at least twenty-five years. The next time I see a plastic car I'll think differently of it."


Al gloated a little over the "triumph" of getting Bob to speak, with a certain wry irony. That was actually a stimulating conversation.


But the respite was brief. The spark of conversation dimmed, and their attentions turned to the track, the team—the unrelenting heat, the hammer of the sun, the fatigue setting over even the best-rested of them. Weariness began to settle in around him again, this time with a vengeance. How many laps were they going to pull in that car today? he thought, now with some irritability. The RV sounds mighty inviting right now.


He smiled a little at the idea of a Sidhe regarding such a vehicle as a shelter. He recalled the time he told Gundar about the RV, the human-made Winnie that was sheathed with the Death Metal. It took some convincing before Gundar finally believed one of the Folk could live in such a thing; Al's friend had yet to build up a tolerance to Cold Iron and shied away.


Al sat down on a stack of chalkmarked tires, a few feet away from Bob. He needed to keep his distance—not from Bob, but from the rest of the team. The Folk had a high degree of sensitivity to energies not usually discernible by humans. Since Al worked closely with humans, his shields had to be much, much better than any of the Folk who never ventured out of Underhill. He had learned when a youngster that he was unusually sensitive to human emotions. His shields had required some specialized engineering to filter out the more intense or negative feelings generated by many humans in order to be able to work around them. Even Bob had caused him a few problems. He didn't have to think about the shields much anymore; the whole process of maintaining them was pretty much second-nature. The only time he remembered the network was there was when an intense emotion somehow managed to breach it.


Like—now.


Now what? Al thought, becoming aware of a nagging feeling of someone in distress, somewhere outside his shields. He reached inside his overalls and withdrew a small package of Keeblers and starting munching absently, his thoughts drifting beyond his immediate world, seeking the source of emotion. The cookie things helped him concentrate, though he wasn't sure why. Maybe it was all the sugar.


He bit the head off an annoyingly cheerful vanilla figure and considered: Something strong enough to leak through my defenses must be hot stuff. Where is it coming from? He glanced over at Bob, who was apparently studying an interesting oil stain on the track.


No. It's not him.


Focusing on a broader area, Alinor reached, touching the members of the immediate crew. Their emotions paralleled the way he was feeling right now: exhaustion and the heartfelt desire to start stacking a few Z's, coupled with a subtle anxiety over their delicate, powerful creation hurtling its human driver around the track. That wasn't what he wanted. Nothing they were feeling would be strong enough to penetrate the shields.


Too low level. Boy, someone is really hurting out there. Where is he? Or . . . she? 


Now Al felt a definite female flavor to the emotion, though it was overwhelmed by sheer asexual anxiety. Ah. A clue. That should narrow the field. He knew it was barely possible this meant there was some danger at the track, perhaps even a serious problem with one of the cars.


There's always worry, but this is close to hysteria, and we don't need that right now, he thought, regarding the other racing teams around him. There didn't seem to be anything urgent going on, though some of the teams were noticeably restless, probably from being out here for so long.


Don't blame them, Al thought, his search distracted for a moment. I'm ready to go in, too.


Although the world of racing remained male-dominated even to this day, a fair number of women were on the teams. But none of them were particularly upset about anything.


Wives? The few who came to the competition at Hallet were not around today. During test lap days there just weren't that many spectators, either local natives or those cheering the teams.


Odd. He thought. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong place. Who said the source had to be on the track? A barbed wire fence surrounded the entire track, forming a feeble barrier between Hallet and the surrounding Oklahoma territory. Immediately behind them, about a quarter of a mile away, was an ancient homestead, little more refined than a log cabin, that appeared to be as old as the proverbial hills. There, perhaps? Intrigued, Al reached toward it, diverting his dwindling supply of energy towards the house. Immediately his senses were assaulted by—


A bedroom overflowing with fevered physical activity—brass bedposts pounding like jackhammers against slatted-wood walls pitted and dented by repeated sessions in the warm afternoons and evenings. . . . 


Alinor staggered mentally backward as he recoiled from the emotional violence he had inadvertently witnessed, the steamy interplay in the farmer's bedroom. Whoops! Lots of intense emotion there, but not quite the kind I was looking for. He felt as if he had been drenched in a scalding shower, and put up every shield he had to protect himself for a moment.


Bob made no comment.


By degrees his mind gradually recovered from the thorough scorching it had received, and in about fifteen minutes Alinor was able to gather energies around him again, retrieving his scattered pieces of empathy from around the track.


He pulled his act together, took a deep breath and probed again. He sent his thoughts out over a wide area, hoping to pick up the source this way, a method that had proven effective before. The lethargic feelings of the pit crew were again a distraction, especially since they so nearly mirrored his own. Echo effect, he thought, shaking his head. Tends to block what I'm really looking for. Maybe if I got some rest, came after this with a fresh set of eyes . . . 


The moment he considered this, a blast of emotion pierced his reassembled shields once again.


This time he was ready for it; on it as soon as it penetrated. Yes, it was definitely from a female. Now he could sense some other things. The woman was a mother. Images, riding the current of the high emotion, overwhelmed him with a deep sense of loss. But not a permanent loss—the kind caused by a death or irrevocable separation. She must be looking for something, Al decided, wishing his powers would provide him a clearer picture. Or someone.


Then as if a warm, stiff breeze had blown over his mind, the final image came into focus. Al leaped to his feet, now in a fully alert, combat-ready stance, even though there was nothing here to fight.


She's looking for her child. And she thinks he's in danger. 


 


 


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