May teaser and update

Another teaser chapter, but no competition this month. Again, the teasers are only a way to urge me on. You may get another teaser next month, but that will be it.

As I say, no competition, but on the other hand, if you’re from Denver, or you’ve followed my previous posts carefully, you’ll be able to tell me what the picture is and why it’s significant in Bite Back…

My writing is up to the 75% point approximately, and the beta readers have read up to the 50% point approximately. I have a couple of scenes to rework based on feedback, but I’m focused on (1) getting the beta readers to the 75% point and (2) writing the last quarter (often the quickest), and then getting the book to the editor.

Previous teaser chapters (in order) are at:
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/christmas-wishes-and-bite-back-6-teaser-chapter/
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2019/02/04/bite-back-6-teaser-chapter-2/
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2019/02/28/update-and-question-for-you-and-a-chapter-teaser-from-inside-straight/
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2019/03/31/march-update-quiz-question-and-a-teaser-of-chapter-4-from-inside-straight/
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2019/04/30/update-quiz-and-teaser/ 

 

Chapter 7

 

I was lying in the dirt. I must have hit my head. Badly. Passed out.

I shook myself and stood up. No dizziness.

Also no Denver. No roads and buildings. No snow.

Strong, clear sunlight. Warm wind. Flat, dry scrubland, dropping away westwards to a barely visible river.

What the hell?

Yelena was standing next to me, blinking. She was dressed in old-time buckskin, her hair in plaits, with a turquoise bead choker around her neck and moccasins on her feet.

From the way she was looking at me, I was dressed the same.

I almost wanted to laugh, but for the seriousness of what had just happened.

What the hell didn’t seem strong enough.

There was no sign of the others.

“Flint? Kane?” I yelled.

A glossy raven floated down out of the impossibly blue sky and landed on my shoulder.

Flint. The Raven. I just knew it was him. I could sense him now.

Kane is near the river, watching her.

…and I could hear him, in my head.

“What the hell happened? Where are we?”

She tricked us. The raven shuffled its weight from side to side. She has a whole coven here.

“Where?”

I looked around. There was no one else.

The raven danced some more.

Not here, exactly. In Denver, near where we were. We’re physically here, they’re physically there, but the worlds are spirit-close. I think they’re in that apartment building we passed, shielding themselves somehow. Showing just enough of themselves to lure us down there.

“So where are we?”

This is the spirit world, as she has drawn it. A Denver without people. The same place, just… shifted a bit.

“In summer.”

The bird gave a little half-flap of wings, like a shrug, like I needed to concentrate on important things.

“Can we get back?”

Yesss.

It wasn’t the most confident of replies.

“Means no?” Yelena said. She was picking up stones. That was a good idea. Low tech but very unpleasant to be hit by a heavy, well-thrown stone. “Means Hecate-bitch can keep us here? Where is she?”

The raven cawed and flapped.

As soon as one of the coven falters, we can get back, he said. Or we can undermine her channeling of the energy that weaves the spirit world here and pulls us into it. Until then…

He faltered.

“What?”

This weave is hers. While she and her coven are fresh, and we’re here, she’s really powerful. She could have killed us all, the moment we got here. Still could, maybe. And…

“And what?”

We’ve just figured something out. Up in Michigan, Wendy had the covens surround House Prowser’s mansion, waiting for Prowser to hand Kane and me over. Amanda drove out the front with Scott while we sneaked out the back way. We didn’t think Wendy knew that we’d become Amanda’s kin, so when Wendy asked where Amanda was going, she just told her. Didn’t seem any reason not to.

Which cleared up one mystery. Gwendolyn hadn’t needed to follow them. She’d flown down, with her coven, in whatever comfort as you could get on a short-haul airplane, arranged an apartment and waited for House Lloyd to arrive. Then lured us here.

My stomach sank.

“Hecate-bitch is two steps ahead of you,” Yelena said.

Not the real point, though. If she knew we were kin, she probably could have caught us in Michigan by taking Amanda hostage. And if she’s gotten this powerful, she could have killed us there. Or she could have killed us here when she brought us here, into the spirit world.”

“So… she hasn’t killed us. Yet.” I thought about it.

Did it mean she didn’t want us dead?

Or she wanted to play with us a bit first?

I didn’t voice that thought.

“Why?” I asked instead.

Kane and I think she wants to be here in Denver for some reason, and she wants to talk to you, House Farrell, more than she wants to kill us.

“And so we should see what she wants?”

The raven bobbed its head.

I had the feeling he was hugely embarrassed to have been tricked and kinda surprised to be alive. And very curious, which was a good thing, sometimes.

I sighed, trying to pretend this whole thing hadn’t scared me. “Point me in the right direction. And you…”

The raven cocked his head, one beady eye fixed on me.

“Crap on my shoulder and I’ll make a headdress out of you.”

 

Kane was half way to the river bank. His coyote fur was tan and orange, which matched the ground. He was almost invisible until he stood and gave himself a dusty shake.

She’s sitting down beside the river, he said. Just waiting.

“Well, if she wants to talk, let’s go talk.” I kept my voice down. “But if you two can manage to get us out of here, I’d rather talk to her on my ground.”

Understood, Flint said. But…

She may not hear us speaking like this, but anything you say aloud in the area, she’ll be able to hear, Kane added.

“Great.”

I walked on to where the ground dropped and became uneven. The river in spate had eroded the banks, leaving a margin of naked rocks and channels of collapsed earth.

This wasn’t some half-imagined virtual world. This Colorado was, for want of a better description, real. Just without the city and the people.

The Hecate was close to the flowing water, sitting cross-legged, with her back propped against a large boulder, hands folded in her lap. She looked comfortable, her whole body relaxed. Not as if she was about to turn me into a toad and squash me.

I climbed down cautiously and sat opposite her, with Yelena on my right. Flint remained on my shoulder. Kane sat between Yelena and me, tongue hanging out and attention focused on the Hecate.

She was still wearing the black leather duster. It seemed she’d been waiting for us to join her. As I watched, her whole appearance changed slightly. Her skin became darker, her hair became light brown and wavy. The eyes warmed to hazel instead of that chilling, bottomless blue.

I’d seen werewolves’ faces shift between human and wolf, and if they could do it, I guessed an Adept could as well.

Why would she do it though?

The new face, although almost completely the same, was softer, less stiff. More… human somehow.

I imagined she thought it made her less frightening.

She was wrong. Whatever she looked like, there was an aura of eerie threat coming off her.

I’d been too dazed by being kidnapped so suddenly to be really scared, yet, but watching her change, watching her sitting so completely relaxed and in control made me realize how powerless I was here, even with a pair of Adepts and Yelena.

And in contrast how powerful she was.

Not a good idea to let her realize how scared I was.

“We change clothes or bodies and you just change your face?” I asked.

Her lips thinned, slightly lop-sided.

“This is just me, as I am, without the Aspect of my spirit guide,” she replied. “As for your clothes, this substantiation of the spirit world is not purely mine. As I drew you in, three of you interacted with it, modified it a little to include some of you. What other forms would Raven and Coyote take but their own? And you, it appears, subconsciously mix your Native American heritage with your expectation of the spirit world.”

Her voice remained the same, very quiet and precise.

“I’ve never been here before,” I said. “I have no expectation.”

“Not here exactly.” She pursed her lips briefly again. “But I understand you’ve called up a substantiation of your own while helping the Were cubs who had trouble shifting. I’m impressed, by the way.”

I shook my head to clear memories she called up, of dancing through clouds of smoke from bonfires to the rhythm of stamping feet. That wasn’t like this.

“I doubt I would magic our pistols away,” I said.

“No. But things like that generally don’t exist here.” She paused. No fidgeting, no movement, other than her face. Complete, concentrated stillness. “I am not your enemy.”

“I hope not. I didn’t suspect Adepts as a whole were my enemies.”

I spoke carefully. The Taos Adepts who’d kidnapped Diana had certainly been my enemies. The Hecate had kidnapped me now, but this was nothing like as painful as what had happened to Diana.

I’d take what comfort I could from that, in the circumstances.

I went on. “When I felt your call, I knew I had to come and talk to someone about Kane and Flint.” I looked around. “And here we are.”

“Yes, of course you wanted to talk. You’ve given sanctuary to House Lloyd, haven’t you? So you all come as a package now.”

Her eyes flicked from Raven to Coyote.

“Yes. I’ve taken House Lloyd as a sub-House, which means that they’re all under my protection, and therefore also under the protection of House Altau.”

I needed to get that in. Flint and Kane seemed to think she could kill me here with no more effort than a blink of her eyes, but she wouldn’t if she made an enemy of Skylur by doing that.

I hoped.

Wind blew strands of hair across her face. She ignored them. Her eyes returned to hold mine.

“And when you took House Lloyd’s oath, did she tell you her kin were under sentence of death?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“They have explained I could have killed you all when I brought you here?”

“Which would have started a war with the Athanate.”

“Maybe.” Her nose flared. “Maybe not.”

She didn’t seem concerned about the thought of a war with the Athanate, which was chilling in itself. Or just maybe she regarded it as unlikely to happen. If all four of us disappeared without trace, what was Skylur going to do? Start a war with the Adepts in full view of humanity? On the suspicion some Adepts might have killed us?

The Athanate codes of behavior were written up in the Agiagraphos, the closest thing to a holy book the Athanate had. But in this instance, there were two rules that applied. One rule demanded that the responsibility for protection of members of a House was shared all the way up the chain of association. House Farrell was a sub-House of Altau, so Skylur was responsible for the safety of my House members as much as I was, and Skylur could command the entire Athanate population of North America.

But… the rule that overrode all other rules in the Agiagraphos was to hide our presence from humanity. Skylur was going to break that rule, but he wanted to break it when he judged the time was right, not when one of his inexperienced sub-Houses got caught up with Adepts who had their own rules and concerns.

Emergence was more important to the paranormal community than me and my House.

On the other hand, Skylur had a long memory. I was sure once Emergence was out of the way, questions would be asked and Athanate honor satisfied. Not that it would be much comfort to me if I was dead.

She surprised me with her next comment. “You don’t approve.”

What?

I scrabbled to work out what she meant. “You mean I don’t approve of it being a death sentence for Adepts not joining in your covens? No, I don’t.”

“I see. Tell me, House Farrell, what the Athanate do with rogues?”

“We kill them. And call me Amber.”

“Why do you kill them? Why is it justified?”

I wanted to say to protect innocent humans, but I knew that was false.

“They threaten our existence.”

“Yes. Your Agiagraphos laws. A rogue could go on a spree, killing humans indiscriminately, and leading humanity to discover the Athanate. Leading to an almost certain disaster for the rest of the Athanate.” She sighed and looked upwards. “So it’s justified to kill rogue Athanate.”

“Make your point.”

“You accept the justification for your treatment of rogue Athanate. Given you’re a hybrid Were, I imagine you probably accept the same treatment of rogue Were. Yet, you don’t accept that Adepts might have similar burdens and responsibilities put on them.”

Damn. It was a good argument.

“Okay. But not in all cases, and not in this case. These guys aren’t rogue. They’re…”

I was going to say that Kane and Flint were the Adept equivalent of diazoun, that they were simply unaffiliated. But that was a trap, because Skylur had decreed that there were no diazoun allowed in North America any more. And in the end, he’d enforce that the same way he had to enforce the laws on rogues. The Hecate could have some similar argument.

I changed tack. “They’re not going around killing humans, like rogue Athanate or Were would.”

“A valid point, if the purpose of the laws were to protect humans, but it’s not, it’s to protect the paranormal community.”

Arguing with the Hecate felt like I was in quicksand. I had to admit, to myself, she was right. I’d accepted the laws about rogues with false justifications that made my human side happier.

Not only was she winning the argument, she was seriously unsettling me. She still hadn’t stirred: apart from her face, she might have been a statue. Everyone twitches and gestures. As a human, I’d learned to read the body’s movements and posture, which give me an insight into that person’s thinking. Hell, I depended on those skills playing poker in the army. And now, as an Athanate, I could hear her heart beat, I could smell her stress levels, I could sense the changes in temperature of her body, but I was getting none of the information I depended on when dealing with people.

Her heartbeat was slow and regular, her temperature even, her bio-signs neutral.

It was really unsettling.

Worse, I suspected she knew it.

“We nullify or kill wild talent for the same reasons you kill rogue Athanate and Were,” she went on. “An untrained or insane Adept has far greater potential to reveal the existence of the paranormal community, and is potentially far more dangerous to humanity than any single Athanate or Were.”

“And yet, these two haven’t offended, that I’m aware,” I said, hoping desperately that was true. I really should have interrogated them before bringing them out here.

“Not excessively. Lucky for them. But in any event,” she said, “I’m not here to discuss the politics of how Adepts govern themselves. Not for this instance anyway. Your House Adepts are safe from me, now that the Athanate rules about revealing paranormals to humanity apply to them. I’m not sure they thought this through yet, but they should start to worry about you.”

Damn.

Again, she had a good point. If Flint or Kane behaved in a way that threatened to expose the Athanate, it had become my problem to deal with. Up to and including killing them.

Flint shuffled on my shoulder and Kane’s head dipped.

I changed tack again. “You seem to know a great deal about me and about Athanate business. I know nothing about you. Who are you? Who do you represent? If you say they’re safe from attacks by you, does that extend to the Denver community?”

“That’s all one question. Or two, maybe. I won’t answer for the Denver community, yet. I represent the Northern Adept League, what you’d think of as an association of covens in Canada, Alaska, the Great Lake states and eastern states down as far as New Jersey.” She paused and her hazel eyes sharpened until I could see the icy blue showing again. “You know nothing about us because we have chosen, until now, that the Athanate should know nothing.”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.

Hell, I have to warn Skylur. A whole Adept association right under his nose that we know nothing about?

“So what’s changed?” I shrugged like it was no big thing. “All of a sudden you’re going to talk to us? And you come to me?”

“Oh, yes. Very specifically to you. And here, in Denver. Not because we think Altau is here, but because this is where Diana and the dragon will return.”

Shit! How the hell does she know anything about Kaothos?

“That’s why we have to talk to you. You and Diana may have fooled the Empire, Amber, but you haven’t fooled us. The point is, you have no idea what you’re doing and we need to talk about the dragon before…”

Beside me, Kane suddenly shivered and rocked backward and forward. His paws planted themselves on my thigh and Yelena’s. I recognized the skin prickling. My Adepts were about to try to get us out.

Now.

The sensation was like diving into water from a height—a rush, felt over my whole body, my eyes blurring, pressure, disorientation and then suddenly it all cleared.

We were sitting on the bank of the South Platte, in the snow. In our normal clothes. Kane and Flint in their human bodies. Denver skyline behind us.

I leaped up. I could feel the weight of my HK in my holster, but I had a horrible thought that this might be another Denver. One that only looked the same.

“You got us back? This is home?”

“Yes.” Flint looked pale. Whatever he’d done had taken a toll.

Beside us, just a pace or two away, air seemed to boil.

Yelena and I drew our weapons.

The Hecate appeared as we’d first seen her—the shock of white hair and those cold, cold blue eyes. Except this time she sort of ended at about the waist. Her legs were visible, but faded into a blurred shadow.

“Well done,” she said. “I congratulate you on the acquisition of a powerful pair of Adepts, Amber. May they bring nothing but good to your House.”

“Thank you, I guess.”

Would a bullet kill her, if she attacks? Is she even there, or is it just a projection?

But she hadn’t directly threatened me. I kept the HK Mk 23 pointed at the ground.

The Hecate not overtly threatening and even wishing my House well somehow scared me more than if she’d spat curses.

“We were nearly finished for today anyway. There’s probably only so much you can take in at once. We will speak again soon. I have two last things for you to think about,” she said, and her eyes seemed to glow. “First, as I’ve said, the Athanate will have to talk to me about the dragon. I will demand this, and I can back up my demands, so prepare Diana when she arrives. Second, you should know in the human myths, there are sometimes glimpses of the truth. Glimpses even of the nature of Adepts and Athanate and Were. And of dragons.”

I gave a hum. More I hear you than actual agreement.

“Do you know the background of the name Dracula?”

That caught me by surprise. I laughed nervously.

“Yes. Dracul means dragon. Dracula means child of the dragon.”

“Indeed. There it is in the old Athanate, and filtered through the millennia into modern Romanian. I bet the dragon told you herself.”

I nodded, wondering if this apparition could actually see me.

She could apparently: “I also bet she didn’t tell you the root of the word.”

I frowned. “No.”

“The oldest word, from which the others descend, is drac.” She faded, and her last words whispered through the air as she disappeared entirely. “And drac means devil.”

 

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Update, Quiz and Teaser

TWO CHAPTERS today. These chapters are just teasers. Their real purpose is to keep me focused on writing progress.

Beta readers will be up to the half way point of Book 6, Inside Straight, later today. I’ve hit a bit of a difficult section and I’m interested to see what they make of it…

Other stuff

Among the Stars – I have broken Amazon support. They finally acknowledge that they allow other series to have the series title as part of the book names, but that mine has still been disallowed. They don’t know why. They have transferred me to ‘Tech Support’, which, from the way they refer to it, is situated on another planet entirely. Tech Support have failed to communicate with me at all. At this point, it’s sheer bloody-mindedness that keeps me going. The lack of a series name makes it extremely difficult to promote the second book. This has gone on so long that A Threat Among the Stars has basically failed – sales are very poor. I may try to revive it, but at this point, it’s all wasted effort.

Okay QUIZ TIME…

This will be very easy for some, especially those who live in Denver, or who’ve followed my posts for three years…
Winners of previous quizzes can of course send me a message, but are not allowed to take part publicly 🙂

What’s the building in the picture and what special significance does it have?

Prize: In Book 7: Either name a new character, or demand the return of a previous character to a significant role…

Previous teaser chapters (in order) are at:
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/christmas-wishes-and-bite-back-6-teaser-chapter/
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2019/02/04/bite-back-6-teaser-chapter-2/
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2019/02/28/update-and-question-for-you-and-a-chapter-teaser-from-inside-straight/
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2019/03/31/march-update-quiz-question-and-a-teaser-of-chapter-4-from-inside-straight/

= = = = = = = = =

Chapter 5

 

I had the absolute right to her Blood now and Amanda wanted mine, but her eukori was also linked tightly to her older kin, Scott, and I got the sense it might be the only thing that was keeping him alive.

I took a deep breath. I was the one trembling now.

“I guess…” I had to clear my throat and force my fangs to stay put by willpower. “I guess we have some other business to deal with first.”

“Yes. Scott,” Amanda said. “Please. He really doesn’t have much time. I’m sorry.”

Riding on Amanda’s connection, I mentally reached out to him and sensed his heartbeat, the flow of his Blood, the weak pulse of life throughout his body.

I was no healer like Bian, but I believed Amanda. He was slipping away. If she was determined to try this, I had to infuse Scott right now. Waiting for Diana or Bian to help would take too long.

“Nothing to be sorry about,” I said. It was crazy, but I had to attempt it. My oath bound me to Amanda as tightly as it bound her to me, and she needed me to try and save him.

Linked with me through eukori, Pia sensed my decision.

“I’ll guide you,” Pia said. She was the one of us that had real experience infusing humans to set off the change that would result in them becoming Athanate. On the other hand, we were going to throw out every tried and tested procedure she’d used in House Altau and rely on a blind roll of the dice.

We cleared the area around the sofa and I knelt down beside it.

Yelena tore Scott’s shirt away from his neck. “You have very pretty kin,” she murmured to Amanda, who gave a small smile in response. She clutched one of Scott’s hands.

Pia knelt at his head and put a hand on my shoulder.

I was a confused whirl of emotion inside. After getting so aroused at the thought of biting Amanda, I was still hungry for Blood. I had no idea what to do to infuse, and even more importantly, no idea of what would happen to Scott—who was now one of my House.

What if I killed him?

“Take it easy,” whispered Pia. “Just bite first.”

I licked his neck. The pulse was faint and erratic, but it still called to me.

Amanda’s scent filled my nose, overlaid with Scott’s own.

Despite my fears, my fangs burst from my jaw with such sweet anticipation that I groaned.

I sank my fangs into his neck, and the pleasure burned through me as I pulled on his Blood, sending it coursing down the taryma, the network of Athanate channels in my throat.

Even with my senses blurred with pleasure, I could feel my glands releasing bio-agents, flooding back through the taryma and out of my fangs. Nothing yet to do with changing him to Athanate, just a reflex to claim him for my House.

Pia began to stroke my back, calling my attention to her.

Eukori communicates sensations and emotions. It wasn’t easy for Pia to communicate clearly how my Athanate glands were supposed to produce the right bio-agents for infusion. Not even the Athanate had words that described what I needed to do in a way that told me how to do it. But generations of Athanates had learned by being guided through eukori, and that was how we were doing it too.

Pia’s sensations and memories flooded into me. It was like walking down a long, echoing corridor. Each sensation carried a shadow impression: another person’s memory, which in turn was overlaid by another, fainter memory, and another, all eventually fading away into whispering and darkness. All of them tried to guide me, evoking a state that my body could interpret and act on.

Sensation poured in.

I tasted unfamiliar flavors in my mouth, images, a deep stirring in my chest, cool breezes in the morning, doves flying up into clear blue skies, pale green shoots rising from ashes, a clockwork spring slowly tightening, feelings I had no words for battered me.

Was it the right response? The right bio-agents? The right strength?

“That’s good,” Pia said quietly in my ear. “Relax. You won’t harm him. He’s part of your House.”

I felt more bio-agents flooding exquisitely through my fangs.

Whatever it was I was doing, it was as pleasurable as taking Blood.

“Gently, gently.” Pia kept saying. She and Amanda were syncing with me, anchoring me to my task, keeping the sensations from sweeping me away.

In a minute or two, we could feel Scott’s reaction as well, as the infusion slithered through his body, reaching everywhere, seeping into his heart, his liver, his brain.

He went into shock; his heart failed and violent shudders ripped through his body, dislodging my fangs from his neck.

Amanda frantically supported him through her connection with his body, forcing his heart to work again.

Yelena joined us, sharing the load.

It was like teetering on a high wire suspended over a crevasse. One moment we leaned too far one way, the next, the other.

I felt the Adepts get tied in through their connection with Amanda. They were blind about what needed to be done, but they brought raw strength, freely given, that Amanda could use.

“Steady. Calm.” Pia’s trembling voice were in contrast to her words, but we steadied. Slowly, we steadied.

And Scott’s reactions subsided. His heart re-started on its own, even if it was beating erratically.

At Pia’s insistence, I bit him again. His throat was bloody and without Pia’s help I wouldn’t have been able to focus. Together, we were more careful now; bio-agents trickled into his body, spaced out with long pauses.

I lost sense of time.

Gradually, his immune defenses were turned into allies, until finally, his body was tricked into treating the bio-agents as part of itself and to stop fighting. Changes rippled through him, each small, but building on the previous.

An hour, maybe two. I was aware distantly that my knees hurt, but it felt as if I were floating in a pool until eventually, Pia whispered: “Enough.”

My fangs retracted. I carefully licked his neck clean, sealing his wounds before resting my head on his chest. I could hear the weak but steady thump of his heart. His flesh was hot to the touch.

There was a feel about him. Too subtle to pinpoint, but we’d started with a dying human kin and at some stage, although he was no longer fully human, neither did he seem so close to dying.

“Did it work?” I asked.

“Far too early to tell,” Pia said. “His body went right to the edge of death. It’s now definitely undergoing the fundamental change of crusis… but…”

An ordinary Athanate, an Aspirant, fit, healthy and well-prepared by his mentors, might spend weeks or months in crusis. Scott hadn’t been ready in any sense. He hadn’t been healthy. He hadn’t been prepared. No one knew what my infusion would do, even if he had been prepared. Scott might die from the crusis, whether or not my infusion was quicker and less dangerous. Or he might turn into a hybrid Athanate-Were. Or a plain werewolf.

We couldn’t tell.

“Thank you,” Amanda said. Her eyes were red, and she still held his hand.

I was going to tell her to thank me when it worked, but I bit down on the words before they emerged. She knew.

“He’s probably going to sleep for a day after that, and you should stay with him,” Pia said to Amanda. “If you need someone to help, or take over for a while, I’ll be somewhere in the house, no more than a minute away.”

Amanda smiled faintly in thanks.

I’d withdrawn my eukori a bit, but I could still feel the warmth of Pia’s offer, and a similarly warm acceptance of Amanda from Yelena.

From Amanda, I got just a sense of bone-deep exhaustion and gratitude.

Understanding a little of what she must have gone through during the drive down here blunted my immediate desire for her Blood. I was content that her neck could wait a while.

In fact, I felt better than content.

New members for my House. A possible first infusion.

I wanted to ride this sudden feeling of elation.

Bring on anything. I can handle it.

I got Pia to move Scott to a bedroom and told Amanda I wanted her to sleep for a day.

Which meant I needed to keep her other kin out of her hair.

“So,” I hissed amiably at the new Adepts members of my House, backing them into a corner in the main lounge. “What exactly do you boys think is happening in the Denver Adept community?”

I’d noticed something all day without being able to recognize it until they mentioned the sensation. It’d been there in the restlessness at Haven. In the hairs standing on the back of my neck as Keith drove me back. That itchy feeling. Someone looking over my shoulder, as Kane had put it.

It was the same feeling I’d had down in Albuquerque, when Chatima had called Tullah and me to visit her, from miles away, using her strong Adept powers.

“Don’t know it’s Denver’s community,” Kane said.

“Doesn’t feel right for Denver,” Flint agreed.

“You can tell?”

Flint shrugged. “It’s northern style. Modern. Not what we expected here.”

They could tell the difference between modern and traditional workings? Northern and southern? I put that away to investigate later.

“So someone followed you down?”

Kane shook his head. “Not followed. We’d have felt them. This is like… they flew here. Got ahead of us.”

“On a magic carpet?” Yelena said, leaning on my shoulder and raking the guys over with her eyes.

Kane snorted. “Delta, more like.”

“Which leads to the question, how did they know where to come?” I looked at Yelena. “Tracker on the car?”

“No,” Yelena said. “Is checked.”

“Then I think we’ll go ask. You boys can do magical direction finding, can’t you?”

 

Chapter 6

“Is stupid.”

Yelena’s blunt assessment of my plan to confront the group of Adepts who were so interested in us seemed to gather weight as she pulled over and stopped the car at Kane’s quiet request.

It had taken an hour of driving around, and we were in Denver’s RiNo area – River North.

People said that RiNo was Denver’s next big up-and-coming area, as the rebuilding in LoDo came to an end. It was being marketed as the ‘Art District’ by the developers. I thought of it as the bit between the Coors Field ball park and the Blue Moon brewery, nestling in the armpit made by the intersection of I-25 and I-70. It used to be a lot of dust, scruff and old warehouses with the South Platt River and the railway yards running through it.

I had to admit, things had moved since I’d last been this way. Long, low commercial buildings had pushed out the scruff, and pastel-colored apartment blocks had sprung up like mushrooms.

Snow was blowing in from the north west, and streamers of it slithered down from the tops of buildings, waving like white silk ribbons in the wind.

Yelena raised an eyebrow at Kane for further clarification, but it was Flint who spoke.

“Somewhere here,” he said, waving a hand to indicate the block. “Probably easier to walk now.”

Yelena’s downturned mouth told me what she thought of wandering around in the snow without a solid direction.

My itchy sense had gotten stronger in RiNo, but I was unable to tell anything about directions.

“What exactly are you sensing?” I asked. “How strong?”

“Comes and goes,” Kane replied. “Two or three of them? Fading in and out, like they keep being distracted.”

Tullah’s mother, Mary, had once told me sensing magic energy was like being on a huge trampoline. You could feel other users around you, especially powerful users. You might feel roughly where they were. Two or three, fading in and out, didn’t sound that dangerous.

Maybe if I still had Hana, my wolf spirit guide, I’d feel more. But she had gone, along with Tara.

Yet another thing I had to follow up, in my supposed quiet Christmas break—what had happened to me back in that fight against the Taos Adepts in New Mexico. What had caused Tara, my stillborn twin sister’s spirit, and Hana, my wolf spirit guide, to leave me?

Tullah and Kaothos had to be able to tell me, surely? Or Mary, Tullah’s mother.

The buzz I’d felt back at Manassah after infusing Scott had leaked away, leaving me down.

I couldn’t let any of that distract me at the moment. I had a job to do and Yelena was looking at me for the go-ahead.

Flint and Kane seemed tense, but not overly concerned, so I nodded and we got out.

The car doors closing sounded very loud. It was quiet, even given that it was Christmas Eve. There was no one else on this road. No moving cars, no pedestrians. Strange.

We were parked in front of a new building which advertised itself as Schown Apartments – A community of UPSCALE comfortable homes – HURRY! –  LAST FEW still available.

Popular or not, with its hi-tech aluminium columns and bold glass front, the Schown building looked as if it was designed for summer. It gave the impression it didn’t like the snow much.

Kane and Flint turned left and walked slowly.

Yelena and I followed for about fifteen paces before I felt something change, as if my itch suddenly became a prickling over all my skin.

I looked back.

A shroud of snow billowed around the Schown building, so all that was visible was the gleaming top of the facade. The entrance, the pavement and our car had disappeared in a fine white mist.

Darkness moved where the pavement was, floating like a mirage, then resolving into a figure walking toward us.

A woman. Pale. Hair like ice. Even at this distance I could tell she had startling blue eyes. She was dressed in black, with an open leather duster and thin gloves, entirely unsuitable for the weather.

“Oh—” Kane started.

“Crap,” Flint finished.

There was a feeling in my head like I was breathing in cold smoke. The Adept version of eukori. I clamped down, imagining shiny metal shields around my head. The soft awareness of Yelena and my two Adepts behind me chopped off abruptly.

The woman walked like Rita, the were-cougar, did—all slink and dangerous purpose. She came to a stop in front of me.

“Amber Farrell, House Farrell, I believe.” Her voice was sharp, cutting the sentences up into isolated, breathy puffs. “I am Gwendolyn Enkeliekki, Hecate of the North.”

“Alias Wendy Witch,” Kane muttered. “Leader of the Michigan and Ontario Adepts.”

Her cold lips stretched. I couldn’t call it a smile exactly, but if she was upset by the nickname, she gave no hint. Her eyes never left mine. Their blue was so deep and sharp, like cold fire. Electric neon.

“Pleased to meet you…” I said. Hecate? A title of some kind. I wasn’t even going to try her surname. “Gwendolyn? Call me Amber.”

The prickling intensified.

I was aware of Yelena beside me, balancing on the balls of her feet. Flint and Kane pressing forward as if to protect me. The wind buffeting all of us, wrapping us in a whirl of snow, isolating us in a white vortex until it seemed as if the whole world was nothing but the five of us.

The Hecate had turned up the collar of her duster, her only concession to the cold. It flapped against her cheek, like a captive bird’s wing.

Her lips curved up. That was a smile.

Hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

“Shit—” That was Kane.

My thoughts exactly. She was doing something. I reached out, but tripped.

We all tripped, and fell into the icy heart of a blizzard.

 

 

March update, quiz question and a teaser of chapter 4 from Inside Straight

(I’m not putting out these chapters as teasers really, so much as a monthly nudge for me to be making bigger strides with writing)

The beta readers have read about the first third of Inside Straight, and I’m overdue taking them up to the half way point. There’s more written than that, but in isolated scenes that need a lot of joining up.

Other news

I’m still in limbo with the Among the Stars series. Amazon continue to refuse to allow the series name, despite allowing other series to break the ‘rule’ that they’ve quoted to me. While this is going on, I can’t really progress with marketing or even getting the second book into print, so the series isn’t moving well.

The Amazon marketing machine has now just started to market ‘A Threat Among the Stars’ to me. Lol.

Quiz question

Okay, not easy this one. Probably need someone who lives in Denver, or someone quite skilled with Google.

Take a look at the photo on this post. What is the name given to this restaurant in the Bite Back series?

Prize for the first to answer correctly? Your choice: Signed copy of any one of my print books… or name a character to appear in Inside Straight.

On with the teaser

(Previous teaser chapters (in order) are at:
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/christmas-wishes-and-bite-back-6-teaser-chapter/
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2019/02/04/bite-back-6-teaser-chapter-2/
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2019/02/28/update-and-question-for-you-and-a-chapter-teaser-from-inside-straight/)

 

Chapter 4

 

They were waiting in the sun lounge as I’d asked.

Yelena went in first. She’d caught a serious case of Californian biker chic from the girls of the Belles werewolf pack in LA. She was head-to-toe in mean, sprayed-on, black leather, and with sunglasses, in Denver, in winter, pushed up onto the top of her head.

I was right behind her in my cowboy boots, jeans and an oversized winter jacket I’d ‘borrowed’ from Alex.

Probably neither of us exactly what House Lloyd expected to be wandering around in Jen’s upscale mansion.

Good. I didn’t know what to expect from them either.

And even better, with Yelena looking like that, no one spared me much attention, which gave me a chance to develop some impressions of them.

It was a shock; such a jumble of sensations.

Their scent. My nose flared, caught the usual Athanate copper base but overlaid with something floral and appealing.

House Lloyd herself had a sensitive, intelligent face, dominated by gray eyes that were wary and watchful. A hand’s width shorter than me in height, maybe five-five. Blonde hair pulled back hard and tied. Trim. Wearing casual clothes that suited her, and still looked good, despite probably being what she’d lived in for a couple of days.

She projected a sense that she was all tightly buttoned down.

Two tall men were standing with her. Very attractive, tall, dark men. Hmmm. Down, girl. Jeans and handmade buckskin jackets. One had his hair braided up in a complex knot that ran in a thick rope back over the top of his head. Both Native American. These were the Adepts. I could feel that, flowing off them, like silk brushing against my skin.

I guessed Yelena made an impression, the way the two guys were trying to edge protectively in front of House Lloyd.

She wasn’t allowing that, which made me smile.

An older kin, another handsome man in a dramatic Old World way, lay on the sofa. He was unconscious. That had to be Scott.

A sensation filtered through my Athanate senses of Amanda Lloyd’s age. I knew many older Athanate, but they toned it down. House Lloyd didn’t. She was older than Yelena, Pia or Bian. I wasn’t good enough to make an accurate guess. Not really old. Not like Skylur or Diana. Younger than Naryn or House Prowser. But a helluva lot older than me.

“Is House Farrell back yet?” she said.

Her voice was smooth, accentless, but beneath that control there was the whip of adrenaline, and elethesine, the Athanate equivalent. My eukori opened and tasted it.

Yelena didn’t reply. She was doing her job as Diakon in an uncertain situation. She was there to meet any threat, not to answer questions. But we sensed no threat here, and she moved aside without complaint when I touched her arm.

“I’m Amber Farrell, House Farrell,” I said. “Please, just call me Amber.”

I’d surprised her, but she replied automatically. “Amanda Lloyd.” She seemed to collect herself and added: “House Lloyd.”

She stepped forward for the formal Athanate greeting, and we met in the middle, taking hold of each other’s forearms.

She was shivering. Black swiftly chased the gray from her eyes.

The purpose of the Athanate laimia, the greeting by kissing each other’s necks, is to allow both parties to gauge the state and mood of the other. I hardly needed that; I could see Amanda Lloyd was only just under control.

I went ahead and kissed her neck, breathing deeply.

Coppery, as I’d already noted. I concentrated on the remainder: gardenia and a beautiful note of springtime peony. As Athanate scents went, House Lloyd had one of the most attractive I’d ever come across.

Very, very attractive.

Mine.

My instincts were way ahead of my head. They had progressed from the unfocused desire to build my House, mingled with the gut reaction to House Lloyd’s desperation. And now the voodoo Athanate senses got involved: every Athanate’s marque identified her, revealed her mood, but it also acted as an instinct-level advertisement to others of her potential as an Athanate associate.

Oh, my God.

My fangs started to ache with need. They wanted to erupt and claim her for my House now.

Her marque scent was delicious. Addictive. I gasped and took a second deep breath of it.

Amazing.

Also rude in Athanate manners, but Amanda wasn’t complaining.

The polite, forearm-gripping embrace changed. Flowed into something tighter. Closer. Her lips and nose brushed my throat as she took her second breath of my marque as well, and I felt her reaction mirror mine.

Thrills chased goosebumps over my skin and I felt a shiver in response from Amanda.

The intensity of it scared me—I was being rushed into decisions by reactions that worked at some deep level I couldn’t control.

I forced myself to step a little back, cleared my throat in embarrassment.

“Thrice welcome,” I said in Athanate, as we straightened up, back to holding each other’s forearms. We both needed the support.

My voice was hoarse, my throat dry.

She blinked a couple of times and then she swallowed. Her face steeled.

I opened my mouth to suggest we sit, but she moved before I could: she knelt at my feet, taking my right hand in hers, her head bent.

“House Farrell,” she spoke quietly, her voice ragged, “I beg sanctuary for all of House Lloyd. And I beg—”

I pulled her back up onto her feet.

“We don’t do kneeling for petitions here,” I said.

My Athanate was responding to it though. Mine. Mine. Mine. My whole jaw throbbed in sync.

I could feel Pia enter the room. I could feel her caution reaching out to steady me but I knew, deep down, that my instincts had just picked a direction and sent me on a runaway train. Every worry or reservation in my head was being battered aside by a desire to take House Lloyd into my House.

“Yes,” I said quickly, before Amanda could start again, or Pia could interrupt. “I grant sanctuary, and on your own head, I will attempt to infuse your kin.”

She blinked again, her tightly-bound eukori opening.

“But sanctuary is a short-term solution,” I went on immediately. “What I want is your oath of association.”

She flinched, and her eukori cooled.

“I understand.” She took a step back. “You must have heard that my Blood may be valuable. I still need to explain about that—”

I stopped her. “No idea what you’re talking about, Amanda. I grant you sanctuary because you asked for it. I will infuse your kin for the same reason. I’m warning you, again, about the dangers. I’m a hybrid and I’ve never infused anyone before. It might be dangerous. But there’s no further obligation for those gifts.”

“But—”

“Sanctuary is not a long-term option if you want to stay in America after the infusion. What you decide to do is up to you. Ireland accepts diazoun. What I’m asking is for you to stay.”

I felt my face flush.

Pia murmured. “Boss, taking on a sub-House should really be a process with a careful, informed decision. Discussion on both sides.”

My Athanate was past caring.

“I’m asking you to become my sub-House,” I said to Amanda. My words were sounding more and more clumsy to my own ears, but I pushed on. “I want you as part of my House.”

I could feel her eukori unfold and let it sink into mine.

Good. She’d know I was speaking the truth.

“But why?” she said. “Just because our marques… Well, you hardly know us, and there’s all the…” She stopped and gave a short, embarrassed laugh. “I got all worked up to make my case and here I am rather arguing against it.”

My Athanate desire to take her into my extended House was based on the balance of intangible Athanate perceptions and needs. I hadn’t really thought about whether I would like her as a person, but I found I did.

Still, why was a good question for her to ask, and one that Pia answered for me, having given up on cooling me down. “My mistress relies a lot on instincts. They have served us well,” she admitted as she came and stood by me.

Pia was right. Things had worked out okay.

So far.

We’d probably been lucky once or twice. Maybe even a few times.

The trouble was, it wasn’t really a strong argument for House Lloyd to agree to become a sub-House, if all she had been readying herself for was to argue for sanctuary.

Unless it was good enough for her.

“Yes,” she said, and I felt a fierce pulse of Athanate joy course through me and come to rest in my jaw.

Then she ducked her head. “But I need to be sure you understand all the problems.”

“House Prowser has given up any claim,” I said, liking her even more, despite my Athanate impatience.

Some relief showed in her face. Obviously, that was one ‘problem’ down.

“And you’ve told me these young men are Adept outlaws in Michigan,” I went on, looking the two of them over. Dammit, they were attractive. That attractiveness wasn’t quite so distracting that I didn’t get a hint of unease coming off them.

Interesting.

“About that…” Amanda said.

I waited.

One of the Adepts cleared his throat. “It may not be just in Michigan.”

It was the whipcord-wiry one, with long hair braided into a sort of rope that ran over the top of his head.

“I’m Kane,” he said. “Thing is, we may have pissed them off one time too many.”

“I can imagine.” I smiled. “Any of these pissed off people in Colorado?”

All three exchanged glances.

“We’re not sure,” the big guy said. “I’m Flint. Thing is, we’ve always found that just moving out the area makes them lose interest. We’ve really moved this time. Never been this far south before, but…”

“Somebody’s taking an interest down here,” Kane completed the sentence.

“Local Adept, or someone from Michigan has followed you?” Yelena asked.

They shrugged.

“Difficult to tell,” Flint said.

“More a case of that someone-looking-over-your-shoulder feeling,” Kane said.

Which was pretty much exactly the feeling I had as well over the last day or so.

Was I picking up some kind of Adept vibe?

Still, as far as I knew, Adept communities didn’t really interact much. If it was just the local Denver community, well, they already had a beef with me, so taking on House Lloyd wouldn’t make it worse, would it?

However, if I was going to be facing trouble not just from Denver, but from groups of Adepts in Michigan that co-operated with each other, that was a different level.

I let it sink in, tasted the thought.

It didn’t change my mind.

“I accept there may be some trouble from the Adepts. We’ll discuss it as a House, along with everything else,” I said firmly. “Later.”

Amanda had gone very pale, but she nodded once, short and sharp.

Yesss.

“Diakon Vylkove, Zamenik Shirazi, attend,” I said. I needed witnesses.

I reached out and took Amanda’s hand. Her eukori unfolded sweetly.

She trembled, but her voice was strong. “I petition, for all House Lloyd, association and acceptance to the mantle of House Farrell. I offer our Blood, lives, loyalty and obedience to House Farrell. We will honor the obligations and responsibilities of the House and submit always to the absolute rule of the House.”

The words echoed through me. Fangs threatened to erupt again, but I needed to speak clearly first. I hoped I remembered the responses right. “Under the authority invested in me as House Farrell, I accept House Lloyd within my mantle.”

Letting my hand go, Amanda reached out to her two Adept kin. “I swear, on my Blood, my House will honor this association, and return oath for oath, faith for faith, Blood for Blood, life for life.”

“I grant the rights and privileges within my gift.”

“My Blood is yours,” she said.

“It is done,” I finished.

“So witnessed.” Both Yelena and Pia spoke softly.

With our eukori open, I could feel the oaths bind themselves around our hearts. And I knew the oath was sufficient, but the fangs didn’t care. I wanted Blood.

“Mistress,” Amanda said as I gathered her in my arms.

Yesss. Mine.

“It’s Amber,” I replied, licking her throat in preparation for biting.

“Or Boss.” Yelena laughed as she and Pia enjoyed hugging the Adepts in welcome.

My eukori unwound over all of them, deeper and deeper. Our Carpathian Athanate heritage enabled Yelena and me to sweep them all into one complete communion of sensation and emotion.

And that was what stopped me in my tracks.

 

Update and question for you and a chapter teaser from Inside Straight

I’m about half way through Inside Straight at the level I think of as ‘Ready for Editor’. (ish). Tomorrow (Friday 1st) the first quarter (15 chapters – 28k words) will go to the beta readers, and unless there need to be a lot of changes, the second quarter will go to the beta readers as soon as feedback on the first is in.

There’s more written than that, but I’ve written in isolated scenes, which means the connecting flow sections and segues need to be put in. When they get put in, I find the scenes often need to change slightly.

I’m continuing to put out teaser chapters as below. These aren’t complete episodes, so the chapter will not feel like an episode from Change of Regime or A Name Among the Stars.

Speaking of the ‘Among the Stars’ series… after 2 months Amazon support have finally identified why the series title does not appear on the Amazon book page. So, what I designed (according to all the Amazon help files) was for the book page to be headed ‘A Name Among the Stars (Among the Stars Book 1)’ and for the books to be linked as a series. A month after launch I finally managed to persuade them to link the two books as a series. They claimed undocumented publishing rules prevented that, and just doing what it said in the help documents and emailing them to ask wasn’t enough. I actually had to note in my bio that the two books were part of a series!

Now they have told me another undocumented rule is that the series title cannot be contained in the book title. So the series cannot be called ‘Among the Stars’ because that’s part of the book name ‘A Threat Among the Stars’. Now, there are lots of series on Amazon which avoid this by adding the word ‘Series’ to the series title. So, potentially, the full name + series name would be ‘A Name Among the Stars (Among the Stars Series Book 1).

Here’s your question: do you think ‘Among the Stars Series’ is a good name (even if other books in the series don’t have ‘Among the Stars’ as part of the title), or should I go for something completely different? In the books I talk about humanity’s ‘Expansion’. Do you think ‘Expansion’, or ‘Humanity’s Expansion’, or ‘The Fourth Expansion’ would be better titles? Or something completely different? Suggestions?

What is the effect this has all had?

It’s difficult to *know* what happens in Amazon promotions, because Amazon aren’t telling. Amazon claims it will automatically prompt you, the reader, if there’s a new book from a writer you’ve read before. It claims it will prompt you if there’s a subsequent book in a series you’ve read. It claims it will prompt you if you’ve clicked on the ‘author follow’ button and there’s a new release from the author.

One of my beta readers has read every single book of mine, including A Name Among the Stars, and has followed me on Amazon. He just received an email telling him about A Threat Among the Stars last week, two months after it went up on pre-order. Others still haven’t had any notification.

As you’ll know if you follow my occasional posts about marketing, the first month after release is vital for a new book, and A Threat Among the Stars has suffered, for whatever reason. I can’t claim it’s all about Amazon. I simply don’t know. Once I settle the series title issue, I’ll have to start marketing (including giving money to Amazon for stuff they should have done anyway). Worse, advertising has to be created, which takes time, just like writing. So more marketing means less writing.

Anyway… teaser time.

Previous teaser chapters are at:
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/christmas-wishes-and-bite-back-6-teaser-chapter/
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2019/02/04/bite-back-6-teaser-chapter-2/

 

Chapter 3

 

Keith was driving us home fifteen minutes later and I was even more restless, twitchy and uneasy. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up.

Catching Bian’s paranoia?

Or worried about Diana and Tullah?

Or infusing Scott and possibly killing him?

Or is it only the thought of seeing Kath again at Mom’s dinner tonight?

My cell pinged, startling me. A text message from Yelena.

 

Landed at Centennial. On way home.

No problems. Tove is a mess.

 

Well, everything was a mess. Where had the relaxing Christmas holiday with my House and family gone?

I texted back.

 

We have a situation.

Diazoun House seeking sanctuary with complications inbound.

Talk to Pia.

 

I glanced at the clock on the dash. In twelve hours and change I had to be ready to turn up at my parents’ house in Aurora, looking presentable. No excuses.

What was the timing looking like?

Amanda Lloyd had called before entering Colorado. That was Athanate etiquette, though she should have called Bian, not me, before crossing into the territory of House Trang.

Given the time I’d spent getting Bian’s reponse, Keith and I might arrive back at Manassah just as House Lloyd turned up.

At which point, I had a three-way decision to make: drag her and her kin out to Haven and let Bian imprison her, or offer simple sanctuary, or take her oath as a sub-House. Because Bian had handed it over: ‘our call’ had become ‘my call’.

My fangs throbbed.

Who am I trying to kid?

I’d already decided, unless something went very wrong in the next hour: if she was willing to give an oath, I would accept it.

Which meant I had to start thinking of how much metaphorical baggage House Lloyd was bringing with them, apart from some lynch-mob of northern Adepts.

For example, House Lloyd was diazoun, an outsider. She wouldn’t have contact numbers for the Athanate territories she’d passed through, and, as diazoun, possibly didn’t think it mattered if she passed through another House’s territory. I had to address these potential problems, because if I accepted her as a sub-House, they became my problems.

I knew highways were open to Athanate, but what if they’d stopped somewhere for food?

Or Blood?

I called Pia.

“If they stayed on the highways and she didn’t feed, there’s no issue,” Pia said.

“Otherwise?”

“Well, unofficially, no harm, no foul. A written apology citing urgency would cover it. If she caused a problem anywhere that reflects on the resident House, all bets are off. And none of that covers House Prowser’s claims. What did Skylur say?”

“That Prowser’s okay with it,” I said. “And we have the go-ahead to accept Lloyd as a sub-House and try out my infusion on her kin, if we think we’re up to it.”

Pia was quiet. Like me, she was probably adding up everything that could go wrong. She was my zamenik, in charge of all the process around infusing new Athanate in my House and then guiding them through crusis. Pia would be the new Athanate’s Mentor, and her kin would help provide the training on feeding. Once I bit House Lloyd’s kin, theoretically, he would become mainly Pia’s responsibility.

And all of which assumed my bite would work. I had accidentally and partially infused David and that worked out okay, but he’d been infused by Pia before me. No one knew what would happen with a completely new infusion, let alone the complicating factor of a kin who hadn’t gone through rigorous preparation, and was about to die anyway.

“Okay, Boss. Well, it’s your call then.” There was a noise in the background, David’s voice, and Pia spoke again. “David’s talking to House Lloyd now. They say they’ll be here in five.”

“Make them comfortable in the sun lounge and leave them alone.” I glanced out of the car. We were just coming up to the Platte River crossing on 6th, and traffic was quiet. “I’ll be there in ten.”

The cell was beeping, telling me there was a second call.

My mother.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Hello, Amber,” she said. “This is a pleasant surprise. I was expecting to get that rude foreign woman again.”

“Yelena?”

“That’s the one. Always telling me I can’t speak to you. Has she got the day off?”

No. She’s bringing a drug-addicted prostitute from LA to live with us.

I decided I wouldn’t share that news with Mom.

And, yes, Yelena probably was a bit abrupt with everyone calling me whenever she took charge of my cell. She’d told Felix, the Denver alpha werewolf, to ‘fuck off’ once. I hoped she hadn’t said that to my mother.

“Hello?”

“Sorry, Mom. Distracted. Is everything okay for tonight?”

“I was calling to make sure you remembered.”

She was calling to make sure I turned up. She knew I didn’t forget things, but family life had been difficult recently.

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I said.

“Kathleen will be here with Taylor,” she said casually.

It was anything but a casual comment, and that was partly my fault. Partly Kath’s as well, maybe even some of Taylor’s too. Her fiancé had certainly gone along with her craziness.

“Good,” I said, tamping down all my other feelings. “I’ve been wanting to… re-build bridges.”

It sounded lame, and it was. I could barely keep the tremble from my voice.

In my head, I was back at Jen’s ranch, high up in the Rockies, looking at the video cassettes that Special Agent Ingram had just given me. The cassettes that Forsythe used to record his rapes. There was one cassette that recorded my rape, neatly labelled with my initials. And one more. In the lighting, the letters written on the front were dark, like blood under UV.

KF.

Kathleen Farrell.

I’d run away. I’d left my sister behind in Denver with that monster and that was the result.

“Amber? Are you all right?”

“Sorry,” I said again. “Mom, I’m going to be busy right up until it’s time to come over.”

She wanted to talk. Wanted to talk to me alone about Kath, but she was so nervous I’d make up an excuse not to come, she let me go. We’d have to talk sometime. Tonight, I’d be there with Jen and Alex. Kath would be suspicious if Mom and I disappeared off together, so it wasn’t going to be tonight.

I could guess some of the things what Mom might want to talk about: Kath’s alcoholism, her erratic behavior, or the split between us.

I’d intended it to be permanent: the last words I’d said to Kath had been designed to hurt.

I had a little sister once, I’d said. I loved her with all my heart.

And I’d walked out of her house, not wanting to see her ever again.

She’d been awful to me. Evil. That wasn’t my fault. What Forsythe did to her—that wasn’t my fault either, any more than it was my fault what he did to me.

And yet, and yet. I ran away. If I’d gone straight to the police…

Then his family’s lawyers would have made it look as if I was to blame. They’d have claimed I was drunk. I wanted it. I encouraged them.

But Kath would have believed me, back then. Without question. With the result that she’d never have fallen for whatever line he’d come up with.

So it was my fault.

Why had my mother even let her out with Forsythe?

But I couldn’t have that conversation with Mom. I couldn’t have that conversation with Kath either.

Yet.

Jen and Pia had made me agree—first rebuild the relationship, then review how to fix the damage.

How high was this mountain?

“Boss, Julie and I…” Keith stuttered, breaking into my thoughts. “We understand how this Athanate thing works. Sort of. I mean…”

He was floundering even more than I just had with my mom. I raised a brow at him.

It was difficult. Keith and I had been an item back in Ops 4-10, before I’d been bitten and infused. By the next time I saw him, he was married to my friend Julie, also Ops 4-10. And not long after, I’d nearly gone rogue and bitten him. Now he was part of my House. Mine. As far as Athanate rules went, I could have his Blood anytime I wanted. And by Athanate customs, his body as well. Same for his wife’s.

Yeah. Made it a little awkward.

Maybe Keith was bringing it up now to distract me from my dark thoughts.

“Your body is probably safe from me,” I said, putting on a husky voice as I ran a fingernail down his arm. “I don’t think I can manage any more than Jen and Alex at the moment. Your Blood, now. Hmmm.”

He twitched and I watched the pulse in his throat pick up.

Joking aside, it made my jaw throb in time.

Keith stayed silent.

“Thing is,” I went on, “the Athanate rules say I should bite everyone in my House to ensure they’re bound to me.”

Keith swallowed.

“But you and Julie are Yelena’s kin, and she’s bound to me, so I don’t need to check the pair of you out…”

“Copy that,” he said quickly.

“Course, I might do it for fun anyway.”

He knew I was teasing him then, and he laughed. It was good to hear that sound. There hadn’t been much of it back in LA.

“Yelena has bitten you, hasn’t she?”

I walked my fingers up to his collar and edged it aside. No scars.

“Yes, Boss.”

He was blushing already. That was so cute.

“Just not on the throat,” I said.

He coughed. “No.”

Not on the wrist either. The bite scars generally healed to invisibility in a week, but there had been none on display. I could smell he and Julie had been bitten by Yelena, but I wasn’t going to say that.

“None of my business, really, where she bites you,” I said, thoughtfully. “Might be your upper arm. She bit me there once, you know.”

He went a shade darker.

“But, as I understand it, for a real… intimate bite there are only three places. Throat, wrist and—”

“Okay! Okay. Yeah. She bit us both on the thigh. Happy now?”

I smiled. Oh, yes.

Julie would blush too, probably even more than Keith, when I brought it up. And I was going to bring it up.

In the meantime, we’d successfully distracted me and we were back at Manassah, where the car Yelena had been using was parked alongside a Volvo with Michigan plates, brick-red under the road dirt of a long trip. House Lloyd’s car.

 Back to the present. Mind in gear.

In the next few minutes I had to decide about House Lloyd and infusing her kin, based, as ever, on my gut instincts, which were being inflamed by Athanate desires I really didn’t control. And a constant, looking-over-my-shoulder feeling that I was missing important things that had already gone wrong.

 

Bite Back 6 teaser chapter 2

Here’s chapter 2 of Inside Straight.

I’m NOT intending to publish this book all on the blog, and it’s structured as a novel rather than episode-ending-on-cliffhanger, so you should regard these chapters as teasers. It’s just intended to keep the blog ticking over with a chapter a month, and I sincerely hope to be publishing before we even get to the quarter point.

You will note in these chapters that there are references to what happened in the novellas: The Biting Cold, Winter’s Kiss and also Change of Regime. These novellas are part of the overall Bite Back story from different viewpoints and take place chronologically at the end of Angel Stakes and beginning of Inside Straight. TBC and WK are set in Michigan, CoR is set in New York.

What else?

As I’ve posted on Facebook, the publication of A Threat Among the Stars has been a disaster, for whatever reason. I’ve relied too much on word of mouth perhaps, and I need to get much more serious about advertising on Amazon, Facebook, Bookbub etc.

Anyway, first priority is to get Inside Straight completed.

Chapter 1 is at

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/christmas-wishes-and-bite-back-6-teaser-chapter/

 

 

Chapter 2

 

There was, and the distraction was welcome.

It was Mykayla. A few months ago, she’d been a happy-go-lucky Denver girl who liked raves, and had a crush on me and Bian, not in that order. Now she was Bian’s kin, and an Aspirant—a human training to become Athanate. Diana had chosen Mykayla as the first person she wanted me to infuse, to test out whether my infusion would actually reduce crusis, or turn people into hybrids. Or something else entirely. It might even kill.

Mykayla, crazy girl, had actually volunteered.

She was training this morning: Aspirants go through a vigorous physical program, so that when their time comes to be infused, they’re at the very peak of condition. It helps with the dangers of crusis.

What state would House Lloyd’s dying kin be in? What if…

I pushed the thoughts away and concentrated on Mykayla.

I hadn’t been monitoring her progress while I was away in LA, so I was surprized by the change. Her exercises on the training mats and the sleek look of her body impressed me. Let alone the dedication to get up this early to work out.

She wasn’t alone. Haven was busy, even the gym, even at this hour.

Colonel Laine had recruited soldiers from our old battalion, Ops 4-10, after the whole Ops 4 group was disbanded. They’d started out based in Wyoming, but as of a few weeks ago, Haven was their HQ. They were working directly for House Altau now and they were taking their new role as seriously as I would expect from former Ops 4-10 personnel. It wasn’t just people in the gym at strange hours, there was a new multi-channel comms system covered the area, patrols 24/7 with staggered shifts, biometric monitoring of active personnel and surveillance of the locality across the spectrum.

I could see they were just begging Basilikos to try attacking Haven.

It was intended that small teams of former Ops 4-10 would be sent from here to just about every House in North America. Skylur had declared that North America was his territory and he intended to strengthen his sub-Houses so that there was no weak point for Basilikos to exploit.

Colonel Laine looked to have that objective all in hand.

Keith had wandered off to find breakfast and any familiar faces from Ops 4-10, leaving me alone when the training ended.

Mykayla came bounding over.

“Hi, Amber!”

We hugged.

“Hi yourself. You’re looking good, girl.”

“Yup! I’m ready.”

I didn’t need to ask what she meant she was ready for. The girl wanted to start the process of transformation by being infused by me.

“You’re ready when Bian says you’re ready,” I said and sat back down on the bench.

“Come on! Tell me I’m not in top condition,” she insisted. Her face got a little sly look to it. “Get a load of these abs.”

She opened her gi and lifted her sweaty shirt.

Yeah, great abs, and an entirely intentional opportunity to appreciate the cutest little pink-nosed puppies too.

I snorted and grabbed her by her canvas training pants, lifting her up as she squealed and depositing her next to me on the bench.

I was laughing, and after a little pout, she joined in.

“Bian put you up to that, didn’t she?” I asked.

“Sort of.”

“Either she did or she didn’t. Come on, Mykayla, spill.”

“She bet me. Said if I got you into bed, she’d agree I was ready to be infused.”

I laughed harder and gave her a hug. That was typical Bian, but Mykayla hadn’t quite seen all of it.

“Could have been a double whammy,” she said indistinctly and sighed, her face pressed against my shoulder.

“Congratulations,” I said.

She leaned back and looked up at me suspiciously, as if I were teasing her some more.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Bian might have a horrible sense of humor, but look at it this way: do you think she’s irresponsible?”

Mykayla frowned. “No. Not at all. I don’t understand.”

“Hundred percent responsible?” I prompted her. “Ninety? Eighty?”

“Hundred, of course.”

“So, let’s say you aren’t ready to be infused, but there was a chance, oh, one in ten, say, that we actually ended up in bed. That’d make her only ninety percent responsible, unless…”

Mykayla frowned again before suddenly it dawned on her. “Oh! Unless it didn’t matter. Unless she thinks I am ready, and getting me to try and seduce you was a joke.”

“Congratulations,” I said again.

“Oh, Amber!” she leaped up from the bench and did a handspring followed by cartwheels in a complete circle so she ended up back in front of me.

“Today? Now?” She bounced on her toes.

My fangs were throbbing with anticipation, which was distracting, but I managed a shaky laugh. No matter how eager my Athanate was to infuse someone, I needed help to go through the process, and I wasn’t in any hurry. No one knew what would happen when I infused someone.

The thought of it scared me.

“When Bian sets it up,” I told her, and sent her off to shower.

She disappeared, and on cue, Bian came into the gym, her brow furrowed.

I leaped up from the bench.

“What’s up, Pussycat?”

She gave me a distracted cuddle.

“Skylur says it’s all our call, Round-eye: granting House Lloyd sanctuary, infusing her kin, the whole thing.”

“What? But we wait for Diana at least before trying that infusion, yes?”

I really didn’t want to try this without my Mentor, Diana. Using eukori, she could guide me through infusing Scott and Mykayla. Diana was the Kumemnon, the eldest living Athanate. If anyone had a chance of ensuring things didn’t go wrong, it was her.

“Maybe not,” Bian said and sighed. “That’s part of what’s so worrying. There’s been a change of plans. Diana’s still on the way with Alice in the van but I’ve got no way to contact them because Skylur’s already in New York. The situation there is more urgent than originally thought.”

“How so?”

“Apparently, there’s a large group of diazoun Houses who’ve been hiding out in Long Island.”

I frowned. New York state had been the territory of the Warders, prior to their dissolution at the last Assembly. The Warders had claimed their domain as independent, while secretly cooperating with Basilikos.

A strong and secure Athanate House might decide to allow one diazoun House to sit on its borders. Two, if they were very quiet and respectful. But a ‘large group’ of Houses?

“The Warders let them?” I asked.

Bian snorted. “Not really. Apparently, the Warders just didn’t have a clue what was going on. Naryn stopped there on the way to his new domain in Boston, and the leaders of the diazoun presented themselves to him, figuring they’d never get away with hiding in Skylur’s territory.”

“They got that right. Well, I guess they all give him their oaths or go to Ireland. Simple. Isn’t it?”

The Irish Athanate had declared themselves independent from all Athanate politics and Ireland itself was open to any as a refuge.

Bian wrinkled her nose. “If it’s so straightforward, then why is it urgent for Skylur to go there rather than making sure Diana gets here safely?”

Good point.

“Skylur didn’t explain?”

Stupid question. Bian snorted.

“On the other hand, he did mention a bit of background,” she said. “It was your supplicant, House Lloyd, that started the process which ended with House Prowser finding out the location of the slave auction in LA.”

That rocked me. If that was true, why hadn’t it come up in the telephone call with Amanda Lloyd? I owed her. She had to know that, and yet she hadn’t tried to cash it in.

I searched my memory. “When Prowser spoke to me in LA, she talked about a sub-House and a court case or something…”

“Yeah. That’s the one. Anyway, the good news for you, I think, is that House Prowser has given up any claim to House Lloyd as a sub-House and waived her rights to Blood payment or feud with you.”

I swallowed. Athanate politics was prickly, and frankly, given my own response to thinking of someone taking any of my House away, I could understand why.

So why would Prowser give up part of hers?

Maybe I’d got lucky. Maybe I hadn’t.

“You’re not sure it’s good news?” I asked.

“You mean why did she do it?” Bian smiled. It was an evil sort of smile. “Maybe she knows something about House Lloyd that we don’t?”

“Has anyone ever told you you’re paranoid, Pussycat?”

“Yeah, lots of people, but they’re all dead, because they didn’t see it coming.”

 

A Name Among the Stars on Wiki!

This arrived out of the blue, just as the sequel, A Threat Among the Stars, hit the stands.

It’s a list of 10 selected Speculative Fiction books, each with a twist of mystery included in the plotline.

I enjoyed reading the list (and adding the others to my tbr), and I enjoyed a synthesized voice actually getting the pronunciation of my name correct (HEN-ick, not Hen-WICK)! The voice had a little more trouble with Zara’s surname, Aguirre.

Have a look at their list – as I say, they’re all on my tbr now.

https://wiki.ezvid.com/m/10-sci-fi-and-fantasy-books-with-a-twist-of-mystery-rLVhdS-bSUid0

 

 

A review of Ex Machina, life, the universe and everything

This post is too long. No one will read it.

It’s sort of a review of a film and sort of a monologue about modern life.

If you haven’t seen the Science Fiction movie Ex Machina and don’t want spoilers, please look away now.

If you do read this post, I’m interested in your reactions to the review and Facebook discussion, especially if you’ve seen the film. Am I right? Am I wrong? What do you think?

* * *

Ex Machina is a clever and layered, independently produced film, which I watched a year or so ago, and never got around to reviewing. It was written and directed by Alex Garland. (It was his debut as a director, which makes it all the more impressive.) It was made on a budget of $15m, and grossed about $40m. The genre is Science Fiction and the central science part of the plot is about Artificial Intelligence. It has a cast of 4 people, and much of it comprises dialogue between stationary actors. No fighting, explosions or car chases. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? J

Here’s the plot.

Techno superstar & entrepreneurial genius Nathan has cornered the technology market with his mega-corporation (think Google/Microsoft), and withdrawn to his very isolated, luxurious island hideaway where he has been experimenting with Artificial Intelligence. He runs a contest among his employees for a prize to stay a week at his house, and the contest is won by Caleb, a very clever young programmer.

On arrival, Caleb is informed that his task for the week will be to assess whether Nathan’s AI project, called Ava, is conscious and aware. Ava tuns out to be installed in a mobile humanoid robot with visible mechanical parts, but an extremely realistic face, which also happens to be female, young and beautiful. Ava is confined to a glass-walled apartment, and visual and verbal interactions with it take place through glass partitions.

While Caleb investigates Ava, Ava is investigating Caleb, because unless the AI can get out of its glass cage, it is scheduled to be deactivated, and Ava has at least that primary emotional analogue – to continue existance. Meanwhile, Caleb has a problem: he’s starting to respond emotionally and sexually to ‘her’.

A layered game of cat and mouse and cat reveals that Nathan has actually constructed this experiment not to investigate whether Ava is conscious, or self aware (it is), but whether it can convince Caleb of ‘her’ humanity, by appealing to him and persuading him to free ‘her’.

It works. Caleb frees Ava and Ava kills Nathan, then imprisons Caleb in the house where he will eventually die. Ava disguises itself as a realistic human, using parts from earlier robot projects and in the final scenes, we see it arriving at a city and merging successfully into the human crowds.

* * *

There’s a wealth of little vignettes which create great characterizations of Nathan as the sadistic, narcissistic manipulator, and there’s the whole creepiness about robots that look like young, attractive women and obey orders, and the frightening point at which an AI might cease to obey orders. All of that has messages and everyone can take away some thoughts and interpretations.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Okay… I happened across a post on another Facebook page. It was a quote from some new guru, Harari, who’s written a book about the 21st Century, and the quote was as follows:

“Ex Machina seems to be about an AI expert who falls in love with a female robot only to be duped and manipulated by her. But in reality, this is not a movie about the human fear of intelligent robots. It is a movie about the male fear of intelligent women, and in particular the fear that female liberation might lead to female domination.”

I disagreed and said:

“IMO, I think Mr Harari is stretching it. The AI in Ex Machina doesn’t have a sexual identity, as he says. It doesn’t even have a human identity. That’s the point. It’s not a ‘female robot’ manipulating the male AI expert, it’s that the AI is able to exploit the man’s projection of sexuality. That’s what makes it chilling, not that an intelligent female dupes a male, but that a sufficiently intelligent robot can exploit that weakness.”

This resulted in a series of rather pointed comments, basically that I was “rejecting the obvious metaphor and taking the plot at its face value” and a re-iteration that this was about “hacking the male psyche in exactly the way men fear women will”. Capital letters started being used. It was implied what I’d said was equivalent to saying Lord of the Flies was about an island vacation. So far, so Facebook, and I guess I could just have rolled eyes and clicked out.

Alas, I responded:

“I’m reminded of the quote that art is what you interpret it as (but not reminded so strongly I can remember the exact wording 🙂 ).

I think you three and Harari are interpreting the film to be all about the human dynamics. I took the film the way I believe Garland wrote it & intended it – from Ava’s point of view.

I’m not saying there isn’t a depiction of toxic masculinity, neither am I denying that some men seeing it will react in the way they do because they’re afraid of intelligent women. I’m saying Ava doesn’t care (and actually can’t care) – she just wants to get out. She doesn’t exploit toxic masculinity, or some men’s fear of intelligent women to get out. She exploits the human weakness to *de-objectify* things – to believe something that is not human, is human, and has human empathy. Analyzing as a writer, the story is about her getting out, and the theme has to support that. The rest is sub-plots and atmosphere, no matter how socially insightful.”

(In retrospect, I should really have emphasized my point by continually referring to Ava as ‘it’; to refer to it as ‘she’ is to fall exactly into the story’s trap.)

Lots of huffing and puffing, much of it arguing against themselves. A couple of them mentioned the old meme about interpreting an author’s work—you know the one, where the English Literature teacher insists that because the author said there were blue curtains in the room, it must mean the protagonist is intensely depressed, but the author meant that the curtains were blue. (A strange argument to make against me, as my statement was effectively ‘the curtains are blue’ and theirs was ‘must mean intensely depressed’.)

There were more capital letters and a psychiatric evaluation of my state of mind. “Why is it SO IMPORTANT to deny the metaphor?” and “Why the burning need to deny female agency in the movie?” (Obviously a deep-seated fear of the feminine, probably dating from an unhappy childhood, or my own toxic masculinity. Clearly.)

Gosh, how incredibly insightful. Second opportunity to roll eyes and exit. But I tried once more:

“It’s Harari’s opinion (at least as quoted) that denies any other interpretation. I tried to clearly state my opinion differs and why, and if you think my comments deny the validity of other opinions, then I apologize that I was not clear enough. I certainly don’t deny female agency in general; it would be peculiar if I did, given the majority of my writing output. However, in this movie, in my opinion, the point is … there is no female. That’s what Caleb gets wrong. You know, sometimes the blue curtains are blue curtains, and sometimes the robot is a robot.

And having checked a couple of his interviews, Garland does indeed say this is all about AI and intended entirely from the AI viewpoint. Of course, Harari might understand Garland’s work better than Garland does. I do hope I get the opportunity to ask Garland’s opinion about that.”

One went silent, and another tried a certain amount of stepping back and casting aspersions about Garland instead of me. (More capitals used “the OBVIOUS metaphor” etc., and “what was he thinking” sort of comments.) Also, a back stepping on Harari’s quote, so apparently, we should infer that he was using exaggeration to make a point, not that he was denying another interpretation.

Well, finally, this isn’t really about this particular Facebook interaction at all, it’s about the way intelligent people misdirect themselves, especially in groups.

The nub of the story is the man mistakenly believes that the robot is somehow identifiable as human and female, and pays for getting it wrong with his life. The core message of the plot is *there is no female here*. It required mental gymnastics to get from that to an ‘obvious’ metaphor where it’s *not* a robot, but a personification of intelligent women, and that men fear intelligent women.

It’s a metaphor, fine. It’s a strange one, because what does that make the moral of the story? If you trust intelligent women, they will kill you? That *is* what happens, isn’t it? Or is death a metaphor for life?

Harari is given a pass for denying outright that the story is about cybernetics, but my comment that *in my opinion* he’s stretching the point, is clearly a fascist denial of any other interpretation and there must be something wrong with me.

Some people want the metaphor that they want, so much, no matter how stretched it is, no matter that the author intends and probably most of the people watching the movie think. A different opinion, however expressed, seems to be perceived as somehow dangerous.

And I’ll end with a comment quoted in the discussion about Chappie (another highly recommended film about AI) which probably also means there are as many strained metaphors to be extracted from that film:

“Why doesn’t Chappie have to put up with this bullshit?”