I’m not ready to go into a new serial this weekend, so instead, here’s part 1 of a two part scene I sketched out back when I was writing Hidden Trump.
Because Bite Back is told from Amber’s point of view, this would have had to be revealed in some kind of discussion with Tullah, and there was nowhere to put it.
Obviously, if you haven’t read Sleight of Hand & Hidden Trump, this is a spoiler.
What other news? The audiobook of Angel Stakes had to go through the technical checking at ACX/Audible twice due to an obscure issue with the recording level. It’s all fixed and I am still hoping the audiobook will be available this month. Julia Motyka is back in the studio this week to record Raw Deal, and as that’s much shorter, I hope it will not be long before it’s available too.
Bian’s Tale 1 will have 3 (of 5) sections with the beta readers soon. It’s much harder to catch the ‘voice’ of Bian at this stage, and book 1 of any series has to be good, so it’s been the slowest of any book I’ve written.
I’m off to visit Jessica on set in New Orleans for a week next month, so any ‘must see’ ideas welcome, as well as the usual requests for feedback on this weekend writing… 🙂
Oh. A glossectomy? Surgical removal of the tongue…
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
This is absolute shit! Absolute, freaking, premium grade, steaming shit.
Despite everything, Tullah kept her face neutral and her mouth shut. Mouth shut was important. The hills might not have eyes tonight, but they sure as hell had freaking ears and good hearing. If she let so much as one swear-word slip, the whole group would be chanting it by the end of the weekend, and someone would know where it had come from.
She wanted to scream. Everything had gone wrong.
These trips were supposed to be done in summer, not fall. There was supposed to be one responsible, fully qualified person for every five kids, not two for twenty-seven. The weather forecast was supposed to be gold-plated mild, not cold enough for snow.
And there was a great party back in town tonight. She’d lay odds that at least two of the responsible, fully qualified people who were supposed to be here were going to that party, while she was halfway up the mountain and blundering around in the dark.
But these trips were a tradition for the Adept community of Denver, and traditions had the force of law. Stopping a trip would be like getting toothpaste back in the tube.
All the children in the Adept community spent weekends in the Rockies. As they got older, the support system, supervision and numbers in the group dropped until finally, each was expected to look after herself or himself on a solo trip. Those solo trips were hardcore: no tents, no packs, no food. Just some water, a knife and whatever small items they could carry in a pocket.
It was all geared towards the Adept’s version of the Native American vision quest. The first people in this land had fasted in the wilderness to find their totem animal. The Adept spin on it was that one of the solo trips would result in the appearance of the spirit guide that was so important to the working and manipulation of the energy, that indefinable essence that linked everything.
No spirit guide, no Adept.
Not that the kids this trip were anywhere near that stage. They were an unruly, unmanageable, ungrateful mob of ankle-biters, aka normal kids. Tullah would have cried many tears if the trip had been called off, as it should have been. Tears of pure joy.
This was a clusterf—no! Don’t think it, and you won’t say it.
It wasn’t just the party back in Denver, the number of supervisors and the weather. It was the knock-on effects that had rippled through the whole day. Because the other three supervisors had pulled out at the last minute, valuable time had been spent fruitlessly trying to organize replacements. Because of that, they were late to start. Because of that, they were late to get up the mountain and because of that, they were so late to set up camp, most of it had to be done in the dark.
It had taken over three hours to settle the kids down for the night.
She suspected there were a few who were still awake. Lying in their tents, listening for her to swear, probably. Little devils.
At this age, they were allowed tents. She had been the one to put most of them up. Dale had managed to put up two. The third he’d attempted, she’d had to pull down and re-erect.
At least everyone had gone along with her idea for fewer tents and more kids per tent. They’d need to crowd in and keep each other warm.
Where the hell has Dale got to now? Why hasn’t he lit a fire?
Dale was the other responsible, fully qualified person on this trip. He only came camping as a supervisor for the kids. He didn’t do solo trips any more because he already had his spirit guide. He’d gotten his early; he’d been twelve when he’d come down from his very first solo trip and announced his spirit guide. Beaver.
Tullah snorted. Appropriate. Dale was stuffed full of dreams and little else.
Heavens preserve me from getting a beaver spirit guide.
But at eighteen, and a veteran of a dozen unfulfilled quests, Tullah couldn’t afford to sneer. If she heard the phrase late-blooming again, she was going to perform a glossectomy on the speaker. Without the benefit of anesthetic.
Enough. We need a fire.
Dale wasn’t in their tent. Wasn’t in the camp as far as she could tell. He was probably communing with nature. Chewing wood, or whatever it was beavers did in the dark.
Tullah sighed and started gathering sticks and pine cones.
A spirit guide would be handy right now.
As the child of powerful Adepts, Tullah had some natural ability. For example, she could make a faint light which helped her to see the twigs and windfall branches on the ground. But she needed to concentrate to do it. If she was hurrying or even if she had her hands full, there were too many things to juggle mentally, and her witch light went out. Wouldn’t happen if she had a spirit guide.
Suck it up, girl.
Half an hour later, when she finally had enough wood gathered, the real fun started.
A lot of it was green wood. Some of it really damp.
She sighed and slumped down. The kids had eaten the pre-prepared cold meals for dinner, so she didn’t really need the fire for cooking until tomorrow.
It wasn’t for safety from animals either. In this part of the mountain, no expedition of young Adept children set off to make camp without passing by Old Earl’s cabin. The kids didn’t really like him, and he did smell a little strange. They didn’t understand why they had to pass by and talk to him, or that, occasionally, he turned groups back. But, late as they were, Earl had told them that they should go up and take a left at Echo Lake and camp where the lightning had cleared some pine. They’d be safe enough there. He’d even hauled some of the tents up.
No, it wasn’t dinner or safety. The real benefit of making a small fire tonight was it could be used to dry out some of the wetter wood, and tomorrow wouldn’t be a repeat of today, with delays rippling through until she had a complete meltdown.
And without drying it, she was going to need lightning to get some of this wood to burn.
She was smart enough not to want lightning.
Grumbling quietly to herself, she peeled dry mosses and bark off the branches she’d gathered and made a separate pile of that with twigs and pine cones for kindling. Then she split the remaining wood into dry and green piles.
Now to start the fire.
She knew how to make a bow and string firelighter, but she also knew how to keep a flint and steel kit in her pocket.
Still no sign of Dale.
Screw Dale. No, not literally. Not going to happen.
She bent her attention to the steel and flint. Ten minutes later, she had a steady flame and could start feeding one of the bigger logs into it.
Just as the log caught, Dale ambled into the light.
“Where the hell have you been?” She spoke quietly, desperate not to wake any of the kids, but with enough hiss in her words to give him an idea how pissed she was.
“Oh, girls are better with kids. You were doing fine.” He yawned and made a waving gesture as if dispersing smoke. “I was checking there were no predators around.”
“Earl already told us that.”
Dale snickered. “What does a smelly old man at the foot of the hill know?”
Tullah was stunned into silence for a minute.
The kids, the five and six year olds, couldn’t see past Earl’s appearance. You kinda expected that. It had to take monumental stupidity and genuine effort for an eighteen year old like Dale to keep that mindset. Especially as he was an Adept with a spirit guide.
Wait, maybe beavers are short-sighted or something?
“How clever,” she said sweetly. “You spotted he’s old. How old do you reckon?”
“I dunno. Sixty? Seventy?” Dale was just about smart enough to sense he was being set up. “You telling me you know? Big deal.”
“No, actually, I don’t know exactly. But I do know he was called Old Earl the first time my mother came up here. She was six at the time.”
Dale squinted at her, not believing.
Tullah ground her teeth. “Have you ever actually, really looked at him?”
Dale waved his hands again. “Whatever. There’s no point talking if you’re going to get so wound up about nothing. I’m going to bed.”
She practiced deep breathing for five minutes.
There was no way she was going to share a tent with Dale tonight. No way she was even going to fetch her sleeping bag from the tent. She didn’t care how cold it was, bed was going to be beside the fire. Besides, there should always be one responsible adult on duty, and Dale failed that description on two counts.
She banked the fire and shoveled dirt around it to keep the air intake low. That would keep it alive without consuming all the wood she’d gathered.
They hadn’t put up all the tents, so she made a bed of the unused ones and wrapped herself in one of the groundsheets.
Neat. She was snug and comfortable.
She realized she’d forgotten to eat dinner. Too intent on getting the kids fed. Lunch? Ah. Too busy trying to rustle up some last-minute help for the trip. In fact, no breakfast either. And only a protein bar yesterday.
She was not going to move now. Not going to fetch a snack from the Dale-infested tent, any more than she was going to sleep in there.
It was much better to be out here in the open air, under the huge bowl of night.
With silent stars, hard and cold, shining like a bucketful of diamonds thrown across the sky.
Ashes settling, wood turning into the ghosts of trees, softly as the flutter of moths.
The clean smell of pinewood smoke, full of happy memories.
The deep glow of embers.
Like … eyes.
Stupid. Nothing up here.
Her own eyes closed.
It was time to take stock. Take a long, hard look at herself. There was no point coming up here two or three times a year and wandering off for a little constructive fasting and meditation. Nothing was happening.
In fact, she was pretty sure nothing was going to happen. Spirit guides didn’t creep up on you in the night while you experimented with fasting-induced hallucinogenic meditation. Didn’t sit watching you from the shadows with red eyes, wondering if you were their host. Wondering whether their soul matched with your soul.
No. That’s what the Adepts said, Ma included, but Tullah wasn’t as indoctrinated as some of the kids. She was a modern, scientific thinker. With a side understanding that science hadn’t explained everything yet. She was pretty sure that spirit guides were an integral part of a person. A sort of mild schizophrenia that manifested around puberty.
Dale was a beaver. Always had been, always would be. A goofy dreamer.
And she was a nothing.
She’d always known she was different to the other Adept kids. It was time to face up to exactly what that difference was. She had no spirit guide. She wasn’t ever going to be a full Adept.
So it was time to make a positive decision. Stop waiting around for her non-existent spirit guide to manifest, and do something with her life instead. Plan ahead. Her grades were good enough for med school. Or law. Pa would love to be able to say my daughter the doctor, or my daughter the lawyer. It’d go some way to making up for his disappointment that she wouldn’t ever be an Adept.
Ma was more difficult.
If only she had a bear spirit guide like Ma’s.
Time to stop wishing.
It was no great thing to be an Adept. Yeah, it was cool being able to do things. But RULES. Oh, my God. She couldn’t show anyone who wasn’t an Adept. Couldn’t do it to benefit herself substantially or materially. Couldn’t do it to hurt someone. Couldn’t do it without another Adept present. Couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t, until there was no real reason to do anything with the gift. And the meetings! Sweet mercy! Discussions that never reached conclusions. Blah, blah, blah.
It should have been cool, but it wasn’t, and it wasn’t going to happen anyway. No loss.
So suck it up. Move on.
The fire was dying, and from those cooling ashes rose the ghosts of all her childhood hopes and wishes; grey wisps, vanishing into the cold, clear air.
She shivered. Rolled over.
Constellations hung above. Pictures made of stars. The water-bearer. The goat. The scales. The dragon.
She tip-toed on the edge of sleep.
Embers glowed in the darkness. Big embers. The whole fire must be one huge ember fanned by the wind. Two fires?
Itchy. All over. What?
She leaped up, dancing, brushing frantically. Lungs bursting as if she’d been holding her breath.
The kids! Oh shit, they’ll be eaten alive.
But she couldn’t see. Night folded around her, as dark and depthless as raven wings. No fire. No stars. No camp. Nothing.
Nothing but the wind. A hot wind; hot as if it’d just slipped over sun-baked rocks. It rushed through pines that she couldn’t see, until the noise was like the sea on the shingle. Sibilant.
It spoke. “Greetings, Tullah Autplumes-Leung. Well met.”
“What? Who’s that? What’ve you done with—”
“The young ones are well and asleep, and they are not here, exactly.”
“What do you mean, here?”
“Here. Where we are.”
“But I was right there.”
“Yes, but now you are right here. With me.”
This was all kinds of crazy. “Who?” she said.
“I am Kaothos.”
“Chaos? What kind of a name… Have I gone insane?”
“Kaothos, Tullah Autplumes-Leung. No, you are not insane. You are not even mildly schizophrenic.”
“You’re quoting things I was thinking. Now I know I’m crazy. Or dreaming. This is all happening in my head.”
“All basic human experience is inside the head. Philosophically.”
“Thank you for that. So much. What is happening?”
“We are having a conversation.”
A frustrating conversation with an invisible entity. And I’m not crazy?
“What are you?” Tullah said.
“Your spirit guide, of course. As to what type…something that’s best to keep our secret, for a while. Look.”
The darkness moved. Flowed into a shape, then seemed to retreat a little from her so she could see better. Stars appeared at the edges, so there was an outline. A great sinuous body. Eyes like lamps. Wings!
“Oh, my God.”
No-one had a dragon as a spirit guide. Bear, horse, lynx, wolf, moose, eagle. All of those and more. Even beaver. Known entities. Real animals.
No-one had even mentioned the idea of a dragon. Tullah was suddenly sure there’d be a rule against it. Anything that freaking cool obviously had to be forbidden.
Cool? Ultra, super, hyper, über cool. Beyond cool.
“A dragon! A dragon. Now I’ll show them—”
“Nothing. You should show them absolutely nothing.” Kaothos’s voice whispered around them.
Tullah mouth dropped open. Was this going to be the ultimate Adept experience? Not able to do anything with her abilities because of Adept rules, and not able to even show what she had as a spirit guide?
“Why?” She tried to keep the whine out of her voice.
“Because this is something very rare. I’m not sure how or why it happens. I don’t even know why my instinct is to keep this secret.”
“Does it have some kind of purpose? Having a dragon spirit guide?”
“I believe so. One we must find, while we discover many things together.”
“We can’t hide it from everyone, Kaothos. Dale might not notice, but Ma…”
“We can say that I have not fully revealed myself to you. Some spirit guides are shy like that, are they not?”
“Then that is what we should do, Tullah. Tullah.”
The darkness flowed again.
“Tullah? Tullah! What the hell are you doing?”
She blinked and turned around.
He had to be able to see. It had to be as plain as if it were branded across her forehead: I have a frigging dragon spirit guide!
“What?” she said. “What do you mean? What’d you think I was doing?”
“Err…dancing, sort of.” Dale rubbed his eyes.
He snapped his fingers together. A flame sprang up in the palm of his hand. He peered at her in the light cast by it.
“Was that some sort of Native American dance?” he said.
He hadn’t a clue. Not a clue, about Kaothos.
“Very ancient dance called keeping warm,” she said.
Tullah pulled another couple of logs and eased them into the quiescent fire.
“Yeah, it is cold,” Dale said.
He was right. This wasn’t just a chilly fall night.
“Too cold,” she said, and put another log on the fire.
She didn’t want to say let’s take the kids back. You didn’t call off the trip or cut it short unless something was massively wrong. Tradition had that sort of inflexibility.
And she had some powers now that she hadn’t had when they’d come up the mountain.
“Better the mundane path than reveal the secret,” whispered the wind.
“Maybe we should think about cutting the trip short,” she said. “Aim to be down by the end of the day.”
“Nah,” Dale said. “Don’t want them to think we’re weak. We got the tents, we got the fire. We can handle it.”
Oh, ‘we’ got, did we?
Tullah didn’t have time to snark. Her head lifted, turned. There was something coming up the track from the lake. Something big.