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:
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.
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.
The bird gave a little half-flap of wings, like a shrug, like I needed to concentrate on important things.
“Can we get back?”
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”