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Last teaser chapter for Bite Back 6

Absolutely, positively the last teaser chapter of Inside Straight. A short one.

I’m nearly there with the ‘ready for editor’ draft, and Lauren has booked it in for the 6th July. Gulp.

Watch this blog or Facebook for publication news, or sign up for a book alert.

Previous teaser chapters start at:
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/christmas-wishes-and-bite-back-6-teaser-chapter/
and each teaser episode has a ‘next’ link at the bottom.

 

Chapter 8

 

We’d been lucky. We’d been caught in a trap where we were helpless, and it’d been my fault for charging in without assessing the risks.

Maybe I wasn’t as recovered as I’d thought I was, back in LA.

“Sorry,” Flint said. “She really caught us out.”

“We need to move away,” Kane said, helping his fellow Adept to his feet. “This is all in her zone.”

We trotted back to where we left the car, increasingly nervous as we approached the Schown Apartments. There were people around now, cars, normal things. No witches appeared out of sudden snow clouds.

“What’s the time?” I asked as we got in.

I had a clock in my head I could usually rely on, but being hauled off into the spirit world by the Hecate’s coven had screwed with it. My head was telling me it was early evening, but my eyes said it was too light.

Early evening would be another major disaster of a completely different type. It would mean I was late for Mom’s dinner.

“It’s five,” Yelena said. “It feels wrong, no?”

“Time passes differently in the spirit world,” Kane said. “Sometimes really differently. We need to check what day it is.”

“Oh, God, no.”

My cell said it was still today, but his comment spooked me.

Please, I’m not a day late for Mom’s party. Please, please, please.

I dialed home.

Alex answered. “You okay?”

“Yeah. What day is it?”

“Same day it was a couple hours ago. You sure you’re okay?”

“I’ll explain later. We’re on our way back.”

Great. He probably thought I’d got a concussion or something. I could just see his expression when I told him I’d been away with the fairies.

Traffic was light and Yelena was driving, leaving me to puzzle over what the Hecate had said.

Kaothos was a friend. A strange kind of friend to have, but still. Not a devil.

What had the witch expected to gain by calling her that?

Why was she so insistent she had to speak to a ‘devil’?

Just as urgent, how exactly was I going to explain to Skylur that there was a huge association of Adepts who’d been sitting quietly right under his nose.

I could predict his reaction—he’d want to know how to get them into the Assembly.

What if Kaothos was what it took to get them on board?

What exactly was it about Kaothos they wanted?

Jen called on the cell, breaking my train of thought.

“What’s this about not knowing which day it is? You do remember—”

“We’re off to my mom’s. Yes. It was just some Adept weirdness. I’ll explain later.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’m really calling to warn you Bian’s here. I’ve tried explaining that we’re due to go out, but she wants to know what’s happening.”

“I get to tell you both at the same time.”

“Hmm. Going to happen while we’re getting dressed then,” she drawled. “We are not going to be late for this one, honey.”

I swallowed. My wife, my husband and I would be naked, or partly naked, in the same room as Bian. Who was my husband’s one-time lover and who had, several times, told me and shown me, she was keen to get in my pants too. This was shaping up to be… awkward.

 

It turned out to be more of a problem for Alex and me than for Jen. Bian was her usual self—at one moment all business, the next casting smoldering looks at one of us, or all three of us at the same time.

Jen took it in her stride. She got Bian to help with zippers, asked her opinion on lipstick shades, made her dry my hair after my shower.

I put it to one side and concentrated on getting as much information across about the Hecate, and the Adepts she claimed to represent.

“If the Northern Adept League stretches from the Lakes down to New Jersey, then there should be some in New York,” I said. “Skylur might be able to learn a bit more about them there.”

Bian nodded. “Believe me, I’ll make the point to him when I call later.”

She stopped fussing my hair and rested her hands on my bare shoulders.

I tensed, expecting some of Bian’s questionable humor, such as kissing me in front of Jen and Alex, but she didn’t.

Her voice was serious: “Tell me again this Gwendolyn’s exact words about why she was here.”

“She said she wanted to talk to me and Diana: Here, in Denver. Not because we think Altau is here, but because this is where Diana and the dragon will return.”

“So she knows that Diana and Kaothos aren’t dead, and that we put on a smoke and mirrors show for the Empire. And that Diana’s coming back here. And she knows Skylur isn’t going to be here. That’s a lot of inside knowledge, Round-eye. A lot of very up-to-date inside knowledge. For example, Skylur took the decision to go straight to New York yesterday.”

“Well, they’re obviously powerful, this league,” I said.

“More powerful than the Empire’s Adepts? Really? Or do they just have better intelligence?”

I blinked.

“The grey pants, Alex, they show off your ass better,” she said over her shoulder.

Jen laughed and handed Alex the grey pants. He put them on.

Wise choice; Bian was right.

I got dressed as I thought through what she was saying. I knew Bian well enough to follow which way her mind was working on the Adept league, ignoring the distraction about Alex’s ass.

“Have I mentioned recently, you’re paranoid, Pussycat?” I said.

“This morning, in fact. Come on, tell me what I’m thinking.”

I sighed. “There is one person who is not Athanate, and not in this room, who knew exactly what was going on and why and where. The only person, apart from Diana, who knew Skylur was going to New York even before you did.”

“Precisely. See? This paranoia is catching.”

“But you don’t like her. You’ve always had reservations about Alice Emerson. I remember you telling me she deserved to get thrown off the Mayflower.”

“So I’ve always been right. You blaming me for that?”

I had no answer. I liked Alice. And Alice was the Adept responsible for the magical shields that were hiding Diana and Kaothos from the Empire. My gut said she wasn’t working against us, but that wasn’t the same as not having any conflict of loyalty. And surely Skylur had bound her?

“Oh,” I said, remembering something else. “Alice was working with the Warders before. Skylur sort of adopted her when they were expelled after the Assembly at Haven.”

“You’re getting there, Round-eye.”

“The Warders’ mantle was New York. It’s a reasonable guess that’s where Alice is from. The Hecate said the Northern Adept League covers New York. Which would make it likely Alice is from the League, or has ties to them.”

“You get your paranoia gold star.” Bian clapped her hands.

“And we will lose all gold stars if we don’t get out the door now,” Jen interrupted.

“But we haven’t talked about what the Hecate said about Kaothos—”

“Not my monkey. That’s your domain,” Bian said, urging me out of the bedroom. “You have to work out which of Kaothos or Gwendolyn you believe in. My domain is security and paranoia, and I have my hands full.”

She demonstrated with Alex’s ass, which he totally enjoyed, the traitor.

 

 

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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.”

 

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.

 

 

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.”

 

Christmas wishes and Bite Back 6 teaser chapter

Hello all, and I wish you all a happy Christmas.

Writing is going well, but I’m as slow as ever in comparison to the speedsters in the market. All my writing effort is currently going into Inside Straight – Bite Back 6. I’m about half way through, but having a little trouble linking the dramatic scenes up smoothly.

I have A Threat Among the Stars back from Lauren, and I will put it up for pre-order shortly, and release in mid January.

Here’s Chapter 1 of Inside Straight as a stand-alone teaser. 🙂

 

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Chapter 1

 

I’m doing things the right way. For once. Why does it feel so wrong?

It was stupid o’clock, with the sun sensible enough to still be in bed, and I was out at Haven, cooling my heels.

So much for orders.

You and your House rest. Christmas with your family. Food and wine and television. Cards and presents. Skylur had ordered me to take time off.

But I was here because this was where Bian was, and she was the only person with a direct line to Skylur at the moment. As far as the rest of the Athanate world was concerned, Skylur was in mourning for Diana after her dramatic death in LA. In fact, the pair of them, Skylur and Diana, were in a magically shielded van, somewhere between California and here.

Diana’s ‘death’ had been carefully stage-managed. That truth needed to remain a secret, especially from the eagle vision of the Empire of Heaven’s Adepts.

I’d returned home to Denver yesterday. The plan was that Skylur and Diana would be here within the next day or so. Diana would stay and recover from the Adept working that had made her appear dead, even to the eyes of the Empire’s Adepts. Skylur would move on to New York, his new domain, the former domain of the Warders.

I will come to you with Tullah, Diana had said. I hadn’t heard anything from Tullah, and my trouble sense was prickling.

I had to assume Diana, Tullah and Kaothos would have to be here for Tullah to reclaim her dragon from Diana. And that once they were, Denver would become a closed city for Athanate. We had to prevent the Empire of Heaven from finding out we’d lied about Diana and Kaothos, or the whole carefully balanced political arrangement, where Skylur and the Emperor ran the Assembly from the sidelines, would disintegrate.

If it did, the world would be thrown precipitately into Emergence, without the preparation that Skylur believed would save it from being the holocaust we feared.

With Skylur going to New York, he’d appointed House Trang to take up the domain of Denver and the territory of Colorado, so Bian was my immediate boss and the person handed the responsibility of ensuring the security of the secrets we would be hiding here.

And when Pia had shaken me awake a couple of hours ago and handed me an urgent telephone call with a bare sentence of explanation, I’d known I would have to override my gut reaction and get clearance from on high through Bian.

I’d hoped for a quiet time over Christmas. The paranormal world owed it to me, and I’d found out how much I owed it to my family. While I’d been caught up in what Forsythe had done to me in my last year of school, I’d completely missed that he’d done the same thing to my sister.

I’d argued with Jen and Pia about Kath; what to do and how to do it. A long argument.

I’d wanted to come in like the cavalry and fix things, right now.

They said no.

Maybe time would show if wiser heads had prevailed. We’d see. In any case, I’d agreed to start slow and quiet—ease back into the family, and my relationship with Kathleen, starting with a Christmas Eve dinner at Mom’s tonight. Tonight, 7pm. Fourteen hours’ time. In pretty clothes and with my face washed. No excuses.

The urgent telephone call had come out of nowhere.

House Lloyd, a small Athanate House from Detroit, who were outsiders, were driving to Denver to throw themselves at my feet and beg sanctuary.

Damn!

Outsiders. Diazoun in Athanate. It had once been acceptable, if eccentric, to cut all ties with other Athanate and live without getting involved in the squabbles of creeds and rules, or the responsibilities of associations. It wasn’t acceptable any more. Diazoun was starting to have the same connotations as epitre, which translated approximately as ‘unorthodox’.

Rogues were epitre.

Rogues were put down.

And sanctuary. A venerable Athanate institution. She hadn’t been clear if she meant simple protection or becoming a sub-House. If House Lloyd made her Blood oath to me and became my sub-House, then all her problems suddenly became mine. Granted, they were no longer diazoun. But some of those problems included that House Lloyd was supposed to be a sub-House of House Prowser in Michigan.

Prowser. Only a senior ally and old friend of Skylur’s.

Then there was the small matter that House Lloyd’s kin included Adepts, not something that other Adepts thought was acceptable even in normal circumstances, but these Adepts were outlaws being hunted by the combined Adept communities of Michigan and surrounding states, both sides of the border.

Adept communities working together? Oooh, that has to be good.

My Athanate side loved the idea of new members in my House. Especially Adepts. My wolf yawned and went back to sleep. The rest of my brain, the logical part, was feverishly totting up the odds and counting reasons why it was impossible to accept.

I’d pointed out to her that, given the politics, I’d have to petition Skylur before accepting.

However, my caller, Amanda Lloyd herself, was nothing if not persistent.

I brought out what I thought would be a deal-breaker.

“House Lloyd, there’s something you should realize before you cross the state border,” I said, stumbling through warning her without giving anything away. “Colorado is going to be closed to unauthorized Athanate movement anytime now. I don’t want to go into it—it’s all to do with House Altau moving his domain to New York. It could mean you end up denied sanctuary and imprisoned instead. Maybe it’d be a better outlook if you tried House Thompson in Cheyenne.”

She said nothing for a moment. Then: “House Farrell, I am desperate, and it can only be you.”

“For heaven’s sake, why?”

“Because Scott, my eldest kin…” she paused, a catch in her breath, and I could hear she was gathering herself, fighting to keep her voice level. “Because he’s dying. Because my only hope is for you to infuse him. Because they say your infusion carries less severe crusis and he has a chance of surviving it. Please, House Farrell. I’m begging you.”

Damn!

All of it, all of it had to be passed up the chain of command, but she’d sunk hooks into my heart with that desperation. She’d accepted all the risks—my untested infusion might kill him, Skylur might order them to be imprisoned or returned to Michigan, and so on, and she was still coming. How could I turn that away?

Another hour or so and they’d be here. A despairing Athanate, one dying kin and two outlaw Adept kin.

Diazoun, Pia had muttered after the call, shaking her head. It hadn’t been a problem historically, when there had been space for expansion. These days, with so little of the world unclaimed by Athanate Houses, and so much at stake, it was a real problem. Skylur had decreed that there were no diazoun in America. Everyone was supposed to be a part of House Altau, either giving their oaths directly to Skylur, or by becoming a sub-House of someone who had, like me.

And Skylur had decreed that House Lloyd should be a sub-House of House Prowser.

What if Skylur didn’t say imprison them, what if instead, he demanded they were put down like rogues? Demanded I do it?

My gut twisted.

Alternately, what if he wanted them for himself? Adepts willing to work with Athanate were a prize.

I was really unhappy with that. Mine, I wanted to snarl, just thinking about it.

I’d gotten way ahead of myself again.

To complete to my list of things I didn’t want to happen today, because I have to be at Mom’s at 7pm, no excuses, Yelena had persuaded me to make good on another promise I’d made. She’d flown down to LA to pick up Tove Johansen, another victim of Forsythe, who’d helped us. They’d be back this morning.

It’d been a promise made in the heat of the moment without being thought through—that Tove could come live with us to get her life back in order.

Not thought through: that was me all over recently.

I had some excuse. I’d slid down the slope, all the way to rogue, out in New Mexico.

They’d brought me back — Diana, Bian and my House .

I’m fine. Aren’t I?

If I felt so odd today, maybe it was just an accumulation of small things. Worry about Mom’s dinner tonight. My gut feeling about House Lloyd. Worry about trying to save a dying kin with my infusion. Having to ask Bian’s permission for something my instincts had already pretty much decided on. Having Keith instead of Yelena with me. And…

Stop. Think of practical things.

Tove: she would have to be made kin if she stayed with us. How would she feel about that? And I could imagine Jen’s delight at another house guest in addition to House Lloyd—and Tove was a drug addict who’d paid for her addiction with her body. It was lucky Jen had bought the house next door to expand into. If we ran out of room there, I guess there was always David’s house in Wash Park, which was empty at the moment.

Everywhere my thoughts turned, there were problems.

Well, the cards would fall where they would fall. Yelena was on her way back from LA with Tove, and I was here, with my former boyfriend Keith as my backup, cooling my heels in the depths of Haven, feeling restless, uneasy and itching to hear what Skylur’s response would be.

Bian had told me Skylur’s protocol for contact excluded anyone else being present. She’d sent me down to the gym, where, even at this ungodly hour, she assured me there would be something to distract me.