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Update and Angel Stakes cover reveal

The first featured image is Andrew discussing handling weapons with Maria at White Box Studio.

 

Inside Straight

I’ve completed my major edit pass and the text has gone to Lauren for the final checks on spelling and grammar. The book will be published on the 31st October, and I’ll put it up for pre-orders a week or so before. I’ll make sure you know it’s up on Amazon. 🙂

Relaunch of series

The pre-order of Inside Straight will be combined with a relaunch of the whole series with new covers. That means I have to reformat all the print books (previously printed by CreateSpace), change the audio covers, sharpen up the blurbs, and insert a brief (!) summary of previous books and cast list into books 2 – 6. I am so looking forward to that. Lol.

At the same time I’ll start releasing ‘bundles’. The first will be books 1-3 combined into one eBook, and sold at a discount. This is to capture those readers for whom one book at a time is not enough. Yes, this is a thing, and quite a large thing apparently. The second bundle of books 4-6 should go up sometime in December. These bundles will require their own eBook covers, which I will reveal here on the blog.

The relaunch will combine the new covers and bundles with an advertising campaign.

When I first published on Amazon, the only marketing tools under my control were covers, blurbs, newsletters, Bookbub (and similar), reviewers etc. With the possible exception of Bookbub, these tools have less and less direct, primary effect. Why? Because Amazon has changed. They used to have fairly neutral ranking and promotional algorithms. If you sold, and got good reviews, your ranking went up in a straightforward manner, and they promoted you in their newsletters. Now, to get the same effect, you have to reinvest part of your sales in the Amazon advertising machine. That’s what I’ll be doing, to the tune of approximately 20% of my target income. Gulp.

(This is not to say that reviews no longer work. I’m still very keen on reviews. Just a few words if you haven’t already. Please. 🙂 )

I may also try Bookbub and similar newsletters as well. And I’m considering building my own newsletter too. I have a current mailing list, but that is *strictly* for new book releases. The general newsletter will (among other things) explore the lore of the Athanate/Were/Adept world, especially those parts that don’t quite make it into the books. I may write some short stories which would go out in the newsletters.

Merchandise

I hear you. I’ll have some T shirts, coasters and stuff made from these covers and some photos that don’t make the covers. I have no schedule yet.  🙂

Angel Stakes cover

Books 1-4 have concentrated appropriately on Amber with weapons – the handgun, submachine gun and the shotgun. These demanded action poses to convey the best impact. However, although Amber uses weapons in Angel Stakes, there’s a different feel to the book. Amber rights old wrongs. Amber stalks her enemy almost as a personification of justice. The second werewolf ritual takes place in this book as well, and whereas Amber can almost convince herself that the first halfy ritual down in New Mexico (end of Cool Hand) was a fluke, the evidence that it’s an ability she has becomes overwhelming in Angel Stakes.

So I wanted something less to do with physical weapons, but more to do with a rather spooky, witchy Amber coming to get you.

I think Andrew and Maria hit this brief out of the park. What do you think?

Print book image

And the eBook cover

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Cover reveal for Bite Back books 3 and 4

Cover reveal – books 3 and 4

I’m in the last few chapters of editing. Good news (I think): the book has got longer.

I’m a guest at a French convention in Lille, Les Halliénales, this weekend, so this week’s cover reveal is a short post concentrating on the images themselves. As I haven’t much to say, you get two for the price of one! Book 3 and book 4 covers!

Feedback always welcome: Do you like the images? Do they convey Bite Back well? Do they feel branded in the same way as books 1 and 2?

 

First, the full images which will be used for the print books.

 

And the eBook images.

 

Roundup and reveal

Special treat for readers who monitor the blog site and Facebook page – advance reveal of the new covers, one or two a week, starting today…

(And I’m keen for feedback!)

Okay, okay. Roundup first.

Inside Straight

Inside Straight is late in the big and little sense of the word. In the big sense, I can’t quite work out how it has taken over three years from Angel Stakes to Inside Straight. In the little sense, I promised publication in 2018, then spring 2019, then summer, and then 30th September, but now it’s going to be the 31st October.

I will be concentrating on writing Bite Back and Bian’s Tale for the next year or so and I hope to do better than one of each per year. We’ll see.

France

Bite Back (published under the series name ‘Amber Farrell’) is doing very well in France. I’m expecting my first 12 month sales analysis from Bragelonne this month, but I already know that the sales are over 20,000 books and there’s 2:1 ratio in favor of printed books. I’ve attended the book festival at Epinal as a guest speaker and I’m also attending festivals at Lille and Dunkirk this year. Things are looking good.

Germany

I’m trying very hard to engage a German publisher on the same sort of basis as France and I’m having no luck. My emails aren’t even getting a response. I may visit the Frankfurt Book Fair next month to see if face to face is easier.

Covers

The launch of Inside Straight will coincide with a new marketing drive for the Bite Back series, including:

  • New book covers for eBook (English and German versions), paperback and audio
  • Amazon and Facebook advertising
  • Bundling (selling books 1-3 as one for a discount)
  • Newsletter promotions.

I’ve never been quite happy with the covers for Bite Back. The series is not a standard Urban Fantasy series, so there was always the argument that the covers should be a little different. At the 20Books writers’ convention in Edinburgh, I got some feedback on the covers and advice to go and talk to Andrew at Creative Edge Studios. Long story short, Andrew and I kicked around ideas, hired a big studio, got the props out, persuaded Maria to join us, engaged a makeup artist and spent a whole day, resulting in over a thousand photos. It was a fabulous day.

Maria is Amber, and she really got into the part. Even standing waiting for the cameras to be set up, she looked bad-ass.

This is not a retouched photo. I have done nothing apart from clipping the background out.

At the end of the shoot, I had the difficult task of choosing one photo for each book.

The overview for the images is a sort of compromise. I wanted the book covers to say Urban Fantasy, but I wanted to hint that there’s a lot of action as well. This is close to the brief for the very first covers I did, but the poses chosen for those were what is called in the trade ‘heroic’. Andrew and I decided we’d include more ‘action’ poses.

Book 1 is the key, the most important image that sets the tone for the series. I wanted Amber’s favorite automatic, the HK Mk 23, and I wanted an action pose with a Urban Fantasy background of Denver including witchy lights and oversize moon. Andrew took that brief and produced this, the full image without titles for the printed book.

I reckon it’s excellent.

And here’s the eBook cover.

 

I love the image.

What do YOU think?

 

 

 

 

Delay of a month for Bite Back 6

Month delay for Bite Back 6…

Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control, there’s going to be a delay in the release of Inside Straight. I had intended to load the Amazon servers with the pre-order on the 16th (next Monday), for publication on the 30th, but that’s not going to be possible.

The text is still in editing and the covers (plural) aren’t ready.

My marketing plan was to boost the series with new, professionally-created covers and a bundle (several ebooks in one at a discount) and an advertising campaign while Inside Straight was in pre-order, so that book 6 got the maximum amount of publicity.

That’s still the plan, but I am now aiming for release on the 31st October, with the pre-order and advertising beginning on the 14th.

I am also scheduling a series of previews of the new covers on Facebook and here, which will serve as a countdown to the marketing.

My apologies for the delay!

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.

 

 

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.