last week countdown
Bitter Night will be out in one week. I’m dreadfully nervous. Herds of wilderbeasts are stampeding through my innards. Have you ordered your copy yet? So SciFiGuy has a great review up of Bitter Night today if you need more encouragement, and tomorrow he’ll have an interview with me.
Chapter 1 is up on my website, and here, just for you, is chapter 2:
The Hag’s magic held Alexander helpless. He could not move, not even to breathe. Even his heart stopped. He was frozen like a mosquito in amber. Even if he wanted to panic, he could not. All he could do was watch and listen and wish to hell he understood what was happening. Nothing tonight made any sense. Redcaps didn’t hunt Hags, and what were they doing in Southern California? Both belonged to the Scottish highlands and as far as he knew, travelling across continents was not something they made a habit of. And if that wasn’t enough, now there was another witch involved.
The strange Shadowblade woman was clearly a Prime. There was no mistaking that aura of volcanic power and authority. Even shaking with bloodloss, she moved with the total confidence of a hot-blooded predator who knew her own capabilities and was willing to take them to their limits. Alexander could feel her strength—a heady blend of molten iron and bottled lightning. He had not encountered the likes of her in many years—maybe not ever. Which made her a riddle. Any Prime as powerful as she was had to be bound to an extraordinary witch. Someone the equal of Selange. That worried him. He did not know any who would fit the bill. Such a witch would be old and established with a large coven and he would have heard of her. Or him.
His compulsion spells woke, sliding over him like razor wire. There was danger for Selange here and he was helpless against it.
He watched the Hag give the Prime something, then the Hag sped out of sight and the Prime turned to look at Alexander. She wore a black hat pulled low over her eyes. A fringe of blonde hair escaped from beneath it. Her face was angular, beautiful in the relentless, bold way that eagles are beautiful. Or cobras. She was shorter than him by four or five inches, but that mader her no less dangerous. She raised her eyes and the nose of her shotgun at the same time. Everything in Alexander siezed as electric fire seared his muscles. He was hypnotized. Even if he could have, he would not have looked away. All thoughts of Selange faded and he was sliding deep into something he did not know how to resist. He was not sure he wanted to.
A long moment passed and he was aware that the Hag’s magic was weakening. He could tell she saw it too. Any moment she would pull the trigger. But then shockingly she lifted the shotgun away, resting the barrel on her shoulder. Her brows raised in a challenge, her jaw jutting with defiance. “My name is Max. I’ll see you tomorrow at the Conclave.”
Then she disappeared, running past him. He caught a whiff of her—a sharp tang of citruss, a hint of something earthy, a zest of sweet venom overlaid by the thick taste of greasy hamburgers.
He could not let her get away. He did not want to. He struggled against his bonds. Ten seconds. Twenty. He broke free and sprinted after her, crashing into Thor as he came around the corner.
“What the hell?” Thor demanded, shoving him away.
Alexander caught himself on a garden bench, spinning to scan the treeline. “We had company,” he said. He shook his head. “She will have a car somewhere. We will not catch her now.”
He scowled, whirling back to Thor. The big blond looked like a street thug from Cow Town, USA. He wore a short-sleeved black tee shirt with BRMC scrawled across the front in white block letters, worn black jeans that had long-since faded to gray and battered cowboy boots. Blood smeared his hands, forearms and cheek. He wore a battered straw cowboy hat cocked back on his head, a bowie knife on his left hip and his .44 revolver on his right, strapped down and slung low like he was about to step onto the set of a spaghetti western. It was in his hand now, his eyes cold as the ocean depths as he waited for orders.
“Is the house wired?” Alexander asked.
“Then go find Brynna. See if she is still alive. Have the others collect the redcaps. I want to be on the road within the next five minutes.”
Thor loped away without another word, leaving Alexander alone on the lawn. He jogged up the berm past a tractor and stopped under the eaves of the orchard. There were deep impressions of footprints trailing away in the soft loam. They were spread widely apart. Max had been running full tilt. As he expected, she was beyond reach. But not for long. Selange was hosting a Midsummer Conclave. Every witch who held a covenstead west of the Rockies would be there, and every one would be bringing his or her Prime. His fingers flexed on the hilt of his gun and he slowly slid it back into its holster on his hip.
He rubbed a hand over his goatee as he looked into the trees. This was not over. He would see her tomorrow night at the Conclave. He scraped his fingers through his hair. It would be ugly. Selange did not tolerate trespassers in her territory, and she would want to know what interest Max’s witch had in the Hag and the redcaps. He grimaced. By any accounting, Max should have killed him. It was stupid not to. She would have escaped with no one knowing she had ever been here. What had stopped her?
But he remembered the devouring pull of her eyes and he knew why she had not, just as he knew that when they met at the Conclave, there would be no room for mercy or any of the silent things that swam between them. They would be at war.
“Tell me again what the Hag said. Leave nothing out.” Selange ordered, the words curling with a faint French accent. She had been in America for more than a hundred years and still the accent clung to her like the sultry perfume that she wore. She sat primly behind her delicate desk, her silky legs crossed demurely together. She was small, only five feet tall and not quite a hundred pounds. She was also one of the most powerful witches in North America. She did not ask him to sit or offer him refreshment. A reprimand—for so many things.
Alexander examined her with slow deliberation. Her hair was cut in a sleek black cap that curled under at the shoulders, her bangs a straight line across her forehead. Her face was rounded, her eyes brown and lined with thick, dark liner, her mouth a red slash across her pale face. She wore a high-necked, sleeveless manadarin sheath in dark blue. On her feet were four inch stiletto heels. She was sitting with her hands together, staring intently at Alexander.
He was surprised at just how little he felt for her. For many years he had adored her with single-minded devotion, captivated by her beauty, power and exotic charm. There was nothing he would not have done for her. She had wrapped him spells that made him strong, fast and deadly—he had been a god among men. She taught him how to read and write, how to speak and dress, and then she had given him the world. There had been nothing he did not want to try and nowhere he did not want to go. He had been like a child ransacking the proverbial candy store. His new life had been as glorious as touching the sun and he had no words for his gratitude—then or now—for the gift she had given him. The price was worth it. He had embraced becoming one of Selange’s Shadowblades and never once looked back.
But over the years things had changed for him. He no longer burned with unquenchable desire for Selange. His passion had begun dwindling long ago, and then nearly forty years ago she had dealt those softer feelings a final death. Not that he hated her. He did not know if his compulsion spells would allow it. But neither did he blindly believe in her the way he had when he was first made a Shadowblade. As brilliant and brave as she still was, she was also vain, spiteful, sefish, and ambitious. He did not know if there was anything she would not do to gain power. Certainly she had crossed lines that sickened him—so much so that after the last time he had threatened to walk out into the sun if she forced him to participate again. It was no idle threat. Even his compulsion spells could not stop him. Hence the need for her to groom another Prime. She did not tolerate rebellion. But it would be a long time before Marcus could best him. Until then, Selange needed Alexander.
“The Hag asked what the Shadowblade wanted,” he said, answering her question for the third time, not letting any hint of impatience to color his voice, much as he wanted to get this over with and be alone. He wanted to think. He wanted to remember. “Then the Hag said there was a war coming. Soon. She said it stands on the threshold. She said that the Shadowblade would have to choose—fire or blood, and that either choice would have a grave cost. Lives would be lost. Then the Hag gave the Shadowblade something. She told her when the time is right, to swallow it and know what she wants. Then she will have it.”
Alexander told Selange everything but Max’s name, and the way she had chosen not to shoot him at the end. Selange would read more into it than there was. Collusion, because he had let Max get away. It did not matter that he had had no choice—now that he had defied her once, she did not trust him any more.
Selange’s wine red fingernails clicked against the desk. “The Hag must have given her a hailstone,” she thought aloud. And then to Alexander, “And the Hag’s staff? She didn’t have it until after the Shadowblade let her feed?”
“That is right.”
Selange’s fingernails tapped harder, then stilled. “Very well. I will send the Sunspears back to the orchard to see if they can recover the Hag.”
Alexander studied her. There was something going on here she was not telling him. She fairly quivered with suppressed something—excitement? Anger? Her nostrils flared slightly and in the quiet he could hear her heart speeding. She sat back, her eyes narrowing. She had made him to be a blood hound, a lion, a blood-thirsty dragon. But she did not like it when he turned his magical gifts on her.
“Is that wise?” he asked. “The police will be investigating.”
“It is my command,” she said flatly. “I’ve no further need of you until the Conclave tonight. You may go.”
Dismissed, Alexander retreated, his jaw knotting. He wanted to ask more questions—as her Shadowblade Prime, he needed all the information he could get to protect her. But she would not answer. She had told him all she was going to.
Just as he opened the door, a chime sounded. It echoed, growing louder. Selange thrust to her feet, excitement firing her expression.
“Alexander, come with me.”
With that she strode rapidly out through a long gallery of pink-veined marble. He followed a step behind, an uncontrollable chill rolling down his spine. The curved ceiling was made entirely of glass. All that separated him from the sun were the blackout shutters. If they should accidentally be opened, there was nowhere for him to hide.
The long tunnel emptied into a spacious waiting room shaped like an octagon and full of comfortable white couches and chairs. Like the gallery’s celing, this room’s glass walls were sealed by blackout shutters with the exception of a broad set of double doors on the far wall. They were made of oak bound in iron and carved with mystic symbols. To one side was a heavy oak desk, behind which sat Selange’s secretary. Kev was a Tatane faery from the Easter Islands. He was dark skinned with full lips and green eyes, his hair curling close against his head. He looked perfectly human except for the faint flecks of gold burnishing his skin and dancing in his eyes. Until he spoke. Then you could see that his tongue and interior of his mouth was as dark as his skin. Besides being a secretary and faery, he was also a shapeshifter and Selange’s familiar. One of them.
He stood with boneless grace as they entered. “They are here,” he announced in a low voice that made Alexander’s hand tighten into a fist.
He did not know what it was about Kev that set him on edge. The Tatane had been with Selange nearly as long as Alexander and he had never done anything to hurt her. But there was a promise lurking in the corners of his glance and in the grooves of his voice, a pledge of danger and betrayal. Alexander had to check himself when Kev stepped in front of the desk to block Selange’s path.
A sudden change swept the faery, a hardness, as if he had turned to stone. His skin looked a gray as the Moai statues of his Easter Island homeland. The gold in his eyes spiraled slowly, his eyelids drifting half-shut. A prickle chased across Alexander’s scalp.
“Know that you stand at a threshold,” Kev intoned, his voice dropping. “Cross, and you cannot again close the door. There is both peril and promise on the other side. Turn back now without either consequence or prize.”
Selange hesitated. “Can you see an outcome?” she asked.
Kev’s head tilted. “I see only the threshold. I feel only the possibilities. It is for you to take the final step and know what could and will be. Or turn around and leave the threshold unbroken.”
The hardness melted away and his skin once again turned warm brown. Kev blinked and stepped back, waiting. Selange did not move.
“Who has come?” Alexander asked.
Selange started, coming out of her reverie. She smoothed her dress, lifting her chin and taking a breath, her red lips curving in a false smile.
“Guests. They are expected. Let us not keep them waiting.”
With that she walked deliberately past Kev and pulled open the carved doors. Alexander hurried to join her.
They stepped into a round windowless room forty-five feet in diameter. The vaulted ceiling was well over two stories above. Inlaid in the wood floor was the anneau floor, comprised of a circle surrounding a pentagram with a triangle in its center. At the very center was a silver disc the size of a frisbee. The walls were bare and the wood of the floor was scuffed and scarred. But Alexander’s entire attention was fixed on the creature standing inside the glowing lines of the triangle. He drew his gun from its holster on his hip and started to step in front of Selange to shield her, but she stopped him, resting her fingertips on his arm. They trembled.
“He is safe enough inside the wards.” Her voice was firm, belying her nerves.
Alexander held back, but remained tensed and bristling.
The angel was nearly seven feet tall. He wore ragged blue jeans and his feet were bare as was his chest. Sprouting from his back was a pair of wings, the feathers black and irridescent. Glimmers of blue and orange flickered along the bottom edges of his primary feathers. Where his wingtips brushed the floor, charred scores appeared, matching those on his pantlegs where he had not been careful enough. The smell of Divine magic rolled off him, mixed with the stench of burning feathers. His eyes were red and his white hair was cropped short, his face and body chiselled like one of Michelangelo’s statues. He appeared to be about sixteen, though he was undoubtedly many thousands of years old.
“I offer greetings, Lady Selange,” he said with a mocking bow. He was careful not to step on any part of the glowing triangle.
“I hear your greeting,” Selange answered cautiously, not offering any welcome that might obligate her. “Do you bring a message from your mistress?”
“She offers this proposal.” He pulled a scroll out of the air, holding it up.
“What does it say?”
His brows rose tauntingly. “I am not privy to her private correspondence.”
“Very well.” Selange muttered something and gestured. The star lit with witchlight. More words, another gesture, and the light of the triangle faded. “If you would, place the message within the star and return to the triangle.”
He turned the scroll in his fingers, then sauntered forward and bent to set it down. He then retreated. Selange reactivated the triangle, but made no effort to release the star and retrieve the message. The angel said nothing, merely standing with his thumbs hooked in the beltloops of his jeans, his gaze fixed on her with a malice so cold it seemed to chill the air. There was a coiled stillness about him, a crouching wildness, like the first flickers of a wildfire.
If Selange’s wards did not hold, Alexander was not sure he could protect her. He edged forward again. The angel’s red eyes shifted, skewering him. Heat blossomed in Alexander’s skull. The angel smiled in a not unfriendly way, and then dropped his eyes. Alexander blinked, drawing a quiet breath, his legs shaking. He knew angels had dreadful power, though he’d never before encountered one. They did not often walk the earth. His eyes narrowed. Just who was powerful enough to hold his leash? Who was powerful enough to use him as a mere messenger? And more importantly, what the hell kind of trouble had Selange gotten into?
“Is there anything more?” Selange asked in a strained voice.
“My mistress wishes to demonstrate her commitment and fidelity. She offers you a gift of her good intentions.”
Selange flinched. “Your mistress is kind. Please convey my regards.”
Again, she was careful not to obligate herself, but Alexander could hear the nervousness in her voice. It shocked him. He had been with her more than a century. She was not easily cowed.
“You do not ask about the gift. Curious.” The angel crossed his arms, his wings flaring slightly. Droplets of flame spattered the floor and began to burn.
“I would never presume so much.”
“Ah. Then it will be a surprise. Look for it to begin before moonrise tomorrow. I will return for your answer to my mistress very soon.”
With that, the angel leaped into the air, his wings snapping wide and sweeping downward with a violent motion as he arrowed upward. Flame erupted, boiling up and filliing the triangular space. A brilliant yellow light flared near the ceiling. Alexander jerked around, shutting his eyes. There was a concussion and the walls and floor trembled. The light winked out.
He looked up. Splotches spattered his vision. The bastard had vanished, and the floor inside the triangle was black, but the wards had held. Before he could say anything, Selange cut off all questions.
“Leave me now.”
She raised her hands and flicked her fingers. Dismissal. Alexander did not move.
“What is going on?” he demanded.
“I told you to leave,” Selange said, pointing at him. Her face was screwed tight in an expression of hatred and maybe fear.
“Not until you tell me what is going on. I cannot protect you if I do not understand the threat.”
She did not answer, walking slowly around the edge of the circle, eyeing the message scroll. The star was still lit, which meant she suspected a malevolent spell was attached to the message. She stopped and looked at him finally, her scarlet mouth twisting with cruel humor. “Protect me? From them? From their mistress and her gifts? Do you think you can?” Her gaze fell back on the scroll. She pinched her upper lip between her fingers. “There’s nothing for you to do. Leave me.”
Alexander couldn’t stop himself. “And Marcus? Is this the reason you groom him for Prime? You think he will do better than I who have served you for a century? Do you think he can take the angel and win?”
Selange whirled and marched purposefully toward him, her legs stiff, her heels clicking hard on the floor. Alexander did not give ground. She stopped with her hands on her hips, her eyes stony. Magic made her hair rise and shift on an invisible current. It rippled across her skin like webs of blue lightning. His mouth went dry. She had the power to kill him. It would take some work—she had made him powerful. But his compulsion spells would not allow him to hurt her. Nor would they allow him to back down now. She was in danger.
“I groom Marcus for the same reason I groom Lance to replace Arthur as Sunspear Prime,” she said, prodding him hard in the chest with her finger. “I do it because I am going to need an army of Primes for what is coming.”
He latched onto that small sliver of information. “What is coming?”
She turned, looking back at the scroll. Her lips trembled. “The end of the world. The birth of a whole new order. Now go. Send me Kev.”
Her voice brooked no more argument. Alexander stepped out of the room, shutting the doors behind him. Kev sat at his desk.
“She wants you,” Alexander told the Tatane faery, and then strode out into the gallery.
He felt like a trap was closing around and the need to claw himself free was overwhelming. Except he could not see the trap nor the invisible enemy that breathed hot across his skin. The end of the world? What did that mean? And how was he going to protect Selange from it?
Selange sent for him at dusk. She had changed clothing, wearing a fitted black skirt to her knees and a high-necked, long-sleeved jacket with a teardrop cutout that was deeply revealing. A ruby pendant rested between and breasts. Anyone else might not have noticed the slightly gaunt look of her face, the haggard slope of her shoulders, or the slight tremble in her hands. But Alexander had known her for more than a century and he could read her well enough to know when she had tested her magical limits. On opening a message? Or had it been the contents that had thrown her?
“You are well?” he asked, though he knew it would annoy her, and more than a little because it would.
She waved the question away, sitting on the corner of her desk. “I have sent my Sunspears after the Hag. It is my hope they can recover her staff. It was the goal of the redcaps.”
“What would they want with it?” he asked, and was surprised when she answered.
Her lips tightened. “Someone sent them to get it. They would not—or could not—say who that was.”
He could guess. Redcaps, like angels, could only be controlled by someone with a lot of power—much more than a mere witch, even one as strong as Selange. And at least one of them had taken a special interest in her. He felt like the ground was shifting beneath him and he was sliding off the edge of the world. He was entirely in the dark about who or what might be behind it. Damn Selange for her secrets! She knew what was happening, and she had known for awhile, and yet she had not said a word to him. How was he supposed to keep her safe?
She began to speak again, shocking him. How afraid did she have to be to give up information she considered no one else’s business? That sent a chill of fear burrowing deep inside of Alexander. She was truly afraid, and that meant things were much worse than he imagined. And he imagined pretty well.
“After I questioned the redcaps, I spent some time researching today. Some legends say that the staff of a Blue Hag can control the destiny of humans. It can also control weather and even the shape of the land. Any of those things would be a power worth having, especially now. And unlike her hailstones, her staff can be used by anyone who has possession of it. I want her staff. This is the time of the year when she’s weakest and it is possible I can succeed where the redcaps failed.”
She rolled the ruby pendant between her thumb and forefinger thoughtfully, as if considering saying more. Alexander kept his mouth clamped tight. One word from him and she might shut down.
“I believe the Hag gave the intruder Prime a hailstone in return for her sacrifice in feeding the Hag fresh blood. I want it. Toward that end, I will issue a challenge at Conclave. The Prime trespassed in my territory and it is my right. Instead of the usual contest of arms, I will choose one of endurance. The winning witch will take possession of the losing Shadowblade.”
She rested the tips of her fingers together, her lips pursing. “I can be very creative with pain. I do not think this Prime will last long beneath my ministrations. But no matter how long she holds on, you must hold out longer. Do not fail me, Alexander.”
“And if she has given the hailstone to her witch?”
“She will still be useful to me. I will make her tell us her witch’s weaknesses and you wil hunt her down and retrieve the hailstone.” Her lips clamped together a moment, her eyes flattening. “This is no mean magic, Alexander. The Calleach Bheur are old creatures and their magic is very powerful. With the hailstone and staff, I may be able to keep us free of entanglements.”
“Entanglements?” Alexander repeated warily, holding himself tightly reined. He wanted straight answers. He wanted to know just what exactly the angel’s message had contained and who had sent it.
“If you prefer, you can call it . . . indentured servitude,” Selange clarified softly. Then she stood. “Come now. We don’t want to be late.”
Hi Diana 🙂
Thank you very much for the excellent chapter.
I wanted to turn the page to the next one but the monitor wouldn’t respond to my pokes.
All the best,