Monthly Archives: June 2015

A Sip of Fear (Chapter Two)

A Sip of FearHere’s the second chapter of my new novel, A Sip of Fear, volume one of The Illuminated. I’ll publish the third chapter here next Friday, which is also publication date, so I’ll have links then to the book at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords as well. Meanwhile, please enjoy this sample.

 

Shadow was real!

I stood on my balcony the next morning. Our apartment is on the second floor of the building and we have a covered balcony facing the sunrise. The air smelled sweet and, as usual, damp. The sun played a low-pitched note in my mind as it rose triumphantly over the horizon. A crow flew down and landed on my shoulder. That fit my mood. Birds often came to visit, landing on me or on the balcony rail. Pigeons and jays were common, songbirds rarer, and on one occasion I drew a red-tailed hawk.

In a mood like this, a big bird as black as my fear responded to the squawk in my brain and landed on my shoulder. I turned to look into its little dark eye.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “He won’t hurt you. I’m the one who’s dead.”

Shadow was real!

I was jumping to conclusions. I knew that. He might not come to Seattle. He might not come for me. That ominous arrow pointing north from Los Angeles might bend. Maybe he’d go east from Portland, heading for Chicago or for some enclave of earth burrowers out in the countryside.

But I couldn’t help being afraid.

Shadow was real!

The crow screeched in my ear and flew away. Yeah, in this mood I was no fun. Can’t blame you, bird.

Rose came out on the balcony with two cups of coffee. She handed me one, with cream, no sugar. I took a gulp of it, my hands trembling. She hugged me and ran her hand up and down my back.

“I’m scared, Rose.”

“I know. Me, too.”

“What should we do?” I said.

“Thinking about it,” Rose said. “The Illuminated need to know he’s real. Together we might be able to do something about him.”

“What? How do you stop someone like Shadow?”

She shrugged. “How do you kill a dead person? That might be impossible. But maybe we don’t have to kill him to stop him.” She shook her head. “We need more information.”

I had to smile at that. “You Djehuti adepts. You can never have enough data.”

“Well, we don’t want to make a mistake, not with something like this. There’s so much we don’t know. How much of the legend can we trust? Also, how much of the vampire stories are true about Shadow? Can you kill him with a stake through the heart? Can you poison him with garlic? It’s a swamp of misinformation. But I did some more digging into those sightings. Each one, he stayed a little while, a few days or a week, once as long as three weeks. Each time, an Illuminated died. No explanation of how or why. Then Shadow left. It’s reasonable to believe he killed those Illuminated.”

“Yeah. That fits the legend.”

“But he only killed one. You’d expect him to stay and clean the whole town out, kill every Illuminated in the place. He never does. He kills one. Then he leaves, goes to the next town and does it again. He’ll do the same in Portland, then move to the next target. If he comes north, he could stop in Vancouver or Olympia or Tacoma, or skip all of those and come here. Seattle’s the biggest city in Washington and has the most Illuminated. But that’s no guarantee. He could go anywhere.”

I drank some more coffee. I probably shouldn’t; I was wired enough already. “There’s a cowardly part of me that wants to hunker down and pray that he picks someone else to kill. Odds would be in my favor.”

“I know — but.”

“Right. But. But if he doesn’t kill me, he’ll kill someone else. There aren’t that many Illuminated in Seattle and most of them are my friends. Who should I prefer as victim? Marcus down at the Green Woman? Erica? You?”

“No matter who the victim is, we all suffer. We grieve, and we live in fear, and Shadow feeds.”

I sighed. “We need to stop him if we can.”

“And I don’t think we can do it alone.”

“Can you put something on a flash drive so I can show people, prove to them Shadow is a real person?”

She grinned and fished in a pocket. “Already done,” she said, handing me the drive. I pocketed it.

“Well, since Shadow seems to take his time, I guess I can make us some breakfast before I go talk to people. But I’d better not put it off too long.” I kissed Rose and held her, enjoying her smell and the feel of her body while I still could, while we were both still breathing. “I’ll make some phone calls after breakfast.”

ξ

Erica Jenner picked up the phone. I hadn’t been sure she would. “Hello?”

Well, that explained it. She didn’t check caller ID.

“Hi, Erica, it’s Gordon.”

“Oh. Hello.”

“Look, I know you’re still mad at me and I don’t blame you, but don’t hang up.”

“I’m still here.”

“Erica, this is really important. We’re all in danger. I need to talk to you.”

“So talk.”

“I mean in person. I want to show you something.”

A moment of silence, then, “This had better be important.”

“It is.”

“I really don’t want to see you, Gordon.”

“I know.”

“I’ve just gotten to where I can think about dating someone.”

I swallowed. Massive guilt. Erica always knew how to play that card, but in this case I deserved it.

“Well, what’s this about?” she said.

Deep breath. “It’s about Shadow.”

She laughed. “What?”

“Shadow is real.”

“Oh, come on, Gordon.”

“I can prove it.”

“Gordon — wait a minute. You and Rose broke up, right? She dumped you, didn’t she?”

“What? No. No, we’re fine.”

“What game are you playing, Gordon?”

“No game, I’m serious. Shadow is real. He was in Portland a couple weeks ago. He might be coming here. One of us is going to die if he does.”

“Gordon — never mind. I knew you were a two-timing backstabbing jerk, but this is a new low even for you. Don’t call me again.”

Click.

I put my phone on the table and rubbed my eyes. Rose came over and massaged my shoulders. “Starting with Erica might not have been the smartest move,” she said.

I laughed. “Get the worst out of the way,” I said. “So when my ex is on the list, she’s the first one I call. Things can’t get worse after that.”

“Hmm.”

“Who should I try next?”

“Marcus.”

“No, I’ll save him for later. I could use the Green Woman as a meeting venue. Show everyone the evidence at once.”

“Call Marcus. He can help you persuade people to listen. He has that kind of charm. He also likes you better than any of the others, and he has a more open mind than most.”

“I’ll try Frank Nguyen.”

Rose shook her head and smiled. She kissed my cheek and walked away, not saying any more.

Frank wasn’t pissed at me the way Erica was, but he still thought I was crazy. Jenny Carrow didn’t listen, either.

“Call Marcus,” said Rose.

I sighed. “All right. I’ll call Marcus.”

I did. He remained skeptical when the call ended, but invited me to the Green Woman that evening to show him the goods.

Rose was right, of course. She usually is. Sometimes I have to show I can think for myself, though.

Yeah, I know. Dumb. I have a mentat for a girlfriend. I should listen to her.

ξ

I let the doors of the Green Woman close behind me. She hung over the bar — the Green Woman, that is — on a wooden panel like something that would hang over the door of a medieval inn, painted as a gorgeous female face with big green eyes and ivy twined in her green hair. I always liked that image. The Green Woman looked a lot like Ela-Tu, who still wasn’t talking to me.

The bar served as an unofficial gathering place for the Illuminated in Seattle, although of course we weren’t its only customers. Only six Illuminated that I knew of had permanent residences in Seattle at that time: Rose and me, Marcus, Erica, Frank Nguyen, and Jenny Carrow. Doug Walker migrated as did most werewolves, and a few Illuminated probably lived loner lives outside my knowledge, but still the pool of potential Shadow victims wasn’t large. Illumination is rare and precious and I didn’t want to lose any of my peers.

The place was medium busy, mostly with regulars. Marcus tended the bar, taking the mid-day shift before Lana arrived. A middling tall man about my age with black hair cut short and a gym-shaped body, he smiled as I approached. Sally, not an Illuminated, in her twenties, red haired and pretty, carried drinks and bussed tables. I sat at the bar.

“Glass of the house red, please, Marcus,” I said.

“Coming up,” said Marcus. “I want to see this proof of yours, Gordon, but let’s wait until Lana gets here.”

“Okay.” He served me my wine, which fell into the category of “not bad for a house wine.” By the time it reached my lips, though, it could have won awards. Being a bio-mage has plenty of perks to it.

As I sipped and waited, an Illuminated I didn’t recognize came in. She stood no taller than five two and had a petite body that drew my eyes away from her face over their great reluctance. Wavy night-black hair sluiced down her back except for a couple of strands artfully arranged in front to embrace her breasts, which were contained but not concealed by a form-fitting white body suit. Her head was a little large for her body, as usual for short people. It was far from unattractive, though. Her eyes, big and blue as the sky, contrasted sweetly with her hair in the striking combination called “Black Irish” along with her fair skin.

I couldn’t help smiling as I saw her walk in the door. She smiled back. A voice in the corridors of my mind whispered, here comes trouble, but I couldn’t help it. I followed her movements with my eyes, still smiling, as she came up to the bar and sat beside me.

“What will you have, beautiful?” Marcus said.

“That red wine looks nice,” she said in a mellow contralto that made my blood vibrate.

“Coming right up,” Marcus said.

“Allow me,” I said as he served her glass, and applied the same magic to her wine as I had to my own. She sipped it and her eyebrows shot up.

“Oh, my,” she said, “a bio-mage. My name’s Sarah. Sarah Cole.”

“Gordon Greenbough,” I said, holding my hand out. She took it, and I reached for a sense of her Luminous as I touched her hand. I couldn’t get a clear impression, except of presence and considerable mental power.

Sarah laughed. “Asta,” she said.

“Beg pardon?”

“My Luminous. Her name is Asta. I’m a glamor-mage. Illusion, graceful mind-working, that sort of thing.”

“I see.” That made sense. I wondered how much of her beauty consisted of illusion, but what difference did it make? All beauty is illusory.

“Asta is hard to read. I’m new in Seattle, and I’d heard this was the place to introduce myself to the local Illuminated. Glad to see I wasn’t misinformed.” She turned to Marcus. “What’s your name?”

“Marcus Jones.”

“Good to meet you, Marcus,” said Sarah, holding her hand out. He took it, smiling. I noticed that she had long fingers. Graceful hands, like the rest of her. She closed her eyes briefly. I knew that she was reading his Luminous, and would find that Marcus was a tinker-mage. Thotis, his Luminous, made Marcus a designer of amazing inventions that shouldn’t work, but did. Tending bar might seem an unusual occupation for a tinker-mage, but Marcus owns the Green Woman. It’s his cover and his day job.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for Illuminated to have livelihoods that seem out of touch with our powers. It lets us do what we do discreetly and not attract unwanted attention. I heal people, but I do it in secret and take no credit for it. Meanwhile, I make money as a writer and editor, and nobody connects that with bio-magic.

Might as well plunge right in, I thought. “This may not be the best time to come to Seattle, Sarah.”

She blinked. “Why is that?”

“You’ve heard of Shadow, I imagine.”

Her laugh was as pretty as she was. “Who hasn’t? You’re not saying he lives in Seattle, are you?”

“God, no! What a thought! No, he travels about and doesn’t seem to have a permanent residence, but he last surfaced in Portland two weeks ago. Before that he was in Eugene, before that in Oakland, and before that in Los Angeles. You see the general direction.”

“Hmm. So he might be coming here.” She shook her head. “How do you know all this? And what makes you think there even is a Shadow?”

I sighed. “You don’t believe me, of course.”

“Well, it’s a lot to take in. But I’m listening.”

I smiled. “You think I’m a harmless nut, Sarah. If you thought I might be right, you’d be terrified.”

“I’d be terrified if Shadow was about to drink my blood. He’s not here now. I hope not. If he’s on his way, I can always leave town. I’m good at going unnoticed when I want to.”

At that moment, Lana walked into the bar, tying her apron in place, her dark hair in a tight bun. After she took over for Marcus, he turned to me. “You said you had proof that Shadow is real.”

“Right. Let’s get a table and I’ll show you.” I hoisted my backpack with my laptop in it. The flash drive from Rose was still in my pocket.

ξ

“Wow,” Marcus said. “I never —” He shook his head.

“That’s eye-opening, all right,” said Sarah quietly.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s odd, isn’t it, that nobody thought to do a test like this before. We were so sure that Shadow was a myth, we didn’t even bother to check the available evidence.”

“Could your friend be wrong?” said Sarah. “You said she cropped out some of the sightings.”

“Yes, but that was less than one sighting in ten. The rest of them fit this pattern linked up by dates. I’m very sure. Shadow is real.”

Silence prevailed at the table after that. Finally, Marcus stood up. “Well,” he said, “I guess I need to help you persuade the other Illuminated. I could start with Erica.”

“She froze me out already,” I said. “No pun intended.”

“You cheated on her, Gordon,” said Marcus. “You’re not the best one to convince the Ice Woman. Her skepticism is off the charts just because it’s you.”

“I guess so. Feel free to try.”

“I can probably get others on your team, but I don’t know how we can stop Shadow even if all of us work together.”

“Why did you call her the Ice Woman?” said Sarah.

“She’s a frost mage,” I said. “She can drain heat out of things. Or people.”

“Well, she might be the answer, then,” Sarah said. “Freeze Shadow solid. Even if it didn’t kill him, what could he do if he’s a block of ice?”

“Maybe,” I said. “The problem is that we just don’t know. We have only the vaguest idea of Shadow’s powers, and we don’t know anything about his weaknesses, if he even has any.”

“Oh, everyone has weaknesses,” said Sarah. “Of course he keeps his a secret. Hell, he keeps his existence a secret. I don’t think he would if he was really invincible. Do you?”

“Probably not,” said Marcus. “Maybe Rose can help us figure out what can stop him.”

“If she has enough data, she can figure out anything,” I said. “She can’t work in the dark, though.”

“Well,” Marcus said, standing up. “I’m going to go phone some people and see if I can get them to take a look at the evidence. That’s the first step. We can get together and talk about the next one after we’re all on board. You two stay as long as you want. If you need anything else, just flag down Sally. I’ll be in the office.” He clapped me on the shoulder, gave Sarah a last wistful smile, and left.

Sarah said, “Well, here I am in the big city, and sure enough, things are exciting.”

I laughed. “Yeah. I could do with a little less excitement, actually. Although we can’t be sure Shadow will come here. We could be worried about nothing.”

“If he doesn’t come to Seattle, we go after him. Right? We can spread the word, get a task force together. Unite the Illuminated world against a common enemy. One step from world peace.”

“Heh.”

“I’m really glad I met you, Gordon. For a lot of reasons.” She smiled and covered my hand with hers, which made me jump a little.

“I’m, uh — I’m with someone,” I said.

“Of course you are,” said Sarah. “Rose. I heard it in your voice. Anyway, bio-mages are always with someone. Usually more than one someone. Right?”

“Not always.”

“Nearly always. That’s what I hear. Not many men say no to me, Gordon, and bio-mages seldom say no to anyone. And I also hear it’s really worthwhile to get one to say yes.” She stood up and kissed my cheek. “I’ll be in touch.”

She walked out, throwing me a last smile over her shoulder.

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Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

A Sip of Fear (Chapter One)

A Sip of FearA Sip of Fear, volume one of the new series The Illuminated, will be published on Friday, July 3, 2015.

Over the next three weeks, I’ll be publishing the first three chapters on this blog. I’ll add links to the book at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords on the publication date.

Meanwhile, hope you enjoy this sample.

 

Carkeek Park at night always makes me think Seattle has disappeared. The trees shut out the lights of the city and the wind blows off Puget Sound with the voices of drowned mariners and dispossessed Indians. The illusion isn’t perfect because the city lights reflect from the omnipresent clouds and wrap the woods, meadows, and walkways in a gentle glow. And that’s a good thing, I said to myself, when one walks along the cliff edge with a long drop to one side and a werewolf to the other.

A werewolf? Well, some big animal had eaten several pets in the neighborhood and scared the bejeezus out of two mildly drunk teenagers. Could have been a cougar or a small bear, as the news mongers suggested, but I thought otherwise. You can call it paranoia, mystical insight, a hot tip from my Luminous sponsor, or hyped-up calculation of data by my girlfriend, Rose.

Actually it was none of those things. Doug Walker told me six months ago he’d be back in town before Thanksgiving, so I’d been watching for signs of him for the past couple of weeks.

“Come on out, Doug. I just want to talk.” I didn’t raise my voice. There was no need. “I know you can hear me. I know you can smell me, too. Dude, you can’t go around munching on people’s dogs and scaring their kids. That kind of thing causes talk.”

As I walked along the path away from the cliff, I scanned the darkness telepathically for signs of the Illuminated, particularly the scruffy specimen I expected to find. Doug was just dim enough, I thought, to do —

That. Exactly.

The big beast streaked across the open ground from where it had been hiding under the trees. Doug in wolf form was much too fast for an ordinary mortal to fight even with a firearm, which I didn’t have, or to flee. He was strong, too, and his jaws and teeth would rip out my intestines in less than a second, except that I’m not ordinary any more than he is.

I’d prepared the working ahead of time in case he tried something stupid like this, and so it took only a sign made with the fingers of my left hand and a single quiet syllable breathed voicelessly into the dark to make the muscles of his four legs seize up in cramps. Doug whimpered and twisted on the grass. Another spell brought the tough runners out of the ground in an unnatural growth spurt to wrap about the wolf and bind him.

With Doug safely muzzled, I walked over to where he lay under the grass bindings and sat down. “Ready to talk now?”

Doug’s body rippled as if little mice were scooting around under his skin. In less than a minute, the big, shaggy dog had become a big, shaggy man. Clothes came and went with the transition, unlike in the movies. I’ve never understood that, but hey — I’m not a werewolf. “Hi, Gordon.”

I shook my head. “What in the world were you thinking, Doug?”

“A guy’s got to eat. I could have killed those two kids, but I didn’t. I’m on good behavior, Gordon. Cut me some slack.”

“You still made the evening news, Doug. You know the rest of us won’t tolerate that. You had to expect someone to come for you and you’re just lucky it’s me and not the Ice Woman. What’s wrong with take-out pizza anyway?”

“Costs money. Will you let me out of here?”

I sighed and made a gesture. The grass mat loosened and Doug sat up, fragments of dirt and sod clinging to his leather jacket and tangled in his hair.

“I didn’t want to come back to the city. I was doing fine in the Olympics.”

“But you said you’d be back before Thanksgiving.”

He nodded. “I knew I would. That doesn’t mean I wanted to.”

“Why did you come back? Hunting’s got to be better up in the mountains.”

“Yeah. It got too crowded. Bunch of other wolves showed up. I got in a fight. Asshole newbie trying to show me who was alpha. Like I couldn’t smell his fear. He was ready to shit himself even before he ran into my tracks. I scared him, but Shadow scared him more.”

I said nothing. Shadow was a myth. Every Illuminated except the hopelessly romantic knew that.

“Nothing to say to that, Gordon?”

“What can I say? You met a werewolf afraid of the bogey-man. I get it.”

“No you don’t. You think Shadow isn’t a real guy, but he is. This newbie wolf saw him in Portland and ran away north, and he didn’t stop running until he got to the peninsula.”

“Portland?”

“Yeah.”

I shook my head. “He was making it up. He told you a ghost story and you believed it.”

“No way, Gordon. He’s not the only one who said Shadow’s in Portland. Or he was in Portland a couple weeks ago. Four wolves came to the peninsula running from Shadow. A pack. I kicked the newbie’s ass, but the others would have wanted me to take over the pack and who needs the responsibility? So I decided, what the hell, Seattle’s not so bad.”

“It will be if you don’t quit dining on pooches, doofus.”

“Okay, okay. I guess I can get by on squirrels and pigeons for a while until I can make some money.”

“Do that.” I stood up. “Seriously, Doug, I don’t mind you hanging out in town and hunting the wildlife if you do it discreetly. That’s all I’m asking. No dead pets, no freaked-out kids, and no weird news stories. Can you manage that?”

“Yeah. I don’t think I’ll be here that long anyway.” He stood up and brushed the grass off his jacket. He bent over and shook his head so his hair swished back and forth like a horse’s tail, trying to get the roots and dirt out of it. “What will you do if Shadow comes up here, Gordon?”

“There is no Shadow, Doug. He’s a scary story the Illuminated tell each other to score points at parties.”

Doug sniffed once at the air and walked back to the cover of the trees. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

On the way to my car, I healed a sick tree, encouraged the grass a bit, and coaxed wildflowers into blooming and perfuming the night air. The fragrance stayed with me all the way out of the park, playing a harmonic chord as backdrop to the melody of worry in my head.

ξ

I left the park in a slightly better mood. Part of that was the floral accompaniment, but not all. I felt confident, on the whole, that Doug would keep his word, especially since I whacked him down in our brief tussle. It’s a dominant-wolf thing that comes out in Illuminated followers of Tikif — werewolves, that is.

Tikif has never made peace with civilization, said a familiar voice in my mind.

“And you have?” I said.

Of course, said Ela-Tu. I like civilization. Most of the time.

I smiled.

This thought amuses you, my love.

“You like civilization in small doses,” I said. “I spend about twice as much time away from the city as I used to before bonding to you, and I was already a backpacker.”

All things in moderation. Cities have less biomass, but more thought. Does that mean they have more life or less? It’s a different octave of life. Mind is splendid to me. Tikif wants to peel away the layer of self-awareness and abstraction that humans evolved and return to a simpler time when sensation and instinct ruled alone.

“I see.”

You need time away from the noise more than I do, sweet one. But I would never want to turn you into a beast.

“Is that why you don’t give me full shape-shifting?”

Do you want it?

“It might be interesting to become a bird.”

If you did, you would be a flightless bird. You’re too heavy to fly.

“Maybe.”

You would also lose a lot of your intelligence while in the form of some other creature. Speed, strength, sharp senses, claws, fangs, all these come at a price. So does your lovely brain.

“Hmm.”

It’s silly for a human to want to become an animal. A human is an animal. I love what you are. You are very special to me.

“Humans in general, or me in particular?”

Both. Although you aren’t my only adept, of course.

“I know. Good thing I’m not the jealous type.”

I felt amusement from Ela-Tu at that, and in my mind I saw her smile. She has a beautiful smile, for a nature spirit without a body. Which she was at the moment.

She also has a beautiful body when she wants to. But I love her for her mind. Mostly.

“Hey, you might know the answer to this. Is Shadow real?”

Silence. Stillness.

“Ela-Tu?”

No answer. That’s Ela-Tu. She talks my mental ear off when she feels like it, and disappears when I try to mine her for practical information.

What worried me in this case was that she might have gone quiet because if she’d answered, it would have been yes.

Well, the bug was in my brain for sure now, thanks to both her and Doug.

I found my car, started it up, and drove to the I-5 on-ramp, heading for Ballard and the apartment I shared with Rose. She might be able to tell me about Shadow, since clearly Ela-Tu wasn’t going to.

I love Rose for her mind, too. Mostly.

ξ

When she heard me close the door behind me, Rose waggled her fingers in the air by way of greeting. She sat at her computer desk and fiddled with something on one of her databases, something related to a missing person case. That’s what Rose mostly does: find people and solve puzzles. She handles our finances, too, and her investments just about double our income.

What she never does is use her advanced degrees — one medical, two scientific, and one legal — in any conventional fashion. Her impossible brilliance would attract too much attention if she did. That’s not to say she doesn’t use the knowledge, though.

I walked over behind her and put my hands on her shoulders. Bending, I kissed the back of her neck below her short blonde hair, right on her white rose tattoo. She giggled. “Find her yet?” I said.

“No.” Rose minimized the database program she was using and revealed her wallpaper. It showed a picture of the two of us on a camping trip in British Columbia a few months ago. I stood in that picture under my rain hat in my hiking jacket, tall and rangy, with straight sandy hair dripping down to my shoulders and the wet dripping from my hat’s brim. She stood beside me, short and cute, bundled in fake fur and grinning.

She wheeled her chair around, blue eyes smiling above her little pixie nose and wide mouth. She kissed me. “Not actually looking for her, Gordon. I’m looking for her mother. Tracy will be with her, I think. How’d the wolf hunt go?”

“I found Doug and talked to him.”

“Any problems?”

“None I couldn’t handle.” I kissed her again. “Are you hungry?”

“Yeah. Let’s eat.”

I’d left a beef stew simmering in the slow cooker in a red wine sauce. I went into the kitchen, boiled some water while I scrubbed some red potatoes and tossed them in to cook, then poured each of us a glass of wine. “About ten minutes,” I said, handing Rose her glass. The top of her head came up to my shoulder. She smiled again and took a sip, then sat on the couch and patted it for me to sit beside her.

“Something’s on your mind,” she said.

“Yeah.” I smiled. “Want to tell me how you know?” I knew she would. We played this game sometimes, letting her show off what she could do. Living with Rose was like living with a cuter Sherlock Holmes, minus the cocaine. Well, usually. She indulged once in a blue moon.

“The muscles in the right side of your face are tight, and your hand is in your pocket fiddling with that amber thing you carry.” I took my hand out of my pocket. She was right, as usual. “Also, you don’t have that half-distracted look that you get when you’re talking to Ela-Tu, so she’s not around right now. Why would she be gone? Either you sent her away, or you asked her something she didn’t want to answer, or she left you alone to work something out for yourself. I don’t think you sent her away, because I can’t see any sign that you’re mad at her, so it’s one of the other two, but if she left you to work something out you’d have that stubborn face you get when you’re doing something stupid and you know it —”

“Hey!”

“— and you don’t, so I’m pretty sure you asked her something and she popped out of your head rather than answer it. And that means you have something on your mind, and you want to ask me.”

I grinned and shook my head. It’s a good thing I know Rose loves me. She’d be scary otherwise.

“Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?”

“Doug said he ran into a pack of wolves in the Olympics who were running away from Shadow. He said they came from Portland. He said Shadow was there a couple of weeks ago.”

“Ah. You want to know if they had anything real to be afraid of. Or if they were even telling Doug the truth.”

“Yes.”

“You want to know if Shadow is real or just a scary story.” She stood up, pacing the room. Her eyes got a kind of out of focus look that she always got when drawing on the power of Djehuti, her Luminous. “The most likely answer is that either they were lying or they got scared of nothing in particular. Something else could have run them out of Portland. Werewolves aren’t the sharpest blades in the knife. But maybe I’m wrong. Something gave rise to the legend of Shadow and also to all the vampire legends in fiction and folklore. Either Shadow is real and the vampire stories are garbled accounts of him —”

“Or her,” I said.

“Right. Shadow could be a woman. Or both. There could be more than one Illuminated bound to Apep.”

“It’s hard to believe there could be even one.”

She shushed me. “Don’t interrupt, please.” I shut up and sat down. “All right. The story about Shadow is that he’s an Illuminated adept of Apep, the spirit of Death, one of several Luminous who was once worshiped as a god.”

Like yours, I thought, but didn’t interrupt, as she’d asked.

“Shadow is immortal, says the legend. He feeds on fear, and sometimes on blood. Hence the stories of vampires. He hates other Illuminated, or his Purpose is to kill them, like mine is to seek truth and yours is to heal and protect life. He often gets blamed for unexplained Illuminated deaths. Apep gives him powers of strength, speed, invisibility, illusion, mind control, heightened senses, and invulnerability, plus the ability to kill with a touch. Nice package. The downside of it all is that in order to bind to Apep, this hypothetical Illuminated had to die. Shadow is immortal and invulnerable because he’s already dead — that’s the story.”

“Right.”

“Now, problems with the story — who would be crazy enough to die just so he could bind to Apep, trusting the Luminous to resurrect him? Also, how could Apep resurrect anyone when he has no life-giving powers? His aspect is all about death. Dead but alive — Shadow’s a logical contradiction. We don’t even know if anyone can bind to Apep. We do know that he demands death as a condition of the binding, because he’s told people that who asked him. The ones who reported this conversation all backed out of the deal. As far as we know, he’s never had any takers. Maybe it’s all a trick. Maybe Apep says that to get people to sacrifice themselves and then eats their souls.” She stood still, eyes closed and moving rapidly under her eyelids. “Two possibilities. One is that there really is a Shadow. The other is that he’s a myth among the Illuminated, who read too many vampire stories and watch too many vampire movies. Put that together with what we know about Apep and some Illuminated came up with the Shadow idea, and we’ve been scaring ourselves crapless with it ever since.”

“Okay.”

“How do we tell the difference?” She plopped down in front of her computer and pulled up a database. I went to check on the potatoes. They were almost ready. I set the timer for two minutes and went back to see how Rose was coming. Whatever she was doing, it wasn’t finished when the timer buzzed, so I dumped the spuds in a colander, served a pair of them on each of two plates, mashed them with a fork, and ladled hot, winy stew over the top — beef, onions, mushrooms, peas, thick aromatic sauce, all over boiled potatoes. I was hungry, but also curious, and I knew Rose wouldn’t touch a bite until she’d solved the puzzle, so I put both plates in the oven with covers on and went back into the living room.

“All right, take a look at this, Gordon,” Rose said. “These are plots of supposed Shadow sightings over the past year.”

What I saw was a map of the world with maybe thirty or forty red dots. “That’s a lot of sightings!”

“Right, but at least some of them aren’t really Shadow. Look: you have these oddball sightings that show up far away from the path marked by most of them. Like that one in China, the two in Australia, and the one in Sweden. But if we drop those out of the picture —” She pressed some keys and the dots she’d listed faded out, along with several others. When Rose drew lines between the remaining dots, what emerged formed two disconnected segments. One of them started in Germany and moved west to France, ending in Paris. The other began in New York, crossed the United States to the southwest, turned north at Los Angeles, and ended in Portland. That was the most recent Shadow sighting.

“What does that mean?” I said.

“Well, it’s a path. Germany to France over last March and April. Then a sighting in New York a week after the one in Paris in April. A week is plenty of time to take a plane from Paris to New York. After that, months to cross the country to LA, then another month to go north to Portland, where the wolves saw him two weeks ago.”

I swallowed. I could see where this was going.

“This isn’t a random sequence of sightings,” Rose said. “It’s just what we’d expect from someone traveling and taking his time about it.”

I felt a tightening in my chest, and a chill ran up my spine. For centuries the Illuminated had been sure that Shadow was a myth, and until now no one had thought to perform this one simple test.

“So he’s real,” I said.

She nodded. “He’s real.”

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End Stretch for A Sip of Fear

A Sip of FearI’ve been berating myself for not managing to post another article here for two weeks, in spite of greatly expanding my pool of possible topics. The truth is, I’m in the final stretch of getting my new novel, the first in a new series, ready for publication. A Sip of Fear is out to beta readers and I’ve heard back from one of them. I’ll make further revisions to the story based on their suggestions, give it a last proofing and copy-editing pass, finalize the cover design, and publish. It will probably be out by the end of next month.

This makes it difficult for me to concentrate on anything else. Not just this blog, but my other work in progress, The Rapier (volume 3 of the Refuge series) is being shamefully neglected. So, what the hell. I’ll say some things about how A Sip of Fear has developed and what readers can expect.

The premise and world building of The Illuminated are covered elsewhere, so I won’t go into those again. Suffice to say that the Illuminated are magic users, each of whom has a familiar spirit called a Luminous who provides one specific power or a related group of powers. The main protagonist and viewpoint character is Gordon Greenbough the bio-mage, who has healing and other life-related powers. The main antagonist initially is Shadow, a mysterious undead assassin bonded to Apep, the spirit of Death. Shadow’s character develops in the course of the story and she becomes much less mysterious, and also less unambiguously an antagonist.

The essential problem is that Shadow is coming to kill Gordon. He has no way to stop her. She is invincible: immortal, indestructible, superhumanly strong and fast, able to kill with a touch, and completely immune to Gordon’s powers as a bio-mage, which affect only living things. But there’s more to this. Turns out that Shadow normally kills only akusala, which are Illuminated who turn utterly evil. She’s coming after Gordon, who is not akusala, because of an arrangement between her Luminous and his. It’s a test. Gordon’s Luminous, Ela-Tu, wants him to evolve in some unknown way. If he manages to do that, his evolution will reveal a path to surviving Shadow’s attack. If not, he’ll die.

In the course of seeking this way out, Gordon learns about akusala, meets an akusala bio-mage, encounters Ela-Tu’s dark side twin, Ela-Lin, gets to know Shadow herself and deals with questions of life and death and good and evil — as in, what are these things? As I wrote this story, I found the character of Shadow evolving in ways that I really liked. She turns out to be nothing like what one would expect from a stereotypical undead killing machine. She’s full of passion and idealism, and all too ready to love. I am nowhere near finished thinking about where to take future stories in the series, but one tempting possibility is to write books from the viewpoint of other Illuminated, and in that case I will certainly want to create at least one centered around Shadow.

But I’m not sure I’ll do that. The other option, more conventional, would be to write the whole series from Gordon’s perspective.

Anyway, this is my explanation and apology for dropping the ball here. I’ll have an announcement when the book is actually published. In the meantime, hopefully I’ll be able to pull it together soon.

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The American South (Part III)

22927636_sLike the election of 1860, that of 2008 provoked an over-the-top reaction from the Confederacy. So far, it hasn’t been nearly as bloody, and let’s hope that endures. But it’s presented its own set of problems.

The obvious reason why the 2008 election provoked that reaction is racial. That year, the United States elected an African-American president. He is characterized by his detractors as many things that he isn’t, including some that I wish he were (a socialist, for example). He’s actually a moderate Democrat much in the Bill Clinton mold, but to hear his foes on the right talk, he’s the second coming of Che Guevara.

Understanding why Barack Obama provokes this reaction is important. It’s not so much that the president is a black man as the fact that a black man could be elected president, and what that means about how the country is changing. We’re past the time when substantial numbers of white people sincerely believed in racial stereotypes, and Obama’s intelligence and ability are obvious. But when I was a boy, a black man of his abilities (or any abilities) could not possibly have been elected president. Today, he can and was. What that means is that the United States is not the same place into which I was born. It has changed — much for the better, in my opinion, but the Confederacy disagrees.

As discussed in the previous two sections, the Confederacy is an authoritarian subculture within the culture of the United States and opposed to its basic ideals. (I’m calling it that because “the South” is misleading for reasons that will shortly become clear. I’m referring to a cultural reality in using that term, not to the historical Confederate States which, of course, no longer exist, and did not include all of cultural Confederacy when they did. Maryland and Kentucky are, or at least were at one time, both part of the cultural Confederacy although neither state seceded. What’s more, Virginia and Florida, which were part of the historical Confederacy, seem to have left the cultural Confederacy.) It is a holdover, a last relic of the feudal/agrarian pattern that once prevailed in civilized societies everywhere. Founded on the growing of cash crops by forced labor, it is a culture that is antithetical to anything that could be called “freedom,” “democracy,” or “equality,” and those three concepts are central tenets of the defining values of the United States. (Which is not, of course, to suggest that the United States has a perfect record of living up to them; such is clearly not the case. But the Union believes in them. The Confederacy does not.) In its politics (consistently a one-party state, formerly Democratic, today Republican), in its religion (overwhelmingly Evangelical Christian), in its economics (brutally anti-labor and characterized by extreme social stratification), the Confederacy remains at odds with everything America is supposed to stand for.

That’s been the case for literal centuries. But there’s one new fact about the Confederacy that is provoking a surge in activism today, like a desperate attempt to hold back the tide of change, and to destroy the United States as most people think of it before it’s too late to do so.

The Confederacy is dying. And it knows it.

Urbanization, Mobility and the Internet: The Triple Kiss of Death

Three things are destroying the Confederate subculture. These are the increasing urbanization of the South, the migration into it of people who grew up outside of it, and the vast increase in idea exchange provided by the Internet.

In 1860, the urbanization of the South (measured as the percentage of the people who live in urban areas) was under ten percent. Even as late as 1950, it was still under 50%. It has always lagged behind the national urbanization percentage, and still does, but as of the 2010 census, the South was over 75% urban — barely behind the Midwest. A generation of Southerners have grown up in an environment where the values and attitudes of the Confederacy make no sense and cannot be defended. Young white Southerners very naturally don’t buy into those values and attitudes. They have become Americans, not Confederates, adopting the values of the Union (which are themselves evolving, but that’s nothing new). In addition to urbanization, much of the South has finally industrialized, which means the realities confronting people are those of capitalism, not feudalism, and so are the political issues that matter. With industrialization has come prosperity for much (although not all) of the South, and with prosperity has come a set of foreign attitudes.

At the same time, the ethnic mix of the Southern population is changing and becoming more diverse. In 1860, virtually everyone who lived in the South was a white person of British or German ancestry, a slave or free person of African ancestry, or a Native American, and almost all of them were born in the South and grew up in the South. That’s no longer true. In 1980, an estimated 20 percent of the Southern population overall was born elsewhere, and that trend has accelerated. This varies widely by state. More than half of Floridians were born outside of Florida, while less than ten percent of residents of Louisiana and Mississippi were born outside those states. When someone moves to the South from outside the Confederacy, these days it’s usually for economic reasons, and the outsider brings modern values and attitudes along with the luggage. The percentage of Hispanics and people of Asian ancestry living in the South is also on the way up. None of these people buy into the Confederacy, either. (Distorting the political picture is that most immigrants are non-citizens and so not eligible to vote. However, they still interact with young white Southerners and this results in cultural change.)

Finally, the Internet brings foreign ideas into the South even faster than modern mobility is bringing new people. While this also permits the entrenched Confederates to build informational lacunas and echo chambers, any Southerner with a shred of curiosity can find information about all kinds of things that, in earlier times, would have been less accessible. This presents a challenge to the cultural values and religious beliefs that form the corpus of the Confederacy.

These changes are reflected in national elections. In 2008, Obama won the states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. He won Virginia and Florida again in 2012. He won Maryland both years, but Maryland ceased to be part of the Confederacy a long time ago. Virginia and Florida represent the leading edge of the change. It is inconceivable that a state remaining part of the cultural Confederacy could vote for a black president, and so it’s reasonable to assert that both of these states have now left the Confederacy and are, in the meaning used in this series of posts, no longer Southern. The Carolinas and Georgia will follow. Texas will take longer, but that will happen, too, as Texas continues to urbanize and as its large Hispanic population acquires citizenship. Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana will be the final stronghold of the Confederacy, most likely. Their assimilation could take as long as another lifetime, but by themselves, they can’t sustain the Confederacy against foreign pressure.

None of this is unknown to Confederates. Like the election of Barack Obama, other signs point to the Confederacy’s decline. And it’s fighting back. As in the 1860s, the inevitability of defeat does not deter the quixotic attempt to win, or protect America from the damage they may do in trying.

The Last Gamble

The Confederacy is dying, but it’s not quite dead yet. The hold that it has over the Republican Party at the national level allows it to exert influence over public policy — not enough to reshape the national government, let alone the national culture, to its own values, but enough to paralyze the government and prevent progress towards a more advanced, humane, and responsible Union.

Marxian analysis is again useful here. The United States, an advanced capitalist country, should be having a debate between capitalism and socialism. The question of whether we should have an industrial economy, with all of the government involvement that always must go along with that, should have been settled long ago. In one sense, it was — we do have such an economy, and ought now to be engaged in trying to humanize it and debating whether that economy and the wealth it produces properly belongs to an elite class of rich capitalists or to the people in general. But because of the Confederacy, we can’t have that debate yet. Instead, we must deal with a faction that remains committed to values and an approach to government appropriate to a nation of farmers, not one of industrialists, wildly out of touch with modern reality, and consequently nihilistic and destructive.

At this juncture, the Confederates — who are the driving force behind the Tea Party movement and, increasingly, the dominant core of the Republican Party — aren’t interested in enacting a governing agenda. Their agenda is to destroy, not to govern. What they want is to wipe the United States out of existence. In fact, this isn’t even secret. References to “starving the beast” and “drowning the government in a bathtub” show what the goal is. The glee with which Republicans in Congress have brought the United States to the brink of default and caused government shutdowns further reveals the Confederate agenda. These people know very well that the United States is a foreign country that is conquering the South culturally, and that this process has been aided by the federal government at times, from the forcible desegregation of the schools to the encouragement of modern-day capetbagging. Their ancestors tried to fight the United States militarily and lost; today’s generation is trying to demolish the country from within the government instead. The United States is the enemy to them, every bit as much as it was in the 1860s.

And as in the 1860s, the only way to deal with this situation is by acknowledging it. The Confederates regard the United States as their enemy, and so, as an American, I must regard them as my enemy, too. We must all do that. Whatever their legal status, the presence of almost the entire Republican membership of Congress — certainly most, if not all, of those from the South — should be regarded as morally illegitimate. There can be no compromise. They must be defeated. It’s that simple. It’s that cut and dried.

The Confederacy is dying, and that reality will be reflected in the next few elections. In the meantime, we must hold to a minimum the damage that the beast can do in its death throes. It’s too late to prevent this latest phase of the American Civil War.

All we can do is to ensure that, once again, the Union wins it.

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