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.”

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s