Hope everyone had a happy and safe Thanksgiving. Things here were kind of quiet. But that means I managed to not only deal with some things around the house I’d been putting off but that I even managed to get some work done. Not that everything went smoothly. In the middle of writing one of the main scenes in the next Honor & Duty book (tentatively titled Operation Firestorm but that will change), Myrtle the Evil Muse decided to rear her head. I’d say her ugly head but it isn’t and she would make me pay for it. Of course, that means she hit me with a plot bunny I wanted–needed–to deal with sooner rather than later.
I’ve posted a variation of the following here before. It’s something that keeps begging to be written. The problem is I’ve never been sure where the story should go from here. I’ve made stabs at it but I’ve not been anywhere close to satisfied with it. Myrtle finally kicked me in the head hard enough, it shook loose. This is going to be the opening for a new series. You’ll note from the cover mock-up that it has a new author name (which may also change). The reason is I need a new mindset for this series, which will be darker than my other work. Not exactly horror but edging closer to the edge than my previous UF work.
Nor is it dystopian, although the possibility of the Earth falling into that sort of existence is there. That’s what the main character(s) are fighting against.
Because it isn’t something on the schedule and because I have to get the next Honor & Duty book out asap, I’m not going to be pushing through on this the way I have with others. However, I am going to actively work on it. I’ll be posting regular chapters, probably once a week, either here or on Substack–which would require me getting my butt in gear and setting up my site there. Possibly both. Not sure yet. But we’ll start off here.
So, with that longwinded intro, here’s the first chapter of Demonsbane, the first book in the Shadowstalkers series. Both the cover and the chapter are very rough drafts and subject to copyright, etc. (Original cover image: La paura, demone, stregone, angelo nero, diavolo by Luigi Cristiano and licensed via Adobe Stock.)
“There she is.”
The voice, slick like oil on water, came from the deepest shadows. A chill ran down her spine. Her breath caught in a near-sob of frustration and fear that she couldn’t quite hold back. Every instinct screamed for her to get up and run. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. All she could do was silently curse her bad luck and offer up a prayer – but for what?
For enough time to think. That’s all she needed. A few moments to think of a way to survive a little while longer. That wasn’t too much to ask for, was it?
She couldn’t despair. There was still hope that not all was lost.
Breathing deeply, she stilled her shaking hands. She knew that voice. Gods, did she know that voice. Her blood ran cold and her heart pounded heavily in her chest. Memory of pain wracking her body, pain caused by his hand, washed over her and she fought down the fear threatening to choke her. She had spent a lifetime praying she never heard that voice again because she knew when she did death would be near.
But it had been so long since that terrible day when they’d last met. She had actually convinced herself she’d managed to escape.
Now she knew exactly how foolish she’d been. This encounter had been years in the making. She could no more avoid it than she could deny who – or what – she was.
But that didn’t mean she would simply stand by, patiently waiting for him to strike. She’d never do that. Once before she fell prey to him and it almost cost her life. Never again would she allow him to lay hands on her. She’d take her own life first.
Still, fear raced through her, forcing her to remember that terrible time. Panic quickened her pulse and clouded her mind. It formed a band around her chest, squeezing the breath from her.
No! Don’t panic. Not now.
Panic was exactly what he wanted, what he expected. After all, it would weaken her even as it fed him. She had to focus.
Her only hope was to stay calm and try to think.
Slow your breathing. Settle your nerves. Still your heart. Feel the Earth and the Moon. Draw from them. You’re safe. Remember that. You’re safe for the moment.
“You’ve led me on a fine chase, so you have,” came that soft, menacing voice from somewhere behind and to her right.
Determination tinged with anger replaced the fear. With it returned the ability to think. She needed a plan before she moved from the safety of the circle. The moment she did, her protections would be gone and she’d be at his mercy.
Unless she acted first and took him by surprise. That was her only hope. But she needed to know where he was before she did anything. She knew better than to trust her eyes and ears, at least where he was concerned. She needed to use all her senses. One ill-advised action meant death.
“Ah, Shae, don’t tell me you’ve nothing to say.”
She resisted the urge to respond. Let him think her too scared, or too foolish, to speak. She needed time to determine where he was in the darkness beyond the small clearing where she’d cast her circle. As long as she remained within its protections, she was safe.
She remained where she was, kneeling in the center of the circle, her sword and ritual blade carefully placed on the grass before her. The warmth of the earth beneath her knees was klike a gentle embrace and she drew it close, savoring the energy she felt growing from ritual and need.
It wasn’t much, but the sound seemed almost ear-shattering in the still night. The muscles of her neck twitched as she fought the urge to turn in the direction of the sound. Instead, she lifted her face skyward and spread her arms as if in anticipation of a lover’s embrace.
“I think little Shae is afraid.” Menace dripped from his voice. “Come, girl. Don’t you want to play?”
In all the years since they last met, he’d learned nothing. His pride, always his greatest weakness, prevented him from even considering that she might have changed, might have grown in ways he hadn’t anticipated. That was good, very good – for her.
And, she hoped, very bad for him.
Eyes closed, she drew a deep, bracing breath. As she did, she felt him probing, pressing against her protections, trying to find a weakness. Let him try. Each moment he delayed in attacking was another moment she had to live and plan.
She lowered her arms and rested her hands on her thighs. Through barely opened eyes, she saw sword and dagger just inches away. Her focus split between her weapons and the enemy circling her. All she had to do was wait for the right moment to act, to catch him off-balance.
Slow, even breaths. Calm. Don’t rush. You are the last of the line. You must not fail.
Slowly, so slowly it was barely discernable, she reached for her weapons. They might not be much but they were all she had.
They have to be enough. Otherwise, all is lost.
“Come now, girl. Let’s put an end to this.”
The uncertainty and frustration tinging his voice were intoxicating. For so long the mere thought of him had been enough to plunge her back into the nightmarish memory of their last meeting. She’d lost so much that day. He’d killed her sister and left Shae with the guilt of knowing Siobhan sacrificed herself so her younger sister could live.
Maybe if she’d fought harder, if she hadn’t fled when Siobhan had told her to, Siobhan would still be alive. There were still nights when Shae woke, Siobhan’s cry of pain followed by that terrible dull thud of her body falling resounding through her.
Now she was about to fail her sister again. But at least they’d be rejoined in death and there’d be no more nightmares, no more fear.
No! That was the fear talking. Look at him. He’s unsure and confused. He didn’t expect you to deny him. Act now, before you lose the advantage.
Shae would never know if it was her own voice or her sister’s, but her resolve firmed. She wouldn’t give up. She’d make him pay for what he’d done to Siobhan and to all the others. Then she’d figure out how he’d found her. Otherwise more would come. She’d stop them. She always stopped them. And maybe, just maybe, she’d find a way to take the battle back where it began so long ago. Only then would she be able to end it.
“Just admit it, Shae. You’re only postponing the inevitable.”
She ordered her body not to respond to his taunts. Instead, she remained where she was, kneeling in the center of her circle, her senses reaching out, noting everything around her. She was safe as long as she remained in her circle. But she couldn’t remain there forever. She had to think, and she had to choose the right moment to strike.
Wait. . . wait.
The tips of the fingers of her right hand slowly inched toward the smooth hilt of her katana. When they closed around the worn leather grip with the familiarity that belied all the hours she’d worked with the blade, the corners of her mouth turned ever so slightly upward. He had no idea what she could do with the katana. He’d never expect her to actually wield it against him. After all, what sort of good Irish lass used such a blade?
A smart one who knows her strengths and weaknesses.
It didn’t hurt either that she’d never really been a good Irish lass. If she had, she certainly wouldn’t be kneeling in the middle of the woods in the dark of night. Nor would she be carefully planning the best moment to banish her circle and confront the man – the monster – who had haunted her dreams for so long. She most definitely wouldn’t be about to do battle, a battle that very likely would end in her death.
But she was damned if she’d die – AGAIN – without taking this beast from Hell with her.
Slowly, seemingly reluctantly, she climbed to her feet. The katana trailed from her right hand as if it weighed too much to hold before her. Somehow, her ritual blade found its way into her left hand. She didn’t remember reaching for it, but she welcomed the feel of the hilt, the heft of the blade. Through her lashes she watched as he stepped closer, triumph lighting his expression. He obviously believed the battle already won. Hopefully, she’d soon prove him wrong.
“Come play with me, Shae. I promise you’ll not forget it.”
His voice rippled over her, soft as a caress. It would be so easy to give in. she was tired of running and hiding. She was tired of losing everyone close to her. Most of all, she was tired of fighting battles for those not deserving mercy, much less life.
Stop it! He’s putting those doubts in your head. Don’t listen to him.
Ruthlessly, she clamped down on those fatalistic thoughts. She knew better. If she listened, it wouldn’t lead to release and peace. It would only lead to torment and, if she was lucky, death. But only long after she’d begged for it and then given up all hope.
Remember what he and his kind do to others, to those like you and to those who refuse your help.
Moving almost silently, he took another step forward, pressing against the edge of her circle. The night air crackled with power as he tested first one section of the circle and then another. She knew he was probing for a weak spot, something to exploit in his attempt to get to her. All the while, he continued his soft, seductive promise to be merciful if only she would banish the circle.
And so very stupid.
“Don’t be a fool, Shae. If you come out now, I’ll be merciful.”
“Merciful?” She laughed bitterly, unable to help herself. “You don’t know the meaning of the word, Conal. You’re Morrigan’s wolf in more than just name.”
“Just as you once were,” he growled.
“I was never Morrigan’s.”
With that, she instantly banished her circle. Before Conal could do more than start in surprise, she leapt. The katana flashed against the night sky as it arced through the air. It might not be as heavy as the blade she carried the last time they met, but it was every bit as deadly. In fact, it was more so because she knew how to wield it, something she’d not known so long ago.
Conal stumbled backwards one step, two and fought to bring his blade up to deflect her blows. The katana sang as it struck his broadsword. Her wrist registered the impact even as she reacted on instinct. Her right knee bent and, as she let her body bend and move forward, her right elbow leading, taking the katana into a defensive position over her shoulder, she stepped past him. Off-balance, his broadsword sliding down the length of the katana toward the fresh earth, Conal cursed. That curse turned vicious as she once more pivoted, dropping her left shoulder and pulling the katana lengthwise across his side, opening him as easily as a helpless doe.
Ignoring the spray of blood and the hot fury reflected in Conal’s blue eyes, Shae pressed her advantage. The moment she showed mercy would be the moment she died. She had to keep him off-balance and on the defensive. Otherwise, all was lost.
The silence of the night was shattered as blade met blade and the sounds of battle filled the air. Shae did her best to take advantage of her speed and agility. Conal was bigger than her, slower and he was injured. But she was tiring. If she didn’t find an opening soon so she could deliver a debilitating strike, all would be lost.
Fear spiked as she danced away from his blade as it swept through the air where she’d been just a split-second before. Her foot shifted to the left and then slipped. Her guard dropped as she struggled to maintain her balance. Everything was happening too quickly, too unexpectedly. Worse, Conal knew it. His heavy broadsword raced toward her. She had to regain her balance…she couldn’t fall.
Damn it, not again!