Here's the cover and an excerpt from Book 4, the penultimate novel in the Schattenreich series, and the sequel to Primary Fault, Shaky Ground and Double Couple. Release date for the trade paperback is planned for October 31. The ebook will follow shortly.
He found me as I stumbled out, bereft of emotion, alone. I repeated the mantra of my journey through the forest once more. Where am I. Who am I. It had lasted a lifetime or no time at all. No sound, no smell. Souls don’t smell. Souls yearn.
Ankou saluted me, two fingers to his forehead, and then gestured in front of him. He wore no hat and didn’t have his curved iron. “Let us walk a-ways together. Katarin.”
“Is that my name?”
“It is the one I have given you.”
Ankou, the being who embodied Death, had his own, private name for me. I wasn’t thrilled about that. His appearance matched the one I had last seen as I lay bleeding out – a devastatingly attractive man but still cadaver-thin and tall – the ears ended in subtle points. His demeanor suggested antiquity, but his movements and face belied any suggestion of age. His hair blew back in a gentle breeze that swirled around his body, which was clad in black and gray, of course. His clothes bore decorations of silver and gold to match the highlights in his ankle-length hair and those dark eyes rimmed in silver.
“You control the wind like you control people’s deaths?” I asked him, fascinated, despite a lingering dread in the presence of the being I had feared since childhood.
A sad smile crossed his face. Was it just for my benefit? He had helped me find my way through his forest, but I was unconvinced it was a good idea to place trust in Death.
“A minor skill.”
“You look different. Why?”
“You have hated me your whole life. Your death allowed me to redeem myself, and…” He paused as we stopped at a crossroads.
I looked back the way we had come. No landscape or path. No forest, nothing but horizon, bleak against a gray sky. The way straight ahead and the way that crossed it were also bare of landmarks.
“And?” I prompted.
“And find a form that pleases you, my lady.” Ankou took a shallow bow.
“This one is a remarkable improvement on how you showed yourself to me the first two and a half decades I’ve known you,” I said.
He acknowledged my comment with a crooked smile.
“This is it, then. It is time for you to take me with you. Where do we go?”
“This is where we part,” he said. “I must attend. And you must return to—”
“Life. I wish I could.” I tried once again to remember names, but found I couldn’t. Not yet. At least he had given me a name.
“It is your decision.”
“My decision…where I will spend my death?”
“Your decision about how you will live,” he said. “What your choice will be.”
“I don’t understand. Didn’t you help me die?” I died in the arms of…one I loved. But Death had eased my pain, had made it easy, had banished my fear.
“Not a true death.”
“I died, but I’m not truly dead. Yep. That makes sense,” I said.
“You’ll have to make your way through the Between Lands alone, I’m afraid.”
“I walked through your forest. Are we all planted there? Good guys in front, bad guys in back? Tall trees are souls who count, aren’t they?”
His smile radiated true warmth. “You understand.” He twirled his arm in the direction of where we had come from. The forest emerged, as if from behind a mirage. “The Lands Beyond begin there.”
“My domain.” He waved his arm. “I also have some control over the Between Lands, but it is a more variable landscape.”
“At first, I hoped there would be some who I could keep with me. But over the years, the centuries…there was but one and then…” He shook his head. “You and your family and your ancestors, all the ones back to those first priests, the ones who bargained for power – none of them had your power to see through to the heart of things.”
“I’m good at figuring things out. You know, analyzing data; it’s a natural talent.”
Death laughed, both a rich and hollow sound. “No, that’s not it. You’re the one.”
“Oh, that. That Anam thing. If you say so.”
I squinted at him, wondering if I could see beneath his facade. “Why?”
“Why do you want to keep me with you?”
“Blood is powerful. Your blood, especially.”
Anam. Anamorphosis Was that it? “I don’t know what Anam means.”
“Soul. Eneff. Anima. Many languages, same meaning. Anam crosses all veils. You embody it.”
Figure it out. My ancestors bargained for power. One of them broke their bargain and so we were all cursed. My father’s brother wanted what I have. Anam. The apex of the life-soul-tree was where power concentrated. Power over the veil.
If I died giving birth, like my mother and the women in my family before her, then my girls would inherit it. But if I were the apex, the last one, then they would be free. Wouldn’t they? Would they have power without the curse? That was something any number of entities, human or otherwise, would like to control. Could everything really be that simple?
“I get to go back? To live again?”
He nodded. “Have you chosen an Aspect?”
“You know about all that?” I felt empty and weary and would have liked to just sink into a small insignificant heap on the ground for a few seconds or even an eternity.
“It’s what the lot of you seem to enjoy doing. If one of you has a particular affinity for the Aspect you’ve chosen, it becomes a significant part of your…self.”
“Oh. Cool. I picked that guy who turns himself into a swan to be with his lover.”
Ankou’s smile graced his face with an unearthly beauty. “Oenghus mac Oc. Nice.”
I sighed. “Glad you approve. So which way should I go from here?”
He turned sideways, held out his arms as if he were about to perform that Greek dance the men
do and then lowered them. “Walk that way,” he crossed one arm over his chest and pointed straight ahead. “Just follow it until the end. You will pass the Lecksteine along the way. Before the end they will become irresistible.”
“Salt licks? Like for deer in winter? And what happens if I taste them?”
“They represent the guilt of your past. You will live a portion of it again, once for each time you partake.”
“That way,” he crossed his other arm over and pointed down the intersecting road, “leads to a less untimely trek, The Paths of the Dead, but I fear your control of your craft is not yet sufficient to overcome its…hurdles. And there,” he twisted his head in the opposite direction, “may take you where you most want to go.”
“How do you know where I want to go?”
Ankou unfolded himself. “It’s what we live on.”
“You live on snatches of memories?”
“What you retain from the Dreams. We feed on them.”
“You feed on the Dreams? I thought it was blood and lust that satiated you.”
“What do humans most dream about based on your recent journey?”
Ankou retained his appearance, but I imagined I saw the immaterialness lurking beneath it. Always changing. Always hungry. Everything was hungry here.
“You’ve given me important information. I assume you want something in return?”
He laughed. It now had the sound of a symphony orchestra – but slightly out of tune. “That was for free. There will be ample opportunity for me to collect from you, Katarin.”
“While I have you in a talkative mood, tell me: where does that name come from?”
“Some special ones I collect receive a name from me. It marks you.” He bowed again. “The name Death calls you with is your true name.” His eyes sparkled with silver.
Katarin – Kati – that private name from a man I loved like the smell of an early summer morning sitting on the porch, the smell of simple pleasure and the yearning for it to continue. “He knows my true name. The man I love is Death’s right-hand man.”
Ankou didn’t say anything.
“What’s his true name?”
“It is a name of power. What do you offer in return?”
“You gave him my name.”
“He paid for it, pays for it still.”
“You partook of my life’s blood.”
He bent his head in acknowledgement. “Exquisite, it was.” He leaned down and whispered, his silvery hair caressing my face. The name fled from my consciousness as soon as he spoke it, but it lingered there, deep. I knew somehow it would return at my bidding.
“Use it wisely. The name compels.”
My true name had not been used to compel, but it did all the same. “This druid crap is hard on a body. I think I’ll head that way.” I crossed my arm towards the path he had indicated would be the one where I most wanted to go. I took a few steps away from him.
“Until we meet again, Katarin. Fare thee well.”
I ran fast down the path, stopped and turned. Ankou held up two fingers spread in a vee, an easily understood symbol both in his world and mine.
“You, too, Ankou. Don’t let the job get you down.”
He saluted me in that flippant way, two fingers to his forehead with a slight bow of his head. And then he vanished.
“I hate it when they do that.”
The path, dusty and long, stretched out in front of me.
The Between Lands
Dusty and long, one foot after another. I saw movement. Compared to the nothing I’d been staring at for the past…hours, days, centuries, it was a veritable hive of activity, caused by something; or things. As I got closer I wasn’t so sure I wanted to. They were alive – at least as far as anything was alive in this place. The Between Lands, Ankou had called them. Maybe these things were a form of Between Life.
They came up to my knee on average. One was taller. He – or it – might have been the one in
charge. He acted like it. But none of the others paid him any heed as he ordered them around with loud grunts and slaps to the portion of their anatomy that normally would qualify as a head. They had a mossy look about them – old, dried-up moss, brown with patches of gray and green. A memory…he had mentioned them once and said they were called moss men and they controlled the borders. But the borders to what?
They were furiously throwing up a wall of sorts – a mass of mud or clay mixed with tree branches and stones. I could still clamber over if I hurried – and if I could find a way through them. They looked harmless, but had an air of malevolence about them. Did they have teeth? I edged closer, but they continued to pretend I wasn’t there. Maybe I wasn’t. I held up my hand. It looked real enough. I could see the veins, dirty fingernails – was that Hohes Venn muck? – and fingerprints.
I held both hands palm out and shouted, “Stop!” They ignored me. Maybe they didn’t have ears or they didn’t understand English. What was the word in Brezhoneg? “Paouez!” I screamed. One of them looked at me for a second and then looked away. It was a response. I didn’t know whether it was the language or the scream.
I’d had a lot of practice screaming recently and was getting good at it. It tore out of me, a cumulative primal scream that had gathered strength through my being drugged, dragged into a swampy fen, stabbed, and accompanied by a rude relative on a ram-headed dragon into the depths of the Dreams where I was chased by a nasty dude with a double penis. The peak was being greeted by my lifelong fear transformed into a Celtic deity oozing sexy with his every gesture who pointed me across a desolate landscape that was supposed to lead me back to life. A life I desperately wanted. But I had to get past these goons first.
As the scream tapered off, the moss men were all staring at me with beady little eyes the color of pond slime. The head honcho guy put his sticklike arms on his torso, about hip-height, right below his…head. Neckless head honcho guy reached into a satchel – I hadn’t noticed it before because it was the same color as his skin – that looked even more fungus-like. He fumbled around for a few seconds. The others looked from him, to me, to him, to me.
I wondered if I should scream again. I drew in a lungful of air, opened my mouth, and Neckless consulted with his neighbors. A huddle formed with a lot of activity that included grunts and squeaks and other sublingual mutterings. Then the whole troop disappeared in a blink. Maybe two. What was left was the six-foot high wall.
Well, I’ll be damned. Screw that.
I was halfway up the wall. Stick arms scratched and moss-covered stumpy legs kicked. I fell. Landed on my butt. Grunty chuckles came from inside the wall. For my second try, I made a running start. Fingertips reached the top of the wall, and I hauled myself up, shimmying the rest of the way while securing a firm grip on the ledge at the top – not wide but enough to grasp. I was about to swing a leg over when a dozen of the little jerks appeared at the top, slimy eyes blazing. They pushed me off. I landed in a crouch.
Frustrated and sore, I walked left. The wall went on for longer than it first appeared. I began to think it was one of those nifty illusions when one of the creatures poked his head around the corner. Not far at all.
Unless they’re building another fucking wall.
I ran. Just as I rounded the wall, it curved in front of me on both sides – and ended behind me – a solid barrier. I had no choice but to go ahead. The wall tapered to nothing as suddenly as it had formed. Looking back, nothing remained of either wall or landscape. There were just trees in back of me, in front of me, and on either side. I caught a glimpse in the darkening sky of the moss men running away.
I looked down. I was as dirty as they were and covered in mud. A few nicks and scratches showed through the grime where they had attacked me, the dried blood making a darker contrast. But blood meant life. I walked deeper into the trees.