Booke of the Hidden Excerpt
I smelled it this time. There was something trailing over my face, like lace or silk and it smelled like turned earth and decay. I was on my back in the wet leaf duff and shadows swirled above me. There was the glimpse of a white arm gleaming in the moonlight before it disappeared into the shadows again. Remarkably, I still had the crossbow in my hand but I wasn’t about to fire in case I hit Erasmus.
I turned, struggling onto my hands and knees. I needed to right myself, to get up! Something slammed into my head and the pain exploded in a shower of stars. I flopped down on my stomach. The edge of my sight was darkening but I wouldn’t let it happen. No way was I going to get knocked out and at the mercy of a succubus. I shook my head—and stopped when that made it worse. I just stopped moving, letting the darkness slip away and the light come back to my sight. I stumbled to my feet with the butt of the crossbow in my shoulder. Something was happening in the center of the glade but I couldn’t quite tell what I was looking at. Swirling shadow with flashes of pale skin and hair flying outward like flowing seaweed. It, too, was pale and captured the moonlight. But there was darkness, too, and they intertwined like some strange bolero. A tornado of leaves surrounded them and the grass was mashed and muddied beneath it. Them. I realized that Erasmus was wrestling with it, with the creature.
“Kylie!” he yelled.
“Erasmus! I’m here!”
“I…I can’t see it. I don’t want to shoot you.”
“Dammit, woman, I said shoot!”
I squinted at the whirling mass of leaves, dust, shadow, light. “But—” I had to trust him, didn’t I? I had to. I lifted the crossbow up to my shoulder, closed my eyes, and fired. It kicked back a little and I blinked as the quarrel shot forward with a twang of the string.
There was a shriek, a howl that I had heard before, and the churning mass roared and whipped, leaves flying like a giant blender. I raised a hand to my face to defend against it as leaves flung at me. Something shot outward and the leaves froze in the air for a long second before they simply fell to the ground, like cut puppet strings. The meadow was suddenly silent again and it took another few moments for the first tentative crickets to begin their song once more.
A dark lump lay in the center of where the cyclone was and I stepped closer, aiming the crossbow, now armed again. The closer I got the tighter my hold of the weapon became until I stood right over it. But when the moon passed beyond a cloud and cast its light, I could see that it was Erasmus.
“Oh my God!” I dropped the crossbow and fell to my knees. “Dammit, you said you’d be all right!” He was lying on his side. I ran my hands over him. “Erasmus! Don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead.”
A groan. My heart jumped. I gently turned him, looking for the quarrel, expecting to see it in his chest. But nothing was there.
I glanced quickly at the crossbow and all quarrels were back in their sheaths.
“Erasmus.” I pushed his hair out of his face. He opened his eyes and blinked, looking a bit dazed. I caressed his cheek, feeling how cold the skin was from the wind and the weather. His eyes focused on mine and he seemed to realize his position. He shot unsteadily to his feet and dusted himself off.
“It got away,” he said.
“Did I graze it?”
“No. You grazed me.”
“Erasmus!” I grabbed his shoulder to turn him and he winced.
“The shoulder,” he said and gently removed my hands.
“Not your fault. I told you to shoot.”
The adrenalin high I had been running on was leaving me, making my limbs feel heavy. “Do we follow it?” I asked, dreading the answer.
But Erasmus shook his head, rubbing his sore shoulder. “No. It’s spooked. In hiding. The good news is it might not kill tonight after all.”
Without another word, he turned away and headed back the way we came. At least I thought it was the way we had come.
I picked up the crossbow and followed him. With the crossbow tight to my chest, I clutched my arms. I was cold.
We trudged back through the woods and I was never so relieved to see asphalt. We reached my shop and I unlocked the door. I didn’t need to ask. He came through as I held it open for him. Once I switched on the lights, I saw the dark patch on his coat.
“Are you bleeding?”
He stared at the patch curiously, dipped his finger in it, and brought it to his lips and tasted. I swallowed down the tang of bile.
He raised surprised eyes. “That appears to be correct.”
“You’re such an idiot. Get that coat off and let me look at it.”
His hand clutched protectively at the collar of his duster. “Why?”
“So I can fix you up.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean what do I mean? You’re hurt. I’m going to bandage you. You don’t want to get an infection.” His face was still perplexed as I grabbed for the collar. “Come on. Get it off. It does come off, doesn’t it?”
He pushed my hands away and, slowly, unbuttoned the coat. Carefully, he peeled it over his good shoulder and then even more carefully over the hurt one.
“Let me help—”
“I can do it!” He winced, shutting his eyes tight as the coat slipped to the floor. The patch of dark was even bigger on his black long-sleeved shirt and it was torn where the quarrel hit. The fabric was strange, like silk but it wasn’t shiny at all.
“The shirt, too,” I said.
He looked at me as if I had suggested he do a striptease on the city hall steps. And then my mind went there. I blinked, getting rid of the image as best I could. “I can’t very well bandage you over your shirt.”
He sighed again and reached for the first button, undoing them mechanically. I was worried about his arm, sure, but I realized I was also staring in anticipation. He parted the shirt revealing a well-toned abdomen with a little dark hair on his chest. But as he pulled it back, I also noticed the strange tattoo reaching from his chest down his torso. I knew I was staring but I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
He grunted when he dropped the shirt. Naked from the waist up, he wasn’t what I expected. Not like any demon I ever imagined. More like an underwear model.
“The wound is up here,” he said.
“Sorry,” I muttered and looked at the blood streaked graze on his shoulder. It looked like the quarrel had cut a good chunk off of his skin along the shoulder but it wasn’t really deep. There was a lot of blood, or what I took for blood. In the light, his blood wasn’t quite as red as I expected. It was darker. Red, but almost black.
I maneuvered him to a chair and urged him to sit. “What about the poison?”
He shook his head. “It’s only making me a bit woozy but nothing more.”
“Let me get my first aid kit.”
I ran to the kitchen to fetch the little white box hanging on the wall. I pulled it free and set it beside the sink. Grabbing a towel from the drawer, I wet it under the faucet, squeezing out the excess water.
Erasmus was sitting stiff and straight in the chair when I returned. I set down the first aid box and knelt beside him. “This might sting,” I warned, laying a gentle hand on his arm to steady myself, and then I bathed around the wound with the wet towel. He didn’t wince. He didn’t move. I cleaned it up and lay the towel aside. I opened the box and rummaged around for a bandage. There were antiseptic wipes in little packages and I picked one up and looked from it to his wound and wondered, with his physiology, if it would do more harm than good. I opted for leaving it aside, deciding on a large sticky bandage alone.
I tore open the package and laid the gauzy part over the weeping wound and smoothed out the adhesive over his warm skin. My hands might have wandered unnecessarily over his arm, but I left him alone when I was done, sitting back to look at my handiwork. “Is that all right?” I hadn’t noticed he was staring at me until I had finished. He was looking at me strangely and used his other hand to tentatively poke at the foreign object now stuck to his arm.
“Thank you,” he said in a roughened voice.
“You’re welcome.” I gathered the detritus and took it all to the kitchen again, just setting it down on the counter; box, towel, and wadded paper. When I returned he was still examining the bandage. I didn’t mind at all watching the muscles flex under his skin. I stood in the doorway a long time, it seemed, and I felt my face warm when he looked up, catching me in the act of drool—um…staring.
“No human has ever helped me before.”
I folded my arms and leaned against the door jam. “It couldn’t be your sparkling personality getting in the way, could it?”
A ghost of a smile passed over his face but he turned away and grabbed his shirt. “Certainly not.”
I busied myself, fiddling with knick-knacks on shelves while he dressed. When I glanced over my shoulder even his duster was back in place. “I’ll leave you now.”
“Oh.” I followed him to the door. It was late. I didn’t have to look at the clock to know that. “You don’t want any coffee or something? Wine?”
He straightened his collar, flipping it up before he reached for the door handle. He stopped and angled his head. “It’s late.”
“I know.” My hand reached the door and slid up the molding. Clumsily I leaned against it. “But it wouldn’t take long…”
He grasped my hand from the door and he was suddenly holding both of them. “Kylie,” he said gruffly. “What do you expect from me?”
“Expect? I don’t really expect anything. Well, I expect you to help me with this Booke thing. That’s all I meant.” I was babbling and just closed my mouth before I truly embarrassed myself. But I couldn’t stop the trembling he could surely feel. His hands were warm enclosing mine, as warm as his amulet, resting heavy and hot against my chest.
He smiled again. It changed his face to something brighter, less world-weary. “I will help you with the book. But nothing more.”
I tossed my hair back with what I hoped was nonchalance. “I don’t know what you mean.”
He let my hands go. His smile faded. “No, of course not.” He pulled open the door and hesitated in the doorway. “Stay safe,” he said without turning around. And then he plunged into the night and vanished.
“Neat trick,” I muttered and closed the door, slamming the bolt in place.