I’m always writing. I go from project to project, moving on to the next book, story, or screenplay long before the last one finds a home, much less is actually published.
So what am I working on now? What did I jump into right after finishing the urban fantasy novel Cleopatra: Queen of Seattle, which is out to editors now? Well, first I jumped into an outline for an expansion of my ill-fated NaNoWriMo novel 7˚ then my buddy Mel Odom came to me with an idea, based on a successful series of e-book westerns he’s been working on, and Arron of the Black Forest was born.
I’m about two thirds through the rough draft, our intrepid cover artist, Keith Birdsong is hard at work on the cover illustration—and it’s coming along nicely. I’ve been referring to this as one of my “secret projects” (I have three more of those well under way, too, but more on those when I can) and by now there’s no reason to keep it entirely secret.
In fact, I’m going to go ahead and give you a sample chapter of the first book in what I hope will be a long series featuring our barbarian hero Arron of the Black Forest.
Here’s a chapter from Arron of the Black Forest, Book I: The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff by Philip Athans & Mel Odom, which will be available for sale as soon as we’ve actually finished it . . .
The Bite of Needle Fangs
I can feel it out there, just beyond the gate—a host.
It has to come in—he has to come in. I can sense his furtive reluctance. He’s smart, this one. There’s no fear, either, at least not yet. This isn’t one of the fishermen from Gifford’s Quay, one of the noisome, superstitious local fishmongers who know better than to set foot on the path to Dragon’s Cliff.
This one is from far away. This one is strong. Big. I can feel his strength even from here. I can’t see him or hear him, but there he is.
He’ll want in out of the rain. The storm will fuel his fear, ignite his superstitions to fill his heart with unnamable horrors, but at the same time it will drive him here, to me.
And if that isn’t enough, the Groundskeeper’s Son, in all his feral, myriad forms, will herd him, push him, lead him in. The Groundskeeper’s Son wants him, too, though the sad wretch very likely doesn’t realize it. The Groundskeeper’s Son is heartsick. The Groundskeeper’s Son is enraged. The Groundskeeper’s Son is terrified.
The Groundskeeper’s Son will bite him and scare him, and push him in.
To the house. To me. To the Master.
Arron burst back into consciousness when a breath that was more muddy rainwater than air sent his whole body into a painful series of racking coughs. He grimaced, grinding his teeth against a blazing pain in his chest. Somehow he made it to his knees, and put a rough hand to his ribs. He coughed again and there was another flash of pain. He felt a broken rib—the jagged ends of bone scraping against each other just under his skin.
He swore and when he tried to stand he grimaced once more, swore again, and fell back to his knees. His hand went out to catch himself though in the darkness, in the driving rain and gale-force winds, he couldn’t see a thing. Rough stone met his palm, and the feel of it startled him. He braced himself against the pain he knew would follow that motion, and the pain came, but wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d thought it would be.
Arron only had to wait a few seconds for lightning to flash, and when it did he could see that his hand rested against a square fencepost made of rough, old bricks. From his knees, just above his eye level, was a green brass plaque, but then the lightning gave way to thunder and darkness again.
He took a deep breath and made it to his feet. The breath didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would, and when he touched his ribs again, he couldn’t feel the break anymore. It hardly hurt at all.
Arron shook his head—he was imagining things. The rib was never broken.
Lightning flashed again and he looked back behind him, turning to face the fast-rushing stream. There was no sign of the horse.
“Coward,” he grunted.
It wasn’t exactly the way he’d hoped to cross the stream, but he was across, anyway. As his head continued to clear, Arron realized that the horse balking may have been a lucky break for him after all. The posse on his heels had surely been tracking the horse—he’d barely been out of the saddle in weeks. The track would lead to the edge of the stream then turn away. Arron had no idea which direction the horse would lead his pursuers, but any direction but his was just fine with him.
He turned back to the gate, and put his hand on the brass plaque. When the lightning flashed, he had just long enough to read two words:
Arron didn’t read well, and was still—reluctantly—learning the ways of the Heteronomy, but he had no idea what that was meant to say. They named their villages, but this was no village, just an old house.
“I guess they name those, too,” Arron whispered to himself.
He didn’t want to spend any more time standing at the end of his own trail, but he stood there for a moment longer. He saw lights—was he imagining them?—off in the distance and…down? Against his own better judgment Arron waited through a few more flashes of lightning and realized that it was a village, off in the distance, and a very long way down. White-capped waves and a scattering of fishing boats crashed against the long piers of another fishing village, riding out the hurricane’s fury.
Arron looked back down the old road into the stygian darkness of the sparse forest. A dog howled in the distance.
He looked back down at the village, miles away. Finding his way to it in the darkness, down sheer cliffs, might not even be possible.
Then he looked at the house again, slumped in the rain, so unwelcoming even in a hurricane. Even chased by men paid to kill him, Arron thought twice, but still he took a step and was through the broken, twisted, skeletal wrought iron gate.
Two hundred yards at least stretched ahead of him from the gate to the house, and Arron’s instincts told him to get off the gravel path, even as overgrown as it was. If he could stay just past the edge of the undergrowth he’d be harder to track. The frequent lightning had made it difficult for his eyes to adjust to the impenetrable darkness, so he went from blinded by dark to blinded by light. Even thinking about it made him gnash his teeth and grumble like a taiga bear.
Something pinched him on the calf of his left leg, and he swore. The undergrowth was too thick, and apparently full of thorns. Then came the unmistakable sound of something alive, scurrying through the brush.
Though it sounded small—no bigger than a squirrel—Arron’s guard went up. That pinch…had something bitten him?
Arron realized then that as long as he’d been riding through the forest he hadn’t seen a single animal—not a squirrel, raccoon, or even a bird. Certainly, they’d be hiding from the storm somewhere, but even then, there would be some sign of something. But this was the first animal he’d heard.
Then something made a high-pitched squeal that made Arron’s skin crawl. The sound was a cry, a wail of unspeakable agony. Arron stopped, and looked back at the gate then the house.
The brush shook behind Arron, between him and the gate, and he took the axe from his back.
He waited, perfectly still, perfectly quiet, for another flash of lightning. When it came there was a flash of fang, a blood-red eye, scales not fur—and pitch blackness again.
Arron took a few steps, making his way backward toward the house—and fangs sank into his shin. He kicked out hard and fast and felt something cold—colder than the rain—on his leg. It released him with a whimper, and disappeared into the darkness. As it tumbled away, Arron tried to make out what it was, but its silhouette didn’t make any sense. Limbs protruded here and there—or were they tails? There was nothing he recognized as a head.
Arron backstepped quickly, and paused to stand with bended knees, his axe held low. Facing the gate, he waited through three lightning strikes, but saw nothing. Then it bit his ankle—but it couldn’t be the same thing. The fangs were smaller, and when he shook it off his leg it felt hot, not cold—almost hot enough to burn him.
A thorn bush shook violently. Something heavy brushed against it, but it was still no bigger than a rat. Arron could sense it charging at him. Using just the sounds of its tiny clawed feet on the sparse gravel, Arron swiped at the thing with his axe, but the battered old blade passed through nothing but air.
Another piteous squeal arose from the darkness, and Arron started walking backward again, swinging his axe in front of him from time to time.
The lightning revealed nothing.
Arron growled and rolled to one side, whipping his leg up and around when something else bit him. It was neither cold nor hot, but he could feel scales like a fish. He couldn’t see anything, and when he reached down to grab the thing it was gone already.
Arron rolled back up to his feet, his skin crawling.
Bushes and trees in front of him shook. Another heartrending wail poured out of the darkness at him, and something big and black, claws like little daggers reflecting in a distant lightning strike, fell from a branch and hit the ground then scrabbled for purchase in the thick undergrowth.
All that came from the front, from the overgrown track between Arron and the gate. Behind him was only the looming ebon shadow of the crumbling house, and dead silence.
Something screamed at him—a sound like a little boy shrieking in mortal agony—and Arron turned and ran for the house.
Spooky stuff. I can’t wait for you to read the rest of it!