The following is the entirety of Chapter 1 from “Lords of the Night,” now available at Amazon.com:
“Who do you think you are, Chaco? A drill sergeant?” Sierra snarled. She slipped off the greased bowling ball, dropping the dishes she had been balancing on the end of a broomstick. The dishes shattered on the tile floor of her kitchen. She picked her way through the shards in oily bare feet, muttering, and seized a glass of water, gulping it as she wiped away the sweat pouring down her face and neck.
“I warned you this would be hard,” said Chaco. He passed a hand over the ruined dishes and they disappeared. He cocked his head at her, amber eyes steady.
“Yeah, you did,” Sierra responded. “But what the hell does standing on a greased bowling ball and destroying crockery have to do with becoming a sorceress? I’m not applying to Cirque du Soleil for a job.”
“Take a break,” Chaco replied peaceably, but his equanimity did not soothe her.
“I AM taking a break,” Sierra shot back. “Are you going to answer my question?”
Chaco lowered his lithe body into a chair, raking fingers through his dark hair. “As I told you when we started, the training is mental, spiritual, and physical. This is part of the physical training. A magic worker will often find him—or her—self in physically dangerous situations. You need to be strong, very strong, and your balance, aim, and precision must be honed to the highest degree. Think of yourself as an Olympic athlete…”
Sierra glanced down at her body, clad in shorts and tank top. She had been toned and on the slender side when she and Chaco had begun her training. Now she saw muscle definition in her thighs, where before they had merely been strong and well-shaped. The training was definitely making a difference. But god, she was working hard! And she hated it.
“I don’t get it,” she said, still cross. She knew Chaco was only doing his best to help, but at the moment, she didn’t care. “You never exercise. You never practice. Sure, you noodle around with trying new magics once in a while, but I’ve never seen you balancing on a greasy bowling ball. Do you do it when I’m not around or something?”
Sensing that Sierra was easing up a bit, Chaco laughed. “I’m a demigod. I don’t have to practice. When you become a demigod—or full-on goddess—you won’t have to practice either.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Well, you can’t expect to become a goddess overnight. You have to work at it. Like becoming Miss Universe or something.”
“Are you telling me that I’ll become a goddess if I continue the training?”
“Oh, no. There are no guarantees. Once you complete the training, there are still the traditional trials and tribulations.”
“I don’t want to be a goddess, Chaco. Your training sucks and I’m done.” Sierra put down her glass and stalked away, leaving Chaco in the kitchen, smiling to himself.
One year previously, Sierra had inherited a comfortable sum of money and a house from her fiancé, Clancy Forrester. There was only one problem; she suspected Clancy wasn’t actually dead. No body had been found and her friend Rose, who had witnessed Clancy’s fall from the side of a boat, said Clancy had never hit the water. If he had, he would have died, as the water was boiling from an undersea volcanic eruption.
The inheritance bothered her conscience, but she rationalized that if Clancy were alive somewhere, she would need the money to find him. She quit her job as communications executive with the Clear Days Foundation—a job she loved—to have the time to search for him. She thought Clancy would forgive her for selling his house and spending his money when and if she ever found him. And she knew she needed training to fully harness the powers that would enable her to find Clancy and rescue him from . . . whatever he needed to be rescued from. Unfortunately, she didn’t know what he needed to be rescued from. In point of fact, she also didn’t know when he needed to be rescued, but she and her friends were working on that.
While she was figuring out what she needed to do to find Clancy, she sold her own modest townhouse in Mountain View, California as well as Clancy’s highly sought-after ranch house in Sunnyvale. She added those proceeds to the three million dollars Clancy had left her in investments and began looking for a house where she could train in privacy. Her friend Rose, a Native American shaman, had suggested purchasing a remote cabin.
“You’re going to need privacy—real privacy—and alone time now,” Rose had said. “This training is serious business and you need to concentrate. And you don’t need nosy neighbors.” Sierra bought a cabin in a redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which was remote enough to satisfy her friend.
However, Rose had refused to train Sierra herself. “You’ve already gone beyond me in strength,” Rose had said. “There’s really nothing more I can teach you.”
Sierra also asked her friend Mama Labadie to train her. Mama Labadie was a Voudún houngan whose ability to communicate with her loa—or at least with the loa called Madame Ézilée—had come in handy many times during Sierra’s earlier adventures. “No, uh-uh, and absolutely not,” was the houngan’s response. “You’re already scary strong. You should ask Madam Ézilée, not me. She might be strong enough to teach you before you get somebody killed.”
Kaylee, Sierra’s former work colleague and now a fast friend, was a Voudún practitioner, but claimed absolutely no occult powers. “I’ve been watching you,” Kaylee told her when Sierra groused a bit about Mama and Rose’s refusals to train her. “You’re powerful. You’ve gone wa-a-ay beyond Mama and Rose. They were right to turn you down. Sugar, you need to find someone who’s got more oomph than you do.”
One evening, as Sierra was unwrapping china mugs in her new kitchen and putting them on shelves, she complained to Chaco, “They’ve been telling me forever that I need to exercise my powers. That I need to train. But when I ask now? No dice. Mama and Rose won’t help me. Kaylee says she can’t help me. I don’t get it—they like Clancy. They want to get him back. I mean . . . don’t they?”
Chaco, his hands full of packing materials, took a moment to answer. “Of course they like him,” he finally said, swiping raven-black hair away from his face. “They probably liked Clancy more than he liked them.”
Sierra had to admit this was likely true, even if she didn’t like the past tense. Clancy had never been entirely comfortable around the “Three Weird Sisters,” as he called her three closest female friends. “Okay, but still. Wouldn’t you think they would help me to find him?”
Chaco put down a salt and pepper shaker set and sat in one of the kitchen chairs. “Do you want to have a serious conversation about this, or are you just bitching?”
Sierra set two mugs in a cupboard and sat down opposite Chaco. “I want a serious conversation. Tell me.”
“Let me make an analogy. Let’s say you’re a golfer, and you want to improve your game, maybe even play competitively. Do you go to your golfing buddy for training? The one who plays worse than you?”
“Well, obviously no. I take your point. But how am I going to find a teacher who’s better than me, if I’ve somehow gotten so strong?”
Chaco sat quietly, regarding her with his amber eyes. His expressive lips were slightly curved, his body relaxed and boneless-looking in the wooden chair. Like his alternate form, a coyote, he had the gift of seeming at home wherever he was. He continued to gaze at her in silence.
“You mean . . . you?” she finally asked.
“Who else is there?”
And that was that. She began her training in magic to find and rescue Clancy, wherever and whenever he might be. Chaco moved into Sierra’s second bedroom (she didn’t ask where he had been living before) to dedicate his time to her training. She expected that his residency would result in a renewed interest in getting her into his bed, but to her surprise he treated her as a comrade-in-arms with none of his usual sly suggestions. She found herself staring from time to time at Chaco’s face, with its long, chiseled planes, his golden eyes, his nicely muscled…and then she would flush with guilt at the thought of Clancy. Clancy, who would not be lost if it weren’t for his love for Sierra. But having Chaco around was convenient, and he was behaving himself, so the arrangement made sense.
Chaco had concentrated first on her powers, her mana. In the beginning, Sierra had envisioned her mana as colored flames, erratic and difficult to control. Gradually, she had come to see her powers as brightly colored ribbons twining in space, of every color she knew and some she didn’t. Chaco was able to visualize along with her. “There, right there,” he’d say. “That bright pink one? That’s for healing. Wrap it around your sore knee and see what happens.”
In the next moment, Sierra blinked at him in surprise. “The pain is gone!”
“You can heal other people, too. Try it the next time you see someone limping or with a bandage.”
“Won’t that be kind of obvious?”
“How would they know?” he asked reasonably. “You don’t have to wave a magic wand or recite a spell. They can’t see your mana—only you can. And me, of course.”
Sierra rather enjoyed the mana-strengthening sessions. She no longer endured sprained muscles or headaches. The gold ribbons were for battle. The silver ones were for moving things, the black ones were for…Sierra didn’t know what the black ones were for. They weren’t actually black, as they shifted between deepest indigo, bottle green, copper, and . . . something else . . . as she watched them.
“Chaco, what are the black ribbons for?” she inquired one day as she and Chaco took a break by the little creek that ran near her cabin.
“Yeah, like this,” and she called the black ribbons up, letting them twist and coil in her mind’s eye, glittering slowly.
“No!” Chaco yelled. He shook her and the twining black ribbons vanished.
“What the hell?”” Sierra scrambled to her feet and glared at him. “What’d you do that for?”
Chaco remained seated, gazing at her seriously. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Those … black ribbons. Don’t use them. That is not mana that you can control. If you try, the mana will control you.”
“Then why do I have it?”
Chaco just shook his head. “I suppose we all have something like that inside. Something uncontrollable and dark. Just don’t use dark mana.” He rose in one smooth motion, then effected a dizzying transformation. His face elongated like melting wax, and as Sierra watched, his body hunched, arms and legs growing crooked and furry. Within a few heartbeats, a large, handsomely furred coyote stood next to her. He turned and trotted away into the shadows between the redwoods. Sierra watched him go, a hundred questions unanswered.
While she was training, Sierra tried to determine where Clancy had gone, specifically. The loa had indicated in their usual infuriatingly vague way that Clancy was alive and in the Yucatan Peninsula, but had then become tight-lipped and uncommunicative. The Yucatan constituted 76,300 square miles, which was impossibly large to search. Of even greater concern was the question of when. If Clancy had been whisked off to the Mayan Riviera, or even to a remote jungle, surely, he would have been found by now. Unless he’s dead, whispered a sombre voice in Sierra’s mind.
“Are we certain Clancy didn’t die when he went over the side of the boat?” she asked Rose and Kaylee, not for the first time. Kaylee hadn’t been in Moloka’i when Clancy disappeared, but Rose had been present.
“No, he never went into the water,” said Rose, patiently. “I don’t want to get too graphic here, but do you remember what happened to all those sharks and other fish?”
Sierra shuddered. She remembered the pale, poached bodies of tiger sharks, boiled to death by the wrath of Pele beneath the sea.
“Yes, I do, and Clancy wasn’t among them. But I feel like I’m grasping at straws here. We have nothing to go on but your amulet. Why did you give it to Clancy, by the way? He didn’t—doesn’t—believe in things like that.”
“Once in a while, I ‘see’ a darkness hanging around a person. It usually means they’re about to die, whether by accident or suicide. I saw this darkness around Clancy shortly before we went out to the wind farm where he went over the side of our boat. My amulet is powerfully protective, so I asked Clancy to wear it. When I handed it to him it was in a little leather medicine bag, but he took the amulet out and wore it around his neck, under his shirt. Probably so people wouldn’t see it, is my guess.”
“Do you know anything about the amulet? Where it was made? When it was made?” asked Kaylee.
“I know it was made in the Yucatan Peninsula during Mayan times, because it represents a scroll serpent or spirit snake, which was peculiar to the region. It represents Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, with an ancestor spirit emerging from its mouth. I don’t know anything more about it,” concluded Rose.
“Wait a minute,” said Kaylee. “I thought Quetzalcoatl was the feathered serpent?”
Rose smiled. “Yep. He was—is. He was the plumed serpent of the Aztecs. But Kukulcan came first, with the Maya. If you encounter him again you could ask, but I suspect they are the same Avatar, viewed through different lenses.”
The women thought for several minutes, each pursuing the question of how the amulet might help them locate Clancy. Rose said, “You know, a few years ago I took pictures of all the Native American artifacts that I’ve collected, just in case I needed them for insurance. I must have photographed the amulet, too. The pictures are on a flash drive that I put in my safety deposit box. Maybe the photo will show us some detail that I’ve forgotten.”
A quick trip to the bank, and the flash drive was inserted into Rose’s computer, Sierra and Kaylee hanging impatiently over her shoulder. She located the right files and brought up two photographs of a green stone carving, an elaborately curlicued serpent figure. Rose pointed out the figure of the ancestor spirit emerging from the creature’s mouth.
“What’s this other one?” asked Kaylee, pointing at the second photo. At first, it looked like a reverse image of the first, then Sierra realized it depicted the back of the intricately carved amulet.
“Rose, there’s something carved on the back! What does it say?” Sierra asked, pointing to the screen.
Rose peered at the image. She shook her head. “I have no idea.”