Alrighty. I’ve got a couple of copies of HOT SPELL to give away. Last time, my contest was something like “choose which excerpt from a Harlequin Presents is fake” but I’m
too lazy still too busy working on the proposal to write a fake excerpt this time. But Halloween will do my work for me!
So, here are the rules:
In the comments, tell me what your favorite horror novel is (or story, if it’s not novel length.)
That’s it. I’ll choose five winners by random drawing in…ah, hell, let’s make it Nov. 5th, since the 7th is the release date, and I’ll get in touch with the winners via e-mail. (So, er, fill out the e-mail section (I think it’s required?) but don’t leave your e-mail addy in the comment form itself (because you might get spammed). I won’t do stuff with it, like sell it. But even if you don’t leave it, I’ll announce the winners on the 6th, so if you see your name up there and it says, “EMAIL ME!” that means I don’t have your e-mail address, or it bounced, but you won a book.)
Oh, if you want to be entered twice, tell me what your favorite horror movie is.
And here’s an excerpt from “Falling for Anthony” (a different excerpt that is on the main site.)
A soft breeze had swept away the haze of burnt gunpowder enveloping the fields, but the acrid odor lingered. The moonlight made formless lumps and shadows of the soldiers lying on the ground; its dim glow erased their identities, the blue and green and red of their uniforms showing gray and black.
Anthony raised his lantern high, trying to peer past the circle of light it cast, silently urging the dead men around him to moan or call out for help. None wouldâ€”heâ€™d checked each still form in the field, bending hundreds of times to feel for a pulse that was almost never there. Earlier, heâ€™d seen medical personnel and soldiers from both sides scouring the battlefields for survivors and collecting weapons. Now, as it neared midnight, the search for survivors had waned until the only living beings in that wretched place were him, the two hospital mates he’d accompanied, and the handful of soldiers theyâ€™d found and treated, and who now waited in a medical cart for transport back to the hospital.
Across the ridge that ran the length of the Albuera river, the wagons carrying the dead back for burial were still at work, slowly taking the course the battle had followed and collecting its casualties. It would be early morning before they reached this field.
With a resigned sigh, Anthony lowered his lantern. A few paces away, Assistant Surgeon Dilby stood wiping his hands with a blood-streaked cloth. The skin around the young surgeonâ€™s face looked as if it had been stretched and released, hanging tiredly under his eyes and chin.
Suddenly feeling his own exhaustion, Anthony looked past him. On the edge of the field, the cart was visible only as a dim outline, the lanterns hanging from its bench seat two feeble spots of light. “Is the last one settled?”
Dilby nodded and tucked the end of his rag into his leather apron. “Phillips is still with him. He’s stabilized; he might make it to the hospital. I donâ€™t know if the major will. He woke up that once, butâ€¦” He shrugged. “Iâ€™m surprised he lasted this long, what with his guts on the outside.”
Anthony smiled faintly as they began their trek back to the cart. In only two months of war, heâ€™d seen men live through worse and die from less. “He hasn’t cocked up his toes yet, Dilbyâ€”perhaps heâ€™ll survive to let Surgeon Guthrie perform his magic.”
“Skill and instinct, not magic,” Dilby retorted quickly, and Anthony grinned. The young mateâ€™s adoration of the Principal Medical Officer had been clear since theyâ€™d met. Glancing sidelong at Anthony from narrowed, baggy eyes, he added, “But a personal physician wouldn’t know that.”
Anthony didn’t take offense at the deliberate insult; he knew his service in the war was not a heroic effort but simply a way of repaying a debt. Heâ€™d rather have done anything but practice medicine and amateur surgery on the battlefield, and would rather have been anywhere but the Peninsula. Dilby deserved some reply, however, so he forced humor into his tone and said, “Convince Cole of my uselessness on a day when his gout is particularly painful, and Iâ€™ll apprentice myself in the surgery tomorrow.”
Chuckling, Dilby veered away from Anthony to avoid the corpse of one of Napoleonâ€™s soldiers. His tone became wistful. “I suppose when the war is over, you wonâ€™t be his personal physician any longer. Youâ€™ll set up a practice in London, join society, and treat ladiesâ€™ nerves.”
With only the slightest break in his stride, Anthony stooped and felt for a pulse. Half of the soldierâ€™s face had been torn away, probably victim to English shrapnel. “Hardly appropriate work for a gentleman,” he said softly. They were familiar words; Anthonyâ€™s mother and sisters never failed to remind him of it in the letters he received.
When Anthony caught up to him a moment later, Dilby continued, “At least when you marry, you will be able to present your wife at court. My Sarah would have liked that.” The folds on his face creased into the tender smile that appeared whenever he mentioned his wife or their young daughter.
Anthony tried to return the smile and to keep the doubts that had plagued him for two months from squeezing at him, but the words made his chest tighten nonetheless. When you marry. His promise to Emily hadn’t been an understanding, and yet he could not help but hope that his vow had touched her, that she would consider his unspoken offer of marriage.
Would she wait for him? Likely not.
But, as Colinâ€™s brief letters never contained information about her entering into an engagement, he saw no reason to give up that hope. There was little other pleasure to be had on the Peninsula.
With his gaze focused on the ground and his thoughts far from a bloodstained battlefield in Spain, it took Anthony a moment to realize that Dilby had stopped abruptly and was staring ahead, his eyes wide.
Anthonyâ€™s question died on his lips as the light from the cartâ€™s two lanterns winked out, followed by the sound of crumpling metal. Surprise kept him rooted briefly to the spotâ€”the medical cart was clearly marked to let medical personnel work unmolested, even in the heat of battleâ€”until Phillipsâ€™s sharp, terrified cry spurred him forward.
He broke into a run, the racing of his heart echoed by his pounding feet. Behind him, Dilby shouted, “We are medics! Docteur!”
The lantern swung wildly in his hand. Its erratic illumination prevented him from clearly seeing the cart, but the half moon limned the shape of a manâ€”too big to be Phillipsâ€”scrambling atop the cart and bending over until he was hidden by its wooden sides.
Suddenly cautious, Anthony slowed his pace to a jog, forcing himself to take deep breaths, and to think instead of blindly react. He hadnâ€™t heard a firearm, but the man could be armedâ€”and Anthony was not. He had to assume that the only rifle the medical team carried with them, which had been in the cart with Phillips, was under their assailant’s control. He was uncertain if the man had been wearing a uniform; perhaps a soldier needed help, but was crazed from the battle and acting irrationally?
Fifteen feet from the cart, he stopped and steadied the lamp, staring at the scene and trying to make sense of it: the brown, gory lump at the front of the cart, the smaller one beside it. His stomach clenched as he realized the muleâ€™s head had been torn from its body, the ragged cavity at the top of its shoulders still steaming.
Fear shivered over his skin, slick and cold.
Dilby came up beside him, panting from exertion. Metal glinted in his hand. “I found thisâ€¦oh, God Almighty save us!”
Anthony silently repeated the prayer. Even amidst the terrible carnage of the battlefield, this violence struck him as unnatural, a malevolent perversion. A man, even a madman, couldn’t have done that to the mule.
Every instinct told him to flee; he gripped the handle of the lantern tightly, as if its small weight could anchor him, and called out, “Phillips?”
A choking, gurgling noise answered. Dilby whimpered, backing up a step.
Anthony glanced at the younger man, met the horrified gaze that mirrored his own. He said hoarsely, “I should try to help him.”
Dilby shook his head violently, took another step back. “I donâ€™t thinkâ€”” He broke off with a shudder, the final words hanging unspoken but palpable between them.
I donâ€™t think heâ€™s still alive.
Anthony looked back at the cart. “I have to try.”
As if seeing Anthony’s determination bolstered his courage, Dilby squared his shoulders and nodded. His face was pale, the loose skin stretched tight with tension. His voice trembled, but he managed to say, “We have to try.”
Anthony nodded gratefully; he didn’t consider himself a coward, but he certainly did not want to face alone whatever waited for themâ€”and if Phillips had been seriously hurt, Anthony would need Dilby’s medical assistance.
He glanced at the sword bayonet the other man had found, and now held in a white-knuckled grip. Though the sturdy blade had a smooth brass handle, it was too short and awkward for effective hand-to-hand combat, but at least it offered them some protection. “Can you use that if you need to?”
“For Sarah and little Nellie’s sake, I will,” Dilby said.
Anthony’s expression hardened, anger burning through the fear that had overtaken him. Dilby and he weren’t soldiers; whoever hid in the cart had attacked unarmed and injured men.
He swept the lantern in a circle, looking for a weapon of his own. He found nothing, and delaying any longer wouldn’t help Phillipsâ€”if Phillips could be helped at all.
In silent agreement, they rounded the cart, careful to keep a significant distance from it. They couldnâ€™t hide their presence; Anthonyâ€™s lamp made them a target, as did Dilbyâ€™s ragged breathing.
War hadnâ€™t prepared him for what Anthony saw; it wasnâ€™t the death or the mutilation that made the vomit rise in his throat, but the gleeful expression of the creature who waited for them. Naked, completely hairless, it lay on top the bodies of the soldiers, their blood splattered across its pale skin. Its penis was engorged, as if murder had been an erotic pleasure. Its elbow was propped against Phillipsâ€™ leg, and it rested its chin in its hand. It watched them, grinning, blood smeared around its mouth. Casually, almost like Caesar plucking grapes from a platter, it reached down and tore Phillipsâ€™s thumb from his hand and began sucking the blood from it.
â€œOh, God,â€ Anthony whispered, and the creature laughed sharply.
â€œNo,â€ it said, and Anthony recoiled, his horror magnified that the thing could speak. Despite its shape, it had seemed more animal than man. â€œNot Him. But imagine how grateful I am that His humans decided to kill each other, and leave this feast for me.â€ It rose to a sitting position and tossed the thumb over the cartâ€™s side. As one, Anthony and Dilby stumbled backward. â€œAnd how fortunate that I should also find living prey.â€
Vampire. Anthony recalled reading about such folk tales with Colin when theyâ€™d been children, and trying to frighten Emily with them. What could kill a vampire? Fire? Beheading? His mind reeled, trying to remember.
He must have spoken the word aloud; the creature shook its head, still smiling, and corrected, â€œNosferatu. Unlike vampires, we originate from Heaven itself.â€ Pride swelled its voice.
â€œFrom Hell, more like!â€ Dilby shouted, holding the bayonet in front of him; Anthony was suddenly struck by the absurdity of it. They needed to runâ€”there was nothing here to save, only evil.
Long teeth gleamed in the lamplight. â€œThey didnâ€™t want us there, either.â€ Gracefully, the nosferatu stepped down from the cart.
It was playing with them, Anthony realized. It enjoyed their fear as it slowly stalked them, and if he and Dilby fled, it would catch them.
Unless only one of them went, and one stayed behind to fight it. He could keep it busy, distracted, while Dilby escaped.
A leaden weight seemed to fill Anthonyâ€™s chest. He thought of his family, of Colin and Emily, and swallowed past the constriction in his throat. â€œRun, Dilby.â€
Dilby turned toward him; Anthony saw he was preparing to argue.
â€œDonâ€™t be stupid,â€ he said sharply, fearful that if the other man hesitated, his own courage would fail. He added softly, before Dilby could speak, â€œFor Sarah and little Nellieâ€™s sake.â€
The creature began laughing.
An indecisive, stricken expression slipped into the other manâ€™s eyesâ€”then he flipped the bayonet around, its handle toward Anthony.
Anthony took the weapon; with a choked â€œGodspeedâ€”and thank you,â€ Dilby fled into the night.
The nosferatu chuckled. â€œI will be done with you in minutes, and then I will track him down. Perhaps Iâ€™ll keep you alive long enough to hear him screaming, so that youâ€™ll know how worthless your sacrifice was.â€
Anthony didnâ€™t bother to reply; he simply waited. He knew he probably had only one chance to defend himself, and that it wouldnâ€™t come until the creature moved much closer.
As moments passed, and Anthony failed to respond or move, the nosferatu frowned. â€œRun or fight,â€ it commanded, its voice as petulant as a child with a disappointing toy.
Anthony silently stood his ground.
â€œI can smell your fear: so weak, so human.â€ The nosferatu sneered, apparently hoping it would prick Anthonyâ€™s pride.
They stared at each other for a long moment; finally, with a cry of rage, it attacked.
Even though heâ€™d expected it to be strong, Anthony hadnâ€™t known it would be so fast. One instant it had been standing at the cart, the next it was on him, knocking the bayonet from his hand and grabbing him up into a crushing embrace.
Pain screamed through him, but remained unvoiced as his ribs snapped under the pressure. Something tore inside him. I wonder if Guthrie can fix this, he thought wildly, and would have laughed if heâ€™d had the breath. Desperately, he swung the lantern against the creatureâ€™s back, his one gambit for survival.
Instead of spilling oil and igniting its skin, the metal thunked solidly against muscle, and fell from Anthonyâ€™s hand.
The creature laughed again and dipped its head, fangs bared. Anthony closed his eyes, waiting for the nosferatu to rip at him, but the teeth as they pierced his neck were almost gentle.
The nosferatu pulled back, yelping in surprise and releasing him; Anthony collapsed on the ground. His ribs shrieked, and his lungs felt pinched by a vise, but he turned and tried to crawl away.
The creature caught him, rolled him onto his back. Its eyes glowed amber as it stared down at him. â€œTell me where it isâ€”I can feel its power; I can taste it in your blood,â€ it said, crouching over him.
Anthony shook his head, not knowing what he was denying. He couldnâ€™t have spoken in any case; he couldnâ€™t catch his breath. A metallic, salty fluid flooded his mouth, but though his body convulsed he couldnâ€™t cough it away. Lungs collapsed, he realized.
As if coming to the same conclusion, the nosferatu smiled, its eyes boring into his. â€œShow me, then,â€ it commanded. Almost immediately, Anthony felt an insidious touch in his mind, a darkness that dug painfully at him, and tried to close his eyes against it.
â€œShow me,â€ it repeated.
In the library of Beaumont Court, he and Colin with the earlâ€™s sword between them, slicing shallow cuts into their palms and pressing them together. Blood brothers.
The creature frowned. â€œThat is why I taste it, but you have more recent knowledge of it in a different location. Show me.â€
Anthony resisted when the first images of the memory flashed in front of him, unable to stand the thought of itâ€”that abominationâ€”seeing Emily as heâ€™d seen her: her romantic idealism shattered, the devastation that had driven her to seduction.
The nosferatu simply pushed harder, tearing through his amateur defenses.
Anthony tumbled headlong into Emily’s arms once more. Then darkness crawled in, obscuring her face, her touch; all that remained was the echo of his vow.
And even that faded.
“Anthony,” a voice said, and the darkness skittered away. The bright light that replaced it should have been blinding; Anthony automatically tried to squint against it, found his lids already closed.
Memory of the nosferatu rushed back.
It took a Herculean effort, but Anthony opened his eyes. He found himself lying on his side on the ground, the battlefield stretched out around him. The light surrounding him had washed its colors paleâ€”and it originated, he realized, from the man who had spoken.
“He lives; your sacrifice succeededâ€”and it allows me to offer you a choice.” The voice resonated through Anthony’s body like music, painful in its exquisite beauty.
Anthony rolled over, looked up. He moved easily, as if the nosferatu had never crushed the life from him.
Except in his nakedness, the speaker was nothing like the creature that had attacked him. His bronzed skin seemed glow with its own luminescence. His black hair had been cut brutally short; his face could have been sculpted from amber. Obsidian eyes stared down at him, and Anthony had to look down again, away from that penetrating gaze.
“Who are you?”
“They call me Michael,” he replied. He spoke the name as if it was an explanation in itself.
Understanding dawned as Anthony took in the rest of the figure before him: black feathered wings spread elegantly out from bronzed shoulders.
His eyes flew back to Michael’s, and the denial sprang from Anthony’s mouth, “I made a promise that I have to keep.”
Michael shook his head, held out his palm to assist Anthony to his feet. “I can not give you that. You must be thought dead to everyone you knew before. I can only offer another choice: become as I amâ€”a Guardian, an immortal protector; or, accept your death and all that comes after.”
Dead to everyone you knew. Grief touched him, but it could not grab hold. This could not be death. This could not be an end.
Anthony took the proffered hand, feeling absurdly small and weak next to the Guardian. He offers me a choice to become like him? “It appears a simple decision,” he said.
The reply could have been carved from stone, along with the grim smile that accompanied it. “Appearances are almost always deceiving,” Michael said.