Here is an excerpt from my current urban-fantasy-in-progress. Last Hallowe’en, I published a story called Dark Clouds, which I thought would be the first chapter in a contemporary urban fantasy about the Queen of all the witches in the world, and her son who is immune to magic. I’m calling the book The Mandrake Ruse.
For this Hallowe’en, I’m writing another chapter that advances the story. Here, Matt, the Witch’s Son, and his wife, Teri, are accompanied by a former warlock to a sacred, remote place on the Alberta prairie. They are searching for clues to help them stop the Witch Queen’s campaign.
The full story will eventually combine urban fantasy, a spy story, a conspiracy tale and a romance. It’s going to take a lot of work, so I’m taking it step by step for now.
Here is part of what I think will eventually be about Chapter 4, tentatively called: The Graveyard. Enjoy, and Happy Hallowe’en!
Mandrake Ruse, Chapter 4
“Did we have to arrive at sunset?”
“What’s wrong, Matt — afraid of the dark?” Julian turned off the ignition and let the clutch out at the same time, making the gears grind and the whole jeep shake.
“I have no reason to be afraid,” Matt said. “But Teri does.”
“I’m not afraid,” she said and got out of the back seat. Matt knew she was nervous about cemeteries, and had very good reason to be, but she strode with long steps and swinging arms to the fenced graveyard. She pushed the waist-high gate hard as if she were picking a fight with it. Matt saw her jump just a little when the gate squeaked loudly, but she strode through, looking at headstones.
The driver’s door then slammed shut much too loudly for Matt’s liking, and he scowled at Julian. But the warlock did not notice and followed Teri into the cemetery.
Matt twisted in the bucket seat and fumbled to get a flashlight from the bag in the back. Teri or Julian may not need one to see in the dark, but he did.
He closed the back of the Jeep as quietly as he could, but the clunk echoed off something he could no longer see. He felt tingly all over and walked as quietly as he could toward the fence.
The light was failing fast. He looked to his right, westward: the sun was gone completely, leaving just a dirty orange smudge along the horizon. He was struck again by how flat the prairie was. His thighs connected with something and he bit back a curse: he had bumped into the iron fence around the cemetery while admiring the sunset. He could now barely make out the silhouettes of Teri and Julian among the headstones, but for some reason did not dare to turn on the flashlight. He groped until he found the gate and jumped, too, when it squeaked.
“What are we looking for?” he asked in as low a voice as he could when he came up to Julian.
“What?” said Julian, in a normal tone, which made Matt jump. “Why so jumpy, man?”
“What are we looking for?” Matt repeated, a little louder. “And I’m not jumpy. I’m just trying to be careful, that’s all.”
“Careful? Careful of what? Who do you think is way out here in the middle of nowhere at dusk?”
“I don’t know, but neither do you. So let’s just be careful, okay?”
Julian shrugged. Just as Matt was about to ask “what are we looking for” again, Teri said softly, but loud enough to be heard ten metres away, “I think this is it.”
Matt followed Julian to the darkest corner at the very back of the graveyard where a stand of trees, now almost completely bare of leaves, leaned over the back fence casting a shadow that blocked out what little light filtered through the ragged clouds. Matt stumbled three times until Julian took his elbow.
Teri was looking at the trees. Matt had to shine his flashlight at the ground in front of her before he realized that there was no fence here; the trees marked the cemetery’s boundary.
Teri pointed to two whitish rocks on the ground in front of her. “Look at the inscriptions,” she said.
Even with the flashlight, Matt had to bend down close to see what she was talking about. On the rock on the right, he finally made out: “A bird?”
“A hawk,” she said. “And look at the other.”
Matt moved the light. “A cross?”
Something about it bothered him. It was worn, yes, the way only crumbly century-old carved stone can be worn, but …
“Someone’s defaced the cross,” Julian said, his voice as low as Matt’s now. He was right: it looked like someone had scrawled some kind of carving tool across the symbol several times in an attempt to erase it from stone.
“why would some carve these two symbols in rocks on the ground, then defaced one?” Matt said. He raised the light. The trees parted in front of him, revealing two rows of white stones set in the ground, leading ahead into the blackness of the night prairie.
Together, Julian and Teri walked down the path marked by the white stones, drawn by something that Matt did not feel. He followed, afraid for and exasperated by his wife at the same time.
He shone the flashlight left and right. As they walked down the path between the white stones, the trees became more and more stunted, twisted.
“These trees aren’t just bare for winter,” he whispered. “They’re dead.”
Julian turned around and snapped off a dead branch. “They’ve been dead for centuries.”
“Then why are they still standing?”
Julian didn’t answer, but turned and continued down the path. He and Teri walked in lock-step.
“Do you hear that?” Julian whispered.
“The voices?” she whispered back. “yes.”
“Well,I don’t hear anything, so they’re not natural,” Matt growled. Julian and Teri didn’t slow down, so he added “They’re supernatural.”
Teri and Julian still ignored him. somewhere, far away, a coyote howled, forlorn. The sound made the skin on the back of Matt’s neck tingle.
The moon disappeared behind a cloud and the flashlight dimmed. “Damn. I just put in fresh batteries,” Matt muttered.
The trees shrank to dead bushes, then merged into the prairie. Though Matt could not see it, he knew, somehow, that the grass was dead, too.
Matt shone the dying flashlight around. white stones In the ground receded on either side in curving rows. “It’s a circle. We’re in a circle.”
“It’s a medicine wheel,” said Julian. “I didn’t think there were any this far north.”
“What’s a medicine wheel?”
“They”re rings or circles marked in stone on the grasslands,” Julian answered. “They were made by the Cree thousands of years ago on sacred or important sites all over the prairies. As I recall, there are more in Alberta than anywhere else. But I thought the northernmost was well south of here. I’ve never heard of this one.”
“How do you know so much about medicine wheels?”
“Shut up, you two,” said Teri. She walked forward. In the centre of the wheel was a cairn of grey stones, set on a patch of gravel and sand.
Teri stepped up to the cairn and reached for it, but Matt caught her arm. “Haven’t you noticed that everything here is dead?”
The flashlight went out completely. “The whispers have started again,” Teri said.
“Can you understand what they’re saying?” asked Julian.
Matt fought to keep his voice down. “I told you, they’re not real!”
“They may not be natural, but they’re definitely real,” Teri said sharply. “Look, there’s another raven inscription on the rock.”
Without the flashlight, Matt could not see any inscriptions. “Just don’t touch anything,” he said.
Teri walked around the cairn, Julian at her side like a dog. “I’m afraid…” he said.
Teri stopped. “Me,too.” They both started to tremble.
Matt didn’t feel any more anxious than he had since getting out of the jeep. Julian fell to his knees. “Yes, yes,” he whined. “Just stop whispering.”
“It’s a trick,” said Matt. He pulled Julian to his feet. “It was one of my mother’s favourites. She used to do it to my dad all the time.” He put his arm around his wife’s narrow shoulders to quell her trembling. “Don’t worry. Nothing here can hurt you.”
“Nothing here can hurt you, maybe.”
“I won’t let anything hurt you.”
Teri shook his arm off her shoulders. “Matt, you may be immune to magic, but you’re not invulnerable.”
A gust revealed the moon and at the same time brought a sound that did scare Matt: growling from several throats around them. Matt could now see that there were rows of small white stones radiating out from the central cairn to the stone ring, like spokes of a wheel.
“That’s why it’s called a ‘medicine wheel,’ said Julian.” Then he caught his breath as he looked beyond the ring. “Oh my, are those coyotes?”
Matt had to peer at the shadows. “No, they’re too big. Those are full-size wolves.”
All around the ring stood wolves, staring at the trio by the cairn. Several of them growled, a rumbling chorus that seemed to pass from one to the next.
“Okay, Teri, now it’s time to get out of here,” said Matt.
“I thought you said wolves don’t attack people!” she answered, but she wasn’t looking at them — she seemed to be studying the cairn.
“Well, these don’t seem to have heard about that,” said Matt.
“Look: something is missing,” said Teri, pointing at the a spot on the north side of the cairn.
“Come on, Teri!”
“No, look — there’s a place for something there. This cairn, this whole medicine wheel, was made to hold something, and now it’s gone.”
Teri was pointing at a flat spot half-way up the north side of the cairn. Matt couldn’t be certain in the dark, but Teri and Julian could see clearly a flat stone, obviously chiselled, and other carved stones arranged on three sides: a kind of stone box, almost like a trophy case in a school.
“That’s very interesting, Teri, but obviously, something doesn’t want us here,” Matt insisted. “Those whispers were a warning, and now they’ve sent the muscle!”
“I thought you were immune to magic,” Julian said.