Book Excerpt – Chapter Two of “The Crone And The Curse”

Cover Art for “The Crone And The Curse”

This is the final draft for Chapter Two of my upcoming novel, “The Crone And The Curse”, Book Two of my series, The Atalante Chronicles. If you enjoy this chapter, consider supporting my work by purchasing Book One “Blood And Stone”

I stood stock still for a moment or three. I took that time to study Angela. Her skin tone was a few shades darker than mine, both from spending time out in the sun for her job and from her Latin heritage. She’d gotten her dark hair cut shorter recently, but there was still enough there to pull back into a tight bun. There was a nervous, excited energy radiating from her like an open electrical circuit.

“How did you find her?” I asked. I crossed my arms and watched Angela pace back and forth.

“You remember Ezekiel? The methhead who was working for Terry Masters?” she asked.

A vivid image of a rat-faced man covered in scabs and open sores came to mind. “Thanks for that image,” I said. “Glad I didn’t eat before you came over.”

Angela pursed her lips and gave me a dismissive look. “He got clean and became my CI. He got in with the local vampires as a gopher and runner.”

I couldn’t help but let out a whistle. Sending a mundane, let alone one with a history of drug problems, into the vampire underworld was tricky with a capital T. As a general rule, vampires like to keep their human pets docile and subservient, which usually means keeping them wired on enough illicit drugs to finance a South American government. The fact that Ezekiel was doing this for Angela and hadn’t fallen off the wagon was nothing short of miraculous.

“And he’s kept himself clean around them?” I asked.

“Yes. I make him get tested twice a week. He fails one test, and he’s back in county lock-up the same day.” There was a finality to her tone that only a cop could produce. In the time I’d known Angela Blackwell, I’d found that she could forgive, but there was a point of no return with her. Cross it and she’d have your ass in a sling faster than you could blink.

“So, what did Ezekiel hear about?” I asked.

“Ever since Magdelena went missing, Manuel’s been consolidating his control. He’s been pushing some older vamps out in favor of fresh blood on the Conclave,” she said. She finally stopped pacing and faced me directly. We were about the same height, roughly, so she was staring me directly in the eyes. “Vega’s trying to ensure the loyalty of the younger vamps so that Magdelena won’t be able to get her hooks in them when she comes back.”

I scratched my chin for a moment. “Christ on a cracker,” I said. “He’s going to alienate the older vampires, who will look to use Magdelena to reclaim their power bases.”

Manuel Vega was a few centuries old. He had risen to power over the vampires of the Tampa Bay area shortly after coming to America in the 1960s. From what I’d been able to find out, since Manny didn’t like sharing secrets, he had been a sort-of middle of the pack vampire in his native Cuba. Castro’s rise to power had destroyed many of the upper echelons of vampiric society there. Seeing the writing on the wall, Manny had joined the Cuban ex-pats and migrated to Florida. Finding fertile ground for power in Tampa, he’d made his move and claimed the territory. He’d been holding it ever since.

“Exactly,” she said. “Ezekiel found a group backing Magdelena behind the scenes, helping her move from place to place until she’s recovered.” A wicked smile appeared on her face. Angela’s light-brown skin glowed when she grinned. “And he found out where she is tonight.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll bite. Where?”

“The Sexton House in the Oaklawn Cemetery downtown.”

My brow furrowed. Oaklawn is one of the oldest cemeteries in Tampa. It was the first cemetery in town that allowed multi-racial burials in the same place. Half of it had been taken over by the St. Petersburg Diocese to become the St. Louis Catholic Cemetery.

“It makes sense. No one would think twice about a crew coming in during the day if they made it look like a maintenance crew,” I whispered. “And this is reliable? Magdelena’s always been a sneaky bitch.”

“Ezekiel hasn’t steered me wrong yet,” she said confidently. “I’ve got some tools in the car. Your truck still out of commission?”

I sighed. My old Ford Jeep/Truck had been a victim of the curse a few weeks back. It had been part of a twelve-car collision on I-4 coming back from a job in Orlando. The only thing that saved me from being crushed in the car’s cab was the shielding spell I’d thrown up at the last minute.  

“She’s toast,” I said. “I’ll need to get a new one. Eventually.”

“Then we’ll take my car,” she said. “Grab your gear and let’s get moving.”

The drive to downtown Tampa from my place can be a leisurely drive at night. From my place, we went south to Kennedy Boulevard and east from there to downtown. Tampa’s inner city isn’t very large in terms of acreage, but it makes up for it in skyscrapers. Banking and investment firms, communication companies, and a few landmarks from decades past make up most of the space. Like most city centers, it tries to be both the mecca of commerce and the center for culture in Tampa. Alongside the office complexes, you’ll find the Tampa Museum of Art and the Tampa Performing Arts Center, not to mention trendy boutiques and restaurants that look to tap a vein in your wallet and suck it dry. No wonder the vampires I know love living in or near downtown.

Angela and I stayed silent while she drove. Thankfully Angela’s smaller than I am, or the two of us in the front seat of her sedan would be comical to see from the outside. From the outside, I imagine anyone looking at me would think a small, dark-haired bear was hovering in the car. We wound our way through the one-way streets until we came to a stop on Jefferson Street, right next to Oaklawn Cemetery.

We parked on the street next to the grass parking lot for Greater Bethel Baptist Church, a red-brick, cathedral-style church that had been down here for ages. Angela and I stepped out of the car and surveyed the cemetery.

A large stone wall, maybe four feet in height, stood as the outer barrier for the graveyard. The stone was gray and weathered from decades of Florida weather. A wrought-iron black gate barred our entry to a walking path that wound the length of the cemetery to the other side on Morgan Street. All the trees filling the area were gnarled and twisted, with Spanish Moss hanging from them like exposed veins. A sharp chill went up my spine as I stared out over the expanse.

“You okay?” asked Angela. She made her way from the driver’s side of the car to the trunk and popped it open with the press of a button.

“Just… bad vibes from this place,” I said. “This place reeks of pain, suffering, and anguish.”

“It’s a graveyard, Nico,” said Angela as she rummaged through the trunk of the car for something. “You’ve told me that spirits often linger near the site they were buried.”

“Yeah,” I said, but I felt this nagging sensation in the back of my head that something was off about this place. I wandered over to Angela to find she had already put on a tactical vest and strapped a Glock 19 to her left hip. Three fully loaded magazines were held on her belt on the right side. She opened a metal lockbox and pulled out a handgun. Then she reversed it and offered it to me, grip-first.

“Late Christmas gift,” she said. “I know how much you love forty-five ammunition.”

The Glock 21 Gen 4 in my hand had a matte black finish on it. Guns were a necessity for my line of work. Some things that go bump in the night are as durable as a freight train. Nine-millimeter ammunition’s fine for mundane people. When you’ve got a vampire on you that hasn’t fed in a few days, you need to cause as much trauma as possible to stop it. Forty-five rounds and anything of higher caliber are good for that work.

“I didn’t get you anything,” I said with a grin. “Got any magazines?”

She handed me two loaded magazines, which I dutifully put into one of the many spare pockets in my navy-blue long coat. The weather was getting more humid, so my choice of clothing was causing me to sweat more than I would have liked. But the benefit of my long trench coat was that I had created extra pockets in it. The extra space was from small dimensional pockets I’d fashioned with a sewing kit and careful spellcraft. The best part was that anyone but myself who went feeling inside the coat wouldn’t find anything other than the normal inside pockets a coat like this would have. I watched Angela as she pulled a snub-nosed gun from the trunk that looked like a cross between an assault rifle and shotgun.

“What the hell is that?” I asked.

“I’ve always told you mine was bigger than yours,” she said with a wink. “It’s an SRM Model 1212. This baby holds twelve rounds in a magazine.” She pointed with her free hand to the pair of tube magazines on her right hip. “Marks gave me some triple-decker rounds from his last purchase. Figured I could use them since I was spending so much time with you.”

“Smart man,” I replied. Gesturing toward the metal gate, “Ladies first.”

“To hell with that,” she said with a smile and a wink. “Wizards first. I provide cover.”

Casting my gaze up and down Jefferson Street, I noticed the lack of activity. Checking my watch, I saw it was only a little after eight in the evening. There should have been more traffic. The hairs on the back of my arms stood on end. “Maybe we should reconsider,” I stated. “I’m getting a bad feeling about this.”

“Buckle up, buttercup,” said Angela. “We’re here. Let’s get this done.”

Sometimes testosterone gets you in trouble. This was one of those times. I knew Angela was only kidding, but there is something about a woman carrying a combat shotgun insulting your manhood that causes a man to let his gonads decide for him. Angela and I made our way across the street. There was a chain with a padlock wrapped around the center of the two gates. I took a moment to breathe in and feel the ambient energy of my surroundings. A rush of necromantic power filled my magical senses. I exhaled sharply, which caused Angela to tense up beside me.

Placing a hand on the stone wall that separates the street from the graveyard, I let out an involuntary gasp. The wall hummed with an intricate latticework of old but still potent magic.

“What is it, Nico?” asked Angela.

“Someone took a lot of time working magic into the walls of this place,” I said. A strong shiver overtook me as I traced the patterns that I couldn’t see but could feel like braille in the stonework. “Whoever built this graveyard wanted to make sure the dead did not get out.”

“That’s a thing?”

I nodded solemnly. “The dead like to stalk the living. They feed off your experiences. That’s why this place feels the way it does. The dead can’t leave.” Stretching my hand out over the wall, I felt the pulsating knot of death that filled this place. There was something… familiar hidden in this garden of the dead.

Turning my attention back to the gate, I channeled some energy from the atmosphere and focused on the metal chain. I said, “Defloresco.”

The chain holding the two gates together was already covered in rust. As the spell manifested itself, the metal withered away to nothing. I heard a sharp clunk as the padlock hit the pavement.

Angela smiled as she said, “Neat trick. No need for bolt cutters anymore. Geomancy?”

“Geomancy covers a lot,” I replied. “A friend at a local bookstore got some grimoires on earth magic for me. I’ve been practicing.” What I neglected to tell her is that my practice sessions had almost caused a sinkhole to open under my feet.

My deputy friend smirked. “And what did you have to do for him to get those books?”

A sly smile crept onto my face. “Let’s just say it was a long night.”

“You are so full of shit, Nico,” said Angela without missing a beat. “Let’s get this done.”

The cobblestone pathway led us straight from the street to the Sexton House. The building was a small pavilion-type structure, painted white with a triangular roof. The small porch would offer some shade during the day. As Angela and I approached, my palms started sweating. A small breeze pushed fallen leaves across the path.

When we reached the porch, I stretched out my mystical senses to feel for any latent magic in the area. There was a hum of necromancy behind the door, but it wasn’t enough to stop me from approaching. I motioned for Angela to stay at the small stairs while I went closer to the door.

Less than five feet from the door, it opened. A man exited the building. He was wearing a loose gray t-shirt and blue jeans. He had on a pair of black running shoes. His dark brown hair was messy and hung down past his shoulders. Around his arms and neck were tufts of overgrown hair.

He had black eyes with red-ringed irises. A vampire.

“So nice of you to arrive,” he said, his voice mirthless. “I’ve been hoping to finally meet you, Nicodemus.”

I’d never met this blood-sucker before. Given my recent history with the vampires of Tampa, I had been kept out of the loop concerning new arrivals. I cautiously stepped back from the vampire, keeping my wooden cane pointed at him. A minor effort of channeling made the sigils along the length of the wood glow a verdant shade.

“Magdelena said that you were a beefy one,” said the vampire. He followed my pace to the edge of the steps, each movement methodical. I could see he was relaxed, but long experience with vampires had taught me they could go from zero to sixty faster than the blink of an eye. “That shouldn’t be too much of an issue for my friends, though.”

That humming necromantic power grew to a crescendo. It was emanating from the necklace around the vampire’s neck. I couldn’t get a good look at it, but it appeared to be a skull feasting on a heart.

Earth exploded around the Sexton house. Six ghouls rose from the ground, thick saliva mixed with dirt covering their chins. One of them was Ezekiel. The ravenous undead creatures surrounded us, poised to leap at a moment’s notice.

Ghouls are major bad news. They’re recently deceased corpses into which a spirit of hunger has been forced. They’re not that smart, but they’re cunning and like to hunt in packs. The last time I’d dealt with this many, I was one of only two survivors from a group of five.  

“Nico,” said Angela. She pushed her back against mine as we slowly spun around to see all the ghouls. “Please tell me there’s a plan.”

Angela’s seen some scary shit in the last few months of knowing me. But we both knew this was not good.

“The plan,” said the vampire, “is to watch you both be eaten alive.” With a satisfied grin, the vampire hopped up onto the rail of the porch and laughed. There was a morbid weight to his voice. “Now, feast!”

When one is about to become a buffet for undead creatures, one uses whatever spell will get one out of trouble. I pulled ambient power from the area and channeled it into my cane. Slamming the wood into the cobblestone, I shouted, “Irretio!”

From under the ground, tree roots burst upward and wrapped around the legs of the ghouls, trapping them before they could pounce on us. With our way blocked except for going behind the Sexton House, I yelled to Angela, “Run!”

As we turned to run along the right side of the Sexton House, I fired a handful of shots at the vampire who seemed to control these monsters. None of my shots found purchase as the vampire leapt away, moving faster than I could track. I could hear the snapping of tree limbs behind us as we started hightailing it out of the area.

“Great plan,” said Angela. “Will that hold them?”

“Not likely,” I said soberly. “Get ready to shoot. Aim for their upper chest and neck. Decapitating them works.” I felt a tingling sensation around my neck but ignored it as I continued to run.

As cemeteries go, Oaklawn isn’t that large, but the more distance we put between them and us, the better. Unfortunately, I forgot how fast ghouls can run when they’ve caught the scent of living prey. As we neared the border line between Oaklawn and the St. Louis Catholic side of the cemetery, the ghouls were moving to surround us again.

“Stop,” I told Angela. “We need to clear some away or we won’t make it.”

Angela nodded and turned her back to me. Setting my back against hers, we raised our guns and started firing. The sounds of the gunshots reverberated in the open air, but they weren’t as sharp as I would normally expect. It almost sounded like muffled fireworks rather than a shoot-out.

The ghouls scattered around our shots, moving with predatory grace and agility. Once the magazine in my handgun had gone dry, I stowed the gun and channeled some energy into my body. I could hear Angela behind me reloading. Turning to see how close the ghouls on her side were, Angela stopped changing out the ammo tube to pull me down to the ground. A pair of ghouls leapt over us an instant later.

Pulling myself up, I used some channeled power and said, “Spicus.”

Hardened spikes of earth surged from the ground where the two ghouls landed, impaling both of them in multiple spots on their bodies. Both of them shrieked in fury and pain.

Connecting to the lingering magic connected to those spikes, I channeled more energy and said, “Spinae.”

There was a burst of black ichor from the ghouls as twisted, earthen thorns like sword blades exploded from each of the spikes.

From her seated position, Angela reloaded her shotgun and fired off two rounds to take the legs off another ghoul. She rose quickly and turned to take aim at the three closing in behind me.

We weren’t fast enough. One ghoul reached out with sickening claws and raked them across my chest. Angela spun under one attack, but the second took her across the back. The only thing that saved her spine from being severed was the tactical vest. The blow sent her to the ground, her shotgun falling from her hand.

I grabbed my cane in both hands and swung it like a baseball bat. The heavy knot I used as a grip connected with the chin of the Ezekiel ghoul, nearly tearing the lower jaw off his face. I tried to channel more power into my body when a warm sensation began emanating from the bag around my neck.

“Not now,” I said. The curse manifested this time as the ghoul who had lost its legs. One clawed hand dug into my left calf and pulled, taking me to the ground before I could brace myself for the fall. I went face first into the dirt. A familiar crunching sound filled my ears as my nose broke. My eyes filled with tears immediately.

“Nico,” said Angela somewhere off to my left. I heard gunshots coming from that direction, but they weren’t as loud. She’d probably pulled out her Glock pistol rather than fumble for the shotgun.

The sharp pain in my calf ceased and I could roll over onto my back. That move seemed to make the Ezekiel ghoul happy because he landed on top of me, his claws slashing across my stomach.

Panic caused me to grasp at some latent power, I channeled it into a quick and dirty spell. “Repulso.”

A rush of magical energy pushed the Ezekiel ghoul off me long enough for me to roll out of the way. I stood up and wiped the tears from my eyes. Angela was already next to me, shotgun in hand again. She aimed at the legless ghoul who had taken me down and held the barrel of the shotgun an inch or two away from its head. The resulting shot destroyed most of the creature’s skull. She fired off a few more shots to scatter the remaining ghouls, but they merely kept a safe distance away.

“Any more bright ideas?” asked Angela. Her breath was coming in heaving gasps.

Turning my head to see what was behind us, I noticed a gnarled gray-white tree near a gravestone that had been nearly toppled over by the roots. That feeling of familiarity grew stronger as I focused on the tree.

“Nico,” said Angela, “if we die here, I’m going to kick your ass for the rest of eternity.”

“I’ve got an idea, but it could turn out terrible,” I said.

“Worse than being eaten alive by these things?” she asked with heaving breaths.

“Difference between being shot or run over, really,” I remarked.

“I choose shot,” she replied.

I nodded. The ghouls were stalking us now, creeping slowly closer. Right behind them was the vampire. He stalked us with the fluid grace of a predator whose prey is cornered.

“Thank you for the entertainment. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a wizard fight so well,” said the vampire. “But all good things, as they say.”

“Run for the tree,” I ordered Angela. “Now!”

We turned and ran as quick as we could. The ghouls followed. I could hear their shrieks as they gained on us. Channeling as we ran, I focused on the boundaries between this world and Sideways, the supernatural realm of spirits and… other things. The worst-case scenario was that I transported us into the middle of a necropolis, a festering domain filled with angry shades of the dead. Best-case scenario was anywhere we weren’t about to be watch ourselves be disemboweled.

“Place your hand on the tree,” I yelled as we reached it. I put one hand on the tree and wrapped my other arm around Angela’s waist. Expelling the channeled power into a spell, I said, “Aversim.”

The unpleasant stretching feeling as I turned and took a step away from the tree was actually a relief compared to the injuries I’d sustained up to that point. The slide into Sideways was brief. Angela and I were no longer standing in the graveyard. Instead, we were surrounded by trees that looked similar to the one we had just left behind. The sky above was an ominous shade of dark maroon. A waning moon hung in the sky, shining on a clearing.

Situated before us was the blackened husk of a wooden house, resting on curled chicken legs.

“Shit,” I said.

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