In honor of All Hallows Eve (or Halloween as the costumed creatures call it) and the imminent launch of Illusion, Book Three of the Rephaim series, I give you this sneak peak. Have fun tonight Spooksters, and don’t take any suspect handshakes.
A rumble sounded in the distance and Loki cast a nervous glance into the darkness. “The first step is to get you inside without him knowing you are here.” He held out his hand. “Will you trust me?”
Gwyneth eyed him narrowly and shook her head. “Not even a little bit. But I don’t see any other choice but to follow you.” Inhaling deeply, she pushed out a whoosh of air from between pursed lips. Sliding the knife free, she turned it in the moonlight and gave him a dark look. “But if you betray me, I will gut you with your own knife.”
He grinned. “Fair enough. Shake on it?” He held out his hand and she slowly did the same. They clasped palm to wrist, but when she would have pulled away, Loki gripped harder. “I’m sorry, my dear.” Green-orange light glimmered where their skin touched. “There is no other way, and if I had asked permission, you would never have agreed.”
Frozen in place, Gwyneth watched the world around her fray into black on white patterns, the trees, grass and boulders soaring to massive heights around her while the ground rushed up, threatening to bury her. Loki shifted his grip, grasping her around the waist now. Her legs fused together. Her skin turned silver, her body flattening, sharpening, hardening.
“What have you done?” she screamed and her voice sounded like the shrieks of a trapped mouse, furious and ineffectual.
“I told you, he can never know you are there, or you will never escape.”
“I cannot move,” she said, her minuscule voice sharp with rage. She tried without success to turn her head to look at herself. “What have you turned me in to?”
“You shouldn’t complain. You gave me the idea yourself.”
“What. Am. I?” She forced the question from between tight lips.
He grinned like a self-satisfied little boy. “It is genius if I do say so myself. I turned you into a dagger. I am especially proud of the craftsmanship on the hilt. The detail is amazing.” His eyes widened. “You’re even holding my knife! It looks just like you and you keep your ability to see and communicate. That was terribly difficult, you know.”
“Oh I am certain it was. And in this form I can’t run away or defend myself, knife or no.”
His lips formed a sullen line. “I’m starting to regret not fusing your lips together.”
“Not to mention I’d make a great gift for Luci —” Loki blanched and she paused. “Lucky. He can keep me on his belt as a permanent trophy, use me to —” She clamped her lips closed.
“Well, that is a concern. I guess you’ll just have to keep your mouth shut and hope for the best, right?” He held her up so that they were face to miniature face and stroked the back of her head. “Meanwhile, this should make you a little more comfortable.”
She felt a tingle in her neck and was able to turn her head and move her arms. Her hand was suddenly empty. She looked down. There was the knife in its carved sheath on her hip. Her legs had melded together and flattened into a smaller version of Loki’s spear tip, leaf shaped and lethally sharp on both edges. From her hips to her shoulders, she was carved jade, the lines of her green dress delineated in exquisite detail. Her skin was white jade and her hair was gold.
She looked up at him. “Don’t do this Loki.”
A fleeting spasm pinched his brows together, but it was gone so quickly she wondered if she had imagined the regret in his eyes. “I’m afraid there may be very little choice, for either of us. He is not someone you say no to and expect to survive the effort.” He pulled a wooden case from some hidden pocket and opened it. The inside was lined in velvet and he laid her in its soft folds. “Now, in you go.”
“You are an evil man.”
He paused. “Evil is a matter of interpretation. But I am most definitely not a man.” He stood up. “Time to go. There is something I want you to see.”
They tramped along the narrow, faded trail for several minutes until an outcropping of stone pushed the path into a scimitar shaped curve. At the apex of the curve, Loki stopped and held Gwyneth up in front of him as he faced the mountain.
She gasped. A wicked, avaricious face stared back at her from the rock wall. It’s snout and pricked ears were carved from living stone, and the beast had sword sized fangs curling up from between his closed lips. Resting above cheeks easily twice her normal height, its eyes glowed a sick, malevolent white in the dark and she felt a chill along her surface.
“What is it?” she asked.
“A dragon. Lucky — made them, from some species of extremely large lizard.”
“Like you made me?” Bitterness spilled from her silver lips into the air and he stiffened.
“Similarly, yes. But I only changed your form. He changed their very nature. This one is stone, but it…” he trailed off and looked back down the trail. “Someone is coming. If you value your sanity and your health, you will be quiet.”
He slipped into the deeper shadows of the surrounding forest until the foliage hid them from the newcomers. It was several moments before she heard the voices that had alerted him. It was several more before she could see what made them.
Three hunched shapes hobbled up the path, arguing sharply in a language she did not understand. She risked a glance at Loki and he stared down at her, with his finger over his lips.
The trio stopped in front of the dragon’s snout. The one in front barked out a series of words and then waited. Nothing happened and he cuffed the nightmare on his left. The creature loosed a short burst of guttural speech and the third ghoul voiced his own words before the leader could force him to with another blow.
The ground trembled, sending an army of small stones and terrified forest life scurrying across the mountainside. The rock-face groaned and the giant jaws shuddered, grinding together as if the thing was chewing fresh meat. The snarling lips of the beast drew back to reveal a double row of sharp teeth. In a few moments its mouth had opened big enough to swallow them all down the black hole that was its throat.
The three demons tramped into the maw, across the tongue and out of sight down the throat. The echo of their boots had not faded when Loki started moving.
“Why did you want me to see this?” She lay face up in the open box, cradled in his hand so that she had a clear view of his face.
He kept his gaze on the stone mouth in front of him. “So that you would understand.”
“Understand what? Why you lied to me, lured me with false promises?”
“The promises were not all false. The answer to Jotun’s illness is here and I will find it and help him. You have my word.”
“And why should I believe you?”
He stopped just inside the mouth of the dragon and slanted her a look she could not interpret, shuttered and bleak, but determined as well. “I do not want the Earth destroyed any more than you do. It is a hateful, seething mass of back-biting, dim-witted mortals with whom I have less than nothing in common.” He stared into the dark for a moment. “But it is my home, and I will not lose it to a maniac’s diseased vision without a fight.”
“Don’t speak of Jotun that way,” she said.
He shrugged. “Call him what you will. Destroying the entire Earth is a madness I cannot tolerate.”
“Then return me to my true form and let me help you,” she said.
He shook his head. “Changing you back now will do no good. It is too late, and I have no choice.”
“We all have a choice.”
Loki slid the slotted lid over the bottom edge of the case and his face twisted into a look of such torment that she caught her breath. “If that is so, then all of mine are bad. I am sorry Gwyneth.”