Title: Blood Sky
Author: Traci L. Slatton
Release date: August 24th 2015
Genre: Romance, Paranormal
In a time of apocalyptic despair, love is put to the test… Deep in the badlands of Outpost City, in the Dark Horse saloon, a poker game is being played. The stakes are life and death—for the world.
What can Emma afford to lose? Will she gamble on herself, or on Arthur?
Will love find a way when the apocalypse closes in? A mystical odyssey, a haunting love…
5 ebook copies Blood Sky
Book Trailer: https://youtu.be/moBlcXPG33o
The seeds of all time are planted in every discrete moment. If you pause, breathe, and come to presence, you’ll discover this marvelous truth: that all of time is contained within each single instant, like a giant oak is contained within a fragile brown shell. It’s all laid out for you, all of it, the past and the future, events and people and destiny. All you have to do is come to awareness.
So I should have known that there would be trouble. I, Emma, should have known that love would fail, that it wouldn’t be enough to protect us all from the very person who had plunged us into the apocalypse a few years ago.
It was all there to be seen in the first moment we met, when he saved my daughter Mandy from the obliterating mists and then accepted my trade: myself for his protection of the band of orphans I was shepherding around France. We talked about food, and I pointed out that he was eating well. One notices such things after a global ecological cataclysm that has destroyed most of the planet’s buildings and people—and all of its manufacturing capabilities. One cares about who is eating well when one has been scrounging for scraps for several months. Priorities come into sharp focus.
He spoke of the mists and of rebuilding. I wanted to take Mandy back home to my husband and older daughter Emma in the Safe Zone of Edmonton, Canada. He had his goals and I had mine; his were lofty, mine were personal. I should have known a conflict was inevitable. But could I have predicted that the fate of the world would be tangled up in it?
Could I have foreseen that he would be taken by madness, a madness that had slept within him since before the day his invention erupted to scour the Earth clean of structures and human beings? Even with all the mindfulness of the world, could I have known in advance that Arthur would be possessed by madness?
We left a mist-ravaged Outpost City and traveled east, mostly along the old Trans-Canada Highway. It was summer and we were en route to Quebec, where a boat waited to take us to Europe. ‘We’ consisted of Arthur and me and our beloved friends from the original camp in Europe: warrior woman Jeannie and Robert her Irishman and their infant twins, sharp-tongued French beauty Laurette and her companion Charles Nwokocha, who had been a famed linguist in the Before, and Serbian Theo and young Marco, the Italian whose madness had been cured by Arthur mere seconds before the mists swarmed around us. Other comrades from Canada had joined us: Donny who had once been a cop and inscrutable Kangee his Sioux wife, and pretty but feral Susie, saved from a band of raiders, and the sly pickpocket Gaff from Outpost City.
We were riding at a good clip, about fifty kilometers a day, and we were south and west of Winnipeg. In the late afternoon, we rode along a flat, straight road into a small community named Starbuck. It seemed deserted. There was no movement, no wild dogs or skinny cats or desperate rats scrounging for food. It felt empty and lifeless despite leafy trees and tall grass, and desolate in the way that ghost towns often did now, in the After. Even when a town wasn’t devoured by the mists, people didn’t want to live outside the Safe Zones where mists never encroached.
“Let’s check houses for food,” Arthur called, from the front of our peloton of horses and riders. He swiveled around in his saddle and nodded to Theo and Donny, who peeled off together, trotting toward a small brown cape on the right with an abandoned car in the driveway. He turned toward me and Laurette and nodded again, and we picked up our reins to veer off to the left.
“Some of these homes look sweet to me,” Jeannie called. A worn expression scrolled over her lovely dark face with its pronounced cheekbones. “How about we find a place with food stock and we settle in for the evening?” She was as staunch in the saddle as ever, but since giving birth to twins a month ago, she tired easily. She pressed her lips gently to the forehead of the infant strapped onto her chest.
Arthur eyed her without responding. “Aye, come on, Big Mister, let’s take a breather,” said Robert. “It’s not often me lady asks for one.”
“Every break slows us down, lengthens the time it takes us to get back to Europe and make a stand against the mists once and for all,” Arthur said.
“Arthur, we have two babies with us,” I called.
Arthur stared at me. Abruptly, he nodded. He could still see reason, at this point. He called, “Let’s find a place big enough to accommodate all of us. Then we’ll send out scouts for food.”
So Theo and Donny rejoined the group, and Laurette and I stayed tight to the flank.
We rode along Arena Boulevard past a school and a recreation center to Birch Street. Tall, fragrant pines planted in neat rows and colorful perennials showed that the inhabitants had once taken loving care of their yards.
“Arthur,” Theo called, “big yellow house ahead, green Ford truck out front. Look good. Check out?”
Arthur waved his assent.
Theo and Donny trotted out ahead of us to a sprawling yellow place with a spacious yard. I watched them dismount and take out their guns. This was the After, and they couldn’t be too careful. There was no telling who might be hiding in the house, and how sane they might be. Billions of people had died on The Day, that terrible Christmas eve that the mists rolled across the globe and devoured structures, people, animals, objects…anything with the wrong balance of metals in their chemical composition.
Fortunately, many millions of people, perhaps hundreds of millions, hadn’t died. But some percentage of the survivors were mad, and were a threat to the rest of us. The mists had made them mad.
“Emma,” said a quiet voice from my elbow.
I turned, and it was Susie. Her heart-shaped face was solemn. She jerked her blonde head to one side, wanting to speak to me privately. I guided my horse out a few meters away from Laurette. Susie followed so close that my horse danced anxiously beneath me.
“Quit!” I said firmly, dropping my heels in the stirrups. I looked over at Susie, who was practically at my shoulder. “So?”
Susie frowned. “Something’s wrong. Something here in this town.” “You’ve seen something?”
“Not exactly.” “Felt something?” “Not really.”
“Then what?” I pressed, in a low voice. Perhaps Susie had felt something with a sixth sense stimulated by the mists. All too often, the mists left strange psychic gifts in their wake, extrasensory abilities that both tormented and enhanced the recipient. We all feared these gifts because they often preceded madness. I had a gift, a healing gift in my hands, and I kept careful watch over my internal state, lest I descend into a chaos from which few people emerged.
Susie shook her head ferociously. She uttered, “Yah!” Her horse quickened its pace and she rode off toward the yellow house without answering me.
I stared after her in bemusement. Susie who lived to kill raiders was uncomfortable with something in Starbuck, and she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, explain her feeling to me. Perhaps it was ordinary intuition, perhaps it was something more. I looked around carefully, steering my horse in a tight clockwise spin when my neck wouldn’t turn anymore. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Streets were empty, houses were quiet and dark. There was no movement apart from our group.
“What’s wrong?” It was Arthur, who had guided his horse close to mine. He studied my face.
“Susie feels uneasy,” I murmured, still scanning the surroundings.
“She has good sensitivity, she’s open psychically,” he murmured back. “I always think she’ll be a key piece of the equation, when we mount an attack on the mists.” He looked around. “I don’t see anything.”
“Me, neither.” I frowned as I caught his eyes. “That’s what worries me.”
His gray eyes lit up, the way they always did when his genius struck him. Before the mists, Arthur had been a professor of sorts, a polymath inventor involved in military research and development. “I know what you mean. It’s all a little too quiet.”
“Why are the yards all so tidy? And where are the dogs?” I wondered. “Packs of wild dogs run through every ghost town. We should have seen some.”
He scowled and gathered his reins in one hand, and then pulled out his pistol with the other.
I followed his example.
“What are we fearing?” Robert asked, riding up to us. He didn’t wait for us to answer but drew his weapon, as well, holding it firmly in his hand despite the baby nestled on his chest.
“The quiet,” Arthur answered.
Theo yelled for us to come to the house, breaking the unnatural silence of the sunny afternoon. Arthur motioned the rest of us to go ahead while he took up the rear and scanned the countryside.
The yellow house was spacious enough, a living room with a fireplace, four bedrooms, and a nicely appointed den. We were eleven adults and two babies, and Laurette assigned us all rooms. She delegated bedrooms to couples and gave Donny his own in case Kangee showed up, put Susie in the den, and told Marco, Theo, and Gaff to figure out their accommodations in the living room.
“I like this place, it is very well kept,” Laurette approved. She stood in the kitchen with her arms akimbo.
“Too well kept.” I was going through the pantry. There was little in it, though it was very well organized and spotlessly clean.
“I know what you mean, but why question it, it is so pleasant? You are so suspicious, Emma,” Laurette said. She peered over my shoulder into the cabinet. “There are dried beans, we can use those.”
“Someone will have to hunt something, there’s not enough.” “We can look into nearby homes, also,” Laurette said. “Susie—”
“I don’t want to go out,” Susie said. She seated herself at the kitchen nook.
I pulled out a box of Earl Grey sachets. “Cup of tea? If I can get some water boiling.”
“There’s no electricity,” Susie said. She laid her head on her arms.
“The water runs,” Laurette said, turning on the faucet for a few seconds. “There’s a fireplace,” I said.
Jeannie came into the kitchen with a twin on each hip. “I’m so thankful to be off a horse! Emma, what have we got? Anything to snack on?” She slid into the nook table opposite Susie, who didn’t pick up her head.
“Not much, yet. I’m still looking,” I said.
Shaggy and awkward, Gaff stood in the doorway. “Arthur is sending us to scout for food in nearby houses.”
“Don’t go anywhere alone,” Susie murmured.
“He said to stay in pairs,” Gaff said. “I’ll be with Marco.” He watched Susie. “You okay?”
“Shut up,” she answered, but her voice sounded listless, without its usual snap for Gaff.
“Go on, then, Gaff,” Jeannie said. She started unbuttoning her shirt so she could nurse the babies. Gaff shrugged but he scowled at Susie and then made a face at me before he went outside.
I took his point: something was up with Susie.
Something more than what was usually up with her, that is. Susie was often quiet, depressive. She had been kept by a group of raiders after the mists had ravaged her home town and killed her family. The raiders had used her badly and the residue of their cruelty stayed with her. I had helped her get free after a mist incursion, and she was closer to me than anyone else, but she was still often remote.
“I will start a fire in the fireplace,” Laurette announced. She took a large pot from inside a cabinet and filled it with tap water, then went to the living room.
“It won’t matter,” Susie said. “Even if she gets the fire going and she boils the water. It won’t matter. Nothing matters.”
I leaned back against the sink, scrutinizing the girl. “Susie, you want to talk about it?”
She turned her head to look in the other direction.
“So, food supplies?” Arthur asked, coming in. He walked over to me and put his hands on my hips. He smiled. “Didn’t we have our first encounter in a kitchen?” He touched my hair, lifted a blond lock to his lips. Then he leaned into me, his tall, muscled form lithe and warm along the length of me. He breathed deeply as if inhaling me and then he kissed me, running one hand along my neck and the other along my bottom. He lifted his mouth from my flesh to murmur, “We’ll have our own bedroom tonight.
Privacy. Finally. It’s starting to feel like a long, long trip to Quebec without any time alone together.” He kissed me again, hungrily, his hands roaming over me.
I felt myself melting, responding, as always. I had this response to Arthur, an instinctive physical surrendering. I couldn’t help myself.
“Yuck,” Susie muttered. Jeannie chortled.
Arthur pulled back. He threw a glance over his shoulder at Susie, and then raised an eyebrow at me.
I shook my head.
He stood back and reached past me to open the pantry door. “It’s tidy.”
“Too tidy,” I agreed. “Not a speck of dust or an insect carcass or anything. From what I’ve seen, the whole house is that way. Like it’s been hermetically sealed since the Before. Which is not possible.”
“There are no cairns commemorating the dead, either,” Arthur said, his voice deep and thoughtful. “We see them everywhere. But not for the last ten miles or so, and not in town.”
“Little food, clean homes and yards, no dogs or cats or dead gerbils, and no cairns,” I summarized.
“Someone’s in town,” he decided. “We don’t see them, but they’re here. They’re taking care of the homes.”
“I wonder why they didn’t greet us, one way or another. I doubt they’re mad.
Maybe OCD, but not crazy, not when they’re doing this much housekeeping.”
“Perhaps they were concerned about our sanity, or our intentions,” Arthur mused. “We’re an armed group riding in tight formation. It’s a reasonable concern.”
“They know you’re not crazy,” Susie said, her voice hollow. “They’ll come.” She refused to say more even when Arthur and I pressed her.
Marco shot a deer with his bow and arrow, his first since returning to sanity a few weeks ago. Theo and Robert dug a shallow pit in the front yard and made a fire for roasting the deer, as they’d done many times before when we were on the road both here and in France, traveling hard and fast on a mission. Tucked away in the cellar of a house down the street, Gaff found a stash of food, including some canned goods. The big score was Ramen noodles. Laurette used a cast iron skillet in the fireplace to make a feast of the noodles, which had an expiration date sometime in the next millennium.
We wouldn’t have cared if the expiration date was last year, the piquancy of the seasonings made the noodles such a treat. We all appreciated simply having food, but delicious food, food that was well-seasoned, was cause for special celebration.
It was a warm dusk under a vast azure and plum sky. We sat outside around the fire to eat our meal. Gaff and Marco had dragged chairs out for us, and Laurette and I had found and lit citronella torches to discourage mosquitos, so we sat in comfort. Crickets trilled and cicadas whirred and bats streaked overhead and moths fluttered and the air smelled bright and fresh beneath the smoky pine of our kindling. Poplar and birch logs, found stacked behind a neighboring home, streaked the orange flames with dancing blue, red, and green nymphs of light.
“Does anywhere have more stars than here?” asked Robert.
“Aye, France, where we met,” Jeannie said. She exchanged a smile with Robert. “Less light pollution here, I think, because the spaces are so vast,” Arthur commented. He was chewing a piece of venison backstrap, the succulent meat, tender yet lean, along the spine of the deer. “Theo, your recipe for this meat gets better all the time.” “Use what I find for cooking,” Theo said modestly, but he looked pleased. He’d found some spices in the cache of noodles and used them with great efficacy. “Something’s off,” Donny said. He set his plate on the ground beside him and stood up. His dark, pockmarked face wore a brooding expression. He was a portly man of African descent, grounded, calm, and steady; he’d been a cop in the Before. We all trusted him implicitly. He muttered, “I feel it with my…other sense.”
We all grew quiet and a little tense. The mists had given Donny a special ability to sense other minds. Sometimes he could even influence other minds. We had relied on this mental power in other, prior missions.
“Do you feel a presence?” asked Nwokocha. “Alexei?” Arthur asked, sitting straighter.
Donny shook his head, No. It wasn’t the Russian psychopath who had bedeviled us over the past few years.
“Alexei will come to us, eventually,” Arthur stated. He was counting on it, in fact. “Maybe it’s Kangee returning?” I asked, hoping to see her.
Kangee had been given a mysterious ability to travel great distances. She would begin walking and the air would morph into red streaks and she’d be miles ahead of where she started out. I had experienced this myself once when she carried me on her back. Since she was unfettered by distances, she came and went from our group as she pleased. We kept her horse with us for the occasions she joined us.
“Not Kangee, I can feel my wife from, well, wherever she is when she starts to come back,” Donny rumbled. He stroked his chin, hard, as if he had something on it that he wanted to rub away. “I can’t tell. I don’t know. What’s wrong with me?”
“We are all curious, Donny, but don’t fret yourself,” Nwokocha said. He pushed his glasses up his nose and smiled at Donny.
“I don’t know,” Donny said in frustration. “But I know they’re here. They’re here, I can feel them.”
“They, who?” I asked. But I didn’t wait for an answer. I took my gun from my backpack at my feet and rose.
Arthur and a few others rose, also. Susie buried her face in her hands. A small voice piped up, “They, us.”
A small rustle of movement intensified until it saturated the space around us. Scattered gossamer ribbons of light twisted in the firelight like DNA helixes, and then several small forms slowly became visible, first as columns and then as people.
I yelped, and exclamations flew up from Laurette, Jeannie, Gaff, and Marco. “We’re here to talk to her,” said the small voice. It belonged to a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl of about nine years old. She was one of dozens of children who suddenly encircled us in the yard. The girl pointed a slim index finger at Susie.
Arthur took in a quick, startled breath. “What do you want with her?”
The girl looked at him and tilted her head, a birdlike pose. “She can do it. You can help her, maybe. She can do it. Susie, come.”
“Do what?” Arthur asked.
The girl turned away from him to gesture to Susie. “I am Irina. Come with me. You’re the one we’ve been waiting for.”
Susie got up and walked toward Irina. “No, Susie—” I started.
“Susie, stay where you are,” Arthur said, in his command voice.
But Susie kept walking. Her face was blank, expressionless. She took Irina’s hand. The two of them vanished.
Theo, Laurette, and I lunged toward the now vacant spot. Gaff yelled, “Susie!”
“Bring her back this instant!” I yelled. I drew myself up, placed my hands on my hips, and made a ferocious face of command. I had two children of my own, Beth and Mandy—I knew how to scowl effectively.
“Don’t worry,” said a boy by me. He was six or seven, with ragged red hair and missing front teeth. “Don’t worry, Emma.” He patted my arm and then he vanished, too.
All at once, all the children were gone.
Robert squeaked. “Where’d the little birds fly with our girl?”
The rest of us stood aghast, unmoving. The appearance and disappearance before our eyes of so many people—children—was so unexpected that it befuddled us.
I was at high alert and almost jumped out of my skin when Arthur touched my shoulder. “Arthur? We have to get Susie back!”
“Sh,” he said, his head cocked. “Listen.”
So I froze. I strained to hear what Arthur did. It was a steady susurration, a kind of syncopated snicking that receded into the ethers. Then I got it: it was the sound of many bodies breathing as multitudes of little feet pattered over grass and pavement.
Arthur saw the comprehension grow on my face. He nodded. “Yes. They’re cloaked. They’re not teleporting the way Kangee does.” “Grab one?” I asked, under my breath.
He shook his head, No.
“Why do they want Susie?” I wondered. “Where did they take her?” “They have to bring her back,” Gaff said. He lifted his hat off his head and
scraped his hands back over his thicket of dirty-blond hair. His narrow face was set and stern. “I mean, she’s a heinous bitch and all, but they can’t have her. She’s one of us.”
“I think she knew they were here all along,” Laurette said slowly. I nodded. But now what?
Traci L. Slatton is the international bestselling author of historical, paranormal, and romantic novels, including IMMORTAL (BantamDell) and BROKEN; the award-winning dystopian After Series which includes FALLEN, COLD LIGHT, FAR SHORE, and BLOOD SKY; the bittersweet romantic comedy THE LOVE OF MY (OTHER) LIFE; and the vampire art history romp THE BOTTICELLI AFFAIR. She has also published the lyrical poetry collection DANCING IN THE TABERNACLE and THE ART OF LIFE, a photo-essay about figurative sculpture through the ages. Her book PIERCING TIME & SPACE explores the meeting ground of science and spirituality.