Laura Bickle’s NINE OF STARS releases next week. Library Journal says it “mixes alchemy, folklore, and Native American traditions with a wintry Western landscape” while Booklist says, “Readers who like no-nonsense characters, the occult, Native American myths, and the modern Wild West will enjoy.” Laura’s here today with a post about winter, an excerpt featuring the wraith Skinflint Jack, and a chance to win a signed copy of her new book. Details below. Welcome, Laura!
Winter: The Stuff of Nightmares
by Laura Bickle
Winter has always inspired a bit of dread in me. Maybe it’s the lack of light, the cold, the ice on slippery roads. There’s something about the snow that blankets and obscures everything – it muffles sound. The landscape is reduced to black sky and white earth. Everything is dormant, and it seems as if life has withered out of the world.
In developing NINE OF STARS, I wanted to deal with a bit of this atavistic dread of winter.
It’s an age-old conflict ripe for a story: the protagonist versus nature. And winter has not been good to the wolves of Yellowstone. The Nine Stars pack is making a dangerous migration in the backcountry, seeking more fertile hunting grounds. Under normal circumstances, winter is a bountiful time for wolves. But the wolves of NINE OF STARS weren’t always wolves. Once upon a time, they were human, but they forgot the magic needed to turn back.
The wolves are hunted by a man-shaped creature in a black cloak with the skull of a stag, the ghost of Skinflint Jack. In the nineteenth century, he harbored a grudge against wolves. He’s kept that anger alive for many years, stalking and killing wolves in the park. To me, Jack is the very symbol of Winter. His hooves skim over the snow, and he brings death where he travels.
Winter is not only a hazard to wolves, but to the people who have decided to protect them. Petra Dee is a geologist. Though she’s surrounded by magic as the daughter of an alchemist, Petra is stubbornly ordinary. She has no magic – she can be easily hurt or killed by a creature like Skinflint Jack. She must depend on her wits and her coyote sidekick, Sig, to catch Skinflint Jack before he kills more wolves.
Sig might be more immune to winter than he lets on. Petra believes that he’s hanging about out of love of lunchmeat and blankets, that he’s submitted to domestication out of pure self-interest. But Sig may be more than he seems. He may have a bit of the Coyote with a capital “C” in him, a god walking around earth in a fur-suit for his own purposes.
Petra’s partner, Gabe, was once immune to the chilling effects of winter. Long ago, he was hanged by the Alchemical Tree of Life. He became one of the Hanged Men, undead cowboys who worked at the behest of a family of ranchers. Now, the Tree of Life and the rest of the Hanged Men are gone and buried in the frozen ground. Gabe is an ordinary man, for the first time in a hundred and fifteen years. Bullets, trauma, and cold can kill him just as surely as any other man.
Petra, Sig, and Gabe will enter the backcountry of Yellowstone to hunt the hunter, to try to dismantle his magic on the winter solstice. It is the longest night of the year, when winter holds sway over all things at the peak of Sepulcher Mountain, when all is snow and silence and death.
NINE OF STARS
The surface of the water churned. At first Gabe thought it was the wind, swirling around loose chunks of slush. But bubbles seethed from the interior, pushing through the gold algae.
He reached for his rifle and pressed it to his shoulder. He aimed it at the water, sighting down to see a black mass rushing upward, breaking the surface in a hail of spattered slush. Crowned in antlers, the creature glittered with ice, launching itself up into the daylight like a whale breaching the surface of the ocean.
Instinctively, Gabe blew out his breath and pulled the trigger. He fired once, twice, intending to put the creature back down in the water. His rifle jolted his shoulder with each shot, and he knew he’d hit the creature dead in its center of mass.
But the shadow leapt up onto the bank, dripping, crouching. It was the shape of a man, with antlers crowning its head. It looked upon Gabe through the skull of a stag, pale and ferocious . . . and it stood up. In one hand, it gripped the golden coin Gabe had cast into the water. A fistful of bone-pale knives dripped from the other.
Gabe ratcheted back the slide on his rifle and fired again. The creature didn’t flinch. It was as if the soaking pelts of its cloak simply sucked them in.
Petra was shooting at it, too, with no better results. She was shouting at Sig to get behind her.
Gabe kept firing, backing away to the snowmobiles. He had known that Skinflint Jack was a fearsome creature, but he suspected that Jack could be hurt. He’d guessed wrong.
Jack lowered his head and made a run at Gabe. Gabe dove away, but not before the darkness of Jack’s cloak slapped him in the side of the face. It was like being slapped by the abyss—cold, stunning hell. An antler caught Gabe in the shoulder and he tumbled, ass over teakettle, into a snowdrift.
He rolled over in the snow, the shadow looming over him.
“Hey, you! Cthulhu wannabe! Look what I got.”
Jack turned. Petra was holding two glittering gold coins in her hand. She made sure that he’d seen her. He took two steps away from Gabe, toward her . . .
. . . and she pitched the coins as far as she could, into the snowy waste. The pair of them shone like falling stars on the way down.
Jack paused, seeming torn.
But he growled and scuttled after the coins.
Gabe climbed onto his snowmobile and cranked the engine. Petra and Sig had already climbed aboard theirs and gotten the engine going. He followed Petra to a hasty retreat up the valley. Behind him, he watched the dark figure in the snowfield sifting through the snow with his hands.
That had been a disaster.
But they sure as hell had managed to get Skinflint Jack’s attention, for good or ill.
More about Nine of Stars
Following on the heels of her critically acclaimed prequel novels Dark Alchemy and Mercury Retrograde comes the first installment in Laura Bickle’s dark contemporary fantasy series, Nine of Stars, a Wildlands Novel
Winter has always been a deadly season in Temperance, but this time, there’s more to fear than just the cold…
As the daughter of an alchemist, Petra Dee has faced all manner of occult horrors—especially since her arrival in the small town of Temperance, Wyoming. But she can’t explain the creature now stalking the backcountry of Yellowstone, butchering wolves and leaving only their skins behind in the snow. Rumors surface of the return of Skinflint Jack, a nineteenth-century wraith that kills in fulfillment of an ancient bargain.
The new sheriff in town, Owen Rutherford, isn’t helping matters. He’s a dangerously haunted man on the trail of both an unsolved case and a fresh kill—a bizarre murder leading him right to Petra’s partner Gabriel. And while Gabe once had little to fear from the mortal world, he’s all too human now. This time, when violence hits close to home, there are no magical solutions.
It’s up to Petra and her coyote sidekick Sig to get ahead of both Owen and the unnatural being hunting them all—before the trail turns deathly cold.
More about Laura
Laura Bickle grew up in rural Ohio, reading entirely too many comic books out loud to her favorite Wonder Woman doll. After graduating with an MA in Sociology-Criminology from Ohio State University and an MLIS in Library Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she patrolled the stacks at the public library and worked with data systems in criminal justice. She now dreams up stories about the monsters under the stairs. Her work has been included in the ALA’s Amelia Bloomer Project 2013 reading list and the State Library of Ohio’s Choose to Read Ohio reading list for 2015-2016.
More about the Giveaway
Winter is on everyone’s mind these days. For anyone who missed it, I was over at Book Crazy Scrapbook Mama’s place the other day with my list of 7 Icy Winter Movies and an excerpt & giveaway to celebrate my latest, Pocket Full of Tinder.
Best wishes and thank you to Laura for guest blogging today!