Something venomous has come to Temperance …
It’s been two months since Petra Dee and her coyote sidekick Sig faced off against Temperance’s resident alchemist, but things are far from quiet. When an Internet video of a massive snake in the backcountry of Yellowstone goes viral, a chase for the mythical basilisk is on. Monster hunters swarm into the area, and never one to pass up the promise of discovery, Petra joins in the search.
Among the newcomers is a snake cult on wheels?the biker gang Sisters of Serpens. Unlike some, the Sisters don’t want to kill the basilisk?they want to worship it. But things get complicated when the basilisk develops a taste for human flesh that rivals the Sisters’ own murderous skills.
Meanwhile, the alchemical tree of life is dying, and the undead Hanged Men of Temperance who depend on it know the basilisk may be their last chance for survival.
With time running out for everyone around her, Petra will be forced to decide who survives and who she must leave behind in this action-packed sequel to Dark Alchemy.
It wasn’t for lack of effort, really. Once upon a time, she’d put a whole lot of energy into making the perfect present for a college boyfriend. It was a WWI-era metal biplane, a Sopwith Camel, about twelve inches long, and she thought it would be perfect for the would-be pilot she was dating. She had no money, so she’d made it out of bits of aluminum cans, copper wire, and scrap metal that she’d scavenged from the recycling bin. The pilot was made of a bottle cap, and she’d painted the whole thing with model paints. He laughed and chucked it in a Dumpster, as if it was a joke. It wasn’t. She fished the plane out of the Dumpster and walked home, without the boyfriend, face burning.
From then on, Petra procrastinated, evaded, and did everything she could to avoid gift-giving. Gift cards and cash stuffed in cards were her modus operandi. Everyone liked cash, right?
No. Not everyone. On Christmas Eve, Petra found herself staring into the amber eyes of her coyote companion, Sig. He had appeared in the field near her rented Airstream trailer months before, digging up a compass that could track all the magical things that infested the weird town of Temperance: undead cowboys, alchemists, and shapeshifting wolves. He’d quickly moved in and now slept sprawled across the foot of her futon. He even consented to wear a collar, despite his irritation with his jingling ID tag. Sig had no use for cash, gift cards, or other human trappings. She felt a pang of guilt at that. She should get him a proper present.
But alas…at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve, in the tiny town of Temperance, Wyoming, everything was closed. She thought she’d go to the hardware store, maybe get him a shiny new dog bowl. But the only lights on were the battery-operated white Christmas lights in the window, wrapped in a stranglehold around a battered cardboard cut-out of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
She sighed and trudged down the street to the pawn shop. At the very least, she could pick up an Army-surplus sleeping bag for Sig to tunnel around in. Sig trotted along behind her, ears perked up as they paused under the Stan’s Dungeon sign. The door was locked shut, and there was a note taped on the door: CLOSED UNTIL NEW YEAR’S DUE TO HIBERNATION.
Well, damn it.
Sig sat down in the light dusting of snow on the sidewalk, head tipped to one side. He’d be a good sport. She knew it. He’d put up with all manners of monsters on her behalf, facing down basilisks and drug-dealers. He had led her through the spirit world on many occasions. He even did his best not to roll in stinky things. He was A Very Good Dog.
But he deserved better. He deserved a present.
“I’m sorry, buddy,” she said, reaching down to rub his forehead with a glove-covered thumb. She felt lousy, and there was no way around it, even if holidays didn’t matter to Sig. Christmas somehow mattered to her.
Her brow wrinkled. It mattered. She wasn’t sure why. Holidays had always been a quiet affair at her house, growing up, especially after her dad left. Most of her Christmas memories involved curling up with a book and watching it snow. Maybe there was something about that she was trying to avoid – or recapture.
Her thoughts were cut short by a bang. Petra turned, flinching. The door of the next-door bar, slammed open, rattling against the wood frame of the building that had formerly been a church. Snow shook off the peaked lintel. A man stormed out to the street, shaking his head and rubbing his forehead. He stopped in the street, turned, and pointed back at the open door.
“That will never come true. Never!” he shouted. But Petra could see the sweat prickling on his pale face. “It ain’t possible.”
The man climbed into a pickup truck, cranked the engine, and peeled out on the street. He blew through the one stop light into the darkness.
“Well,” Petra said, squaring her shoulders and staring into the doorway. “That sure sounded like something up our alley.”
Sig snorted. But he followed her into the bar.
The Compostela was oddly busy for Christmas Eve. Patrons were shadows behind tables and booths hewn from old church pews. But they didn’t cluster in groups – they sat in ones and twos, lit by dim candlelight from ruby-tinted votives, staring into their drinks. The lights seemed dimmer than usual, the stained glass above black.
Petra walked back to the bar, a polished slab of what had once been a massive tree. The lights above the bar were out, and it was lit only by candles jammed into iced-tea glasses and Mason jars. She climbed onto a bar stool, shelled a couple of peanuts, and slid them to Sig.
“Power out?” she asked the bartender, a blond man of indeterminate age.
The bartender shook his head. His eyes were hooded by shadow. “No. It’s the Night of Spirits.”
Petra regarded him with narrowed eyes. “You guys have a drinking holiday?”
“Sort of.” He put three shot glasses before her. “On Christmas Eve in 1851, a prospector was passing through. He attended Christmas Eve services and had a vision of the future, a vision of the church catching fire. He dropped dead right after of a heart attack. The church caught fire the next day. Fortunately, the priest was around, and managed to put it out before it got too far out of control. But it did some damage.” He glanced back at the bar.
Petra noticed that he’d decorated. There was a cross propped up on the mirrored back of the bar, elaborately-carved with leaves and vines and the shape of a crucified Jesus. But the cross was blackened from fire.
“So you take that out for special occasions?” she asked.
“Once a year. To tell ghost stories. And spin yarns.” The bartender opened a bottle and poured a bit of thick, black liqueur into each shot glass before her. “On this night, in this place, you can see the past…” He poured into the first glass. “…the present…” He poured into the second. “And the future.”
Petra stared into the third shot glass as he topped it off. The surface was black as pitch, reflecting the flicker of candles. “Well, hell.”
“Happy scrying.” The bartender moved away to pour for another customer.
Petra looked down at Sig. “You know anything about this?”
Sig had curled up underneath her bar stool and tucked his nose under his tail.
Petra picked up the first glass and grimaced. On closer inspection, it was dark green and smelled of licorice. Absinthe. She took a test sip and her tongue curled. It was like cough medicine. She set the shot glass down next to the others. Yeah. Not finishing that.
She planted her elbows on the counter and propped her chin in her hands. The bartender’s party spiel was interesting enough, but she’d snag him and ask for a Coke and some pretzels. She hadn’t really given much thought to dinner, but that sounded better than that lump of green darkness that had burned down the back of her throat and uncoiled in her stomach.
She peered into her glasses. It was a neat tourist trick, though. She had to give him that.
It may have been a trick of the light, but it seemed as if something moved inside it. She squinted, poking at the glass until it sloshed. She saw no ice, but…
In the dim gloom, it moved again. She expected that it was simply the flicker of reflected candlelight, but it resolved into a shimmeringly familiar shape. A golden lion.
She reached up for her throat. She wore a pendant that her father, an alchemist, had given her. It was a gold alchemical symbol, a lion devouring the sun. She thought that the light had reflected the pendant in the abyss of the absinthe…
But no. The pendant was securely tucked behind her scarf. She pulled the shot glass to her and shook it. The lion didn’t re-emerge.
“Huh,” she said. Maybe there was more to the absinthe than she thought. Roofies? Was that still a thing? And would one sip do it? She glanced around. She didn’t feel dizzy. The room wasn’t spinning.
Something churned in the second glass. The flicker of a feather slipped up over the rim and receded.
Feathers. She associated those with Gabriel. Gabe was in the hospital now, injured from their latest adventure. Once upon a time, he’d been able to take the shape of a raven. She was terrified about his condition, and it had been touch and go. She’d only known him for a short time, but he’d become deeply rooted in her life here in Temperance, perhaps more than she was willing to admit to herself. He was, in all ways, quite superior to that college boyfriend who’d pitched the biplane. Gabe appreciated her ability to summon something from nothing. Which was a rare thing.
Not that she’d tried to make him anything for Christmas. She was pretty sure that he’d seen enough of her fearsome homemade creations for a while. No more flamethrowers made of vacuum cleaners, bullets cast from antimony, or suits of venom-proof armor made of pink insulation. Instead, a stack of paperback thrillers from the hospital gift shop was waiting for him on the bedside table.
She snatched the glass and drained it, determined to get to the bottom. No feather emerged from the glass, and no glittering lion emerged from the first. Just liquor, a warmth that flushed her face and tingled her toes where they pressed against the top rail of the bar stool.
She faced the last glass. Well…the first two had spoken to her. What would this last one say? If the last two were past and present…what would be in her future.
She stared it down for at least fifteen minutes. The dark liquid was smooth and unmoving as stone.
“No future?” She made a face and reached for the drink, wanting to call bullshit on whatever nickel-and-dime magic was at play here.
She knocked back the shot, feeling it burn on the way down, and then fought the urge to spit it out. She gagged and reached for her tongue.
A piece of fur was stuck to her tongue. A proper tuft. It looked like coyote fur.
She looked down at Sig. He was looking up at her, his mouth open and tongue lolling as if he was grinning.
She burst out laughing. Other bar patrons turned toward her, and she pressed her hand over her mouth to smother it.
The bartender drifted back over to her chair. “Good fortune?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
She laid some bills on the bar and climbed down. The floor was a little swimmy, but she was good to walk. Sig trotted beside her, across the scarred wood floor, to the dark night beyond.
“Well, Bud,” she said, stuffing her hands in her pockets. “Shall we head home? You’re clearly in my future.”
Sig snorted, and she took that for assent. She began to cross the slushy street when the gas station across the street from the bar lit up. It was as if a switch had been thrown. Bear’s Gas ‘n Go was lit up like Vegas. The carved standing grizzly bears at the door were wrapped in multicolored Christmas lights and scarves. Tinny Frank Sinatra Christmas carols sounded from behind glass covered in paper-cut-out snowflakes. A lit-up flying pig in a Santa suit was installed above the door. It was made out of what looked like spray-painted chicken wire, with flashlights for eyes.
“Hell, yes,” Petra muttered. “Coffee first.”
The cowbells at the door jangled as she pushed into the store. Bear, the proprietor, was inside, wrestling with an inflatable dinosaur wearing a Santa hat. His salt and pepper beard was covered with glitter, and he was wearing the ugliest Christmas sweater she’d ever seen, with a green and red penguin stretched over his sizeable belly.
“Bear!” She chortled to see him. “What are you doing here?”
“Christmas Eve is a fine, lucrative time for business,” he said. “I thought about taking it off this year, but…greed got the better of me.” He winked and looked her over. “You went to the bar?”
Petra screwed up her face. Her alcohol tolerance was zero. “Yeah. That obvious?”
“Pretty much. Want some coffee?”
“Suuuure,” she slurred, taking three tries to climb onto a stool near the deli case. The shots were finally sinking in. Hard.
Bear made coffee and fed her donuts. She in turn fed Sig jerky and lunchmeat from a rinsed-out butter tub while patrons came and went: people hauling Christmas trees, a guy who’d run out of gas that Bear gave him for free. A lady won a hundred dollars on a scratch-off lottery ticket, and a man bought a box of chocolates and a carton of ice cream for his wife. In between, she and Bear sang “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” The chatter and jingle of the cowbell washed over her as she nibbled on her treats. Bear gave Sig a soup bone that he chewed contentedly at her feet.
She hung out until Bear closed shop, about ten p.m. She let Sig pick his present from the deli case. His nose lingered on the glass longest near a ham. She bought the whole thing, and Bear wrapped it up in plastic for her.
“You want a ride home?” He asked as he locked up. He left the Christmas lights on inside and outside. The dinosaur had his leering face pressed to the window, which made quite an effect on Petra’s still slightly-tipsy brain.
“Nah,” she said, hoisting the ham under her arm. “I’ll walk it off.”
“Okay,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Bear.”
She walked off down the gravel road behind the store. In the distance, she could see the almost full moon shining on the silver surface of the Airstream trailer she rented. Sig walked beside her, his soup bone firmly in his jaws.
“Merry Christmas, Sig.”
Sig snuffled, gazing at the ham in her grip.
This wasn’t her childhood Christmas, quiet and full of books and snow. This was full of light and weird magic.
It was her life, past, present, and future.
Meet Laura Bickle!
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, also writing contemporary fantasy novels under the name Alayna Williams.
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.
Want to purchase Laura’s novels?
Nine of Stars (Wildlands #1) (Dec 27, 2016)
Embers (Anya Kalinczyk #1)
Dark Oracle (Delphic Oracle #1) – writing as Alayna Williams
The Hallowed Ones
A Fantasy Medley 3
Onward, Voyager: A Science Fiction and Fantasy Sampler
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