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The Books of Winter: Book One
Copyright R.R. Virdi 2016
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
When I stood here well over a hundred years ago, Longacre Square was the center of New York’s carriage industry. Today, Times Square was a colored pinwheel caught in a blizzard. A neon-washed blur of flashing screens and scrolling marquees. The streets thronged with endless crowds, everyone bundled tight against the snow.
As good a place as any for my sentencing.
There would be an inquisition first. There always was. Old people loved tradition, even when it carried little meaning. It would be a formality—nothing more.
I turned up the collar of my gray trench coat against the buffeting December winds and ice. An occasional flurry of snow made its way through, causing the muscles in my throat to stiffen. I rubbed a hand across my neck, realizing that if I didn’t figure something out, I could kiss it goodbye.
I wasn’t too fond of that outcome. I’m rather attached to my neck.
A gentle throb filled my shoulder as someone jostled to move past me. The side of my coat brushed aside. The person’s fingers moved with deft purpose.
At one point in time, this place was also known as Thieves’ Lair.
I shifted my weight, bringing my hand up and clamping it around their wrist. I twisted; they stumbled forward—empty-handed.
He gawked at me, off balance. The kid was mid-teens—red hoodie, jeans, remarkably plain-faced.
I waved an admonishing finger, and he took off. It wasn’t worth pursuing. The wallet was empty. I’d learned long ago to stow my valuables somewhere harder to reach. My hair plastered against my skull as the storm built. I ran my fingers through the dark locks, shaking my hand free of excess water from the snowfall.
People bustled by, making it difficult to navigate and, more importantly, clear my head.
Inquisitions weigh heavily on a man’s mind.
A sickly sweet smell tickled my nostrils. I stopped abruptly, causing an agitated huff of breath from the person trailing me. They swore as they stepped by, casting an angry glare over their shoulder. I ignored them. Instead I focused on the disheveled man sitting with his back against the aged concrete.
His skin was dark and weathered like old leather, covered in a mat of wiry, coarse hair of steely gray. Thin strands, like fishing wire, hung from beneath his woolen hat, a patchwork of red and yellow yarn. He spread his mouth upon seeing me. Yellowed teeth—some of which were missing, others crooked and chipped—greeted me. He held out a dry, cracked hand. The fingernails were overgrown and caked in grime. His canvas coat, several sizes larger than him, rustled as he moved.
And he reeked of the smell you’d expect to find in a candy store.
I didn’t expect to see his kind sitting on the street, begging, with his legs buried beneath layers of tattered blankets. I reached into my coat, dipping my fingers into the breast pocket. Removing my real wallet, I flipped it open. Something jingled.
The old man’s earthy eyes sparked with a hungry gleam.
I pulled out several small bills as I fished for something else. The greenbacks did nothing for him. He didn’t spare them a look. Copper coins fell into my palm as I upturned the wallet. He jerked, restraining the impulse to lunge forward. I spread the pennies between my thumb and forefinger, making sure they were in his view. Bowing my head, I held them out for him to take. His hand darted out with surprising speed, but I pulled mine back in time. “I want your ears to the ground; you hear of any trouble from the other side, let me know? I’m in enough of it as it is.”
He nodded, his eyes never leaving the coins.
I smiled and dropped them into his palm.
A McDonald’s cup appeared out of nowhere. It might as well have been magic, but I’ve seen enough of that to know it wasn’t. The cup was near the point of overflowing with coins, copper ones.
Old people aren’t the only ones bound by tradition. Some creatures are just as stubborn in breaking habits.
I touched my first and middle finger to my forehead and gave him a mild salute.
He returned a wide smile.
A strong chill racked my body, and I pulled my coat tighter. The bottom of my jeans pulled tight against my ankle when I took a step. I looked back over my shoulder. The old man nodded to one side. I followed his gaze.
Coming down the street towards me were two figures wrapped in more layers than the weather warranted. The muscles in my back stiffened. I kept my eyes on the approaching duo. If the smell of sweets wasn’t strong before, it was overpowering now.
The sides of their parka hoods were drawn shut, obscuring their faces. One wore blue, the other black. They were built with the proportions of competitive bodybuilders. I kept my eyes trained on them, making the effort to keep my lips from moving as much as possible. “Friends of yours?” I chanced a look at the old man from the corner of my eyes.
He offered a hapless shrug, rubbing his fingers together in a symbol that couldn’t be misconstrued for anything else.
I exhaled through my nose and fished out a handful of pennies, tossing them to him without looking. “Advice?” I wasn’t sure if he heard me through my tight-pressed lips.
“Run.” His voice was like thick smoke.
My hand brushed against a flat sliver of metal in my coat. I clenched a fist around it and thought again. I was already in trouble. Starting a fight on the streets of New York would assure a one-way outcome in my sentencing, even if it was self-defense. I heeded the homeless man’s words.
I turned on my heels and ran—
—and felt something impact my chest, sending me reeling. The newcomer fell to the ground, scrambling to avoid passersby who shot the pair of us odd looks as they walked on. The hood of their oversized, gray sweatshirt managed to stay up. A pristine white bandana hid most of their face. Truth be told, I paid little attention to strangers on the street. I’d seen too many thousands over the century.
I offered the fallen stranger a hand, casting a quick look over my shoulder. The pair following me hadn’t made any hasty moves. They strolled towards me at a casual pace. A perfume of cotton candy spread over the area, noticeable by the crowd who covered their mouths and noses as they went about. Clothing rustled as the hoodie-clad person righted himself. He brushed a caking of frost from his jeans.
“Sorry.” I took a step towards him, offering an apologetic smile.
He tilted his head to the side, staring past me.
I followed his look.
He went rigid when his gaze fell on the parka-clad pair advancing towards us. The pair stopped. Even beneath the heavy jackets and layers, it was obvious when they tensed. Their posture shifted in the subtle manner of a predator spotting prey. Both men hunched, setting their massive shoulders, glaring past me.
I turned back to look at the person I had bumped into. It was a moment’s stare. The kind when a deer sees the pack of wolves hunting it.
And that’s when I was thrown to the wolves.
The gray-hooded-figure lunged, using all of his weight as he crashed into me. Both palms slammed against my chest. I stumbled back as he tore off. Arctic needles pricked my hands as I landed against the freezing sidewalk.
The burly pair of men burst into action, moving in long strides that should’ve been limited by their restrictive clothing.
I scrambled to my feet, tensing for a fight.
An arm built like a large log struck my shoulder, pushing me aside. The second of the pair rushed by, shoving me the other way. I tumbled to the ground.
There was something else under the pervading odor of sweetness they oozed. I fought not to retch against the undercurrent of raw sewage, badly preserved fish, and rancid meat.
I knew that smell. And I knew well enough to stay out of the way of monsters.
Stubble tickled my palm as I rubbed my hand across my face and I spat. “I don’t need this, not today.” I righted myself and watched the pair chase after the bandana-wearing person. The trio made quite the scene through the crowds. The figure in the hood slipped between people with practiced deftness and skill. The mountainous duo didn’t bother with subtlety.
I flexed my fingers, pumping a fist several times. Don’t do anything stupid. You can’t afford any more slip-ups. Don’t get involved.
“Damn it.” I took off after them, taking the same approach as the pursuers. “Move!” My forearm glanced off a man’s back as I rammed him to the side. I didn’t turn back to see his reaction. I didn’t need to; I could hear the string of obscenities.
Pursuits aren’t about being fast, being agile, or even being smart. They rely on keeping your quarry in sight. As long as you have an eye on them you can track them, wear them down, or come up with a multitude of ways to catch them. If you can see them.
It wasn’t easy in the crowds of Times Square. The longer the chase went on, the higher the chance of losing them.
I maintained a line of sight on the one wearing the blue parka. My throat dried and ached the more I inhaled the winter air. The mass of people became watercolors swirling together. I pushed them from my mind, honing in on the dark hues of the parka. I leapt, twisting my profile to slide through a gap between people. I landed hard. A jolt went through my shins as I almost slipped on the frosty sidewalks.
The blue coat vanished into the crowd.
“No!” I picked up my pace, barreling through the masses and eliciting angry shouts and threatening gestures. A flash of dark blue turned down a passageway off the street. I sped up, swinging my arms for what good they would do. The turn came up and I ran into it too fast. A fist-sized pulse flared within my shoulder as I ricocheted off the brick wall. I grimaced, rubbing the spot. There would be a sizeable bruise.
“Nowhere to run now,” a voice up ahead called. It was guttural, awkward. I imagined a bullfrog learning to speak English.
I squinted, trying to peer through the evening light and darkened length of the alleyway. The dark blue figure advanced towards something unseen. The person in the gray hood, I wagered.
“Mine,” grumbled another voice. A second later, the figure I had dubbed “Blue Hood” stumbled into my vision. He snarled and hunched, taking an aggressive stance.
Blue Hood grumbled. The air around him bowed and waved. Even the snow avoided the area around his body. The noise grew in intensity and, for the briefest of moments, I felt it as a gentle pressure against my skin.
I regretted my involvement.
Blue Hood took a step toward their hidden cohort. “Not yours; mine!”
His pal answered back. “Boss don’t care. Just wants ‘em gone. Mine. I’m older.”
The blue hooded one bristled. “I’m bigger.” They took a step into the dark. If things got out of hand, whoever was in the gray sweatshirt could get seriously injured, or worse. Two sets of basso rumbles echoed down the alley.
That settled it. I set my jaw and walked down, trying to close the distance as best I could. When I was close enough to be heard, but still out of arm’s reach, I barked, “Hey!”
The deep rumbling ceased. I couldn’t see a thing, but felt their eyes. The three of them were watching me. I raised my hands above my head, working to appear as non-threatening as I could.
“Hey,” I repeated, trying to keep their attention on me.
“Who are you?” asked Blue Hood.
“Hrmm, leave,” ordered his pal.
I was sorely tempted. Getting involved was my problem. One that had landed me in an inquisition. Some people never learn.
I took several more steps, praying they would take no hostile action. “I just want to know what’s going on. When two people follow a third down an alleyway, it raises questions.”
The cavernous grumbles sounded again, but I pressed on.
“—or you next,” cut in the second voice.
“Next for what?” I was close enough to make out the pair now, their outlines at least.
Another rumble left their throats. I could see the vague shape of the third figure, huddled against the brick wall at the end of the alley. He shuddered, arms wrapped tight around himself. I had a feeling it had nothing to do with the cold.
I let an edge of heat into my voice. “Next for what?”
I sucked in a breath as my feet left the ground. Two fists clenched the collar of my coat, holding me with ease. The hood of the black parka fell back to reveal the face of gruesome man. It was too solid and layered in generous mass. There was no grunt of effort as he shifted his body. The world sailed by.
Pain blossomed across my left shoulder blade, making its way to my right as I hit the ground, rolling through the snow. I blinked. The muscles in my throat fought for air as my lungs pumped in futility. Lying there was not an option, and doing something—anything—was beyond my ability. The gray-hooded figure was within arm’s reach. My head lolled to the side. The man in the black parka approached.
He cracked his neck. The air around him shimmered, and his features changed. There was no subtle transition. His head and face increased in mass, becoming inhumanly thick and flabby. The creature’s skin was a pale, unhealthy gray with a wet sheen. Purplish lips, missing a chunk of flesh, pulled away from its mouth. A handful of teeth remained, chipped into broken, sharp edges. Bits of rotting meat hung between them.
The putrid odor increased.
Fabric tore as the monster took its true form. It towered well over eight feet, built of ropey muscles engorged to grotesque proportions. The creature’s body was bare save for a haphazard assortment of clothes tied together in a makeshift girdle. Its hands dwarfed my skull, and, if things continued the way they were, those hands would crush my head.
“Trolls.” I coughed and spat. “It had to be trolls.”
The advancing creature was missing a fair bit of his left ear. It looked gnawed on. It pointed to me. “Mine.” The troll jabbed a finger at the shivering figure behind me. “Yours.”
Blue Hood chortled and followed the example of his compatriot. He dropped the illusion. Shreds of clothing fell to the ground.
The cold and being tossed by the troll left my fingers hesitant to move.
“This is bad,” someone whispered behind me.
I grunted, trying to dig into my coat.
“I’m sorry for this,” said the figure in the gray hoodie.
“For what?” I turned to look at him, and for the first time that day, my loss of breath had nothing to do with physical reasons.
His hand slashed diagonally through the air. Silver light burst into existence, a tear in the space before me.
A Way. The stranger had opened a Way.
My collar constricted against my throat as he hauled on my coat. “Come on!”
Both trolls let out defiant snarls and lunged. I kicked, bringing myself to my feet without proper balance. I tumbled back. My newfound friend held onto me.
We fell through the tear.
End of ARC chapter one
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