This is a free sample of the first chapter of In Graves Below, by Carol Van Natta. Enjoy!
The little bells on the door played a cheerful tune as another customer walked in the noisy, crowded Hungry Hippogryph diner in Magic, New Mexico. A magical spell caused the bells to play a unique melody for each person who entered.
Idrián Odair was having one of those mornings. All his errands in town, from stopping at the feed store for special kibble, to getting his mail and buying groceries, to dropping off tourist-trade sand paintings at the gallery for summer consignment sales, had taken longer than planned, and now it was noon, and the diner and its front waiting area where he stood were packed. He’d nearly turned around and left, but the other restaurants would be just as busy, and he was hungry for anything he didn’t have to cook for himself.
The diner was popular with the town locals because the owner catered to the unusual tastes and nutritional needs of its customers. Most were magical, and some weren’t even remotely human. The restaurant was equally popular with human tourists because of its kitschy decor and relaxed ambiance. Powerful illusion and protection spells in the town made peaceable mingling of the locals and the tourists possible by convincing tourists they saw only ordinary people, not magical beings of their fairy tales, myths, and nightmares.
“Hey, Idrián,” said a wide, tall, and heavy dwarf-ogre male, “long time no see.” His deep and rumbling voice sounded like grinding gravel, and his oversized hands and arms could tear apart a small car if he was of a mind, but he was the kindest, gentlest being Idrián had ever met. He was only eighty years old, which was barely out of adolescence for either dwarves or ogres.
“Heya, Warrk,” Idrián said with a smile. “When did you get back?” Last Idrián had heard, his friend had been at a six-month-long family reunion organized by his parents, who had a hidden island to themselves off the coast of Denmark. Warrk had enough siblings, nieces, and nephews to populate a small town.
Warrk smiled. “Couple of weeks ago. Glad to be back where it’s warm.” His smile faded. “Sorry to hear about Black Fox. You must miss him.”
Idrián nodded. “I do, and thank you.” It had been five months since his grandfather had died unexpectedly, and his spirit had yet to appear anywhere. Unlike most tribal traditions of the region, his people cherished the spirits of the dead, rather than fearing them.
A male behind Idrián laughed. “As much as he liked to be in everyone’s business, you’d think he’d have come back the next day.”
Idrián turned carefully to see his friend Rollie, a native coyote shifter, grinning at him. Rollie could have passed for an ordinary human, except for his sharp, golden eyes and even sharper, permanently pointed teeth.
“True,” agreed Idrián, “but he liked doing the unexpected even more. He’s probably waiting for the perfect moment.” He hoped it was soon, because Black Fox To’Piro had left unfinished business. He’d died before explaining how to access the protective wards around the family ranch and mesh them with the wards of Magic. Both were due to be renewed in a week, in preparation for the coming onslaught of summer tourists. Early birds were already showing up, like the noisy group in the big corner booth near the counter. Pretty soon, the town would be overrun. After Idrián dealt with the wards problem, he planned to hide out on his ranch for the rest of the season. The ranch was both his therapy and his refuge.
The diner’s front door opened to admit Rollie’s long-time mate and new husband, Hanif, a magician and jackal shifter who’d fled persecution in Egypt a couple of centuries earlier. Hanif looked like a shy version of Doctor Zhivago from the movie of the same name. Rollie stood to greet Hanif with a kiss, then motioned Idrián to take his seat. Ordinarily, Idrián would have refused, but he was having a bad day with his legs. The new brace for his right leg still rubbed him raw in one spot, and his left, below-the-knee stump, was itching under the liner for his prosthetic leg. He used his cane to lever himself carefully into the chair. He couldn’t afford another fall like he’d had last week.
“Tell Idrián about Yelena and the others,” said Hanif.
At Idrián’s questioning look, Rollie said, “Yelena’s been having bad dreams again, and so have Louis and Harrigan.” The common denominator between them was their war-veteran status—Yelena from Iraq, Louis from Vietnam, and Harrigan from World War II. Rollie had served in Iraq, and Idrián in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What about you?” asked Idrián.
“Only good dreams, but Hanif’s magic might be protecting me.” Rollie smiled and nudged Hanif playfully. “Glad I married a Magic man.” Hanif blushed. They were both still enjoying the novelty of being able to legally marry like everyone else.
“I’ll look into it,” promised Idrián. A month ago, he’d discovered a brazen fear-eater demon in the underworld dreamwalk plane tending and nurturing dreamer fears, instead of eating them. It violated the negotiated agreements made long ago between his ancestors and the various demon realms. Idrián came close to losing the fight until a clever, feather-haired, drop-dead gorgeous woman had appeared and helped him defeat the big demon. After their victory, before he could ask her name, she’d kissed him. The kiss had aroused every cell in his body and nearly made him forget his own name, and then she’d vanished. The memory of it aroused him in the real world, too, leaving him hard and aching at inconvenient times. Even though he’d searched the dreamwalk practically every night for the past four weeks as he’d made his rounds, he hadn’t found her again.
The dreamwalk plane was once guarded by dozens of medicine man and spider woman ancestors to keep demons from using it as a gateway to the real world, where humans would become an all-you-can-eat buffet for insatiable demon appetites. Idrián was the last of his tribe to be in the dreamwalk, and even though he patrolled every night, he couldn’t be everywhere at once.
Warrk, Rollie, and Hanif invited him to join them in the narrow booth that became available, but Idrián declined in favor of a seat at the counter, which was easier for him to maneuver in and out of. Unfortunately, it was also near the big booth occupied by the tourists, who noticed him immediately. He knew their sudden silence and subsequent whispering were about him. He was hard to look at, with the burn scars on the left side of his head, a drooping left eye, and deformed ear. Where the hair no longer grew on the burned side of his skull, he wore an intricate, stylized tattoo of an eagle in flight. He wore the rest of his long, straight black hair in a braid down his back. Like so many of his fellow disabled veterans, he’d been the victim of a roadside bomb, and lived to tell the tale. Knowing he’d been lucky to live didn’t make it any easier to be stared at like a freak-show exhibit.
Zola, the pretty, smiling waitress, took his order for a big burger and fries, then brought him a glass of iced tea with two lemons while he waited. He also ordered a large salad to go, which would be a nice treat for when he got home. Chores had stacked up at the ranch while he’d recovered from his twisted back, the result of his fall when trying to perform a sacred dance. His damaged body just wasn’t up to the task any more, and the dance was the only way he knew to access the ranch’s protective wards, which had been keyed to his now-deceased grandfather. Without them, the ranch would soon be overrun with grave robbers, sorcerers, and, worst of all, tourists.
The whispering at the table of outsiders grew more animated. Idrián tried to tune it out, but there was nothing wrong with his hearing.
“…thought all Indians lived on the reservation…”
“…carrying your gun, aren’t you? If he has PTSD, he might go crazy…”
“…to be called Indians. You’re supposed to call them Native Americans…
“…if he’s even a veteran. Probably a drunk-driving accident or something. Indians are all alcoholics.”
“…that face, when decent people are trying to eat…”
Idrián closed his eyes a moment and forced his shoulders to relax, then focused on the list of things he needed to do when he got home.
Zola cleared her throat to get his attention, then slid his plate in front of him. She’d only been in Magic for a few years, and had blossomed in a town where she could be herself. She had a sweet, sympathetic face, coffee-and-cream colored skin, and a slight Cajun accent. Her eyes were a startling milky white, and while she was conventionally blind, she had mysterious magic that let her see far better than sighted folk.
“Idrián,” she said, giving his Spanish name a distinctly French pronunciation, “why don’t you use the concealment glamour the town council offered? Then idiots like those ignorant jackasses in the corner won’t bother you.”
He shook his head. “I can’t. I still have to visit the normal world, and I’d have to get used to people’s reactions all over again. I need the reminder of what people really think of me.”
Zola put her hand on his where it was wrapped tightly around his iced-tea glass. “I see a big heart, cher, made for love. Don’t let what happened with Bianca Jacobs convince you that’s what everyone else sees. She was a greedy, self-interested bitch with a cruel streak as wide as the Rio Grande. I’m damn glad she was disinvited.”
Idrián cracked a half smile. “Tell me how you really felt about her, Zola.”
“I would, except my mama raised me better than that.” She unerringly poured more iced tea for him and left to take care of other customers.
His heart had been battered by a blonde bombshell of a woman who’d blown into Magic, used up her welcome, and vanished, but not before she’d made a play for him and convinced him she saw the real man underneath the ruined façade. He’d been so caught up in the dream of finding someone who could love him that he’d ignored the inconvenient facts, such as she hated being touched, had no underworld dreamwalk talent, and was inordinately interested in the vein of sorcerer’s silver that ran through the tribal ranch’s biggest mountain. Her primary magic was making people see what they wanted to.
He also should have suspected trouble when Black Fox, who had strong, vocal opinions on everything under the sun, refused to say what he thought about his grandson’s choice in a girlfriend. Bianca revealed her true nature and burned her bridges before she got her claws on anything important, but it had been a painful and important lesson in bitter-cold reality.
He put the experience out of his mind and focused on eating the really good burger and perfectly cooked French fries Zola had just delivered. Maybe he’d finally find the gorgeous, kissing woman when he visited the dreamwalk that night.
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