Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Excerpt Sneak Peek: Hunting in Bruges

Today is the first day of November, which means that HUNTING IN BRUGES releases in 11 days.  Are you getting excited?  I know I am!

We have two Hunting in Bruges book excerpts for your reading enjoyment.  Enjoy the sneak peek!

Hunting in Bruges: Chapter 1

     I’ve been seeing ghosts for as long as I can remember.  Most ghosts are simply annoying; just clueless dead people who don’t realize that they’ve died.  The weakest of these manifest as flimsy apparitions, without the ability for speech or higher thought.  They’re like a recording of someone’s life projected not onto a screen, but onto the place where they died.  Most people can walk through one of these ghosts without so much as a goosebump.
     Poltergeists are more powerful, but just as single-minded.  These pesky spirits are like angry toddlers.  They stomp around, shaking their proverbial chains, moaning and wailing about how something (the accident, their murder, or the murder they committed) was someone else’s fault, and how everyone must pay for their misfortune.  Poltergeists are a nuisance; they’re noisy and can throw around objects for short periods of time, but it’s only the strong ones that are dangerous.
     Thankfully, there aren’t many ghosts out there strong enough to do more than knock a pen off your desk or cause a cold spot.  From what I’ve discovered while training with the Hunters’ Guild, ghosts get their power from two things—how long they’ve been haunting and strength of purpose.  If someone as obsessed with killing as Jack the Ripper manifests beside you on a London street, I recommend you run.  If someone as old and unhinged as Vlad the Impaler appears beside you in Targoviste Romania, you better hope you have a Hunter at your side, or a guardian angel.
     The dead get a bad rap, and for good reason, but some ghosts can be helpful.  There was a woman with a kind face who used to appear when I was in foster care.  Linda wasn’t just a loop of psychic recording stuck on repeat; this ghost had free will and independent thought—and thankfully, she wasn’t a sociopath consumed with bloodshed.  Linda manifested in faded jeans and dark turtleneck and smelled like home, which was the other thing that was unusual about her.  Most ghosts are tied to one spot, the place where they lived or died.  But Linda’s familiar face followed me from one foster home to another.  And it was a good thing that she did.  Linda the ghost saved my life more than once.
     Foster care was an excellent training ground for self defense, which is probably why the Hunters’ Guild uses it as a place for recruitment.  Being cast adrift in the child welfare system gave me plenty of opportunities to hone my survival instincts.  By the time the Hunters came along, I was a force to be reckoned with, or so I thought.
     The Hunters’ Guild provides exceptional training and I soon learned that my attempts at both offense and defense were child’s play when compared to our senior members.  I didn’t berate myself over that fact; I was only thirteen when the Hunters swooped in and welcomed me into their fold.  But learning my limitations did make me painfully aware of one thing.  If it hadn’t been for Linda the ghost, I probably wouldn’t have survived my childhood.
     The worst case of honing my survival skills had been at my last foster home, just before the Hunters’ Guild intervened.  I don’t remember the house mother.  She wasn’t around much.  She was just a small figure in a cheap, polyester fast food uniform with a stooped posture and downcast eyes.  But I remember her husband Frank.
     Frank was a bully who wore white, ketchup and mustard stained, wife-beater t-shirts.  He had perpetual French fry breath and a nasty grin.  It took me a few weeks to realize that Frank’s grin was more of a leer.  I’d caught his gaze in the bathroom mirror when I was changing and his eyes said it all; Frank was a perv.
     Linda slammed the door in his face, but that didn’t stop Frank.  Frank would brush up against me in the kitchen and Linda would set the faucet spraying across the tiles…and slide a knife into my hand.  My time in that house ended when Frank ended up in the hospital.
     I’d been creeping back to the bedroom I shared with three other kids, when I saw Frank waiting for me in the shadows.  I pulled the steak knife I kept hidden in the pocket of my robe, but I never got a chance to use it.  Now that I know a thing or two about fighting with a blade, I’m aware that Frank probably would have won that fight.
     I tried to run toward the stairs, but Frank met me at the top landing.  Frank reached for me while his bulk effectively blocked my escape.  That was when Linda the ghost pushed him down the stairs.  I remember him tumbling in slow motion, his eyes going wide and the leering grin sliding from his face.
     Linda the ghost had once again saved me, but it seemed that this visit was her last.  I don’t know if she used up her quota of psychic power, or if she just felt like her job here was finally done.  It wasn’t until years later that I realized she was my mother.
     I guess I should have realized sooner that I was related to the ghost who followed me around.  We both have hair the same shade of shocking red.  But where mine is straight and cropped into a short bob, Linda’s was wavy and curled down around her shoulders.  We also share a dimple in our left cheek and a propensity for protecting the weak and innocent from evil.
     Linda the ghost disappeared, a wailing ambulance drove Frank to the hospital, police arrived at my foster house, and the Hunters swooped in and cleaned up the aftermath.  It was from my first Guild master that I learned of my parents’ fate and put two and two together about my ghostly protector.
     As a kid I often wondered why Linda the ghost always wore a dark turtleneck; now I knew.  Young, rogue vamps had torn out her neck and proceeded to rip my father to pieces like meat confetti.  My parents were on vacation in Belize, celebrating their wedding anniversary when it happened.  I’d been staying with a friend of my mother’s, otherwise I’d be dead too.
     I don’t remember my parents, I’d only been three when I was put into the foster care system, but I do find some peace in knowing that doing my duty as a Hunter gives me the power to police and destroy rogue vamps like the ones who killed my mother and father.  When I become exhausted by my work, I think of Linda’s sad face and push myself to train harder.  And when I find creeps who are abusive to women and children, I think of Frank.
     That’s how I ended up here, standing in a Brussels airport, trying to decipher the Dutch and French signs with eyes that were gritty from the twelve hour flight.  It all started when my friend Ivy called to inform me that a fellow Hunter had hit our mutual friend Jinx.  Ivy didn’t know how that information would push all my buttons, she didn’t know about Frank or my time in the     foster system, but we both agreed that striking a girl was unacceptable.  She was letting me, and the Hunters’ Guild, deal with it, for now.
     I went to master Janus, the head of the Harborsmouth Hunters’ Guild, and reported Hans’ transgressions.  It didn’t help his case that he had a reputation as a berserker in battle.  The fact that he’d hit a human, the very people we were sworn to defend against the monsters, was the nail in the coffin of Hans’ career.
     I was assured that Hans would be shipped off to the equivalent of a desk job in Siberia.  I should have left it at that, and let my superiors take care of the problem.  But Jinx was my friend.  Ivy’s rockabilly business partner may have had bad luck and even worse taste in men, but that didn’t mean she deserved to spend her life fending off the attacks of the Franks in the world.
     Hans continued his Guild duties while the higher ups shuffled papers and prepared to send him away.  Hans should have skipped our training sessions, but then again, he didn’t know who had ratted him out—and the guy had a lot of rage to vent.  I stormed onto the practice mat and saluted Hans with my sword.  It wasn’t long before the man started to bleed.
     We were supposed to be using practice swords, but I’d accidentally grabbed the sharp blade I used on hunting runs.  I didn’t leave any lasting injuries, but the shallow cuts made a mess of his precious tattoos.  I just hoped the scars were a constant reminder of what happens when you attack the innocent.
     One week later, I received a plane ticket and orders to meet with one of our contacts in Belgium.  I wasn’t sure if this assignment was intended as a punishment or a promotion, but I was eager to prove myself to the Guild leadership.  Master Janus’ parting words whispered in my head, distracting me from the voice on the overhead intercom echoing throughout the cavernous airport.
     “Do your duty, Jenna,” he said.  Master Janus placed a large, sword-calloused hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye.  I swallowed hard, but I managed to keep my hands from shaking.  “Make us proud.”
    “I will, sir,” I said.
     “Good hunting.”

 Hunting in Bruges: Fight Scene

     A woman’s scream pierced the night and all thoughts of sleep fled as adrenaline pumped through my body.  I sprinted down the street in the direction of the woman’s cry, scanning the sidewalks and alleyways, and listening for any sign of trouble.
     “Please, somebody help me!”
     The voice was weaker now, but I nodded to myself, suddenly sure of where the attack was taking place.  I put on more speed, vaulted over a metal railing, and raced down the embankment toward the canal.  The woman’s scream had come from beneath the bridge—the same bridge that hid the mouth of the sewer tunnel with the bloody grate and magically warded door.
     I palmed a silver combat knife and a wooden stake as I ran, a fierce snarl curling my lips.  I was not going to allow another vampire kill.  Not on my watch.
     Heart pounding, I eyed the narrow ledge leading into the dancing shadows beneath the bridge.  There was no way I could make my way across that expanse of moss slick stone without discarding my weapons.
     “Damn,” I muttered.
     I shoved the wooden stake into a loop in my battle skirt and bit down on the silver knife, holding it between my teeth.  I’d need both hands free to make the climb to the bridge.  If I was dealing with vamps, I’d rather lead with the stake, but there was a chance that this was a mugging or rape.  Vampires weren’t the only monsters that preyed on the weak.
It would be foolish to bring a stake to a knife fight.  Everyone knows that.
     Shoulders tight, I shimmied across the ledge.  I was exposed, vulnerable, but the whimpering sound ahead of me kept me going.  As my foot hit the wet platform with a splash, a clawed hand grabbed my leg in an iron grip.
     My attacker wasn’t human.
     I slashed out with the silver knife and the hand retreated, leaving behind a searing pain in my calf where the creature’s talons had punctured flesh.  Working fast, I retrieved the wooden stake and, with a flick of the wrist, turned on my flashlight and tossed it into the shadows.  The flashlight spun, illuminating a crumpled heap near the iron grate and three vampires: one to my left, one to my right, and one scuttling along the ceiling like a cockroach.
     It was a goddamned ambush.
     I didn’t know if the woman crumpled on the ground was still alive or not.  Her cries had ceased, but there was nothing I could do for her at the moment.  I was too busy trying to stay alive.
     I spun to the left, slashing upward with the silver knife.  The vamp on the ceiling hissed and scuttled to the right, giving me some breathing room.  I shivered, my subconscious mind reeling in horror.  These vamps weren’t even bothering to maintain a glamour.  Instead of being drop dead gorgeous, these guys were just dead—as in mummified.
     Skin the color and texture of dried parchment was stretched tightly over skeletal bodies that moved with an insectile, alien grace, but their grinning faces were the worst.  I’ve seen a lot of monsters during my time as a Hunter, but there’s something about the fanged, rictus grin of a vampire that gives a girl chills—and not the romantic kind.
     As soon as a vampire dies its first death, their body begins to dehydrate.  It’s part of what makes them appear so monstrous in their true form.  There’s just something nauseating about seeing such a grotesque caricature of a human moving around animated with life.
     These vamps with their empty eye sockets and gaping sinus cavities were a prime example.  As a vampire’s body deteriorates, the soft tissue is the first to go, which makes for some butt ugly vampires.  Drinking blood helps, but nothing can fully restore life, not even necromancy.  Vamps are nothing more than dried up, walking corpses.
     Too bad their desiccated bodies don’t slow them down.
     If I was going to survive this, I’d have to out think my opponents.  I feigned a minor stumble, and the vamp on my left didn’t hesitate.  The monster lunged in, fangs bared, the hollow pits of his eyes intent on my jugular.  One, two, three…
     He closed the distance and I thrust the wooden stake up beneath his ribcage and into his chest cavity.  The vamp froze, completely paralyzed, and I knew I’d staked him through the heart.  It wouldn’t kill him, but it would keep him out of the fight until I had the time to finish him off—and add his fangs to my necklace.
     I grinned, showing my own small, white teeth.
     “Okay, boys,” I said.  “Who’s next?”
     I drew my sword, now glad I’d worn my hunting gear to my visit with the rusalka.  I’d had a feeling I might need my favorite blade.  I guess I was right.
     Lightning fast, the vamp struck.  One second he was circling to my right trying to flank me, and the next he was tearing away a chunk of my flesh.  The iron and silver coated steel boning of my corset deflected the worst of the attack, but one of his talons managed to slash through the space between.
     I heard the sizzle of his claws, knowing the silver was eating away at the tips of the talons that scored across my abdomen and flank.  I let out a satisfied grunt, but the zing of pleasure was premature.
     Hot blood leaked from my side and the two vampires shrieked in hunger.  Shit.  The blood was stirring them into a feeding frenzy.  I had to end this now, or I’d be the body they’d find in the canal tomorrow.
     I drove my sword through the air, separating the vampire’s head from his body.  The creature continued to cling to the ceiling for a moment, but when the head hit the cement with a meaty thud, both pieces of the beast burst into ash.
     The sound of the vamp’s falling head still echoed throughout the chamber beneath the bridge as ash fell like grisly snow.  The remaining vamp and I warily circled each other, searching for a weakness.  Vampires like to play with their food, but I didn’t kid myself.  Saliva was dripping from his elongated fangs and a leathery tongue darted out to lick dry, papery lips.
     If I gave this one the opportunity, he’d go straight for the kill.
     I struggled to keep my sword up and shifted my weight to allow for the wounds in my leg and side.  I swallowed hard and grit my teeth.  Every move tugged at the edges of the gash in my side, making it burn and bleed.
     My knuckles whitened as I increased the grip on my sword, readying for the kill.
     “Jenna!” a familiar voice cried out.  “Behind you!”
     I dropped to the ground and rolled, never hesitating.  As I came to my feet, I faced not one vamp, but two.  A female, judging from the sagging breasts, had joined the party.  I flicked my eyes to the ground where the “victim” had been curled up just moments before.
     The woman was gone.
     “You smell delicious, ma chérie,” said the female vampire.
     Oh yeah, this had been a trap from the very beginning.

Did you like the book excerpts?

Need more?  You can pre-order Hunting in Bruges now.

Hunting in Bruges, the first novel in the Hunters' Guild series by E.J. Stevens, releases into the wild November 11, 2014.

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