Official excerpt time! Have a first look at chapter one of COUNT YOUR CROWS. Be advised, it does contain some strong language.
Taz is an idiot. That will be on her headstone, guaranteed. Here Lies Tazarina Wyatt, She Who Lived By The Laws Of Sarcasm And Idiocy, Aged 18, Gobbled Up Rare.
Well, if she gets a headstone. At this point she may have to be content with her carcass strewn out over acres in the middle of nowhere, because Texas hasn’t changed it’s overall penchant for hostility against outsiders.
Down below, in the shade of the lone cottonwood tree, the pack of chupacabra circle. They’re even uglier than she remembers: gray hairless bodies all gaunt like decaying cow hide stretched over bleached bone, heavy heads with yellow tinged eyes that are far too intelligent, big snapping jaws, and skinny rat tails that snap back and forth.
And they sing.
They sound human until you get close enough. It’s a trick, some form of old magic the chupacabra are able to somehow harness. It’s all snatches of words and half sentences stitched together out of order and let loose in mournful bursts, like coyote vocals, only with the stolen voices of their prey.
Chupacabra hunt humans exclusively. Taz has seen them crazy mad from hunger yet pass up horses and cattle and sheep just to go after people. Fred used to joke that it was because chupacabra couldn’t catch any wild pigs, crafty fuckers, so good ol’ long-pig was their second choice.
They shouldn’t be that hungry these days. The war only stopped, what, two or three weeks ago? Taz passed three towns already, all of them empty save for the dead. Too many to count, Taz lost her lunch the first time. Laying side by side, hanging from trees, torn apart by shrapnel, spells, and scavengers. It’s nothing like she’s ever seen, not even in her worst nightmares. She avoids towns now.
And fuck you, Fred, for being so gods damned hard to find.
By Taz’s estimates there are thousands dead, but her sister isn’t among them. Good thing, too, otherwise Taz has no idea what she’d do with herself. Fred is alive, northwest of Taz’s current location and Taz’s horse is to the south about twenty miles. He’s not running anymore, but he’s still going in a direction that’s away from here.
Taz can’t do a lick of magic, but she has a gift. An internal compass that lets her find anyone or anything that’s not magically shielded just right. The only thing is, Fred’s signal is patchy, going in and out and it’s faint. Taz has never felt anything like that. Is Fred dying? Mortally wounded? Taz has no answer, only knows that Fred is like a weak radio signal and it’s the reason she’s spurred herself onwards so hard, blowing through the Oklahoma state line, pushing herself and her horse as much as she can, and, apparently, forgetting to set the pre-made perimeter charms Mom left behind when she inexplicably disappeared.
Taz shudders and pushes back into the branches. She’s never seen such a big pack. Usually chupacabra hunt alone, or in groups of three or four. Below, fifteen chupacabra stare up at her, unblinking, and sing. Their big jaws move around the sounds and words, their sharp teeth and red, lolling tongues on display. If she closes her eyes she could pretend she was in some theatre, listening to a group of actors shout and sing all their parts at once.
One skinny chupacabra crouches down and then springs straight up, browned teeth snapping at her boots. It misses, barely.
Eyes wide open, wide-wide open, Taz.
Taz’s camp, what’s left of it, lies just to the left of the tree. Her little canvas tent is in tatters, her meager food stores ruined, clothing torn up and spread around the sage and buffalo grass. She didn’t have time to grab anything but her backpack, which is now swinging on a branch three feet under her. One misplaced foot and rotten bark nearly gave her a heart attack and the backpack dropped, saved only by a strap hanging on by a few threads.
What’s that phrase that Cajun witch liked to use? Oh, yeah. Mauvais gumbo.
It still doesn’t have the same ring as fucking fucked in the lowest level of fuckering fucks.
Taz swallows against the dryness in her mouth and casts her eyes around, desperate for something, anything. She’s been up this tree for over a day now, praying and wishing like it’s going out of style. She just needs one crow, one measly crow, to pin her wishes to. Of course there isn’t one. Hasn’t been a single crow since she crossed the border, and ain’t that just typical of the universe.
She can’t believe this is how she dies, miles from civilization and all alone with no one to hear her final words.
Fuck the gods.
Fuck all of them.
Unless they give her a miracle soon. She’s not totally unreasonable.
The relentless Texas sun beats down through the wilting leaves. Taz swipes at her forehead. Sweat, sticky and hot, trickles down her cheek and the back of her neck. Gods, what she wouldn’t give for some water. The chupacabra aren’t going anywhere. Even if she sits tight and waits, they’ll just settle in below, keeping up their creepy singing until she dies of dehydration and drops. Or makes a suicide run for freedom, whichever comes first. Out this way, miles from the established roads and trade routes, it’s unlikely anyone will come to her rescue. Even if they do, odds are they won’t be friendly. So she needs to rescue herself, gods and wishes be damned.
Taz is gonna need her backpack. It’s time to make her move, last stand style.
Problem one: the backpack is three feet below Taz, well within biting range.
Problem two: this tree is rotten as all get out and the branch she has to step on to get the backpack won’t hold her weight.
The solution is clear, and Taz hates it. Hates it worse than she hates lima beans and cold winters.
“I hope you all rot in some gods forsaken sinkhole,” she says without thinking.
The words melt away from her, grow thin and weedy in her throat as the chupacabra magic steals them away. Taz clamps her teeth over any more, but the damage is done.
The chupacabra go silent for about ten seconds and Taz gags on the forceful pull deep in her throat. Words spill up and out of her like maggots from a dead thing. Words that don’t make sense, just bits and pieces taken from her head, things she’s thought and said to herself and others, all of them out of order.
The chupacabra start singing again, louder this time, pulling more words out of Taz and she can’t stop it. She bites her tongue, her lips, she clenches her jaw. All that does is make the words like splinters and they scratch coming up.
Blood wells up in the back of her throat. Nothing for it now.
Taz stops fighting and lets her mouth run. Mom would say it’s no different from any other day, but, well. Not like Mom would know anymore. Taz stopped talking to her unless necessary once her sister left. They never had much in common without Fred anyway.
Taz shifts on the tree branch and settles her fear in her belly. Fear won’t do her any good. If she’s gonna die anyway, she might as well die trying to do something, rather than let the chupacabra magic tear her apart on the inside until she falls.
All she needs is three feet. Three feet and quick fingers.
Legs, Taz thinks, are a wonderful part of a person. They can kick and squirm and run for miles, and they can wrap around a lover’s waist to keep two people anchored together.
Or one person and a tree trunk, which is a slightly larger circumference.
Taz hooks her ankles together and thanks all the partners she’s practiced with over the years as she scoots her butt off the branch and hangs on by the strength of her thighs alone. Taz releases her hands and leans back, dangling upside down and backwards.
The chupacabra look no less terrifying from this angle. Taz breathes and focuses on the backpack. The skinny one jumps up, jaws snapping. It hits the bags and sets it to swinging. Fabric rips.
Taz pulls back, then lunges, fingers wiggling. Her nails scrape the strap, just there.
A chupacabra head comes up at the same instant. Bites down on the pack. Rips it off the branch. Chupacabra and backpack tumble to the ground.
Stay tuned for more updates about the upcoming release of COUNT YOUR CROWS by Shiloh Ohmes.