Anyway. I've finished the second round of edits on STARWIND, and I've officially started round three, which means adding in all my handwritten notes and making further changes. Once the book is up to version 1.3, I send it to beta readers. Which means the first chapter is technically ready for people to see.
So I'm posting it here.
I still think it's a little rough, and gods know it'll go through more changes as I get this thing ready for prime time. But I've been working on this book, one way or another, since 2014. I want to share a little of this thing and hope that people will want to see more.
Hope y'all like it. Here goes.
Kris had heard of being in the belly of the beast, but this was her first time in one’s mouth.
“This,” she muttered under her breath, hoping the thing whose tongue she stood on couldn’t hear her, “is entirely your fault, Phoenix.” She held one hand over her nose and mouth in a vain attempt to fight off the rotten socks-and-sewage odor that wafted up from the creature’s throat. “You seriously owe me for this.”
Through the communication spell that she and the rest of the crew used, Kris heard Phoenix’s deep, mellow chuckle. Of course he thought this was funny, she thought. He wasn’t inside the mouth of the closest thing to a dragon this world had.
The thing itself was a khorath, a monstrous serpent nearly as big around and three or four times as long as the interplanar ship that had brought Kris and Phoenix to this backwater plane. The khorath was also the source of a dozen different local legends, which their source had assured them kept the locals far away from the cave it called home. How true those stories were, Kris wasn’t sure, but she hadn’t heard anything about it having a taste for humans and hoped that hadn’t been left out of the legends.
The khorath was also the source of scales that had some interesting magical properties once they were properly treated. Those scales were valuable to the right people, but khorath were not only huge and dangerous and full of sharp teeth but pretty damn smart. They knew people valued their scales, and tended to not like giving them away, which meant those scales were less than common on the open market.
All of which, somehow, led to Kris being inside this one’s mouth.
“There,” came the khorath’s rumbling voice, and brought a reeking wind with it. Kris did her best not to gag and wondered what it would be like to throw up directly into someone else’s mouth. “By the limb on your – no, my left.”
Kris looked down to her right foot. There, next to the heavy leather boot she really hoped wouldn’t rot in the khorath’s saliva, was a chunk of something unidentifiable stuck between two of the khorath’s slimy, thin, long-as-her-leg teeth. She nudged the lump with her shoe, hoping it wouldn’t twitch, then squatted down.
This was not how she’d pictured this day going. Kris reached out and dug her fingers into the moist glob between the khorath’s teeth. It squished, and she held back a gag. Definitely should have brought some gloves on this trip. She got a better grip, and what felt like sodden meat oozed between her fingers.
“You okay in there?” Phoenix’s voice came to her, and Kris could almost sense his mirth through the comm spell. He was enjoying this. Of course he was. He was taller than her and thus too big to stroll into the khorath’s mouth and yank out stuff from between its teeth in return for some of its scales.
Kris pulled again on the gross chunk, and it came free. She stumbled back, letting go of it as quickly as she could, and fought to keep her balance as the khorath’s tongue quivered. A long sigh came from the monster’s throat, and she clamped her hand over her nose and mouth again, smearing some of whatever she’d been holding across her cheek.
“Oh, so much better,” the khorath murmured, the creature’s voice making its whole throat vibrate. Kris reached out and steadied herself against a tooth, hoping that only the points were sharp, not their entire lengths. “Now two more, in my upper jaw, a few of your steps farther in, my right.”
“Look at it this way,” Phoenix said as Kris took another few reluctant steps deeper into the monster’s maw. “You can tell this story and get free drinks at any bar for the rest of your life. Who else has done something like this?”
Kris growled at the back of her throat. “Really, Phoenix? You think I’m thinking about drinking right now?” She stepped lightly to the side and looked up to the left, searching for whatever was stuck between the khorath’s upper teeth. “For having to do this, people should buy me a lot more than just drinks.”
“It’s worth it for the race,” Phoenix said, and it sounded final.
Kris recognized that tone, and she had to agree. If everything worked out, this would all be worth it, and her little dental assistant adventure would be one of those things they laughed about later.
Even if she spent the entire race trying to get the reek of this thing’s breath out of her hair and clothes.
Soon, Kris caught sight of what was stuck in the khorath’s upper teeth. A long band of metal stretched across one tooth’s base, digging into the pale blue gums on either side. It looked like it might have once been part of a long knife, or maybe a piece of armor. She reached up and pried at it, jiggled until it came partway it loose, eliciting a gasp from the khorath that made her gag again. Hold it together, she told herself, and gave the metal a single hard yank.
The band came free all at once, and she stumbled back, kicking one leg across the khorath’s bumpy tongue as she tried to stay standing. Her boot slammed into the tooth on the other side, and she heard the khorath grunt.
Yeah, that was just what she needed. If she’d pissed it off and it decided to swallow, or just as bad, chew–
“Oh,” the khorath sighed, the reeking wind coming from its throat not quite as bad as before. Maybe she was getting used to it. Definitely a sign she needed to get the hell out of there, Kris thought. “That’s been bothering me for months.” Relief rang clear in its voice. “Thank you so much.”
Kris managed a smile. This might not have been as easy or as fun as her original plan. But she’d got it done. And the khorath really did sound grateful. Not bad for some absolutely disgusting work.
“Hey, no problem,” she said, trying to give her voice some spirit as she hurried back down the khorath’s tongue. “Everyone gets what they want, yeah?”
She stepped out of the monster’s mouth and turned to face it. Most of the khorath was farther back in the cavern it called home, so all that Kris could see was its enormous head. It had come out to the front part of the cave when Phoenix had the brilliant idea to ask it about getting some scales instead of sneaking in to steal them, like Kris had suggested. The head was nearly fifteen feet tall, with three globular eyes spread over the top half of it, each with three-lobed sickly white pupils that made the khorath look like it was staring everywhere at once.
The rest of the creature’s long, narrow head was covered in round, gleaming blue scales, as was all the rest of it that Kris could see, the remaining thirty or so feet of it that trailed off back into the cavern past the edges of Phoenix’s light spell. The khorath’s eyes were half-closed in what Kris hoped was an expression of relief or, even better, gratitude.
“Indeed we both do,” the khorath said. Its breath still reeked, but Kris found it a lot easier to endure now that she wasn’t soaking in it. “Wait here, earthers. I’ll return with my half of the bargain.”
Kris waited as the khorath slithered back into the depths of its cave, then turned to Phoenix, pointing a finger at his broad chest. “You owe me. So much.”
Phoenix chuckled at her, his teeth bright against his dark skin. He shook his head, sending the crystalline beads at the end of his dozens of thick braids clattering against each other. “Your way,” he said, “would have gotten us both eaten.”
Kris held her hands out to both sides. “I wanted to sneak in!” she said, keeping her voice low. No telling how good the khorath’s hearing was, but since she’d yanked something that might have been a weapon out from between its teeth, it clearly had no trouble eating sentient beings. So it was better not to take chances. “We get in, we get some scales, we leave. Simple.”
Phoenix folded his arms over his chest and looked down at her, a doubtful and familiar expression. “It’s never that easy, you know that,” he said. “You thought it would be easy back on Q-K874.”
She winced. “Yeah, well . . . I was kind of wrong about that one.” She shuddered. “We’re never signing on for explorer missions again, are we.”
“Probably not.” He rolled one shoulder, and Kris knew the motion. Back on Q-K874, something with flappy wings and lots of teeth had bitten his shoulder and latched itself there, and the rest of the crew not only had to kill it without hurting him but hope it wasn’t venomous or magically weird or anything else that would cause him serious trouble. All on a world that they knew nothing about, one they’d signed up to get paid for exploring.
The thing hadn’t killed him, obviously, but he had a long oval scar over his shoulder that perfectly matched the thing’s mouth. It would have looked pretty damn cool if not for the whole weird-ass unknown animal trying to kill him part.
“But we’re good here,” Phoenix said, nodding. He glanced back to the cavern where the khorath had disappeared. “Once our new friend gets back with the scales, we’ll get back to the ship, and--”
“And hope nothing else goes horribly wrong between now and the race,” Kris interrupted. She grinned when Phoenix sighed at her. “What? You just told me nothing’s ever that easy. I’m agreeing with you. Aren’t you happy?”
Phoenix gave her a grim smile. “You picked a hell of a time to start.” He glanced toward the cavern’s entrance, a wide hole in the side of a mountain a few dozen feet away. Purple light came in from the opening, and all Kris could see through it was the plane’s lilac sky. “You hear something?”
“I’m lucky I can see right now,” Kris muttered. “All my senses are kind of overridden by the reek from that thing’s mouth.” She grimaced. “Seriously, you could bottle that and use it as a repellent. An everything repellent.”
“It’s a big multiverse,” Phoenix said, not looking away from the cavern mouth. “Somewhere out there, there’s something that would love the smell.”
“Then it can get here and make a deal with the khorath too,” Kris said. She reached up to wipe whatever it was she’d pulled out from between the monster’s teeth from her face, then realized she didn’t have anything to wipe her hand on. And for all she knew, the stuff was corrosive. It wasn’t burning, but. . . .
Kris took a deep breath and focused, trying to ignore the lingering reek from the monster’s mouth. She felt for the plane’s magic, found an uneven kind of tingling at the edge of her senses and drew it into herself. Using magic had been one of the weirder and most awesome things about leaving Earth behind, and while she was still no expert, she knew enough to handle herself.
Especially when it was just a spell that would clean her off.
She focused the magic she’d drawn in through her hand, and formed it into one of the first spells she’d learned, a simple one that would cleanse both her body and her clothes like she’d hopped into the ship’s refresher fully dressed. It didn’t feel anywhere near as good as the actual refresher, but there was no way she’d leave this stink on her until she got back to the ship. She pressed her thumb to her forehead.
The spell’s cleansing tingle washed over her, head to toes, and Kris took another deep breath. The smell was gone. She sighed in relief. Sure, she’d still hit the refresher as soon as she had a chance, but at least now she didn’t have to stink until she got there. She reached up and fixed her black hair, which was shaved close on the sides and long enough for a ponytail on the top and back. Thankfully, the khorath hadn’t drooled on her hair when she was in its mouth. She would have had to shave her entire head on principle if that happened.
The sound of scales scraping against stone rose from the cavern passage, and the khorath’s massive head reappeared, something dangling from its lower front teeth. As it drew closer, Kris saw it was carrying a pack with a drawstring at the top, made of some kind of dark brown leather. The pack looked to be stuffed full.
Excellent, she thought. Totally worth it. She hoped.
The khorath reached them, and spat the pack onto the ground. “As we agreed,” it rumbled, its three eyes blinking in succession. “This ought to be sufficient for your purposes.”
Kris knelt and tugged the pack over to herself. It was heavier than she’d thought; either the scales weighted a lot or the khorath really had stuffed the pack. Just how it had done that, she wasn’t sure; she hadn’t seen any limbs. When she pulled open the pack, she saw it filled to the top with smooth, curved scales, all shining blue.
“Yeah, we’re good,” she said, then closed and shouldered the pack as she stood up. The wide strap strained against her shoulder. She glanced at Phoenix, who nodded.
“Thank you for your help,” Phoenix said, nodding to the enormous beast. “We’ll look you up if we’re ever on this world again.”
The khorath rumbled, and its eyes narrowed. “While you’ve helped me, keep our deal to yourselves,” it said. “If more of your sort start showing up here and hoping to take my scales, I’ll end up with more pieces of them between my teeth. I agreed to your terms because I needed your help. Another’s, I doubt I’ll need.”
The khorath pulled itself back into the cave’s depths. Once it was gone, Kris and Phoenix met each others’ eyes, and both shrugged. That was how it was out on the planes, Kris thought. Sometimes you helped people, and sometimes you made friends along the way. Sometimes you just passed each other by, or didn’t even notice each other.
On the less-good days, you shot at each other, and that was never much fun. It happened in their line of work, but yeah, it wasn’t Kris’s favorite part.
“Ready to go?” Phoenix asked.
“Hey, this is your mission,” Kris said, then gently punched Phoenix on the shoulder. He stood a foot taller than her, so she had to reach up a little. “Shouldn’t you be telling me it’s time to move out or something?”
He just chuckled again. “I ever start giving orders like that,” he said, turning on one heel toward the cavern entrance, “tell me I’m being a commanding ass, okay?”
“You,” Kris said, falling into step with him, “do not have a commanding ass. I’ve heard you talk out your ass sometimes, especially when we were stuck in that crap job back on Earth. But giving commands with your ass? No.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” Phoenix said, but he was smiling. His large hands fell to his belt as he walked, and he pulled his dark green armored jacket around and zipped it shut.
Kris paused, recognizing the motion. “Trouble?” she asked.
“I thought I heard something outside the cave,” he said, then paused near the cavern’s exit and looked back and forth through it. “I don’t see anything, but let’s be careful.”
“Damn it.” Kris reached for one of the pouches hanging from her belt. She had a few quick defensive items in there, somewhere, she thought as she started digging through them. The jacket she wore, a dark blue thing made of the same light-armored material as Phoenix’s jacket, would do some good, but she always felt better with a spell’s shield around her.
She and Kris had disarmed themselves when they reached the cavern, figuring it would be easier to talk the khorath into working with them if they weren’t carrying their guns and Phoenix didn’t have his swords. Sure, walking unarmed into the lair of what was basically a dragon seemed like an okay idea at the time, since they weren’t looking for a fight.
But if someone else was looking to attack them once they got outside, well . . . now disarming themselves seemed pretty stupid.
As they neared the cavern mouth, Kris saw long fields of waving orange plants stretching out into the distance, the scrub brush of this world. Short grasses shivered in the wind between the plants, lending a weird shimmering quality to the whole landscape. The rising mountain range of grey and blue stone rose off to the left and right, circling the valley that the khorath claimed as its own.
A short distance away sat the pile of guns and swords that she and Phoenix had left behind, within sight of the cavern but not close enough to grab once they were inside. The pile also held Kris’s long brown coat, something she’d picked up shortly after leaving Earth. She’d left it behind to make sure the khorath could see that she wasn’t hiding any weapons.
It was a sign of trust, Phoenix had said; khorath were supposed to be both intelligent and honorable, or at least fair. He’d also said that was why sneaking in would be a bad idea. And the locals were supposed to be too scared of the beast to stray too close.
The locals were a partly humanoid species, with kind of loose-ropy limbs and bodies, making them look squiggly and warped to Kris. Their grey-blue skin somehow matched both the mountains and the khorath, and they hunched over a lot, their curving bodies seeming to bend under the weight of their large, round heads and beady yellow eyes.
A group of at least ten of those locals now stood in front of the small pile of weapons and Kris’s coat, long rifles made of gleaming crystals mounted in metal tubes in their hands, all of the guns pointed at Kris and Phoenix.
“There’s a favor you did for us, off-worlders,” the local in the lead said, his eyes narrow beneath a wide brown hat. He and the rest of his crew were wearing low-profile armored clothing, much like Kris and Phoenix themselves, though theirs looked worn and old, like it had been passed down for a generation or two. “We saw that ship of yours fly over, right for the khorath’s cave. Don’t think we don’t know you’re here for that monster’s scales.”
Clearly, Kris thought, these people were hurting for money. If all they’d been able to come up with to face down a couple of people from off-world was a bunch of old-style rifles and battered armored clothing, they weren’t exactly rich. And it was pretty common knowledge across the planes that khorath scales were always a hot commodity. Which would explain why the locals looked so hostile when Kris and Phoenix hadn’t done anything but fly over their town on the other side of the valley.
“Now you’ll be handing over that pack,” the lead local said. “And I think you’ll be sticking around long enough to get some more of whatever you’ve got in there.”