Read the First Two Chapters of The Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott

You never stop worrying about your kids, even when they’re adults…

A world-hopping, bad-ass, spell-slinging mother sets out to rescue her kidnapped adult son from a dragon lord in Kate Elliott’s action-packed fantasy The Keeper’s Six—forthcoming from Tordotcom Publishing on January 17, 2023. Read an excerpt below!

It’s been a year since Esther set foot in the Beyond, the alien landscape stretching between worlds, crossing boundaries of space and time. She and her magical traveling party—her Hex—haven’t spoken since the Concilium banned them from the Beyond for a decade. But when she wakes in the middle of the night to her grown son’s cry for help, the members of her Hex are the only ones she can trust to help her bring him back from wherever he has been taken.

Esther will have to risk everything to find him. Undercover and hidden from the Concilium, she and her Hex will be tested by false dragon lords, a darkness so dense it can suffocate, and the bones of an old crime come back to haunt her.

There are terrors that dwell in the space between worlds.


 

 

1

The call came at night.

Esther fumbled for the phone lying on the side table. Still barely conscious, she stuck it to her ear.

“Hello!” What time was it?

Static hissed and whistled.

Then:

“Mom, I need your help.”

Her son’s voice, tight with fear.

She sat up, heart racing, everything sharp: the book she’d fallen asleep reading pressed under her arm, the open jalousie windows, trade winds stirring the air inside the room.

“Daniel. Where are you? What do you need?”

“… ruin…”

The connection cut off. Yet she could have sworn she heard an echo of high, sly laughter fading the way a train’s whistle recedes.

Ruin.

Intimations of doom crowded into her head until she couldn’t feel the phone in her hand.

A dog’s distant bark shocked her out of her frozen state. The gold ring she wore on her thumb pressed so hard against her jaw it probably would raise a bruise. She lowered the phone to check the time: 2:22 a.m.

She checked to see the incoming number. There was no record of a call. She checked her text messages, her incoming calls again. Nothing. The last call registered was at 5:14 p.m. the previous day from an electrician about replacing the useless fluorescent fixture in the carport.

Nausea stirred in her stomach, an old fear reaction she’d worked diligently to train herself out of but Pavlov died hard. Reflexively she closed her hand around the Star of David she wore, using the action as a shield to calm herself. After releasing the necklace, she tapped in the “contact me” code to her daughter’s emergency number. After kicking off the sheet she lit her way with the phone’s screen to the closet, not wanting to turn on the house lights or even risk the brighter glow of the built-in flashlight. It was incredibly unlikely a Concilium picket was stationed outside watching for any sign she intended to violate her suspension, but it was always wisest to assume one was. The closet’s tidy organization had come courtesy of Daniel’s spouse, Kai, and included a drawer with dividers for her Hex gear so she could dress in the dark. A year had passed since she’d last opened the drawer, but the routine slid easily through her movements.

She dropped her nightclothes on the floor, pulled on underwear and wrestled into a sports bra with a flat pocket sewn into the side of each cup with the reassuring presence of a Keep key tucked inside. Wool socks. Utility pants with cargo pockets. A wool long-sleeve shirt and over it her faded travel vest with more pockets. It was all about pockets, and the pockets contained gloves, a collapsible hat, a multi-tool, a slim book, a small waterproof field notebook, a manual-wind watch, the Hex’s badge, and four shiny gold rings.

Pono pushed up against her, moist nose bumping the back of her hand.

“Stay here, boy. Guard the house.”

He whined softly. His neck tentacles unwound to hiss at the air as he followed her down the stairs. A full flask of water and a hip flask of whiskey always sat by the front door. She grabbed her boots from the lower right corner of the shoe rack, scratched Pono under his second chin, and went out through the carport into the side yard. Once, she could have vaulted the four-foot wall that separated her property from the neighbor’s without thinking about it. Now, she jumped up to sit on the flat top, swung her legs over with a grunt, and hopped down into a crouch. Her left knee twinged.

All was silent in a neighborhood seemingly fast asleep. She shut her eyes and kicked her senses up one notch. It was like expanding her skin outward to feel the textures and temperatures as far as a line of sight. The “dark” form of her Lantern magic was passive; it allowed her to get a sense of life without illumination tripping alarms and waking people up. Her Hex had been suspended in disgrace a year ago, but that didn’t mean the Concilium believed she and her crew were really on hiatus. Clans, enterprises, and cross-Realm trading and political leagues competed fiercely over resources and access, which meant a trained, functioning Hex was a precious resource.

Bugs. Anoles. A prowling rat. An exploring cat. A dog dozing half on the cusp of a waking bark. Venomous centipedes seethed in lightless crevices. But no pickets, or at least probably no pickets.

The spell woven into a Keeper’s key only worked under an open sky. Rising, she fished out the key tucked into the left bra pocket and placed it in her mouth. Its hard shape pressed onto her tongue as saliva triggered the spell.

With an acrid burst of flavor, the key returned to the place it had been molded, taking her with it. She had never quite gotten used to the spike of cold followed immediately by a smell like dog breath, pungent, rather gross, and strangely reassuring. It was Daniel’s special touch, how she knew the key was taking her to the Keep he was bound to.

Anyone looking would have seen a fizz in the air like bubbles frothing. Her body would start to fade, becoming translucent.

She vanished as the last bubble popped.

 

2

With a hiss of displaced air Esther reappeared miles away from where she had started. She stood in a graveled parking area in front of the living quarters of the Keep.

The humble plantation-style cottage was raised up off the ground on a post-and-pier foundation with a lanai—a covered porch—in front and in back. The lot was tucked away out of sight off a paved road ascending a leeward slope in the Ko‘olau Mountains. Even in daylight she would barely have been able to identify the grassy lane that led through forest and bamboo past the main part of the extended family compound and on to the road. At night a heavy darkness swallowed the surroundings like an inky black cloak. Much of that weight was the magic that concealed the Keep from curious hikers who might wander down an unofficial trail looking for a route to the falls. The rest belonged to the Keep itself, whose footprint was pressed partly into Earth’s soil and partly into the Beyond in a way that made it easy to overlook, as if it wasn’t quite fully present.

The front door of the cottage was cracked ajar. She listened for signs of trespassers or intruders. The work-shed to her right was padlocked. One of the swings in the swing set creaked as if pushed by an invisible set of hands. Otherwise she heard nothing from the clearing that wrapped around to the back of the house except the delicate tremor of a spider’s web stirring in the breeze and the respiration of leaves. The dogs hadn’t come to investigate. That was definitely concerning.

Her phone said 2:33.

Daniel and Kai had replaced the old steps with a ramp for Uncle Joe’s wheelchair. She walked up it to the lanai. A pair of wicker chairs faced the driveway, a shoe rack set between them. A ceramic mezuzah was fixed to the doorpost. The doormat glowed with a guard sigil woven through the fiber. The spell would recognize if a hostile presence arrived at the Keep, although as a warning spell it could do no more than alert the occupants. Esther paused on the mat to let the spell recognize her, then sent her senses into the compact three-room house.

Geckos. An enviable lack of bugs. Five breathing humanoid bodies where there should have been six.

She touched the mezuzah, kissed her finger, then probed the toe of her boot through the crack in the door. It eased open on silent hinges well oiled by Kai, who was always fixing things. The front room’s twin curved sofas and big-screen television set athwart the corner had a staged look, perfectly cast with a braided rug and tasteful curtains. The computer table looked undisturbed, the laptop closed, the monitor off, and the modem lights solid green.

Normally she would have removed her boots on the lanai but she wasn’t sure what she might need to do and how quickly she might need to do it, so she kept them on.

She paced softly across the front room to the corridor that opened in the center of the room’s back wall. To the left lay a dining room dramatically inhabited by a large koa wood table and chairs, a bookshelf, and a huge apothecary’s cabinet with sixty-four visible drawers and at least eight invisible ones. To her right, shoji doors screened off a sleeping room with tatami mats. One of the rice-paper-covered doors was slid aside enough for a person to squeeze through. She looked in, letting her Lantern magic ease into her eyes so she could see in the darkness.

Five bodies lay inside, breathing with the steady resolve of restful sleep. Kai was stretched out across the big futon with the four little ones curled tight along kwo/his back like flower buds ready to spring open at dawn. In sleep Kai’s third eye gleamed as a silver oval against a dark forehead. Normally at night that eye stayed open but it too was shut, and kwo/he did not stir even when Esther gave a warning cough.

She licked her lips, gone dry. A hint of vanilla perfumed the air. This was spelled sleep. Vanilla was Daniel’s signature scent. He’d poured the spell onto his own family, either deliberately or because he’d been forced to do so.

Still no sign of him. Yes, his immediate absence was worrying, but she knew how to walk herself through the options before she went full on alarm.

Keepers were bound to their Keeps. They rarely left the grounds and they rarely slept because, like lighthouses, their Keep-flames needed to stay on day and night as a beacon to travelers making their way through the Beyond’s treacherous landscape. Most likely something unexpected had come up at the Keep’s entrance and he wanted to avoid the children interrupting and in his haste had caught Kai in the spell also.

He had to be here.

She pushed open the back door onto the breezeway that linked the cottage to the Keep. Molasses and Babka sprawled on the rear lanai, fast asleep instead of eagerly about their night patrol. That had been a potent spell to have caught the dogs. He relied on them as fearless watchdogs. A flare of anxiety rocketed in her chest, and she took a moment to ruthlessly crush it down, pressing a hand to her chest to feel the necklace beneath the cloth.

Get all the information first.

The doors off the breezeway, leading to the toilet, the bath, and the storeroom, were shut. Past the lanai’s comfortable patio furniture and its latticework railing rose a massive banyan tree.

A mesh of pillar-like aerial roots surrounded the original trunk, which now existed so deep within the tree’s sprawling superstructure that it wasn’t visible from the outermost reaches of the canopy. A raised walkway led through an opening formed by a pair of intertwined secondary trunks and ran beneath the canopy to the main trunk of the old tree. She took in a last breath of balmy air and walked in past the outer ring of foliage. Out of ordinary Earth and into the Keep, a place partly anchored in Earth and partly anchored in the Beyond.

The transition snapped through her flesh. Tropical air shifted into the nutty scent of something cooking. Lights were on as she walked into the front half of the Keep. This spacious semicircular chamber had been repurposed into a family room with tumbling mats, a toy chest, bookshelves, and a long table with benches. Beyond the table was a remodeled kitchen Daniel had fitted out with a chef’s stove and a work island. Keepers needed hobbies to tide them over during the long hours and years they spent on duty, and he loved to cook. In fact, although the room was empty, one burner was lit beneath an unattended pot, a whisk stuck inside as if he’d not had time to take it out. A light brown sauce slowly darkened toward a brick color.

Where was he? How had he had time to call her and yet not remove the whisk? Why had he put Kai to sleep instead of calling out to his spouse for help?

She gave the sauce a swirl, feeling bits thickening on the bottom. After setting the whisk on a spoon holder beside an open cookbook she went to the inner door and rolled it aside. The far side of the Keep was the other half of its bisected circle, which the family often jokingly referred to as Pier 99. A beautifully lathed wood railing marked off Daniel’s office space with its desk, a reading nook and a worktable alcove, and a cot for resting. A curving staircase led up to the hostel attic where travelers could spend a night or two before heading onward, but she heard no sound and sensed no movement from up there.

The security room was closed with its triple locks all active; it was impossible for Daniel to lock himself inside. Most of the rest of the space was taken up with arrangements of tables and chairs for travelers waiting to get clearance or cargo. All empty. No luggage or packs in sight. No travelers in a state of arrival or departure. No visiting Hex taking a rest and meal break before heading out.

A rope barrier blocked access to the archway and its boundary, which was set exactly opposite the point where she had entered the Keep on the other side.

The wall-like boundary past which lay the Beyond was opaque, which meant Daniel was not in the Keep, not in the house, not on the lot, and not on the narrow ring of stable ground that surrounded the Keep in the Beyond. He wouldn’t have walked into the Beyond because it was far too dangerous for a person alone, especially for a Keeper.

Fear stirred in her belly. She gave it five seconds to swell and then mentally wrapped it up into a visualized box and closed it.

Investigate first.

The room was dim, lit by a single night light. She brightened a hand and by its light scanned the paperwork scattered on Daniel’s desk, the one place Kai wasn’t allowed to tidy up. There was nothing unusual in the reports and requests and bulletins. According to the ledger, held open with two off-world agates, the last transaction had been twelve days ago. Earth was a minor trading post, of little interest within the greater network except for certain singular types of wood that grew only here, silk, miscellaneous rare treasures and unique Earth foodstuffs that appealed to collectors and gourmands, the noteworthy adaptability of humans to Hex work, and of course the illicit traffic in parrots. Of the Keeps on Earth, this one was the most isolated and least used of those she knew existed.

She went back into the kitchen. The sauce was beginning to burn at the bottom. Turning off the burner felt like defeat, a scalding to sear her heart into ash. She’d lost skirmishes in her time; lost cargo; lost colleagues and a friend and a spouse; had gotten her Hex suspended when the Concilium figured out she’d taken on a mission from the five triangles enterprise specifically in order to not carry it out. Right now none of that mattered compared to the safety of her children and grandchildren.

What had Daniel meant by saying ruin? He must have known he’d have only a moment to give her a clue.

A cough, a footstep, and Kai appeared through the veil as through a translucent curtain, all three eyes open in alarm.

“Esther? What…? Why are you here?”

“Where’s Daniel?”

Kai looked around the kitchen in confusion. At home, at night, Kai made no effort to hide the unworldliness of a person not born of Earth. A coppery epidermis shimmered. Three silver bands like gleaming tattoos encircled each upper arm. Gill slits down the neck were usually mistaken for scars. Atop the head a flattened crest that, in company, a glamor passed off as a stylishly short mohawk. The third eye, in the center of the forehead and aligned perpendicular to the regular eyes, was actually the least remarkable thing about Kai.

“He was in the kitchen,” Kai said. “He was going to make roux tonight for—”

“Roux?”

“It’s a kind of sauce. It’s a word in the language you say… français? French?”

“Roux. In the kitchen. Roux in… Ruin. That’s my clever boy.”

Adrenaline thrilled through her with the hope for the clue she needed. The answer she prayed for. She turned back to the stove, to the open cookbook with its recipe, which was indeed for roux. The sludge was congealing into an inedible mess. She unhooked an empty pot hanging from the pot rack and set it on the counter. A colander fit over the pot’s lip. She upended the sauce pot to drain into it. And there it came, caught in the colander.

An oval dragon’s scale, about an inch and a half in diameter. It was as thin as paper and as tough as diamond.

Her mind went blank. Her thoughts slammed to a shocked halt, that instant where you tried to turn back, to pretend you hadn’t seen the terrible news you wished to unsee as if that would make it go away. But denial never made it go away.

She’d been down rough roads before. She’d trained for emergencies. For the struggle. She knew how to do this. She took in a slow inhale followed by a slower exhale to calm herself.

In a hoarse voice she said, “Daniel’s been kidnapped.”

 

Excerpted from The Keeper’s Six, copyright © 2022 by Kate Elliott.

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