The Qwillery is thrilled to share with you an exclusive excerpt from Wickedly Powerful (Baba Yaga 3) by Deborah Blake which will be published on February 2nd by Berkley!
THE EARLY MORNING fog blanketed the area surrounding the fire tower, stippling the windows with condensation and cloaking the ground below in mystery. Even the twittering of the birds was muffled, as if the world itself had fallen away behind the mist.
To Sam Corbett, perched on a stool in the tower with his coffee mug gripped between tense fingers, the fog looked like smoke and brought back nightmares.
Eventually, he set down the cooling coffee and turned his back to the windows, doing push-ups and crunches and working with the free weights until he had an excuse for the sweat on his brow and the tremors in his hands, and the sun had burned away the fog and welcomed in a bright new day.
The radio crackled around the time he was going into service, and Tiny’s voice from down below gave him a heads‑up to expect a scout troop within the hour. Sam scowled, feeling the scar tissue pulling at the skin on the left side of his face. He hated having people invade the tower; it was his space, his sanctuary. But of course, it wasn’t, not really. It was a job. And visitors were part of the job. Few of them stayed long anyway, after they’d met him.
At about nine thirty, Sam heard the clatter of feet outside, along with the usual preadolescent griping about the absurd number of stairs that had to be climbed to reach the top of the tower. He grabbed his Yankees cap, a souvenir of a long-ago trip to the Big Apple—a place far, far away from these woods around the Black Mountain in Wyoming, both geographically and spiritually—and tugged it down low over his forehead. The shadow it cast didn’t so much hide as soften the effect of his disfigurement. For Sam, this fire tower was as close as he could get to hiding, and as evidenced by the gangly figures currently wandering around the catwalk outside,it wasn’t close enough.
Sam went out the door and greeted Dennis, the scout leader, and the two women with him, probably mothers to one or another of the shouting, laughing boys they were attempting to herd. He had met Dennis before, but the moms were new, and didn’t do a very good job of covering up their shock at the sight of his face.
“Hey, Sam,” Dennis said cheerfully. The scoutmaster was a thin, energetic man who ran the general store in the nearest town. He happily made up boxes of groceries and necessities for Sam and had them delivered to the tower so Sam didn’t have to come into town as often; the two men got along well. “This is Claire and Felicia. They’re helping me out today. Ladies, this is Sam Corbett. He’s manning the fire tower this season; it’s his second year here, so he’s practically an old pro.”
“Hello,” Sam said. He didn’t say much these days, not liking the permanent rasp of his voice, damaged by the smoke he’d inhaled at the same time his face had been burned. He’d give the boys the tour, but Dennis would do most of the talking. The gregarious store owner didn’t mind, and it made things easier for everyone.
“Hi,” Felicia said, looking at the view instead of at him. She was a little plump, and still trying to catch her breath from the climb. “Thanks for having the boys here. I can’t believe anyone lives up in this tower for four months. Don’t you get lonely? I’d never be able to stand it.”
Sam shrugged. “I get more visitors than you’d think,” he said. There was no point in adding that he preferred the solitude; loneliness was a constant companion, no matter where he lived. “And someone needs to watch for fires. I’m happy to do it.”
Claire, the other mother, had been studying him unobtrusively, eyes hidden behind big designer sunglasses. She was blond and pretty, and stood a little too close for comfort. Sam had met her type before, and he had a bad feeling about what was coming.
Sure enough, she pulled off the glasses and stared at him more openly. “Sam Corbett. Weren’t you one of the Hotshots crew they called in a few years ago to deal with that terrible forest fire up on the ridge? I remember reading about what happened.”
He kept his expression neutral through long practice. “Yes, I was, ma’am. Shall we gather up the boys now?”
Felicia clapped her hands to her mouth. “Oh. Oh, that explains the . . . I mean, oh dear, I’m sorry. For, you know, the fire and everything.” Tears sprang into her eyes, and Sam’s stomach knotted. He didn’t know which reaction he hated worse—the voracious interest or the pity.
“Hazards of the job,” he said, as he always did. “I got off easier than some.”
Dennis rescued him, blowing a whistle to bring the scouts over for their informative tour of the tower.
“Boys,” the scoutmaster said, “this is Mr. Corbett. He’s going to tell you all about his job as a fire spotter, and show you how he watches out for fires so he can keep the forest—and us—safe.”
“Do you have to run down all those stairs to put out the fires?” one skinny boy asked with a hint of awe. He was staying well back from the railing, unlike some of the others. Not everyone liked the heights up there, but they’d never bothered Sam. Heights didn’t scare him. Nothing scared him anymore. He’d already been through the worst and survived. More or less.
“He doesn’t put the fires out himself, stupid,” one of the other boys said with a sneer. “Real firemen do that. He just sits up here with a pair of binoculars and watches.”
“Now, Tommy,” Dennis said, with the air of someone who has repeated himself so often, the response was automatic. “We don’t call anyone stupid, do we? And Mr. Corbett’s job is just as important as that of the people who actually put out the fires. In a way, he is a firefighter too.”
Sam tried not to grimace, hearing the echo of his own voice inside his head. That was the same thing he told himself every day. That the job he was doing was vital to the effort; that he was still doing his part, in the only way he now could. It was the one thing that kept him going.
The problem was, he didn’t really believe it, any more than that young scout did.
SAM SHOWED THE boys around the inside of the tower, and let them each take a turn looking out through the big binoculars in different directions. Most took their turns eagerly, almost hoping to be the one to spot a fire. He told himself not to be angry with the youngsters; to them, the prospect of seeing actual flames was an abstract idea, an adventure, not a grim reality. But he could still feel his teeth clench and his shoulders tighten.
Peter, the smallest of the scouts, squinted seriously as he looked through the lens, then pointed out into the forest with one slightly grubby finger. “Mr. Corbett? Who lives down there in that little house?”
Dennis and Sam exchanged glances. There weren’t any residences in that quadrant, and the ranger station was too far away to be seen from the tower.
Sam held out his hand for the glasses. “Let me take a look so I can see what you’re talking about,” he said, expecting something like a large, vaguely house-shaped boulder. Instead, once he’d adjusted the binoculars, he spotted the structure Peter was referring to—except that it wasn’t a house, exactly, more like a modern gypsy caravan on wheels, parked in a clearing in the forest.
“Huh,” he said. “Just somebody camping, I guess.” Or someone who had wandered into the woods and gotten lost. That happened occasionally too. Out of habit, he swung the glasses around to check out the surrounding area, and felt his hands grow clammy at the sight of a column of gray and white smoke, shooting up less than a mile from where the caravan stood.
Dragging a harsh breath in through scarred lungs, he turned to Dennis and said quietly, “You need to take the boys down now. Right now.”
Dennis’s eyes widened, but he didn’t ask any questions, just called the scouts and the two moms together, had them say a quick thank-you to Sam, and hustled them out the door and down the stairs. As soon as the last pair of sneakers was on the top step, Sam ran over to the two-way radio.
“Dispatch, come in,” he said. “It’s Sam. I’ve got a smoke.” He quickly relayed the coordinates, as well as the information that there might be a civilian in harm’s way.
The dispatcher called it in, sending the first response team on their way, then switched back to Sam and asked a few more questions about what he’d seen.
“So, this caravan you spotted,” the dispatcher said. “Did you see anyone near it?”
“Nope,” Sam said. “Whoever it was could have been inside, or out hiking.” Or just maybe, setting a fire.
They’d had too many fires already this season . . . some caused by a series of fluke lightning storms, but there had been a couple that no one had been able to explain. No sign of campers being careless with their campfires, or any indication that some moron with a cigarette had decided to go for a walk in the woods. Just fires, when there shouldn’t have been any. They’d been lucky so far and Sam had spotted them all while they were still easily controlled. But sooner or later, they were going to run out of luck.
In Sam’s experience, you always did.
BELLA YOUNG SAT on the flip-down steps of her traveling caravan and stretched her long legs out in front of her as she looked at the surrounding forest with satisfaction. After being stuck in the dry mountains of Montana battling wildfires for weeks, mingling with local firefighters, she was happy to be back among the peaceful environment of the trees, listening to squirrels and blue jays squabble instead of people.
It wasn’t that Bella didn’t like people, exactly. She just liked trees and animals and mountains better.
In a way, that made her the most traditional of the three Baba Yagas who watched over the United States. After all, the original Baba Yagas, powerful witches tasked with guarding the doorways to the Otherworld, keeping the balance of nature, and occasionally—if absolutely forced into it—helping out some worthy seeker, had lived in the deep, dark forests of Russia and its Slavic neighbors.
These days, Bella’s sister Babas Barbara and Beka mostly handled the eastern and western sides of the country, leaving Bella happily stuck in the less-populated middle. That was just fine, since she and people, well . . . Let’s just say there were issues. Big, big issues.
The Black Mountain forests, on the other hand, suited her to a T. She hoped that whatever urge had brought her here was due more to wanderlust and less to some mysterious magical crisis. She was due for some rest and relaxation. Or at the very least, fewer things blowing up.
She took a deep breath, reveling in the sharp, resinous tang of pine needles and the deep, musty aroma of decaying leaves. Compared to the auto fumes of the city, they smelled
better to her than the most expensive perfume.
“Isn’t that the best smell in the world, Koshka?” she said to her companion, who currently bore the guise of a gigantic Norwegian Forest cat (since it was difficult to either fit or hide a large brown and gray dragon in a small caravan).
All Baba Yagas traveled with their own Chudo-Yudo, although each dragon chose a different form. And pretty much anything else they wanted. Even the powerful High Queen of the Otherworld rarely argued with a dragon.
Bella called hers Koshka, which was Russian for a female cat. It was something of an inside joke, since he was neither female nor a cat . . . nor Russian, if you came right down to it. Bella’s mentor Baba, who had found her as a child and trained her for the job, might have been from the mother country, but dragons came straight from the Otherworld.
“It’s not bad,” Koshka replied, showing off an impressive set of incisors in a wide yawn. “I prefer the aroma of tuna, myself.” He looked back through the open door toward the compact kitchen space inside, in case Bella had somehow missed his point.
Bella rolled her eyes. “Seriously. Smell that; it’s practically ambrosia.”
Koshka dutifully lifted his dark pink nose into the air, the wide ruff around his neck and tufts of fur in his ears making him look a bit like his wilder cousin, the lynx. “Huh,” he said.
“What? You don’t like pine all of a sudden?” Bella shoved herself up off the steps so she could go open a can of tuna.
“No, I don’t like the odor of smoke in the middle of a forest,” he said. “Can’t you smell it?” He pointed his entire massive forty-pound body toward the west. “I don’t know why they bother to put those puny noses in the middle of Human faces. They’re not good for anything.”
Bella lifted her head and sniffed deeply, but still couldn’t detect anything out of the ordinary. But she didn’t doubt Koshka for a minute. “Let’s go check it out,” she said, and they set off at a fast lope through the trees.
LESS THAN A mile from her caravan, they came upon the source of the smoke; she clearly would have scented it soon enough, even with her puny Human nose, since there was a bonfire the size of a Buick burning away merrily amid a pile of leaves and downed tree limbs. Bella looked around for any signs of whoever started it, but the area was empty except for her and her faithful dragon-cat.
“Shit. Fire again,” she said with feeling. Bella had a love/hate relationship with fire. It was the element she was strongest in, just as Barbara was most attuned with earth and Beka with water. But in her experience, that made for as many problems as it did solutions. Still, there was clearly no one around to wrestle with this particular fire but her, so there was no point in wasting time.
“Want some help?” Koshka asked. As a dragon, he wasn’t even mildly intimidated by fire. If he was in his natural form, he probably could have just sat on it. As a dragon, he was bigger than a Buick too. Much bigger. But it wasn’t a good idea for him to change where anyone could possibly see him, and it was broad daylight in a public forest.
Bella gritted her teeth. “I’ve got it,” she said. After all, if there was one thing she had experience with, it was putting out fires. Unfortunately, she was also usually the one who started them, but it made for good practice for situations like this.
She held her hands up to the sky, gathering her power until it made her fingertips tingle and her long, curly red hair crackle like the flames it resembled. Then she lowered her hands until they were aimed at the fire, making a circling motion. The energy flowed smoothly out to surround the burning tinder, encompassing it in a bubble of magic. Then she snapped her fingers, and all the oxygen within that bubble disappeared. A few minutes later, the fire had died down to a few barely smoldering embers, and she snapped her fingers again to return the air to normal.
“I love that trick,” Koshka said, walking over to sniff at the edges of the burned area. “Pah!” He yanked his nose away in a hurry, stalking off with his tail held high. “That stinks.”
Bella glanced back over her shoulder as she followed him, moving faster as she heard the sound of incoming men and machinery. Someone must have spotted the smoke from the fire and reported it. Which was good, but she didn’t want to be seen lurking around the area of a suspicious fire. Her cover as a traveling artist was solid, but there was no sense in subjecting it to unnecessary scrutiny if she didn’t have to.
“What stinks?” she asked, moving faster. “The fire?”
“No,” the dragon said. “Whatever was used to start it.”
“Oh,” Bella said. She’d been hoping it was just a fluke of nature. There hadn’t been a storm for days, but sometimes a lightning strike could smolder for a while before bursting into flame. “That’s bad news.”
“It gets worse,” he said, growling under his breath as he waited for her to catch up to his bounding pace. “Whatever it was, it had the faint scent of magic on it.”
“SHIT,” Bella said.
“With a side of crap,” Koshka agreed. “Now, what about that tuna?”
A Baba Yaga Novel
Berkley, February 2, 2016
Mass Market Paperback and eBook, 304 pages
A Baba Yaga Novel
Berkley, February 2, 2016
Mass Market Paperback and eBook, 304 pages
Known as the wicked witch of Russian fairy tales, Baba Yaga is not one woman, but rather a title carried by a chosen few. They keep the balance of nature and guard the borders of our world, but don’t make the mistake of crossing one of them…
The only thing more fiery than Bella Young’s red hair is her temper. She knows that a Baba Yaga’s power without strict control can leave the people she cares about burned, so to protect her heart—and everyone around her—the only company she keeps is her dragon-turned-Norwegian-Forest-cat, Koshka.
But when Bella is tasked with discovering who’s setting magical fires throughout Wyoming’s Black Hills, she finds herself working closely with former hotshots firefighter Sam Corbett—and falling hard for his quiet strength and charm.
Sam may bear the scars of his past, but Bella can see beyond them and would do anything to help him heal. Only before she can rescue her Prince Charming, she’ll have to overcome the mysterious foe setting the forest fires—a truly wicked witch who wields as much power and even more anger than Bella…
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What: One entrant will win a fabulous prize pack from Deborah Blake including a notebook, a cute stuffed dragon, a mug with all three book covers, and a cute “Be Wicked” broom, along with some postcards and bookmarks.
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