I've hinted for weeks that I'm working on something new, and this is it. Niki Slobodian Book 5! It will be entitled The Devil's Backbone, and I'm working on hiring someone to do some fantastic cover art which I will reveal as soon as I can.
The number one question I get from reader is "When will there be a new Niki Slobodian book?" Well this is it, gang. Tentative release date will be sometime in May. Might be sooner, we shall see. But to celebrate, I want to share the first (unedited) chapter of The Devil's Backbone with you. It's unpolished, so it may change, and if you see a typo, it'll get fixed in edits.
This will be a whole new cycle for Niki, and I'm honestly bursting with excitement over what's to come. So here you go. Chapter one. Please DO tell me what you think, either in the comments or over at my fanpage on Facebook. Woohoo!
“That doesn’t seem right,” I said.
I pushed my boot heel into the snow that had accumulated on the ground. In Florida. In July. I frowned into the sky. The snow had stopped falling for the most part and tiny ice particles swirled on the air. The pull in my chest shook me from my wonder. I looked toward the place that was pulling me. A small one-story house was nestled in the shadows, far back from the road. I could hear screaming that no living person would be able to hear. I was Death, and the screaming was coming from whoever I had come here for. From whoever it was that had just died.
I braced myself as I opened the door, but I wasn’t prepared for what met me. A wave of blistering cold nearly knocked me over, so loud it almost drowned out the screaming. I took a step into the house, my face numbing in the frigid air. Snow swirled around the room, covering a couch and a television in crystalline, white fluff. Ice hit me in the face as I pulled myself inside. A flash of color caught my eye and I looked down. A set of red footprints leading outside stood out amidst the blinding white. I crouched down to look. Someone had left in bare feet, and they must have been hurt badly, because I was fairly certain that the red color was blood. Snow piled into the footprints, but they refused to disappear, instead they tainted the new snow just as red as the old. I touched it and felt my finger stiffen. Veins of blue ice wrapped around my fingertip and started to spread, my entire finger turning blue. With a gasp I pulled my hand away, shaking it and flexing my fingers. The blue disappeared almost immediately.
“What the hell is this?” I said. I moved through the living room, following the place where the footsteps had come from. Ducking through a low doorway, I entered the kitchen. And stared.
There was a body on the floor, blue from the cold, but that’s not how she had died. Frozen blood spattered the walls and the floor around her. It looked like her throat had been cut. Even from where I was standing the wound looked jagged and raw. The corpse’s unseeing eyes seemed to be staring at a perfect, watery version of herself. Her ghost stopped screaming when she saw me. She had her brown hair drawn back in a loose ponytail, the glasses on the corpse perfectly straight on the ghost.
“You have to help me,” she said frantically, shaking her head. “You can’t let this happen.”
“Can we talk about the other thing that’s happening here?” I said. “Like maybe the hole in the universe behind you?”
She glanced around at the thing that had me staring slack jawed. She shook her head. “No, you don’t understand,” she said. “It’s not important.”
“A hole in the world in the middle of your kitchen isn’t important?” I said.
“It’s not his fault,” she said, her lip trembling. “They took him and he was upset.”
“A person did this?” I said. I peered into the shimmering hole that pulsed and gyrated as it seemed to float over the kitchen table. The closer I got to it, the more it changed. There was a freezing wind coming from wherever it led to. And as I looked into it, I could make out shapes. Trees, black silhouettes against the night sky streaked with curious smears of pink and green and red. Everything seemed to be covered in thick layers of snow that twinkled in the light that shone in from the kitchen. The red footprints I had followed receded into the hole and were swallowed by darkness.
I frowned. This couldn’t be good. The ghost was crying again, and my chest ached. She shouldn’t be here, but she would have to wait another minute.
I reached out a hand to the throbbing hole. I could feel it in the air. Like negative static. The hairs on my arm stood up. The edges of the hole looked like melted wax where the world should have been. It was growing smaller by the second. I pushed my arm through and it felt like I’d dunked it into ice water. I wiggled my fingers on the other side. It felt strange, like the air was some kind of dry liquid where the air shimmered, but on the other side I could feel fat snowflakes melting on my skin. I pulled my arm back and looked at it. Goosebumps, but nothing strange. The hole was shrinking faster now, seeming to remake the world around it as it closed. Finally, with a final burst of frozen air and a smell like sulphur, it closed. The only sound was coming from the ghost.
I looked at her now. She was trying to pull at her hair, panic in her empty eyes.
“What was that?” I said.
“I’m dead,” she said. “I’m dead.”
“So I can’t save him.” She looked at me, deflated, silver tears flowing down her cheeks. “Can you help him?”
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Katy. Please tell me you’ll help him. I think they’re going to kill him.”
“Katy, what was that thing? The hole.” The snow was melting now, leaving puddles over every surface. Water dripped from the table onto the floor, splashing on my boots. “You said someone didn’t mean to make it.”
“Matthew,” she said, the act of saying his name seeming to rip something from her. “He doesn’t deserve this.”
“He’s an Abby,” I said.
She nodded. “We kept it a secret so long. But he was so scared when they came. And when he saw what they did to me…I’ve never seen him like that. He just exploded.” Panic filled her eyes. “He exploded. I thought he was dead. He was just laying there.”
“Katy, this is very important. What came out of that hole?”
She shook her head again, seeming to grow more feverish in her movements. “Tell me you’re going to save my son,” she said, her voice rising. “Tell me!” She lunged at me and grabbed my arm, the touch seeming to separate her into millions of floating molecules, spinning in the air in front of me in a vaguely human form, and then she turned to dust and was gone.
“Dammit, Katy,” I said. I looked down at her body. Close up the wound on her neck was worse. It looked like hamburger. Like they had chopped at her over and over with some sort of tool. The blood frozen under the body began to spread out on the floor as it thawed, the walls dripping with it. The footprints had disappeared. If there was some kind of monster roaming the World and kidnapping boys, I had no idea how to find it. I walked outside into humid, balmy air. The snow had all melted and the road was wet. When people woke up in a few hours, they wouldn’t even know anything had happened. I tried to feel for deaths, but there weren’t any, at least not nearby. For once, the souls were quiet.
“Well, shit,” I said. “Where the hell did you go?”
I went back into the house, my steps making squishing noises on the now-soaked carpet. I ignored the smell of blood coming from the kitchen and went the other way, walking toward a dark hallway. There were four doors as I walked through. A small, tidy bathroom, a bland bedroom with stacks of books on either side of the bed, a closet crammed with towels and sheets, but the one I wanted was at the end of the hall. The door was plastered with bumper stickers for brands of skateboards. A hand-scrawled note was taped right to the middle that read, “KEEP OUT!” Obviously, Matthew was a teenager. I turned the knob and switched on the light.
The room was hot and musty and reeked of sulphur. There was a small, unmade bed pushed into the corner, a desk piled with school books, and a bedside table holding a dusty lamp. The walls were pinned with what looked like drawings and the floor was littered with the same. I stepped into the room and picked up one of the papers.
The drawing was crude, as if done by someone not used to drawing, though I was pretty sure it was better than anything I could do. It looked to be a picture of a hole, dark and black except for a large hand reaching out of it. I picked up another. This one showed a rough sketch of a boy that appeared to be caught in some kind of whirlwind or tornado. Most looked to be of monsters escaping from holes in the air. Some were reptilian, others walking on two legs but looking anything but human. How many holes had Matthew opened up? I walked across the room to look at the pictures on the walls, trying my best not to step on the drawings covering the floor. The pictures on the wall were higher quality, as if by someone that had more practice.
“Oh, Matthew,” I said as I peered at them. “You poor thing.”
The pictures showed scenes that were strange and dark. One depicted stark trees against a charcoal-streaked sky, an angular creature with dripping teeth seeming to be running toward a young boy. Another was a desolate field with a thousand eyes peering out of the darkness. If Matthew had been an Abby since he was a small child, as I had, he’d likely been opening these holes in the world for years. A decade maybe. And I knew how alone he must have felt. I’d felt the same loneliness myself, though I’d had Sofi, my godmother and an Abby herself, to help me. My father had been an Abby too. So no matter how alone I’d felt, I had a shaky sense of normalcy. Everyone around me had been just as strange as I was. Matthew’s mother, from what I could tell, had been a Normal. Had Matthew known any Abbys at all? Or had this been all he had?
I gazed around the room at the stark charcoal drawings. Some pages on the floor were just angry blackness; no picture, just starbursts of darkness. My strangeness had come from being able to see ghosts, and at Matthew’s age that had been terrifying enough. But his ability seemed so much more strange and horrifying than anything I’d ever had to endure at such a young age. I needed to find him.
I looked back up at the wall. A group of sketches caught my eye. They were different than the others. They were grouped together in a circle, each one showing a different part of the same scene. I frowned as I took them in. A sharp and craggy mountain range that looked like teeth. A circle of stones with odd markings. A group of women in dark dresses, long hair blowing out behind them as they held hands in a semicircle. The last picture was a close-up of one of the women. She was middle-aged, but still beautiful. Her black hair had streaks of gray. Her pale eyes seemed to burn through the page. What was it that bothered me about these? I stared at them for what seemed like a long time. Then it occurred to me: these people were human. Or at least they looked it. All the others were of fantastic creatures, monsters that the artist seemed afraid of. These had a different, hypnotic quality. The pencil strokes had been lighter, less angry. I reached out and pulled the pictures off the wall. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew I needed to keep these. If I was going to find Matthew, I knew somehow that these pictures could be helpful. I didn’t know if these women were what had left bloody footprints in the snow, but they stood out too much for me to forget them.
As I pulled the last picture off the wall, I froze. Something had been scrawled into the paint underneath with something sharp in choppy angular letters. I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry. “What the hell is going on?” I said, my voice a whisper.
The words carved into the wall said, “WHAT DOES DEATH FEAR?”