Lukas first dreams about the end of the world when he’s five. As a prince of the hound clan, he is steadfast and loyal, able to take the form of any hound.
Yet, no one believes him except his grandmother.
The shadows, a corrupting force determined to suck the life out of everything on Earth, have infected the hound court.
How can Lukas survive to adulthood? Then battle non-corporeal creatures and save the world?
And to tempt you, here are the first two chapters.
Hans reached for the falling beaker, but it was too late.
Silence filled the lab after the sound of shattered glass, all the scientists at their stations standing perfectly still.
“Just a harmless solvent,” Hans called out. No acid to eat through the pristine white countertop, no noxious gas to make them all flee.
However, the scent of the bitter chemicals overwhelmed his sense of smell: He wouldn’t be able to scent or track anything for the rest of the day. Luckily, despite being a member of the hound clan, he didn’t need to. They lived in a city now, not the country, and he didn’t live by his nose, not like Grandpapa had.
“Hansel Von DeWhite!” shouted Master Koenig, striding from the front of the lab to the back corner where Hans had his equipment set up. “What were you thinking? You weren’t, of course,” Master Koenig blustered on. “You must be more careful.”
“It was just a solvent,” Hans said weakly as he gingerly lifted away the pieces of broken glass, putting them into the waste container on the floor.
At least it hadn’t splashed and stained Hans’ white lab coat. Then he looked more closely and sighed at the splatter marks down his right side. He couldn’t afford to get it cleaned so soon; maybe he could wash it in the kitchen sink at the house. After a quick glance all the way down, he breathed a bit easier: He hadn’t ruined his shoes. Again.
“Yes, yes, we all know that, we all heard it. But what if your clumsiness had upset someone else’s experiment?” Master Koenig paused and pulled his own lab coat tighter across his expansive chest. “I was with poor Wilhelm up front. What if your inexcusable noise had startled him at a crucial part of his process? Hmm?”
“But sir—” Hans started. He should have known better. Once Koenig got going, nothing short of an explosion would derail him.
“Now, I promised your father and his friend that there would be a place for you here at the Laboratorium.”
Hans didn’t groan, though he wanted to. Of course, Master Koenig would bring Hans’ father into it. Hans continued to focus on carefully, slowly, picking up the shards of glass and disposing of them. Clink, clink they went as they broke against each other in the container, a soothing sound.
“And you do have a place here for the rest of the year.” Master Koenig gave a dramatic pause. “But.” He sighed.
Hans found himself holding his breath.
“Only until the end of the year. Then you should seek employment somewhere else.”
Hans wasn’t surprised. He’d known his position as a lab attendant at the Laboratorium was in jeopardy since the first week, when he’d misread the instructions for the experiment he was conducting, verifying a scientist’s work, and the resulting acid had poured out over the shining white counters and all over the floor, ruining Hans’ shoes as well as the work of several nearby researchers.
Still, Hans turned to Master Koenig and said, “But sir—”
Then he realized his mistake.
He’d just swept his hand through the remaining glass.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, man,” Master Koenig said, grabbing Hans’ hand and examining it. “You didn’t cut anything major,” he said sourly.
“I’ll get a plaster for it, sir, then finish cleaning up,” Hans said grimly. It didn’t hurt, not really, but blood was already welling up and trickling across his skin. The salty scent threaded through the bitter chemical smells, faint but reassuring. Maybe his hound nose wasn’t completely ruined.
“No. Leave. Get that seen to and don’t bother returning until tomorrow.”
“But—” Hans deflated at Master Koenig’s stern look, the way his arms crossed over his barrel chest. Even the points of his white mustache quivered with disapproval and disappointment.
“Yes, sir,” Hans said. He grabbed a towel from the cabinet and wrapped it around his wrist, holding his hand high so the blood flowed into it and didn’t drip onto the floor.
Hans pretended to be busy with the towel and his hand as he made his way to the front of the room, past all the other attendants, so he wouldn’t hear their sniggers, wouldn’t see them laughing.
He still heard their comments in his head—he’d heard them all his life. Dummer Hans. Gar kein Feingefühl. Clumsy, awkward, no good Hans.
He’d always been a disappointment, to his father, the hound clan, and himself. He wished more than anything that there was something he could do to prove himself, or, at least, to stop making so many mistakes.
* * *
Hans hurried down the quiet Luisen Strasse, wanting to get back to the house ahead of Father. The row houses that lined the street were half-timbered, old, and falling apart. However, the front gardens they shared were often beautifully tended, full of the first spring daffodils, brilliant purple Prague flowers, and white crocuses.
None of those modern automobiles came down this quiet road; no one living here could afford one. It was one of the reasons why Hans and his father lived in this neighborhood—the smell of the smoke from the engines was noxious and gave them both headaches. Hans didn’t know how the humans stood it.
Hans paused when he spied the leather-like leaves and light mauve blossoms of a Lenten rose. If they’d still been living at home, in the country, he would have made a point to tell Grandpapa about the plant. It was a good repellent for insects and rodents.
Grandpapa had taught Hans about all the flowers and plants. He’d been the village Apotheker, an old country doctor, not one of those city types with a degree who had no idea what they were doing. He had cases of books with recipes for potions, spells, and charms.
Hans and his father had moved to Hildesheim when Grandpapa had died, selling the old house. Father had always claimed that he had a better nose for numbers than for smelly plants and potions, so they’d come to the nearest large town.
However, they didn’t have the family connections or money for Father to become a banker. Instead, he worked as an accountant, drinking more heavily every day and grumbling about other people’s mistakes. He was too proud to go to the hound clan to ask for a recommendation for himself: He refused to go begging to the sight hounds. He’d used his own connections—a cousin’s friend’s brother—to get Hans a job at the Laboratorium.
Father and Hans were scent hounds. They would make their own way, as they always had. The court—composed of sight hounds—wanted nothing to do with them.
Hans missed the countryside, missed Grandpapa, missed his cousins and his uncles. He would have missed his mother if he remembered her, but she’d died when he’d been young. He only vaguely knew her scent from the kerchief of hers that Father kept.
Grandpapa would have made a joke about the lab today, telling Hans that he was just a pup who hadn’t grown into his paws, giving Hans hope.
Hans paused, looking at the Lenten rose, thinking furiously.
Grandpapa’s books had cures for everything: From wasting diseases to falling down sicknesses, from childbirth to passing stones.
Father hadn’t liked Grandpapa’s work, and he’d insisted that Hans be a true scientist instead of following the old ways. Not that Hans had wanted to become an Apotheker—he’d followed Grandpapa around out of love, not because he was any good at herbs and spells.
But maybe, maybe, Grandpapa’s books held wisdom still, as well as a cure for Hans’ current dilemma. There wouldn’t be a spell for fixing his life, but if only he could be a little smarter, or braver, or something.
Hans hurried the next few blocks to their house, barely nodding to the two cross old women dressed in black along the way.
The row house had originally been owned by a pair of elderly sisters. Their children rented it out but hadn’t bothered to redecorate it. While Hans wasn’t a muscle man, the pink, white, and rose paint and wallpaper stifled him. He tried to be out of the house as much as possible. The backyard was acceptable, even though it was just a small patch of grass with roses and more roses growing along the edges.
Luckily, Father’s coat didn’t hang on the white-painted coatrack next to the door. Hans threw his own suit jacket on the rack, as well as his hat, not bothering to unlace his light, leather “dandy” shoes (oh, how he missed his field boots!). A narrow white staircase went directly from the door on the ground floor to the first floor, the walls decorated with framed, poorly drawn pencil sketches of the town, done by the sisters.
Hans raced up the stairs, then paused in the hallway. The first room was his, smaller and overlooking the street. The second, in the back, larger and more quiet, was Father’s. More awful sketches lined the hallway, along with some truly hideous watercolors.
In the center of the hallway, a long black cord hung from the ceiling. It opened the trap-door to the attic. The ladder they used for access rested against the wall, skinny, shaky, and painted white, of course.
Hans had to jump for the cord, but he caught it first try. The smell of old paper, storage straw, and cotton batting drifted down. Hans placed the ladder carefully, making it as stable as he could, before he climbed up.
The attic was directly under the steep-pitched roof. Just the center of the room had a floor, composed of rough planks. The center was the only place Hans could stand straight up. Bare, coarsely hewed beams ran from underneath the small center platform to the edges, where the roof sloped down. A layer of cotton batting, serving as insulation, ran between the beams. The ceiling was bare wood as well, with nails sticking through.
Small windows set high in the peak of the ceiling on either side of the attic gave Hans enough light to see his prize: Grandpapa’s old trunk. It was made out of green leather, with wood reinforcing the square bottom, and thin tin strips running across the domed cover.
Hans picked his way through the other trunks containing their winter things: jackets, boots, heavy blankets, and quilts. Hans grunted with pain when he closed his hands around the aged leather handles of Grandpapa’s trunk. He ignored his injury and tried to pick up the trunk anyway, then quickly put it back down. It was heavier than it looked and the handles grated against his injured palm.
He looked at the chest, then at the opening to the downstairs. He’d never be able to carry it alone, particularly not injured. With a sigh, Hans sat on the cold, rough boards and opened the trunk.
The musty smell of dried rosemary, bitter geranium, and delicate lavender floated up. On top lay one of Grandpapa’s old journals, hand bound in leather.
Hans eagerly opened the book, marveling at the perfectly preserved yellow pansy pressed between the first pages. He recognized this book. Grandpapa had written out his observations and notes on his experiments in it. He had been forever trying new combinations of herbs, flowers, weeds, roots, leaves—anything he found in the woods that he hadn’t seen before.
It was a wonderful reminder of Grandpapa, but not the book Hans sought.
A packet of letters neatly tied together with red ribbon came next, followed by two more journals, and Grandpapa’s military service record, recorded on heavy red and blue paper.
Finally, at the bottom of the trunk, Hans found the black book he’d been looking for, bound in thick leather with gold embossed writing on the cover: Heilungen—Healings.
Hans carefully put the other items back in the trunk, though he hesitated over the journals. Maybe another day he’d come and fetch them. He closed the trunk with regret. It was all he had left of Grandpapa. The ache in Hans’ heart made his breath catch. He missed him so much.
Now, he had to make his Grandpapa proud.
With the book firmly wedged under his arm, Hans backed his way down the narrow ladder, breathing a sigh of relief when he reached the ground still holding it. Hans leaned the ladder back against the wall, then pushed at the trapdoor.
It didn’t budge.
Hans jumped and pushed it, snapping it shut with a loud bang, making him jump.
“What’s that racket?” came Father’s voice from downstairs.
“Nothing!” Hans called, hurrying down the hall toward his room. If only he could get the book put away before his father saw it….
Of course, Hans’ luck was never that good.
“What are you doing?” Father asked as he topped the stairs, his face as ruddy as if he’d already had three shots of brandy. He wore his office suit, black and formal, though his magenta tie was askew.
“I—” Hans started.
“What is that?” Father asked, striding forward and slipping the book out from under Hans’ arm.
This time, Hans didn’t try to explain. How could he? He was already such a disappointment to everyone. It had been a stupid idea, to think that one of Grandpapa’s potions could help his mess of a life.
“Huh,” Father grunted, handing back the book. “You worried about your hand?” he asked, indicating the bandage Hans had wrapped around his palm.
“Yes,” Hans said instantly, relieved. He did have a good excuse to have this book! “It was just a solvent beaker, but it burned like acid,” he lied.
“You take care of yourself, then,” Father said, almost gently. “And don’t go burning the neighborhood down with any concoctions you make,” he threw over his shoulder as he marched down the hall, going to his room at the back and slamming the door.
Hans took a deep breath. Now, he didn’t have to hide anything.
All he had to do was find something that would help.
* * *
Curled over the tiny desk in his frilly bedroom, Hans found the spell he wanted: Opening of the Mind.
It was like a Kraftsuppe, a “perfected” broth, but instead of fortifying the body, it was meant to heal the mind. It would make him open to possibilities, including the ability to learn what was needed.
However, it wasn’t a simple culinary recipe. It contained more ingredients than any meal Hans had ever cooked. Not only infusions, tinctures, and herbal waters made up the potion, but spells needed to be performed both before and after a particular ingredient was added.
Hans had never been that good at magic; many in the hound clan weren’t. Luckily, the spells seemed simple enough, and he’d only have to add a few charms to the corners of the kitchen, as well as memorize some blessings to be uttered over the herbs.
After reading through the steps carefully, Hans decided he could do it. It was no different than a complex experiment, like those he’d performed at the lab. He would just have to keep track of each step, and be more diligent than ever.
The biggest problem would be finding all the ingredients. Hans already knew not everything on the list was readily available. Plus, as he’d learned to his chagrin, the country names for things at the market were not the same as the town names. He’d have to figure out how to translate the names of some of the rarer herbs to something the people here would understand.
Hans sat back on the tiny chair and sighed, disappointed. He’d wanted to find a spell that he could use tonight, which would change Master Koenig’s mind about him so it would be easier when he went back to the Laboratorium tomorrow. He’d have to explain it to Father, somehow, as well, when he started making potions.
But Hans was determined. He’d be ready by the end of summer. Time enough to prove to Master Koenig, his father, even the hound clan, that he could be something more than a clumsy oaf.
* * *
Hans looked longingly at the rabbits hanging at the butcher’s at the market, but they couldn’t afford such luxuries here. Rabbits hadn’t been a luxury at home: He’d hunted many himself, his hound soul tracking the scent through fields and woods.
For a moment, Hans’ felt his hound soul stirring. It didn’t wake as often in Hildesheim as it had in the country. It nosed up to him, regarding him with pleading basset-hound eyes.
He would have to transform in the next week or so. They needed a run.
Homesickness washed over Hans. Maybe for the Silvester holidays he could go and visit his cousins, and spend a week running in the fields and woods.
Hans shook himself. He couldn’t afford to daydream, not here, not now, with his hound soul so close. He bought what he could, a few cast-off bits of chicken, enough for a stew.
Then Hans made his way over to the northeast corner of the market, where the old women in black dresses and embroidered kerchiefs held court. They came to market with goods they’d made: Pickled onions and carrots, newly spun wool and thick sweaters, berry preserves and honey.
Hans had discovered them early in his search for ingredients. They’d been a gold mine of information as well.
Old Engel waved to Hans as he approached. Her plump cheeks were rosy, and curls of her iron gray hair stuck out from underneath her black kerchief. Her eyes were a watery blue, faded as if they’d stared at the sun too long, in her weathered, wrinkled, browned face. “Eh, got a present for you,” she said, pointing behind her seat.
Hans smiled. Old Engel wasn’t as disabled as she pretended to be: He’d seen her stand quick enough when a bee came buzzing. But he indulged her and walked behind her seat. A large burlap sack sat on the ground. Hans picked it up and walked back around.
“What is it?” he asked as he opened it. It was full of pungent leaves, green but starting to wither.
“Thorn apple,” Old Engel said.
“Really?” Hans asked, looking back at her, amazed. He couldn’t believe it. It was only midsummer! Yet now he had all the ingredients he needed to create his potion and cast his spells.
“Farmer Thalberg had a run of bad luck, brought in some sheep to be slaughtered, and that as well,” she said, nodding. “Now, you know to be careful with those, eh?”
“Yes, I will. Thank you, Grandmother,” Hans said, using the honorific she’d gifted him with.
“I know you’re a good lad, but those are powerful strong,” Old Engel insisted. “You test them out first, you hear me?”
“I will. I will!” Hans promised. He already had the herbals waters prepared. If he could get the first batch of these leaves soaking tonight, it would only be a day, maybe two, before he could finish.
“Thank you, so much,” Hans said, gladly counting out the coins into her calloused hand.
“Now, before you go, I want you to meet my granddaughter. Petra. Petra! Come here.”
Hans stood with the sack clutched to his chest, his cheeks flaming.
Women his own age confused him, with their soft curves and sharp tongues. He was never certain how to talk to one.
Petra had a laughing smile, beautiful blond curls sticking out from the edges of her kerchief, and clear blue eyes. She didn’t wear black, but a coarse brown apron over her old-fashioned, pale blue blouse and skirt. She curtsied as she held out her hand for Hans.
Hans shifted the bag to his right arm, then realized his mistake and shifted it to his left so he could hold out the appropriate hand. “Very nice to make your acquaintance,” he said, stumbling over the words.
“The pleasure is mine,” Petra replied. “Grandmama said you were making a potion.”
“My grandpapa was an Apotheker,” Hans explained. He’d given this reason a lot. “I’m just experimenting with some of his recipes. I work in the Laboratorium.”
“How exciting!” Petra said with another charming smile.
After a few moments of awkward silence, Hans said, “I, uhm, must go now. Nice to meet you.”
“You’ll have to tell us how the experiment went,” Petra replied.
“And be careful!” Old Engel called out, always having to get in the last word.
* * *
Hans found it appropriate that the night he was finally ready to cast the final spells was Johannisfest, Midsummer’s Eve.
If they’d still been in the countryside, all his relatives would have gathered in the village square that night for a bonfire, though several families would also have their own celebrations on their farms. They would have ritually sacrificed dried hops to clear away any bad spirits. After the ceremonies, the teenaged boys would take turns daring each other to jump over the flames from farther and farther away.
Here, in Hildesheim, there was only the one big bonfire in the market. However, they also had fireworks.
Hans was disappointed that he’d miss those, but he really wanted to finish his spell. He’d taken to trying little spells, easy things from Grandpapa’s books, slaving away at the hot wood-burning stove. He’d explained it to Father as practice for the lab, experiments with precise measurements and exact timing.
Father had been pleased that Hans was finally showing such an interest. And Master Koenig hadn’t threatened to send him home early again, though Hans suspected that if this spell didn’t work, come the end of the year he would be out of the Laboratorium.
Hans hated it all. He hated the hot stove and had burned himself frequently. While Grandpapa’s concoctions had been pungent, Hans’ frequently reeked. He’d never been good at magic, but he worked at it, determined to prove himself.
Father left to go celebrate with the rest of the town—and to drink himself into unconsciousness, Hans suspected. So Hans worked in an empty house that night.
Hans put on his white lab coat over his navy blue work shirt. He was already sweating in the tiny kitchen, but he wanted some protection from the splatters. The single tiny window looked out over the backyard and their square of greenery, but it didn’t provide much fresh air. A white-painted kitchen table sat in the center of the room, its top covered with the various potions, herbs, and charms Hans had already prepared. In the corner was a stained copper sink, with a crotchety hand pump for bringing up water.
A black cast-iron stove hulked against one wall, already filled with burning firewood. Hans had two pots boiling on top, ready for the final herbs.
After sharpening his knives with a whetstone, Hans started cutting up the peppermint, mugwort, and valerian. The cool scents mingled and reminded him of Grandpapa. Hans used the plain gray stone mortar and pestle to grind up the star anise and cloves, and to crush the periwinkle petals.
Hans moved as slowly and methodically as he could, going back to check the recipe more than once. He found himself rushing, though. Finally, the night was here when he could do something about his life. If this spell worked, his whole life could be different.
The first step of the preparation for the thorn apple leaves was already complete. Hans had pounded them with the mortar and pestle, covered them with water and lard, put them into an old earthenware pot, then let them sit for a day. When he lifted off the lid, he had to take a step back as the astringent, musty smell came rolling out.
Old Engel had been right. They were powerful. But Grandpapa had said two cups of the leaves, so that’s what Hans used. He carefully lifted the pot off the table and set it on the stove. When the lard melted, Hans stirred it, not letting it boil. Once all the leaves were softened, he strained the liquid, carefully measuring out two cups of it, then adding fresh herbs to the liquid.
Now, for the final steps. Hans reheated the other potions, muttering more than one spell as he cooked and combined ingredients, ending with the liquid from the thorn apples.
Twilight had come and gone, and true night was setting in by the time Hans was ready. The Kraftsuppe smelled sour and bitter. He curled his lips back as he lifted it, stopping himself from taking a step away from it.
Even his hound soul wasn’t sure this was a good idea.
Hans put down the bowl and walked over the window, looking out over what he could see of the garden, his hound soul looming closer. They both missed the country, so much.
He could never tell Father, but if they’d stayed, he would have applied as a teacher’s aid. Not for Gymnasium, no, but for the little ones. In his dreams, Hans saw himself leading them through the green grass near the one-room school, a daisy chain of little lights, laughing at his clumsiness and marveling at how many things he could smell.
But Father never would have allowed it. Playing with children all day wasn’t a worthwhile occupation for someone of the hound clan.
With a sigh, Hans turned from the window, walked back to the table, and lifted the bowl. With his hound soul at his side, he opened his mouth and poured down the potion.
The vile, foul potion gushed over his tongue, making him gag. It stank worse than anything Hans had ever smelled before, even the bloated duck corpse he’d found in the marshes. He forced himself to swallow, coughing, his eyes watering. Then he drank some more. His hands shook with the effort of keeping the revolting liquid down, but Hans persisted.
Before Hans could fetch himself a glass of water to wash out the taste of burnt hair and rancid oil, the world tilted to the side. Hans felt drunk all at once.
This wasn’t right. According to Grandpapa’s notes, a slow tide of awareness should rise through him.
What had he done wrong?
Hans raced to the open book, forcing his eyes to focus.
He’d done everything right. Made all the secondary potions correct. Then he’d mixed—
Hans sighed. He’d reversed the amounts of two of the potions, and had ended up doubling the amount of the thorn apple liquid.
Darkness approached from all sides. Hans whined, but it was too late.
The door opened, and Hans fell through.
* * *
Hans stood under a gray cloud-filled sky. An angry sun burned at the horizon. Everything smelled dead, like dust from an ancient tomb. Nothing grew here as far as he could see in any direction—the land ran flat to the horizon, full of ashes.
Yet Hans knew he wasn’t alone. Something pressed at him, first from one side, then the other. He couldn’t see what it was, but he knew something was there.
When Hans poked at his hound soul, he screamed, a thin call that bled quickly away.
His hound soul was wreathed in shadows, black formless things that surrounded the basset hound, stinging his sensitive nose and pricking his shoulder, back, paws—everywhere.
“Stop!” Hans called, but there was nothing to hear him.
Now, shadows formed around Hans as well. Or maybe they’d been there all along, and only now could he see them, give them a name.
They wanted in. They wanted him. They wanted his life, his breath, his vision.
And they wanted out.
The shadows were trapped here, on this dead planet, a planet they’d killed.
They were parasites, with no life of their own. They needed the lives of others so they could continue to exist. They were dying, here, starting to eat one another.
They showed Hans the magic he’d be able to do with their help, such as confusing the minds of people like Master Koenig, so he’d always be able to stay in the Laboratorium. Father would be proud of Hans, and their family would be recognized, finally, by the sight hounds in the court. They showed him a charm he could imbue with a wisp of shadow so he could have any girl he wanted.
On and on came their honeyed promises as they stroked him, petting his hound soul now. Hans let himself be lulled with the tales and images—Father standing beside him as he worked, beaming with pride. Maybe even a medal or two for things he’d discovered through his experiments, properties and chemicals the shadows showed him.
Hans might have listened to them, and maybe given them a little of his own life essence. As far as he could tell, their words were absolutely true: These weren’t empty promises. They could do everything they claimed, could help him in all these ways.
But the cost was too high. It wasn’t his life they wanted, but that of his hound soul’s.
Even giving away just a little would diminish both his hound soul and his own.
His hound soul begged him to run away from the pain and hurt, as far and as fast as they could.
Father might call Hans a disgrace to the hound clan, but he trusted his hound soul to do the right thing, to warn him of the danger.
The shadows drew back.
Hans and his hound soul stood firm. They would not help the shadows. Hans wouldn’t hurt his hound soul that way.
The shadows attacked again, harder, trying to force their way through skin and fur, into blood and bone. They leached his life and energy by wrapping tightly around him.
Exhaustion slammed into Hans. He suddenly felt older than his twenty-two years. He hunkered over, wrapping his arms over his chest.
He just had to endure. The spell wouldn’t last.
The potion would wear off at some point, and Hans knew he’d wake up, probably on the floor of the kitchen, with a sour head and a rumbly stomach.
Then his hound soul howled, and kept howling.
Hans tried to fight the shadows. But how could he fight something that had no form? He couldn’t grasp them, pull them away, or even slam his fists into them. He kept telling the baying hound that it would be all right. He curled up around his hound soul, trying to comfort him, but the shadows continued their attack, their promises and threats buzzing like gnats, then bees, then loud freight trains through Hans’ mind.
What if Hans just helped them a little? It wouldn’t have to be much. Just give them a tiny corner of his magic. He wasn’t using it all anyway. A single thread. They’d help him prove the worth of all scent hounds.
Hans resisted, but he felt himself weakening.
The shadows promised it would be something that only the scent hounds could do—those snooty sight hounds at the court would never be able to see the shadows, or find them, or use them in their magic.
Then Hans grew firm again. No. He and his hound soul could endure this. They had to, despite how his heart broke over the howls of his hound soul. Everything hurt, so much, and he was already so weak and tired.
The shadows renewed their attack with vigor, pushing, prodding, pinching and scratching—a thousand ants biting all at once—trying to get a foothold, to make either Hans or his hound soul accept them.
But something was different. When Hans opened his eyes and looked up, he realized he was floating up and away from the dead earth, into a velvet black night, stars like a ribbon of lights twining around him.
Just above Hans’ head stood a doorway, with warm fire glow pouring from it.
The shadows now pushed down on Hans, trying to stop him from reaching the doorway.
Exhaustion overwhelmed Hans. He struggled to raise his arm, to break through the bonds the shadows had wrapped across his chest that were squeezing the breath from him.
His hound soul bayed, louder now, more urgent.
Hans didn’t dare look. He kicked his legs as if he were swimming, trying to propel himself toward the light.
Take us with you, the shadows pleaded, the first real words they’d used. Let us live. We will make you rich and powerful and loved and admired and respected and…
Hans reached the doorway and shoved himself through in one swift motion.
A thread of shadow remained curled around his ankle. Hans slammed the door shut with a thunderous crack, catching the tail of the shadow in the door.
When he looked again, the shadow was gone.
Another crack rolled through the space, shattering the light and the illusion.
Hans found himself lying on the kitchen floor, the taste of rotten leather in his mouth, his head pounding and his stomach queasy.
A third crack echoed through the room. Hans jumped up and looked around the messy kitchen.
Bright light reflected through the window. The fireworks exploded over town square.
Belatedly, Hans reached out to check on his hound soul, who mournfully snuffled up to him, shaken and sore, his coat ruffled, but unhurt.
Hans couldn’t tell if his hound soul wasn’t as full as it had once been. He also didn’t like the accusing look in the hound’s eyes.
“Everything will be all right,” Hans said. He’d make sure that it was all fine. They’d go out for more runs, as a way to make it up to his hound soul.
He creakily moved around the kitchen, as if he’d suddenly grown as old as Grandpapa when he’d died. Without hesitation, he threw out the rest of the potion. Then he lit tapers and checked every corner, to make sure no shadows lurked there or pressed against the windows from outside.
Hans had shut the door on them before they’d come through. He’d escaped.
Hans’ hound soul stared at him sometimes, accusing and hurt, though Hans hadn’t done anything to hurt it.
While Hans wasn’t doing anything differently at the Laboratorium, Master Koenig didn’t yell at him, even when Hans dropped something. “Ah well,” Master Koenig would sigh. “Accidents happen.” And Master Koenig started talking about what they’d do together in the new year.
When Hans met Petra again in the market, he suddenly remembered an old charm he could use to help him. It was nothing, really. Just something to nudge her along, make her like him more.
The charm turned out to be easy to make, easier than any charm Hans had ever made before. By the end of the year, Hans and Petra were married.
It wasn’t until Hans went searching back through Grandpapa’s books, looking for something to ease the birth of their first child, that he went looking for that charm.
He never found it. He’d known that spell, but he didn’t remember how he’d learned it.
Hans never created a charm for his wife, and never taught his child how to create them.
He never used magic again, for the rest of his days.
Germany, Thirteen Years Ago
Lukas was five when he began dreaming about the end of the world.
The first dream started in the garden just behind the castle, the one with the squares of different grasses locked between squares of cold hard rock.
Like the rest of the hound clan, Lukas loved the different scents—American blue grass, grass from high in the Alps, and even African plain grass. He sent his toy soldiers marching between the rough, tall blades so he could skootch down and get his face close to the earth and sniff hard.
He knew he couldn’t really smell Africa. He’d been told his human senses couldn’t match his hound senses. He didn’t know just how different they were, though, since his hound soul hadn’t risen yet. He still imagined he could smell the tangy marker of lions and the thin traces of water, and feel the hot sun beating down on him.
In the dream, it had started sunny, and Lukas had played in the garden with his soldiers. When it suddenly grew darker, he looked up, surprised. Was it time to go in?
But it wasn’t evening, and a cloud hadn’t covered the sun.
Instead, dark, frightening shadows filled the sky. They filtered out the light, turning it blue-gray and lifeless, taking the joy out of the day.
Another shadow stood in the gate to the garden, boiling with fury. The ivy on either side curled away from it, sickened and dying. The stone beneath it grew black, and Lukas knew that just by stepping on it, he would break it.
The stench of the shadows rolled out to him. They smelled like death, like rotting mice in the woods and apples soured on the branches, combined with the dry dust smell of crumbling bricks.
Lukas froze, afraid that if he moved, he’d become the shadow’s prey. He crouched, terrified, as the shadow in the garden spread. It destroyed all the plants it touched: the rosemary the cooks used with his favorite potatoes, the slim maple with the red leaves that Mama liked, even the large oak that stood guard at the far corner, near the woods.
Suddenly, Lukas realized that the shadows were surrounding him. If he didn’t run soon, they’d come and get him.
There was still an opening in the far part of the garden, opposite the woods. Maybe he could run, faster than he’d ever run before, and escape.
Greta, his older sister, called him from the long balcony on the second floor of the castle.
“Lukas! Come inside!” she demanded, as bossy as ever.
“Greta! Look out!” Lukas cried.
But it was too late. The shadows took her.
Greta’s eyes grew glassy and her skin changed, becoming as pale and white as the formal plates in the dining room that Lukas was always afraid of scratching. Her golden hair curled perfectly around her face, and her clothes stiffened, like they were brand new.
She’d changed into a doll.
“Lukas!” she called again, her voice now hollow and mechanical.
Lukas wanted to go to her, to free her, but it was too late. The shadows were upon him, eating him all up, stealing his hound soul, until he was as black as they were, inside and out, and as aged and cracked as the oldest parts of the castle. Once they finished with him, they’d move on to Da and Mama and everyone in the whole world.
With a start, Lukas sat up, still choking back his scream. He was safe, in bed, in his room.
Oma, his grandmother, sat on a chair beside his bed, watching with bright eyes.
Lukas launched himself at her, wrapping his arms around her, grateful for how warm and solid she felt.
He didn’t cry. Instead, he shook with fear. The shadows had been so real. They’d taken over everything, sucking the life out of the planet.
When Lukas stopped shaking, he pulled back, suddenly aware of how dark his bedroom was. He glanced around. His bed was snug up into the corner, the door opposite. At the foot stood an old, scarred desk that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s, where he sat on a booster chair and did his school work. Against the far wall stood a huge dresser that held his clothes, and next to that, a hamper for his toys.
Where shadows hiding inside it? Or layered between his formal shirts?
Maybe they hid under the bed, ready to snake around the legs of his grandmother?
Lukas pulled back further, bringing his knees up and wrapping his arms around them, pressing them hard against his chest.
“What did you dream of?” Oma asked. She hitched her light green robe tighter across her chest. It had felt soft and warm when Lukas had held her.
But she didn’t reach for him now.
“Shadows,” Lukas whispered, afraid to even name them.
“Yes,” Oma said.
Lukas looked at the corner behind his desk. Could shadows boil there? Then toward the closed door. What if they waited for him, just outside?
Oma smacked his arm lightly, saying, “Stop that.”
Lukas jumped, startled.
“Think, boy. Use your senses. Can you smell the shadows in here?”
Lukas paused. What had the shadows smelled like? Then it came to him. It had been a wet smell, like ashes grown moldy.
After taking a deep breath, Lukas shook his head, relaxing a little. “No, ma’am.”
“Trust your nose. That’s the one true test. Your eyes can be fooled.”
Lukas blinked, surprised at that. Da was a sight hound. Surely he wouldn’t be fooled?
Abruptly, Oma stood and turned to go.
“Wait!” Lukas called, his panic rising. “Don’t leave.”
Oma stopped and turned back. “I’m sorry,” she said, sounding sad. She came back and sat down on the chair, taking his hand and holding it in her warm, soft ones. “I’ve lived with the shadows for so long, I forget what they’re truly like, how frightening they can be.”
“What are they?” Lukas asked, wishing Oma would sit beside him on the bed and hold him, but not sure if he could ask or if he needed to be a big boy.
“They’re the dark part of hound magic,” she replied. “Forever tied to us through our magical gifts.”
“I don’t understand,” Lukas complained. How could those, those things, be part of him? Then he yawned. Despite the terror and the blackness of the shadows, he still felt tired.
“No one understands,” Oma said. “That’s why you can’t say anything about your dreams. It would just upset your da. All right?”
“Okay,” Lukas said, though he didn’t really understand.
“This is our secret,” Oma said seriously. “And you’re a big enough boy that you can keep such an important secret, right? Just like you keep the secret of being a member of the hound clan. If you can’t keep the secret of the shadows, though, that’s okay. That just means you aren’t old enough yet.”
“I’m big enough,” Lukas complained. “I won’t tell anyone,” he promised. And he wouldn’t. Then he couldn’t help himself: He yawned again.
Oma reached up with her other hand to smooth back his black curls. “Why don’t you lie back down and I’ll sing you a lullaby?”
Lukas snuggled under the covers again but he never let go of his grandmother’s hand.
Oma sang softly, almost a whisper, about a faithful hound guarding his knight long into the evening after a battle. The guardian hound stayed true to his duty, and in the morning, light came back to the world and hound’s knight was able to go to heaven.
Lukas dreamed of being the hound to the mysterious knight, walking in the sunlight through tall, golden grass, bounding at his side. They were celebrating, he knew, the slaying of the shadows. The knight’s armor was bashed in, tarnished, but strong; the chest plate solid, the chainmail on his arms moving smoothly.
Though Lukas couldn’t see the knight’s face behind his great helmet that had only a slit for eyes, he knew his knight’s scent. Oma whispered again that it was the one true thing, so he concentrated on that complicated odor, made up of warm bird feathers, the cool scale of armor, a wild-yet-steadfast heart, and other things Lukas could only guess at.
When the morning came, Lukas barely remembered the shadows, until they came the next night to haunt him.
But the knight—Lukas would never forget that scent, and would forever be seeking it.
* * *
“I dreamed of the shadows again last night,” Lukas told everyone at breakfast a week later. He knew he was supposed to keep it a secret, but it was growing too big inside. He had to tell someone. Because they were all from the hound clan, they all shared that secret. This one was just his alone.
All of them—Mama, Da, Greta, and Oma—were gathered around one end of the long dining table that was usually reserved for formal dinners, sitting on heavy oak furniture and using the thin white plates circled in gold that Lukas was so afraid he’d break. The breakfast nook was being painted so they’d eaten all their meals here for the last two days.
“Shadows?” Da asked, folding down the top of the report he was reading to look directly at Lukas. He had his silver reading glasses on and was already dressed for the court in a dark suit and light blue tie. Greta and Mama stayed absorbed in the papers they read.
“Your grandmother always used to talk about the shadows,” Da added, turning his piercing blue gaze to Oma.
Did Lukas look like that sometimes? Was his stare so direct? Everyone always said he had the same eyes as his da.
“No such thing,” Oma said with a decisive sniff, not turning her attention away from her porridge.
“But—” Lukas started.
“You ever seen the shadows?” Oma shot back at Da.
“No,” Da replied, shaking his head. “I haven’t.”
Lukas sat back in his chair and looked at the adults. Greta still hadn’t looked up, but he could tell she was listening.
Da was the best sight hound of all the clan—it was why he was king, or at least that’s what he’d told Lukas. Sometimes the title was inherited from father to son, but the court ministers didn’t always choose an heir from the same family. There was no guarantee that the Metzler family would continue on as kings.
If Da couldn’t see the shadows, maybe they didn’t exist. Maybe they were only in Lukas’ dreams.
But Oma had said they came from the dark side of hound magic. That made them sound real, and not just nightmares.
Lukas opened his mouth to ask again, then shut it when Oma glared at him.
She’d told him not to say anything. Told him that only a big boy would be able to keep the secret. That it was as big a secret as being in the hound clan.
Lukas wanted to be a big boy. He looked from Da, to Mama, to Greta, and then out beyond, to the far hall where he heard servants talking.
They couldn’t help him with the shadows. Just like in his dreams, he was all alone.
Then Lukas picked up his spoon again, the silver cold and heavy in his hand, determined to eat and act like everything was normal, like he didn’t have the hugest secret in the whole world weighing his chest down.
* * *
Lukas tried to sit still in the quiet classroom. Greta had gone to study history with her tutor while Lukas struggled with his letters. Normally, they weren’t so difficult, but his fingers ached from holding his pencil, and his hand couldn’t hold it steady, so instead of his words marching straight up and down, they fell down again and again.
Outside, it was high summer. The sun called to Lukas, as did the all the scents of the woods, the small chipmunks and the brave foxes, the steady trees and the cool streams.
The classroom smelled stale, too small and boxed in. The chalk and slate smells irritated him, as did the pulpy paper in his hand.
As another letter skittered away, Lukas swept his book, paper, and pencil box to the floor in frustration. “I can’t stay here!” he said, standing.
Then he slapped both his hands over his mouth. What was wrong with him? He’d never said anything out loud like that before.
But he couldn’t, he just couldn’t sit in here anymore. Normally, he loved this classroom: it was full of books about soldiers and brave hounds, and his desk has always been a haven from the shadows who’d haunted him since that spring.
However, Felix, his tutor, didn’t punish Lukas. Instead, he said, “I think we’ve done enough for today.”
Lukas immediately jerked his gaze to the window. He was going out to the garden, then into the woods, and run and run and run.
“Can you stay here for just one more minute, while I get Tilgard?” Felix asked.
Lukas forced himself back into the classroom. The hound master? Why did he need to wait for him, when he could run…
“The change?” Lukas breathed out. Was it that time? Was he about to change into his hound form for the first time? Was that why he couldn’t sit still anymore?
“I would say soon,” Felix replied.
Could he wait? Lukas rocked back and forth, his chest expanding, then contracting, already feeling the rhythm of a running as a hound at full sprint. “Hurry,” he whispered, unable to say more.
Lukas tilted his head back, nose high, as scents poured in, traces he’d never noticed before: the eggs and honeydew Felix had had for breakfast; the lavender lotion Oma had used before she’d visited the classroom, late, the night before; and the twisted grass and twine charm that hung in the corner with its unexpected magic.
Tilgard’s scent rolled before him, clean lemongrass soap mingled with the rabbit fur he always wore tied to his belt and the bacon treats he kept in his pocket.
Lukas whined when he saw the hound master, begging him to hurry. Lukas couldn’t hold on much longer.
Tilgard hurried to his side, dropping to his knees in front of Lukas. “Sudden one, eh? You’re young, too. Well, that’s not unknown,” he said brusquely. He spread his hands wide and placed them around Lukas’ head, pressing in slightly.
Tension bled out of Lukas. He suddenly felt secure. He whined again as his head strained forward, as if he could help push his snout out.
“Open your mouth,” Tilgard instructed.
Lukas did. He was panting, his tongue long and alive, drawing in more scents, like the fish the cooks were making in the kitchen; Greta pretending to work in her classroom but really reading some book with modern paper; Oma in her study, hidden there by magic and shadows…
Lukas shook his head, wanting to break free.
Tilgard held on tighter. “Almost there, son. Focus on the gardens.”
Outside! Lukas jerked his head out of Tilgard’s hands and looked out the window. He barked and shivered, thinking about how he could run now, really truly run, finally, if only he could get free.
Lukas shook himself again, finally shaking himself completely loose.
It was no longer his body. He wasn’t connected to it at all.
Lukas retreated into black nothingness and curled in on himself. It was worse than the shadows—just endless darkness as far as all his senses could tell.
Then his hound soul rose.
Suddenly, Lukas was no longer alone in the dark or afraid. Another soul curled in around his, warm and steady.
Lukas was aware enough to know that not all hounds had a human name. For most, it was just a sense, a presence that was composed of odor and sight. (Not that the hound didn’t have a name for himself, but that was a dog name, and not a human one.)
Hamlin had both a presence and a scent, the combined smells of wool warmed by the fire and the hard steel of a soldier’s bayonet, as well as musty hound. He wasn’t a puppy, or even a young dog. Hamlin already knew duty.
His job was to guard.
Lukas was surprised at how protective Hamlin was. No one would harm Lukas while Hamlin was there. Not even the shadows.
Lukas rolled back in the warm comforting darkness of Hamlin’s soul, happy to let go of his fear. He felt a tiny thread of disappointment—not from Hamlin, no, but from the man with the rabbit fur.
Did he really expect either Hamlin or Lukas to pay him any heed?
Neither of them recognized his authority. He was not their master nor the leader of their pack.
Run? Lukas asked.
Faster than any others, Hamlin promised, and soon they shared the wind on their face as he galloped under the trees and across the fields.
Almost fast enough to outrun the shadows.
* * *
When Lukas came back to himself late that evening, he was crouching, naked, in the gardens near the woods. The ground felt solid and cool under his toes. The air carried the scent of sunset, while the sky blazed orange and pink.
Felix carried the traditional cloak with him, rich red wool lined with the softest rabbit fur. It marked that Lukas had made the change and was a full member of the hound clan.
Though Lukas understood now that his human sense of smell would never match Hamlin’s, he could still tell something was wrong.
Felix smelled nervous. And where was Tilgard? Why wasn’t he here, bearing the cloak?
“Welcome back, Lukas,” Felix said, standing, unfurling the cloak for Lukas to step into.
Lukas slipped on the unfamiliar robe, scenting that many had worn it before him.
Felix asked the traditional words of greeting: “Did you have a successful hunt?”
How should Lukas answer? Hamlin hadn’t hunted anything, or chased rabbits or squirrels. Instead, he’d checked the perimeter. Lukas now knew every wall, every gate, every weakness and strength in their defenses.
Hounds didn’t all hunt first thing—it was acceptable to just run. But that didn’t feel right. Finding all the walls around the woods, even the hidden ones, was kind of a hunt, wasn’t it?
So Lukas said, “Yes, we did.” It wasn’t exactly what they’d done, but none of the traditional responses fit.
“We should go inside now,” Felix said.
“Yes!” Lukas said eagerly. “I must go present myself to the court.”
Felix shook his head as they started walking back toward the castle. “Tomorrow.”
“Yes. But you are a prince.”
Lukas didn’t think that was right; however, surely his tutor knew best. “What breed am I?” he asked. He was sure he was some type of sight hound—Da was a sight hound. All the important ministers at the court were sight hounds. Chances were he was a sight hound, too.
However, that didn’t feel right. It was part of Hamlin, but not all.
“We want to verify that,” Felix said smoothly. “Don’t want to get something as important as that wrong,” he added with a wink. “There’s why I’m here, and not Tilgard.”
Lukas nodded solemnly, reassured, despite how worried Felix smelled. Even if Lukas wasn’t pure sight hound, he was still a prince. He’d prove it later, in a couple of years, by changing into different types of hounds. He knew he could, and Hamlin assured him that they would.
The cold stone of the entrance way shot though Lukas’ bare feet, and he pulled the robe tighter around him. When the first servant saw him and bowed, Lukas grinned and forgot how he was naked under the cloak, how it tickled his bare skin, how easy it would be to get lost in all the new smells.
Instead, Lukas stood taller, proud to be a full member of the hound clan.
This was surely the happiest day of his life.
* * *
Oma waited for Lukas in his room, of course, when he came back from his first transformation. She dismissed Felix abruptly, shutting the door in his face.
Though the room felt smaller suddenly, Lukas stood as still as a point dog while Oma circled him. He wished he had more clothes on than just the red robe.
“Those fools don’t know what breed you are,” she hissed at him. “Only I do.”
Her laughter sent chills down Lukas’ spine.
Hamlin drew near, wary and on guard.
Lukas turned to face his grandmother, feeling brave, daring to ask, “What breed am I, then?”
“You’re a guardian hound,” Oma told him. “You’re as fast as a sight hound, with eyes as good as theirs, despite their blue color. Your coat is brindle, almost tiger-striped, gray and brown. Your nose picks up trails like a scent hound. But your rear quarters and canines confuse them—they’re pure guardian—making you stronger than you seem.”
“A guardian hound,” Lukas said, delighted.
Guard, Hamlin agreed. And fight.
Lukas was surprised at how close Hamlin stayed. Most hound souls only came at the bidding of their human soul. They only rose on their own when the human had stayed in control for too long; the hound clan needed to transform regularly, at least once a month. A hound soul also rose in times of great need. But Lukas was safe here, in his room, with just his grandmother.
“What do you mean, only you know what I am?” Lukas asked, afraid of the answer.
Oma looked at him, then shook her gray curls. “You must stay hidden—stay safe—until it’s time. The court can’t know your breed. You can’t tell them. And neither will I.”
“No,” Lukas said. A begging whine crept in his voice. “Not another secret.” Carrying his terror of the shadows alone was hard enough. It had only been since spring, but it felt like a lifetime to him. Now he had to hide what breed he was? Lukas started to cry. “No!” he wailed loudly. It was too much.
Hamlin rose all the way and Lukas heard himself snarling at his grandmother.
It wasn’t a sound he’d heard before. Not even the largest soldier hounds sounded like that, with that deep rumble.
Some part of Lukas recognized where it came from: A sound from before hounds were civilized, before they’d grown tame.
He snarled again like a giant wolf, then he nudged Hamlin to the side.
Let me, he said gently, his tears forgotten.
Only then did he realize Oma hadn’t moved. She’d gone as still as a field mouse.
“You are a wonder,” she whispered, her eyes still bright with fear. “No matter what anyone else ever says. You are more than I ever dreamed for. Remember that. You are perfect, a marvel that the fools will never recognize.”
“I will,” Lukas promised, swallowing down the knot that still lingered in his throat. “We will,” he added. He didn’t want to accept the burden of another secret, but he knew he had to.
He also already knew what the next day would be like, and cringed, wanting to wail and stomp the ground, but he only wrapped his arms tightly across his chest and shivered.
The crier would only use Lukas’ name to announce him to the court, and not include any lineage or breed, since they didn’t know.
All the ministers would wonder and whisper. They’d always question him, his loyalty, his heritage. He’d never follow in Da’s footsteps; the ministers would never let him be king, no matter how brave or strong or smart he was.
When Lukas turned seven, two years in the future, he’d formally prove to them he was a prince. Only royalty could take on other hound forms.
It would never be enough.
However, Hamlin would be there, and together, they would endure.
We hope you have enjoyed this sample of The Guardian Hound