It’s time for your friendly neighborhood pusher of books to come out to tempt you with snippets of the recently published or soon to be published. Enjoy!
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Out of the Frying Pan
I was a princess from Earth and he was a rogue spaceman from a mythical world. He saved my life three times. I rescued him from a fate worse than death. We fell madly in love.
We married and lived happily ever after.
Ever after comes with an expiration date these days. We’d been married less than year when Kit got shot in the head.
It started with our return from Earth. No. Wait, what it really started with was my meeting Kit, in the powertrees which are biological solar collectors in Earth orbit. They were put up way back when bio-engineered rulers governed the Earth. And ever since the turmoils sent the bio-engineered rulers – you probably know them as Mules so called because, of course, they couldn’t reproduce – fleeing the Earth in a ship called Je Reviens, the powertrees have been haunted by legends of darkship thieves.
Which is all anyone ever thought the darkship thieves were. After all, even if the mules really had left in an interstellar ship, and of course, there are doubts that the ship ever existed, why would they come back to harvest powerpods from the powertrees – the biological solar energy collectors in Earth orbit? And why would no one else see them but powerpod collectors?
I found out the legend was less legendary than advertised when a mutiny aboard Daddy Dearest’s space cruiser sent me fleeing in a lifeboat into the powertrees. Where I met Kit who rescued me and took me to his homeworld, Eden.
Eden is where all the bioed servants of the mules stayed behind, instead of going to the stars with their masters. They had perhaps had enough of being ruled by Mules, which considering what the mules did to the Earth I couldn’t really blame them for, but they also couldn’t live on Earth, since this was the time of the turmoils and anyone with even a hint of bio-improvement would get killed in a horrible way.
So, they’d stayed behind in Eden, which is an asteroid they hollowed inside. Its naturally erratic orbit hides it from Earth detection. But it still needs power. And for its power it depends on darkships, which are ships built to be non reflective and pretty much undetectable, provided they harvest while the powertrees are in Earth shadow.
Each of the darkships is piloted by a Cat – no, they are wholly human, but they are bioengineered so their eyes resemble those of cats, and also so that they had very fast reflexes – and a Navigator whose memory, mechanical skill and sense of direction were bio-enhanced to make him or her ideal to help steer darkships which cannot have any of its data in a form Earth might capture if it captures a darkship.
Which until recently was very much an unfounded fear. No darkship had ever been captured… Until the Good Men of Earth realized that I must have been taken up by a darkship and started an all out search for me.
By then I was Kit’s Navigator, and married to him, a combination that’s not mandatory but has grown to be expected. His cat-like eyes, his reflexes, had ceased to seem alien. And when I was radiation burned in an attempt to capture me, he chose to surrender to Earth to save me, instead of following procedure and killing both of us, and destroying the ship, leaving Earth nothing but a burned out hull.
It had paid off for us, we’d come back out of Earth alive and I’d been healed of the radiation burn.
The problem was the return to Eden. I had no idea how Eden would react to news that not only had we failed to self-destruct, but we’d chosen to land on Earth and seek treatment. It was probably useless to try to get forgiveness for this by explaining we’d left a good portion of the Earth in flames behind us, and probably a revolution brewing.
Eden had been colonized by refugees of a persecuted people, by people who never, ever ever again would trust any authority. I’m not saying that Eden was paranoid, because worlds can’t be paranoid. But if Eden had been an individual, he’d live in a compound with motion-sensor-triggered burners at every entrance and would fingerprint his own children twice a day to make sure no one had slipped ringers in on him.
So, three months after we left Earth, we hailed Eden on approach.
Kit has said you could land on the surface of the asteroid that contained Eden and never guess that there was a thriving civilization inside. I don’t know if that’s true. Never tried it. I don’t like to take his word for it. He could be wrong. But I did know we could not land IN Eden unless they let us. Well, not intact. Kit had once threatened to ram his ship into the asteroid, and from the reaction, this was possible even if it would kill us. It was impossible to get into the landing tunnels – whose covers didn’t even show to radar – without someone inside letting us in. Whoever said knock and it shall be opened had Eden in mind.
We called on the link. Kit reached for my hand and squeezed it, hard, while his other hand pressed the com link button. “Cat Christopher Bartolomeu Sinistra and Nav Athena Hera Sinistra, piloting the Cathouse on behalf of the Energy Board. I request permission to land.”
My heart beat somewhere between my esophagus and my mouth. And don’t tell me that’s a physiological impossibility. I know what I felt. Given just a little more nervousness, my heart would have jumped out of my mouth and flopped around the instrument panel like a landed fish.
There was a silence from the other side, long enough for my heart to almost stop. I took a deep breath, two and told myself that if Eden didn’t want us, we’d go back to Earth, or perhaps to Ultima or Proxima Thule, Eden’s two water-mining colonies.
Not only was I bluffing, I knew I was bluffing. To make it elsewhere we’d need food and fuel and a world that rejected us wouldn’t be likely to hand over rations and powerpods. All that kept me from shaking was the impression of Kit’s mind, warm and amused.
We could mind-talk, an ability bio engineered into pilot and navigator couples in his world and engineered into me for a completely different purpose. Most often it was much like talking in voice, only we could do it privately or over a great distance. In extreme circumstances, we could connect at a deep deep level, but that wasn’t sustainable. It didn’t help preserve sanity not knowing which body went with your mind. But sometimes, like now, there was just the impression of feelings. And the feelings Kit was giving off were reassurance and amusement. Which meant he was lying.
But it would be a pity to waste his effort, so I managed a half smile in his general direction, as the voice of Eden’s Dock Control crackled over the link: “The Cathouse is more than six weeks late. It has been entered in the roll of losses. Cat Christopher Sinistra and Nav Athena Sinistra are dead.”
I registered the little shock I always felt at hearing Kit called by my surname. It was Eden’s custom, though not mandatory, to have the husband take the wife’s name.
“Not really,” I cut in. I felt almost boneless with relief. I hate bureaucracy as much as anyone else, but not nearly as much as I hate exploding. That they were talking instead of burning us out of the sky was a very good sign. “Only late.”
“You cannot be late. You only had fuel for a four month trip. Three weeks later you’d be out of reserves and dead. You–”
“We were down on Earth,” I said .
The silence didn’t last long, but it gave the impression of being a very large silence. The type of silence that could envelop and swallow a whole fleet of darkships. Then the answer came, sounding like a clap of thunder announcing the beginning of a storm. “What?” the Controller asked. “You were where?”
Kit cleared his throat. I could see him reflected in the almost completely dark screens in front of him: his eyes bioengineered for piloting in total darkness looked like cat eyes, glimmering green and very wide open, in worry. His calico-colored hair seemed vivid and garish against his suddenly colorless skin. It was an accidental mutation caused by the same virus that had given him the cat-like eyes, super-human coordination and speed of movement. Without the modifications to his eyes and hair, Kit would have been a redhead, so his skin was normally that shade of pale that can turn unhealthy-looking at the slightest disturbance. Now he looked white and grey, like spoiled milk. Even if he continued to lie at me with an amused and calm mind-projection and his voice sounded firm and clear, his face gave him away, “Nav Sinistra had radiation poisoning and we stopped on Earth for regen treatment.”
“You stopped on Earth for treatment?”
I swallowed hard, to prevent having to grope for my heart somewhere on the control board.
“Well, it wasn’t that simple, but yes,” Kit said. “I’ll be glad to tell you the whole story after we land.”
“You’d better, Cat.” He pronounced Kit’s professional title as an insult. The term “pilot” had long since become “cat” in Eden. “ And you’d better make it convincing. This is most irregular.”
“Controller,” I said, thinking it was time to add another consideration to his decision. “We must land. Kit’s family is expecting us.” Kit’s birth family, the DeNovos, were socially powerful in Eden. His sister Kath would have been a force to be reckoned with in any size society. It was a good thing she’d been born in Eden. If she had been on Earth, she’d probably now be sole supreme ruler of the whole world, a feat slightly more difficult to achieve on Eden which had no rulers of any sort, much less supreme ones.
Another silence and the Dock Controller’s voice sounded dour as it came back, “Navigator Sinistra, if you delayed your collection run for personal reasons, you have to know that the Energy Board will fine you for the delay in supply, and all the boards will want to interview you for potential breaches of security. Also–”
“I know, Controller. Now, could you give us a dock number, please? Before I go crazy and just give my Cat instructions to dash at Eden in the area of the landing control station. We earthworms are so temperamental”
Kit chuckled aloud, then stopped with an intake of breath. His mental impression wavered a little allowing me to see some fear beneath the amusement.
“Dock fifty five, but I want you to know that I shall have armed hushers ready and that you will be examined for any evidence of undue influence and that–”
I flicked the comlink off. A sleeve-like structure extruded from Eden and Kit piloted us into it, then leaned back as dock remote controls took over the navigation. His foot skimmed along the floor next to him, flicking up the lever that turned off our artificial gravity now that we were covered by Eden’s. Not that keeping it on would give us double the gs, but one could interfere with the other and cause some really interesting localized gravity effects.
It wasn’t until our ship settled into one of the landing bays, that Kit released the seatbelt that crisscrossed his chest, and, without letting go of my hand, got up and said, “You know, you really shouldn’t have taunted the controller.”
I got up in turn. I knew. One of the first rules I’d been taught was never to pick on people. The second was probably to always be gracious.
I’d been born the only daughter Good Man Milton Alexander Sinistra, one of fifty men who controlled the near-endless land and resources of Earth. My parents, my nannies, the heads of various boarding schools, the commanders of various military academies, and the psychological medtechs that ran several rest homes, sanatoriums and mental institutions upon which Daddy Dearest had wished me, had all told me I had an aggression problem and must control my impulses.
If I had followed their instructions I wouldn’t be alive now. And neither would Kit. Something Kit knew very well, which was why he put his arm around me and smiled as he shook his head.
We walked like that through two air locks, then waited while the last door cycled open, letting us see that we were in one of the cavernous, circular bays that admitted ships to Eden. An out of use bay, because there were no power pod unloading machines nearby. Instead, a large group of young men, all armed, stood in front of our ship’s door all aiming their burners directly at us.
To the left side and a little behind the young men stood two older men, a dark haired one and a blond one.
The dark haired one was the dock controller. He wore the grey uniform of the position, and he had that harassed, frustrated look of someone who was sure he’d been born to better things, but who found himself confined to an inglorious desk job.
The blond was something else altogether different. To begin with he didn’t wear any uniform, but a well cut black suit consisting of something much like an Elizabethan doublet and leg-outlining pants, tailored to make the wearer look good, whether he did so when naked or not. The fabric shimmered with the dull shine of real silk and conveyed an unavoidable sense of wealth and sensuousness. The face, above the suit, was sharp and vaguely threatening. He looked like a young Julius Caesar or at least a Julius Caesar from a world where people didn’t lose their hair unless they chose to.
It was the blond man who spoke. His words had far more force than if they’d been spoken by a mere bureaucrat. “Cat Christopher Bartolomeu Sinistra,” he said, each syllable dropped in place like an essential part of exacting machinery. “You are under arrest for treason against Eden.”
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Naked Reader Press – June 2012
1. Consensual Encounters
Nothing says you’ve left normal reality like walking into a hotel lobby and seeing a Clone Trooper chatting with a Sith Lord. The sign on the back of the Clone Trooper’s armor, ‘Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies. Tonight. Room 1226’, was really just corroborating evidence.
The lure of Dark Side cookies notwithstanding, I took myself to the reception desk and got myself signed in. I’ll give them this: the staff didn’t seem at all upset by the strangeness manifesting in their hotel. Maybe it’s a southern USA thing, but none of the southern con hotels I’ve been in have ever been anything less than welcoming.
Well, unless the convention was sharing space with one of the more fundamentalist religious conventions.
ConSensual being one of the bigger southern conventions, I doubted that would be an issue. It was held in one of those sprawling southern cities that takes about five times the land area of a northern city to hold the same population, and usually has so many hotels it’s not hard for any one event to make an exclusive booking.
Whatever they do with them outside the convention season isn’t my business.
I can never keep the hotels straight. This one was one of those modernist faux-elegant jobs with lots of shiny metal and glass, a multi-level gallery area where all the ballrooms and convention areas were, the inevitable bar and house of bad coffee, and the tower containing the actual rooms off to one side.
Since it sat in the middle of one of the less salubrious parts of the city — or at least it looked that way coming in on the airport shuttle — I expected there would be some interesting late night encounters.
I dropped my backpack off in my room: as always, several levels away from the party floor. I’d been able to book the northern side of the hotel this time. After the last con, where a murderous lunatic had crushed garlic into the air vent and opened the curtains while I slept, I was a little paranoid about sunlight and other things.
Yeah, I’m a vampire. I drink blood. Most of the rest is myth, but I am violently allergic to garlic, and while I’m old enough to go walking in the sun that doesn’t mean I like it.
I’d also taken the precaution of registering and signing for my room with one of my alternate identities. I keep a few for backup, in case something happens. Last con, it had, with a vengeance. You don’t get more ‘something’ than a nutcase performing ritual sacrifices so they can summon Himself Below.
Anyone looking for my hotel room using the name I was registered in with the con would find precisely nothing.
My room was decorated in modernist Hotel Awful, complete with the kind of paintings on the walls that made you wonder who was having who on. This set looked like someone had splattered paint around, ridden a bike through it, then cut up the canvas and sold the results. A similar pattern adorned the bedspread and the upholstery on the chairs. At least everything else was basic beige.
One thing I’d learned from years going to cons, it was always possible to get more mind-bogglingly tasteless.
Back in the lobby area, I braved the con registration queue to collect my badge and the little plastic bag with the program and half a dozen flyers, then scanned the area to see if any of the immortal regulars had arrived yet.
The usual mix of convention exotica mingled and chatted, some costumed, some not. The inevitable Klingons clustered with Clone Troops and Imperial Stormtroopers — possibly giving tips on how to hit the side of a barn at point blank range. A woman in what could only be described as Regency in Space chatted with a White Witch whose pointy hat was at least as tall as she was. The construction had to be reinforced with wire because there was no other way it could have stayed upright. The thing probably made a functional antenna, and with the way the wide brim drooped to cover her ears I gave it maybe half an hour before people were speculating it was an alien mind control device. I knew she was a white witch because her hat and dress were white. She even had a white wand, although thankfully it didn’t have a star on the end. That would have been too much.
This being the south, there were any number of corseted women, although all of them seemed to have forgotten that the usual location of a corset is under the clothing. The inevitable uplift certainly distracted the fanboys. Precisely why the corsets should be paired with tied on wings that could be either butterfly or fairy wings depending on your viewpoint wasn’t something I intended to investigate. Some things are best left to the imagination. Or preferably, forgotten altogether.
At least there were no chain mail bikinis yet. Hopefully with the hotel air conditioning set to the typically southern preference of ‘glacial’, there wouldn’t be any. Not that I was holding my breath or anything.
Well, not until I saw who was sitting out front, eying the con-goers with the kind of disapproval that should have had them dropping dead of sheer fright.
He wasn’t here for the con. I’d bet my life on that. I might never have met him, but everything I’d heard about him suggested that he’d find fen irritating at best, and most of the authors offensive. What he’d think about the publishers — particularly the demonic ones — didn’t bear scrutiny.
I hoped I was wrong, and he was just some random businessman who happened to have a rather strong resemblance to one Vlad Tepes, also known as Dracula. The closer I got to him, the less likely that seemed.
For starters, he was definitely a vampire. I can pick most immortals by scent: it takes a vampire older and stronger than me to mask the faint cold smell of my kind, and then… well, nothing smells of nothing at all. No scent meant old, powerful, and probably not with good intentions.
He was also the right age — five hundred years, give or take a few. Him being awake in the middle of the day meant only that he’d grown strong enough to tolerate daylight and lose the sense of time that protects younger, weaker vampires. For a vampire his age to tolerate daylight, he had to be stronger than most, which fitted with the bits and pieces known about the man. If this truly was Dracula, the likelihood of him limiting himself was somewhere close to the chances of the sun rising in the west.
I could reasonably assume that he had given up his favorite means of execution: this wasn’t an era when putting people on sticks and letting them die slowly was something that could be done discreetly. That didn’t mean he hadn’t found other ways of torturing people who got in his way.
All of which meant that since I was the only immortal regular around, I had to warn him off. Joyous.
At least this didn’t count as saving the world. Once was enough for that.
He watched me through eyes that slowly grew wider and more intent as I approached. Not that I bothered to hide what I am, since there wasn’t any point deceiving anything weaker than me and anything stronger would see straight through that kind of deception. It’s one of those woo-woo tricks that always struck me as kind of silly.
He wasn’t hiding anything either, and he was stronger than his age would suggest. From what I knew about the man, he was probably about as pissy and stubborn as I am, which tends to make a vampire get stronger faster than normal. Something about not giving up when you’re beaten.
It wasn’t really that obvious who he was: his hair was unremarkably short, and he was clean shaven, which did a lot to change his appearance. It’s just that when someone gets as much infamy as Dracula does, just for being a vampire, it’s worth my while to make sure I know who he is and what he looks like, in case I run into him.
Stoker might have been way off on a lot of things, but it’s worth making sure. Sometimes there’s a seed of truth in all the nonsense, you know?
The upholstery here looked like white leather. I’d be willing to bet it was a good looking fake. Like they were in every hotel I’d been in, the chairs were that awkward not quite comfortable enough to stay in but damned hard to get out of shape which I swear is custom designed just for hotels.
I nodded in his direction. “Staying long?”
His control was damn good, I’ll give him that. He didn’t so much as twitch. “I was not aware this region was claimed.” His accent was one of those not-quite-British accents you sometimes hear from people who started with a British accent and travel a lot. Not bad for someone from the ass end of Eastern Europe.
Of course, with five hundred years to play in, you can learn a language really well.
“As far as I know, there aren’t any claims.” I’m the first to admit I’m kind of an oddity even for vampires, but the last I’d heard staking out territories — yes, I’ve heard the puns, more times than I want to think about — never really took hold in the Americas. It’s only been the last hundred years or so that there’s been enough people reliably in the one place to support a vampire outside of a handful of cities.
Most of the vampires I’d come across were more or less vagabonds, moving from place to place in a kind of circuit to avoid being too obvious. Once you get into the habit of being on the move, the things you need to settle start looking like too much trouble.
He studied me without comment. Slight pressure against my mind, a bit like an incipient headache that never quite materializes, told me he was probing me. I let him. It wasn’t like I had anything to gain or lose in forcing a confrontation.
Eventually I inclined my head in the direction of the Sith Lord and the Clone Trooper. “I’m here for the convention. There’s a fair few immortals who attend, and we have an informal agreement. Nothing that attracts attention, nothing that harms the guests.”
I don’t know if what I got was a smile or not. His mouth made the right shape, but nothing else changed. “A sensible precaution, under the circumstances.”
I shrugged and spread my hands. “It works. There’s a few of us who keep an eye out, one way or another.”
Score one for me. He was a controlled bastard — getting surprise out of him was a definite win. “Nah. You name it, there’s one or more of it here, or will be.” I grinned. “Trust me, I’m probably the best of us you could have run into.”
One eyebrow rose just enough to make a noticeable change of expression. “I would have said being warned off by an elder was impressive enough.”
That was one for him, although I’d be damned if I was going to let him see it. One of the reasons I put up with what was at the time a long and uncomfortable ocean journey to come to the Americas was the way the Europeans were so hung up on class. Being an elder vampire just meant that I was good at not dying. It didn’t make me something you paid tribute to. “I’m not warning you off, just letting you know the convention rules.” I smiled, not showing my fangs. “Call me Jim.”
That’s not my real name, of course. I’m not sure that you could say I’ve got a real name, since I’ve used a whole lot of names over the years, and I don’t remember the one my parents gave me.
He gave me the kind of look that said better than words he wasn’t impressed. Not that I looked all that impressive: I don’t dress fancy unless I’m in costume, and I hadn’t replaced the Olde Worlde Vampire getup after the last con. Right now I was wearing sneakers, jeans, and a gray tee with a logo showing two dragons playing ‘snap the wishbone’ with an armored knight. Oh, and sunglasses, of course. I looked like a paler version of the typical male fan.
After a while he said, “Victor Drake,” and offered his right hand.
I shook it. “It’s a pleasure.” He was still young enough — or held his name in high enough esteem — to use variants of his name. I generally aimed for generic when I built an identity, something not quite as obviously anonymous as ‘John Smith’ but nearly as invisible.
‘Drake’ gave me a thin smile. “I am here for several days on business.” He handed me a business card.
Call me warped, but I had a hard time not laughing. For Vlad Dracula — sorry, Victor Drake — to be the owner of a timber and hardware chain was the kind of darkly ironic twist that hit my sense of humor where it lived. Score another one to him.
His smile was actually more genuine this time. “It keeps me occupied,” he said mildly. “These days my old amusements would not be well received.”
I could think of a few places where making human popsicles would do a lot of good — and a few people who deserved to be human popsicles — but that was beside the point. “True. Times change.” I shrugged. “Personally, I’ll take the security hassles and the like just to have the modern plumbing.”
Drake actually laughed. “You have a point. Modern cities are much less malodorous than their historical counterparts.”
Modern cities typically didn’t turn the local rivers and streams into open sewers, or throw so much ash and soot into the air everything was covered with a thick layer of black filth. Progress and technology might have their disadvantage, but from my perspective the overall result was so much better it made the drawbacks seem pretty minor.
I grinned. “Precisely.” Levering myself out of the Hotel Awful chair took some doing. “I hope your business trip goes well.”
He inclined his head in a gesture that mixed amusement and acknowledgment. “As do I.”
# # # #
(Book Two of the Jakirian Series)
Naked Reader Press – June 2012
Kalyth laid his hands on the cracked battlement of Blackthorne Tower. The wind was furious up here. It numbed his face, bearing all the chill of the waning Storm Season. He blinked against it, his eyes watering.
‘Damn you, traitor.’ His voice was harsh. Raw from disuse.
He kept his gaze on the wide valley below the tower, determined to look anywhere but the stairs that led to the Temple of the Iris. His callused hands curled into fists, squeezing against the pain. Every day it was the same. He would fight the magical Compulsion that drew him to the ruined temple, and the pain would grow until he could no longer resist it. His legs and back were on fire with it, the muscles in his neck twisted with the desire to turn toward the stairs. He fixed his eyes on the overgrown graves of his wife Mari and his children on the slope below, fighting pain with pain. It would take only a single step, a single twitch and the Compulsion would have him.
At first he had been unable to resist it. The spell would take hold and he would run to the Iris like a crazed fool. After twenty-five years he could fight it for almost an hour.
His legs began to tremble. His eyes drifted away from the view. He squeezed them shut.
Would Belin make an appearance today? The man who commanded him to leave his family to die to save the Emperor’s squalling babe? Damn them all. The Empire had fallen. The Eathal were stronger than ever, and his wife and children were still cold and in the ground. If the Emperor’s boy still lived, he would change nothing now.
‘The Scion.’ He tasted bitter bile at the back of his throat.
If he dared to move he would spit on the Scion. Spit on all the Suul nobility. Traitors. Self-serving bastards.
His head jerked to the side, and his eyes opened. Stairs. A tiny particle of relief flowered in the muscles of his neck. The pain in his legs became unbearable. His right leg spasmed forward and before he knew it he was in motion, tears flooding down his face in relief as the pain vanished. There was no stopping it now.
He hissed air through his teeth in fury as he rushed down the stairs, past the small guardroom in the ruined tower that he had made his home, down and down into a maze of narrow tunnels. He knew every cracked tile, every fallen block of masonry, every sharp curve and jutting piece of head-cracking stone. He pushed against a concealed panel and raced up the stairs behind it, taking the stone flags two at a time until he reached the Temple rooms above. It was bright here. The roof had given way five years ago.
The corridor beyond emptied into a domed chamber, shafts of light stabbing down through cracks in the roof onto the wide floor mosaic. The design comprised five identical panels of flame and smoke, linked together by the great Iris at the centre.
As soon as his feet touched the coloured tiles Kalyth staggered to a halt. He sucked in lungfuls of the dusty air, the skin beneath his ragged beard prickling with sweat. He glared at the Iris.
Kalyth carefully circled the floor. After an hour or so blue lights would flicker at the corners of his vision and he would be free to leave the tiles. Sometimes he would visit the Kaidell estate to teach the warriors, but his visits were becoming less frequent. The newer troops mocked him behind his back. The crazy hermit of Tower Blackthorne, they called him.
As if he had a choice.
Kalyth knelt at the small fireplace he had built at the edge of the tiles. He took a small lead glowmetal from his pocket and rubbed it briskly on the stone. It remained cool in his fist, but he kept a careful eye on the bands of greyish light in the glowmetal as they thinned. Just before the bands became fully metal he tossed it into the fire pit. Immediately it released the stored heat. The tinder curled with smoke then popped into flame. He flicked the little object out of the fire with a stick and carefully nursed the small blaze to life. Satisfied, he scooped up the glowmetal and slipped it into his pouch. It was already cool to the touch.
If only he had never returned to the Kaidell estates. After the defeat of the Eathal it had seemed natural to take work as weaponmaster to Belin’s nephew and heir, Linnas Kaidell. The man was no warrior, and a far cry from Belin – or at least the Belin he had known – but Kalyth had been young and eager to start again. Then the whispering began, night after night. By day he would find himself staring at the sight of the ruined tower on the horizon. He should have left then, instead he had searched through the ruins and found the Temple.
And the Iris had come alive.
Belin Kaidell – a man he had known as a simple warrior – had stepped from the Iris, his eyes alive with blue light, his face drawn into a mask he barely recognised, an archaic spear strapped to his back. He shivered at the memory. Two lines of glowing blue had lashed out from Belin like hungry snakes, holding him fast, biting deep; binding him with a magic that compelled him to return to the Iris each day. He had been forced to make his home amid the ruins of Blackthorne, as though standing vigil on the memory of his life. Forced to endure the taunts of his men, and the ridicule of that worm Linnas.
He sat at the edge of the mosaic and watched the Iris.
He would never forget Belin’s eyes. They had fixed on him as though considering a new mount. ‘I may have a use for you.’
A use for you.
Belin had ignored his pleading questions. **some explanation of who Belin and Kalyth are might be needed in here somewhere**
‘I trusted you, Belin. More than life,’ muttered Kalyth, stabbing the fire with the stick.
He had given up trying to understand the change in Belin, or his old general’s inexplicable command of magic. No. After a time it was not Belin that he feared. He quickly learned that Belin was not alone in the Iris.
The other mind within the Iris took the form of a horned beast in his dreams, bringing with it a madness of bloodlust and desire. Kalyth would wake in fear, heart hammering, his clothes damp with sour sweat.
Since that first time, the Iris had only come to life twice. Each time Belin had sent the snakes into his mind and left in silence. Inspecting him without a hint of acknowledgement.
Light flickered off the tile near his feet.
His head snapped up.
Sweat rolled off his forehead, chilling immediately in the cold air beneath the dome.
The Iris was stirring.
Kalyth dropped the burning brand back into the fire, his gaze fixed to the Iris as the glowing light rose and expanded. A distant song grew at the edge of his hearing. He covered his ears against it and became aware of his breath, coming now in ragged gasps. Soon the whole Temple was swathed in light, a turning whirlpool that scattered his tiny fire and flung the burning brands at the wall.
Belin stepped from the Iris. As before, he was no older than that day he had appeared with the babe.
‘What do you want?’ said Kalyth, edging to the very limit of the mosaic.
Belin raised his hand and blue lightning leapt at Kalyth. He grunted in fear as the twin streamers struck his head. His vision was lost in glowing blue, but it was over quickly. He trembled as he watched the glowing lines flow back into Belin like ghastly appendages.
Belin turned to go, then suddenly paused. The passive, drawn expression fled and a new tension overtook him.
‘Kalyth,’ said Belin.
His heart leapt. This was not the high, thin voice he had come to dread. It was a voice of command and deep solidity, more like the Belin of old. The lights had also vanished from his eyes. For the first time since this nightmare had begun he looked into the familiar grey eyes of his old commander.
Kalyth stepped toward him, drawn by instinct.
‘Kalyth. I have only a moment before the Ward takes me again. The boy is in danger. You must protect him. The Ward seeks him. It has breached the Athrian Iris …’
Belin jerked. The grey eyes filled once more with blue light, the face becoming slack and cold. As though nothing had happened, Belin turned back toward the Iris.
A heartbeat later the Temple was cold and empty.
Released, Kalyth fled the Iris. He paused on the slopes outside to look down at the tiny shapes of the Kaidell estate buildings in the distance. Belin had broken through some sort of forced control.
The hairs at the base of Kalyth’s neck stood on end. All these years … had Belin been as bound as he was? Overtaken by this Ward he had spoken of? Could it be that Belin had not betrayed him? Not abandoned him as he thought?
Kalyth’s eyes fell on the graves of Mari and his children.
He gritted his teeth and started the climb back to his small room in the tower above. What difference did it make? He was still trapped.
And they were still dead.
# # # #
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse—
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever‑shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.
Idylls of the King, Tennyson
“Who are you?” hissed the lithe, dark-eyed man with the drawn sword.
Meb blinked at him. Her transition from the green forests of Arcady to this dark, stone-flagged hall, had been instantaneous. The stone walls were hung with displays of arms and the horns of stags. Otherwise there was not much to separate it from a cave or prison, with not as much as an arrow slit in the walls—let alone a window—to be seen in the stone embrasures.
In Tasmarin from whence she had come, she had known just who she was: Scrap, apprentice to the black dragon that destroyed of the worlds. You could call her anything else, but that was who she had been. Now…
“Cat got your tongue, wench?” he said quietly. “Well, no matter, I’ll have to kill you anyway.”
He swung the sword at her in a vicious arc.
Moments ago, before she’d made the choice that swept her magically from Tasmarin, from the green forest of Arcady, she’d thought she might be better off dead rather than leaving them behind. Leaving him behind.
Now she discovered that her body didn’t want to die just yet. She threw herself backwards, not caring where she landed, as long as it was out of reach of the sword.
She screamed. And then swore as the blade shaved across her arm to thud into the kist she had fallen over. She kicked out, hard, catching her attacker in the midriff, knocking the breath out of him in an explosive gasp. Trying to find breath, he still pulled weakly at the sword now a good two-finger-widths deep into the polished timber of the kist. Meb wasn’t going to wait.
But it looked as if she wasn’t going to run very far either. Her scream, and possibly the swearing, had called others and they burst in, flinging the great iron studded doors open. Men-at-arms with bright swords and scale armor rushed in.
As she turned to run the other way, her passage there was blocked by a sleepy-looking man—also with a sword, emerging from the only other doorway.
There wasn’t a window to be seen.
She wanted one, badly.
And then she saw one, just in the embrasure to her left. She just plainly hadn’t spotted it before.
She ran to it, and realized it wasn’t going to help much. In the moonlight she could see that it opened onto a hundred feet of jagged cliff, to an angry sea, frothing around sharp rock teeth far below.
Some of the soldiers surrounded the man she’d kicked. They’d blocked her escape too, but you couldn’t really call it surrounding her. Not unless that included “getting as far from her as possible, while not leaving the other prisoner, or the room.”
The man who had looked so sleepy moments before didn’t anymore. His sword was up, ready, his eyes wide as they darted from the window to her, seemingly unsure which was more shocking.
“Who are you?” he asked.
There was something weaselly about him that made her very wary about answering, in case her words were twisted against her.
And why did they all want to know something she wasn’t too sure of herself?
There was a narrow bridge across the void. Along it walked a black and white sheepdog, followed by a black dragon. The dog never looked back at the dragon, just forward, his questing written into every line of his body, from the mobile pointed ears, to the feathered tail.
The bridge itself was narrow—made of vast, interlocking blocks of adamantine—or at least that is the way it looked. Reality might be somewhat different, at least to the eyes of a planomancer. Such eyes would see deeper than the ordinary spectra of light, and could see patterns energy. Fionn, the black dragon, saw it all as the weave of magics that made the bridge between the planes of existence. He knew the bridge was fragile and fraught with danger. That did not stop him walking along it, any more than it stopped Díleas the sheepdog.
The bridge was barely two cubits wide and had no rail. Far, far below seethed the tumult of primal chaos. The only way the dog could go was straight ahead. He kept looking left though.
That was where he wanted to go. Sometimes he would raise his nose and sniff.
Fionn knew there was nothing to smell out here. The air that surrounded the bridge was drawn and melded by the magics of it, from the raw chaos. It was new air, and Fionn knew that it did not exist a few paces behind them, or a few paces ahead.
He was still sure Díleas was following the faint trail of something. A something which even a very clever dog could best understand as scent…even if there was nothing to smell.
At least he hoped that was the case.
Hoped with ever fiber of his very ancient being.
Fionn had long since given up on caring too much. He was not immortal, as far as he knew. He could certainly be killed. But compared to others, even of his own kind, the black dragon was long-lived. Time passed, and so did friends. His work was never done, fixing the balance, keeping the planes stable. He moved on.
He’d been hated. He’d been worshiped, though it irritated him. He’d been laughed at and reviled. He’d been feared.
He’d even been loved.
He had never loved before, though.
The black and white sheepdog was more experienced at love than the dragon, and he was a young dog still, maybe eight months old. Barely more than a pup. But Díleas—whose name was “faithful” in an old tongue, long forgotten by most men—would go to the ends of the world for her, and beyond, as they were now. His mistress was his all and he would search for her until he died, or he found her.
Fionn knew that he’d do the same. His Scrap, his inept apprentice, had been plucked from them by magic. Her own magic and her own choice, made freely for them, and for Tasmarin, the place of dragons. Fionn knew, however, that it had cost her dearly. For him, left here without her, it was a worthless sacrifice.
So now, somewhere, back in some place that she’d been torn from as a babe, they had to find her again.
Fionn had no idea where that might be. A place of magics, where human magery ran strong in the blood, that much he could be sure of. But there were many such places in the interlinking chain of worlds, and they themselves were large and complex places.
It was a good thing that Díleas seemed to have some idea where to go, because Fionn didn’t know where to even start, except by trying everywhere. He would do that, if need be. He had time. He would never give up.
The only problem was that she was human and very mortal. And, if he had to be truthful with himself, she was able to attract disaster toward herself, just by being there.
Fionn had never known love. He’d never really known worry either. Pain, and the avoidance of it, yes, fear, yes, but now he was afraid for her. Worried.
The end of the bridge was now visible, if wreathed in smoke or mist.
Fionn wondered if it would be guarded, or if the bridge was too new. The transit points often had their watchers, or barriers.
As the other side of the void came closer, Fionn realized this place would not need such things.
Most travelers would turn around and go back just as quickly as they could.
Gylve was a place of fire and black glass.
Fionn had been there before, and wouldn’t have minded if he’d never had to go there again. A planomancer needed to visit such places and straighten things out. Last time, it had glowed in the dark, and he’d had to do some serious adjustment. He was pleased to see that the radiation levels at least had dropped. Still, you could see fire dancing across the sky as the methane jets caught.
On the silver collar on Díleas’s neck hung a bauble. A little part of the primal fire, enclosed in what merely appeared to be crystal. It should keep the dog safe from demons and from actually freezing. It wouldn’t keep his feet safe on the broken volcanic glass in the place they were coming to; only dragon hide would do for that.
Fortunately, he had some with him, available without the discomfort of slicing it off himself. He could have done that. Dragons were tough…even if they really didn’t like making holes in themselves any more than the next creature. But every now and again a dragon died or was killed. If a dragon was sharp about it, they could get a piece of hide before the humans did. Honestly, thought Fionn, for a species that was afraid of dragons, humans had a habit of sticking their necks out.
It was one of the things that he liked about them.
The bridge was beginning to widen…to open onto the jet-black clinkers of one of the fire-worlds. Fionn stopped.
“Díleas, come here!”
The dog did turn and look at him, with a “what do you think you’re wasting time at?” look. And then began to pace forward.
“This muck will cut your feet to ribbons. And then you won’t be able to walk to her.” Fionn had to smile wryly at himself. Talking to the dog. Just like his Scrap of humanity had.
The dog turned around and came back to him. Lifted a foot.
Fionn’s eye’s widened. He’d have to do some serious reevaluation. And yes, now he could see that the dog was substantially magically…enhanced. Curse the dvergar and their tricksy magics. He was supposed to be the practical joker, not them. His Scrap had wanted Díleas to understand her. And she wore a very powerful piece of enchanted jewelry, which bound the magics of earth, stone, wood, fire and worked metals to her will.
Not surprising really that her power worked on sheepdogs. They were clever and loyal anyway, or so he’d been told.
“It won’t be elegant,” he said, “but then there won’t be other dogs out here to see you. He took the section of dragon leather from his pouch and rent it into four pieces, and then made a neat row of talon punctures around the edge, before transforming his own shape. Human form was one of those he knew best, and it allowed him to wield a needle well. It was of course partly a matter of appearances, and a useful disguise. He was far too heavy and too strong for a human—but hands were easier to sew with than clawed talons. A piece of thong threaded through the holes and Díleas had four baggy boots.
Díleas looked critically at the things on his feet. Sniffed them.
“Dragon hide,” said Fionn. “I wouldn’t show them to any dragons you happen to meet, but otherwise they’ll do. And really, scarlet boots match the bauble on your collar.”
Díleas cocked an ear at him. Fionn wasn’t ready to bet the dog didn’t grasp sarcasm, so he merely said, “Well, let’s go. The only thing we’re likely to meet are demondim, and they like red anyway.”
They didn’t like dragons, but were suitably afraid of them, so that was the form Fionn assumed, as the two of them walked into the badlands. It reeked of sulphur and burning, and Fionn knew the ground could collapse under their feet, dropping them down hundreds of cubits to white-hot ashpits. Vast coal measures had been pierced by ferocious vulcanism, and deep down, somewhere, it burned still. Fionn blinked his eyes to allow himself to see other spectra, patterns of energy, that might allow him to spot such instability before it killed Díleas. But the dog seemed aware and moved with a slow caution that he hadn’t showed up on the bridge.
It was, as befitted a fire-creature world, hot and waterless. Fionn noticed that Díleas was panting. He’d have to learn to carry water for the dog, or to somehow carry the dog while he flew, because there were worse places than this, in the vast ring of planes that Fionn had once maintained the stability of. He was a planomancer, made by the First for this task, and there was plenty of work waiting for him.
Right now, it could wait. All he did was to make a few preliminary marks with his talon and tail.
And simply because he’d said to Díleas that they would see nothing here but demondim, right now he could hear noises that were very unlike those beloved of the creatures of fire. A jangle of bells, and, clearly, a bark. And human voices.
Díleas, panting, could hear them too. Dogs could hear more keenly than humans, but not dragons.
Fionn changed his form again, becoming human in appearance. A dragon would almost certainly be an unwelcome sight. He could, and possibly should, leave the demons to their nasty games. But he had some sympathy for humans these days. She’d taught him that. He would help, simply for her sake. They moved towards the voices and sounds.
The caravan of carts was moving, slowly, along a causeway of blue-black hexagonal blocks. Probably the safest place around here, reflected Fionn, although you had to consider just what had flattened the top of the columnar dolerite dyke into a narrow straight road across the ash fields and lava lands. Bells tinkled from every horse’s harness strap. Whoever they were, they were not ignorant of demondim and their dislikes, or quite the helpless lost travelers Fionn had expected. The fire creatures liked to mislead and torment those. But whoever had made those bells knew a thing or two about the demondim. They’d been made either to very precise mathematical formulae, or been shaved very carefully into making an octave.
“Go on, Díleas. We might as well see just who they are and what they’re up to and cadge you a drink, panting dog,” said Fionn, prodding him with a toe.
Díleas dropped his head and looked warily…not at the advancing carts but at the trail in front of them. He gave a soft growl. So Fionn looked closer. It was a well concealed little trap, the clinker plates hiding the thing’s lair. The Silago wasn’t a particularly intelligent predator, but it didn’t need to be. All it did was to make a bit of a trail and lie in wait. Eventually something—if there was anything—would choose the easiest trail and walk into its maw, just as he nearly had. Half-rock, half-animal, it didn’t need to eat more than once every few years anyway. Fionn found a piece of glassy rock and tossed it at the clinker plates. They collapsed inwards and a segmented creature with long snapping jaws reared out, lashing about, looking for prey.
Fionn stepped back, Díleas had already neatly moved up against his side. And then the tossing Silago head sprouted an arrow shaft. And a second. Fionn paused, wondering if he should take refuge behind a rock spike. Any bow that could push an arrow hard enough to penetrate a Silago might even get an arrow into him.
The dark-skinned, white-haired man on the lead cart—with his recurved composite bow in hand, arrow on the string, and perky-eared dog growling from the seat beside him—was smiling though. A suspicious smile, but better than fear or anger, while he held that bow. And there were plainly others, because of that second arrow. “You ain’t one of the Beng,” he said, “because they don’t like dogs and they don’t walk on the ground. And they don’t like our bells or garlic. The question is who or what are you, stranger?”
Finn touched his hat. “Finn. I’m a gleeman. A traveling singer and jester. I juggle a bit too.”
The man didn’t put the bow down. “Not many inns or villages around here. Where are you from, gleeman? Abalach? Annvn? Carmarthen? Vanaheim? The Blessed Isles or…Lyonesse?”
Fionn was an expert on tone. Lyonesse was probably not a good place to be from. He’d been there. He’d been everywhere, once upon a time.
In front of him the Silago still thrashed about. “None of those, recently,” he said cheerfully. “A place called Tasmarin. Back there.”
“Didn’t know there were any Ways over there,” said the traveler.
“It’s rather new, and I don’t think it’s going to see much traffic, judging by this charming countryside,” said Fionn waving at the ash lands. “And anyway, Tasmarin is quite full of dragons. They’re not overly friendly.” The Silago was threshing rather more weakly now. Fionn could simply have jumped over it, but not if he wished them to believe he was human. He slowly, calmly, reached into his pouch, took out three balls and began to juggle one handed. He’d found it very good for distraction and misleading before. And those little balls were made of osmium, both a lot harder and heavier than observers might guess. Fionn could throw them fast enough to knock an armored knight out of the saddle. “To tell the truth I am a little lost. And my dog could use a drink.”
The cartman smiled again. “I think we could probably sell you some water. And the road should see you to Annvn, if you stick to it. You’ll have to wait until the Beng-child is dead, though. They usually put themselves in the middle of the only safe path. It’s surprising you got this far.” His tone said that alone was reason for not putting aside his bow, just yet.
Fionn shrugged, not stopping his juggling. It was good for hypnosis too. “The dog is good at finding safe ways.”
“I like his footwear,” said the cartman.
“Worn by all the best dogs in the capitals of many great lands. It also keeps his feet from being cut up. Purely as a secondary thing, you understand,” said Fionn. He pointed to the Silago. “It’s dying, whatever it is.” There was no point in admitting to knowing too much.
“Give it a little more time, gleeman. Even half-dead, the Beng-child will have your arm off, and might scratch the dog’s boots. When it’s dead we’ll have the jaws off it. They’ll fetch a good price where we’re headed.”
Fionn nodded patiently, which was more than Díleas was showing signs of. “Where did you say you are bound for?”
“Annvn. Well, if it’s there. You never know these days.”
Fionn raised an eyebrow. “And where else might it be?” He was a planomancer. There was a logical consistency to where the various planes of existence interlocked. It was not variable. The multidimensionality and subplanes of it all meant it was more complex than a mere three-dimensional ring would be. It was possible that points of departure and arrival could be geographically close. But until Tasmarin had opened up a way to multiple planes, one link point did not lead you elsewhere. Had Tasmarin changed it all?
“Last time we took the giant’s road we found ourselves in Lyonesse. If that happens we’ll head back,” he said, putting the bow aside, and getting down from the cart. He pulled a long metal stake and a hammer from the cart. Looked for a crack, found one and hammered it in. “How far to this Tasmarin place?” he said casually, in an I-am-not-fishing-for-information tone.
Fionn was amused, and used to human ways. “Not far. I could tell you in some detail…in exchange for a drink for my dog.”
“Ah, you’re a sharp one,” said the cartman, grinning. “Worth a trading venture?”
“Probably,” said Fionn. “What are you selling?”
“Things which are exotic in one place and cheap in another. Peacock feathers and pepper, bottles of mermaids’ tears, amber, narwhal ivory, and carved walrus tusks this trip.”
“I’d say pepper would sell.” It was a game, and Fionn played it well.
“Ah. One of those places,” said the traveler. “Magic, and the creatures of it are more common than pepper. Hey, Nikos, Dravko. The Beng-child is ready for you to butcher the jaws out of. You might as well come across, stranger.”
Fionn could see things they could not. The Silago was not dead. He patted Díleas. “The dog thinks it is faking, mister. And he’s a sharp dog.” He caught all the juggling balls in one hand, and picked up another rock and flung it at the open jaws, which snapped closed viciously and sent splinters of rock flying.
The white-haired man looked very thoughtful indeed. “Sharp dog he is. And earned himself a drink, I’d say, gleeman. Maybe worth asking you about the way across to this place.”
“I made marks.” He had. With a talon. They were not intended as trail markers but they could work as that without undoing his purpose. Energies needed to flow, and the travelers could be vehicles for that. Travelers tended to be a cunning lot though. Over the years he’d known and journeyed with a fair number of these sort of folk, too many to believe them to be easily fooled or used without them knowing.
“Ah. It’s a sharp master too. A wonder you don’t cut yourself, gleeman. Nikos, come and give the Beng-creature a good poke with that black iron spear of yours.”
Someone knew—or had known—a great deal about demondim and the few creatures that survived just what they had made of their worlds, thought Fionn, looking at the spear in the next swarthy man’s grasp.
It wasn’t iron-edged and had a fair weight of magework about it. Antimony might not be the ideal metal for edging anything, but it was deadly toxic to the silicate sulphur of the Silago.
Soon Fionn and Díleas were able to pass the two traveler men cutting at the dead Silago. The dog on the seat of the lead cart growled and bristled. “Hear now, Mitzi. That’s no way to greet a dog with smart red boots,” said the lead cartman. Díleas was studiously ignoring her. The cart driver got down, and tapped some water out of a small keg into a bowl. Held it out to Fionn. “Here, gleeman. Best if your dog drinks a little way from Mitzi. It’s her bowl.”
Fionn gave a little bow. “Thank you, goodman. This place was hotter than we expected. Dustier too.”
“Ah well, you’ve a fair distance to travel in it. Best to be prepared. My name is Arvan, gleeman. I only look like a good man.”
“Call me Finn. Most do,” said Fionn, taking the water and setting it on the ground. He noticed the watchfulness of the lead cart driver. The watchfulness of the dogs on the seats of the other eleven carts. The fact that they had at least two other men hidden in them, and they weren’t watching him or Díleas. The water smelled all right, wasn’t bespelled…Díleas sniffed it too, and then drank with a great deal of tongue splashing. He had needed that. Well, he was wearing a good thick coat of black and white fur.
“And now, Finn, if you’d tell me a bit about this Tasmarin place, I could offer you a mug of beer,” said Arvan. Fionn knew the name was a small part of the traveler’s true name, which suggested that the travelers knew of the importance of those too. Well, they did accumulate knowledge or fail to survive.
“It’s an hour’s walk from here. See the double smoking peak? Bear just left of that. You’ll find this symbol scratched on the rock here and there.” Fionn scratched it with his toe in the dust. “There is a narrow white bridge that you will have to cross. Not much room for a cart on it. And the dragons on the other side are fond of gold, so I’d take care to appear poor.”
“Oh, we are,” said Arvan, tapping Fionn a small flagon of beer. It was good beer.
“They can smell gold at twenty paces,” said Fionn, who could smell theirs, above the beer. It was under the front end of the cart. Probably a hidden panel or something.
“Ah. There haven’t been many around for a while. People wondered where they’d got to. Some of us wanted to know.”
“There, that’s where,” said Fionn.
The jaw cutters had finished their work by now, and they carried them back to the causeway and roped them onto the back of the cart, still dripping black ichor. The little caravan set off again, Fionn and Díleas walking alongside the lead cart. It was, it appeared by Díleas’s behavior, the direction they needed to go.
A mile or so later the causeway was interrupted by what might have been called a river, if rivers boiled, and did not run with anything anyone could have called water, although scalding water diluted it. It ran through a fresh fracture in the dolerite, and the steam reeked of brimstone and the almond smell of cyanides. Arvan scratched his head. “That’s a new one.”
Fionn tried to work out the least obtrusive way of changing the situation. Energy and fire magic abounded here. There was even an ancient water pattern. The place had been verdant once. A tweak here and there…But it would all take time, and by the way that fool-of-a-very-clever sheepdog was pacing back and forth and bunching his muscles, he would try jumping soon.
The beautiful crone-enchantress, the queen of Shadow Hall, stared vengefully at her seeing-basin. Dun Tagoll—dark stone towers silhouetted against the moonlit sea—seemed to stare back at her. He’d protected it as well as he was able, and she could see no further into the castle on the cliff top. She had stared at it, the same way, for over fifty years now. Eventually, she would win. A few hours earlier she’d felt a surge of magical energy, and wondered if he’d finally died. But no, the tower still resisted her vision—it would not if he was dead, she was sure. So, the fight must continue. She was busy mustering her forces, yet again. She worked with her unwitting allies’ fears, and she had the Cauldron of Gwalar. It brewed and bubbled now. Soon she would cast pieces of yet another dead hero in the seethe of it. They had to be boiled apart, or at least finely diced, before she could reassemble them and reanimate them. And then dispatch them…to whichever of the nineteen worlds Lyonesse would try to leech off this time.
She stared at the image in the seeing-basin. The tallest tower and its highest window. There was a light there. He would be working away, creating falsehoods and illusions. Working on his simulacra and devices. Bah. Machinery. She had been fascinated by it once, the cogs and springs and the mechanisms for harnessing the tides themselves. The smell of oil, and magic…
He was not a summonser, but one who worked inanimate things and the laws of contagion and sympathy. She used that, but drew on higher powers too. The powers of life…and death. She learned as much of his craft as she could, of course. In those days Dun Tagoll had been the place to learn and to practice magecraft. He’d stopped that. He didn’t like competition.
To think she’d loved him once. Trusted him with their secret. Sworn eternal faith to each other and their secret. Dreamed that some day…She spat into seeing-basin, shattering the image.
Death would take him one day.
And it could not be a day too soon for her.
In the meanwhile she had to finish the warrior in her cauldron. And then get onto making more muryans. Shadow Hall would have to walk again, to follow Lyonesse, to raise war and chaos and foes against it. She followed Lyonesse’s progression across myriad leagues and subplanes in her palace of shadows.
Her hall moved. It did so on tiny ant feet. Many, many ant feet.
# # # #
Sarah A. Hoyt & Amanda S. Green
Naked Reader Press – Winter 2012
Coming Down On The Night Shift
The elevator gave a lurch. Angie Woolsey’s stomach jumped into her throat. Then the doors slid painstakingly open, while she tapped to the rhythm of music only she could hear, grasped the handle of her cleaning cart, and thought, come on, come on. This was the night her husband, Beto, had off and she wanted to hurry home.
Without breaking her rhythm, she pushed her cleaning cart into the corridor beyond the elevator car and stopped. A slight frown creased her broad brow. Something wasn’t right. She could feel it.
You’re just imagining things, she chided silently. The security light mid-way down the corridor cast off a pale pool of light, even if it left eerie shadows in its wake. Everything was fine. Besides, she reminded herself, no one else was there. They never were. That was one of the reasons she liked working the night shift. No one was around to bother her.
More importantly, this was a good job, one of the better ones when you have to clean up after other people. Maybe the accountants who worked here kept things cleaner than most others because they always had clients coming in. Maybe they were those all too rare men who actually cleaned up after themselves without being told. She didn’t care. Whatever the reason, it made her job easier and that was all that really mattered.
As she pushed the cart down the corridor, its wheels squeaking faintly in protest as they rolled over the deep pile carpet, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. She paused again, her head cocked slightly to one side as she reached up and pulled the earbuds from her ears. No sound reached her except the muted beat of the music she’d been listening to.
And yet, her heart beat just a bit faster and her breathing seemed more labored. Breathing…that was it! The corridor didn’t smell right. Hanging in the air, teasing her as she tried to locate the source, was the unmistakable smell of burnt meat.
What had those fool men been up to? Had one of them brought leftovers from home and left them in the microwave too long?
Shit. Now she had to find a way to get rid of the smell before she could leave, which would make her late getting home. She once more slipped the earbuds back into place and pushed the cleaning cart toward the small kitchen that served as the accounting firm’s break room.
Her right hand reached out and found the light switch just inside the small but well-equipped kitchen. Light from the overhead fixture flooded the room. Instantly, she knew whatever the source of the smell, she wouldn’t find it there. That almost sickening aroma was present, but no stronger inside the kitchen than it had been in the corridor.
Well, hell. “Isn’t this just wonderful? The one night Beto’s home and these fools have to leave a mess for me to hunt down and deal with.”
She returned to the corridor, wondering in which office to begin her search. After flipping a mental coin, she started off towards the far end of the corridor, away from the elevator. A trickle of fear wrapped itself around her spine. This wasn’t right and she didn’t want to be here. Not now. But she couldn’t leave, not without good reason. Not when she needed the job.
Besides, she was just imagining it. That’s all.
Telling herself to quit being so foolish, she pushed on. All she had to do was find the offending box of carryout – or whatever it might be – and get it outside. Then she could turn her attention to finishing up the job and getting home to Beto.
Following her nose, she did her best to ignore the persistent urge to turn and run as far and fast as she could. Instead, she reached down to open the third door from the end of the corridor. The knob turned easily beneath her hand. Nothing unusual there. He might be head of the firm, but Mr. Champion rarely locked his office.
The door swung open silently. As it did, the smell – no, the stench – struck her with an almost physical force. It made the hair at the back of her neck stand on end and her gag reflex went full-force.
Sweat prickled out on her forehead as she forced herself to take that first step inside the office. Never before had she done anything quite so difficult. Her fingers shook as they searched for and then found the light switch. There was a soft click and light filled the room.
Followed immediately by a scream that cut through the night and it took her a while to realize it had come from her own throat.
Her throat working, the charred burnt smell making her gag, Angie ran for the elevator, praying she didn’t have to wait long for its doors to open.
O’ Blessed Holy Caffeine Tree
Red and white lights beat rhythmically against the night sky, calling to every media vulture and voyeur in town. No matter what the time of day – or night – or how bad the weather might be, they came. They were like Pavlov’s dogs, reacting to the flashing lights of emergency vehicles in much the same way the hounds had reacted to the ringing of a bell. For them, the lights represented the opportunity to feed on information – or misinformation – that they could then pass on to the unsuspecting public.
Those lights called to me as well, but in a different way. They were reason I’d dragged out of my warm bed. At least it wasn’t raining. Tired as I was, frustrated as I was, it would be a recipe for disaster for me to try to navigate the narrow lanes of the east side of town in bad weather.
Not that the lack of rain made me any happier just then. It was just barely two in the morning. I hadn’t had nearly enough coffee – hell, I hadn’t had any coffee and a can of warm Diet Coke just isn’t enough to wake the brain cells, especially not after the “exertions” of the previous afternoon. Exertions I’d planned on repeating come morning. Instead, my first day off in more than two weeks had been canceled and I was heading to a crime scene I knew absolutely nothing about.
Someone had better have coffee for me when I got there or heads would roll.
My repeated attempts to tell the disinterested dispatcher that I wasn’t on duty had been met with the simple explanation that Lt. Sam Smith had said to have me respond to the scene. Great. So, leaving my nice warm bed, I’d thrown on jeans and tee shirt, running shoes and holster and gun before leaving the house none the wiser as to why Smith wanted me to respond to the call.
After all, there were two other forensic investigators with the department. Surely Distraction, Texas hadn’t suddenly been thrust into the middle of a crime spree that required all of us to be called out at the same time. So why me?
I still didn’t know, as I made the final turn into a parking lot ringed by trees. My headlights caught the sign by the parking lot entrance. Champion and Associates Financial Services.
All traces of frustration and exhaustion fled. I recognized the name and the building. As I frigging well should. No wonder the address had seemed familiar to my sleep-fogged brain. It should have. I’d been here more often than I cared to remember and all because of Jack Andrew Sawyer-Simpson, or as I like to call him Jack Ass, my ex-husband. He’s one of the dozen financial planners – just a fancy way of saying accountants as far as I could tell – who work in the two story building.
Or is it worked?
A shiver went up my spine but I shook my head. Nah. If something had happened to Jack, I’d be the last one called to the scene. To begin with, we most definitely hadn’t parted on good terms. That’s sort of hard to do when you come home early one day, hoping for a little afternoon play-time with your husband only to find him playing “slap and tickle” with someone else on the living room sofa. Making matters worse, he was playing with his boss. His male boss. How I’d managed not to pull my gun out and put them both out of my misery is beyond me.
Especially since I knew I’d have to burn the leather sofa they were on and I’d really, really liked that sofa.
So, instead of shooting them, I’d stood in the doorway, the fingers of my right hand drumming steadily on the butt of the gun at my hip and cleared my throat. They’d jumped as if I actually had shot at them. Then, as if fearing I might actually do just that, they’d scurried out of the house, their pants around their ankles, just like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
And I hadn’t wasted any time. One of the benefits of being a cop is you get to know a lot of good attorneys. I’d called one and he’d had my divorce petition and restraining order filed before the end of the day. Then I’d pulled that sofa outside to the curb for the trash collectors. It wasn’t as satisfying as actually setting it on fire but it did the trick. Pesky regulations against bonfires and all. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been quite as easy to rid myself of my husband as it had been to rid myself of the sofa. It had gotten messy and nasty, even with a good lawyer.
So I most definitely wouldn’t be called to the scene if something had happened to Jack. Instead, the homicide detectives would be paying me a visit to make sure I hadn’t decided it was finally time to dance on his grave. Which, I’ll admit, was an interesting prospect. But it was one I’d save for my dreams. Even in Texas, the courts frown on cops offing their ex-spouses, no matter how much the ex might need killing.
I parked next to one of the unmarked Ford Crown Victorias the department assigned to its detectives and glance around the parking lot. The half dozen police cars, marked and unmarked, I’d expected. Even the MICU van and medical examiner’s van were no surprise. But the two fire trucks were a different matter. Standard procedure was for the arson inspectors to have first crack at a scene. So why had they sent for me?
Well, Alicia, there’s only one way to find out. Quit stalling and get your butt inside.
Yeah, yeah. The problem was, I didn’t want to go inside. I wanted to go back home, climb back into bed and sleep late. No chance in hell.
With one last gulp of warm Diet Coke and a wish for a very big, very strong cup of coffee, I switched off the engine and climbed out of the car. From the backseat I produced my evidence kit, carefully lifting it out and settling it on the trunk of the car. After pulling my ID from beneath my tee shirt and locking the car, I collected the kit and jogged across the parking lot toward the building’s main entrance.
The glass doors slid open with a whoosh as I neared. The lobby, a large area dotted with potted plants and cozy seating areas, was unusually crowded. Half a dozen detectives and uniformed officers mingled with several fire investigators and the assistant ME. The murmur of different conversations stopped as heads turned to me and something I swear looked like impatience suddenly showed in various faces.
“Glad you’re here, Rye,” a throaty woman’s voice said from behind me.
“Yeah, about damn time,” a man murmured from the back.
Ignoring the man, I turned in the direction of the woman’s voice, to find myself face to face with Detective Sharon Hornsby, Homicide. She came about to my shoulder, but then I’m a tall woman. Her short black hair and shockingly pale blue eyes seemed somehow right with her lightly tanned complexion. Dressed in dark slacks, red blouse and linen jacket, she looked like she’d be more at home in a bank lobby than at a crime scene. But I’d learned long ago not to be fooled. She was one of the best detectives on the force. Which didn’t reassure me since she’d made it obvious with that one simple statement that everyone was waiting on me.
The only question I had was why. Why were they waiting instead of beginning their investigation?
“What’s everyone doing down here?”
“Waiting on you.” When I cocked an eyebrow in question, she simply nodded and jerked her head in the direction of the elevator. “Look, Dorsett and I responded to a 911 DB call almost an hour ago. By the time we arrived, the LT had already arrived. He met us down here and told us to begin searching this floor and outside. He didn’t tell us anything except no one was to go upstairs until you’d gotten here. He hasn’t even let us talk to the wit who called in the 911. All I can tell you is he’s shook and it takes a lot to shake him.”
It took a hell of a lot to shake Sam Smith, personally or professionally. That something upstairs had and that he’d sent for me didn’t reassure me one bit. Why had I answered the damned phone?
Because if you hadn’t your mother would have and did you really want her coming in and finding you with the yummy Cas Roberts in your bed? All two hundred and ten pounds of buffed and muscular fire fighter?
Which brought my mind around to the fire trucks. “What’s with all the fire equipment?”
“Again, can’t tell you. Not for sure at least. All I know is there’s a definite burnt smell if you stay inside long enough.”
“Okay.” I chewed my lower lip, thinking hard. Obviously something was going on, something I knew I probably wouldn’t like. But, Jack Ass’s office or not, there was no way to avoid it, not if I wanted to keep my job. “I’d best get upstairs then.”
“See if the LT won’t let us up so we can at least interview the wit,” Hornsby said.
“Will do,” I promised before crossing the marble floor of the lobby to the elevators.
“Detective,” a uniformed officer said as he reached inside the elevator car and switched off the “Hold” button.
I nodded and reached out to press the button for the second floor. The doors slid shut and the elevator gave a slight lurch as it started its ascent. As it did, I breathed deeply, stilling my mind. I hate elevators. Always have. They are too small. Only a single cable holds them up. If that cable snaps….CRASH. It would be just my luck to be inside when that happened. I do not like chances I can’t control.
As soon as the elevator doors opened, I stepped out into the hallway. At once, the stench hit me and my stomach roiled. Swallowing hard, I saw two men down the corridor to the left. They looked out of place with the pastel walls and nondescript pinkish abstract pictures in discreet gray frames. The smaller of the two, if you could call him smaller since he was built like a fireplug and had the temperament of a bulldog, was George Goetz, the best arson investigator in town. With him, tall, built and looking more than a little impatient was Lt. Sam Smith. He beckoned me forward, his chocolate brown eyes troubled and, unless I missed my guess, uneasy about something beyond what he’d found in the office behind him.
My stomach rolled again and this time it had nothing to do with the smell of burnt meat filling the corridor. I knew that look in my lieutenant’s eyes, and I hated it. I prayed I’d leapt to the wrong conclusion. But it would take something extraordinary to get him to call me out when he had to justify every cent he paid in overtime.
Unfortunately, his idea of extraordinary meant something I didn’t like when he applied it to me. Well, truth to tell, he didn’t particularly like it anymore than I did but that didn’t keep him from taking advantage of it either.
But I had to be wrong this time. Once had been more than enough. God might have a sense of humor but surely even He wouldn’t do this to me twice.
Sure He would, sweet cheeks. After all, He led me to you, didn’t He?
Lips pressed tight, my free hand balling into a fist at my side, I did my best to ignore the voice. Not that it would do much good if he insisted on speaking up. That much I’d learned since my all too friendly ghost had showed up unwanted and unexpected three months ago. And, so far, I hadn’t found a way to get him to leave…or even to leave me alone.
“Rye,” Smith said.
I nodded, not trusting my voice. The strain in his voice and around his eyes warned me I’d been right. I wasn’t going to like this. The milky quality to his tan warned that whatever lay in the office beyond was bad. Very bad.
Maybe I could still figure out some way to bow out of this case before going inside.
But I knew better. There wasn’t a chance in Hell I’d be able to do it…even if I’d seriously considered it. This was my job. No matter how bad it was, I had a duty to collect all the evidence I could find and then use it to help put the perp away for as long as possible.
The lieutenant didn’t say anything else. Instead, he reached out and pushed open the office door. As he did, I realized we stood outside Howard Champion’s office. Oh my, had something actually happened to the man I’d caught my husband with?
Alarm bells ringing in my head, I took a hesitant step forward only to be knocked back by the stench of burned flesh coming from inside the office. My eyes watered and I fought back the urge to vomit. Not wanting to but knowing I had no choice, I forced myself to look inside.
Damn it all! No wonder he sent for me.
Look at it this way, sweet cheeks. We get to work with the delish Lt. Sam. It’s worth it, isn’t it?
Shut up. Just shut the hell up.
# # # #
You can pre-order Darkship Renegades by Sarah A. Hoyt through Amazon and other retailers.
and Nocturnal Haunts by Amanda S. Green are available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Naked Reader Press.