Maverick – Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

The harsh glare of the sun assaulted me as I teleported from my apartment in Portland, Oregon, and onto a sunny Los Angeles sidewalk. I grimaced and tried to shield my eyes as I glanced around the sprawling street.

Just a block away was my target. The People’s Bank of the Republic. I began walking toward it, trying my best to look as innocuous as possible even though adrenaline was already starting to pump through my veins. Why? Because I was going to rob that fucker blind.

I took a deep breath in an effort to calm myself, and then shut my eyes as I counted backward from ten. With each number, I felt my racing heart slow and the nervous energy leave me. I could do this. It was no different than any other job.

It was time to put my game face on. So, trying to look as nonchalant as possible, I smoothed my black skirt with one hand, pushed the glass doors open with my other hand, and marched my ass inside the building. This is where you’re asking yourself, “Mallory, if you can teleport, why not just teleport into the vault and be done with it?”

Well, here’s the answer. I’d never seen the inside of this particular bank vault, and while I’d teleported places from pictures on occasion, I also knew a guy who had gotten stuck in a table because someone had redecorated the room, so it didn’t match said picture.

Because of that, I always found it better to walk in, use my magic to slow time, and go from there as I planned to do now. Besides, it was both early and a weekday so there were only a couple people inside. A token overweight rent-a-cop drinking coffee, one old lady waiting in line, and a cashier. And wow. What a cashier.

My breath caught in my throat as I caught sight of her crystal blue eyes and nearly fell into them. A blush crept across my cheeks as I turned my gaze away from her and tried to focus on the task at hand. I was here to do a job, and do it fast.

Besides, the last time I’d fallen for a pretty face, there hadn’t been a lot of substance behind it. Actually, that wasn’t true. There had been a snarling black hole of death and destruction. Nope, no more love at first sight for me.

Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

Thankfully, the cashier was too busy shuffling her papers and ignoring the only customer in the place to give me more than a cursory glance. Good. That meant she wouldn’t remember me enough to give a description, and thanks to my magic, the cameras wouldn’t see me either.

Not that I was giving her much to work with. I was wearing a plain black skirt, a Def Leppard T-shirt I’d stolen from my ex, and didn’t have any visible tattoos or piercings. Hell, even my makeup was mostly there to hide my features, rather than accentuate them. To top it off, my raven hair had been hastily thrown into one of those pineapple updos that either meant shit was about to go down or Zumba. Actually, it usually meant Zumba.

A smile crossed my lips as I glanced at the three of them once more. None of them were paying me any attention. Good. Now, it was time to do my thing and rob this bank.

I concentrated on calling upon my magic. As the first spark of power flitted up from the earth and through my shoes, I felt myself come alive. Every smell, every sight, everything all around me snapped into focus. As the symphony of magic swirled around me, I pulled on the thread of power that hummed like a metaphysical harmonica.

I reached out toward that power and grabbed hold of it. Time started to slow down all around me just as the girl behind the counter looked up and screamed. The cry shattered my concentration, causing my spell to slip away into the ether.

Panic and confusion spilled over me. Had she somehow felt my magic? I wasn’t sure, but either way, I was done. Time to make a getaway before something worse happened.

I started to turn so I could race back outside and teleport to safety, and as I did, the sound of a shotgun going off obliterated my hearing.

Time seemed to slow for a completely different reason as I struggled to orient myself to what was going on. A gun had gone off. Right behind me. How could…?

My heart hammered in my chest. Someone was here with a gun. Fuck.

I instinctively grabbed hold of my magic, reaching out with my mind toward the ebb and flow of the universe. It was weird because while it wasn’t music or anything, the best way I could explain the flow of magic was to imagine myself standing in the middle of the symphony where each kind of magic was a different instrument. Teleportation always sounded like a big bass drum, while death magic sounded like a trombone going full tilt.

That’s not what I needed now. No, what I needed to be was bigger and stronger, so I grabbed hold of the metaphysical equivalent of a wicked guitar solo and slammed that energy inside myself. It ran roughshod through my body, causing my veins to stand out against my flesh. Still, that was a small price to pay to become both stronger and faster even if it tended to make me a little crazy and not in that cute, endearing way.

“This is a robbery. Everyone go ahead and kiss the ground. Don’t be a hero, and you might just make it home tonight,” cried a gruff, angry voice behind me, and while I’d like to say the sound of it made me scared, it more made me angry.

This was my bank to rob. Who the fuck did these ass clowns think they were? I’d cased this place for weeks. Worse, the way he spoke made me think I was in the middle of amateur hour. I mean, there was way too much fear in that voice.

I spun on my heel and glared at the robber. He was a big dude and had probably played sports in high school before a few too many trips to the bar caused him to fill out his black long sleeve and cargo pants in all the wrong places. That, combined with the Richard Nixon mask he and his two friends wore like this was some kind of movie, almost made me want to laugh.

Hell, I probably would have if they weren’t all rocking twelve gauge Mossberg 500s, one of which was pointed at the guard, who was so shocked, his mouth was caught frozen in mid-chew. I was guessing he hadn’t experienced this sort of thing before, which was probably good because the twelve to fifteen bucks an hour he probably made was definitely not worth getting shot over. His deal had been simple, sit there and look menacing, and he’d mostly done his job. It was these clowns that were fucking up his, and my, well-laid plans. For that, they’d pay.

“Seriously? What the fuck do you people think you’re doing?” I snarled, taking a step forward as the leader pointed his shotgun at me. His eyes narrowed behind the mask as he made like he was going to shove me with the business end of it. That was silly. I mean, he had a gun, he might as well use it.

“I’m serious, lady. I don’t want to kill anyone, but I will.” He cocked the shotgun, eliciting one of the scariest sounds in the world, and as his spent shell ejected from the gun, I called upon my power.

Magic swarmed all around me like a billion flickering purple and pink gnats. As my power pulsed, the overhead lights flickered before shattering in a spray of debris that rained down around us.

I reached out in a burst of magic-fueled strength, grabbed the barrel of the gun with one hand, and tore it from his grip. Purple sparks danced along my hand before leaping across the weapon to snap crackle and pop like the gun had turned into a giant sparkler.

“What the fuck?” the guy cried, stumbling backward in shock as more energy danced through my hair and clothing.

His two buddies turned their own shotguns on me, and as they did, I almost smiled. Good. This was exactly what I needed to blow off some steam.

“It’s like you guys knew I’d had a fight with my now ex-girlfriend and needed to punch someone in the face,” I snarled, closing my fist around the barrel of the shotgun I’d stolen, pancaking the metal.

More magic whipped around me, sending glittering contrails into the air as I dropped the broken weapon to the ground. As it hit the cheap tile with a clang, I flicked my wrist, causing an invisible tendril of power to whip through the air and wrap around the left thug.

“What’s going on?” he cried right before I flung him sideways into his buddy. The other guy’s gun went off as his friend slammed into him. It was a little weird because, from the flash of panic in his eyes, I was willing to bet he’d never actually fired a shotgun before. Jesus, this really was amateur hour.

Fortunately, the magic swirling around me kept him from graduating to murder. As his buckshot bounced harmlessly off of the energy whipping around me and clattered emptily to the floor at my feet, I started to laugh.

“Seriously? You were going to shoot me?” I shook my head and took a menacing step toward the two guys who had wanted to perforate me with buckshot. “Do you have any idea how much I hate getting shot?” I jerked my hand to the left, flinging the two thugs sideways into one of those cubicles reserved for suckers trying to get a credit card. “I mean, I’m having a really bad day, and then you actually went and shot at me!” I snarled as they hit the cheap fiberboard, shattering it upon impact. “That’s not fucking cool. I mean how would you like it if I shot you?”

“Wh-what are you?” the leader mumbled, eyes wide behind his mask as I pointed my fingers at him like they were a gun.

“I’m a witch,” I said and fired. “Duh.”

A bolt of blue lightning shot from my fingers like I was Emperor Palpatine and struck him in the chest. A cry of agony exploded from his throat, and the smell of singed hair and flesh hit my nose as he flew backward and crashed into the glass doors.

As he slumped slowly to the ground, blackened tendrils of smoke rose from the singed spot on his torso, and the telltale sounds of sirens filled my ears. Damn. That was no good. It would be way harder to rob the place if the cops came, even if I could teleport back to my apartment easily enough. After all, I knew what that place looked like.

“Are you okay, dear?” the old lady asked, giving me a knowing look as she stared at me, and there was something deeply disconcerting about it, almost like she was pleased with what I’d done. It was a bit weird, but I brushed it off as my mind reading too much into it—what with the adrenaline and what not.

“Thank you so much!” the cashier cried as I spun on my heel and made my way toward her as quickly as possible.

“Not a problem,” I said, wondering why she hadn’t commented on my magic. Honestly, it was a tossup whether or not she’d actually seen me do it. Half the time people just seemed to ignore when I did magic right in front of them. Usually, they acted like I’d just done some sweet jujitsu or something as though that could cause me to shoot lightning from my fingertips. Whatever, if she was going to call me a hero, I wasn’t going to stop her.

“You saved us,” she added as though I wasn’t aware of that. Outside cars were skidding to a halt, and the sounds of jackboots on asphalt started to fill my straining ears. That was fine, though, I was nearly ready to fly out of here.

“So what’s my reward?” I asked, batting my eyes at her as I put one arm on the counter and leaned forward toward her. She blinked dumbly at me and then began to fidget.

“Um… we don’t have a policy for…” she trailed off as I reached across the counter and picked up a business card and flipped it over.

“How’s about you just give me your number, and we’ll call it even?” I asked, and as her eyes widened and her cheeks flushed, I immediately realized she was trying to find a nice way to turn me down.

“You know what, never mind. I don’t think it’s gonna work out,” I said right before I phased through the counter, reached into her register, and pulled out one of those bags that contains all the hundreds. It wasn’t as heavy as I’d have liked, but I was, as they say, about to blow this pop stand. I didn’t have time to rummage around like I normally would. Besides, this would be able to buy more than enough whiskey to help me forget Jen.

“You can’t just take that,” the girl cried in shock, reaching toward me as I snatched my hand back.

“It’s okay. It’s insured,” I said, smiling brightly at her before turning and making my way back toward the entrance. With any luck, maybe I’d get out of here before anyone was the wiser. I mean, I was a witch, if anyone said anything, I’d just bippity-boppity-boo my way out of here.

Yes, in retrospect, I suppose walking back out the front door was a stupid thing to do, but in my defense, I’d just broken up with my girlfriend and had gotten all hopped up on magic fighting the thugs. I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly.

Still, when I pushed open the doors and found myself face to face with what looked like a billion armed SWAT guys my mouth went completely dry. I was a total dumbass. Worse, I was literally holding a stolen money bag in my left hand.

Damn. Those robbers had really screwed up my already fucked up day.

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Going Rogue

So, I’m at an interesting place writing wise. See, I’d hoped to do a few LitRPG books and call it a day, and what not. Maybe toss in another Lillim book and the Danton spin off series, but then I had an idea that wouldn’t get out of my head about a witch who goes into space and beats down aliens.

I have no idea if it will sell or if anyone will like it, which is a bit scary, but hey, at some point you’ve got to write a book for you, right?

Anyway, I’m about halfway through it now, and I guess you guys will get to see firsthand if it’s good or not, assuming you grab it of course.

On that note, I also started reading Timothy Zahn’s Conqueror series, and I really can’t tell what I think of it. Part of me wants to like it, but part of me is bored by everything but the conquerors. Hopefully, it gets better, but since I grabbed all three books at the used book store for a whole $1.50 (total) I’ll likely finish the trilogy.

You know, it’s also a touch weird because I’m sitting in my office at home writing this, and I sometimes forget that I’m actually a full time author now, that this is my job. I mean, I like making money as much as the next guy, but I’m not nearly as confident as some of the people I talk to. I don’t think any of my books are going to do well until they do (or don’t).

Still, it’s my job, and I’m thankful that I get to throw words on a page for a living. I couldn’t do it without you guys (all six of you reading this), and I’ll try to do better in the future.

Soulstone: The Skeleton King – Chapter 1

Chapter 1

“How the fuck are we supposed to stop the Skeleton King?” Two’ Manchu said, voice cracking as he tore his eyes from the fading visage of the skeleton head Gereng had summoned and turned to Crash. “Please, please tell me you know.”

Crash said something, but I didn’t hear him because I was too busy taking a step backward. Then I took another one. Then I spun on my heel and walked away. This was too much, too big. I wasn’t sure how we were supposed to stop an army of undead hellbent on razing the town, and if I was being totally honest, I wasn’t sure why we would bother. We were in the newbie area of the game and had yet to step into the outside game world. Why would we waste time and risk our lives on a battle like this? It didn’t make any sense, even if I ignored the fact that I was scared out of my gourd.

I swallowed hard, trying to quell the thumping of my heart in my chest, but with every step I took away from my friends and the crazy old mage, I grew more and more anxious. I didn’t remember anything about this Skeleton King, nor why he was going to assault the town. I didn’t know how to stop him, and if I was being really honest with myself, I was really scared.

I mean, what if I stayed here to help stop the Skeleton King’s siege of the town and died? For the Non Player Characters in the Town of Silver Gables? That was crazy. For one they weren’t even real, and for two it wouldn’t matter because they were all ones and zeros. Even my pet bunny rabbit George, while funny and awesome, was no more real than a Tamagotchi, albeit a very realistically rendered Tamagotchi.

No. For me and my friends, this was real. Okay, so they were mostly jerks, and they hadn’t really been my friends before we’d been stuck here together, a fact that didn’t help make their status as friends less questionable, I didn’t want them to die. Mostly though? Mostly, I didn’t want to die.

I’d barely done anything in my stupid, pointless life. This Skeleton King seemed like he could not only wipe out the town, but kill all of us as well. If that happened, because of the way my mind was hooked to this particular version of virtual reality, it’d turn my brain into raspberry jam.

I couldn’t risk it. Not even to help my friends. Sure, Two’ Manchu had been nice enough, but Dark Heart? She was the fucking reason I was trapped in this world trying to find the soul stones. Sure by finding the soul stones I’d stop the AI virus the Maelstrom and save the internet or whatever, but let’s be real here. If given the choice, I wouldn’t be here trying to do that because at the end of the day, there were probably a billion other people better suited to be here than me. No, I just wanted to go home, but unfortunately, I couldn’t go home because of that whole brain in a box thing. The only way I’d get to go back to my life was by finding the soul stones and using them to win the game.

That was the problem. I had no idea if stopping the Skeleton King would help us find the soul stones. Sure, he might reward us with some good gear and what not, but a soul stone in the newbie area? That seemed unlikely at best. Besides, any gear we got here would likely be quickly rendered useless by leveling in the outside world. Not only did this entire quest seem like it would delay our finding of the soul stones, it seemed dangerous. At best.

No. The more likely scenario was that we’d die. And even if I was supposed to be expendable and here to do that, I didn’t feel expendable. I didn’t want to die and I wasn’t Jason fucking Stathem.

I was just Aaron Hope, college senior. I had a whole life back home, and I couldn’t, just couldn’t risk dying. There was no way I was facing the Skeleton King. It was time to leave this newbie area and head into the main game world where I could begin my search for the soul stones. Even if I failed, it was safer. Staying here was not an option, at least, not with an army of undead coming to ravage this place’s ass off.

“Looking for a drink?” asked a husky, feminine voice from my left, and the sound of it broke me from my reverie.

I was still in town, sure, but I’d wandered off a considerable ways from my friends. I sighed. It was just like when I’d talked on the phone back home. I always mindlessly walked around while I chatted, so sometimes I’d wind up clear across the dorms without realizing it by the time I’d finished a call, which was annoying to say the least when I needed to point something out that was on my computer and I had wandered half a floor away.

“What?” I asked glancing toward the speaker only to find myself looking at Jessica Rabbit. Okay, not her exactly, but all the vavavoom was definitely there, and it’d somehow been crammed into a chainmail bikini no proper adventurer would ever wear.

She stood next to a swinging door that reminded me of an old western saloon, and even from my place on the sidewalk, it sounded pretty boisterous inside. Too boisterous. Like the kind of place where I’d walk in and immediately get shot by a gunslinger with a bad attitude.

“Not really,” I said, shaking my head as I glanced anxiously at my HUD, looking for the time. The blacksmith wouldn’t be finished repairing my scythe for a while yet. Part of me wanted to leave now and forget the weapon, but I had time enough to wait for it. The weapon would be done well before the siege began.

It sort of pissed me off because normally, I’d log out, go to bed, and wake up to find it freshly crafted. Even if I didn’t have a virtual sword of Damocles hanging over my head, this whole waiting in real time was going to be balls fast.

“You sure? You seem like you have a lot on your mind, adventurer.” She smiled at me, and it was like someone turned on the sun. My heart began to race in my chest, and my pants suddenly felt two sizes too tight. I tried to remind myself that this was a game, but truth be told, no girl had ever looked at me like this NPC was.

“Sorry, I need to go find somewhere to crash for the night. I’m checking out of this town first thing in the morning.” I waved at her. The last thing I wanted to do was go drink in a virtual bar when I didn’t even know if I could get drunk. Nor did I want little miss too-good-to-be-true to roll my unconscious ass and take all my hard earned money. Nope, I needed all the Rhuvians, the cash used here in Ruul, I could get, and I definitely didn’t have any to spare on frivolous things.

“You could stay with me.” She smiled again as she turned and pointed toward the sign above the door with one long pink fingernail. “Actually, you kind of have to stay with me. We’re the only inn in the Town of Silver Gables.” She gave me a satisfied smile that made me want to kiss her. I didn’t, but man, was it tough.

“I don’t have that kind of coin,” I replied, turning to go. Only as I did, I saw my party members coming toward me. It didn’t seem like they’d actually seen me yet, but they were definitely on the lookout. I knew, just knew, that if they found me, they’d want me to help them try to stop the Skeleton King. I could still remember how I’d seen the wheels had turned inside Dark Heart’s brain when the skeleton’s dialog had finished.

Her eyes had lit up in a way that told me she thought we had to complete the quest and defeat the Skeleton King. I had no idea why we had to do it, but I was willing to bet she thought there might be a soul stone at the end of the tunnel. I, on the other hand, didn’t think so for two reasons.

Firstly, the Skeleton King’s siege seemed like exactly the kind of side quest that would pop up and take a bunch of time, which while fun, would mean that at the end of the day, you’d look and see you’d progressed the main storyline by one percent and spent fifteen hours doing side quests. In a game like this where I absolutely had to complete the main quest of finding the soul stones to return home, side quests were a non-starter.

Secondly, no developer in their right mind would put a soul stone at the end of a chain quest in a newbie area. This wasn’t like in Ready Player One, where anyone could visit the home world at any time. No, if this was anything like Titan Gate, once you went through the portal to leave the newbie area, so you could venture out into the wider world and not be confined to the starting hunting zones, you couldn’t return. That meant there’d be no way to come back and collect a soul stone if one was actually hidden here, which meant anyone who left would be screwed because even if they found all the other stones, they’d never be able to get this one. I mean, maybe that was the case, and this game was just really poorly designed, but it seemed unlikely.

So, you know what? Fuck that. I was done with this place. Everything was way too hard to fuck around with a side quest like that at our level. No. It was time to get out into the main world, level my character like crazy while finding better gear so I wouldn’t be gibbed while trying to find the soul stones in the world outside the Town of Silver Gables and its surrounding areas.

Only, I was fairly sure my friends would try to talk me into it, and since I’d die if Dark Heart died, I needed them not to talk me into it. No, I needed them to follow me into the world at large, and for that to happen, I needed them not to find me until that sank into their skulls because right now, they were still celebrating our victory over the cobalt demon. A victory that had nearly cost Two’ Manchu his life.

“Hey,” I said, turning back toward Jessica Rabbit in chainmail. “I think I will have a drink.” I nodded toward my friends as I approached the door and pushed it open. A wave of sound and chaos hit my eardrums like a tornado as I shoved some Rhuvians into her hand. “Just tell them I went a different way, eh?”

“Not a problem,” she said, smiling at me with her full pouty lips and pocketing the coins as I went inside. “We have a simple rule in the Macabre Skull. If you want to get lost, we’ll let you.”

“Thanks.” I nodded at her and stepped inside. The place was a lot bigger inside than I’d have thought it’d be from the outside. It was also both a lot dingier and a lot nicer than I’d expected. Everything inside was polished oak, from the bar stools and tables to the floor. The heads of everything from unicorns to orcs was mounted along the top perimeter of the room.

There were over a dozen adventurers sitting around playing cards inside, but none of them struck me as my kind of adventurers because all their garb was really similar. I sort of hated the cut and paste nature of NPCs in games. Granted, this was a newbie area, and I was sure no one wanted to spend time on NPCs here because of their limited interaction time, but still.

A grin spread across my lips. When I was done getting the soul stones, I’d have a word with the malevolent AI virus who ran this game. I’d ask, no demand, he make each NPC a lot more unique. After all, he was a sentient bit of code, it wasn’t like time mattered to him.

“What’ll you have?” the big burly bartender said as I approached. He was scarred from head to toe and was missing one eye so he just looked at me with a blank socket. “Cause if you aren’t here to drink, you need to leave.” He shot a glance past me toward the doors as though hoping more people would come in.

“Um…” I said, taking a seat in front of him. “I was hoping for a room for the night. Maybe some food?” I asked, glancing at my satiety bar in my HUD, the interface that wrapped around my vision displaying all my pertinent data like health and such like I was in one of those science fiction games.

Right now, it showed my satiety bar had dropped to twenty-four percent. I knew that in Titan Gate, a whole bunch of negative things occurred when that bar reached zero, so topping it before I slept would be good. Then I could wake up well rested and get a move on. The increased regeneration rate that came from sleeping would definitely help once I was out in the real world.

“We have chicken stew,” the bartender grunted, pointing to a large back cauldron hanging over a fire in the corner. “But you can’t have any unless you buy a drink.” He pushed a menu listing prices toward me. A beer, soup, and a room would come to less than five hundred Rhuvians, and since I had around ten thousand Rhuvians, I figured I could spare it. That said, of the total cost, the beer was three hundred Rhuvians by itself and accounted for sixty percent of the bill. No wonder he’d insisted on it.

“Fine, give me a drink, the stew, and a room, okay?” I smiled at him as I held my hand out across the counter, offering it to him. He nodded and took my hand, and as he did, my wallet diminished by the exact amount of the goods on the menu.

“Coming right up,” he said, turning away from me and swiping a glass mug off the counter before putting it under a tap on a stained wooden barrel. Frothy amber liquid filled the mug, and as the head rose past the top and froze as it dripped down the sides, he shut the tap and put it down on the wooden bar in front of me.

I took it from the bar as he watched me closely with his one good eye and took a sip. And holy fuck was that shit strong. As I swallowed a gulp that sort of tasted like honey and hops, I stared at it in shock. I was going to be drunk by the end of this thing. And you know what?

I’d had a long day. Maybe getting drunk was exactly what I needed.

 

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Soulstone: Awakening – Chapter 1

SoulstoneAvakening

Chapter 1

A war cry burst from the barbarian’s lips as he ambled toward me. His leather boots kicked dust up from the arena floor as he moved in a slow circle, trying to get his back to the sun and diminish my line of sight. It was a good trick, but there was just one problem with that. I knew what he was trying to do.

Even if I could keep him from blinding me, that hulking axe of his would do some major damage. If he hit me with that, no amount of blocking would keep my head from getting caved in like a casaba melon. Unfortunately, I was only good up close. I’d have to engage him sooner or later, and since his arms were longer than mine, I’d have to be quick. Even a cursory blow from him would mean trouble since the wardings on his gauntlets let me know he had ogre strength.

That said, I’d done this dance a million times before. The key was to not get frazzled. No, I had to stay calm. If I was calm, I could win. At least in theory. Unfortunately, it was always easier to tell yourself to be calm than to actually calm down. On the other hand, it was always a lot easier to piss the other guy off.

“Have you heard the one about your mother?” I asked, a grin melting across my face as I stepped back, trying to put space between me and his big axe. The muscles in his legs twitched as I spoke, letting me know he was about to attack. “You probably have, it’s huge.”

Another snarl tore from his throat as he leapt toward me, huge twin bladed axe cleaving through the air in a shower of red energy. I stepped to the side, slipping into a shadow as the axe passed through where I’d been and reappeared behind him, driving my daggers into his back before following up with a quick kidney punch.

He stumbled forward, stunned from the blow as I unloaded everything I had left, stabbing him in the back with my dragon bone daggers and sending him flying across the arena floor like a comet of fire and blood. As he crashed to the ground lifeless, the crowd went wild. I grinned as I sheathed my twin daggers and took a bow.

A cry of outrage exploded from the computer station across from me as the angry form of my opponent, Two‘ Manchu, leapt from his seat and flung his headset at the huge movie screen displaying our match in fury.

“You cheated, Kahn!” he snarled, calling me by my character’s name as he marched toward me. It probably would have been a little more intimidating if he wasn’t a five-foot-nothing Asian guy with spaghetti arms, but you work with what you’ve got, I guess.

To be fair, I wasn’t much better since most of my time was spent in front of a computer screen or in an arcade. Let’s just say I didn’t consider working out a productive use of my time. Still, as he came charging toward me across the stage at the EpiX! Games! PVP World Championship, my heart beat like a hammer in my chest. I didn’t want to get into a fight with anyone if I could help it, let alone in front of an entire crowd of people.

“It must be hard for you, not being able to rage quit in front of all these people, eh?” I asked, standing up and trying to appear bigger than I really was while running a hand through my short black hair. “Besides, hitting you in the back is hardly cheating. Haven’t you heard? Rogues always do it from behind.”

Before I could say more, a too cool for school guy in his mid-twenties wearing expensive shades and a blue muscle shirt came walking toward me with his hand out. My jaw nearly dropped. It was Crash Overdrive. The reigning Titan Gate PVP champion, and the guy I’d face in the final round now that I’d just beaten Two‘ Manchu.

To be fair, I’d never expected to get this far, and I was still in sort of a daze. I’d mostly just played back at my dorm with a bunch of other drunks, and I’d joined the contest on a lark. Then I started winning.

“I guess I’ll be seeing you in the finals,” Crash said, offering me his hand. Two‘ Manchu had stopped in his tracks, and I wondered if it had something to do with Crash having acted like he didn’t exist. The two were in the same guild and had been buddy, buddy right before the match.

“Guess so,” I said, taking his hand. He squeezed hard, like he was trying to prove something.

His gaze darkened as he leaned in close to me and whispered into my ear. “Don’t get too comfortable winning. That shits about to end. I’m not afraid to sweep the leg.” He heaved a breath that smelled like Doritos and Red Bull into my face as he stood back and raised my hand into the air like I was the reigning WWE champion.

I wasn’t sure how the hell he planned to sweep my leg. I mean, we were in a video game tournament, so unless he was going to hack the entire contest, I wasn’t sure how he could cheat.

Still, Crash had been one of the developers of Titan Gate. It was possible he knew some secrets I didn’t. If that was the case, I might be in trouble. That said, I still doubted he’d cheat. While he was known for being a slightly underhanded player, no one got this far in a tournament like this and reigned this long as champion based on anything other than skill.

“I look forward to playing against you, Crash.” I flashed him the grin my mother always described as cheeky, but which was just normal for me and pulled my hand away from his grip. “It’s always nice when you see legends fall.”

“I doubt that’s going to happen for you, but it’s always nice to dream, kid.” Crash scowled at me, but before he could say more, an absolute diva stepped in front of him, and I suddenly forgot he even existed.

She was dressed like Tifa Lockhart and had long brown hair and blue eyes that made me want to fall into them and never come out again. The rest of her was nice too, but I knew if I started looking her over too much, she might get the wrong idea.

I wasn’t the type to start slobbering at the sight of a pretty girl, but as Tifa stepped up to me and smiled, I forgot how to breathe. My vision tunneled so all I could see was her as her lips parted into a smile that could launch an armada.

“Hi,” she said, and I was already planning our wedding. We’d have three kids and a dog, but not a really big dog. Something smaller, like a Jack Russell. It’d have a lot of energy so the kids would have to walk him.

“Hello,” I replied pleased I’d remembered how to speak. “How are you?”

“Good,” she said, moving close to me and gesturing toward a big burly guy wearing a nametag that said “Frank.” He was holding a giant television camera, and as my vision moved to encompass both him and her, everything clicked into place, and not just because her badge said “Press.”

“So, you’re a reporter?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“How’d you guess?” She socked me lightly in the shoulder, and I rubbed the spot despite myself. “It was the badge, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to play cool, which was hard because I wasn’t cool enough to talk to reporters. Truth be told, I was really new to the whole “make money playing games” thing. As I said before, I’d joined on a lark. I never expected to get past the first round, let alone to the finals, and OMG I was in the fucking finals. I was so screwed.

Then again, I’d watched thousands of YouTube videos. I’d seen Crash play before, and while the bastard was good, he always hesitated when using his Night Elf’s endgame skill. I never understood why, but there was definitely something off with his micro when he transitioned from Night Stun to Killing Tempest. If I could exploit that and execute my rogue’s Revering Vendetta, I could win.

Glee shot through me, and I must have looked stupid because Tifa tapped me on the shoulder with one red-gloved hand.

“Aaron, are you listening to me?” she asked, one eyebrow quirked in confusion.

“Sorry, I just realized I can beat Crash.” I smiled, wanting to jump on my private rig and test out what I thought I’d discovered.

“Care to tell me about it?” She gestured to Frank who looked bored. “We can go somewhere more private and do an interview for IGN.”

As much as I wanted to say no, I couldn’t. I hated when I upset people, and it wouldn’t take that long to do the interview. Besides the final match wasn’t for six hours. We had plenty of time.

“Sure,” I said, and she practically squealed with delight as she took my hand and led me toward a room at the far end of the stage. It had a big sign over the top that said “Press Room.”

I took a deep breath and tried to ignore how good her hand felt in mine, nor how long it’d been since I’d touched a live girl. At least three months. That’s when my girlfriend had left me for that douchebag on the football team. I was still pissed about how it went down, but she was a bitch, so good riddance. She’d had great tits though…

“Just through here,” Tifa said, opening the door for me and ushering me inside. I stepped into the darkened room and before I thought to ask why it was so dark inside, the door closed behind me, leaving me stranded in darkness.

“What’s going on?” I asked, whirling around to find Tifa silhouetted against the darkness.

“Nothing,” she said, reaching up and touching my face with one hand, right before she used her other hand to jab me in the neck with a hypodermic needle.

“Why?” A small squeak leapt from my throat as my vision went hazy, and I started to collapse to the ground. As my head bounced off the cheap carpet, Tifa knelt down next to me. She caressed my cheek as everything faded to black.

“Because Aaron. You’re our only hope.”

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Prince of Blood and Thunder – Chapter 1

prince-of-blood-and-thunder-kindle

Chapter 1

“Why exactly are we stopping at the Santa Monica Pier when we should be getting the hell out of dodge?” I asked as Tina, the mercenary working with my brother, paid the parking attendant and pulled through. She’d conveniently shown up following Gordon’s disappearance to help Justin and I escape the destruction of Dave & Busters on Hollywood and Highland, but I still wasn’t quite sure I trusted her. She was a mercenary, after all, and I didn’t know her.

Instead of replying to me and explaining why we were here, Tina turned the radio up to max overdrive and Dorothy’s Whiskey Fever drowned out all my thoughts.

It wasn’t the best response since I was already fifty shades of pissed. I mean, my “should have been dead” brother had just beaten the snot out of me with a lightsaber. Yeah, that’s right, I said lightsaber.

See, like me, my brother is an animator which means, like me, he can bring toys to life. It sounds cool until you’re in a lightsaber battle to the death, then it’s decidedly less cool.

It also means werewolves will go out of their way to try to kill you, and by out of their way, I mean are consumed with the need to cut off our heads and put them on pikes like we’re in medieval England.

Why? Because even though silver doesn’t hurt werewolves in real life, we can kill them with silver bullets.

Which is why my kind has been hunted to near extinction and also why my brother used a genocidal ritual to blow away every last werewolf in the noble houses save for Justin Bailey who was currently unconscious in the backseat of Tina’s lime green Firebird. Gordon spared Justin because the werewolf prince meant something to me, which was good because while we weren’t exactly a couple, we were close enough for me to think we might be one soon after he woke up.

Unfortunately, that ritual had gone down less than an hour ago, and instead of hightailing it away before collateral damage came down on our shiny little heads like a metric ton of shit, Tina had driven us straight to the Santa Monica pier of all places. It didn’t make any fucking sense.

“Tina, I’m serious. Why are we going to the pier? There’s a ton of people here, and I thought you were taking him to a healer?” I yelled, trying to raise my voice loud enough to be heard over Dorothy. It was hard because that girl’s got some pipes on her. “What if someone comes after us here?”

Tina glanced at me as she pulled into a space and shoved the Firebird into park. “Are you purposefully being dense?”

“No?” I cried, which was all sorts of fucked up because as I did it, she’d shut off the car, and I’d basically yelled into silence.

“Do you really not know about the ancient city of Atlantis?” Her eyebrow quirked up on her forehead as she spoke. “Because this is one of the entrances.” She gestured toward the pier.

“Atlantis?” I scoffed, shaking my head. “Do you think I was born yesterday? What’s next? A city buried inside an active volcano?”

“I’m surprised you know about Vulcan when you don’t know about Atlantis. Vulcan’s been a ghost town for at least a decade while over eighty percent of the mages alive today live in Atlantis,” Tina replied casually, ignoring my disdain as she unbuckled her seatbelt and opened her door. A freezing blast of chilly air hit me, and I instinctively scrunched myself into my Werewolf Ninja sweatshirt. Justin had given it to me after my last one had been covered with bits of werewolf goo, and because of that, it was one of my prized possessions.

“You’re messing with me, right?” I asked, but the look she gave me made me think there might actually be a ghost town in an active volcano. There was no way that was possible. The amount of power it’d take to keep the lava from eating into the city would be insane.

“I’m not having this conversation with you, Annie. Let’s go,” Tina said, opening the back door and glancing at the werewolf prince splayed across the backseat.

Justin was still unconscious after lending me his power so I could activate an ancient Star Trek style teleporter in the basement of Dave & Buster’s and get us to safety. He had done it even though my brother had literally just wiped out untold numbers of his kind. He’d still saved us, and it wasn’t something I think I could have done in his situation. Then again, at the end of the day, that sort of innate goodness was why I liked him so much. Not that I’d ever tell him that.

Why? Because I was sure if I gave voice to my feelings it could ruin things between us, and with everything my brother had just done to his people, I was pretty sure we were going to need all the help we could get. Taking extra chances at this point was just asking for trouble.

Still, it was thanks to Justin that Gordon and I had escaped the ritual chamber below Dave & Busters before the place got sucked into a giant black hole of doom. Why? Because unlike mages like me who could use magic, werewolves were intrinsically made of magic, and I’d sucked him dry. Wow, that sounded better in my head.

Anyway, I’d never heard of it happening before, but then again, most encounters between my kind and the tall, dark, and furry tended to be of a decidedly violent nature. While I wasn’t trying to excuse what my brother had done by a longshot because it was fucking horrible to kill untold numbers of people, part of me could see it from his point of view.

In his mind, Gordon was the hero, and because of that, he truly believed he was righting countless wrongs by killing so many werewolves at once. And maybe if this was his story that would be true. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it that way. He’d murdered good people along with the bad, and that was never okay.

“We can’t just leave Justin here,” I said, getting out of the car. Another shiver racked my body as I glanced around the nearly empty parking lot. The place had only opened a few minutes ago, so we’d been able to find a spot fairly close to the pier, but I knew from experience this wouldn’t last. People would be here soon. I don’t mean to be mean, but I’m not exactly a fan of crowds. Or people. Or babies. Mostly babies. Look, I’m sure your kid is cute and all, but come on. No one wants to deal with a screaming toddler.

“We’re not. We’re taking him to Atlantis.” Tina glared at me from over the top of the car. “I swear to God if you’re always this dense I will leave your dumb ass here for the wolves to eat.” She drummed her fingers angrily on the roof. “Now help me carry him to the entrance.”

“Okay,” I said, fighting back the desire to question her more about Atlantis. Even though Tina was a total bitch, I couldn’t help but feel a flush of embarrassment rise up my cheeks because I felt like I had no handle on what was going on. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to be nice to me.”

“You don’t know that,” Tina said, eyeing me coldly. “It just might hurt me if I was nice to you and that’s a chance I’m not willing to take.”

I fought down the urge to call her a bitch because I was a mature, centered adult and instead ignored her jab. It was time to get on with this.

“So what’s the plan, exactly?” I asked as Tina and I each threw one of Justin’s arms over our shoulders and dragged him forward. It was hard because he was taller than both of us and all dead weight. It made me glad I’d gone to that one Zumba class with Blair six weeks ago. Who knows what I’d have done if I hadn’t.

As we moved, I decided that once we got to Atlantis, assuming it was real and Tina wasn’t pulling a “Mean Girls” on me, I’d get a message to Blair and Badger back in Magic Alley. If the werewolves did come after me, it would take exactly three seconds for them to track Justin and me back to Blair, and then, well, let’s just say werewolves tended to murderize things long before they asked questions. It was ruthless, which was probably why they’d been in power for so long.

Still, I couldn’t focus on them now. Blair had been around the block a few times. She’d be fine, at least for a little while. I, on the other hand, had bigger problems. For one, my brother was a genocidal maniac, but that was too big for me to deal with right now. No, I had to start small, let myself process some other things before I broke down into a wreck.

Besides, Justin needed me right now, and that was easy. I just had to put one step in front of the other to help him. That was firmly within my wheelhouse. Still as Justin’s Air Jordans dragged on the asphalt in a way I knew would ruin the white and red shoes, part of me felt bad about it.

On one hand his family could probably buy their own factory full of sweatshop workers to make him more Nikes if he wanted, but I knew he had wanted to make his way on his own, separate from his family. He’d probably paid for those shoes out of his own earnings as an actor, and at the end of the day, these were Air Jordans. There’d been a time when I knew people who would literally kill over shoes like that.

“We get up there, you shut your eyes, and run blindly at the railing. Don’t worry, if you have any kind of magical ability at all, you’ll get transported to Atlantis,” Tina said as we moved. Her words were a touch strained, but she had a smile on her face.

“I think you’re a goddamned liar,” I said, glaring at her.

“Oh, come on, Annie. If you can’t joke about the little things, how else do you expect to survive?” she asked, and this time when she smiled, I got a sense of hollow emptiness from her. It made me think she’d seen some bad shit in her day. It also made me trust her even less.

“I plan on surviving by taking a page out of Ender Wiggin’s playbook,” I replied as we mounted the steps beside Bubba Gump’s restaurant and started the arduous task of carrying a two-hundred-pound werewolf up a flight of stairs. Definitely gonna need to catch more Zumba classes.

“And what’s that, pray tell?” she asked, eyeing me carefully.

“I’m going to hit my enemies so fraking hard everyone else will be too scared to come within a city block of me,” I said, taking a deep breath.

“Makes sense,” Tina said with a shrug. “That was exactly your brother’s plan.” She smiled wryly. “Let’s hope it worked.”

I sighed. I hadn’t thought about that, but it sort of made sense. I had been raised by the same person my brother had. We both learned that when you fought, you ended your opponent. It made me shudder to think about the fact that my brother had taken it to such an extreme. It also made me very scared for not just the families of the werewolves, but for everyone. Gordon had just nuked the werewolves from orbit, and there was no way they weren’t going to retaliate.

Gordon probably thought the werewolves would fight each other for power, but it really wouldn’t be hard to rally them against us in their moment of pain. All it would take were a few choice speeches to a few particularly hurt werewolves and we could have a full scale war going on. Worse still, what if the werewolves didn’t see it as Gordon or animators doing this? What if they saw it as mages in general and came after everyone?

In the moment, even Justin had wanted to kill my brother for conducting a ritual that had killed off all the major werewolf bloodlines, and he was intelligent and relatively centered for a werewolf. With friends and family murdered, the others were hardly going to be calm and level headed. Worse still, Justin’s father the King of Wolves was in a coma thanks to a little backstabbing from his bodyguard, so even if he wanted to step in and provide leadership, he couldn’t.

The only small justice was that I’d thrown The King of Wolves’ attacker out of a helicopter, but the damage had been done. Now, there was likely anarchy amongst the wolves, and unless we could get Justin and his father up and at ‘em, there wouldn’t be a lot we could do to stop all hell from breaking loose. Unfortunately, I was betting that would be more of a long-term plan. Short term was where things got sticky.

“I hope we’re not all dead by sundown,” I said as we got to the pier and began moving forward. A guy dressed like Jesus playing Smells like Teen Spirit smirked at us before crooning like Kurt Cobain. Yep, definitely in Santa Monica.

“They won’t be able to rally that quickly. We’ve got a while, I bet.” Tina shrugged. “In the end, it doesn’t much matter. If it’s not the wolves with their foot on our neck, it’ll be someone else. I’m not trying to say I’m for the devil we know or anything because fuck those wolves in the wolfass, but yeah. I’m fairly certain things are about to get really bad.”

She was probably right, and as much as I wanted to argue, I didn’t see the point. My brother had just thrown a Molotov cocktail into the center of the ruling class, and it didn’t take a genius to see stuff was going to break while everything got sorted. Hopefully, that bought enough time for Justin to recover because I wasn’t sure I could face the coming reality without him.

That wasn’t just me being a weak female fawning over a hot guy either. Justin was a Prince, and even if his father never woke up, that title carried heft. Maybe it would be enough to keep everyone from dying.

“So where’s the mystical entrance to the lost city of Atlantis?” I asked in an effort to put my mind off how power vacuums never end well. And while they tend to be filled by the worst of the worst, maybe, just maybe, Justin could fill this one.

Still, an admittedly naïve part of me hoped mages in general would jump at the opportunity to step in and help the werewolves in their time of need. If they did, maybe our two cultures wouldn’t immediately be thrust into a war.  If that happened, even more would people would die.

“The entrance to Atlantis really is at the end of the pier.” She smiled at me, and it almost reached her eyes. Her sudden glee made me worried, but I had no choice. “We’re going to climb the railing and leap off. If you hit the right spot, you’ll wind up in Atlantis. If you miss, well, I hope you can swim.”

“You’re not serious…” I said, swallowing hard. I could swim fairly well, but that didn’t mean I liked the idea of jumping into the Pacific Ocean fully clothed. I cringed at the thought because I wasn’t a huge fan of cold water. Nope. I’d take a Caribbean beach with a nice cabana boy over righteous waves any day of the week.

“I’m dead serious,” Tina said before letting the silence hang between us as we trudged across the pier.

So far, all we’d gotten were a couple weird glances from random patrons, but given time, someone would ask why we were dragging an unconscious movie star to the end of the pier. Almost no answer comes off innocently in that scenario.

“What if someone tries to stop us from leaping off the pier?” I asked, raising an eyebrow in her general direction.

“Then we ignore them and jump, anyway. We’ll be long gone before they can so much as post the video on YouTube.” She ran a hand through her hair and smiled at me. “Still, you may want to fix your hair.” She mimed taking a picture of me. “You’ll be a star!”

“I actually put a lot of effort into my hair,” I said, unconsciously running my hand through my pink and black hair. It was a bit snarly, but nothing a good shower wouldn’t fix.

“I’m sure you do,” Tina rolled her eyes as we skirted past a group of children covered from head to toe in ice cream while their parents presumably chatted about why they’d bothered to have kids when there were so many nice beaches in the world.

“You’re just a bitch,” I said, glaring at her as we headed down some stairs onto the lower level of the pier where people fished and cut bait. “I don’t like you even slightly.”

“Good to know.” Tina dropped Justin against the railing and pulled an amulet out from beneath her shirt. The gleaming, golden trident glimmered in the sunlight, and as she raised it to her lips and blew across the surface, the air off the end of the pier shimmered.

I was sure no one else could see it because most normal people can’t see magic, but for me, it was like watching the horizon tear itself asunder. Soon, a portal that spilled neon magenta light had opened up off the edge of the pier. I could see the shadowy outline of buildings within it but not much else.

“Let’s go, Princess. Hand me Justin, and I’ll hold him up until you can join me up here. I can’t jump while holding him by myself, so we’ll have to do it together,” Tina said, leaping up onto the railing and holding her hand out to me like I could somehow get two hundred pounds of Justin up on the railing by myself. “It’s easier if you don’t look before you leap.”

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Back to Business

So, I’m back from our trip to New York and Canada. I’ve gotten all the required research I need for an upcoming book and am super excited to get busy on my next project. There was just one snaffu. Delta lost my laptop with about 40% of Flesh and Blood (Roy Morgan #2) so I’m a bit behind, but fear not, I will make it up.

Unfortunately, it looks like Flesh and Blood will come out toward the end of December instead of this week like it was supposed to. You can blame Delta who assure me they are doing everything they can even though they’ve already archived my ticket and told me I probably won’t get the laptop back.

Still, Annie 2 is with the editor and will be out December 12th and I’ll have the first in a new series in January. I’m so excited, I’m going to go write now!

Hellbound – Chapter 1

hellbound

Chapter 1

“Well, Mac. What’s it going to be?” Mammon, the demonic Prince of Greed asked as he loomed over me, one hand holding his glowing pimp staff like he was trying to decide whether or not he wanted to brain me with it. “Are you going to kill her?”

I glanced from him to Jenna. My ex-girlfriend lay unconscious on the ground a few feet away, and as much as I wanted to kill her and make good on my promise to end her, now that I was standing here in front of Mammon, I knew I couldn’t. Even after she’d shot me in the gut a couple times and left me for dead. I just couldn’t.

I’m not sure if that made me sad and pathetic or just plain stupid, but there was no way I was going to kill my ex because deep down, I knew it was my fault she was in her situation. If I’d been a bit better, I could have kept her from getting involved in all this. I could have saved her.

So no, I couldn’t kill her. I had to make things right between us if it was the last thing I did. Killing her while she lay unconscious on the rooftop of a crappy building in Hell was just not in the cards. Yeah, that’s right, I said Hell.

When she’d fallen into Hell, I’d gone after her, and no sooner had we landed on what looked like the demonic version of Las Vegas, Mammon had reared his ugly demonic face and demanded I make good on our deal. That wasn’t going to happen, but I didn’t want him to know that just yet.

For one, I wasn’t sure if there was a way out of Hell, nor if I could actually take on Mammon while in Hell. I mean, I’d gone into Hell before when I’d faced Beleth and Baphomet, but I’d had an entire team of bad asses with me then, one of which was currently unconscious next to me. I’m sure I’d faced worse odds before, I just wasn’t quite sure when.

I was also pretty sure I wasn’t getting out of here alive without her help. Mammon might say he’d honor our deal and let me go home once I axed Asmodai, the demonic Prince of Lust and Mammon’s rival, but I was pretty sure Mammon was a lying sack of shit. No, I couldn’t off my own ally. There had to be another way.

“I need her help, Mammon. I cannot kill Asmodai without her.” I stepped closer to the demon and glared up at him. He was tall and gangly, and he towered over me like a basketball player at a midget convention, but I ignored his awe inspiring height as I curled my black as soot right hand into a fist. The demonic tattoos scrawled across my flesh began to glow with crimson energy, sparking to life like I’d called upon my power, only I hadn’t done that. Weird, definitely, but I didn’t have time to worry about it now.

“I don’t believe you.” Mammon replied, staring down at me. His face had settled into a scowl that made the blood run cold in my veins, but I ignored it. Power rose off of him in waves that fell all around me, but I wasn’t worried about that either. He might be able to incinerate me with a touch, but I had ways of dealing with psychic mojo. What I couldn’t deal with was getting my skull caved in by his stupid magically-enhanced cane.

Cotton candy pink sparks leapt from the diamond tip as he stepped back, probably to give him more room to swing his pimp staff, which was one of the reasons I’d moved closer. Call me crazy, but I wanted as much advantage as possible if we threw down.

“Why would I lie?” I asked, raising an eyebrow at the demon. “It makes sense if you think about it.”

“I am the Prince of Greed,” Mammon replied and his voice brought with it the chill that proceeded the bleak night. “You will do what I ask or you will pay the consequences. We had a deal. You were to kill Asmodai, Prince of Lust and his Council of Seven. She is the last of the Seven. ”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said as I decked him in the face. Well, sort of. I threw an uppercut at him like I was Mike fucking Tyson. My right fist lanced upward through the air, catching him under the chin and snapping his head backward with a sickening crack.

He wobbled, his hands going out in front of him in shock as I stepped into him, grabbed his wrist and twisted. He cried out as the bones in his hands snapped and the cane toppled free of his grip. I snatched it as it fell and whirled as he started to recover. The glowing end of the staff hit him square in the side of the temple and the sound was like a cannon going off. Mammon’s head exploded in a fountain of gore as he toppled sideways under the force of the magic.

Unfortunately, the blow hadn’t killed him and that was bad. Very, very bad. It meant he could get back up and kill me. Call me crazy, but pissing off an all-powerful Prince of Hell seemed like a bad fucking idea while in Hell. I just wished I had a better option. That was part of the problem. Lately, it felt like I’d been dragged from one situation to another with no time to rest, and every time I tried to get out of it, more shit just fell on me.

Now I was literally trapped in Hell and had no idea which way to swim to even get to the surface. I mean, I was going to try, and by try, I meant kill the fuck out of everyone in my way, but at the same time, I was kind of getting over this. I mean, fuck, I had a girlfriend, and I hadn’t even taken her on a real date. Let’s just say if Lucifer himself came to me right now and offered me a chance to walk away from all of this, I’d take it in a heartbeat.

Unfortunately, I seriously doubted that was going to happen, so I was going to have to take matters into my own hands.

“Watch your step,” I said, kicking him in the center of the chest as blood dripped down from the caved in side of his head. He flew backward, the air rushing out of him with a whoosh. I knew the kick wouldn’t hurt him much, but as he stumbled backward under the force of the blow, his heel slipped off of the roof and he toppled from view. “That last one’s a doozy.”

Adrenaline pounded in my veins as I spun on my heel and raced toward Jenna. She was breathing, but wasn’t otherwise moving. I’d have to be quick. I snatched her up under the arms, and as I did, I shut my eyes, calling upon the cat demon residing in my skull. Only, instead of being able to contact her like normal, I got static. I could feel her there, sort of like I was alone in a dark closet and had the feeling something monstrous was in there with me, but no matter how I flailed mentally, I couldn’t contact her. Fuck.

“Okay…” I whispered as the sounds on the street below stopped. No one was screaming which was sort of sad even if we were in Hell. I mean, okay, for whatever reason, this part of Hell sort of looked like Las Vegas and there were dozens, if not hundreds, of people on the boulevard below. Surely someone would think it odd the Prince of Greed had just done a swan dive off the top of a casino.

Then again, maybe he did it for fun. How the fuck was I to know? The one thing I did know was I did not want to be here when he came back. I wasn’t sure on how good his ability to find me in Hell would be, but I wanted to at least try to evade him if I could.

“Jenna, wake up,” I growled, hauling her to her feet and throwing her over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry. I didn’t have a gun, but I had the pimp staff. Hopefully, it would be enough. Then again, I was sure that unlike the two of us, most of the people here were already dead, and I wasn’t sure how to kill them if I needed to.

Still, bridges and crossing. Or water and bridges. Who the hell knows?

I turned my attention toward the door at the far end of the roof and scrambled toward it. Jenna wasn’t exactly a swimsuit model by any stretch. She wasn’t fat, rather she was all dense muscle, and moving across the roof was harder than I expected. I was breathing hard by the time I reached the door.

Thankfully it didn’t have a handle, just a piece of rectangular silver metal with the word push stenciled vertically across it where a knob should have been. I shouldered the door open and was met with a stairwell filled with what seemed like miles of fucking stairs. Low light emitted from emergency lights set into the stairs, but it was otherwise dark. Awesome.

“Don’t say I never did anything for you,” I grumbled, hoisting the unconscious Jenna up as I began making my way down into the depths of the stairwell.

Pound of Flesh – Chapter 1

poundofflesh-final

Chapter 1

I didn’t stop the guy as he pushed his way into the convenience store. Why would I?

Blowing a hole into the back of this son-of-a-bitch’s skull would let him know something was up. And I didn’t want him to know that. At least not yet.

So instead, I flipped a packet of Sugar Babies around in my hand, pretending I was one of those douches who read the nutritional information on the back of candy wrappers as though it could have possibly said anything other than “awesome sugary poison.”

This gutter trash bastard had hit up six convenience stores in the last four weeks, and his MO was always the same. Pull a gun, rob the place and, just as the sobbing guy or girl behind the counter thinks he’s going to take the cash and run, he guns them down along with anybody else in the store who might have been unlucky enough to be going on a beer run.

I had seen his type before, tangled with them on more than one occasion.

They never won. They wouldn’t start tonight.

Charlie made his way to the freezer, pretending he was trying to decide between a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and a six-pack of Bud Light.

It was patently ridiculous. One, because anybody who cared to look could see the crease in the back of his jeans where he’d shoved his pistol, and two, because everybody knows that when faced with that decision, the only correct answer is both.

I guess, in the end it wouldn’t matter which one good old Charlie chose. He was about to meet a fate I reserved for only the sickest, most depraved individuals.

Which was to say, I was going to eat him.

Now, before anybody starts getting the wrong idea, I wasn’t actually going to eat him. At least, not in the traditional “fork and knife” sense of the word.

What I do, what I’ve always done since I was a little half demon kid trying to come to terms with the hunger inside of me, is a little more sophisticated than that.

No, what I do is much more humane. At least, as humane as someone who’s batting .500 on the demon scale can be.

Charlie settled on the two liter and started toward the counter.

There was a cute little blonde girl behind the desk. She was chomping on gum, eyes glued to her cell phone, with a nametag on that read “Staci.”

“Staci with an I,” I muttered.

She wasn’t paying attention, but she would be shortly.

Charlie Whitmore was planning on making “Staci with an I” his seventh victim in the Atlanta area in two months.

It was business as usual for him, old hat.

But it wasn’t going to be old hat.

And not just because I was a cop.

I shoved the packet of Sugar Babies into my pocket and headed for the counter behind Charlie.

No, I wasn’t going to steal the candy. What kind of cop would that make me? I’d toss the money on the counter after I made short work of Charlie. Though honestly, if Staci accepted it, I’d be a little pissed off. I mean, come on, saving somebody’s life is totally worth some sugary goodness.

Power welled up inside of me as I neared Charlie boy, causing me to sweat and giving me a touch of the shakes. It wasn’t my warlock half. Nah, that sort of energy was easy to control. At least in contrast to the other half.

This was the dark part of me, the demon part, the impolite part I wasn’t supposed to talk about at dinner parties, the part that absolutely, under no circumstances would shut up unless I fed it.

Well, put your lobster bib on, demon part. We’re about to dine.

Charles Whitmore settled in front of the register with his two-liter soda. Staci with an I paid him about as much attention as you might a buzzing fly that decided to keep its distance, which was to say she threw up an index finger, head still planted firmly in her phone’s screen and chomped, “One second, mkay?” through a mouth full of pink bubble gum.

But Charles Whitmore had no intention of waiting one second. As I said before, for him, this was old hat. While he might have been more cautious before, well, let’s just say he’d gotten cocky.

“Put the phone on the counter and open the register,” he said flatly, his eyes betraying the sort of hardness that could only come from having done this many times before.

And there it was.

I needed to wait, not because I needed proof. No. I just needed to be able to live with myself.

Sure, I had done my research. I was a good detective. I knew Charles Whitmore was the person responsible for all of this death, even if the rest of the department hadn’t quite figured it out yet. But I needed to see it happen. I needed to watch the offense taking place. In my experience, that sort of proof was the only thing that helped me sleep at night.

“What?” Staci with an I asked, finally looking up from her phone. What she found was a tall, blond, reasonably handsome man with a crooked grin on his face and pistol in his hand.

Things just got real.

“On the counter,” he repeated.

She did as he asked, her entire body shaking with fear. This had not been what she’d been expecting.

He smashed the butt of his pistol down on the phone hard, nearly snapping the cheap plastic in half.

“And you,” he said, equally calm, gesturing at me with the two-liter to let me know he was speaking to me. ”You’ll stop right there if you know what’s good for you.”

I wasn’t sure why, but the phrasing tickled me a little, and I couldn’t help but chuckle.

Loud.

If someone getting pissed off was something you could hear, I’d have been able to hear it coming off of Charles Whitmore like a marching band at 2 AM.

“Is something funny, prick?” he asked, his mouth twisting into an angry scowl. Oh, look at that. I could hear it. He stepped back and turned his body halfway between me and the girl so he could see both of us, and eventually shoot both of us.

Not that I was going to let that happen.

“There’s a lot of funny things, man,” I said, still walking toward him. ”Kevin Hart, Modern Family, when a guy slips on a banana peel.” I settled in front of him, still far enough away so he’d think I didn’t pose any real danger. “You know, I wouldn’t normally admit this, but I’m a fan of those Kate Hudson movies too. You know, the ones where she gets the guy at the end. Those things are funny as hell. But do you know what’s the funniest thing in the world to me? The thing that just puts me in stitches? It’s when some douchebag loser is in way over his head and he doesn’t even know it.”

Charlie boy narrowed his eyes at me, like he couldn’t believe someone was actually saying this stuff to him.

“Big words for a guy with a gun pointed at his head,” Charlie said, moving the barrel of the pistol toward me.

And why wouldn’t he? One look at the way Staci was shaking was enough to tell him she wasn’t going to try anything.

“Oh, you’re looking for a gunfight,” I said, smiling and opening my jacket just enough for him to see both my newly issued APD badge and the gun holstered at my waist.

“You’re a cop?” he said, grinning. “That’s awesome. I never killed a pig before.”

“I’m a detective,” I clarified. “Detective Roy Morgan. And don’t get too excited, scumbag. You never will.”

“Tell it to the angels,” he muttered, and I could see his finger twitch on the trigger.

There was no time to pull my gun, and certainly no time to conjure up an incantation.

Instead, I went right to business.

I lunged for the waste of space.

Grabbing the barrel of the gun, I jerked it upward as he fired.

A bullet whizzed right past my head, lodging itself into the market’s ceiling.

Staci screamed, but I didn’t have time to comfort her.

My hand was on fire. The jerk and heat of the firing gun caused me to stumble backward, but as I did, I reached for my gun.

Falling, I fired twice, but the angle threw me off and all I ended up doing was taking out one of those disgusting hot dog spinners.

I leapt up as Charlie ducked behind one of the store aisles.

“Get out of here,” I muttered to Staci with an I. My hand burned and my head was starting to pound. Both were signs my demon half was getting ready to play.

“He’ll shoot me,” Staci replied, her voice shaky.

“He’ll shoot you if you don’t,” I answered, trying my best to sound confident. “Now go. I’ll cover you.”

She didn’t move.

“Go dammit!” I yelled, frustration filling my words.

Yelping, Staci darted from behind the counter.

Because he was a sadistic bastard, Charlie Whitmore started to shoot at her. He didn’t care that it gave up his position, or that it wasted valuable ammo he was going to need if he wanted to get out of here alive. All he cared about was his prize, killing another innocent person.

“Shit like this, Charlie,” I muttered, shielding her with my body as I fired back at him. “Shit like this is why I’m going to eat you.”

Staci made it out the door as one of Charlie’s stray bullets found its way into my shoulder. I pulled back, wincing in pain.

A lot of movies lead people to believe demons are bulletproof. Those same movies might say something similar about warlocks. As a half-breed from both those communities, I’d like to set the record straight and call bullshit. Getting shot sucks.

As pain shot up my shoulder, I ducked behind a display of beer cases and shrugged my jacket off. I placed a hand to my shoulder and muttered some of the Latin I had learned while being taught the ways of the warlock.

It was a simple spell and wouldn’t do much to actually heal me. It would take a proper doctor for that, but it would ease the pain enough for me to get the job done. And that was what mattered.

“Charles Whitmore,” I said, letting him know I knew his name. “Charles Whitmore of 1537 South Hampton Street. Apartment 4D. You can’t hide from me.”

“Then I guess I’ll just have to kill you,” he answered back. Which, to be fair, was a reasonable answer.

That’s right, you son of a bitch. Remind me how much you suck. Make it easy for me.

I muttered more Latin, this time to lock the doors and disable the security systems. There was no need for this to spill out into the street, and God knows, I couldn’t explain myself should a video of what was about to go down ever found its way to the public eye.

“You’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that, Charlie boy,” I said, steadying myself.

Now for the big one.

I used to think that growing up as only half warlock would mean I would only be half as strong. What it actually meant was I would have to work twice as hard to be half as strong.

That was okay, because it meant while other witches and warlocks were out popping each other’s cherries and disappointing their parents, I got to learn crap like this.

Throwing my hands out in front of me, I muttered some ancient shit the Druids used when their enemies hid from them.

The aisles separating me from Charles Whitmore disappeared, leaving a charred wasteland in their place and opening up a clear path to this bastard.

The world went red for me, which meant my eyes had gone red a demon party trick that usually caused anyone in viewing distance to wet themselves.

Charlie was no exception.

As he brought his gun up, hands shaking so hard he couldn’t have hit the side of a barn let alone me, all the blood drained from his face, leaving him pale as a ghost. He didn’t fire. He should have, but he didn’t. That was the weird thing about people. Show them a monster and they become as useless as a wet parachute on a skydive.

“What-what the fuck are you, man?” His voice cracked mid-sentence, and for a moment, I almost felt bad for him. Almost.

“What you deserve, Charles Whitmore,” I said, feeling the heat of my body preparing for what was about to happen.

My hands began to glow, red to match my eyes.

As soon as I laid them on Charlie, I’d suck the energy right out of him. I’d take it all, hollowing him out and leaving him a literal husk of a person.

It was harsh, sure. But no harsher than what he wanted to do tonight, than what he had done to countless people before.

It was why I saved it for people like him.

Besides, it had been too long since I’d “fed.” It was starting to make me antsy. Starting to find its way into my head. If I let that happen, if I let the demon side of me go too long without getting its “lunch” on, I’d find myself losing control to it. My inhibitions, my sense of right and wrong, all of it would be skewed by the monster inside.

Charlie froze there, the gun slipping from his hands to clatter across the cheap laminate floor as I neared him.

I didn’t feel death around him, which was odd. Another of my demon perks was that I could sense whenever death was about raise his hooded head and stick his hooded sickle into somebody’s ass. It usually found its way to my victims by now.

Maybe it was the bullet. Maybe it was throwing me off.

Either way, this was almost over.

“Calm down, Charlie. It’ll only hurt for a second, but it’ll hurt a lot.” I tried to sound comforting although I didn’t know why I bothered.

He screamed as I laid my hand on him.

I felt him start to pour into me, the connection that would soon end his life as well as his reign of terror on Atlanta’s poorest district.

Then the doors flew open. I cursed. All of my energy had went to feeding, using up the energy from the spell I’d previously used to lock the doors. Oops.

Police poured in, guns at the ready.

Dammit. Staci with an I must have gotten help.

I figured she would, but didn’t think reinforcements would come this quickly. Atlanta was faster than Boston. Good to know.

I pulled myself off of Charles Whitmore, feeling like a kid pulled away from dessert as I severed the connection.

Damn. This was worse than if I hadn’t started at all.

Like blue balls for the soul.

“You have the right to remain silent,” I said, tossing him on his back and placing cuffs on his worthless wrists. I leaned in closer, so that only he could hear me. I suggest you use it, asshole.”

 

An interesting few days…

Well, it’s certainly been an interesting few days. Let me just say, I’m halfway through my release a book every week this month thing and man is it draining. In retrospect, NEVER AGAIN!

The new one comes out tomorrow, but it’s already up and you could grab it on Amazon if you liked, I suppose. It’s called Full Metal Magic and is an anthology put together by me and eight other fantastic authors featuring all new tales. Mine features Mac Brennan.

I’ve also just wrapped up the new Mac Brennan novel and that means I’ve written twelve novels this year. That seems insane to me.

I also finished up the outline for Annie 2. It’s tentatively called Blood and Thunder, and I am going to start writing that today. I’m hoping for a December release on this one. Let me just say, the reviews on Throne to the Wolves are just blowing me away! I’m so glad you guys like it!

If you have any ideas for items you’d like to see Annie use in book 2, please drop me a line. I’m totally open to suggestions!

Finally (and the most exciting thing for me anyway) is I’ve started research on the book that will follow Annie 2. I’m not ready to reveal many details, but know I am excited! You should see it sometime around January if all goes according to plan.

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