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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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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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.”

 

Throne to the Wolves – Chapter 1

throne-cover1

Chapter 1

I sucked in a breath, drawing on my magic to slow the world around me down to ten frames per second. My target was up ahead, just coming out of the alley. He hadn’t seen me yet, and with any luck he never would. I sighted my sniper rifle on him and exhaled as I fired.

His head exploded into a cloud of red mist as what remained of his life splattered across the cinderblock wall behind him. As his body slid lifelessly to the pavement, a smile creased my lips, and I leapt to my feet in triumph.

“Boom! Headshot!” I cried, pumping my controller in the air as I did a little booty dance of victory.

Blair, my boss and the closest thing I had to a friend since I’d narrowly escaped getting brutally murdered a few years ago, glanced up at me from behind her D&D sourcebook and narrowed her eyes. She was sitting amid a plethora of dungeon guides, maps, and meticulously painted miniature figurines preparing for our nightly game. Evidently, she’d been too engrossed to pay attention to my stunning display of skill because if she had been watching, she’d be booty dancing in triumph too.

“This is a quiet space, Annie.” She gestured at the Do Not Disturb sign hanging beside her patched brown leather chair with one green-nailed hand.  She’d permanently borrowed the sign from our local library, which struck me as a bit horrible on the scale of things, but I’d learned to stop arguing about it with her. Every time I did, I got a lesson in taxes. Still, pointing at it while referring to me had become something of a pastime.

“Yeah, no one likes a braggart!” Badger said from his seat at the station next to mine. That wasn’t his real name of course, but ever since he’d perfected the voice of the guy from the honey badger video, that’s what we’d called him. He was a pretty normal looking guy with shaggy surfer-boy blond hair and a toothy smile. His brown eyes were perpetually dulled by something he’d neither confirm nor deny, but judging from his preference for stoner T-shirts, I was pretty sure I could figure it out on a timed exam. Hell, I wouldn’t even need multiple choice.

“You’re just mad because I’ve killed you ten times in a row, and now you have to buy me lunch,” I said, smirking at him as I gestured to his screen where his headless body was sprawled across the front of the alley. “Stop being such a scrub!”

I’ll be honest, I was about to taunt him some more, but the door at the front of our store chimed, signaling we had a customer. Actually, it probably wasn’t a customer. I mean, sure, Blair owned Wendigo’s Restoration Emporium, but no one ever came in here, and not just because it was tucked away on Magic Alley.

I mean, okay, technically we were in Los Angeles and normal people had stumbled in here on occasion, but chances were good anyone coming in had at least a little bit of magical chutzpah or they’d never wind up on our street.

Even though you didn’t have to tap a brick in the wall of a pub three times to enter Magic Alley, normal people tended to walk by our little street full of magical, mystical, and otherwise otherworldly shops like it didn’t exist. Hell, I’d had to stand at the corner more than once to physically direct a client down our street before they walked by it another hundred times. We didn’t even show up on the Los Angeles city maps.

The only reason Badger was able to even find the place was because he was a sensitive, which meant he’d drawn the short straw on the evolutionary scale. He had no magic of his own to speak of, but he could sort of sense it. Not enough to actually see magic per se, but enough to know Magic Alley was here. An enterprising artist, he’d wound up wandering in here a couple months ago looking for work because his Master’s in Fine Arts hadn’t opened many pathways for him, and he was buried under mountains of debt.

Thankfully, people like Badger were pretty rare, which was probably for the best since our shop was located next to the Black Arts Superstore. Non-mages buying bulk curses at discount prices? Not pretty.

To be honest, Blair put her shop here because she liked the way the other supernatural businesses kept the riffraff out. That was her rule number one: live around the rich and powerful, it might rub off. Or maybe that was rule two because I was pretty sure rule one was “if you can’t avoid paying taxes, at least make some creative deductions.”

Then again, while she might not have been powerful in the whole “blow up a building with a fireball” sort of way, since her powers practically made money grow on trees, she was really, really rich. That’s what happens when you get to be a couple hundred years old and have the ability to magically restore comics, artwork, and baseball cards to pristine condition.

Let’s just say, she’s on good terms with compound interest and collectors. So yeah, Blair didn’t need customers, but she loved writing off all her nerdy obsessions. See, more tax talk. Ugh. And I had to deal with said customers since it was technically my job. Double ugh.

“Annie, you better hurry up. Someone made an appointment to speak with our resident reader about now,” Blair said, glancing at her watch. “You don’t want to keep them waiting. Time is money, you know.”

“You mean, you booked me an appointment and didn’t tell me?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at her. “You hired me to read your merchandise, not for customer service.” I wasn’t exactly a people person, but if there was one thing I was good at, it was reading inventory in a magical sort of way, and Blair had need of a good reader, even if I wasn’t one in the way she thought I was since readers could do little more than talk to objects. I could do that, and a little more. Unfortunately, it was the little more that always got me in trouble. “Now you’re pimping me out?”

Blair raised one eyebrow at me. “I’m your boss, Annie. Pimping you out is my job.”

“What about my feelings?” I said, smacking my chest with my hand as I headed toward the front room. “I am more than the sum of my powers.”

“Not when we have a paying customer, you aren’t.” Blair was already looking back at her sourcebook. “Now get out there and make me some cheddar.”

I sighed and decided to get this over with. The sooner I read whatever object the person had brought in, the sooner I could get back to pwning newbs like nobody’s business. Besides, Badger wouldn’t be able to buy me lunch until after this was over, and I’d skipped breakfast. I know, most important meal of the day, but come on, who’s got time for that?

Still, I was a fan of money and having an otherwise cool boss so I sidled out of the alcove, intent on being as unfriendly as possible to said customer. As I made my way through the silver, beaded curtain that hung between the back room and the actual storefront, I stopped dead in my tracks.

Standing before me was an Adonis. His broad chest was covered by a Captain America T-shirt so tight it was more of an idea than actual clothing. I’d say it left little to the imagination, but combined with his deep blue eyes and wavy blond hair, it made a whole bunch of things run through my mind.

My cheeks reddened as he caught sight of me and flashed me a smile that made my heart speed up in my chest. And, I’ll be honest, my next several thoughts were a mixture of “OMIGOD he has to talk to me because he’s in our store!?” “What am I gonna do?” “Does my breath smell?” “How long have I been wearing this hoodie?” So, yeah, I found him hot. What of it?

Part of me wanted to sniff at both my hoodie and my breath, but I decided it’d look weird. Instead, I swallowed hard, trying to think of something interesting to say as two hundred pounds of muscle poured into skin-tight black jeans came toward me. Yummy.

“I know you guys usually do restorations, but I heard you might have a secret stash.” He cocked a grin at me. His voice was strangely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Besides, I’d have remembered someone like him. “I was told it may or may not contain a CGC 9.9 Hulk #181.” When I didn’t immediately respond, he stopped mid-step and narrowed his eyes so his blond eyebrows made a cute little v. “You know, the first appearance of Wolverine?”

“Actually, he first appeared in Hulk #180. It’s a common oversight,” I replied before I could stop myself. My hands shot to my mouth in an effort to catch the words and shove them back inside, but it was too late, they were out, and like the rotten little bastards they were, they hit him full force. I know, I should have been totally cool with correcting a hot guy, but he wasn’t just any hot guy, he was a customer, and as Blair had told me a million times before, while the customer is always a jackass, he is always right.

“I know.” He shrugged, brushing off my unwitting jab with a sweep of his perfect hand. “But I already have 180 and 182. I’m just missing the crown jewel.” He was cute and had an awesome comic collection? God, would he just marry me already?

He took a step closer, still friendly. God, why was he so friendly, and so, so hot. I mean, jeez Louise. He was supposed to be someone I could kick out without a second thought. Instead, I was wondering how good he was at video games and if our future children would like StarCraft more than League of Legends. This was not going to end well.

“Do you think you can help me out?” he asked, flashing me a smile that made my knees shake.

“Yeah,” I said, swallowing hard. “It’s in the back, but it isn’t what I’d call cheap. It’s expensive. Like in the way buying a congressman is expensive.” I tried to smile. Usually when customers asked us about stuff like this, they didn’t expect our prices to be, well, astronomical. As I said before, Blair’s talent was as good as coining money. It wasn’t like she needed more, so it took an exorbitant amount of cash to get her to go through the hassle of selling from her private collection.

He made a show of checking his wrist. It had one of those blue fitness bands designed to capture your heart rate, steps, and stuff. “Pftt, I bought six of those in the time it took me to walk through the door.” He held his hand out to me. “Name’s Justin.”

His name sparked a surge of recognition that nearly knocked me from my feet. I stopped mid-movement, my hand halfway out on its way to meet his. No, it couldn’t be, but as I looked at him and pictured him with a goatee and eyepatch, I knew I was right. Holy fucksticks!

“Justin Bailey?” I asked, hoping I was wrong even though I totally wasn’t. Still, I was somewhat proud I managed to keep my squee locked inside. It was a near thing, let me tell you.

“Guilty,” he replied, that same grin on his face as he gestured at me in a way I didn’t quite follow. “You might remember me from such films as Werewolf Ninja and Vampire Undercover: Outlaw.” I’ll be honest, his Troy McClure was off the chain.

“But…” I said as he closed the distance between us and shook my hand. The moment he did, he went from being just some hot B-movie actor to something far, far worse. Because the cloying, tingling sensation that rippled up my arm and struck deep into the heart of my soul told me one thing.

Justin Bailey was a werewolf, and no werewolf would ever come into a shop owned by a mage like Blair, let alone step foot into Magic Alley. Not even for a CGC 9.9 Hulk 181. No, he was here for something else, and as much as I wanted to know what it was, I wanted to get out of here more. See, there was one thing I’d forgotten to mention about myself.

I’m a mage, but not just any kind of mage. No, I’m an animator, which meant I could take a model of anything fictional and make it work like it did in said fiction which was why I always carried around a toy lightsaber. As long as I had a good enough replica, knew what it was supposed to do, and had enough power, which was consequently why I had never managed to make Blair’s replica DeLorean real. Yes, I’d tried when she wasn’t looking. Unfortunately, way too much power was required for things like time machines.

In real life, shooting a werewolf with silver bullets wouldn’t do diddly squat to them, but I could shoot them with silver bullets and they would die.

Which is also why, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been hunted by werewolves because even though my power could be used to make any monster equally dead, the werewolves had been affronted by it to the point of killing pretty much every animator that dared to breathe the same air as them.

In the end, it’s a convoluted story about blood feuds and such, but suffice to say, I was about half a second from sprinting into the back room. I wasn’t sure if Blair had any silver back there, but if she did, it’d be more than enough to stop this guy. The only thing that stopped me was cold logic. Werewolves were super predators so if I ran, he might chase me. After all, predators chased prey, and I was definitely werewolf prey.

His eyes flickered like he sensed what I was, and my gut tightened in fear. He was onto me. His nostrils flared as he unconsciously inhaled my scent, and as they did, amber colored in his blue eyes. Frak. Double frak!

Yes, okay, let me just say this right now. I’d never actually seen Battlestar Galactica, but my brother had loved the hell out of the show, and since he was dead at the hands of werewolves, I’d taken to saying it as a way to remember him by.

“Animator,” he whispered in a low, guttural tone that made the knife of fear stabbing into my guts twist violently. “I had hoped to find someone like you.” His lips curved into a grin that was downright predatory.

Well, screw logic.

As his grip tightened on my hand, I drove my knee into his crotch as hard as I could and sprinted for the door as he collapsed to the ground clutching his nethers.

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Fists of Iron – Chapter 1

Here we are with chapter one of Fists of Iron, the exciting conclusion to the Frank Butcher saga!

**

Chapter 1

 

“Thank you all for being here,” John Perez, the last and most annoying Peacekeeper in the world, began, “especially considering the troubles that have come down around us in the past day.”

I didn’t want to be there, not even a little bit. I especially didn’t want to be stuffed in Tabitha Marlowe’s office atop the Pendleton Building just for the honor of listening to John, the formerly deceased (though technically he was never actually dead) husband of the lady I was in love with.

It just rubbed me the wrong way, what can I say? Still, I’d put on my big boy pants and shown up along with the rest of the magical folks who had survived the mess that had gone down thirty-six hours ago.

Jealousy wasn’t the only reason for my attitude, of course. Frankly, I was sick to death of all the bullshit, betrayals, and backstabbing from all sides. The last straw had been Rabbi Joseph Krakowski. He had seemed like one of the few pure souls I’d run into ever since Dr. Gabriela Perez had put this ancient Aztec stone into my chest. He’d saved our asses right before sticking a dagger into our ribs in one swift motion.

Still, I was leaning against the wall, all nice and pretty with my scrapes, bumps, and bruises from the past week bound to listen. See, despite my misgivings, there were a couple of things I cared about here. Exactly two, as a matter of fact.

First, Joseph had taken off with Max Perez, Gabby’s son, as insurance that we wouldn’t go after him. Say what you want about me, but I don’t take kindly to people fucking with children.

Second, I still owed Gabriela my life. She’d saved my life with her magical surgery, and la Corazon’s power. Sure, if she hadn’t been a wizard, I might not have needed my life saved, but at the same time, she hadn’t been the one who cast the spell that blew the place up. Besides, she was now the only straight shooter I knew among all these mystical assholes.

All that navel-gazing had pulled me out of the moment. No big loss, it was some back-and-forth drabble between Tabitha Marlowe, the head honcho here in the building and former higher up in the End Society, one of the two clans of wizards I knew about, and John. More political garbage from what little trickled through. Certainly none of my business.

It was Gabby’s voice that brought me back into the conversation. “We don’t need to worry about the formalities, John. The clans are gone now and both of the elders are dead. All that matters is where our son is and what Joseph has done.”

“There is still a right way and a wrong way to go about this.” John glanced around the room, looking from her to every other face in the room. “In the face of this primal chaos, keeping order is of the utmost importance.”

Bluto a.k.a. Tyrone, the building’s head of security, and sweet Molly, ex-soldier for the Whites, the other clan of wizards that was currently falling apart, and full-time Irish spitfire, shared a grumble at that. Maybe they thought John was full of it or maybe they were as sick of the endless layers of bullshittery as I was.

Molly stole a glance at me from across the room, something I decided to ignore for now because even though John’s return had basically axed the slowly blossoming relationship between Gabby and I, well, I wasn’t quite ready to give up on it just yet. Yes, I’m aware that makes me a horrible person, but at the same time… I held out hope, for what, I’m not exactly sure. This was the end after all, maybe he’d go out in a blaze of glory and I’d still get to ride off into the sunset with Gabby. The thought almost made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. That was never going to happen.

Abner, my favorite walking lump of clay, was the first one to say something and his deep, hollow voice rumbled through the room.

“This I understand, Peacekeeper, but we do not know the extent of my father’s plans nor the motivations behind them. Rabbi Krakowski is not a man of ill intent or of impulsive action.” I knew the big guy was attached to the Littlest Rabbi, the guy did create him after all, but it was hard to see how releasing the Lovecraftian monstrosities I had seen in that cube into our world was in anyway positive. “I cannot abide his taking of your son, Max, but we cannot be quick to judge his shattering of the cube. There must be a reason, we just don’t know what.”

“Abner, we have laws in place for a reason.” John’s brow wrinkled, and his face hardened. “If there’s something else afoot, and the evidence shows he had good reason for what he did, things won’t go badly for him.” He glanced in Gabby’s direction. “Kidnapping a teenager, even if he wasn’t my son, will be hard to justify.”

I finally gave enough of a shit to throw in my two cents. Pushing off the wall I’d been leaning against, I said, “Then why the hell are we all gathered up for debate club? Shouldn’t you people be doing something by now? Fuck the rest of it, get the kid back.”

Gabby gave me a warm look which I tried my best to ignore because there was no use salting my own wounds.

“Right on, boyo. I might still be a bit ragged around the edges, but I sure as hell think we oughta be out there doing some damage instead of twiddling our thumbs,” Molly chimed in, pumping her fist excitedly in the air.

“We aren’t going to ‘do some damage,’ Ms. O’Shaughnessy,” Tabitha announced, pushing her glasses up on her nose. “We are going to go about this in an intelligent manner. We need to not only find Krakowski and Maximilian and devise the best, safest way to retrieve the boy, but we also need to determine the exact damage and danger the destruction of the Cube poses to our world.”

“There’s no need for that, Director.” The Peacekeeper folded his arms over his chest. “We sealed off direct access for all the divinities for a reason, something both of the clans agreed on. We don’t need to do research. We need to bring the rabbi in, lock him up, and restore the seals.” Gabriela had turned her attention back to him, which John seemed to pick up on, causing him to tack on, “And rescue Max, of course. As for debate, this is called planning and organization.” He glanced at me before continuing. “I am going to deputize some of you and we’ll enact a plan to do exactly what I said.”

“So who’s on the team, Coach?” I wanted to give no shits at all, but I couldn’t pull away entirely. After all, I didn’t want the Old Ones or whatever to kill us all.

If John noticed my attitude, he ignored it. “In addition to the deputies I’ll be taking into the field, the rest of you will remain here with the director to look into and deal with the extra-dimensional incursions that are going to follow. The Great Old Ones might be eternal, and they’ve been waiting for this opportunity for eons. As we speak, they are enacting their plans. We’ve got no time left.” His tone was grim and rightly so. “Frank, you might be a bit ignorant about the mystical world, but you’ve seen these things first hand. You understand the threat.”

Gabriela stood up, those green eyes I so wasn’t looking at flashing. “I’m going with you.”

“Aye, me too.” Molly was giving me an expectant look as she threw her chips into the pot. I patently ignored it as she continued on. “Ye certainly ain’t leavin’ me behind when there’s nasty work to be done.”

John folded his arms over his chest. “No. I have a very specific list of people in mind and neither of you are on it.” His jaw set in preparation of the barrage he had to know was heading his way. I certainly did!

Molly fired off a knuckles-out V-sign (a European equivalent of a middle finger, for the uneducated out there) while Gabby’s reaction was more volcanic. She took a step toward her husband and half-shouted, “No, John. While you stuck yourself in a cube, I’ve been trying desperately to get our son back! There’s no way I am going to stay home and twiddle my thumbs when Max is still out there!”

I couldn’t help myself as I leaned back and grinned like a shark. It was amusing as hell to watch Johnny Boy flinch a bit under the doc’s tongue lashing, but I had to give the guy credit for holding his ground even though I really, really didn’t want to. “It’s a simple matter of priorities and effectiveness, Gabriela, not passion.”

Tabitha tried to hide the sigh between her teeth, but I sure as hell caught it. “Let’s not let this drag down into a mire of personal conflicts. We know how this always plays out between the two of you.” She focused her gaze on Gabriela. “I’ve already discussed this to some degree with John. The Peacekeeper is calling on my expertise in combat magic for this situation, so I need someone with an extensive background in magical research and academia to lead the investigations here.” She glanced at Gabriela. “You are the ideal person to lead that effort.”

I might not have cared much about this shit at the time, but I had to stir the pot when I saw one needing to be stirred. “So far, Tabby, all I’ve seen you do is direct people, figure shit out, and splash us with a ton of cold water. Not that I doubt your abilities in the field, but Gabby’s walked through fire and brimstone, and come out the other side with nary a scratch.”

Tyrone saw his own opening and took a shot. “On top of that, Director, we’re in a jam and a half here. Our defenses are screwed, we’ve got a list of casualties that ain’t going away anytime soon, and we barely have a clue as to how the Whites are handling having their leadership turned into salt pillars.” He pointed a meaty finger at Tabitha. “We need you here fixin’ things so these people don’t get completely fucked.”

We both had made some stellar points, but the nightstick I suspected was shoved up John’s ass was inflexible. Before Tabitha could make her own counterpoint, John raised his voice just a hair, but it was an effective hair. “That’s enough now.”

He had that presence that a seasoned cop has, that commanding voice that reminded you he had the full force of the law behind him. Of course, that was kind of a bluff. He was the last one of his kind after all, but it was still enough authority to shut the traps of all the magic types in the room. I was tempted to keep on coming, but I decided not to push all his buttons quite yet.

Shifting his posture to a more diplomatic one, he leaned forward as he grasped his hands behind his back and paced. He made eye contact with each and every one of us as he began to talk. “The Peacekeepers were destroyed to engender just this kind of chaos in the world. We need to stop this kind of squabbling to move forward, which means all of you need to listen and do as I ask.” He stopped and did a slow pan of the room. “We’ve dealt with this threat in the past, and we did it together. We can do it again.”

Maybe it was the simple fact my love life had been carpet-bombed by his return, but there was something that rang a bit hollow in what would otherwise have been a rousing performance worthy of any action movie hero. It was a little twitch of the eye, probably nothing, probably blown out of all proportion in my attempt to find the barest crack in what seemed to be an absolutely perfect shell. If it had really happened, no one else seemed to notice or mention it.

Instead, the audience was silent and at attention. Even the quiet grumbles from Molly and Tyrone had ceased.

Johnny Boy lowered his head, a gesture of respect. “Thank you. Now, as I said, we will have two teams. Going with me to apprehend Krakowski and free my son will be Director Marlowe and Abner. Our first move will be to go to the White’s enclave on the outskirts of San Diego to recruit more deputies.” As if to preempt any criticism, he raised his hands. “We need to do this as a unified front, White and Ender alike, so I need to go to them.”

Gabriela put out the point I was tempted to make myself. “John, the longer we wait, the more danger Max is in. We need to do this swiftly and in force!”

That was enough to bring me back into things. “Amen, sister. All this pussy footing around and playing all nicey-nice with everyone is only going to move our asses from the frying pan into the fire.”

Call me a sucker, which I certainly was, to fall into line behind Gabby. That ship had sailed, and while I was still spinning my oars in its wake, one thing was certain. Max was still in trouble. If John wasn’t concerned with him because of the bigger picture, that was his prerogative, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to get the boy back anyway.

John ignored Gabriela, going for the convenient scapegoat, me. “Butcher, I appreciate all you’ve done, not just for my family but for the world at large.” Yeah, there was a ‘but’ coming. “But despite the crash course you’ve had about magic and our society and all the things that were hidden from you for most of your life, you’re still vastly ignorant of what’s going on here. I’ve been doing this a long time, I know what I’m doing.”

While I might not have given two shits about how these wizards were going to fuck each other over again, Magic Cop had struck a nerve. I’d always hated guys who thought they knew better than everyone else. After all, that was pretty much what had started this whole mess.

From the Enders to the Rabbi, every one of them had thought they’d known best and plunged forward no matter how many people got fucked in the process. John may have been right, but at the same time, maybe he wasn’t. Either way, I was pissed.

I straightened up to my full height, an effective gesture because I was a couple of inches taller than John.

“Yeah, and doing things the way you guys did worked out really well,” I grinned, allowing my words to hang in the air for a moment. “Was getting locked up in a living acid trip part of the master plan too?”

That had probably been uncalled for and a bit too soon, but it was the damned truth. Most of the room, Gabriela included, was shocked by that little pipe bomb, but Molly was trying her damnedest not to break out into laughter.

John’s jaw set as he tried to keep his anger hidden under a cool façade. “Well, Frank, if you’re not going to be part of a positive solution, I suggest you leave the meeting. We have a lot of planning left to do, and we don’t need your kind of disruption interfering with it.”

Well, if that’s how he wanted to play it, fine. I didn’t need him anyway. I’d gotten us this far by myself, and all he’d goddamned done was sit in a glass box.

“Sure thing, big guy.” I turned on my heels and headed toward the office door. “Good luck with that. When you actually decide to do something for real and get Max back, you know where I’ll be.”

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or at least it broke Molly’s control over her laughter. She started giggling like mad as I stalked out of the room, ignoring Gabriela’s belated attempt to defuse the situation. I stalked out of the room, more than happy to slam the door behind me as I left the office.

Feet of Clay – Chapter 1

Here’s the first chapter of Feet of Clay. Sorry it’s a bit late.

**

Chapter 1

“You know, Frank,” Gabriela said, trailing one hand down my chest and letting it linger over my thumping heart. “I think I have feelings for you.” She smiled sheepishly, color filling her cheeks. “I haven’t felt like this about anyone ever before.”

I stared at her in shock as she drew closer to me, pressing her lithe body against mine. Gabriela Perez was everything I’d ever wanted in a woman, and as she leaned in close to me, lips slightly parted, the only thing I could think was that I was never letting go of her. Not ever.

“I have feelings for you too,” I replied, wrapping my arms around her waist and pulling her into me. Part of me couldn’t believe this was happening after everything. Still, she was right there in front of me.

“Kiss me, Frank,” she whispered, tilting her head toward me. My heart started pounding like crazy in my chest as I tilted my head toward her and leaned in. Her lips were so close to mine, I could practically feel them. “Please.”

The touch of her breath on my lips sent little shivers tingling across my skin as I closed my eyes and pressed my lips to hers. The hunk of Aztec gold-and-turquoise taking the place of my flesh-and-blood heart went absolutely bonkers as I pressed into her.

Pain unlike anything I’d ever felt before tore at my chest, and for a second, it felt like my ribs were going to burst out of my skin. My eyes shot open to find Gabriela gone, her presence fading away into the last traces of a dream that seemed particularly unfair. Especially since the last time I’d woken up like this, I’d gotten assaulted by all sorts of supernatural nut jobs, and judging by the fact I’d last been knocked unconscious by a goddamned golem, I was betting this time would be no different.

The heart had been one the things that had seen me through the shadowy world of magicians and wizards and golems and general bullshit kept secret from us normal Joes and Josephines. It had allowed me to save the world (no, really!) from a bunch of cultists who wanted to rid the world of magic by tearing apart space and time. And this time, evidently, it was trying to save me again.

Still, waking up to find myself laid out on a stone slab in the middle of a torture room that would make Pinhead or Freddy Kruger lick their lips in delight, didn’t exactly seem fair given I’d saved the world. Okay, torture chamber might have been a bit of an exaggeration. The room was made of plain, grey stone, slick with condensation, plucked right out of any generic fantasy movie’s castle dungeon.

Still, for all that, the place was as clean as a whistle, and the air was filled with a medicine-y antiseptic scent. How much of that smell was because of the oxygen mask strapped over my mouth and nose, I couldn’t be sure. Oh, did I forget to mention that and the IV line stuck in my arm?

It almost made me think they were trying to revive me, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case because as I blinked away the haze, I found myself staring at a creepy-as-fuck guy hovering over me with a scalpel in hand. Maybe it was a girl. It was hard to tell because whoever it was had dressed up like a plague doctor out of a medieval history book, including the long nosed mask and goggles.

Assisting the good doctor were a pair of disembodied arms made out of what looked like a knight’s plate armor, each one floating around with no respect to physics or gravity. That might not have bothered me so much if each one wasn’t wielding equally archaic but strangely shiny surgeon’s tools in hand. Racks and shelves lined the walls with an assortment of cutting implements, bone saws, spreaders, and other tools I couldn’t begin to describe other than by saying they would be voted “Most Likely To Cleanly Dismember A Corpse” by a panel of their peers.

The sluggishness in my limbs and the fog in my brain were pretty damned familiar from those unfortunate times in my life I’ve had surgery done. Fuck it all, I hated going under then, and I hated it even more now. I mean, it didn’t take a rocket scientist (one of my early childhood dreams unrealized, just to have it said) to know what Dr. Plague and the Arm Boys were about to do to me.

After all, I had la Corazon, reputedly the most powerful anti-magical artifact known to the magical cults that lurked in the shadows, beating in my chest. When the White Alliance, my frenemies before advancing to full-on enemy, nabbed us, I guess la Corazon was too tempting to leave stuck in little old me. I’ll admit, that made me feel a touch used, especially since I’d helped the White save the world, but then again, they were probably worried I’d shit all over their parade too. After all, I’d taken on one cult full of psychos, what was one more in the grand scheme of things?

“It would appear traditional anesthetics have a reduced effect on the Bearer,” the doctor muttered to himself (the deep voice edged me toward that gender assumption), muffled a bit by the long-nosed mask. “While this might complicate the surgery, I must admit to a degree of fascination as how you might react to this, Mr. Butcher. I may very well leave you awake to get your direct input.”

My eyes came into full focus and I tried to give Dr. Plague a withering stare. “I don’t know you, but you’re a sadistic fuck, aren’t you?”

He shook his head, hat flopping crazily. “You misunderstand me. You are, after all, a unique thing, the first known host of such a powerful artifact. Your reactions, both rational and physiological, are of intense interest to me.” The doctor shrugged. “Besides, these are likely to be your last words, Bearer. Surely someone as talkative as you would want to leave a message behind for Dr. Perez?”

My limbs were still numb and rubbery, but I tried to get them to move so I could throttle the prick. “Where the fuck is she, Dr. Schnozz?!” Life was starting to return to every part of me, but all I managed that second was a flop that would make a dying fish proud.

“Spirits below, you have a lot of fight in you.” The surgeon clicked his tongue, the sound muffled by his plague mask. “A bit too much fight for this to be successful. Let us put you back to sleep, Mr. Butcher.”

He gestured off-handedly at the animated arm opposite of him, which diligently put its utensil, an unusually polished bone saw, next to me and floating out of my sight. Whatever it was going to do couldn’t be good. I had better do something, even though I was bare-assed-naked and still woozy from whatever they had pumping into this mask.

The thing was, I wasn’t nearly as woozy as I felt I should be, but I was willing to overlook that as I realized something important. They hadn’t tied me up, chained me to the table, or restrained me in any way. I wasn’t sure who was running this amateur hour, but I was instantly thankful for their oversight as I snapped the saw up in my good right arm and rolled, bringing the nasty blade around with my left arm. Now, I’m a rightie, but surprise was on my side as I cut a jagged slash through cloak and robes of Mr. Beak’s arm. The sleepy-time mask ripped clean in that same motion, yanked back by its tubing. Still hurt as it snapped over my broken nose, though.

The doctor grabbed his arm as he staggered back, blood pulsing through his fingers. Though he was somewhere in the middle of Shock Street and Surprise Avenue, the Hotel Transylvania extras weren’t. The unarmed one flew past my shoulder as I rolled unsteadily to my feet, while the other, a surgical rib spreader in its metal grip, tried to blindside me. I got a good crack upside the head from Lefty, which hurt like the dickens.

Fear that I wasn’t going to show to anyone mixed with raw adrenaline to keep my ass standing. Biting back that fear, I tried to shout a good one-liner, but what came out was a garbled mess from my mush-mouth.

As I feigned a slash at the doctor to keep him off balance and, if I was right, from casting spells. Yeah, I assumed he was a sorcerer like the rest of the Whites, but it was a damned good assumption.

My main focus was the armed, er, arm, though. As Righty zipped in the way of my feint, I tried to focus through the fuzz in my brain, to think about the hunk of ancient mojo I had for a heart now. Calling on la Corazon, the heart snapped to action quicker and easier than it ever had, as if all the action we had been through had been a warm-up to this moment, dropping a gold filter over my eyes and laying bare the tapestry of magic hidden to normal eyes.

You’ve never really seen the world properly until you’ve seen that majestic sight. Yeah, I know, Frank Butcher waxing poetic, but I’m fucking serious here. Everything in the world, from bricks to trees to people to bees, are all woven together by threads of magic, pulsing and glowing in a Technicolor light show, very Force-like to be quite honest. More importantly at this particular moment, magic spells, the ‘patches’ to reality wizards wove into those threads to bend reality to their wills, were visible plain as day to me.

What magic I could see, I could rip apart. I put that power into action right then with my right hand, sweeping a clawed hand through the stitches holding the magic animating the spreader-wielding sleeve in place. The stitches tore like the pants of a fat kid doing the splits, dropping the armor to the ground with the resounding clatter of metal on stone.

I think that’s when the Plague Knight decided he was truly fucked. He turned toward the thick wooden door, which as far as I could tell, was the only way out of Torture Central. He no doubt hoped Lefty would keep me busy long enough to get help. Fat chance.

As Lefty came at me with a big haymaker, dumb luck decided to step in. I was already moving to slip the punch, but a bit too slowly. As I was about to eat a knuckle-sandwich loaded with way more than my daily requirement of iron, my leading foot hit the puddle of blood left by the doctor’s arm wound.

My foot slipped forward and what had started as an elegant-but-tardy dodge turned into a klutzy fall. The steel fist caught nothing but air as I did a rather painful split. Back in my Army days, I could have pulled it off just fine, sans the stone floor of course, but I wasn’t in my prime anymore, thanks in no small part to all the delicious Mexican food out there and my own lack of inhibitions. Of course, yeah, stone floor, family jewels, no pants. You do the math.

Still, it was preferable to having a super-strong magic arm punch you in the brain. Maybe. I mean, I haven’t compared the two. Muffled mutterings of magic hit my ear. No doubt, the doctor was trying to heal his arm before he bled out. Well, that wasn’t happening. As I tried to ignore the urge to throw up from the groin trauma, I snatched the bit of magic animating Lefty out of the air as it reared back to punch me in the head.

As I said, it got easier each and every time I did it, so it wasn’t a surprise that the stone heart hammering away in my chest was up to the challenge, even with my current distraction. I dropped the saw as I clawed at the weave of magic with my free hand. The results were immediate, adding Lefty to the pile of discarded Ren Faire gear on the ground.

My caregiver had managed to finish his incantation, and as he did, a white glow stitched his gashed arm back together. He looked up just as I grabbed the edge of the stone slab and pulled myself to my feet. Back still to the door, he searched for the door handle with one blood-stained hand as the other held up in a defensive panic.

“Stay back,” he squeaked. I wasn’t sure if he was trying not to sound like he was about to drop a deuce in his pantaloons, but either way, I didn’t believe him. “Stay back or I’ll–”

If he called for help, I was fucked. Since I couldn’t have that, I tried to look my most badass, which is hard to do when you’ve got the whole show on display. The blood and such did help though.

“You’ll do what? I’m the Bearer and you’re just one of Rollie’s goons, aren’t you?” I growled while looking him over and almost couldn’t keep the smirk off my face when I realized that, under the cloak, his robes were red. “You’ve even got a red shirt on.” With each word, I stalked forward another step.

He realized too late how close I had gotten. He didn’t answer me, instead turning to slam on the door to get help. His hand was raised and his mouth opened just enough to get a sound out when I grabbed him, locking one hand onto his upraised hand and clamping the other over his mouth.

I leaned in close to listen for sounds of alarm. The only things I heard were a few drips of water and a cough, but no immediate rushing or cries of alarm. For the moment, I had progressed from “Up Shit Creek Without A Paddle” to “Flying Blind on a Rocket Cycle.” It wasn’t much of an improvement really.

“Now, buddy,” I whispered harshly, going for my best Clint Eastwood impression. It was pretty good if I do say so myself. “If you want to live through this, you’re going to do exactly what I say. Nod if you understand.”

He nodded like crazy. I pulled my hand back to let him stammer, “Y-Yes, B-Bearer, whatever you say.”

“Groovy.” I turned him so he could face me, while shifting a hand to his throat. “First things first.” I bopped the beaked mask right on its nose. “I need you to strip.”

Fatal Ties – Chapter 1

Ready for a sneak peek at Lillim 7?

**

Chapter 1

Waking up to find my father standing over me with three days of stubble on his cheeks was almost as shocking as finding myself lying in a bed in the abandoned city of Lot because my father shaved every day. You could set a clock by it. Only he hadn’t shaved and by the way his eyes snapped to my face the moment I’d moved made it pretty obvious I was the cause. Damn.

“Lillim!” My father, Sabastin Callina, cried as he rushed forward and gathered me into a tight hug that caused my bones to creak. “Thank the gods you’re okay.” He swallowed hard, tears rimming his eyes as he buried his face in my neck. He smelled like stale sweat and loneliness, which I hadn’t even known was a scent until that moment. Gone was his normal smell, like pine trees and springtime. It was sort of sad because I missed the smell of him. Wow, that was a weird thing to miss.

“Dad, I’m glad to see you too,” I replied, unable to help the sudden rush of emotion brought on by his display. Truth be told, while I’d been locked away in the prison of my mind, I’d missed him. He’d always been my rock, my anchor, and to see him breaking down because of me, well, it broke something inside me too. Tears filled my eyes as I latched onto him and cried.

“Don’t ever do that again,” he replied, hugging me tighter. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you and your mother.”

A wave of guilt swept over me because, well, I’d wasted the last day or so hanging out in my prison of illusions so I could pretend my mom was still alive for one last day. It was sort of pathetic, I know, but trust me. Sometimes, even a fake reality is good enough, at least for a little while. Even still, that’d meant my dad had been sitting here waiting for me to wake up, and I hadn’t been prepared for the wave of guilt that crashed into me.

“Sorry,” I replied, and I meant it. This wasn’t like the fake “uh huh’s,” “okay’s,” and “I’m sorry’s” I’d said over the years. I actually felt bad for putting him through it for that last day. Hell, I felt bad I’d let myself get tricked by the Nordic deity Jormungand and gotten myself locked away in my own mind.

Normally, I was pretty good at beating the tar out of supernatural jackasses, but this guy had jumped into my brain and kicked the doors open. Getting him out had been one of the toughest things I’d ever done because the sweet nothings he’d whispered in my ears were everything I’d ever wished for. I’d wanted my mom to be alive and happy with every ounce of my being.

“It’s okay.” My father shook his head as he pulled away and wiped his eyes with the back of one scarred hand. “Amy told me you would wake up, so I didn’t worry that much.”

“Amy?” I asked, shaking my head in confusion. “Who the F is Amy, and how did she know I’d wake up? I barely survived.”

He quirked his eyebrow at me. “Language, Lillim.”

I blushed. “Sorry.” See, that was a fake apology.

“Amy is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. War to be exact.” As he sat on the bed beside me and patted my thigh, he rolled his eyes at me as if he knew how ridiculous that statement sounded out loud. “She knew you’d wake up because Jormungand was dead.” He took a deep breath. “Said you had some things to work through first.” He sighed. “I just didn’t think it’d take you months to do it.”

“Months?” I asked as a horrible feeling settled in the pit of my stomach. Surely, I hadn’t been trapped that long… “I was only in there a day after I punched Jormungand in the face.”

“No, sweetie. Maybe it felt like a day, but it wasn’t.” Emotion swam across his face, and he looked away from me. “But it makes me feel better you only think it was a day.” He left the whole “It’s good to know you didn’t abandon me to sit here and wait for months on end” part of his statement unsaid, but I almost wished he had said it because at that moment, I almost wanted him to lash out. Then I could get mad at him and drown the sudden shame I felt under a wall of rage. Guess I wasn’t getting off that easily.

“How could I have been gone for months?! What about Thes and Connor, and oh my god, what about Fenris? He was trying to break free and devour the sun and moon when I was unconscious!” I said, nearly leaping to my feet. The only thing that stopped me were the sheets tucked around my legs with hospital-like precision. My muscles had atrophied to the point where I couldn’t budge them, especially with the weight of my father pinning them to the bed. Oh man was that a bad sign.

“Fenris is dead. Thes came back home. He and Connor are busy battling trying to keep Loki’s forces at bay while the Horsemen confront Loki and Bel.” My father looked at me in a way that suggested he wasn’t talking crazy, but that was impossible because it sounded abso-freaking-lutely crazy.

“Wait, time out, flag on the play,” I replied, holding my hands out in front of me. “None of that makes any sense.”

He rubbed his temples wearily with one hand. “I forgot. You’ve been unconscious since Ragnarok started.”

“What do you mean Ragnarok started!” I cried and this time I managed to leap to my feet, atrophied muscles be damned. I tottered unsteadily on the cold steel floor before flopping onto my butt, which was pretty embarrassing since I only appeared to be wearing a very short hospital gown, and oh my god, had my father been changing me this whole time…?

He stood and offered me his hand. I didn’t take it because I was too busy feeling indignant. Instead, I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him like this was his fault, even though it wasn’t. If I hadn’t spent that day with my mom, I’d have woken up in time to stop all this. I mean, okay, I wasn’t big-headed enough to believe I could have stopped Ragnarok by myself, but I could have done something. Hell, anything would have been better than lying if a goddamned bed while the world tried to spin itself off its axis. Stupid world. Stupid Norse Gods.

“Ragnarok, the Nordic apocalypse, began when Jormungand died.” He pointed at my head as if to say, “You were there for that, sweetie.” It was weird because the sound of his voice in my head was strangely patronizing. “Fenris rose soon after, but the Horsemen stopped him.”

“Well, at least we have that going for us. What are the others doing?” I asked, glancing down at the IV taped to my arm. It wasn’t attached to anything thankfully, or I might have torn it out when I fell. “And by others, I don’t mean Thes and Connor or the Horsemen you keep talking about.” I took a deep breath and shut my eyes as the absurdity of my situation settled around me. I was this close to just going back to bed. “This is not how you deal with people who’ve been in a coma for months. What happened to taking things slowly?”

“Time will not allow for that,” my father replied, kneeling down next to me and touching my shoulder. “If it did, I’d give you all you require, but as it stands, you must rise and fight, my daughter. It is the only way.”

“The Hell?” I asked, and as I reached out toward him, I realized he hadn’t answered my question. “Dad, Where’s the rest of the Dioscuri?”

“Not dead, if that’s what you’re thinking.” He shook his head. “Most are with Thes and Connor, but there are none who can truly stand against the forces rising above us. They need a champion, someone who can avenge the fallen.” He looked hard at me. “They need you, Lillim.”

Of course they did. Everyone always seemed to need me when the chips were down, when they needed someone to go in and get dirty. They wanted me to be the hero they needed, just like Dirge had been. They needed someone to make the ultimate sacrifice, and like always, that was my goddamned legacy. It was complete bullshit, but at the same time, this wasn’t just anyone asking me. No, this was my father, and if he wanted me to do this, if he wanted me to strap on my swords and wade into battle, I would.

“And what about you?” I asked as the gizmo on his wrist started to beep. He glanced at it and sighed.

“I have not killed a god in battle. You have. You need to stand tall and show them we can do it. I cannot do that. Besides, if we hope to win this battle, I need to stay here and help properly deploy our forces across the battlefield.”

“Oceans would boil, the world would fall in the sun, yadda, yadda, yadda,” I growled, getting to my feet, and as I did, I realized it was a bit easier to do than I expected. I wasn’t sure what was going on exactly, but either way, I understood what he wanted, and as much as I hated the idea, I knew he was right.

With him stuck here playing commander and my mother dead, the family business of kicking ass and taking names would fall to me. It was almost worse because Masataka had decimated the high ranking Dioscuri forces with his coup, and Warthor and Kishi were stuck in Fairy.

Even Caleb wasn’t really a Dioscuri anymore. As that thought flitted across my brain, a surge of anger filled me.

“Dad, where’s Caleb?” I asked, already moving toward the door. I guess it was a good thing there was a war going on because if I stayed here and thought about how I’d been in a coma for months and my God of Time boyfriend hadn’t been here when I woke up, I’d scream. I mean, I know he probably had a good reason, but still. Coma!

“With the Horsemen,” he replied, getting to his feet and coming toward me. It wasn’t hard for him to catch me since my legs were already tired, and I’d made it all of ten feet. Some champion I was.

“Awesome,” I grumbled, shaking my head to ward off the sudden pang of hurt that caused me. Caleb was doing his duty, sure, and it made sense for him to be doing that, but I’d have liked to have been important enough to merit a visit.

“Where are you going?” he asked as his watch beeped again, this time eliciting shrill angry noises.

“To Dirge’s crater. I think I recovered Isis when I was in the dream world.” I took a deep breath. “If that’s true, the sword will be in the crater, and if you want me kicking asses like I just ran out of bubblegum, I’ll need her.”

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