I was never really happy with how I originally ended Badmoon Rising. Plus, I wanted to update the story a bit so Ranger wasn’t quite the mall-ninja. So, I decided to do Director’s Cut.
Yeah, I know. I’ve been mostly ignoring the blog lately. Mostly because life’s been hectic and kicking me around for the past few months. Not sure yet if that’s going to change. Anyways, this is the short story I submitted to Baen’s Fantasy short story contest. Since I didn’t win, I figured I’d post it up here for y’all to enjoy.
This story takes place in the Badmoon universe, but in Kentucky. Things are a little different there.
–Getting the Job Done–
Tysach. The learning time in the Ancestors Tongue. For the pups of Louisville-Jefferson County, it’s when the pups learn of pack traditions, history, and how to survive in the harsh world of the supernatural. Tysach is a hard time for the pups, and sometimes pups don’t survive. Longeye and his hit pack are there to make sure death isn’t from an outside attack. That is the job, and hunters never fail the job.
Longeye looks back at the shaman teaching pups not much younger than her. She must be strong and smart if the Spiritmaster trusts her with tysach, Longeye thinks. At least she doesn’t treat my hit pack like we’re her servants, unlike other shaman. A cold wind blows through the camp. In true form – the man-wolf of human legend – Longeye’s senses are much sharper. His pelt is also warmer than any jacket.
“CONTACT!” screams Mountain, Longeye’s second. The ripsaw sound of Mountain’s M240 fills the small hill valley. Blue light from behind draws Longeye’s gaze from his second. The shaman formed a cerulean shield in front of the pups. Longeye’s heard the stories when shaman fought, but Longeye has never seen such a powerful use of the magicks. An unnatural roar focuses Longeye back on the combat. He sprints to join his hit pack.
In between two hills are a half-dozen creatures unlike anything Longeye’s heard about. The creatures are fifteen feet tall with wide, round bodies and spindly arms and legs. A wide face protrudes from just below the shoulders. The monsters are mottled grays, like they’re made of rock. Following Mountain’s lead, Longeye brings his stubby AK74U up and fires a short burst into the closest monster. The bullets spang off the creature’s hide like they hit concrete. The monster turns and opens a mouth as wide as its head and filled with jagged teeth that look more like stalactites.
“What the fuck are those?” Thumper asks, sliding in the snow behind Longeye.
“No idea,” Longeye answers his hit pack’s last member, “Silver and lead don’t seem to have any effect. Bring the fire!” Thumper smiles and unlimbers his Milkor grenade launcher. The bulky weapon coughs four times. The first two grenades knock a pair of monsters to the ground. The third showers another monster with fragments. The final grenade pops and hisses as the white phosphorus melts into the monster’s body.
“Well, that seemed to–” Thumper is cut off as the fifth and sixth monster charge the hit pack.
How could those huge forms move so fast through the snow? Longeye thinks as he leaps to the side. Thumper fires his last two grenades, but the two charging forms shrug off the high explosive. Longeye aims at the small dot eyes and fires. The bullets do little more than draw the monster’s attention. The monster looms over Longeye and brings down its arm. Longeye leaps out of the way, but the damn thing manages to tag him in the leg. Pain flashes through Longeye as he rolls in the snow. The leg’s broken. He waits for a second for the wound to heal. Fear flushes through him when the pain doesn’t subside like it should.
“They’re archanal!” Longeye warns his hit pack. Archanal wounds defeat the lycanthropes’ natural healing. Longeye needs to shift his tactics, but the monster is back on him too fast. A stone backhand sends Longeye flying for a few yards before slamming into a tree. His back heals instantly, but his muzzle and jaw aren’t working. Blood pours down his pelt as Longeye gasps for air. In the mix of pain, cold, and oxygen deprivation, an idea emerges. Longeye gathers his strength and waits as the monster thunders to finish him. Longeye’s mind barely registers that he doesn’t hear Mountain’s machinegun or Thumper’s grenades. Longeye focuses only on the monster’s wide mouth. The monster looms over Longeye with that mouth wide open. Longeye yanks the pin off the thermite grenade and jumps. The metal cylinder grates against the monster’s teeth before bouncing into its maw. An instant later, Longeye’s side erupts in pain as the monster slaps him out of the air. Longeye’s conscious long enough to hear the grenade detonate inside the monster. What looks like lava pours out of its mouth before the monster sinks to the ground. In moments, the monster melts into a heap of stone.
Well, at least I got one of the bastards, Longeye thinks before darkness consumes him.
Pain and stink bring Longeye back to the world. The first things he sees are yellow eyes and rust color fur. That shaman. The one who made the shield when the fight broke out. From the stench, she’s smearing wolfsbane in all of his wounds. The foul medicine burns, but it expels archanal magic to let his body heal with its normal speed. With a grunt of pain, Longeye sits up. The entire county’s Order of Spirits is in the hollow. A dozen of shaman are casting wards around the hollow, while the rest are standing over the huddled pups. Longeye looks around. He can’t see Mountain or Thumper.
“I’m sorry, hunter. Your friends didn’t make it,” the shaman says, sympathetically. “You probably shouldn’t see them right now. The Order will prepare them for travel to the cravex after the hollow is secured.”
“I appreciate your concern, but those two were my hit pack. I need to see them,” Longeye says. To her credit, the shaman helps Longeye stand and walks him to the bodies of his friends. Or what’s left of his friends. Longeye’s seen hunters shot, sliced, burned, and mutilated. Torn apart is a new one for Longeye. The pile of body parts that had been Mountain and Thumper makes his stomach churn. He doesn’t even hear the Guildmaster walk up. The leader of the hunters puts a comforting hand on Longeye’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Steven,” the Guildmaster says, using Longeye’s cover name, “From what the shaman and the pups said, the three of you fought hard against those creatures.”
“Do you know what they were?” Longeye asks. The old wolf shakes his head.
“No. Neither does the Order. The Spiritmaster is communing with the Ancestors at the cravex,” the Guildmaster answers.
“Why didn’t they kill the pups?” Longeye asks. The Guildmaster looks uncomfortable at the question. Longeye’s stomach plummets. “Who did they kill?”
“It’s not who they killed,” a new voice says from behind Longeye. All three lycanthropes instinctively drop to one knee. Karl Silverbane, Lord of Jefferson County, radiates fury. The two Red Knights standing at his side look like hunters who failed a mission.
“Melanie?” Longeye asks the Guildmaster. By tradition, a pup in tysach, is treated by their family as if dead until he or she returns to the packs after the Rite of Initiation.
“We can’t find her,” the Guildmaster answers. “We did find a pup’s body. One of the other pups identified him as Melanie’s current paramour.” The Guildmaster gives the lord a sidelong look. “Everything points to Melanie being kidnapped.”
“Who would be insane enough to kidnap Lord Silverbane’s daughter?” Longeye asks. “Not even the LCV would sanction that. They would never endanger The Peace.” The Louisville Council of Vampire controls almost all of the vampires in Louisville and the surrounding area. Their Inner Council is very careful to follow the tenets of The Peace after Florida erupted in open war a few years ago. Neither the lycanthropes nor the vampires want that particular fire to spread to Kentucky.
“They are the natural suspects,” the shaman says, “Our races have been at war for centuries.” Longeye and the Guildmaster trade knowing looks.
“I know you just lost Michael and Kevin, but you’re my best investigator. I need you to find out who did this and get Melanie back,” the Guildmaster says.
“I’ll take the job, but I’m going to need help if whoever’s behind this has more of those monsters,” Longeye answers.
“What do you need?” the Guildmaster asks. From the look in his eyes, the old wolf is willing to sign off on damn near anything. Usually, only the Guildmaster’s personal hitter got such carte blanch.
“You will take her,” the Deputy Spiritmaster says as he walks up to join the small group. He points at the young shaman. The Deputy Spiritmaster glares, and the shaman looks down.
“Exactly why would my hunter take her with him?” the Guildmaster asks in his most polite voice. Longeye steps away from his boss. When the Guildmaster is that solicitous, someone’s going to spend the next few weeks with wolfsbane smeared over their entire body. One does not become the leader of the hunters without having the ability to back it up.
“The Ancestors command it,” the Deputy Spiritmaster answers. “They have told the Spiritmaster the pup will only be returned if both that hunter and this one are the searchers. They must begin by speaking with the scarred leech.” The Deputy Spiritmaster looks like the words leave a foul taste in his mouth. Longeye signals the Guildmaster, who motions for Longeye to speak. It’s that trust that endears the Guildmaster to his hunters.
“She can come. I know who the Ancestors are talking about,” Longeye says. The Deputy Spiritmaster looks revolted, but the shaman looks intrigued. That’s a hopeful sign if the two are going to work together, especially considering the normal rivalry between hunters and shaman. Longeye looks over to the Guildmaster. “Boss, I’m going to need some stuff from the armory and $100,000 in cash.”
“That’s who your contact is in the LCV?” the Guildmaster exclaims. “I’ll need a couple of hours to pull together the cash. Take her with you to the armory. I’ll have the money delivered to you there.” The Guildmster walks off, issuing orders into a cellphone. The Deputy Spiritmaster storms back to the rest of the shaman leaving Longeye alone with the shaman. He holds out his hand.
“You can call me Steve,” Longeye says, using his cover name. She tentatively takes the proffered hand. Her grip is firm with the barest hint of uncertainty.
Jen is annoyed as she steps out of Steve’s car. Okay, hunters are supposed to be mysterious. They’re the lord’s assassins after all. Still, Steve didn’t have to ask her to go sit in the car while he talked with the scarred leech. Okay, the scarred leech is the leader of the Bleeders, the vampire counterpart of the hunters. And yes, Jen had growled at the leech guarding the door before Steve asked her nicely to wait for him in the car. It’s just frustrating. The Ancestors said that she needs to help. It’s not her fault that she doesn’t know all of this cloak-and-dagger shit.
The address the $100,000 bought is a small antiques shop in Jeffersontown. Even in her human form, Jen can smell the stench of leech. There’s an unusual scent, but it’s so faint, Jen dismisses it. Whatever left that scent is long gone. Steve gets out of his car and scans the area. The streets are mostly deserted at this time of night. Orange sodium lights reflect off the dirty snow on the curbs.
CRACK! The sound comes from inside the shop. Jen opens her mind and soul to the Ancestors. They fill her with their magick. Steve moves to the door with a small machine gun in his hands. He shoves the door open and storms into the darkness. Jen follows behind him, preparing a pair of rites in her mind. Her eyes attenuate to the darkness inside the shop, as she nearly gags from the intense stench of leech.
In the middle of the shop is a leech changing to true form in death. The black fluid that had once been human blood is pooling beneath the body. Behind the counter is another leech holding a smoking pistol. Steve keeps his machine gun aimed at the vampire behind the counter as he moves to the body and kicks away a pistol.
“Well, it’s not often I see your kind in my shop,” the vampire says with a pleasant smile on his face. His heavy German accent turns the “w’s” to “v’s”. The vampire puts the small pistol away. Steve lowers his machine gun.
“Porthos sent us your way,” Steve says, “He thought you might be able to identify something for us.”
“I am always happy to do a favor for a friend of Porthos,” the vampire says. There’s something in the vampire’s tone that sounds like the vampire is repaying a favor. The vampire holds out his hand. “Klaus.”
“Steve, and this is Jen,” Steve says, taking his hand. Jen warily shakes the proffered hand.
“What happened here?” Steve asks, motioning to the body on the floor.
“Ach, that damned television show,” the vampire says, disgusted. “Every new independent in Kentucky thinks he’s the lawman or the criminal from that show. Some of them are dumb enough to see if they are faster than me. It’s almost to the point I shoot any young nosferatu that walks in here wearing one of those stupid hats.” Klaus looks back. “Bruno! Get out here!” A large ghoul strides out from the back room. He snarls at Jen and Steve, but Klaus shushes his servant. The vampire wordlessly motions to the body.
“So, what did Porthos think I could identify for you?” Klaus asks as Bruno hauls the humanoid bat form of the dead leech out of the front of the shop.
“Could you tell us what this is?” Jen asks. She silently casts the rite, and an image of the monster appears above her hand. A warm sensation runs through Jen when Steve looks suitably impressed. The vampire stares at the image for a long moment.
“Mein Gott,” the vampire murmurs, “I hoped I would never see those again.” The vampire’s eyes flick to Jen. “Why do you want to know about these?”
“Six of them attacked the pups during tysach,” Jen answers.
“Unmöglich!” Klaus exclaims, “Those are Russian earth monsters! They cannot be here. Not on this continent’s soil!”
“Well, they are!” Jen snaps, “I watched them tear apart two hunters. I barely held them back.”
“How did you do such a thing?” Klaus demands. Jen looks to Steve, unsure if she should tell the vampire. The hunter nods.
“With a shield,” Jen answers.
“You held six of these at bay with a shield?” Klaus asks. “Our best wizards on the Ostfront barely held them back when they attacked us, and they needed to combine their strength in order to do that much.” Klaus gives Jen an amazed look. Then, an arrow is sticking out of the vampire’s chest and black fluid is spilling out onto the counter.
Steve spins, crouches, and brings up his machine gun in one graceful movement. Jen tries to mimic the hunter as she turns back to the door. The doorway is filled by – a were-ram? It’s humanoid, and easily eight feet tall from the top of its curled ram horns down to its cloven feet. Light tan fur covers the body. The face is more human than sheep-like. The ram-man takes a step into the shop and nocks another arrow in its polished wood bow.
Steven’s machine gun stutters. Jen is surprised how much more quiet it is than the ones the hunters used in the hollow. A half-dozen red holes bloom in the ram-man’s chest. The ram-man takes a step back from the gunfire, but looks more annoyed than injured. Steven kicks over a table, sending ceramic knick-knacks crashing to the floor. Jen crouches down behind a shelf of metal trinkets. There’s a hard thunk as the ram-man sinks its arrow into the table Steven is hiding behind. The hunter raises up and fires his machine gun again. The bullets just seem to piss off the ram-man. Well, if bullets don’t work, maybe it was time for something else.
“STORMAYRE!” Jen shouts. She’s nearly deafened and blinded as lightning bolts arch from her outstretched hands to the ram-man. Cooked meat smells and smoke fill the shop as the ram-man is reduced to a charred heap. Jen falls to one knee, panting like she’d just run a marathon.
“Are you okay?” Steve asks, suddenly at her side. His voice is kind of tinny as her ears heal.
“Yeah, that rite just took a bit out of me,” Jen answers.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a shaman throw around that kind of magick,” Steve says. Jen shrugs.
“It’s not something we do on a regular basis,” she says. Steve just nods. Then he shoves her to the floor as the store’s frosted windows shatter from a fusillade of arrows. Jen pushes the hunter aside and peers around the shelves. Five more of the ram-men stand on the street pointing arrows into the shop. Jen prays to the Ancestors that the street are deserted. This is too blatant. If too many humans see what the attack, the pathwalkers will come and restore balance. Their definition of restoring balance favored wiping out entire supernatural populations.
“Jaegar!” Klaus shouts. The vampire’s laying down at the end of the counter. He tosses Steve a worn assault rifle. “That will stop those bastard dusios.” Steve brings up the assault rifle to his shoulder and fires. The gunfire deafens Jen again. A ram-man crumples to the ground. The four remaining ram-men – dusios? – bellow deep howls of rage as they loose their arrows.
“DENMANT!” Jen snarls. A translucent blue shield appears. The arrows flash into embers as they strike it.
“Can you lower that shield long enough for me to get another burst off?” Steve asks. Jen grits her teeth in concentration as she silently asks the Ancestors.
“No,” Jen answers.
“We can escape out the back,” Klaus says.
“We can’t leave those things out there,” Jen says. A steady stream of arrows pelt the shield as the ram-men advance on the shop.
“Jen’s right,” Steve says. “How do I get up on the roof?”
“Follow me,” Klaus says.
“Hold them here,” Steve says, gripping Jen’s shoulder. “I’m going to take them out.” Steve follows the vampire into the back room. Jen musters up her strength and focuses the magick into the rite.
He’d better hurry up.
Longeye and Klaus go out the back door into a narrow alley. Klaus motions to a metal ladder just to the right of the door. Longeye quickly strips and sheds human form for true. The world becomes more real as his senses sharpen. Longeye leaps up to the roof and sprints across the roof. He sheds back for human. Longeye doesn’t know where Klaus got an MP44, but he needs to be in human form to aim the seventy-year-old weapon. Firing human-sized guns while in the nine-foot tall true form takes a lot of practice. Longeye aims at the biggest of the ram-men. The MP44 stutters with a short burst. The creature slumps to the ground as rust-red blood pools on the street.
Much to Longeye’s surprise, the ram-men don’t scatter. They just stop in the street and aim up at the roof. Steve manages to take down a second ram-man before ducking down. Three arrows sail over the building. Longeye crab-walks a few yards to the right before rising up. A ram-man guessed almost right as the hunter pops back up. Pain blossoms across Longeye’s scalp. The hunter’s aim is better, and the third ram-man goes down. Longeye crouches back down. He smiles as he feels the wound seal. At least the arrows aren’t archanal.
There’s another bellow, but it’s cut off in the middle of the roar. Longeye rises up and looks down at the last ram-man. The hunter’s eyes go wide. The ram-man is encased in ice. The Ancestors must really like Jen to let her throw around those kinds of spells – or we are really fucked. I hope that Bruno ghoul can clean up those bodies. Longeye walks back to the alley side and jumps down. Hitting the asphalt, he rolls up into a crouch and waits the few seconds it takes for his legs to heal from the drop.
“I come here to kill the vampire my babushka hates, and look what I find,” says a new voice. Longeye looks up to see a tall, dark-haired human standing at the mouth of the alley. “You’re the werewolf who killed my elemental.” Longeye snatches his pistol from his discarded clothing and brings it up just in time to see Klaus bouncing off a shimmering shield in front of the wizard. At that instant, Jen sprints out of the shop. The wizard gives Jen an appraising look.
“And you’re the one throwing around all of that werewolf magic,” the wizard says. “So, we now have the three heroes who will try to stop me. How appropriate.”
“Who are you?” Jen demands.
“I’m not going to make it that simple,” the wizard answers, “I’m required by the ritual to give you a chance to try and stop me. If you don’t, then the girl werewolf will be sacrificed for the ritual.” The wizard smiles. “I will tell you one thing in the name of being sporting. You have until midnight tomorrow to stop me from sacrificing your precious girl werewolf.” Longeye snaps his pistol up and fires three rounds. The bullets ricochet off the shield.
“No!” the wizard snaps, “You will abide by the rules of the ritual, hero. You three will confront me tomorrow night. If you do not, then not only will the girl die, but every living thing in a hundred mile circle.” The alley goes dark for an instant. When Longeye can see again, the wizard is gone.
“So, let me get this straight,” Jen says, “You, me, and the Nazi vampire are supposed to stop a ritual before midnight or not only do we lose Melanie, but a bunch more people get killed?”
“That sounds about right,” Longeye confirms.
“To be fair, I was never that good a Nazi,” Klaus says, “My lieutenant always complained I lacked sufficient Nationalist Socialist ardor. It was such a shame when he fell on that land mine outside Stalingrad.” Jen and Longeye trade wary looks.
“So, how do we do this?” Jen asks.
“If you’re hunting lycanthropes, follow the packs. For vampires, follow the power,” Longeye answers, “For humans, you follow the money.”
Klaus pulls his battered Volkswagen Beetle up next to the fence. The vampire gets out and walks over to the two lycanthropes. Longeye stifles another yawn. Finding this place took all night and most of the day. Jen surprised him how good she was in things he’d always assumed were hunter specialties. He thought about how much of his old prejudices were still valid on the drive up to the property.
“I thought all of you hunters drove those big, black SUV’s with tinted windows,” Klaus says, walking over to Longeye’s beloved Subaru WRX. The vampire is dressed only in a flannel shirt, jeans, and hiking boots. “Is your boot able to hold all of your gear?” The vampire’s words bring a momentary pang of grief. Mountain always complained that he barely fit in the front seat of the compact. It’d been a running joke between Longeye and his second.
“I prefer nimble over mass,” Longeye says. The vampire nods as if Longeye said something profound.
“Now, if only you didn’t drive it like my grandpa,” Jen says, climbing out of the passenger seat. The teasing tone is welcome after the long night and day of work.
“If I drive like a bat out of hell, then it’s because everything’s gone to hell,” Longeye replies. He gives Klaus a sober look. “You’re here much later than we agreed.”
“It took more time and resources to fulfill my part of our arrangement,” Klaus answers, “Now, what did you find about our wizard? Besides this compound.” Jen smiles as she hands a tablet to Klaus.
“Michael Kursk,” she says, pointing at the picture of the dark haired man with a dour look on his gaunt face. “Came to America from Russia when he was a toddler. Orphaned shortly after. Made a ton of money in Silicon Valley before selling everything and coming east. He just bought this large swath of undeveloped land. According to the Ancestors, this area is magically significant. For humans, anyway.”
“You have been busy since I last saw you,” Klaus says. The vampire scrolls to the next page and grunts.
“That’s his grandmother,” Jen says, pointing to the photograph of an old Russian woman in traditional dress including the kerchief over the gray hair. “Kursk found her a few years ago and brought her over from Russia.”
“That’s not his grandmother,” Klaus says, with a growling tone that puts up both lycanthropes’ hackles. “That’s a fucking Baba Yaga.” Jen gasps.
“Are you sure?” Jen asks.
“Yes. Saw the Dämon on the battlefield,” Klaus says, then chuckles. “Bitch’s minions wounded me enough to bring me to attention of Great Council. I’m a nosferatu because of that monster.” There’s a quiet moment as Longeye looks between Jen and Klaus.
“What the fuck is a Baba Yaga?” Longeye asks.
“Nasty Russian demon,” Klaus answers. “Does some bad magic on her own as well as controlling other spirits from Slavic lands.”
“That’s one way of describing them,” Jen says, giving Klaus a skeptical look.”Ivan, another shaman, says they were once human wizards that let themselves be possessed by a spirit of destruction. I hadn’t heard they could control other spirits, though.”
“How do we kill her?” Longeye asks, before Klaus and Jen could start an argument. The two trade unsure looks. “Can we kill her?” The two both wore uneasy faces.
“I don’t know,” Klaus says. Jen shrugs her shoulders.
“Have you found out what the ritual is?” Klaus asks.
“There are a few possibilities,” Jen says, “They range from very bad to cataclysmic. Best guess is that they are trying to raise Zmey Gorynych.”
“That name sounds familiar,” Klaus says, “Who is that?”
“Not who. What. A three-headed dragon,” Jen answers. “It’s similar to the Greek hydra. No one has seen one in over a millenia. The stories about it are contradictory, but all say the Zmey is very bad news.”
“So, we have no hard information about what’s going on up there, but we have to stop it,” Klaus says.
“That sounds about right,” Longeye says.
“Well, then we might as well get on with it,” Klaus says. The vampire starts toward the chain link fence topped with razor wire that runs the perimeter of Kursk’s property.
“Do you have snips?” Klaus asks.
“We had something else in mind,” Jen says. The two lycanthropes walk a few feet away, disrobe, and shed their human forms for true. Jen pulls on the black formal robes of the shaman. She picks up the sling bag Longeye prepped for her and tosses it over her shoulder. The hunter pulls out a rig designed for hunters working in true form. Kevlar and steel to protect the torso, and pouches stuffed with spare magazines, knives, and other assorted toys of destruction. Finally, Longeye pulls out the RPK.
“You are full of surprises, hunter,” Klaus says, as he joins the two lycanthropes. Klaus is carrying the old MP44 and now wearing modern body armor with more magazines for the rifle in pouches on his side and front. Much to Longeye’s surprise, Klaus is wearing an old German stahlhelm instead of a more modern helmet.
“I’m full of surprises?” Longeye asks, pointing at the World War II-vintage helmet and rifle.
“These kept me alive on the Ostfront against Stalin’s soldiers and monsters,” Klaus says, “I just thought all hunters used those M16s, not dolled up AK-47’s.”
“Give me a break, it’s not like I slapped a bunch of Tapco on this,” Longeye replies, hefting the weapon. “Besides, this will lay down a ton of fire.” As if to emphasize the point, Longeye rocks in a 75-round drum and pulls the charging handle.
“Never mind, then,” Klaus says, “Shall we go find something for you to use all those bullets on?” Longeye slings the RPK before tossing the vampire over the fence. As Klaus covers the forest, Jen and Longeye leap over the eight-foot tall fence. Satisfied that no one is waiting to ambush them, Longeye leads the trio through the forest.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Klaus whispers.
“Satellite photos showed there are recently constructed buildings about two miles inside the property. Five pre-fab buildings forming a pentagon around a paved area with a gravel path leading back down to the main highway,” Longeye answers.
“According to my superiors, the buildings are in the middle of some kind of mystical convergence, but they couldn’t say more because it’s human magic,” Jen supplies.
“I would call that a good guess,” Klaus muses. Longeye pointed into the forest. Through the forest and snow, the two miles takes almost an hour for the trio. It would’ve been less, but Klaus isn’t as good at moving through the snow as the lycanthropes. The vampire grumbles, but otherwise they are almost silent as they move to the buildings.
Finding the site isn’t hard. Giant floodlights light up the entire area like it’s daytime – including the new structure in the center of the buildings. It’s forty feet of steel, concrete, and rock. Scaffolding wraps around three sides with more floodlights attached to the metal framework. A pathway winds up the structure from the ground to the top. Small outcroppings – almost like balconies – sprout out every ten feet up. Longeye pulls out binoculars and scans the buildings. A couple dozen humans walk around the site. Most are dressed in jeans and jackets. He doesn’t seen any unusual bulges that might be concealed weapons.
“There’s Kursk,” Longeye says, pointing to a figure walking up the tower. Kursk walks out onto an outcrop about halfway up that juts over the courtyard. Longeye fights down the temptation to just shoot the bastard, but he needs to finish his original job.
“I don’t see the Baba Yaga or Melanie anywhere,” Longeye says.
“Melanie’s in that building,” Jen says, pointing at the building across the compound from the trio.
“How do you know?” Klaus asks.
“She was a pup in my charge,” Jen answers. Longeye always wondered if the shaman put trackers on the pups during tysach. It would certainly explain how the shaman found his groups when they “wandered off.” Klaus accepts the explanation.
“I don’t know where the Baba Yaga is, but I can feel strong magic,” Jen says. Suddenly, Jen whirls around. Longeye doesn’t ask any questions and swings the big RPK back to the forest. Two ram-men emerge from the trees leveling bows. Longeye places the holographic dot on the chest of the closer one and squeezes the trigger. Five splotches of red appear on the ram-man’s chest before it stumbles back. Longeye swivels to the second one. Jen grunts as an arrow sinks into her chest. A second burst takes down the second ram-man. Longeye looks back to Jen. She’s already pulled out the arrow and her body is healing the bloody hole. The two ram-men stand back up – and are joined by a half-dozen more.
“MOVE!” Longeye shouts. The trio sprints out of the forest. At full speed, they reach the buildings in a few seconds. The three leap on top of the nearest roof and bound into the courtyard on the other side. Dozens of weapons are pointed at them by humans and ram-men. Six of those rock creatures are standing in front of the structure like sentinels.
“Hold them!” orders Kursk from his pulpit two stories above the ground. “I was expecting so much more from the three heroes. I am very disappointed. Still, two werewolves and a vampire will make a nice snack for Zmey Gorynych.” Jen hisses as she sees Melanie – unconscious, bound and gagged – dragged into view by an old woman in shabby clothes and kerchief tied over her hair. Longeye clicks his mike and hears two clicks in response.
“Send it,” Longeye says quietly.
“What was that werewolf?” Kursk asks. As if in answer, a rocket streaks across the courtyard and slams into one of the rock monsters.
Jen throws up the shield as the rock monster explodes. Some of Kursk’s human followers are pulped by the stone shrapnel. The ram-men are knocked down by the blast, but they get to their feet looking unhurt. Then, bullets start whipping into Kursk’s followers. Jen’s surprised she only hears the zips as the bullets pass by. Steve doesn’t look concerned, so Jen keeps a determined look on her face. She has her own tasks to complete. Jen focuses on Melanie and the Baba Yaga.
“It’s time,” Steve says. Jen touches the Steve’s gun and ammo pouches as she casts the rite. The power of the Ancestors flows through her to the hunter’s weapons. The Ancestors are angry, and the power tastes of their rage. At Steve’s nod, Jen drops the shield. Seven of the ram-men are right in front of them. Steve sprays gunfire into the group to open up ground for the trio. Almost as if on cue, the Bleeders join the fray with the entire Hunters Guild right behind them. The courtyard devolves into a mass of bodies, blood, and gunfire. Jen pushes all of that aside as she sprints towards Melanie and the Baba Yaga with the vampire at her side. Steve leaps up onto the structure to kill Kursk.
“Damn you werewolf!” Kursk sputters as Longeye charges up the tower. “I said only you three heroes could challenge me! You’re violating the ritual!”
“I hate dealing with fucking amateurs,” Longeye shouts back. “You think combat is like what you see on television. Since you’re going to die tonight, let me tell you a professional secret. Always bring backup.” Enraged, the human wizard hurls a fireball at Longeye. The hunter ducks, but his back explodes with pain from the near miss. Longeye snarls as he fires back at Kursk. The air in front of the wizard shimmers. Bullets ricochet as if they hit a wall. Longeye plays his hunch about the shield and empties the drum of the RPK as he runs sprints up the stairs. Kursk is blurred behind the shimmering. As the gun runs empty, Longeye lets the RPK fall on its sling and lowers his shoulder. His full mass slams into the invisible shield. Pain flashes as his shoulder and collarbone shatter under the impact, but Longeye didn’t rebound off of the shield. The invisible barrier is shoved back. Kursk is suddenly airborne. Unfortunately, Kursk smirks as he casts a hovering spell.
“That was inventive, if futile,” Kursk says. The wizard raises his hand and the concrete around Longeye shatters into dozens of stinging shards. “My followers will prevent any of your pathetic attempts to stop me.”
“You might want to take a look at your followers,” Longeye replies. His wounds are healed, so Longeye rocks a new drum into the RPK. Kursk looks down and blanches as he watches hunters and Bleeders slaughtering his ram-men. Even his stone monsters aren’t able to withstand the high-explosives both sides brought to the party.
“How could you defeat my dusios with mere guns?” Kursk demands.
“Did you think the Ancestors were going to let you sacrifice our pup if they could do anything to prevent it?” Longeye asks. “They remember those monsters you’ve unleashed, and they knew how to make our weapons work against them.” Kursk’s face twists in fury, but then smiles as a woman’s voice booms across the courtyard. Longeye follows his gaze down to where Jen and the Baba Yaga are dueling on the ground below.
Thank the Ancestors everyone’s keeping clear of us, Jen thinks as she sends another lightning bolt at the Russian demon. Jen knew going into the fight that the Baba Yaga is dangerous, but if any of Jen’s attacks hurt the Baba Yaga, she couldn’t see. By contrast, Jen’s auburn coat is slashed where the fur and skin was burned away. The Russian demon stands over Melanie and waves her long, thin hands in intricate motions. Jen casts the protection rite as lights of unearthly colors sparkle between and around the two.
Then, there’s an odd pulse in Jen’s magick, as if the Ancestors regret something. Before Jen can decipher the pulse, her shield vanishes. The Baba Yaga’s curse crackles through Jen. Every pain receptor in Jen’s body fires off simultaneously. Jen realizes it’s her own screaming she’s hearing. Her strength disintegrates and Jen crumples to the ground.
Why? Jen asks, Why did the shield fail? What did I do wrong?
NOTHING, the Ancestors answer in her head. If Jen wasn’t in so much pain, she’d marvel that the Ancestors are speaking to her. WE CANNOT DEFEAT THAT ONE’S POWER YET. Jen feels cold hands clamp down on her.
Kursk bellows a triumphant laugh as Jen falls. Longeye spins back to the wizard and rips off a burst. Kursk’s shield easily deflects the bullets. Before Longeye fires again, hooves clomped up the path behind him. The hunter whirls just as a dozen arrows are loosed at him. Longeye drops to the ground, but not fast enough. Pain flashes as three arrows sink deep into his shoulders and back. Longeye opens up. The enchanted bullets scythe down the ram-men. In a few seconds, all of them are dead or dying. Longeye turns, but Kursk is gone. Longeye catches sight of Kursk and the Baba Yaga pulling Melanie on to the top of the structure. From the looks on their faces, Longeye is sure that the ritual is about to begin.
“Well, that’s a clusterfuck, isn’t it?” Klaus says, startling Longeye. Klaus is supporting a battered Jen with one arm while holding a Walther P-38 with the other. Longeye recoils at the stench of wolfsbane that is smeared all over the shaman’s wounds. Jen’s breathing hard, but determination glows in her yellow eyes.
“Are you good?” Longeye asks Jen, keeping his voice as neutral as possible.
“Yeah, are you?” she asks in return, with a hint of anger.
“Yeah, everything’s healed back up,” Longeye answers, “What happened down there?”
“The Ancestors,” Jen answers.
“Why would they do that to you?” Longeye asks, confused.
“I have an idea, but we need to get up there now,” Jen says, with a note of command in her voice. Longeye grins as he rocks in a new drum. One more left.
“That looks like the best pathway,” Klaus says, motioning to the scaffolding with his pistol. “If you will clear the way, I will carry our young hexen.”
“I am not a witch,” Jen protests as she climbs onto the proffered back.
“Well, that’s not what you call yourself,” Klaus quips. Longeye chuckles as Jen playfully slaps the vampire. Longeye hops onto the scaffolding. Two humans pop up from the upper levels and rain down fire with machine pistols. Longeye grunts as two bullets hit, but they aren’t silver. Longeye’s body heals the wounds almost as fast as the humans make them. He aims at the wooden planks above him and opens fire. Blood pours down from the holes.
Longeye swings up to the next level. Satisfied that nothing is attacking, he motions for Klaus to follow. In the blink of an eye, Klaus is standing next to Longeye. The damned Kraut leech doesn’t even looked strained by Jen’s weight.
“I hear more above us,” Klaus says. Longeye plucks a small cylinder from the front of his rig, pulls the pin, and arches it up onto the planks above us. Klaus’s eyes go wide in horror. Longeye just smirks at the vampire.
“Granata!” someone screams above. Longeye scampers up as the scaffolding gently shakes with the explosion. The hunter lands on the planks as the two humans blink furiously. Longeye doubts they hear the twin bursts that end their lives. Having a flash-bang go off in your face will do that to you. Klaus doesn’t look amused as he joins the hunter.
“Next up is the prize,” Longeye says, pointing at the planks above them.
“Are you going to use more of your firecrackers?” Klaus asks.
“I’ve got an idea,” Jen says, and quickly sketches out a plan. Longeye doesn’t like the plan, but he’s learned to trust the shaman’s instincts. Klaus looks skeptical, but nods. As Klaus blurs into motion, Longeye pulls himself up just enough to bring the RPK onto the next level. The Baba Yaga holds Melaine over a stone tub while Kursk puts a silver blade to the pup’s throat. Both are chanting something that sounds Russian.
Two ram-men guards see Longeye and loose arrows. The hunter grunts in pain as one digs into his right arm while the other punches through his ear. Longeye places the holographic reticle on a guard and fires a short burst. He doesn’t even watch it fall before swinging the light machine gun to the other ram-man. They fire at the same time. Longeye nearly lets go of the scaffolding as the most intense pain he’s ever felt explodes through his head. It takes him a moment to realize what’s happened. That bastard shot my eye out!
Longeye forces himself onto the top of the structure as his body works to heal him. Dammit, where did that bastard get an archanal arrow? At least Longeye killed the ram-man. Longeye crawls towards Kursk and the Baba Yaga. Kursk sees the hunter and scowls, but doesn’t stop chanting. Kursk hands the blade to the Baba Yaga before storming towards the crawling hunter.
Longeye yanks the arrow and feels his eyeball tear out of the socket. It’s a sensation Longeye never wants to feel again. He slaps a wolfsbane patch in the hole and grunts as the pain flares with the wolfsbane’s burn. Kursk kicks Longeye’s RPK out of his hands. The wizard moves faster than Longeye expects. The hunter slashes with his claws, but Kursk jumps out of the way. With the space opened up, Longeye draws his pistol and flicks on the flashlight. Kursk’s nifty shield doesn’t stop the brilliant 200-lumen light. The wizard shrinks back as he rubs at his eyes. To the wizard’s credit, he never stops the chanting. Longeye lines up the M&P’s sights and squeezes the trigger. The air in front of Kursk shimmers as his shield deflects the nine millimeter rounds. Longeye looks over and sees a malicious smile on the Baba Yaga’s face. As the demon pulls the knife back to cut Melanie’s neck, Longeye looks behind the Baba Yaga. Jen is mouthing words to the Ancestors as she casts.
“NOW!” Longeye screams. Melanie vanishes from the stunned Baba Yaga’s hands as Klaus darts in to rescue the pup. Then, the stone tub explodes like a landmine. Longeye is deafened by a screeching roar that shakes the tower. Four brilliant green tendrils lash out from where the stone tub had been. One tendril wraps around Kursk. He screams in Russian as the tendril pulls him into the ground. There’s an audible pop as the tendril and Kursk vanish. The Baba Yaga dodges two other tendrils with surprising deftness. Then, she points at Jen and chants in Russian. The three remaining tendrils lash out at Jen.
“Fuck no you don’t,” Jen snarls, “QVARE DOMA SCARTH!” The tendrils quaver as the Ancestors’ power stops them cold. First one, and then another tendril dissipate as Jen and the Baba Yaga battle. The remaining tendril pulsates as it whips between Jen and the Baba Yaga.
Brilliant turquoise light surrounds Jen’s forearms. Longeye smells burning flesh and fur. Jen shoves her arms in front of her and screams in pain and fury. The green tendril sways for a moment before it lances through the Baba Yaga. The Russian demon looks down at the glowing green tendril with a startled expression. Then, the entire top of the stone tower explodes.
Longeye recognizes the familiar scents of the Guild infirmary as he regains consciousness. Longeye opens his eyes. Relief flushes through him as he sees through both eyes. Thank you Ancestors! I’m not going to be expelled from the Guild. It’s a fear all hunters have, even if they pretend otherwise. Longeye looks over as the door opens. The Guildmaster and Jen walk into the infirmary in human form.
“I have something for you,” the Guildmaster says, handing Longeye an envelope. Inside is a business card for Klaus’s antique shop.
“I got that too,” Jen says. “I’m not sure what the card means.”
“Klaus is willing to continue talking to us,” Longeye answers. “You’ve scored your first contact in the vampire world.”
“Is it bad that I don’t think that’s a bad thing?” Jen asks. The Guildmaster barks a laugh.
“You may wish to refrain from bringing that to the Spiritmaster’s attention,” the Guildmsters says. Then, the Guildmaster looks back at Longeye. “Steven, you did good work. Albert wants you to rest for a few more days, and I think you should take the doctor’s advice. You will be out in time for the funerals.” The Guildmaster’s face grows dark. “We lost seventeen. After the funerals, I need you to take over Brian’s slot.” Longeye’s eyes go wide. Brian McKellan, better known as Bladesmith, is – or had been – the leader of the hit packs. The Guildmaster gives a short nod at Longeye’s unanswered question. Then, the Guildmaster abruptly turns and walks out of the infirmary.
“How’d you come out?” Longeye asks Jen. She purses her lips before sliding up the sleeves of her sweater. Her forearms and hands are covered in twisted burn scars.
“It was all archanal, and I didn’t get wolfsbane on them in time,” Jen says, clearly embarrassed by her scars. “Even taking on the Baba Yaga while she was distracted, I still needed to handle so much magic that I did this to myself.” She looks to be on the verge of tears. Longeye reaches out and puts a hand on her arm.
“Stop. You did the job,” Longeye says, “You paid a nasty price, but you did the job, and in the end, that’s all that matters. Anyone who tells you different is a fucking idiot. If anyone gives you grief for your scars, you put them in their fucking place. If you ever need it, the entire damned Guild will back you. We know the price of getting the job done.” Jen cocks her head and gives the hunter a smile.
“Thank you,” she says, standing up, “I didn’t mean to talk about that. I just wanted to make sure you were okay before I have to go out to the cravex to prepare for the Rites for the Dead.” The cravex is the lycanthropes’ holy site where all the rituals are performed. Her smile turns sad. “My first duty as caretaker is to handle the most funeral our packs have seen since the Great Fatherland War.”
“Caretaker?” Longeye asks, not sure he heard correctly. Jen nods.
“I’m now the third highest in the Order of the Spirits,” Jen says, “Right behind the Spiritmaster and Deputy Spiritmaster.” She leans over Longeye. “Can I tell you that it scares the hell out of me?”
“I’m not worried. You’ll get the job done.”
Where the Moss Grows is an urban fantasy that Kenn Blamchard and I developed. Kenn had the original idea, I wrote the story, and then Kenn narrated it.
Check out Kenn’s site for more information on the audiobook, and click the button below to purchase the audiobook. The audiobook is $9.97.
Ten bucks for two and a half hours of entertainment!
Solomon Love is a small time blues guitarist in Memphis who stumbles onto a murder. A murder committed by a cop. Now, Solomon and the cop are hunting each other through streets of Memphis. The cop has not only the police’s resources, but criminal allies as well. Solomon has a few friends, and the fact he’s a centuries-old werewolf on his side.
“Wow, this place is small,” Corrie said as Erik led her into the apartment. “I thought Anya was exaggerating when she talked about it.” Erik ignored the flash of pain from Corrie’s words. She was just making conversation, not trying to remind him of what he had lost.
“Yeah, well they won’t look for you here,” Erik replied, “The master bedroom is at the end of the hall. You can use that one.” He walked into the second bedroom and started peeling off his gear and armor. He stopped as he noticed that Corrie was standing in the doorway and watching him.
“This is your place, why don’t you take the master?” Corrie asked.
“For the same reason I haven’t been to this place for a couple of years,” Erik answered, trying to keep the pain out of his voice. He wasn’t as successful as he thought, because Corrie strode into the room and gave him a sisterly hug. Erik braced as her arms came around him, but relented and let him enjoy the warmth of the physical contact. He didn’t care how long they stood there. He had missed Corrie’s comforting presence.
“I’m surprised you kept this place,” Corrie said, finally breaking the silence.
“I didn’t,” Erik answered, finally shrugging out of her embrace. “It’s owned by one of my family’s companies. They’ve just been nice enough to let me use it again.” He gave her a crooked smile. “You should go get cleaned up.”
“I’m not the only one,” Corrie said, punching Erik in the shoulder, “You’re a bit whiff too.”
“If I may remind you, your highness, I was doing that until you came in and interrupted me,” Erik shot back.
“I did not interrupt you. I was checking on the well-being of one of my subjects. My concern is never considered an interruption,” Corrie said in a lofty tone. “I will now tend to myself while you make yourself presentable for such august personage, such as myself.”
“If you’re not careful, I’ll make you cook for yourself,” Erik said. Corrie stuck her tongue out at him as she walked back to the master bedroom. They spent the next few hours getting cleaned up followed by cleaning their gear and weapons. They worked in a companionable silence that Erik felt relaxing, especially considering the tension of getting off of Battle Island. Dodging delvers and their minions was bad enough, but they also had to evade the Army patrols out doing search and destroy missions against the Dark Towers. Having to cart around Ensign Bartley as well just increased the difficulty.
“I hope that girl will be okay,” Corrie said as if she was reading Erik’s mind.
“She should be fine,” Erik said, “You did a good job on the emergency patchwork and the ship’s captain said he’d make sure that she made it to the Hospitallers.” He turned back to look at Corrie as he heard her stop working.
“Seriously Erik, how long do we have before someone finds out that I’m not dead?” Corrie asked. There was an odd spike of determination in her emotions when she asked the question. Erik frowned as he realized she was planning something. He mentally frowned, careful not to let the expression on his face. Corrie wasn’t exactly known for the timidity of her plans.
“Probably twenty-four hours,” Erik answered, “It could be fifteen or it could be thirty. It’ll depend on when the Hospitallers call the base to tell them they have one of the Army’s ensigns. Even if it’s fifteen, we should be long gone from Battle City by then.” He looked her straight in the eye. “Why?”
“I’ve been going over what happened in my head,” Corrie answered. “I was at five thousand feet doing a wide sweep when my wing suddenly exploded. At first, I thought it was just a structural failure because nothing the Dark Towers has should be able to hit a plane that high up. Then, I was too busy trying to survive my plane disintegrating to figure out what happened.” Corrie went silent, and Erik could feel the determination building in her as she mentally prepared herself to lay out her plan.
“Whoever did this is waiting to find out if I’m dead,” Corrie said, “This may be the best window we’ll have to find out who’s behind this and why they’re trying to kill me.”
“I thought intelligence was my job, not yours,” Erik said.
“No, intelligence was Samantha’s job. You’ve always been more of a well-trained thug,” Corrie said in a teasing tone. Erik just rolled his eyes. Corrie’s expression grew serious again. “Listen, whoever is behind this must have had some help from inside the Army. How else did they know I was flying and where? It’s not like pilots have a set schedule.”
“Granted,” Erik said, not liking the spike of excitement in Corrie’s emotions.
“I know my fellow officers,” Corrie said, “They play the political game almost as hard as they fight the Dark Towers in the field. Probably more so in the Air Forces than the ground pounders. If one of them set me up, they’re going to keep the evidence of who they’re working for until I’m confirmed dead. They’d need the leverage on their partners if the Imperial Guard came looking.” Erik took one look at the excited light in Corrie’s eyes.
“You want to go get that evidence,” Erik said, with a resigned tone.
“Of course,” Corrie said, a predatory smile spreading across her face.
“Corrie, I just pulled you off that island so that we could get you someplace safe,” Erik said, “A lot of work has gone into getting you back to the palace, and a lot of people have put themselves on the line for you. I’m sure the Saint is going to tear the fort apart looking for whoever was behind you getting shot down. Can we at least wait until we have you back behind a wall of Imperial Guard?”
“Erik, if I show back up at the palace, the bastards behind this will circle the wagons and we’ll never find out who it was,” Corrie said. “Erik, please. You’re the only one I’d trust to help me do this.” He sighed and felt Corrie’s soaring excitement.
“You said the same thing when we stole your father’s car because you had to go talk with Jamie Harrington,” Erik shot back. Corrie smiled at the jab. She knew that if he was bringing up their past capers, then he was already mentally preparing to go on another.
“That would have worked if you hadn’t missed the turn,” Corrie said, standing up.
“You were the one who was driving and managed to crash the car into Harrington Keep,” Erik protested.
“Which I wouldn’t have done if you hadn’t missed telling me the turn,” Corrie said as if that should have evident even to a small child. She gave him a wide smile.
“I’ll make some calls and see what I can arrange,” Erik said, reaching for his phone.
“Thanks Aunt Belinda,” Anne said as she hugged the short, round woman in the doorway. Anne smiled as she spied the twelve-gauge Remington leaning in the corner of the doorway. Aunt Belinda was still the practical woman Anne remembered. That was one of the reasons that Anne led the group this deep into the old city.
“Oh, it’s no bother. I do so love having company these days. Even if it’s under rather unusual circumstances,” Aunt Belinda said, ushering the group into her small, comfortable house. “Anne dear, did you know that there’s a BOLO out on the four of you?”
“Been listening to the police scanner again, Aunt Belinda?” Anne asked as she shut and bolted the door. Anne did a quick check around the neighborhood to see if they had any followers. The street didn’t have any unusual cars or lights on.
“Well, I like to keep my hand in the game, you know,” Aunt Belinda answered as she scurried from the door and down to the short hallway to the kitchen. Anne, Samantha, Princess Anya, and Veritas followed her back. Anne felt part of her relax as the smells of home-baked brownies and coffee floated down to them.
“Sit, sit,” Aunt Belinda said, motioning to a worn kitchen table and chairs. Steaming mugs of coffee and a plate of brownies seemed to materialize the moment the four sat down.
“We should not relax yet,” Veritas said, “They are bound to be checking all of your family to see if they are harboring us. We probably don’t have a lot of time.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” Aunt Belinda said, “It’ll take a few days before they’ll think to look here. Besides, we should at least have a couple of hours warning before they show up at my front door.” Anne smiled as Samantha and Veritas did quick re-evaluations of the elderly woman.
“You have my most heartfelt thanks, madam,” Princess Anya said. Aunt Belinda’s eyebrow crooked the tiniest bit upward at Anya’s accent. Anne restrained the giggle, but Aunt Belinda must have heard something because she bestowed one of her rare glowers on Anne.
“Okay, Veritas, time to spill,” Anne said, looking at the elf, “What in the hell is going on?”
“Language, Anne. A lady shouldn’t speak like that,” Aunt Belinda reproved. Anne gave the older woman a look of contrition.
“With all due respect to our host, I can’t discuss this in front of her,” Veritas said, and gave Aunt Belinda a small bow. The respect in the elf’s voice and gesture caught Anne off-guard.
“Aunt Belinda can keep a secret,” Anne said, “We’re trusting her not to report us to the authorities.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Anne. I’m not offended. After all, if I don’t hear what’s happening, I can’t testify about it later,” Aunt Belinda said, “Help yourself to anything in the kitchen, just please make sure to clean up after yourselves. I have some knitting to attend to.” She patted the three woman on the arm and dashed out of the kitchen.
“Okay, Veritas, talk,” Anne said, sharply. The elf looked back down the hall before turning back to the group. He looked like he wanted to ask about Aunt Belinda. Instead, he took a deep breath and looked down at his wristwatch.
“Three hours ago I discovered two men trying to place a bomb below the bedroom of the prince,” Veritas said. Princess Anya gasped.
“We didn’t hear anything about that,” Anne said.
“Of course not, because I didn’t report it through the normal channels,” Veritas said.
“Why not?” Anne asked. Veritas gave her an exasperated look.
“Would you stop interrupting, Detective?” Veritas asked. Anne folded her arms beneath her breasts and nodded at the elf.
“I interrogated the two men who were setting the bomb,” Veritas said, “They were just local mercenaries in the city’s criminal ecosystem. They were hired through a local middleman named Yamin. They had no idea where the money originated and were even provided the explosive to be used. The device was one of the Navy’s medium limpet mines. Used properly, it would have easily blown through all of the normal and magical defenses surrounding the prince.”
“Wait, the American Navy or the Imperial Navy?” Samantha asked.
“American,” Veritas answered. Samantha let out a string of curses that surprised Anne.
“So, someone on this side of the gate wants my husband murdered?” Princess Anya asked, confused. “I thought the purpose of these negotiations was to cement a stronger relationship between the Emperor’s government and the American government.”
“No, your highness, it wasn’t the Americans,” Veritas said, “Or at least, those of us in OSI don’t believe it was the American government.”
“Well, if it wasn’t the Americans who set this in motion, then who?” Princess Anya demanded.
“The Saint believes that there is a coterie among the aristocrats who are not happy about your father-in-law seizing back his traditional powers,” Veritas said. “Not surprising considering the Emperor destroyed a hundred years of precedent that gave most of his power to the House of Lords.”
“If they didn’t want their powers taken away from them, then they shouldn’t have cowered behind their walls while the Commandante was wreaking havoc across Avalon City,” Princess Anya said with the first hint of true malice Anne had heard from the woman. Samantha snorted, and the princess glowered at the psychic. Veritas cleared his throat to continue.
“That may be true, your highness, but it doesn’t change their actions,” Veritas said.
“So, how did that bomb figure into Kurt giving us the ‘go-to-hell’ code?” Anne asked.
“I rendered the explosive in the mine inert and then enlisted the aid of Mr. Schneider and Agent MacMurtry. I thought it would be better if they discovered the bomb, considering the current tensions between the various security teams. If people on this side of the gate alerted the security teams to the presence, it was doubtful that the Americans would have been behind it. Plus, we were hoping that it would flush out the conspirators. Such was not the case.”
“Are Kurt and Jason okay?” Anne asked, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer. Veritas nodded and Anne felt like she could breathe again. She hadn’t realized exactly how worried she’d been about Kurt.
“It seems someone else alerted the security teams about the bomb,” Veritas said. “Fortunately, the responding team of the Imperial Guard assumed the three of us had just stumbled onto the criminals and took them down. It was through them that we found out that the reported target was not the prince, but you, your highness.” Princess Anya paled and held her hand to her mouth. “Once Mr. Schneider found out the target, he asked me to get you out of the building.”
“Why would they want to kill me?” the princess asked.
“Because then they can get their own choice as the prince’s new consort,” Samantha answered without a hint of compassion for the princess. “Everyone knows that Prince Rupert is easily swayed. Having their own princess tow whisper what they want in his ear?” Princess Anya looked about to unload another salvo, but Anne held up her hand before the two women could even start to bicker. Much to her surprise, they both backed down.
“So, as far as everyone back at the hotel is concerned, Kurt and Jason were just in the right place at the right time?” Anne asked. Veritas nodded as he sipped at the coffee in front of him.
“Won’t they learn otherwise from the two who were setting the bomb?” Princess Anya asked.
“They didn’t survive interrogation, I’m afraid,” Veritas answered. Princess Anya stared at the elf in shock. Anne was also startled by the elf’s casual response, but Samantha didn’t seem surprised. Anne guessed that the death of certain prisoners was considered a normal outcome for those in the Office of Special Investigations. It was those kinds of revelations that rubbed Anne’s nose in the fact that her friends came from a very different culture. Anne out those thoughts away and pondered on their current situation for a long moment.
“We have no idea who was behind the attempt?” Anne asked, finally breaking the silence.
“Not really,” Veritas answered. “OSI thinks Earl Dorn of Oyster Bay is the leader of the coterie, but we’re not sure if he is involved in his members more energetic plans.”
“Not surprised,” Samantha said, “Earl Oyster Bay is one of the staunchest conservatives in the House of Lords.”
“I’ll let you three deal with the politics. Do you have pictures of the two men?” Anne asked. Veritas produced a phone from inside his jacket and handed it to Anne. She recognized both men as freelance hitters, although they both tended to stick to working for one of the city’s mafia families. Anne paced up and down the kitchen as she thought over what had happened and what she knew.
“Okay, we’ll stay here until tomorrow night,” Anne said. “Then we’re going to question who hired these two and find out who is behind this.”
Erik leapt from the truck to where Corry crouched over the wounded Ensign Bartley. Corry didn’t even look up at him as she snatched the med kit from his hands. Erik let Corry work as he stripped Bill’s corpse. Damn it, why did Call and Bill have to take the money? Why in the hell did they agree to assassinate the princess of the Empire? The whole plot against Corry made no sense. She wasn’t even the heir to the Imperial throne. So, why try and eliminate her?
The snarl of orcs snapped Erik’s attention to the wall. Two of the eight-foot tall creatures perched above Corry and the ensign. Both were aiming their heavy crossbows down. Erik grabbed Bill’s pistol off the ground and emptied the magazine at the two orcs. The .400 Imperial cartridge did okay against goblins and draks, but it wouldn’t penetrate against the thicker hides of the orcs. That didn’t mean getting by a whole bunch of the bullets didn’t hurt the orcs. A crossbow bolt skittered off the asphalt while the other thunked into the shed above Corry’s head.
“Erik, would you stop them from doing that?” Corry ordered without looking up. “It’s distracting.” Erik knew better than to reply when Corry was in her working zone. He unslung his rifle. The two orcs tossed their crossbows, drew heavy swords, and leapt down off the wall. Erik stitched one with a burst as soon as it hit the ground. Its partner charged Erik with a bellow. Erik fired two more bursts, but the orc ignored the wounds and slashed out with its sword. Erik rolled to the side. The orc redirected his blade faster than Erik thought it could move. He barely managed to deflect the blade with a telekinetic push. The sword sparked as the orc dragged it across the asphalt.
Erik rolled up into a crouch with his rifle leveled at the orc. He emptied the magazine into the monster. Twenty rounds tore the orc’s chest open. Erik dropped the spent magazine into a pouch before snatching a charged magazine and slamming it into the magazine well. He scanned around him, looking for more threats brought by the gunfire.
He felt the alien emotions at the same time as he heard the heavy grunts. Two trolls rose up from behind the ruins of a small building. Trolls were twice as tall, twice as strong, and twice as tough as orcs. About the only good thing was that the ponderous monsters were about half as smart as an orc. Erik slung his rifle and jumped to the heavy machine gun on the back of Bill’s truck.
Erik had barely grabbed the heavy machine gun’s handles when the sun was blocked by a twelve foot section of wall one of the trolls threw at him. Erik made a quick calculation and jumped. There was a disheartening crunch as the wall flattened the truck.
“What the hell just happened to the truck?” Corry called out from behind the shed.
“Trolls,” Erik answered as his mind raced with how to kill the two giant monsters. If he’d had another second or two, he could have brought the heavy machine gun with him.
“Why’d you wake up the trolls?” Corry asked, with an exasperated tone.
“Because I was trying to save you from those two orcs, and I didn’t sense them sleeping here,” Erik shouted.
“Don’t yell at me, Erik. Just hurry up and finish them off,” Corry said.
“How exactly would you like me to do that without the heavy machine gun?” Erik asked as he dodged a six-foot metal bar as it whistled past.
“Maybe that magic sword of yours?” Corry called out.
“Don’t have it. Long story,” Erik said. That actually caused Corry to shoot a surprised look over her shoulder at him. Erik didn’t have time to enjoy catching Corry off-guard. The trolls were continuing to try and squash him with debris. He managed to knock the man-sized boulder off course so that it missed him by a foot or two. It still showered him with shards.
“Well, what about Little Britches?” Corry asked. Erik thought about that as he dodged more improvised missiles from the trolls. That might work, but Erik would have to get in close to the trolls. Closing with trolls was generally considered a bad idea.
Erik made some quick calculations, sprinted, and then pushed himself into the air. The trolls stared up at him. They didn’t react well to surprises, and humans weren’t supposed to fly unless they were in one of their contraptions. As Erik arched down, he drew Little Britches and aimed the stubby tri-barrel. Three feet above the troll’s head, Erik touched off the armor-piercing barrel.
Erik had the barest instant to see the heavy dart pulp the troll’s head before Little Britches’ heavy recoil tossed him back away from the troll and straight into the second troll’s fist. Pain flashed as Erik was slammed to the ground. Erik pushed with a bit of power to slide out from the troll’s stomp. He swung the heavy weapon around and touched off Little Britches’ fragmentation barrel. The troll howled as a hundred and fifty flechettes sliced through the its foot. The monster staggered back, trying hard not to step on the mangled mess of its foot.
Erik leapt into the troll and touched off the final barrel. The troll screamed as the white phosphorus landed into its hide. Trolls were vulnerable to fire and burning. The troll ran away from Erik with a loping gait. Erik popped open Little Britches’ breech and three heavy steel casing clattered on the asphalt. Erik slipped in three more six-inch long, two-inch wide cartridges.
“Can I tell you how glad I am that the Imperial Guard let you keep that weapon?” Corry said as Erik approached.
“I’m fine thanks. Just a few bumps, bruises, and scrapes,” Erik said flatly.
“Why are you complaining?” Corry asked, “Aren’t you Jaegar the Troll-Killer?”
“Because I killed one troll with a magic sword!” Erik nearly shouted. Two more orcs dropped down. Erik turned, put them both down with rifle bursts, and then turned back to Corry. The woman had one of her knowing smirks on her face.
“Hey, now you’ve got two more on your record. She’s stabilized, but we need to get her to a field hospital,” Corry said. “Give me that rifle and ammo pouch so I can cover is while you carry her.” Corry scanned the horizon as Erik unslung the weapon. “Where are we going?”
“Thirty-Fourth and Broad,” Erik answered. “I’ve got gear stashed there for you.” He concentrated on the moaning ensign and carefully lifted her with some power. This kind of fine work was always more draining. “We’ll need to hurry or we’ll miss the boat.”
“Boat, what boat?” Corry asked as they moved into the city. She shot another orc that tried to stop them.
“The boat that’s going to pick us up at 1600 tomorrow at Green Cove,” Erik said as he guided the ensign’s body through the streets as fast as he could reasonably control. When they were a bit safer, he’d fashion a stretcher and carry her.
“Why don’t we go to Fort Andrews?” Corry asked.
“Because the Army may be complicit in you getting shot down,” Erik answered.
“Damn it. It can never be easy, can it?” Corry said as she covered their rear.
“That’s my line,” Erik complained as he covered their front with his submachine gun.
“Where do you think I got it from?” Corry asked. As they rounded another corner, she stopped Erik long enough to give him a chaste kiss on the cheek. “By the way, thanks for coming to get me.”
Anne raised the stubby submachine gun at Free-Elf Veritas. The tall elf regarded the muzzle of the gun as an annoyance. Anne felt the strong pull on the wild magic streams before the gun was ripped out of her hands. She hadn’t even seen the bindings the elf had done to pull the gun. The submachine gun landed on the bed with a soft thump.
“I believe the words you were looking for are ‘Honey Gold’,” Veritas said, stiffly. “And now you tell me?”
“‘Green Branch’,” Samantha answered, shutting the door and pushing the other two women into the hotel room. “Quit being a dick Veritas.”
“She was the one who pointed a gun at me,” Veritas said, motioning to Anne. “For someone with her reported gifts, it was disappointing.”
“You aren’t supposed to be the one who was meeting us,” Anne replied, trying to keep her emotions under tight rein. “Where’s Kurt?”
“Where is my husband?” Princess Anya demanded.
“No time,” Samantha said. “Who’s after us?”
“Right now, everyone,” Veritas answered. “Unfortunately, the spider is also among that everyone.” The elf looked down at his phone and frowned. “It looks like they’ve shut down the hotel. Give me your official phones.” The three women handed the elf their phones and went to change into the outfits they’d stashed in the room. In a few moments, Anne felt a strong pull on the fire wild magic and the smell of melted plastic floated through the room. Another pull and the smell vanished. Anne was impressed by the elf’s finesse, and she wished she had time to see his bindings.
“I’m still not sure how we’re going to get out of this hotel with all of the surveillance,” Veritas said as he walked back into the room. “The Americans were smart enough to ward the cameras against tampering them with magic.” He sounded grudgingly impressed.
“Give me my burner,” Samantha said. She hit one of the speed dials and laid the phone on the desk. It didn’t even ring once.
“Considering that your calling on your burner phone and that every security alarm in the hotel just went active, I’m guessing that’s why you called,” Joseph said with mock severity. “Why couldn’t it have just been phone sex?”
“You’re on speakerphone, love,” Samantha said, her face slightly crimson. Anne hid her own smile. Joseph, the team’s tech specialist and erstwhile hacker, had made a remarkable recovery since being paralyzed. Anne suspected some of it was due to magic that Veronica had binded to the wound, but a lot of it also had to do with Samantha and Joseph’s budding relationship.
“Damn it. I hate speakerphones,” Joseph grumbled. “You couldn’t have warned me?”
“Sorry, love, but we’re sort of busy at this end,” Samantha answered, and she couldn’t stop the smile spreading across her face.
“Yeah, I can see that,” Joseph said. “Okay, they’re going to be shutting down the phones in a few minutes, so we won’t be able to talk again until you’re a few blocks from the hotel. I’m going to launch one of my pre-done routines that should give you a clear avenue. I’m sending the route to you and Anne. As far as the task force and Imperial Security’s electronics are concerned, you won’t exist.” Anne’s phone beeped as she received the map. “Sorry, but I can’t do anything if you run into physical security.”
“Don’t worry, love, we should be able to handle it,” Anne said, with a slight teasing tone. Samantha shot her an evil look.
“Hi Anne. Can I say again how much I hate speakerphones?” Joseph said. “The routine should be good in a few–” The phone cut off abruptly. Anne looked down at her own burner.
“They’re jamming the cell frequencies,” Anne said. “You might as well link us up now, Samantha.” Anne felt the slight pressure of the telepathic link. As she opened herself up to the link, Anne could only feel the princess’s and Samantha’s minds. Anne shot a questioning look at Samantha.
Veritas didn’t want to be linked with the rest of us, Samantha answered the unspoken question.
Well, isn’t that suspicious, Anne said.
It’s not like that, Samantha said, Elves don’t always interact well with psychic abilities. It’s uncomfortable for them to join a psychic link.
It’s also a good way to keep us from finding out if he’s a traitor, Anne said.
You can relax. I’ve known Veritas for years, Samantha said, I used to work with him when I was full time with OSI.
“If you three are done trying to figure out if I am with the conspiracy, may I suggest we depart,” Veritas said, “It looks like your hacker’s routine is working.” Anne frowned, but she moved up to lead the group out of the hotel room. The hallway was clear. Following Joseph’s map on her phone, Anne led the group down a flight of stairs and then into one of the hotel’s freight elevators.
“Hit the button for the basement,” Samantha said as she entered the car.
“We’re supposed to be getting off at the first,” Anne said. “The basement has no access out that isn’t heavily monitored.”
“Trust me,” Samantha said. As soon as the doors closed, Samantha walked over to the corner of the car. “Veritas?” The elf reached up and with a flash of magic, pushed up the access door.
“Your highness?” Veritas said, holding out his hand. The princess was lifted onto the roof of the elevator car. In a few moments, the rest of the team joined her. Anne felt Veritas pulling on the wild magic streams and the group started to hover above the elevator car. Anne was amazed at the intricate bindings. As the elevator continued down, they slowed until they were hovering in front of the closed first floor doors.
“Anne, open the doors,” Veritas said. He hissed as she reached out. “With your magic, girl.” Anne bit down her rage. Who the hell was this elf to call her girl? She pulled on the wild magic and bound it. Anne released the binding and the doors slid open. Samantha was the first out. After making sure the hallway was clear, Samantha turned and helped the princess out. Anne followed with Veritas exiting last and dispersing his binding.
“Sloppy, but interesting use of the streams,” Veritas said as the four walked out an unlocked access door onto the loading area. “I wouldn’t have expected the use of light in the bindings.”
“It kept us from being blinded when we stepped out,” Anne replied. She was annoyed – annoyed at Veritas for dismissing her and annoyed at herself for being pleased with the elf’s backhand compliment.
So why did we do it like this? Anne asked over the telepathic link.
Joseph may have hidden the elevator’s movement from the computers, but one of the Guard was bound to hear the elevator going down, Samantha explained. This keeps them off of our trail a bit longer.
Guess that makes some sense, Anne’s replied.
Head to the clubhouse? Samantha asked as they walked towards the street.
Nope, Anne answered, I’ve got a better place.
“Well that place hasn’t changed much,” Erik said to himself as he crouched in the rubble. Much like Avalon City, the city that once stood proud on Battle Island had been built by the mysterious Cairen. Two centuries of constant warfare had pretty much reduced much of the city’s buildings to piles of rubble. The south end of the island was firmly in Imperial hands, but the northern tip was under the control of the Dark Towers. The middle of the island was a no-man’s land where Imperial and Dark Towers combat units maneuvered and fought. Much of it was small unit skirmishing, but every so often there was a massive battle that did little more than get a bunch of people killed. Battle Island was a meat grinder for both sides, but too strategically important for either to lose. Even after the front lines were pushed several hundred kilometers north, Battle Island was the one place that the Dark Towers could send in massive forces. Erik was looking at the reason.
The three functioning gates stood tall and glowing. The Dark Towers fortress in front of the gate was only fifteen years old. That was his fault. The fortress had been only build as a reaction of when a very young Erik Jaegar chased Arem into the one of the then four gates and detonated a twenty kiloton nuclear device on the other side. Erik didn’t really care about the fortress except for its proximity to his objective.
His comm vibrated the preset alarm. It was twilight – the critical time. Erik lowered the faceplate on his helmet and dashed out from his spider hole. The camp was set out just like a human prisoner camp. Erik didn’t know when the two commands on Battle Island started prisoner exchanges, but it was the only front where that happened. Maybe it had something to do with the grinder the Island had been for both sides.
Erik used a bit of power and leapt over the concrete wall as soon as the guard walked past. Orcs weren’t the most observant of guards, especially in the confusing light of twilight with a light sky and dark ground. Erik used a bit more power to land silently on the packed dirt. Orcs patrolled the walls, but goblins and draks patrolled the internals of the POW camp. Erik pulled a small charge from his ruck and attached it to the wall. If all went well, Erik wouldn’t need the bomb disguised as a glow panel. If not, then Erik at least could make another way out or use it as a distraction.
Erik jumped on the roof of the nearest building. He oriented himself to the camp’s layout and started jumping towards the women’s barracks. Knowing Corry, she’s already in charge of one of the barracks, Erik thought to himself, And she wouldn’t even need her lofty status. He smiled. He had missed Corry these last couple of years.
Erik was in the middle of a jump when he heard the clack-clack of a suppressed rifle. He pushed down to the nearest building and ran to the noise. Peering over the edge of the roof, Erik saw a man in armor shooting a drak patrol with a suppressed assault rifle. Erik brought out his suppressed submachine gun and took down two of the small humanoid lizards as they tried to run. With the draks dead, Erik rolled off of the roof and landed next to the freelancer.
“Jaegar, why am I not surprised?” Roland Call asked. Erik knew Call. The two had worked together frequently when Erik had been a freelancer on Battle Island. The military liked using freelancers as deep scouts and to supplement their own forces. “Who are you here for?”
“I imagine the same person you’re here for,” Erik answered. He didn’t have to wait for Call’s grunt to know he was correct.
“I didn’t think they would send another freelancer,” Call said. The pair sprinted away from the battle towards the centermost women’s barracks where the officers were kept.
“Neither did I. Look, I’m doing this as a personal favor for my step-father,” Erik said, “I’m not here to jump your contract. Hell, I’m not even being paid more than expenses on this job.”
“Yeah, those personal favors are a bitch,” Call said with a humorless chuckle. “Well, since you did step in with those draks and because of our previous relationships, I might be willing to cut you in on 10% of my contract.”
“Ten percent of how much?” Erik asked.
“Half a mil,” Call answered as the pair ducked past a goblin patrol. Both kept very still as the squat humanoids trundled past. Goblins weren’t much in a fight, but they were very good at spotting intruders. Plus, they’d bring all sorts of trouble down on the two freelancers.
“Deal,” Erik said. “What’s the extract plan?” The two crept towards the lit barracks. Call was point while Erik covered their rear with his submachine gun.
“South culvert,” Call answered. “Bill’s sitting there with a technical to cover our extract.” Erik nodded. Bill was a steady hand with heavy weapons, and he’d created a little niche in the freelancer world as a “sidekick for hire.”
“There’s the final problem. You didn’t happen to bring Little Britches with you?” Call asked.
“She’s too loud for this kind of job,” Erik said. He looked at the pair of hobgoblins standing outside the barracks. It would have been so much easier if he still had *Far’ling*. He holstered the submachine gun and unlimbered his rifle. “I’ll take right.”
“You always take right,” Call said as he sighted his own rifle on the left hobgoblin. “Target.”
“Target,” Erik said. Three heartbeats and both rifles coughed. Both hobgoblins dropped as the back of their heads were blown out. The two freelancers dashed forward. Before they could grab the handle, the door to the barracks opened. A stern-faced woman in prisoner togs frowned at the pair. From her bearing and the gray hairs in her neat brown hair, Erik judged her to be the senior officer of the women prisoners.
“I can guess why you two are here,” the senior officer said in a whiskey voice. “Lieutenant Kinsey, front and center.” A beautiful black-haired, blue-eyed woman rolled off of her bunk and walked to them. Like most men, Call was momentarily transfixed. Erik raised his faceplate.
“Erik! I wasn’t expecting you to come for me,” Corry said in a rich voice.
“You didn’t think I’d let one of my best friends langur here for long, did you?” Erik chided her as Call pulled himself together.
“Are you only taking her, or can you take another?” the senior officer asked. Call looked over the officers in the barracks.
“I suppose we could take another,” Call said, his voice a careful neutral.
“Ensign Bartley, you’ll be going with these two.” A doe-eyed blonde was quickly rushed next to them. “Follow their instructions to the letter and they’ll get you back to our lines.” Erik could feel the young officer’s terror with an undercurrent of determination. Erik guessed she was having a hard time in the Dark Towers’ hands. She had that look that the delvers liked in human women.
Without any further words, the quartet scurried back into the darkness. Erik guessed they had maybe another fifteen minutes before one of the other patrols ran into either the dead draks or the dead hobgoblins. Fortunately, Call had the guards’ routes mapped. The Dark Towers never really understood the need to vary their guards routes or times. A tense ten minutes and the quartet was at the culvert. The stench of the putrid water filled the area.
“The bars under the water’s surface are cut away,” Call said. “Just keep your eyes closed and feel your way through.”
“Don’t worry Ensign, just a few moments of nastiness, and we will be free of this hellhole,” Corry said in her most soothing voice. The ensign nodded, screwed up her face, and slipped into the water.
“You’re next, your highness,” Call said when Ensign Bartley splashed out of the other side of the wall.
“Just think of the vermilion fields,” Erik said to Corry as she walked into the water.
“Vermilion?” she asked, in a cool tone. Erik nodded. “You know, I always hated the vermilion fields.” As soon as Corry was underwater, Erik pressed the button. The explosion was loud enough to be heard from across the camp. A fireball lit the night sky.
“What the hell?” Call asked a moment before Erik put his rifle in Call’s face. The freelancer didn’t even bother looking surprised. “Damn, I was hoping to get you at least outside the wall.”
“Who hired you?” Erik asked.
“You know I’m not going to tell you that,” Call said. Erik felt the freelancer’s resigned emotions. “I thought I’d hid it from you better. You never even let on that you were suspicious.” Erik fired a burst. As the body crumpled to the ground, Erik swore. He hated having to kill people he considered friends.
The pair of gunshots sent Erik flying over the wall. He quickly found Corry from her psi-scent. She had Ensign Bartley behind a shed. Across from them was a small flatbed truck with a heavy machinegun mounted. Bill, the other freelancer, was crouched behind the truck door aiming a heavy pistol at the shed. Erik pushed against the wall a bit harder. Bill realized too late that there was someone above him. Much like Call, the freelancer wasn’t afraid, just resigned. Erik fired twice with his rifle.
“Corry, let’s go,” Erik shouted as he landed on the cab of the technical. He knew something was wrong from Corry’s emotions.
“That bastard shot the ensign,” Corry shouted back. “Bring the med kit or we’re going to lose her.”
“It can never be easy,” Erik gritted through his teeth as he grabbed the olive green pack and darted towards his friend and the orcs screamed in the night. Well, Corry was safe and he had Little Britches.
“Well, I’m glad that’s finally over with,” Princess Anya said as she walked into her bedroom trailed by Anne and Samantha. It surprised Anne to learn that the prince and princess had separate bedrooms, but the Avalonians considered it perfectly normal. From what Anne had gathered, it was traditional than an indication of any marital problems between the prince and princess. Avalonians had some weird customs.
From Anne’s perspective, the royal couple looked like they had been cast in the roles. Prince Rupert was six-two with the lean, muscled lines of an active man. His blonde hair and blue eyes were perfect accent to the handsome face and tanned skin. The prince reminded Anne of that Aussie who starred in the *Thor* movies. The princess was also tall, around Anne’s own five-nine. She was slender, but not thin, with soft curves that reminded Anne of the young professional women that worked in the city’s financial district. The princess’s heart-shaped face was dominated by large, brilliant blue eyes and elegantly-styled curly brown hair. Anne could certainly see how Erik had fallen for this woman. What Anne couldn’t figure out was how this woman had fallen for Erik. If she got the time, Anne wanted to hear that story. Erik and Samantha refused to speak of the relationship.
“I hope we have enough time for me to explore your lovely city,” Princess Anya said to Anne as the princess lounged on the couch.
“I’m sure we can arrange something, your highness,” Anne replied. Samantha curtly nodded. Princess Anya’s eyes narrowed as she stared at Samantha. The Avalonian psychic just stared back. Anne could feel the tension ratchet up between the women.
“I’m getting very tired of your attitude, Samantha,” Princess Anya said. “You’ve been treading the line between barely proper and outright insubordinate since I arrived.”
“What did you expect when you asked me to be your personal gofer, your highness?” Samantha asked, not bothering to hide her sarcasm. “I thought I made my feelings very plain the last time that we talked.”
“That was over a year ago, Samantha,” Princess Anya said, “I had hoped your initial anger over what happened had cooled a bit. Samantha, you were one of my best friends. I don’t want what happened between Erik and me to come between us.” Samantha’s brown eyes blazed to the point Anne almost thought they had turned red.
“I spent the better part of the last year trying to put Erik back together,” Samantha said through gritted teeth. “Do you have any inkling how badly he was torn apart by what you did to him?” Princess Anya took a step back at the sheer fury in Samantha’s voice.
“He seemed fine when he called to congratulate me on my wedding,” Princess Anya said. Anne couldn’t stop the bark of laughter from escaping. The princess spun to face Anne with a look of anger and betrayal marring her pretty features.
“Your highness, I’ve known Erik for less than a year, but even I know that he is a master at showing someone only what he wants to see,” Anne said.
“I know that,” the princess snapped, “I saw exactly how much he had hidden from me during the Winter Solstice party.” Anne had no idea what the princess was talking about, but whatever it was incensed Samantha even more.
“When he saved your life?” Samantha nearly screamed, “When Erik took on twenty armed men to save you and your family?” Samantha stopped and her eyes hardened. “That’s what happened? He killed the man holding you hostage, and it horrified you?”
“Stay out of my mind,” Princess Anya nearly shouted.
“Right now, that’s like asking me to stop listening to you while you’re shouting at the top of your lungs,” Samantha shot back.
“Maybe we should all calm down now,” Anne said, stepping between the two women. Anne traded harsh looks with both of them. Normally, Anne would have been all for getting things out in the open, but neither Samantha nor Princess Anya seemed ready to more than just argue. Before Anne could say anything, one of her phones rang. She froze as she recognized the ringtone.
“Get up, both of you,” Anne said, in a command tone, “Samantha, get the go bags. Get her highness into something less observable.” Samantha was already moving. She knew what that ringtone meant as well. There was a yelp of protest as Samantha grabbed Princess Anya and pulled her over to the wardrobe. Anne swore as she cautiously stuck her head out in the hallway.
“Well?” Samantha asked, as she finished dressing the princess. The princess was in a causal creme dress suit. It was something Anne might have worn to court, but on the princess, it looked downright casual. Samantha was putting on her sidearm when Anne joined them. The psychic handed Anne a messenger bag. Anne slipped the bag over her shoulder and grunted at the weight.
“Hallway’s clear,” Anne said as she repositioned the messenger bag. “We use the stairs to get down three floors and into the safe room. Samantha, link us up. Just us for right now.” Anne felt the familiar slight push in her mind as Samantha established a telepathic link between the three women.
What is going on? Princess Anya asked over the telepathic link.
Someone is coming for you and security is compromised, Anne answered, We’re going to get you to a safehouse. The princess nodded with understanding. Anne was both surprised and grateful that the princess didn’t bombard her with dozens of questions, most of which Anne didn’t have the answer for.
The three women walked out of the room with the princess between Anne and Samantha. Anne had to force herself to walk casually as she led the trio to the emergency stairs. Her own questions were swirling through her mind, but she clamped down on them. They were less than a dozen paces from the metal fire door when a pair of Imperial Guardsman stepped into the corridor. Both looked like they were straight out of a casting call for Secret Service agents. The only noticeable difference was one was slightly taller than the other. The two Guardsmen held up their hands.
“I’m sorry, your highness, but there’s been an incident involving his highness,” the shorter one said in a calm baritone. “We need you and your aides to return to your room until this has been resolved.”
“Where is my husband?” the princess asked in a commanding tone.
“We’re sorry, but–ARGH!” said the shorter one. Both Guardsmen grabbed their heads and grunted in pain. After a few seconds, they were on the floor. Anne just looked at them in shock.
Anne, we need to get down the stairs, Samantha said. They’ll recover fast. Anne slipped a key in the alarm and disabled it. Pushing the heavy door open, Anne motioned Samantha and the princess through.
What did you do to them? Anne asked as the three women hurried down the stairs.
Stimulated their pain memories, Samantha said. They were remembering the worst pain they’d ever felt in their lives. Anne gave the psychic a cautious look. She’d never seen Samantha doing anything use her powers so offensively before and wondered why
Anne reached into the messenger bag and drew out the small submachine gun. Holding the weapon at her side, Anne opened the door. The corridor was clear. Anne motioned for the other two to follow. The room was only a dozen paces from the stairwell. If things were going according to plan, Kurt would be waiting for them with changes of clothes, new IDs, more weapons, and hopefully, answers as to why he made the “go to hell” call. The “Do Not Disturb” sign was hanging on the door handle. Anne could spot the small identifier mark saying that the room was clear.
Kurt wasn’t waiting for them in the room. Instead, Free-Elf Veritas was sitting on one of the beds with a dark expression on his too-pretty face.
“So, butterfly, exactly where did you think you were running off with the princess?”
“It is a great view at night, isn’t it?” said the man as he stepped out onto the catwalk. Erik didn’t bother acknowledging the other man’s presence. He’d come up to the top catwalk of the Temerity Pylon to get away from everyone, and Erik was annoyed that his solitude was broken. The man put his hands on the railing and looked down at Lower City. From twelve hundred meters up, the neighborhoods of the lower level of Avalon City looked almost peaceful. Both men knew the reality of Lower City.
“Your father wants to see you,” Colonel Michael Hastings said. Hastings, better known to the masses as Post Primam, was the senior officer of First Battalion of Whiteguard – the psychics and sorcerers that guarded the Emperor. As the Post Primam, Hastings was expected to be the finest example of the beyond-natural humans in the service of the Emperor. The Avalonian version of Captain America.
Erik knew Hastings better when the two were roommates at the Preternatural Academy. Erik, Samantha, and Hastings had been better known as the Terrible Trio that had terrorized the faculty with various pranks and jokes. Sam had even dated Hastings briefly after graduation. Erik and Hastings kept in touch over the years, but that had changed in the last year and a half. Erik had been avoiding his old friend since nearly getting Hastings killed during the ending of the Commandante Affair. Many of Hastings’s friends were killed when Erik unwittingly sent them into an ambush. Much to Erik’s relief, he didn’t sense any resentment or hatred coming from his old friend.
“My father’s dead, Michael,” Erik answered, flatly. He could feel Hastings’s frustration. Well, that was his own damn fault. Hasting knew Erik’s feelings on that subject.
“Your step-father then,” Hasting said, “Erik, quit being an ass. Do you think I would have been sent to find you if this was just a routine errand?” Erik stepped back from the rail and looked at Hastings. Erik probed harder with his empathic senses. There was an undercurrent of fear and worry running through him.
“What’s going on?” Erik asked.
“Not here,” Hastings answered, lowering his voice. “Your step-father’s office.” Erik looked out at Lower City. He could go down to the street and take the next lift up to the Upper City, but that would take at least a half-hour. Erik grinned maliciously at Hastings.
“What is going through that head of yours?” Hastings asked as soon as he saw the smile. He knew Erik far too well.
“Practiced your flying recently?” Erik asked, and Hastings blanched. In terms of raw power, Hastings’ telekinesis easily eclipsed Erik. That being said, Hastings never learned the fine control that Erik had with his telekinesis – and flying was all about control. Erik pushed off of the catwalk and felt the welcoming familiar sensation of falling. Telekinetic flying required creating “columns” of telekinetic force to push and pull against much heavier objects, such as buildings, pylons, and the ground. Most telekinetics strong enough to lift more than their own body weight were taught the basics of flight at the Academy. Of those, only about half ever became proficient. It just required too much concentration. Then, there were those like Erik who excelled at it. Erik luxuriated in the sensations as he soared out beyond the walls of Avalon City and up to Upper City. His powers were too weak on Earth to really fly. He missed it more than he realized.
In less than fifteen minutes, Erik landed gracefully in front of his stepfather’s mansion. Like all of the buildings in Upper City, the mansion looked more like a small fortress. Reinforced arms reached out from the gray stone building to four sentry buildings. From the air, it had a passing resemblance to a Maltese Cross. All of the Upper City buildings had the same drab severity on their exteriors due to the occasional windstorms that tore through the streets when the invisible wind shields periodically turned off. Like so much of Avalon City, no one knew why the shields went down, but when they did, the winds were strong enough to knock a lorry off the side of Upper City. The aristocracy and those wealthy enough to afford homes in Upper City had learned long ago to reserve their opulence behind the stout walls of their homes.
“You’re a jackass, Jaegar,” Hastings said as dropped to the cobblestones with a meaty thud. Erik wordlessly shrugged his shoulders. “Well, let’s not keep them waiting. They’re waiting for us in your stepfather’s office.”
“They’re?” Erik asked as they walked through the visitors gate. Erik had been expecting a servant to be waiting for them. Instead, one of his stepfather’s armsmen was waiting at parade rest. The soldier/bodyguard motioned for Erik and Hastings to follow him. His stepfather kept his office in the main house, just inside from the visitors gate. It was efficient and pragmatic, unlike many others of the aristocracy who made a person tramp all over the house just so the visitor would see all the expensive knick-knacks in the house.
Stephan Luugard, Duke of Amwell, High Counselor of the House of Lords, and Mayor of Avalon City sat behind his antique oak desk. He was a tall, thin man in his early fifties dressed in a conservative suit of navy blue. Erik’s mother must have picked out the green silk tie that set off the suit. Luugard’s dark eyes narrowed as Erik walked into the room. Absently, he began to stroke his thick gray-streaked beard with a long fingered hand. Erik could feel annoyance, loathing, and – relief? – coursing behind his stepfather’s impassive facade. In the time Erik had known his stepfather, the man had never once felt relief at seeing Erik.
As surprising as his stepfather’s emotional mix was, Erik’s eyes were drawn to the small, bookish man sitting in front of Luugard’s desk and sipping on a glass of amber. Thinning black hair and an off-the-rack gray suit made the man look like a mid-level manager or a slightly senior bureaucrat. The man’s perpetual bored look enhanced the image. Erik knew better. Vincent Paul was the head of the Grayguard’s Office of Special Investigations. In the ten years Erik had worked for him in Blackguard, Paul had been known as the Saint.
“Stephan, what’s going on?” Erik asked his stepfather.
“Much to my own annoyance, I’m just playing host for Mr. Paul,” Luugard answered. Erik turned to his former employer.
“What do you want Saint?” Erik asked. “What could be so important and secret that you had to appropriate the mayor’s personal office?” The Saint flicked his hazel eyes up at Erik. The Saint was one of the few people whose emotions Erik couldn’t feel. The small man was also a past master at controlling his body language.
“I don’t need anything from you,” the Saint answered cryptically. “Princess Corrine, on the other hand, is in desperate need of your services.”
“What happened to Corry?” Erik asked before he could stop himself. He felt Luugard’s flash of anger at the familiar name, but Erik didn’t give a damn. Erik had been part of a small coterie of children that had been allowed to play with the emperor’s son and daughter. Corry had been, if not his best friend, then a very close one.
“She was shot down doing a reconnaissance flight above Battle Island,” the Saint answered. “From our best reports, she’s been captured by the Dark Towers.”
“There’s more,” Erik said. Getting Corry out of the Dark Towers’ prisoner camps on Battle Island would be a job for the Imperial Guard, but from the intense frustration emanating from Hastings, they hadn’t been given the mission. Erik doubted they wanted him to go rescue Corry because of his prior relationship with the princess or his experience on Battle Island.
“We have reason to believe that she was shot down by someone working for one of the other aristocrats,” the Saint said. It could never be easy.