Archive | September, 2012

New Kindle Book: The Living Will Envy The Dead

26 Sep

Ed Stalker had seen his fill of adventure after a life in the Marines and was content to be the small-town Sheriff of Ingalls, a town in West Virginia. Unfortunately for Ed’s retirement plans, the long-feared war with Russia turns nuclear and the United States comes under nuclear attack. Trapped in the post-nuclear world, Ed and his town must struggle to survive, facing refugees, bandits, religious fanatics and hard decisions to ensure that some remnant of the United States remains intact…

Read the Free Sample and then buy it from Amazon here.

Cover produced by Alex Claw.

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Science and Sorcery–Prologue

21 Sep

Prologue

Awareness came back slowly, in fits and starts.

He was underwater. Of course he was underwater. Enchanter had taken him to where Great Atlantis had sunk, shortly after the war had been won, and placed him under the waves, right outside the tomb. And then…?

My name is Golem, he thought, as another fragment of memory returned. Enchanter, the greatest magician ever to walk the planet, had created him from mud and stone, imbuing raw material with the raw fabric of life itself. The magician had spent freely of his mana and knowledge to create Golem, calling him the greatest accomplishment of five hundred years of magical research. Golem the Guardian, he’d said, although none other than Golem himself had known what he was to guard. The Enchanter had known that it was sometimes better to let people keep their illusions.

“You will not live where there is no mana,” the Enchanter had said. Back then, it hadn’t seemed like a real possibility. But Enchanter had known the terrible price civilisation was about to pay for defeating the Thirteen, if such powerful magicians could ever be defeated. “When mana returns to the world, you will be alive again. And thanks to what I paid to create you, even a low-level mana field will suffice.”

Golem opened his eyes and looked around. Atlantis had once been the greatest city in the world, until it had been destroyed in the war. Now, deep underwater, the ruins of the city were home to living creatures, none of them human. The remains of the population had rotted away long ago, those who hadn’t been consumed by the Thirteen. Even his eyes, perfectly adapted to underwater conditions, could see nothing beyond the remains of the once-great temples and fortresses. Carefully, Golem took a step forward and then another, unable to escape the sensation that he was walking across a tomb. How long had it been since the mana had faded away?

But the mana is back, he thought, as he crossed what had once been unbreakable walls, formed and held in place by the massed will of the Council of Wizards. If it were not back, I would not be alive.

The Enchanter had created and taught him when mana was plentiful and student magicians had no need to limit their consumption, just to conserve their power. Now, Golem discovered that most of the spells he knew simply refused to work. He could still feel the faint trickle of mana flooding through the water, spreading through the world itself, but there wasn’t enough to do more than maintain his life. But there would be enough soon, he knew. He could feel it in his clay bones.

There was no point in trying to swim, so he walked forward, knowing that he would encounter a landmass eventually. Or the mana would rise to the point where he could use it to fly up, out of the water, or simply teleport back to Enchanter’s fortress. Time passed – days, weeks, months – until he finally reached a coastline. Bidding a silent farewell to the fish that had followed him on his walk, he strode out of the water and onto the shore. High overhead, the moon peered down as it had done for centuries. And there were strange lights in the sky.

Golem’s eyes had no difficulty in picking out stars he’d known in his youth, before Enchanter had buried him under the waves, but the constellations were so different. Once, astronomers had charted the skies and astrologers had used them to read the future. Now…Golem knew enough about the slow passage of the stars to realise that thousands of years, perhaps longer, had passed since the death of magic, since he had gone to sleep. It was quite possible that no one even remembered Enchanter and his greatest creation. Golem looked down at the sand and then back up at the stars, knowing himself to be the loneliest being in the world. All of the people he’d known would be less than dust by now.

And if they had forgotten Enchanter, had they also forgotten his enemies?

The mana was back. How long would it be before the Thirteen were unleashed once again?

You know your duty, Enchanter’s voice seemed to echo out of time. I created you to save the world.

Golem took one last look at the stars and stepped forward, heading towards the lights in the distance that suggested a human town, or city. There would be answers there about this strange new world, and about the early impact of mana. And then he would seek allies who could help him to complete his mission. The Thirteen had to be stopped.

Or the entire world would be trapped in a nightmare without end.

The Great Interstellar War–Snippet

21 Sep

Chapter One

Lance, Verge Republic

The great orbital fortress, the product of Federation technology, hung against the blue-white sphere of Lance as the shuttle approached the docking port. Its mere existence was a warning to the enemies of President Lance, a reminder of his ability to bombard the planet from high overhead if his people tried to revolt against his rule. Beth Carlyle sucked in a breath as she prepared herself for the ordeal to come, knowing that the underground was staking everything on one throw of the dice. If they failed to take out the fortress, President Lance would remain absolute ruler of the world he’d named after himself until the day he died.

She glanced back at the other nine members of the team and smiled. President Lance was good to his loyalists, providing them with wealth and women in exchange for their service. The entire planet knew that the Pussy Brigade, an all-woman military unit, was composed of concubines for senior officers, who doubled as secretaries, aides and servants. Their uniforms – absurdly tight military outfits, complete with high-heeled boots – reflected their function. This time, she told herself, the President’s loyalists were in for a nasty surprise. It had taken years of work to infiltrate the brigade and turn it into an underground tool. She swore to herself that their efforts would not be wasted.

A dull thump ran through the shuttle as it docked with the fortress, followed rapidly by a hiss as the craft’s atmosphere merged with the fortress’s internal life support. Beth picked up her carryall and nodded to her comrades, who followed her through the airlock and out into the fortress. Normal security measures were largely ignored for the Pussy Brigade; everyone knew that the women were whores, incapable of doing anything but whoring. Beth was almost disappointed that the security officers didn’t bother to scan their bags. They’d taken all of their precautions for nothing.

She ignored the catcalls and wolf-whistles that followed them through the fortress’s corridors as they strode down to their quarters, remembering a time when so much male attention would have bothered her tremendously. Her hometown had been conservative and she’d been brought up to be decent, to marry a good man and bear his children, but that had been before her two brothers had been arrested, charged with subversive activities and thrown into prison. Only one of them had ever emerged from the President’s notorious hellholes, a broken shadow of a man. Beth had left her hometown the same night and joined the underground. Resistance might be futile, but the desire for revenge was all she had.

The underground had beaten caution into her and the other recruits almost as soon as they’d joined their first resistance cell. Beth checked their quarters as soon as they arrived, noting without surprise that their compartment had twice the number of surveillance pickups than the data had led them to expect. Junior officers, even ones from the dreaded Supreme Security, knew better than to try to touch the Pussy Brigade – there were comfort women for the lower ranks – but there was no rule against watching them. Senior officers even encouraged the practice, knowing that it would provide incentive for the juniors to work to gain promotion. Beth rolled her eyes as she found a blind spot and dug into her carryall. The concealed pistol and its ammunition had passed through security without being detected. No one had dared to search their bags.

She felt her heartbeat racing as the girls shared nods, not daring to speak. It had been years since she had made her first kill, but this was different. Failure would mean disaster; President Lance would never allow them a second chance to overthrow him. Beth knew precisely how much had been vested in her; failure, she told herself firmly, was not an option. She removed the remaining devices from her carryall, pocketed them, and concealed her gun in her uniform jacket. The low-cut top – as shameful as it seemed – would ensure that male eyes wouldn’t be looking for other bulges.

They walked out of their compartment and down towards Command Centre, concealing their reactions as they walked past male officers, who winked and leered at the girls. Beth swallowed the urge to pull out her gun and shoot down the young officer who reached for her butt, before drawing his hand away at the very last moment. The guard on duty outside the main hatch looked surprised to see them – the Pussy Brigade was not expected to actually perform any real duties, whatever the official orders said – and never had a chance to realise that something was wrong. Beth stabbed a stun-rod into his throat and watched dispassionately as his body crashed to the deck.

She drew her pistol, grinned at the girls as they drew theirs, then opened the hatch into Command Centre. It was a single vast chamber, dominated by a throne-like seat in the centre of the compartment, manned by no less than seventeen officers. Admiral Lopez, sitting in his throne, didn’t have any time to react before Beth shot him neatly through the head. A second officer’s dive for the emergency alert was cut off as Jane, Beth’s second-in-command, gunned him down.

“Hands in the air,” Beth ordered, sharply. “Stand up, get away from those consoles; keep your fucking hands in the air. Now!”

They weren’t real soldiers, thankfully. She knew that they’d called in bombardments that had wiped out entire villages and towns, but none of them had actual experience fighting, or coming close to death. They obeyed her and allowed themselves to be secured with duct tape, while Beth turned her attention to the main command core. The underground’s backers had told them that the slicer datachips they’d been given would allow them to hack into the fortress’s command core and subvert it, but there had been no way to test the theory beforehand. Beth knew that if they failed to take control of the fortress, they would have to try to destroy it. There was no other choice.

She found herself praying with a fervour she hadn’t felt since she’d been a child as the computers slowly processed the datachip. It seemed like an eternity passed before there was a chime and the system unlocked itself in front of her. Mary, an expert in computers, took the seat and started to tap commands into the system. The emergency boarding protocols were activated and the command core sealed itself off from the rest of the fortress. A moment later, the riot-suppression system came online and started to disperse sleepy-gas throughout the vast structure. Every officer and crewman was soon taking an unplanned nap.

“The station is ours,” Mary said, finally.

Beth let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. “Then commence bombardment,” she ordered. The fortress controlled the automated orbital weapons platforms that provided the backbone of President Lance’s control of the planet. He clearly hadn’t thought about what might happen if the underground managed to subvert the system. “Take out his loyalists.”

“Understood,” Mary said. She tapped a series of commands into the system. “Targets locked, Miss Carlyle. Do you want the honour of opening fire?”

Beth smiled. “Why not?”

***

“I told you that you were too soft on those scum,” Bridgette Lance screeched, as the ground shook violently. Independence, the capital of Lance, was in chaos. The population was revolting, the soldiers seemed inclined to stay on the sidelines and the President’s personal guard had been crippled by bomb blasts carried out by the underground. “You should have them all killed!”

Lieutenant Simon Plax rolled his eyes, silently grateful for the helmet he wore that hid his face. He’d been a mercenary for fifteen years, ever since his honourable discharge from Masada’s armed forces, but Bridgette Lance was one of the worst people he hadn’t been allowed to shoot in all that time. She looked like an angel – President Lance could afford the finest bodymod treatments in the galaxy – yet she sounded like a jealous shrew. Not that he could blame her, too much. President Lance spent half of his time rutting with young girls his men picked up for him from the streets.

“I cannot kill the entire population, my dear,” President Lance said. He didn’t look very impressive up close – no one was that handsome unless they used bodymod tanks for themselves – but there was no doubting his ruthlessness. Simon had watched, desperately reminding himself that it was just a job, as the President had ordered mass slaughter and deportation in response to tiny provocations. “We do need most of them alive.”

“Then send down the guardsmen to deal with the mob,” Bridgette hissed. “Look at them!”

Simon winced inwardly. Independence had a massive population, a population that had swelled alarmingly under Lance as the nearby countryside had suffered under the President’s despotic rule. There were millions of people in the city and it looked as if most of them had come onto the streets to demonstrate against Lance’s rule. Anywhere else, the President could call down fire from orbit and burn them out of existence, but he could hardly fire on his own capital city. The kinetic bombardment system would probably wind up taking out the Presidential Palace as well as the unprotected crowds.

The ground shuddered again, violently. A moment later, red lights started blinking up on the main command screens, each one linked to a different garrison on the planet. Simon sucked in his breath as he realised what was happening; the garrisons were being wiped out, one by one. That should have been impossible, he told himself; the only way to take them all out would be to take the high orbitals. One glance at the status display revealed the truth. The orbital fortress was in enemy hands and there was fighting among the fleet units stationed in orbit around the planet. With Admiral Lance, President Lance’s son, away with his fleet, it was unlikely that anyone would manage to rally the loyalists in time to salvage the situation. It had already gone well beyond critical.

President Lance let out a bellow of shock as the full weight of the disaster suddenly fell on him. The main communications network had been scrambled, preventing him from issuing orders to the remaining loyalists – and he knew better than to expect them to act without orders. He’d worked hard to eliminate anyone who showed the slightest trace of independent thought, let alone initiative, knowing that anyone who showed either was a potential threat. His loyalists would sit on their backsides until it was too late, or put their own plans for an emergency departure into operation. They wouldn’t be able to help the President.

There was a third explosion and the lighting flickered. Simon heard one of his subordinates reporting through their private radio network and scowled. Unsurprisingly, the underground was seeking to break into the Palace and capture Lance before his loyalists managed to recover control of the command network. They could make him issue the surrender order before taking him behind the Palace and putting a bullet through his head. President Lance would have no doubt of his fate. After all, he’d done the same to his predecessor. The situation had definitely become critical.

“Mr. President,” Simon said, as calmly as he could, “it is time to evacuate.”

President Lance rounded on him. “You are suggesting that we run?”

Simon kept his expression under firm control. “The Palace is no longer secure, Mr. President,” he said. No one could accuse Lance of being a coward. “Your forces have lost control of the high orbitals. The only hope for escape is to get off the planet now and make contact with your son.” The building shook again, underscoring his words. “I believe that the underground is already sending troops into the Palace.”

“Thomas will look after us,” Bridgette said, into the silence. Admiral Thomas Lance was smarter than his father, although a full equal to the old man in ruthlessness. He was the CO of the Verge Republic’s space fleet because no one else could be trusted in such a position, not when it could be used to overthrow the President. “We go to him and the fleet advances on the capital.”

Lance nodded, reluctantly. “Very well,” he said. He turned and looked over at his subordinates. “You are to hold out as long as possible.”

Simon doubted that they would do anything of the sort as he urged the President and his wife out of the chamber, heading up towards where a shuttle had been concealed for just such an emergency. Thomas Lance could command loyalty and devotion; President Lance could merely command loyalty, and then only when his forces were under firm control. Right now, the President’s grip on the planet had been effectively shattered. Simon had no doubt that his former subordinates would join the underground as quickly as possible.

The reports kept coming in as they reached the shuttle; the underground was definitely starting to storm the palace. Simon’s lips twitched as he realised that the only thing slowing them down was the vast crowds outside the complex. The uprising had been carefully planned – they’d taken the orbital fortress, the backbone of the President’s power – but their plan hadn’t survived contact with the enemy. But they were definitely doing better than their President.

“I’ve made contact with the Worshipful Leader,” the pilot said. Simon had hired him after his discharge from the Duel Monarchy Marine Corps, knowing that a pilot who had survived the dustup on Han could fly anyone out of anything. “They’re powering up, ready to head for the gravity point.”

Simon took his seat as the shuttle’s engines came online, blasting the craft out of the palace and up towards orbit. The underground fired a pair of HVMs towards the shuttle, trying to blow it out of the sky, but the craft’s countermeasures deflected them before it was too late. Simon allowed himself a moment of relief – those HVMs had looked to be modern, probably from Masada or Williamson’s Freehold – before bringing up the latest reports from high orbit. It looked as if fighting had broken out on almost every ship in the fleet.

“We don’t want to go to Sanctuary,” President Lance snapped, as the shuttle altered course and headed for the President’s personal transport. “Do you know what they would do to me there?”

“We need to get to your son,” Simon pointed out, wondering – again – how the President had managed to keep control of the Verge Republic without knowing more about the realities of interstellar travel. “It will take weeks to reach him if we rely solely on phase drive. Instead, we hop through the gravity point to Sanctuary and then travel to Alpha Psion. We’ll be there a long time before any reports reach anyone who might wish to block us.”

There was another concern, he knew. Any space tactician worthy of the name knew that spacers couldn’t use phase drive within fifteen light minutes of a G2 star. By the time the Worshipful Leader reached the phase limit, there was a good chance that one or more of the orbiting starships would have been captured by the rebels and sent after them. They might suffer the indignity of being captured, or simply blown out of space, before they could escape. The unguarded gravity point was their sole hope for escaping the system.

“Very well,” President Lance said, reluctantly. “We’ll play it your way, for now.”

The Worshipful Leader was already heading away from the planet when the shuttle docked and allowed the President to disembark. Simon had worried that the crew had been subverted by the rebels, but they were among the most loyal officers and men in the system. The President had bought their loyalty through excellent pay and allowing them to use his personal transport’s facilities whenever they were not required by the President himself. Simon had inspected the ship, back when he’d taken command of the President’s bodyguard, and had been awed at the sheer expense of the craft. The Verge Republic could have bought a modern superdreadnaught for the same cost.

“Mr. President,” Captain Cho said. He was a loyalist through and through, thankfully. “We are thrusting away from the planet and heading towards the gravity point at maximum speed.”

“Good to hear it,” Lance said. He didn’t seem inclined to allow any weakness into his voice, but then showing too much weakness might attract sharks. Even his loyalists had to be considering a universe without him. “Just get us to Alpha Psion and you will be rewarded.”

***

“We couldn’t get anyone after the President in time,” Beth reported grimly. She’d been in effective command of the battle in space right from the start, but only for a given value of command. Four starships had been gutted by bitter fighting and two more had managed to escape before the captured ships could be turned against them. “His ship made it through the gravity point and escaped.”

“That…could be a problem,” General Vista said. The underground didn’t have a supreme commander – they’d learned the value of the cell system the hard way – but he’d been in command of the uprising. “With Lance going to his son, we may face attack here.”

Beth nodded. The President’s son would definitely support his father.

“Still, the Treaty of Sanctuary forbids military transit through the system without permission from the planetary council,” Vista added. “We may have several weeks before Admiral Lance can bring his fleet here. Time enough to seek outside help.”

“Understood,” Beth said. The underground was in control of Lance now; surely, someone from the outside universe would be willing to recognise and help them now. She knew enough about galactic geopolitics to know that the Verge was in a strategic position, no matter what government was in control. “We’ll finish securing the orbitals and then report back to you.”

“Enjoy yourself,” Vista said. He grinned suddenly. “These are the problems of victory. Just think of how President Lance must be feeling.”

Science and Sorcery–Snippet

20 Sep

Chapter One

New York, USA

Day 1

“Damn girl,” Dawn said. “What’s wrong with you?”

Katie Sheehan rubbed her eyes. She wanted to go back to bed, or at least to somewhere quiet where she could sit down and rest, but Dawn had insisted that they went clubbing. Her friend wanted to enjoy her single life in New York City and thought that Katie should enjoy herself too. Dawn meant well, Katie knew, but it hadn’t been a very good day.

“Tired,” she said, feeling dizzy. Maybe she was coming down with something, maybe something bad enough to justify spending two days in bed rather than at work, slaving away beside an asshole who took credit for her work while leering at her every time he thought she wasn’t looking. She wanted another job, but it wasn’t easy to find anything else in the current economic climate.

“Well, come onto the dance floor,” Dawn said. She lowered her voice, mischievously. “There are some hot guys out there.”

Katie rolled her eyes. Dawn was popular with the guys – and a single glance at her chest was enough to tell her why. Blonde and bubbly, wearing a shirt that looked as if it had come out of a Hooters bar, Dawn caught the eyes of every man in the room. Compared to her, Katie felt more than a little dowdy, even if she wasn’t quite overweight. Guys rarely looked at her if she was standing next to Dawn.

Her head spun again as the familiar resentment – at her boss, at Dawn’s looks, at her life – boiled up inside her mind. She caught the side of the table as red fire seemed to burn through her brain, bringing with it a rage she had never fully understood. The room seemed to fade out for a long second, just before the sudden burst of temper faded away into nothingness.

Dawn caught her arm. “Do you want to go home?”

“Yeah,” Katie said. All of her senses seemed to be going crazy. She could smell everything in the hall, from cigarette smoke to the musky stench of guys on the dance floor. The flickering lights were slowly driving her mad. “Please get me out of here.”

The light of the full moon blazed down at them as they stepped outside and started to walk back towards their apartment. Neither of them had enough money to call for a cab, even though they knew that walking home could be dangerous. Katie’s mind was too busy spinning to care; her ears were recoiling under the constant bombardment of noise from New York, the city that never slept. She had never realised just how loud the city was, or just how confining it could feel. The massive towers and skyscrapers seemed nothing more than the bars of a cage.

“That bastard probably slipped you something into your drink,” Dawn said, as they turned the corner and stumbled down an alleyway. “Or maybe you just drank too much.”

Katie shook her head, although in truth she had no way to be sure. She hadn’t drunk more than two glasses, but she hadn’t been paying close attention when the bartender mixed the drinks. He could have given her anything. But she knew what it felt like to be drunk and this was different. Her entire body seemed on edge, waiting for something that was advancing towards her…and yet she had no idea what was happening. The light of the full moon splashed over them and she felt a sudden surge of rage. Her hand gripped Dawn’s arm tightly and her friend let out a yelp.

“Katie,” she snapped. “What is wrong with you?”

The rage faded away, back into Katie’s mind. “I don’t know,” she admitted. She felt sick, and tired, and yet there was something running through her mind that would not let her rest. “Can we just get home…?”

She smelled them before she saw them, four young men carrying knives and lurking in the alleyway, waiting to see what would walk into their grasp. Katie opened her mouth to warn Dawn, but before she could put the strange set of sensations into words it was already too late. The gangsters had moved into position to prevent the two girls from running, their face twisted with greed and lust. Two young and pretty girls…their scent changed as they realised they could do more than just mug the women. Katie sensed their arousal and recoiled in fear, before the fear was swallowed by rage. How dare they even think of violating them?

The lead gangster slapped Dawn with his hand, breaking her lip. Katie sniffed the blood and felt a sudden wave of rage and bloodlust that refused to fade away. Instead, she opened her mouth and screamed as her body started to change, becoming something else. There was a moment of horror as she saw hairs growing out of her hands, and then the bloodlust swallowed her completely.

***

Officer Mathew Coombs heard the screams and started to run, cursing his supervisor under his breath. The NYPD’s latest round of budget cuts had put a number of policemen on the streets alone, without backup, something that meant they had to deal with any problems on their own. He hit the emergency beacon as the screams grew louder, torn from male and female throats, while drawing his pistol from its holster. Anything that could make someone scream like that had to be dangerous.

He ran into the alleyway, pulling his torch from his belt and shining it ahead into the darkened scene. The screams faded away and were gone, just as he caught sight of something moving ahead of him. There was a snarl, almost like an angry dog, as he flashed the light down and saw a horrific scene of carnage. Four bodies, maybe more, were scattered on the ground, their throats torn out by…what? Matt had heard of humans being attacked by animals, but he’d never seen anything like it. And yet he found it impossible to believe that anything human could have inflicted so much damage. All four – no, there were ten pairs of legs, so five – bodies had been torn apart. One of them was very clearly a woman.

“Dispatch, I need a forensic team out here now,” he said. There was a very faint growl, coming from somewhere in the darkness. “And I need armed backup. I say again…”

The growling grew louder and he shone his torch towards the source, catching sight of a giant wolf half-hidden in the darkness. Time seemed to slow down as he stared at the creature, unable to comprehend exactly what he was seeing. It was huge, easily twice the size of the largest police dog in the NYPD, with strange green eyes that seemed to peer at him, almost as if they were hypnotised by the flashlight. And then he saw the blood staining the animal’s snout. He had no doubt that he was looking at the creature that had killed five civilians as easily as a man would squash a spider.

He started to inch backwards as the wolf prowled forward, keeping his pistol trained on the beast’s head. It was growling, very faintly, a sound that sent primal fear running down his spine. The hand holding the pistol started to shake and he caught himself, just as the creature opened its mouth and roared at him. A moment later, it sprang right for his throat. Acting on instinct, Matt opened fire, hitting the beast several times. It’s immense bulk crashed into him and sent him flying backwards, just before it hit the ground with a thunderous crash. Matt staggered to his feet and groped around for the flashlight and pistol – he’d dropped both when the creature had hit him – hoping and praying that the beast was dead. If it had killed five humans, it probably wouldn’t hesitate to add a sixth to that number.

The flashlight was lying on the ground, still burning brightly. Matt stumbled towards it and picked it up, turning it on the beast as he heard sirens howling in the distance. But the beast was gone. Matt started forward, waving the flashlight around, and almost jumped out of his skin as he saw a naked body where the beast had fallen. It was a young girl, barely out of her teens – and clearly shot to death. Matt was familiar enough with bullet wounds to know that they’d almost certainly been caused by his pistol; besides, he hadn’t noticed anyone else shooting…

His head started to spin in absolute disbelief. He’d shot at a wolf-like creature. He’d hit a young girl.

What the hell was going on?

Carefully, he recovered his pistol and knelt down beside the girl, taking her pulse. She was gone, beyond salvation by anything he could do. There was no sign of any ID, or of her clothes…she seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Matt tried to collect himself as a small army of policemen appeared at the end of the alleyway, some of them carrying spotlights to illuminate the crime scene, gasping in horror as they saw what had happened. Very few of them had ever seen anything like this.

A hand fell on his shoulder and he looked up to see McLain, his immediate superior. “Matt, what the fuck happened here?”

“I wish I knew,” Matt said. They wouldn’t believe a word of it. How could he blame them when he wouldn’t have believed a word of it if someone told him what he’d seen? “I wish I knew.”

***

The interrogation room was small, brightly lit and effectively a prison cell. Matt sat in one chair, rubbing his eyes with his hands. It was 2am and it seemed that half the NYPD had been awoken to deal with the nightmare he’d seen, if not created. He’d already made his report to McLain and two of McLain’s superiors; as he’d expected, they didn’t believe any of it. The whole story was starting to look like Matt had gunned down an innocent girl for no clear reason, something that would reflect badly on the NYPD.

He looked up as a door opened, revealing a tall black man carrying two mugs of coffee and a single cardboard folder. “I’m Jeff,” he said, as he put one of coffees down in front of Matt. He didn’t give any rank or title, which suggested that he was part of Internal Affairs. The men who policed the police – fiends in human form, as they were viewed by the regular police – all had the same sense of arrogance and entitlement, as well as a conviction that any copper who didn’t want to talk to them had something to hide. “Tell me what happened today.”

Matt sighed and repeated the story, again. Jeff listened quietly, without saying a word, no doubt comparing it to the stories Matt had told the earlier interrogators. By now, the Mayor would have been informed and the NYPD would be bracing itself for a media storm. A cop shooting a young girl would sell more papers than anything reassembling the truth. It had reached the point where Matt had started to question his own sanity. But he’d seen the other bodies. Nothing human could have done that to anyone.

“They rushed the bodies to the morgue,” Jeff said, when he’d finished. “I’m afraid you definitely did kill the girl, Matt. We pulled your bullets out of her body and checked them against your gun.”

“I know what I saw,” Matt said, quietly. But had he really seen what he’d seen? Maybe it had all been an illusion caused by a hallucinogenic gas. “I don’t understand what happened…”

“Neither do I,” Jeff said. “We haven’t done anything more with the girl’s body, for the moment, but we have had the other victims checked. The best the doctors can suggest is that all five of them were torn apart by a powerful animal of some kind, perhaps an oversized dog. They pulled animal hairs out of the blood; they just haven’t been able to match them to anything.”

Matt leaned forward. “So there was an animal!”

“It seems that way,” Jeff agreed. “We’ve managed to identify two of the victims, both known gang-bangers. The other two males and the girls remain unidentified so far, but we’re only just starting. No doubt something will surface to tell us who they were and what they were doing in that alleyway.”

He looked up, sharply. “Another odd datum,” he added. “The girl you shot was badly stained with blood from all five animal victims. We’ve had it checked against the others and it is definitely their blood. And she doesn’t seem to have any animal hairs on her.”

Matt stared down at his hands. “So what the fuck happened?”

“We don’t know,” Jeff said. The Internal Affairs officer shook his head. “It’s turning into a horrible mess – and it will get worse once the media catches wind of it. We have to take action to show that we’re on top of the situation and we don’t know what action to take.”

Matt scowled. The NYPD couldn’t afford another scandal, not after a series of scandals involving police forces had plagued the nation. Coppers had shot innocent men, or arrested the wrong person, or been politically involved…the list went on and on. He had a nasty feeling that McLain was about to throw him under the bus in the hopes that it would distract attention from the NYPD itself.

“We tested your blood,” Jeff added. They’d taken a sample as soon as they’d suspected that Matt might have been under the influence. “No drugs, no alcohol, nothing that might have affected your judgement.” He didn’t quite say that Matt might have been born with poor judgement, but the training should have taught him better or failed him. “We really don’t know what happened to you, or to her. The physical evidence is…somewhat murky.”

He frowned. “But we do know that you shot the girl, which means that we have to take action. For the moment, pending the outcome of an investigation, you will be suspended from duty and barred from talking to the media. In the event of them managing to identify you, we will take you into protective custody for your own safety. You don’t want the media trying and convicting you before we actually know what happened.”

Matt nodded. Under the circumstances, it was the best they could do. They had to suspend him until they knew what had actually happened, even if they believed his story. Besides, it would give him a chance to sleep and to try to come to terms with what had happened. There was no avoiding the fact that he’d put three slugs into a girl and killed her.

Jeff stood up. “We’d prefer it if you reviewed the instructions for suspended cops and followed them to the letter,” he said. “Don’t talk to the media, don’t try to run your own investigation and don’t leave the city. You may be expected to attend further interrogation sessions without warning.”

“Yeah,” Matt nodded. “I won’t leave the city.”

He caught a glimpse of his own face in the mirror as Jeff escorted him out of the chamber and winced. Matt had never thought of himself as particularly handsome, but right now he looked haggard, as if he’d aged overnight. A good night’s sleep would cure the tiredness, yet it wouldn’t do anything to mollify the guilt. The girl was dead and it was his fault and even though he’d acted in self-defence, or what he’d thought was self-defence, he’d still killed her. It never got any easier.

The other officers in the station looked at him, and then looked away. Failure – and the attention of Internal Affairs – was contagious and they didn’t want any of Matt’s troubles splattering over them. Matt knew exactly how they were feeling; Internal Affairs had a tendency to go on witch-hunts that did little more than threaten the careers of decent policemen. Jeff might appear to be an affable guy, but Matt knew that he – like all officers – was itching for the collar. Arresting a corrupt – or criminally negligent – policeman would go some way towards justifying Internal Affairs’ budget.

Jeff arranged for a car to drive Matt back to his apartment. Outside, it was still dark, with the full moon half-hidden under the clouds, but New York never slept. There were already a couple of reporters watching the police station, as if they expected something spectacular to appear right in front of him. Matt rolled his eyes; he’d seen enough reporters to know that they were just stringers, sent along to make sure all of the bases were covered. The really famous reporters were probably still in bed.

He’d never bothered to rent a proper apartment, which was probably why none of his girlfriends stayed with him for very long. Opening the door, he stumbled inside and crashed down on the sofa, closing his eyes tightly. He was just too keyed up to sleep with the bad coffee he’d drunk at the station. Eventually, he pulled himself to his feet and stumbled across to the laptop. Internal Affairs should have cancelled his access to the national police network of computers, but he knew logins from two of his comrades and those wouldn’t have been changed. By now, the record of the incident in New York would have been entered into the system and linked to other cases. Matt felt his eyes widen as no less than three similar cases appeared in front of his eyes. Two of them involved fatalities, apparently caused by monstrous animals; the third claimed to have seen a young man become an animal. Separately, it was hard to take any such report seriously, but taking them all together…?

Matt sucked in a breath. What the hell was going on?

The Royal Sorceress Has A Cover!

19 Sep

Painted by Alison Buck;

The Mirrored Princess–Snippet

16 Sep

Trying to create a less sympathetic main character here…

Chapter One

“I really don’t understand why you are dating Dave,” Tiffany said, as they watched the footballers running around the field. “Why don’t you want to date Chad instead? He’s a hunky football player.”

Leila rolled her eyes. Chad was handsome, muscular and had absolutely nothing inside his skull. Sure, he was a quarterback and had the ego to match, but he wouldn’t be anything like as important once he completed his education and was released into the wild. And if he did manage to become a sports star – which Leila privately calculated was unlikely – he probably wouldn’t be a good life-long partner for anyone.

“Dave is smart and kind,” she said, finally. Chad simply wasn’t the kind of person to understand anything past his own ego. The girls he had dated had all implied that he’d been interested in only one thing – which was true of all boys his age – and was prepared to push as hard as he could to get it. “And besides, whoever dated Bill Gates in High School has to be kicking themselves now.”

Tiffany gave her a puzzled, utterly uncomprehending look. The two girls were a study in contrasts. Tiffany was blonde and beautiful; Leila was tall, dark and willowy. Leila had never been able to understand why Tiffany chose to act dumb, or to chase guys who were considered popular for absurd reasons; Tiffany had never been able to understand why Leila took life so seriously. But then, most of the students at Malory came from families so wealthy that they could lose millions and still be considered rich.

And yet Leila had always felt a little insecure, for reasons she could never have put into words. Her father was wealthy – the fact he could afford to send his only daughter to a very exclusive school proved that – and she was intelligent, in her own considered estimation. She could charm people, convince them to help her, perhaps even to the point where she could consider a career in politics. But a part of her was always insecure, as if it were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Perhaps it had something to do with being an only child, brought up by a single parent. Her mother had died when Leila was six and Leila barely remembered her.

“Chad thinks you’re exotic,” Tiffany said. “You could go out with him; we could double-date…”

“No, thank you,” Leila said, dryly. Exotic? Her? Anyone too stupid to not look past the flesh, no matter how pretty, deserved everything they got. Besides, she had been raised in America and she considered herself American. She was hardly some refugee from a distant land who needed someone to take care of her. “And besides, how would you feel if someone convinced your boyfriend to date someone else?”

The whistle blew before Tiffany could reply, summoning the girls over to the centre of the field. Leila rolled her eyes as they jogged towards where Miss Macpherson was waiting for them, tapping her baton against her thigh impatiently. She was a tall woman who seemed inhumanly muscular, much to the amusement of the girls; rumour had it that she either abused steroids pretty badly or that she was a man who had decided to have a sex change operation to turn himself into a woman. Leila found it hard to like the woman. Sports were much less important than studies, but the gym mistress didn’t seem to agree with her.

“Get ready to run,” Miss Macpherson bellowed, just like a Drill Sergeant from a bad war movie. She waved a hand along the track, which ran around the football field and past the school, before it returned to the sports ground. “Go!”

Leila joined the other girls as they ran, silently cursing Miss Macpherson under her breath. Malory prided itself on academic achievement – the students were expected to be smart as well as wealthy – but sports were considered part of their grades, and a low mark in sports would drag down her overall average. It was neither fair nor reasonable, she’d protested to her father, yet it seemed impossible to change things. Was it her fault that she didn’t have the body of an Olympic gold medallist?

She wasn’t unfit – Miss Macpherson had seen to that, no matter how much Leila disliked her – but she was still puffing hard by the time they ran all the way around the track and back to where the gym mistress was waiting for them. Miss Macpherson didn’t seem impressed, even with the girls who had pushed themselves to the limit and come in first; instead, she simply handed out the hockey sticks and led the girls out onto the field, dividing them up into two random teams. Leila took her stick and nodded when she was assigned to a team, keeping her real feelings under control. She might have enjoyed hockey if Miss Macpherson hadn’t considered it an ultra-competitive sport. Or, for that matter, if the gym mistress didn’t take the field herself.

“Don’t let her get past you, Carrie,” Miss Macpherson bellowed, as the girls knocked the puck around the field. “Why are you lollygagging around there, Jo? Get out and give that puck a wallop! Swap goalies! Leila, get into goal; Maxine, take her place. Now!”

Leila obeyed, reluctantly. Being goalie meant that she had to keep her eye on the puck at all times, or risk public humiliation. She still remembered the time when one of her teammates had knocked it towards her, expecting Leila to slam it back down the field, and ended up scoring an own goal instead. It hadn’t lasted long – there were advantages to being one of the most popular girls in school – yet Leila never forgot anything. Some of the teachers at Malory were likeable types, but she wouldn’t even bother to say goodbye to Miss Macpherson when she left. The woman had no idea of what was genuinely important.

The puck shot towards her and she blocked it, knocking it back down the field. She would have relaxed, if Miss Macpherson hadn’t started shouting at one of the other girls and urging her to be more aggressive on the field. Leila rolled her eyes again; Jo was smart, perhaps even smarter than Leila, but she was utterly unsuited to sports. Miss Macpherson should just have realised that it was a hopeless cause. She heard chuckles from behind the wire and glanced over to see a handful of boys standing there, watching the game. They clearly weren’t watching the puck.

“Look out,” Miss Macpherson bellowed. “Incoming!”

Leila turned back, too late. One of the other players had knocked the puck down towards the goal, just quickly enough to slam it through before Leila could get into position to knock it away. The other team cheered as they scored a goal, before Miss Macpherson marched over to Leila and glared right into her face. Up close, it was easy to see unnatural hair on her face.

“You took your eyes off the puck,” Miss Macpherson bellowed. Leila stared back at her, unwilling to back off. She wasn’t going to show weakness in front of this…overpaid torturer of helpless victims. “What were you thinking when you took your eyes off the puck?”

Leila said nothing. Self-control was something she had learned very early on; telling Miss Macpherson exactly what she thought of her would be very satisfactory, but it wouldn’t make her time at school any easier. The gym mistress looked as if she had expected Leila to start crying, for she went on in some detail about her failings as a sporting student and finished by ordering her to the side of the field, where she could watch some proper players at work.

She felt hot rage burning through her as she entered the penalty box and the boys catcalled at her, including – she wasn’t surprised to note – Chad. Her head felt…odd, almost fragile, almost as if she had a headache that wasn’t quite real. She rubbed her forehead experimentally as she turned and pretended to be interested in the game. Miss Macpherson would only through another fit if she realised that Leila wasn’t paying attention at all.

“Why?” Miss Macpherson demanded, suddenly. She was glaring at Jo, who had apparently just managed to embarrass herself. “What were you thinking?”

Jo didn’t have anything like the self-control Leila had developed. The girl seemed on the verge of tears as Miss Macpherson told her exactly what she thought of her, using very graphic terms. Leila stared at the gym mistress, wishing that she had some way to punish the teacher for the humiliation she regularly inflicted on her students. It was beyond Leila’s understanding why she even kept her job! The hot rage grew stronger and something clicked in her mind. A moment later, as Miss Macpherson strode away from the tearful Jo, her gym shorts snapped and fell to her knees. She tripped and fell to the ground.

The boys burst out laughing, followed by the remainder of the girls. Miss Macpherson pulled herself to her feet, her face as red as beetroot, and glared around as if she expected to see someone behind her with a pair of scissors. She didn’t look at Leila, thankfully; Leila was having too many problems trying to understand what had just happened. Had she somehow done that to her tutor, or was it just a wild coincidence? Logic suggested a coincidence, but she could feel something thrumming through her veins, as if long-dormant power had suddenly come to life.

“You,” Miss Macpherson shouted at Jo as she struggled to pull up her shorts. Just how she’d come to the conclusion that Jo was responsible for her public humiliation was beyond Leila, but Jo flinched back as if she’d been struck with a physical blow. “Get off the field and report to the principal, now!”

Leila felt the power burning through her again, even though she didn’t seem to have perfect control. One of Miss Macpherson’s shoes seemed to kick forward with terrific force, sending her falling backwards to hit the ground again. Jo, sensibly, fled, followed rapidly by most of the girls and the watching boys. Leila hesitated, unsure of what to do, and then joined them. It was the end the day, after all, and she could just walk home and shower there. Her father might not be home yet, but she could definitely lie down and take a rest until he arrived. And he had promised her Chinese food for dinner.

The Principal ran past her as she walked into the locker room, picked up her bag and then walked down towards the gate, out of the school. Leila allowed herself to wonder if Miss Macpherson would be sacked over the incident, before deciding that it wasn’t an immediate problem. She could still feel the energy flowing through her veins, along with odd sparks of pain, leaving her unsure of what to do. No one ever developed mutant powers outside of comic books. Shaking her head, she left the school, wondering if she could practice in private. Her father’s house only had a small garden, but she could easily take a trip out to a countryside farm and practice there.

Surprisingly, her father’s car was in the driveway as she reached their house and stepped up to the door. She had never been entirely sure of what her father did for a living, even though it brought in enough money to send her to Malory, but he was rarely home until early evening at the very least. Not that it bothered her that much; it gave her a chance to do her homework and continue her private studies without her father peering over her shoulder. Bracing herself, she stepped inside and saw her father seated on the sofa, apparently deep in thought.

“Leila,” he said, in a voice that was alarmingly calm, “come here and tell me what happened today.”

Leila shivered. The last time her father had spoken to her in that tone of voice had been after a disastrous sleepover – and she’d spent the night lying on her tummy, rubbing a very sore behind. Her father couldn’t know that she’d left school without permission, could he? How could they have told him so quickly? And then it struck her that she was his daughter and if she had some strange mutant powers, maybe he had them too. He could help her learn to control her powers!

“I did something to Miss Macpherson,” she admitted, finally. Her father seemed to have a remarkable talent for sifting out lies and half-truths whenever someone spoke to him. Briefly, she outlined what had happened and ended by admitting that she’d left school early, something she knew her dad would find out even if she didn’t tell him herself. “Dad…what am I?”

Her father seemed to hesitate. “I hoped it wouldn’t happen,” he said, almost as if he were talking to himself rather than to his daughter. “Here…there was no reason to believe that you would develop at all. I hoped it would leave you alone.”

Leila’s eyes narrowed. Her father had kept her in the dark about something and she didn’t like it. Knowledge was power – and if there was something important about her life that she didn’t know, it would eventually explode in her face. Whoever had first claimed that what someone didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them had been an idiot.

“Dad…”

Her father looked up at her, his dark eyes burning into hers. “How much do you remember about our homeland?”

Leila looked back at him, puzzled. She’d been five years old when her family had come to America, a child. It had never struck her as odd that she could recall nothing about their homeland; her father had never talked about it with her, or anyone else as far as she knew. She was American, bred if not born in the United States, and that had been all that seemed important. In hindsight…it puzzled her. She had never even been curious about her pre-America life.

“Nothing,” she said, unable to keep the suspicion out of her voice. “Dad…what happened? Where do we come from? And why don’t I remember anything?”

Her father sighed. “You were bright, even as a child,” he said, “and when you came here, your teachers asked you to tell them about your early life. Luckily for us, they didn’t believe a word of it. And then I placed a charm on you to make you forget until you were old enough to keep your mouth shut.”

Leila found herself, for once, completely lost for words. “A charm?”

“A magic spell,” her father said. He swallowed, hard, allowing her to realise just how uncomfortable he was. Her father could be strict, and demanding, but she’d never doubted that he loved her. “You forgot everything about our world.”

He saw her confusion and smiled, sadly. “We come from an alternate world,” he said, flatly. “You and I and your mother had to flee for our lives, so we came here to hide. I was already a capable magician, able to use the very limited magic here to hide ourselves from detection and ensure that we didn’t raise suspicions. You…should never have developed magic at all.”

“Oh,” Leila said. She sat down, quickly, feeling the world spinning around her. It was impossible; it would have been easier to believe in telepathy and mutant powers rather than magic. And yet something in her mind told her that he wasn’t joking. “What happened to me?”

“Every magician eventually sparks into magic,” her father said. “When that happens, there is a period when they have to learn to either channel their magic properly or risk injuring themselves, or others. Magic runs in your bloodline; I suppose that it was inevitable that you would eventually develop magic, even in this world.”

He stood up and started to pace. “This changes everything,” he added. “You can’t stay here.”

Leila said nothing, thinking hard. Magic…was real? What could she do with it? Make herself powerful, and unchallengeable? Or maybe it couldn’t be used to do much more than cheap tricks and she should keep it to herself, as a surprise. Or maybe there was a hidden magical community in this world and using her powers would attract attention. How many books had been written around that very theme?

And her world had just turned upside down. She needed time to think.

“I’ll have to send you home,” her father said, breaking into her thoughts. “You need proper tutoring and you can’t get that here. I’ll have to arrange for you to be tutored in our homeworld.”

Leila opened her mouth to object and then closed it slowly, without speaking. Her father was right; even now, she could feel the magic shimmering through her body, just waiting for her to use it. She hadn’t really meant to humiliate Miss Macpherson; she certainly hadn’t been very specific about what she’d wanted to do. Who knew what else her magic would do without her specific instructions.

And besides, it was a chance to learn something completely new.

She looked down at the floor, and then back up at her father. “What have I forgotten?” She asked, and then, to underline the fact that she hadn’t forgiven him for wiping her mind; “what did you make me forget?”

Her father lifted his fingers and clicked them in front of her eyes. “Remember.”

The memories slammed into her mind and she staggered; she would have fallen over if she hadn’t been sitting down. One by one, the memories unfolded and fitted into her mind and…

She looked up. “I was a Princess?”

“I’m afraid so,” her father said. “You are Princess Leela of Avalon, Heir to the Throne currently held by my brother, King Rufus. And if he catches you in his world, you will surely die.”