Archive | September, 2020

Snippet: Little Witches (Schooled in Magic 21)

29 Sep

Prologue I

The White City felt … different.

Gordian, Grandmaster of Whitehall, felt a chill run down his spine as he walked down the road leading towards the Imperial Palace.  He’d grown up in the White City, learning to play the political game practically from the moment he could walk, but … everything was different now.  The nexus point – the reawakened nexus point – pulsed in the distance, a constraint frission of raw power that that both awed and terrified him.  The grand mansions, houses and apartment blocks that made up the core of the city felt washed out, once-impregnable wards melting like snow in the first days of spring.  Gordian shivered, helplessly, as he walked past a pair of open gates.  The city had been largely abandoned, it’s citizens choosing to decamp and abandon their property.  Gordian didn’t blame them.  It was impossible to escape the sensation that the city was suddenly very fragile, that the merest cough might send it tumbling into ruin.  The longer he stayed within the city, the more he feared the worst.

He forced himself to keep going, even as the tales he’d been told about the city’s distant past haunted his mind.  The White City had been the seat of the Emperors, the most powerful magicians in the known world.  They’d tamed the nexus point and build their palace amidst its flames.  And their successors had built over their works as shellfish might build their nests within a sunken boat, with no more awareness of what the Emperors had done than the shellfish might have of humanity.  Gordian had heard that some brave souls had ventured into the Imperial Palace, in hopes of laying claim to power beyond the dreams of magicians and necromancers.  They’d gone in.  None had returned.

The sense of looming disaster grew stronger as he reached the park and walked slowly down to the lake.  He had many happy memories of sailing toy boats in the waters, when he’d been a lad, but now strange lights were clearly visible under the waves.  The proud swans he’d fed were gone.  He’d been told the city had been deserted by its animal population, the day the nexus point had come back to life.  Even the zookeepers had been unable to keep their charges from making their escape.  Gordian wondered, sourly, if that made the animals smarter than their human counterparts.  The humans had only decamped when it became clear that their wards were steadily starting to fail.  And who knew what would happen when they died completely?

Master Lucknow was standing at the edge of the lake, staring into the glowing waters.  Gordian coughed, although he was sure the older sorcerer had sensed his presence the moment he’d entered the park.  He wasn’t sure why Master Lucknow had insisted on meeting in the park, within the deserted city, although he had to admit it would be effectively impossible for someone to spy on them.  The finest scryers in the Allied Lands had tried to peer into the city, in hopes of finding out what was going on.  They’d reported that it was like staring into the sun itself.

“Grandmaster.”  Master Lucknow turned to face him, his eyes shadowed and grim.  “Kalians is dead.”

Gordian felt a flicker of cold amusement.  “I remember a time when that would be considered good news.”

“It was how he died that interested me,” Master Lucknow said.  “Would you care to guess how it happened?”

Gordian said nothing for a long moment.  Kalians had been a necromancer, his territories on the very southern edge of the Blighted Lands.  He’d never been considered a serious threat.  He would have had to punch his way through at least two other necromancers before reaching the Craggy Mountains, if the march itself didn’t kill him and his slaves.  The Allied Lands had assumed Kalians would be picked off by one of his rivals, if he didn’t kill himself.  There hadn’t seemed any reason to be particularly worried about him,

“A bunch of young sorcerers teleported south,” Master Lucknow said.  “They took one of Lady Emily’s batteries” – the word was a curse – “with them.  They used a wardcracking spell to break the necromancer’s wards, allowing his own power to consume him.  And then they seized his lands.”

Gordian’s eyes narrowed as he realised where the conversation was going.  “They seized a nexus point.”

“Quite.”  Master Lucknow turned away.  “They have effectively declared independence from the White Council and the Allied Lands.  Given that they own and control a nexus point, wrinkling them out may take some time.”

“If it can be done at all,” Gordian said.  “The precedents are clear.  Whoever seizes a necromancer’s territory has an unchallengeable claim.”

“No,” Master Lucknow said.  “But their willingness to seize the territory and stake a claim bodes ill for the future.”

“They’re not the first,” Gordian said.  “Lord Cat seized control of Kuching Castle.  Jorlem is seriously considering digging its own way through the Craggy Mountains.  Dragora is thinking about sending ships to the southern coastline and establishing military colonies …”

Master Lucknow made an impatient sound.“That isn’t the point.”

Gordian met his eyes, evenly.  “A year ago, we were on the verge of defeat.  These are the problems of victory.”

“Yes, that’s true.”  Master Lucknow waved his hand, dismissively.  “But they are problems.”

He paced as he spoke, ticking off points on his fingers.  “The old conflicts between kingdoms have started to reignite.  There have been border skirmishes between seven or eight kingdoms as monarchs press their claims to disputed territory.  Cities have sought to secure their independence from neighbouring kingdoms.  Swindlers like Vesperian have triggered off a dozen crises, just like he did.  Religious nuts are promising a whole new world.  Magical and merchant families are even considering ways to make land grabs themselves, or – at the very least – secure their own independence from the rest of the world.  My source at Laughter has gone quiet, but something is clearly happening there.

“And, working in the shadows, revolutionary movements are threatening to overthrow their monarchs and create a new world.”

Gordian frowned.  “It’s that bad?”

“Yes.”  Master Lucknow made a face.  “And all of these problems can be traced back to one person.”

“Lady Emily,” Gordian said.

“Yes,” Master Lucknow said.  “We only tolerated her because the necromancers feared her.  And now the necromancers are gone.”

“Effectively gone,” Gordian pointed out.

“Effectively gone,” Master Lucknow echoed.  “A year ago, challenging a necromancer in his lair would have been suicide.  Now … it can be done.  We no longer … need … such a disruptive influence.”

His voice hardened.  “The batteries alone, Grandmaster, have changed the world.”

Gordian nodded.  There’d been no way to store magic long-term, not without a nexus point, until Emily had devised the batteries.  Gordian didn’t know how they worked, but it was just a matter of time until someone outside the charmed circle cracked the secret.  Knowing something was possible was half the battle.  And the batteries were, in many ways, the least of it.  The New Learning was spreading rapidly.  He’d heard the stories.  Gunpowder weapons that put the power to kill in the hands of untrained commoners, a written alphabet and printing presses that allowed commoners to write, read and print books, steam engines and railways that raised the promise of binding the Allied Lands closer together … he owed Emily much, he admitted sourly, but he couldn’t avoid admitting she was a disruptive influence.

She’s not a bad person, he conceded, privately.  But that only makes her more dangerous.

“And we are in no state to deal with the crisis,” Master Lucknow said.  He waved a hand towards the distant palace.  “The White Council has been scattered.  There’s no guarantee it will be able to reform, certainly not as anything effective.”

“As if it ever was,” Gordian said.

“It worked, well enough,” Master Lucknow said.  “It kept us from indulging in a self-destructive war.  But now the threat that bound us together is gone.  We no longer need her.”

“We owe her,” Gordian said.

“Gratitude is a luxury we cannot afford,” Master Lucknow said.  “She goes to Whitehall and turns the school upside down.  She does to Mountaintop and turns the school upside down, nearly destroying it in the process before giving the school to a person unsuited for the role.  She plays a major role in sparking a civil war within a powerful kingdom; she plays another role in heading off a civil war within another kingdom.  And she’s unpredictable.  What will she do next?”

His eyes hardened.  “She must be stopped.  Now.  Before it’s too late.”

Gordian let out a breath.  It wouldn’t be easy to stop a person who’d gone toe-to-toe with a small army of necromancers.  Emily might not know it – Gordian had often thought there was something odd about her, a strange lack of awareness of the world – but she had friends and allies who would start a full-scale war if she was harmed.  And, of course, her father could hardly be ignored.  Emily and Void were, perhaps, the two scariest people in the world.

He looked at his companion.  “What do you have in mind?”

“I have a plan,” Master Lucknow said.  “It will require your cooperation.”

Gordian hesitated, then committed himself.  “What do you want from me?”

Master Lucknow told him.

Prologue II

Daniel stayed low as he reached the bottom of the Howling Peaks and paused for breath, heart thudding in his cheeks as he looked from side to side and up the mountainside.  The giant trees seemed to form an impassable barrier between the road and the school high above, a barrier he knew was nothing more than illusion.  It was easy to navigate the trees, if one had grown up in the mountains.  And yet …  He hesitated, torn between the determination to make a name for himself and a flicker of fear.  Trying to reach the school was a rite of passage for the young men of Pendle, yet … he’d heard the stories.  Those who got to the school without being caught were rewarded, he’d been told, but those who got caught …

A shiver ran down his spine.  It wasn’t that bad, he’d been assured.  And yet … he remembered Blair, a bullying blowhard of a lad who’d come down from the mountains and fled into the distance, leaving his home and family behind with nary a word to his friends and loved ones.  Danial had known Blair too well to think that anything minor could have convinced him to run.  It was suddenly easy to believe the darker stories, the suggestions that the witches did unspeakable things to young men … he shivered, again.  The urge to just turn around and go home was almost overpowering.  What was it worth, really, to slap his hand against the school’s walls?

And yet, he knew he’d be called a coward if he turned and ran.

He cursed under his breath as he walked off the road and into the trees.  There was no hope of escaping the taint, once he was branded a coward.  The witches themselves would happily confirm they hadn’t so much as laid eyes on him, let alone hexed him or cursed him or done anything to him.  He knew the girls, from their weekend excursions to the town.  Some were friendly, some looked down on the local lads … all were distant from the townspeople, even the ones who’d been born in the town.  A local girl had gone up to the school and come back a very different person.  They’d tattle on him.  They’d think it was funny.

The wind whistled through the trees, the shadows growing darker – somehow – as the sun started to sink behind the distant mountains.  It was meant to be safe near the school, in twilight, but Daniel still felt hopelessly exposed as he flitted from tree to tree.  Everyone knew the truly dangerous creatures only came out after night fell completely, yet … it wasn’t very reassuring now he was well away from the road.  He clambered over a dry gully, carefully avoiding a pool of water on the upper ridge.  They could be very dangerous, he knew.  Anything could be hiding within the pool.  Anything at all.

Sweat trickled down his back as he forced himself to move faster.  He’d picked his time very carefully.  The majority of the witches – the student witches, at least – would be in the town, swaggering around in their cloaks and hats and flirting with the older boys.  The older witches would either be supervising their charges or taking the opportunity to have a rest before the younger witches returned to the castle.  Daniel had heard stories of what happened behind the high stone walls, stories he wasn’t sure he believed but listened to anyway.  The older witches had to be pushed to the limit by their students.  They wouldn’t have time to monitor the approaches to the school.  Or so he hoped.

They’ll be coming back up soon, he reminded himself.  You have to hurry.

His arms and legs started to ache as he kept going.  He thought he saw things in the darkness, sensed unseen eyes looking at him.  The sense of threat grew stronger, making him ball his fists even though he knew it was probably useless.  The Other Folk – the Awful Folk – were supposed to have agreements with the witches, although no one knew for sure.  Anything powerful or nasty enough to ignore those agreements was unlikely to be troubled by him.  He’d heard those stories too.

He reached a clearing and stopped, trying to gauge the time.  The darkness was swelling rapidly now, sweeping majestically over the land.  It wouldn’t be long before the witches started walking or flying back to the castle, showing off as they glided over the mountains and landed on the castle battlements.  He felt a twinge of envy, mingled with something he didn’t dare try to put into words.  Magic ran strong, in the folk of Pendle.  He might have magic himself.  And if he did, he would be sent away to study.  He might never be welcome within the town again.

And if I get to the walls and back, he thought, I’ll be a hero …

His ankles snapped together, hard enough to hurt.  Danial toppled over, landing face-first in the muddy ground.  Realisation dawned a second later.  Hexed.  He’d been hexed.  His ankles were held together by an invisible force that felt like iron, impossible to break no matter how hard he struggled.  He forced himself to roll over and try to pull himself up by his arms alone.  Hexes didn’t last, he’d been told.  He could hide himself until the magic wore off and then make his way back to the town.  He’d be ribbed for being caught, but he was far from the only one to fail to reach the walls.  Very few young men had ever made.

And then he saw the witch.

She was strikingly pale, her blonde hair practically glowing in the darkening air.  Her dark dress seemed to blend with the shadows.  She couldn’t be more than two or three years older than himself, although it was never easy to tell with a witch.  She was beautiful, practically perfect compared to the hardworking girls in the town below.  She looked as surprised to see him as he was to see her, a faint expression on her face that suggested she shouldn’t be in the forest any more than himself.  Daniel forced himself to sit up and smile, trying to look harmless.  His ankles were still bound together.  There was no way he could get to her, or get away, before she zapped him.  All he could do was concede he’d been caught and hope she didn’t do anything worse to him.  He’d be ribbed mercilessly for that too.

The witch looked at him.  Daniel had the oddest feeling she wasn’t really seeing him.  The witches looked down on the magic-less townsfolk, even the nicer ones considered themselves a cut above the rest, but this one … he braced himself, trying to inch away from her as best as he could.  If she wasn’t really aware of him, perhaps he could get away.

Her hand jabbed at him.  Danial saw a flicker of light, an instant before the spell hit him.  A wave of pain rushed through his body, his mouth opening to scream in utter agony before melting into nothingness.  His vision twisted painfully, as if his eyeballs were on the verge of popping out of their sockets … his entire body twisted painfully.  He thought he felt his bones breaking and shattering as the magic coursed through him.  It was … he understood, now, why Blair had fled the town without looking back.  The spell was no joke.  It was pure torture.  It was … it was …

His vision cleared.  He found himself looking up at the witch.  She was a giantess.  No, he’d shrunk.  His body felt weird, as if he’d been changed … horror ran through him as he realised he had been changed.  The lads had joked about the witches turning boys into frogs, but … there was nothing funny about this.  He couldn’t move … what had she done to him?  She stared down at him, her pretty face oddly slack.  And then she lifted her foot and stamped down.  Hard.  There was an instant of soul-shattering pain and then …


Chapter One

Emily hid behind a rock and closed her eyes, concentrating on her senses.  It wasn’t easy to sense anything, let alone a whorl of magic, in the forest, but she knew Void was out there somewhere.  Void was looking for her.  She felt a flicker of excitement, remembering the days Alassa had made her play hide-and-seek in the corridors of Whitehall.  The consequences of losing had been embarrassing, back then.  Now … they were a great deal worse.

You told Void you were up for it, she reminded herself, severely.  Get this wrong and he will be very unhappy indeed.

She smiled, although it wasn’t really funny.  Void had taken her away from Kuching Castle after the war, pointing out that the death of her bilocated self would have severe effects on her.  He hadn’t been wrong, she conceded.  The shock had caught up with her shortly after he’d teleported her home, the trauma of being killed sending her into meltdown.  Void had been as comforting and supportive as he could be, but … Emily still had nightmares about her death.  It wasn’t really that reassuring to know she’d survived her own death.  And he’d insisted on keeping her isolated until she’d recovered to his satisfaction.  Emily had found it a relief, at first.  It hadn’t taken long for it to become maddening.

The forest seemed empty of human life, save for herself.  She could sense flickers of magic and life darting through the trees, a faint haze that shouldn’t have hidden a full-fledged sorcerer from her.  Emily wasn’t reassured.  Void was out there somewhere, looking for her.  He’d agreed to let her leave the tower if she beat him … he wouldn’t let her go easily.  She reached out, masking her presence as best as she could.  She had the feeling it wouldn’t be particularly successful.  She’d spent the last year exploring the forest and valleys, but Void knew them like the back of his hand.  He’d had years to weave his magic into the warp and weft of the mountains themselves.  It was his place of power.

Her eyes snapped open as she heard something running through the trees above her.  She looked up and frowned as she saw a squirrel.  It looked harmless, and she couldn’t sense any magic around the little creature, but she knew that was meaningless.  Void could have turned the woodland creatures into an early-warning system, if he wished; his mind could be riding inside the squirrel, seeing through its eyes without tipping her off before it was too late.  She prepared a spell, then stopped herself.  The squirrel didn’t deserve to be shocked – or killed – because it might be an unwitting spy.  And if it wasn’t, blasting the poor creature would have given away her position.  Void would be looking for her too.

He knows I won’t have left the valley, Emily thought.  She considered, briefly, doing just that … but it would be cheating.  Probably.  Void wouldn’t be amused.  He’ll keep scanning the valley until he finds me.

Her mind raced as she considered her options.  Void was strong, the strongest magician – in skill if not raw power – she’d ever met.  He wouldn’t crash around like a necromancer, smashing everything that got in his way until his madness consumed him and he forgot what he was looking for.  He’d keep his power masked as he tried to locate Emily and get the drop on her.  And that meant he wouldn’t stop looking … unless he thought he’d found her.  She frowned as she glanced around, noticing just how many creatures were running along the branches or flying through the trees.  Void might have already found her.  It wouldn’t take more than one unwitting spy to uncover her …

He’d be on top of me by now if he knew where I was, Emily thought.  He wouldn’t be holding back.

She scowled as she inched backwards, one hand reaching for the dagger in her sleeve.  Void had been insistent she stayed in the tower, even though he’d been popping in and out so often it was hard for her to continue her apprenticeship.  She’d loved learning magic with him, pushing the limits of what she could do and developing newer and better ways to combine magic with earthly concepts.  It was frustrating to be so isolated, particularly after Void had warned her that not everyone was happy with her.  She knew he meant well, but it was still stifling.

The dagger felt solid in her hand.  Void had suggested she charm the blade – he’d taught her a number of enchantments, including the runes that had almost killed Imaiqah – but she’d resisted the urge.  Charmed blades could be dangerous to the wielder as well as the victim, she knew from grim experience; they could be sensed and guarded against by a magician who might not think to look for a mundane weapon.  Emily braced herself, then carefully cut her hand just lightly enough to allow a dribble of blood to splash to the ground.  Void was going to read her the Riot Act, when he found out what she’d done, but … hopefully, he’d also appreciate the trick.  She touched the blood, summoned a tiny flicker of magic and shaped it -carefully – into an illusion.  And then she hurried back into the shadows and reached out with her senses once again.

She shivered as the ether started to shimmer with magical essence.  Her magical essence.  The spell felt like a convincing search-spell, an attempt to locate Void before he could come after her … she opened her mind wider, bracing herself.  Either Void spotted the spell and came for her or the spell spotted him, hopefully allowing her to get the drop on him before it was too late.  She felt her heart pounding in her chest as the seconds grew longer and longer … Void was no fool.  He’d sense the magic.  Would he realise it was a trick?  Or would he try to drop a hammer on her before she realised her mistake?

He might assume I made a deliberate mistake, she thought.  She’d learnt that tactic from several of her teachers, including Void himself.  Or he might be going easy on me.

Emily shook her head.  Void had never gone easy on her.  He’d put her through dozens of tests and training exercises, each one more complex and dangerous than the last.  Emily was all too aware he was pushing her to the limit, with every test raising the spectre of serious injury or even death.  No, he’d want to make it clear she wasn’t ready to leave the tower again.  Not yet.  If she made a mistake, he’d want – he’d need – to rub her face in it.  And that meant she’d have a chance to hit him first …

She barely registered the black shape in the sky before it dropped to the ground in front of her, right on top of the charmed blood.  Void could fly?  Emily kicked herself, a moment later, for even doubting it.  She didn’t know how to fly herself, but she knew it was possible … if one was prepared to accept the dangers.  She could have cancelled Void’s spells and sent him tumbling to the ground, if she’d seen him coming in time.  He’d flown very fast to keep her from realising what he was doing until it was too late.

Void started to swing around immediately.  He knew he’d been tricked.  Emily didn’t hesitate.  She mustered the first piece of spellwork and thrust it into his wards.  Void lit up brilliantly as his wards struggled to ward off the corkscrew of magic digging through his defences.  Emily could sense him shoving his wards away, pushing the tip of her attack further and further from the core of his being.  Magic sparked in all directions as streams of light were redirected.  She was genuinely impressed.  Void was the only sorcerer she’d met who’d taken a direct hit from a necromancer and survived.  The corkscrew magic she was using was sneakier than anything a necromancer would use, but far weaker.  She could sense the spell structure already starting to break up.

She readied the second piece of magic and thrust it into his wards, using the first spell to cloak the second.  There was so much magic crackling around him that he shouldn’t be able to pick out the second spell before it nestled itself within the wards.  She could barely follow it herself and she knew it was there.  She hoped.  The spell vanished into the blaze of magic, like a candle against the sun.  It was suddenly difficult to be sure it was still intact.  Emily felt the remnants of the corkscrew shatter a moment later, magic spilling out in all directions as Void ripped the spell apart.  She separated herself from the magic before he could reach back along the threadlines and catch hold of her, then turned and ran.  Void would be after her the moment he realised she was running.  He knew he had to run her down and catch her before she mustered the power for another attack.

A wave of magic washed out behind her, brushing against her wards.  Emily suddenly felt naked as his magic locked onto her, making it impossible to hide.  She ducked as a spell shot over her head, unwilling to take the risk of catching or deflecting it with her wards.  She thought she could dismantle a duelling spell before it caught her, but there was no point in taking chances.  Void wouldn’t mess around, not now she’d caught him by surprise.  She’d probably singed his pride as well as his cloak.

She realised her mistake a second later as the trees came to life, branches withering in the air as they reached for her.  The ground below her feet shook and burst as roots thrust their way out of the soil and wrapped themselves around her ankles.  Emily stumbled, a stab of pain running up her legs as she tried to pull herself free.  The roots were growing stronger, layer after layer piling themselves on her until … she gritted her teeth and hit them with a disintegration spell, pulling herself free and levitating into the air before they could grip her again.  A branch struck her back, the magicless wood reaching through her wards as though they weren’t there; Emily threw a blasting curse back, blowing the tree into little chunks of sawdust.  She wasn’t sure if Void’s animation spell would survive, but it would take it some time to muster the power to strike again.  She glided forward, throwing back a series of spells to buy time.  Hopefully, it would look like she was panicking.  She doubted Void would fall for it. 

Buy time, she told herself.  Keep him focused on me.

She glanced behind her as she landed on the ground and kept moving.  Void was lost in the trees … she looked up, half-expecting to see him dropping out of the sky.  Or trying to snipe her from high above.  Magical snipers were rare, but they existed.  She stayed low, grimly aware there was still no point in trying to hide.  He had a solid lock on her.  All he had to do was get the drop on her and the game would be over. 

A necromancer would be crashing through the trees as if they were paper, she thought, as she wiped sweat from her brow.  Her shirt and trousers felt sodden.  Void is a great deal smarter.

She frowned as she sensed a wave of magic moving towards her.  Void … coming at her from the front?  That was odd.  She would have expected him to try to sneak around her and take her from the rear.  He was immensely powerful and skilled, far more than herself, but he’d told her – more than once – that there was nothing to be gained from taking foolish chances.  A weak but smart opponent might prove far more dangerous than an overpowered enemy with little in the way of common sense.  There was certainly no point in showing off when it could put one in mortal danger.  Emily’s eyes narrowed as she reached out carefully with her mind, looking for the second spell.  There was no trace of it in the magic moving towards her.

Which means …  Emily allowed herself a smile.  He’s sending an illusion out to trick me while he moves up behind me.

Bracing herself, Emily started to move towards the fake.  Void wouldn’t expect her to go on the attack, not until she regained enough magic to have a chance of victory.  Even if he thought she was more powerful than she actually was, he might assume she’d want a moment to catch her breath.  If she was right … she picked up speed, knowing she couldn’t hide from him.  But she should be putting more distance between them ….

She pushed through the trees.  A whorl of magic greeted her eyes as it glided towards her, a faint impression of Void’s magic resting on a complicated piece of spellwork.  It was very nearly a mimic … Emily reached out to cancel the spells, then stopped herself and tried to trace the magic back to its source.  Void couldn’t have completely automated the whorl, not in the handful of minutes he’d had before sending it after her.  It had to be drawing power from him and … her blood ran cold as she traced the power, her legs automatically hurling her to one side as another wave of magic flashed past her.  He was behind her.  She couldn’t help feeling impressed.  She hadn’t even had a hint of his presence.

Another burst of magic slammed into her wards.  Emily shoved them away from her, using the movement to throw herself across the clearing and land on the muddy ground.  Void stepped through the remains of her wards, then snapped out a single spell.  Emily threw back a cancellation spell of her own, erasing his magic before it could strike her and then driving the spell into his wards.  Void smiled – she thought she saw a flicker of respect on his face – before he banished her spell and cast another one of his own.  Emily sensed movement behind her, too late.  The branches caught her by the arms and yanked her up, holding her in place.  This time, she didn’t have the power to budge them. 

Emily didn’t hesitate.  She sent the trigger code to the second spell, the one she’d embedded in Void’s wards.  It came to life, tearing into his magic.  The branches loosened, giving her a chance to pull free, as Void concentrated on saving himself.  Emily braced herself, readying a spell.  Void had only two choices, both of which would leave him vulnerable.  Unless he was skilled enough to think of a third open …

Void shoved his wards away from her, the magic – her magic – crashing towards her.  Emily levitated into the air and launched the spell, blowing Void across the clearing.  He landed badly, lying on his back … she felt a twinge of guilt, even though he’d knocked her down more than once during her apprenticeship.  She dropped to the ground, raising her hand to cast the final spell, just as he produced a wand from his sleeve and jabbed it at her.  Emily’s body locked, her arms and legs snapping together an instant before she fell and hit the ground.  It was painless – the magic saw to that – but it was humiliating.  She’d won!  She’d won and … he’d tricked her. 

She felt a hand flipping her over and found herself looking up.  Void was staring down at her, his dark eyes unusual serious.  The wand rested in his hand … she kicked herself, mentally, for not expecting a trick.  She kept a dagger in her sleeve … why not a wand?  Void was advanced enough, as a magician, to avoid the pitfalls and use it without danger.  She wondered if he’d intended to use it to teach her a lesson or if she’d genuinely surprised him.  It was never easy to tell.

Void waved the wand at her.  The spell broke.  She felt mud soaking into the back of her shirt as she found herself able to move again.  He’d won.  She scowled as she forced herself to sit upright, the aches and pains from earlier in the duel returning to haunt her.  He’d won and she’d lost and …

She found her voice.  “You cheat.”

Void laughed.  “Do you expect your next set of enemies to play fair.”

Emily shook her head in bitter resignation.  Her teachers had been at pains to point out that the world wasn’t fair – as if she hadn’t known it already – and that no one, absolutely no one, played fair when the stakes were high.  She’d never cared for duelling, at least in part because her tutors had never cared for it either.  Duellists followed the rules or they got kicked out of the circle.  A real fight had no rules.

“You did well.”  Void held out a hand to help her to her feet.  “You should have clobbered me while you had the chance, which is why you lost, but otherwise you did well.  Your trick with the embedded spell was risky, yet it worked.”

“Thank you,” Emily said.  Her legs felt wobbly.  She brushed mud and leaves off her shirt as she gathered her breath.  “What now?”

“Now?”  Void turned.  “We go back to the tower to eat.  And then … I suppose I can’t keep you here any longer.”

Emily frowned at his back.  “What do you mean?”

“As your master, it is my duty – among other things – to protect you from the world,” Void said, curtly.  He started to walk, his boots squelching in the mud.  “I wanted to be sure you were able to look after yourself before you left the tower.”

“I can,” Emily said.

“You have powerful enemies,” Void said.  “You need to watch your back.” 

Book Review: Son of Grendel (Battle for the Wastelands)

24 Sep

Book Review: Son of Grendel (Battle for the Wastelands)

When I reviewed Battle for the Wastelands, I commented that the problems facing Grendel – the toughest warlord on the block, the big bad of the novel – were very much akin to the problems facing Henry II, as he built a cluster of separate kingdoms and duchies into a coherent state.  On paper, Henry should have had everything he needed to ensure the long-term success of his empire; in practice, it didn’t last because of a series of civil wars.  The most dangerous of those, perhaps, was the struggle between Henry II and his son, Henry the Young King.  This was not an uncommon pattern amongst the nobility of that era.  Sons would grow into manhood, start chafing under their father’s continued rule and start making plans to take power by force.

Son of Grendel, set roughly a year before Battle for the Wastelands, is a novella that follows two people.  On one hand, we have Falki Grendelsson, eldest son of Grendel, whose father is determined that he learn how to fight and how to rule before Grendel himself dies, leaving his kingdom to his son.  On the other, we have Robert Dalton, leading a desperate resistance against the encroaching enemy … unaware that Falki has orders to earn his spurs by hunting the resistance down. 

The novella showcases the growth of a young man into a reasonably decent commanding officer, although one we would regard with a certain degree of horror.  Falki tries to strike a balance between being a good lord and a ruthless warlord and doesn’t find it easy, particularly as he has to learn to suppress his bloodlust or prompt more rebellions.  He chafes under the guidance of his father and his father’s trusted advisor, who has orders to help Falki through his development.  There’s a core of a good person there, including someone canny enough to understand the dangers of their environment, but also demons that will overshadow the remainder of the novel series. 

The book also pulls no punches when it details the effects of conquest on both sides.  The resistance fighters were driven off their old farms, which were then doled out to loyalists … who proved incompetent farmers who had to hire the old farmers just to work the lands.  There’s no attempt to hide the sheer brutality of the warlords, or the frustrations they face when coming to grips with an elusive enemy, or the effects of their anti-rebel campaigns that create more rebels.  At one point, Falki has to tell his men not to rape.  It’s hard to tell if anyone paid any attention.

Unlike Battle, the book also looks at racial dynamics of the post-disaster world.  Tribalism is rife, leading to all sorts of problems.  Falki is mixed-race, in our terms, which means that – despite being a legal son and heir – he has problems fitting in with both sides.  It bothers him, at least in part because his rivals – his half-brothers – probably don’t have that problem.  They might have a ready-made power base when they grow up and start competing with him for the throne. 

The book’s weakness, however, is that focusing on two major characters weakens it.  There isn’t anything like enough room to develop both Falki and Robert, let alone show their development as characters and their eventual final clash.  It might have worked better, as a story of a boy’s growth into manhood, if it focused on one.  However, as a short action-adventure story set in a steampunk world, it works very well.

Purchase from Amazon HERE.

Clean Fantasy Bundle

23 Sep

I am pleased to announce that Schooled in Magic is available, in multiple formats, as part of the Clean Fantasy Bundle, available for the next free weeks from Story Bundle.  If interested, please give the newsletter a look. 

Seeing Out The Year …

20 Sep

Hi, everyone

First, the promotion to mark the launch of The Lady Heiress is still live, so – if you haven’t already – hop along to pick up a free book <grin>.

Second, I’m hoping to finish The Halls of Montezuma this week and move straight to Little Witches (Schooled in Magic 21).  That gives me a rough schedule of:

Oct – Little Witches

Oct-Nov – The Cunning Man’s Tale (SIM Novella for Fantastic Schools III). 

Nov – Either Fighting for the Crown (Ark Royal) or The Prince’s Way (The Empire’s Corps.)  Let me know which one you want.

Dec – The Right Side of History.

My rough idea is to produce SIM 21-24 (and possibly a spin-off, an expansion of The Cunning Man) in a fairly close timeframe, allowing me to end the planned story arc (while leaving room for more stories set later on). 


OUT NOW – The Lady Heiress (The Zero Enigma VIII) – And FREE BOOK PROMOTION!

17 Sep

In support of The Lady Heiress (blurb and links below), I am giving away free copies of The Zero Blessing (blurb and links below) – the first book in The Zero Enigma series – on Amazon!  Copies can be downloaded between Saturday 19th September to Monday 21st September, US time.  All welcome – if you like, please share and review!

Thank You

The Lady Heiress

House Lamplighter was once amongst the greatest of the Great Houses of Shallot, but now it is a tumbling ruin.  The once-great mansion is decaying, the vast network of clients have broken ties long ago and the remaining family scrabbles over crumbs as the last remnants of their fortune are spent repaying their debts.  The family seems doomed, beyond all hope of salvation.

Lucy Lamplighter, returning to her home after her father’s death, intends to save her family by any means necessary.  Gambling everything she has left, she stakes it all on a desperate bid to rebuild House Lamplighter before the vultures begin to swoop.  But she’s playing with fire …

… And those who play with fire often get burnt.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from Amazon (USUKCANAUS) or Draft2Digital.

The Zero Blessing

Caitlyn Aguirre should have been a magician.  Her family certainly expected her to be a magician.  But by the time she reached her twelfth birthday, Caitlyn hadn’t even managed to cast a single spell!  In desperation, her parents send her – and her magical sisters – to Jude’s Sorcerous Academy, her last best chance to discover her powers.

But as she struggles to survive her classes without a single spell to her name, Caitlyn starts to uncover an ancient mystery that may prove the key to her true powers …

… If she lives long enough to find it.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from Amazon here – USUKAUSCAN

 And check out the rest of the series too!

OUT NOW – The Lady Heiress (The Zero Enigma VII)

14 Sep

House Lamplighter was once amongst the greatest of the Great Houses of Shallot, but now it is a tumbling ruin.  The once-great mansion is decaying, the vast network of clients have broken ties long ago and the remaining family scrabbles over crumbs as the last remnants of their fortune are spent repaying their debts.  The family seems doomed, beyond all hope of salvation.

Lucy Lamplighter, returning to her home after her father’s death, intends to save her family by any means necessary.  Gambling everything she has left, she stakes it all on a desperate bid to rebuild House Lamplighter before the vultures begin to swoop.  But she’s playing with fire …

… And those who play with fire often get burnt.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from Amazon (USUKCANAUS) or Draft2Digital. Comments and Reviews very welcome.

Coming Soon (Like Tomorrow, Hopefully)

13 Sep

Out Tomorrow, all being well …

Book Review: Battle for the Wastelands

12 Sep

Battle for the Wastelands

-Matthew W. Quinn

Battle for the Wastelands is a curious mixture of genres that holds together surprisingly well.  It is set in what is probably a post-nuclear war (or other disaster) America, with flavourings of brutal horror, political intrigue, steampunk, wild west-style action and  a desperate fight against a tyrant.  This has the weakness of being confusing, at least at first; I assumed the story was set on a colony world rather than a post-nuclear Earth. 

There are essentially two threads running through the story.  The first follows Andrew Sutter, a young man from a wild west town, who finds his town being taxed to death by the Flesh-Eating Legion.  Things spread out of control, leading to a doomed battle that destroys the town and leaves Andrew on the run.  For better or worse, he finds himself saved by the rebel forces and winds up fighting for them.  His thread leads to the first major victory against the Flesh-Eaters.

The second thread follows Grendel, the leader of a band of tribes that includes the Flesh-Eaters.  Grendel is a warlord with many other warlords under his thumb, as well as a brood of growing (and eager) children and a harem of ambitious women.  His lands are starting to fracture under the stresses of peace, leading him to plan a war against distant foes in hopes of keeping his realm together; he is unaware, even as he prepares his forces, that he is on the verge of facing a whole uprising.

On a personal level, the two main characters are fascinating.  Andrew is a forthright young man, brave and daring; learning, steadily, how to become a leader of men.  Grendel is a born manipulator, carefully managing his subordinates to keep them from banding together or falling out to the point they clash into civil war.  In many ways, Grendel is the more interesting character.  He’s a genuine empire-builder, planning to leave a united realm to his son … and steering his son’s development so the son is ready to inherit.  It’s easy to lose track of the fact Grendel is also a monster, commanding legions of rapist cannibals who are steadily squeezing the land dry. 

The world building is also fascinating.  Grendel and his troops deploy zeppelins as well as ‘old world’ tech, the latter forbidden to everyone else on pain of complete and total destruction.  It’s a fun little world, although Quinn never loses sight of the price.  There’s a very clear sense that the population is just hanging on, that the latest empire is going to vanish with its leader.  There’s also a sense that, as the kids grow older, the empire might plunge into civil war.  It reminds me of how Henry II built an empire, the greatest the post-Roman world had seen, only to lose it to disputes between his sons Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland. 

The book’s only real flaw is that it seems a little condensed.  It could have done with more development and more sense of a complete story, even one that didn’t resolve the overall story arc.  But that’s a very minor matter indeed.

Purchase from Amazon: US, UK, AUS, CAN

Snippet – The Halls of Montezuma (The Empire’s Corps 18)

2 Sep

Prologue I

From: The Dying Days: The Death of the Old Order and the Birth of the New.  Professor Leo Caesius.  Avalon.  206PE.

In hindsight, we should have expected more organised competition.

As we saw in previous volumes, the Terrain Marine Corps saw Earthfall coming and took steps to preserve themselves and – hopefully – rebuild the Empire they’d sworn to serve.   Small groups of marines were assigned to isolated worlds at the edge of explored space – including Avalon, a story explored in my earlier volumes – with a mandate to protect and preserve what remnants of civilisation they could.  Others were withdrawn from more populated – and inevitably doomed – worlds to await the final end.  And, when Earthfall finally came – somehow catching us all by surprise despite years of planning and preparations – the corps started liberating and recruiting the trained and experienced workers who would assist the marines to preserve civilisation.

All of this did not take place in a vacuum.  Earthfall led to utter chaos, to wave after wave of destruction sweeping across the Core Worlds.  Planetary governors seized power, only to be consumed by the chaos as uncounted billions were swept out of work and unemployment benefits came to a sudden end.  Imperial Navy officers declared themselves warlords and started building empires of their own, most falling prey to ambitious subordinates or supply shortages within a very short space of time.  Old grudges burst into flame, unleashing a cycle of attacks and revenge attacks that ended with entire planetary systems burning to ashes.  We do not know how many people died in the first few months.  It remains beyond calculation.

It was during a recruitment mission, as detailed in the prior volume, that the marines discovered they had a major rival.  The Onge Corporation, previously ruled by Grand Senator Stephen Onge (who died during Earthfall), had established a major base on an isolated world, Hameau.  This alone would be concerning, but further investigation revealed that Hameau was a corporate paradise, a seemingly-ordered world held in stasis by a combination of extreme surveillance and a cold-blooded willingness to remove and terminate troublemakers before they became a serious threat.  It was clear, to the marines, that Hameau represented the future … as seen by the Onge Family.  The upper classes would have considerable freedom, while the lower classes would be trapped within a social system that would keep them from either rising or rebelling.  If this wasn’t bad enough, the sociologists believed the long-term result would be utterly disastrous.  Hameau would either stagnate to the point it entered a steep decline – not unknown, amongst worlds that refused to permit a degree of social mobility – or eventually be destroyed by a brutal and uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) uprising. 

The marines therefore decided to intervene.  Landing troops on the surface – the planetary defences were strong enough to keep the starships from securing the high orbitals and demanding surrender – the marines carried out a brilliant campaign that ended with the capture of the capital city, the effective destruction of the planetary government and them being firmly in control.  Everything seemed to have gone their way until the enemy reinforcements arrived, too late to save the world … but quickly enough, perhaps, to destroy the marines.

There was no hope of negotiation.  The new arrivals rapidly landed troops themselves, trying to destroy the marines on the ground while skirmishing with starships throughout the solar system.  The marines, unable to retreat and unwilling to surrender, continued the fight, aided by elements of the local population that didn’t want a return to the days of corporate control (or had compromised themselves to the point they couldn’t hope for mercy from their former allies).  The fighting continued for weeks, with severe effects on the local population and infrastructure, until the marines lured the enemy forces into a trap and smashed them in a single decisive blow.

However, it was not the end of the war.  How could it be.  The Onge were now aware of the Marine Corps, just as the Corps was aware of the Onge.  With – still – little hope of a peaceful settlement, the two factions girded themselves to continue the war …

… All too aware that whoever won would determine the fate of the galaxy.

Prologue II

Onge (Inconnu), Shortly After The Invasion of Hameau

“Invasion fleets do not come out of nowhere,” Director Thaddeus Onge said.  He clasped his hands behind his back as he stared out of the window overlooking the gardens of paradise themselves.  “Where did this one come from?”

He turned, keeping his face carefully blank.  The original reports had been unbelievable.  Hameau had been safe.  Should have been safe.  The only force that could have challenged the planet’s defences was the Imperial Navy and the Navy was a fracturing ruin, torn apart by admirals and generals who’d declared themselves warlords and set out to snatch as much military power as they could.  Thaddeus had been confident, as the reports continued to flow in from what remained of the Core Worlds, that it was just a matter of time before the last embers of empire faded and died.  There’d be room for a whole new order when the dust settled, he’d been assured.  This time, the right people would be in charge.

His eyes drifted across the table.  The right people hadn’t been in charge for generations.  The Grand Senate had been dominated by a hereditary aristocracy that had lost track of what was important centuries ago.  They’d been too stupid and inbred to know the truth, that he who paid the piper called the tune.  They’d lashed out at giant corporations, all the while sucking up to them for donations.  Bribes, in truth, except they lacked the fundamental trait of the honest politician.  They didn’t stay bought.  Thaddeus’s family had worked its way into the elite for decades, only to discover the empire was already a rotting corpse.  They hadn’t needed long to start planning for the future.

Thaddeus looked at Vice Director Hayden James McManus, Director of Corporate Security.  “I ask again,” he said.  “Where did this invasion fleet come from?”

“The preliminary reports indicate the fleet belongs to the Marine Corps,” McManus said.  He sounded as if he didn’t believe his own words.  “The naval records we obtained suggest the fleet does not exist.”

“Officially, this planet does not exist,” Thaddeus said, waving a hand towards the window and the gardens beyond.  “Not as a corporate headquarters and haven for a new order, certainly.  The marines probably have as much experience as we do in keeping things off the books.”

He sighed, inwardly.  The corporation had spent decades building the planet into a citadel, all the while doing everything in their power to ensure the Grand Senate and the Imperial Navy never had the faintest idea it existed.  The looters would start levelling taxes the moment they worked out something was up, he’d been warned.  They couldn’t let the bastards know what was happening until it was too late to object.  They’d known Earthfall was coming …

… And yet it had taken them by surprise.

“And they invaded the planet,” Thaddeus said.  “Why?”

“We don’t know,” McManus said.  “But they must have had a sniff of our activities.”

“More than just a sniff, if they’re launching a full-scale planetary invasion,” Vice Director Maryanne Mayan said, sardonically.  “The cost alone must be immense.”

“Yes,” McManus agreed.  He looked at Thaddeus.  “If we predicted Earthfall, sir, they must have predicted it too.  They must have had their own plan to take advantage of the crisis.”

“It isn’t a crisis,” Thaddeus said.  “It’s the new reality.”

He let out a breath.  The corporation had laid it’s plans carefully, yet they’d been overtaken by the sheer violence of events.  Grand Senator Onge, Thaddeus’s father and mentor, had never made it off Earth.  Rumour insisted he’d tried to seize power, only to be killed by … by someone, depending who was telling the story.  The Solar System was a burned-out ruin, hundreds of worlds had fallen into civil war or outright anarchy … the scale of the disaster was beyond human imagination.  Thaddeus knew the plan.  He’d grown up knowing the plan.  He knew he had to collect useful people, bring them to his small cluster of worlds and wait.  He had a nasty feeling the plan had gone spectacularly wrong.

The Corps was always loyal to the Emperor before the Grand Senate, he thought.  The corporation had subverted thousands of army and navy officers, but not a single active-duty marine.  What the hell are they doing?

“Our plan was always to shape the new reality,” Maryanne pointed out.  “Doubtless, the marines have the same idea.”

Thaddeus couldn’t disagree.  There was no hope of putting the empire back together.  The networks of interstellar trade that had once bound thousands of stars into a single entity were smashed beyond repair.  The supply chain was a joke, money was worthless … outside a handful of worlds that had managed to maintain a certain independence from the empire itself.  The marines weren’t fools.  They wouldn’t have attacked and invaded an entire planet for nothing.  No, they had to have their own plans for the post-empire universe.  Thaddeus wondered, sourly, what those plans might be.  He couldn’t imagine them being compatible with his own.

“There’s no point in disputing the facts,” he said.  His father had delighted in pointing out that the Grand Senate had often disputed the facts, right up until the moment they could dispute them no longer.  “We have to take action.  Fast.  General?”

“I’m already putting together a response,” General Jim Gilbert said.  He was corporate royalty, but he’d served in a dozen engagements in the army before returning to the corporation and, eventually, taking control of its military.  “Many of our ships are on recruitment, but we have a small task force that should be able to drive the marines away from the planet and land troops.  If we get there in time, we should be able to reinforce the defences and crush the invaders.  If not, we can boot the invaders off the planet the hard way.”

“Doing immense damage to the planet’s industry and population,” Vice Director Vincent Adamson said.  The Director of Human Resources didn’t look pleased.  “They’re not going to thank us for turning the entire planet into a battleground.”

“With all due respect, sir, the entire planet is already a battleground,” Gilbert countered, bluntly.  He’d always been plain-spoken, something that had kept him out of the very highest levels.  “We have a choice between retaking the planet, whatever the cost, or abandoning it to the enemy.  And it won’t take them long to realise they’ve merely stumbled on the tip of the iceberg.”

Thaddeus nodded.  Hameau was a major investment, and one they’d worked hard to conceal, but it was hardly the only one.  The marines would find references to Onge in the planetary datafiles … if, of course, they hadn’t already deduced its existence.  And then … Thaddeus shook his head.  He couldn’t allow the marines, of all people, to determine the future of the human race.  Their idealism would lead, inevitably, to the wrong people taking power once again, dooming the post-empire universe to yet another series of crashes and disasters.  No, they had to be stopped.  They were committed.  They’d been committed from the moment the marines had first landed on Hameau.

And they don’t know what sort of hornet’s nest they’ve stumbled into, he told himself, firmly.  It was impossible to believe the marines knew the truth, if only because they would have invaded Onge rather than Hameau.  We have a chance to smash them before they recover from the shock.

He looked at Gilbert.  “Are we safe here?”

“It’s impossible to be sure, sir,” Gilbert said.  “But our defences are formidable.  We’ve been bringing newer and better weapons online since Earthfall, when we no longer needed to hide anything from prying eyes.  We’ve also sent out courier boats, recalling the remaining starships from their missions.  And, with your permission, I’ll call out the militia as well.”

“Which will be expensive,” Adamson said.

“And the militia may not be entirely trustworthy,” Maryanne added.

Thaddeus nodded, sourly.  One couldn’t give the common man any power, at least not until he proved himself … and all political power, at base, came out of the barrel of a gun.  Too many planets had been ruined by politicians who pandered to the masses, or cowered in front of mobs, for him to be sanguine about calling out the militia.   Even if they were trustworthy, even if they could be kept under control, they’d be taking experienced men away from their jobs.  The economy would take a tumble.

“We have no choice,” he said.  Hameau had been intended as a military incubator.  That plan, like so many others, had crashed and burnt in the wake of the invasion.  “We have to move, now, to regain control of events.”

“And quickly,” Gilbert said.  “The Corps trains its people to maintain a high operational tempo at all times.”

Adamson scowled.  “And in plain English …?”

“They move fast, trying to keep the enemy off balance long enough for them to come out ahead.”  Gilbert smiled, humourlessly.  “We’re the enemy, in case you were wondering.”

“They picked this fight,” Thaddeus said, before an argument could start.  “And we’re going to end it.”

“Yes, sir,” Gilbert said.  “The task force should be ready to depart within the week.”

Thaddeus nodded.  If they were lucky, it was not already too late …

Chapter One

What went so badly wrong, when it came to interstellar capitalism and the eventual – inevitable – slide into anarchy?

– Professor Leo Caesius.  The Rise and Fall of Interstellar Capitalism.

“Aren’t we done with this fucking planet?”

Captain Haydn Steel hid his amusement at the subvocalised comment as he inched his way through the industrial complex, making sure to keep himself out of sight.  The district had been battered by repeated bouts of fighting, from the thunder runs that had put the marines in charge of Haverford to the corprat invasion that had driven the marines back out again and the local insurgency that had torn the city apart until the fighting finally came to an end.  The latest government had, thankfully, managed to evacuate the refugees to a makeshift camp outside the city, in hopes of bringing the district back to life.  Haydn had to give them points for trying, if nothing else.  They were showing more initiative than the average planetary government.

“I thought we were really done,” Rifleman Jeff Culver said.  “What are we doing here?”

“Sniper hunting,” Command Sergeant Mark Mayberry growled.  “Or weren’t you paying attention at the briefing?”

Haydn ignored the byplay as he scanned the surrounding streets and buildings.  An enemy sniper, perhaps more than one, had opened fire on a pair of surveyors an hour ago, killing one and wounding the other.  The marines had been ordered to find the snipers and catch them – or kill them – before the area could be reopened.  Haydn feared, as the marines moved from shadow to shadow, that they’d have to kill the men.  The vast majority of the enemy soldiers had surrendered, when they’d been promised amnesty.  Those who remained active were either loyalists or war criminals.  Or simply convinced they wouldn’t be allowed to surrender.  It wasn’t uncommon for snipers to be killed out of hand. 

Sweat prickled on his forehead as he peered towards the nearest skyscraper.  It looked dangerously unsafe.  A missile or shell or something had smashed through the building without detonating, smashing a chunk of the concrete and probably damaging the frame.  The windows were shattered, pieces of glass littering the ground beneath his feet.  It would be the perfect place for a sniper to hide.  Haydn had seen snipers hit targets over five kilometres away.  The skyscraper would let the bastard shoot right across the river and into the heart of the city.  Haydn feared what would happen if the bastard started taking pot shots at random civilians …

Most of the poor bastards don’t want to come out of their houses, he thought.  And who can possibly blame them.

He keyed his throatmike, muttering an update to the distant controllers.  There weren’t many marines on the ground, not now.  The former insurgents were trying to maintain order – the new government needed to try to stamp its authority on the planet – but they were neither armed nor trained for crowd control.  It would be a long time, with the best will in the world, before the planet calmed down to the point everyone could relax.  Haydn wished he could call on the rest of the company, if not the entire regiment.  A few thousand marines would be more than enough to flood the entire area and flush out the sniper.

And our snipers are keeping a watch for him, he thought, as he held out his hand to count down the seconds.  They’ll shoot if they catch a glimpse of him.

He cursed under his breath as he slipped out of the shadows and ran across the road.  The marine snipers were good, terrifyingly good – they bragged they could castrate a man with a single shot – but they couldn’t fire unless they had positive identification of the target.  Merely carrying a gun wasn’t enough.  They had to wait until the sniper took aim before they put a bullet in his head.  Haydn understood the political requirements – the local government couldn’t afford to look weak, as if it was allowing the marines to shoot civilians at random – but he wished that whoever had come up with the policy was the one on the front lines.  It was a great deal easier to issue blanket ROE when one wasn’t at risk of being shot.

Glass crunched under his boots as he reached the edge of the lobby and crashed inside, rifle swinging from side to side as he searched for targets.  Nothing moved, not even a mouse.  The signs of looting were all around him.  Paintings had been yanked from walls, drawers pulled out of the receptionist’s desk and dumped on the floor … their contents stolen and probably sold for scraps.  There were no papers … Haydn guessed the office had been completely paperless.  Or the papers had been used for fires.  The locals had had a nice city once.  Two successive invasions and an ongoing insurgency had ruined it.

Probably taught them a few bad habits too, he thought, as the rest of the squad joined him.   How long will it be before they start settling disputes with violence?

He put the thought out of his mind as they finished sweeping the ground floor, then sealed the lifts and headed upstairs.  There was no power, not any longer.  They’d been few, if any, independent power generators on the planet, rendering the entire district largely powerless.  A faint smell hung in the air as they reached the first floor and peered inside.  The office looked looted, stripped of everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor.  Haydn felt a flicker of sympathy for the workers as he swept the chamber, noticing how they didn’t have so much as the illusion of privacy.  Or any real control over their lives.  They couldn’t so much as adjust their desks and chairs.  It struck him as cruel and unusual punishment.  He was in the military and even he knew that complete uniformity was a bad idea.  He’d hate to have to wear BDUs designed for someone smaller than himself.

I suppose it bred good little corprats, he told himself.  The office kitchenette was as bland and boring as the rest of the office.  The powerless freezer stank of rotting food.  He was amused to notice the looters had taken the cleaning supplies, although he knew it wasn’t really funny.  Someone could make a pretty good IED, with a little ingenuity.  And it sure as hell would have kept them in their place.

He tensed as he heard something above him.  A footstep?  A bird?  He hadn’t seen many birds in the city, but urban wildlife might well have started making a comeback now large swathes of the city had been effectively abandoned.  Haydn exchanged signals with Mayberry, then inched towards the stairs.  By his assessment, they were going to be moving up to the damaged part of the building.  The skyscraper didn’t feel as though it was going to collapse at any moment, but the shattered walls and damaged interior would make a good sniper nest.  If nothing else, it would be very hard to pick their way upwards without making some noise.

Haydn considered his options as they studied the stairwell, then started to inch up to the next floor.  The air blew colder, carrying with it the unmistakable scent of unwashed human and human waste.  It didn’t smell like a dead body … Haydn grimaced.  They hadn’t seen many dead bodies since they’d begun their sweep, although he wasn’t sure why.  Perhaps the corprats had collected the corpses and buried them in a mass grave.  It was the sort of thing they would have done, if they’d realised it had to be done.  His lips quirked.  Of course they’d do it.  They’d wanted to bring the city back to life as quickly as possible too.

The sound came again as they reached the top of the stairs.  Rubble lay everywhere, providing all the cover a sniper could possibly want.  Haydn could imagine a skilled sniper setting up a bunch of nests, perhaps even an optical sensor to allow him to track his targets without a spotter … or revealing himself to prying eyes.  There might even be an automated gun … the corps didn’t use them, unless they were in a clear war zone, but the corprats might have different ideas.  Who knew?  The sniper probably already considered himself doomed.

He unhooked a stun grenade from his belt, held it up so his team could see what he had in mind, then hurled it through the door and into the exposed zone.  Blue-white light flared.  The grenades weren’t as effective as the media made them look – Haydn wanted a few moments alone with the producers who made those wretched flicks – but anyone caught in the blast would have a few moments of stunned disorientation, at the very least.  He leapt forward, rifle in hand.  The section was deserted.  There was no sign of a sniper or …

Something moved, above him.  Haydn barely had a moment to notice before another grenade fell from the upper floor.  Haydn shouted a warning and dived for cover, an instant before the grenade exploded.  The floor shook violently.  Haydn breathed a sigh of relief they weren’t in a confined space, then scrambled forward and up the next flight of stairs.  The sniper had to be stopped before he got away.  He heard someone snap off a shot behind him, the bullet cracking through the ceiling.  He couldn’t tell who’d fired, or if they’d hit anything.  Another explosion shook the building a second later.  Haydn felt a flicker of fear.  It was hard to escape the sense the entire building might come tumbling down within seconds.

He crashed into a dark shape.  The sniper bit out a curse as they tumbled to the floor, fists pounding against Haydn’s armour.  Haydn headbutted him, feeling his nose break under the force of the impact.  The sniper had clearly been enhanced, probably illegally.  He almost snorted as the sniper kept hitting him, trying to beat him to death.  The corprats had broken hundreds of laws, just by setting up a colony that was technically off the books.  Why on Earth would they stop breaking laws now?

His fingers found the knife at his belt, drew it and stabbed upwards.  The sniper was wearing body armour too, but it wasn’t designed to cope with knives.  Haydn guessed the sniper’s masters had seen the advantages – the armour was very good at coping with bullets – and chosen to overlook the disadvantages.  The sniper let out a breath as the knife was thrust further into his chest, flailing uselessly as he gasped for breath.  Haydn pushed him over and stared down at him.  The sniper looked … no different from any of the other soldiers he’d fought and killed in the last few months.

“Lie still,” Haydn said, quietly.  If he could take the sniper alive … the spooks would have a field day.  The poor bugger was clearly enhanced to the max.  “We can do something …”

The sniper gurgled, then lay still.  Haydn cursed under his breath as he checked the man’s pulse, just in case he was faking it.  Enhanced or not, a knife to the gut had proven fatal … it looked as though Haydn had punctured the man’s heart.  A team of medics with modern equipment might have been able to save him, but the closest medics were on the other side of the river.  Haydn pulled out the knife, wiped it with a cloth and returned it to his belt, then started to search the body.  The sniper hadn’t been carrying much.  It looked as though he’d abandoned everything that might have identified him, something else that was technically against the law.  Haydn was mildly surprised the corprats had broken that law.  Terrorists and insurgents did it all the time, but the corprat soldiers were supposed to be better.  They, at least, had superiors who could hold them accountable … and be held accountable, in turn, for their subordinates.

A shot cracked past him.  Haydn darted to one side, seeing another sniper standing by the far door.  He cursed and unhooked another grenade from his belt, hurling it towards the enemy soldier.  The soldier dived back, retreating further into the skyscraper.  Haydn called in the contact as he picked himself up and chased the man.  He wanted – he needed – to take this one alive.

“Give up,” he shouted, as he crashed through an open door.  The wooden shape hung off its hinges.  “Give up and we’ll take you alive!”

He jumped into the next room, just in time to see the enemy soldier diving down a garbage chute.  Haydn was tempted to follow him, but it would be a good way to get stuck.  The rest of the corps would never let him forget it.  Instead, he yanked a third stun grenade from his belt and dropped it down the chute.  The sniper might be armoured, but in such close confines it probably didn’t matter.  He heard a curse, followed by a thump.  It dawned on him, a moment too late, that the sniper had probably lost his grip and plunged down.  Hopefully, he’d had enough sense to make sure there was something soft underneath.

“Sergeant, check the rest of the building,” he ordered, as he ran back to the stairs.  The one advantage of a city designed by soulless corprats was that the city was practically uniform.  Learn to navigate around one skyscraper and you’d know how to navigate around all of them.  “I’m going to snatch the prisoner.”

He ran down the stairs and into the basement.  It stunk, a grim reminder that no one had been collecting trash for months.  He could hear someone kicking in the semi-darkness.  The garbage chute opened into a giant metal drum on wheels … Haydn had a sudden horrified vision of someone getting stuck inside, then being driven to the furnace and incinerated with no one being any the wiser.  He had no idea how the sniper intended to get out.  Perhaps he could tip it over from the inside, with a little effort, or scramble up the outside of the chute.

“Marine Corps,” he shouted.  If the sniper wanted to take a final shot at him, now was the chance.  “Surrender and we’ll get you medical attention.  Resist and you’ll go to the grave.”

He listened, but heard nothing beyond a faint whimpering.  He sneaked up on the drum, grabbed hold and yanked it over.  A torrent of rubbish – and a twitching sniper – fell out and landed on the concrete floor.  The sniper had clearly taken the brunt of the blast and fallen hard, breaking at least one of his legs.  Haydn secured his hands with a plastic tie, then searched him roughly.  Getting the sniper to the medics was going to be a pain, but it could be done.  He had no doubt of it.

“Sir, the building is clear,” Mayberry reported.  “There’s no trace of anyone else.”

Haydn nodded, unsurprised.  If there were more enemy holdouts, they’d have scattered over the city.  They wouldn’t run the risk of being trapped, not as a group.  Haydn wouldn’t hesitate to call down fire from the orbiting starships to smash the enemy, rather than risk the lives of his men trying to root them out and take them alive.  The corprats would certainly assume the worst, if they were wise.  There was no way the city could be brought back to life before the corprats were exterminated.

“I’ll meet you in the lobby,” he said.  “Tell the medics I have a patient for them.”

He searched the enemy sniper quickly, finding nothing.  Again.  The enemy had dumped everything, even his weapons.  Haydn guessed there was a cache of supplies somewhere not too far away.  The corprats hadn’t had much time to prepare for an insurgency – another insurgency – but a skilled junior officer with enough guts to take the lead might just lay the groundwork before it was too late.  And his superiors would probably take a dim view of it.  Corprats disliked people showing even a hint of independent thought …

And maybe I’m completely wrong, he thought, as he carefully picked up the twitching body and carried it up to the lobby.  Moving a wounded man was dangerous, but the medics wouldn’t come any further into the building.  The corpsmen were just too valuable to be put at risk.  These two might just have set off on their own.

“Raptor inbound, sir,” Mayberry reported.  “The medics will be here in a moment.”

“And then we can sweep the rest of the area,” Haydn said.  He cursed under his breath.  They needed the entire regiment, not a single understrength company.  He knew the score as well as anyone – they were short of trained marines – but it was worrying.  They were running the risk of being caught out by superior forces and taking a pounding.  “Any word through the grapevine on reinforcements?”

“Nothing, sir,” Mayberry said.  “There’s a vague report we might be heading back up there.”

“You’d think they could make up their minds,” Culver said, as he joined them.  “Where are we going tomorrow?”

“There’s never a dull day in the corps,” Haydn said.  He grinned.  “The only easy day was yesterday.  Who dares wins.  And a bunch of other clichés.”

Culver made a face.  “And no hope of shore leave?”

Haydn shrugged.  “I dare say they’ll try and organise something,” he said.  He hadn’t heard anything, but marine officers understood their men needed leave every so often.  Everyone needed time to decompress, preferably in an environment where no one was trying to kill them.  “But I have no idea when or where.”

“There has to be something to do here,” Culver said.  “Hunting.  Fishing.  Shooting …”

“Yeah,” Haydn said.  He understood the younger man’s feelings.  He just knew they had other problems.  “But our duty comes first.”