Archive | March, 2021

Snippet – Void’s Tale (Schooled in Magic Spin-Off)

31 Mar

Hi, everyone

Void’s Tale is a Schooled in Magic novella, filling in some of the background to The Right Side of History and The Face of the Enemy.  It takes place roughly 90 years before Schooled In Magic.  I don’t think there are any major spoilers for either, but you might want to be careful anyway.

As always, comments, corrections and suchlike are warmly welcomed.

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Emily dreams.

She dreams she stands on a vast ocean, the dark waters shifting below her feet.  Strange lights and dark shapes move within the shadows, things she dares not look at too closely for fear they might look back.  High overhead, the sky is a nightmare of lights and things that burn at her mind, eyes belonging to creatures and intellects so far beyond hers that even taking note of their presence risks madness.  She is alone and yet the sense of vast powers moving and shifting around her pervades her mind.  Lightning-fast thoughts dance at the corner of her eyes, daring her to look at them.  The dream world is a very dangerous place for an unshielded mind. 

“I thought we should talk.”  Void is behind her and in front of her and beside her … somehow, this does not surprise her.  “Here, we cannot be overheard.”

Emily steps back, bracing herself.  Void looks … old, his body bent under the weight of some vast burden.  Grey hair shrouds his face, hiding everything but his eyes.  It strikes her, suddenly, that this is how Void sees himself.  He may look young, in the real world, but he is old.  Emily knows it is just a matter of time before his magic can no longer keep him alive.

Her voice sounds weird, even to her.  “What is this place?”

“This is the dreamtime,” Void tells her.  For a moment, they are master and student again.  She feels the warmth of his regard enveloping her.  She likes it and hates it and wishes that certain things were not so.  “This is the place where minds, all minds, come to rest.”

He speaks the truth, Emily realises dully.  The ocean below her feet is the vast dreaming mind of humanity itself.  The things above her are linked to humanity and yet so far beyond it that there are no points in common.  She remembers some of the things she’d seen outside the fabric of reality, when she was thrown back in time or linked to the entity that had invaded Heart’s Eye; she shivers at the grim reminder of just how fragile reality truly is.  The longer she stays in the dreamtime, the harder it will be to return.  Cold ice washes down her spine as the implications dawn on her.  She might never escape the dreamtime.

She faces him.  She turns to face him.  She doesn’t face him.  All are true in the dreamtime.

“You thought we should talk,” she says.  “Fine.  Talk.”

Void says nothing for a long moment.  She can see thoughts – shadowy thoughts – below the water, below his feet.  The surface ripples beneath him.  She thinks, suddenly, of just how much power he’s expanding to bring her into the dreamtime.  She knows he will not hurt her and yet … she fears.  She looks away, up towards a black sun high overhead.  It seems to peer back at her.  She dreads to imagine what it must be.

“You wanted to know why I was taking control,” Void says.  “And you didn’t like my answer.”

“No,” Emily says, warily.  She understands his point of view, she follows his reasoning, but she doesn’t agree it justifies everything he’s done.  “You have a point.  But your actions have made everything worse.”

“I didn’t account for you,” Void agrees.  A wash of affection follows his words.  “A person from a world beyond my ken … no, I couldn’t account for you.”

He takes a step back.  “I can’t say anything more to you,” he said.  “There are no words I can use.  But I can show you.  Here, in the dreamtime, you can see my memories.  You can walk beside me as I made the fateful choice, the decision to take power for myself and use it.  You can watch through my eyes and decide if you would have made the same decision – or not.”

Emily cocks an eyebrow.  “And afterwards?”

“And afterwards, you are free to go,” Void says.  “You have my word.”

“I see.”  Emily thinks, quickly.  She cannot stay in the dreamtime for long.  Her body will die, leaving her a ghost on the astral plane.  “I’ll take your word.”

Void smiles, and snaps his fingers.  The ocean seems to shift beneath her feet …

… And his memories reach up and overwhelm her.

Chapter One

There is a place near Whitehall, far too close to the Dark City for comfort, where the grass will never grow again.

I stood on the edge of the clearing and peered across the scene.  Two of my brothers had died there, ten years ago; a third had seen something so terrible the sight had permanently blinded him.  Even I hadn’t been unscarred, although I could never have put the feeling into words someone could understand.  It felt like a shadow of a scar on my soul.

The magical emanations burned at me.  The power we’d unleashed – for a few short seconds – had blighted the landscape permanently, bleeding into the surrounding foliage and warping it beyond recognition.  No one came here, not even the more intellectually-challenged students who thought they could handle anything.  The otherworldly magic in the air drove them away.  I was the only person I knew who could breach the clearing and I couldn’t stay for long.  The magic was just too dangerous.

I stared at the scorched ground, breathing a silent prayer for my brothers.  The four of us had grown up together, outcasts from our more distant relatives because of how our father had chosen to sire us.  We had studied magic together, we had gone to school together, we had done everything together.  We’d thought we could change the world, for the better.  And we’d been wrong.  We’d played with fire and two of us had died, vaporised so completely there’d been nothing left of them.  My brother and I hadn’t even been able to take their bodies home for proper funeral rites.

The magic shifted, a faint otherworldly sense pressing against my mental shields.  I wanted to run.  I wanted to walk into the clearing, into another world.  I wanted … I clenched my fists as the contradictory urge grew stronger, unwilling to let it get the better of me.  I’d spent ten years researching the spell we’d tried to use, the rite we’d found in a forgotten tome and tested carefully before we actually cast it.  I still didn’t know if we’d made a dreadful mistake or if the entire spell had been a booby trap from the start, designed to kill anyone stupid enough to try it.  It gnawed at me, in the darkest nights.  What had we done?  What had we really been trying to do?

My nails dug into my hands.  My memories were vague.  I’d performed spell after spell designed to drag up old memories and yet, everything that had happened between the moment we’d started the rite and recovering in the burnt-out clearing was a blur.  I remembered … thingsthings I couldn’t see properly.  I knew I should be glad – my brother had been blinded – and yet there was a part of me that just wanted to know.  What had really happened in the period I couldn’t remember?

The magic shifted again.  I thought I heard my brother’s voice on the wind, calling to me.  It wasn’t real and yet it felt real.  I turned and walked away.  Whatever we’d done, we’d blighted the land beyond repair.  I had been lucky to survive.  The sensation faded as I walked faster, unwilling to spend another second near the otherworldly magic.  There was nothing I could do about it.  The land was blackened and burnt and no longer the province of human minds.  It wasn’t safe for anyone, not now.

I dismissed the thought as I walked onwards, my magic bending the trees and foliage around me.  There were no paths here.  No students explored this far from the school, no hunters prayed on the local wildlife … I’d been told there were a handful of hermits living so far from the civilised world, but I’d never seen them.  The odds were good they were no longer entirely human.  Being so close to the wild magic of the Greenwood did unpleasant things to humans, at least those without the proper protections or agreements.  The Other Folk were always haunting the land.  I could feel unseen eyes watching me.

The sensation faded, the moment I reached the ancient road that led from Whitehall to Dragon’s Den.  There were agreements here, agreements forged so long ago that no one really knew who’d put their name to them, agreements that the students would remain untouched by the Other Folk.  I’d hunted through the archives, trying to determine who – or what – had written the agreements and bound themselves to them, but I’d drawn a complete blank.  There was just no way to know what had really happened, so long ago.  Perhaps it had been the first emperors.  They could speak for the human realm.

I felt the shadows of the past lifting as I kept walking, heading down to the town.  Dragon’s Den had survived the fall of the empire reasonably intact, given that it was ruled by Whitehall School rather than the local magnate – who now styled himself King of Alluvia – but everyone thought it was only a matter of time before all hell broke loose.  The town had attracted hundreds of refugees from magical communities over the last few decades, all of whom had been trying to find permanent homes that didn’t involve bending the knee to the newborn kingdoms or long-standing magical aristocracy.  The non-magicians in the town were having an even worse time of it.  There were just too many low-power magicians who took their frustrations and resentments out on their magic-less neighbours rather than trying to build up the power to strike back at their tormentors.  It was said – truly – that if you walked down the wrong street at the wrong time you’d go through at least five unwilling transformations before you reached the end.

A gaggle of students stood at the edge of the town.  They weren’t helping.  The Grandmaster was a firm believer in harsh discipline – I’d felt his wrath often enough – but he cared nothing for the mundanes in his town.  The students had no qualms about acting like entitled brats, intimidating the townsfolk and often humiliating them for shits and giggles.  Slip someone a love potion or a particularly nasty charm and watch the results, laughing all the time … bastards.  I didn’t bother to mask my magic as I walked past the students, watching in dark amusement as they scattered and fled.  No one would have faulted me for slapping them down, even without provocation.  The only safe streets in the town were the ones protected by powerful magicians.  It was unlikely things would improve unless the Grandmaster took a personal hand or he was replaced with someone a little more aware of his responsibilities.

The town was disturbingly quiet as I walked through the streets.  There were fewer students than I’d expected, even though it was a weekend.  Perhaps they were up to something or … I shrugged.  It wasn’t my problem.  I wasn’t a teacher.  I didn’t have the patience for it.  A young woman, barely out of her teens, made eyes at me.  I glanced at her, noted her dress – she was clearly from a magical bloodline – and ignored her.  My cousins had been raised to marry the strongest magicians they found, practically ordered to seduce them in hopes of breeding even stronger magicians.  I might be handsome – if I said so myself and of course I did – but it wouldn’t matter if I was uglier than a troll’s buttocks.  The girls would still be pushed into trying to marry me.

I felt nothing.  I’d never really been interested in anyone.

The cafe sat at the edge of the town’s centre, owned and run by a powerful magic.  I could feel his wards pulsing through the air, even from a distance.  A pair of students hung upside down outside, trying to keep their robes in place as they dangled from invisible strings.  They’d probably tried to harass the patrons on a dare, only to discover – too late – that the owner was too strong for them.  I didn’t bother to wonder what would happen to them.  The owner could do whatever he wanted, from putting them to work washing dishes to turning them permanently into toads.  The Grandmaster wouldn’t care enough to help them.

I stepped through the door, hung my cloak on a hook and walked to the table.  My brother – Hasdrubal – sat there, his eyes hidden behind a tattered blindfold.  He could still use magic to see – his first students had found that out the hard way – but ten years of research hadn’t been able to uncover a way to repair his eyesight.  Whatever had happened, it had proven impossible to fix.  And that should have been impossible too.

It was growing harder to tell we were brothers, I reflected, as I took the seat facing him.  I was tall, with pale skin, dark eyes and long dark hair that fell down to my shoulders; he was shorter, his eyes hidden, his body hunched as if he were carrying some great weight.  I supposed that being a teacher must have taken a toll, particularly with a Grandmaster who didn’t give much of a damn about his kids.  I had no illusions about the students.  They’d been obnoxious when I’d been a student and they were still obnoxious, even to the teachers.  My brother was the most powerful teacher in the school – he was head and shoulders ahead of many others – but that only made the thought of getting the better of him all the more attractive.  There wouldn’t be a student who hadn’t at least considered trying to sneak into his office.  Anyone who tried and succeeded, according to tradition, would be granted a free pass for the year.

Poetic justice, I thought, with a flicker of dark humour.  We tried to sneak into their offices when we were students too.

“Void.”  Hasdrubal looked irked.  He’d never liked the moniker I’d chosen.  “Thank you for coming.”

“Your message was very clear,” I said.  “You had someone you wanted me to meet?”

“Someone who wanted to meet you,” Hasdrubal said.  He flicked his finger in the air, sending a message.  “He has a job for you.”

“Oh, does he?”  I made a face.  I’d had a feeling it was yet another commission from the White Council.  Or, more accurately, a subcommittee of a committee within the council … a confusing mixture of sorcerers and aristocrats and newly-minted kings who could neatly evade the blame and deny everything if something went spectacularly wrong.  “And who might this person be?”

Hasdrubal nodded in the direction of the rear door, a moment before it opened.  I smirked inwardly – the door led to stairs, which led to the brothel – and then schooled my face into an expressionless mask as Lord Ashworth stepped into the cafe.  I wasn’t too surprised to see him – Lord Ashworth had always been too mealy-mouthed to do anything directly – but lurking there?  It was commonly believed he didn’t any balls.  His face twisted as he saw us, his lips starting to curve into a sneer before he hastily hid it.  He’d never liked my father.

“Lord Ashworth,” Hasdrubal said.  His voice was calm, so calm I knew he was irritated.  “Please.  Join us.”

Lord Ashworth sat, his face artfully blank.  I had no trouble reading his eyes.  He was both confident and afraid, a reflection of his power and his awareness of my far greater power.  I had no family – we’d been disowned after my father died – while he had a small army of magicians at his beck and call, but we both knew I could kill him.  He was far too close to me for his peace of mind.  I might not make it out alive – House Ashworth would spare no expense to hunt me down – but he’d be dead.

“Void,” Lord Ashworth said.  He summoned the waitress and ordered the most expensive drinks on the menu.  “We have a problem only you can solve.”

I resisted the urge to point out I wasn’t amused by his petty flattery.  I had no false modesty – I knew I was good – but I was hardly unique.  He didn’t want my problem-solving skills.  He wanted a deniable asset, someone who could be disavowed if necessary.  He wanted … he wanted something he’d be unwilling to come out and say.  I kept my face carefully blank, despite my disgust.  Lord Ashworth was one of the most powerful men in the world.  He didn’t have to jump around the issue for hours before finally getting to the point.

The waitress returned, with three glasses of something rare and expensive.  I didn’t touch it.  I didn’t want to accept any obligation to Lord Ashworth, no matter how small.  If he noticed – if he cared – he gave no sign.  Instead, he sipped his own glass with casual abandon.  I noticed a flicker of disgust cross my brother’s face.  Drunken magicians were dangerous.  Hasdrubal had managed to convince the staff to ban alcohol from the school, but the students could still drink in town.  And when they got drunk …

“We have a problem,” Lord Ashworth said.  “Have you ever been to the Principality of Yolanda?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never actually visited.”

Lord Ashworth made a face.  “The principality is really nothing more than a town, some countryside and a handful of mountain passes,” he said.  “It would have been swallowed by a bigger kingdom by now, except for a combination of geography and political reality.  Her neighbours – she has three – want her, but they don’t want their rivals getting their hands on her either.  King Jonathon – he styles himself the just – has managed to play his neighbours against one another, through a mixture of threats and promises.  It doesn’t hurt that Yolanda has a sizable magical community.  King Jonathon himself may be a mage.”

I nodded, impatiently.

“We have been quietly monitoring the situation,” Lord Ashworth said.  “The White Council has been using it as an example of what the council can do, meditating disputes between kingdoms and arranging matters so everyone is reasonably happy.  Keeping Yolanda independent, and the trade routes open, is in everyone’s interests.”

“Of course,” I agreed.  “And what does this have to do with me?”

“A handful of magicians, including a top-rank alchemist, have gone missing,” Lord Ashworth said.  “They were in Yolanda, all long-term residents.  And we don’t know what’s happened to them.”

“An alchemist,” I repeated.  “Was he one of the ones with … interesting … ideas?”

She,” Lord Ashworth corrected.  “And no, Layla wasn’t known for flights of fancy.  There was certainly no suggestion she should take her experiments somewhere unpopulated, where she would be the only person at risk if something went badly wrong.  She ran a simple apothecary and generally kept herself to herself.  She had no partner, no children, no apprentice.  The only reason we know she’s missing is because her former master didn’t get a letter from her.”

I had no patience for his bullshit.  “You mean, she was there to keep an eye on things for you,” I said.  “And you lost contact with her.”

Lord Ashworth didn’t bother to deny it.  I wasn’t too surprised.  House Ashworth had clients everywhere, as did the rest of the Great Houses.  I’d long suspected they were used as a covert intelligence network, particularly the ones with no apparent links to the magical aristocracy.  For all I knew, Layla might even be related – indirectly – to Lord Ashworth himself.  She would hardly be the first member of magical aristocracy to set off on her own path, trying to forge a life for herself.  And as long as she stayed in touch and made herself useful, her family wouldn’t care.

“We made indirect inquiries,” Lord Ashworth said.  “We were told she closed her shop and left.  That would be so out of character for her that we know it’s not true.  Further inquires revealed a number of other magicians going missing.  It isn’t easy to keep track of magicians, and it isn’t uncommon for the more independent-minded to simply vanish after graduation, but somewhere between five and twelve magicians have gone missing.”

“In Yolanda,” I said.

“Yes,” Lord Ashworth confirmed.  “They were all residents of the city.”

“And not the sort of people who would simply vanish one day,” I mused.  “What have you done about it?”

“We cannot send an investigation team into the town,” Lord Ashworth said.  “The politics are very delicate right now.  If the monarch refuses to allow it, we cannot do it.  We can’t even ask without risking a political crisis.”

“That is true.”  Hasdrubal looked as disgusted as I felt.  “There is nothing, legally, that can be done.”

“Really.”  I met Lord Ashworth’s eyes.  He looked away.  “What do you want me to do?”

“Go to the town, find out what’s happening and report back to us,” Lord Ashworth said, bluntly.  “We’ll decide what to do upon your return.”

“If that is what you want,” I said, with heavy sarcasm, “it will be my pleasure to serve.”

“Good,” Lord Ashworth said.  He slapped a pair of gold coins on the table, then stood.  “You know where to find me when you have something to report.”

He strode away.  I stuck my tongue out at his retreating back.  It was childish, but … I’d put up with his sneers since I’d been a child.  Even now, when he needed me, he sneered.  I was going to make him pay for it, one day.

“There are odder rumours coming out of the region,” Hasdrubal said.  “One of them involves a necromancer.”

I doubted it.  The established necromancers were quite some distance to the south.  There might be a newborn necromancer in Yolanda – the rite was terrifyingly easy – but there was no way he could escape notice.  Not for long.  The tiny kingdom would be knee-deep in bodies by now.  The White Council would have all the excuse it needed to intervene.  None of the surrounding kingdoms would argue.

“I’ll sneak into the town, see what I can dig up,” I said.  “But it isn’t a necromancer.”

“No,” Hasdrubal agreed.  “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t something bad.”

I couldn’t disagree.  Magic could make monsters out of magicians.  I knew that far too well.

Stuck in Magic CH14

30 Mar

Also on my new forum here –

Comments very welcome.

Chapter Fourteen

I felt as though I was in hell.

My head hurt, pounding like a drum.  My throat was dry.  My body felt as if I’d gone several rounds with an artilleryman and lost decisively.  My … my memory was hazy, but I had the vague recollection someone had been trying to kill me.  Panic shot through me as my memories snapped back into place.  I’d tried to free the runaway serfs, only to be captured myself, threatened with a fate worse than death and then … Captain Alder had knocked me out.  Where the hell was I now?

I forced myself to remain still and keep my eyes closed as I reached out with my senses.  I was lying on a bed, I thought.  It didn’t feel as though I was tied or chained.  I could hear someone – one person – breathing lightly.  It sounded feminine, although I couldn’t tell for sure.  Jasmine?  I didn’t know any other women, not on this side of the dimensional divide, certainly none who would come to my aid.  Who was she?  I hesitated, then opened my eyes wide.  The light was bright enough to make me regret it.

“Drink this,” a female voice said.  “It’ll help.”

I forced myself to sit upright, despite the throbbing headache.  The room was small, with nothing beyond a simple bed and a chair, but I had the sense of wealth and power.  A young woman was standing beside the bed, holding out a glass … a real glass.  She looked to be around twenty, with reddish skin, short dark hair and a pair of gold spectacles.  She wore a simple white robe that concealed everything below the neckline, held firmly in place by a green band wrapped around her wrist.  I would have liked her if we’d met under other circumstances. As it was …

She pushed the glass into my hand.  I sniffed it warily, then shrugged and drank.  If they’d wanted to poison me, they hardly needed to resort to subterfuge.  They could have bashed my head in or slit my throat while I was unconscious.  It tasted foul, as if I’d drunk oil mixed with rotten fruit, but the pain faded away.  The woman smiled at me, then recovered the glass.  My eyes narrowed as I looked at it … really looked at it.  Glass was expensive, very expensive.  Whoever had brought me here was staggeringly wealthy by local standards.

“You probably need to drink some water too,” the woman said, pushing another glass into my hands.  “And then you can meet the master.”

My eyes narrowed, just for a second.  If she noticed, she gave no sign.  I drank the water – it tasted pure, not the brackish slop I’d endured in the guardhouse – and stood, taking the opportunity to check for damage.  There was a nasty bump on the back of my head, which felt uncomfortable when I pressed my fingers against it, but I was otherwise unhurt.  My body felt surprisingly energetic, despite the beating I’d taken.  I wondered, as I flexed my muscles, just what had been in that potion.  The recipes I’d seen had sounded like something out of a jokey child’s cookbook.

The woman watched me with an amused expression.  “Are you done?”

I nodded, glancing down at myself.  Someone had removed my guard’s uniform and replaced it with a simple tunic.  My gun and supplies rested on a table, along with a belt.  I donned it quickly, breathing a sigh of relief it hadn’t been stolen.  I guessed the rest of the stuff I’d brought – and left at the guardhouse, along with my savings – had been taken by now.  The guardsmen might have been honest enough not to steal from each other, but I was probably no longer a guardsman.  I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was now.  What had happened to me, when I’d been unconscious?

“This way, please,” the woman said.

I shrugged and followed her through a  maze of white corridors.  The interior was odd, a strange combination of Roman and Middle Eastern architecture that seemed designed to allow air to flow freely through the house – the mansion – and yet, somehow, keep the air cool.  Magic?  It was possible.  I saw a handful of men and women along the way, all – judging by their outfits – servants.  I frowned, inwardly.  Where the hell was I?  One of the mansions I’d been told never to even look at?  Or … or what?  The only good sign, as far as I could tell, was that I wasn’t in chains.  And yet, even that was meaningless.  If my captor was a magician, he could stop me in my tracks with a wave of my hand.

We stopped outside a brown door.  The woman tapped on it once, then pushed it open and motioned for me to step into the room.  It looked like an office, bigger than anything I’d ever owned.  The desk and chairs looked small, as if they were dollhouse furniture in a room for grown adults; the walls were bare, save for one covered in maps of the city and the surrounding countryside.  The room was brightly lit by wide-open windows, brilliant sunlight streaming into the chamber.  I blinked, half-covering my eyes.  It was just too bright.

“Greetings.”  A young man stood behind the desk.  “Thank you for coming.”

I bit down a sarcastic response – I was fairly sure I hadn’t had a choice – and studied him thoughtfully.  He looked to be in his mid-twenties, with long dark hair and light brown skin, but there was something unfinished about his features.  I had the mental impression of a greenie lieutenant, fresh out of West Point, utterly unaware of the real world.  I’d met my fair share of them, back in the service.  Some of them matured into decent commanding officers.  Some of them just got good men killed because they mistook education for experience.  I allowed my eyes to wander over his clothes.  They were finely cut, the very epitome of local high fashion.  I was looking at someone so wealthy and powerful that he didn’t need to show off.  Everyone who mattered would already know who he was.

Or at least his family is wealthy and powerful, I reminded myself  I’d heard of rejuvenation spells, but the young man’s attitude didn’t suggest an old mind in a young body.  It remains to be seen what he’ll do when – if – he inherits.

“I’m Rupert Drache,” he said.  “I think you may have heard of me.”

I nodded.  “Yes,” I said.  “You were the one who bribed Captain Alder not to punish me.”

“You saved my sister from a fate worse than death,” Rupert said.  “You didn’t deserve to be punished for it.”

“No,” I agreed.  The local sexual mores struck me as bizarre at best, harmful at worst, but I knew there was no point in trying to change them.  If Rupert’s sister had reported her rape, she would have been disgraced; if she’d kept it to herself, she wouldn’t have been a virgin on her wedding night.  The bridegroom would have been very disappointed.  He might even have used it as an excuse to annual the wedding.  “What happened?  I mean, after I was knocked out?”

Rupert gestured to a chair, motioning for me to sit.  “Most guards would have walked away, rather than risk getting involved.  You didn’t.  You could say I took an interest in you.  I asked your comrades to tell me about you …”

Bribed them to talk, I translated, silently.

“… And about what little they knew of your past.  I was going to approach you in a week or two anyway, when I heard the news.  Captain Alder was going to sell you.  I … convinced … him to let me take you, and all of your possessions, instead.”

I tried not to scowl.  “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing.”  Rupert met my eyes.  “You paid in advance, when you saved my sister.  But” – he took a breath – “I do have a job offer for you.”

“It seems I have nowhere else to go,” I said, ruefully.  Rupert might let me collect my possessions and walk out without a backward glance, but where could I go?  Staying in the city would be a bad idea, yet … how could I travel?  Sign up with a merchant’s convoy as a bodyguard?  “What do you want from me?”

Rupert sat, resting his hands on the desk.  “I understand you have a … military … background?”

“You could say that,” I said, carefully.  “I was a soldier, for a time.”

Rupert’s hands twisted.  He was clearly nervous.  “By tradition, each of the high families has to take a turn commanding the Garrison,” he said.  “The position is normally determined by lot, because the commander cannot return to the city – he must remain in the Garrison – without special permission.  Lord Galley – Harbin’s father – has managed to convince the remainder of the high families that I would make a great commanding officer.”

I frowned.  “And that’s a bad thing?”

“Yes,” Rupert said.  “For me, at least.”

I understood.  The city’s defence forces were pitiful.  Command of the garrison was roughly akin to reassignment to Antarctica, somewhere so far out of the way that it served a convenient dumping ground for officers the military wanted to punish without making it blatantly obvious.  Rupert wouldn’t be allowed to return to the city until his term expired, unless the city came under attack.  Harbin’s father had managed to ensure Rupert would be trapped outside the city, unable to influence events, for at least five years.  Bastard.  This wouldn’t have happened if he’d taught his son not to rape.

“For two years, I will be expected to train the next cadre of soldiers,” Rupert continued, mournfully.  “And I don’t have the slightest idea where to begin.”

“And you want me to do it,” I said.  I wasn’t adverse to the idea.  Command of the troops – real command, if not formal command – might be useful.  “Is that what you have in mind?”

“Yes.”  Rupert didn’t try to hide his desperation.  “We might be going to war soon too.”

I blinked.  “How so?”

Rupert waved a hand at the map.  “Every year, we get thousands of runaway serfs from Warlord Aldred’s estates.  He isn’t happy, as you may have heard.  He puts a lot of pressure on the city fathers – the high families – to return them, rather than let them blend into the city’s population and vanish.  Your actions yesterday … well, let’s just say they made it harder to give him what he wants.  We think it’s just a matter of time before he starts cutting our trade routes, banning imports to the city or simply marching on the walls to give us a good thrashing. “

He grimaced.  “And when that happens, the city fathers normally write off the defenders and bend the knee to the warlord.”

I winced.  “Lord Galley expects you to stand and die in defence of the city.”


“Ouch.”  I could see the logic.  Rupert would either be killed in hopeless battle or turn and flee the battlefield.  Either way, his political career would be at an end.  It was cold, calculating and completely ruthless.  “Why don’t you build a bigger army and give the warlord a thrashing instead?”

Rupert looked at me as if I’d started speaking in tongues.  “The warlords are too strong to resist,” he said.  “All we can do is make a stand, get hammered and then accept whatever terms they offer.”

I studied the map thoughtfully.  I wasn’t sure that was true.  The warlords might be hell on wheels – more likely, hell on horseback – in the countryside, but taking an entire city was a very difficult task.  Fallujah had been an absolute nightmare and we’d had trained soldiers and technology Rupert and Warlord Aldred couldn’t even begin to imagine.  The simple fact Warlord Aldred hadn’t brought the city under his direct control argued that he couldn’t.  He had to fear the costs of trying to storm the walls.  A warlord who lost most of his troops was no longer a warlord.  I’d seen that play out in Afghanistan.

And they have muskets and other new firearms, I mused.  I doubted the warlords had embraced the new weapons.  God might have made men, as the saying went, but Sam Colt made them equal.  A warlord wouldn’t want weapons that would make a serf the equal of a trained knight.  I could put a gun in a child’s hand and he could blow away a soldier with years of training.  The balance of power might not be as unfavourable as he thinks.

“If you give in to bullies, I said, you’ll just guarantee more bullying,” I said.  Giving Hitler what he’d demanded had just led to more demands.  “You need to prepare for a real fight.”

Rupert raised his eyebrows.  “And when they starve the city?  Or try to take the walls?”

“You can keep him back, if you have a proper army,” I said.  I had several ideas along those lines, but they’d have to wait until I made a name for myself.  “How many men do you have under your command?”

“The garrison is supposed to have six hundred,” Rupert said.  “Two hundred are meant to be under my direct command, once I train them.  I won’t assume command of the entire garrison until my processor reaches the end of his term.”

I blinked.  The city had a population of at least four hundred thousand, probably more.  Thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of people lived off the books, hidden away in the grey and black economy that the city fathers pretended didn’t exist.  The city should have been able to field a much larger army without too many problems.  It wasn’t as if it didn’t have the supplies to equip them, the craftsmen to make weapons … I gritted my teeth as I realised how difficult it was likely to be.  The city fathers were unlikely to be able to put together a bigger army.  The corruption that pervaded the city would make it impossible.

And they don’t want to encourage the commoners to think of themselves as powerful, I reflected, sourly.  That would end with the commoners destroying the high families.

Rupert looked downcast.  I didn’t blame him.  He’d been sent out to die and there was nothing he could do about it.  Whatever he did, he was fucked.  Unless …

“Two hundred men,” I mused.  “We can do something with that, if you supply them and let me train them.  How much money are you willing to spend?”

“I have an allowance,” Rupert said.  His lips twisted.  “I’ve been promised money from the city fathers, but …”

He shrugged, expressively.  I understood.  The money would pass through so many hands – dwindling all the while – that, by the time it reached him, it would be much reduced.  It wouldn’t be cheap to supply even a small army with everything from plate armour to spears, maces,  flails and everything else it might need.  Even if I concentrated on muskets and other primitive gunpowder weapons instead, it was going to be tricky.  And yet, if I could get enough muskets – perhaps even cannons – I could make a real difference.

“I don’t know what to do,” Rupert said.  “I’m going to die.”

“No, you’re not,” I said.  “We are not going to give Lord Galley the satisfaction of sending you to your death.  You’ve already hired someone who knows how to turn a handful of civilians into fighting men.  Give me the supplies and let me do my job and I’ll produce something you can be proud of.  Who knows?  If we look tough, we might even deter the warlords from attacking.”

Rupert looked unconvinced.  “Does that work?”

“Bullies never look for a fair fight,” I told him.  “They might lose.  No, they pick on people too weak to defend themselves.  If that person looks tough, ready to fight, ready to hurt the bully even if they’ll go down themselves, the bully will look for other targets.  Look tough and ready to fight and you won’t have to fight.”

It might not have been convincing, if Rupert hadn’t been desperate.  His enemies had done their work well.  He needed to win … he needed to listen to me.  I doubted there was anyone else who could help him … who would.  The city’s defenders couldn’t take care of themselves and the mercenaries simply couldn’t be trusted.  I owed him.  It wasn’t much, but it was all he had.

“Very well,” Rupert said.  “What do you need?”

“For starters, some idea of what you’re prepared to spend, and what we can obtain on short notice,” I said.  “And then I need a detailed breakdown of your order of battle and what weapons and supplies are available to the garrison.”

“You can work with my secretary,” Rupert said.  He looked somewhat confused by my choice of words.  “He’ll help you with whatever you need.”

At least he has the sense to get out the way, I thought.  I’d have to educate him in war, but that could be done later.  Once I proved I knew what I was talking about, he’d listen to my quiet lectures.  That’s better than most green LTs manage.

Rupert stood.  “There’s one other thing I have to tell you,” he said.  “You know you had a protective charm?”

“Yeah,” I said, carefully.  I hadn’t known, not until Thunder had tried to magic me.  “What about it?”

“My family’s magician took a look while you were sleeping,” Rupert said.  “She said it was a very strange charm, very powerful.  But it was designed to only work once.”

He met my eyes.  “The charm is gone.   Don’t pick a fight with another sorcerer.”

I swallowed.  “Yes, sir.”

OUT NOW – Cast Adrift (Cast Adrift I)

28 Mar

Five hundred years ago, the human race discovered it was not alone in the universe when Earth was invaded and forcibly integrated by the Alphan Empire.  Over the years, humans have grown used to their position within the empire, serving as soldiers and spacers for alien masters as well as building a place in the universe for themselves.  But now, in the aftermath of a violent interstellar war that shattered the power of the Alphans, humanity has rediscovered its pride.  Humanity wants to be free.

Facing a war they will lose even if they win, the Alphans give humanity its independence once again.  Humanity stands alone in a hostile universe, facing alien threats that regard humans as nothing more than servants – or weaklings, easy meat for armed conquest.  And if the human race cannot learn to stand on its own two feet, without its masters, it will rapidly discover that it has traded one set of masters for another …

… And if they lose the coming war, all hope of independence will die with it.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from the following links: Amazon USUKCAAUSUniversal and Draft2Digital (more links being added all the time).  And read the Afterword here.

Comments, shares, reviews, etc, warmly welcomed 

Also, if you’re on the mailing list, please check out the HOW TO FOLLOW post here.

How To Follow

27 Mar

(Pretty Much What It Says On The Tin)

How To Follow

Basic Mailing List –

Nothing, but announcements of new books.

Newsletter –

New books releases, new audio releases, maybe a handful of other things of interest.

Blog –

Everything from new books to reviews, commentary on things that interest me, etc.

Facebook Fan Page –

New books releases, new audio releases, maybe a handful of other things of interest.

Website –

New books releases, new audio releases, free samples (plus some older books free to anyone who wants a quick read)

Forums –

Book discussions – new, but I hope to expand.

Amazon Author Page –

My books on Amazon.

Books2Read –

Notifications of new books (normally on Amazon too, but not included in B2R notifications.

Twitter – @chrisgnuttall

New books releases, new audio releases – definitely nothing beyond (no politics or culture war stuff).

Quick Updates

25 Mar

Hi, everyone

First, a very big THANK YOU to everyone who wished me a happy birthday on Tuesday.  It was marginally better than the previous birthday, as Boris Johnson gave me the lockdown on my 38th birthday, but I didn’t do much.  My wife and I are planning all sorts of things, for when Britain calms down a little.  Right now, too much is up in the air for us to make any real long-term plans.  The schools have reopened for my kids, which is a great relief after several months with nowhere to take them, but we don’t know much else about what we’ll be able to do in the coming holidays.

On the plus side, I’ve just completed the draft for Drake’s Drum (Ark) and done the first set of edits for The Face of the Enemy (SIM 23) as well as another chapter of Stuck in Magic.  The next week is going to be rougher, I think, as we have a boatload of bureaucratic hassle to handle, but hopefully I can return to my normal schedule past that.

My rough plan is to write a short SIM novella – Void’s Tale – next, which will bridge the gap between The Face of the Enemy and Child of Destiny.  Past that, The Zero Secret – which will see a return to (largely) Cat’s POV (I say largely because I intend to write about three-four sections from Rebecca’s POV) followed by Child of Destiny.

On a different note, I’ve been working on expanding my promotion and improving the forums.  The main problem with doing this is a combination of my unwillingness to spam everyone – not everyone wants to hear everything from me – and sheer lack of time.  I dislike working my way through various options and suchlike, so … anyway, Leo Champion gave me a hand and we’ve set up a very basic newsletter and an improved forum.  My general idea, which I will address in a later post, is to keep the old mailing list solely for book announcements and use the newsletter for other things (audio releases, interesting stuff, etc).  Please give it a try and see how it goes.  I’ll put together a short story/novella as a free gift at some point.

Anyway, back to work for me.


Stuck in Magic CH13

25 Mar


Chapter Thirteen

My gut churned all the way back to the guardhouse.

I was complicit.  There was no getting around it.  I’d played a major role in trapping, catching and shackling the runaways we were marching to their doom.  The citizens on the streets booed and jeered, shouting mockery and insults at the runaways … as if they were any better than the prisoners.  I cursed myself, again and again, for joining the guard.  I could have done something else, if I’d wanted to earn money.  It wouldn’t have been that hard to sign on as a bodyguard or … or something, something other than a guard.  I felt dirty, as if I’d done something irredeemably wrong.  And – in truth – I had.

The guards laughed and joked, chatting about how they planned to spend their share of the reward.  I hated them, hated them more than I could say.  This wasn’t policing.  This was slavery.  The prisoners had fled oppressive masters and come to the city in hopes of a better life and now they were going to be sent back, because the city didn’t care enough to even try to protect them.  And I was complicit.  There was no way I could tell myself that I had only been following orders, no way I could tell myself that I’d at least tried to uphold my standards of justice.  I hadn’t been the one who’d let the rapist go.  I couldn’t blame myself for that.  But this?

I could have hit the deck and claimed I was knocked down, I thought.  It would have been easy to let someone hit me.  I knew how to take a punch.  It would have been a gamble – the runaway might have stabbed me while I was defenceless, or merely kicked me while I was down – but I owed it to myself to take some risks.  And instead I did nothing.

“You want to join us for drinks tonight?”  Fallows slapped my back, hard enough to sting.  “You can even pick a girl or a boy and take them upstairs …”

I didn’t want to do anything of the sort – I really didn’t want to spend any time with them – but I knew I should.  I’d had an idea.  I could free the runaways myself.  I could tell them to flee into the warrens before they were sent back to their former masters.  And I’d need an alibi.  I’d need people who could bear witness I’d been in a bar, surrounded by my fellow guardsmen, rather than alone in the barracks.

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be glad too.”

Fallows winked at me as we reached the guardhouse, spoke briefly to the officer on duty and headed out for the night.  A dozen other guards joined us, chattering loudly as we made our way down the streets and into the nearest bar.  I tried to conceal my disgust.  It was crammed with guardsmen, spending their ill-gotten gains.  There was singing and dancing and girls in skimpy outfits, eying the half-drunken men to see who’d give them the most for doing the least.  I felt my stomach churn as a half-naked man stumbled past me and out onto the streets, where he collapsed in a heap.  Fallows laughed, then led the way to the bar.  I said nothing as he ordered several pints.  The drunker he was, the better.

“It’s been a good day,” Fallows said.  “The reward money will keep us going for years.”

I kept my face impassive as I pretended to drink, spilling a little of the booze down my shirt to suggest I was already halfway to being drunk.  Fallows didn’t notice.  He was waving at the girls for more alcohol, then flirting with them in a manner that suggested he was already drunk as a skunk.  I slipped him my tankard, swapping it for his empty one.  He was so drunk he didn’t notice.  Whatever they put in the beer, I didn’t want any of it in me.

“I’ll find a girl,” I said, with a shameless wink.  “See you back at the barracks.”

“Cheap rooms upstairs,” Fallows said.  “I …”

His head lowered, then hit the wooden table with an audible thump.  I stood – he wouldn’t be in any danger, not surrounded by his fellows – and weaved my way through the crowd, heading for the rear door.  I’d marked it the first time I’d visited.  It was right next to the stairs leading up to the brothel.  Anyone who saw me would assume – I hoped – that I was going upstairs, rather than sneaking out into the darkened streets.  I pulled my hood up as I stepped outside, allowing the darkness to envelope me.  I was hardly the only person who fitted my description in the city, but there was no point in taking chances.  If someone saw me and gave a proper description, it was just possible my superiors would start asking questions.  They might been deeply corrupt, with a willingness to do anything for gold, but they weren’t idiots.

Just assholes, I reflected.  I wrapped my cloak around myself to conceal the uniform as I hurried on.  People who could do better if they gave a damn.

I felt my heart twist as I made my way down to the slave pen.  It was little more than a walled warehouse, not that different from the building we’d raided earlier in the day.  I’d checked it out weeks ago, fearing that I might end up in it one day.  It wouldn’t be that hard to escape, even without my tools.  I guessed the runaways were shackled, bound hand and foot.  They knew what awaited them, when they were forced-marched home.  They’d be desperate enough to attack armed men with their bare hands. 

The warehouse rose up in front of me, illuminated by a single burning lantern over the gatehouse.   The wall wasn’t that high, barely twice my height; the interior had been designed to make it difficult to climb.  I scrambled up to the top, then dropped down and landed inside the courtyard.  My lips twisted as I knelt within the shadows, waiting to see if any of the guards had heard my landing.  The designers hadn’t expected someone to try to break into the slave pen.  Who in their right mind would try?

I smiled grimly as I slipped around the walls, remaining within the shadows as I approached the gatehouse.  There would be a handful of guards on duty, probably already half-drunk.  I told myself not to take that for granted as I reached the gate and peered inside.  A man was sitting at the table, his back to me.  I drew my club and cracked it over his skull, sending him crashing to the ground.  He seemed to be alone.  I frowned – there should have been at least three guards on duty – and searched the gatehouse quickly before stealing his keys.  Where were the other two?

Move, I told myself.  Don’t slow down for anything.

I was committed now.  I took the keys and hurried back to the warehouse.  The door was solidly locked, but it was a lock I could have picked in my sleep.  I opened it with the keys, then inched down the corridor and peered into the nearest office.  A guard stared at me, his eyes going wide.  I knocked him down before he could raise the alarm, then glanced around the office.  A handful of papers lay on the desk, covered with unreadable scribbles.  I cursed my inability to read Old Script as I looked at them, then turned my attention to the far doors and tried to open them.  It took me several tries to find the right key to open the locks.

The stench was appalling.  I gagged, stumbling back in disgust.  The darkened chamber beyond smelt like a barnyard … no, like a prison.  I picked up a lantern from the office and held it up, shining it into the chamber.  A sight from hell greeted me.  The giant warehouse had been subdivided into a number of cages, each one holding a dozen chained and shackled men.  Some of them had clearly been beaten into submission, their wounds left to fester and decay.  There were no women or children.  I couldn’t help finding that ominous.

Eyes followed me as I made my way up to the first cage.  I tried to smile at them, knowing they’d take me for just another tormentor.  They might try to jump me the moment I opened the cage.  I inspected the locking system, silently cursing the evil genius who’d designed it.  The cage wasn’t meant to be opened by just one man … I supposed it was a safety precaution, intended to keep the prisoners safely confined.  I cursed under my breath as I opened the first lock, then jammed the key in place.  The system should be relatively easy to spoof.  I told myself I should be glad they didn’t have electronic locks, with fingerprint scanners or PIN numbers.  It would have been a great deal harder to break the prisoners out.

“Go through the office, through the gatehouse and run,” I hissed, as I opened the second lock.  The prisoners stood, shaking off their chains.  The noise was terrifying.  I feared someone would hear it.  I didn’t have time to search for the final guard, if indeed there was a final guard.  “Hurry!”

I moved to the second cage and started to unlock it, working my way through the keys as the first set of prisoners made their escape.  The second set followed the first, then the third.  I tried to open the forth cage and discovered, too late, that I didn’t have the right key.  The prisoners stared at me as I went through the keys twice, fearing the worst.  There were ten separate cages in the giant warehouse.  If I didn’t have the keys to all of them …

Break the lock, I told myself.  Hurry.

I dug a screwdriver out of my belt, inserted it into the keyhole … and froze.  My entire body locked solid.  I could neither move nor speak.  I couldn’t hear my heartbeat.  I wasn’t even sure I was still breathing.  Horror washed through me as I realised I’d struck a magical booby trap, that I’d effectively trapped myself.  I’d thought the locks were absurdly simple, but I’d never realised why.  The keys were charmed to open the locks.  By inserting a screwdriver into the lock, I’d triggered the spell.  And …

My mind raced.  The guardsmen hadn’t given me any training in what to do if I got jinxed, let alone hexed or cursed.  Fallows had told me to make sure I gave magicians the upmost respect – and, if I got zapped with magic, to pray to all the gods it wore off before I went mad or got eaten or … or something.  I tried to think of a way of breaking free, but nothing came to mind.  I didn’t have any magic myself.  And I couldn’t move a muscle.

If my body is completely frozen, I asked myself, why am I still alive?

I heard running footsteps behind me, fading in the distance.  The prisoners I’d freed were making their escape.  I hoped they made it, even though I was grimly sure I was going to be taking their place.  They could have tried to help … I knew there was nothing they could have done to help me.  Fallows – and Jasmine – had made it clear ordinary people were helpless against magic.  I feared, as time started to press down on me, that they were right.  There was nothing I could do, save wait.  And try not to go mad.

“Well,” a voice said.  “What have we here?”

My body jerked, then started to move of its own accord.  I tried to fight, to resist whatever force was controlling my limbs, but it was useless.  Thunder was standing in front of me, his eyes narrowing as he studied my hooded face.  My hands rose up a second later, uncovering my face.  Thunder frowned, then turned and walked into another office.  I followed him like a dog on a leash, as helpless as a baby.  My muscles did as they were commanded by his magic.

I struggled, mentally, as my body came to a stop.  I’d been caught.  I’d been caught and … I was dead.  Captain Alder already distrusted me.  He wouldn’t need any more excuse to kick me out of the guard, to sell me into slavery, to even kill me outright.  It wasn’t as if anyone would give much of a damn about me.  Horst and Fallows would shrug their shoulders and move on to the next recruit.  Jasmine would never even know what had happened to me.  I wondered, as I waited helplessly, if she’d even care.

My mind raged.  I’d tried to do the right thing and …

Captain Alder walked into my field of view.  He looked tired, tired and worn.  The nasty part of my mind insisted he was exhausted, after spending the evening selling runaway slaves back to their masters.  They were slaves, in all but name.  Bound to the land, unable to leave without permission that was never forthcoming … I wanted to swallow, but I still couldn’t move a muscle.  Thunder held up a hand and twisted it in the air, light pulsing around his fingertips.  My head lolled to one side, as if I’d been hit.  The rest of my body remained unmoving.  His magic held me prisoner as surely as chains and shackles.

“Elliot,” Captain Alder said.  “Guard Constable Elliot, Son of Richard.  Did you think you could claim the bounty for yourself?”

It was hard to speak.  My head felt sluggish and my tongue felt … I tried to think clearly, despite the discomfort.  If my lower body – everything below the neck – was paralysed, so completely frozen my heart was still, how was I even alive?  There would be no blood and oxygen going to be head.  I should be dead.  I should be dead … I felt a surge of panic as I realised I was confronted with a genuine outside context problem.  A wizard had done it.  I almost giggled.  A wizard had done it!

“Answer the question, boy,”  Captain Alder slapped me across the face.  I tasted blood in my mouth.  “Who paid you?”

I stared at him, numbly.  He thought I’d been paid?  It was … didn’t he expect me to do the right thing?  But then, slavery – however disguised – was normal for this society.  Freeing the slaves was nothing more than an assault on property rights.  I felt sick – people weren’t property – and tried to come up with an answer.  My head was scrambled.  What was the name of the rapist bastard, the one who’d bought his way out of trouble?  If I gave his name instead, he could …

“Answer.”  Thunder made another motion with his fingers.  “Answer now – and truthfully.”

My mouth opened, no matter how I tried to close it.  “I wasn’t paid,” I said, dully.  “I wanted to free them.”

Captain Alder gave me a look that suggested he thought I was a bloody moron.  I supposed, by his lights, he had a point.  What did I get out of freeing the runaway serfs?  Nothing, by his standards.  The idea it might help me sleep at night was alien to him.  He would sooner believe I’d tried to steal them all by my lonesome, in hopes of claiming the entire bounty for myself, than I’d simply meant to let them go.

“You wanted to free them?”  Captain Alder shook his head, then started to pace the room.  “What were you thinking?”

“There’s no point in wasting time,” Thunder said, before I could speak.  He made a gesture.  My head froze.  Again.  “We won’t be paid for the missing slaves.”

I felt a flicker of triumph, even though I knew I was doomed.   Thirty runaways had made it onto the streets.  It would be a long time before they could be hunted down, let alone returned to their former masters.  I wanted to laugh.  Captain Alder and the sorcerer had probably hoped to claim the vast majority of the bounty for themselves, while handing out tiny sums to the guardsmen.  That would be harder now, I thought.  They might be lynched if they didn’t pay the guardsmen.  If nothing else, I told myself, the captain was going to be out of pocket.

“We can send this oaf into slavery, in their place,” Captain Alder said, from behind me.  He didn’t sound very hopeful.  One person, no matter how strong, could hardly do the work of thirty.  “Or … do you have something else in mind?”

“Yes.”  Thunder lifted his hand.  Fear gripped me as an evil look crossed his face.  I realised, to my horror, that he was a sadist.  “I think turning him into a frog and selling him should suffice.”

Green light flickered around his fingers, then flashed at me.  I couldn’t move.  My skin tingled … and I felt, just for a second, Jasmine’s lips on my forehead.  Thunder’s eyes went wide as the spell holding me in place vanished.  I didn’t hesitate.  I lunged forward, slamming my fist into his throat.  His body flew backwards, his head cracking into the wall.  I couldn’t tell if he was dead or merely stunned, but either way he was out of the fight.  And …

Something cracked into my skull.  I staggered under the impact, cursing my mistake.  The captain.  I’d forgotten the captain.  Alder was overweight, but that didn’t mean he was useless.  And I’d turned my back on him.  I started to spin around, too late.  He hit me again and I fell, screaming, into the darkness.

Snippet – The Face of the Enemy (SIM 23)

5 Mar

The Face of the Enemy is very much a direct sequel to The Right Side of History, so BEWARE SPOILERS.

Prologue I

Alassa felt … uneasy.

The feeling nagged at the queen’s mind as she performed her duties, holding audiences and private conferences and meditating disputes between aristocrats, magicians and commoners that – if allowed to fester – could easily get out of hand.  A vague unease, a sense that something was deeply wrong … she paced her halls and chambers, reaching out with her mind to check the wards again and again as she tried to put her finger on the problem.  But there was no reason to be uneasy, as far as she could tell.  The wave of unrest sweeping across the Allied Lands had yet to touch Zangaria.  She thought – she hoped – it never would, not when the civil war had laid the groundwork for a more meritocratic society.  She’d had more than enough time to plan the future, then steer her kingdom to glories untold.

And yet, the feeling refused to fade.

Driven by a concern she couldn’t put into words, she cancelled her planned attendance at the ambassador’s ball and retreated to her chambers.  Her staff would have to make her apologies to the guests, then explain that Her Majesty would reschedule as quickly as possible.  The gossips would be chattering soon, if they weren’t already.  Some of them would whisper a mere woman couldn’t handle a kingdom.  Others would wonder if she was pregnant with her second child.  And still others, the ones who had assassins on their payroll, would start planning her downfall.  Alassa didn’t fear death, but she feared the chaos that would follow her assassination.  Her daughter – Little Emily – was barely a year old.  A child monarch would be lucky to survive long enough to rule in her own right.

She dropped her queenly mask as soon as she stepped into her bedroom and sat on the bed.  It was hard, sometimes, to pretend to be utterly unbothered by everything happening around her, to pretend she liked or cared or didn’t want to turn particularly irritating courtiers or petitioners into slugs and stamp on them.  They didn’t see her as a person, not in any real sense.  Some of them saw her as a force of nature, something to be endured or resisted or manipulated into working for them.  Others … saw any hint of weakness as a sign the time had come to move ahead with their plans.  Alassa had no doubt of it.  There were men and women in her court who’d plotted her father’s death.  They would plot hers too if she gave them half a chance.

The door opened.  Jade stepped into the room.  “You cancelled the state dinner?”

“They can still have it,” Alassa said, waspishly.  She trusted Jade – he was the only man she trusted completely – but he didn’t understand.  How could he?  “I’m just not going to attend.”

“Disaster,” Jade said, deadpan.  He sat next to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder.  “I’m sure they’ll be very upset.”

Alassa elbowed him.  The ambassadors would be very upset.  They’d see it as a sign the monarch didn’t care about maintaining good relations with the remainder of the Allied Lands, something she could ill-afford after her intervention at Resolution Castle.  She’d staked everything on her defence of her friend, an act that would be used against her if she didn’t manage to convince most of the coalition that it had been in their interests.  She thought she’d succeeded, but it was hard to be sure.  Too many of her fellow monarchs were expert in keeping their options open as long as possible.  Alassa was all too aware they could – and perhaps would – turn on her at any given moment.  The Allied Lands were in turmoil.  And too many of the kings and princes blamed Emily for their woes.

She frowned, rubbing her forehead.  The last report from Whitehall had made it clear nothing would be resolved in a hurry.  There were just too many sticking points, too many disputes that had been allowed to fester while the Allied Lands stood together against the necromancers.  Alassa knew she was lucky to have escaped many of the problems – she had no claims to foreign lands, nor did most of her surviving nobility – but she hadn’t escaped them all.  Her ambassadors had stated it would be weeks, if not months, before the issues came close to a resolution.  Alassa wasn’t surprised.  The monarchs would have to work in unison to solve most of their problems and it was the one thing they couldn’t do.

“Something is wrong,” she said.  Saying it out loud felt vaguely silly.  “I can feel it.”

Jade frowned.  “Pay attention to your instincts,” he said.  “They’re not trying to mislead you.”

Alassa snorted.  She knew her instincts were good.  She just wished they’d tell her why they insisted something was about to do wrong.  She couldn’t point to anything and say that was why she was uneasy.  It was never easy to explain that, not to a man.  They didn’t believe in women’s intuition, not least because it was subconscious.  They found it all too easy to mock and belittle.  And yet ..

She stood and started to pace the chamber.  The sense just wouldn’t go away.  She muttered a spell, peering through the wards into the nursery.  Little Emily was taking a nap.  She looked perfectly healthy … Alassa knew, all too well, that appearances could be deceptive.   Little Emily had the best medical care and support in the world, yet she could still die … Alassa gritted her teeth, banishing the thought as she banished the spell.  Her daughter would live to adulthood, then take the crown when Alassa died.  She would.

Jade smiled at her.  “Do you want to go to bed?”

Alassa laughed.  “Do you ever think of anything else?”

Her husband affected a gormless expression.  “There’s something else?”

“Hah.”  Alassa didn’t feel any real humour.  “I feel …”

She shook her head.  She hadn’t felt so uneasy since the moment she’d discovered her father had sired a bastard son.  A son!  She wasn’t proud of how she’d reacted, how close she’d come to murdering the child’s mother, but …her stomach churned as she remembered the day she’d realised she’d become expendable.  Her father had always wanted a son.  He could easily have finagled the politics, once she was out of the way.  And …

Alassa told herself, sharply, that those days were over.  Her father was dead.  His loyalists were scattered or broken.  She was the unquestioned ruler of Zangaria and yet … she cursed under her breath.  The reports from Alluvia were grim.  A city had risen, a king had been killed by his own people … Alassa grimaced.  There were threats of uprisings right across the Allied Lands.  Events were spiralling out of control.  Zangaria might remain immune, for the moment, but she feared it wouldn’t last.  Her Levellers might want to level society still further.

The air shifted.  She turned, just in time to see three black-clad figures materialise within her chambers.  For a moment, Alassa honestly thought it was an illusion.  The castle was heavily warded, a network of protections that should have ensured no one, not even Alassa herself, could teleport into the castle.  Her chambers were covered in layer after layer of wards that made them the single most heavily protected place in the kingdom.  And yet …

Jade leapt to his feet, drawing his sword in one smooth motion.  The figures spun around to face him, the leader moving his arm to block the blade.  Alassa expected the blade to cut the man’s arm off, but instead it shattered.  They didn’t seem to be wearing armour – their clothes were black shadow, covering them from head to toe – but it didn’t matter.  Jade stabbed the remnants of the blade into the leader’s chest, onto to see the hilt break in his hand.  The intruder lashed out at him, cracking a palm into Jade’s arm.  Alassa heard the bone snap as the intruder made contact.

She snapped out of her funk and hurled a death curse at the nearest intruder.  He shrugged it off.  Alassa blinked, then hurled three more spells in quick succession.  Charmed armour could be overwhelmed, if one hit it with multiple spells.  The intruders didn’t even blink.  Their masked faces turned to look at her.  She couldn’t see their eyes, but she could tell they were looking at her.  The leader picked Jade up and hurled him across the room, then reached for her.  Alassa gritted her teeth, tying to think.  She had a dagger in her sleeve, but she was entirely sure it would be useless.  Jade was strong enough to cut a man in two and yet his blade had shattered when it hit the intruder. 

Alassa cast a locomotive spell, aimed at the bed.  It ripped itself away from the wall and crashed into the intruders, scattering them like ninepins.  Alassa didn’t hear a sound as they were bowled over, no grunts or cries of pain or anything.  A chill ran through her as she darted to Jade, helped him to his feet and directed a second spell at the floor underneath the intruders.  It should have turned the stone to a swamp, trapping them long enough for Alassa to retreat and summon reinforcements.  Instead, the floor shattered.  The intruders plummeted to the floor below.

“This way!”  Jade snapped out a spell, despite his pain.  The wall disintegrated, allowing them into the next chamber.  “Hurry!”

Alassa reached out with her mind as they darted into the nursery.  The wards had gone down, completely down … she hadn’t sensed anything.  There hadn’t even been a hint the wards had come under attack, let alone that they’d been taken down.  She felt a flash of panic.  What the hell were they fighting?  Little Emily woke and started to cry.  Alassa grabbed her daughter as she heard the sound of running footsteps outside the door.  Her guards?  More intruders?  Or … right now, she didn’t know.  She had no shortage of enemies, but …

Jade cursed under his breath.  “They’re on the lower levels.”

“Shit.”  Alassa gritted her teeth as her daughter cried louder.  The intruders were clearly sweeping the entire castle.  It was just a matter of time before they reached the royal chambers and broke through the door.  “We need to get out of here.”

She led the way to a giant painting of King Alexis the Great, who had probably never looked so dashing and heroic in his life, and tore it away from the walls.  The secret passageway beyond led to her father’s hidden rooms, chambers he’d used to practice forbidden magics and – eventually – become a necromancer.  Alassa thought she could smell him in the air as they hurried down the hidden passage, descending dark and dusty stairs to the catacombs below the city.  There weren’t many people who knew they even existed.  The intruders certainly hadn’t used them to get into the castle.  They’d hacked the wards and teleported into the castle.

The governess started to gibber.  “Be quiet,” Alassa ordered.  She wished for Mouse or someone else, someone else who had a good head on their shoulders.  “Be quiet or go back inside.”

She felt, more than saw, Jade’s reproving look.  She couldn’t bring herself to care.  Her kingdom was under attack, by … by whom?  She couldn’t believe another kingdom could have mounted such an attack, nor the Levellers … the magicians?  It was possible.  She knew there were magical factions that believed they had a right to rule …

The ground trembled under her feet as they reached the bottom of the stairs and hurried into the catacombs.  Alassa closed the door behind them, then passed Little Emily to the governess and inspected Jade’s arm.  It had been snapped in several places.  She muttered a healing spell, then turned and led the way further into the darkness.  Where could they go?  The castle was no longer safe, which meant … what?  If it was a coup, it was a decidedly odd one. 

Jade caught her arm.  “We’ll go to the Tower.”

Alassa glanced at him, then nodded.  It was good thinking.  The Tower of Alexis was the second-most secure building in the city.  She had troops and magicians quartered there.  If the attackers, whoever they were, had concentrated on the castle, she could rally her men and launch a counterattack.  If not … she’d know they’d taken the Tower before she showed herself.  She gritted her teeth, feeling fear slowly being replaced by anger.  She hadn’t fought her own father for the kingdom, only to lose it to invaders … invaders who’d attacked her in her own bedroom.  She’d make them pay for invading her home.

She clamped down hard on her anger as the passageway slanted upwards.  The air grew cold and damp.  They were too close to the river for her peace of mind.  She thought she heard people and rats scurrying in the darkness, but she ignored them.  Most people stayed out of the catacombs, for fear of floods and supernatural vermin lurking in the shadows.  Those that didn’t were no threat to her.  The air only grew lighter as she clambered into a basement, then up the stairs into a disused fishing dock.  Her father had made sure it remained disused.  It wouldn’t do to have commoners stumble on the secret exit.

“The Tower looks intact,” Jade said.  “Let me go first.”

Alassa nodded, hiding her fear as he hurried down the riverside.  Instead, she turned to look at the castle.  She should have been able to sense the wards, even a mile away.  Instead, there was nothing.  They’d been taken down so quickly and cleanly she hadn’t even noticed there was anything wrong, unless … perhaps that had been the source of her unease.  She’d been connected to the wards.  Perhaps …

Jade returned.  “The Tower is still loyal,” he said.  “They don’t know what’s going on.”

“No,” Alassa agreed.  “But we’re going to find out.”

She clenched her fists.  “And then we’re going to make the bastards pay.”

Prologue II

The teleport spell was badly prepared.  Master Lucknow had thrown it together as fast as possible, the moment he’d become aware of the enchantment enslaving his mind.  It had held him so thoroughly he hadn’t even realised he’d been enchanted, not until the spell had started to crack of its own accord.  It had all he’d been able to do to cast the teleport spell, focused on Resolution Castle.  There had been no time to snatch his treacherous apprentice or any of his comrades before it was too late.  It had been all he could do to save himself.

He landed badly, the floor slamming into his face hard enough to make him cry out in pain and frustration.  He’d been a trained combat sorcerer longer than his apprentice had been alive and yet he’d … he gritted his teeth as he forced himself to stand.  The Whitehall Conference had been a trap and he’d walked right into it.  Emily and her master had trapped them within an enchantment so powerful, and yet so subtle, that it had been sheer luck he’d managed to escape.  He looked around, hoping his comrades would materialise beside him. B It was hard to believe he’d been the only one to escape.  There’d been dozens of trained sorcerers in the wretched school.

His fury rose as he walked into the castle itself, passing through a layer of wards that should have kept out anyone and anyone without prior permission.  Lucknow wasn’t so sure.  Emily had found at least one way to get into a heavily-warded building, perhaps by using a nexus point to break down the wards.  She was … Lucknow ground his teeth in frustration.  He should have put a knife in the girl, no matter the certainty of her wretched father and her friends coming to avenge her death.  Lucknow knew he’d failed.  He’d feared the worst, when he’d seen the batteries, but … he hadn’t even dreamed how bad it could become.  If she could enchant an entire school of magicians, what couldn’t she do?

He gritted his teeth as he walked into the war room and beheld a scene of semi-organised chaos.   A handful of communications and mapping sorcerers were updating the map of the Allied Lands, covering it with red markers.  Lucknow studied the map for a long cold moment, realising the attacks had taken place everywhere.  Almost everywhere.  There were no reports of attacks on Heart’s Eye … not, he supposed, that it was a surprise.  Emily owned Heart’s Eye.  His eyes trailed over the map, noting locations that had been hit by … by who?  He ground his teeth.  Emily was an aristocrat as well as a magician, one who’d been on the winning side of a civil war.  No one would say anything if she raised a private army of her own, not until it was far too late.

I should have killed her while I had the chance, Lucknow thought.  It’s too late now.

“Master Lucknow.”  Master Ham looked relieved to see him.  “What happened?”

“Whitehall was attacked and enchanted,” Lucknow said.  It shamed him to admit that he’d been enchanted, as easily as a commoner mundane with no resistance to magic at all, but there was no point in denying it.  He forced himself to tell the entire story.  “Emily and Void have declared war on the entire world.”

“Gods,” Master Ham said, when he’d finished.  “What do we do?”

“We stop them.”  Lucknow stared at the map.  It was covered in red pinpricks, and it looked as if utter disaster had struck, but it wasn’t hopeless.  He knew – he doubted Emily and Void did – that there was a great deal of land between the pinpricks.  The rebels might hold the cities, the centres of formal power, but there was plenty they didn’t control.  “We need to move and move fast.”

He started snapping orders, taking control effortlessly.  He was the senior survivor, as far as he knew.  It was his duty to organise resistance.  Resolution Castle hadn’t come under attack.  Not yet.  Emily and Void had probably overlooked it.  He could make use of their blindspot long enough to plan a counterattack.  The situation looked bad, but there were still cards to play.  There were monarchs and aristocrats he could summon, magicians he could talk or cajole or threaten into joining him, troops he could deploy … even Emily’s supporters might be unnerved by the chaos she’d unleashed.  He could try to convince them to join him.  Even if they refused, it might put some doubts in their heads.

“And contact all the bounty hunters,” he finished.  He doubted they’d have any luck, not against two of the most powerful and capable sorcerers in the worlds, but it might buy him some time.  “We’re going to put a price on their heads.”

“Yes, sir.”

Chapter One

Lady Barb was dead.

Emily stared into the fireplace, one hand stroking the snake in her palm, as she tried to come to terms with everything that had happened.  Lady Barb was dead.  Void had betrayed her.  The Allied Lands were in chaos …

… And Lady Barb was dead.

She wanted to scream in fury and bitter frustration.  Lady Barb had been the closest thing she’d ever had to a real mother, to someone who cared for her and helped her and didn’t hesitate to point out when she was doing something dumb.  God knew her real mother had crawled into a bottle and refused to come out, even when Emily had needed her.  Lady Barb had been the person Emily had needed, long before she’d ever realised how much she needed her.  And now she was dead.

Guilt and shame warred in her mind,  She’d known Void was up to something, that he’d had an agenda of his own, but she’d never realised just how thoroughly he’d manipulated her.  Or just how far his plans extended.  Lady Barb had tried to warn her, but … Emily’s heart clenched in pain.  Void had saved her life, all those many years ago, and introduced her to the magic she loved.  Her mind spun in circles.  Perhaps she could have stopped him, if she’d realised what he was doing before it was too late.  Perhaps she could have talked him out of trying to impose his will on the world.  Perhaps …

She ground her teeth.  Void had a point.  She knew he had a point.  She’d seen enough selfishness, short-sightedness and sheer bloody-mindedness, right across the Allied Lands, to understand his motives.  She’d watched, helplessly, as kings prepared to crush rebels and magicians plotted to impose their supremacy.  Someone had to do something, but Void’s cure was worse than the disease.  He’d crush the selfish aristocrats and curb the magician supremacists and establish a new order, a new order that would rapidly and inevitably decay into tyranny.  And he’d expected her to rule when he was gone … she shook her head.  There was no way anyone could keep such a system intact, even her.  She’d studied enough history to know there was no way it could be done.

Aurelius curled against her palm.  Emily felt a twinge of envy.  The Death Viper didn’t have any real awareness of his own, just a series of impulses that directed him to build a nest, find a mate, sire children and repeat, time and time again, until he died.  Emily almost envied the snake for his simplicity, even though she knew it was silly.  She wouldn’t have liked losing her awareness, if she’d had the mental capacity to realise what she’d lost.  And yet, she wouldn’t have to endure the sting of betrayal – and the grim awareness she’d played a role in unleashing disaster – if she didn’t have the intelligence to understand it.

She felt tears prickling in her eyes and wiped them away, angrily.  They’d spent the last week riding through the countryside, doing their best to stay out of sight.  The kingdom was in the middle of a civil war and strangers were not welcome, particularly strangers from Dragon’s Den and Whitehall.  Emily herself had to stay out of sight, simply because the authorities – the White Council or Void himself – had put a bounty on her head.  And if she was caught … she shuddered.  It was possible the locals would turn a blind eye, but also possible they’d hand her over in hopes of currying favour with whoever won the war. 

Her lips quirked, sourly.  Which war?  Crown Prince Dater – King Dater – and his armies were battling rebels, while Void steadily put his pieces in place to take the remainder of the Allied Lands.  There was no way to know what was happening beyond the horizon, although there was no shortage of rumours.  She’d heard everything from a watchful peace to outright civil war and necromantic invasions.  She grimaced, cursing her mistakes yet again.  She hadn’t had time to recover her chat parchments, either the ones she’d kept with her in Freedom City or the ones she’d stored in Dragon’s Den.  There was no way to get in touch with her friends.  She couldn’t even teleport.

She looked up.  The night sky was bright with stars, twinkling above her, but she could sense magic pulsing through the air.  Anyone who tried to teleport would wind up in a dungeon, if Sergeant Miles was correct, or dead.  Emily had spent several days trying to crack the spells, but there was no way to override them without leading Void right to them.  And she had no doubt he wouldn’t come himself.  He’d suspect a trap.  He’d send a small army of sorcerers and soldiers after them instead.

I never even realised I could be kept from teleporting, she thought, sourly.  Whitehall had had wards to keep intruders from teleporting into the building, but she’d never seen anything like it on a national scale.  She guessed he’d taken Whitehall’s protective wards and used the nexus point to project them over the countryside.  It wasn’t as if he’d care about objections from other sorcerers.  And he has a rough idea of where we are.

She grimaced.  She’d never really grasped just how big the Allied Lands really were until she’d found herself facing the prospect of having to walk or ride all the way to Zangaria.  It would take weeks, assuming they switched horses regularly; she knew, all too well, they wouldn’t.  Void would look at a map and make some assumptions about how far they could have travelled, then distribute his forces to block all the likely routes.  He still had thousands of square miles to cover, but she suspected he had the manpower to do it.  He’d been planning for decades.  He probably had a private army of his own, ready and waiting to back up his coup.  For all she knew, he had an entire kingdom on the other side of the Craggy Mountains.

Emily let out a breath, forcing herself to relax.  There was nothing she could do about it, not now.  She didn’t even have a plan.  She’d have to come up with something, and fast, before it was too late … but what?  Void was no maddened necromancer, nor was he an aristocratic fop who could be goaded into making a mistake.  He was powerful, capable and knew far too much about the New Learning – thanks to her – for anyone’s peace of mind.  As long as he held Whitehall in an iron grip, it might be impossible to bring him down.

Another pang of guilt ran through her.  She’d left Frieda behind, along with countless other students, teachers, ambassadors and representatives.  Void could do whatever he wanted to them.  He wasn’t a cruel man – Emily found it hard to believe he’d hurt Frieda, just to make Emily suffer – but he could talk himself into doing whatever he wanted.  He could use Frieda to get into Emily’s house or … or what?  He might even enchant Frieda, then set her to the task of hunting Emily down.  The possibilities were endless.

He won’t hurt them, Emily told herself.  Whitehall had students from all over the Allied Lands and some of them had very powerful connections indeed.  He won’t want to turn the entire world against him.

She shook her head as she looked around the campsite, half-hidden in the forest.  She was alone, save for Aurelius.  Sergeant Miles, Aiden and Jan had gone to the nearest town in hopes of purchasing supplies and obtaining intelligence, if whatever rumours they heard could be justly called intelligence.  Hopefully, no one would pay too much attention to three men travelling together – Aiden had kept her male guise – but it was hard to be sure.  Void probably knew Sergeant Miles had left Dragon’s Den by now.  He certainly knew Emily respected and trusted the sergeant.  It wouldn’t be too hard for him to guess they were together.  There weren’t many people Emily trusted completely.

And the sergeant would have good reason to seek revenge, Emily thought.  Sergeant Miles had been Lady Barb’s lover.  Void might be quietly relieved she’d taken the sergeant from Dragon’s Den.  If there’s anyone who might know a backdoor into Whitehall, it’s the sergeant …

She snorted at herself.  Void was powerful, easily the most powerful and capable sorcerer she’d ever encountered.  Sergeant Miles was tough too, but … Emily doubted he’d win in a straight fight.  He wouldn’t fight one.  Sergeant Miles was a ruthless pragmatist.  He’d sneak into the school and put a charmed blade in Void’s back, if he had the chance.  If she hadn’t taken him away … she shook her head.  Sergeant Miles might just wind up being killed for nothing.  Void had had plenty of time to reconfigure the school’s wards to keep unwanted intruders out.  He’d have no trouble dealing with a half-mad lover bent on revenge.

Her hair prickled.  She had the sudden feeling she was being watched.  It wasn’t uncommon in the forest – there were places no human dared go, for fear of the Other Folk – but … she stood, reaching out with her mind.  Flashes and flickers of magic – alien magic – darted though the air.  They didn’t seem to be looking for her, but it was hard to be sure.  Aurelius crawled up her sleeve, curling around her upper arm.  The snake was disturbed too.  Emily doubted that was a good sign.

Something moved, at the corner of her eye.  Emily moved, raising her hand to cast a shield … too late.  Something struck her chest, between her breasts; she took a breath and tasted durian on the air.  Gas?  Her magic spluttered, then faded, as the potion worked its way through her system.  Gas?  She’d never heard of a potion being turned into gas, although she had to admit it was possible.  The evidence was right in front of her.  Her magic was gone.

A figure stepped out of the trees and pointed a flintlock at her chest.  “Raise your hands.  Now.”

Emily stared at him for a long moment, then obeyed.  The intruder looked like a soldier or a mercenary.  He held the flintlock in a manner that suggested he knew how to use it, complete with pointing the weapon at her chest rather than her head.  Flintlocks were notoriously inaccurate, even in the hands of an experienced user.  And she’d have a good chance to survive if she was shot in the chest.  Her eyes flickered over the man’s body.  Strong, his clothes cut to allow him to move freely … he knew what he was doing.  Her heart sank as he studied her in return.  He was no outlaw, no bandit planning her rape and the theft of everything they’d brought with them.  He knew who he was following and he’d come prepared.

Gas, she thought.  Void knew how to draw the magic out of a potion and manifest it elsewhere.  Had he continued that research to produce durian gas?  Why hadn’t he mentioned it to her?  She could have protected herself, if she’d known it was a possibility.  It would have been easy … her lips quirked.  He didn’t mention it to me because he knew he might have to use the trick to bring me down.

She met his eyes.  “Who are you?”

“You’re going to make me rich,” the man said.  He stepped forward, keeping his flintlock aimed at her.  His eyes swept over her body, looking for concealed weapons.  “And that’s all that matters.”

“A bounty hunter,” Emily said.  Her mind raced.  The bastard had either gotten very lucky or … she didn’t want to think about the other possibilities.  Void shouldn’t have been able to get a lock on their position.  If he had, he would have sent more than a single bounty hunter.  “Do you think there’s a price on my head?”

The hunter said nothing for a long moment.  Emily studied him, hoping to see a kernel of doubt within his eyes.  She didn’t look anything like the legendary Lady Emily.  None of her portraits had ever looked like her, to the point that anyone who relied on them wasn’t going to have any luck.  Some of the paintings hadn’t even got her hair colour right.  It was possible, just possible, she could delude the hunter into thinking he’d caught the wrong girl.  Void wouldn’t be very pleased if the hunter wasted his time …

He walked closer.  Emily braced herself.  The moment he gave her a clear shot, she’d put a knee in his groin or a fist in his throat.  She had no intention of giving him a straight fight either.  He might underestimate her strength – it was rare for magicians to develop their muscles – but he’d still be stronger than her.  She had to cripple or kill him with the first blow.

The hunter stopped and produced a small crystal from his pocket.  It glowed the moment he held it close to her.  Emily blinked, honestly shocked.  A crystal tuned to her magical signature?  Or just to her personally?  She’d never heard of anything like it.  Perhaps Void had inserted a ward-like spell into the crystal, or …

“You’re definitely going to make me rich,” the bounty hunter said.  There was a note of dark pleasure in his voice.  “Turn around.  Lie down on the ground.”

“Whatever he’s offering, I can double it,” Emily said.  The hunter had to have been sent by Void.  There wasn’t anyone else who could have charmed the crystal to point to her.  No one knew her magic as well as her master.  “Or there are other compensations …”

“Turn around.  Lie down.”  The hunter jabbed his flintlock at her.  “Now.”

Professional, Emily thought, sourly.  And the moment he has me bound.

She gritted her teeth as she lowered herself to the ground.  The hunter wasn’t taking any chances.  She wouldn’t be able to lash out at him, not before he’d bound her hands and hefted her over his shoulder.  He’d probably have a horse somewhere nearby.  By the time Sergeant Miles and the others returned, the bounty hunter would have her halfway to Whitehall.  They wouldn’t have a hope of catching up before it was too late.  And as long as the hunter was careful to force-feed her potion, she couldn’t be able to escape.

A thought crossed her mind.  There might be a way out.

She anticipated his next order and put her hands behind her back.  He wouldn’t look too closely, she hoped.  Void knew what to look for, but … would he have told the hunter?  She didn’t know.  She grunted as he put his boot on her backside, pinning her to the ground.  He really wasn’t taking any chances.  His hands clutched her wrists, holding them together effortlessly.  She heard the manacles clinking as he pulled them from his belt.  He knew what he was doing …

Aurelius struck.  The hunter screamed, letting go of her as the snake slid up his sleeve and headed for his neck.  The rotting touch alone would have been lethal, if he hadn’t been given immediate medical aide, but Aurelius sank his fangs into the hunter’s skin and put him beyond all hope of recovery.  Emily rolled over and sat upright, just in time to see the hunter stagger and collapse to the ground.  His eyes budged at her, his hand grasping for the flintlock before he finally expired.  Emily didn’t dare let herself feel guilty.  The hunter would have delivered her into Void’s hands, ensuring his victory.  She dreaded to think what he might have in mind for her.

She waited until the corpse had stopped twitching, then searched it roughly.  A pair of capsules – she scented durian on one, suggesting it was made of compressed gas – a cluster of papers, some money and a sketch map of the surrounding countryside.  Someone was thinking ahead, she noted.  The bounty hunter – probably more than one – had been assigned to maintain watch on a specific part of the country, with orders to intercept any strangers and take them to Dragon’s Den.  She wondered, idly, what King Dater thought of rogue bounty hunters in his territory.  It was just another sign law and order had collapsed.

The snake felt satisfied as she picked him up and let him curl around her neck while she examined the crystal.  It was tuned to her … she guessed the range was very short or Void would have tracked her down with ease.  The bounty hunter couldn’t have been sure it was her, not until he’d been very close.  She cursed under her breath, wondering what he’d had in mind if it turned out he’d caught the wrong woman.  Somehow, she doubted he would have apologised.  It was far more likely he would have cut her throat and walked away, leaving her body for her friends and family to find.  Bounty hunters were known for ruthlessness.  Void was gambling by using them.

And if someone realises this bounty hunter has gone missing, she thought, they may guess where we are.

Her heart twisted.  It might not matter.  If there were hundreds of bounty hunters searching for them, there was a good chance they’d be spotted again and again and the next time, she might not be so lucky.  She might encounter someone smart enough to knock her out or … she shook her head.  There was nothing she could do about it, unless she wanted to go back to Void herself and surrender.  She was damned if she was giving up.  Void had to be stopped.

But, she admitted to herself as she looked at the body, it wasn’t going to be easy.

Background Notes: The Daybreak Empire

5 Mar

Written for a universe I’m currently designing ….

Background Notes: The Daybreak Empire

The Daybreak Empire was founded in Year One of the Imperial Era (2654AD), although it is not clear, even to the empire’s own researchers, how much preliminary planning went into founding the empire.

The official story is relatively simple.  The fleets of the Ceuta Alphan Kingdom, under the command of Grand Admiral Zachariah, encountered the fleets of the Saurian Republic at Daybreak, under the command of Lady Admiral Suleiman, both under orders to secure the system for their respective masters.  This backfired badly, however, when the two commanders – realising the operation was doomed to merely continue the fires of the Great Interstellar War – allied and turned on their homeworlds.  Commanding, as they did, a sizable percentage of both fleets, it was relatively simple to mount a coup and effectively take control of both interstellar powers.  This was surprisingly well-received by the majority of the populations, who had watched the chaos of the interstellar war lapping at their doors for years.  Daybreak, a previously unexploited planet that had appeared largely useless – hence the settlement rights being sold to a low-tech society prior to the war – became the effective capital of the joint empire.  Eventually, it leant its name to the newborn interstellar power. 

Precisely how much of that story is true is uncertain.  It seems logical to assume the two commanders had made contact shortly before they led their fleets to Daybreak, as – while they were both known to be extremely capable – it would have taken time to develop mutual trust before taking their homeworlds and founding a new empire.  Many – many – researchers have written books questioning the official narrative, arguing that the founders were either in cahoots from the start – well before the fateful encounter at Daybreak – or one somehow subverted the other.  Such researches are often quietly ignored.  The empire has no interest in questioning the story.

Regardless of the truth, it is clear that the two founders spent years labouring to put together a new form of government.  Both career military officers, both very aware that bureaucrats and elitists bore a considerable share of the blame for the crisis that eventually triggered the Great Interstellar War, they rested their government on military force.  Daybreak would be a democracy, but one with a very limited franchise open only to people who had served at least five years in the military.  Other citizens – non-voters – would have rights, but no share of the power.  The system was carefully designed to ensure that anyone who wanted to serve in the military had to be given a chance, thus making sure there was no way to demand the widening of the franchise.

Furthermore, for both ideological and practical purposes, the Daybreak Empire was an expansionist – even outright imperialist – power right from the start.  Believing that human disunity had led to the war, the founders determined to ensure there would be a central authority – theirs – that would have the power to keep the peace, largely through the application of military force.  This kicked off a wave of interstellar invasions and incorporations, the former often prompting independent worlds and systems to apply for membership within the empire.  The burden was not as heavy as one might assume.  The Daybreak Empire proved very good at leaving the locals to govern themselves, as long as they respected the empire’s role as interstellar arbiter and honoured the rules on trade, interplanetary relationships and interstellar conflicts. 

The following two hundred years saw the slow and steady development of a single imperial power covering a third of pre-war human space.  The empire has had issues – it brags it has lost battles, never wars – but it has done much good (as well as evil) for the local populations. 


The government of the empire is led by the Lord Admiral and Lord General, who are elected from the Senate and serve single five-year terms each.  (The Senate also elects the Lord Speaker, who serves as the formal Head of State, but is only allowed to cast a vote in the event of a tie).  The Senate, elected for life, is composed of officers who reached command rank within the military, although – as the voting base consists of current and formal military personnel – there is a certain check on officers more interested in their own careers than winning wars.  Senators also serve as judges, planetary governors and – fairly often – corporate CEOs.  Senatorial titles are not hereditary and the system works hard to discourage nepotism.

Below, Congress is directly elected for single five-year terms by the voters.  Congressmen can be drawn from the voting base (officers or enlisted), but they must be either retired or in the military reserve.  Congress has the final say on both legal matters (laws must have the support of at least 60% of Congress to pass) and senatorial oversight.  Congress has the right to impeach Senators, if they are believed to have acted poorly (precisely what constitutes poor behaviour is deliberately vague).

Planets within the empire fall into one of four separate categories.  Incorporated Worlds are effectively part of Daybreak itself, although they have smaller governments to handle local matters.  They elect representatives to the Imperial Government as well as their own planetary governments.  Dominions have local independence, complete with military forces and commercial empires; they have complete internal freedom as long as they don’t clash with the Daybreak Articles of Incorporation.  Colonies are ruled directly by Daybreak – in practice, by appointed governors; Settlements are founded and ruled by Daybreak, or at least under Daybreak’s supervision, but plans are in place for them to evolve into either Dominion or Incorporated roles. 

A planet’s status is determined by precisely how it enters the empire.  A planetary system with a united government is free to petition for membership at any time, allowing it to claim Dominion status.  (This does have the weakness that a badly-run planet will be left to run itself, if it joins the empire before it can be invaded.)  A planet that has to be forcibly brought into the empire, through direct invasion, will be classed as a colony as its government (in Daybreak’s eyes) chose poorly.  This is, it is generally conceded, a major weakness within the system.  It is designed to provide a considerable degree of economic and technological assistance to newly-occupied systems, but it also allows them to be exploited for decades before they rise to Dominion or Incorporated status.

Given the sheer size of unincorporated (i.e. independent) space, the empire occasionally makes local agreements with ‘rogue’ worlds and systems.  However, as a matter of principle, these agreements are never seen as anything other than temporary.  The empire claims to rule all of human space and insists, whatever the locals say about it, that it is in charge.


Daybreak – and the Incorporated Worlds – are constitutional republics with an intense focus on personal responsibility and the rule of law.  There is complete freedom of speech – although there are also strict libel/slander laws – and gun ownership is common (mandatory, for former military personnel).  Government is as local as possible, with government bureaucrats held to account by ‘voter courts’ that have the right to determine if the bureaucrat is engaging in government overreach.  All rights, save one, are universal; the right to vote and serve in government is earned through military service. 

The Dominions have their own governments, ranging from outright monocracies and theocracies to dictatorships and republics.  They are allowed to do whatever they like to their own citizens, but not to bar their citizens from leaving if they wish to go; the empire has a habit of headhunting particularly capable or innovative military officers or inventors to add to its own system. 


Upon enlisting in the military, a prospective recruit is given the choice between the army or the navy.  (Intelligence units traditionally recruit from within the senior services; technically, all Daybreakers are members of the planetary militia).  Once they chose, they are assigned to a specific branch within the service and sent for training.  Both of the services believe, quite firmly, that all personnel are soldiers or spacers first and practically all candidates are expected to work in an enlisted role before attempting to become officers.  (The only exception to this are officer cadets who attend the Daybreak Naval Academy, and even they are expected to have a degree of practical knowledge and experience before they are promoted).  Mustangs are strongly encouraged and it isn’t unknown for someone to start their career as a Third Class Missile Tech and end it as a Fleet Admiral. 

Military personnel are expected to be political aware, if not active.  It isn’t uncommon for a popular commanding officer to use his popularity amongst the men to make the leap into the Senate.  It’s also far from uncommon for an unpopular officer to be disgraced when his former subordinates refuse to support him, directly or indirectly, in a run for political office.   

Dominions are allowed to run their navies on whatever lines they like, although with the understanding that Daybreak officers are always senior to locals.  (This is bitterly resented, with reason).


Subjectively, Daybreakers claim their empire is a net good for the human race (and the galaxy as a whole).  It provides a framework for interstellar law and order while ensuring a diversity of thought and political systems that – they argue – allow people to find the system they consider most comfortable.  It cannot be denied that Daybreak has successfully prevented a major interstellar war, although it is also true that Daybreak has launched hundreds of military operations that are effectively local conflicts.

Objectively, the reality is somewhat different.  Daybreak does not intend to allow any completely independent states to exist.  When planets refuse to submit, or literally can’t submit, Daybreak imposes its own order, allowing its representatives to exploit the locals before they rise to take their place within the system.  It’s mission to reunite the galaxy is cover for the incorporation of worlds into its system, allowing its corporations access to markets – willing or not-  as part of a system that gives them an unfair advantage.  Daybreak is also very good at soaking up the cream of the talent, ensuring that it maintains an edge over the semi-independent dominions, and preventing them from building the forces to challenge the empire and demand better terms.

It is generally believed that, if there was a major challenge to the system, it would have trouble surviving …

Judge Dredd: The Small House (Comic Review)

3 Mar

Judge Dredd: The Small House

We are fascists.  We rule.

-Judge Smiley, to Judge Dredd.

Why do I like Judge Dredd?

It’s a hard question to answer.  I can recognise the appeal of the zero-tolerance attitude to policing Dredd and his fellows bring to Mega-City One, but I can also recognise the dangers of slipping from what one character called ‘good solid judging’ to outright oppression.  The better Dredd stories acknowledge the weaknesses of the Justice Department itself and the scope for corruption and tyranny, both direct and indirect.  Part of the appeal of Dredd himself, as a character, is the curious balance between Dredd’s commitment to the Justice Department and to justice itself.  Dredd is both a noble servant of his city, putting his life at risk time and time again to save the citizens, and the defender of a fascist regime.

In a sense, therefore, Judge Dredd is Mega-City One’s greatest hero and its greatest villain.

Dredd himself appears to believe that there is simply no alternative.  Mega-City One exists on a permanent edge, endlessly on the cusp of collapsing into chaos.  The city is barely capable of keeping itself going even when there isn’t a massive outside threat; the judges are badly overstretched, the vast majority of the population is unemployed and permanently bored, there’s little hope of building a better life for most of the citizens … and the rest of the world is worse.  This, perhaps, is the key to Dredd’s character.  He loves his city and sees himself as doing an unpleasant, but necessary job.  He also sees himself, perhaps, as someone with the freedom to temper the justice system – sometimes – with compassion and mercy.  This may be the root cause of his constant (until recently) opposition to robot judges.  A robot lacks the ability to determine when the situation calls for mercy, rather than ‘justice.’ 

The Small House pits Dredd against the enigmatic Judge Smiley, the head of a top-secret black ops unit that has been quietly manipulating events in Mega-City One since the death of the insane Chief Judge Cal.  Smiley has effectively separated himself from the Chief Judges and now acts alone, happily doing whatever he feels he needs to do to keep the city safe.  His methods bring him into conflict with Dredd, who thinks Smiley has broken the law repeatedly (even though they started out as allies).  Smiley presents Dredd with a difficult problem.  If Dredd moves against Smiley, what’ll come crashing down with him?

Smiley himself is an odd contrast to Dredd.  Where Dredd is a man of action, Smiley is a tea-sipping backbencher.  Dredd clings to his faith in the greater cause, Smiley is unapologetic about the simple fact the judges are fascists – I think he’s the first of the judges to openly acknowledge that they really are fascists – and that they do whatever they have to do to maintain their power.  The law is, as far as they are concerned, little more than a guideline.  This is not the first time this has been discussed – Dredd himself was involved with crushing the pro-democracy movement, on the orders of Chief Judge Silver – but it is considerable more blatant here as Smiley is no longer being overseen by anyone.  No one, not even Smiley himself, is carrying out sanity checks.

The story develops quickly as Dredd and his allies try to unearth Smiley’s covert teams and take them into custody, eventually discovering a long-buried truth.  Smiley and his team discovered the Apocalypse War was about to take place … and did nothing, because they believed Mega-City One needed to be pruned a little.  (Meta-commentary – this was one of the reasons the epic was written in the first place.)  Dredd is horrified by this assertion and understandably so – they came very close to losing the war – and clashes with the Chief Judge as he tries to bring Smiley to justice.  In the end, Smiley is brought down by the shock of being exposed and dressed into the light.  By this point, in the middle of a breakdown, it must have been a relief to die.

It’s hard to assess the story as it fits into canon, because parts of it feel like a ret-con.  There was no need to have the war, which caught the judges by surprise, be ‘allowed’ to happen.  It strains credibility that Smiley would have lost his sense of balance so quickly, let alone that he would have survived a series of city-shattering events without ever coming into the light or simply being killed in passing.  Smiley’s infrastructure would have been smashed and rebuilt repeatedly, without anyone ever noticing.  On the other hand, an isolated group might well lose track of reality.  It happens to internet forums as well as intelligence teams.

But it does focus on the difference between Dredd, who is empowered by his belief in the system, and a cynical judge who sees the system as an end in itself.  It also allows some moments for Dredd to fear that Smiley really does have authorisation from the Chief Judge, forcing him to confront a possibly (even more) corrupt system.

The story could have done with a great deal more development, if you ask me.  Smiley was never built up as a formidable threat and kept in the shadows, at least until it was too late.  It works in his favour – Smiley was never interested in mounting a coup – and yet there is a sense that when the covers are pulled away, Smiley simply shrivels. 

It is a good glance into a darker part of Dredd’s world, but – at a deeper level – it is also a grim warning of what happens when people with power are allowed to lose track of reality and operate without oversight.  And the artwork is extremely good.  The only major downside is that the story ends abruptly, not with a real examination of the consequences.

Stuck in Magic CH12

2 Mar

Chapter Twelve

The next two weeks were an eye-opening experience in so many ways.

I’d seen the slums before, of course, but patrolling them regularly left me torn between horror at the conditions – I’d seen better places in Iraq and Afghanistan – and a curious numbness that made it hard to think of anything I could do for them.  I was one guard, one man, and there was no way I could even begin to come to grips with the sheer scale of the poverty grinding the poor into the ground.  I wanted to do something to help, yet nothing came to mind.  The slums were an endless nightmare of crime, where one could either be the victim or the victimiser … or both.  Just walking through the slums made me sick.  It didn’t help that I was seriously worried no one would come to my aid if I blew my whistle.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been the FNG, but it was … different.  The guardsmen – the other guardsmen – knew I’d managed to wind up in deep shit.  They feared what would happen, if they stayed too close to me.  I understood all too well – people rarely confronted abusers as long as the abusers had the power to strike back – but it still galled me.  The guardsmen regarded me as a lightning rod, someone who might draw fire just by being there.  I liked to think I would have been more understanding, if I was in their place, but it was hard to be sure.  Standing next to the guy throwing shit was never a good idea.  It was hard to blame the guardsmen for wanting to make sure they were as far from me as possible.

I found myself wondering if it was time to move on, although I had no idea where I could go.  I’d read a great deal about the local political situation, about the warlords and the powers beyond the kingdom, but … where could I go?  The thought of being a mercenary offended my pride, yet … how many other choices did I have?  I could sign on as a bodyguard, I supposed, but that would have its own problems.  I’d heard enough grumbling about conveys being harassed, as they made their way through the disputed lands, to fear the worst.  If the warlords were stopping the Diddakoi, it was easy to believe they’d be stopping farmers and harassing them too.  And there’d be nothing I could do about it.

The thought tormented me as I made my way up and down the slums, alone in a crowded sea of humanity.  My uniform separated me from the poor and downtrodden, my conduct separated me from the other guardsmen and my knowledge and experience separated me from the rest of the city.  I’d read dozens of books where the time traveller had made himself a fortune, but … those books mocked me, every time I recalled how easy it had been for men who’d had a friendly author.  I had nothing, beyond a handful of coins.  There was no way I could convince someone to let me innovate, not when it would take years for them to see any real results.  All of the low-hanging fruit had already been plucked.

There might be another cross-world traveller out there, I thought.  I was actually fairly sure of it.  Convergent evolution might have led to a written language resembling English, but not an exact duplicate.  The letters had appeared, as far as the locals were concerned, out of nowhere.  But where is he?

I sighed as I made my way back to the guardhouse.  There were hundreds of stories of great magicians and aristocratic warlords and great innovators, stories that had grown so much in the telling that it was impossible to sort the kernel of truth from the bodyguard of complete nonsense.  I had the feeling I could spend the rest of my life trying and yet draw a complete blank.  It was funny how I’d never realised just how big the world was until I’d found myself in a place without cars and trains, let alone jumbo jets.  The flight from America to Iraq had been somewhere around twelve hours.  Now, getting from Damansara to half-mythical lands like Zangaria or Alluvia would take months … if I was lucky.  There was no way I could afford a trip through the portals.  They cost far too much for commoners like me.

“Welcome back.”  Captain Alder didn’t sound pleased.  He hadn’t, ever since he’d sent me to the slums.  “Report to the briefing room.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, deciding it would be better not to point out that I’d been on patrol for the last three hours.  Alone.  The guardsmen were never meant to patrol alone.  I had a feeling it was intended as more than just a punishment.  A lone guard could easily be picked off by criminals or rebels, his body left to rot in the streets.  “I’m on my way.”

I walked down the corridor, pausing long enough to pick up a tankard of small beer – it had very little alcohol content, I’d been assured – before I stepped into the briefing room.  It was crammed with guards, people I recognised mingling with people I’d never met.  I felt eyes following me as I leaned against the wall, sipping my beer.  It tasted ghastly, but there was nothing else to drink.  The City Guard didn’t seem to have coffee and donuts on tap.  We were lucky to get the beer. 

The guards spoke in low voices, sharing notes and rumours as they tried to guess what was going on.  I kept my eyes on my beer, while listening as best as I could, but no one seemed to know the truth.  Mutterings about warlord activity on the edge of the city’s nominal territory were mingled with rumours about parades and additional duties, perhaps even an expanded deployment into the slums.  I suspected it would just make them worse.  The slum dwellers hated and feared the guards, seeing them as just another bunch of exploitive bastards.  I was the cream of the cream, just for not taking whatever I wanted and harassing their women.  It made me feel like I’d been awarded a prize for common decency.

Captain Alder entered, followed by Storm.  The sorcerer’s eyes swept over the room, lingering briefly – very briefly – on me.  I felt a rustle of unease passing through the massed guardsmen, as if they were confronting a wild – and rabid – animal.  I’d heard so many stories about magicians, and what they could do, that I honestly wasn’t sure of the truth.  We were strongly encouraged to have as little to do with the magical community as possible.  I suspected it was probably good advice.

The captain spoke in short, choppy sentences.  “Our agents have uncovered a gang of runaway-smugglers and their charges.  Hidden in a warehouse.  We are ordered to arrest them, then hold them.  Their masters will take them off our hands.”

I frowned.  There was something in the captain’s voice that bothered me, a sense that … I wondered, suddenly, if he believed what he was saying.  Or … I’d met a bunch of officers who thought keeping information from the troops made them clever, or irreplaceable, but I’d never thought Captain Alder fell into that category.  He simply didn’t have much to conceal.  And yet … something was definitely a little out of kilter …

A guard I didn’t know held up a hand, then spoke in an oily voice.  “Is there a reward, sir?”

“Yes, if we recapture branded serfs,” Captain Alder said.  “Remember, we have to take them alive.  There’s no reward for bodies.”

I felt my heart sink.  Damansara was a magnet for runaway peasants and serfs, who fled the warlord estates in hopes of finding a better life in the city.  In theory, they were allowed to claim their freedom if they stayed out of sight for a year and a day; in practice, the warlords demanded their return even if they were old and grey.  They formed an underclass that lingered under the slums, doing odd jobs and brute labour for employers who didn’t give much of a damn about the law and exploited them.  A handful made it, I’d been told.  The remainder never managed to leave the slums.

And yet, the guard tries to ignore them as much as possible, I thought.  What’s changed?

Captain Alder snapped orders, dividing us into squads.  I joined my squad, keeping my expression carefully blank.  Perhaps the time had come to slip away into the city … I scowled as I remembered my little bag of cash was back in the guardhouse safe.  I could rely on the administrators to look after it – as corrupt as they were, they knew better than to steal from the guardsmen – but I couldn’t get my hands on it in a hurry.  There was no way I could convince them to give it to me and make my escape before the captain realised I was missing.  He already had his eye on me.

The squads formed up, collected their weapons and marched onto the streets.  I hoped someone was watching the guardhouse, ready to send a runner to alert the runaways that we were on the way.  It wouldn’t be that hard for the people-smugglers … my thoughts ran in circles as something struck me.  The runaways might not have a pot to piss in, but the smugglers were quite wealthy.  They could easily afford to bribe the guardsmen to look the other way.  And yet, we were heading out to bust their chops.  It made me wonder, as my eyes sought Captain Alder, just what had changed.  And why?

It was a warm evening, as always, but I felt cold as we marched into the poorer reaches of the city.  The crowds scattered in front of us; men and women, rich and poor, running for their lives as though the hounds of hell itself were after them.  I felt cold, remembering the days when Iraqis and Afghanis had done the same, not so much scared of us as what the insurgents would do to them, and their families, if they thought the locals were being a little too friendly with us.  Here, we were part of the city and yet … I fixed my eyes on the squad leader’s back, trying to keep my racing thoughts under control.  The warehouses at the edge of the poorer quadrant were abandoned, were supposed to be empty.  I hoped the runaways would have had the sense to station lookouts, to run for their lives if – when – they saw us coming.  There were just too many of us to fight.

The warehouse loomed up in front of us, a surprisingly large and blocky building.  I guessed magic had been involved in its construction, although there was no way to be sure.  The City Fathers had hoped Damansara would become a popular stop along the trade routes, a hope that might not have been misplaced if the warlords hadn’t taxed the lifeblood out of convoys heading to and from the city.  It was hard to be sure how many of the horror stories about the warlords were actually true – I doubted they kidnapped and ate children, let alone sacrificed them to the dark gods for power – but it was clear they were nasty bastards, too stupid to see when they were on to a good thing.  From what I’d heard, they were so determined to cling to their power that they wouldn’t let anyone else have a shot at it.  No wonder the runaways wanted to flee.

“Surround the building,” Captain Alder ordered, curtly.  He carried a club in one hand and a shield in the other.  “Squad Five will go in through the rear door and flush the runaways towards us.”

I groaned, feeling disturbingly unarmed as the squad took up position.  It had been a long time since I’d done any sort of crowd control duties and that had been with my friends and comrades at my back, men I’d trusted with my life.  Here … I was all too aware there were guardsmen would put a knife in my back, if they thought it would earn them a pat on theirs from the rapist’s family.  My skin itched as I saw the fifth squad making its way around the building.  There weren’t many ways in or out.  Captain Alder might be a corrupt bastard, but he wasn’t wrong.  If the runaways were in the building, they had no choice.  They had to charge us when the shit hit the fan.

“Remember the reward,” the squad leader muttered.  He was the oily bastard who’d asked the captain earlier.  “Don’t let them get away if you want a share.”

I looked up, sharply, as a crashing noise rent the air.  The fifth squad were making their entry, breaking down the warehouse door and crashing inside.  I braced myself, unsure what was going to happen.  Hard entry was always difficult and dangerous, even with modern weapons.  If you had to take the people inside alive, there were limits to what you could do to shape the battlefield.  Here, they didn’t even have grenades.  I had an idea for using gunpowder, but …

The door exploded outwards.  A mass of people – almost all men – boiled towards us, waving sticks, knives and a bunch of makeshift weapons.  I read desperation in their faces as they charged us, determined not to let us take them into custody.  I didn’t really blame them, even as I dropped into a combat stance.  The runaways didn’t have anything to look forward to, when they were returned to their former masters.  At best, they’d be hobbled and put back to work.  At worst …

A man crashed into me, swinging his stick in an arc that would intersect my head.  I raised my club to block it, then kicked him in the chest.  He grunted, but didn’t go down.  I cursed under my breath as he staggered – he was a farmer, tougher than the average guardsman – and smacked him in the side of the head.  He fell to the ground, blood staining his hair and pooling on the cobblestones.  I felt a flicker of guilt, even though I knew he’d meant to kill me.  He hadn’t been given a choice. 

The guardsmen wobbled under the sheer fury of the attack.  I saw a handful of guards knocked down themselves, men who would have been killed if the attackers had taken the time to do it properly.  They didn’t want to kill the guardsmen, they just wanted to escape before it was too late.  Another man came at me, fists raised.  I banged my club into his clenched hands, then again into his stomach.  He folded and crashed down.  I stepped over him, fighting beside two more guardsmen as the stream of runaways seemed to grow stronger and stronger.  We were being pushed back by sheer weight of numbers.  I had a vague impression of a man with a scared face, stabbing a knife towards me; I saw a woman tearing open her shirt, the sight distracting a guardsman long enough for her to stick a blade in him.  I turned, just in time to see her break through the line and run.  I hoped she made it.  Her victim would be lucky to survive long enough to make it back to the guardhouse.

Not that the local doctors can do much for him, I thought.  Magical healers could work wonders, literally, but they cost too much for the average citizen.  The doctors – they called them chirurgeons – were probably better described as butchers.  It would probably be safer to keep the poor bastard well away from them.

The fighting ended, almost as suddenly as it had begun.  I looked around, spotting a handful of guards lying on the ground.  The follow-up units were advancing, scooping up the prisoners and shackling them.  Captain Alder seemed oddly amused as he snapped orders, directing me and the other uninjured guards to help sort out the prisoners.  I eyed him darkly, feeling my temper fray.  The captain looked pleased, even though at least five guards were dead or so seriously wounded they would probably not survive the night.  I had no idea why he was so pleased.

I kept my thoughts to myself as we searched the warehouse, flushing out a handful of runaways who’d tried to conceal themselves rather than join the flight.  It was a crafty tactic, I conceded, and it might have worked if things had been different.  I couldn’t fault the runaways for assuming the guardsmen would do as little as possible.  God knew I hadn’t been very enthusiastic about the job.  I hadn’t wanted to arrest people for the crime of running away from their masters …

It hit me as we started to escort the prisoners back to the guardhouse.  It had been a set-up.  The runaways had been deliberately abandoned by the smugglers, left for the guardsmen … they’d been left in a place that could be made inescapable, with a little effort.  They might as well have been tied up and left for the taking!  Captain Alder, I realised suddenly, had been working with the smugglers all along.  He’d arrested the runaways, ensuring he’d collect the reward for sending them back to their masters … I felt sick.  I hadn’t thought much of the captain, particularly after he’d let a rapist go, but … this was bad.  It was one thing to do as little as possible, in hopes of a quiet life.  It was quite another to actively do evil.  And sending slaves back to their masters was evil!

And yet, what could I do about it?