I’m excited to report that Book 3 in The Empowered series, Empowered: Outlaw, will be published in a just a few weeks! This is the penultimate book in the series, with Mathilda Brant on a quest to rescue one of her sisters. The consequences of Mat’s quest turns out to be a lot more than she ever imagined.
Empowered: Outlaw will be available on all the major eBook retailers.
Here’s a preview: the first chapter.
Empowered: Outlaw–Chapter 1
Even inside the dark church, I could hear the trees scream in my mind as the windstorm slammed Portland. It felt like being hit with a sledgehammer. I staggered and nearly fell.
Strong fingers grabbed my arm and braced me. “Shit, Mat,” Keisha hissed next to me. She kept me from falling. “That bad?”
I nodded. “Hell, yeah.”
The wind’s howling rose, and for an instant drowned out the screams in my head. The boarded-up windows rattled. They should have been ripped off the building by now.
“Damn, but I hate windstorms,” Keisha said.
I took a deep breath, trying to clear my mind. We didn’t have much time. The gangers had left the abandoned church twenty minutes ago, but the way they’d been coming and going, it wouldn’t be long, even with this monster freak of a storm, before they came back.
We each carried a pocket flashlight, and waved the beams around the cluttered fellowship hall. Ruth used to bring me and the twins to church when we were young, but the fellowship hall at the UCC hadn’t been stuffed full of old mattresses and sleeping bags like this one. Keisha and I had entered the abandoned church through a locked back door. The door had been dead-bolted, but that wouldn’t keep us out. Not when Keisha was an Empowered who could control metal. Getting in was a cinch.
Keisha shook her head. “Still can’t see your sis going to church.”
I shrugged. “Ruth used to take us all the time.”
“Used to. You weren’t a believer, were you?”
I glanced at the walls covered with kid’s coloring paper. Little houses, clowns, horses.
“No, Ella and Ruth were the believers. Me and Ava went because we had to.”
“That why Ella fell in with a cult?”
I sighed. “Our old church wasn’t a cult.”
“But these Fellowship of Insight weirdos are.” She gestured at the darkened hall. “They hang out in a boarded-up Methodist church. They think anyone can be Empowered. They take drugs.”
“Herbs. Her diary said herbs.”
“Whatever. They take herbs, and then they get powers, sorta of like ours. That’s crazy.”
I couldn’t argue with her about that. It was crazy. Ella’s diary had said the Fellowship believed anyone could become Empowered. But that wasn’t how it worked. When person became Empowered, it was random, the luck of the draw. Empowering was extremely rare. There couldn’t be more than a couple thousand Empowered in the entire world, and that counted rogues doing life in prison
The big fellowship hall was crammed but clean. The tiled floor had been mopped.
“Can’t have been long since those insight people were here,” I said to Keisha. “The gangers haven’t messed up the hall yet.”
She flashed me a grin, and I smiled back at her. Suddenly, after months spent hiding in the shadows because we didn’t want Support to know we’d survived Emerald Green, it looked like we might just finally find out Ella was. Ella, my now-Empowered sister.
We’d found Ella’s diary at her friend Katie’s place two days ago, when the storm had started. Lucky the worst storm since the Columbus Day cyclone had hit Portland right then.
I had to find my sister before Support did. Being Empowered meant you were supposed to notify the Hero Council and either join or forswear ever using your power. If you didn’t, you were a rogue, a criminal. When, not if, they caught you, a lifetime sentence in Special Corrections waited. I’d been caught when I was sixteen, two years younger than Ella was now, and I’d been lucky not to die when the Hero Council swooped down on us.
I’d be damned if I let them catch Ella.
Keisha glared at me.
I blinked. “Sorry, you were talking?”
The glare deepened, then she shook her head. “You are off somewhere else way too much, girl.”
I started to snap at her, then stopped myself. Keisha was right.
“Yeah, been thinking about Ella.”
She cocked her head. “I figured that out.”
The hope that had been growing inside me suddenly turned sour. There wasn’t anything here.
“There has to be something here that points to Ella,” I muttered. I rubbed my hands on my jeans, trying to get the sweat off. The wind kept howling. The trees outside screamed loudly again in my mind. Even inside the church, the trees’ pain shot through me.
I walled myself off from my special sense I squeezed my eyes shut and took another deep breath. It took two more breaths before I no longer heard the screaming.
Blocking my special sense was harder than it used to be.
When I opened my eyes again Keisha stood next to the door to the sanctuary.
“Nothing here,” she said.
I made her wait a few more minutes while I searched some more, looking for maps on the wall, not finding any. I checked out a white board on an easel. The last thing written there was weird. “Fellowship of Insight meeting sings a song of moss.”
What the hell did that mean? Ella had fallen in with a bunch of nut jobs.
Maybe there was something in the sanctuary. “Come on,” I told Keisha over my shoulder.
I went down a short set of steps to a closed door, opened it. The sanctuary was dark. From what we’d seen when we’d entered the church the gangers had only been using the basement. I waved my flashlight around. Bark gleamed in the darkness.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose and I shivered.
“What is it?” Keisha hissed behind me.
I stepped into the sanctuary. The air was warm. It smelled like pine needles.
I blinked. Bark reflected in my flashlight’s beam.
“What the hell?” I whispered. A pine tree stood in the space between the pews and the altar.
“Can’t see a damn thing,” Keisha groused behind me. “I’m gonna find a light.”
“No!” I said it fast. “We can’t let anyone outside know we are in here.”
“That’s crazy.” The wind howled louder. “In this storm?”
The lights came on. Flickered. Stayed on. I blinked again.
“Damn it.” My eyes focused. The pine tree nearly brushed the ceiling. It rose from a hole cut in the floor.
“Shit,” Keisha said. “They cut the wood to make room for wood.” She giggled at her dumb joke.
I scowled. “But why?” The church had been closed for years. “How long had the Insight people been here?” I whispered.
I walked up to the pine, my legs trembling. The air felt like it vibrated as I got nearer to the tree. I reached out with my hand.
The screaming from the trees outside faded. My fingers brushed the bark, and my mind flashed on a gigantic tree with roots thousands of feet long. A tree that spread miles. It felt like a giant squeezed my head. My chest was tight. I couldn’t breathe. What kind of tree did that? I’d never felt anything like it.
I yanked my hand away. I reached out with my sense to the pine. Its life force felt like a rushing waterfall. I pulled my sense back, and the pine was just a pine growing inside a church.
“Shit,” Keisha muttered beside me. “That’s a hell of a tree.”
I bent over and looked at the floor. Someone had cut a hole for the tree to grow up. The tree had to be several years old. But, it couldn’t have been here when the church was an actual church. My chest tightened.
Was there another Empowered like me who could control plants? I’d never heard of one, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t.
“Hey, I didn’t know hot babes could be delivered to this dump,” I heard a deep voice behind me.
I whirled around.
A group of men in leather jackets stood at the back of the sanctuary.The biggest had a shaved head. One side of his mouth turned up in a weird half-grin.
“You ladies come by to play?” He sounded like he’d just won a jackpot.
Keisha’s fingers started to twitch.
“No powers,” I hissed. Her eyes narrowed.
Using powers would leave a trail. She’d used her metal control two days ago and again tonight, but that was only opening locks. “We gotta stay hidden.”
“We could have some real fun now,” the dude next to big and bald said, and grinned. His teeth gleamed gold. One of those gold teeth types. The other men chuckled.
“Yeah, fun,” one of them said.
The side door was halfway down the sanctuary from us. The goons were closer. It opened, and another goon appeared.
“No one in the hall,” he said. His eyes widened when he saw us and he also grinned.
Keisha raised her hands.
“No power,” I hissed again.
“Fuck that,” she shouted. She twiddled her fingers. Metal whirled into existence between her hands. Razor blades. I scrambled back and she flung the blades at the men.
The razor blades spun at them, slicing into their faces. Keisha’s fingers twitched and more blades appeared.
“Shit, she’s got powers,” gold-teeth shouted.
The gangers swore and scattered, ducking down behind pews.
“Shoot the bitches!” The leader yelled. The gangers hunkered behind the pews and drew pistols.
Keisha conjured six-inch long iron nails and flung them at the heads that appeared over the edge of the pews. One nail punctured an ear and the ganger screamed. Two grazed heads, leaving bloody marks. The gangers fired wildly and ducked back out of sight.
I reached out with my power. There were no plants in the sanctuary other than the tree, and altering it would take time, especially because it was so fucking weird.
But there was life drawing my sense down into the earth. I reached down with my power, and made blackberry vines come to life, writhing like snakes, and grew them up toward us, until they slithered through the hole.
The wind outside screamed again, and the lights flickered.
Keisha kept conjuring nails and razor blades, the air in front of her steamed and sweat ran off her angry face. “You fuckers should all die,” she growled.
One of the gangers popped up and aimed a weird looking pistol at her. There was a sharp hum and then a zap. A stunner!
Keisha crumpled to the ground, unconscious. I squatted down as the blackberry vines snaked across the sanctuary. The ganger pointed his stunner at me. I rolled to one side, willing the vines to rise up and make a thorny curtain.
The lights went out. I scrambled up and ran behind the tree, tripping on a vine. Thorns pricked my skin. Damn that hurt.
“Get the bitch,” the leader said. His voice was tight with anger.
My skin tingled faintly, like an echo of the fierce needle pricks you’d get when you were near another Empowered.
“You’ll have to get me first,” a young woman said from the far side of the sanctuary, near the gangers.
Gun fire, real gun fire erupted again.
“No over, here,” the familiar sounding voice said, closer.
My heart leapt. I knew that voice.
“Don’t!” I yelled. She’d get herself killed.
More pistol shots banged out.
“Crap, you shot me,” one of the gangers moaned.
“Look out!” Another ganger shouted.
Something thudded against a pew. I couldn’t see a thing in the darkness.
The stunner zapped again. A body thudded on the floor. “You missed her.”
More shots. “No,” one of the gangers said, his voice weak. “Asshole, you shot me…” his voice trailed off.
The stunner went zap, zap, zap.
The lights came on again.
I blinked. One ganger, the shaven-headed leader, sprawled over the back of a pew, his head down, dead or unconscious. Another one lay against the far wall, eyes staring at nothing. Dead.
Movement off to my right.
A slender, woman, six feet tall, in a gray bodysuit and black mask, like something out of the old days when Empowered wore costumes, long before I was born, stood in the right-side aisle. Her eyes gleamed blue. Her short hair was the same shade of black as mine. She walked toward me, arms swinging, reminding me of a leopard stalking prey. Ella.
“It’s you,” I said and got up, my legs wobbly. After weeks and weeks of searching for my sister, she had found us. Keisha was still unconscious on the floor. She’d be out for little while. As would the gangers who’d been stunned.
“Thank God you are okay.” My voice caught. The gangers could have killed her. Support could have found her. Now she could be safe.
She stopped at the front row, crossed her arms. “Why are you looking for me?”
My eyes widened. “Why am I—why do you think? Because you’re in danger.”
She nodded at Keisha lying on the floor. “Me? Seems like you are the ones in danger.”
“You know what happens to rogue Empowereds,” I said.
“I’m not a rogue.”
A chill ran through me. “What? Are you sanctioned?”
She laughed. “No. I reject those classifications.”
She rejected—“But the world doesn’t, Ella.”
“The world is wrong.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Come home with me.”
“Where—Ruth’s? That’s no place for me, now.”
“Why do you say that?” I couldn’t figure her, where else would she want to be?
I sent my power back into the ground. I didn’t want to hurt her. I’d create ivy vines to pin her. But my skin no longer tingled. It should have been felt like a thousand needles jabbing me, if Ella were really here.
Which meant she wasn’t.
It was one of her apparitions.
The apparition looked exactly like Ella. Her apparitions had helped me back in Colombia, and against Ellis’s monsters, and yet again at Emerald Green, when she’d saved me and Keisha from the monstrosity that Brandon Ellis had become.
She smiled. “Because I’ve found a better place.”
“You are just an apparition.” I ground my teeth.
“Projection, really. Yes, I can speak through my projection now.”
“Ella, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” I swallowed. “For months.” Damn it. My baby sister, twin to my other baby sister, Ava.
“I know,” she said. “I really wish you wouldn’t.”
My throat tightened. “Why?”
“It’s too dangerous for you.” She crossed her arms over her chest, lifted her chin.
“What you are doing is too dangerous,” I said. We’d only been talking for a couple of minutes, and already we were running in circles. I frowned, and walked up to her.
Her projection’s gaze was steady. It, she, whatever, didn’t flinch as I got closer.
“Why won’t you come home?” I asked her. “Really?”
“Because I’m doing something important.”
My jaw clenched. “They are going to catch you. Or kill you.”
“What about you?” she asked. That stopped me cold. I opened my mouth. Shit. That wasn’t fair.
“I didn’t have a choice.”
“There’s always a choice,” she said. “Always. You and Ruth both said that.”
I let out the breath I’d been holding. “Fine. Yes, there is. Sometimes those choices suck rocks, but yeah, there’s choices.” I could have gone back to prison instead of work for Support after I broke my parole by using my powers, to save my sisters from those idiot gangers. I could have chosen to not do what Support asked, and let Ruth die. But I didn’t.
Her eyes grew soft around the mask. “Let me make my choice.”
“But what choice is that?”
“To free humanity.”
“What?” She was talking crazy. “From who?”
She gestured around her as the wind howled outside, rattling the windows. “The people in charge.”
Now she sounded like the Scourge. “You mean take out the Hero Council?” Nefarious had tried that, and he and Ashula and the others had wound up dead. “They’ll kill you.”
She lifted her chin higher. “What alternative is there, really? Run? Hide? Hide didn’t work so well for you when you ran off to join the Renegades, did it?”
She might as well as punched me in the gut. I ground my teeth. “Fine. You’re right. They were wrong for thinking they could hide a whole community right under Portland. But we can still lie low, and have a life.”
She shook her head. “You’re fooling yourself, Mat.”
“Where are you? Let me come to you?”
“I’m listening to the song of Moss.”
“Plants are my department, remember.”
“This song anyone can hear. If they listen, really listen.”
She wasn’t making sense. “What does that mean?”
“You have to listen.”
Anger, frustration, desperation all stormed inside me. I unclenched my fingers. “Listen, whatever you’re doing, they’ll come for you. We can face this together. I can help.” I reached toward the projection.
“Take care of yourself, Mat,” she said and vanished.
My fingers closed on air. I closed eyes. I wanted to break something. Why couldn’t she see how dangerous things were? Why couldn’t she see that?
I knelt beside Keisha. Gently shook her. Still out. Stunner hits usually lasted about fifteen minutes. I hefted her up into a fireman’s carry. She was five eight, I was six two. A big girl, Ruth used to say.
I started down the aisle, stopped, and lowered Keisha back to the floor. Stupid. I should check on those idiot gangers. Ella’s apparition, okay, projection, had messed with my thinking. I took a deep breath. Focus, I told myself.
I crept over to where the gangers were laid out. Two were dead, the others stunned. I started to reach for the stunner, stopped. No. A second stun hit when a person was already out from the first could stop a heart. These bastards probably deserved it, but I didn’t want to point at us. Not any more than I already had. Support thought we were dead, at least I hoped they did. Keisha and I had been inside the neutron bomb’s blast radius at Emerald Green. We should have died. Would have died if not for the mutant plant shell I created using the amplifier, to shield us from the blast and the neutron radiation.
I could kill the unconscious gangers with one of the pistols, make it look like a gang fight.
Instead, I went back to Keisha, hefted her up again, and staggered out of the sanctuary.