New Agents of Sorcery novella in an-all-new anthology

This summer I wrote a new novella entitled Lunaticking, featuring Elizabeth Marquez, magics good and evil, and more than one sort of werewolf, set in the Olympic rainforest. Writing it was huge fun. It was also emotional. My wife and I lost our long-time friend Rachel to cancer. She always believed in magic, and the novella is dedicated to her.

It will be exclusive to the new High Moon anthology, along with novellas by seven other urban fantasy authors also exclusive to the book: Aimee Easterling, BR Kingsolver, Jenn Stark, Becca Andre, Jenn Windrow, N.R. Hairston, and Marina Finlayson. The book will be released on September 14th. It’s already available for pre-order at three ebook retailers.

https://books2read.com/u/boaX0Z

Here’s the first two chapters of Lunaticking as a sample:

***

One

The howl shredded the silence of the Olympic Rainforest night, erupting from the canyon mouth, east of Tully and me. The hairs on the back of my neck stuck straight out. It sounded like something out of a horror movie.

“That’s our wolf-dude,” I told Tully. He loomed beside me in his leather duster, his dark face tight with concentration as he peered into his scry stone. He began chanting a Tag spell in Finnish.

I held my wand and peered into the darkness, brushing my bangs away from my eyes with my free hand. The waxing gibbous moon had sunk behind the wooded ridge west of us, plunging the canyon floor into darkness. Morning twilight hadn’t begun yet.

“Got you,” Tully said. A golden thread hung in the air, a glowing spell-line that connected him to the wolf-man manifestation.

“Let’s go then,” I said and started back down the trail at a half jog, my wand out, point down. I pulled a Link spell from memory. I’d cast it in German. Not much elegance, but plenty of sure strength, enough for this wolf-man manifestation, especially out here in the boondocks.

“Liz, wait up,” Tully called behind me.

I looked over my shoulder at him. “Come on, old man, better keep up.” Tully was thirty, four years older than me, and I never wanted to miss a chance to tease him about the age difference.

He broke into a run, and I ran faster to stay ahead of him, but Tully had longer legs, was former US Army, and a big-time gym rat. He passed me in seconds.

My breath burned as we ran. My boots felt like they weighed a ton each. Maybe I should have worn hiking ones instead of Doc Martens. We crested the rise in the middle of the canyon and then I could see the mouth, and the distant mountains, lit by the nearly full moon sinking in the west of us.

Tully stopped and I did likewise, bending over and gasping for air. He uttered a command word and purple mana pulsed along the golden thread of the spell.

The air shimmered, and a window of silver light appeared in front of Tully. He gestured and we finally glimpsed our target, after a night spent wandering through this forsaken forest.

The supernatural’s gray fur was shaggy. Its jeans bulged and ripped, going down to just below the knees, with the tattered remains of a checkered shirt hanging from its broad shoulders. The eyes glowed red. It sniffed the air, mouth open, short fangs shining in the moonlight. The manifestation was right out of a Universal monster movie from the Nineteen Thirties. Manifestations modeled themselves on human ideas and self-conceptions. Everything from myth and folk lore to urban legends.

“Now that’s a classic wolf-dude,” I said. It looked like a stunt double for Lon Chaney Jr.’s wolf man.

Tully gestured with his hands and the golden spell-thread brightened. “Anthro-wolf, to use the correct designation.” face narrowed in concentration. “It’s a Level Three.”

I blinked. That was a permanent on the Residency scale. “That was fast. We only picked it up yesterday.” How could it solidify that quickly? Manifestations took time to coalesce.

“And why is it out here in the boondocks?” Tully asked.  

“Good question,” I said. This part of the Olympic Rainforest was deserted. There shouldn’t be any here. “Maybe it wandered away from a populated area.” I shook my head. To exist, manifestations needed people. Supernaturals flickered into existence from the interaction between mana and the human subconscious. Mana was the fuel for magic. It flowed through everything and everyone, invisible except for the few of us aware of its existence. There were very few humans out here, and supernaturals typically needed a large collective subconscious. Which meant there should only be the very rare fleeting manifestations, not a permanent prancing about.

I searched my memory for the ranged binding spell I needed. The Spinning Chain, I’d go with that. Ensnare him at range, and then attach the Link spell. Two spells in quick order. Despite the long night, I could do it.

I began slicing the air in front of me with my wand, warming up. The wolf-dude was a hundred yards distant. It turned and ran off, shoulders rolling, long arms nearly scraping the ground.

I chanted the Spinning Chain spell in Spanish. “I cast forth my hand and ensnare you from afar.” My skin tingled as a spinning loop of golden light appeared before me. It turned to a muddy gray glow with steel glints, mimicking a real chain. “I bind thee!”

As I pulled back my arm for the windup, a chorus of howls echoed behind us. I couldn’t stop the spell, but my aim went all skewed and the chain missed the lens and spun into the trees. My right tricep muscle suddenly cramped.

In the arcane lens, the image of the wolf-person disappeared into the trees, the lens dissipating a second later as Tully lost concentration.

We turned and peered back up the canyon. Moonlight washed the tops of the trees with light, but the forest beneath was dark. The chorus grew louder.

I massaged my arm. “More? How are they materializing out here in this deserted forest?”

Tully snapped his wand, flinging a quick spell in that direction. “Reveal!”

We waited. And waited.

Nothing.

“No mana. No magic.” Tully said, after a minute.

“You’re kidding.” I flexed my arm. Still a bit cramped. “You’re telling me those howls are not supernatural?”

“There’s nothing magical there,” he said.

“Maybe that supernatural can throw howls. You know, like a ventriloquist.”

He gave me a side-eye.

“Okay, I admit, that’s ridiculous. Maybe those howls were fleeting manifestations, Level Zeroes?” Level Zeroes were supernaturals that only lasted for minutes, sometimes just seconds. Most manifestations were phantasmal Zeroes, only a few solidified enough to become even a Level One, which might last an hour, or a day at most. Level Twos, perhaps a few weeks. Level Threes, like the wolf-man manifestation I’d failed to ensnare, were the lowest level of permanents.

“Multiple Level Zeroes?” Tully’s tone told me he thought I was nuts.

“What else could it be?” I asked.

“How about actual wolves?”

I squinted at him. “There aren’t any real wolves here in the Olympic peninsula.”

“Actually, there is a wolf sanctuary here. Not close, but still here.”

“You’re suggesting that maybe an actual wolf left the sanctuary and happened to end up here, right when a manifestation outbreak occurred?” I asked.

Tully shrugged. “Okay, so it does seem pretty unlikely.”

“There are no coincidences, just connections not yet found,” I said, quoting our RU.N.E. field manual. The Regulating Union for Normalizing Enchantments loved to spell everything out, especially procedure.

His eyebrows rose. “You’ve actually read the field manual?”

“Hey, I’ve read it. I just don’t read it for fun like you do.” I put my wand away. Tully couldn’t cast another scry until after dawn, and then it was going to be very difficult to locate any supernatural. Day magic was much more subtle than night magic, and manifestations usually went to ground once the sun was up.

“There’s only one thing we can do,” I said. “Go find breakfast.”

Two

Chloe stood at the edge of camp. Her skin tingled in the glow of the nearly full moon that hung low in the west, taking the edge off her anger at Russ. He and the others had been gone for hours, out on his latest “lope-about.” Despite her annoyance at him, his expression made her smile. She shook her head. He seemed to do both to her on a regular basis.

Grass rustled behind her, and the familiar scent of a packmate filled her nostrils. It was Calvin. She turned to greet her friend. He smiled and adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses. She’d bonded with him on that ill-fated tour bus, when she was with her grandmother, and he with his grandparents. Before the terrible accident that changed the survivors forever.

Behind him the coming dawn had begun to smear the eastern sky.

“They still haven’t returned?” Calvin pushed his glasses back up his nose. Despite everything, poor Calvin was still near-sighted and needed his glasses. It wasn’t his fault.

“Not yet.” She suppressed a grin. 

“The moonlight gives your coppery hair a silver tinge,” he said.

“You only now noticed?” She grinned. “Making a pass at me, Calvin?”

He blushed. “No, no, I’m not,” he said hastily. “I wouldn’t want to get between you and Russ.”

“I don’t belong to him,” she said.

“Well, I didn’t mean it like that, but you guys are a thing, right?”

They’d become a couple. Chloe and Russ hadn’t committed to each other. Not yet. After the accident, they had been the first ones to shift and become wolves. Her human and wolf sides had both felt the attraction between them. It crackled like summer lightning.

For a time, they had been happy in the deep forest. The others learned to shift, and they bonded as pack. Then Russ began having dreams, dreams about another place, a better one. A month ago, they came to this place, near a fishing resort, not far from the highway, and not much farther from a town. They were able to get supplies, more clothes and shoes and other gear. But it also put them at risk of being discovered for what they had become.

Staying deeper in the forest was best. Chloe was sure of it. But Russ was certain being here was the best for the pack. He told Chloe he now dreamed of new members joining them. So, the pack had to wait here for the new members. She was still drawn to him, and she thought he was to her, but his dreams kept getting in the way.

She said they needed to move on. He said that they must wait.

Now the disagreement over what the pack should do next threatened what the two of them had together. She told him the entire pack needed to discuss staying or going. Russ agreed to it, reluctantly. He had agreed, saying it was only right, though she could sense the compulsion to just order them to stay. What was it about this place that made him so stubborn? When they’d been deep in the wilderness, he’d agreed that the pack needed to stay away from civilization and move as necessary. But these dreams now convinced him otherwise.

A chorus of howls echoed faintly to the east.

She shook her head again. “Russ and the others.” The fishing resort lay west, but only a couple of miles. Too close to be howling.

“It sure sounds like it,” agreed Calvin.

They stood there in silence, waiting for the pack to arrive.

Tyler returned first, still fastening his jeans as he walked out of the trees west of them. Barefoot as usual. His sleeveless flannel shirt was unbuttoned. His chest muscles flexed as he buttoned it, stopping two holes short of the top.

“Where’s Russ?” Chloe asked him.

He brushed his long blonde hair away from his eyes. “He’s still scouting.”

Which meant he was still in wolf form. “Now?” She frowned. “He knows we have this meeting.” She’d finally agreed to the discussion, and he stayed away?

Tyler shrugged. “He said he wanted to check out a possible intrusion.”

Worry poked at her. “Intrusion? How many and where?”

“I don’t know, that’s all he said.”

She frowned. Just like Russ to be the hero and investigate on his own.

Angel appeared next, pulling her black tank top down over her naked breasts. Her hair, which had been shoulder length when they’d all been on that tour bus three months ago, was now cropped close to her head.

Kat and Max walked behind her, both dressed in wool shirts and jeans, holding hands.

Chloe crossed her arms and stared up at the lightening sky. “Russ needs to be here.”

“He’s the Alpha,” Tyler said. The rest of the pack gathered in a circle around Chloe, beneath a sequoia.

Calvin adjusted his glasses again, and smiled. “Pirate Code, Tyler, remember? We decide together. Russ decides in a crisis. This isn’t a crisis.”

Tyler bared his teeth, took half a step toward Calvin, who bravely stood his ground.

“You aren’t the alpha,” Tyler growled. “You’re not one of the betas, either. Me and Chloe are. You’re in the back of the pack, man, where you belong.”

“Don’t speak to him like that,” Chloe said, putting a low growl into her own voice.

Tyler flinched, then lifted his chin up defiantly. “You aren’t the alpha,” he repeated, but there was less force in his words the second time.

Chloe uncrossed her arms “How about you shift and find our fearless pack leader and let him know we’re waiting for him?” He shouldn’t be chasing down intruders. The rules stated they must avoid outsiders.

Out of the corner of her eye, Angel smirked, but didn’t say anything.

Tyler pulled his shirt off as he stalked into the trees. Angel headed to her tent.

Chloe plucked a long blade of grass from the earth, twirled the stem. A flood of scents filled her awareness—the sharp, sour tang of the grass itself, the dirt traces tangling from the roots, the moistness that sheltered earth worms, wriggling insects, the trace of a bee that had brushed against the grass blade, the almost metallic taste of a dragonfly that had perched on the blade not long ago.

She shook herself. Lately, the world had begun opening up to her in a flood of sensations while she was still in human form. Not like it had been for the first two months.

“Are you all right?” Calvin asked.

She blinked. She had forgotten he was still there. “I was distracted,” she said. “So much to drink in here.”

“You’re more aware of everything now, aren’t you?”

“I guess. Why?” she asked.

“Because I am, too. In all sorts of ways. I notice sounds far differently than I did a few weeks ago. Smells and tastes, too. But it’s more than that.” He fell silent.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He tilted his head, looking at her. “Haven’t you noticed tiny glints of gold and silver light, sometimes, when we transform? Have you seen how some rocks and hills have a really faint purple aura around them?”

She tugged idly at a strand of her hair, struggling to recall. “Maybe once or twice, but I thought it was just a trick of the light.”

“I’ve seen it more than once or twice, but only because I’ve written it down in my journal. I have four entries. But the thing is, I can’t actually remember any of them. I only know because I wrote down that I saw it.”

Chloe shivered. “That’s spooky. What do you think it means?”

“We’re changing. I don’t know why. Is it this place? Or just our wolf sides developing further?”

“I think it’s this place. We need to move on,” she said. “It’s too risky to stay here.”

“But this is something different,” Calvin replied.

She nodded. “Another reason to leave.”

“If only we knew why our senses are altering.” He got to his feet. “Another reason to leave, I guess. I’m going to get something to eat. I’ll keep an ear and an eye out for Russ and the others.” He left and she leaned back on her arms.

The Moon had disappeared behind the wooded ridge. She could go and look for Russ, but they’d argued before he took the others out on the run.

It had been a bad fight. She clenched her fists at the memory. He left to lead the others. He should come back to her, not expect her to chase after him.

She exhaled slowly.

“We need to decide, together, as a pack,” she said aloud.

The World Outside

Four years ago today I published Empowered: Agent, the first novel in the Empowered series. In honor of that, I’ve written a flash fiction story which takes place when Mathilda Brandt is still in Special Corrections, nearly three years after the event of “Nullified.”

***

The World Outside

Copyright 2021 Dale Ivan Smith

Rain popped and sizzled on the force dome above my garden in the Yard. My tomato plants withered in the heat, but the sudden rain outside Special Corrections would do them no good. San Diego got doused but it was still a desert inside Special Corrections, thanks to the damn force dome.

I frowned. My watering can was nearly empty. Even with the null cuffs on, I could still hear the faint moaning of the plants, craving water.

Another female inmate appeared from behind my tomato plants. My jaw tightened. She must have been waiting for me. She was a redhead, slender, maybe five ten, so four inches shorter than me, wearing the same white coveralls we all wore inside, and the same nullification cuffs that blocked our powers. 

I didn’t see either of the armored Corrections Officers that were on duty here in the Yard. My garden was near the forty-foot-high wall dividing our section of Special Corrections from the men’s section, which meant it was in shadow in the afternoon, since the men’s section was on the west side.

The woman held a watering can in her hand. “You’re Mathilda, right?”

I narrowed my eyes. “And you are?”

Concern flashed across her face. I didn’t know why. I didn’t get in fights, or bully anyone. But she must have been new, so she didn’t know that.

“I’m Lexie,” she said, blurting out her name. “I just got here a couple of days ago. I’d heard that you were having trouble with your garden.” She lifted the can. “I have more water for you.”

“You do know that helping another inmate in a proscribed activity is considered a Class Three infraction,” I pointed out. Warden Fulbright regularly drilled the rules into us during assemblies in the cafeteria.

Lexie’s gaze darted around and then back to looking at me. Her eyes were green. “No one’s watching. I’m sorry, I just wanted to help you.” She held out the can.

It looked identical to mine, right down to the dent in the side and the rust stains. That was weird. “Where’d you get the duplicate?” I asked her.

She glanced down at her feet. “Sorry, I can’t tell you.” She glanced off to the south. “CO Reiner will be headed this way any moment.” She took a step toward me. The water in the can sloshed over the top as she moved closer, droplets splashing on the bare earth just beyond a tomato vine. The plant keened in my mind. For an instant, I actually tried to reach out with my power. 

I sucked in a deep breath of air. I couldn’t use my power, even if I weren’t wearing the null cuffs.

“No,” I said.

Lexie’s voice changed, becoming insistent. “Come on, you feel it, don’t you? Take it. No one will know. I’ll take your can and you can finish watering your plants with mine. The COs won’t have a clue.” She thrust the can at me, sending more water sloshing over the edge and spattering on the ground. 

The tomato plants all began keening in my mind. I raised my fist. “Damn you, leave me alone!”

Her face hardened. The uncertain newbie was gone; instead, I recognized the menacing look I’d seen dozens of times in the nearly five years I’d been inside. 

Her lips curved up into a vicious grin. “You don’t know me at all. I can make things very rough for you.” She held the can like a weapon. 

I laughed. “Give me a break. Make things rougher for me? Maybe, but so what? I know what I’m going to do.”

“What’s that?” She asked. Her voice had turned dangerous.

“Get back to my work.” I turned my back on her and walked down the line, sprinkling drops where I could. I didn’t try to wall my mind off from the plants’ cries. Instead, I heard them, felt the echo in my body, and didn’t try to fight the tears filling my eyes.

The water was gone. I reached the end of the garden.

Clapping sounded behind me. I turned. Lexie had disappeared. Instead, a short, gray-haired woman in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, stood there.

A Support agent, one of the normals who worked for the sanctioned Empowered in the Hero Council. I’d seen them here a few times, but it had been a while.

I put down my can and crossed my arms. “What happened to Lexie?”

The woman looked to be in her fifties. She wore her gray hair short. Her hazel eyes looked me over. “She left.”

“Just like that?”

The Support agent smiled. “Just like that. She’d served her purpose.”

“Which was?”

“A test.”

So, this had been another test. There had been so many of them since I’d arrived. Usually, Warden Fulbright set them up. But there had never been a Support agent in one of her little tests before. Fulbright used other inmates, like Tricksie, who had tried to get me to break out when I turned eighteen. The first test she’d set for me. Her tests were really snares to get you to become one of her stooges.

My fingers dug into my arms.

The agent watched me, not saying anything. Weighing me with her eyes, waiting to see what I’d do next.

I’d be twenty-one in a couple of weeks. Eligible for parole, since I’d been convicted of being a rogue Empowered when I was sixteen. I didn’t want to be Empowered. I just wanted to be released and take care of my grandmother and my twin sisters, who were going on seventeen. God only knew what trouble they had gotten into since I’d been inside.

Eligible for parole didn’t mean I’d be paroled. I could still end up a lifer here. So, I had to stay out of trouble, especially not fight or mouth off to the COs. 

I shrugged. “What’s next?” I asked the agent.

Her gaze bored into me. “The biggest test of all,” she said.

I tensed, then uncrossed my arms and rolled my shoulders. “Okay. I’m ready,” I said.

“No, you’re not,” she replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because the test will be the world outside.”

Those words clanged together in my brain. The world outside

That was how I learned I was being paroled. They were giving me a chance for a new life.

I was grabbing that chance and not looking back.

It wasn’t until I’d been released that I realized what the Support agent had meant. I’d dreamed that I once I was out, it would be easy to walk on the straight and narrow and keep my head down.

But I hadn’t reckoned with the world outside and what it wanted.

Witch Way

This year’s Halloween story is another “prequel” of sorts about Elizabeth Marquez, hero of my series Agents of Sorcery. It shows what happens when a grown-up dressed as a witch visited then sixteen-year old Elizabeth Marquez on Halloween. It also reveals an important episode from Liz’s life that took place earlier that year as well. I hope you enjoy it!

You can read last year’s story, “Halloween Duty,” here. Thanks for reading!

WITCH WAY

Dale Ivan Smith

“What, what are you?” I sputtered. I brushed my bangs from my eyes, and looked around frantically.

A tiny person-shaped cloud of silver sparkles floated at the foot of the couch, outlined in purple. I sat up, scooting away from the figure. The copy of Teen I was reading slipped from my fingers and flopped on the floor with a bang.

The sparkle thing vanished. I blinked, and rubbed my eyes. Maybe it had just been a trick of the light. Or, maybe it was a flashback to that afternoon in June. There’d been sparkly things there, too, and fluttering gossamer wings.

I swallowed. I wasn’t supposed to think about that day.

I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans, then fingered the charm necklace Doctor Brown had given me, to help me think about other things.

I thought about saying the mantra he’d taught me. Before I could begin, a sudden gong sound broke the silence, like the peal of a giant bell. I jumped off the couch, my heart pounding.

It sounded again. It was the doorbell.

Tonight was Halloween but it wasn’t quite dark yet, and I’d been sure to turn off the light, so there shouldn’t be any Trick or Treaters.

I was all alone in the house. Mom was back east visiting my sister Clara, who was still in the special hospital. Dad was at a special university conference in Seattle, so it was just me. But I was sixteen; I could take care of myself. Maybe it was a delivery, but I hadn’t ordered anything, and Mom and Dad always told me when something was supposed to come. If it were a door-to-door sales person, I’d just wait. Mom had clearly visible “no soliciting” signs outside. Not one, but three. That was my mother.

The doorbell rang again.

Dang it. Maybe I’d forgotten and left the light on. But it was still too early.

I crept to the door. The light switch for the outside light was in the off position. I stood up on my tiptoes to peek through the peephole. Being five-foot-nothing made things difficult, lots of things. I was one of the shortest girls in my high school, and our front door was a tall one.

A grown-up wicked witch stood on the porch. She looked like she’d just stepped out of the Wizard of Oz. The point of her tall, floppy black hat bobbed as she looked around. Her skin was green, just like the Wicked Witch of the West.

She held a wicker basket by its arching handle. I couldn’t see what was in the basket.

The witch turned to face the door. Her red painted lips curved into a huge smile and she fluttered long eye lashes. “Please open the door. I know you are in there, Elizabeth.” I could hear her clearly, even through the thick wood.

I shivered. She knew my name.

She cackled, just like the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz movie. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

Her eyes reminded me of someone I knew.

Her smile softened. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Beth,” she said, her voice suddenly kind.

It was Grandmother Mary. Only Mary called me Beth. My father and my friends called me Liz. Mother always used my full name.

I unlocked the door and opened it. “Grandma?” I asked.

Mary nodded. “I thought I’d surprise you. A little surprise to go with a surprise visit.”

Her dress fluttered as she gestured at the high ceiling and huge living room. “Wow, this is a big house.”

I shuffled my feet. It was a big house. We’d only been in it for a couple of months. Mom wanted a change for us, after Clara had to go into that special hospital, after the—I pushed the memory away. The therapist mom had me see said dwelling on the memory of what had happened with Clara was “counterproductive.” I saw him twice a week.

His hypnosis helped dim the memory of that afternoon in the garden, last summer. When gossamer wings appeared and the air smelled so sweet and…“ I pushed the memory away.

Mary’s head was cocked to one side, reminding me of a crow. “What are you doing, honey?” she asked.

She looked at the couch. “How about we sit?”

She stepped over the fallen magazine and arranged her black skirts as she sat down on the couch.

I plucked up Teen, put it on an end table.

“I’m sorry about what happened to Clara,” Mary said.

“I’m not supposed to think about it,” I stammered.

Mary’s face became concerned. “Did Fiona tell you that?” She asked, using my mother’s name.

“Yeah. She and the therapist.”

Her dyed black eyebrows shot up. “She did?” Mary sighed. “You can’t suppress a negative event. Fiona should know that.”

She took my hand in hers, the long red add-on fingernails stroking my skin. “I’m sorry, dear.”

I bit my lip, tears welling up. This was stupid.

I pulled my hand away. “About what? You come here out of the blue, dressed up like the Wicked Witch of the West, how come?”

Mary smiled gently. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here sooner.”

I felt a pang of guilt. Mary had come to our old house right after what had happened to Clara, but there’d been an argument and she’d had to go back across the country to Cape Cod.

“But why as a witch?” I asked. “I wanted to see you.” I had missed her. Her ditsy, spacey, happy attitude. She never worried. Unlike my mother, who was always concerned. She never called it worry, she was too button-downed for that. Mary was a free spirit.

“For two reasons.” She tilted her head and gave me a sly, sideways smile. “First, to help you remember.”

I rubbed a tear from my eye. “I’m not supposed to remember. Doctor Brown said I needed to let go of those memories. He helps me using hypnosis. Even taught me this little chant.” I closed my eyes. “Let go, let go, let…go.” It had sounded so stupid at first. I stroked the charm necklace.

“That’s an interesting piece of jewelry,” Mary said.

I opened my eyes. My face grew warm. “It helps,” I mumbled, suddenly embarrassed. “It’s stupid.”

Mary lifted the necklace. “No, it’s not. It’s sneaky.”

“Sneaky?” I asked. “I don’t understand.” I twiddled the necklace. The urge to chant Doctor Brown’s little mantra tugged at me.

Mary sighed, let go of the necklace. “Don’t you remember when I came dressed as a witch to your Halloween parties?”

I nodded. “You came as a different witch every year.” One year she wore a blonde wig and a too-tight bustier that made my dad’s face go red all the way up to his hairline. Another year, she came as a crone. Another as an ancient Greek witch. Another as a witch from Macbeth, with an actual iron cauldron on wheels. Wheels. I realized I was smiling.

She stroked my cheek. “It’s good to see you smile.”

“You just came to remind me of when you used to dress up as a witch?”

She shook her head. “There’s another reason.” She became serious, and her gaze searched my face.

I bit my lip. Mary was never serious.

“What reason?” I asked.

“To help you see the truth, and to understand what happened to you and Clara is part of something much bigger.”

“Let go,” I muttered, then caught myself. My fingers stroked the necklace.

“You have to decide whether you’re going to see the truth, or keep it hidden from you.” Her tone was kind. “It’s up to you. But you’ll have to take off that necklace if you do.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

She giggled. “You know, pull it over your head and put it on the table.”

She seemed more sixteen right then than I felt.

“It’s a joke, honey,” she said.

I blew out the air I’d been holding in, and nodded again.

“But it’s also the truth.”

“But what do you mean?” I asked again.

“I’ve already said more than I should have.”

I crossed my arms. “Grandma, you came here dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West, telling me you want me to remember, and to see the truth. You’ve already done more than my mom would think you should have. So, please tell me.”

“You’ll have to take off the necklace and be ready to feel afraid again.”

“What’s the big deal with the necklace?”

“It’s not what it seems,” she said. “And it’s part of the truth.”

My eyes narrowed. “Not what it seems?”

“Take it off and find out,” she replied.

This was dumb. But my fingers didn’t want to take it off. Doctor Brown said it would help. Mom said it would help.

Help me forget.

“I’m supposed to forget,” I mumbled.

“Only if you want to.” She waggled her fingers, and I suddenly remembered all the magic tricks she used to do. Making things disappear, pulling a quarter out from behind my ear, card tricks, all those things she did when she came dressed as a witch to my kid Halloween parties. She used to read my fortune, too, and then it would happen. Usually little things, like finding something I’d lost or discovering a super-rare Pokemon card was suddenly in my collection, stuff like that.

I remembered the sense that something tiny and invisible scurried around me when she did those tricks.

She smiled. “You’re remembering. But that’s only part.” Her smile faded. “But, if you take it off, you might feel fear. You certainly won’t see the world the same way ever again.”

The necklace was warm between my fingers. I could keep it on and let what happened with Clara fade away.

“Mom told me to keep it on. Why?” I asked.

“You’ll only know why if you take it off. And if you do, you and I will both be in hot water with her.”

 Big deal. I was always in hot water with my mother over something.

I took a deep breath, and began pulling the necklace off. It suddenly felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. It didn’t want to leave my neck, I realized. I pulled harder, raising it over my head and flinging it away from me.

Mary’s hand flashed out and grabbed it. “Gotcha,” she whispered. She looked at me. “I’m proud of you, Beth,” she said.

That day in the garden was hot for June. Clara sat cross-legged next to the Irises and sang this song she said she made up, a song to summon a fairy, she said.

I said fairies weren’t real.

Then it appeared, the size of a flicker, a little person with fluttering gossamer wings that sparkled. Sparkled in the sunlight.

“You have the blood,” it sang to us. “You have the sight. You can help make me real for always.”

I shuddered, eyes shut, and pushed the memory away.

A hand squeezed my shoulder. “It’s okay,” Mary cooed. “It’s all right. I’m here.”

I sobbed out what I’d seen then as she held me and rocked me back and forth.

When I’d finished, she held me for a long while in silence, still rocking me back and forth.

“You saw a fairy that Clara had created. You see, honey, the world is much wider and deeper than most people dream of. Mana flows all around us, a fifth force unseen but real. Our dreams, our nightmares, our fears and desires, all of things we collectively hold in our subconscious, use the mana to create manifestations, supernatural creatures– like the fairy.

The fairy. It had swooped at Clara and landed on her head. She had frozen, and her eyes had turned silver. Silver. The fairy sang a terrible song. “You are mine, mine forever more.” I’d screamed and then there’d only been blackness. When I came to, Clara and the fairy were gone, and mom said there’d been a gas line leak, and that Clara had been poisoned. I wasn’t allowed to see her.

I blinked.

Mary was outlined in purple. Her basket had a crystal ball in it, a crystal ball that shone gold from within. The necklace dangling from Mary’s hand, for an instant, it looked like a silver snake, scales moving as it slithered in her hand. Then it was just a necklace again.

“You are seeing the truth, sweetheart.”

“How can I see this stuff?” I stammered.

“Because it’s in your blood,” she replied. “Some people have a knack for seeing the Hidden. I do, my daughter does, and my granddaughters do, as well. Some on your father’s side do, too, but it’s not for me to say who they are.”

“You’re an actual witch?” My jaw dropped and my eyes widened. I waved my arms. “And you say it runs in the family?”

She nodded.

“Mom, too?” I shook my head.

“No, she’s a sorcerer who wants to be a wizard.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

Her smile returned. “But you’re beginning to.”

END

Gnome Alone

This little story takes place well before the events of the prequel story “Siloed,” back when Marquez had only been a sorcerer-agent for a year or so, and was working with her first partner, Tomlinson. Hope you enjoy it. As always, let me know what you think.

The garden gnome stood frozen on the table in the R.U.N.E. interview room. The manifestation was a foot tall. Mud covered his face and head, dulling the red of his pointed cap, and a canal fern was still stuck to his side. His expression was frozen in a look of surprise.

An Otterkin supernatural had found the manifestation in a forest of garden gnome statues at the bottom of the Hood Canal and notified the R.U.N.E. sentinel in nearby Olympia. The sentinel in turn told the Seattle front office, which ordered Tomlinson and me up from Portland, since the Seattle team was over the border in British Columbia dealing with some supernatural shenanigans.

My first reaction was to wonder aloud who’d leave garden gnome statues at the bottom of canal. It turned out that scuba divers liked to buy them from garden centers, dive the bottom of the canal and leave them there as a joke. Best guess was that the garden gnome manifestation had been stolen from a yard. This wasn’t a fleeting manifestation, it had been around for some time.

That begged the question of how an actual garden gnome manifestation ended up at the bottom of the Hood Canal. They weren’t like other manifestations. They existed in two states, the one seemingly inert, like a magical artifact, the other alive like a fairy or a troll. They largely moved about at night. In the daytime, they were inert, because going out was dangerous, when humans, who had a consciousness behind their gaze, might see them.

The garden gnome manifestation would have had plenty of chances to leave a garden center at night. It could shrink in size when animate.

“This would be so much easier if we had a Clairvoyant with us,” I groused to Tomlinson.

“Well, we don’t.” Tomlinson leaned against the wall on the opposite side of the table from me. His business suit was rumpled. An unlit cigarette dangled from his mouth.

I tapped the gnome right between the eyes. “Wake up, pal,” I said. Tomlinson and I were sorcerers, so this garden gnome manifestation shouldn’t be inert in our presence.

The gnome remained frozen.

“Huh, maybe it doesn’t like you,” Tomlinson observed.

I frowned. “Funny. Can’t you see what the deal is?” I asked him. Tomlinson was a Seer, he could see the details of magic.

“No, and before you ask, I don’t know why. You’re going to have to bind with it,” he said, the unlit cigarette bobbing up and down as he spoke.

“I know, I know.” I had to try the easy way, first. Garden gnomes gave me the creeps. I cracked my knuckles, then pulled out my wand from its holder inside my motorcycle jacket.

I turned back to the garden gnome. “All right, pal, let’s get this over with.”

I inhaled, and twirled my wand. The tip began glowing gold, and a faint purple nimbus appeared around the gnome.

Lien,” I said in French, tendrils of golden light streaming from the wand and encircling the manifestation. “Link,” I repeated, over and over, as a web of tendrils began to cover the little garden gnome’s body.

The garden gnome remained frozen. I pushed more mana into it. Food for the manifestation.

The garden gnome’s eyes widened and it loudly drew breath as it suddenly came to life. I swear, it was the “abruptly revived” TV/movie cliché.

The garden gnome’s name sounded in my mind: Sigmund.

Lien,” I whispered again, deepening the connection between us. “I see with your eyes, recall with your memory.”

A parade of images flashed through my mind. A big Tudor-style home, overlooking the Puget Sound, Queen Anne Hill maybe, in Seattle. The name Parkers sounded in my head, and an image lingered for a long instant of an elderly couple toiling in a huge, manicured garden in the afternoon. Then, it was night. The gnome scurried about, helping plants grow, fixing them, helping banish weeds, all the while humming happily.

An ambulance outside the house. The elderly woman toiled alone in the yard, but struggled to keep up. Sigmund worked hard at night and brought the garden to its old state of glory.

Then, another ambulance in front of the house, followed by a trio of middle-aged adults who resembled the now-passed away couple.

A for-sale sign appeared in the yard, “sold” sticker on it, followed by a new family arriving.

Weeds began to spring up. Worse, discarded paper, candy wrappers, nails, all kinds of jetsam of human existence began covering the garden. Sigmund strove to keep the garden weed and garbage free.

Sigmund began wandering the surrounding streets at night, and twilight, trying to find the culprit.

A feeling of futility and frustration ran through me from the memories. The last image was a garbage can, an ancient old aluminum kind, battered, in an alley way. The lid was askew, a sliver of black shadow between it and the can.

Then nothing.

I blinked.

 I stared at garden gnome. “Let me see if I got this right,” I told Sigmund. “You kept the Parker place neat and tidy even after the Parkers had left?”

The gnome nodded. “Begging your pardon, ma’am. He doffed his cap, held it to his chest, and bowed his head. “One’s duty to the garden continues regardless of who “owns” the garden.”

I glanced at Tomlinson. He sucked some more on his unlit cigarette, thinking.

“Garbage can,” I muttered. I looked back at Sigmund. “What’s with the old-style garbage can?”

Sigmund trembled. His eyes looked at me imploringly. He wanted to speak, but couldn’t.

Someone had cast a spell on him. Or something had.

“Garbage can, garbage can,” I mumbled to myself, seeing it again in my mind.

I smacked my palm on my forehead. “Hades be cursed,” I swore, in arcane style. “A grump.”

Tomlinson’s worn face creased into a question. “Really?” he said.

“Yes! The garbage can.” I high-fived the air. “That explains everything. A grump lives in a garbage can, and loves to strew trash around a neighborhood.” It was a modern manifestation, created by the echoes of a puppet from a famous children’s TV show. Grumps could cast spells on other manifestations, but not humans.

Now that I knew a grump had compelled Sigmund, I had the key to removing the compulsion. I cast a release spell, and Sigmund shuddered, put his cap back on, and bowed to me, three times. “I am in your debt,” he said.

I smiled. “No, you’re not,” I replied. “But a certain grump is going to magical prison.”

Agents of Sorcery launches! Read an excerpt from Book 1, Gremlin Night

My new urban fantasy series, Agents of Sorcery, begins with Gremlin Night, which is now available. Liz Marquez is a sorcerer-agent belonging to a secret organization responsible for enforcing the laws of magic, the Regulating Union for Normalizing Enchantment.

She spent time assigned as a guard in the Silos, a magical prison for supernatural creatures (called manifestations), but has finally been transferred back to field duty and is determined to prove she deserves the spot. A series of gremlin outbreaks and a new partner beg to differ.

Gremlin Night is available at all major eBook retailers:

Chapter 1

Burt the ogre was late. I squatted in heeled boots in a snowy alley in Peoria, calves burning, hair damp, stomach rumbling, all because an ogre crime boss took his sweet time to show up at his own blasted nightclub. Talk about a thoughtless jerk. My life would be so much easier if criminal manifestations kept better time. But that was the supernatural for you, always doing things on its schedule, never mine.

I fought a yawn. It had been a very long day.

The snow fell faster, and I pulled my motorcycle jacket closer around me. From where I crouched, I glimpsed the human bouncer as he paced on the steps outside, parka hood covering his face, wind-milling his arms to keep warm. His breath frosted the night air.

Freezing my behind off while assigned to a stake out wasn’t the worse part of being a sorcerer-agent for the Regulating Union for Normalizing Enchantment. No, the worse part was doing this stakeout solo, because my temporary partner, Nancy Kirk, a Seer, had decided she’d rather stay in the van parked six blocks away, casting her magical sight through binoculars. All because she listened to the Midwest front office when they said we needed to keep a low profile.

We always needed to keep a low profile. But the neo-gnome we’d gotten the tip from said Burt the Ogre was leaving town tonight and headed to Chicago. It would be a lot harder for R.U.N.E. to track him there.

My phone slithered in my jacket pocket. I slipped my hand inside and the phone coiled around my wrist. It was a R.U.N.E.-issue arcane phone. I should have had an ear talker, one of those little jeweled silver dragonling artifacts, but the Midwest division of R.U.N.E. didn’t have any to spare, especially not for someone passing through on a temporary assignment.

So, I was stuck with the arcane phone. I raised my hand. The phone looked like a big ebony bracelet to normal eyes; to mine, it was covered in scales, scales that projected messages before my eyes.

Words glowed in my vision. Get back to the van, Liz. Now.

Nancy and I had already had this conversation. Twice.

Any sign of Burt? I whispered. My words floated in front of me. Nancy would be seeing them in the same way. Arcane phones couldn’t be snooped on, or hacked. They were useful in other ways, too, since they were alive, like all manifestations, but fixed in form, since they were artifacts.

No. You must be freezing, she replied. Get back here.

A Hummer limousine, black and ridiculous, windows tinted excessively dark, drove past the alley and pulled up to the night club’s entrance.

Can’t, I replied. We have action.

You don’t know that! Nancy texted back.

The bouncer nodded at the limo, and spoke into what looked like a CB radio.

The door to the club opened and two big men bounded down the stairs to the limo. One of the men opened the limo’s side door.

A faint purple haze drifted out, almost too faint for me to see. Mana, the raw fuel for magic. With her seer’s eyes, Nancy must have seen it, too, and in more detail.

A female figure covered in tattoos and leather hopped down from the Hummer. Her long blood-red hair was pulled up into a top knot. Even from where I crouched, I could tell something was off about her. Her skull came to a point in the back, and her skin was bone white.

A whorl-kin. A bloodthirsty neo-type manifestation. They were getting more common. Criminal manifestations like Burt used whorl-kin because they had no remorse, they just lived to create fear and cause pain.

I was a sorcerer, so I could see manifestations and magic, while ordinary people only felt their presence, if they noticed them at all.

The whorl-kin scanned the area. I ducked back, my heart racing, just as she turned to face me.

I texted Nancy frantically. Bring the van. It had a lightning staff. That would take care of an ogre and a whorl-kin.

Stay put, she texted back. I’m calling the front office.

I shook my head. That would take far too long, and Burt would be long gone again. No time! I replied. I slipped my hand back in my jacket pocket, and the arcane phone uncoiled and slipped off my wrist.

I risked a look around the corner.

A huge figure in a London Fog overcoat emerged from the limo. Burt loomed over the whorl-kin. He was eight feet tall. He would have been an impressive figure on the basketball court, but the Compact forbid manifestations from playing in human sports leagues, or starring in movies. Exceptions had been made, but they were extremely rare, and usually thanks to some bribes and favor swapping in some of the other organizations in the Hidden.

Burt’s outfit dealt drugs, pimped out the down on their luck, ran gambling rings–all the usual vices. My jaw tightened. Far worse, Burt’s outfit also engaged in human trafficking. Yet Burt managed to stay free. Someone in one of the arcane organizations that dominated the Hidden world must be in his court.

R.U.N.E. had been after him for a long time, but he had always eluded us.

That changed tonight. I knew he had young women, maybe young men, too, in the basement of his nightclub. R.U.N.E. blew me off when I brought that up, saying there was no evidence. But, the thought stealer I’d spelled yesterday when we “interviewed” a middle-aged man who frequented Burt’s nightclub gave me a glimpse of young women chained to a wall. R.U.N.E. forbid us from using thought-stealers on ordinary “normal” humans. The Compact stated such thought reading was only to be used on magic-using humans accused of crimes. Come on, a creepy perv visiting Burt’s night clubs was an accessory to magic crime as far as I was concerned.

Burt brushed snow off his jacket, rings flashing on his huge fingers. He said something in a low rumble, and the whorl-kin nodded.

She was going to be a problem.

Just then, my scamper returned from its mission at the other end of the alley.

It looked like a cross between a ferret and a monkey, with bat ears, wearing a silver collar with a milky arcane pearl. The scamper was a loaner from R.U.N.E. Midwestern Resident Manifestation office.

The scamper slunk up to my hand. I stroked its sinuous neck with one finger while another touched the arcane pearl. The fresh memory of its journey flashed into my head. The scamper had snuck into the back of the nightclub, and down into the basement.

The basement was a labyrinth of rooms, a perfect place for criminal activity. If I could get in the back way, I could ambush Burt and company. Okay, so I was one five -foot- two twenty-five-year-old human woman versus a hulking ogre and his private army. Crazy, but doable.

My phone stirred in my pocket again. Had to be Nancy, but I left the phone where it was. I didn’t have time to waste.

I gave the scamper a peanut, then followed it out the far end of the alley and around to the back of the club. “Thanks for the help,” I told the scamper. Time for it to head back to its nest at the Chicago castle. I hadn’t exactly asked for permission to take it with Nancy and me, and I’d kept Nancy in the dark about it. Simpler that way, for everyone.

The scamper nodded at me, then whirled around and darted into a drainpipe. Being a scamper manifestation meant it could take a secret way back to Chicago. I’d have to take a train, plane, or an automobile since I’d already used the teleportal there tonight, and it was one way. Rules. The arcane, which included we sorcerers, lived and died by them.

The street behind the club was filled with dumpsters and overturned shopping carts. There was a small loading dock off to one side. The door was a steel job with three locks and a little viewing window, currently shut.

#

Luckily for me, I had a magical lockpick, also on loan from R.U.N.E. Chicago. Okay, I borrowed it without permission, but I’d return it as soon as this assignment was completed.

The lockpick was a telescoping silver rod that expanded from two inches in length to a foot. It shivered and clicked into place. Like all magical artifacts, it was alive in its own way, trembling and hungering to fulfill its purpose. I stroked the lockpick with my pointing finger. “Descuia,” I said, unlock in Romanian.

The lockpick shuddered. The three locks clicked open, one by one, followed by a rattling sound. I opened the door.

Hopefully the back door was unguarded.

It wasn’t.

A surprised looking man in an ill-fitting suit, holding a sub-machine gun, stood there, staring at me wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Magic will do that to ordinaries, if you’re lucky.

My luck wasn’t going to last long.

I pointed my left fist at him. I wore a silver ring with a tiny sculpted silver bullfrog mounting it, mouth yawning open.

“Sleep,” I told the guard. Blue-tinged vapor visible only to a sorcerer gushed from the bullfrog’s mouth and into the man’s nostrils.

He raised his submachine gun, just in time to drop it as he slumped to the floor, the gun clattering beside him. He’d be out for a couple of hours, and nothing could wake him.  The sleep ring should be standard issue, but they were difficult to craft. Policy stated that only Burners could use them, not Binders like me. We tried to avoid tangling with normal humans, but sometimes you had to, despite policy.

Lucky for me I’d found a sleep ring in the armory when no one was looking. Too bad it only had the one charge.

One guard down. Who knew how many after that. Actually, the plan was not to go through many, because there’s no way I could, and still get Burt. The ogre was the point of this exercise.

One of my trainers back at R.U.N.E.’s Academy had told me if you train enough, you can act without fear taking over.

I was trying to do that here. I swallowed, and pushed back the worry, the fear, and pants-wetting panic. I had to keep moving.

My stomach churned at the thought of the women being held here, treated like meat at a butcher shop. Heaven only knew how long they had before they were auctioned off, or worse. I’d heard rumors that Burt liked human flesh, particularly young women, but R.U.N.E. had nothing on file. Proof of that would have brought the roof down on the ogre, but there was nothing.

I slipped around a kitchen area. Now I could hear the thudding bass from the dance party above. The club proper occupied floors two and three, with private rooms above it, while the lair was below this floor.

The door to below was off to my right, at the end of a short corridor. Old-style light bulbs shone inside wire ceiling fixtures. I waved the lockpick at the door, and said, “Unlock,” this time in Urdu. You could reuse a spell another time the same day, but you had to use a different language.

Click! I pushed the door open, listened. Floorboards creaked, and the bass thumped distantly. Voices drifted up from the basement. I crept down the stairs and crouched just above the bottom step. A big room spread out before me, lined with tables filled with vials and boxes. Had to be a drug shipment.

I saw doors at the far end of the room. If they had any cells to hold girls they’d kidnapped, they’d likely be there.

Seven muscled crooks, in all leather coats, loomed around a table in the center. A gnome, dressed in a white lab coat, blue silk shirt and tailored slacks, stood on the table as he did the talking. Light glinted off his bald head and gold-rimmed glasses. The thick lenses gave him a fish-eyed look.

“We have three cargoes to deal with. The boss just arrived and will want the scoop.” The gnome stopped, long nose quivering as he sniffed the air. “I smell a sorcerer.”

Bunny-rabbit panic froze me. He could smell my blood. Curses.

I had two binding spells prepared. Looked like I was going to have to use one right now, no excuses.

Latin fell from my lips like lead, the familiarity of it chasing away fear as I whispered the words. “Thy essence I bind to me. Thy magic I wield. The action is my command. Obedience is thine order. The Law thee must follow.”

The gnome stiffened, his face contorting. “W-h-o?”

Silentio,” I murmured in Latin.

The gnome fell silent. The crooks stared at him, then peered around the room, hands straying to the weapons under their coats.

I couldn’t bind them. But I could persuade them. I hated going through all my talismans and charms like this. The crooks drew knives, pistols, and in one case, a shotgun, and faced in my direction.

I walked to the bottom of the stairs, and raised a charm I’d been holding in my left hand, shaped like a dove. Not my idea, but you go with what you have.

“Listen, boys, I’m a reasonable type,” I said. “Obey me,” I intoned, in English.

“Who the hell are you?” the nearest crook demanded. He blinked. His face and the faces of the other thugs slackened as the charm’s power took hold. “Yes, mistress,” he said, voice low and tone obedient. “Yes, mistress,” echoed the others.

I rolled my eyes. Great, just great. Whoever had crafted this charm in the R.U.N.E. workshop had put a sexist aspect into it.

Didn’t matter. I needed to get moving. I only had one binding spell left, and the ogre and his nasty whorl-kin bodyguard would be here in moments. Gods, I hated nights like tonight. It would be nice if just once I had real backup, not a partner like Nancy who insisted on following cramped bureaucratic procedures that didn’t work in the field.

I pointed at the speaker and the two men beside him. “You three, guard the stairs. Don’t let anyone past.” The three nodded and ran up the stairs.

The gnome still writhed on the tabletop from the effects of my binding spell.

“You’re a tough cookie,” I told him. A whiff of musty old books drifted up from him. Not a typical gnome. He looked like an ancient manifestation, but smelled like a new one. Modern manifestations had all kinds of weird traits. His must include resistance to binding magic.

“Settle, and relax,” I told him in Latin. He did neither.

Purple fluid dribbled from his mouth. “Cease!” I commanded him.

He screamed soundlessly and fell, banging off the table and smacking the floor, hard.

Stronger tremors wracked his body, as if he was having a seizure.

Then golden light burst from him. I stepped back, shielding my eyes. When I opened them again, he had vanished, leaving only his clothes, shoes, and glasses.

I swallowed. He’d self-immolated. That shouldn’t have happened, but his resistance to magic must have been even stronger than I realized, and my spell’s overcoming that resistance made him self-destruct. A twinge of guilt ran through me. He had served a criminal who enslaved humans, but I wouldn’t have destroyed him. Unless he’d been found guilty of murder, R.U.N.E. would have sent him to the Silos.

Gunfire banged from the direction of the stairs, followed by shouts. I had even less time to find those women.

I gestured at the four crooks remaining in the storeroom. “Defend this room,” I ordered, and sprinted to the far side. I leaned my head against the first door, and listened. No shouting for freedom from the other side.

The lockpick unlocked the door. I swung it open, slowly, holding my wand like a sword, and pointed around the room. Crates stacked from floor to ceiling lined the walls. There was no other exit, and nothing living, human or manifestation, inside. I lowered my wand.

The second door had three locks on it, like the door at the nightclub’s back entrance. It was a double-wide door, too. Promising, though it did eat up three more charges on the lockpick. I only had a few left now.

Beyond the big door ran a corridor lined with doors on both sides and another big door at the far end.

I pulled out my phone and subvocalized another text to Nancy. Exploring Bart’s dungeon. Gun battle in progress above. Send help. I left the phone coiled around my left wrist. If humans saw it now, they’d probably think they were seeing an ebony cuff bracelet. If they saw the arcane phone for what it was, they’d glimpse the actual supernatural world. That could lead to all sorts of problems, but I had to take the risk.

The screen said “message not yet received.” The nightclub’s floors and walls shouldn’t have blocked the message. Perhaps something else had. Fine. I’d just keep moving.

The doors along the corridor were all unlocked. The first one was another storeroom. Pantry shelves lined the walls, filled with cans of dog food, bean-less chili and stew. Burt liked his protein.

The next four rooms were bedrooms, with bunk beds. Made up and empty, obviously for guards.

Curse it, I swore silently, and headed to the big door at the far end. It was locked. Figured.

My lockpick still vibrated softly. I prayed it had enough left to open the big door.

One lock went click. A second went click. A third went click. The door wouldn’t budge.

There was another lock. The lockpick trembled in my hand. It didn’t have enough strength left.

I bit my lip, hesitated, then glanced at my phone’s screen. My last message still not received.

I switched the lockpick to my left hand and reached inside my jacket, to a hidden pocket. My fingers fumbled at the snap, but finally opened it and grasped the spiked iron ring-shaped blood amulet. there. I licked my lips. This was the last thing I was supposed to be using. But just a little, just this once, I told myself, and pressed my fingers onto the spikes. Hot needles of pain stabbed my fingers. I jerked, nearly dropping the blood amulet. I managed to hang on to it, took my pain and pushed mana into the lockpick. Its trembling grew and I commanded it to open the last lock.

A soft click sounded. I let out my breath and I put the blood amulet back in its hidden pocket.

I pushed the door open. Beyond was an upscale penthouse style suite.

There were bedrooms, a living room, and media room, and a kitchen. All were empty. I did find lots of lingerie, and some bedroom equipment, so to speak, that made me twitchy. Burt had definite tastes in that direction.

I looked in all the closets, tried to find hidden doors, but nothing.

More gunfire echoed from the storeroom.

Sorcerer’s tears, I swore silently. I texted Nancy. Down in basement. At least three manifestations on site. One self-immolated. Two more, the ogre and a whorl-kin, are headed my way. Let R.U.N.E. know. Okay, so I didn’t have absolute proof the two manifestations were coming after me, but Burt would come after any threats to his business. And the whorl-kin lived to rend and tear flesh.

An icon of an ear popped up on the phone’s screen, next to the list of my messages. Received. Maybe Nancy would finally do something.

I hunkered down behind a huge black leather sofa in the media room, and faced the door to the hallway. I had one spell remaining, which I had to cast on Burt. After all, he was huge. I could use him against Lady Nasty.

Gunfire crackled and popped. Shouting from human throats turned to screams. I plugged my ears. I’d made the guards defend the room against Burt and his bodyguard, essentially ordering them to die for me. My stomach clenched. But what choice I had I had? The guards were working for a murderous criminal, and probably had killed for him.

I peeked over the top at the door, binding knife in my hand, a long, thin blade. Gesturing with the knife, I began chanting in Irish.

The ogre should come barging in at any moment.

Minutes ticked past. I checked my phone. There was no reply from Nancy or R.U.N.E. Sweat trickled down my back. This was not good, not good at all. I was hell hound chow if I didn’t get backup. Sure, I’d charged in here, but Nancy had to follow. The phone said messages received. Then why hadn’t she answered me? A nasty though popped into my head and I shivered. Perhaps something had happened to her.

Right at that moment a panel slid back in the wall kitty corner from the door. My eyes widened.

The whorl-kin strode through the secret door I’d missed, and stopped.

She raised her head and sniffed the air like a wolf tracking a sheep. “Surrender and I’ll kill you quickly. Resist,” she rolled the word around her tongue like a grape she was about to chew, “and you die slowly.”

I was an idiot. Why would Burt come in when he could send his assassin?

I stood. “How about you work for me?”

Her eyes were red-tinged. She laughed, showing a mouth full of glittering needle-like teeth. “How about I eat you, slowly?” She sauntered toward me, each step a promise of pain, her grin widening as she neared.

I brandished my binding blade. “Hello! Sorcerer here.”

Her grin widened even further until it threatened to split her face. “I love the taste of sorcerer’s blood.” She reached her arms wide. Her fingers were claws now. Her muscles tensed, like a lion about to pounce on its prey.

“By the power of the Laws, I bind thee to me,” I said, in Irish.

The whorl-kin’s tattoos covered her arms and neck, snapping wolf jaws. They began glowing a blood red. Her grin turned into a savage snarl. She leapt at me. I threw myself out of the way and she slammed into the wall behind where I’d been. I thrust the knife at her, twisting it in the air, shouting the spell.

Tendrils of gold shimmered from the blade’s tip and shot into her blood-red tattoos, making them flare gold. She struggled against the binding spell, her breath hot on my face. She snapped her jaws. “I will eat y—” she stopped in mid-threat. A violent tremor ran through her. Her eyes widened, then she slumped, her head down.

I fought to keep my voice even, and keep the screaming fear from my words. “You will obey me.” My blood thundered in my ears. I’d done it. Barely, but I’d bound the psycho manifestation, and held her essence, the mana that made her the supernatural creature she was. That meant I could command the whorl-kin to do my bidding.

Exhaustion washed over me. Lack of food, not enough sleep, the rush of adrenalin, all demanded their cut from me, and I didn’t have enough energy to pay. I wanted to sleep for a hundred years. But sleep was the last thing I could do at the moment.

I still had the ogre to deal with.

At least now I had a new tool to use against him.

“Tell me your name,” I ordered.

“Cindy.”

Cindy? I figured something more tough sounding, like Athena, or maybe Bellatrix. Cindy was the last name I’d have guessed.

It made me think that the whorl-kin had been conjured, rather than born from the collective subconscious.

A sorcerer or worse, a wizard, must have created her.

Right on cue, Burt’s voice boomed from the hallway outside the media room.

“Your only way out is through me, sorcerer-agent.”

“Here I was hoping to surprise you with my big reveal,” I shouted back.

“This can go two ways.” His voice sounded like boulders crashing together. “A quick death for you, or a very slow one. It’s up to you.”

I made a buzzer sound. “I’ll take option number three.”

“Crazy human. Fine, then we’ll play this rough way. Seize her!” Burt’s voice thundered.

Burly guys charged into the room, brandishing brass knuckles.

I hated myself for my next order to Cindy. “Stop them,” I said.

She whirled toward them like a psychopathic ballerina, her claws extended.

“Look out!” One guy shouted, before she sliced open his throat.

Two more men fumbled for their guns. She kicked one in the stomach, sending him tumbling backwards and crashing into glass shelving on the far wall. She whirled on the second, opened her jaws and engulfed his face with a sharp snap. His body thrashed and fell, spraying blood from where his face used to be.

She spin-kicked a third man into two more who were just coming through the door. The men stumbled and fell. She raked them with her claws. More screaming erupted.

In seconds five men lay dying on the carpet.

I bent over and dry heaved. What in the seven hells had I done? There was no stop order for a whorl-kin. Only a kill setting. I knew that in the back of my mind, but stupidly hoped it would be different this time.

A huge form loomed in the doorway, brandishing a machete-like blade. Burt.

Cindy leapt at him, arms outstretched. The ogre slashed at her right arm, severing it. She screamed, a high-pitched glass-shattering eruption of sound.

Burt staggered back. I clutched my ears.

She lunged at his face. He blocked with his left arm. She bit hard into it. He grunted, hurled her down onto the carpet, and slashed her stomach open. Purple ichor-like blood, the blood of a manifestation, boiled in the air, and then her form boiled away, leaving only a blackened smear on the carpet. Manifestations don’t die like humans. They dissolve.

The black smear began smoldering.

Burt reared up, rage contorting his already rugged features into a granite mountain-like appearance. His eyes blazed red.

“I’m going to tear you apart, bone by bone!” He roared.

I didn’t have much time. I was out of binding spells, and it would take far too long to cast another one. My fingers fumbled again at the hidden pocket in my jacket. The amulet slipped over my finger.

I was forbidden from doing what I was about to do, but when you have no choice but to leap over the edge, you leap.

Pain lanced up my arm as I rolled the points of the blood amulet into my open palm. Tears filled my eyes. I managed to hold back my scream.

“With this blood, I power my magic,” I chanted in Coptic.

Purple ichor streamed from the wound in the ogre’s arm. He took a step toward me, shaking his head.

Blood magic was forbidden, but I didn’t have a choice.

I used it to fuel another binding spell. But this one wasn’t a command spell.

I rattled off the spell in Coptic as Burt lumbered toward me, breathing hard. More blood spilled from his shoulder and chest. Cindy had done more harm than I’d glimpsed at the time. He slashed the air in front of him with the machete.

“And I’ll gnaw each and every one of your bones,” he bellowed.

Binding magic, by the Laws of the Compact, is meant to control, not to destroy, and destroying a manifestation with it takes a great deal of time.

Unless you fuel that spell with your own blood, which is what I was doing.

Blood pooled in my palm, and trickled down my arm. I flicked it in the air.

The ogre snarled and swung at me.

I ducked. His wounds had slowed him just enough for me to avoid losing my head.

“Burn,” I commanded in Coptic.

Flames burst from him and he howled like a hurricane. I staggered back. Heat washed over me, and I choked from the stench of burning supernatural flesh. Then, he became a tower of flame and his howl rose. I scrambled away, coughing.

Burt fell onto the carpet and the fire began to spread, his huge body blocking the door.

I was trapped. There were no smoke alarms down here, and it wouldn’t have mattered if there were, I’d be long dead before any fire fighters arrived.

#

I looked around frantically, and spotted the hidden door, now open, that Cindy had come through. I sprinted into the secret passage, which was narrow and dark. Flickering light from the blaze growing behind me illuminated the hall enough to see it had bare stone walls, and a door at the far end. I coughed again. Already smoke filled the corridor.

I stumbled to the door, praying that it wasn’t locked. It wasn’t. I yanked it open. Even gagging from the billowing smoke, my nose wrinkled from the stench of fecal matter and unwashed bodies. A lone lightbulb hung from the ceiling, and illuminated the cramped little room. A half-dozen women in dirty clothes huddled hand-cuffed to a pipe running around the room. Their faces were smudged, and their hair greasy from sweat and not being washed. Beside each was a bucket.

A closed door was on the opposite wall from me. That must lead up. Cindy had to have come this way.

They’d been treated worse than animals. I needed to get them out there. They lifted their heads and looked at me duly.

“I’m here to rescue you,” I said, fighting back a sob.

Smoke billowed into the room. I coughed again, and the women began coughing weakly. There was a little table beside the door I’d come through, and a couple of bowls on it, the kind you might throw keys in. But there were no keys.

My lockpick, did it still have enough juice to open six sets of handcuffs? My hand ached from the blood magic I’d used. Blood magic was dangerous, which was why it was banned by the Compact. Three times in one day was the limit, and even then, it could kill the user.

I drew the lockpick and strode up to the first woman. Her eyes widened. “I’m getting all of you out of here. Now.” I managed to say it with confidence. Now, if I only felt that.

I closed my eyes, concentrating. “Open the locks,” I whispered in ancient Greek, the lockpick cold and motionless in my hand. Smoke tickled my throat. I ran and closed the door. Idiot! I snarled at myself. I’d gotten myself and these women into this fix. I should have looked for keys on Burt, only he had immolated, thanks to my blood-magic fueled binding spell making him combust.

The lockpick suddenly trembled. An electrical tingle ran up my arm. A chorus of clicks echoed in the room, followed by clattering of metal on cement as the handcuffs fell to the floor.

“What just happened?” One of the women shook her head. The six of them looked about a thousand years old, but I guessed they were in their late teens or early twenties. “Handcuffs just don’t unlock themselves, do they?”

“We got lucky,” I said. “Come on, we need to leave, now!” I led them through the back door, down a short hall and through another door which opened into the store room. The place was littered with bodies. My stomach rose. I’d caused this. But, what choice had I had?

One of the women kicked a corpse. Two more spat at the bodies. “You deserve to be dead,” another woman snarled.

I shook myself. “Let’s go.”

I led them up the stairs and toward the back door, then skidded to a stop. Brimstone,I swore silently. This was a night club. There were people here. People who would die. I’d have those people’s lives on me, too.

That’s when I saw Nancy, in her black coat and knitted cap, white hair in a long pony tail, standing with a group of pinched-faced R.U.N.E. agents in business suits by the back door.

Heaven help me, I wanted to give her a hug, but I settled for a quip. “About time you showed up,” I said. “I freed the women the front office says weren’t here.”

Nancy glared at me. I grinned back at her, relief flooding me. The freed women piled up behind me, looking at Nancy and the grim-faced suits in wonder. “Are you FBI?” A woman asked.

One of the suits was a woman with a helmet hairdo, who looked about forty-five. She flashed a badge at them. “That’s right, Agent Barker.” Helmet hairdo nodded at another suit, a man.  “Agent Tyler will help you out.” He led the women outside.

Helmet hairdo strode up to me. “Very funny. What else?”

“There’s a fire downstairs.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I’m guess that’s your doing?”

I shrugged, trying to look nonchalant while my heart still raced like a cheap sedan’s engine being floored. “I took care of our target.” I nodded at the door to downstairs. “A fire did get started in the process.”

The other business suit, a man, gave me a sour look. “You mean you started a blaze in the process.”

I nodded. “I already said that. I’m sure you have a water spirit or two on hand,” I pointed out, trying to keep things light.

“Amusing,” helmet hairdo replied. You could cut her sarcasm with a knife.

Her partner drew a titanium and blue-steel summoning rod from his coat. It was obviously dragon forged. The rod thrummed as he held it.

“The fire’s downstairs.” I liked to be helpful when I could.

His sour look grew sourer. “We ought to charge you for this,” he said. “Have to call in a few favors to use this. These manifestations aren’t easy to summon, you know.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Excuse me for taking out a criminal ogre.”

He ignored me and began a summoning ritual, gesturing with the rod.

“There are ways to do it without starting a blaze,” helmet hair said. “You realize we have to call in more favors with our local contact, to avoid getting the fire department and local police involved. That would be an even bigger mess to clean up.” She noticed my wound. “What happened to your hand?”

I shrugged. “Wounded in the fight with the ogre. He had a nasty machete.”

Another suit slapped a heal patch on my hand. I winced for a second as the magical band aid went to work.  

More R.U.N.E. personnel arrived, including burners in their gray suits and thin sunglasses. Their job was to burn out any memories, so that ordinaries who might have witnessed arcane shenanigans wouldn’t realize that the supernatural was real. You only needed to call in the burners when things had really gotten out of hand. Okay, so maybe things had a little this time. But, hey, I had taken care of the ogre and whorl-kin before the clubbers had wised up.

A wet whoosh sounded and a person-sized waterspout popped into existence, a fine mist making us blink furiously. The water spirit spun down the stairs toward the billowing smoke.

Clubbers wandered in from the front—a man with a silk shirt and two women in slinky dresses hanging on his arms.

“You shouldn’t be here,” helmet hairdo told them.

“I smelled smoke,” the guy said.

The burners went up to the trio, waved their wands. Translucent memory snakes emerged from the burners’ sleeves and coiled around the three.

Their eyes widened for an instant, then their expressions went blank.

I looked away. I never had the stomach to watch burners at work.

The whole time Nancy watched me with a granite-eyed gaze from the back door.

“See, I told you we could bring him down,” I told her.

“I’m surprised Tomlinson lasted as long as he did as your partner,” she said acidly.

I ignored the remark. “We got the job done. The front office will appreciate that.”

Nancy held up a parchment scroll. I gulped. Even rolled up, the glowing blue characters of the message were visible. The R.U.N.E. pentagram seal had been broken. She’d read it.

“The New York front office wants to speak with you. You are to report to the Brooklyn castle at once.”

“We’re not finished here,” I said. “We need to search the place.”

“Oh, we’re not finished, but you are,” she retorted, looking down her nose at me. “You need to take the teleportal to the Brooklyn castle. Enjoy the ride. I suspect it will be your last as a field agent.”