Giant’s Rage Prequel

Here is a rough draft of one of my WIP’s.  Feel free to comment!  It’s the 3rd book in my Trials of Adrian Campbell series.


Prologue

Responsibility comes with power, but were power comes and goes responsibility sticks around and lingers like an unwanted house guest, so even though I was no longer invulnerable or super-powered, I still got tied to a boulder above Hawk’s Nest overlook in New York. I would have been less embarrassed about it if the people about to turn me into a human sacrifice had left me some clothes, or if they weren’t so darn… preppy.

I turned my head to the young man painting arcane symbols on my chest. “Are you sure we need to do this now? Couldn’t you take time to change into something different? I don’t want to disrespect your faith. I just don’t want to die at the hands of anyone wearing Izod.”

He gave me a smile that was more predator than preppie. “I dress for success, which Mar-Tack will grant me in exchange for your blood.”

I lifted my head off of the boulder. There were symbols painted all over the boulder, and candles burning on the end.

“You’re going to get your victory by stabbing me on a big rock table. Aren’t you worried about getting sued for copyright infringement?”

One of the two-dozen robed figures surrounding the boulder dropped out of the communal chant long enough to speak. “The sacrifice will be silent!” His words were slurred and husky.

I craned my head around to look at the face behind the mask. “You know, when you told me that we were going to go do some power ritual, I was right there with you. When it turned out that I was the power ritual my impulse to conform went right out the window.”

“Mar-Tack will punish you for your insolence!”

“Mar-Tack is apparently impressed by penny loafers and tops on sale at JCPenny. That takes some of the sting out of your threat.” I looked back at the painter, who was busy scribbling something on my hip. “Hey, buddy, I’m in your business law class, but that’s all. You go any further south and you’ve got to buy me dinner.”

“Ignore the sacrifice, Chester. This is your moment to claim your power and become one of us!”

I looked down at Chester. He was in his mid-twenties like the rest of the L2’s around him. Halfway through his law degree, he had a bald patch in his limp brown hair and he was working on a gut. “Listen to the sacrifice, Chester. Max is going to get you in real trouble one of these days. There is still time to change your mind. You don’t have to go through with this.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Chester said. “I need this.”

“No, you really need to stop. There’s no future in this.”

“The sun rises!” one of the robed cultists shouted.

“The sun rises!” the rest answered.

Max looked over the mountain valley and raised both of his hands high. “The sun rises, and Mar-Tack rises with the sun! Come, Mar-Tack, Master of the Dawning Hunt, and witness this newest member of the pack as he proves your worth!”

The black-robed young men took up the chant. “Mar-Tack! Mar-Tack! Mar-Tack!”

This was embarrassing. It was a frat party revision of The Call of Cthulu. I refused to die in the middle of something so derivative.

I looked down at my body. Chester had finished his paint job. Max put a foot-long flint dagger in his hands. That dagger belonged in the stone age, right along with hunter spirits and human sacrifices. Everything about my death was thematically consistent… except for the Izods. Seriously…

My train of thought broke off when the law students called for their false god, and Mar-Tack arrived.

Mar-Tack looked like a cross between Daniel Boone and an abandoned tree stump. It was hard to tell the shape of him beneath the mound of furs he wore. Moss grew on his buckskins, and his white hair was a wind-blown tangle. Honest-to-goodness twigs stuck out of that elderly tangle, and I swore the branches seemed alive. He might have been six and a half feet tall of he weren’t starting to go stoop shouldered with age. He held a gnarled wooden staff in one hand, and a buck-handled hunting knife in the other. I didn’t hear him approach. He just seemed to appear at the edge of the clearing. There was nowhere he could have come from in that direction. I could still hear the occasional car pass on Route 97 below us.

Mar-Tack really knew how to make an entrance. The Delaware River Valley opened wide behind him, and the wind whipped through his hair like an aura of power.

“Mar-Tack!” the robed law students chanted, “your servants greet you with the dawn!”

The elderly man looked down at me like I was a piece of beef. He smiled. “I am Mar-Tack, Giver of Power. I recognized your praise as my due. Let the supplicant come forth.”

That was probably the wrong moment to start laughing, but I couldn’t help it. “You can not be serious.”

Someone hit me in the head with something solid, and I thought about the universe, mostly about stars spinning around in circles. Then I started tracking the ritual again.

I didn’t know how much time I missed, but Chester the potential cultist knelt at the old hermit’s feet. Mar-Tack’s eyes were closed and his hands glowed against Chester’s head. Chester’s body seized and trembled. I doubt he was aware of much of anything. The robed cult members chanted Mar-Tack’s name over and over again, swaying back and forth as they did so. The rising sun’s rays painted Chester and Mar-Tack in golden light, but it did nothing to stop the feeling of evil that crept down my spine. I mean sure, they had falsely befriended me as their fellow student, kidnapped me, and tied me up as a human sacrifice, but whatever Mar-Tack was doing to Chester just felt wrong.

I must have blacked out for most of it, because Mar-Tack released Chester, who fell to the ground and flopped around for another few seconds. Mar-Tack looked tired and winded, like he had just sprinted a mile. Chester opened his eyes and pulled himself to his feet. He looked even worse than Mar-Tack. Chester was pale and shaking. His movements were slow, deliberate, tortured even. Ugly bruises in the shape of Mar-Tack’s hands framed each of his eyes, but he was still smiling. His smile was the scariest thing about him. Whatever Mar-Tack had done to Chester, and Chester looked like he’d gone to a demolition derby minus a car, it had reached into Chester’s brain and hit the yes button.

I felt sick to my stomach.

“Hey,” I shouted, figuring that with my hands and feet tied down dialog was my best option. “What’s going on? I thought that Chester had to stick me with the knife and then you’d make him part of your little club.”

Mar-Tack looked at me over Chester’s shoulders. His voice sounded like creaking branches, and I could smell his breath from the altar, but his grammar was surprisingly high class and a little old-fashioned. “You have been misinformed, sir. Two lives enter the circle. One comes for power, and the other gives his life to seal the bargain, but the knife was never meant for you.”

Chester stood in front of his master, arms out, chest heaving. Mar-Tack took the stone knife from Chester’s hand and cut the law student’s preppy clothes right off his body. I noticed two things right away; Chester really needed to start working out, and Mar-Tack had lots of practice at this maneuver. There weren’t that many members of the little law school cult, so I guessed that he’d been doing this for a while.

“Chester,” Mar-Tack said, “take him.”

“Woah,” I shouted. “I’m pretty sure that somewhere in junior high I made a joke that I wanted to die having sex, but I take it back, I swear.”

Mar-Tack laughed at me. “I admire your spirit, sir. Well done, but we harbor no such unnatural perversions in the pack. Chester will walk over there and eat your heart. If he is particularly quick about it, you may even get to see the spectacle.”

“I thought you said the knife wasn’t for me.”

Mar-Tack shook his head. “Chester no longer needs knives. Now Chester, join us! Kill him!”

Chester took a step forward and every muscle in his body rippled. I thought he was going back into a seizure, but I should be so lucky. His legs bent and shortened, his arms lengthened. I heard every facial bone break, then tendons creaked as Chester transformed into something straight out of my very oldest nightmares. Three steps later a werewolf, seven feet tall and four hundred pounds of muscle, fang, and fur glared at me with Chester’s eyes. He licked his lips. Literally.

Who does that?

Adrenaline flooded my body and my mouth flipped over to autopilot. “You turned Chester into a freaking werewolf and you think gays are unnatural? You really need to rethink your priorities.”

The monster that used to be Chester Anderson took two more steps towards me. He walked hunched over, and his eyes pierced me with an inhuman hate. I wasn’t entirely sure that Chester was in the driver’s seat up there, but I decided to try one last time.

“Chester, listen to me, it isn’t too late. You don’t have to be a killer. You can succeed without this.”

I didn’t think that a werewolf was going to miss my words, but I wasn’t sure that Chester could hear me.

I raised my voice and called out to the whole cult. “Look! You can be forgiven! You don’t have to be murderers! The power to kill is nothing compared to the power to raise from the dead or live forever! Jesus died for your sins, even this one, but if you keep sacrificing people someone is going to stop you! All the money and power in the world isn’t going to help you out when you die!”

Mar-Tack wasn’t having any of it. “Listen to the powerless prey whine for its life. Jesus is a myth made up to enable the oppressors, a way for them to get rid of their false guilt. I have shown you the true power, power to take what you want from those weaker than you. You can survive for hundreds of years, ever wiser and stronger. As a pack you are greater than any mortal foe. Don’t be swayed by the powerless man and his threats of an imaginary tomorrow. Listen to the power in your flesh, the lust for his blood. Kill him, Chester, and we will drink his blood together!”

Chester took his time, but his claws were only a few feet away from my feet. “I’m not kidding,” I said. “Sooner or later someone is going to stop you. God isn’t going to let you get away with this forever. You need to repent before it’s too late.”

Mar-Tack laughed in my face. “Do you think you have anything to say the pack hasn’t heard before? Everyone tries to convince us, to persuade us. When that fails, they resort to religion and threats. Next you will offer us everything you have, everything you are if we just let you live. In the end, you will cry and call for your mother, but she isn’t here. She can’t help you. Make your noises, little pig, for the wolfing hour is upon you, and this is the end. What do you have to say to that?”

Chester the Werewolf leaned over me. He sniffed at my feet and licked a hot, wet tongue up my left shin. It was really sticky, and gross. I sort of forgot about Mar-Tack as Chester’s extra-large fangs got closer and closer to my junk. “Listen to me, Chester. You haven’t hurt anyone yet. You can still get free of this. I know it has to feel good… um… maybe even taste good. No. That’s a bad choice of words.”

Chester bypassed my family jewels and kept crawling over me. I could feel heat off of his supernaturally transformed body like an oven. He licked my ribs (gross) and lifted his head back with his eyes locked on my throat. If he’d been fifty pounds lighter, and not a flesh-eating monster, I might have felt complimented. As it was I just felt like a hors d’oeuvre.

My mouth ran into high gear. “Chester. Please, Chester. Don’t. You don’t have to do this.”

Chester’s eyes gleamed and he savored my helplessness, leaning closer by inches.

“No, Chester. Chester, stop. Stop! Stopstopstopstop….”

Chester’s fangs closed the final foot to my throat in one quick lunge with all his weight behind it.

So it must have really hurt when I Pushed my sword into my right hand. One instant I was naked and helpless, but I had an image in my head of Chester biting down on my sword, clacking his teeth on supernatural steel instead of the hollow of my throat. I felt the hilt of my sword in my hands, and called on my supernatural legacy, the one I got from my dear old demonic dad. I Pushed the image against reality. Basically I believed it with a supernatural amount of willpower until reality gave in and saw things my way. The sword was part of me, forged in the fire of my own magic and quenched in my own magical blood, I felt it in my hands as naturally as clapping. Chester’s chompers clapped shut on my sword blade, and he cried out in pain. Werewolves have really large lungs, and his mouth was an inch away from my throat, so that was deafening.

Chester reared back, snarling and clawing at his face. Chester didn’t back away fast enough. I whipped the rapier around with the twist of my wrist, the agile blade’s tip traveling a meter and a half as I moved my wrist four inches. Chester just wasn’t fast enough to overcome that sort of mechanical advantage. Werewolves might be really strong, but magic, holiness, and silver hurt them just like any other supernatural monster. My sword, forged in my own blood and quenched in anointing oil covered two of the three bases, and it slit his throat with a wound that sizzled and burned even as it killed him.

Chester flopped off of me, clawing desperately at the wound on his throat, which wasn’t going to help him any.

I cut my bonds away and stood. A flicker of mental effort called my clothes to me as well. It worked so well with my sword that I’d had an entire outfit made with bits of my hair and blood woven into the fabrics. I remembered my boots, pants, shirt, and coat. Then they were there. From commando to urban avenger in no time flat, it was a nice trick. But the nicest thing of all was the feeling of relief when I stopped using my Pusher’s powers to suppress my own supernatural nature. Werewolves were walking sensor suites, and I knew that they would be able to feel my strength, vitality, and power as if Roma Downey herself had put a spotlight down on my shoulders. Mar-Tack was no werewolf. He was what I was, a half-demon Fallen with supernatural powers woven into our very genetic code.

We locked eyes while the others hesitated. I got a first word into the silence.

“I never said that I was helpless, Marcus Takowsky. Today is the day God sends someone to stop you, the day when you brought all your followers together in one place for us to deal with.”

Mar-Tack was shaken, but he kept a good fame face on his surprise. “I can feel your powers, impostor. You’re a Pusher. You play at being a Caster, a Shifter, and the others, but it’s all just an imitation. You are the wanna-be of the Fallen world. You can call a sword and some undergarments? What good is your sword going to do against someone who can call fire? I will burn you where you stand!”

He wasn’t bluffing, either. He swept his wooden staff at the air between us and a wave of fire washed across the air between us. I lowered my sword, hunched my shoulders, and manifested my wings. Seven feet wide on either side, my wings beat at the wave of fire with inhuman strength and made a gust of wind that split the wave of fire to either side of me. I heard flames crackle behind me and at least one cult member cried out in pain. I flexed my shoulders, spread my wings wide, and leveled my sword at Mar-Tack’s face. “One more thing, Caster: leave my mother out of this.”

Mar-Tack looked at me with raw fury. “You’re not just a Pusher. You’re something else.” He made it into an accusation, like I had offended him by showing a power he hadn’t considered. “Who are you?”

“My name is Adrian Campbell. I’m a Reaper. Tell your followers to surrender and we’ll get them help. Fight, and you’re all going to die.”

More shock rippled through the cultists. Maybe Mar-Tack hadn’t told them about the things that made me famous in Fallen circles, the battle at QBI or the little vampire war in West Virginia, but I’d spent a few weeks on the top of the FBI’s most wanted list after a throw-down in Akron, so even normal folks reacted to my name. I thought for just a second that Mar-Tack and his followers might listen to reason and we could avoid a fight.

Then two dozen lawyer cultists threw off their robes and transformed. They threw themselves forward, howling for my blood. My claim that God was on my side was about to go on trial, and in the supernatural Shadow War the only trial was by ordeal. I raised my sword and gathered my power. God had really better be on my side, or I was going to die.

I didn’t stand a prayer against twenty-five enemies, even if Mar-Tack was the only other Fallen among them, werewolves were a nasty business all their own, but these were skin walkers, humans granted power. I was born with mine. Human werewolves weren’t as powerful as Fallen ones, but even if I could handle one or two the other twenty-odd sets of fangs would pull me down.

It was a good thing that I wasn’t alone. As soon as I called my sword my power would start pushing against nearby supernatural senses. The stronger someone’s senses, or the more powerful the Fallen, the stronger they pressed against their senses. Werewolves had some of the sharpest senses in the Shadow War, but they weren’t the best.

Oracles were the best. Hale didn’t just have the senses of a super-psychic thanks to his share of half-angel DNA. He could read minds, hear thoughts, and pretty much see the future.

So when Mar-Tack and his homemade werewolves came for my blood my team was ready. Mar-Tack witched twice, the slap-slap crack-crack of high powered rifle fire matching the wounds over his heart and his head. I worked with a man named Kerry Reynolds, and he was a Hunter. He couldn’t spout wings, throw fireballs, or see the future, but he was a born killer, and he had been a sniper since Gettysburg. He’d brought his Holland and Holland .300 Nitro-Express to the party. Two hundred some yards away, on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware river, Reynolds was shooting at point blank range. Cordite propellant sent the rounds rocketing forward at two and a half times the speed of sound, so even this close it took half a second for the sound of the shot to follow its round to the target. A third of a second to hit the target was too slow for a kill shot on something as fast as a werewolf, but the supersonic round meant the critters never knew they had fire to dodge until it was too late, and Reynolds’ Hunting powers sent every shot home. Reynolds’ H&H was one of the first-ever belt fed rifles, and he put it to good use. I heard another slap-crack as a charging werewolf fell lifeless to the ground and the werewolf downrange took the anti-elephant round in the shoulder. Reynolds was fast and accurate like a shooter’s dream, but even the nitro-express with blessed ammunition wasn’t going to stop them all in time.

With a little luck and a lot of favor from on high, the rest of our plan would.

Heather burst into view at over ninety miles an hour, head up and red hair streaming in the wind. She must have flown up the mountainside to gain speed and stay out of sight until just the right moment. She dropped the passenger that she’d been carrying in her arms the moment they cleared the ridge, then sped into the sky like a vision of a warrior goddess in close-fitting leathers. Agent Forrest Hale flew through the air on momentum for a quick arc. He hit the ground and bled off his momentum with the fluid grace of a true Aikido master. He flowed to his feet nearby, facing my back as if he’d had it planned ahead of time. Maybe he had.

There was time for one more slap-crack from Reynolds’ rifle, another werewolf down, and then they were on us.

My sword is a late Scottish rapier, light enough to fence with and sturdy enough to parry heavier blades. With a doubled grip on the cat’s head pommel I could use it as a light broadsword when I positively had to cut something in half instead of simply killing it.

I doubled up my grip. It wasn’t that werewolves needed more than a thrust to the heart or brain to kill. A good sword thrust was wider than a fifty-caliber round. The problem was that thrusts required recovery time that a press of battle wouldn’t give me.

People talk about battle being a blur. The fight in the woods came to me like shards of a broken glass picture. I cut a werewolf down, kicked a second, and used my sword on a third. My training was European and Korean, full of short, brutal moves that put all my body behind the strikes. My blade was magic because I was, so a werewolf’s healing powers couldn’t help them against my attacks.

Forrest Hale reached out to me with his mind, and we stopped fighting as individuals. I knew what he knew, saw what he saw, and suddenly neither of us had a blind spot. His sword was holy, not magic, and it flashed as it cut through flesh. Hale flowed through sword forms like smoke in the wind, never hard, never resisting, and never stopping. He wasn’t as fast as I was, and nowhere near as fast as the werewolves, but he didn’t need to be when he could feel each attack coming before it even began. Claws and fangs missed him by inches, but his katana slipped through flesh and bone as if it were nothing.

I caught a glimpse of Heather, the team Hawk over the fight. Her wings were the color of autumn leaves, and they flashed gold in the morning sun as she dove between werewolves. They threw themselves into the air again and again, but Hawks were the messengers of our kind. Fast and agile, she found the path she needed through their attacks by instinct. She had an M-16A1 tucked tight to her shoulder, and put three-round bursts of silver-tipped slugs into targets at will. Silver slugs have terrible ballistics qualities and they penetrate for crap, but we weren’t here to kill elephants, and shapeshifters hated silver.

Thumple-crack came from Reynolds’ Nitro Express as the bullets punched deep into the pack. His rounds were designed to hunt elephants, and for every werewolf he killed he injured one or two more. I would be terrified if anyone else was shooting that gun at my enemies in a sword fight, but Reynolds could feel and see everything in the fight with Hale’s psychic link, and his Hunter powers kept him from killing me by mistake.

Twenty-four werewolves had enough raw power to eat a regular army company for lunch, but we were trained professionals. We were Reapers. This was our job and we were good at it.

I held an image in my mind from a Korean swordsman flick where heroes with swords stood against hordes of monsters with flashing blades and the dedication to their righteous cause. I Pushed the image from my head into reality and suddenly I moved faster, hit harder, and my sword started to hum in the air. The skin walker I’d kicked away leapt straight at me with his hands outstretched. I leapt right back at him, horse stance, elbow out with all my weight behind it. The werewolf’s nose hit my elbow, and my Pushed image meant that it was his nose instead of my arm that broke. His arms slashed the air in front of and behind me as he fell snorting to the ground at my feet. I cut at the base of his skull and side-kicked another werewolf in the shoulder. The skin walker was twice my weight in werewolf form, which meant my kick stopped him cold but threw me up and backwards in the air. That was fine by me. I landed in a fighting stance right behind Hale and went right back to slicing.

I spun right to cut a werewolf down before he could eat my knee, and his pack-mate leapt at my exposed shoulder. It was a great tactic if I were a moose, but I swept my right wing forward and batted the monstrous law student out of the air. The blow wouldn’t really hurt him, but it did knock him to the ground right at my feet. I watched the injured werewolf’s nose reform itself in the time I would need for a deep breath, and then it hurled itself right at me. I ran him through just behind the shoulders, lungs and heart ruined in one thrust. The monster thrashed wildly, tore big furrows in the ground, and then fell over sideway to lie still.

Slap. The werewolf I’d knocked down jerked six inches to the side as a Nitro Express round took it in the heart. Crack. The rifle’s report thundered over the sound of battle. The werewolf snapped at its side out of sheer reflex, but there was nothing there to counter-attack. Then it fell over twitching.

The last pair of werewolves on the battlefield turned to run. Heather’s rifle took one and Reynolds the other. More gunshots echoed through the river valley, and then my team was alone.

I lowered my sword and dropped my Gumdo Superstar image. Reality un-bent around me like a slap in the mind, and everywhere my mind had been Pushing. My hands and legs shook and I couldn’t catch my breath or gather my thoughts. I stumbled to one knee, dripping sweat, and tried to regain my strength.

Heather O’Leary landed next to me with a flurry of wings that weren’t there a second later. She knelt by my side with a worried look on her face. Her hands searched my body for wounds without hesitation or any concern for my personal space. Times like this she tended to forget that our years as lovers were years behind us. “Adrian! Are you all right? Are you hurt?”

Her hands danced up the inside of my leg seeking arterial wounds. My body forgot our changed relationship status as quickly as she did, right when all of Heather’s attention was where she couldn’t possibly miss her effect on me.

Heather’s hand landed right on the issue and her concern vanished in a second and she slapped me upside the head. “You sexist pig.”

I shook my head but my words wobbled to pieces in my scrambled brain.

“It’s Kickback, Heather,” Hale supplied. “He Pushed too hard in the fight and his powers have shorted out. He’ll get his strength back in just a bit.”

Heather was still offended. “I know just the refreshment he needs.”

“Heather…” Hale started, but he could tell what she wanted to do as well as she could, and I could hear the laughter in his head.

Two coherent words made it past my static-fuzzed brain. “Uh oh.”

But there wasn’t anything I could do. Heather grabbed me by the ankles, leapt into the air, and her wings were suddenly back. I counted five flaps of her powerful wings as she accelerated to high speed. It felt like sixty miles and hour at least when she let go of my ankles.

I dropped my sword and flailed at the air as the western edge of NewYork flashed past me. I fell head-first so I had an upside down view of the Delaware River Valley. Route 97’s scenic overlook blurred past. I tried to pop my wings, Push an image of weightlessness… anything, but my fritzed-out powers gave me nothing but a dizzy fit as I fell into the Delaware at about ninety miles an hour. The water hit me like a slap from Godzilla, then closed over me as I hit the rock and muddy bottom. Several fish floated towards the surface, stunned by the concussion I’d created hitting the water. By the time I dug myself free of the river bottom they recovered and spun away. A snapping turtle bit at the water in my direction as an all-purpose warning and then retreated inside its shell.

My Powers came back by the time I swam to shore. By the time I popped my wings and flew back Heather had already retrieved our resident sniper from Pennsylvania.

“Supersonic interstate werewolf bullets,” Kerry Reynolds said as he slipped his Nitro Express back into a leather satchel fringed with tassels and a strip of wampum. “That’s a first.” Kerry was five feet and ten inches, a hundred and sixty pounds, and with his dirty red hair he could have been an extra from the set of Justified. He had a Civil War style cavalry saber on one hip and a Colt revolver on the other. Reynolds didn’t seem scary until you saw him fight, but I’d seen him take on a Shifter werewolf with nothing but a Bowie knife and attitude before. Reynolds won.

I landed next to the cultists’ stone table and knelt next to one of the bodies. One reason the rest of the world goes on ignoring the Shadow War is because most of the evidence doesn’t stick around long. Shifters, Giants, and Skin Walkers changed back to human when the angelic or demonic forces that changed them shuffled off to the next world, or to their next victim. So our big supernatural battlefield looked like a nudist party gone slasher film before dawn. That was probably what the police would write it up as. God only knew what they would say about the bullet wounds.

Chester’s eyes stared back at me with nothing behind him. He had a shocked, confused look on his face. Death had robbed him of any dignity he’d had in life. His bowels and bladder had loosed with no concern for his modesty, and his naked body was covered with spatters of blood from the fight. I was a born fighter. I was good at it, and in the middle of a fight I loved it more than I wanted to admit. But I never let myself forget this part, the part that came after. No one, whether they had two human parents or just one, was a mistake. All life came from God, and went back to him for judgment. Every living person carried the image of God, and killing them was worse than taking a knife to the Mona Lisa.

I’d killed him because I’d had to. It had felt good at the moment, which I had to live with every time I looked in a mirror. Now, I just cared about what was lost. But I wasn’t going to cry in front of my teammates. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t understand. It was because they would.

I closed Chester’s eyes and rested a hand on his cheek. He had been my enemy. But the fear of failure that I’d felt in him, driving him to get power at any cost was gone. I couldn’t even see the lust for my life that his werewolf face had carried. Now he was just one more victim of Satan’s empty promises of power: one more casualty in the endless Shadow War.

“Now, Chester. Now it’s too late.”

Hale wiped his spectacles free of blood and seated them over his dark brown eyes once gain. He rested a hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Adrian. There’s nothing that you can do for them now. They’re in God’s hands, and whatever he decides will be just.”

“Besides,” Heather said with a lot less compassion, “if we don’t make tracks we’re going to be late getting home, and I don’t want to miss the party.”

“Shoot,” Reynolds said. He pronounced it she-oot. “I forgot about the knee-biter completely.”

“It’s all right,” Hale said. “It’s a three state drive back home, and we can stop to find you something from a gift shop.”

“Who said anything about driving?” he asked. He held his arms straight out. “Taxi!”

I gave him a look. “What am I, a rickshaw driver?”

“Naw,” Reynolds said. “I ain’t paying ya. You owe me for at least two of those Skin Walkers by my count. I will graciously accept a ride as repayment in exchange for saving your life.”

“Whatever,” I said. “I totally would have had them.”

Reynolds arched an eyebrow. “Don’t argue with your elders, child. Now, mush!”

Hale shrugged a semi-apology as he spoke into his cell phone. “Boss-man, this is Reaper Team Three. Our Mission is accomplished and we’re heading back home. We’re going to run into a thunderstorm over West Virginia so we won’t be back until just before supper. Everyone’s fine, and we’re coming home.”

Heather stepped up behind Hale and wrapped her arms around him. A normal human would tire quickly carrying a grown man around, but with our supernatural strength Hale and Reynolds weren’t any more inconvenient than a backpack when we were kids.

I adjusted my gear, called my sword out of the Delaware river and into a scabbard on my back, and manifested wings once again. I hugged Reynolds to my chest and muttered in his ear, “I still say I would have had them.”

He just laughed and pointed west. “Come on, flying monkey. Get me back to the Farm.”

He was still chuckling as we hit Pennsylvania and made a straight shot for home.

Episodes?

For the past five months or so I have wrangled with the plot format to the Adrian Campbell series of urban fantasy novels.  The problem is that the scope and reach of the story are about to expand in format-changing ways.

For a while I planned the next three books as a trilogy of stories between 150k and 200k words apiece.  That’s about triple the size of the original books for every one.

It doesn’t fit the flow and feel of the first two novels very well at all.

Both the Adrian Campbell series and the Gray Wanderer books planned to be set at the dawn of the Song of Lagrandil world lend themselves to smaller, faster episodes very much like a television series instead of larger novels.

But that seems to be a pretty radical idea.  I have seen two or three books published like that (The Green Mile, and I would argue The Nightside books 1-7 by Simon R Green fit this format as well).

Since Pushing Back is the most popular thing that I’ve written so far, I wanted to bounce the idea off of my readers for thoughts or comments.

The original plot outline for Adrian Campbell lends itself well to maybe a 7-12 short-novel series where the Gray Wanderer books were plotted as a 21-episode series.from the start, since the guy you know… wanders…

Other things on the writer’s back burner: The Pirate King is the tentative title of book 4 in the Song of Lagrandil.   The Gremlin Equation would be the plot of my first openly secular story attempt (see notes on C.S.Lewis’ space trilogy sometime).

So, those are my current thoughts.

Thoughts?

Giant’s Rage

Well, NaNoWriMo is up and running.  One of my readers asked me about putting the prologue chapter up on the blog.  I can do that.  Here is the rough draft of Adrian Campbell’s latest adventure.  The prologue comes from the upcoming novel Giant’s Rage, by Bruce R Burns.  All rights reserved.

Prologue

Responsibility comes with power, but were power comes and goes responsibility sticks around and lingers like an unwanted house guest. Take, for example, the fact that even though I was no longer invulnerable or super-powered, I still got tied to a boulder above Hawk’s Nest overlook in New York. I would have been less embarrassed about it if the people about to turn me into a human sacrifice had left me some clothes, and if they weren’t so darn… preppy.

I turned my head to the young man painting arcane symbols on my chest. “Are you sure we need to do this now? Couldn’t you delay your sacrifice long enough to change into something different? It’s not that I want to disrespect your faith. I just don’t want to die at the hands of anyone wearing Izod.”

He gave me a smile that was more predator than prep. “I dress for success, which Mar-Tack will grant me in exchange for your blood.”

I lifted my head off of the boulder. There were symbols painted all over the boulder, and candles burning on the end.

“You’re going to get your victory by stabbing me on a big rock. Aren’t you worried about getting sued for copyright infringement?”

One of the two-dozen robed figures surrounding the boulder dropped out of the communal chant long enough to speak. “The sacrifice will be silent!” His words were slurred and husky.

I craned my head around to look at the face behind the mask. “You know, when you told me that we were going to go do some power ritual, I was right there with you. When it turned out that I was the power ritual my impulse to conform went right out the window.”

“Mar-Tack will punish you for your insolence!”

“Mar-Tack is apparently impressed by penny loafers and tops on sale at JCPenny. That takes some of the sting out of your threat.” I looked back at the painter, who was busy scribbling something on my hip. “Hey, buddy, I’m in you business law class, but that’s all. You go any further south and you’ve to to buy me dinner.”

“Ignore the sacrifice, Chester. This is your moment to claim your power and become one of us!”

I looked down at Chester. He was in his mid-twenties like the rest of the L2’s around him. Halfway through his law degree, he had a bald patch in his limp brown hair and he was working on a gut. “Listen to the sacrifice, Chester. Max is going to get you in real trouble one of these days. There is still time to change your mind. You don’t have to go through with this.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Chester said. “I need this.”

“No, you really need to stop. There’s no future in this.”

“The sun rises!” one of the robed cultists shouted.

“The sun rises!” the rest answered.

Max looked over the mountain valley and raised both of his hands high. “The sun rises, and Mar-Tack rises with the sun! Come, Mar-Tack, Master of the Dawning Hunt, and witness this newest member of the pack as he proves your worth!”

The black-robed young men took up the chant. “Mar-Tack! Mar-Tack! Mar-Tack!”

This is embarrassing, I thought. It’s a frat party revision of The Call of Cthulu. I refuse to die in the middle of something so derivative.

I looked down at my body. Chester had finished his paint job. Mex put a foot-long flint dagger in his hands. That dagger belonged in the stone age, right along with hunter spirits and human sacrifices. Everything about my death was thematically consistent… except for the Izods. Seriously…

My train of thought broke off when the law students called for their false god, and Mar-Tack arrived.

Mar-Tack looked like a cross between Daniel Boone and an abandoned tree stump. It was hard to tell the shape of him beneath the mound of furs he wore. Moss grew on his buckskins, and his white hair was a wind-blown tangle. Honest-to-goodness twigs stuck out of that elderly tangle, and I swore the branches seemed alive. He might have been six and a half feet tall of he weren’t starting to go stoop shouldered with age. He held a gnarled wooden staff in one hand, and a buck-handled hunting knife in the other. I didn’t hear him approach. He just seemed to appear at the edge of the clearing. There was nowhere he could have come from in that direction. I could still hear the occasional car pass on Route 97 below us.

Mar-Tack really knew how to make an entrance. The Delaware River Valley opened wide behind him, and the wind whipped through his hair like an aura of power.

“Mar-Tack!” the robed law students chanted, “your servants greet you with the dawn!”

The elderly man looked down at me like I was a piece of beef. He smiled. “I am Mar-Tack, Giver of Power. I recognized your praise as my due. Let the supplicant come forth.”

That was probably the wrong moment to start laughing, but I couldn’t help it. “You can not be serious.”

Someone hit me in the head with something solid, and I lost track of the cheezy ramble.

I thought about the universe, mostly about stars spinning around in circles. Then I started tracking the ritual again.

I didn’t know how much time I missed, but Chester the potential cultist knelt at the old hermit’s feet. Mar-Tack’s eyes were closed and his hands glowed against Chester’s head. Chester’s body seized and trembled. I doubt he was aware of much of anything. The robed cult members chanted Mar-Tack’s name over and over again, swaying back and forth as they did so. The rising sun’s rays painted Chester and Mar-Tack in golden light, but it did nothing to stop the feeling of evil that crept down my spine. I mean sure, they had falsely befriended me as their fellow student, kidnapped me, and tied me up as a human sacrifice, but whatever Mar-Tack was doing to Chester just felt wrong.

I must have blacked out for most of it, because Mar-Tack released Chester, who fell to the ground and flopped around for another few seconds. Mar-Tack looked tired and winded, like he had just sprinted a mile. Chester opened his eyes and pulled himself to his feet. He looked even worse than Mar-Tack. Chester was pale and shaking. His movements were slow, deliberate, tortured even. Ugly bruises in the shape of Mar-Tack’s hands framed each of his eyes, but he was still smiling. His smile was the scariest thing about him. Whatever Mar-Tack had done to Chester, and Chester looked like he’d gone to a demolition derby minus a car, it had reached into Chester’s brain and hit the yes button.

I felt sick to my stomach.

“Hey,” I shouted, figuring that with my hands and feet tied down dialog was my best option. “What’s going on? I thought that Chester had to stick me with the knife and then you’d make him part of your little club.”

Mar-Tack looked at me over Chester’s shoulders. His voice sounded like creaking branches, and I could smell his breath from the altar, but his grammar was surprisingly high class and a little old-fashioned. “You have been misinformed, sir. Two lives enter the circle. One comes for power, and the other gives his life to seal the bargain, but the knife was never meant for you.”

Chester stood in front of his master, arms out, chest heaving. Mar-Tack took the stone knife from Chester’s hand and cut the law student’s preppy clothes right off his body. I noticed two things right away; Chester really needed to start working out, and Mar-Tack had lots of practice at this maneuver. There weren’t that many members of the little law school cult, so I guessed that he’d been doing this for a while.

“Chester,” Mar-Tack said, “take him.”

“Woah,” I shouted. “I’m pretty sure that somewhere in junior high I made a joke that I wanted to die having sex, but I take it back, I swear.”

Mar-Tack laughed at me. “I admire your spirit, sir. Well done, but we harbor no such unnatural perversions in the pack. Chester will walk over there and eat your heart. If he is particularly quick about it, you may even get to see the spectacle.”

“I thought you said the knife wasn’t for me.”

Mar-Tack shook his head. “Chester no longer needs knives. Now Chester, join us! Kill him!”

Chester took a step forward and every muscle in his body rippled. I thought he was going back into a seizure, but I should be so lucky. His legs bent and shortened, his arms lengthened. I heard every facial bone break, then tendons creaked as Chester transformed into something straight out of my very oldest nightmares. Three steps later a werewolf, seven feet tall and four hundred pounds at least of muscle, fang, and fur glared at me with Chester’s eyes. He licked his lips. Literally.

Who does that?

Adrenaline flooded my body and my mouth flipped over to autopilot. “You turned Chester into a freaking werewolf and you think gays are unnatural? You really need to rethink your priorities.”

The monster that used to be Chester Anderson took two more steps towards me. He walked hunched over, and his eyes pierced me with an inhuman hate. I wasn’t entirely sure that Chester was in the driver’s seat up there, but I decided to try one last time.

“Chester, listen to me, it isn’t too late. You don’t have to be a killer. You can succeed without this.”

I didn’t think that a werewolf was going to miss my words, but I wasn’t sure that Chester could hear me.

I raised my voice and called out to the whole cult. “Look! You can be forgiven! You don’t have to be murderers! The power to kill is nothing compared to the power to raise from the dead or live forever! Jesus died for your sins, even this one, but if you keep sacrificing people someone is going to stop you! All the money and power in the world isn’t going to help you out when you die!”

Mar-Tack wasn’t having any of it. “Listen to the powerless prey whine for its life. Jesus is a myth made up to enable the oppressors, a way for them to get rid of their false guilt. I have shown you the true power, power to take what you want from those weaker than you. You can survive for hundreds of years, ever wiser and stronger. As a pack you are greater than any mortal foe. Don’t be swayed by the powerless man and his threats of an imaginary tomorrow. Listen to the power in your flesh, the lust for his blood. Kill him, Chester, and we will drink his blood together!”

Chester took his time, but his claws were only a few feet away from my feet. “I’m not kidding,” I said. “Sooner or later someone is going to stop you. God isn’t going to let you get away with this forever. You need to repent before it’s too late.”

Mar-Tack laughed in my face. “Do you think you have anything to say the pack hasn’t heard before? Everyone tries to convince us, to persuade us. When that fails, they resort to religion and threats. Next you will offer us everything you have, everything you are if we just let you live. In the end, you will cry and call for your mother, but she isn’t here. She can’t help you. Make your noises, little pig, for the wolfing hour is upon you, and this is the end. What do you have to say to that?”

Chester the Werewolf leaned over me. He sniffed at my feet and licked a hot, wet tongue up my left shin. It was really sticky, and gross. I sort of forgot about Mar-Tack as Chester’s extra-large fangs got closer and closer to my junk. “Listen to me, Chester. You haven’t hurt anyone yet. You can still get free of this. I know it has to feel good… um… maybe even taste good. No. That’s a bad choice of words.”

Chester bypassed my family jewels and kept crawling over me. I could feel heat off of his supernaturally transformed body like an oven. He licked my ribs (gross) and lifted his head back with his eyes locked on my throat. If he’d been fifty pounds lighter, and not a flesh-eating monster, I might have felt complimented. As it was I just felt like a hors d’oeuvre.

My mouth ran into high gear. “Chester. Please, Chester. Don’t. You don’t have to do this.”

Chester’s eyes gleamed and he savored my helplessness, leaning closer by inches.

“No, Chester. Chester, stop. Stop! Stopstopstopstop….”

Chester’s fangs closed the final foot to my throat in one quick lunge with all his weight behind it.

So it must have really hurt when I Pushed my sword into my right hand. One instant I was naked and helpless, but I had an image in my head of Chester biting down on my sword, clacking his teeth on supernatural steel instead of the hollow of my throat. I felt the hilt of my sword in my hands, and called on my supernatural legacy, the one I got from my dear old demonic dad. I Pushed the image against reality and reality gave way. The sword was part of me, forged in the fire of my own magic and quenched in my own magical blood. Chester’s chompers clapped shut on my sword blade, and he cried out in pain. Werewolves have really large lungs, and his mouth was an inch away from my throat, so that was deafening.

Chester reared back, snarling and clawing at his face. Chester didn’t back away fast enough. I whipped the rapier around with the twist of my wrist, the agile blade’s tip traveling a meter and a half as I moved my wrist four inches. Chester just wasn’t fast enough to overcome that sort of mechanical advantage. Werewolves might be really strong, but magic, holiness, and silver hurt them just like any other supernatural monster. My sword, forged in my own blood and quenched in anointing oil covered two of the three bases, and it slit his throat with a wound that sizzled and burned even as it killed him.

Chester flopped off of me, clawing desperately at the wound on his throat, which wasn’t going to help him any.

I cut my bonds away and stood. A flicker of mental effort called my clothes to me as well. It worked so well with my sword that I’d had an entire outfit made with bits of my hair and blood woven into the fabrics. I remembered my boots, pants, shirt, and coat. Then they were there. From commando to urban avenger in no time flat, it was a nice trick. But the nicest thing of all was the feeling of relief when I stopped using my Pusher’s powers to suppress my own supernatural nature. Werewolves were walking sensor suites, and I knew that they would be able to feel my strength, vitality, and power as if Roma Downey herself had put a spotlight down on my shoulders. Mar-Tack was no werewolf. He was what I was, a half-angel Fallen with supernatural powers woven into our very genetic code.

We locked eyes while the others hesitated. I got a first word into the silence.

“I never said that I was helpless, Marcus Takowsky. Today is the day God sends someone to stop you, the day when you brought all your followers together in one place for us to deal with.”

Mar-Tack was shaken, but he kept a good fame face on his surprise. “I can feel your powers, impostor. You’re a Pusher. You play at being a Caster, a Shifter, and the others, but it’s all just an imitation. You are the wanna-be of the Fallen world. You can call a sword and some undergarments? What good is your sword going to do against someone who can call fire? I will burn you where you stand!”

He wasn’t bluffing, either. He swept his wooden staff at the air between us and a wave of fire washed across the air between us. I lowered my sword, hunched my shoulders, and manifested my wings. Seven feet wide on either side, my wings beat at the wave of fire with inhuman strength and made a gust of wind that split the wave of fire to either side of me. I heard flames crackle behind me and at least one cult member cried out in pain. I flexed my shoulders, spread my wings wide, and leveled my sword at Mar-Tack’s face. “One more thing, Caster: leave my mother out of this.”

Mar-Tack looked at me with raw fury. “You’re not just a Pusher. You’re something else.” He made it into an accusation, like I had offended him by showing a power he hadn’t considered. “Who are you?”

“My name is Adrian Campbell. I’m a Reaper. Tell your followers to surrender and we’ll get them help. Fight, and you’re all going to die.”

More shock rippled through the cultists. Maybe Mar-Tack hadn’t told them about the things that made me famous in Fallen circles, the battle at QBI or the little vampire war in West Virginia, but I’d spent a few weeks on the top of the FBI’s most wanted list after a throw-down in Akron, so even normal folks reacted to my name. I thought for just a second that Mar-Tack and his followers might listen to reason and we could avoid a fight.

Then two dozen lawyer cultists threw off their robes and transformed. They threw themselves forward, howling for my blood. My claim that God was on my side was about to go on trial, and in the supernatural Shadow War the only trial was by ordeal. I raised my sword and gathered my power. God had really better be on my side, or I was going to die.

I didn’t stand a prayer against twenty-five enemies, even if Mar-Tack was the only other Fallen among them, werewolves were a nasty business all their own, but these were skin walkers, humans granted power. I was born with mine. Human werewolves weren’t as powerful as Fallen ones, but even if I could handle one or two the other twenty-odd sets of fangs would pull me down.

It was a good thing that I wasn’t alone. As soon as I called my sword my power would start pushing against nearby supernatural senses. The stronger someone’s senses, or the more powerful the Fallen, the stronger they pressed against their senses. Werewolves had some of the sharpest senses in the Shadow War, but they weren’t the best.

Oracles were the best. Hale didn’t just have the senses of a super-psychic thanks to his share of half-angel DNA. He could read minds, hear thoughts, and pretty much see the future.

So when Mar-Tack and his homemade werewolves came for my blood my team was ready. Mar-Tack witched twice, the slap-slap crack-crack of high powered rifle fire matching the wounds over his heart and his head. I worked with a man named Kerry Reynolds, and he was a Hunter. He couldn’t spout wings, throw fireballs, or see the future, but he was a born killer, and he had been a sniper since Gettysburg. He’d brought his Holland and Holland .300 Nitro-Express to the party. Two hundred some yards away, on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware river, Reynolds was shooting at point blank range. Cordite propellant sent the rounds rocketing forward at two and a half times the speed of sound, so even this close it took half a second for the sound of the shot to follow its round to the target. A third of a second to hit the target was too slow for a kill shot on something as fast as a werewolf, but the supersonic round meant the critters never knew they had fire to dodge until it was too late, and Reynolds’ Hunting powers sent every shot home. Reynolds’ H&H was one of the first-ever belt fed rifles, and he put it to good use. I heard another slap-crack as a charging werewolf fell lifeless to the ground and the werewolf downrange took the anti-elephant round in the shoulder. Reynolds was fast and accurate like a shooter’s dream, but even the nitro-express with blessed ammunition wasn’t going to stop them all in time.

With a little luck and a lot of favor from on high, the rest of our plan would.

Heather burst into view at over ninety miles an hour, head up and red hair streaming in the wind. She must have flown up the mountainside to gain speed and stay out of sight until just the right moment. She dropped the passenger that she’d been carrying in her arms the moment they cleared the ridge, then sped into the sky like a vision of a warrior goddess in close-fitting leathers. Agent Forrest Hale flew through the air on momentum for a quick arc. He hit the ground and bled off his momentum with the fluid grace of a true Aikido master. He flowed to his feet nearby, facing my back as if he’d had it planned ahead of time. Maybe he had.

There was time for one more slap-crack from Reynolds’ rifle, another werewolf down, and then they were on us.

My sword is a late Scottish rapier, light enough to fence with and sturdy enough to parry heavier blades. With a doubled grip on the cat’s head pommel I could use it as a light broadsword when I positively had to cut something in half instead of simply killing it.

I doubled up my grip. It wasn’t that werewolves needed more than a thrust to the heart or brain to kill. A good sword thrust was wider than a fifty-caliber round. The problem was that thrusts required recovery time that a press of battle wouldn’t give me.

People talk about battle being a blur. The fight in the woods came to me like shards of a broken glass picture. I cut a werewolf down, kicked a second, and used my sword on a third. My training was European and Korean, full of short, brutal moves that put all my body behind the strikes. My blade was magic because I was, so a werewolf’s healing powers couldn’t help them against my attacks.

Forrest Hale reached out to me with his mind, and we stopped fighting as individuals. I knew what he knew, saw what he saw, and suddenly neither of us had a blind spot. His sword was holy, not magic, and it flashed as it cut through flesh. Hale flowed through sword forms like smoke in the wind, never hard, never resisting, and never stopping. He wasn’t as fast as I was, and nowhere near as fast as the werewolves, but he didn’t need to be when he could feel each attack coming before it even began. Claws and fangs missed him by inches, but his katana slipped through flesh and bone as if it were nothing.

I caught a glimpse of Heather, the team Hawk over the fight. Her wings were the color of autumn leaves, and they flashed gold in the morning sun as she dove between werewolves. They threw themselves into the air again and again, but Hawks were the messengers of our kind. Fast and agile, she found the path she needed through their attacks by instinct. She had an M-16A1 tucked tight to her shoulder, and put three-round bursts of silver-tipped slugs into targets at will. Silver slugs have terrible ballistics qualities and they penetrate for crap, but we weren’t here to kill elephants, and shapeshifters hated silver.

Thumple-crack came from Reynolds’ Nitro Express as the bullets punched deep into the pack. His rounds were designed to hunt elephants, and for every werewolf he killed he injured one or two more. I would be terrified if anyone else was shooting that gun at my enemies in a sword fight, but Reynolds could feel and see everything in the fight with Hale’s psychic link, and his Hunter powers kept him from killing me by mistake.

Twenty-four werewolves had enough raw power to eat a regular army company for lunch, but we were trained professionals. We were Reapers. This was our job and we were good at it.

I held an image in my mind from a Korean swordsman flick where heroes with swords stood against hordes of monsters with flashing blades and the dedication to their righteous cause. I Pushed the image from my head into reality and suddenly I moved faster, hit harder, and my sword started to hum in the air. The skin walker I’d kicked away leapt straight at me with his hands outstretched. I leapt right back at him, horse stance, elbow out with all my weight behind it. The werewolf’s nose hit my elbow, and my Pushed image meant that it was his nose instead of my arm that broke. His arms slashed the air in front of and behind me as he fell snorting to the ground at my feet. I cut at the base of his skull and side-kicked another werewolf in the shoulder. The skin walker was twice my weight in werewolf form, which meant my kick stopped him cold but threw me up and backwards in the air. That was fine by me. I landed in a fighting stance right behind Hale and went right back to slicing.

I spun right to cut a werewolf down before he could eat my knee, and his pack-mate leapt at my exposed shoulder. It was a great tactic if I were a moose, but I swept my right wing forward and batted the monstrous law student out of the air. The blow wouldn’t really hurt him, but it did knock him to the ground right at my feet. I watched the injured werewolf’s nose reform itself in the time I would need for a deep breath, and then it hurled itself right at me. I ran him through just behind the shoulders, lungs and heart ruined in one thrust. The monster thrashed wildly, tore big furrows in the ground, and then fell over sideway to lie still.

Slap. The werewolf I’d knocked down jerked six inches to the side as a Nitro Express round took it in the heart. Crack. The rifle’s report thundered over the sound of battle. The werewolf snapped at its side out of sheer reflex, but there was nothing there to counter-attack. Then it fell over twitching.

The last pair of werewolves on the battlefield turned to run. Heather’s rifle took one and Reynolds the other. More gunshots echoed through the river valley, and then my team was alone.

I lowered my sword and dropped my Kumdo Superstar image. Reality un-bent around me like a slap in the mind, and everywhere my mind had been Pushing. My hands and legs shook and I couldn’t catch my breath or gather my thoughts. I stumbled to one knee, dripping sweat, and tried to regain my strength.

Heather O’Leary landed next to me with a flurry of wings that weren’t there a second later. She knelt by my side with a worried look on her face. Her hands searched my body for wounds without hesitation or any concern for my personal space. Times like this she tended to forget that our years as lovers were years behind us. “Adrian! Are you all right? Are you hurt?”

Her hands danced up the inside of my leg seeking arterial wounds. My body forgot our changed relationship status as quickly as she did, right when all of Heather’s attention was where she couldn’t possibly miss her effect on me.

Heather’s hand landed right on the issue and her concern vanished in a second and she slapped me upside the head. “You sexist pig.”

I shook my head but my words wobbled to pieces in my scrambled brain.

“It’s Kickback, Heather,” Hale supplied. “He Pushed too hard in the fight and his powers have shorted out. He’ll get his strength back in just a bit.”

Heather was still offended. “I know just the refreshment he needs.”

“Heather…” Hale started, but he could tell what she wanted to do as well as she could, and I could hear the laughter in his head.

Two coherent words made it past my static-fuzzed brain. “Uh oh.”

But there wasn’t anything I could do. Heather grabbed me by the ankles, leapt into the air, and her wings were suddenly back. I counted five flaps of her powerful wings as she accelerated to high speed. It felt like sixty miles and hour at least when she let go of my ankles.

I dropped my sword and flailed at the air as the western edge of NewYork flashed past me. I fell head-first so I had an upside down view of the Delaware River Valley. Route 97’s scenic overlook blurred past. I tried to pop my wings, Push an image of weightlessness… anything, but my fritzed-out powers gave me nothing but a dizzy fit as I fell into the Delaware at about ninety miles an hour. The water hit me like a slap from Godzilla, then closed over me as I hit the rock and muddy bottom. Several fish floated towards the surface, stunned by the concussion I’d created hitting the water. By the time I dug myself free of the river bottom they recovered and spun away. A snapping turtle bit at the water in my direction as an all-purpose warning and then retreated inside its shell.

My Powers came back by the time I swam to shore. By the time I popped my wings and flew back Heather had already retrieved our resident sniper from Pennsylvania.

“Supersonic interstate werewolf bullets,” Kerry Reynolds said as he slipped his Nitro Express back into a leather satchel fringed with tassels and a strip of wampum. “That’s a first.” Kerry was five feet and ten inches, a hundred and sixty pounds, and with his dirty red hair he could have been an extra from the set of Justified. He had a Civil War style cavalry saber on one hip and a Colt revolver on the other. Reynolds didn’t seem scary until you saw him fight, but I’d seen him take on a Shifter werewolf with nothing but a Bowie knife and attitude before. Reynolds won.

I landed next to the cultists’ stone table and knelt next to one of the bodies. One reason the rest of the world goes on ignoring the Shadow War is because most of the evidence doesn’t stick around long. Shifters, Giants, and Skin Walkers changed back to human when the angelic or demonic forces that changed them shuffled off to the next world, or to their next victim. So our big supernatural battlefield looked like a nudist party gone slasher film before dawn. That was probably what the police would write it up as. God only knew what they would say about the bullet wounds.

Chester’s eyes stared back at me with nothing behind him. He had a shocked, confused look on his face. Death had robbed him of any dignity he’d had in life. His bowels and bladder had loosed with no concern for his modesty, and his naked body was covered with spatters of blood from the fight. I was a born fighter. I was good at it, and in the middle of a fight I loved it more than I wanted to admit. But I never let myself forget this part, the part that came after. No one, whether they had two human parents or just one, was a mistake. All life came from God, and went back to him for judgment. Every living person carried the image of God, and killing them was worse than taking a knife to the Mona Lisa.

I’d killed him because I’d had to. It had felt good at the moment, which I had to live with every time I looked in a mirror. Now, I just cared about what was lost. But I wasn’t going to cry in front of my teammates. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t understand. It was because they would.

I closed Chester’s eyes and rested a hand on his cheek. He had been my enemy. But the fear of failure that I’d felt in him, driving him to get power at any cost was gone. I couldn’t even see the lust for my life that his werewolf face had carried. Now he was just one more victim of Satan’s empty promises of power: one more casualty in the endless Shadow War.

“Now, Chester. Now it’s too late.”

Hale wiped his spectacles free of blood and seated them over his dark brown eyes once gain. He rested a hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Adrian. There’s nothing that you can do for them now. They’re in God’s hands, and whatever he decides will be just.”

“Besides,” Heather said with a lot less compassion, “if we don’t make tracks we’re going to be late getting home, and I don’t want to miss the party.”

“Shoot,” Reynolds said. He pronounced it she-oot. “I forgot about the knee-biter completely.”

“It’s all right,” Hale said. “It’s a three state drive back home, and we can stop to find you something from a gift shop.”

“Who said anything about driving?” he asked. He held his arms straight out. “Taxi!”

I gave him a look. “What am I, a rickshaw driver?”

“Naw,” Reynolds said. “I ain’t paying ya. You owe me for at least two of those Skin Walkers by my count. I will graciously accept a ride as repayment in exchange for saving your life.”

“Whatever,” I said. “I totally would have had them.”

Reynolds arched an eyebrow. “Don’t argue with your elders, child. Now, mush!”

Hale shrugged a semi-apology as he spoke into his cell phone. “Boss-man, this is Reaper Team Three. Our Mission is accomplished and we’re heading back home. We’re going to run into a thunderstorm over West Virginia so we won’t be back until just before supper. Everyone’s fine, and we’re coming home.”

Heather stepped up behind Hale and wrapped her arms around him. A normal human would tire quickly carrying a grown man around, but with our supernatural strength Hale and Reynolds weren’t any more inconvenient than a backpack when we were kids.

I adjusted my gear, called my sword out of the Delaware river and into a scabbard on my back, and manifested wings once again. I hugged Reynolds to my chest and muttered in his ear, “I still say I would have had them.”

He just laughed and pointed west. “Come on, flying monkey. Get me back to the Farm.”

He was still chuckling as we hit Pennsylvania and made a straight shot for home.

 

 

Chapter 1