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Excerpt - Agent Of Artifice


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She smiled at me and started to say something when the world seemed to explode.  Bright flashes filled the alley, reflecting off old brick walls and the glass and metal of the car.  The sound of gunfire hammered at us.  The car's windshields shattered.  I dropped to the floor, pulling Liesl after me.  The shooting stopped for a heartbeat.  I was breathing hard, scared to move.

"Hang on!" the driver yelled.  The car backed up, tires squealing.  The car lurched as it bounced off the walls of the alley.  I think the driver was steering without looking, ducking the gunfire that had resumed.

I could hear bullets impacting the front of the car.  A loud explosion and the car jerking hard indicated that a tire had been shot out.

The car bounced left and stopped in the street.  But this put my side of the car facing the danger.  I scrambled away from the door in pure fear.  Liesl tried to stop me from crawling over her.

The glass in the windows above us shattered and I felt a thump in my thigh as if someone had hit me there very hard with a closed fist.  The car lurched forward and the shooting stopped.  I looked up.  The warrior was driving the car down a street at breakneck speeds.  He had no headlights--presumably they'd been shot out--and I could hear one of the front tires flopping against the fender.

"What the hell?" I screamed.

"Louis is hurt," the warrior said.

"Damn, so am I."  I had touched my leg and my hand came away bloody.

"Heal yourself," Liesl ordered me without feeling.  She leaned forward.  "How is he?"

"Not good.  Unconscious."

She said a very bad word in the ancient language.

I put my hand on my leg and ran a healing spell.  The pain and bleeding stopped, but I imagined I could feel the bullet inside me.

"Who were they?" she asked.

"I don?t know," the driver replied.  "I couldn't see them.  They had automatic weapons."

"Are you hurt?" Liesl asked him.  I noticed the Valkyrie was better in emergencies than I was.  I felt shame at that.

"Not really," he replied, jerking the steering wheel.  I got the idea the car was hard to control.  I could smell hot odors that I thought were coming from the damaged engine.

"You've been shot!" Liesl exclaimed.

"I'm fine!" the warrior insisted.

"We need to get Louis to a hospital," I said, trying to be helpful.

"Where the hell do you think I'm going?" the driver yelled.

"Look out!" Liesl screamed, pointing at a truck coming into our path, barely visible by the neon lights of a nearby bar.

The tires squealed, but I'm sure having one shot out didn't help.  The car slid sideways and its front left corner slammed into the side of the truck with a sound of smashing violence as metal must have been ripping apart.  We all were flung forward.  The warrior went out the opening where the left windshield should have been.  I flew over the back of the seat, slammed my head into the hard steering wheel, and passed out--but not before experiencing the worst pain I'd ever felt.  Oblivion was a welcome relief.

I woke up with Liesl pulling me away from the wreckage.  A crowd was gathering.  She laid me down, roughly dropping my shoulders on the concrete sidewalk, in the shadow of a dark doorway.

"Louis?" I asked.

"I'm not sure.  Dead, I think," she said softly.

"The driver?"

"Dead."  The way she said it indicated to me I didn't want to confirm that for myself.

"Should we go back for Louis?"

She nodded her head.  "Yes, I will."  She started walking away.  From my angle, on the ground, I could see her legs were bloody, staining her petticoat crimson, and her dress was torn.

A car zoomed up, scattering the rubberneckers, and squealed to a stop.  Three men jumped out, all Cuban but wearing suits and hats like American mobsters.  All carried large guns, presumably the "automatic weapons" that were fired in the alley.  The crowd evaporated in screams.  Liesl pointed at the men and one blew apart like a pile of dry leaves before a hurricane, his gun clattering to the pavement.  The other two fired at her, their guns spitting a staccato of death, flashing strobe lights of destruction.

Liesl had her protection spell up early enough and the bullets ricocheted off her harmlessly, hitting and pock-marking the walls of the buildings around us.  But she couldn't attack the men while the spell was up.  They stopped firing.  "Where is he?" one asked.  I could see even at this distance his bushy mustache and eyebrows.

I had painfully pulled myself to my feet.  My head hurt and my body wasn't cooperating with it; I had too many injuries to know where to start healing.

"Who are you to ask me questions?" she demanded, her powerful voice filling the street.  She was not hiding from them what she was and her power.

I reached for my talisman and pointed a fear spell at the men.  It seemed to be all I could do.

"Check the car," Bushy said.

The other one, thinner and looking young, moved to the vehicle but didn't take his eyes from Liesl.  When he was close enough, he glanced in.  "The chardo meta's in there."  He must have meant Louis.

Bushy looked at Liesl.  "Where's the other one?  The other meta?"

"Dead," she said.

He looked at her questioningly.  I changed to a persuasion spell, making him believe it.


"The crash," she said.

"I need to see the body."

Liesl must have detected what I was doing.  "You don't need to see the body."

He still looked at her, his face red in the neon light, giving him a sinister look.  The same light made his gun, still pointed at her, look bloodied and dangerous.  His expression was uncertain.  I increased the power of the spell.

"We don't need to see the body."

"Yes we do," Skinny said.  Damn, I'd left him out of the spell.

"The police will be here soon," Liesl said.  "This is a country in the middle of a civil war.  Gunfire in the capital should bring half the army down on you."

I modulated the spell, even though in my weakened state the effort was about to make me pass out: fear and persuasion mixed.

"Listen," Bushy said, "I know a little bit about meta.  Your spell will eventually wear out and then we'll kill you.  And I know you can't move and keep that spell on.  So we'll just wait.  I don't think we have to worry about the police."

I wondered what he meant by that, but didn't have time to think about it.  The persuasion and fear spells weren't working.  I gathered what strength I had left, fingered my talisman, and shot flame at them.  It arced across the street reflecting orange off the cobblestones and buildings, and splashed on the pavement in front of them.  Damn, I didn't put enough distance into it.  The men jumped back from the flames and started looking for the source--that is, me.

Liesl took that opportunity to run.

She sprinted toward me and, passing, grabbed my arm.

"Thank you," she breathed, pulling me along.

I mumbled a reply and decided not to tell her that hadn't been my plan.


Excerpt - Hammer Of Thor

She must have been building up the spell as I was talking. The airbolt hit Fitz in the chest and knocked him off his chair. He slammed into the wall and crumpled to the floor. From the angle of his neck, it was obvious he was dead.

I scrambled for the katana talisman, still on the desk. But Reynolds beat me to it, scooping it up and then stumbling backward on her high heels.

Sounding like a rain of exploding steel onto sheet metal, the machine gun fired and a line of red stains appeared on Reynolds' white blouse as she was knocked backward against the wall. Most people would have crumbled under the assault; she stood straighter and pointed at Harold, and he dropped the tommy gun and curled up in a ball.

I'd seen that spell only once before, but I still recognized it. I didn't want to watch.
Reynolds touched herself and the stains stopped growing. Black and I attacked her simultaneously. Fire made a bright orange rainbow across the room and hit her full on the chest. It had no effect; her protection spell was strong, helped, no doubt, by using the katana talisman.

The warrior from the hall burst in at that moment and pointed his weapon at Black and me. "Stop!" he yelled.

"Shoot them, fool," Reynolds screamed.

Harold squawked, a sound to shatter small trees it seemed, and came across the room, his talons cutting the carpet. He was a six-foot black bird with large eyes and obsidian talons and a yellow hooked beak. Reynolds had turned him into a rukhkh. It would have been more merciful to kill him. Harold jumped, talons out as he sailed through the air.

"NOOOO!" Reynolds wailed and pointed at Harold/rukhkh.

But it was too late; Harold landed on the other warrior. Blood sprayed from the poor guy's chest and the talons cut deep. Harold's huge wings beat rapidly as he carved the warrior's flesh, filling the room with a tornado of black feathers.
I stopped watching. Harold must have thought the other warrior was threatening his mistress. How he missed Black's and my attacks I don't know. Perhaps in what was left of his mind, a gun was more of a threat than anything else.

Reynolds' plan became clear. She tore off her skirt, leaving her in girdle, stockings, and high heels only from the waist down. She put her hands against the outer wall and it fell away. Her blouse was darkening as her protection spell weakened.
Harold dropped the string of bowels in his beak, squawked even louder, ran across the room shredding more carpet, and jumped out the opening. Just then Reynolds' blouse caught fire and she jumped out the gaping hole herself. A few moments later, with Reynolds straddling his back and her blouse simply missing, Harold flew down the street, quickly being obscured by the fog.

I said a very bad oath in the ancient language. "I need a rukhkh!" I called out needlessly. And the warrior, who was dead in a very large puddle of blood, was the last lesser I could use.

"No," Black said, "you don't."

"What do you mean?" I asked, looking at him. Was this a trick?

He bent down and started pulling up the ripped carpet. "Look in Harold's clothes; he might have had a knife," Black said.

Harold's suit was a pile of shredded cloth where he'd been transmogrified. I dug through them and pulled out a pocketknife. "Here." I tossed it to Black.

He caught the knife, opened it, and started cutting. "Get Fitz's talisman; you'll need a strong one. I saw what the samurai talisman can do."

I went to Fitz's body and pulled a pebble out of his pocket. It had scratches in it that looked as if they'd been made five minutes ago. But by the spelling and grammar I could tell it had been written before or just after Atlantis sank. It was very powerful. Almost a match for the katana.

By then Black had a large enough piece of carpet cut for me to sit on. He even elevated it off the floor. I jumped on it.

"I thought it was you," I said, sitting on the ripped and bloody floating carpet. "I'm sorry."

Black pointed out the hole in the wall: "Get her!"

I flew the carpet out the hole and went in the general direction Reynolds had gone. But I realized that was foolish. I decided I had only one hope of finding her. I went up and broke through the fog.

The sky above the fog was crystal clear blue, and the fog was an intense white; the brilliance dazzled me. I surveyed the white horizon. It almost looked like a flat snowy plain from my childhood home. North, I could see the orange tops of the towers on the Golden Gate Bridge. The Bay Bridge towers were nubbins in the distance to the east. The Russ Building and the Pacific Telephone Building were just poking out of the fog, the mist swirling around their tops. To the south were Mount Sutro, Mount Davidson, and the hill for Buena Vista Park. I didn't know whether it had a name.

I had expected to see Reynolds as a speck in the distance, fleeing for her life. But I didn't see her at all, meaning she was still under the fog bank. I moved slowly in the last direction I had seen her go. I could see the tops of buildings under the fog, but not the street.

Off to my right, not very far away, I saw the fog flowing over an obstacle. I thought it was a building just under the surface, but the object moved. I came in closer and, just as I could tell it was a rukhkh perched on a building, I jerked the carpet away as Harold and Reynolds shot out of the fog. While trying to avoid the bird's talons and beak, I also managed to miss Reynolds' lightning bolt.

I swung the carpet around in time to see Reynolds duck into the fog again. I chased her, diving into the cold mist. I could still see her. She looked over her shoulder and sprayed fire at me that seemed to sizzle as it cut through the fog. I swerved the carpet to miss it and heard small explosions behind me as the fire hit buildings.

The advantage I had over Reynolds was that the carpet didn't get tired, as the rukhkh eventually would. However, as I tired, I wouldn't be able to keep the carpet going. So the more spells I shot at her, the faster I'd lose my ability to chase her. However, she could spell so much she'd pass out, and Harold would keep flying until he tuckered out.

I had to decide how I was going to fight her.

Reynolds was cutting around buildings, trying to lose me. I saw people on the street pointing up at us as we flew overhead. I decided Reynolds must be uncomfortably cold with her shoulders and arms bare, and legs protected only by thin silk stockings.

Reynolds ducked around the Russ Building. I followed, going too fast. Harold was hovering there and facing me. His talons cut painfully into my chest and knocked me off the carpet. I hung for a long, agonizing moment from those claws. Then, as my flesh ripped, I fell, watching my blood drip from the black hooks after me.

See S. Evan Townsend read this excerpt (and a bit more) here.

Excerpt - Rock Killer

DeWite moved into the observation room and Prince followed.

The room looked almost exactly like a bar since it was a VIP lounge for watching ships land and take off.  A large window looked over the shipyard, where various types of spacecraft were resting on the lunar dust.  The window, made of Crysteel, invented by SRI's orbital laboratories, began about half a meter from the floor and extended to the ceiling and was about five meters wide.  Crysteel, made in a factory in Earth orbit one atom at a time, was almost as strong as aluminum.  Its one weakness was a very high index of refraction due to tightly packed oxygen atoms.  It made great lenses but was not good for use where a clear view was needed such as spaceship windows and pressure suit helmets.  But the picture window in the lounge would have been impractical without the Crysteel.

Four pressure-suited figures were moving across the plain.  The suits were not SRI issue and they were carrying submachine guns.  DeWite recognized them as a South African made 9 millimeter caseless that were favored by criminals who bought them on the black market.

One, carrying a 40-millimeter recoilless rifle, knelt just a few meters from the window and aimed.  Fire shot out of the rear of the weapon, dying almost immediately in the airless environment.  A flame licked a small intra-lunar shuttle followed by an explosion.  The ship's skin crumpled and it folded in on itself in a slow, macabre death dance.  An explosion marked the rupture of the fuel tanks.  Fire burned until the oxygen ran out.

"Goddamnit!" DeWite exploded.  "We need to get to the airlock."

Just then one of the four figures outside noticed the two Security guards.  He tapped the others on their shoulders and pointed.  The other three turned and again the recoilless rifle spat a fleeting flame.  DeWite dived behind the bar?an easy task in the low gravity.  The window exploded inward.  Prince was thrown against the rear wall, his body shattered by the impact.  Then the window exploded outward as the room decompressed.  Prince's body was slammed against the bottom of the window and sucked out into the harsh sunlight.

DeWite heard the emergency door slam shut locking him in the room.  He knew it would never open until the pressure in the room equalized with the pressure in the hall.

He stood, aimed his shotgun, braced his leg behind to compensate for the low gravity, and fired.  He was surprised he heard it at all.  Must still be a little air in the room, some part of him thought.

The figure with the recoilless rifle was thrown back and blood ejaculated from its torn body.  It was freeze-dried before it hit the lunar plain.  The remaining figures turned with their weapons firing.  DeWite barely heard the bullets hitting the wall behind him.  His ears felt as if they were going to explode.  He screamed, not in fear, but to empty his lungs to prolong his already forfeit life a few more seconds.

Pump, FIRE, Pump, FIRE, Pump was DeWite's whole existence.  Another figure crumpled, spouting blood.  Then the bullets ripped into DeWite.  Blood flowed like a fire hose.  FIRE?DeWite could no longer stand, even in one-sixth gravity.   He sank to the floor and died in a puddle of his blood that was boiling and freezing simultaneously.

 Excerpt - Book Of Death
I'd never seen this type of meta before.  At least I assumed that's what it was, as the wooden man inexorably walked toward me with a creak of moving wood, like tree branches in a heavy wind.  It was raising its arms for another blow so I stepped back and shot an airbolt at it.  I heard wood crack, but that didn't stop it.  It swung again and its wooden fist pounded into my face, knocking me down and back on the sidewalk.  Somewhere I heard screams and yells.  A guy sitting on the sidewalk, his back to a storefront, muttered, "Wow, bad trip, man."

The Indian was bending over, its face expressionless except for the painted-on peace sign as it seemed to prepare for another attack.  I shot fire at it, assuming old dry wood would ignite easily, and it did: the hippie dress went up in flames, and now the monster was a burning mass, still attacking me.  It smacked me again with a flaming arm and I suffered from both the impact and the burns.  Nearly screaming, I scrambled away on hands and knees.  I don't think I'd ever been that scared.  Still it came, oblivious to the fact it was on fire.

A motorcycle cop I hadn't noticed jumped off his bike, pulled his service revolver, and shot it into the Indian with six cracks of bullets being fired.  It had no effect other than sending burning splinters of wood flying.  The cop suddenly looked frightened, and was gripping his billy club but taking no further action.

People were screaming loudly now.  I looked around, looking for an escape.  If I could teleport away I might escape, but I could see no clear place to teleport to.  Briefly I wondered what happened to Ernestine and if she were safe.  I didn't sense the presence of another adept, but I didn't really have the ability to be quiet enough to do so.  I just hoped she was okay.

The burning Indian smacked me again, hard, in the chest and I felt as if my feet left the ground as I was knocked into a car's side.  I heard and felt sheet metal crumple and knew I'd hit the car hard.  My vision was going gray.  But I realized my shirt was on fire and that kept me from passing out; if I passed out I was probably dead.  I pulled water from the air to douse the fire, but this took time and the Indian was on me again, even though it was moving very slowly. 

I wondered if I'd survive until the wooden Indian had been consumed by the flames.  It hit me again, knocking me to the sidewalk.  There was an unpleasant smell and I realized my hair was burning.  I used my bare hand to pat out the flames.  This gave the Indian time to hit me again, hard.  It almost felt as if I flew through the air and was slapped painfully to the sidewalk, the Indian still lumbering toward me.

In desperation I shot another airbolt at it.  It must have been on the verge of falling apart because that hit blew it into flaming pieces that scattered over the street and also hit me, burning my skin or singeing my clothes.  But it was no longer attacking.

Excerpt - Gods of Strife

I heard a mechanical roar and the Lamborghini slid to a stop next to the now-burning remains of the portico. The passenger door sliced up into the air.

I didn't think, I just jumped in and onto the white leather seat through the narrow opening. The door sills were huge on this thing and the roofline so low you sat in it in a reclining position, almost lying down. There were no back seats. Graham was at the wheel grinning at me.

"Thank heaven for TM 31-210," he said calmly while manipulating the gear shift. "And the idiot left his keys in the car. You might want to close your door, sir."

It took me a moment to figure it out, but there was an opening near the bottom of the door so I pulled on it and the door swung down and closed.

The destroyed portico was blocking us from going forward. Graham was manipulating the gear lever between the seats.

Immediately the car backed up at an incredible rate of speed and Graham was saying, "I always wanted to try a bootleg turn."

I didn't know what he meant but he turned the steering wheel rapidly with one hand while jerking the gear stick with the other. The car's nose swung around the rear of the vehicle with a protesting howl of tires, effectively and very quickly turning it around. Graham hesitated a moment while he worked the gear lever again but finally he apparently got it in the right position and the car growled almost angrily as it shot forward.

Clipped to the visor was a black plastic box about the size of a paperback novel. In the middle was an oval white button almost as long as the box was wide.

"I hope this thing works or this is going to be a real short trip," Graham growled as he pushed the button.

The steel gate started slowly opening.

I couldn't see out the back of the car very well because the rear window was a tiny slit so I didn't know if Deimos was chasing us.

The gate was maybe half-way open when Graham squirted the Lamborghini through. The car seemed to be extra wide but somehow he made it fit. He turned in the narrow street, tires squealing, and shot down pavement. The car made a sound like lions purring very loudly growing to a howl just before Graham would shift gears.

"Damn," he exclaimed, "this thing is stupidly fast."

I then noticed there was a right-hand outside mirror which few American cars had. I looked in it but didn't see any pursuit. Maybe we were home free, I thought.

That's when the fire surrounded us.

"Holy hell!" Graham screamed but he didn't slow down as he raced up the residential street, the fire dissipating as he wove in and out of slower cars. And that was all the other cars on the road.

"Where you going?" I yelled.

Fire hit the car again. Graham looked up out his window and barked, "He's on a carpet, following us."

"Can you lose him?"

"I can't go fast enough on these streets."

Graham was heading south into the city and traffic was getting thicker and that was slowing him down.

"How do you open this damn door?" I asked.

"Pull that handle, I think," Graham said, indicating a chrome bar near the front of the door. I pulled it and it came out a bit, but the door opened and swung up. I looked for something to hang on to but there was only the slick leather seat. I leaned out as far as I dared on the wide sill, the wind hitting me in the back of the head. I could see Deimos on one of those exquisite Oriental rugs behind us. He looked angry.

I assumed any attack I made on Deimos would be ineffective but I had to stop him.

I shot an airbolt at the rug. It worked, the fabric started ripping and fraying from the impact. But Deimos kept chasing us.

There was a bright actinic light and I heard an explosion in front of us.

"Hang on!" Graham yelled and I felt the car swerve left, almost throwing me out onto the rushing pavement. I grabbed the door and pulled it down as I fell into the seat. Graham was passing a blazing Volkswagen Beetle. Whoever was in that car was burning alive.

"I saw a bright flash and that car exploded!" Graham said as he dodged another Beetle, this one just moving slowly.

"Deimos," I growled.

"Why doesn't he just do that to us?" Graham yelled, turning the car right to go down a larger and wider street. Luckily it was not as congested and Graham sped up.

"He doesn't want to hurt his car," I speculated. "He'd rather kill innocents than hurt his precious inanimate possession."

The brilliant light flashed again and I saw lightning, so thick and blue it seemed to be a solid thing, hit a car in front of us and then arc over to another. Both exploded and the one on the right swerved out of control toward the Lamborghini.

I don't know where Graham learned to drive but he made the Lamborghini slide sideways and it just clipped the burning sedan, spinning the other car around and causing an ugly ragged ridge of aluminum along the right front fender of the sports car. Wasn't sure if I imagined it or if I heard Deimos roar in anger. As we passed the sedan I thought I saw people's heads inside, burning. I had to not think about it before I vomited.

This had to end. I opened the door again and shot another airbolt at the carpet, aiming for the edge. Another rent started in the fabric and the rug began to unravel. I shot a lightning bolt, not as powerful as Deimos', and it lit the rug on fire. Deimos didn't seem to notice or care.

Again a bright light and another explosion, this time a truck.

Graham yelled, "Hang on!" as he swerved the car left. I grabbed the door but my feet swung out and hit the asphalt. My weight made the door start to close. Graham turned right suddenly and that caused me to flop inside the car head first and face down. My head was almost in Graham's lap. The door knifed into my legs. It hurt but I ignored it as we passed the burning truck on our left side.

It seemed to take me forever to pull my legs in and shut the door.

"Thanks," I said. I assumed he had made that sudden right turn to get me back in the car.

"Don't thank me, thank Isaac Newton."

I had no idea why he said that.

Another car in front of us exploded. Graham dodged left, almost slamming me into the door. "He's going to kill more people," Graham cried angrily.

"I know," I growled. I opened the door yet again and leaned out. Deimos' rug was not burning anymore but was nearly in tatters and I was surprised it was still holding his weight. I shot another airbolt at it and it flew apart from the impact.

For the first time Deimos looked scared as the rug fell to pieces under him. He was slammed face first to the pavement and rolled several times. I didn't know how badly he was hurt and I didn't really care. Just before he passed out of sight I saw him sit up and give us a seething, angry look. His face looked like it was made out of bleeding raw hamburger.

Excerpt - The Terror of Tombstone

"You!" someone called out from not far away.

I turned to look without thinking. There was a young man standing there, bedecked like the typical frontier cowboy, a gun belt hanging low on his waist, his hand hovering over the revolver handle in the holster. So much for the no-guns policy, I grumbled to myself,

I turned and kept walking.

"I'm talking to you, dandy," the man yelled.

I pivoted to face him. I noticed a slight tremor in the hand over the weapon. He was nervous.

"What do you want?" I called out, my left hand gripping my talisman, my right free to take action.

"Your kind ain't welcome here," he yelled back. "You need to go back to where you came from."

"And where would that be?" I asked, glancing at Ross. He appeared frustrated since he had little capacity to protect me. "Move away from me," I whispered.


"I need room and you're little more than a distraction," I hissed.

"Yes, sir," he said, obviously trying to mask the hurt he felt. But he stepped aside.

"Some city somewhere," the man with the gun yelled in response to my question.

I was wondering where the sheriff and his young deputy were. So much for their claim of being able to protect me, I thought with anger.

"You don't want to hurt me," I said, hand on my talisman. The persuasion spell was probably stronger than I meant it to be as I was a bit nervous myself. I saw Ross try to go back in the jail, to get his weapons, I presumed, but the door would not open. I wondered about that but didn't have the luxury of spending much thought on the matter.

"No, I don't," the man confirmed. "I want you to leave."

"I'm not leaving," I said, talisman gripped in my hand.

"You're not leaving," the man replied.

"I can go about my business," I said.

"You can go about your business."

"You will turn your weapon over to the sheriff."

"Yes, the sheriff."

The spell I was hitting him with was strong.

"And then I'll buy you a drink," I added, not even knowing if there was a saloon available in this town.

The man actually smiled.

And then the airbolt hit me, knocking me across the street to smash into a wooden horse trough, tilting it over and spilling out the water onto my back and into the dirt street.

The breath was knocked out of me for a moment and, by the time I had recovered, I could see the adept who must have shot the airbolt coming out of the jail. He had apparently been keeping the deputy busy. And making sure the door wouldn't open for Ross. Ross was a few steps away watching the man carefully and looking frustrated.

I could feel the man was a strong adept even though he was dressed like a local right down to the pointy boots on his feet. I was surprised he wanted to do this in public in front of these lesser ones. Adepts have spent nearly six millennia keeping our powers to ourselves. Despite rumors and desperate attempts to hang or burn witches at the stake, we have managed to keep our existence the contents of frightened whispers and ignorant speculation.

"You need to listen to the man's advice," he said with a light tone. "It might just save your life."

I realized when I was knocked down that I'd pulled my hand out of my pocket. Reaching back in, I didn't find my talisman. Apparently, I'd jerked it out with my hand and had lost it. That severely limited my ability to fight this man.

"And what is it to you where I go?" I asked, trying to gain some time and, I hoped, to find my talisman out of the corner of my eyes while I watched my adversary.

"This is our guild's territory. You do not need to be here, and we don't want you here."

"I did not realize there was a guild in this rustic part of the frontier," I sneered, hoping to anger him into revealing a useful secret. I had no idea what that would be.
"It is no concern of yours where our guild is located," he growled, walking closer.

I spotted my talisman at that moment. It was a prehistoric pebble with markings on it in the Ancient Language and was dark against the tan dirt of the street. But, it was out of my reach.

"I apologize," I said, trying to sound sincere. "I certainly meant no offense to you or your guild."

"Fine," he replied, giving me a quizzical look. He was probably wondering why I wasn't getting to my feet. But doing so would put me farther from my talisman. "Depart our territory and we'll allow you to leave in peace," he continued.

"I can't do that," I said.

Without a talisman I could put up a protection spell, but it would be weak. An airbolt or shooting fire were out of the question until I had that pebble in my hand.

"Then you'll die," he replied and pointed his finger at me.

I was about to put up a protection spell when Ross tackled him from the rear, knocking him over and slapping him hard to street, puffs of dust ejecting from where he landed. Ross was pulling his knife from under his back and from the look in his eye, I think he intended to kill the adept.

I turned and scooped up my talisman as the other adept threw Ross off of him. My warrior flew several feet before landing in the street and losing his knife. A groan let me know he was alive but perhaps injured.

I shot a powerful airbolt at the adept. He was knocked back. I nearly shot fire but decided I needed to be careful with flames in this town.

He jumped up with rapidity betraying that he was using a spell to move faster. He did shoot fire.

I got my protection spell up in time as the flames engulfed me. Even though they did no damage, I could feel their searing heat and had to be careful not to scream lest I fatally inhale them.

The flames ended, likely as he tired. I ran toward him, both dispelling the protection spell and getting me close enough to pull away his air. He tried to pull it back, his eyes going wide with fear, but I was stronger than he and soon those grey eyes rolled back. He collapsed to the street. I kept the air from him until he stopped struggling to breathe. That meant he was dead and no longer a threat.

I heard the shot almost after I sensed the bullet hit. It felt as if someone had punched me hard in the chest. I turned to see the young man who had earlier threatened to shoot me holding a smoking gun. My persuasion spell had obviously dissipated while I was fighting the adept. He was pulling back the hammer for a second shot when I fired an airbolt at him, knocking him to the ground.

I touched my chest and healed enough to stop bleeding. The man was climbing to his feet when the sheriff rode up on a horse, his gun out.

"Don't!" I yelled but it was too late. The sheriff shot the man in the back. He fell face-first to the dirt. I could see the blood seeping out from under his prone body, dark against the tan soil of the street. As he died, any chance I had of getting answers died with him.

Excerpt - Treasure of the Black Hole

I unplugged when I heard Rose thrashing in the antechamber. I jumped to my feet as she smashed through the door, sending its shattered pieces across the room, and was running on her four bottom legs straight for me.

"Rose?" I tried to get out of the way, but she jumped, grabbed my shoulders in the claws on her bottom legs, which hurt like hell, and dove out the window, smashing the supposedly shatter-proof plastic and dragging me out into the sky with her, fifty stories over the very hard pavement.

"ROSE!" I screamed as we fell toward the street. I could see people looking up and pointing.

Her elytra snapped open and translucent wings extended.

An explosion slammed through the air, coming from my office. The wall where my office was disintegrated and fell away. Rose's wings beat furiously, moving so fast they both were a conical blur, the downdraft hitting my face. We swooped toward the street. I could see a frighteningly great amount of detail of the inflexible surface and people gawking up at us. Just before it seemed we were doomed to slam into the ground, Rose must have gotten the lift she needed as we started rising through the air. She kept climbing until we were high enough that the people below shrank to dots milling around as if under the effects of Brownian motion. She dropped me on the roof of the structure across the street from the Carter Building. As she landed beside me, I looked back at the smoking hole where my office had been.

"What?" I asked, breathlessly. "What happened?"

"An M-36-victor bomblette, sir," she said calmly, as if discussing the weather. "The door opened, and it was thrown in. I knew it had to have a significant delay to allow the being who threw it to get away. I hoped I had time to get us out of there."

"Did you see who threw it?" At the time, I was too upset to notice my secretary seemed to know a lot about high-tech ordinance.

"No, sir."

I let loose a string of profanity between big gulps of air.

"Sir?" Rose asked, interrupting me.

"Yes?" I looked at her; her exoskeleton shimmered prettily with purples and blues in the sunlight. Her elytra were closed and her wings hidden.

"Why would somebody do that, sir?"

I was still breathing hard. "I don't know, but I intend to find out."