Hello and welcome, this blog is dedicated to my work as an Independent Author. New posts every Friday!
I have updated my site format to have easily navigable menus that will make it much easier for new followers to catch up on old chapters. Each of my books has a menu directly beneath the title image so that you can find all the episodes I have published so far nice and easy. Welcome new followers, I hope you enjoy my writing!
I have finished and published Hard Times Call For Hardware and you can get your digital fingers on a copy on Smashwords and on Kindle!
The Rise of Evil is available on Smashwords! I hope you enjoy my work, feel free to leave me love/hate notes and like my page on Facebook!
Book One of Starvale Adventures ‘A Prelude to Darkness’ is now up on Kindle and Smashwords!
If you don’t want to wait to find out what happens next in ‘A Fall of Stars’ you can buy it on Smashwords right now!
Hemispheres, the new science fiction novel from Mark Everglade, is about a planet where half of it is always dark, and light itself is used as currency. A group of activists try to increase a tidal-locked planet’s rotation to bring light to everyone, so no one will be forced to live in darkness. They are opposed by powerful forces who desire to keep the light and dark sides as locked in their struggle against each other as the planet’s orbit.
Hemispheres Is a cyberpunk novel that paints itself across your mind in a landscape of descriptive metaphor. The stories of Severum Rivenshear, a mercenary hired by the government of Evig Natt on the planet’s dark side, and Thalassa Latimer,a rebel working to get the tidal-locked planet spinning faster to bring it daylight cycles, grow together into an adventure where allies and enemies are often interchangeable and the puppeteers pulling the strings are rarely seen. The novel has its own compelling slang, drawing you deep into its cable choked Darkside alleys with the Forever Glitched, and soaring above the Dayburn light side of the planet’s vistas of sun-bleached Windstone.
My first question for Mark was about something that, love it or hate it has been pivotal in the last few years; divisive politics. “Everything in this book centers around things that seem to be black and white at first, but then you present a third angle that shows innumerable shades of gray. The planet is harshly divided, light and dark sides, rebels and an authoritarian government, friends and enemies, but we quickly see that these absolutes are anything but. This seems to be a commentary on the current political and cultural conversation in the United States, was it your intention to draw that comparison?
Mark: Absolutely, Ben! Although I began writing the book 25 years ago, it has become more relevant every year in this regard. My goal was to show that any ideology taken to the extreme results in dystopia. Maybe it’s religious zealotry, maybe it’s conservative or liberal politics. When we cling to 100% right and wrong beliefs, then democracy dies and aristocracies capitalize on that, capitalize on our fear. In typical cyberpunk fashion, there are no 100% good guys, just anti-heroes trying to find their place in an oppressive system, but they each have to be willing to compromise something, and if they can’t, the planet will literally be torn asunder. It’s about the need for communicative action.
Severum anchors a foot behind himself for support and readies his arms. The bulge of weight hits him as he lowers his arms to absorb some of the impact. “Hopefully, you broke something,but something like your head. In other words, nothing too important,” he bends over to snatch the letter. “See you at work.”
“Go hack yourself, Sev! Sev? Hey, wait, my HUD’s out. I can’t phone for help! I can’t move! My leg…” he pleads, trying to bend it.
“I’ll make you a deal. I can either call for help and turn you into the Enforcers; I have the video right here,” he says, pointing to his head. “Or I can keep both the Enforcers and their medics out of this if you get some help for this addiction.”
“I don’t bargain. The law doesn’t allow you to shoot me down the way you did and I’ll turn you in. How about that?”
“Then maybe I should erase your datafeed,” Severum bluffs, bending down next to him with his Pulser drawn to his temple and grabbing his crumpled jacket.
“No, no, you’re right. Just leave. I’ll get help,” Trahiro replies, biting his lip until it bleeds.
“Tryin’ to assist here. No one’s answering your screams yet. City don’t care, see? But here, this’ll get you by for now,” he says, throwing him a couple temporary neuralmods the military offers so he doesn’t completely lose his mind. “I don’t want them. Have the pills call the medics for you.”
Trahiro’s fingers jump into Severum’s open palm, grabbing the mods as if they’ll vanish and popping them with a gulp. He clears his throat, jerks his head thrice, and says, “Medics? I don’t need no glitchin’ medics now. I don’t need your help or nothing, not nothing at all, not—”
The above excerpt from the first chapter led to a specific question about “modding” yourself. One of the things that struck me about the culture of the world you created is the danger posed by dangerous, addictive cybernetics. The people, even children, seem to take it for granted that some implants will fail, some software is inherently addictive and will lead to the eventual mental destruction of the person foolish or unlucky enough to get a bad piece of hardware or hack one too many neuralmods into their system. What role to you see cyberdrugs or mods or hacks having in society?
Mark: The current position of psychology is to over-medicate. This stems from pathologizing human nature itself, as if we, sculpted by millions of years of natural selection, are somehow dysfunctional at birth, which just isn’t true. In the book, these neuralmods basically mix the chemicals already in the human brain together to create drugs. When you build a pharmacy into someone’s mind, and you can order everything from an abortion pill, to the Sarah drug (named after serotonin), it can’t help but be tempting to download a quick fix, or chip-trip, just to avoid facing your deepest emotions. This quick-fix mentality leads to addiction and, while meds can be important, they don’t substitute for honest introspection and meditation. So yeah, it’s a growing issue even today.
Mark composed music specifically for the book, something rare and interesting, so I had to ask about it. I found the soundtrack you composed to accompany the first chapter, how does music influence your writing and is composing similar, different or totally entwined with writing for you?
Mark: Interesting question. When I need to write an action scene I need it to have a certain rhythm, so I blare Red Hot Chili Peppers. When I need a cold sounding scene, I blare Pineapple Thief. When I write a sex scene, well, people don’t need to know what I listen to in that case (laugh). Writing my own music, the songs inspire the emotion of the story, and then the emotion of the story feeds back into the music, so it’s a give and take between the two, a synergy.
The book ends neatly, tying up the loose ends and giving the reader a good feeling of closure, although there is room for a sequel. I asked Mark about his future projects. First, are you thinking of writing a sequel? The world you’ve created is an interesting one, and it would be interesting to see how the characters develop in the aftermath. Your writing style and your ability with multimedia makes me wonder if you might make this into an audiobook, maybe even a Graphic Audio style book with sound effects, voice actors and music. Do you have any plans along those lines? I know I’m hungry for more of your writing, and I’m sure your other readers will be as well.
Mark: I have actually just finished a very distant prequel called Digital Enlightenment which will publish in about 18 months, but it takes place on Earth and is more solarpunk, centering around our obsession with social media and our vulnerability to misinformation. A sequel would be cool, but the world of Hemispheres is a very dark place, and to write it, I have to visit that place in my mind over the course of 4,500 hours (the time it took to write). I’m not sure I want to live in that world another 4,500 hours for a sequel (laugh), but we’ll see… As for audiobooks, maybe, and a graphic novel – only if I met the right illustrator.
If you’re interested in reading Mark’s masterpiece, it is available for a limited time for free this weekend.
“Where are my other retainers?” She demanded, eyes sweeping the room. “My reeve needs immediate attention, and I find myself reluctant to trust any help that might be provided here.”
The room remained silent; everyone still staring at her in shocked silence. “God’s balls!” She cursed, thrusting her hand into her bag to withdraw the hilt and first inch of Shadowsliver’s blade. An effort of will brought the Winds to do her bidding, and she sent them to bring her words to her companions.
A blast of wind flew out from her in every direction, resolving into a half dozen little zephyrs that each carried her words with them as they flew. They also blew every plate of food and glasses of wine and spirits off every table, tore hair free of pins and combs, unbuttoned shirts and coats, and plastered skirts against legs.
Half the people in the room ran for the exits in a panic at the sight of the blood or because of the overt use of magic. The other half were cursing and wiping at their clothes, pulling concealed daggers and glaring at Callindra.
“Don’t.” She said, helping Reed to sit before turning to face the room. “Enough blood has been shed tonight; there is no need to add yours unless you have a burning desire to die.”
“You think there’s a chance you could stand against us.” A man in a black silk tunic splattered with wine sneered.
“Without a doubt.” She said calmly, drawing Shadowsliver fully from her bag. “I have no desire to kill any of you. Yet. I suggest you keep it that way.”
The others looked less confident now that she was holding her sword. Before any of them decided to attack or retreat, a rush of wind came back through one of the doors bearing Kain’s voice to her ears.
“I am coming.”
She glanced at Reed and saw that although his eyes were closed, blood still flowed from between the fingers he still had clamped over his neck. Thank the gods; he was still alive.
“Just put the sword down.” A young woman said, a ring on her left hand glittering briefly. “We’re all friends here.”
Callindra blinked, wondering why she was threatening these people. They clearly meant her no harm, and she had recklessly blasted them with magic. Her good friends began to come closer, but she had a nagging feeling that something was wrong. They weren’t smiling, why weren’t her friends smiling?
Shadowsliver’s tips sang with a discordant complaint as her left arm relaxed enough for him to touch the stone floor, and the spell shattered. Five enemies were arrayed in a semicircle, all holding daggers. The woman who had charmed her was gathering Weave into a handful of bright white darts that hovered over her right hand. None of them seemed to have noticed that she’d broken free.
The first of them came within reach of Shadowsliver’s chain, and she flung her sword like a spear, stabbing him in the chest. She quickly ripped her blade back to her hand with a sharp yank on his chain, leaving a ragged wound behind. The man cursed and dropped his knife to staunch the bleeding.
“Well, now I’m afraid you’ve given me a reason to show you the color of your blood.” She said calmly, whipping her sword to one side to flick the blood off the blade. If she used magic in this close of quarters, the odds were she would hit bystanders, so she settled for intimidation. “How much of it do you want to see today?”
The mage released the bolts she’d summoned, and they flew in a series of zigzagging lines, skirting around tables and people to slam into Callindra, knocking her back into the wall. With coordinated precision, her other four assailants lunged forward with blades out. She staggered, trying to draw a breath and twisted to avoid one dagger, parried another, and took one in the arm and one in the side.
With a snarl of defiance, she cut left and right, felling two more of them and ducking a thrust but taking a slash across her thigh. The mage began chanting, and something began to form between her hands. Desperately, Callindra tried to run toward the woman, but her skirts wouldn’t allow her to, and she nearly tripped on them.
She hurled her sword at the mage, but she smoothly stepped back out of range and parted her hands. A dark green sphere rotated into existence, and a black arm with emerald green veins reached through. The remaining bystanders in the room ran at the sight of the monster crawling from the Abyss.
Durrak was going to follow anyway but was distracted momentarily by Lorin coming back. He glanced away from Reed, “Ah Lorin, I did be wondering where you did be getting to. This youngster do be looking for Lady Sol’Estin.”
“What youngster are you talking about?” Lorin asked, pouring himself a glass of mead. He took a drink and made a wry face, spitting it back into the glass. “Ugh, this mead has a bad aftertaste.”
Looking around, Durrak saw that Reed had vanished, “He did be right here.” He said, annoyed. Picking up the bottle of mead, he dipped a thick finger into it and tasted it before quickly spitting it out.
“Tastes awful, doesn’t it?” Lorin asked with a grimace, pouring a glass of wine instead.
“It do be xepherin,” Durrak said, spitting again. “Xepherin do be a type of poison that do be loosening the tongue.”
“That could be bad depending on what kind of questions Ellen Eth asked.” Lorin said, “We should think about getting out of here.”
“I no do be feeling right about leaving that girl here after she do be drinking xepherin,” Durrak said with a frown. “But that Reed boy do seem to be capable enough.”
Callindra tried to walk in a straight line, but the room felt like it was tilting to one side and she moved with a distinct weave as she tried to remember where the exit was. She knew that she hadn’t had that much to drink, not even a single glass of mead all told, so something else must be wrong.
“Pardon me.” An elegant lady said, gliding to one side to avoid her with a look of disdain clear on her face.
“Not bloody likely,” Callindra said, and the woman gave her a startled look. “Where’s the god rotting exit?”
“Well!” The lady turned and stalked off.
“Ya can’t talk to Lady’s like that.” Reed’s voice made her jump slightly, “I thought you knew better.”
“God’s balls Reed, I just about soiled myself.” She said, “Where the hell did you come from? Where are you for that matter?”
“Gods and demons, you’re drunk!” Reed said, emerging from the shadows to grab her by the forearm. “Come on; we gotta get out of here. Some of these supposed servants are trying to pick fights with the boys and I don’t know how much abuse they’re willing to take before someone gets hurt.”
“I am not drunk.” Callindra said indignantly, “I didn’t even finish a single glass of mead, and I’m certainly not slurring my words you little ass. Something is not right though; I don’t quite know what it is. Like I’m off balance or like I’ve lost a lot of blood in a fight.”
“Oh, hell, they drugged you,” Reed said, looping her arm over his shoulders. “Come on and lean on me. I gotta get you to Kain before there’s damage.”
“I – drugged?” Callindra stopped and blinked, “Yes, actually, that would explain a lot, I think.”
“What do you think of me?” Reed asked, giving her a shrewd look.
“You’re sort of a pain in the ass and can be god rotting rude at times, but I know you’re loyal and that you have my back. I think you’re running from something, but really who isn’t?” She said without hesitation. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh.” Reed gave a strange little laugh, “Yeah, a truth serum I think.”
“That’s not good,” Callindra said, biting her lower lip and trying to remember exactly what she’d told Ellen Eth. “I just got done meeting with Lady ‘Orien. I probably said some things I shouldn’t have.”
Reed began cursing in a low voice, displaying an impressive variety of languages and creative phrasing. “What did you tell her?” He asked once he’d exhausted his vocabulary of profanity.
“I don’t remember.” Callindra said, “But I think something about the gods?”
They reached an unobtrusive door, and Reed reached forward to open it. He grunted in pain and stumbled sideways, looking in surprise at the knife sticking from his neck. The drugs raging through her system made Callindra a half second slow, but she didn’t run or freeze in shock like the attacker likely thought she would. With a defiant shout, her hand dipped into her purse and withdrew a pace long razor sharp twin tipped sword.
Wind sprang up around her, whipping her hair free from the pins holding it in place. She drew the Weave from Shadowsliver, unleashing a flurry of blades made from air that slashed through a tapestry, obliterated a vase, and opened dozens of cuts on a man who had his arm pulled back getting ready to throw another dagger. Reed gurgled something that might have been a curse, pulled the knife from his own throat, and hurled it into the would-be assassin’s left eye.
Reed’s injury and Callindra’s drugged state made escape doubly difficult, but they didn’t stop to see if anyone had noticed the altercation. Holding her sword and channeling some of the Weave had helped to clear Callindra’s head, and she felt slightly more stable on her feet. Reed was holding his hand over his neck, but blood was pouring out between his fingers.
“Show me where to go Reed.” She said, reluctantly shoving her sword back into her pouch. “I’ll carry you if you need me to, but I have to get you to Kain.”
He was pale from blood loss and leaning heavily against her, but stubbornly refused to let her try to carry him. They walked down a corridor meant for servants to a staircase that ended in a large open room where a variety of people stood in groups or sat at tables chatting. All conversation stopped as Callindra staggered through the door, supporting Reed, soaked in blood.
“Where is he now?” Ellen Eth asked, leaning forward. “Surely he has told you how you could find him.”
“Luftin was eaten by the same bedamned dragon that Lord Caverstorm is looking for.” Callindra said, savoring the dry bite of the mead. “It was right after Jorda was killed saving us. A few of her siblings came with him to avenge her death and there was a huge battle and Cerioth just ate him.”
“Luftin? I was told your Master’s name was Glarian.” Ellen Eth frowned and leaned forward. “Why did you call him Luftin?”
“Turns out he was the god of wind the whole time. I have no idea why or what a god would want with someone like me.” Callindra was definitely feeling strange. She set the goblet down with a frown. “Why would the gods care about an orphan who never knew her real parents?”
“Why indeed?” Ellen Eth said, “I know they rarely do anything without a reason, so that makes you a curiosity my dear.”
Callindra couldn’t take a deep enough breath, the bedamned stays were digging into her ribs. She stood slightly unsteadily and bobbed a curtsey. “Pardon me Lady ‘Orien, but I feel the need for a breath of fresh air. I am going to just step outside for a moment.”
Ellen Eth watched her go, a slight but genuine smile on her lips. This youngling was a puzzle and a prize. She made a slight gesture and one of her spies slipped from the shadows and followed. The girl wouldn’t get too far with that amount of the truth telling drug raging through her system, but she wanted to be certain that The Sol’Estin did not get beyond her reach.
Durrak toyed idly with a dagger, spinning it between his fingers and flipping it to catch the hilt. Lorin had been gone for a quarter candlemark and he was starting to wonder where the blighter had disappeared to. In any other situation he’d think his friend was off scandalizing the courtesans, but here and now he felt there was cause to worry.
“Hey.” A low voice interrupted his reverie. “You don’t look like the rest of ‘em. I mean cause of the armor not cause you’re a Dwarf.” A young human dressed in finery that looked out of place despite it fitting with perfection slipped into the chair that Callindra had recently vacated.
“You no do be talking like a court boy.” Durrak observed with a wry grin.
“Huh?” He stuffed some of the small sandwiches into his mouth and talked around the food. “Yeah I ain’t from around here. I’m lookin for a friend who ain’t from around here either.”
“Who do your friend be?” Durrak asked, “A certain willful young lady?”
The boy’s eyes narrowed slightly, “Maybe.”
“If she do be Lady Callindra, she did be walking toward the exit less than half a candlemark ago.” Durrak said, “If I do be seeing her again I do be happy to be giving her a message.”
“Which way’d she go?” He asked. When Durrak gestured with the point of his dagger, he nodded, “If ya see her tell her Reed was here and said time to go.”
“Maybe I do be joining you Reed.” Durrak said, sheathing his dagger and rising from his chair. “I do be getting bored of sitting anyhow.”
Reed looked at him and chuckled. “You think I’m actually supposed to be here? With all that armor you’d give me away in a second.”
“You know what I mean?” The intoxicated man asked me, leaning too close into my personal space. “These fuckin liberals’r fuckin up everything. With their PC bullshit, a guy can’t even make a joke anymore.”
“You want another?” I asked, leaning forward so he’d get a good look down my shirt.
“Make it a double.” He said, his eyes almost falling into my cleavage.
I poured half a shot of rail whisky over ice and slipped water in while he ogled my tits. I hated this piece of shit, but I wasn’t going to be responsible for him getting alcohol poisoning. Maybe I’d change my mind after I saw what he tipped.
I’d found that being a bank teller didn’t pay well enough for me to meet my obligations, so I’d tarted myself up and went to a bar just down the street from where I worked 9-5 and asked if they needed help. I knew I wasn’t the hottest thing on two legs, but I was fairly confident my boobs would land me a bartending job as long as the person interviewing me was a man.
My suspicions had been confirmed when Jordan had hired me without even asking me if I’d bartended before. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the patriarchy, but I was damned if I wasn’t going to take advantage of whatever I could.
“Hey. Your break time?” Mel asked, glancing between me and the drunk patron. I grinned, she really was the best.
“Yeah, I’m about due.” I said, giving her my best smile. I blinked when she blushed slightly. Oh my, maybe this was going to be a better night than I’d thought.
Mel couldn’t keep her eyes from glancing down at my chest when I squeezed between her and the beer taps and I resisted the urge to grab her head and plant it in my cleavage. I was floating on clouds as I slipped out the back of the pizza joint and lit an American Spirit.
“Hey. Gotta smoke?” A man in dirty clothes and a backpack stuffed with random possessions.
“Damn straight.” I said, offering him the pack. “Hell you know what, you can have what’s left of this pack. I have a feeling this is gonna be a good night for tips and I’ve got another pack in my purse inside.”
“Appreciate it.” He said, taking the proffered cigarettes and fumbling one out. “I’ve hit a rough patch you know. Been homeless for a couple months. It’s hard to get a job when you can’t get regular showers.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my YMCA card and held it out. “Hey, take this man. I’ll report it lost next month; I don’t have time to go to the gym right now anyway. At least someone will get some use out of it.”
He stared at me for a few seconds before taking it with a slightly shaking hand. “You sure?” He asked, “I mean, nobody does anything for nothing.”
“Well, I’m not nobody.” I said with a grin, and exhaled smoke from my nostrils. “Good luck out there man.”
He walked down the alley, glancing at me over his shoulder once and waving with a huge grin on his face. I felt even more like a million bucks when I went back into the bar. I walked past Mel as I came back in and let my hand slide across her back and felt my heart thrill at the blush and widening of her eyes. I hadn’t been wrong then.
“Can I get a peach hazy?” A man asked the second I was in view.
“Sorry, Blacklist only has that on seasonal, we have their CraHazy right now though.” I said, “It’s like if cranberries and an IPA got together in a mosh pit.”
“Sounds good.” He said with a smile.
I pulled his pint and looked over my shoulder, “You starting a tab hon?”
He fumbled with his wallet and I was able to get drinks for three others while he found the card he wanted to use and handed it over. I swiped it and handed it back along with his pint. The night continued on and by the time my shift was over I was exhausted.
“Hey. You heading out?” Mel asked, wiping the bar.
“Yeah, I need to get home so I can get some sleep.” I said, “I gotta get up for work early.”
“What? You’re working the morning shift?” Mel’s face creased into a frown. “I’ll talk to Jordan, you shouldn’t have to work the late night and the morning shift!”
“Nah, this is my second job, even if it’s the one I like better.” I said, lowering my lashes, “It comes with better perks.”
“Perks?” She asked, brow still furrowed.
“You know. More friendly working environment.” I said with a tiny smile.
“Ah.” Her cheeks reddened again, “Well, yeah. I get that.”
“Anyway, I’m getting an uber home. To my cabin. On Park Point. Where I live alone.” I said, letting the invitation in my voice hang between us.
My heart raced, I’d never done anything like this before. I’d never even considered it. Suddenly my confidence crumbled and I all but ran out the door, fumbling for my cigarettes. I opened the fresh pack, flipped the front center one over for luck and shoved it back in before snagging another at random and flicking my Zippo to life.
My ride showed up in less than five minutes and I was actually relieved that Mel didn’t come to find me. What had gotten into me in there?
“I think my work is nearly done here.” Said Lust.
“You’re making my life difficult, but at least she didn’t walk home. And she gave away that damn gym card.” Said Sloth.
“It’s good to see someone who is good at what they do and knows it.” Said Pride.
“Channeling her anger at drunks into better tips is amusing.” Said Wrath.
“You and I play well of one another.” Said Greed.
“They didn’t deserve their money anyway.” Said Envy.
“Since Lust struck out I’m sure that pint of Ben and Jerry’s won’t last long once she gets home!” Said Gluttony.
“Pardon the intrusion Mistress.” Tan Son Shu knelt outside the door, sliding the rice paper covered panel aside a few centimeters.
“Son Shu, you are a welcome intrusion.” Sai’Li said, “Come and have some sake with me.”
“Mistress, there is a man who claims to be from one of the Houses.” He said, still kneeling. “He wishes to respond to an offer?”
She moved a hand slightly and a black pearl the size of her thumb rolled from her sleeve. Even as it stopped rolling, it swelled into a glistening black spider the size of a Labrador and silently skittered out of the open window. Son Shu felt cold sweat break out on his forehead.
Sai’Li poured sake into a pair of beautifully lacquered cups and reclined on her couch, running her hands though the tiger’s fur that lay next to his own large dish of liquor. Her kimono was loose, showing the alabaster white of her legs all the way above her knees and parts of an intricate tattoo coming over her left shoulder.
“Come drink with us Son Shu.” She said with a smile, “Our guest will join us shortly.”
Not being able to ignore a direct command, he came and knelt at the low table. Lifting the cup, he took a sip and savored the exquisite taste. Sai’Li packed her kiseru with tobacco and struck a match, lighting it and exhaling a cloud of fragrant smoke. Son Shu found it easier to relax than he had anticipated, his mistress’s easy manner was infectious.
The elevator chimed and Son Shu looked to his mistress. She inclined her head and he went to the door. “Please master Yashida, won’t you join us for a drink?” He asked, sliding the door aside.
Tanaka was wearing a rumpled black suit and had an unlit cigarette clamped between his lips. Son Shu extended a lighter on reflex and Tanaka seemed to respond on reflex as well, leaning in to light his cigarette and bowing slightly to Sai’Li.
“Lady. Circumstances have caused me to reconsider your offer of patronage.” He said, stepping into the room.
“Please Tanaka, come and have sake with us.” Sai’Li said, “Let us discuss whatever troubles you. But I insist that you drink with me. I find sake to ease difficult conversations.”
He hesitated, but removed his shoes and came to kneel at the table. Sai’Li herself poured him a cup of sake. She waited for him to settle, taking the opportunity to refill her pipe.
“I find myself in need of assistance.” He began, “I am not certain what made me think you could offer it, but I had the idea that your offer of protection was genuine.”
“Indeed.” She said, exhaling smoke from her nostrils in curling trails. “I do not make promises lightly Tanaka Yashida, nor do I take them lightly. What promise are you making?”
Tanaka backed from the table and bowed from a kneeling positon, pressing his forehead to the floor. “If you can save my people, I swear fealty to you Lady. My blood shall be spilled at your whim. My life spent at your desire.”
“I do not spend the lives of those who swear themselves to me without cause.” Sai’Li said, “Although I must confess that blood may be a significant motivator. Do you promise me your blood?”
“I do.” He said without hesitation.
Sai’Li shivered and licked her lips. Tanaka noted that her canine teeth had grown long and sharp. “I claim you and your clan once more as mine. This pact shall be sealed in the old way, the ancient way. My way.”
“If it will help my people, I consent.” He said, “Please hurry.”
“In this matter, I shall take my time.” Said Sai’Li, she stood and swayed across the room, eyes smoldering. “You have my word that no more harm shall come to what is MINE.” At this last word, her eyes turned blood red
Her mouth opened wide and he saw those elongated fangs descending on his throat. He wasn’t just powerless to resist, he wanted to feel them pierce his skin. Tanaka Yashida lost himself in the terror of his new Lady’s kiss.
“We can’t keep having these losses boss.” Lon finished, shaking his head. “Five of our last six deposits got jacked, Shinji and Li got shot in the head in broad daylight and someone got into one of our bases last night and did something. Something weird. Must have been like a biological weapon or something.”
Tanaka poured him a glass of whisky, lit two cigarettes in his mouth and passed one over. “What do you mean weird?”
“They’d been melted boss.” He shuddered and took the drink with a nod of thanks, “I ain’t seen nothing like it. Like their flesh had been turned to jello.”
Tanaka poured whisky for Asahina and himself and took the opportunity to exchange a glance with her as she took the glass. She nodded slightly, it was magic.
“I dunno what to tell you, boss, I’m sorry.” Lon bowed his head, “I’ve failed you.”
“You should have brought this to me sooner Lon.” Tanaka said, “But I made you a captain because of your independence, so the failure is mine, not yours.”
Lon kept his head bowed until Tanaka slapped him lightly on both cheeks, “I need you at your best, not feeling sorry for yourself. Get back out there and keep your men vigilant. You can rely on me to handle the rest.”
“Yes boss. Thank you boss.” Lon said, standing and bowing deeply before backing out of the room.
“What do we do about this?” Tanaka asked Asahina, “Can you do anything to defend against whatever magical attack this is?”
“Let’s look at the facts.” Asahina said, “It appears most of these attacks have happened at night, other than the ones that seem to be from sniper fire. Since it seems Lon didn’t vary his patterns much, I think it may be time to put out some bait and see if we can catch ourselves a rat.”
Tanaka’s mouth spread into a humorless smile. “An excellent idea.”
The trap had been set, the bait dangled out for their enemy to see and all had been in readiness. Tanaka had been waiting on a rooftop with a sniper rifle and night vision scope. Asahina had been across the street on another rooftop, waiting to attack or defend with her magic as needed. Men had been positioned in cars and cafes, waiting to move in when their attacker fell into the trap.
That’s when everything went wrong.
Tanaka sent a perfectly spaced pair of bullets into the head of the first would-be assailant. He quickly turned his scope toward another figure and shot it in the chest, knocking it backward. Asahina’s voice sounded in his earpiece.
“Tanaka! Get out! GET OUT!”
He saw the flash of magic from the rooftop where she was stationed and saw a half dozen figures converging on her location. Before he could get a clear shot, a scrabbling sound made him look down. Figures were clawing their way up the side of the building with unnatural speed. Cursing under his breath, he dropped the rifle and took out his phone.
“I’m extracting, route three.” He said.
“Negative sir!” The voice on the other end said, “We’re being hit, use-“ The voice cut off to the sound of screaming and awful crunching sounds.
The first of the things climbing the building pulled itself over the edge of the roof and Tanaka put a bullet through its head, but the thing only seemed to find it a momentary inconvenience. A thrill of fear went down his back. He turned and ran, pulling a pair of grenades from his belt, tossing one behind him and dropping one as he ran through the door.
When the explosions shook the building he didn’t stop running until he was at the underground parking garage. He paused, catching his breath and loading a fresh magazine into his pistol. Looking through the small window, he could see several people who he was certain were waiting for him or his associates.
Tanaka opened the door and walked briskly out, ignoring the men who moved to flank him. When the first one was close enough to be an easy target, he shot both of the man’s kneecaps out. He knew the bullets wouldn’t kill whatever the things were, but nothing could run with the use of its legs. The momentary distraction was enough for him to run to his car. Silently cursing the necessity, he abandoned his men and ran.
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“If you do be finding Cerioth, your best option do be running.” Durrak said, “If I no did be a fool, I no would be looking to fight with her. But she did be destroying Farenholm, killing all my people and taking up residence in the halls of my ancestors. For that, I do be owning her.”
“She ate my Master.” Callindra said, “I plan to cut her open and see if he’s still inside.”
With that, she turned and walked from the table. Lorin watched her go, eyes searching for a hint about what possible danger she thought she could pose to a fly, let alone a dragon.
“Did you be noticing her hands?” Durrak asked, “She do be a left handed fighter, light blade, fast footwork. She do be wearing that ‘lady’ disguise well.”
“You really think she’s dangerous?” Lorin asked, still mesmerized by the sway of her hips as she walked away. “Beautiful as a naked blade, but other than how she moves, I would never have guessed…”
“Oh, I do be certain, Lorin.” Durrak took a cigar from his pouch and blew a plume of dull red smoke to curl through the air. “If there do be one who might beat me to Cerioth, it do be her. We should be working together, but I no do be knowing if we can be trusting her.”
Abruptly, Lorin stood and hurried in the direction Callindra had gone. “What the hell, why don’t we ask her?” He said, giving Durrak a grin.
Callindra was worried about her friends after they hadn’t followed her in, but even more, now that The Order had threatened her in public. If Ellen Eth allowed this type of behavior at a ball, there was little doubt that worse was to come for guards and servants. She also wouldn’t be at all surprised if knives in the night were next.
As she walked toward the stairway where she’d come in, a guard stepped forward from an alcove where he had been watching unobtrusively. “Pardon Lady, but my Lady ‘Orien would like to speak with you.” He gestured toward a raised dais where she could see Ellen Eth sitting at a low marble table. The woman was staring at her.
“Of course, I would be delighted to make her acquaintance.” She said with forced enthusiasm. “I wouldn’t have thought she would want to meet me personally.”
“My Lady meets with all of her guests personally.” He said, “She only invites those with whom she wishes to speak. Lady ‘Orien finds these casual parties to be far preferable to a formal audience.”
“I see.” Callindra said, “It makes sense to wish to meet informally first.” It certainly did make sense. In this setting, most of her potential enemies would be unable to carry a weapon, and if they did, it would be difficult to conceal anything in formal wear.
With a nod to the guard, she made her way toward the dais. She saw movement out of the corner of her eye, glancing back she saw the Elf Lorin walking toward the guard with a purposeful stride. If he was following her, she decided to deal with him after Ellen Eth.
Callindra approached the table and curtseyed deeply while keeping eye contact. “Lady ‘Orien, it is a pleasure to meet you.” She said as she rose.
“Charmed, I’m sure.” Ellen Eth said, giving her a smile that did not touch her eyes. “I must say you are not at all what I imagined you would be.”
“We are rarely exactly as expected, Lady.” Said Callindra with a slight inclination of her head. “I trust the differences are positive ones?”
“Based on the exploits I’ve heard of the Adamantine Brotherhood and the reputation of battle mages from The Order, I rather thought you would be more martial in both appearance and manner.” She said, “I was surprised when you did not send Rrayu away and even more so when I heard the reports of your drastic changes in appearance and manner the evening you arrived.”
Callindra hesitated but decided that the truth was as likely to work as anything. “When my life required me to know how to be a warrior, I became a warrior. When I had to be a Lady, I learned to be a Lady.” She shrugged, “Off hand, I would say being a warrior is easier and less dangerous.”
Ellen Eth blinked, the only thing betraying her surprise. “Ah, well. I suppose your training to become The Sol’Estin could hardly have included courtly arts.”
A laugh burst from her before Callindra could stop it. “Oh, gods and demons no.” Just thinking about Glarian trying to teach her how to wear stays or walk in skirts nearly made her dissolve into helpless laughter again.
“Of course. Rumor has it that he was a bit of a recluse?” She gestured, and a servant stepped from the shadows with goblets and a pair of bottles. “Is it true that The Order disbarred him?”
“I don’t know all the history, but from what he told me, they could not remove him without trial by combat, and none of them had the skill or power to defeat him,” Callindra said, watching as the servant poured her a goblet of mead.
“Why would he break the bylaws and train a student after being forbidden to do so?” Ellen Eth mused, accepting a glass of dark red wine from the servant.
“I’m sure he had his reasons,” Callindra said, taking a sip of the excellent mead. “But I saw him practicing the Korumn and wouldn’t stop begging him to teach me the Sword until he agreed.” Her head felt lighter than it should. She’d never told anyone that before, and it seemed as though she should be thinking more before she answered.
Sai’Li paused at the entrance to the boardroom, stepping out of her sandals and padding on stocking feet to the spot at the low table they had set out for her. Everyone stood as she approached and they exchanged cautious bows and pleasant introductions before kneeling on the cushions. An attendant offered tea which she accepted, setting the porcelain cup on the table.
“Your invitation was most courteous and your hospitality likewise.” She said from behind her fan. “May I know the reason you asked me here?”
Tanaka opened a lacquered box on the table and withdrew a cigarette. He offered them, but Sai’Li instead reached into her sleeve and withdrew a jade and gold kiseru. She carefully tamped tobacco from a small golden box into the bowl and leaned forward to allow Tanaka to light it for her. The smoke smelled sweet and exotic, making Tanaka’s cigarette seem harsh and uncivilized.
“It seems as though there’s a bit of tension between you and the Yashida clan.” Tanaka said, “I’d like to put that to rest.”
“Disagreements are bad for business.” She said, exhaling a stream of smoke and taking a sip of tea.
“We sent two of our people to see you.” He said, “They never reported in.”
“Is that all this is about?” Asked Sai’Li, “I do have to congratulate you on the loyalty of your subordinates, they have been refusing to break their word despite not being allowed to depart while still in your service.”
“You have them?” Tanaka demanded, “Release them to me at once.”
“Now my dear Tanaka, I cannot allow disrespect to go unnoticed or unpunished.” She chided, “They are being treated well and I expect we shall have the opportunity to reunite you soon.”
“You are hardly in a position to negotiate.” Snarled Tanaka, “You came here without any support, for all that pet tiger of yours would be able to do against us.”
Her fan snapped shut with a crack and she fixed a glittering green eyed stare on him. “Do not make the mistake of thinking that I am in any way threatened by what little resistance you can offer.” Her kimono shifted color, becoming a pristine white with delicate black and gold spider webs covering it.
“You aren’t going to distract me with petty tricks and idle threats.” Tanaka said, “If we do not allow it, you will not leave here alive.”
“You do not have a choice whether I live or not Tanaka.” Sai’Li blew more scented smoke into the air. “I’m sure little Asahina has told you what I am.”
“You expect me to believe that line of shit?” Tanaka laughed, “I’m not-”
“I do not tolerate disrespect,” Sai’Li said calmly, taking another sip of her tea. “Please moderate your language. I am not offering any threat, nor do I intend to do so. Also, I am your guest who has kindly agreed to travel in order to meet you in person after you rudely sent your subordinates in response to my earlier request.”
She drew more smoke into her lungs and let it trail out from her nostrils. “Furthermore, I am sitting before you alone. A single woman surely does not provoke such a fearful reaction from a strong and powerful man like yourself who has a half dozen armed gunman itching to see what the color of my blood is.”
Tanaka brought himself under control with a visible effort. “Apologies for my outburst. If I may be so bold; as a gesture of good will would you return our retainers to us?”
“Perhaps.” Sai’Li tapped the ashes out of her kiseru and refilled it, lacquered nails clicking on the jade as she tapped the tobacco in. “I wish to ascertain your loyalties first.”
“I am loyal to my family,” Tanaka said.
“Who does your family owe loyalty to?” She asked, letting him light her kiseru.
“We are our own family.” He said, “We do not owe loyalty to anyone.”
“Is that what you believe?” Sai’Li raised an eyebrow, “If you read your histories I think you will find something different.”
Tanaka opened his mouth to answer, but Sai’Li moved her hand blindingly fast. Her fan snapped open between his head and the window. The sound of a bullet ricochet was followed almost immediately by the sound of a rifle shot. The delicate looking silk of her fan was unmarred, but the bullet clattered to the table mangled and bent. The guards leaped into action, two tackling Tanaka to the floor, one shouting instructions into an earpiece and another drawing a pistol and pointing it at Sai’Li.
Asahina waved a hand, stepping between the windows and Tanaka. A second gunshot glanced off an invisible shield that surrounded her before a bolt of black energy lanced from her finger to punch through the window of a building across the street. Tanaka snarled curses and his guards stood up but kept themselves between him and the window.
“It appears you have some things to deal with,” Sai’Li said calmly, tapping the ashes from her kiseru and stowing it. “As a benevolent gesture, I will return your people to you.”
She stood and took a ring off her finger, stretching it into an oval five feet tall. Looking through it, Tanaka could see a well appointed room with barred windows that looked out onto a cliff over the ocean. Ichi and Shinobu turned from the window to look at the portal in surprise.
“Your master has convinced me to be lenient.” Sai’Li said, “You are free to go.”
After they stepped through the portal cautiously, Sai’Li collapsed the ring and put it back on her finger. She turned to leave, “Come Ignis.”
There was suddenly a six hundred pound tiger in the room. It looked around at them all contemptuously before it began to fade from view again, starting from its tail until only the mouth and eyes remained. Those faded as too as they walked through the door.