Excerpt from The Daughter Gambit
Available from Captain Supermarket Press
They were on top of a small rise, overlooking a dell. On the clear ground, circles had been made out of human bones. No, not circles. Clocks. The borders were done with vertebrae, the hours were marked with skulls, and the hands were constructed from femurs adorned with the metatarsals of the feet and the metacarpals of the hand. They were set at the cardinal directions, and thus did not line up precisely with the shape of the clearing, but looked to be exactly equidistant from one another and arrayed about a central point that was unmarked in any way.
Wei Lai stood in the clock at the north, about twenty meters from Teotl. He wore his red Triad robes, his head freshly shaved and gleaming. His eyes were sewn shut, but even at that distance, she could see the eyeballs moving around under the lids, as though he were dreaming. He was toying with a mahjongg tile, his undulating knuckles making the piece walk over them. Whatever ritual he was conducting had not begun yet, or was in the midst of a lull. At his feet was a man who looked like he had been a farmer. He lay face up, staring up at the sky with sightless eyes, a bullet hole in his forehead. Five other men stood with him in a loose ring, armed and uniformed. Soldiers.
In the southern circle, a tall and pale woman was perfectly still, arms at her side. She looked to be Chinese, her skin stark white, her hair kept long. She was dressed simply in a utilitarian garb of black canvas pants, boots, and a sleeveless gray shirt, showing off her skinny white arms. She looked frail, but Teotl knew there was enough strength in those arms to rip iron apart. This was Jiangshi, one of the Butterfly’s Familiars. She too had soldiers with her, though she hardly needed their protection.
The eastern and western circles had five more men each. More soldiers to watch over whatever was happening. They all had the grizzled look of veterans, and judging by the military precision of their uniforms and movements, they were recruits from the People’s Liberation Army, the same as the dead boy in the woods.
Lastly, a nude shape crawled on all fours between the circles. The figure was roughly masculine, though he had no body hair and no genitalia. His ivory flesh was entirely smooth, broken up by jet black hair and eyes. He moved like an animal, his teeth chattering compulsively. It was a ghost, one of the Butterfly’s most dangerous Servitors.
The intelligence had been wrong. Very wrong. This wasn’t a small force. This was an Apprentice, a Familiar, a Servitor, and twenty men, plus any who were still out in the woods guarding the other directions. This was stiff opposition, and Teotl had every justification for leaving at that moment and blaming a failure of intelligence.
She took a deep breath and focused. That would be almost worse than San Francisco. She wouldn’t even be trying, and that was not something she wanted to return to tell the Priestess. Instead, she took stock. If she wasn’t going to retreat, she needed to assess the threat.
First, the soldiers. Their guns couldn’t do much more than charge her. They would kill themselves with every shot they fired. They could target her boys, but they were elevated and in cover. It was a good position for an ambush.
Wei Lai had very few offensive powers. Prophets were dangerous enemies until you cornered them, and then they were the most helpless of any Apprentice. Even her boys could take the Prophet, if they weren’t dodging lead from the men who outnumbered them two to one. She would kill him herself, as per the orders, her only fear that he might get away in the general chaos.
Jiangshi next. She was inhumanly strong and nearly indestructible. Dangerous to some, almost helpless against Teotl. She had tangled with the walking corpse before, and it was a minor miracle Jiangshi had managed to escape.
It was the Amazon, Jiangshi and Teotl on the opposite sides. She sent Jiangshi sprawling through the trees with a single backhand, stored from who knew how many of the undead woman’s punches.
The ghost was the truly dangerous one there. That thing would be wearing the first man who fell as a suit. Depending on its power and age, it might have other abilities. It would be completely immune to the kind of physical force Teotl or her boys could bring to bear. Watch it, try to keep it out of any of her men, and evade it on the way back to the truck.
Teotl watched Wei Lai, wondering when the ritual was going to commence. It was always best to attack an Apprentice when their attention was divided. As vulnerable as they were, they were far more versatile than any Familiar. She watched him fidget with the mahjongg tile, his blind attention apparently focused on the point in the middle of the ritual rings. He wasn’t talking. This wasn’t even a ritual.
He was waiting.
“We’re attacking now!” Teotl whispered. “Concentrate fire on the soldiers and fall back as soon as the target is dead.” The men nodded, their weapons coming up as they lay flat on the short ridge. “When I break cover, you fire.”
Teotl leapt out of the bushes. She didn’t bother sliding down the ridge, letting the minor impact of her feet on the earth flood into her for a little extra power. The guns chattered from above and behind her, spitting smoke and death into the clearing.
Teotl heard a man shout, “Now!” in Mandarin, and the soldiers in the clearing opened fire onto the ridge. She prayed her men were safe, but had no time to check.
She felt a few bullets impact her, probably from someone unfamiliar with her powers. She flung her arms out, directing pinpoints of force toward the Prophet. She relaxed her grip on the force just enough to release the tiniest bit, one gunshot each, like pinching off a drop of water from a full spigot. Soldiers jumped between the force and Wei Lai, their chests shredded in favor of their master. Like they knew the phantom bullets were coming even before she released them.
Wei Lai stood serene in the gunsmoke, the tile walking over his knuckles.
Teotl dug her feet into the earth to run at him.
She felt it first. A bass thrum, almost silent, yet heavy enough to vibrate her teeth and bones. She staggered, focusing on the center of the clearing. The source of the apocalyptic note burned into her eyes. It was a point no bigger than a pea, glowing the opposite of light: somehow shining, though it ate the day around it. A point so dark it was brighter than the sun. It seemed to be there forever, the world freezing around it as the pure strength of the tiny object pulled everything into its onyx depths, warping the very world around it. It had the staggering presence of a planet materializing in front of her.
And then, the flash.
Blinding white light, and a thudding wall of force slammed into Teotl. There was no sound, or at least none she could hear. Maybe it was like the light, the opposite of sound, a wall of deafness that consumed every noise around in a great, aching void. There was only the agony of the energy flooding into her cells, expanding, pulling them apart. She had never felt anything so powerful, not even the touch of the Priestess when the sun had been ignited inside Teotl’s chest. Every atom of her body was overloading, and she could only hold on, and find a way to remain herself in the face of overwhelming power. Keep her body from flying apart into dust. Hold herself together by sheer force of will.
In that single moment, she could feel the Priestess through the link they shared. A link that was normally invisible, functioning on a purely instinctual level. Magus and Familiar, forever shackled with magic. The agony bled through the link, and Teotl knew that though the Priestess was only feeling a fraction of it, it was still too much. Even then, the pain through every fiber of her, threatening to tear her apart, she wanted to spare her mistress any discomfort. And if the Familiar could have taken the anguish away, she would have, even if it meant oblivion for herself.
The light grew brighter and brighter. The energy was never ending, and would continue to soak into her until she died. It flooded and tore, her cells separating by new rivers of raw power. She fought to ride it, to redirect it even as it came into her, but she could not. She could only take more and more of it, until her vision was consumed in white, her hearing in the rush of static, her screams in a blank tone. She had no idea how long she spent in agony, the explosion forcing itself into her tissues. Centuries or seconds were all the same in the heart of a star.
Finally she could take no more and tumbled into the brightness, her final coherent thoughts a prayer to the Priestess to forgive.
Excerpt taken from The Daughter Gambit. Copyright © 2016 by Justin Robinson.
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Justin Robinson © 2019