Magic levies a steep price on anyone brave enough or stupid enough to dabble in it.
Wizards never forgave Ned for not being one of them. They didn’t exactly come out and say his life was expendable, but they didn’t have to. He figured it out fast enough when they conscripted him into their long-running war the second he was old enough to fight. Isolated, different, he puzzled out how his brand of magic worked on his own. When he’s finally, finally sent on a solo mission, he vows to make the most of every single moment of freedom.
Fleeing the tide of doom wiping out humanity, Amanda and her family escape to a remote corner of California, where they eke out a hardscrabble existence. With her parents at each other’s throats and her brother mysteriously gone, Amanda runs up against malevolent power beyond her wildest imaginings. Captured by the undead, she’s about to join their ranks when Ned shows up.
Attraction ignites—hot, urgent, delicious—but celibacy may well be the price of Ned’s magic, and he can’t risk his power. Or can he? Even though he stands to lose everything, Ned doesn’t hesitate after Tantalus—one of the insidiously beautiful dark gods—kidnaps Amanda. Defying a direct order from his wizard battle lord, he goes after the woman he loves. Even if she can’t ever be his, he’ll be damned if he’ll leave her to the dark god’s whims.
Ned crouched amid the remains of what was once downtown Sacramento, using a convenient, partly-decimated building as cover. The rest of his unit hid in close proximity—at least he hoped they did. A low, whistling noise ratcheted his heart into hyper drive. Enemy magic. Maintaining his crouch, he spun, searching the late afternoon gloom for clues. Not quite sure what tipped him off, he leapt out of the way just before a concrete block exploded, showering him with debris.
“Whew! Way too close.” The words tore out of him before he could stop them.
He drew his lips into a disgusted snarl and wondered for the thousandth time how he, a human mage, ever got mixed up with the wizards’ war.
Because the bastards didn’t give me a choice.
Sweat trickled down his forehead. His leather headband caught some of it, but a few drops fell into his eyes. They stung like hell, and he shook his head to disperse the salty liquid. The beginnings of a headache throbbed behind one temple.
“Landarik.” Ned focused his commander’s name into his mouthpiece. “Where are you?”
“Right behind you.” A voice dripped sarcasm into Ned’s ear.
“Son of a bitch.”
Ned whipped around. Landarik stood so close, Ned’s braids slapped against the wizard’s helmet. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Ned sputtered through clenched teeth. “I hate when you sneak up on me. Especially when it could’ve been one of them. You’re lucky I didn’t blast you.”
“Like your puny human magic would’ve made a dent. Cut the shit. What do you want?”
Speaking through the slit in his bronzed helmet, Landarik looked like a robot. Only his blond braids, with debris tangled in them, ruined the automaton image. He must’ve noticed Ned’s stare because Landarik gathered his ratty braids and tossed them over his shoulders.
“I’m beat. Request permission to return to the caves.”
“Mage or no,” Landarik grunted, “you humans are more work than you’re worth. I have no fucking idea what the goddess had up her sleeve when she created those like you.”
“Fine. Neither do I. Now can I go?”
“I release you—but only because you’re more worthless than usual. Return no later than first light.” Whistling sounded again. Without apparent thought or effort, Landarik raised a hand. A bolt of power flew from his fingertips and vaporized a small building a hundred yards away.
“How can you know so…precisely?” Ned sputtered.
Landarik tipped the visor of his helmet up. Extraordinary blue eyes shot darts at Ned, and the sharp-boned features characteristic of the wizard race twisted in irritation. “I’ve told you and told you,” he lectured in a patronizing voice that grated on Ned’s nerves. “Hold your inner parts still, human. If you managed yourself better, you’d hear where the enemy is hiding.” He snorted. “Sometimes I find it difficult to fathom how you’re still alive.”
“You and me both,” Ned mumbled.
Sketching a rectangular portal in the hot, dusty air, he jumped through into the Ways, picturing the wizards’ caves as he did so. Wizards developed the Ways thousands of years ago so they could travel to distant locations. Their harmonics were so well matched to galactic magnetics, they remained fully functional despite minimal maintenance.
As he sped through the dimension carrying him to a few hours of safety, Ned’s empty stomach clenched in anger. It wasn’t fair for Landarik to expect him to know everything the vetted wizard warriors did. Most of them were hundreds—if not thousands—of years old, while he was a mere…well, something. Young, anyway. In truth, he wasn’t precisely sure of his age. Wizards lived so long they didn’t bother keeping those types of records.
Ned didn’t know if it was fortune, or her opposite, but he’d drawn his first breath in a wizard stronghold. He had little memory of his first few years, but around the time he turned five, one of the wizards—the acolyte master, Karras—took notice of the little human who carted power after him the same way other youngsters dragged beloved toys.
The discovery he held magic within him turned out to be a two-edged sword. His mother was a normal human, and the wizards kicked her out of their stronghold after she refused to divulge his father’s name. Ned offered her points for courage. If she’d given up his father’s name, the wizards would’ve hunted him down and probably killed him—for having the temerity to be intimate with one of their servants.
Once his mother was out of the way, his lessons in mage craft took off like a shot and never really stopped, but catching up with the wizards proved impossible, particularly since they reminded him about his inferiority on a regular basis.
Things may well have gone differently had his teachers been other human mages. Perhaps they would’ve been more sensitive to his skills—and less critical of his efforts. Come to think of it, maybe their teaching style would’ve suited his magic far better. It took several years, but Ned finally figured out that his gifts manifested quite differently than the wizards’. He fought off a wave of bitterness and severed his line of thought. Surely other human mages existed—his father, for example—but he’d never met one in the flesh.
He sent magic spiraling outward to make certain he was still on course. Infernals might try to sabotage the Ways, despite maintaining their own traveling portals. “They’d have to get in here, first,” Ned said, talking to himself. “It wouldn’t be easy.”
The Ways required special spells and an affinity established by one of the wizards. Without those things, they’d refuse to open. Ned wished he knew more about other races, like humans for instance. Or elves. All his history lessons had focused solely on wizards, which made sense because everyone else in his classes was one. He’d felt quite the misfit. Worse, wizards weren’t fond of humans and rarely missed an opportunity to pound the point home.
The deceleration presaging his arrival began, tugging at his midsection. Ned summoned magic to call up a portal. It formed slowly because he was so tapped out. How long since his last rest? He did some quick calculations and came up with sixty-five hours. Wizard physiology was different. They could last five or six days on the battlefield without a break. No matter how hard he tried, Ned had never managed much more than three. Even then, the last hours turned into such a struggle, they were hardly worth it. Ned set his teeth in a grim line. Like he’d told Landarik, he was surprised he was still alive too.
His portal glowed. Warm and inviting, it radiated a soft blue light, the color of many of his workings. Ned peeled the door back and jumped through, so dead on his feet his eyes were half-shut.
The minute he stepped into the flickering, magic-driven torchlight of the sloppily excavated cave the wizards used as a re-supply station, Ned knew something was wrong. He felt the subtle presence of something malevolent in the air currents moving through their subterranean quarters. He didn’t close off the portal—just in case. Sibilant swishing from deep in the shadows dragged a last bit of adrenaline into his bloodstream. He felt sick, jittery, but at least he was wide-awake again.
A horny snout came into view, accompanied by a hissing shriek as the thing raced out of the darkness right at him. Running on nerves and instinct, Ned didn’t stop to examine his adversary. The thing intended to kill him. He jumped backward—body surprisingly nimble given his exhaustion—and sealed off his portal before he resurrected the spell that had carried him from the battlefield. Because the Ways required a destination, he visualized Sacramento. He could always correct his course en route.
What in the nine hells was in the cave?
Ned cleared his mind. He examined the feel of the wrongness. He didn’t sense Infernals. Not exactly. No, it was more like one of the trogs: a cross between trolls and warthogs. Infernals kept them for pets. It was a safe bet if a trog were in the entry hall of the wizards’ cave, its masters weren’t far distant.
Ned shuddered. He’d fought trogs more than once in this war. Their highly poisonous bite could kill on contact if it hit a key spot. His Comparative Zoology instructor at the wizard stronghold in the Carpathian Alps had taught him about genetic catastrophes developed in the Infernals’ labs. Trogs were only one of the perverted creatures born from those unnatural experiments. Closing his eyes, Ned visualized the wall chart with trogs, wargs, the undead…
Can’t change any of it.
Where can I go? Not back to the battle. I’d be worth about as much as a drowned dragon.
He needed to pick a destination, and fast, so he could grab a couple hours of badly needed sleep. Sacramento wouldn’t do it, even if he skirted the worst of the fighting. The large urban areas weren’t any worse than anywhere else, but he’d need to stay sharp to avoid danger. Right now, he wasn’t.
Ned racked his mind, calling up the geography of California. He’d almost decided to head for the Sierra Nevada Mountains—a place Karras took him years ago—when he rethought things. No matter how much he wanted to retreat somewhere safe, he needed to let Landarik know about the breach in their cave. With a great deal of reluctance, he linked what was left of his magic to the frequency of the Ways, and reiterated his command for them to take him back to Sacramento.
Ned didn’t like the wizards any more than they cared about him, but they were the only family he’d ever known. Despite all the times he’d wished Landarik would die a slow, painful death, he did value the concept of duty. Ned shook his head to jar himself into a more wakeful state. Thinking pain might rouse him, he bit his lower lip until he tasted blood, but it didn’t help much.
He still felt like one of the undead.…
About the Author:
Ann Gimpel is a national bestselling author. A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago. Since then her short fiction has appeared in a number of webzines and anthologies. Her longer books run the gamut from urban fantasy to paranormal romance. Once upon a time, she nurtured clients, now she nurtures dark, gritty fantasy stories that push hard against reality. When she’s not writing, she’s in the backcountry getting down and dirty with her camera. She’s published over 30 books to date, with several more planned for 2015 and beyond. A husband, grown children, grandchildren and three wolf hybrids round out her family.