It’s only a few short weeks until the final chapter of the Avalon Chronicles, A Thunder of War, is out. If you plan on buying it, but haven’t yet pre-ordered, please do consider it, as it really helps with the release of a book:
Now that bit is out of the way, below the wonderful cover is the full first chapter. I know some people like to wait until the book is released, but for those of you who want to read it, I hope you enjoy.
It was meant to be an easy mission for Layla Cassidy and her team. Get into the realm of Norumbega, move her team to the prison where Mammon’s frozen body was being kept, and, after retrieving the body, get out again without any trouble.
The mission had not gone entirely to plan.
“Well, this sucks balls,” Remy said as he sat up against a large tree. He was three-and-a-half feet tall, and part man, part red fox. He stood on legs that were more human than animal, but his entire body—from the tip of his bushy tail to his fox muzzle—was covered in fur. Remy had crossed a witch’s coven several centuries earlier and they’d decided to kill him by turning him into a fox and handing him over to a hunt master. The spell had gone wrong. It had turned him into a fox, but only partially, and it had also killed all twelve witches and deposited their souls in his body, essentially giving him twelve lives. Last Layla knew, he was on life eight.
Beside him, Layla nodded. “It’s not been our best day ever.”
The team had gotten into Norumbega without a hitch. Felicia Hales, a powerful vampire who lived in New York, arranged for them all to go through the realm gate and meet up with Mayor Issac Eire. Unfortunately that was where the good news ended. Issac’s people turned on him, revealing that they’d been working with Avalon all along. They killed anyone who tried to stop them, and Layla’s team were given the choice either to cease fighting, or watch more innocent people in Norumbega die. They chose the former.
The team had been taken to the prison that was their original target and put beneath the trees at the edge of the massive clearing in front of it. The ground was hard and cold with snow still covering large parts of it. Layla was grateful for the warm clothes she’d put on before coming. Her team wore thick jackets over their leather combat armor, with dwarven runes scribed on them. None of them were impervious to the cold, although Remy’s fur probably meant he needed fewer clothes than most, but the runes on the armor meant they wouldn’t freeze to death.
“At least we’re not tied up,” Harry said. “You’d think that, considering I’m the only human here, they’d be a little more concerned with the fact that you could actually kill them.”
“That’s why,” Chloe said, pointing to ten townspeople kneeling at the opposite side of the clearing. Each one had an Avalon soldier behind them. If any of Layla’s team made a move, they would die.
Harry turned toward the frightened men and women. “I didn’t see them. Shit.”
Layla looked over at the prison and caught Zamek—one of the last remaining Norse dwarves—staring at it. “What’s up?” she asked him.
“They’re trying to get inside,” Zamek said, pointing to half a dozen people attempting to force the massive metal doors apart. He was shorter than Layla’s own five-foot-four height, although not by too much as he was just under five feet tall himself, but he was broad. To Layla’s mind he was his own wall. Short, muscular, and unmovable unless he wanted to be moved. He was stronger, faster, and could heal more quickly than a human. Like all dwarves, Zamek was also an alchemist, able to alter the shape of natural matter so long as he had physical contact with whatever he wanted to change. Zamek’s long, brown beard was plaited with various colored beads, and, aside from a long, plaited ponytail, his head was shaved.
The prison itself was huge with fifty-foot white columns outside the front entrance and massive glass domes atop several parts of the roof. Built into the side of the mountain, there was no telling how far into the rocks the gray and white stone building went, or how deep it was.
“So, why are we still alive?” Mordred asked.
Everyone turned to Mordred.
“Seriously?” Irkalla replied. “That’s your big wonder?”
“Well, they’ve captured us, and we went quietly to spare more innocent blood from being spilled, but if they can get in there and get Mammon, why are we here still? What purpose do we serve?”
“They can’t get in there,” Zamek said. “Not unless they happen to have a dwarf working for them. That’s dwarven architecture filled with runes. And I placed my own runes on top of those. They manage to get that door open and everyone in a fifty-foot radius is going to be turned to ash.”
Layla mentally calculated the distance between the prison and her and found that she was okay. “Not to mention the giant,” she said.
“There’s a giant?” Harry asked. “Why is this the first time anyone has mentioned a giant?”
The flame giant had been a surprise when, six months ago, Layla and several allies had chased Kristin to Norumbega. They’d stopped her from freeing Mammon, but she’d woken the flame giant before they could get there, and Layla had been forced to drop an avalanche on him. After dropping the avalanche, the group had dragged him back into the prison, and Zamek had reapplied the dwarven runes. It was not a scenario she wished to repeat anytime soon.
“Sorry, there’s a flame giant inside,” Remy said. “There, now you’re caught up.”
The team watched as the Avalon soldiers gave up on the door, and two of them grabbed a beaten and bloody Mayor Eire and dragged him over to the group, dropping him on the ground next to Chloe.
“You make me wish that guns could be taken through realm gates,” Remy said. “Or tanks.”
The man smiled and patted the two custom-made black swords that hung sheathed from his hip. “These are fine weapons, little fox-man. I think I’ll use them to skin you with when I’m done here.”
“Good luck with that,” Remy said, flicking him the middle finger. “Drako,” Mordred said. “What do you want?”
“Kim and I are becoming impatient at our inability to get into the prison. You will help us.”
Layla looked between Drako and Kim. Drako was the taller of the two, with a bald head and scarring over his nose that looked like someone had slashed him with a claw. Kim had short, dark hair, and tattoos around her exposed neck. Both wore combat armor and used bladed weapons. Guns and ammunition didn’t always survive the travel between realms and had a tendency to explode after making the trip.
“You give me my ax back, and I’ll help,” Zamek said, pointing to the double-edged battle-ax Kim carried in one hand.
While everyone in the team had been disarmed, only Zamek and Remy had any emotional attachments to the weapons they’d lost. Layla looked down at her metal arm and wondered whether she could turn it into a sword and run Kim through before the innocent people across from them died. No, she decided, there had to be another way.
Drako waved to the soldiers by the hostages, and two innocent people lost their lives.
“No,” Irkalla shouted, moving to stand, but she was kicked back down by Kim.
“You want more to die?” Kim asked, a slight sneer to her voice.
“I open that door and a flame giant is going to come out,” Zamek said.
The concerned glance between Drako and Kim didn’t go unnoticed, but Drako shrugged. “We’ll deal with that when it happens.”
“You have fifteen armed people here,” Mordred said. “I’m pretty sure the giant will get a few of you before you stop it. Simple numbers. There’s more of you than there were when it last woke up. And it might not be happy to see us again.”
“Then you’ll have to deal with it,” Kim snapped.
Drako tapped his colleague on the shoulder, and she turned as Abaddon entered the clearing. She was of average height with brown skin and long, plaited brown hair that touched her waist. She wore black combat armor that looked more military in design than any of Layla’s team. Like everyone else who worked for her, she wore a small wooden bracelet with runes carved into it. Layla had no idea what they were for, but she was certain it wasn’t good.
“Devils don’t feel the cold, I assume?” Zamek asked as Abaddon reached them.
She looked down at her lack of jacket and smiled. “No, extremes of weather aren’t something I’m concerned with. But I think that’s a conversation for a time when we’re not on the clock.”
“We’re not getting Mammon for you,” Irkalla said. “You might as well just kill us all and be done with it.”
“Not quite what I had in mind,” Remy said.
Abaddon picked up the mayor by his hair and slit his throat. The white snow quickly turned red as his body was pushed onto the ground. Abaddon put her boot on his back. “Silver dagger,” Abaddon said, absentmindedly cleaning the blade on Drako’s sleeve. “The mayor is dead. Very sad. I will go back into town and pick every child under the age of eight and butcher them all. Want to rethink your position?”
“As we tried to explain to your friends here, there’s a flame giant in there,” Layla said.
“How’s the hand?” Abaddon asked Layla.
Layla flipped her the middle finger of her metal hand. “Works okay.”
Abaddon laughed. “You’ve gotten harder than last time we met. It wasn’t that long ago, was it?”
“Where’s Elizabeth?” Layla asked, hoping that the longer she could keep Abaddon talking, the more time they had to come up with a good enough plan to get away without more people being killed.
“Your mother is murdering people who deserve it. She’s quite good at her job. I have plans for this realm, and you’re getting front-row seats to see them come to life.”
Layla knew that Elizabeth was not really her mother. Not anymore. Her mother had died in a car crash years earlier. But Abaddon had forced Elizabeth’s spirit back into her broken body, and then forced her to become an umbra, utterly fracturing her mind and allowing the drenik in the spirit scroll to take permanent control. Elizabeth was a killing machine, someone who lived for violence and bloodshed. She reveled in it. It was one of many reasons why Layla wanted to kill Abaddon, even if she wasn’t sure it was possible.
“Hey, crazy,” Remy said. “How’s tricks?”
Kim kicked Remy in the chest, sending him sprawling to the ground. “Disgusting half-breed creature.”
“I like her,” Remy said, receiving another kick for his trouble.
“If she does that again, I will kill her,” Mordred said. His words were spoken very matter-of-factly, and Kim froze mid-strike.
“The great Mordred,” Abaddon said with mock applause. “You finally regained your faculties. I did enjoy ripping your mind apart day after day. Baldr, Arthur, even your own brother, Gawain, got involved. It was a lot of fun.”
Mordred stared at Abaddon for several seconds. His expression was completely calm, but Layla knew he would have tried to kill Abaddon right there and then if he’d been able to.
“You murdered my friend,” Irkalla said.
“Probably lots of them. Which one in particular?”
Abaddon almost flinched at the name. “He killed Ares, Helios, and Deimos. He didn’t submit to the methods we used to turn him to our side, so he had to die. The funny thing is, I don’t even know where his body is. Just in a field somewhere. Did you weep for him, Irkalla? Did you weep for Nergal? He was your husband, after all.”
“Ex-husband,” Irkalla corrected.
“This little catch-up was nice, but you’re going to retrieve my brother now. Drako and Kim will accompany you into the prison.”
“All of us go,” Layla said. “If that flame giant wakes up, whoever goes in there is going to have to fight. And we don’t even know where your brother is.”
Abaddon clicked her fingers and a soldier walked over, passing her a scroll, which she gave to Layla. Layla unrolled it, revealing a map of the prison interior.
“How did you get this?” Zamek asked.
“Is this really the time for your questions?” Abaddon asked him. “I’ve written where Mammon is being kept. Retrieve him. Now.”
Layla slipped a tiny hypodermic needle into Zamek’s hand, and he nodded. “I’ll be back soon. Irkalla is coming with me,” he told Abaddon. “Shockingly, I don’t trust your people.”
“Fine. The rest of you get comfortable,” Abaddon said. “Once Mammon is back, I don’t want anyone to miss the show.”
They were left alone as Drako and Kim escorted Zamek and Irkalla to the prison. Zamek opened the prison doors, and they went inside. Abaddon spoke to her soldiers by the entrance before walking off into the nearby forest.
“What is going on?” Chloe asked.
“You noticed the bracelets?” Mordred asked.
“They look like sorcerer’s bands,” Harry said. “Except they can’t be, because they’re all wearing them, and I’ve seen several of them use their powers.”
Sorcerer’s bands stopped the wearer from accessing their power. Layla had worn one on occasion, although never by choice. She hoped never to wear one again. They essentially turned even the most powerful being into something no more resilient than an ordinary human.
“Let’s ask,” Remy said. “Hey, numbnuts,” he shouted to the nearest guard.
The woman looked confused for a moment, before her expression became irritated and she walked over. “You shout out again and I’ll have your tongue,” she told Remy.
“Sure. Hey, Abaddon said you guys were all going to do something awful here, and you have to wear those bracelets so it doesn’t affect you, but you do know that the runes on them are wrong, yes?”
“What?” the woman asked, slightly concerned.
“Yeah, that’s not a dwarven rune,” Harry said. “It’s just a squiggle. I’ve noticed it on some but not on others.”
The woman looked genuinely concerned and walked over to talk to another soldier. Layla watched the pair look at each other’s bracelets. They in turn went on to another one.
“They don’t trust Abaddon,” Mordred said.
“She’s not exactly shy about wasting lives,” Chloe said.
Over by the prison, Abaddon had returned from the forest and was giving orders for the remaining hostages to be taken away. The soldier walked over to Layla’s group and hit Remy in the side of the jaw, knocking him to the ground. “Next time you think to sow dissent between us, I’ll kill you myself.”
“Why don’t you trust Abaddon?” Layla asked.
The soldier stepped toward Layla, who got to her feet.
“You punch me, I’ll take your hand, and then your life,” Layla told her, her voice utterly calm and devoid of anything that suggested she was lying. “Your leverage just walked away, so what are you going to do, exactly?”
The soldier considered her options. Layla was pretty sure that her reputation as a fighter had drifted to Abaddon’s soldiers. The last six months had been hard on Layla, and she in turn had become harder. She knew she was still capable of laughing and joking with her friends— when she saw them—but in a fight, she no longer second-guessed her- self. She’d had excellent teachers, and she knew without hesitation that she would take the soldier’s hand off. There were nearly thirty soldiers in the clearing, and Layla wasn’t certain that her group would be able to take them all, but the woman in front of her would die. She would make sure of it.
The soldier took a step back, then turned and walked away, allowing Layla to sit down again.
“You okay?” Layla asked Remy who rubbed his jaw.
“It’s been a long day,” Layla said.
“It’s about to get longer,” Harry said, pointing to the entrance of the prison as Zamek emerged with Irkalla followed by two soldiers carrying an unconscious Mammon.
Mammon was a huge man. At nearly seven feet tall with a short, black beard and long, dark hair that fell freely over his shoulders, he cut an imposing figure. He wore red robes that were emblazoned with dozens of runes.
“I don’t think they can remove the robes,” Harry said.
Abaddon and Zamek argued, and she motioned for her soldiers to retrieve Layla and the rest of the team.
Zamek walked out in front of them, striding across the clearing toward the group. “Abaddon wants us all together.”
“When it all goes to shit, get inside the prison,” Mordred said. “Move fast, don’t stop.”
“What about the prisoners in the realm?” Harry asked.
“They’re dead,” Zamek said softly. “Drako was bragging about how we’ll get to see some new weapon they have. Apparently the death of everyone in this realm is just the start. Those bracelets protect them from the effect, or something like that. I’ve seen similar runes before.”
“Hurry the hell up,” Drako shouted.
Zamek made a big deal about helping Harry to his feet. “He’s only human,” he said.
They walked over to Abaddon, where they were forced back to the ground at sword-point.
“My brother,” Abaddon said in a loving tone. “Once the others are reunited, we will kill Lucifer for betraying us, and then Asmodeus will be without equal.”
“You mean Arthur?” Mordred asked. “I know you used Asmodeus’s spirit and power to ensure Arthur was conceived, but you don’t really think Arthur and Asmodeus are one and the same, do you?”
Abaddon went to strike Mordred, but stopped. “We will crush you all,” she whispered, lips curling in anger. “Arthur and Avalon are, at this exact moment in time, on their way to Greenland to destroy your little rebellion. They’ll break your leaders and kill everyone else. You’re all done.”
Fear filled Layla. Her friends, people she loved and cared for, were still in Greenland. They had to warn them somehow, had to get out of the realm. She forced herself to be calm. Hopefully Avalon hadn’t started their attack yet and they still had time. The fact that time moved slower in Norumbega than it did on the Earth realm might work in their favor.
“So, this whole thing was a setup?” Layla asked.
Abaddon nodded. “I was advised not to open the prison while there were dwarven runes on it. No one was sure what they did since it’s ancient dwarven we’re talking about. I knew that eventually you’d send your expert here to get Mammon out—he’s too dangerous to let loose, although I didn’t expect him to be so placid.”
Layla knew that Zamek had managed to inject Mammon with the syringe she’d given him. It had been made by Persephone and Hades to ensure that Mammon stayed quiet for long enough to get him out of the realm.
“And Felicia?” Mordred asked.
“Felicia’s people have worked for me for some time now, so it wasn’t hard to make them realize that I am the person they need to back. Felicia is dead, by the way.”
The news caused anger to bubble up inside Layla. She’d liked Felicia. Abaddon and her people would pay for what they’d done.
“No one wants to be on the losing side,” Remy said. “Especially not people who sell their allegiances.”
Drako tried to kick Remy, but he leapt on him and drew one of the blades out of his belt as he scrambled up his torso. Drako screamed as Remy drove the sword into his throat. With one hand still on the hilt of the sword, he vaulted up onto his head, dragging the sword out as he went. Remy dropped to the ground and removed the second blade from Drako’s belt.
Blood poured from Drako’s wound as Remy kept moving. He ducked Kim’s blade and got close enough to drag Zamek’s ax free and toss it to the dwarf, who was already running toward them. Zamek caught the ax in midair and changed direction at the last moment, driving it toward Abaddon, who blasted him in the chest with her necromancy power.
Dozens of soldiers attacked the group, and blood magic poured out of Kim’s hands, smashing into Harry before he could avoid it. Chloe dragged him away toward the prison entrance as he screamed in pain. Irkalla tackled Kim to the ground, punching her in the face, before rolling off her and running up the steps to the doors.
Mordred blasted Abaddon in the chest with a torrent of air before she could do anything to aid her soldiers. Layla was blocked from get- ting to the prison by the soldier who had threatened to hit her. The soldier drew a curved knife, and Layla’s metal arm instantly changed shape into a broadsword. She drove the blade up toward the soldier’s chest, causing the woman to dodge back briefly before darting forward with her dagger. Layla moved to the side and grabbed the silver blade, absorbing the metal into her limb. The silver content in the blade caused her a modicum of irritation as it merged with the titanium and steel of her arm; it felt as though she were holding hot rocks. She swiped her arm-blade across the soldier’s chest, bypassing the runes on the armor, cutting through the leather as if it wasn’t even there, and killing her.
Layla avoided a blade-swipe from a second soldier as Mordred shouted at her to hurry. He’d created a shield of dense air that he was using to keep people back, but it wouldn’t last forever. Magical power was being flung around the clearing with reckless aplomb by those few soldiers who were sorcerers, and while Mordred was one of the strongest sorcerers the world had ever seen, his power was not infinite.
Layla ran up the stairs with Irkalla behind her, and a few seconds later Zamek and Chloe shut the doors. Killing Drako and getting everyone into the prison had taken moments, but to Layla it had felt like a lifetime. And yet they still weren’t safe.
On July 3rd, Avalon Chronicles Book 2: A Flicker of Steel is out. You can still pre-order it here:
Before it’s out, I thought you might like to read the first chapter. So, below the cover art is chapter one of A Flicker of Steel.
Avalon stands revealed, but the war is far from over. For Layla Cassidy, it has only just begun.
Thrust into a new world full of magic and monsters, Layla has finally come to terms with her supernatural powers—and left her old life behind. But her enemies are relentless.
Sixteen months after her life changed forever, Layla and her team are besieged during a rescue attempt gone awry and must fight their way through to freedom. It turns out that Avalon has only grown since their last encounter, adding fresh villains to its horde. Meanwhile, revelations abound as Layla confronts twists and betrayals in her own life, with each new detail adding to the shadow that looms over her.
As Layla fights against the forces of evil, her powers begin to increase—and she discovers more about the darkness that lies in her past. As this same darkness threatens her future, will she be ready to fight for everything she holds dear?
Domme, Louisiana. USA.
“I’d like to point out that this is an astonishingly bad plan,” Layla Cassidy said. There was no one in the parked red Ford Mustang GT with her, no one anywhere near the car for that matter. She wore a small communication device in her left ear that allowed her to talk to, and hear, the other three people in her team. Two of them had switched theirs off while they went to work, leaving Layla only able to talk to her best friend, Chloe Range.
Chloe made a slight grunting noise in response, signaling that she couldn’t exactly talk at the moment.
Layla tapped her fingers against the steering wheel and wondered if there had been a better way to get the information they were here to retrieve. There had to be a safer one, but then Chloe had seen a chance to gain more than just information and no one was going to talk her out of it.
Originally, they’d arrived in Louisiana to speak to one of Tommy Carpenter’s contacts about finding the people who were supplying spirit scrolls to Nergal. The influx of spirit scrolls was a serious concern to those who stood against Arthur and his version of Avalon: a version in which you vanished if they no longer deemed you an ally. Tommy’s people had tracked the spirit scrolls to an unnamed port in the south of Louisiana. Once they were offloaded, the scrolls were taken to an unknown destination somewhere in America. All Tommy’s contacts had managed to ascertain was that there was a stopover in Domme.
Domme was a small settlement close to a port. It wasn’t on any maps. It officially didn’t exist. Avalon at work once again. Domme consisted of several dozen miles of swamp and a few buildings dotted around. One such building was only a mile up the road from where Layla had parked. She looked out of the window at the cypress trees. The sun had begun to set a short time ago, and Layla found the trees to be simultaneously creepy and pretty. The swamp was close by, and she’d had to park the car on muddy ground. Thankfully it was firm enough that she hadn’t needed to worry about getting stuck, but if it decided to rain then that idea might be shot to hell.
The plan to get information and tail the smugglers had changed when Layla and Chloe had started looking around the port and found that there was a lot more being trafficked than old scrolls. People. Dozens of people. Marched off fishing boats at gunpoint, thrown into the backs of trucks and driven away. Layla didn’t know what they were being used for, or where they’d come from, but both she and Chloe knew they had to find out more. It turned out that apart from grabbing people who were brought in by boat, the smugglers also kidnapped anyone unlucky enough to be hitchhiking in the area. There had been multiple missing persons reports throughout the surrounding towns, and nearly all of them pertained to people who were last seen hitchhiking.
“You still there?” Chloe whispered.
“Of course. I’m waiting for you to get your ass out of there. Where is there, anyway?”
“An old house, or more accurately a mansion. I’ve been locked in the cellar with several other humans. We’re all kept in separate cells.
They drugged me—didn’t realize I wasn’t human, so I had to go along with it. Most of the others are still out cold.”
“Any idea why they’re taking people?”
“No, but there’s never been a kidnapping ring that’s done it for good reasons.”
“Not exactly what I meant, Chloe.”
“I know. It’s just been a long day. I haven’t heard anything about the scrolls. One of these kidnappers has a Confederate flag tattooed on the back of his hand. But it’s the old version of the flag, with the circle of stars in the top left corner. He seems to be in charge. I think he was there. As in, actually there during the Civil War. I saw a picture on a wall with him and several others who the tattooed guy said were Confederate guerillas. One of them was Jesse James.”
“The bandit? How can you know that?”
“That’s the one. And I know it because the tattooed guy told me. His name is Alfred. He saw me look at it, picked it up, and showed it to me. Made a big deal about how he knew Jesse.”
“So, at least one isn’t human. Any idea what he is?”
“No. I count eight. All men. I doubt many of them aren’t human, although obviously I can’t tell without fighting them.”
“Please don’t fight them.”
“I wasn’t planning on it. I’d like to hurt a lot of them, though. Some of the people I saw coming in—” Chloe paused, as if fighting off a deeply troubling memory. “They keep them drugged out of their minds in other rooms around the house. I heard screams, even through the walls. My drenik wants me to hurt people. It’s the closest I’ve come to just letting it out for a long time.”
Apart from drenik being the base of the power that umbras could wield—a power that was random for every umbra—they were also capable of taking temporary control of the host body. In that time, the drenik had access to the entire reserve of power it possessed, making it an enemy to be feared by even the most powerful foe. Unfortunately, allowing the drenik control in such a way had the unfortunate side effect of giving it a greater chance of taking control of its human host for good. For that reason, most umbra and their drenik came to an agreement about how they could work together. Layla knew that Chloe hadn’t allowed her drenik to take control for over a year; for her to be considering it now meant she was deeply angry.
“We’ll take the whole lot of them down,” Layla assured her friend. She looked at the wooden bracelet on her right wrist and the runes carved into it. Everyone who lived at the compound and worked with Hades and his people wore one. The bands were linked to a blood curse mark on the back of their shoulders.
A blood curse mark was created using blood magic. Most curses did awful things to people, like remove their powers or memories, but some were more benign. Everyone had been told that their marks linked to the runes on the bracelets, and only those with both could enter and leave the compound safely. No one had argued against this, but it had been the topic of much discussion.
“Do you still have your bracelet on?” Layla asked Chloe.
“Yes, they left it on me, although I’m not sure that it would have done anything if they’d removed it.”
“Better safe than sorry. Have you heard from the others?”
“No, reception is spotty at best. Diana is around somewhere, though. Remy, too. I’m sure you’ll be able to hear their bickering before they get to you.”
Chloe chuckled, although there was little humor in it. Layla wished they hadn’t decided on their plan a day ago, but it was too late for regret. Now they had to see it out.
“You okay, Chloe?”
“I’m fine. Angry. Unbelievably angry. Other than that, I’ll be okay. These are the bad guys I’ve always wanted to stop. I’ve got to go—if you don’t hear from me in a few hours you know what to do.”
“Nuke the site from orbit, just to be sure.”
Layla smiled at the line and exhaled. A lot had happened to her in the last two years. She’d been kidnapped because Nergal had wanted to get to her father, she’d seen her friends murdered in front of her in horrific ways she could barely have imagined before and on top of all that she’d bonded with a spirit scroll and become an umbra. She had accepted the three spirits and Terhal—her drenik—who were in the scroll and gained mastery over her abilities.
Six months into her new life, the world had turned to shit. Avalon—a group who controlled the world from the shadows—gained a new boss: King Arthur. The same King Arthur who had been comatose for several centuries, who everyone now thought of as some kind of messiah sent to save them. Layla could remember the day when the world had discovered the existence of magic, monsters, and the fact that the people from mythology were real. Hundreds of thousands had died in attacks all over the world, causing panic and fear in the human population.
That panic and fear were exactly what Arthur had wanted. He’d stepped into the limelight, bringing the entire world of non-humans with him whether they wanted to follow him or not, and announced to humanity that he would ensure their safety. Publicly, Avalon now kept the evil at bay and made sure humans slept soundly in their beds. Privately, Avalon hunted down those who would oppose them, murdering thousands in order to hold on to power. Arthur and his people had taken control of the entire world, and humanity had welcomed them with open arms.
Some still opposed Arthur and continued to fight against his regime. That was the reason that Layla was in Louisiana. To hurt Arthur and Avalon, you had to hurt those who were helping him, and Nergal was considered an integral part of Avalon’s organization. He controlled the parts of Avalon that used to protect people, like the LOA—the Law of Avalon—and used what was meant to be a law informant agency as his own personal secret police. The majority of people wouldn’t even notice that the world had become a totalitarian state until Arthur had succeeded in wiping his enemies from the earth so he could turn his full attention to everyone else. And if that ever happened, there was never going to be a chance to fight back.
“You okay?” Rosa said from the passenger seat of the Mustang.
Layla turned toward the spirit beside her. Rosa had once used her powers as an umbra to deliver vengeance in the name of Queen Victoria. She had been an assassin of exceptional talent, and of the three spirits inside the scroll, she was the one Layla spoke to the most. Their friendship was something both Layla and Rosa cherished.
“A lot has happened in a short period of time,” Layla said.
“I didn’t see Arthur as the villain,” Rosa said. “Everyone thought he was the best of us. He’d been comatose for hundreds of years when I was born; everyone spoke about the time he’d wake and take us to a better future. I don’t think anyone, outside of those who knew the real Arthur, expected him to wake up and decide to kill everyone who opposed him.”
Layla nodded, but wanted to move the conversation away from melancholy. “I can’t get used to you not wearing the appropriate clothes.”
Rosa looked down at her black-and-red dress and white trainers. Her dark hair had once been long and braided, but was now much shorter and closer to green in color. “I get to look how I like. You know this. Not sure why you still find it strange. We spirits can wear whatever the current period deems acceptable, or whatever you deem acceptable. I like it.”
“The others wear clothes from their own time.”
“The other two have sticks up their butts,” Rosa said with a smile. “And I know you have steered the conversation away from your concern.”
“Chloe is in the house of horrors. Yes, it worries me. I know she can take care of herself, but if they figure out what, or who, she is, she’ll be on her own until backup arrives.”
Rosa looked around the small parking area. “Lots of thick woods, bit of swamp. How did you know about this place?”
“Diana spoke to someone in New Orleans. They told us about the old mansion. No one goes there, to the best of my knowledge. Used to be a smugglers’ drop, but it’s too out-of-the-way for that these days.”
“That and the lack of people smuggling hooch.”
“Hooch?” Layla asked with a slight smile.
Rosa shrugged. “I just like the word.”
“How long would it take you to get to Chloe from here?” a man’s voice asked from the back seat of the car.
Layla turned to look at the praefectus legionis. His name was Servius Tullius, and he was a huge man, well over six feet in height and probably weighing two of Layla. The Roman had dark skin, short black hair, and a small beard—the only thing that had changed about him in the two years since Layla had become an umbra.
“You don’t have to wear the uniform,” Layla said, ignoring his question.
Servius looked down at his armor. “Yes, I do,” he said softly. “It’s who I am.”
Layla sighed; she’d had the same conversation with him many times in the last year. Servius just wasn’t comfortable enough to adapt his habits. He was a soldier. That’s who he was, how he defined himself. To change his clothing was an act he considered to be a waste of time and effort. Layla knew he had a point, but she still wished he would relax a bit more.
“Have you scoped out the place?” Servius asked.
“Diana and Remy are moving around the area now,” Layla said. “They’re both a lot quieter than I am.”
“Remy?” Rosa asked doubtfully.
“He can be quite stealthy.”
“He’s sometimes quiet?” Servius asked.
“Did you just make a joke?” Layla asked.
“I’m a soldier, not a robot,” Servius said with a smile.
“You sure you’re not both?” Rosa asked.
“You were a lot less chatty when you were the umbra,” Servius said. “I remember those times fondly.”
“Where’s Gyda?” Layla asked. “Still ignoring me?”
“Yes,” a woman spoke from outside the car.
Layla turned to say something to Gyda, but she’d already disappeared. “Damn it, Gyda.”
“She thinks you’re becoming a monster,” Rosa said. “She believed the same of me. You won’t go crazy and murder everyone if you accept the drenik, but Gyda will glare at you a lot. Difficult choice.”
“It’s easy to mock,” Servius said.
“Yes, it is,” Rosa replied. “That’s why I do it.”
“The drenik murdered her family, friends, and her entire village,” Servius reminded everyone. “It can’t be easy for Gyda to have remained for so long as a spirit, having to deal with the drenik being so close all the time.”
Layla knew that Gyda’s transformation into an umbra had been difficult, and she had never properly dealt with what had happened to her, preferring to remain judgmental and aloof from those who had taken the scroll after her death. She had also been the first spirit and had spent the last several thousand years telling everyone else that she knew best. Even when it was clear she didn’t.
“Stop arguing,” Layla said. “It gives me a headache.”
“Your ability to heal will get rid of that quickly,” Servius said.
Layla rested her forehead against the steering wheel and wondered if it was possible to have some of the spirits gagged. It was a beautiful thought.
“I heard that,” Servius said.
Layla sighed. There were no secrets between the umbra and the spirits in the scroll. While both could dig around in the memories of the other, Layla and the spirits had agreed that it was less invasive to ask questions. Sometimes the information was taken without thought, but for the most part their agreement worked. However, all current thoughts were open between spirits and umbra. Layla thought of as many rude words as she could in as short a time as possible.
“Very mature,” Servius said.
Layla looked back at the Roman and smiled. “I thought so.”
Servius tried to mask a grin before vanishing from sight.
“Are you feeling better now?” Rosa asked.
Layla nodded. “A little, thank you.”
“Can I ask something important?”
Layla knew what was coming, but waved for Rosa to continue anyway.
“How are you sleeping?”
“Fine,” she lied.
“I know when you’re lying. And not because I live in your head, but because I know you.”
“Okay, mostly fine. I still have the occasional nightmare, but I completed my counseling and I’m in a good place. When I first became an umbra I was worried that Terhal’s presence was going to corrupt me, but in all honesty she was helpful. I was scared she’d lead me down a path to make me like my father, to murder and torture without remorse. And then when I did kill someone . . .”
“We’re at war. Sometimes that means you have to take a life to save others.”
Layla nodded. “I know. He was butchering people. He was hunting and slaughtering them, and he wasn’t going to stop. He wasn’t going to get better. He’d been turned into a werewolf, but he chose to behave like a monster. And so I killed him. It’s been sixteen months, and I’ve killed more during that time. Always in battle; always because it was them or me, or my friends. Or for someone else who didn’t deserve to die.”
“But the werewolf was different.”
Layla nodded, remembering when she’d refused to kill him at first, refused to take a life. The werewolf had escaped and killed three more innocents before she’d caught him again. Three lives she could have saved if she hadn’t hesitated. She dreamed about them more than she did of her father. She dreamed about her own failure. “I took his life because there was no one else to do it. I had to make a choice, and it wasn’t an easy one. But I dealt with it: I’m not him. I see that. I understand that. Nevertheless, somewhere inside of me, I still wonder if I’m going down a road that I can’t turn back from. And that scares me.”
“I’ve killed countless people,” Rosa said. “I don’t even remember their names. Not all of them, anyway. I remember those who died because I wasn’t quick enough to save them, and I remember those who died because I didn’t do the right thing. Those ones lay heavy on your soul, as they should. They show us that we need to do better. That we have to constantly strive to be better.”
“At killing people,” Layla said.
“Sometimes, yes. The others you killed, you don’t think about them. You don’t dream about them.”
Layla stared out of the car window, looking into the distance as she spoke. “You probably already know, but I was in a firefight about a year ago. Thirty men and women were shooting assault rifles at the six of us. I killed two of them, because I was unwilling to let the bastards hurt my friends: people like Tommy, Diana, Remy, and Chloe. They’ve killed for the cause, too. I think Terhal helps my mind deal with what I need to do. I think she allows me to, if not outright accept, at least digest the actions I’ve had to take to keep my friends and innocent people alive.
“We are at war with Avalon. With Arthur and anyone who would crush those who dare oppose them. It’s a war with no end in sight, and I’m a criminal to those people. The LOA want us found and arrested. Or killed. I doubt they care much one way or the other. It feels like everything has been flipped around since Arthur declared open season on his enemies. Since he woke up, took charge of Avalon, and began massacring anyone who opposed him. How many thousands died in those early days? How many humans and non-humans alike?
“I doubt I’ve killed for the last time. But I don’t want to reach the point where I kill and feel nothing for it. Taking a life should mean something. I’m only twenty-three and I’ve become a soldier in a war I didn’t want any part of. One that I never asked to be a part of, but a war I will fight to the bitter end to keep people safe. Arthur brought this fight into our lives, and we will end it.”
Rosa stared at Layla for several seconds. “You were a bit all over the place there. You feel better?”
Layla nodded. “If I’m right, and Terhal is helping me deal with the other lives I’ve taken, that’s probably for the best. I don’t have the luxury of freezing or second-guessing myself. These people aren’t human, and they will destroy or take whatever they want. It’s our job to stop them. Like I said, a lot has happened in the last two years.”
“You know you can talk to me, right? I mean, I know you do, but about anything.”
Layla smiled. “I know. And I’m happy to talk to you, but you chose to kill people for a living. I find that idea . . .”
“I was going to say alien.”
“That too. I was trained from a young age to take life. That was my destiny. I was good at it. And I didn’t mind doing it. At least not until I actually sat down and thought about it, but by then I was in far too deep and had already become an umbra. I hadn’t completely grasped what my life was going to change into once I’d agreed to kill for Queen and Country. Although I agree that it sounds like I had a choice.
“You’re not like me, Layla. You’re not cold. You’re not capable of ignoring your emotions enough to kill a man in his bathtub while his family are eating in the room next door. You don’t want to become that person, and you won’t, I promise you. You’re a good person. Better than I ever was. Better than Servius, and better even than Gyda, who was never the goodie-two-shoes her judgmental arse likes to believe she was. She forgets we all know one another’s sordid little life stories. You’re a good person, Layla. But sometimes, good people have to do bad things. Just look at Chloe. She’s a good person, but she’s more than capable of pushing that aside to get the job done. You want to know the real difference between you and your father?”
“He was insane?”
“Apart from that.”
“He enjoyed taking life. He loved it. I’ve the same memories of his interviews and information that you do.” Rosa tapped the side of her head. “You know it’s true. You know that you don’t like hurting people, but that sometimes you have to do what you need to do. You’re not him, Layla. Don’t ever think you are.”
“Do you regret anything?” Layla asked, wanting to move away from the topic of her father.
“Lots of things,” Rosa said. “But mostly that I never got to go to all of these amazing places for anything other than to remove a stain on humanity; that I didn’t get to enjoy my visits. I just did my job and left. Even when I stopped working for Queen Victoria and essentially vanished, I was always looking over my shoulder. I wish I’d have just taken some time to enjoy the world.”
“Damn it, I thought you were going to say something frivolous, and then I was going to mock you. I can’t mock you for sounding so heartfelt,” Layla said with a smirk.
“Would you prefer that I said I wish I’d eaten more cake? Do you want to tell me what quip you had ready?”
“Not now. You ruined it with your words of bitter, bitter honesty.”
Rosa laughed. “I’m clearly a monster.”
Layla was about to say more when Diana’s voice entered her ear. “I’m close to the mansion. I’ll keep the irritating little thing on for now.”
“You’re not talking about Remy, are you?”
Diana chuckled as Chloe’s voice started in Layla’s ear. “You there?”
“What’s up?” Layla asked, her attention immediately focused.
“Our contact is in the house. He’s in a building near the one where we’re being kept. I saw them dragging him outside. My cell has a small window that looks out onto the back garden. It’s barred, but I heard them talking about him as some sort of traitor to his kind. I think they’re going to kill him.”
“You need help?”
“I’m not talking to anyone,” Chloe said, followed by the muffled sounds of someone talking to her.
“Chloe, what’s going on?”
Layla heard Chloe’s heavy breathing, and a minute later her friend’s earpiece went dead.
“Chloe’s in trouble,” Layla said.
“I heard,” Diana said in her ear. “We’re approaching the house now. Meet us as soon as you can.”
Layla switched on the Mustang’s ignition and sped away. She wasn’t going to lose another friend. Not here, not now, and certainly not to people who would help abduct innocents for Nergal and his cronies to experiment on.
So, I have a bit of an announcement that I’ve had to keep quiet about for several months. A Glimmer of Hope, the first book in the Avalon Chronicles, is on Kindle First/First Reads book in the UK, USA, and Australia for the month of March.
If you’re in one of those countries, and you have Prime, you can use the link below to get the book as part of your deal until it’s officially launched on 1st April.
I hope those of you who decide to pick it up, enjoy the book. And if you do feel like leaving a review once you’ve read it, that would be greatly appreciated.
So, Scorched Shadows has been out in all formats for a while now, and for the most part it appears to have been well received. Thank you to everyone who enjoyed it and took the time to contact me, or left a review/rating. It’s very much appreciated.
As most of you will probably know, Scorched Shadows is not the end of the story, although it is the end of Hellequin. The story continues on in the Avalon Chronicles, the first book of which is out on 1st April: A Glimmer of Hope. The cover of which is below.
From Steve McHugh, the bestselling author of The Hellequin Chronicles, comes a new urban fantasy series packed with mystery, action, and, above all, magic.
Layla Cassidy has always wanted a normal life, and the chance to put her father’s brutal legacy behind her. And in her final year of university she’s finally found it. Or so she thinks.
But when Layla accidentally activates an ancient scroll, she is bestowed with an incredible, inhuman power. She plunges into a dangerous new world, full of mythical creatures and menace—all while a group of fanatics will stop at nothing to turn her abilities to their cause.
To protect those she loves most, Layla must take control of her new powers…before they destroy her. All is not yet lost—there is a light shining, but Layla must survive long enough to see it.
You can pre-order it here:
Now, the book will be out on Hardcover/ebook/audible all on the same day, which I know will make some of you very happy. But I also know that some of you have questions about the Hellequin books/Avalon/ and the future of the story. So, I’m going to do another Ask Me Anything.
So, you can contact me here with a comment, or by email or though Twitter/Facebook, but if you have a question about the books (any of them), the characters, me, my writing, or anything else then let me know. I’ll keep this open for about a month, and then in March I’ll do the AMA.
If you haven’t yet seen the last one, it’s here on Youtube
So, that’s it for now. I’m off to finish the 3rd Avalon book.