As you all may know, Slag: The Crucible 1.5 released today!
Here’s Chapter 1 for ya. 🙂
Two months to the day since my life had been turned upside down.
I rocked back on my heels, staring at the square of dirt that finally had delicate green blades of grass shooting from it. It seemed like the grass should have grown faster. It had been nearly two months ago when Marc had been buried. I’d thought then that I’d never be back, but I hadn’t been able to resist the pull back to the grave today.
They’d put the headstone up. It was simple, a rough-cut block of gray granite with the words Marc Gillam. Beloved son and brother. Loyal to the last.
Loyal to the last. He certainly had been that.
Marc had given his life for his people. He’d given his life after I’d messed up the plan he and Eliaster had come up with.
We can’t let that eat at us, I’d told Eliaster at Marc’s funeral. But I still hadn’t let go. And most days, I figured I never would.
I stood up, rubbing the back of my neck. Sweat smeared under my palm. The day was warm, and the clouds overhead were no relief, serving only to make the air more sticky than usual. Summer in Missouri. We’d probably get rain before the afternoon ended.
Two months since my best friend had died, defending the world from a threat most would never know existed.
My phone vibrated, and a moment later, the tinny sound of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” blasted through the quiet cemetery. Eliaster. The jerk had changed my ringtone again. I pulled the phone from my back pocket and hit the screen.
“Yeah?” I said, starting for the paved road that wound through the gravestones a few yards away.
“Where are you?” Eliaster barked.
I got to the red-and-white motorcycle parked to the side of the road and leaned against it. “What’s up?”
“Got some stuff to show you. Oh, and my dad wanted to talk to you.”
I frowned. Eliaster’s dad, Cormac, was a bigwig in the fae Underworld, at least in Springfield. He hadn’t spoken to me since we’d gotten back from retrieving the pathstone in Chicago. He hadn’t even spoken to me at Marc’s funeral. I’d gotten the impression that he thought his son had made a mistake in dragging me, a human—an Overworlder—into the Sidhé world. “What about?”
“I don’t know, something to do with the hard drives you yanked out of the pawn shop computers. He mentioned it in passing last night. I haven’t even seen him today. Where are you?”
“At the cemetery.”
A long pause. In the background, I could hear the sound of a shifting motor. Eliaster was probably driving his fancy Danish supercar.
I cleared my throat, took a deep breath to try to shake the weight pressing on my shoulders. “So, where should I meet you? The rath?”
Eliaster’s voice was a little rough when he answered. “Yeah. It’ll take you, what? A half hour?”
“Should I meet you somewhere?”
“I’m on my bike. I’ll drive straight there.”
The phone beeped, indicating the call had been disconnected. I put the phone back in my pocket, glanced back at Marc’s grave. Overhead, thunder rumbled. The back of my throat felt tight and dry. I grabbed my helmet, pulled it over my head, and started the bike.
The road leading back into Springfield was curvy, with practically no shoulder, not even a gravel strip. Typical of country highways in this area. I hunched close to the body of my bike and took the curves way too fast, forcing myself to concentrate on staying upright, not killing myself, and not thinking about Marc or the relic I’d used to bash in David’s head.
Before long I crossed into the city limits, and traffic forced me to slow down. I pulled up to a red light and planted my feet on the pavement. I was being stupid, riding a bike with no protective gear other than a helmet and boots, but I didn’t care. I knew if my mom had been home when I’d left, she would’ve yelled at me, despite the fact that I’m an adult. She had turned into a bit of a helicopter parent the last couple of months. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her.
Twenty-four, jobless, and a college drop-out as of a week and a half ago. I’d tried to swing it, to catch up to the classes I’d missed while on the quest with Marc and Eliaster by taking advantage of the summer programs some of the local community colleges offered. But I wasn’t comfortable in class any longer, sitting with my back to the door, surrounded by other people. Any loud noise had me jumping half out of my seat, grasping at the sword that wasn’t there, that I refused to carry outside of the Underworld despite Eliaster telling me–multiple times–that I was being an idiot.
And then there were the nightmares.
Nightmares of Marc, a rusted iron knife slicing into his flesh, the pain in his eyes as Eliaster worked to squeeze the poison from his veins and give him another hour of life. Nightmares of David’s blank eyes, the blood pooling under his skull, caved in where I’d bashed it with the pathstone, the crumbled white rock mixing with the blood.
The ones with Larae were the worst, though. Larae, slicing open my wrist, draining my blood for her dark magic. Larae, her body pressed against mine, her soft lips trailing against my jaw and neck. I’d never even touched her—she’d been my best friend’s girlfriend. Off limits, even if she had been coming on to me. But she’d betrayed me, Eliaster, Marc—even David, who had joined her in her treachery, had died because of her.
I hadn’t gone to anyone about the dreams. Who could I tell? Eliaster would just scoff at me. My parents would think I’d lost it or started on drugs those two weeks I’d been missing. I wasn’t about to draw my brothers or sister into this strange new world I was living.
I could have told Roe, Marc’s grandmother. But I hadn’t seen her since the funeral, either. And I didn’t really know how to approach her now. She seemed to think I was some kind of paragon who would save the fae. Like I needed that kind of pressure.
The only one of the fae I’d had any contact with since was Eliaster, and for one reason—he was teaching me to fight.
When Marc had died, I’d promised him I would keep fighting. In his memory. Roe had told me she believed I was destined to be a part of the Underworld. I didn’t know about that, but I did know that ever since the troll had first come after Marc, that night in April, I had been seeing through the fae glamour. I now could tell who was human and who was pretending without even trying.
So far it hadn’t gotten me more than a few dirty looks, and once even a come-on from a gorgeous fae girl with green hair and the perfect hourglass figure, the type of girl most nerds like me never see outside of a video game. I’d turned her down. Ever since Larae, fae girls gave me the creeps.
I turned into a parking garage and guided my bike down to the lowest level. Few cars were parked down here, though I spotted Eliaster’s sleek supercar parked near the back.
I pulled up to the back wall and opened the black electrical box that sat on the far side. I put my hand inside, and felt a cold chill as something—I assumed it was more fae magic—washed over it. With the whine of grinding mechanisms, the wall receded, revealing a tunnel strung with wires, pipes, and dim orange light globes.
I pulled my bike through, the wall rumbling closed behind me.
The tunnel echoed back the engine, the sound thrumming loudly even through my helmet. This time of day—mid-morning—the Underworld tunnels were quiet, at least close to the surface. Most Sidhé, I’d discovered, preferred to conduct their business during the night, especially the fae. Sometimes I wondered if fae were the basis for vampire legends humans had eagerly been devouring—no pun intended—for centuries. Eliaster insisted they weren’t, but if I knew him, the grumpy, blond fae didn’t want to be thought of as a blood-sucking, sparkly fairy. Bad enough that some human cultures saw him as a three-inch pixie with wings.
I spotted a couple of goblins scurrying along the side of the road. Their pale, saggy skin, edged in ragged patches of fur, stood out against the dark walls of the tunnel. All goblins had sharp, claw-like fingernails and slit-pupiled eyes, but these guys had distinctive pointed ears at the sides of their heads were rimmed in fur. Cat-sidhé.
I slowed as I went past them, watching them carefully. One of the cat-sidhé actually dropped on all fours and hissed at me through jagged teeth.
I didn’t have my sword, but I dropped one hand down to my side, feeling the outline of my nine-mil pistol through my jacket. The goblins backed away, their eyes glowing green in the dim overhead light.
I skirted the outside edge of the Underworld city, passing through a neighborhood that consisted of falling-apart shops and the remnants of a once-grand Victorian home, before hitting the rich section of the town. Mansions dotted the expanse of green grass-like moss, all looking pale and washed out under the orange light. For the life of me, I could never figure out why the rich fae wanted to live down here.
I pulled up at the wrought-iron gate of Cormac Tyrone’s rath. From the outside, it looked like your typical Tudor mansion, but when I glanced up at the roof, I spotted the sniper, hunkered down beside the false chimney, rifle trained on me.
I grinned and lifted my fingers from the bike in a half-wave.
The gate buzzed and swung open enough to allow me to pull through. I motored up the gravel drive and stopped at the foot of the front steps.
The front door opened and Lukas, Cormac’s head of security, stepped out. No matter how many times I met the fae, my gut still clenched a little. I gritted my teeth.
“Joshua,” Lukas said evenly, staring at me.
I returned the stare, all the while willing my breakfast to remain in my stomach. Some fae affected me more than others—Eliaster compared it to a ‘fight or flight’ instinct that kept most humans away from the Sidhé and out of danger. With some fae, like Eliaster, the sensation had faded the more I was around them, until I could barely feel it. Maybe I just hadn’t been around Lukas enough.
Or maybe he really did pose a threat to me.
“I didn’t know you planned to come today.”
I pulled my helmet over my head, hearing a crackle as static pulled my already-crazy hair skyward. “Hadn’t planned on it, but Eliaster said Cormac wanted to talk to me.” As I spoke, I tucked the helmet under my arm and jogged up the steps, making sure I didn’t break eye contact with Lukas.
For a moment, I didn’t think he was going to let me in. Then he stepped aside, holding the door open. As I brushed past him, his hand darted to my side, snatching the pistol away.
“Hey!” I spun to face him again, but didn’t grab for the gun.
Lukas examined it, thumbing the safety on and off and releasing the clip. He snorted at the caliber. “This wouldn’t stop a troll or a rager.”
“Well, hopefully I won’t run into too many of those.” I held my hand out.
He ignored it.
“Give it back to him, Lukas,” came Cormac’s voice from the side of the foyer.
I raised my head. Eliaster’s dad stood at the library door, hands clasped behind his back, his green eyes narrowed at Lukas. Lukas shrugged and extended his hand toward me, the gun clutched loosely in his fist. I grabbed it.
Lukas gave me one last dirty look and walked further into the house.
“Please come in, Josh.” Cormac stood to the side of the door, gesturing inside the library.
I walked past him, placing the gun on a side table near the library door. The last time I’d been here, the place had looked neat and precise, like I’d always imagined the Diogenes Club would be. Rather than the neat configuration of chairs and tables this time however, most of the furniture had been shoved to the side, making room for a new desk and several cardboard boxes, each stamped with the logo of a popular computer company.
I raised my eyebrows. “Hope you don’t let Eliaster near this.”
Cormac chuckled as he dragged two armchairs clear of the mess and settled near the fireplace. As usual, the fireplace was full of crackling flames. Even though it was summer, the warmth was welcome after the chill of the Underworld.
“If Eliaster torches any of those computers, accidentally or not, I might just kick him out on his ear.” Cormac strode to the side of the room, where a polished wooden cabinet sat next to the door to his private office.
Funny, I’d thought Cormac had already kicked Eliaster out. Or maybe it was that they just didn’t get along. I still hadn’t figured out the Tyrone family dynamic.
Cormac came back and sat down, carrying two glasses filled with amber liquid. He motioned to the chair across from him and handed me a glass. As I sat, he sipped from his glass and smiled.
“I suppose Eliaster told you that I wanted to talk to you.”
I leaned my elbows on my knees, cradling the glass between my hands. “Yes sir.”
“I was impressed by the work you did with those hard drives. It can’t be easy to pull hidden information from them in the way you did.”
I shrugged. “It’s not hard.”
“I also hear you have some hacking skills.”
I felt my neck and face go warm. How had he found that out? The university I used to attend had handled all of my hacking pranks internally. I’d been careful to not do anything that would have gotten me kicked out or arrested. I cleared my throat. “They’re not that good. I got caught each time. I’m better at the whole math angle.”
“Still, you have a much different skill set than most people I know.”
The understatement of the year. While most fae glamour wasn’t as extreme as Eliaster’s—which caused him to fry most electronics he came in prolonged contact with—it still interfered enough to make tech difficult for fae to grasp.
“I want you to come work for me.”
It was a good thing I hadn’t taken a drink yet, otherwise Cormac might have had it all over his face. I stared at him. “Why?”
“Because the fight is far from over.”
My stomach churned. I didn’t like the idea of backing out on my promise. And I definitely knew too much to bury my head in the sand. But when the nightmares had started coming five days after Marc’s funeral, I’d definitely been hoping Eliaster would forget about what I’d said.
“What would I be doing, exactly?” I asked, my voice low.
“Roe needs a research assistant, now that she’s actively searching out the pathstones,” Cormac said. “And, like I said, you have a unique technological skill set no one else I employ does.”
I blew out a deep, gentle breath. “So what you’re saying is I’d basically be a glorified IT guy.”
Cormac’s lips pursed. “I’m not familiar with the term.”
I tilted my glass from side to side, watching the liquor swirl. Then I set it on the side table. “So what do you want hacked?” Before Cormac could answer, I held up my hands. “If I come work for you, which I have not agreed to do just yet.”
Cormac smiled faintly. “You’re beginning to be specific in your wording.” I recognized a hint of Eliaster in the tone of his voice.
I allowed myself a small grin. “I do learn, eventually.”
“It’s not even a guarantee you’ll need to hack anything. But I want someone who has the ability to keep track of online activities that might be related to the Lucht Leanuna. Before you discovered their forum, I didn’t have any idea something like that could have existed.” He smiled wryly into the inch of liquor left in his glass. “Maybe I should have listened a little to my son.” He glanced up at me, eyebrows raised. “Is that something you’ll be able to do?”
I paused, working it out in my head, then nodded. “I should be able to find or write some webcrawler programs that could–”
He held a hand up. “No need to explain it to me. I couldn’t understand anyway.” He glanced at the door and lowered his voice. “Eliaster tells me that he and you will probably be leaving town tonight.”
I stifled my surprise. Eliaster was planning another road trip? To do what? “We’ll see. I haven’t committed to anything yet.”
Cromac stood, draining the last of his glass. He started for the office door that was almost blocked by cardboard boxes. Over his shoulder, almost casually, he said, “Well, try to keep my son from doing anything stupid, would you?” He set his glass on the sideboard and pushed open his office door.
Had that been worry in Cormac’s voice?
I nearly took Lukas’s head off as I swung open the front door. He spun around, scowling at me.
“What were you doing out here?” I asked.
His scowl deepened. “None of your beeswax.”
“Why do you ask?”
“What’re you, the bouncer? Where is he?”
Lukas sighed. “In the workshop. Should I show you there?”
“Nah, you’ve got more important things to do than playing butler, I’m sure.”
The fae glared at me, but I just gave him my most innocent smile as I started around the house. The workshop was attached to the garage, but mostly hidden around the corner of the house. As I got closer, I heard the faint sounds of some classic rock song playing in the building.
I pushed open the side door.
Eliaster sat at the worktable that ran along the back wall, tightening a bolt on some piece of engine sitting in a puddle of grease on the wooden surface. A pitted, rust-splotched motorcycle frame sat in the middle of the cracked, stained concrete floor, parts scattered around it. The bike’s original color might have been red, but I couldn’t tell for sure.
As I got closer, I could hear Eliaster singing along under his breath. Something about not feeling something, or not fighting a feeling, whatever. Classic rock wasn’t really my thing.
I cleared my throat.
He spun around, wrench half-raised. “Josh. Adanam, one of these days I’m gonna split your head open before I realize it’s you.” He hit pause on the iPod sitting on the table.
“So, whaddya want?” I asked, leaning against the table beside him.
He grabbed a rag and started scrubbing his blackened hands, jerking his head at a dark green file folder that had, somehow, escaped the carnage of grease around it.
I picked it up, flipped it open. The folder had a few bits of paper in it, mostly newspaper clippings. I scanned one. The article had a note scribbled in blue ink at the top in Eliaster’s scrawl—Peoria Journal Star—and a date, three days ago. The article itself spoke about a rash of kidnappings that had occurred across the state at rest stops, though it seemed to mostly concentrate on areas around Springfield, Illinois. My throat tightened. I flipped through the rest of the articles, including a few printed from websites. All of them were about the alleged kidnappings.
A month ago, on our way to Chicago, we’d disrupted a goblin gang attempting to kidnap a mom and her two kids. At a rest stop near Springfield, Illinois.
I unzipped my backpack, pulled my tablet out of its case, and did a quick internet search about the kidnappings. It brought up not a few articles.
“Not good,” I muttered.
“Yeah,” Eliaster said. “I thought it was an isolated incident, just those goblins we caught. Should’ve known better.”
“How did you hear about this?” I asked, clicking on article after article, a pit slowly forming in my gut.
Eliaster’s voice sharpened. “Heard it on the news.”
I looked up. He leaned against the worktable, still rubbing at the back of his hands with the rag. A rough red spot was forming on his skin under the rag.
He stopped, stared at the reddened area, then clenched his fingers into a fist. “I should’ve gone back and checked it out. I should’ve known better.”
“You couldn’t have guessed this was going on,” I said.
“Things like this are never an isolated incident.” Eliaster grabbed the iPod. Part of the case clinked to the floor, and he leaned down, grabbing the shiny pink plastic before I could. He fitted it back onto the scuffed iPod.
“You know, it would only cost a few bucks to get a new case,” I said. “And I wouldn’t have guessed you were a pink kinda guy.”
I’d meant the comment as a joke, but Eliaster scowled at me.
“That’s above your pay grade.” He headed for the door at the side of the workshop and stepped down into the garage.
I tucked the folder under one arm and followed, still scanning articles on my tablet. All the articles talked about the lack of evidence, the way the police were utterly baffled.
One article headline jumped out at me. “Eliaster, check this out.” I stepped down into the garage and turned the tablet so he could see the screen.
Eliaster squinted, but kept his distance. “Police discover camera footage of kidnapping in progress.” His green eyes shot up to me, widening as flashes of color whirled through the irises. “If they caught something on camera, why…”
I scrolled down. “Because they think the perpetrators were wearing some kind of masks that, as one officer described it, ‘looked like those monsters from The Lord of the Rings movies’.”
“You’ve never seen The Lord of the Rings?”
Eliaster rolled his eyes and spun around, heading toward his favorite bike, a blue Suzuki with a dragon’s head on the gas tank.
“So you’re planning on heading to Illinois?” I asked, trailing him.
“Yeah, about that… Isn’t this more in your line of work?”
He raised an eyebrow. “As I recall, a few weeks ago, you were all gung-ho ready to kick some tails.”
I replaced my tablet in my backpack, fiddled with the zipper. I didn’t even have my sword with me. I’d shoved the weapon deep into a storage closet at my parents’–where I’d been staying thanks to the whole dropout-slash-jobless thing–and done my best to ignore the trolls and goblins I saw walking around. Yeah, I carried the gun, but I hadn’t gone so far as to use it on anything, and I had no plans to, unless something cornered me.
Not that I could tell Eliaster that. The guy had a hero complex, and–combined with the guilt load that made mine look like a rain gutter beside the Grand Canyon–it drove him to try to save everyone he crossed paths with.
“Look.” He plunked down on the bike seat. “I know you’re regretting that you got mixed up in all this. But the simple fact is, the Underworld has you now. You won’t–”
“Won’t escape. Yeah, yeah, I’ve been given the grand tour.”
He smirked. “Dude, you’ve been given the Cliff Notes version.”
“You know about Cliff Notes but not The Lord of the Rings.” I groaned. I’d promised Marc. But this wasn’t really part of what I’d signed up for.
Everyone was convinced that the Lucht Leanuna getting their hands on the pathstones was a bad idea all around. After seeing the havoc Lara had wrought just to find one, I tended to agree. Okay, so we’d destroyed one. Roe was trying to track down the others. Once she found them, I’d help destroy or obtain them.
That was what I’d promised Marc.
But for some reason, I couldn’t shake the thought of other humans–my kind–being preyed upon by goblins. By things they had no knowledge of, by monsters they couldn’t hope to fight. It didn’t sit well with me.
Who knew I could be such a bleeding-heart.
“Fine,” I muttered.
Eliaster nodded, his smirk twisting into a thin-lipped smile. He stood, grabbing the handlebars of his bike.
I turned and walked back through the workshop. Behind me, the metal garage door squealed open, and the bike roared to life.
Eliaster zipped past me, gravel spitting from his back tire. He parked by the front door and dashed up the steps and inside. Lukas, still standing out near my bike, gave me a frown.
“Where are you two going in such a rush?” He asked.
The frown deepened. “Please tell me Eliaster didn’t talk you into going after the goblin slaver gang.”
Slaver gang. The words made my gut twist. I pulled my helmet over my head, stowed the folder in my backpack next to the change of clothes I now always kept there. Just in case.
Lukas shook his head. “He’s trying to turn you into another version of him. You don’t belong in the Underworld, Josh. No human does. You should walk away and forget everything you’ve seen.”
“Eliaster says I can’t.”
He snorted. “And Eliaster is a paragon of virtue and truth, we all know.”
I dug my fingers into the rubber handlebar grips. No, he wasn’t. Eliaster had lied and manipulated me–but he’d also sworn to never lie to me again. And Marc had trusted him.
If nothing else, I based my trust of Eliaster on my trust of Marc. Marc and I’d been friends since grade school. He’d always had my back. And if he’d trusted Eliaster, that was good enough for me.
For now, it had to be.
Eliaster came back outside, a backpack over his shoulders and wearing his old black and gray leather jacket.
“When should Cormac expect you back?” Lukas asked him, tone dripping disapproval.
“If you don’t hear from me in two days, send someone.” Eliaster straddled his bike and shot toward the gate, pelting Lukas with gravel.
Lukas rolled his eyes and disappeared into the Tyrone rath.
I gulped a deep breath and followed Eliaster, my brain spinning with possibilities. All of them were grim.
Slag can be found on Amazon (print coming soon)!