Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Rivalries: Chapter Eighteen, Part Two

 Notes: More Rivalries for you! Meet Katherine, she's a card.

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Eighteen, Part Two


***


Chapter Eighteen, Part Two


 

It was not a good day for John. It was an even worse day for the man on the operating table in front of him, barely held together with clips, ties, stitches, and tubes. His head was lightly covered, to provide more of a sense of anonymity, but it was a surface-level comfort only.

John grimaced. He was going to know way more than he wanted to about this man in a minute.

“No time to waste!” Katherine chirped, then took a long sip of the hot caramel macchiato John had brought her. “Mmm, so good,” she said with a beatific expression on her heart-shaped face. “Thank you, you’re the best. Now!” She set the drink down and pulled on a pair of nitrile gloves. “We’re going to need a full-on Flay for this one, I’m thinking.”

“Who is he?” John shook his head. “Wait, no, I mean—what did he do?”

“Well, he’s in this state because he was running from the cops, except when I say running I mean in a helicopter, and when I say cops I mean the DEA.” She sighed. “He’s implicated in a lot of illicit behavior, but the worst of it is human trafficking. The DEA agent who requested our assistance is working on a pretty tight timetable when it comes to locating a group of girls, and—”

“Oh my god.” Shit, this person was a modern-day slaver. John became simultaneously more determined to use the uncomfortable knack that was coming his way, and more reluctant to experience anything that was inside this guy’s head.

“Right, lord, such a messy business.” Katherine shook her head. “Now, as I was saying. Flay ought to bring out the details in layers, from newest to oldest. You shouldn’t have to go deeper than thirty-six hours to get the location the DEA is interested in. Anything else you pick up is, well…”

“Inadmissible in court.” Flay was one of the most invasive knacks out there, a mental ability that went beyond looking inside someone’s head, even beyond controlling them. Flay literally took a person’s memories apart, hour by hour, deconstructing and consuming them. Once they were gone, they were completely gone. Flayers were some of the most feared knacks in black ops, which was basically the only place the talent was ever used.

“But finding the girls will be a real feather in the cap of the DEA agent in charge of this operation, and it’s always nice to have people in high places owe you a favor,” Katherine went on, completely oblivious to being a fucking creep, as usual. “So. Thirty six hours, approximately one hour per minute. I’ll time you and bring you out of it if you don’t wake yourself up by then. Sound good? Here.” She pulled over a thousand-dollar ergonomic chair, just the thing for preventing back pain while you ripped someone’s mind apart.

John sat, and did his best to clear his mind. He hated using Flay; it felt like taking his own memories apart and replacing them with someone else’s, but that feeling didn’t last. He told himself that again and again as he brought the dark knack to the fore. It didn’t last. He was going to be all right.

Unlike this fucker.

John took the man’s hand, closed his eyes, and…

…going down…seatbelt, where’s the goddamn—

“—out of here! They’re coming in guns fucking blazing, man, we have to—”

--long drive back from the warehouse, but he likes to settle them in personally. It’s only a layover, they’ll be gone by Monday morning, but he enjoys watching them cry, seeing the—

Slap! She’s so young, and she takes his strike so well. Her cheek is already swelling, and the sound she makes as she tries to turn her face away is—

John forcibly pushed the knack out of his mind, throwing himself away from the table so hard he almost tipped the ergonomic chair over. “Jesus Christ,” he breathed, then coughed. His throat was so dry…

“Here you go!” A cup appeared in front of him, held out with a French-manicured hand. John drained the water, then handed it back to Katherine, who set it next to her coffee cup on the nearby desk. She looked at him expectantly. “So, that was a little faster than I thought it would be. Did you get anything useful?”

“A warehouse,” John croaked. “On…” Where was it again? “Eighty-Seventh and Pine, some sort of manufacturing district? I’m not sure what city…”

“That’s already very useful. What else?”

“Call about it now,” John snapped. “Right now, seriously. They’re going to be moved this morning, so if the DEA guy wants to find these girls before it’s too late, he’s got to get going.”

“All right, all right.” Katherine pulled a phone out of her lab coat pocket, and John took the time she spent talking to breathe and remember who he really was. Not a drug-running, human-trafficking rapist who enjoyed too many sick perversions to put names to. No, he was a counselor. A normal guy.

A normal guy with more knacks than most people know exist, so how normal does that really make you?

Shut up, brain.

“Good timing!” Katherine trilled as she ended the call. “It might not be too late! The agent was very grateful.” She glanced at the man on the table. “Now we can dispense with all of the life-saving efforts, I suppose.”

Part of John thought he should argue against that. That any life was precious, even when it belonged to a man like this. Most of him, though, wanted to grab the chair he was sitting in and smash it over this guy’s head until one of them broke, the chair or the head. Maybe that was this fucker’s influence talking, but John wasn’t willing to bet on it.

“So!” Katherine took John’s arm and led him into another, more familiar testing room as white-garbed orderlies began to tend to the…body. “What was the knack you wanted to ask me about?”

“Oh…right.” John took a deep breath. “Right, it’s something like a Devotion knack, only instead of making people devoted to you, you become devoted to one person in particular.”

“Hmm.” Katherine tapped her index finger against the face of her fancy watch. “Interesting. That seems counterintuitive, unless there’s a similar knack effecting the person one becomes devoted too.”

“That didn’t happen in this case.”

“And are you sure that the person with this knack actually has a knack that’s causing this, and not some other source of trauma?”

“As sure as I can be,” John said honestly. “He’s been tested by…I mean, numerous specialists have done tests. It’s a knack.”

Katherine laughed. “Boy, it’s a good thing we’ve never play poker,” she said. “I’d take you for all you’re worth. All right, hmm…not Devotion, not Siren…perhaps an inversion, brought on by extenuating circumstances. I assume there are extenuating circumstances?”

From what Charlie had told him… “Very.”

“Good, good. And a family history of knacks, perhaps?”

“Not as far as I know.”

She sighed. “Pity. One case study does not a body of knowledge make. Hmm…” She clasped her hands together. “I’ve got some thoughts. Let me do a little research and get back to you, all right? Within, say, a week’s time?”

“That would work. Thank you,” John added, because he didn’t really like Katherine but he didn’t hate her either, and she was helping him out. If he could get answers for Ari, then Charlie would have one less weight pressing down on him all the time, and he needed as much help in that department as he could get right now.

“No no, thank you! I do so enjoy watching Flay at work.” She flexed her fingers. “It’s the twitching, I think. Never the same twitch twice, you know?”

Aaand I’m out of here.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Rivalries: Chapter Eighteen, Part One

Notes: RIVALRIES IS BACK! Have fun with it, darlins. Short but sweet to get back into the groove ;)

Also, remember--Johnny is John now, because I needed not to have to main characters whose names ended essentially the same way. *facepalm*

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Eighteen, Part One

***

 

Chapter Eighteen, Part One

 


When his phone went off at three a.m., John knew it was going to be bad. He wasn’t entirely sure what flavor of bad it was going to be, but badness was assured. He grabbed for it, dislodging a still-sleeping Charlie’s arm from around his waist in the process, and checked the number.

BLOCKED.

Well, shit. He wasn’t scheduled to go into the lab again for another three weeks, which meant they had a special job for him to do. These ran the gamut from emergency knack replication to assistance in interrogation to once, memorably, helping to solve a murder by accessing a dead woman’s last retinal visual with the help of a very rare, mostly useless knack he’d picked up five years ago.

If they couldn’t even bother to wait until the sun was up, John was betting it was a murder. He silenced the phone, then went out to Charlie’s living room, shut the bedroom door, and took the call. “It’s really too early for this, Katherine.”

“Science waits for no one!” Katherine Mullins, the lead researcher on Project Discovery, chirped over the line. She looked just as bubbly as she sounded, with curling brown hair and apple cheeks—almost like a kid playing in her mother’s lab coat. In reality, Dr. Mullins was a brilliant scientist and an absolutely relentless researcher who was unfazed by little things like discomfort, pain, and potential death. She was the perfect face of the project: friendly, intelligent, and sociopathic. “And we just had quite the opportunity dropped into our laps. I’d like to pounce while there’s still brain activity.”

Oh, Jesus. “What are you talking about?”

“I’ll tell you all about it when you get here,” she replied. “Which needs to be within the next hour. If you hurry, you might be able to finish up in time for school.”

John knew better than to outright refuse. Katherine was reasonable most of the time, but had no qualms about reminding you who was in charge when it came to her research if you tried to play her. John had experienced that the hard way, more than once. Still…he had a lawyer and an ironclad contract for a reason, and now was as good a time as ever to leverage them.

“Nothing in our agreement requires me to be in the lab outside normal business hours,” he said, trying to sound confident.

Katherine paused, then said, “That’s never bothered you before.”

“I’ve never lived with someone else before while I’ve worked with you. I do now, and I’m his ride to school. This is very inconvenient for me.”

“Arrange another ride.” Ooh, she was getting short—nerve twanged, then.

“Still inconvenient, and costly.”

There was another pause. “What are you angling for, John?”

Hmm, getting right down to it then. Maybe she was tired too, although John wasn’t actually sure Katherine ever slept. Her knack made resting her brain optional, which was probably how she’d gained four doctorates and an MD by the age of thirty.

“If I come in for you this morning, I want a favor in return. I need information on a knack, with the understanding that this is privileged information and you’re not allowed to use it beyond rendering your assistance to me.”

“That’s not a very enforceable restriction,” she noted.

“I’d definitely hate to make it necessary.” Boy, would he ever. John’s relationship with the military research department was the very definition of “mutually assured destruction” at this point. From the outside it looked like they had him over a barrel, but in reality he’d absorbed so many knacks in his years working with them, as well as studied so many tactics for using them, that unless they managed to catch him completely off-guard there was no way they’d be able to get the better of him in the short term. John had trained hard, for a very long time, to master some of the most destructive knacks on the planet while under their supervision.

They could ruin his life if they wanted to. He could burn their program to the ground on his way down.

Katherine hummed for a moment, then said, “Well, you’ve certainly got my attention. All right. We’ll make it a trade. I can’t promise a hundred-percent exclusivity on whatever information you bring in if it already replicates a knack we have on file,” she added.

“I understand. I really hope you do have it on file, actually.”

“Well, get in here and let’s find out!” She was back to sounding like a middle-aged Disney princess. “I love a good puzzle. Bring coffee, okay? A caramel macchiato, please? I’ll reimburse you when you get here. Thanks!” She ended the call. John sighed.

A warm arm twined around his belly, and John jumped before he realized who it was. “God, you’re too sneaky.”

“Sorry.” Charlie kissed the side of his neck. “They’re calling you in? Now?”

John shrugged. “Special circumstances. These things come up every once in a while. They’re annoying, but I’m going to leverage this one to see if I can get some information that might be useful to Ari.”

Charlie stayed quiet for almost a minute. “Okay,” he said at last, and John knew he’d done the mental math himself—discovery vs exploitation vs the potential for relief.

“Thanks.” For trusting me not to fuck this up.

“Thank you.” For caring enough to do this for me, for him. “Be careful, okay?”

“I will. If I can’t make it back before you have to head to school, I’ll leave a message.” Feeling greatly daring, John turned around, pressed up onto his tiptoes, and kissed Charlie before murmuring, “I love you.”

Charlie smiled. “I love you too.”

Awesome. Maybe it was going to be a good day after all.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Rivalries news and a Vella update

 Hi darlins!

So, I've nailed down where I want Rivalries to go and, yeah, there's at least 20k more there, so buckle up buckaroos! I'm feeling a lot better about it now and will have fresh, delicious content for you starting in May.

Speaking of content...so Amazon is rolling out Kindle Vella, which is basically their effort to get into the serial fiction market before they're completely outpaced. I'm going to give it a try with a few different stories: Magical Hazmat, a UF that I worked on for YEARS and am finally just going to publish myself, a potentially coauthored, modern steampunk m/m adventure/romance, and...Bonded.

Yep. It's time. But it can't be available on a free platform if I'm going to publish it on Kindle Vella. So if you're interested in reading it before I take it down in June, DO SO NOW! You can still find it on Literotica, but not for long, so yeah, jump on that!



Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Story excerpt: A Monstrous Light, Part Two

 Hi darlins!

This went live to my Patreon folks yesterday and I thought I'd give you a taste of it too :) I'll eventually put these parts together and make them into something more easily consumable, but for now, enjoy our hero returning to the city he came from and not liking it one bit. (Warning, graphic violence ahead.)

***

 


 

A Monstrous Light, Part Two

Six months after…

 

There was nothing like coming home to the sight of a fresh corpse dangling in the breeze.

Dascenne’s still a complete shithole, I see, Beniel Tallance thought as he maneuvered his drake around the hanging post that had been erected just a quarter mile from the city gates. The sign on the corpse’s chest said that he was a thief.

Looks like the days of merely chopping off a thief’s hand are gone.

That a man—and it was hard to tell under the bloat, but it looked like a young man, perhaps merely a boy—could be killed and strung up as a warning against thievery, of all the petty acts of crime out there, was an affront to anyone with a soul.

Then again, when had anyone other than Korran had a soul in this forsaken place? It was almost reassuring, in a terrible way, to see that some things never changed.

The largest city of the empire by far, the seat of the Imperial throne, the immortal homeland of the emperor, may he live forever, ha…what it amounted to these days was rot. It was a pustulating, filth-ridden, decaying city-state that had grown fat and comfortable under the reign of a near-immortal monarch accustomed to fucking off and doing as he pleased whenever he was moved to do so, leaving his kingdom behind to be run by functionaries.

Now that the old emperor was gone and Ormyr was still establishing his power base, the secondary nobility was tearing at the heart of the city, using every means in their power to achieve more status for themselves at the price of everyone around them. Beniel had heard the tales of the capitol’s chaos, even a hundred miles out from Dascenne. The outer levels, which had never been prosperous but had at least been relatively safe once upon a time, were choked with the leftovers of dying houses, people used to having power who suddenly had none but what they could collect with their own hands. Streets were unsafe, and even the toughest footpads quailed in the presence of armed guards who had once labored for dead men, and now made dead men of their fellow laborers.

Beniel walked his drake Flower through the western gate of the lowest level of Dascenne just after twilight. It was a dangerous time to be entering the city—would have been dangerous even before the change in command—but he didn’t really care. He was tired, he was angry, and he was heartsick after half a year of searching for more on what his prince had become and finding little to go on.

It wasn’t as easy as hunting down a battle site or coming across an illegitimate killing, or Beniel would never have had to leave Dascenne in the first place. The trouble was that his prince, the new Great One, the Lord of Vengeance as he was being called, didn’t respond to all the prayers directed his way. The crime in question had to be unquestionably evil, perpetrated against a being of innocence. A fight, even a wrongful death or two, wasn’t enough. There had to be heinousness involved, and something that heinous was often so shameful it was hard to get evidence of it, or to convince people to talk about it. Who wanted to put their own shortcomings on display? Who wanted to admit to one of their own being such a freak that a literal god had had to put them in their place?

It was Beniel’s growing frustration with such findings, as well as a missive written by the king himself that had been delivered a few weeks ago to the backwater hostel he was staying in, that convinced him to return to Dascenne. Ormyr might be willing to help him. It was clear that he knew Beniel’s purpose, and that son of a bitch was one of the smartest princes the emperor had ever produced. The fact that he was the last one standing was proof of that.

Ormyr would name his price. It remained to be seen whether Beniel was interested in paying it.

He stepped around a pile of midden in the middle of Sawset Road and wondered whether it would be worth it to get a room in the lower levels tonight, and meet with Ormyr in the morning. At the rate he was going, it would be midnight before he got to the palace, and no matter how carefully he moved he was doubtless going to misjudge a pile in his path before long and end up with shit on his shoe, and—

“Hands high, gentry.”

As though the warning wasn’t enough—which, to be fair, it really wasn’t—it was immediately reinforced by the bright gleam of firelight against a blade in the alley to the right. Not just one blade, either. There were at least three people back there, all of them armed. One of them held a crossbow.

No wonder they hadn’t tried to charge right in. They didn’t need to as long as he was held at the bolt’s bay.

“Raise ‘em,” the man in front went on, wielding a long knife in each hand. His voice was little more than a hiss of air, but there was a thread of pure satisfaction running through it. “Up now, or my man’ll stick you deep with his arrow.”

“Is that what it’s called these days?” Beniel muttered, annoyed. He lifted his hands, though, turning to get a better view of his muggers. “What can I do for you gentlemen?” he asked in a bored tone.

The man in front didn’t seem to care for that. He stepped out of the shadows and into the street, which had miraculously emptied of people despite the relatively early hour. He was a big man, wiry but broad through the shoulders and chest, and held his daggers like someone who knew how to use them. A professional, then, and wearing a mail shirt beneath his leather jerkin if the smell was anything to go by. “You can start by handing over that drake,” he snapped, gesturing at Flower with his right blade.

“What are you going to do, ride her? In this city?” Beniel scoffed. “It’s too crowded by half for a drake this size.” The palace had grounds specifically set aside for the health and welfare of the royal drakes, but in town they tended to use animals no larger than a country farmer’s dog for towing small carts and the like.

“Ride her? Nah,” the one in front said with a half grin. “We’ll take this old lass of yours to the knacker’s. Get plenty of coin for the teeth and scales, and enough meat to eat on for a week from just one of those haunches. Gift that keeps on giving, she’ll be.”

Ah. He should have guessed. Beniel tapped Flower on the neck two times before releasing her reins, a signal which put her into an immediate defensive stance. “That’s a terrible idea,” he told his attacker. He wasn’t going to go for his sword until the crossbow bolt was out of the picture—he didn’t have Korran around to heal him anymore, after all—but his hands itched to draw his sword. “How about this one instead? You three turn back down that alley and get out of my sight, and you’ll live to steal and murder another day.”

“Ah, regal lad.” The man in front shook his head. “Don’t you go worrying your pretty head about the future from here on out. Galen, now!” The man holding the crossbow aimed it and fired, shooting straight for Beniel’s face. At this range, an iron-tipped bolt like that would penetrate to the back of his skull.

Flower’s tail swept up faster than Beniel could see, and with a snap like the sound of a fan falling open, it batted the bolt out of the air. The bowman blinked, stunned at a result he hadn’t even begun to anticipate. Flower extended her neck so that her sharp, scaly head appeared over Beniel’s shoulder, and hissed menacingly.

Beniel had his paired swords out a second later. He moved quick enough to get the advantage over the man in front, parrying both his blades down and driving one of his swords through the man’s thigh before the second swordsman got his head together and launched into the fray. Beniel backed up one step, pivoted to the right with a parry that got his attacker’s longsword well out of the way, then brought his second sword up and swept it across the center of the man’s face a moment later. He cut through one eye, the bridge of the man’s nose, a cheek, and sliced off the very tip of his left earlobe as well in a single stroke.

The swordsman screamed and fell to the ground, right into a pile of muck. He didn’t seem to care, shrieking and clawing at his face the way he was.

“What…how?” groaned the first man, clutching his perforated thigh. Beniel didn’t pay him any heed as he went after the bowman, who’d finally gotten himself together enough to begin reloading the crossbow. Beniel knocked the deadly device out of his hands, then swung the edge of his blade down to cut the man’s right hand off at the wrist. Blood spurted, but even as the bowman shouted with horror and pain he was already going for the knife at his waist.

“A would-be thief and murderer,” Beniel said coldly. “You’re right. One hand isn’t enough.” He cut the other hand off before the bowman could do more than grasp the handle of his blade.

Now the experience overwhelmed him to the point where he collapsed on the ground, staring at the stumps of his arms with pure agony etched onto his face as his lifeblood poured into the gutters. Beniel took his head just as he began to scream—one person’s cries piercing his ears was more than enough.

“You son of a—aaargh!” Beniel whirled around to see the man he’d stabbed through the thigh halted mid-lunge, both daggers extended but rendered useless as Flower engulfed his head in her serpentine jaw. Her needle-like teeth pierced both sides of the man’s face, and it was a mercy for her prey that she shook him so hard his neck snapped, cutting his hideous and well-deserved death short. She dropped him on the ground a moment later, and his hands and legs twitched spasmodically for a few more seconds before he finally stilled.

“Well done,” Beniel said quietly to Flower, who huffed and ran her forked tongue over her gory teeth. He looked around the street, which still rang with the screams of the swordsman, whose whole body was now covered in filth and blood.

“Would anyone else care to try me tonight?” he shouted into the voice, suddenly furious. Great Ones and the sainted sodding emperor, he was fucking tired of this shit. He didn’t even want to be here, and these uppity renegades thought they would make easy pickings of him? How many people did they do this to a night? Travelers, neighbors—how many people did they violate, simply because they could? “Anyone, absolutely anyone! Come at me now or hold your peace forever, because after tonight I won’t be so nice about giving you a chance to back down like I did these gents.”

He’d be talking to Ormyr about the disgraceful lack of safety on the streets of his damnable city, that fucking dundercock.