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CHAPTER 1: THE DAY THE LUCK RAN OUT
Today I’m going to tell you about the worst day of my life.
My name is Nadia Moran, and I’ve been a thief for most of my life. I’ve also been a wizard for the same amount of time, and I know spells that no human is supposed to know. If I got caught stealing, Homeland Security would execute me on a Punishment Day video. If I was caught using illusion magic, the Inquisition would put a bullet in the back of my head in a nondescript warehouse somewhere.
So, I had been running my whole life. I had been hiding my whole life. I was really good at both.
But the thing about running and hiding is that they rely on luck.
The luck eventually runs out.
My luck ran out on July 19th, Conquest Year 315, or 2328 AD according to the old pre-Conquest calendar.
Things had been going so well lately. To be honest, the previous five months had been some of the happiest in my life. My brother Russell was doing well. Lord Morvilind had just cast the yearly cure spell, and my little brother always seemed much more energetic after that. He was dating a girl named Lydia Valborg, and while I didn’t think Lydia was the sharpest knife in the drawer, she was at least good-natured. For that matter, I hadn’t been in mortal danger that often, not since Morvilind had sent me to steal the Nihlus Stone from Venomhold. He had given me a dozen jobs in the five months since the Nihlus Stone, but none of them had been hard, mostly stealing thumb drives from bank vaults or ancient artifacts from private collections. For a thief with my skills, both magical and practical, the jobs had been dangerous, but not challenging. Considering how some of my past tasks had sent me against Rebels and Archons and anthrophages, it was a welcome break.
Though if I’m honest with myself, the reason I was so happy was Riordan MacCormac.
We had started seeing each other after the Archon attack in September, after we had worked together to stop Sergei Rogomil and keep the High Queen from nuking Milwaukee.
As first dates go, I suppose you could do a lot worse.
We had seen each other steadily ever since, a slow, cautious courtship due to our mutual paranoia. Riordan’s wife had tried to kill him to gain favor with the Rebels, and my previous boyfriend had turned out to be the murderous leader of a Rebel cell.
So, Riordan and I both had some trust issues. But he had come through for me a couple times when I had really needed him, and he had done nothing to hurt Russell or me.
I suppose Riordan and I were both screwed-up people, but we were the right kind of screwed up for each other. He was a member of the Family, a Shadow Hunter, an assassin bonded to a Shadowmorph that gave him superhuman strength and endurance. I was what Morvilind had made me, a thief with magical abilities. Paranoia came to both of us as naturally as breathing, but we were learning to trust each other.
The thing about paranoia, though, is that it’s irrational.
Me, I had lots of rational things to fear, and I had tried to prepare for all of them.
But the thing that caught me I didn’t see coming at all.
On the morning of July 19th, I got up at 5 AM and went for a nice long run. It was cooler than usual for July, and not even that humid. The Marneys lived in western Milwaukee, and most of the houses in the neighborhood were three-bedroom houses with small yards and alley-facing driveways. I didn’t see too many other people, mostly retirees and older veterans out for morning walks, and here and there another runner. The neighborhood was pretty safe, but I didn’t relax my guard even as I fell into a sort of runner’s trance around the third mile. A woman running alone was a good target for a criminal, and there was always the possibility of Rebel or Archon attack.
But if anyone attacked me, they would get a lightning globe in the face for their trouble. Even when not carrying weapons, I could defend myself.
After the seventh mile, I’d decided that was enough, so I jogged back to the Marneys’ house, went through the kitchen door, and went back to my room. It was still only six-thirty, so I toweled off, did strength exercises for half an hour, and then took a shower. I got dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and went down to the kitchen in search of breakfast and coffee, but mostly coffee. I think some old guy named Benjamin Franklin (I’m not entirely sure who he was) said that beer was proof that God loved us and wanted to be happy, but Franklin must have never encountered coffee.
I walked into the kitchen, and to my surprise, my brother was already awake.
Russell was fifteen years old, and I swear he was getting taller with every passing day. Too much more and I would have to strain my neck to look him in the eye. It just wasn’t fair. Thanks to the vagaries of genetics I had stopped growing at five foot three, but Russell was going to end up at several inches over six feet.
“Good morning,” said Russell, rummaging through the cabinets.
“You’re up early,” I said, heading to the coffee maker.
“You’re also up early,” said Russell, pulling a bottle of steak sauce from a cabinet and frowning at it as if it had offended him.
“Yeah, but I’m always up this early,” I said, “and you never are unless it’s a school day, but it’s the middle of July.”
“This is true,” said Russell, putting the bottle back in the cabinet. “Does the sun always come up this early in July? It’s appalling. It should be properly dark until eight AM or so.”
I snorted. “Maybe when you turn eighteen you can move to Alaska. I hear it gets real dark there in the winter. Of course, the sun stays up for five months or something in the summer. Why are you going through the cabinets at 6:45 in the morning?”
“Lydia’s coming for dinner,” said Russell.
“So?” I said. I started to say something unkind, but I stopped myself. Lydia Valborg and I had never gotten off on quite the right foot. She was frightened of me, probably because on the day we had met she had seen me shoot some orcish mercenaries and run a few of them over with a stolen car.
That kind of thing leaves an impression, and not just on the dead orcs.
“She’s coming for dinner,” said Russell, “and so are her parents and grandfather.”
“Oh,” I said, understanding. “I suppose that is kind of a big deal, isn’t it?” Russell and Lydia had been dating for a while, and he had been to her house, and she had been over here a bunch of times. Yet the Valborg family had never visited here, and the Marneys hadn’t been to the Valborgs’ house.
“Yeah, a little bit,” said Russell. “You’re going to be here?”
“I should,” I said. “Riordan’s out of town for another few days, and unless Lord Morvilind calls, I have nothing better to do.”
“That’s good,” said Russell.
“I’m sure my charm and wit will brighten the whole evening.”
Russell gave me a look, started to say something, and then thought better of it. “Yeah. Sure. Anyway, it’s good you’ll be there. Lydia’s grandfather thinks highly of you. I guess you must have impressed him that one time we went to the shooting range.”
“That must be it,” I said. I wasn’t going to tell Russell that I had gone with Hakon Valborg into Venomhold and by some miracle we had gotten out again with our lives and our sanity still intact. Of course, knowing Russell, he might figure it out anyway. He had this irritating habit of figuring out things that I didn’t want him to know.
“Anyway, everything has to be perfect,” said Russell, looking through another cabinet. “Lucy’s making steak. I’m even going to wear a tie.”
“You?” I said. Russell hated ties. The last time he had needed to don one, it had taken the combined efforts of James, Lucy, and me to get him into one.
“Yes,” said Russell. He gave me a critical look. “You’ll dress up, right?”
“Sweatpants and a halter top it is,” I said.
The critical look did not waver.
I laughed at him. “Yes, I’ll dress up. Nice dress, no skin.”
“Thank you,” said Russell. “I’d dress up if you brought Riordan to dinner.”
“Liar. He’s been here a dozen times, and you wore jeans every time.”
“I suppose if he brought relatives or something,” said Russell, moving on to the next cabinet. “He might be too old for that, I guess.” Riordan was a hundred and ten years old, and as far as I knew he had outlived his relatives. “He could bring Nora and maybe some other Shadow Hunters.”
“That would be a sight,” I said, thinking of a dozen Shadow Hunters sitting at the Marneys’ table. I doubted that would happen. The only other Shadow Hunter I had met was named Nora, and she didn’t approve of Riordan’s relationship with me. I wondered if the rest of the Family felt the same way. “What are you looking for, anyway?”
“Steak sauce,” said Russell.
“You just passed a bottle of steak sauce,” I said.
“It’s the wrong kind of steak sauce,” said Russell. “I need the Old Standard brand. It’s what Lydia’s grandfather likes. We don’t have any.”
I glanced at the coffee maker and shrugged. “I’ll go get some if you like.”
“Really?” said Russell.
“It’s just a dozen blocks to the grocery store,” I said. “It’ll give me a chance to stretch my legs.”
“You just ran like a billion miles,” said Russell. “You want an excuse to buy a cup of coffee so you don’t have to wait for the coffee maker to warm up.”
“This is true,” I said, turning towards the back door. It was a bit chilly out for July, so I took my motorcycle jacket from its hook and pulled it on. “But if it gets you steak sauce, are you going to complain?”
“No,” said Russell. “Thanks, Nadia.”
I grinned at him and went out the door.
I walked at a brisk pace down the narrow sidewalks, past the houses and their little yards. More people were awake by now, and cars rumbled past on the street as rush hour started to build up. After six blocks, I turned the corner, leaving the residential neighborhood for a four-lane street lined with shops on either side. A bus drove past, its sides adorned with a banner commemorating the victory over the Archons in the battle for Milwaukee last September. I grimaced and kept walking. It had been a victory, but what most people didn’t know was that the High Queen had been prepared to nuke Milwaukee to keep the Archons from gaining a foothold on Earth.
Two million people burned to ashes in a second, and I had no doubt the High Queen would have ordered it without a moment’s hesitation.
I wondered if all the Elves were that ruthless. Morvilind was, certainly.
I put the Elves out of my head. Right now, I needed to find some steak sauce, and while I couldn’t solve all the problems of the world, I could at least find some good steak sauce for Russell.
The grocery store occupied a strip mall facing the road, and there were quite a few cars in the big parking lot. Most of the customers (and employees) at this hour would be cranky and elderly, but I just wanted the bottle of steak sauce and a cup of coffee, and then I would be on my way. I started across the parking lot, the morning sun throwing my long black shadow across the asphalt.
Two rows away, a big white windowless van came to a halt. A little prickle of unease went over me. Homeland Security liked to use unmarked vans for covert operations. Then again, this van wasn’t unmarked. A pair of ladders rested in racks on its roof, and the side was adorned with the logo of some roofing company or another. Still, if I was a Homeland Security agent and I needed to conduct covert operations, I would paint my unmarked van with a logo.
Suddenly a second shadow appeared next to mine. If someone was walking behind me, I should have seen their shadow approaching, but this shadow had just appeared. Before I could react, I felt something cold and metallic wrap around my throat.
Someone had just put a metal collar around my neck.
More surprised than alarmed, I whirled, and then the fear roared through my heart.
An Elf stood behind me.
He was wearing the black uniform of a Knight of the Inquisition, with silver lightning bolt badges upon his collar. That was bad. He also wore a long black coat with gold trim upon the sleeves, which was much worse. The coat looked like the traditional gold-trimmed black robe worn by Elven archmages like Morvilind.
In that horrified, endless instant, I realized that the Inquisition had caught up to me at last.
But the Elf…there was something wrong with the Elf.
It was hard to tell the age of Elves from their appearance, but this Elf looked as if he had been prematurely aged. His brown hair was shot with gray, and deep lines marked his angular, alien face. He had brilliant green eyes, and as I looked at him, a shimmer of silver fire seemed to go through his eyes, a fire that pulsed through the blood vessels of his face and neck.
It was like I could see his circulatory system through his skin.
“Before we begin,” said the Elf, his voice tired, “I will say that I regret what I must do to you.”
“But,” I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The silver flames in his eyes and veins pulsed.
“Take her,” said the Elf.
The white van’s doors banged open, and men in body armor boiled out, weapons in hand. Some of them had stun guns, highly illegal for anyone except the Inquisition and Homeland Security, and some of them had riot shotguns that looked as if they were designed to shoot rubber bullets.
They had come to take me alive. That couldn’t happen. If the soldiers caught me, they would find out about Russell and the Marneys. Or Morvilind would realize that I had been captured, and he would use the vial of heart’s blood to kill me from a distance, and Russell would die when Morvilind stopped the cure spells.
I had to get away.
I sprinted as fast as I could for the grocery store…