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A Preview of Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering

the ingatheringRefuge Volume Two: The Ingathering will be published next week. Here’s a preview of the first few chapters. Read Chapter One here, and follow the links to the next few chapters.

This is the sequel to Refuge Volume One: The Order Master, which you can preview here. The Refuge series is about the conflict between two alien species, the Droon and the Andol, who have destroyed each other in a war and then, through magical arts, reincarnated as human beings, making the Earth their new battleground.

 

CHAPTER ONE

The Pike Place Market teemed with people, especially in the front part where the bronze pig kept watch and the fish merchants juggled salmon for the crowd. Claire bumped and weaved through the mob past the sea smell and the noise, making her way towards the fruit and vegetable sellers further back. Her Starbucks latte with soymilk felt warm tucked close to her body to avoid spilling. The sky was gray (as usual) but the rain fell in a light mist, which to a Seattleite wasn’t even Real Rain.

Claire had popped her meds that morning automatically, like a clockwork mechanism, and felt the drowsiness that sometimes followed, which the coffee helped to counter. She also felt the crowd around her as a threat of suffocation, depression looming on the edges of her mind, but knew something to do about that. Closing her eyes briefly and breathing rhythmically for a few seconds while the crowd eddied around her slim, short body, she opened her second sight and felt the minds of the people. As expected: annoyance at the crowds, amusement at the sights, concentration on the desired whatever or directionless browsing through the cacophony of goods, a flash of anger from a child kept from darting under a counter, smoldering pain from a woman whose husband was cheating on her, about what she expected in a crowd of shoppers and tourists.

She opened her eyes and saw the auras flashing and bumping and blending, multi-hued cues to personality, health, and mood, but Claire always got more just from feeling the minds around her than visually. The colors were pretty to look at, though.

As the magic at the base of her spine found an outlet, the threat of depression receded a little, but she knew it would come back. It always did, despite the medication, and using her magic only helped a little, enough to let her get through college, but not enough so far to make a relationship work for more than a month or two.

Still, a little help would do this morning. She pressed on through the crowd, which thinned as she came to the back portion of the Market where the shops she wanted stood. First the fruit and vegetable stand for a bag of apples and a couple of star fruit, then the tea shop where she picked up a sack of Earl Gray and popped it into the fruit bag, and finally her favorite bakery, where she scored a loaf of dense, nut-packed multi-grain yummy.

Loaded down with success, Claire wove her way through the crowds to the bus stop where she caught a bus to her Capitol Hill apartment. She had time to eat something, shower, and study for a bit before taking another bus to the University and her film class at two in the afternoon.

The time went quickly, and Claire jumped when the alarm sounded. She tossed Shakespeare to the side and threw her bag over her shoulder, zipped out her front door and locked it behind her, and had just turned towards the elevator door when it opened.

Four men stepped out of the elevator. One of them looked at her and smiled. She didn’t like the smile much. She didn’t recognize any of them, but the smiling guy seemed to know her. They were four white men, somewhere between their twenties and their forties, in good shape, not especially good looking or ugly, nothing remarkable about them, but —

The second sight came on her and she reeled. The aura that sprang to her view looked as if the men were surrounded by a spinning cloud of jagged, broken glass sparkling against a night-dark background. She could feel the malice of their minds. Only in her hallucinations and nightmares had she ever before sensed such pure, toxic evil. Claire’s breath caught. She backed away.

The lead man drew a knife. “You’re luckier than you know, girl,” he said. “We don’t dare take chances with the likes of you. That means you’ll die in seconds instead of years.”

Claire ran toward the stairs at the end of the hall. The men ran after.

At the stairway door she turned and kicked out at the lead man, the one with the knife drawn. Years of martial arts training came to her assistance and she tripped him. Her hand on his knife-arm shifted his motion enough to ram his head into the wall. He fell, dropping the knife. Claire picked it up.

But the others came right behind. One of them thrust another knife at her heart. She twisted to avoid it but the man moved so fast she could only deflect the blow slightly. It sliced into Claire’s side. She cried out and backed through the stairway door, closing it behind her. She jammed the knife into the hinge and broke off the handle, then turned and ran up the stairs. Why up? Why not down? The thought occurred to her after she’d already gone a floor, but by then it was too late; the knife blade in the door hinge wouldn’t hold back her pursuers long.

Out onto the roof. The breeze stirred her hair. Her side hurt. Her fingers felt sticky. She could smell the blood. She could also hear running footsteps in the stairwell. Where could she go?

She reached the edge of the building just as the door to the stairwell opened behind her and her three remaining pursuers emerged from it. Gasping, she looked over the roof edge. There was nothing below except an open dumpster full of garbage, three floors down.

The men ran towards her. She had nowhere else to go. Over the side and down, feet-first into the pile of refuse. She felt something twist in her leg. She blacked out momentarily.

Then she pulled herself out of the dumpster and limped away down the street with no idea where to go.

۞

Blood seeped between Claire’s fingers where she held onto her side. It oozed through her shirt and trickled down her skin and onto her pants. The breeze stirred her dark brown hair and she felt light-headed.

They were still following her, those men. She felt sure of it. They wanted to kill her. She had no idea why. She had never done any of them any harm. She had never seen any of them before! Who were they?

Claire moved as quickly as she could away from her apartment building. The day still hung heavy with dense Seattle clouds, although it wasn’t raining at the moment. She could feel her pursuers following her, delayed by her jump from the roof but not deterred. Where could she go? She was just one young Asian woman in a city full of them, one small figure winding through the streets and alleyways, easily lost, surely. Somehow, though, they came on, following her as if with radar.

They found her in an alley, not a cul-de-sac but she limped and clutched at her side. She couldn’t run. As they advanced, she fell to her knees. A trail of red ran down her side. She was weak from blood loss and seemed to have injured her leg jumping off the roof into the dumpster.

“Who are you guys?” she said, her eyes darting from one implacable face to another.

“Your death,” one of them said.

“Why? What did I do to you?”

“Nothing yet. But we’d like to keep it that way.” He drew his knife and stepped forward. “I’ll make this quick.”

A shot rang out. Blood burst from the man’s chest. He fell, an expression of surprise on his face, dropping his knife. Two more guns sang their songs and the other two pursuers also fell, groaning or silent. Five men stepped from the shadows. Four of them ran to the three fallen killers and made sure of them with knives. The fifth, tall, thin, and Hispanic, with dark hair long but well cut and a closely-trimmed mustache, squatted by Claire. “How bad is it?” he said.

“Richard?” Claire said.

“Yes. Let me look at that injury. It looks like it might be pretty bad.”

“Uh. Sure.” Claire moved her hand.

Richard pulled her bloody shirt away from the wound. “No arteries cut, but we’d best get you to a safe place and tend to it. I have some AB and sutures at home.”

“Maybe I should go to the hospital.”

“I don’t recommend that, Claire. Another hit team will be sent once the people who sent that one learn that it failed. You need to disappear from sight.”

“I don’t understand.”

Richard sighed. “No, of course you don’t. I’m afraid you’ve been found by a nightmare. They’re the whole planet’s nightmare, and we — these men and I, and others — are trying to stop them.”

Claire shook her head. “That’s crazy talk, Richard. I’m supposed to be the crazy one.”

“You aren’t crazy, Claire. It’s just your magic.”

“Richard, my magic is all that helps the craziness. Medication helps some, but without the magic I’d be completely zotty.”

Richard smiled. “Yes. That’s what I mean. The craziness happens because your magic needs more training. It was worse before you had any training at all, right? But that can wait, Claire. Let’s get you to a safe place, and then we can talk. There are so many things you don’t know, and it’s obvious now that you need to know.”

He scooped her up in his arms and stood, carrying her. The others followed him to a car, leaving the bodies of her would-be killers behind. They drove quietly away, no one noticing them as the sirens sounded behind.

۞

Sutured and drugged on pain-killers, resting in bed, Claire felt well enough to talk. She sipped miso soup that Richard made for her. She smiled. He was so nice. But then, he was also a killer, wasn’t he? That came as a surprise: her pharmacist leading a team that fought a battle to the death with mysterious assassins.

She ran slim, brown fingers through her hair. It felt dirty. She wanted a shower, but probably a sponge bath would make better sense, what with the bandages and all. Maybe she could wash her hair in a basin or something. Unless the bandages were waterproof. Were they?

“Richard,” she said.

“I know. You want some answers.”

“Yes.”

“All right, but I warn you, this is going to sound crazier than some of your nightmares.”

She laughed, hearing the edge of hysteria in her voice. “It already seems like that.”

“Okay. Well, where should I start?”

“Those men. Who were they? Why did they want to kill me?”

“I don’t know for certain why they wanted to kill you. As for who they were, they’re called Droon. They’re — well, they’re human, but they’re also aliens.”

“You mean, like, from another planet?”

“Yes.”

“I — I don’t understand. How can they be both human and aliens?”

Richard smiled. “This will take some time. It’s quite a story.”

“All right.”

An hour later, Claire’s head was spinning. Destroyed planets, migrating alien spirits, the Earth a battleground between two non-human species that had become human, and herself somehow caught right in the middle of it.

“Richard, this is a lot to take in. You sound crazier than I am.”

“I told you, you’re not mentally ill. You don’t have true bipolar disorder, which is a chemical imbalance in the brain. You have the symptoms, but not the real disease. You’re magical. That may be why the Droon tried to kill you, although I don’t know that for certain.”

“You killed those men.”

“They would have killed you if we hadn’t.”

“Are you magical, too?”

“Oh, yes. Our entire order is, although most of us haven’t received the kind of training that my chapter has.”

“Your order. What is that exactly?”

“We’re called the Scourge of God. And that’s another long story.”

Claire shook her head. “I have plenty of time. Go ahead. I’m ready for some more crazy.”

She got it in the form of Medieval Christian assassins, a sorcerous secret society, and a split in the ranks between old-style hard-liners like fundamentalists on crack, and modernizers who somehow still thought of themselves as part of the same group.

“You’re one of the modernizers.”

“Of course. That’s true in many ways. We’re a religious order, a Christian order.”

“I’m sort of a Buddhist myself.”

“I know that.” He smiled. “One of the more traditional Scourge members would think you were destined to Hell and would try to save your soul out of misguided compassion.”

She laughed. “Christians do tend to do that.”

“Yes. As you can imagine, there’s a sharp divide between the two sides of the order. We don’t even communicate much now. The hard-liners consider me a heretic.”

She nodded. “I can see why they would. How did you just happen to be there to rescue me, Richard?”

“That didn’t just happen, Claire. We’ve been watching those Droon. In the past month, they’ve killed three other people. We couldn’t see any connection between them, but now I’m wondering if they might all have been magically talented. I know for certain one of them was. Anyway, we were watching them, they gathered for another killing, and we decided to stop them. It happened to be you we saved, and I’m glad of that.”

“Me, too.”

“Claire, the Droon don’t give up easily. There were four of them in that group and one of them is still alive, unless you killed him.”

“No. I cracked his head on a wall but I don’t think it was fatal.”

“Well, then their failure will be reported and the Droon will investigate it, and they’ll keep trying to find you and kill you.”

“What can we do?”

“What I think we should do is get you to a safe place. But that won’t be easy. There’s only one place that’s truly safe from them. The Andol have a secret fortress that the Droon can’t break into. Mike Cambridge is there. He’s the Order Master of the modernist wing of the Scourge. So is Amanda, the Andol leader. It’s called the Birds’ Nest. If we can get you there, you’ll be safe, and the Andol can figure out what to do.”

“I’d have to quit school. But I guess I have to do that anyway. All right. Sounds good to me.”

“There’s only one problem. It’s in Wyoming. Getting there may not be easy, with you injured and the Droon out for your blood. But I think we have to try, not just for you, but because I have a suspicion about what the Droon are doing and the Andol need to know about it.”

“What do you think they’re doing?”

“The Andol have started reaching out to people with magical talent, trying to recruit humans into an army. See, their biggest problem is that they’re outnumbered. So the only way they can win this struggle —”

“Wait a minute. You haven’t explained why you’re on the side of the Andol.”

Richard nodded. “The Andol are good people. The Droon are horrible. If they win this struggle, the human race will be genetically engineered to be slaves. Any of us could be seized by any of them and tortured to death over a period of years. The Droon like to do that. So in a way, when Osgood called them demons, he was right. They do act like demons.”

Claire shuddered. “One of them said I was lucky, that they couldn’t take chances with me, so it would take me seconds to die instead of years. I guess that’s what he meant.”

“That’s what he meant.”

“All right, I guess I understand why you’re on the Andol’s side. The enemy of my enemy and all that.”

“Partly. As I was saying, I think the Droon may be targeting magically-talented humans for assassination. Any of you they kill is a potential recruit denied to the Andol. That will need to be countered, if it can be. And I sure hope it can.”

Claire nodded. “So we go to Wyoming?”

“Yes.”

“All right. Wyoming it is.”

Continue to Chapter Two

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A Scene to Share

13843867_sI have been very busy, very broke, and a little depressed lately, which is why this blog has been a bit neglected.

Unfortunately, this week is only a little better. So in order to post something, here’s a scene from my current work in progress, Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering. (You can find links to Refuge Volume One: The Order Master on the sidebar to the right.)

The main character in this scene is Claire Chang, who suffers from a magical mimic of bipolar affective disorder (also known as manic-depressive disorder). It’s a magical mimic of the disease because it’s caused by Claire’s astonishing and undeveloped magical talent rather than the genetic and brain-chemistry problems that normally result in bipolar disorder. The symptoms are the same, though. In this scene, Claire is sinking into a depressive phase, and I tried to capture the sense of that particularly in the early narrative where she’s struggling to do something as simple as take a shower.

I will get back into the swing of blogging hopefully at some point in the near future. Meanwhile:

 

Claire woke up after a while. She wasn’t sure how long. She was even less sure why it was important, but she rose mechanically and checked a clock, discovering that it was eight o’clock, which meant she had slept either four hours or sixteen. She supposed four was the more likely, although sixteen was not altogether impossible.

The basement room where she had slept had windows and through them she could see that it was dark. Evening, then, and she had slept four hours. That was good. On the other hand, she still felt lethargic. That was bad. It could be due to her injury or her depression, but in either case it meant something was wrong.

The basement had a bathroom, so she relieved herself and washed her face. Washing her face was a good sign. She even fished a hairbrush from her purse and brushed her hair. Examining her face in the mirror, she saw little to admire. Her Asian features, which some might have found appealing, seemed to her listless and devoid of expression. Claire got plenty of attention from boys and men, especially when she wasn’t depressed, so she supposed she was pretty enough. At least, reason said that had to be true. She couldn’t see it herself, though. She shrugged. It really didn’t matter. She wasn’t interested in Richard that way, or any of his friends, either. Anyway Richard was married. Actually, at the moment she found the whole idea rather pointless.

She considered fixing her makeup but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Then she considered taking a shower. Was that worth doing? Her hair really did feel pretty greasy. She ran her hand along the shower door handle and thought about it for a while. Finally she pushed herself into pulling her borrowed shirt off over her head and opening the shower door. Now she was already half-naked and would have to exert some effort before she could go upstairs, no matter what she decided. That thought motivated her enough to slip off her pants and her underwear. Now she was completely naked except for her bandages, if those counted. Should she take a shower with those on? They were supposed to be waterproof, Richard said, so it was all right, she supposed. Anyway they could be changed if necessary.

Shower or get dressed again? The idea of getting dressed again seemed absurd; it would mean that the effort of taking her clothes off was all wasted. All right then, shower it was. She stepped in, closed the door, and started the water. Brr! It was cold! But then it warmed up and felt all right. It didn’t feel particularly good, because she was already down enough that nothing did, but it didn’t feel bad, either.

Bright blue sparks shot up and down her arms. They tinted the water a shade of blue. Claire was used to that. The sparks didn’t hurt. She wasn’t sure what they were, and she thought she was seeing them with second sight rather than her eyes. Nobody else had ever seen them. They tended to come on during a depressive episode, although not always.

Richard thought her magic was connected with her mental illness. He might be right. He had been the one to give her some simple, basic lessons four years ago, after they had met when she went by herself during a lucid phase to pick up a prescription. Before she began meditating, doing breathing exercises, and using her second sight, her sickness had been worse. She had even been hospitalized twice.

Maybe it was like the pressure in an abscess. Her magic, bottled up inside her, pushed at her brain and wanted to get out. According to Richard, that was what caused her mood swings and hallucinations. If she learned more about it and gave it ways to come out, the pressure would drop and her symptoms should go away, or at least get better. That’s if Richard was right. Claire wasn’t totally convinced about that.

The sparks were kind of pretty to look at, too.

She found some shampoo, not her brand but it would work, wet her hair and lathered up, rinsed, scrubbed her body with a washcloth and soap, rinsed again, turned off the water, got out, toweled off, and put her clothes back on. Excellent. She was clean. That was an achievement.

She trudged up the stairs. Each step took an effort of will. Her legs and feet felt heavy. That wasn’t just the depression, either, because her side hurt with each step as well. Maybe Richard was right and she needed a day or two to recover before they hit the road. That thought almost sent her back downstairs, but by then she was already near the top, so she trudged on.

The lights were on upstairs. Someone was cooking or something had already been cooked. It smelled like chicken soup, or maybe roast chicken. Chicken, anyway. Claire thought about eating, although she wasn’t really hungry.

She heard two men talking and headed for the voices, which were just the other side of the door in front of her. The stairs opened onto a laundry room and the door of the laundry opened onto a dining room where two of her rescuers sat at a table with bowls of chicken soup and bread. One of them, a blond man probably in his thirties with beard stubble, turned to her and smiled. “Welcome to our hideaway,” he said. “I’m Jack. This is Peter. And I know already that you’re Claire.” He held out a great big hand. After a moment’s hesitation Claire took it and shook it.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” said Peter with a wave. He was black, short, and stocky, maybe in his early forties by the slight tint of silver in his hair. Both men were dressed in casual clothes, jeans or corduroys and work shirts. “There’s plenty of soup if you want some.”

Claire nodded. She stepped around the table and into the kitchen. Bowls were set out and a big pot of soup sat on the stove with a ladle hooked over the edge. Claire told herself she really ought to eat something. She ladled soup into a bowl, found a spoon, and made her way to the table where she joined the men.

“Is Richard around?”

“No,” Jack said. “He and the other brothers are making sure our families get here all right.”

“Oh, yeah. Because he thinks the Droon are going to attack your houses.”

“Right.”

“Do you think they will?”

Jack shrugged.

“They never have before,” said Peter, “but they’ve never had much reason to, either. This is different.”

“Just because you stopped them from killing me?”

“We also killed three of them doing it,” Jack said.

“They don’t worry about getting killed the way most people do,” Peter said. “That’s because they reincarnate, you see. When they die, it’s only temporary.”

“But killing three of them at once while stopping what they were trying to do, that they might have a problem with,” Jack said.

“Anyway, better safe than sorry,” said Peter. “That’s why we’re here and bringing our families here, those of us that have them.”

Claire tasted the soup. It was pretty good, not too greasy and full of rice as well as chicken meat and vegetables. She didn’t feel hungry, but told herself that her injury needed food, and made herself eat.

“So how long have you guys been part of this — what did Richard call it?”

“The Scourge of God,” said Jack. “Ten years for me.”

“Only one and a half for me,” said Peter.

“We had a revolution just before Peter joined us.”

“A revolution?” Claire said.

“Yes. It started when Mike Cambridge, the Order Master, invoked the Pact of War and got information from a Droon. Did Richard tell you about that?”

“Yes.”

“This Droon told Mike that the Droon are aliens, not devils from Hell, which is what the Scourge of God used to believe.”

“And some still do,” said Peter.

“Some people never learn. The Droon also told Mike about the Andol. Mike went looking for them and found one of them. He went off with her — with Amanda Johnson, that is — and fell in love with her.”

“Which is kind of kinky if you think about it,” Peter said. “I mean, she’s an alien.”

“Cute, though.”

“Tentacle sex.”

“What?” Claire looked from one man to the other, frowning.

“He’s kidding,” Jack said. “The Andol don’t have tentacles. Anyway, Mike passed on what he’d learned to the Chapter Masters.”

“And then all hell broke loose,” said Peter.

“Why was that?” said Claire.

“You have to understand that the Scourge of God was a very conservative, very devout Christian order,” said Jack. “What Mike told them was bothersome because he wanted to make alliance with the Andol. A lot of the Chapter Masters considered the Andol to be another kind of demon. They thought allying with them would corrupt the order away from its Christianity into some kind of New Age thing.”

“Which is pretty much true,” said Peter.

“I’m still Christian,” said Jack.

“You think you are. I think you are, too. Ask Jim Anderson and you might get a different opinion.”

Jack waved his hand. “Jim Anderson can go soak his head.”

“Who’s —”

“Jim Anderson is the Order Master of the hard line chapters of the Scourge, the ones that stick mostly to the old ways,” said Jack. “Anyway, Christians have been fighting over who is really Christian for centuries and we all lose when we do. Catholics against Protestants, both against the Orthodox, and then you have the Coptics, the Quakers, the Gnostics, the Mormons — it’s obvious God doesn’t want us to be unified, or we would be, so there’s no point in worrying about it. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who says he’s a Christian and tries to follow Christ’s teaching is a Christian, whether or not I agree with him about anything else. We can disagree with each other. Jesus never said different.”

“I see.”

Jack smiled a lopsided smile. “I guess it sounds like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, doesn’t it? I feel the same way. It’s what you have in your heart that counts, not what’s on your lips. But anyway, I was going to tell you about the revolution in the order. It started when Mike sent all the Chapter Masters a run-down on what he’d found out. Five of the Chapter Masters had a meeting and called a Council of Chapter Masters. The Council was supposed to consider the new information that Mike had found, but some of the Chapter Masters wanted to impeach him and execute him for heresy. It takes a whole Council to do that, you see. And it takes a two-thirds majority, too. So they called the Council to meet in New York. Mike went there to explain what he’d found in more detail. I don’t know all of what went down, but they did impeach him. But then somehow the Droon found out where the Council was being held, and they attacked it and killed almost all of the Chapter Masters.”

“Wow.”

“Yes, it was a mess. Mike got away. Our Chapter Master didn’t. The Droon killed him. When we got word of that, we had an election and Richard became the new Chapter Master.”

“He and Jack are the only ones left who were in the order at that time,” said Peter.

“What happened to the others?” Claire said.

“After Richard became Chapter Master, the Andol found him and talked him into allying with them. When the rest of us found out, everyone but me turned on the Chapter Master — on Richard, that is — and tried to kill him.”

“You’re kidding!”

“I wish. They weren’t supposed to do that. They should have reported him and gotten the Order Master and three Chapter Masters to authorize the killing. Those were the old rules, but it was a chaotic time.”

“Even those rules aren’t in force anymore,” said Peter.

“No, that’s true, we don’t kill people as much as before. Only in self-defense or defense of others, like we killed those three Droon to protect you. But anyway, even by the old rules they shouldn’t have done that, but they did.”

“What happened?” said Claire.

“We won. They lost. Andol training helped a lot.”

“In other words,” said Peter, “they’re dead. That left some vacancies in the chapter and Bill and Tom and I filled them.”

Claire made herself eat some more soup. A few minutes later the front door opened and several people came in. Richard was one of them. The two other members of his chapter, Bill and Tom, were with him. Two women, a boy, and a girl completed the party. One woman and the boy ran to Peter, who jumped out of his chair to embrace them both. The other woman and the girl were connected to one of the other guys, Claire decided, not to Jack.

“Where’s Linda?” she said.

“I don’t know,” said Richard. “She wasn’t home and I can’t reach her by phone. I’m worried.”

At that moment, Richard’s cell phone rang. “Maybe that’s —” he began, but then stopped. He answered the phone. “Hello?” He swallowed. “What do you want? I see. I’ll call you back. Do anything to her, anything at all, and you’re all dead. I swear it. No, it won’t. I’ll call you. Give me half an hour. Very well.” He hung up the phone and sighed.

“What is it?” Claire said.

“The Droon have Linda.”

A minute of frozen silence, and then Jack said, “Who was that?”

“Jennifer Olson.” He looked at Claire and said, “She’s the Droon administrator for the Pacific Northwest.” He closed his eyes. “Dear God.”

“What do they want?” said one of the other men, Tom or Bill.

“I know what they want,” said Claire. “They want me.”

Richard nodded. “That’s right.”

Copyright: _ig0rzh_ / 123RF Stock Photo

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