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Read a sample from DARING by Elliott James

A modern twist to the Prince Charming tale in this second urban fantasy in the Pax Arcana series.

ONCE UPON A TIME BOMB

Once upon a time, Chauncy “Choo” Childers made himself a secret lair. He was a monster hunter who had just helped kill a vampire queen, and there were these trained killers from the Knights Templar sniffing around Clayburg, and Choo thought it might be a good time to hole up some place where he would be hard to find for a while. Choo’s new front door was a slab of metal built into the side of an overpass. The overpass used to be near a power plant, but the power plant had moved on a long time ago, so maybe I should call the overpass an overpassed. Or maybe an overpassé. Whatever you call it, the overpass had that feel that dead and deserted places have—even the spray-painted graffiti was faded to the point where it was barely legible, not that it had ever said anything particularly new. I’m here. I’m angry. I’m scared. I’m lonely. Somebody care. What traffic the overpass still got was mostly

Maybe Choo’s new home sounds a little extreme or paranoid, but I don’t think you can call Choo extremely paranoid. For one thing, he was an exterminator, and cleaning up abandoned and vermin-infested places was second nature to him. For another, vague pronouns really were out to get him.

THEY arrived at dawn. I know, that’s like saying it was a dark and stormy night, but modern-day knights really do like to attack at dawn; it’s early enough to ensure few witnesses, and the rising sun discourages nocturnal predators.

The knights approached in two groups of three. One team emerged from the surrounding woods on the east side. Another team exited from a van that pulled up to the west side of the overpass and stopped. It was a pretty good bet that the knights had blocked access farther down the road from both sides, even if all that meant was putting up phony construction or detour signs. It’s what I would have done, and these were the bastards who trained me. Or their great-grandfathers were.

The trios walked in loose triangle formations, spread out and advancing at a casual pace that was at odds with the alert purpose in their body language. They thought they had a sniper covering them from the woods, but that was no longer true.

Instead, they had me. Me and an M40A1, an old-school Marine sniper rifle. I was getting a good look at them through its scope while the rifle’s original owner slept pacified and zip-tied next to me.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, getting involved probably wasn’t a good idea. Choo was only sort of a friend of mine. I liked him but didn’t really know him very well. To be honest, I’m not sure that anyone knew Choo very well. Choo had become aware of the existence of the supernatural after trying to exterminate the wrong damned house, and even when not holing up beneath an overpass, Choo lived alone in a house whose basement was full of stockpiled weapons. Choo’s house was a reflection of the man himself; normal and friendly enough on the surface but full of secrets that had pointy edges and burned.

Maybe that was why we got along.

In any case, I don’t have a lot of friends, and Choo and I had fought together and bled together and watched each other’s backs. If that’s not a close friendship, it’s close enough for me.

Close enough for the Knights Templar too, apparently.

I didn’t know the knights’ exact motives for being there, but I did know that the rifle I had acquired held silver bullets. Maybe my old brethren just wanted to ask Choo some questions since Choo had spent some time around me. Maybe they wanted to ask those questions forcefully. Maybe they wanted to scare Choo and see if he had any way of contacting me, or threaten him on the off chance that I really was stupid enough to stay in the area. Maybe they wanted to take Choo prisoner and see if I would try to free him, or kill him to see if I would try to avenge him. The problem was, the knights were capable of doing any or all of those things. Their geas only prevents knights from killing supernatural beings without good cause. Normal humans are fair game. Or unfair game, for that matter. Humans are a game without rules.

The knights weren’t wearing anything that looked like a standard uniform. They wore light hoodies and thermal shirts and flannel, predominantly in dark colors. Most of them were wearing running shoes and blue jeans, a few of them boots and camouflage clothing. They all wore headgear with brims, either baseball or hunting or painting caps. We were on the outer, more rural rim of Clayburg, and if things went to hell, the knights could scatter and merge into the local population fairly easily.

As soon as they were under the overpass, the knights pulled a variety of weapons out from under their jackets and loose shirts. There would be more sidearms and small blades concealed on their bodies as well. I couldn’t see them, but they were there. It was as sure as gravity. As time passing. As the sun.

“You’re not fooling anyone, Norresdotter.” The knight speaking was on my side of the overpass, and I have very good hearing. He was addressing the lone homeless person sleeping there, a bundle of army surplus clothing.

Sig Norresdotter, also known as the woman I’m carefully avoiding using the word “love” around, emerged from the pile and drew herself up to her full six feet of height and twelve feet of attitude, throwing off an olive green field jacket that was too large for her and pulling off a stocking cap as if it burned. The long shining hair that was her only concession to vanity spilled free. Even in that dim light and from that distance, it looked like liquid gold, like the sun’s rays rippling on the surface of a lake, like… oh hell, I really am in a bad way. I don’t care; she was a flare of brightness in a gray world. Sig also had a long sword sheathed between her shoulder blades and a SIG Sauer holstered at her hip, though she had been smart enough not to draw them. It was possible there was a spear hidden around somewhere too.

Did I mention that Sig was a Valkyrie?

“I’m not here to fool you, Emil,” Sig informed him. “I just don’t want to draw attention from anyone else.”

It’s possible the two of them had some past acquaintance. It’s also possible that Emil was living with one or more ghosts, and that the spirit of some being Emil had killed or loved was chatting in Sig’s ear at that very moment. That kind of thing happens around Sig a lot. Trust me.

Either way, if Emil was unnerved by Sig’s use of his name, he didn’t show any sign of it. “And why are you here, Norresdotter?”

“To stop you from harassing Choo, you assjacket,” Sig said. A bored of course lingered in her tone.

Sig was putting up a good front, but she had been through a lot recently. She had been held prisoner by an undead sociopath and sedated, and that terrified her in a way that death did not, because Sig had some substance abuse issues in her past. There was also the matter of me killing her former lover, although in my defense, he was a complete douche canoe. Oh, and he tried to kill me first. Creatively.

That kind of stuff doesn’t just slide off.

“You must know we are prepared for you, Sig,” Emil chided with a tone that was somehow more threatening for being gentle.

“I am a supernatural being and no threat to the Pax,” Sig reminded him, leaning against the door to Choo’s sanctuary. “Your geas won’t let you harm me without good cause, and you’re not here for a good cause.”

“We don’t have to harm you to get you out of our way,” Emil said. “Not permanently.”

Sig pounded the back of her head against the door as if frustrated, but a moment later she seemed alarmed.

“Choo?” Sig called. Apparently the pounding on the door had been some kind of signal, but nothing was happening and Sig didn’t know why.

I knew why.

The answer was lying open on the ground about ten feet away from me. The bastards had opened a witch bottle. The small brown jug was slightly rounded, glazed with salt, and covered with dag runes. The red wax seal had been broken, and the tip of red thread emerging from the open neck of the bottle told me what kind of creature it had contained: a sprite.

In the old days, sprites were bound by cunning folk and used as scouts, spies, and messengers—think Ariel in The Tempest. Nowadays, though, sprites are more often used to disable perimeter defenses.

Basically, sprites are tourists from another dimension. It takes a lot of energy for them to condense and pull air molecules together into a physical form here, which is why they usually manifest as tiny winged creatures; that size doesn’t take as much energy, and the wings help them get around quickly despite their itsy-bitsy bodies. This is also why sprites disrupt energy transmissions. Sprites can cause security cameras to stop working, cell phones to stop receiving, generators to stutter off, and radio signals to jam. When sent on a specific mission, they can also squeeze into tight cracks and pull wires or snap fan belts or undo nuts and bolts.

Sometimes sprites are referred to as gremlins.

Whatever surprise Choo and Sig had rigged for the knights—and it could have been just about anything from sonics to gases to explosions, because Choo loves his toys—the sprite had made it malfunction.

“My turn,” Emil said, and held up a palm. Then he held up his palm some more. Now it was Emil’s turn to be nonplussed. He was waiting for sniper fire from my position.

So I gave him some.

I’d had plenty of time to line up and sight, so I took an easy shot at a riot gun. The knight holding it was facing me on the far side of the overpass, and the bullet hit the fat butt of the wooden shotgun stock and tore the weapon out of his grasp.

Nobody in the center of the overpass dove for cover, mainly because there was none. Emil remained where he was, his palm still in the air. Then Emil said, in a voice that was distinctly pleased, “He’s here.”

Shit, shit, shit, shit. Shitting shitty shittiness. It wasn’t that I hadn’t expected this. It was that this was exactly what I had expected. Hell, I’d been waiting for this domino to fall since I first allowed myself to develop some relationships again. Which was shit. Shit, shit, shit.

All I can say is, I’d been lonely past the point of being damaged by it. I’d known the smart moves, told myself I would make them, and instead did the opposite because I had gotten to a point where risking death seemed better than not living.

And now it was time to pay the piper. I mean sniper. No, wait… I was… oh, forget it.

“John?!?” Sig said, then yelled, “GET OUT OF HERE!”

Right, like she had everything under control. As if to disprove that very thought, her words became the drop that burst the dam, and all of the tension and contained violence burst loose.

That’s when we found out that we had all greatly underestimated Sig.

That’s when the ghosts came out.

About the Author

An army brat and gypsy scholar, ELLIOTT JAMES is currently living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. An avid reader since the age of three (or that’s what his family swears anyhow), he has an abiding interest in mythology, martial arts, live music, hiking, and used bookstores. Irrationally convinced that cellphone technology was inserted into human culture by aliens who want to turn us into easily tracked herd beasts, Elliott has one anyhow but keeps it in a locked tinfoil covered box which he will sometimes sit and stare at mistrustfully for hours. Okay, that was a lie. Elliott lies a lot; in fact, he decided to become a writer so that he could get paid for it.