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Descent by Ken MacLeod

DESCENT Ken MacLeod

Author of 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominated Intrusion tells a science fiction story for the twenty-first century – what happens when conspiracy theorists meet Big Brother?
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THE LASCAR’S DAGGERGlenda Larke

The start of a brand new epic fantasy trilogy from the author of the Stormlord series – full of scheming, spying, action and adventure.
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Tempest’s Legacy by Nicole Peeler: An Excerpt

Enjoy this smexy interlude from TEMPEST’S LEGACY, by Nicole Peeler — in bookstores now!

Between Iris’s abduction and not being able to have a proper swim, the following week was pure, unadulterated hell. I’d learned from the investigation in Boston that real-life detective work consisted mostly of sitting around, sorting through things you’d sorted through a thousand times before, and hoping that some new detail would pop up to catch your eye. In the meantime, you sent out feelers so that other people would sort through their stuff, looking for something, anything, new on their end. While all this paper shuffling was going on, the only thing you could do was sit and stew.

Stewing had been bad enough when the victims were merely names on files. Stewing when I knew it was Iris’s life at stake was a torture unlike any I’d ever known.

Anyan, luckily, had more feelers than a millipede. He’d called everyone, and I mean everyone, he’d ever known. He’d even borrowed Terk to send messages to beings so old and powerful they eschewed modern technology. He mustered the forces of both the Alfar power structure and the networks of halflings that stretched across the Borderlands.

Finally, however, even he had to sit down and wait like the rest of us. And I couldn’t even blow off steam with my usual, stress-reducing swims. Instead, I had to scamper about in the shallows like a child under the watchful eye of Nell or Anyan. It was humiliating. Other than that, I spent the week calling Anyan every five minutes to see if there was news about Iris; thinking around all the issues that went along with my mother’s death, including how I was going to tell my father and trying to figure out how to deal with my own, strange grief; and worrying about everything and everyone till I would physically panic and then force myself to come down from that panic… usually by lobbing badly aimed mage balls at things.

The one thing I wasn’t doing, however, was sleeping. And so, eight days after Iris was kidnapped, I stood like a zombie behind the counter of Read It and Weep. I wasn’t, yet, trying to eat people’s brains, but I did look like the walking dead. There were huge bags under my eyes from over a week spent half sleeping on our crappy couch. Between my nightmares about Iris, my lack of a good swim, and the lumpy cushions, I hadn’t had a decent night’s rest since returning to Rockabill.

Tracy was back at my house, still believing they’d been exiled from their own home due to a really difficult-to-fix gas leak. Grizzie, meanwhile, was puttering around the shop behind me, singing Lady Gaga. My tall friend was wearing pink skintight jeans that were dusted with glitter, a purple tube top, and a long-sleeved, fake-fur Bandolero jacket a slightly darker pink than the jeans. So her current sound track fit her wardrobe, really.

“You look like shit, honey,” Griz said, for the fifth time that day, as she moved me aside to dust the counter in front of me.

“Thanks. ’Preciate it.”

“It’s only true. You look like you haven’t slept since you got back. We should get you a blow-up mattress or something. Miss Carol can fill it with all her hot air, and you can finally get some shut-eye.”

I grinned. Having Miss Carol and Grizzie in the same house was like unleashing Archie Bunker on Al Bundy. I thought our walls were going to turn indigo from the blue streaks the two women swore.

“Yeah, well, I’m glad you’re all here. I’ll have lots of time to sleep soon.”

“I just wish they’d fix that gas leak… It seems like it’s taking an awfully long time.”

With a sigh, I nudged the glamour that Nell had put in place in both Grizzie’s and Tracy’s minds. Grizzie’s words trailed off, then she shook her head as if remembering something.

“I’ll go make us coffee,” she said, wearing the dazed smile of the recently glamoured.

I’d already had about six coffees, the most I could drink in one day before experiencing heart palpitations, but I didn’t stop her. For some reason, Grizzie balanced out the interference of glamouring by making coffee.

And that’s how I waited out the rest of my workday, till, at five o’clock, we shut up shop and went back to my house. I ate dinner, changed out of my work uniform, then took the shortcut through the woods to Anyan’s cabin for my nightly training.

Normally when I walked up, Nell would be waiting for me on the porch, rocking in her little chair. But this time no one was around. After beefing up my shields, just to be on the safe side, I followed the sound of sandpaper around the cabin toward Anyan’s workshop.

The big man was sitting just where I’d found him the day I’d come to apologize, again sanding smooth the curves of that same statue. In the darkness, the workshop glowed warm and cozy while the soft rasping of sandpaper stroked against wood lulled my tired brain. I closed my eyes, leaning against the lintel of the workshop door, as the gentle susurrating sounds along with the smell of freshly cut wood and lemon wax washed over me.

“You’re going to fall asleep standing there,” Anyan rumbled, causing me to jerk upright and blink hazily in the suddenly overbright room. As my eyes adjusted to their opened state, I saw that Anyan had put his statue down and was leaning back on his bale of hay, long legs stretched out before him.

I had a brief, intensely detailed fantasy of springing up and hovering, like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix , only to land straddling the barghest. After a second I registered how ridiculous that was, and I had a secondary, equally vivid fantasy of my short-assed legs hopping awkwardly across the floor toward Anyan while he stared with a mixture of confusion and horror.

Shaking my head to clear it of my daymare, I ruefully smiled at nothing in particular just as Nell yelled for me from the yard.

“Training time!” I sang, awkwardly and too loudly, before plastering on a grin and pivoting on my heel to flee to the front side of the cabin.

What the hell is wrong with me? I wondered. Could I be any more of a spaz?

Luckily, my self-recriminations were short-lived. Mostly because the second I turned the corner I was diving to the ground as Nell tried to take my face off with a mage ball.

Motherfucking gnomes, I thought as I struggled to maintain shields, scramble to my feet, and create a mage ball all at the same time. Nell loved what she called surprises. And by “surprise,” Nell meant trying to maim you when you least expected it. She was like Cato from the fucking Pink Panther, only more destructive.

So, for the next hour and a half she chased me around the pasture, then the woods, and finally to my cove, lobbing mage balls at me the whole time while she flew through the air like a hovercraft, laughing maniacally. I did manage to squeeze off a shot or two, but my aim was pants and I inevitably missed her entirely.

We called a truce when we got to the cove, and Nell watched my back as I splashed in the shallows. After I’d dried off and put my clothes back on, we went back to the cabin so she could “assess my progress.” Which, in Code Nell, meant going into great detail about how much I suck.

The night had turned chilly, and damp, by the time we made it back to Anyan’s. This meant that, since he was around and his cabin open, I got my dressing-down inside the cabin instead of shivering on the front stairs as usual.

When we walked inside, Anyan was sitting at the enormous butcher-block island that dominated the center of his kitchen, reading over the reports he’d gotten that day. But when I dragged my straggly wet-haired self inside, he frowned.

“Nell, she looks like death warmed over.”

The gnome shrugged. “She has to train.”

“I know, but… look at her.”

“Hello, I’m here,” I reminded both of them. “Can we not discuss how shitty I look?”

“Sorry, Jane,” Anyan said. “But you do look like crap.”

I shot him my best gimlet eye.

“Can I make you some tea?” he added apologetically.

“Do you have chamomile?”

“Yup.”

“Sure, that’d be nice. Thanks.”

The gnome accepted Anyan’s offer of tea as well, and we walked toward the cabin’s seating area. Nell levitated her little rocking chair inside, next to the warm fire blazing in Anyan’s fireplace. She settled down in it comfortably as I took the place nearest the fire on Anyan’s giant, overstuffed sofa.

His sofa isn’t lumpy, my exhausted body whined petulantly as I curled up contentedly against the armrest.

Yes, well, I reminded myself, Anyan isn’t supporting two people on government disability and a job at a bookstore. So quit yer whining.

And speaking of Anyan… I watched, a little too appreciatively, as the barghest moved about his kitchen. I tried to keep my attention on Nell, but I was failing miserably. Part of the problem was that I’d heard everything I did wrong with mage balls a thousand times already. And hearing what I did wrong obviously wasn’t connecting, for me, with what I needed to do in order to improve.

I watched as Anyan’s big hands deftly unwrapped two comparatively minuscule tea packets, one of which he dropped into a normal mug and one of which he dropped into a wee, gnome-sized mug. Then, from a stack of dishes on his draining board, he pulled out an enormous mug, a barghest-sized mug, and placed it next to the other two.

Mama mug, daddy mug, and baby mug, my tired brain chortled, and I felt myself smiling. “Jane, are you paying any attention to what I’m saying?”

I turned to the gnome, unable even to appear contrite. I tried to look sorry, I really did. But all I could do was blink stupidly.

“I’m sorry, Nell,” I said as Anyan brought over the three steaming mugs. He placed Nell’s on the floor by her feet, and mine he set on the side table next to me. Then he joined me on the sofa.

“… you keep throwing the mage ball. But you want to send the mage ball,” Nell was saying for the fiftieth time. But I was too busy sniffing the air.

Following my nose, I sat up and leaned toward Anyan. Floating in his enormous mug of tea were about six little seedpods, bobbing about and emitting their heavenly aroma.

“Cardamom,” I said happily. “That’s why you always smell of cardamom.”

The barghest blinked at me, and I realized that my nostril quest had sent me traipsing into his personal couch space. So I backed off, sheepishly settling down into my own little corner.

“… once you stop thinking of physical distance as a space to be crossed, you’ll shoot more accurately and forcefully…”

“I smell like cardamom?” the big man rumbled his basso profundo underneath Nell’s lecture.

“Yes. And lemon wax,” I added, blushing when his wide mouth quirked in a small smile.

“… and if you two would stop whispering to each other like hundred-year-olds, we might actually get Jane to a point where she can defend herself!” Nell yelled from her chair, causing us both to startle.

“Sorry, Nell,” we mumbled as the gnome took an annoyed sip from her mug, grumbling under her breath the entire time. We sat in shamed silence, till the barghest spoke.

“Nell, may I?”

“Since you’ll just pass notes or something otherwise, why don’t you go ahead and take this one?”

Anyan had more self-control than I did, and he looked very contrite as he nodded to Nell. But when he turned to me, his eyes were sparkling with amusement.

“Okay, Jane, here’s the deal. You throw like a girl.”

Before I could even begin to think, I was spouting off. “First of all, I am a girl, shit for brains. And second of all, girls throw hard nowadays. Haven’t you seen a girls’ softball team? That is gender equality in kinetic energy, so don’t tell me I throw like a girl.”

Anyan sighed. “But you do throw like a girl.”

“Anyan!”

“The whole point is, you don’t have to be throwing at all. All you have to imagine is your mage ball going from point A to point B and then make it go that way. Stop physically throwing it. Because you really do throw like a girl.”

I glowered at him, even as I felt that little tingle that I get when I finally understand something.

“The fact that you’re an unreconstructed male chauvinist aside, you’re telling me that when Nell says, ‘Send, don’t throw,’ what she means is that I should… zing the mage ball with my mind? Instead of trying to manually lob it with what is, admittedly, very little force or accuracy?”

“Yup.”

“Huh,” I grunted. “That’s sort of how I swim… and that should make mage balls a hell of a lot easier.”

Nell was looking between the two of us like she wasn’t sure whom to kill first.

“Really? Is that all it took?”

I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t her fault, that Anyan understood how my brain worked. But even as I thought it, I was so struck by that idea that I clammed up and my mind went all numb.

I noisily sucked down some of my tea.

“Well, if that’s all, I guess I’ll just go home,” Nell said, her voice still irritated. “Since Anyan’s finished clarifying for Jane, in one sentence, what I’ve failed to explain in three weeks, I’m obviously no good here.”

Anyan laughed, then made soothing gestures toward Nell’s wounded pride. I also made some concessionary noises from my corner of the couch, but my heart wasn’t in it. Not least of all because, while a corner of my brain was still mulling over what I’d just thought about Anyan, the rest of my body was doing its best to fall asleep in the nest of warmth and comfort that was my corner of the sofa.

“Jane, are you coming?” Nell barked from the doorway. I started to struggle to my feet when I felt Anyan, from the other side of the room, push me gently back down onto the couch. I’d let my shields down when we walked inside, a luxury I allowed myself only around Nell or the barghest, so it took me a confused second to figure out how he’d gotten past my guard.

He didn’t, my brain worked out as I saw Anyan say something quietly to Nell, who looked at me, nodded, looked at the barghest, scolded, and then apparated both herself and her rocking chair with an audible pop.

“Anyan, I should…”

“Shush, Jane,” he said as he walked back to the couch. “You’re spending the night here. Remember what I said about being a soldier? Well, soldiers need sleep. So you’re here for the night.”

“Um, but where will you…”

“No worries, I can take the couch. You can have all the upstairs to yourself. There’s clean towels for the shower up in the little cabinet outside the bathroom door. If you need any… girlie stuff, I can have Nell send it over.”

“Um, as long as you have shampoo to get the salt out of my hair, I’m pretty low-maintenance.”

“Yup, and I think it even has conditioner in it,” the barghest replied. “It was on sale,” he added hastily, as if the addition of conditioner to his shampoo might make me doubt his masculinity.

“Great,” I said as I yawned so hard my jaw popped. “But I don’t have anything to sleep in…”

“You can borrow something of mine.”

Anyan’s response was immediate and forceful. For some reason, it made me smile.

“Unless you want me to call Nell?” he amended.

“No, that’s fine. I just need a T-shirt or something,” I said as I stood up from the couch.

Anyan smiled down at me, the skin at the corners of his iron-gray eyes crinkling. But before I could return his grin, he’d turned to walk toward the stairway to the loft. I followed, hustling to keep up with his long strides.

I took a deep breath as we walked upstairs. The idea of encroaching on the barghest’s man space was both terrifying and… my idea of heaven, really. So I was in full snoop when we finally got to his loft bedroom. The space was large, about half the size of the whole downstairs, with a small en suite bathroom. Big canvases hung about the room or were propped up against walls, with smaller works of art dotted around here and there. None of them were done by Anyan up here, and some looked suspiciously similar to very famous pieces I remembered from my art history classes.

Besides art, there were books everywhere. Piled up on tables, set into bookcases, towering precariously in stacks well over barghest-high. Many of them were jumbled around the huge, rumpled bed standing in the corner. The bed was the barghest’s sole concession to his own identity as an artist, as he’d very obviously done the ironwork; it looked like the bedstead version of the cartoon in the bathroom.

Only those little figures are engaged in an epic battle, while these little figures are diddling one another, I thought, blushing as I realized that this piece of art was decidedly more Kama Sutra than Bhagavad Gita.

Tearing my eyes from Anyan’s raunchy, raunchy bed (Delightful! my libido purred), I watched as the barghest pulled a T-shirt from a low chest of drawers in the corner.

“Let me guess, it says Purina,” I joked as he handed it over.

He paused, still holding the shirt, and actually blushed. “Beggin’ Strips, actually. I can get you another…”

I laughed. “No, that’s fine. Anything is fine.”

There fell an awkward silence as we stood in his bedroom, me holding his shirt and looking down at Anyan’s big feet shuffling nervously in front of me.

“Well, everything in the bathroom should be self-explanatory. If you need anything, just holler. Otherwise, I’ll see you in the morning. Do try to sleep as much as you can,” he chided gently.

“Yes, sir,” I responded impudently. “And thanks,” I added, meaning it.

“You’re welcome. Sleep tight, Jane.”

“You, too.”

I watched as Anyan walked downstairs, then made short work of a very hot shower. Before I knew it, I’d thrown on the T-shirt—it fell to well below my knees—and was slipping in between Anyan’s soft, hunter-green flannel sheets.

I lay back, listening to Anyan putter around downstairs as my eyes took in the circus of metal flesh dancing before me, upside down, from Anyan’s headboard. Soon enough, however, I heard the creaking of the sofa. Then the light shut off downstairs and I was alone, in the dark, in Anyan’s room. His sheets smelled like cardamom, as well as another scent I realized, after a moment, must be his body. That thought brought me back to full wakefulness, and I lay in the dark, eyes wide, before turning on my stomach and burying my face in the pillow. Which also, of course, smelled like Anyan. I sighed, then began counting down from one hundred as I traced my finger over the intricate curlicues of iron in front of me.

Soon enough my fatigue won out and sleep stole over me, but that meant I began to dream. I dreamed of Iris being attacked and myself, standing like a statue, unable to help her and unable to look away. As the nightmare took hold, my brain screamed at me to wake up. Swimming to the surface, my consciousness struggled, wanting so desperately to rest but unable to face the nightmares that lurked—

The bed dipped as the heavy form of a giant dog leaped up next to me, made three tight circles, then lay down with its head cradled in the small of my back.

“Anyan,” I mumbled, my mouth curving in a smile. I knew I was safe then, and I let the darkness swallow me.

This time, when dreams came of Iris’s attack, at my side was a wolfhound made of white light, who snapped and bit at my friend’s tormenters till they fled and I held Iris safe and close and close and safe…

www.nicolepeeler.com

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