UPDATE: A SLIGHTLY EDITED AND PRETTIED UP COMPILATION OF ALL CHAPTERS UP TO A WEEK OLD IS HERE
*I’m posting this novel here, free, one chapter at a time. I reserve the right to put in more than one chapter, as I did this time.This is being posted as I write it, so it’s in pre-earc (for those from Baen) or in close-to (but not quite) -first draft state. Once it’s finished it will undergo editing and then it will be published in some form. I’m going to put this up with its own category so you can find it. For those interested in throwing something in the storytellers bowl, there is a donate button on the right hand side of the site. Anyone contributing $6 or more will get an electronic (non DRM) version of the novel upon completion. Of course, donating is not mandatory, nor even required in any way. I hope you enjoy the chapters. (And sorry if there are typos. I’m having trouble staying focused today.)*
For first chapter, look here: here
The Trouble With Heros
Seraphim Darkwater could feel the spell assemble behind him, tendril by tendril. The woman’s magic was odd. Avallonis in origin. He’d swear to that. He’d known enough power from other worlds to identify the markers of Avallonis. But the magic had odd overlays, as though she’d learned it in some barbarous, ignorant place and had reinvented the whole discipline from the ground up.
A part of him, the part that had been a studious young man, rivaling the knowledge of many of his professors at Cambridge when it came to history and theory of magic, wanted to turn around and watch the strands of magic being woven in the air. But he could not. Seraphim had been trained – born – to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. And right now, he was the only one in possession of a mage-charged stick.
He shot at a soldier running towards him from behind a rock. Then he shot again. And again until he hit the man, who screamed and fell, spasming a little as the magic charge hit him.
The soldier wouldn’t die. Seraphim never charged his mage sticks a lethal amount, mostly because he never knew when the people he might defend himself against might not be the agents of his majesty the king, enforcing the just laws of Great Britain in his native world. A lot could be forgiven a high born and high spirited young man, even minor assault on an officer of the Empire. But, should he let those high spirits carry him so far as to commit murder, that would be a trespass too far.
As the man fell, twitching and spasming, Seraphim stepped back. And all at once he realized two things. The man had been a decoy, likely a volunteer sent to run at his mage stick and keep him fully occupied as a party of guardsmen sneaked behind and around the rocks to his left. Now he caught a glimpse of golden braid in the gaudy uniforms, and realized they were too near, and there were two many of them. And one of them was pointing a magical gun at them, of the type that could disable witches and warlocks, but could kill shifters. The boy-shifter. Seraphim must protect him.
He turned around. There were too many of them for his stick to be an effective defense, so he must take himself and his charges out of here, and take them out fast.
The woman behind him had set up almost the entire spell. Only the capstone lacked, and the coordinates. Perhaps she couldn’t have set the coordinates from his arrival. Perhaps her odd learning hadn’t taught her that. Or perhaps it was all part of a plan to trap him. Seraphim didn’t know, and, right then, he couldn’t care. Instead, he poured his own magic into the working, and set the capstone on it, with the coordinates of his bedroom, coordinates as familiar to him as the back of his own hand, or the sound of his own voice.
The portal opened, gaping, and Seraphim, realizing the impossibility of throwing a lion through it, poured more of his magic at the young shifter to make him shift back into human, out of the lion form. The child shifted and twisted, writhing and moaning in the pain of changing bones and flesh, all at a speed that would never happen naturally.
Barely had his form stabilized, and Seraphim was grabbing his skinny arms and throwing him, bodily through the portal. Seraphim knew, in doing so he was hurting his own shoulder and arm, but he couldn’t feel pain. Or anything but the urgency of getting them all through the portal and onto safe territory. Through the portal he could glimpse Gabriel and hear faint echoes of his talking to the boy.
Seraphim reached for the woman. She stepped back from him. “No,” she said. “You go first.”
“They have magic guns,” Seraphim said, keeping his voice restrained, but letting urgency leak through. “They are near-lethal. You go, then I after you.”
But she shied away from him, tried to step in between him and the moving ambush. Stupid on her part. She wasn’t armed. He took a deep breath and mentally apologized to his mother and to his nanny who had taught him that a woman’s body was sacred and not to be touched without permission. Then he grabbed her by the waist and, deftly avoiding her kicking feet and ignoring her voice saying, “Let me go,” he tossed her into the portal and – as far as he could see through his sweat-stung eyes, more or less on top of Gabriel.
The portal wouldn’t stay open much longer. But it didn’t need to. Seraphim took a step towards it.
The ray of the magic gun hit him in the shoulder. Pain shot through his body, seized his mind. His body shuddered, one long shudder, as his heart seemed to lose the rhythm of its accustomed beats. He heard a hoarse scream, and was sure it was his.
The fall across the treshold of the portal, one half on either side, jarred his shoulder further. He gritted his teeth against the chattering that threatened to bite his tongue in half. He forced his shivering, shuddering body to obey him. He ignored the pain that coursed through his veins like fire and bit at his nerves like the edge of a well-sharpened sword.
The portal was going to close. He must get into one world or the other, or his body would get sliced in half and end up one half in each reality. He must crawl across the portal and to the safety of his room.
For long moments, his body did not obey him. His hands made frantic motions, but failed to push against the ground, his knees wouldn’t stay under him. it took a superhuman effort to get them under control, to get them to pull him along the floor. He pulled himself forward one step. Two.
He felt hands at his ankles, and heard a triumphant scream from behind. He didn’t turn to look. He could feel the portal starting to close. He keened with frustration and told himself he would not cry. He would die like a man.
From the fog clouding his senses, somewhere ahead of him, he heard a woman’s voice say, “Oh, please, you must help him.”
And he heard Gabriel’s familiar voice say, “Damn you Duke,” then. “Here, take this mage stick. Lay into them at will.”
Seraphim tried to reach for the mage stick, but he couldn’t even see it, and his hand would not obey him, and he could feel the mage-field of the portal pressing against his middle.
Then strong, warm hands grabbed his hands and pulled. Seraphim screamed as the pain to his shoulder increased a hundred fold.
Then darkness engulfed him.
The Price of Heroism
Nell hated heroes. Years ago, when he’d first rescued her from Earth, Antoine had told her that he despised heroes who were men who would give themselves airs, and throw themselves in the breach with great pomp and circumstance, for the pleasure of pinning medals on themselves, no matter how many people died for their glory.
Her fury and surprise at Seraphim’s taking the spell from her and putting his own capstone on it was nothing compared to her fury at his insisting on her stepping through first and on protecting her with his body. Her entire upbringing on Earth rebelled against letting a man, any man protect her. And her months in Avallonis, chafing against the arrogance of noblemen and gentry, made her want to scream at his assumed gallantry.
None of this was improved by his throwing her bodily across the portal and on top of a tall man in neat, understated attire. Disentangling herself from the man who was blushing furiously and who looked past her at the portal with an horrified expression, she didn’t see Seraphim get hit.
But when she turned around, there was no doubt he’d been hit by a magic gun.
She’d never seen one of these in action. They were illegal in Avallonis, and of course, of no use at all on Earth. Or at least not that anyone knew. But she’d heard of them, and Sydell had once shown her a confiscated cache of them and described their effects. She could still hear him in her mind as he told her how the gun’s discharge would kill a shifter at the barest touch, but was survivable to a mage, provided he or she was in good shape and got treatment immediately.
Only Seraphim wasn’t getting treatment. He was fallen half across the portal, whose shifting light indicated it was about to close. Around his body shimmered the blue-yellow lights of a disturbed magical pattern, as clearly visible to her mage-sight as his outstretched hands scrabbling in vain at the oaken floorboards.
He made inhuman grunts as he did so, grunts that seemed like the result of effort beyond his capacity. All the while – and it seemed forever to Nell – the man on whom she’d fallen, was standing there, his arms akimbo, staring, his mouth open, at the duke about to get sliced in half by a portal.
Seraphim’s hands found purchase at last, and he pulled himself, a minute amount into the room, and then the men on the other side reached him, grabbed his ankles, and pulled him back far more than he’d pulled himself forward. She had heard of those step pyramids in that world. She’d heard they performed sacrifices there. And besides, they’d shot him.
She found her hands were beating frantically at the impassive arm of the motionless man near her, “Oh, help him. You must save him.”
As though her words had rushed him to action, he stared at the scene before him, and said in a tone of true rancor, “Damn you, Duke.”
When he reached into his vest and pulled out a mage stick, Nell had a moment of frozen certainty that he was going to shoot Darkwater. But the man handed her the stick instead, and said, even as he bent down to grasp Seraphim’s hands, “Lay it into them, good and hard.”
She obeyed, almost without thinking, mowing down the soldiers grabbing Seraphim’s ankles and feet, while the stranger pulled the duke into the room by his hands. A guardsman from the other world tried to plunge in just behind him, but Nell shot him with a bolt of magic, and he fell back twitching. None too soon, as her mage stick was spent. And the portal closed.
She let it drop from a nerveless hand and turned– To see the stranger taking a knife to the Duke. The sound of his voice saying “Damn you Duke,” came to her. She didn’t pause to think or to consider the consequences of her actions. She raised a foot, high, and only slightly hampered by the dress and under dress, kicked with all her might at the knife wielding hand. The knife went flying, and Nell dropped back, hands raised, ready to grab furniture or books or something to defend herself. Or to send a magic spell against the man, when he came after her.
He didn’t come after her. He didn’t even seem to notice her at all, though he looked dismayed when the knife went flying from his hand, and he shook his hand, once, twice, as though to rid himself of pain.
But then the took his hands to the duke’s coat, and pulled. The coat tore down the front, to reveal a shirt all covered in blood. And Nell realized the man had been about to cut Seraphim’s clothes away from him, so he could minister to the duke. At the same time, the realization hit that this stranger looked a great deal like the duke and might very well be one of his brothers, though Nell had believed his brothers were all much younger.
She walked to where the knife had fallen, by a blue-velvet covered table stacked high with books, and noted without giving it much thought, that the covering was a little lifted and anxious eyes were peeping from under it. The eyes were familiar. It was the boy-lion.
Without a word to him, she retrieved the knife and walked back to the man kneeling by the duke and now trying, ineffectually, to tear the blood soaked shirt. She handed the knife to him, handle first, and he said, “Thank you, Miss,” as though this were an every day occurrence. She watched him cut the shirt to reveal, beneath it, a chest criss-crossed in blood-saturated ligatures. The man said, under his breath, “Oh, the damn fool,” and Nell found herself agreeing. Only a fool or a madman would take it upon himself to go into another world and get into a fight when he had suffered what appeared to be very serious injuries. And most injuries were serious in Avalloni, whose magic could at the same time perform healing feats that would startle Earth, and be totally ineffective against infections. People might regrow an amputated limb, but they would surely die of the infection, if the amputating instrument hadn’t been properly sterilized. And she doubted the implement had been properly sterilized before it had made those gashes, now revealed on the Duke’s chest and shoulder, as the stranger cut his ligatures off.
“I… Is there anything–” she was about to ask if there was anything she could do, and then she realized that the stranger was muttering under his breath, a steady stream of arcane words. As those assembled in her mind, she realized what they were. A resurrection spell.
Her eyes opened wide, as she stared at the duke with her mage sight. He wasn’t dead. But the force of life around his body had ebbed so low it was like a flame that a careless breath might extinguish. Used in these circumstances the resurrection spell, forbidden otherwise, as after death it only brought life to a soulless body, was much like the paddles with which, on Earth, people tried to stimulate a failing heart. Except that it took a massive amount of life-force from the one administering the spell. And she could do nothing but stand there, clutching her skirts, and watching as the stranger poured a not inconsiderable amount of magic into Seraphim Darkwater, in a desperate effort to save his life.
The stranger himself must be a considerable magician. Either that or he would end up in almost as bad a shape as Seraphim.
One time the spell was said. Twice. Its force flared and fizzled, pale blue against the dying flames of Seraphim’s life which had ebbed down to a dirty sort of orange, like flames that have fed on oil and are almost spent.
Once more, and the force surrounded Seraphim’s body, and it looked for a moment as though it would re-light the force of his life. But it died down yet again. The stranger’s face grew stern, his features seeming to become all sharp planes and angles. He looked more than ever like Darkwater, a Darkwater determined to be brave and strong against all costs. Yet another damned hero, Nell thought, and it seemed to her she heard Antoine’s derisive tone in her thoughts. And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to dislike or despise this man who was pouring his magic and his strength so unstintingly into the dying body of … his master? His brother?
The stranger raised the spell yet a fourth time, and Nell told herself she’d take it next, rather than let the man commit suicide through generosity.
But this time, as the blue flare went out and surrounded the duke, the orange, dying flame of Seraphims life, caught and sparked, then grew into a pale yellow-white flame. Not quite healthy life, but abundant, reigniting his vitality fully.
In the dead quiet of the room, she heard the Duke take one breath, then another. And then his rescuer took a breath, which curled upon itself in a sob, which, in turn, quieted abruptly, as if – hearing himself show a sign of weakness – the man had cut it off.
He lowered his head and shook, still taking painfully loud breaths, like a man at the end of miles of running, and Nell found that she, herself, had not breathed in too long a time, and took a gasping breath. Then she thought that the man looked very ill, waxen-pale and shaking, with the effort and reaction of a resurrection spell so oft repeated.
It wasn’t even that it took a lot of magic, a lot of power, a lot of strength. No. It was more than that. When using such a spell there was always the danger that between sending it forth, and its hitting the target the target might die. And if such a thing happened, then the mage’s duty was to kill his creation immediately. In fact, in Avallonis not to do so was punishable with death, though she’d heard that the law was rarely enforced. But it was certainly punished with exclusion from all society and magical association.
The stranger shook, and his dark hair was pasted to his head with sweat, and Nell surmised that he would not want her to see him in this state. Men were proud everywhere, but in this world more than anywhere else – particularly the gentry, which this man might very well be, as much as he looked like the Duke.
She fell back on the expected role of women in this time and place. Going to the wash basin set in a corner, she was relieved to find that it was supplied with an ever-filled ewer, the water magicked in – probably from the well of the estate – as soon as it was emptied, and kept warm in the container, by means of a spell.
She poured it into the basin, and grabbed a bar of soap and a pile of the folded linen towels left by it. With the towels under her arm and the soap caught her under chin, she walked back carrying the delicate porcelain basin, with the pink and blue roses painted around the edge, and set them on the floor next to Seraphim, who still looked dead, but who was breathing regularly.
She dipped a towel in the water and, very gently, started swabbing at the Duke’s blood-covered chest. She was relieved to find that he was not nearly as torn apart as it looked from the blood. His wounds were, in the main, two, one in his chest and one on his arm. Not that it mattered. In Avallonis, you could die of a scratch if it were not sterilized in time. And the Duke’s wounds were no scratch.
“Thank you, Miss,” the strange man said, in the tremulous, breaking voice of a man pushed beyond physical limits.
She didn’t look up. Instead, she smiled a little, while wiping the blood from Seraphim, and noting those wounds had once been sewn together, though the stitches had now been torn out. “My name,” she said. “Is Helena Felix,” she said.
“Miss Felix,” he said.
“But no,” she said. “You must call me Nell.” And sensing, even without looking up, his shock at being invited to call her not just by her first name but by a nickname, she smiled again. “We have fought together. You would not call a comrade in arms by his last name would you?”
His breath skipped showing an hesitancy. She looked up to see him open his mouth, then snap it closed. “I might,” he said. “If he were well born. You see, I don’t know what you– That is, you must know my name is Gabriel Penn, and I’m his Grace’s of Darkwater’s valet.”
It was Nell’s turn to be shocked. She fought having her mouth drop open in surprise, and instead managed to say in a creditable show of composure. “I see.” But the truth was that she didn’t see at all. Not only was the man an enormously powerful magician – she herself doubted she’d have the stamina to do the resurrection spell four times in a row – but he was undoubtedly trained. And while there was all chance of byblows, men being what they were, and therefore of a servant having some form of magical power, bastards never – at least in Nell’s experience – had as much power as this man had. And those who did were never taught. At least not the riskier spells.
Who were the Darkwaters? Seraphim went looking for fights in worlds where he had no business, in direct contravention of his majesty’s laws, and this other man who looked so much like Seraphim, but who was a servant, used spells no one but a Gentleman could have been taught to wield. Or have the power to manage.
“I see,” she said again, and cleared her throat. “I shall call you Gabriel then.”
He opened his mouth, then seemed to think better of it, and got up to go to the drawer in the dressing table. When he returned, he carried a box which, when set by the side of the Duke’s unconscious form and opened revealed needle and thread and what looked like a complete surgeon’s kit.
“You might want to look away,” Gabriel said. “Miss.”
“No, I don’t believe so,” she said. “I’ve seen blood before. You’ll want to disinfect the wound first, though,” she said. And realized he’d already laid hold of brandy and was pouring it over the Duke’s wounds. She was about to tell him pure alcohol was better for that, when she decided the man knew his business as well, if not better than, her.
Instead, she watched as Gabriel sewed the first of the Duke’s wounds closed, then started to slather it with a thick grey ointment that seemed to be infused with healing magic. “Give me the ointment,” she said, firmly. “I will do that while you sew his chest wound.”
He inclined his head, saying nothing. “You’ll pardon me,” Nell said at last. “But what business had he to go about like that when he was this seriously wounded?”
The man made a sound that might have been an hiccup, the beginning of a laugh, or a smothered sob. “None,” he said. “But no use trying to prevent him. When he thinks something is his duty– A great one for duty is the Duke. If you knew how many times– Oh, never mind.”
But Nell had caught both the exasperated affection and the mingled admiration and anger in Gabriel’s voice, and realized it was the feeling of an older brother for a younger brother who was inclined to biting off more than he could chew. The Darkwaters were unusual indeed. Clearly Gabriel knew these spells because he had been educated in magic. And given the aplomb with which he used them, he must have been educated in Cambridge, alongside his legitimate brother.
Because she knew better – had learned better over her time in this forsaken world – than to question legitimacy or the bond of blood between men of two such different classes, she said, instead, as she slathered the newly-sewn wound, and Gabriel finished cleaning the duke – or as much as he could clean him given the inability to submerge him in water, “The young man who came in with us is under the table there.”
Gabriel nodded. “Good. I hope he’ll stay out of the way till I can call the housekeeper to get him clothes and, hopefully, to take him to her cousin’s cottage for a spell.”
Nell hesitated. “He… That is, he is a lion shifter.”
Gabriel nodded again. “A lot of the rescues are from that world. Seraphim usually pays their way into a shifter seminar in Bath. There are two, one for young ladies, and one for young gentlemen. All the teachers are shifted and therefore equipped to train the young people in the ways of control of their magic, and in the ability to shift at will. But I understand they teach them other trades, usually as clerks or secretaries or the like.”
Nell shook her head at the idea of a shifter secretary. Back in the day when she’d worked in computers, their group’s administrative assistant had looked much like a weasel, but she supposed here it would be more obvious.
“And the housekeeper knows about this?” Truly the conspiracy to breach the sovereign shields of other worlds was extensive. And law said all of them were due death. She couldn’t imagine denouncing Seraphim or Gabriel and seeing them beheaded and hung respectively. No. She had seen Seraphim almost die. But if she lied on her report and they found out, surely they would hurt Antoine?
“She’s my godmother,” Gabriel said, as though that meant something. “Now, Miss, if you’d step aside.”
Miss stepped aside, wishing in an annoyed sort of way that the proper Gabriel would call her Nell, a feeling that was dissolved into shock as that man who had just done four resurrection spells, lifted Seraphim in his arms and carried him to the bed.
Oh, the bed was only three steps away, and Gabriel did totter under the weight of the duke, but that he could lift him at all – when both were well-matched for weight and height – much less after the ordeal Gabriel had inflicted on himself, was near-unbelievable.
Yes, the Darkwaters were an odd family. And they might be made of more-than-human stuff.
Gabriel laid the duke down, and waved his hand at the mage light on the bedside bringing its glow down. “And now we wait,” he said. “And pray if we remember how.”
But if there was anyone listening to prayers at that moment, they must have turned away, because – before Nell could answer – the door to the room jiggled, then flung open. Framed in the doorway stood a small, dark woman old enough to be the duke’s mother. It seemed to Nell that was exactly what the woman was, in fact. Nell had memories of seeing portraits.
But unlike the portraits, the woman wasn’t smiling. She had her opulent dress clutched in either hand, lifting it away from the legs as women of this world did, when they must move swiftly. And she was saying, “Seraphim, I demand that you explain…” The words died, as she looked towards the bed and Seraphim, sprawled on it, unconscious. And then she said, “Oh.”