Chapter One – A Loss of Confidence

Bang. Bang. Bang.

Lieutenant Amy Elder, Earth Mage 1st Class of the Magical Bureau of Investigations, sighted down the barrel of her service pistol at the target at the end of the range and squeezed off the remaining bullets in the magazine, wishing bitterly the bullets were penetrating…what? A giant spider? A girl with midnight hair and ageless blue eyes? Her own head? She wasn’t sure anymore.

The click-click of the hammer hitting the empty chamber echoed in the sudden silence of the range and she realized her finger still curled around the trigger. She made her hand relax and set the gun down on the shelf in front of her. The paper target floated down at the other end of the booth, whole except for the head and heart. No small comfort that she could still aim a gun, at least under controlled circumstances. Sure, you can shoot me, it mocked her. What about when it really matters? Why didn’t you put a bullet in Nikki Jeffries’ head?

And what would happen if I did? Amy thought, shuddering. Would she have even noticed? Can a bullet hurt the Horseman of Death?

Images flooded her mind again, despite herself: a young woman with pale skin, leaning over her and whispering veiled threats in a soft voice; the policemen around her retching blood and bile as they sank to their knees; the bodies surrounding her as she lay on the ground, their flesh already beginning to swell and burst, as if they’d been dead days, not minutes. Screams filled her ears, overlain with laughter tinged with madness, mixed with her own muttered prayers. Once again, Amy stood in front of the white house in the Midwest, watching the events cascade around her, helpless to stop them.

You’re supposed to protect the innocent, her mind mocked her. Those officers looked to you to keep them safe, and for all your magical skills, you could do nothing. Their blood is as much on your hands as they are on hers. You let them die.

I couldn’t stop her! Amy insisted, once again. How can I stand against a Horseman?

You didn’t even try, it said, and she knew it was true. You didn’t even try.

A sound broke through the flood of guilt and Amy whirled, pointing her gun at the man who stood behind her.

“I hope that’s not loaded,” Baird McClanahan rumbled, looking at the pistol pointed at his head.

“Not any longer,” Amy said, lowering her arms. “What do you want?”

The Shadow Mage ignored her question, looking instead down at the target. “Nice shooting,” he said. “But what if it were impervious to bullets?”

“Then I wouldn’t be shooting at it,” she replied, refusing to rise to his bait.

He turned back to her, his dark eyes unreadable. “All your skills need practice.”

“Are you my teacher now?” Amy demanded, putting her pistol back down on the shelf again. “I practice.”

“Do you?”

Not in a week, but she wasn’t going to admit that to him. He probably already knew it–Baird seemed to have a source for all sorts of news from the department, even if he was supposedly retired and never around. Then again, the events of the past two months had Rear Admiral Ismael Hayden, the head of the MBI, pulling everyone in that he could. Magical emergencies that cross international borders had a way of superseding retirements.

“You didn’t come here to discuss my target practice,” Amy said, deciding to cut to the chase. “What did you want?”

“To find you,” he replied. “You haven’t been in the office all week.”

“I’ve been busy,” Amy hedged. “With Derek…Chief Reynolds…still recovering from his encounter with Nikki Jeffries, I’ve been shorthanded. Doing a lot of fieldwork.”

“Bullshit,” Baird said bluntly. “You’re hiding. Admit it.”

Amy straightened. “I am not.” Although I want to. Crawling into bed and pulling the covers over her head until the world fixed itself was tempting, every morning, but she’d resisted so far. Barely, but she had. “I’m still working.”

He looked dubious. And disapproving, but he wasn’t her supervisor.

“What do you really want, Baird?” she asked. “Why look for me?”

“I wanted to make sure you’d make your appointment this afternoon,” he said finally. “The Admiral is worried you might not show up.”

Amy grimaced. “I’ll be there.”

“Be sure you do.” Baird turned to leave. “And then get back to work. You can fall apart later.”

She stiffened. “I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me, Lieutenant.” The slight emphasis on her military title made her grit her teeth. “Start acting like a soldier. War is ugly. People die. Get used to it.”

“This isn’t a war.”

Baird paused in the doorway to the range and looked back at her, his dark eyes unreadable. “Isn’t it?”

Two hours later, those two words still rang in her ears as she and her partner, Chief Petty Officer Derek Reynolds, waited in the lobby in the Cannon House Office Building, waiting for Representative Jake Staniss to meet with them. Amy sighed, looking at the folder in her hands that contained various notes, and wished Dr. Amy Sturgis into a fiery hole once again. “Like we have time for this crap,” she muttered.

Derek chuckled softly. “I know. But you can’t be surprised.”

Amy sighed. “No. And in her position, I’d be doing the same thing.”

He knew who she meant and nodded. “With everything that’s come out in the news over the past two weeks, we’re lucky we’re not facing criminal charges.”

“The Admiral wouldn’t let it get that far.”

“That depends, Lieutenant,” a new voice said, and they both straightened. A tall man with thinning brown hair stood in the doorway, his suit immaculate and his face grim. “Please come with me.”

Feeling slightly like a wayward child called into the principal’s office, Amy stood up, followed by Derek, and they trailed after Rep. Staniss. He led them to one of the conference rooms, indicating chairs. Two were already taken by a man she didn’t recognize and one she did: the head of the MBI–Rear Admiral Ismael Hayden himself.

Damn. I didn’t think they’d call him in.

The second man stood and offered a hand. “Lieutenant, Chief, good to see you again.”

Amy remembered him then: Jerry Smith, the Bureau’s attorney. He’d prepped them for this hearing, going over everything they should and shouldn’t say. She hoped she remembered what was off-limits.

A slender woman slipped in, carrying a small laptop in her hands that she swiftly plugged in. Staniss waited while they all took seats; once the woman nodded to him, her hands poised over the keys, he cleared his throat to bring them to order.

“This inquiry into the events at the Gene-Tech Research Facility and the McGregor house in Cotton, Indiana is to determine whether Lieutenant Amy Elder and Chief Petty Officer Derek Reynolds acted in a derelict manner in regards to public safety.” He turned to Derek. “You first, Chief. Please tell me what happened in New Hampshire.”

Derek took a deep breath and folded his gloved hands in front of him. Amy wondered idly what the Sensitive would discover if he took one glove off–what secrets did the old wooden table they sat around hold? Then she told herself to pay attention.

“On the night of October 31, our records indicate that Alex Masterson, the head of the Gene-Tech Magical Research Facility, started the next phase of a project he called the Soldier Project,” Derek said. “He had previously ordered the entire complex on lock-down, for reasons that we do not know at this point. In the casting chamber of the secure wing that night was Masterson; Dr. Sylvia Richards, who was the head of the project; Tony Ashcroft, also known as Tony Keats; and at least three young women, all of whom were pregnant. We have ascertained that there was also at least one Elemental Lord in attendance.”

“An Elemental Lord?” Staniss asked. “For the sake of the inquiry, Chief, please explain what that is.”

Derek blinked, and Amy grimaced. Surely everyone knows what an Elemental Lord is, she thought, but he simply said, “An Elemental Lord is an immortal creature of magic from one of the realms adjacent to this one: either the ShadowLands or the DawnLands. In this case, all the magical traces indicate there was a Shadow Lord present at the start of the spell casting.”

“Thank you, Chief. Continue, please.”

“Yes, sir.” Derek paused to look at the notes in front of him. “What we believe happened is that the spell casting was interrupted by another spell caster. There was a struggle, during which a massive blast of magical energy, most likely from the interrupted spell, exploded out from the spell chamber.”

“That’s an awfully large blast, Chief,” Staniss objected. “According to the records turned over to my office, you have four hundred bodies in your morgue. Are you really asking me to believe that they died as a result of a blown spell?”

Amy winced. Ah, the joys of dealing with a mundane, she thought. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to make of my story.

“Genetic magic is a highly volatile type of magic,” Derek replied. “And any sort of spell that’s interrupted is going to have a backlash.”

“That whole ‘whatever you do rebounds back upon you’ crap?” The disgust in Staniss’ voice stained the air, and Amy fought not to sigh.

Ah, he’s a true non -believer. Lovely. She moved her hand slightly to get Ismael’s attention and, when he turned his head a fraction of an inch toward her, sent him a mental question. Are we really sticking to the Justin Greystone scapegoat theory?

We have him in custody. His mental voice rumbled just like his physical one. For right now, it’s our best defense.

Poor bastard. Not that Justin Greystone was helping his case any. He was still refusing to talk, and refusing to give them Nikki Jeffries. The one they really wanted.

Of course, what they would do with the Horseman of Death when they got their hands on her was a whole other thing. Amy wasn’t sure that the secure prison outside of Washington, DC, where Justin was currently cooling his heels would hold her. Would any mortal prison hold her?

Ismael’s foot tapped against hers, bringing her back from her thoughts. Derek was still talking, explaining in layman’s terms how an exploding spell could rip through a person, disrupting their nervous system and stopping their hearts. It was the only explanation the Healers had been able to come up with, through all the autopsies.

“So you expect me to believe that this one spell killed all these people?” Staniss said finally. “How did Masterson get permission to do such a dangerous spell?”

“He didn’t. There was no permission to get. Masterson was on private property, engaged in cutting edge research. There are no laws against that on private ground,” Derek said, and Staniss grunted. “Not only that, but there is evidence that the Storm that was hovering over the region amplified the magical resonance of the area, strengthening the rebound wave. Add in the fight between the spell casters, and the rebound would have been incredibly lethal.”

Staniss turned over the pen he was holding in his fingers. “And yet people in the next town over were not affected.”

“No, they wouldn’t be. The spell wouldn’t have had that far a reach. Also, the wards around the Gene-Tech facility would have slowed it.”

“Not enough for anyone to escape, except Alex Masterson,” Staniss said, and Derek nodded. “And you cannot explain that.”

“We can, actually.” Derek shrugged. “Masterson was at the epicenter of the explosion, in a shielded circle. He had enough time to Gate himself out. We’ve found the remains of his Gate Spell, and the disruptions caused by the Gate would have added to the mess that ultimately caused the explosion that destroyed the building.”

Staniss swung around to look at Amy. “And you, Lieutenant? Do you have anything to add?”

“Not to that. Chief Reynolds was very thorough.”

He raised one eyebrow. “This report does not contain the name of the spell caster, though. Even though I know you have a suspect in custody.”

“We do.” Amy nodded. “We believe our suspect had an accomplice, but as of this point, we have not been able to identify that accomplice.”

“What’s the matter, Lieutenant, you can’t put a name to Death?”

The swift question caught her off-guard. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said, you can’t put a name to Death?” He raised his eyebrows at her. “Isn’t that what all the newspapers are calling the unknown assassin?”

Dammit, I’d forgotten that. Although how she had, she didn’t know. Every headline for the past week had screamed the word in huge letters. “No, not yet. We’re still looking at all the evidence from the two sites.”

“And why do you think the two are related? Wasn’t Justin Greystone in custody before the incident at the McGregor house?”

She wasn’t surprised that they had Justin’s name, and nodded. “Yes, he was. But we found the same magical signature at the remains of the McGregor house as we did at the Gene-Tech facility. And magical signatures are unique to the Mage.”

“Can’t they be counterfeited?”

Amy shook her head. “Not in any way that we’ve been able to discover.”

Staniss grunted, but didn’t pursue the question. “What happened at the McGregor house?”

The question she’d been dreading. Amy drew in a deep breath to steady her voice. “We received word from the local police department that high magical energies had been detected at the house.”

“Detected how?” Staniss asked.

“The roof blew off.” Amy paused for a moment, knitting her fingers together in her lap to keep them from trembling. “When I got there, the front wall blew out.”

“Was this also a spell interrupted?”

“No. This was deliberately done. We believe that our unknown accomplice found out that Alex Masterson was hiding in the house and went to find him.”

“Why?” Staniss asked. “Why does this unknown want Masterson?”

And that, my friend, is the billion-dollar question. “We don’t know. Greystone refuses to tell us, and we can find no link at this point between him and Masterson.”

“So you don’t know why this unknown is stalking Masterson, or killing police officers?”

“No.” Amy looked at him. “We do not.”

Staniss sat back. “What do you know, then, Lieutenant?”

“The unknown was met by several members of a group known in the media as The God Squad. We believe they had been contacted by Masterson in an attempt to trade his genetic knowledge for protection from the unknown.”

“The God Squad does not do magic,” Staniss objected.

“That we know of,” Amy corrected him. “There are many things about that organization that we do not know yet.”

Staniss started to say something else, thought better of it and gestured her to continue.

Interesting. “There was another fight. It could have been Masterson versus our unknown, or it could have been our unknown versus The God Squad.”

“There were no Elemental Lords there?”

“There were, but not the same signatures that we found at Gene-Tech.” Which was another headache entirely. “In any case, no Elemental Lord has come forward to admit any sort of association with Masterson or with Gene-Tech.”

“And why would they?”

Amy shrugged. “Why wouldn’t they? Technically, they aren’t citizens of the United States–the Bureau has no legal authority over them, so the most we could do would be to inform the Council of Nine and let them deal with it.”

“The Council of Nine?” Staniss leaned forward. “And that would be?”

“The ruling body of the Elemental Lords,” Amy said. “The advisory council to the StarChild.”

“The StarChild.” Staniss rolled the name around in his mouth as if it were candy. “I was wondering when you were going to get to Miss Greystone. After all, Justin Greystone is her younger brother, yes?”


“And what is her role in this?”

“We don’t know,” Amy said. “All our reports indicate that she is still within the shielded area of Vermont.”

Staniss narrowed his eyes. “And the fact that she erected that shield the same night that Gene-Tech exploded didn’t raise certain suspicions within the Bureau that she was involved?”

Amy started to answer, but Smith interrupted her. “The StarChild’s activities are not a part of this inquiry, Rep. Staniss, per the Congressional order authorizing it.” He thrust several sheets of paper across the table. “Please keep these questions to the matter at hand. The StarChild is an independent agent and at this point has no connection to the Bureau’s actions in the Gene-Tech or McGregor matter, which are the only things you are authorized to investigate.”

Staniss scowled at him, then rose. “We’re done here for the moment,” he snapped. “I will be in touch if we have more questions.” Then he stomped out, his secretary trailing him a moment later. The sound of the large door slamming echoed through the small conference room.

“Touchy, isn’t he?” Smith said mildly, gathering up his papers. He nodded to Ismael. “I’ll catch up with you later, Admiral, as soon as I find out what is going to happen next.”

Ismael rose as well. “Agreed.” He turned to Amy and Derek. “Go back to New Hampshire and see what you can find out about Dr. Richards’ condition. She’s our only real link. And with Ashcroft dead, she’s the only loose end Masterson has to deal with. I don’t want her dead before she talks to us.”

“If she ever wakes up,” Amy muttered, and Ismael spared her a sharp look before he walked out.

Derek was drumming his fingers on the table, a puzzled frown on his face.

“What?” Amy prompted him, when he didn’t speak.

“Why didn’t he ask us about Dr. Richards?” Derek asked, swinging around in his chair to look at her. “He went right by it. Or Ashcroft, for that matter. He didn’t ask us about any of it.”

Amy considered that. “True. Maybe he didn’t feel that we needed to explain it? After all, he’s been given the reports we wrote, and how much more detail would he need on ‘she’s in a coma and he’s dead’?”

“But he didn’t even go over their involvement,” Derek said. “After all, we don’t know who killed Ashcroft. Or who stabbed Richards, for that matter.”

Amy shrugged. “So?”

“I don’t know,” Derek said. “It just seems…odd. As if he didn’t want us to go that route.”

“It wasn’t that long a session, though,” Amy pointed out. “And Smith torqued him off. I’m sure we’ll get called back. For now, we might as well get moving.”

“True.” Derek got to his feet slowly. “I think he was right about something, though.”

“Who, Staniss?”

Derek nodded. “I think that if we figure out why Nikki Jeffries wants Alex Masterson so badly, we’ll figure out the entire thing.”