seawasp (seawasp) wrote,

PSTPWD Posting: Spirit Warriors/Choosing the Players

This year for Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch Day I am posting the first couple of chapters from Choosing the Players, the first book in the Spirit Warriors trilogy. Those who have read Phoenix Rising in advance will recognize the young man we meet in these chapters.

Chapter 1.

This was a stupid, stupid idea.

     Xavier glanced back. Of course, they're behind me too.

     The oldest member of the gang was maybe two or three years older than Xavier; the youngest, maybe fourteen, a year younger. But there were at least fifteen or twenty of them, and only one of him.

     "So is this where I say I don't want any trouble, and one of you says 'too bad'?" he said. There was a dumpster to one side. If I can at least get over there, the wall and the dumpster cover  my sides. Of course, then I'm cornered and I'll have to beat all of them, or enough so they decide its not worth it.

     But I've got to do it. Otherwise that … monster… will have won.

     "You're trying to be funny. If you just dump everything you've got – and it's enough – maybe we'll all laugh, and you won't have trouble," the obvious leader – a six-foot three, heavily muscled boy with pale skin, tattoos, and brown hair down to his shoulders – said.

     For a minute he thought about it. They probably won't take my ID, I don't have credit cards. But without the money, how can I get to California? How can I find out what happened?

     But the chuckles around the slowly-tightening circle told him that "maybe" was an awfully frail hope for escape. If I get out of this, I'm going back, finding that bastard who told me about this shortcut, and kicking his balls right up into his oversized hat.

     He was in the corner now, hard blue-painted steel on one side, bricks on the other. He unsnapped the strap, let his backpack fall. For a moment the others stopped, probably thinking he'd decided to give them everything they were asking for.

     Well, I'll do my best to give them what they're asking for.

     He dropped into a simple front stance and waited. A ripple of laughter went around the group. But the simple pose reminded him of that day, of the last hours he remembered being happy


     I can't wait to tell Mike! Xavier thought as he leapt easily off the bus and jogged towards his house. The glittering, heavy golden medal bounced off his chest with each step, and he knew he was showing off, knew that the sparkle off the medal in the late-evening summer sun would draw every eye.

     "Mom, Michelle, I'm home!"

     His older sister turned, then gave a little scream. "Oh my god, Mom, Xavier's got the gold!"

     "Oh, my goodness! Hold on, don't move!" His mother, gold-haired like his older brother Michal, appeared, camera in hand. "Let me get a picture." She took even more photos than Xavier felt were entirely necessary – he could smell the roast chicken that was obviously waiting for his attention. Then she stood back and just looked at him for a long moment; he could see a shimmer of not-quite-shed tears in her green eyes. "Your father would be so proud."

     As usual, he didn’t quite know what to say to that. Dad disappeared when I was, what, two? Don't even know what happened to him, some people say he ran off with another woman.

     But Mom always talks about him as though he were just about perfect. Finally they were heading to the dining room! And she always ends up comparing me to him because I looka lot like him…

     He glanced reflexively at the picture – one of only two photos of his father he knew of – on the wall. It did look much like him, sharp angles, a hawklike aspect to the face, and most of all the large, uniquely gray eyes, eyes that seemed to follow you from the picture. Never did like that one much.

     But after dinner was the best part of the day. He went upstairs to his room and picked up the phone, dialed the number his brother had given him. Can't wait to tell him…

     But this time there was an answering machine, telling anyone trying to contact M. T. Ross to call a different number.

     That wasn't terribly unusual – as a freelance photographer and sometimes investigative reporter, Mike sometimes had to move quickly. And he did sound a little tense, something he was looking into sounded kind of bad

     Still, it didn't worry him as he hung up and started dialling the new number. Mike was as good a fighter as Xavier was, and bigger, tougher, and a lot more experienced. He'd been in war zones, walked through countries in revolution, taken pictures of erupting volcanoes from inside the crater, followed police on major drug busts, interviewed gang members, and walked a mile to the nearest hospital after being knifed in the back by someone from a different gang.

     The phone on the other end barely rang before it was picked up. "Xavy?"

     "Mike! Stop using that name!" It was an almost standard greeting – his childish nickname was annoying, but Mike refused to stop using it.

     "Not a chance." Xavier could hear waves in the background. "You and mom and sis okay?"

     The question wasn't unusual, but … Mike sounded funny. Too serious. "Sure. I have something to tell you."

     "I've got something to tell you too," Mike said, and this time he was sure. Mike sounded dead serious, and tired. "But you first."

     He shrugged off the phantom concern. "I got the gold in the tournament!"

     For a moment the dark tone was gone. "Way to go, bro! I'll bet Shihan was happy!"

     "He looked almost happier than I was, I think," he said, grinning again as he remembered Shihan Butler's ecstatic grin. "The team got four golds, six silvers, and six bronzes overall, but I was in the top rank, black belt, and the Japanese were brutal this year."

     "But you still took 'em all down. That's my little brother. Congratulations." He was silent for a moment. "Look, Xavier – I don’t want to worry Mom."

     That sounded ominous. "What? You're not going into a war zone again, are you?"

     "No," he said, then hesitated. "Maybe… yes, in a way. I don't know."

     "Mike, that doesn't make any sense."

     "I've been tracking … something. I haven't been giving anyone the details yet because…" Again, a hesitation. "Dammit." The voice was hushed now, whispering, and Xavier felt a chill run down his whole body. Mike, the confident, carefree, invincible Mike, sounded scared. "Xavier, it's crazy, but I think I've found actual evidence."

     "Evidence of what? Look, I think I should get Mom –"

     "Not yet. I have –" he cut off abruptly, and the quality of the sound showed he'd pulled away from the mouthpiece. Where is he? A pay phone?

     But Mike was saying something, but not into the phone. "I'm sorry, I'm in the middle of – GOD, NO!"

     And then Mike screamed. There was a banging, a smashing rattling noise as of something being hammered against glass and metal.

     "Mike! MIKE!!" he was shouting into the phone, but the screaming went on, a shriek of horror and agony that suddenly just cut off.

     Xavier halted his own screams, listening desperately to the hushed, rhythmic waves. And then to the lilting, insane laugh, the laugh of someone who had seen something incredibly funny in the death of another human being. A laugh that died away into the wash of the surf, and then, even as he became vaguely aware of footsteps coming at a run up the stairs,a voice, a delicate, sweet voice. "Oh, so pretty, so pretty, the patterns in the moonlight. But oh, such a waste of blood."

     His mother was there, staring at him, but he held to the phone with a deathgrip, and there was the unmistakable sound of a hand grasping the phone, and the girl was whispering, "Michael's quiet now. He says goodbye."

     And the phone went dead.


     "So the kid knows kung fu!" the leader said, and the voice snapped him back to now. The laughter had continued, and now they produced more weapons. Mostly knives, but there a couple of guns. Forget the guns for now, if they shoot in this mess they're more likely to hit their friends.

     Two of them lunged forward then, knives out. Xavier didn't bother to try the fancy trick of kicking the knife out of the hand; he simply moved slightly aside, caught and twisted the arm as it went by, and at the same time kicked sideways and down. He felt his gut tighten, nausea rise as he felt the knee break, cartilage and bone bending sideways with a green-stick crunch and a scream. Sorry, Shihan, I'm using what you taught me to hurt people. He knew self-defense was allowed… but this was still horrid.

     No time to think, just do. He continued the spin and twist, brought the other boy's arm farther up, heard the pop as he dislocated the shoulder. I am going to puke after this, if I live through it.

     But there were others already coming in. He tried a kick, caught one in the groin, but he was wearing something, a hard cup, kick probably hurt but not enough, the others are coming, block that strike, got to get away, maybe up –

     He tried to leap to the top of the dumpster, but the one he'd kicked in the groin caught his leg, slammed him down. Xavier tried to roll but there were two others already on him, kicking, pounding. He felt a rib snap, knew the pain would hit as soon as his body realized what had happened. Then a new pain, a cold-flaming pain sliding through his gut, and he realized with dull horror that he'd been stabbed. They picked him up, threw him down, tumbling half-conscious and in agony across the filthy pavement, and as he twitched, trying to find some way to get control of his body, he saw the leader raise his gun. "Bye-bye, karate kid."

     "That's enough."

     The voice cut through everything, even Xavier's foggy consciousness.

     Standing at the far end of the alley was an old man. He was tall, with white hair that fell so it covered much of his face, and thin within the simple black shirt and pants he wore. He stood in a strange pose, arms parallel across his body, almost as though he had stopped in the midst of folding his arms.

     "Enough?" The leader spun, pointing the pistol at the newcomer. "How about enough of th-"

     And without so much as a pause, the old man was there, taking the gun from the leader's hand in a single motion. "I said that is enough."

     "What the – take this asshole down!"

     Xavier could not see – could not grasp – what happened next. It was a blur of motion, grunts of pain, screams, curses. But then two or three people ran past him, fear as plain across their faces as skywriting, and he could see, in his dimming sight, the old man standing above the unconscious – or dead – bodies of all the rest.

     The man walked past the sprawled bodies and bent down. "What is your name, son?"

     "X…Xavier…" he managed, hearing a faint gurgle. They must have hit a lung as well as my gut. I'm a dead man. And I've failed. "Can't… die…"

     "All things can die," the old man said, and his arms slid under Xavier, lifting him so easily that it felt almost like floating. "But not you, not today."

Chapter 2.

     Xavier blinked himself slowly awake. A room he didn't recognize. Carefully fitted stonework, painted in a pattern of sunset colors that made the room feel warmer, comforting. A soft bed under him, one that smelled new-washed. His head was slightly elevated, and looking ahead he could see the wall, also of stone with a polished wooden door – currently closed – in the center.

     Just tightening his gut in preparation for sitting up warned him that was a terrible idea. A wash of sharp, ripping pain screamed at him to lie back down! He did so immediately; his training with Shihan had taught him to listen to what his body told him, and there obviously wasn't any emergency right now that justified taking chances.

     For a moment he wondered if the last memories he had were some kind of dream or illusion. But if they were, how had he gotten out of that attack alive? No, it had to be real, ridiculous though it seemed.

     The door opened silently, and the old man came in. He glanced over at Xavier and nodded. "Awake already, I see. You recover quickly, Xavier." He put down a tray which held a pitcher of water, a cup, and a bowl. "I will help you sit up, and then you can have some broth. Your insides are not yet ready for much else."

     As the old man helped him up, Xavier noticed the IV drips in his arms. "This… isn't a hospital, but you've got IVs?"

     "Such equipment is not hard to get, if you know how."

     "Did you… sew me up?"

     "I did." The old man frowned, putting deeper lines in his mohagany-colored face. "Such wounds are very dangerous, and demanded immediate attention. I have also made sure your rib is properly set, reinflated your lung, and attended to your other injuries."

     "Are you… a doctor?"

     He smiled. "I am. And other things as well." He picked up the bowl. "Now, let's see if you can hold this down."

     Xavier didn't like being fed by someone else, but he liked pain less; moving his arms hurt the rest of him, although his arms themselves seemed fine. It was a pretty good broth. "That's … homemade," he said. "Not packaged bouillon."

     "Your sense of taste, at least, is not dulled." Another smile. "Your mother cooks well, I take it?"

     "She does, Michelle does, I do okay, and when Mike's home he…" He found he couldn't go on; once again, the realization that his big brother was never coming home again had ambushed him in the middle of a thought.

     "Mike? A brother? Did something happen to him?" The man's voice seemed to hold genuine concern and interest.

     Xavier opened his mouth, closed it, shook his head. "Sorry. It's nothing you need to worry about, sir."

     "I apologize. As long as it has nothing to do with why you were in that alley, nearly nine hundred miles from home, you are correct, it is nothing for me to concern myself with."

     Xavier winced, then his head snapped up. "How the hell do you know where I live?"

     The dark-skinned hand pointed. Xavier saw his backpack lying there against the wall. "You carried more than sufficient identification, including your address."

     "Er… yeah. Sorry." He looked away, then back. "Why would it matter?"

     "I have saved your life from a rather unusual and perilous situation. Even traveling alone I would have expected a young man of your age and apparent social standing to have taken a rather different route out of Chicago."

     He grimaced, swallowing another spoonful of broth the old man offered. "Yeah, I should have. But I'm mostly walking and hitching to save my money. This other old guy said you could get to a good road for walking that way."

     His benefactor raised a white eyebrow. "He did? Interesting."

     "Interesting enough that if I ever see him again I'll kick him somewhere painful. And you still didn't answer my question."

     "Not entirely, no," the man agreed. "Because, in short, I would hate to have saved a life that is to be thrown away immediately afterwards. Where are you going, son?"

     Xavier looked at him, then shook his head. "Sir… look, I'm not really ready to talk about it."

     The white hair combined with mustache and beard made it harder to read his benefactor's face. The man merely studied him for a long minute while Xavier took a few more spoonfuls. The eyes behind the hair glinted green, a startling color in that dark face. "I suppose you can take your time, Xavier. You won't be moving for a while. I can make sure you recover, but those kind of wounds are slow to heal for even young men like yourself." He smiled suddenly. "Even young men who are in excellent shape. You acquitted yourself quite well in that confrontation."

     "Well? I only got two of them, maybe messed up a third. You … Damn, sir, I thought I'd seen people who knew how to fight, but I don’t think even Shihan could have done that."

     "Shihan Butler?"

     "You know him?"

     He smiled again. "He is … quite well-known in the profession, and knowing where you came from, it seemed most likely. I have met him a few times, yes, some years ago. You have great fortune in having him as a teacher."

     Xavier nodded, and finished the last few spoonfuls of broth. "He taught me and… and Mike. Mike was way ahead of me there, though, he could've been on the track for champion, which is one reason it makes no sense…"

     He stopped.

     "Ah." The white head nodded slowly. "No accident, but murder, then."

     Xavier suddenly felt confused. What the hell am I doing here? How can I do what I have to do if a few punks … He looked up. "The police aren't going to find his killer," he said, as the old man began to stand, taking the empty bowl away.

     The head turned, a white eyebrow raised. The man slowly seated himself again "Aren't they?"

     "I don't think so." He realized he was committed now; if this man wished him harm, he could simply have let the gang finish him. Why not trust him? He had to tell someone. "I remember when I told them how my brother died…"


     "… and that's all I remember, ma'am." Xavier felt numb, exhausted and every feeling except dull rage gone.

     Lieutenant Reisman nodded sympathetically. "I'm sorry to have to put you through that again," she said, "but Morgantown PD is trying to do this so that – hopefully – you don't have to get flown out to L.A. to testify." She looked at him with an analytical gaze. "Are you up to a few more questions – ones you've probably heard before?"

     He nodded.

     "The voice – are you sure it was a woman?"

     He thought about it. "Yeah. I'm sure. I could be wrong, but I'm sure, if you know what I mean."

     She smiled. "Yes, I know exactly what you mean, and I wish more people could say things that clearly. You mean that your gut says it was a woman, even if you could imagine a man sounding like that."

     "Yes, ma'am, that's it exactly."

     "You mentioned your brother was on edge, more nervous lately, and that he said he had 'evidence'. Do you know what he had evidence of?"

     He'd been going over that in his head for hours. "No, I'm sorry. All I know is… it can't have been anything ordinary. I mean, drugs or smuggling or something like that, he'd run into all that before, but whatever this was, it was wierding him out somehow. I never heard M…Mike so…" and the tears were trying to start again.

     The police lieutenant put her hand on his shoulder. "Sorry, Xavier. Look, that's enough, I think." She shut off her recorder and straightened up. "We'll find the person who did this. I promise."


     "But they didn't. Weeks went by, and eventually they found some guy, drug-related gang, and said he was the one who did it." The anger and bitter, acid disappointment rose in him again. "They said Mike had a history of investigations into drug-related crime, and okay, yeah, he did, but anyway they said somehow the cartel had figured out he was onto them and killed him."

     The old man's eyes flashed green again from beneath his hair, but he said nothing for a moment. Finally, "But you don't believe they got the right man. He denied it?"

     "No," Xavier admitted grudgingly, knowing how that sounded. "He confessed. Exactly the story they said it was, and he was going to testify about the rest of the gang. Found hanged in his cell before that happened, of course."

     "Hmm. Still, he did confess to that crime. Why do you feel so certain this man is not the guilty party?"

     Xavier started to reply angrily, but then it penetrated that his benefactor wasn't arguing; he was asking, quite seriously.

     "I… a lot of little things. Partly it's just that I'm sure that was a girl I heard. Not some guy six feet two and two hundred pounds. And what the person said, that just didn't sound like someone doing a killing for a gang would do. Hell," he said with a small smile, "I just found out what a gang might do when they're killing someone."

     The old man nodded seriously. "Go on."

     "Umm… well, there was Michael's reaction. Before…" he didn't let himself start crying this time, but it was a close thing, "… before he screamed, that is. If some big guy had come towards him, while he was on a payphone trying to avoid a drug gang, he wouldn't have been all casual about it. But he sounded like he was just trying to tell someone that he was busy on the phone – like maybe he thought this girl wanted to use the payphone. He didn't sound like he thought this person was a threat until, well, they pulled out whatever weapon they used on him."

     Xavier realized his eyelids were starting to droop. "Jeez, I'm tired. But there's other things… like, um… well, Mike wouldn't just scream like that if someone ordinary cornered him… plus Mr. Wood said…" It dawned on him that he was getting disjointed. "Sorry, I think I'm checking out."

     "You should have gone to sleep some time ago," the old man said with another smile. "Strong will must run in your family. We'll finish talking, later."

     Xavier tried to protest, but somewhere in the middle of that, sleep ambushed him.

Chapter 3.

     He's following me.

     For some – probably most – sixteen year old girls, that thought would have been accompanied by more or less fear. Nike, however, didn't feel much concern. First of all, she knew who it was, and second she had an idea why Sam Hellerman was following her.

     "Um… Nike! Hi!"

     She smiled and nodded slightly. Despite his dark hair – opposite of her own silver-blond – Sam's complexion was very light – which unfortunately meant that here in Florida it was perpetually sunburned. For some reason poor Sam just didn't tan well.

     "Hi… Sam, isn't it?" Inwardly, she winced at how he brightened at the simple fact she remembered his name. This isn't going to be much fun.

     "Hey, you remembered. I wasn't sure you would, I've only been in class for a couple weeks." Other than the sunburn, Sam was actually very good looking – almost pretty, in a way – and she knew a lot of the other girls were acting all silly over him.

     But, again unfortunately, he didn't seem to notice. Whenever he thought she wasn't looking, he'd been staring at her, and Nike knew that he'd asked other people in the class about her. Apparently the answers he'd gotten had still failed to discourage him.

     "Well, between my mom and my uncle, I was taught to pay attention to the people around me."

     "Yeah, I heard your mom's a cop. A police officer, I mean."

     They passed the three palms on the corner, and she turned down towards West 28th. "It's okay, even she calls herself a cop."

     "Okay. Didn't want to give any offense." He smiled, glancing at her nervously. "I guess hardly anyone forgets your name. Nike Engelshand. I don't think I've ever met anyone with either name before."

     Well, at least he's trying to make conversation. "There aren't very many of us. I think there were other Engelshands back in Germany or Bavaria, where my dad's grandfather came from, but no more here."

     "Did you get your first name from that side of the family?"

     She laughed. "No, no. They all had your standard Germanic names. Great-grandfather was Burkhard, grandfather was Franz. I got my first name from Uncle Horatio. Who's not my uncle, really, but…"

     He nodded, and though he smiled she could see more tension. Working himself up to ask me out. I really don’t like disappointing people, but…

     But the fact was it wasn't just Sam; none of the boys – or girls, for that matter – in her class really attracted her. She admitted to herself that no one would be likely to if they weren't as interesting as her own family, or almost-family like Uncle Horatio.

     Maybe he will be family soon. If Mom ever gets over Dad. It's been a long time now.

     "Glad the sun's finally down," he said, looking at the lengthening shadows. "Why didn't your folks pick you up?"

     "I like walking when I can," she said. Only a few more blocks. If he doesn't finish getting himself ready, I can avoid the whole rejection scene for the weekend, at least. "And it's just mom and me – dad… he's been gone for a while."

     He looked contrite. "Oh, sorry, I mean… You mean, um, gone, right? Or just, like… left?" He looked down. "Ugh. I guess that's a clumsy question no matter how I say it, huh?"

     She rolled her eyes slightly, but he really did seem to mean well. "You could have tried avoiding the topic. But yes, dad passed away about six years ago." This subject might just keep him off his game for the rest of the way.

     Something about the shift in his stride suddenly screamed at the senses her mother had trained into her from the time she was a little, little girl, and she ducked sideways, not even aware of what she was dodging until she finished, backpedaling from the boy whose face was now almost unrecognizable, fixed in a sneer of incomprehensible triumph and hunger. "Exactly all I needed to know," he said, and his voice was somehow different too, harder, arrogant, and cruel. "The last of your obscene little family."

     In Sam's hand was a long, double-edged blade, a weapon whose incredibly black blade shone like a polished shadow in the lowering gloom of sunset, flashing bloody red from the sky. Where the heck did he get that?

     She didn’t wait around to ask questions or try to figure out what had turned this clumsy innocent-looking boy into a killer; Nike sprinted down the alley between two houses (the Garrisons and the Albertis, she thought). If she was lucky…

     But he was fast, much faster than she'd thought, and his footsteps were hardly a half-beat behind hers. "Help!" she shouted, and then delivered a hard backwards kick as she slowed.

     Her flat heel hammered into Sam Hellerman's gut; she heard the startled whoosh of air from his lungs, but did not stick around to see if that stopped him; her mother had always taught her to try to avoid the fight whenever possible. She burst out of the alley and into the Alberti's backyard. No one was there and she ran on to Fairgreen Drive, shouting for help. Where is everyone? It's barely past sundown, this is Miami Beach for God's sake, it's never this deserted here!

     The footsteps behind her were even faster, a stacatto pounding that sounded completely freakish, and for the first time she had a spurt of real fear. No choice now.

     Her hand dove into her purse as she leapt aside at the very last minute. The black blade tore through the air she had just occupied, and Sam, his face even more red than usual, skidded to a halt.

     The nine-millimeter pistol barked once, and Sam Hellerman grunted, staggered back. Another shot, and he dropped the knife, and she fired a third time. If you have to shoot, sweetheart, she remembered her mother saying in that sweet, Southern accent, you make darn sure you finish the job. Don't wait to see if he's down until you've given him a full three.

     She stopped on the third round and waited, tense, but certain of the outcome. As Sam had stopped he'd made a perfect target, and at that range she could practically have stuck the bullets into him by hand. There was no way she'd missed with any of them.

     But Sam Hellerman did not fall. He looked down, then bent over and nonchalantly picked up the knife. "That stung, little girl."

     A part of her wanted to scream, because this was something terribly, terribly wrong in ways she couldn't describe. But the other part of her had been taught how to defend herself by her mother and her godfather since she could walk, and even as she felt herself taste blood in her mouth  from where she'd bitten her lip in shock, she fired again, twice.

     This time both bullets, fired from a range of fifteen feet, struck Sam Hellerman's forehead. She expected to see a spray of gore, watch the body pitch to the ground; but instead the head just snapped back for an instant, and came back up… two holes in the forehead, but no sign of life departing from eyes now black and cold.

     She ran then, screaming for help, because even her mother's teaching, even Uncle Horatio's calm and certain advice and admonishments to always stay cool in the face of disaster had not prepared her for anything like this, like a violation of every possible rational part of the world.

     Then she remembered.


     The word was still ludicrous, still foreign, but her uncle and mother took it deadly seriously, enough to give her a very special magazine. Still running, hearing the footsteps gaining on her, and seeing the streets still shockingly empty (and were those faces staring out the windows, faces that seemed unable to see that she was running, running for her life?), she ejected the magazine in her gun, the metal clatter-clattering away behind her as she slammed the other one home, dropping her purse in the process but who cared, no time, no need now, spinning around and to the side, her pursuer once more missing by the tiniest margin, and presenting a perfect target.

     Three more shots, silver bullets slamming into the thing calling itself Sam Hellerman; already off-balance, he went down. She stood, panting quickly, shakily, hands trembling, waiting.

     Then he rolled to his feet. "Wrong, wrong, little girl."

     Not a werewolf? What? What is this thing? As Hellerman began to move forward, she stood frozen, knowing that she couldn't outrun it; shot eight times and not even slowed down, not even breathing hard, the thing would just run her down with endurance if nothing else. What would Uncle H. do?

     And for a moment she saw him, sandy red hair blowing in the wind, blue eyes calm and certain in his weathered face, and it was as though he heard him speak. "Well, Nike, he might not act like they hurt, but you are still putting holes in him that take a little time to close up, aren't you?"

     As the monster in the body of a boy came at her, she shifted her aim, fired twice more.

     Now the thing yelled, in pain and fury, as two silver bullets blasted into its kneecaps.

     The black knife brushed by her, and even the tiny touch of it was like a line of fire. But she still felt a surge of triumph. "Run like that, why don't you?" she said, and sprinted away.

     The holes on his forehead. They were almost closed. It's going to give me a few moments head-start on him. I can probably pull that off a few more times but I've got to find some other way!

     But as she ran, she realized something else was terribly wrong. The street down which she ran wasn't just unfamiliar, but impossible. Miami Beach was effectively an island, connected by a few huge bridges to the mainland near Miami. It was flat land, a semi-tropical slice of sunny paradise in Florida, and whether in sunlight or darkness it never had the cold, damp wind that now blew in her face, none of its streets were hard-packed dirt, and there were no dark, thick-needled pines lifting their heads into the gray lowering clouds. She stumbled to a halt, looking around in confusion.

     Around the corner came Sam Hellerman, different now, a distorted humanoid form much larger, monstrous, with stringy corded muscles on a huge, armored frame, twisted and somehow wrong to look upon. But even it was now aware something was very wrong indeed, and came to a halt, squinting around narrowly, sniffing the air.

     Well, at least this isn't its doing.  She risked another look around. There was no sign of the Miami area at all, not even the houses she'd passed by not minutes ago. The road bent away behind the monster, winding into a forest that was silent and cold and misty-ancient. Ahead of her, the road divided, and incredulously she saw, vaguely visible in the drifting fog that seemed to enshroud the higher reaches of this place, two castles – one to the left, one to the right – both seated atop small mountains amid the shadows of larger ones.

     She looked back quickly. To her astonishment, she could see growing terror even on the monstrous face of her pursuer. "No… No, this is impossible. How…?"

     Behind her there was a movement, a chime of music as from a crystal bell, and golden light burst out, caught the monster even as its eyes widened and it turned to flee. The thing screamed then, and burned in the light, writhing and pleading and cursing until the sound stopped and the ashes blew away on the chill, damp wind.

     She turned, adrenalin now so heavily soaking her blood that it all seemed a lazy dream even as she felt that she could not bear to see another impossible horror.

     But it was not a horror… just a mystery. Behind her, where no one had been an instant before, stood a man, taller than any man she remembered meeting, well over seven feet tall. Long, white hair cascaded down his shoulders, and he gazed down at her from beneath a strange, five-sided hat with arcane symbols on each face; his eyes she could not quite make out. He wore a robe of deceptively simple cut, brown and white and blue, and in his hand was an elaborate staff with a crystal headpiece whose shape she couldn't discern.

     "Come, Nike Engelshand," he said, in a deep voice that echoed in the forest. "I have been waiting for you."

The remainder of the first several chapters finish introducing the rest of our main characters. Besides Xavier Ross and Nike Engelshand, we meet Toshi Hashima, Aurora Vanderdecken, and Gabriel Dante...

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