Welcome to the special preview page for the first four chapters of Book Four of The Order of Shadows. I hope you enjoy this sneak-peak and the full book will be published in November. Until then…
Red and blue strobes flashed like lightning across the misty rain and the puddles at my feet. The very air around me pulsed with color and I braced myself as another wave of gunfire thundered into the cop car I was lodged behind. The door felt smooth and cold against my face as I pressed up against it. The entire car rattled, glass exploded from the windows above me and fell like glittering ice on the wet road. I glanced back along the jagged row of black and white cars hastily parked in the middle of the street. The rhythm of red and blue was almost hypnotic. Then the cops returned fire, their guns blazing in the rain as the rounds pelted the facade of the bank and I quickly looked away as they ducked back down.
Another salvo of bullets blasted out the rear window, I kept my head down, catching my reflection in the dark oily puddle.
The police uniform I was wearing made me look like a real professional. Focused, disciplined even. It could have been a good look but in reality it was just an illusion. Samuel had done well, but the spell would only hold for so long and the last thing I needed was a jumpy cop spotting my tatty old coat and the sword stashed under it.
I winced as another hail of bullets rocked the car and clenched my jaw as I waited for the lull.
I glanced through the shattered window toward the bank. It was a wide building with a tall portico supported by broad pillars, and polished granite walls riddled with bullet holes. Two robbers were holed up behind the pillars; somewhere beyond was the third culprit, and he was wielding magic. Hence the rushed and scrambled phone call summoning me to the scene.
“Rook!” Haskins squatted beside the car next to mine. His face was a twisted mix of fear and excitement, and in that moment he reminded me of a gargoyle in a raincoat. “To me!” He glanced over the hood of his bullet riddled squad car and fired half a dozen rounds. The rest of the cops joined in and I used their cover to scurry over to him.
“Can’t you do something?” Haskins demanded, his voice gruff. “Like now!”
“Do what?” I called as the robbers fired back. Splinters of glass exploded around us, splashing into the puddles at our feet.
“You know, some of that hocus pocus shit.”
I nodded to the dozen or so cops around us. “Sure. If you want me to draw even more attention to our world.” I couldn’t perform magic, not with so many blinkered witnesses. I’d have to get inside, where there was more cover.
“What the hell is that?” Haskins shouted as a bright, colorful pulse soared over us.
A wyvern formed of fiery light, its elongated head ablaze as it swooped over the cars, lashing its spiked tail, flapping its scaly wings and freaking out the cops behind us. It was illusion magic. Powerful illusion magic, and it was more than just a terrifying distraction, it was mapping out our positions to its master.
I grabbed a crystal from my pocket and used its magic to drain the wyvern’s energy. It turned ghostly as I stole its color and magic, and it fell in a hail of cinders that sizzled on the asphalt.
This was a bad development. Our kind had always kept themselves hidden from the blinkereds, even the criminals. Because we all knew that when push came to shove, if the blinkereds caught wind of us, we’d be finished. That as evolved as they seemed, they were just a hair’s breadth from going savage. And they had lots and lots of weapons at their disposal, weapons that could decimate everything around us and turn the world into a smoking crater.
But the bastard brashly wielding magic in the bank didn’t seem to give a damn about any of that. Which meant I had to shut them down, and fast.
I grabbed the scope from my bag and swept its ground crystal lens toward the walls of the bank, revealing the fiery red beating hearts of the two robbers holding their position at the entrance.
They were clearly scared, amped up, and amply prepared to deal with anyone that approached them. I’d have to take them down before I could get inside. And once I was in, I’d need to be quick, eliminating the magician and as much evidence of his handiwork as possible before the cops caught sight of it.
I reached into my bag and pulled out a handful of crystals. They glimmered in my palm as I drew my fingers around them.
“What the hell are you doing now? A frigging faith healing?” Haskins demanded. “Quit with the flaky hippy bullshit and do something!”
“I am.” I shivered as the magic coursed through me and I focused its energy into creating a line of illusory cops at the end of the street. Samuel had shown me the trick and it was convincing as hell, but it took a lot of energy and I wasn’t exactly an expert yet.
The crystals grew hot in my hand as I harnessed their power and moved the row of ghostly cops toward the bank, drawing the robbers’ attention and gunfire while I prepared to make my move.
“What are they doing, who gave that order?” Haskins squinted at the fake cops.
“They’re not real,” I said, “listen, I’m going in. Wait for my signal and when you see it, tell your boys to hold their fire. Got it?”
He nodded dumbly as I raced through the rain. Gunfire continued to roar out from behind the pillars but the blinkered criminals were still focused on the illusions.
I slipped past, almost reaching the bank without being riddled by bullet holes, when a bolt of fire shot out toward me like a blazing spear.
I ducked as the flames roared over me, the heat so close it seared the side of my face. Its trajectory led back to the bank entrance where a man stood, a staff of power in hand.
His features were stony below his wild ash-grey hair, and he was dressed in robes. Our eyes locked, and he raised the staff again, unleashing another deadly bolt.
I pulled my coat up over my head, its armor-like enchantments dispersing the worst of the heat, but I still felt like I’d tumbled into the fires of hell. I peered out as the man shouted to his accomplices and strode back into the bank.
Within moments the pair leaped out and fired, their bullets ricocheting off the ground and the wall around me.
I ran hard as the cops fired back, forcing the robbers to take cover. Their response bought me enough time to leap up the steps and duck behind a pillar.
One of my targets, a dead-eyed man around my age, spotted me and fired. Chunks of stone exploded around me as I ducked away. I glanced back as the cops returned fire, riddling his arm with bullets. He fell to the ground clutching his wrist as he inched toward his fallen weapon but I shot him before he could get anywhere near it.
His partner leaped from behind his pillar and tried to stumble inside the bank, but another hail of gunfire peppered him with lead.
“Halt!” I shouted and gestured to the car where Haskins had taken cover.
Moments later the shooting stopped and an eerie silence fell across the place as I broke cover and ran to the front doors. They slid open and I cast a simple spell over the threshold to stop any cops from following. At least for a while.
I summoned the rest of the crystal’s magic to reveal the fire magician’s footsteps. They burst to light like a winding path of flares leading back to the vault. Cries and whimpers echoed across the foyer from the tellers and customers who lay sprawled out, their hands stretched before them. “Stay down,” I said. “Got it?” A few nodded and cried garbled promises of compliance.
I’d almost reached the counter when a bullet hit me square in the chest, sending me staggering back. The coat stopped the round but it still hurt like hell. I glanced up the wide flight of steps toward the upper floor as someone ducked down.
“You’re next,” I said as I ducked behind a desk, grabbed a small mirror from my bag and angled it toward the stairs.
The man on the upper floor peered over the balcony as he took aim with his sniper rifle. Moments later a bullet whistled toward the mirror, nearly shattering the enchanted glass.
I swiped the mirror’s surface and zoomed close in on my target.
He was blinkered, and had one eye clamped to a padded scope, the other fixed on my mirror. I angled the glass toward my eyes, met his gaze, and befuddled him with a quick paralysis spell. He remained frozen as I ran for the stairs. I reached the top, seized his gun, and used the butt to knock him out cold.
I glanced down as footsteps echoed across the marble floor below. A man emerged from the vault, his gun held before him. I climbed onto the balcony rail and dropped, taking him down hard.
Two more robbers appeared, their black canvas bags stuffed with cash. Between them was a man that had to be the bank manager. He had the look; a thin jittery frame, a perfectly tailored suit and preoccupied eyes framed by silver designer glasses. I’d been turned down for credit by jerks like him more times than I cared to mention.
My reflexes were faster than the thug beside him. He raised his gun toward the manager’s head, trying to get leverage over me. I shot before he knew what was happening and took him out with a bullet to the heart.
I pulled my coat around me as his partner returned fire. Bullets pinged around me and more than a few struck me hard. I waited for him to empty the magazine before firing back, hitting him in the shoulder. His gun fell from his hand and I punched him, sending him crumpling to the ground.
Only the manager’s girlish whimpering broke the silence that had fallen over the building.
Something was wrong. I’d failed to catch something.
I glanced at the thugs sprawled on the polished floor. They’d been sent out as a distraction. What had I missed?
A moment of time…
…and something else.
I wanted to tear through the place, search every nook and cranny, but I forced myself to concentrate on the things I’d overlooked during the heat of the fight.
… he’d strode past as his thugs engaged me, several black canvas duffle bags draped over his shoulder, each enchanted to be as light as air. He’d moved outside my field of time, but only just enough for me to miss him.
I started toward the entrance but stopped. He was long gone. He’d slipped out of the building and down the street leaving spent gun shells, some dead goons and an empty vault in his wake. “Who is he?” I demanded of the shooter currently squealing like a pig on the ground, his jacket soaked with blood as he clenched it to his wounded arm.
He shook his head. “I ain’t telling you shit.”
“They always say that.” I sighed.
“Who?” He spat on the ground.
“Criminals. Thugs. Idiots. But I break them all, just like I’ll break you. Now give me the name of your pal who just walked out of here with all the cash and left you behind holding the baby, loaded diaper and all.”
“Go fuck yourself!”
I pressed the gun in his wound until he roared with agony. And then I held it to his head. “Who is he?”
He gazed at me for a moment, and it almost looked as if he was going to talk, then his eyes got hazy and took on a strange, milky hue. Before I could react, he reached up and pressed my finger to the trigger.
The gun roared, the air misted red and most of his face vanished to gore.
“What the fuck?”
My ears rang with the din and it took a moment to hear the whimpers coming from the people lying on the cold floor with their hands over their heads. Shock passed through me in a bludgeoning wave.
I glanced through the distant glass to the wet grey world beyond.
The cops hadn’t made it to the entrance. Presumably Haskins was holding them back, but I doubted he could keep it up for much longer. And when they got in, there’d be questions. And not just about the corpses, they’d want to know about all the weird shit that had taken place too. Of the line of illusionary cops, the fireballs, and that frigging wyvern made of light.
I pulled out my phone and called Erland.
No answer. Again.
I’d spoken to him shortly after my battle with Elsbeth Wyght, but the call had been brief and he’d been beyond evasive. He’d shown little relief with the news and had growled at me to keep my head down and lay low for a while.
His number rang on a loop, but just before I hung up I heard a click.
Humble… it took a moment to realize I was talking to one of Erland’s partners at The Organization. A man I’d never laid eyes on, let alone spoken with. Something in his voice sent a cold shiver through me.
“Humble!” he said again. This time there was a trace of anger in his tone. And then he said, “Rook?”
I hung up.
What the hell was going on?
The thudding from the entrance dragged me from my reverie. A cop hammered on the doors with his fist as another tried to prize them open. I called Haskins and watched him through the glass as he answered. “I’ll let them in, but keep ’em away from me. I need to get out of here.”
“You can’t just leave!” Haskins glared my way.
“I can and will. If you want me to catch the bastard who did this, let me go about my business and you go about yours. Right?”
He stared at me for a moment before ordering the cops to step back. I walked to the door, discharged the enchantment that had barred them, and strode through, tipping my illusory cap as I went.
Rain drops spattered the sidewalk as I crossed the blinkered city and headed for the magical quarter. The air was thick, charged, and full of static from the storm threatening to unleash itself. It had been building for days and the breaking point was close. Just like the city. I could feel it all; the tension in the streets, the fear, the sense of things coming to a head. Or possibly to an end. Something had to give, and I was pretty sure that when it did, I’d be smack bang in the middle of it.
A splashing car roared by, drenching the sidewalk as I made my way onto Lunar Avenue. I wanted to grab a crystal and send a curse after the driver but thought better of it. Onwards. I was looking forward to catching up with Astrid and Samuel.
It had been days since they’d stepped through my bedroom mirror and set out for the Hinterlands, allegedly looking for clues to the whereabouts of Endersley. But I was pretty sure the timing had more to do with giving me some space after my battle with Elsbeth Wyght. And time to deal with the tempest of emotions that had followed. The savage, victorious highs and the desolate feelings of emptiness. Losing the foe I’d been on the trail of for years, coupled with the curious silence of my dark other had been one hell of an adjustment. I’d slept for days, and when I’d woken the apartment had been empty and the cats subdued.
I slowed as I reached Nika’s Diner, looking through the windows for a sign of Astrid or Samuel. Nothing. Not even in the gloomy booths toward the back. I pulled my phone out and called the burner phone I’d given Astrid.
“You’re late,” Samuel said, through a tumult of shouts and braying laughter in the background.
“Where are you?” I peered down the street as people huddled through the growing torrent of rain.
“We decided ale was in order. And that revelation led us to a charming little establishment called The Lucky Coin. You should join us.”
Great. I glanced to the tavern, just a few doors down from Nika’s. It was possibly the last bar I’d have chosen in the quarter, and that was saying something.
I stood before its flaking emerald green facade and peered through the bullseye glass in the window. The bar room was as dark as the clouds sailing overhead with only a scattering of candles illuminating the thuggish patrons within.
The battered front door looked like it was about ready to fall off its hinges and the beer coasters taped to its tiny window seemed to be the only things keeping the glass intact. I did my best to overlook the stench of yeast and piss that loomed at the threshold as I shoved the door open and stepped inside.
Music blared through dusty black speakers. The singer, who or whatever it was, sounded like they were standing on a distant hill screaming through a megaphone while a band of mad Vikings charged at them playing thrash metal. It was something I’d have expected to encounter in Dauple’s car, and I had to wonder if he was now moonlighting as their DJ. The place was packed, mostly with undesirables. Brutish men, brutish women, a troll or two and a group of pale sickly warlocks. More than a few dagger-like stares were thrown my way as I crossed the sawdust strewn floor. I ignored them. I hadn’t come to fight, I’d come to find my friends and hopefully get them the hell out of the place.
Loud, hearty laughter boomed through the murk, and I followed it to find Samuel regaling a group of dodgy-looking congregation. Astrid sat beside him in the booth, leaning against the wall. Was she asleep? If so, I was impressed.
“Morgan!” Samuel called as I approached. The group turned my way and I recognized a few creeps I’d come to blows with over the years. One gave me a hateful look and his hand strayed to whatever he was concealing below his manky winter coat.
“Morgan, meet my new friends. Good men and women all!” Samuel clapped a hand on my shoulder and everyone around him seemed to soften a little, caught as they were in his spell. “Now, if you don’t mind,” Samuel said to them, “I need to talk to this man in private.” A chorus of mutters and tuts filled the air but slowly the group disbanded and wandered away.
“I see your charms work on rats as well as people,” I said as I took a seat across from Astrid.
“Now, now, Morgan, those were fine upstanding citizens,” Samuel grinned. “And it’s always wise to mix with people from every strata of life. You never know when such alliances might come in handy. Now, how’s about I get this empty pitcher filled with something dark and frothy.” He grabbed it from the table and strode toward the heaving bar as Astrid opened her eyes.
It took her a moment to focus on me. She looked exhausted and I wondered if she’d fully recovered from the healing she’d performed on me after my battle with Wyght.
“Hello, Morgan.” She gave me a slow, soft smile and sat up.
“How are you?”
“Better for seeing you.”
I returned her smile, it was impossible to hold it back and I was thankful we were tucked away in a shadowy bar as my cheeks reddened. For some reason, whenever she complimented me it made me feel like I did back in high school, off guard. Exposed. I was about to try and summon a suitable response when Samuel appeared, pitcher and empty tankard in hand. He filled it for me and shoved it my way then topped Astrid’s glass along with his own. “So,” he said, “what’s been happening? You look like you’ve just fought your way out of a room filled with overly amorous ogres.”
“Not quite. But yeah, I just had an interesting experience,” I said and took a draft of beer. It was surprisingly good, deep and nutty with a hint of pine. “We just had our very own official bank robbery.”
“The first? Really?” Samuel looked doubtful. And then he looked… interested, and I could almost see the wheels turning in his mind.
“No, not the first. And before you get any ideas, the banks here are not easy pickings,” I said. “No, I meant the first time someone from the magical community openly robbed a bank without even attempting to hide their abilities. The guy was wielding some serious magic, as if he didn’t have a care in the world, right in front of an audience of blinkered cops.” I took another sip of beer. “Which is perfect seeing as the media’s already been a hornet’s nest after Wyght’s little stunt in Temple Park.”
“How did you explain that away?” Astrid asked. “There were so many dead. So much destruction.”
“The Organization combed over the scene pretty intensely. Then Haskins put out a disinformation campaign claiming it was a terrorist incident,” I said. “It seemed the blinkered authorities swallowed it for the most part, or maybe they were paid off. But this robbery isn’t exactly going to help matters.”
“I don’t understand, why a robbery? Why would anyone from the magical community need blinkered cash?” Astrid asked. Especially when there are so many other ways to acquire whatever you desire.”
“I don’t know either,” I admitted. “But under the circumstances, that magician’s not likely to be on the loose for very long. Maybe he’ll shed some light on his motives before he gets hauled off to Stardim, but right now I’m more concerned with Stroud and his plans. Are you any closer to finding Endersley?”
“No,” Samuel said, “but we did manage to round up some new folks that’ll be keeping an eye on the Hinterlands in case he tries to pass through there again. They’re not what I’d call ideal, but they’ll get the job done as long we’re paying them. Which was something else I had to take care of.”
Astrid coughed and I saw her give a slight shake of her head. Clearly they’d been up to no good while they were away, not that I cared. I policed this world as best I could, not theirs. At least I knew they had a code of conduct, even if it was shot through with many shades of grey. “Before you left,” I said, changing the subject, “you mentioned bloodsuckers hiding Endersley. Did you mean vampires?”
“Yup,” Samuel said, with a slight shiver, “horrible things. We tried taking them down, and we got a few of ‘em but in the end there were just too many.”
“And while we were fighting them off, Endersley slipped away,” Astrid added.
“Right,” I said. “Well it sounds like tracking them down is the best lead we have right now. What did they look like?” I asked, before finishing off the rest of the beer and pushing the tankard aside. There was work to do.
“Sharp teeth, starey eyes-” Samuel began.
“They were very… tight,” Astrid said. “Coordinated. At first glance I thought we could eliminate them before they could so much as blink, but things didn’t turn out that way. They had a leader, a vampiress. White hair, but she was young and there was a scar running down the side of her face. Does she sound familiar?”
I shook my head. “I’ve been out the loop with the comings and goings of vampires since this business with Stroud began. But Talulah might know something about them seeing as she’s of that persuasion herself.” I pulled my phone out and was about to call Books, Nooks, Oddments, and Glamors, when I noticed more than a few of the Coin’s patrons glancing our way. “Excuse me,” I said as I stood and strode outside.
“Morgan Rook,” Talulah said as she answered. “You just caught me on my way out. What do you need? A cure? A tonic? Information?” I could hear the smile in her voice. “You still owe me, you know.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” I said, “but you’re right, I do have another favor to ask. I’m looking for a vampire. Or a vampiress to be more precise.”
“Well, it looks like you just got lucky.”
“Not you, Talulah, magnificent though you are. No, I’m looking for a young lady with long white hair and a scar on her face. Do you know her?”
“I can’t say that I do. But then I tend to fraternize with all types, not just my own. My grandfather on the other hand is far less cosmopolitan and likes to stick to his own crowd, so you’d probably have better luck asking him.”
I shuddered. The last time I’d dealt with Talulah’s grandfather was just after one of Elsbeth Wyght’s witches had cursed me. I remembered him lurking in the back of Talulah’s shop; a creepy, ancient vampire with horribly appraising eyes. “Can you give me his number?” I asked.
Talulah snorted. “Grandpa doesn’t do phones. Hates them even more than I do. If you want to talk to him you’ll have to toddle along and see him. He lives on Hopswytch, number seventeen. Tell him I sent you and to keep his eyes off your jugular.”
“Watch yourself, Morgan. He can be… unstable.”
“Perfect,” I said. “Well thank you… I think.”
“No problem, I’m adding it to your tab.”
I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the cold air as I glanced down Lunar Avenue. Night was closing in and it seemed even darker than usual. The moon was just a sliver hidden by a steady ragged bank of rainclouds and the atmosphere felt even more charged, if that was possible. It put me on edge, made me jittery. Like things were about to go south. Big time.