Today I am very happy to offer an extract from Steve McHugh’s latest brilliant novel, A Flicker of Steel. Details on the book follow! Enjoy.
Domme, Louisiana. USA.
“I’d like to point out that this is an astonishingly bad plan,” Layla Cassidy said. There was no one in the parked red Ford Mustang GT with her, no one anywhere near the car for that matter. She wore a small communication device in her left ear that allowed her to talk to, and hear, the other three people in her team. Two of them had switched theirs off while they went to work, leaving Layla only able to talk to her best friend, Chloe Range.
Chloe made a slight grunting noise in response, signaling that she couldn’t exactly talk at the moment.
Layla tapped her fingers against the steering wheel and wondered if there had been a better way to get the information they were here to retrieve. There had to be a safer one, but then Chloe had seen a chance to gain more than just information and no one was going to talk her out of it.
Originally, they’d arrived in Louisiana to speak to one of Tommy Carpenter’s contacts about finding the people who were supplying spirit scrolls to Nergal. The influx of spirit scrolls was a serious concern to those who stood against Arthur and his version of Avalon: a version in which you vanished if they no longer deemed you an ally. Tommy’s people had tracked the spirit scrolls to an unnamed port in the south of Louisiana. Once they were offloaded, the scrolls were taken to an unknown destination somewhere in America. All Tommy’s contacts had managed to ascertain was that there was a stopover in Domme.
Domme was a small settlement close to a port. It wasn’t on any maps. It officially didn’t exist. Avalon at work once again. Domme consisted of several dozen miles of swamp and a few buildings dotted around. One such building was only a mile up the road from where Layla had parked. She looked out of the window at the cypress trees. The sun had begun to set a short time ago, and Layla found the trees to be simultaneously creepy and pretty. The swamp was close by, and she’d had to park the car on muddy ground. Thankfully it was firm enough that she hadn’t needed to worry about getting stuck, but if it decided to rain then that idea might be shot to hell.
The plan to get information and tail the smugglers had changed when Layla and Chloe had started looking around the port and found that there was a lot more being trafficked than old scrolls. People. Dozens of people. Marched off fishing boats at gunpoint, thrown into the backs of trucks and driven away. Layla didn’t know what they were being used for, or where they’d come from, but both she and Chloe knew they had to find out more. It turned out that apart from grabbing people who were brought in by boat, the smugglers also kidnapped anyone unlucky enough to be hitchhiking in the area. There had been multiple missing persons reports throughout the surrounding towns, and nearly all of them pertained to people who were last seen hitchhiking.
“You still there?” Chloe whispered.
“Of course. I’m waiting for you to get your ass out of there. Where is there, anyway?”
“An old house, or more accurately a mansion. I’ve been locked in the cellar with several other humans. We’re all kept in separate cells.
They drugged me—didn’t realize I wasn’t human, so I had to go along with it. Most of the others are still out cold.”
“Any idea why they’re taking people?”
“No, but there’s never been a kidnapping ring that’s done it for good reasons.”
“Not exactly what I meant, Chloe.”
“I know. It’s just been a long day. I haven’t heard anything about the scrolls. One of these kidnappers has a Confederate flag tattooed on the back of his hand. But it’s the old version of the flag, with the circle of stars in the top left corner. He seems to be in charge. I think he was there. As in, actually there during the Civil War. I saw a picture on a wall with him and several others who the tattooed guy said were Confederate guerillas. One of them was Jesse James.”
“The bandit? How can you know that?”
“That’s the one. And I know it because the tattooed guy told me. His name is Alfred. He saw me look at it, picked it up, and showed it to me. Made a big deal about how he knew Jesse.”
“So, at least one isn’t human. Any idea what he is?”
“No. I count eight. All men. I doubt many of them aren’t human, although obviously I can’t tell without fighting them.”
“Please don’t fight them.”
“I wasn’t planning on it. I’d like to hurt a lot of them, though. Some of the people I saw coming in—” Chloe paused, as if fighting off a deeply troubling memory. “They keep them drugged out of their minds in other rooms around the house. I heard screams, even through the walls. My drenik wants me to hurt people. It’s the closest I’ve come to just letting it out for a long time.”
Apart from drenik being the base of the power that umbras could wield—a power that was random for every umbra—they were also capable of taking temporary control of the host body. In that time, the drenik had access to the entire reserve of power it possessed, making it an enemy to be feared by even the most powerful foe. Unfortunately, allowing the drenik control in such a way had the unfortunate side effect of giving it a greater chance of taking control of its human host for good. For that reason, most umbra and their drenik came to an agreement about how they could work together. Layla knew that Chloe hadn’t allowed her drenik to take control for over a year; for her to be considering it now meant she was deeply angry.
“We’ll take the whole lot of them down,” Layla assured her friend. She looked at the wooden bracelet on her right wrist and the runes carved into it. Everyone who lived at the compound and worked with Hades and his people wore one. The bands were linked to a blood curse mark on the back of their shoulders.
A blood curse mark was created using blood magic. Most curses did awful things to people, like remove their powers or memories, but some were more benign. Everyone had been told that their marks linked to the runes on the bracelets, and only those with both could enter and leave the compound safely. No one had argued against this, but it had been the topic of much discussion.
“Do you still have your bracelet on?” Layla asked Chloe.
“Yes, they left it on me, although I’m not sure that it would have done anything if they’d removed it.”
“Better safe than sorry. Have you heard from the others?”
“No, reception is spotty at best. Diana is around somewhere, though. Remy, too. I’m sure you’ll be able to hear their bickering before they get to you.”
Chloe chuckled, although there was little humor in it. Layla wished they hadn’t decided on their plan a day ago, but it was too late for regret. Now they had to see it out.
“You okay, Chloe?”
“I’m fine. Angry. Unbelievably angry. Other than that, I’ll be okay. These are the bad guys I’ve always wanted to stop. I’ve got to go—if you don’t hear from me in a few hours you know what to do.”
“Nuke the site from orbit, just to be sure.”
Layla smiled at the line and exhaled. A lot had happened to her in the last two years. She’d been kidnapped because Nergal had wanted to get to her father, she’d seen her friends murdered in front of her in horrific ways she could barely have imagined before and on top of all that she’d bonded with a spirit scroll and become an umbra. She had accepted the three spirits and Terhal—her drenik—who were in the scroll and gained mastery over her abilities.
Six months into her new life, the world had turned to shit. Avalon—a group who controlled the world from the shadows—gained a new boss: King Arthur. The same King Arthur who had been comatose for several centuries, who everyone now thought of as some kind of messiah sent to save them. Layla could remember the day when the world had discovered the existence of magic, monsters, and the fact that the people from mythology were real. Hundreds of thousands had died in attacks all over the world, causing panic and fear in the human population.
That panic and fear were exactly what Arthur had wanted. He’d stepped into the limelight, bringing the entire world of non-humans with him whether they wanted to follow him or not, and announced to humanity that he would ensure their safety. Publicly, Avalon now kept the evil at bay and made sure humans slept soundly in their beds. Privately, Avalon hunted down those who would oppose them, murdering thousands in order to hold on to power. Arthur and his people had taken control of the entire world, and humanity had welcomed them with open arms.
Some still opposed Arthur and continued to fight against his regime. That was the reason that Layla was in Louisiana. To hurt Arthur and Avalon, you had to hurt those who were helping him, and Nergal was considered an integral part of Avalon’s organization. He controlled the parts of Avalon that used to protect people, like the LOA—the Law of Avalon—and used what was meant to be a law informant agency as his own personal secret police. The majority of people wouldn’t even notice that the world had become a totalitarian state until Arthur had succeeded in wiping his enemies from the earth so he could turn his full attention to everyone else. And if that ever happened, there was never going to be a chance to fight back.
“You okay?” Rosa said from the passenger seat of the Mustang.
Layla turned toward the spirit beside her. Rosa had once used her powers as an umbra to deliver vengeance in the name of Queen Victoria. She had been an assassin of exceptional talent, and of the three spirits inside the scroll, she was the one Layla spoke to the most. Their friendship was something both Layla and Rosa cherished.
“A lot has happened in a short period of time,” Layla said.
“I didn’t see Arthur as the villain,” Rosa said. “Everyone thought he was the best of us. He’d been comatose for hundreds of years when I was born; everyone spoke about the time he’d wake and take us to a better future. I don’t think anyone, outside of those who knew the real Arthur, expected him to wake up and decide to kill everyone who opposed him.”
Layla nodded, but wanted to move the conversation away from melancholy. “I can’t get used to you not wearing the appropriate clothes.”
Rosa looked down at her black-and-red dress and white trainers. Her dark hair had once been long and braided, but was now much shorter and closer to green in color. “I get to look how I like. You know this. Not sure why you still find it strange. We spirits can wear whatever the current period deems acceptable, or whatever you deem acceptable. I like it.”
“The others wear clothes from their own time.”
“The other two have sticks up their butts,” Rosa said with a smile. “And I know you have steered the conversation away from your concern.”
“Chloe is in the house of horrors. Yes, it worries me. I know she can take care of herself, but if they figure out what, or who, she is, she’ll be on her own until backup arrives.”
Rosa looked around the small parking area. “Lots of thick woods, bit of swamp. How did you know about this place?”
“Diana spoke to someone in New Orleans. They told us about the old mansion. No one goes there, to the best of my knowledge. Used to be a smugglers’ drop, but it’s too out-of-the-way for that these days.”
“That and the lack of people smuggling hooch.”
“Hooch?” Layla asked with a slight smile.
Rosa shrugged. “I just like the word.”
“How long would it take you to get to Chloe from here?” a man’s voice asked from the back seat of the car.
Layla turned to look at the praefectus legionis. His name was Servius Tullius, and he was a huge man, well over six feet in height and probably weighing two of Layla. The Roman had dark skin, short black hair, and a small beard—the only thing that had changed about him in the two years since Layla had become an umbra.
“You don’t have to wear the uniform,” Layla said, ignoring his question.
Servius looked down at his armor. “Yes, I do,” he said softly. “It’s who I am.”
Layla sighed; she’d had the same conversation with him many times in the last year. Servius just wasn’t comfortable enough to adapt his habits. He was a soldier. That’s who he was, how he defined himself. To change his clothing was an act he considered to be a waste of time and effort. Layla knew he had a point, but she still wished he would relax a bit more.
“Have you scoped out the place?” Servius asked.
“Diana and Remy are moving around the area now,” Layla said. “They’re both a lot quieter than I am.”
“Remy?” Rosa asked doubtfully.
“He can be quite stealthy.”
“He’s sometimes quiet?” Servius asked.
“Did you just make a joke?” Layla asked.
“I’m a soldier, not a robot,” Servius said with a smile.
“You sure you’re not both?” Rosa asked.
“You were a lot less chatty when you were the umbra,” Servius said. “I remember those times fondly.”
“Where’s Gyda?” Layla asked. “Still ignoring me?”
“Yes,” a woman spoke from outside the car.
Layla turned to say something to Gyda, but she’d already disappeared. “Damn it, Gyda.”
“She thinks you’re becoming a monster,” Rosa said. “She believed the same of me. You won’t go crazy and murder everyone if you accept the drenik, but Gyda will glare at you a lot. Difficult choice.”
“It’s easy to mock,” Servius said.
“Yes, it is,” Rosa replied. “That’s why I do it.”
“The drenik murdered her family, friends, and her entire village,” Servius reminded everyone. “It can’t be easy for Gyda to have remained for so long as a spirit, having to deal with the drenik being so close all the time.”
Layla knew that Gyda’s transformation into an umbra had been difficult, and she had never properly dealt with what had happened to her, preferring to remain judgmental and aloof from those who had taken the scroll after her death. She had also been the first spirit and had spent the last several thousand years telling everyone else that she knew best. Even when it was clear she didn’t.
“Stop arguing,” Layla said. “It gives me a headache.”
“Your ability to heal will get rid of that quickly,” Servius said.
Layla rested her forehead against the steering wheel and wondered if it was possible to have some of the spirits gagged. It was a beautiful thought.
“I heard that,” Servius said.
Layla sighed. There were no secrets between the umbra and the spirits in the scroll. While both could dig around in the memories of the other, Layla and the spirits had agreed that it was less invasive to ask questions. Sometimes the information was taken without thought, but for the most part their agreement worked. However, all current thoughts were open between spirits and umbra. Layla thought of as many rude words as she could in as short a time as possible.
“Very mature,” Servius said.
Layla looked back at the Roman and smiled. “I thought so.”
Servius tried to mask a grin before vanishing from sight.
“Are you feeling better now?” Rosa asked.
Layla nodded. “A little, thank you.”
“Can I ask something important?”
Layla knew what was coming, but waved for Rosa to continue anyway.
“How are you sleeping?”
“Fine,” she lied.
“I know when you’re lying. And not because I live in your head, but because I know you.”
“Okay, mostly fine. I still have the occasional nightmare, but I completed my counseling and I’m in a good place. When I first became an umbra I was worried that Terhal’s presence was going to corrupt me, but in all honesty she was helpful. I was scared she’d lead me down a path to make me like my father, to murder and torture without remorse. And then when I did kill someone . . .”
“We’re at war. Sometimes that means you have to take a life to save others.”
Layla nodded. “I know. He was butchering people. He was hunting and slaughtering them, and he wasn’t going to stop. He wasn’t going to get better. He’d been turned into a werewolf, but he chose to behave like a monster. And so I killed him. It’s been sixteen months, and I’ve killed more during that time. Always in battle; always because it was them or me, or my friends. Or for someone else who didn’t deserve to die.”
“But the werewolf was different.”
Layla nodded, remembering when she’d refused to kill him at first, refused to take a life. The werewolf had escaped and killed three more innocents before she’d caught him again. Three lives she could have saved if she hadn’t hesitated. She dreamed about them more than she did of her father. She dreamed about her own failure. “I took his life because there was no one else to do it. I had to make a choice, and it wasn’t an easy one. But I dealt with it: I’m not him. I see that. I understand that. Nevertheless, somewhere inside of me, I still wonder if I’m going down a road that I can’t turn back from. And that scares me.”
“I’ve killed countless people,” Rosa said. “I don’t even remember their names. Not all of them, anyway. I remember those who died because I wasn’t quick enough to save them, and I remember those who died because I didn’t do the right thing. Those ones lay heavy on your soul, as they should. They show us that we need to do better. That we have to constantly strive to be better.”
“At killing people,” Layla said.
“Sometimes, yes. The others you killed, you don’t think about them. You don’t dream about them.”
Layla stared out of the car window, looking into the distance as she spoke. “You probably already know, but I was in a firefight about a year ago. Thirty men and women were shooting assault rifles at the six of us. I killed two of them, because I was unwilling to let the bastards hurt my friends: people like Tommy, Diana, Remy, and Chloe. They’ve killed for the cause, too. I think Terhal helps my mind deal with what I need to do. I think she allows me to, if not outright accept, at least digest the actions I’ve had to take to keep my friends and innocent people alive.
“We are at war with Avalon. With Arthur and anyone who would crush those who dare oppose them. It’s a war with no end in sight, and I’m a criminal to those people. The LOA want us found and arrested. Or killed. I doubt they care much one way or the other. It feels like everything has been flipped around since Arthur declared open season on his enemies. Since he woke up, took charge of Avalon, and began massacring anyone who opposed him. How many thousands died in those early days? How many humans and non-humans alike?
“I doubt I’ve killed for the last time. But I don’t want to reach the point where I kill and feel nothing for it. Taking a life should mean something. I’m only twenty-three and I’ve become a soldier in a war I didn’t want any part of. One that I never asked to be a part of, but a war I will fight to the bitter end to keep people safe. Arthur brought this fight into our lives, and we will end it.”
Rosa stared at Layla for several seconds. “You were a bit all over the place there. You feel better?”
Layla nodded. “If I’m right, and Terhal is helping me deal with the other lives I’ve taken, that’s probably for the best. I don’t have the luxury of freezing or second-guessing myself. These people aren’t human, and they will destroy or take whatever they want. It’s our job to stop them. Like I said, a lot has happened in the last two years.”
“You know you can talk to me, right? I mean, I know you do, but about anything.”
Layla smiled. “I know. And I’m happy to talk to you, but you chose to kill people for a living. I find that idea . . .”
“I was going to say alien.”
“That too. I was trained from a young age to take life. That was my destiny. I was good at it. And I didn’t mind doing it. At least not until I actually sat down and thought about it, but by then I was in far too deep and had already become an umbra. I hadn’t completely grasped what my life was going to change into once I’d agreed to kill for Queen and Country. Although I agree that it sounds like I had a choice.
“You’re not like me, Layla. You’re not cold. You’re not capable of ignoring your emotions enough to kill a man in his bathtub while his family are eating in the room next door. You don’t want to become that person, and you won’t, I promise you. You’re a good person. Better than I ever was. Better than Servius, and better even than Gyda, who was never the goodie-two-shoes her judgmental arse likes to believe she was. She forgets we all know one another’s sordid little life stories. You’re a good person, Layla. But sometimes, good people have to do bad things. Just look at Chloe. She’s a good person, but she’s more than capable of pushing that aside to get the job done. You want to know the real difference between you and your father?”
“He was insane?”
“Apart from that.”
“He enjoyed taking life. He loved it. I’ve the same memories of his interviews and information that you do.” Rosa tapped the side of her head. “You know it’s true. You know that you don’t like hurting people, but that sometimes you have to do what you need to do. You’re not him, Layla. Don’t ever think you are.”
“Do you regret anything?” Layla asked, wanting to move away from the topic of her father.
“Lots of things,” Rosa said. “But mostly that I never got to go to all of these amazing places for anything other than to remove a stain on humanity; that I didn’t get to enjoy my visits. I just did my job and left. Even when I stopped working for Queen Victoria and essentially vanished, I was always looking over my shoulder. I wish I’d have just taken some time to enjoy the world.”
“Damn it, I thought you were going to say something frivolous, and then I was going to mock you. I can’t mock you for sounding so heartfelt,” Layla said with a smirk.
“Would you prefer that I said I wish I’d eaten more cake? Do you want to tell me what quip you had ready?”
“Not now. You ruined it with your words of bitter, bitter honesty.”
Rosa laughed. “I’m clearly a monster.”
Layla was about to say more when Diana’s voice entered her ear. “I’m close to the mansion. I’ll keep the irritating little thing on for now.”
“You’re not talking about Remy, are you?”
Diana chuckled as Chloe’s voice started in Layla’s ear. “You there?”
“What’s up?” Layla asked, her attention immediately focused.
“Our contact is in the house. He’s in a building near the one where we’re being kept. I saw them dragging him outside. My cell has a small window that looks out onto the back garden. It’s barred, but I heard them talking about him as some sort of traitor to his kind. I think they’re going to kill him.”
“You need help?”
“I’m not talking to anyone,” Chloe said, followed by the muffled sounds of someone talking to her.
“Chloe, what’s going on?”
Layla heard Chloe’s heavy breathing, and a minute later her friend’s earpiece went dead.
“Chloe’s in trouble,” Layla said.
“I heard,” Diana said in her ear. “We’re approaching the house now. Meet us as soon as you can.”
Layla switched on the Mustang’s ignition and sped away. She wasn’t going to lose another friend. Not here, not now, and certainly not to people who would help abduct innocents for Nergal and his cronies to experiment on.
About the book..
Avalon stands revealed, but the war is far from over. For Layla Cassidy, it has only just begun.
Thrust into a new world full of magic and monsters, Layla has finally come to terms with her supernatural powers—and left her old life behind. But her enemies are relentless.
Sixteen months after her life changed forever, Layla and her team are besieged during a rescue attempt gone awry and must fight their way through to freedom. It turns out that Avalon has only grown since their last encounter, adding fresh villains to its horde. Meanwhile, revelations abound as Layla confronts twists and betrayals in her own life, with each new detail adding to the shadow that looms over her.
As Layla fights against the forces of evil, her powers begin to increase—and she discovers more about the darkness that lies in her past. As this same darkness threatens her future, will she be ready to fight for everything she holds dear?
Follow the Tour!