I'm a huge Jim Butcher fan. When I first ran across his Dreden Files novels, I tried one out. Read it in about a day. Went out and bought a few more. Read those in 1-2 days each. I worked my way through the first eleven books in something like two weeks. Harry Dresden is an amazing character, and I've enjoyed Jim's writing immensely. Ryan Blackwell isn't Harry Dresden.
The voice character of "By Darkness Revealed", and the upcoming sequels "Ashes Ascendant" and "Dead in Winter" is young. He's a freshman at college. He's gone away to a military school, following a family tradition of service despite his father's anger about the subject. Partly, Ryan wants to do something to annoy his father. Partly, he wants to be something like his grandfather. But partly, he's hoping to escape from his magic.
Because Ryan's had the Sight - ability to see the magic and magical creatures which lie outside most folks' view - for years. It drove him near crazy in high school, and all he wants to do is go someplace normal, mundane, where he hopes he can somehow leave it behind.
He picked the wrong place when he went to Northshield University.
Because Northshield has a secret that most folks don't know. It's sitting on top of an enormously powerful nexus of ley lines, a confluence of incredible magical energy.
And all that energy attracts a lot of attention from precisely the sort of folks - and things - Ryan was trying to stay away from.
Before long, bad things start happening. And Ryan discovers that he's the only person in the neighborhood with even a prayer of standing up to the dark forces building around the campus. And all he has is a prayer - his will - and the magic he once hoped to escape from.
Below is the first chapter. I'll be posting chapters two and three over the next couple of days. If you enjoy these samples, consider checking them out - the book is available on Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, and Smashwords. Apple, Sony, Kobo, and trade paperback versions are coming soon.
And drop me a line. I'll respond to every comment. I'd be glad to hear from readers.
A COLD RAIN drizzled down as I slogged through mountain-chilled knee deep water. The river bed was slimy ooze with slick rocks scattered about on top. The mud sucked at my combat boots with every step, but it was still steadier going than the rocks. Every slip off one of those rocks risked another dunking in the water, which was unpleasant for more reasons than just the temperature.
I kept my eyes open as I ran, carefully scanning the water with my Sight. I'd been able to see things most people couldn't since I was thirteen. That wasn't always a pleasant thing. Right now, I was being followed by a small swarm of little magical motes, some sort of water spirits. I wasn't sure what they were up to, but I was feeling a little like a large tuna in a shark tank. Or maybe more like a piranha tank. Their sharp, darting movements had a hungry, predatory look to them.
I'd learned the hard way that while things of the spirit world couldn't generally touch the physical, that didn't mean they couldn't make themselves felt. I'd also learned a little bit about defending myself, and I was tired of being followed. When I saw one particularly daring mote dart in at my leg, I'd had enough.
With an effort of will, I channeled some of my own self, my spirit-energy, outward into a bubble around me. The bubble popped into my Sight, translucent blue to my vision, swirling eddies of force whirling slowly in a chaotic pattern.
The little mote kept on coming, and slammed into the shield. I felt the impact like a blow in my mind, but the shield held, flashing magical light. The mote turned and made a beeline for some rocks near the shore, hiding underneath. The rest of the little critters scattered, all rushing away from me to hide somewhere. I nodded, satisfied.
“Go find something else to eat,” I muttered.
I stood in the freezing water, panting, and let the shield drop. Holding it up would have taken more concentration than I had handy right now. My legs were already mostly numb from the cold.
Running in a Vermont river during the last week of October was stupid. I'd been here at Northshield University for two months, and thought I was used to life as a freshman at a private military college – tough, but bearable. And then every so often, our cadre would get bored and come up with something that raised the crazy bar just one notch higher. Today's run was pretty much top of the list.
I stood shivering in my sodden uniform for a bit longer, until the wind picked up just enough to remind me it was time to get moving again. Camouflage ripstop cotton didn't do much to cut wind chill, especially soaking wet. I was in pretty good shape, so I'd managed to get out ahead of the pack. At a guess, my recruit platoon was strung out over a quarter mile of river behind me by now, and I didn't want to spend any more time in this water than I had to. It took a real effort to pick up my feet and start jogging again, but I managed.
Voices carried on the wind from behind me. The little delay had cost me some of my lead. I peeked back over my shoulder to see two guys in the same camo I wore splashing into view, coming up on the spot I'd stopped to rest. They reached it as I watched.
And then one of them went down, hard, going completely under the water.
I Looked, and saw them immediately – dozens of those little motes, darting around the form of the recruit who'd gone under. They ignored his buddy, who was trying to haul him out of the water. I watched as they wreathed bands of magic around the fallen recruit. That was going to make it tough to haul him up – I could see the magic bonding him to the water around him.
I stood frozen with indecision, the chill of the wind feeling like it cut right to my heart.
For two months, I'd managed to not let a single person know about my Sight. For two months, I'd been able to keep my magical workings small, secret. Most people didn't believe in magic anyway, so that wasn't hard. Mostly just a matter of not acting like an oddball, not startling every time I Saw something that no one else could.
Despite the fact that Northshield seemed to have more supernatural critters per square mile than anyplace else I'd ever been, I'd managed it for two months. It was a fresh start. For the first time in years, I'd felt almost normal.
If I helped, it was the end of all that.
I relaxed as a tall cadet wearing a drill sergeant's brown round came running up and started to help pull the downed recruit up. Drill Sergeant Fletcher was a wiry man, tall and slim, but I'd seen him knock out a couple hundred pushups without breathing hard. He'd get the recruit up.
I turned away to keep running, but looked back once more. Both men were still struggling, trying to get a good grip on the fallen recruit's body and failing. Every time they pulled, their grip just slid away. And while he was still flailing about in the water, he was moving a little less than before. I could see those little motes crowded around him, feeding on little bits of his life force while he drowned.
That was all I could take.
I turned and ran back toward them, sprinting hard. I summoned magic from the core of my being and felt it respond, felt my body react to the rush of power. Adrenaline surged. I cast a spell for luck on my path ahead, to find good footing with each step. And I gathered a ball of magic in my right hand, summoning it with my will.
This needed to be right, the first time.
I slid to a stop next to the drowning recruit. I could see a few bubbles trickling out of the guy's nose as he flailed about, dying in water only knee deep. I wondered how they'd explain that. I wondered how many other accidents like this had happened over the years.
I heard the Drill Sergeant say something as I stopped my forward motion, but I was too wrapped up in the magic to hear what he said.
I slammed my right fist down into the water. The energy I held there released in an instant, blasting back the spirits, shattering a few of the nearest completely. The others fled again, bleeding magic, and this time I didn't think they'd come back out for a while.
The instant they were gone, Fletcher and the other guy were able to haul the recruit out of the water. They each got a shoulder under one of his arms and half carried him out of the river to the shore. They set him down, and while he was coughing out a bunch of water, at least he was still breathing.
I realized I'd dropped to one knee as I cast the spell, and I was half sitting in the river. I put my hands on the river bottom, pebbly here, and pushed myself back to my feet. The adrenaline was starting to fade. Between the hard run, the cold, and the magic I'd slung around, I was feeling pretty tired. I staggered toward the shore to check on the guy I'd saved.
He was laying on his back, coughing and sputtering. Drill Sergeant Fletcher knelt next to him, and looked up at me as I approached. He stood and met me partway.
“What the hell was that, recruit?” he said.
I closed my eyes, rocking back on my heels. Fletcher had the power to make my life utterly miserable, if he wanted to. The upperclassmen cadre had pretty darned near absolute power over their freshmen recruits. If he decided he wanted me gone, he could make life hell.
Still... I opened my eyes, looked down at the guy on the ground, coughing up the last bits of river water. It was Dan Thomas, a black guy who was one of those unfortunates given two first names. He got a lot of ribbing for that. He'd weathered all of it with good humor and an upbeat attitude. And he'd almost died today. If I had to do it again, I knew I would. Couldn't do anything else. I turned my eyes toward Fletcher.
“I was just running up to try to help, Drill Sergeant.” Truth was always a good policy.
More of our platoon were coming up the river now, splashing to a stop when they saw us on the bank. Fletcher grabbed my shoulder and pulled me aside a little. He leaned in close, water dripping off the plastic cover on his brown round onto my forehead.
“What did you do?” he asked.
I stared him hard in the eyes. Neither of us broke contact.
His eyes narrowed, but then he nodded once, sharply, like he was making a decision.
“There still a threat here?” he asked.
My eyes widened. That question meant he knew there was more to this incident than clumsy stumbling and cold numbed fingers.
“You think I'm stupid, recruit?” he asked. “This is my third year here. You see things. Is there still a threat?”
“Yes,” I said. “Not likely here, but possible. I don't know what's up the river, and I'm wiped enough I might not be able to help a second time.” Although as I said that, I realized that my magical strength seemed to be coming back faster than it had in the past. I probably could scare off any small dangers again already.
“We'll talk about this later,” he said.
Then he turned from me to the rest of the platoon. “OK, that's enough for today. It's getting cold fast, and I don't want any cold weather injuries! Get ready to double-time back to barracks as soon as the last men get here. Showers and change into something dry.”
He got a few halfhearted cheers at that announcement. None of us were upset by the idea of getting out of the cold and wet, but most of us were too tired to get enthusiastic about anything. My mind was much more focused on that chat Fletcher had promised. I let my head sag, chin to my chest. A normal life was all I'd been after when I applied here. That and getting my father's goat, maybe. But it seemed like fate had something else in mind.
A steaming shower and dry uniform later, I was beginning to feel a little better about the world. I sat at my desk, trying and failing to read the next section of my calculus textbook. Our barracks buildings were old, red brick, and five stories tall. Lots of rooms on each floor, and most students lived two to a room. My roommate was Fred Harling, a good guy but a bit of a study freak. He'd taken off as soon as he'd gotten cleaned up from the run. Said he was going to the library to study.
The textbook seemed to glare up at me. I glared back. I realized then that I had been struggling with the same page for some time, and was getting nowhere fast. I stretched my arms and yawned; I was still pretty wrung out from the run and the magic. The bunk beds caught my eye enticingly.
We weren't allowed to lock our doors while we were in the rooms, so there was a limit to how private our rooms were. But with everyone pretty worn out, I thought I might be able to grab a little rest. I climbed up onto my top bunk, trying not to mess the covers up too badly, and lay down. I closed my eyes, hoping to put the morning events out of my head.
Bang! Bang! Two hammer blows on the door to my room brought me back, just as I'd finally been settling into a light doze. I sat up and flipped myself out of bed, feet hitting the floor softly as the doorknob turned and the door started to open. It was a skill every recruit got good at fast, popping to the floor at a moment's notice. Napping during the day was...frowned on...by cadre. Well, getting caught was anyway.
So I was down and standing when Fletcher put his head into my room. He saw me and barked “My room. Now.” Then he pulled his head back out and shut the door. Obviously he wanted to have that talk right away. I looked down, straightened my uniform to make sure I was presentable. No point courting extra trouble.
Then I stepped out into the hallway dimly lit by a few windows. The florescent lights stayed off during the day. The floor was a dull, dark tile, and the walls were nothing but cinder blocks painted an eggshell color. The Drill Sergeant's room was across the hall and one door down. He was the only person on the floor to have a room to himself – privileges of rank. The hall was clear and his door closed, so I assumed he was already back in his room.
I stepped in front of his plain wooden door and rapped twice, hard.
“Enter!” came the shout from within. I turned the knob, stepped inside, and closed the door behind me. Two steps more and I was standing on a line of masking tape on the floor. I shifted my body to a position of attention. “Recruit Blackwell reporting as ordered, Drill Sergeant,” I said.
He was sitting on his bed, looking at me. Then he stood up, not saying a word, and paced around me, circling. About to complete his circuit, he stopped by my left ear and said “Blackwell, why are you here?”
That certainly wasn't the question I'd expected. “Drill Sergeant, this recruit came here for the excellent ROTC program.” Which was the truth, more or less. I didn't need to go into family business with him.
“Bullshit,” he spat. “Drop. Pushups. Keep pushing.”
I dropped and started doing pushups.
He crouched down next to my face. “Why did you really come here, recruit? What are you doing at my fucking school?”
I didn't know what he was looking for. I thought he'd be grilling me about the river, not asking me this. Usually I could pick out the answer cadre were after, but right now I didn't have a clue, and it was scaring me a little.
“I came here because I didn't make the cut at West Point, Drill Sergeant,” I said. I'd omitted saying this recruit, used the forbidden word I instead, but he didn't seem to notice.
“Why here, recruit?” he asked. “There's hundreds of ROTC programs. Why here? You think your last name would get you some sort of special treatment?”
There is was. I’d been afraid all along of my name, but no one had brought it up til now. Without thinking, my eyes glanced to the window. Down the hill, by the classroom buildings, was a statue of my grandfather, placed there by his classmates long after he’d died. My father had refused to come to the unveiling ceremony, and had never allowed me to go to Northshield to see it.
If he had, maybe I’d have seen the ley lines and gone elsewhere. Might have made life a lot easier for me.
The whole time I’d been here though, no one had mentioned my grandfather. I was half beginning to hope no one had noticed. Or not.
“No, Drill Sergeant. I never wanted any special treatment.” If I had wouldn’t I have, y’know, maybe mentioned my connection with the man once or twice, I thought.
My arms were starting to ache from the pushups. And I was starting to get angry. I could feel heat building up in my chest, in my face. “I came here because they offered me a good scholarship, Drill Sergeant, because my father cut me off from any college help when I told him I wanted to go military,” I said. Furious, I added, “Is that a good enough damned answer now?”
He stood up. “Recover, recruit,” he said.
I stood back up, snapped to attention. My uniform was a bit of a train wreck, and I was sweating. I let my glare bore into Fletcher's. He met my gaze, and then I saw something relax a little in his eyes.
“At ease, recruit,” he said, letting me relax my position a little. “You're too bad a liar, and too pissed at me, for that to be a lie. So I'm going to assume you're just clueless instead.”
I blinked. What?
“You ever watch the TV show HauntHunters?” he asked.
I shook my head, unsure where these new questions were going. “No, Drill Sergeant.”
“Right,” he said. “Well about four years ago, they came on campus here and started wandering around, filming stuff, talking to cadets. We've always had stories about ghosts here. I guess all the really old universities do. But they made it public.”
“They went on the air with it?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied. “You really never heard about it? Every year since then we get a few yahoos who come here for the ghosts, or the power. The TV guys said something about heavy ley lines, whatever that is.”
“Yeah, they were right about that,” I said before I could think about it. His eyes narrowed.
“So you do know something about all this,” he said. It wasn't a question this time. Damn.
I sighed. “They were right about the ley lines – lines of energy that intersect in places. This campus has a pretty big nexus, right on the upper parade ground,” I replied. “But I swear, I didn't know anything about it before I got here. I saw it after.”
It had been a strange experience, stepping out of the bus onto the campus for the first time. I noticed a sort of thrumming first, not one I could hear, but something in the back of my head somewhere. Then I Looked around, and saw the ley nexus. It was beautiful, in its own way. Arcing bands of light jumped from the hillsides all around the campus, slipping through the air to meet in one spot at the center. Ley lines usually coursed through the ground. I had Seen small ones before, but never one so large. And there were a lot of leys joining here.
It was breathtaking, in a Niagara Falls sort of way. For someone who'd been hoping to get away from his magic by coming here, it was also cause for despair. That much magical energy in one place was going to make the campus a magnet for all things strange and supernatural. I had come to entirely the wrong place, but it had been too late to back out without going home and eating crow.
He grunted. “You know,” he said, his tone even, “we're supposed to sort of encourage the ones who come here looking for ghosties to wander off somewhere else. Strongly encourage, if you get my meaning. It's part of the training drill sergeants get before the recruits arrive. Has been ever since the Haunthunters SNAFU. Maybe longer.”
Oh, did I. Cadre had darned near complete power over their recruits. And all the restraint of the average twenty year old male. “That's not why I came, Drill Sergeant.”
“I'll buy that, for now,” he replied. “Now, why don't you tell me what the hell happened out in the river this morning?”
I blinked, not quite sure where to start or how much to say.
“I couldn't get Thomas out of the water. My hands kept slipping when I pulled him. Never seen anything like it, but I've heard stories. Then you ran up, smacked the water with your hand, and he popped right up. So what did you do?”
I opted for truth. “You asked if there was a threat, remember?” He nodded. “There was. Little water spirit things. I scared them off. Think about it like using a big bug zapper on them, or something.”
He closed his eyes, walked over to his bed and sat down, rubbing his forehead with the fingers of his left hand. I stayed put, hands clasped behind my back, and waited to see his reaction.
“So you're telling me this stuff is all for real.”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“I don't know if I would have believed it if I hadn't been right there this morning. But we lose a couple of students a year, here. Odd accidents, unexplained suicides.” He looked up at me. “Can you spot this sort of thing all the time?”
I nodded. “If I'm alert and looking for it, anyway.”
He stood back up again, a firm look on his face. It was something I admired about the guy. He was a confident decision maker, and when he had all the information he tended to make good ones. In my own humble opinion, anyway. It was why I'd taken the leap of faith with him just now.
“OK, Blackwell. You're officially my point man for spooky stuff. I don't want to lose a single cadet or recruit this year if I can help it. You see a threat, even a possible threat, you report it to me. Got me?”
“Understood, Drill Sergeant.” What else could I say?
“Recruit, one other thing. They could have hurt you too, couldn't they?” he asked.
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“But you helped anyway. Good enough for me. Dismissed, recruit.”
He held my eyes again, but there wasn't any challenge in the stare, this time. Something like understanding, maybe, but no challenge. I nodded, came to attention, did an about face and exited the room.