I used to consider myself strictly a novelist. Sure, I wrote some short stories for my creative writing classes when I was in college, but those were obligations, not labors of love. Once relieved of the pressure to produce, I washed my hands of short fiction and thought I’d never write anything less than 100,000 words again.
That changed about six or seven years ago when I started writing short fiction again. Most of the new stuff is set in Knownearth, world of the Woern Saga. Eventually I’d like to publish these as a collection, but I’m also excited to begin sharing them with readers. Here’s the first:
A thousand years before the time of The Woern Saga novels, twelve powerful wizards joined together in a Council and launched a successful campaign to exterminate every other magic wielder in the world. To carry out this genocide, they recruited less powerful wizards to do the dirty work. Maitchen is one of these Enforcers, and in “Kill Squad,” she encounters a last pair of fugitive wizards and their strange familiars.
“Remember when finding ’em was easy?”
Maitchen answered Algin’s question with a slurp from her flask. Liquor scalded her tongue, hot as the fire licking the dark.
Her companion finished his bottle with a smacking sigh, a noise that had niggled Maitchen’s patience for fifteen years. “There was a corner magician I liked when I was young,” Algin said. “He ran this card game, mostly slight o’ hand with only a little bit of real wizardry. I kept asking if he’d ’prentice me, and he kept promising he would, but then the Purge started. He was among the first rounded up.”
“Street mages and healers were easy quarry.” She’d been a healer, and her entire guildhouse had been caught in the first sweep. “Maybe he became an Enforcer?”
“Nope, not him. He never gave sign of the sickness, so they would have purged him for certain. Took his wife and babe too.”
Another swallow raked Maitchen’s throat. Some got used to harlolinde’s bite, but she had to fight a hacking cough with every sip. Yet the liquor helped dull the ache above her right eye. Drink enough and she could almost forget the Woern gnawing away at her brains, the slow, inexorable creep of death along her nerves. Drink enough and she could almost forget the blood on her hands. There weren’t many wizards like Algin’s street mage, immune to the chronic migraines and progressive neural degeneration that came with Woern infection, but every one Maitchen had found, she’d killed as the Purge required.
“Most wizards I knew were brutes,” she said. “Most of them driven mad by pain, or just plain mad, as the Woern does to most people. Drunk or blissed out, they couldn’t care less what harm they caused. I treated this girl once. A thug had set her feet on fire, just because she got in his way. Simply in his way, on the boardwalk, playing, and that bastard couldn’t be bothered to step around her.”
“Did you heal her?” Algin asked, even though he’d heard the story dozens of times, just as she’d heard about his street mage. Over fifteen years, the same stories spun around the campfire like the stars wheeled in the sky.
“Couldn’t. Not enough tissue left, and I had to amputate her feet. The kid’s mother rigged up a wheeled chair so she could get around.”
She told that story to remind herself why she sat beside a campfire with Algin, gritting her teeth every time he gasped after a drink from his flask. She wasn’t immune to the parasites that gave her and every wizard their power, so when the Purge began, she’d been given a choice: become an Enforcer and let the Woern kill her in their own time, or have her throat cut then and there. Fifteen years ago, she’d chosen to keep breathing and do her part to heal the world of the Woern-borne madness that left that girl a cripple.
A shiver tickled up her spine, and her ears pricked as if a twig snapped behind her. Spine alert, she held up a finger. Algin capped his flask and leaned forward, eyes intent on her face. She raised a second digit when the tingle came again, soft like a lover sweeping a hand along her back to gently press the nape of her neck. Every Woern-wielder had a unique waveform; it was how they found each other. Half a minute later, the sensation came again. “Two, maybe three miles,” she said. “North.”
“You want to hunt?”
“I want to be done.” She shut her eyes and swigged another hot mouthful, wishing she could burn away the last fifteen years. She’d loved healing, the art and science of knowing how to use her power to reach inside a patient and knit together torn tissues, drain abscesses, and nudge the spleen into sending healing factors wherever they were needed. Fifteen years of terror and blood had nearly drowned her memories of happier times before the Purge. Debriding an infected wound was nasty work too, as noxious and painful as it was necessary to the patient’s survival, or so she told herself each night after she’d emptied her flask.
Another pulse rippled up her spine. She could always tell when her quarry sensed her—she could feel their fear, the desperation to hide, flee, or fight. But this time, the wizard’s waveform carried no anxiety. The quarry didn’t know Maitchen was near. “Two to three mountain miles in the dark—that could take all night. Best we go in the morning.”
Algin nodded and tromped off to issue orders to their squad. Maitchen checked that her Woernvoid was stable—if the shield masking her waveform unraveled while she slept, they might all be dead come morning. In the early years, when wizards banded together to resist the Purge, a lot of kill squads never woke to their next dawn. Back then, Maitchen had thought about joining a rebel crew, but she considered the risk-benefit ratio and decided it favored the Council—the twelve wizards who had appointed themselves the ones fit to survive the Purge. Her prognosis had been correct. All those rebels were dust now. “They were brutes,” she muttered and ducked inside her tent.
You can download and read the rest of “Kill Squad” here. If you do, be sure to let me know what you think!