Hi everyone! So I have some scheduling news. First, my editor has been ill and that’s made the final edits on Pirate Throne take a little longer than anticipated. For my own peace of mind and hers, I’m going to delay the release of the book by a couple of weeks. I know you’re anxious to read it, and I’m anxious to get it to you, but I do my absolutely best to deliver the highest quality book I can every time, and that includes making sure the manuscript is properly edited prior to publishing it. This was an unavoidable delay, and even though she gamely took on the project in a vastly shortened timeline to finish, I think it will be better for the final product to just take that couple of extra weeks to make sure everything is ship shape.
Because Thanksgiving week is the last week of the month, though, I’m pushing to December. Holidays are not traditionally great times to sell books, and Thanksgiving is a big one here in the states. To soften the blow a little, I’m going to put a pretty hefty (unedited) snippet here on the blog. And this time, it showcases Reaper and Mercy. Look for that at the end of this post.
Because Pirate Throne is shifting, I’ve also shifted the next books to release to accommodate this change. Fox Hunt will now be out in January, and the next full length book, Pirate War, will be out in June. I’ve also uploaded a new preorder for November of next year. The links are not live yet, but here is the STUNNING cover for Book 5, Pirate Genesis. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: yes, Mercy and her consorts are still in these books. A different character features on the cover because [spoilers from Pirate Throne] the story is going to heavily feature the cover character as well. We can talk more about that after you’ve all read Pirate Throne! But rest assured, Mercy returns as the cover character down the road, and in fact I have some of those covers already.
All right, I think that is all of the publishing news related stuff. Don’t panic, the book is coming VERY SOON, and I’m SO excited for you to read it. You’ve already seen the prologue here on the blog, and now I’m going to share with you Chapter 1, which features fan favorites, Mercy and Reaper. Enjoy!
Skeletal buildings rose like dark monoliths all around Mercy. She stayed where she was, huddled in the shadows between two of them, scanning the empty street. It was night, and cloud cover hid the planet’s two moons. The only light was the pitiful glow from the few bioluminescent stone paths and building enhancements somehow still active, diffused by the rain that sluiced down so hard her clothing was soaked through in seconds. It was too much water, too fast for the mending and cleaning features to keep up with. The material clung cold against her skin, water dripping down her neck.
Really? She swore the sky was clear just minutes ago.
She hadn’t been planetside in months, and she’d never been to this world before, a relic from the Ascension Wars, broken and littered with ruined cities and craters that were the remnants of battlefields. Once a thriving civilization of science and technology, Arcadius V was a husk of a planet, scarred and inhabited by monsters. Rumored to be the birthplace of the Talented, among other experiments in creating the perfect soldier, the planet was destroyed in the wars. Billions of lives slaughtered, its vast databases and archives of knowledge lost.
In the wake of peace, a few intrepid salvagers ventured onto its surface to see what wealth could be scrounged from the ruins. None of them came back. A distress beacon from one of the salvage ops led to a rescue effort from the newly minted Commonwealth Navy. Looking to establish itself as an entity citizens could count on, the military sent in drop-pods filled with an entire company of Orbital Rescue, their special forces trained to drop in to hostile territory from low orbit, rescue and recover. First created during the wars, Orbital Rescue had decades of experience and training dropping onto planets engulfed in conflict and coming out alive.
Of the two dozen troops who went down to the surface of Arcadius V, three returned. They rescued no one. The military, cognizant of the PR nightmare they faced, released statements declaring the planet a Level 6 hazard, one level higher than any previously classified world. It was illegal to even orbit the planet, much less attempt planetfall. The Commonwealth had no way of preventing salvagers from trying, of course, but the label meant they were under no obligation to rescue anyone who made the attempt, and any goods or artifacts retrieved from the surface would be confiscated and destroyed, if found. Whoever was caught holding such artifacts would face a life sentence in one of the harshest prisons in the galaxy.
No one had been to Arcadius V in decades. Information on it was so classified the only thing listed in the navigational charts was “Quarantine – Level Six Hazard. Threat Tier: Lethal.”
The handful of reports that escaped the military lockdown mentioned a landscape made barren by war, empty cities falling to ruin, and monsters. Beyond basic flora and fauna, the only life left on the planet consisted of whatever lab experiments had escaped, lived, multiplied, and thrived in an unforgiving environment.
One of the files Wolfgang unearthed from his old military contacts had a few holopics, taken of the three surviving Rescue personnel. One of them had four ten-inch gashes from her shoulder to her hip, spaced apart like claws and deep enough to see the white flash of bone.
She’d died days later of an apparent infection.
Another had boils that covered half his face and body. Huge, ugly pustules that looked red and painful. He’d lived, but later holos showed his skin pitted and scarred, his body a withered shell of the fit man he’d once been.
The third survivor didn’t have any holopics. The entire entry was redacted, with only a single pronoun use indicating the soldier had been male. Mercy didn’t want to know what had happened to him. There was no indication of how long he’d survived, only that he was ‘deceased’.
Not my idea of a vacation spot, she thought at Reaper. He was somewhere nearby, scouting the area before they proceeded forward. A skilled telepath and telekinetic with a special Talent to see the most efficient way to kill anyone, he was also a highly trained soldier and assassin. If anyone could be considered safe on a planet this hazardous, it was Reaper.
Nor mine. Be still. And quiet.
I am being quiet.
Mercy. Whatever monsters inhabit this world were made by the same scientists who made us.
So, he said, they could be Talented.
A silence filled with dawning horror fell between them. Or at least, dawning horror on Mercy’s part. Reaper was in his cold place, suffused with his Talent, an icy presence that leeched away emotion, leaving him a cold and calculating Killer.
Mercy didn’t dare say anything else. She let her silence speak for her, and she felt Reaper continuing on, apparently satisfied at her compliance.
More than a little unnerved, Mercy rubbed at her right wrist, feeling the slightly raised pattern where her bracelet lay. It was more than a bracelet, of course. It was a weapon, itself a relic of the Ascension Wars. At a pulse of her will, the bracelet triggered and a ghostly blade took shape in her hand, an extension of her own Talent as a psychic weapon. She could shape it however she wished, and right now it appeared as a short, straight, double-edged blade.
She’d spent the past several months training with it. Reaper was an exacting and demanding instructor, and in the end Mercy had received the same unforgiving combat training he put his dogs through. Dogs were considered elite soldiers among the pirates. Mercy’s days had blurred into exhaustion and sore muscles. When she wasn’t physically training, she was mentally training. Everyone was trying to cram as much knowledge and skill into her as they could, as quickly as possible.
Honestly, this almost felt like a break, even if it was a nightmare planet filled with unknowns.
Armed, she felt a little better. But only a little.
The space between her shoulders prickled with unease. Around her, the night air took on an oppressive feeling, as though it had a mind and a will. She felt malevolent eyes on her.
It’s your imagination, she told herself, keeping the thought strictly personal, and tightly behind her shields. She breathed in slowly and let out a long breath, telling her racing heart to calm down. She peered into the darkness, and strained her ears to hear anything over the sound of the falling rain.
See? Nothing here but you, Reaper, and a few billion ghosts.
Not that she believed in ghosts. But then, who was she to judge? She had what could be called a spirit living inside her bracelet. Her grandmother, Lilith, the previous pirate Queen and over a decade dead. Yet, Mercy had entire conversations with her inside a mental environment of Lilith’s creation.
I am not a ghost. The acerbic voice cut into her thoughts with a distinct tone of derision.
No? You have no corporeal body because it died. You exist only as a figment inside that bracelet and a voice in my head.
Existing as a consciousness is not the same as being a ghost.
Could have fooled me.
A scrape of sound cut through the rain, like metal on stone. Lilith fell silent instantly, which did not reassure Mercy. Because if Lilith heard it, the sound was real, not something Mercy had imagined.
A shape darted across the street to her left, a blur of shadow in the night. She didn’t see what it was, only an impression of speed and size, which was fast, and big. Bigger than human.
Mercy tensed. Everything in her wanted to call out to Reaper mentally, but his warning kept her silent. If this thing, whatever it was, had Talent, reaching out mentally would only pinpoint exactly where she was. If the thing didn’t already know.
She forced her muscles to relax. She had to be ready to move. Knees bent, she stayed still and slowly scanned the darkness. As much as the rain shrouded everything, she should be grateful, as it would also make her more difficult to detect. She hoped.
Nothing moved in the dimly lit night. But looking with her eyes was a limitation. One of Mercy’s passive gifts as a Talented Queen involved sensing the minds around her. Talented minds usually appeared as a warm, golden glow. Familiar, and brimming with a feeling of comfort and belonging. Nulls varied in color, but were usually greenish-gray or a yellow so pale it was nearly white. She felt only a trace of emotional feedback from them.
Reaper’s mind glowed several streets to her left, familiar but radiating icy frost because of his unique Talent. She didn’t dare reach out to him and expose her position.
Slowly, she felt for any other minds in the area. Using Talent usually required active effort, in the same way that lifting something physically required action and strength. But this was different. Certain Talented gifts were passive in nature, and constantly working. Relaxing her shields even slightly was like opening the protective barriers around a drive core.
Power spilled out of her, searching. A Queen needed the feedback from other Talented minds, as they needed to be connected to hers. Her Talent was always actively searching for those connections. She used that passive ability now to scan the area for any other minds. There was nothing. Just Reaper.
Wait. Something flashed in her awareness, there and then gone. Like a flickering light swallowed by shadow.
A warning heat washed down her spine and she exploded into movement, throwing herself forward and down as the bright presence of an active mind flared behind her. She felt pressure, a tug at her jacket as she dove to her knees, turned and thrust with her blade. She felt resistance as it connected. Hot, fetid breath steamed in the night, a low growl rumbling so deep she felt it in her bones. The growl turned into a roar that sent a cold wave of terror through her.
She could see the outline of a form now, illuminated by the faint glow of the streets around them. She backed up a step, then another. A huge, misshapen creature towered over her, its maw open wide as it roared in fury. Rows of teeth gleamed yellow in the light. The teeth closed with a snap, and green eyes reflecting in the night stared at her malevolently from a face that looked like a cross between a bear and something with lizard ancestry.
Thick, armored scales covered the creature’s head, with waves of undulating fur — no, some kind of tendrils — about three inches long covering the top of its head and flaring in longer tufts where she imagined ears to be. It stood on two legs, with twin sets of arms thick with corded muscle and covered in more scales hanging at its sides. Each arm ended in a paw-like appendage, wicked looking claws extending from them. If she got hit with those, it would all be over.
Monsters. Well, the reports got that right.
A massive paw struck out with terrifying speed. Mercy threw a telekinetic shield up just in time, deflecting those lethal looking claws away. The reverberation as the creature hit her shield rattled her teeth and made the bones of her arm ache. The shield barely held.
The creature roared its fury and charged at her. Mercy stepped to the side, pivoting as it swept past, and cutting with her blade. A real sword might not have penetrated that thick armor, but a psychic weapon didn’t have to yield to physical barriers. It sank deep in the lizard-bear thing’s side, cutting a long slice. White smoke rose from the wound, and the creature bellowed in pain, animalistic, but managing to sound eerily human at the same time.
It turned, and the white smoke from the wound changed to black. What the hell? It lunged, teeth snapping, and Mercy deflected with another shield.
Which shattered as the creature’s head struck it.
Those teeth snapped closed mere inches from her face as she scrambled back. She thrust up with her weapon, but the monster dodged in a sinuous, snake-like movement. What the fuck.
For a second she was off balance, her weight too far forward. Something massive hit her, lifting her off her feet and throwing her into the building to her right. The breath left her lungs in a woosh, and she couldn’t fill them again. Pain radiated through her ribs, her hip, and her head where it had connected with the wall. She had to get up, to move before the creature closed distance, but she couldn’t get her limbs to work.
She coughed, and breathed in a trickle of air as her lungs burned. A shape loomed above her, towering. Shaky but functioning, she managed to get her legs underneath her. She dove just as massive paws came down where she’d been, claws raking stone.
The thing could break through a shield, but that wasn’t the only trick in her arsenal.
She hunkered down in the shadow of a crumbling statue, so deteriorated by time and overgrown with some sort of ivy that she couldn’t begin to guess what it had once been. She forced herself to go still, breathing slow and deep in an effort to quiet her hammering heart. The thing was turning, looking for her, its shape indistinct in the darkness. She caught the flash of its eyes, saw the steam of its breath in the air. She had only seconds.
Mercy quieted her mind and focused her will. In a trick that worked against humans, she projected emptiness. An illusion of thought that she didn’t exist.
For a second, she thought it would work. The monster’s eyes moved over and past the spot she was in. It moved into the faint light of a glowing patch of street, and she could see its great head swinging back and forth, searching. Some of the tension eased from her. It doesn’t see me. But then it shifted, its muzzle lifting into the wind. The head swung back her direction, a low rumble in its throat.
It’s opened its mouth and roared. The blast of sound hit her like a wave of telekinesis – literally. It smashed her back against the statue, pinning her in place.
Mercy tried to move, and couldn’t. The creature reared up above her, claws flashing in the light. Adrenaline fueled terror flooded her limbs.
She punched her own telekinesis at it, throwing everything she had into the strike. It hit the monster square on, sending it staggering back. The pressure on her eased, and she moved, diving around the statue and putting it between her and the creature just as it recovered and lurched forward.
It hit the statue so hard it shook, bits of rock and debris raining down on Mercy.
Enough. Physically, it outmatched her. But Mercy’s greatest strengths went beyond the physical.
She reached for its mind as she darted across to another building. A shadow in the darkness, it was difficult to grab onto, like it could somehow cloak itself. It felt alien, almost oily. Its shields were like a null’s: basic, full of weak spots and holes she could slip through. It had very simple motivations: hunt, kill, eat. She had invaded its territory. Not only was she an intruder, but it was hungry.
Those were merely surface thoughts. She needed to dive deeper. Every creature in the galaxy had basic needs and instincts that drove it, and equally basic fears to aid in its survival. What did this thing fear?
An impression came to her. Flame, heat, death.
She could work with that.
The lizard-bear whipped around the statue, inhumanly fast. It seemed to switch off between big, lumbering movements and sinuous, fast ones. The damn thing felt wrong, like something that shouldn’t exist in the natural world. Hopefully its mind wasn’t too alien for what she had to do.
As it tracked her, moving to attack again, Mercy shaped a thought and thrust it deep into the thing’s mind. A lie so strong, so detailed it felt true. Fire, boiling heat, the smell of scorched earth, smoke burning the eyes, white-hot pain.
Gathering itself for another charge, the lizard-bear suddenly stopped short. It shook its massive head, the tendrils undulating in a wave that somehow conveyed alarm and confusion. Mercy took the moment to put more space between them, backing up slowly, ignoring the stabbing pain in her hip with each step.
The creature shook its head again, and followed her, head down, stalking. It was more cautious, but not deterred.
Mercy envisioned pools of hot, flowing lava. Sticky, deadly heat, blackening flesh, choking, poisonous fumes. Death.
A roar blasted foul smelling breath at her. Rotting meat and old decay. Claws extended as the creature stalked forward, biting rivets into the stone, teeth clacking as it lunged and snapped at her in a clear threat display.
The tendrils on its head went flat.
Uh-oh. When confronted with a deep-rooted fear, most living things went into a fight or flight response. Something had just clicked in its brain, and Mercy knew beyond a doubt, this thing had just decided on fight.
She lifted her blade, preparing to spring aside as it leapt at her.
A shadow dropped from above, landing on the creature’s back. Twin, ghostly blades sank into its head, white smoke rising from the wounds.
The lizard-bear staggered, crashing into the wall of a building so hard that the ancient stone crumbled. The entire building shook and in slow, horrible motion, caved in, the noise so horrendous it drowned out the storm. Stone rained down, dust filling the air as creature and building collapsed in a giant heap of rubble.
“Reaper!” Mercy ran forward, coughing. Had he still been on that thing’s back when it fell? She hadn’t seen him jump free. Frantic, she searched for his mind.
Relief crashed through her, leaving her shaky. She spun toward him just as he walked out of the dust-churned darkness. Dirt coated his skin in a fine layer, darker smudges that might have been bruises on his cheek and the back of one hand. Athletic and lean, Reaper wore armored clothing in a matte black, tiny hexes of nanofilament forming a distinctive pattern over the fabric of his shirt. The sharply defined lines of his jaw and cheekbones might have been beautiful on another man, but Reaper had a quality too cold and hard for beauty. He radiated masculine strength and a darkness that reached into some instinctive part of the brain and said lethal predator.
His eyes were an icy blue so pale they were nearly colorless. A sign that his Talent was still active. Right now he was cut off from emotion, viewing the world and everyone in it with a cold, calculating Talent that saw only one thing: the most efficient way to take life.
Mercy ignored that and limped over to him, pulling him close. “Thank the Mother! I thought you went under that building with the monster.”
I’m fine. He pulled back, a frown tugging at his lips as the color of his eyes deepened. “You, however…you’re fortunate to be only bruised and not broken.”
Mercy winced. Now that the monster was dead and Reaper was all right, her various wounds made themselves sharply known. Every breath in brought a deep ache with it, her hip radiated a dull throb, her head hurt, and sharp stinging pain along her shoulder made her breath hiss between her teeth.
That thing had caught her jacket in its first attack. Apparently, its claws had scraped skin as well.
Dismayed, she tried to look back over her shoulder. She could feel the wet of the rain against her skin and saw the tattered edge of ripped fabric. “I liked this jacket,” she said.
“I think that’s enough for today,” Reaper said, ignoring her complaint. “End simulation.”
The cold, punishing rain stopped, and the dust choked air faded away to the familiar, clean smell of the ship’s air recyclers. The war-torn cityscape changed to an empty room and utilitarian gray walls.
Mercy took a slow, deep breath. This was the end of a very long day. Every muscle in her body ached, in addition to the various bruises and stings of simulated wounds. She might not really have lacerations on her back, but it still stung where a charged bolt had tagged her, simulating the injury. She rolled her shoulders, wincing. “Tell Max and Sebastian to back off a bit on the realism. Seriously, do we need these things to actually hurt?”
Reaper gave her a long look. “The more real it is, the better prepared you’ll be when we reach the planet. I told them to make the simulation as real as possible, based on the information we have.”
Of course he had. “And the mental stuff? Did you give that thing camouflage and let it bust through my telekinesis?”
“That was Treon’s touch. We’re going to the planet of our origin. For all we know, every monster we encounter will either have Talent, or be resistant to it.”
Ugh. She hated that he was right.
Reaper studied her face. “This is why we train, Mercy. Far better if the worst happens here, in a simulation, than on actual planetfall.”
“I know.” She winced, rubbing a hand on her hip. “I just wish it hurt a little less. Or was just a touch less real.” She still felt keyed up, shaky with the aftermath.
Visiting a quiet beach in NAR was one thing. Near Actual Realism was designed to look and act just like the real world. Several steps beyond the augmented and virtual realities of long ago, it could simulate experiences so real the mind couldn’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Like a dream — or a mental landscape. NAR was how most people took vacations, visited worlds they’d otherwise never get to experience, practiced new skills, or played games. The military used it for training, and so did the pirates.
Reaper gave her an amused smile. “I want your reactions as real as possible. I can adjust your training based on how you do in these simulations.” He paused. “You’re still struggling with staying calm and focusing your mind in the moment. Don’t let your emotions cloud your reason.”
“Says the guy who can turn his on and off like the press of a button.”
“My dogs can’t, and they’ve all passed this simulation with better times and fewer injuries.”
She wanted to punch him. She thought about it, just for half a second. Reaper favored her with a slow smile. He leaned close. His breath was warm on her skin, stirring her hair as he spoke into her ear. “Go ahead. I promise I’ll let you land one before I pin you.”
She shoved at him, but he didn’t budge. “No, thank you,” she said. “My bruises have bruises. I think I’m done training for the day.”
“Who said anything about training?” His eyes laughed at her. He lifted a stand of her hair that had escaped her braid, tugging on it playfully as he leaned in, skimming his lips across her throat.
“Uh-uh. Nope.” She shoved at him again, ignoring the heat that moved through her at his touch. “You should have thought about that before you set up this sadistic training sim. All I want right now is a long soak in a bath. Alone.”
“I think I could persuade you otherwise.”
“Don’t bet on it.” But her resolve was already weakening, and they both knew it. A phantom touch slid up her spine, sinking heat into sore muscles. She almost moaned, relaxing against him. “Maybe just a massage,” she relented.
Reaper laughed. “Or—”
The jump alert blared through the ship. They were coming out of otherspace. Mercy bit back an oath. Now? Really?
Sorry, Sebastian’s mental voice really did sound apologetic. But you should both get to the command deck. We’re here.
They’d arrived in the Commonwealth.