To quote Meghan B., "MUPPET FLAIL!" Downside author Stacia Kane has given Stellar Four an exclusive peek at her next book in the urban fantasy series, Sacrificial Magic. The following is the first half of chapter one, but you won't be able to read the rest til the book comes out in March 2012. -Megan S.
Please note: The following excerpt is taken from the pre-copyedits version of the manuscript. Final published version may vary slightly.
by Stacia K.
“Only the bravest fight the dead.”
--Grand Elder Thomas, speech to graduating students, 2007
Had the roof over her head not been a broken mess, shredded insulation and pieces of tile dangling like the rotting innards of the living thing it had once been, she wouldn’t be getting hit on the head with cold droplets of water at odd, annoying intervals.
That would have made her happier. Or at least not quite as unhappy. Nothing could have made her particularly happy at that moment, when she was about to wander down a dark hall where a ghost lurked, and hopefully manage to freeze it before it sliced off her head or stabbed her or whatever the hell else it planned to do. The odds of a ghost in this corpse of a building not having a weapon were—well, there were no odds at all. Only the dumbest ghost on the planet wouldn’t have found some sort of weapon in this ramshackle palace of destruction, where her boots sloshed through a good two inches of foul water, broken glass, metal shards, pulped books, and who the fuck knew what else.
“Think it’s in there, Chess?” Riley Martin, the new Debunker she was training, pointed toward the mouth of the hallway ahead. In there the ceiling had apparently maintained its integrity; the hall was only shadows, a dark tunnel straight to the grave. Or rather the Crematorium, and the City of Eternity. None of which really sounded like a fun way to end her evening.
But neither did leaving the ghost here to kill other people, or telling the Church she’d decided to fuck off to the bar instead of doing her job. “Probably. No, don’t turn your light on yet. Try not to if you can help it. Let’s go stand right inside until our eyes adjust, okay?”
Riley nodded. Chess followed him, neither of them bothering to keep their movements quiet. If they could somehow attract the spirit, draw it out, that would be easier and safer. The last thing either of them wanted to do was to walk into some kind of ambush.
Fucking Lamaru. Fucking Arthur Maguinness-Beldarel shithead. If they hadn’t played their little power games and set a bunch of ghosts free the month before, she wouldn’t be out here doing something that technically wasn’t her job, but which every Church employee capable of it had to do at least one night a week when they weren’t otherwise engaged or on a case.
Which Chess wasn’t. Damn it.
They stopped in the shadows; the thin breeze hadn’t really penetrated there, so the horrible ammoniac stench, full of mold and worse, assaulted her nose the second they entered the hall. Her eyes stung.
But more than that, a warm tingling sensation began on her arms, up them and across her chest as her magical tattoos reacted to the presence of a spirit. A ghost was definitely present. She looked at Riley. “Are you feeling it?”
“I—I don’t know. My skin feels kind of funny.” What little of his face she could make out didn’t look happy.
“You get used to it.”
A flash of light down the hall, so fast she only saw it out the corner of her eye. But it had definitely been light, and it had definitely been the bluish light of a ghost.
Riley’s breath caught. This was the time that, if she was a normal sort of person, she’d be able to say something reassuring but at the same time cool, the kind of thing that would make Riley feel brave but not patronized. And they’d both sort of smile and head off down the hall to Banish that ghost.
But she was not that kind of person, and the last thing she had any idea how to do was reassure someone and make them feel good about themselves. Cliché was probably about the best she could do, but she’d give it a try; Riley wasn’t a bad kid, really.
“You’ll be fine,” was the attempt she made, and to her surprise it seemed to work. “Come on.”
Every step they took, every slow step through the soup of bacteria and rot sucking at her boots, brought them closer to that faint death-glow. She’d mixed some graveyard dirt and asafetida earlier, stuck it in a bag in her pocket; now she reached inside and grabbed a small handful. Ready.
They moved a few steps in silence broken only by the occasional plonk of water dripping from the ceiling behind them. Something rattled back there. Chess spun around to look but saw nothing.
Ghosts weren’t the only things that might hang out in abandoned buildings at night. They weren’t in Downside, no, but they weren’t exactly in the nicest area either; this building, which had once housed offices of some kind and a warehouse, stood just a few streets into Cross Town, a city block of condemned cement with a ten-foot chain-link fence around it.
A chain-link fence with holes in it. She wondered how many neighborhood kids had made this their permanent weekend hangout until two nights before, when one of them met their death just inside the front doors.
Another tiny glimpse of light.
“It is a ghost, right?” Riley whispered. “I mean, I feel like there’s a ghost here, but could that be something else?”
“It could be anything else. But it’s probably a ghost, yeah.”
The comforting weight of her knife sat in her pocket. Debunkers weren’t supposed to be armed. Fuck that. She’d rather take her chances with the Church’s discipline should she be caught with the weapon than with anyone or anything she might come across in a place like this.
Not that she would need it anyway. Damn it, the kid’s nervousness was making her twitch, and as much as she sympathized with him she really didn’t need that at the moment. It had been a good two hours since she’d taken her pills, and while she still had time—she wasn’t worried—places like this never really helped her keep calm. All that filth, all those germs, soaking into the bottoms of her jeans, brushing against her skin, her hair, invading her lungs. People caught diseases from places like this, especially after a rain.
Or they got their throats sliced open by ghosts armed with rusted shards of metal or whatever the fuck else. She edged her way down the hall, her back pressed against that gross excuse for a wall just because she couldn’t really see well enough to walk down the center. The glow got stronger with every step. Her fist clenched around the dirt.
Another plonk. A rattle. Something like a whisper, that could have been a voice or the sound of a makeshift blade leaving its sheath of soaked pulp or crumbled cement. The glow from a doorway another ten feet or so down the hall.
In its reflection Riley’s face looked even paler. The only thing keeping hers from looking the same—assuming it didn’t, which she was just going to go ahead and do—was the fact that she was still just high enough to not be quite as scared as she should be. And the fact that she was an absolute fucking expert at lying to herself.
But with every step closer to that glowing doorway that ability grew just a little bit weaker.
Whatever. Wasn’t like she could just turn around and run. So instead she took one last deep breath, and spun around the doorframe with her arm ready to throw the dirt at the first dead thing that moved.
And found herself staring at three teenagers, who were obviously very alive, who obviously thought they’d done something very clever, and who should have been thanking the gods who didn’t exist that Riley was there too because if he hadn’t been she would have been very, very tempted to beat the shit out of them with the nearest heavy object.
“What are you doing here?” Riley asked, but it was obvious from the stunned looks on their faces. Whoever they’d been expecting to walk through that door, it wasn’t two Church employees.
One of them—the ringleader, or whatever—glanced at the other two, and cleared his throat when they didn’t speak up. Fucking cowards. “We, uh, we thought you were some friends of ours.”
Damn it, why were her tattoos still tingling, if a ghost wasn’t in this room? This didn’t feel right, not at all, and she needed to get those little bastards out of there as quickly as possible. “You need to leave, okay? Just go home.”
“We’ve been in here for like an hour,” one of them replied. The flashlight he’d hidden under his dark blue jacket still glowed, made him glow. That’s where that had come from, she guessed, but nothing about these kids should have been setting off the alarms in her tattoos. Something else was around, waiting. “We haven’t seen anything.”
“Oh, right. That must mean nothing is here. This is such a small building.” She stepped sideways from the door; Riley, she was pleased to see, had already taken a step back into the hall. “You need to get out of here.”
“But we can help you,” the first guy started.
Started, but didn’t get to finish. Because before the last word formed in the air the ghost—ghosts—who’d clearly been waiting for just this sort of noisy fun, slipped through the walls. Four of them.
And thanks to the debris and shit on the floor, including what appeared to be a damned cigarette lighter sitting on top of a backpack tucked against one of the drier sections of wall, they were armed ghosts.
Well, what did you think? Is March 2012 too far away? Sound off in the comments! Oh, and don't forget to enter to win Dead on the Delta, the book Stacia's been talking about on Twitter.
If you can't wait the eight months till Sacrificial Magic comes out, maybe pre-ordering Stacia Kane's next book will make you feel better. Check it out on Amazon or Borders.