I don’t know what I’m doing. I haven’t known what I’m doing for the past year and a half, ever since the changes started.
No, who am I kidding? The changes started a hell of a lot longer ago than that.
Ever since childhood, I’ve been… undergoing something. A transformation. Miraculous changes that don’t make any damn sense.
But in the past several months, those changes have been coming quicker, they’ve been harder, and there hasn’t been a goddamn thing I can do to stop them, let alone ignore them.
I’m walking through a darkened laneway, hands stuffed in my pockets, fingers curled all the way into my palms. Any harder, and I won’t just cut the skin, but I’ll start that process again. That process that happens whenever I force too much strength into my fingers.
Charges of electricity, maybe. Power, possibly. I don’t know. There’s never been anyone for me to call on, anyone to rely on to figure out what the hell is happening to me. Just a few notes I’ve found here and there in family files. Nothing else.
Carefully, I slink along the side of the darkened building.
Thankfully, there are no lights on. Maybe that’s by design. Maybe it’s by accident. I never can tell until I figure out what I’m hunting.
Shit, hunting. I’ve been trying to stop myself from thinking like that. Though I’ve come out like this every night for the past month and a half, tracking those creatures, I’ve been desperately trying to hold onto a sense of normalcy. But it’s starting to slip away, isn’t it? Like goddamn water through my shivering fingers.
I cram my hands harder into my pockets, shifting my head to the side with a hard tick as I try to dislodge my heavy fringe from over my eyes.
I should get it cut. I should get my whole damn head shaven. Even though my silken, long dark hair has always been my crowning glory – about the only feature that sets me apart – it’s starting to become a nuisance. Hell, everything that ever set me apart, everything I’ve ever found special is starting to become a goddamn nuisance.
Friends? My surrogate family? Even the people I work with? There is a part of me that wants to push them all away before whatever changes that are happening to me go too far.
I shiver at that prospect. A hard, darting shiver that snakes all the way down my back and plunges into my coccyx. It makes me walk just that little bit quicker. And that’s good, because finally I can hear the footfall. Quick, darting, probably a good hundred meters in front of me. Before you ask how the hell I can pick that up – considering no ordinary person would be able to discern footfall a good half a block away – just don’t. Don’t ask. Because I stopped asking myself a long time ago. There are no answers. No information whatsoever about what’s happening to me.
There’s only one thing I can rely on – a fact that seems embedded right there in the center of my chest and beats all the harder as I kick into a sprint.
I can’t stop this. I’m compelled. Every night whenever I sense that distinct energy that warns me of those creatures, I have to roll out of bed, throw on my boots and jacket, and I have to get out here. I have to do something.
God knows the cops can’t do anything. Once or twice I tried to call them, but it never ended well. They might have guns, might have weapons, might have fast cars, and might technically have the law on their side, but in a fight with these creatures, nothing matters.
Only power does. Only magic.
I wince as I think of that word. Good God, I’ve been hiding from it for years now. Because the day I accept that what’s happening to me – the power that darts in my veins – is magic, is the day I should check myself into a psych ward.
Because magic doesn’t exist.
I used to be a big believer in science – a big disbeliever in anything my eyes couldn’t see.
But then this world rose up to meet me.
The creature I’m tracking suddenly puts on a burst of speed. Maybe it can sense me behind it, maybe it can’t.
Then I hear it – this shrill pitching, keening cry. It reminds me of a crow somehow combined with a wolf. The exact shaking, piercing quality of the tone is so damn penetrating that instinct alone tells me it should wake up every single person on the block.
It doesn’t. Because they can’t hear it.
Only I can.
If you want any more evidence that I’m going crazy, this is it. Surely this is it. But I don’t suddenly shift to the side, set myself down against the cold, damp brick, call an ambulance, and wait to be taken away.
Instead, I put on another burst of speed.
The more I fight them, the more skills I unravel. Jesus Christ, it’s happening faster every day. I swear it is.
Last night, I discovered that I can survive being thrown off the top of a building.
And that is a hell of a discovery to make as you’re pitched off a 10-story apartment block and your body strikes the bitumen below, but your head doesn’t crack and your brain doesn’t splash over the pavement.
I can jump. High. I can run, blisteringly fast.
And what’s more, I can produce magic.
I don’t shy away from it this time as I surge forward and throw myself around a corner fast enough that I finally catch sight of it.
I call them pawns. Not because I think they’re expendable chess pieces, but because that’s what they call themselves. Once or twice, I’ve heard them talking. Either muttering amongst themselves or hissing down their phones. And don’t even get me started on the fact that these creatures have mobile phones. There’s so much about this world that doesn’t make any damn sense. If I ever have the chance to sit down long enough and assess it, I will probably take a gun to my head to end it all.
I don’t have that option.
The pawn, on the face of it, looks like a human. From certain angles, that is. It’s almost as if it has been carved or painted to resemble a person. But if you move quickly enough – which I can – you can catch them off guard, and you can see something underneath.
What that thing is, I have no freaking clue.
The pawn is blocky, squat, muscular, with a large, round, hard head. It has wide, penetrating eyes that are a yellow-brown, like the color of a fatty liver.
It has sharp, jagged teeth, too.
And yet it doesn’t look like any monster from any myths I’ve ever read. And trust me, because as soon as I saw my first pawn, after I’d calmed down long enough to think straight, I went straight to the local library. I looked up every single image from mythology I could, desperately searching for anything like this creature.
It is too ornate, almost like a carving come to life. And it lacks the grisly, animalistic quality of monsters from legend.
I put on another burst of speed, and the pawn finally slices its head to the side, its big, fat, yellow, wide eyes blasting wide as they lock on me.
For a second, I can tell it is trying to look more like a human. Whenever the pawns try to hide their true appearance, they do this thing with their bodies, almost as if they are settling down into their disguises like a man fixing the shoulders of an ill-fitting suit.
The pawn does that now. It makes itself look like a businessman. An ordinary, middle-aged businessman with a bald spot on his round, shiny head and a briefcase under his arm.
No matter how many times I fight the pawns, they don’t recognize me – because every time I fight them, I win.
Even the first time I was attacked by one, I won.
And that moment? Goddammit, it is seared into my mind. Every single time I roll into bed at night and try to close my eyes, there it will be. For it is the moment when my life changed forever.
I am starting to learn that speed is everything.
Never give them a chance. Because if you do?
Honest to God, people will die.
I’ve seen these pawns go through people like a knife to butter.
They kill them. Though they won’t rip them apart with their block-like hands. Oh, hell no. They will… suck something out of them.
Like a spirit, like a soul – I don’t goddamn know, but as soon as it is removed from the person’s body, they die. Right there on the spot. Sometimes in my arms.
So I know the cost of waiting.
I finally pull my hands out of the pockets of my thick leather jacket.
I’ve never been a girl for leather. But ever since I tore through three expensive woolen winter jackets, I realized the sense in keeping tough hide around me.
I’m not made of money, and I can’t afford to buy new clothes every single night.
Plus, this old, tattered leather jacket I bought for 10 bucks at a thrift store is almost starting to be my uniform. Whenever I shrug into it at night before I go patrolling, just the scent of it alone and its trace of warmth bolsters me.
Right now, if flaps around my hips as I thrust forward.
I immediately form a hand into a fist. As I do, I open my mind through my circulatory system. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But not too long ago, I found I could direct my blood with nothing more than mental control. And with my blood – or within it – comes the power.
With a snarl parting my lips and a charge of blue light blasting over my hand, I strike it into the seemingly ordinary businessman.
I move so fast that he barely has time to react. Just a second, in fact. A second where his eyes open as wide as they possibly can and his lips crack back into a snarl.
As they do, they reveal the pawn’s real teeth.
It doesn’t have a chance to use them on me. As soon as my electrified fist strikes its face, it falls hard to the side.
I don’t wait for it to get up. I round on it, grab it up by its collar, and thrust it against the wall. As its body impacts the brick, all semblance of the businessman extinguishes like two fingers pressing against the flame of a candle.
In a snap of a second and with a crack that sounds like a glass being pushed off a table, its true appearance is revealed.
Though most pawns I’ve fought look similar, they’re often wearing different clothes… almost as if they’re in uniforms.
In my head, that tells me they come from different armies.
That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
Armies of pawns with magical abilities prowling the streets at night and killing unsuspecting people?
This is crazy.
A fact I keep repeating to myself over and over again as I slam the pawn into the wall once more.
It now obviously appreciates I’m no normal person. It jerks its head toward me, its massive lips opening wide as its snarling teeth gnash toward my face.
I don’t give it a chance to lock that jaw around my neck and slice through my jugular.
I yank one hand off its collar, cup its chin, and slam it against the brick wall. Once, twice, then a third time.
I’m taking this fight slowly. Not because I want to enjoy it. Jesus Christ, these fights terrify me, even if I am getting better at them.
No, the reason I’m taking this slowly is that even though I can end it now, to do that would be to gather too much attention.
I have… more than one ability.
Like I already said, I seem to be discovering new abilities every single night. But whereas I can keep myself relatively hidden by simply jumping off buildings and punching these pawns in their faces, if I use some of my other powers, I will draw way too much attention.
Once when I tracked a pawn into the basement of a building, I almost destroyed the entire thing when I accidentally shot a blast of light out of my body as if I were a goddamn cannon.
I have other abilities, too. I can call on swords that spin around me and that can form barriers.
I can slam my fist into the floor, too, and crack concrete with all the ease of a wrecking ball being slammed into it at a hundred kilometers an hour.
I can’t use any of those abilities now.
To the side of us is an apartment block. And to the other side is a squat office building.
Though it’s late at night, the office block still has lights on. The last thing I can afford to do is plow through a wall and let an ordinary person see me.
So I just round my hand into another fist and strike it against the pawn’s jaw.
It tries to fight me, but there’s nothing it can do.
One more hit.
I keep it pinned against the concrete as I allow a true, powerful surge of magic to wash through my veins. It concentrates on my fist, plowing into my fingers as I open them then close them with a snap.
I strike it on the jaw.
The pawn’s head jolts back, slams against the concrete once more, and then the light simply goes out from its eyes. It’s like I’m looking at two globes that have suddenly blown.
Its body begins to shudder. Harder and harder, as if I’m holding onto a jackhammer.
Then it happens – the light simply disappears from the pawn. For a split second, there’s a perfect copy of it made out a faint blue glow. It shifts several meters above the pawn’s body as I take a step back and allow it to slouch down.
Then the light just disappears. Shoots across my left shoulder. It always does that. And I always feel this particular prickle as the hair along the back of my neck stands on end and the skin feels momentarily as if it’s been touched by ice.
I take a step back, let my hands spread out wide, half close my eyes, and I breathe.
Another hunt is complete.
I shake my head, fighting back tears as I think that. “I’m not a hunter. I’m normal,” I gasp at myself as another tear trickles down my cheek. But even my desperate, shaking words can’t convince me.
As I take another step back, I don’t need to worry that I’ve left the body of some mystical creature in an abandoned laneway to be found in the morning. No, it jerks several times, then with a hush like falling sand through an hourglass, it just disappears. For several seconds, a pile of dust remains right there next to the dented brick, then that too is caught by the wind and chased away.
I take one final step back. I close my eyes as tightly shut as I can as I tip my head back, press my bottom lip hard into my teeth, and shove my hands into the safety of my leather pockets.
I stand there, trying to hold myself. Then I open my eyes, ready to head away.
But I don’t get the opportunity.
I hear a scream. Pitching, keening, loud. Human.
I jerk my head to the side, eyes blasting wide.
Jesus Christ, there’s another pawn.
I missed it. And now it’s out there, attacking someone.
I’ve never moved faster in my life as I throw myself down the laneway, as I run so damn fast, that if anyone is watching me from the office block above, they will know that I’m not human.
But what am I? While I can point out that there’s no way I can be human anymore, I can’t give myself an answer as to what I am instead.
I’m shaped like a human. I think like a human too, don’t I? So what’s this power that washes through me? Where do these abilities keep coming from, no matter what I do to stop them?
I have no answer. Nor do I have time to search for one.
As I round the corner, I see a young boy, no older than 15. He’s in an expensive, well-tailored uniform, and I instantly recognize it as belonging to one of the most expensive private schools in the city.
That’s irrelevant, though. He has his bag off his shoulder, his white-knuckled grip on the handle as he attempts to draw something from the open zip as quickly as he can.
But there’s a pawn in front of him. One that has a sword in its hand.
Though I never give the pawns time to arm themselves, they can.
Back there in the laneway if I’d allowed that so-called businessman time, he would’ve made his briefcase transform into a sword.
They don’t look anything like my own weapons. The swords of the pawns – no matter what uniform they wear or what army they belong to – are all short, all stunted, and none of them glow. In a way, they almost look like cheap props from some high school drama. That is until the pawns use them against living flesh. The instant one of those swords slams against a breathing human being is the moment that breathing human being dies.
I try to rush forward. I put on a burst of speed, but I don’t get there in time.
The kid is fumbling in his bag and gives the pawn all the time it needs to dart forward quickly and slash the sword right across the kid’s side.
The kid tries to turn away, but in doing so, he just reveals more of his flank.
Though most humans die instantly the moment one of those swords touches them, I’ve started to figure out that the likelihood of perishing on the spot is contingent on how much of your flesh that sword touches.
And this kid obviously doesn’t know that fact. For, in turning his flank to the pawn, he simply offers more of a target. It’s one the pawn gleefully takes. There’s nothing I can damn well do as the creatures’ sword slices right down the boy’s arm all the way down to his hip.
The kid staggers back.
I expect him to die. Right then and there. In a flash.
He still has a hold of his bag, and he somehow manages to jerk it away from the pawn, even though it reaches for the bag with a greedy hand.
I finally reach the pawn.
The kid can see me now. And even though his movements are weary and drawn out as he staggers down to one knee, his eyes open with shock. “Get out of here,” he mutters as blood splatters from his mouth.
I don’t get out of here. I make a run for the pawn just as the creature slashes toward the kid once more.
I don’t give the pawn that option. I duck in from the side, somehow grab a hand around the thing’s throat, and then slam it down against the bitumen with all my strength.
I’ve never fought a pawn harder. And tonight, I access a new depth of strength. More and more power blasts through me until my hand lights up like a goddamn Christmas tree.
Though it should usually take me several strikes to down a pawn, right now, all it takes is one as I slam it against the pavement with so much strength, it’s buried halfway up to its face in cracked bitumen.
The kid splutters in shock as the pawn shudders, the light leaves it, and it quickly turns to dust.
I turn around. I push up, try to get to the kid as he falls forward.
I let my arms furl around him, guiding him down into my lap. “You’ll…” I begin. But I can’t push the words out. There’s no way this kid is going to be okay. He managed a small miracle in surviving long enough to see me dispatch the pawn, but he won’t be able to live any longer. I can see the light starting to shift through him even now.
The kid still stares up at me in unabashed wonder.
I expect the kid to die with every second, but somehow he keeps holding on. Long enough to reach a hand up to me. There’s such a shocked quality to his expression. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if he thinks I’m a god or something.
“Just stay still,” I try.
He coughs, and more blood splatters over his lips. “You’re a queen,” he says. “You’re an unattached queen. Jesus Christ,” he begins. He coughs again, and more and more blood splatters over his lips. But it doesn’t stay on his lips. It quickly shifts into that same light that occurs whenever something dies and its sole leaves them.
“Just stay still,” I try.
“You need… you need to tell John. You need to warn him about what’s coming. You need to help him,” the kid says, words coming quicker as more blood splatters and dribbles down his chin only to evaporate into light.
“Just keep quiet, I’ll… I’ll try to get you some help,” I try, even though I know it’s goddamn useless. I have to do something – say something. Because I can’t just kneel here with this kid in my arms as he stares at me like that. As he stares at me as if I’m the solution to every problem there ever was.
“You’ve… gotta warn John.”
I can’t push away his desperation anymore, even though I want to. “Who’s John?”
“John Rowley. I’m one of his pieces. You… you have to warn him that a war’s coming. You have to help him. Please.”
I look at the kid.
I know he has seconds left now. No more pushing it off. His body is starting to shake.
I form a soft fist, and I manage a nod. “I’ll relay your message.”
“And help him,” the kid manages. Then he dies. Right there in my arms. One shudder, two shudders, then three. His soul leaves him. The light’s beautiful as it shoots over my shoulder. It leaves such a tingle down the back of my neck that it’s as if somebody has shoved electrodes into my skin.
The tears come thick and fast as the kid’s body jerks like a leaf in a hurricane until finally it turns into dust.
I sit there and bawl my eyes out. Not loud enough that I can raise any alarms, but the sorrow is just the same. It wrecks my body as I desperately try to push the dust off my pants, as I try to rid myself of the specter of death that now hangs off me like a shroud.
It takes a long time for me to stagger to my feet. Even longer for me to turn away from the dust that had once been a living human being.
I manage it. But then I stop. I see the kid’s bag out of the corner of my eye.
The pawn had been reaching for it. In fact, as I cast my mind over the fight, I realize the pawn had definitely been after that bag.
I never usually take anything back from a fight – because there’s usually never anything to retrieve. Anything that’s touching a person or a pawn when they die is usually turned into dust. But the bag is fine.
I’m not a thief – I try to tell myself that. That bag belongs to the kid’s family. And if I leave it here, maybe someone will find it, maybe someone will tell the police, and maybe then they’ll figure out that this kid is dead and call his folks.
… Or maybe someone will just steal the bag, my better judgment tells me.
I hesitate for one more second, then I reach over, pluck up the bag, and lift it easily. I know it’s technically heavy – I can tell that from the way the fabric struggles against the strap. But I can’t feel it.
I feel like utter shit as I finally walk away from the kid, lug his bag over my shoulder, and make no attempt whatsoever to dry my tears.
Maybe… maybe there’s something in this bag that could be useful to me. No, not the kid’s wallet, not his laptop – not anything I can hawk. Just information. Because right now, information is everything. If I can just find out what’s going on with me, I can… I can what?
This has been happening to me my entire life. And for the last year and a half, there’s been no stopping it. No break. Back when I was a child, I only saw glimpses of this world. But now this world has expanded to take up my every living, breathing moment.
I know there’s not going to be a damn thing in this bag that’s going to stop that. But maybe there will be something to help me figure out what’s happening to me.
So I shrug the bag further over my shoulder as I walk away.
The rest of The Last Queen Book One is available from most ebook retailers.