Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Free Fiction Monday! -- Grace Under Fire by Frog and Esther Jones

Yes, I'm late with Free Fiction Monday, but I have a fun one for you.  Today's sample is from Frog and Esther Jones' Grace Under Fire.

Chapter One: Grace
I hadn’t actually expected to be crammed into a small corner underneath Seattle’s Pier 57 pedestrian bypass with a plate of Smoked Halibut & Chips in one hand and an unruly fledgling spirit in the other.
I don’t dress for stealth. I wore a loose blouse and skirt in bright red and blue, plus silver bangles. I even had an electric blue head scarf over my perfectly ordinary brown hair. In hindsight, my “hiding place” only qualified because I am such a tiny person in the first place. I could smell the food in the shops just above me and hear the long row of sidewalk vendors haggling with their customers, much too close for comfort.
My original idea consisted of a quick and delicious lunch at the Salmon Cooker before heading to the Grove headquarters for a little extra research. Gotta love compound rune sets. I’d just paid and started down the pier toward the water. Today the sky shone uncharacteristically bright for late August. I loved it. Then a black-scaled bipedal Visitor about six inches tall with long pointed ears streaked past my feet to steal a potato wedge from a tame, unsuspecting seagull standing only about a foot and a half in front of—oh, eff me.
I scooped the spirit up on reflex, shoved him under the folds of my long blue jacket and made for the nearest hiding spot I could find. Which resulted in my current predicament, awkwardly crammed under the walkway. If anyone saw me with him, I would be well and truly screwed. I didn’t think anyone would mistake him for a pet. His thick-lidded blue eyes took up half his face. They held no white at all. His ears resembled large varnished bat wings. He clutched my thumb and forefinger in his little hands, already squirming to get free.
The best thing would be to banish him as quickly as possible, but I had to find out where he came from first. If I was lucky, his presence here meant a small hole had developed in the Weave somewhere nearby. If I was unlucky, someone had summoned him here and then set him loose to run amok on purpose. I hunkered down a little farther under the boardwalk, listening to a multitude of tourists’ footfalls clunking above.
“Do you and yours have business here? Were you invited?” I asked it. The tiny spirit looked at me curiously, cheeped, and stared intently at the plate in my other hand. Then back at me, then at the plate. This little guy appeared too young to have developed much sentience, or possibly only possessed animalistic intelligence to begin with. “You’re no help.” I sighed, grimacing.
As any first grader can recite, summoning is outlawed in the U.S., deemed to be the second greatest threat to homeland security after terrorism. President Herbert Hoover recognized its existence in 1930, then turned around and immediately outlawed it. Apparently, he blamed summoning practices for the Great Depression. A lot of natural disasters can be traced back to a sloppy, vindictive, or inexperienced summoner, but as far as I know the stock market crash isn’t ours. Now, if he’d alleged that a summoner caused the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927—that’s a whole other story.
Really, I suppose it doesn’t matter which disaster got us outlawed, but it’s always rubbed me the wrong way that the event used to outlaw our very existence is one time we didn’t do anything at all.
Yep, don’t mind me. Here I am, out in public, lots of curious tourists everywhere, and a baby Visitor in my lap. Perfect.
Even assuming I could get out of this without any kind of mishap, I would still get an earful back at Grove headquarters. This guy was small and weak enough—hell, he was non-verbal—that he couldn’t really get up to any serious mischief, but your average citizen wouldn’t know that. The little twerp could easily start a new tide of anti-summoner witch hunts if he kept running around out here.

Plus, like babies anywhere, eventually there would be something bigger and probably pretty pissed off coming to find him.
Fortunately, since I had been on my way to do research at the Grove, I had thrown some extra summoning supplies into the bottom of my cavernous shoulder bag. I usually don’t leave the house without a few basics, but it is essentially like walking around with a bag full of drug paraphernalia. I try not to have anything on me that would automatically get me detained by the police.
I put my plate down (out of the little guy’s reach, to his total chagrin) and rummaged until I came up with a book about the size of a paperback novel, with a blank, nondescript black cover. At first glance, most normal people assume you are carrying around a pocket-Bible or a journal. The latter is a little closer to the truth; the little book serves both as a kind of passport and summoner ID in the Grove system. It essentially identified me, and my rank, to other summoners, and gave me the basic knowledge to deal with random visitors like this one. Specifically, it had an index of known Visitors, their home Weaves, and any relevant pacts. Since I didn’t summon this scamp to begin with, I needed to look up the runes to his home Weave in order to send him home without hurting him. I could banish him outright in a jiffy, but it would hurt the little guy unnecessarily and I’d feel like a jackass. I doubted he’d come here on purpose. I fumbled through the book with my free hand while keeping a firm grip on my “little problem.”
“Concentrate,” I muttered to myself. Finally, I had the book open to what had to be the correct page indicating the runes to the little guy’s home Weave. I showed it the page. “See! This is what you’ll look like when you’re older. At some point you will grow into those ears. Lucky you.”
This summons would be tricky. Given his extreme youth, this spirit couldn’t give me a name to ground the summoning on. He looked barely hatched. I’d have to try to tie him back to his own realm and then switch him with something from there.
Fortunately, the Visitor’s pact with his realm allowed for an exchange of earth. Now the Sense we summoners use can’t create new matter or energy. It just brings something from point A to point B. Which means if I summoned sand from halfway across the world, or even just across the city, I’d better be very sure about the runes I had just used to bring it to me. Otherwise I could end up accidentally causing a catastrophe even bigger than whatever I’d tried to prevent. Like, say, accidentally breaching a flood control for starters. Not that I’m admitting to anything; I’m only thirty-two years old. But still, you get my point.
If this little guy had just slipped through a hole in the Weave he might have caused an imbalance already, which would mean that pushing him back through by force might cause a bigger tear. Of course, so would mommy-dearest forcing her way through to find him. I didn’t like my odds for getting caught by the Feds if I tried to smuggle him back to Grove headquarters either. And I wasn’t keen on what would happen after that—life in prison as a drugged vegetable. Minimum.
Really, the whole anti-summoner law is just ridiculous. If every summoner in the world suddenly stopped using their talent all at once, there’d be a lot more things going bump in the night, not less.
Besides, it’s not like anyone chooses to be a summoner. Either people are born with the innate ability to Sense—the ability to manipulate matter and energy, and through it the world around them—or they aren’t. Now, the Sense by itself isn’t very practical. Me, I only Sense things that are so close I’m almost touching them. That’s where the blood and futhark runes come in. Which, given people’s general squeamishness about blood, probably doesn’t endear us to the world at large, either. Blood, any blood, acts as a medium for the Sense, allowing it to extend through the runes beyond the summoner’s normal range. The runes give the Sense a target, or a roadmap about the summons’ intended effect. The more complex the rune phrase, the more sophisticated the summons. All rune-based summons have to include a source, a destination, and an intended effect. The runes used to accomplish that depend on what the summoner is up to.
I blew a few errant tendrils of hair from my eyes, squeezed them shut, and tried to consider my options.
The little spirit suddenly started emitting high-pitched cheeps, struggling in my grasp. “Stop that,” I snapped. “I’ll get you back home as quickly as possible, but you need to stay quiet or we’ll be in a world of hurt.” I started to give him a gentle squeeze to indicate my displeasure, but a series of gloating cheeps from down by my left foot interrupted me. With a feeling of inevitability, I slowly pivoted to look. Sure enough, three more little spirit ankle biters, identical to the first, were feasting on my plate of halibut and chips. They looked at the little guy trapped in my fist with glee while they stuffed their faces as fast as their little hands would move. I could just hear the undertone of playground taunting. I swear one of them even licked his fingers and did a little swagger. My little guy gave one last aggrieved cheep and fixed a pouting glare on me that clearly communicated he considered this all my fault. What a day.
So now there were four little Visitors. I made an educated guess that it meant there were even more out there right now, running blithely around the waterfront stuffing their tiny faces. To do any good, I needed to use a summoning that cast a mystical net for all spirits of this type, caught them, sent them back to their own Weave, and accounted for any original imbalance. If I could do that, the Grove could send out a team to look for the tear this evening, and keep anything else from coming through until it could be mended. The summoning would have an auto-leveling system in case there wasn’t an imbalance. Of course, without an imbalance the most likely explanation involved someone setting a mess of baby spirits loose in downtown Seattle for some unfathomable reason. Not a good sign.
No problem. This summoning was a piece of cake. A five-tier, alcoholic, mousse-filled, fondant frosted monstrosity of a cake. I drew in a deep breath and silently said a quick prayer that no tourists would take a wrong turn right this moment and discover my hiding place. Fortunately, these guys’ weakness showed easily because it matched my own. They couldn’t say no to delicious food.
I set my original offender down in the middle of the plate. All four of them were perfectly happy to sit there and chow down while I cut my finger. Using my blood, I drew the runes in a circle around them indicating that I wanted to summon all creatures matching these four from a—crap—ten-mile radius in any direction into the circle. With that done, I started on the second set of compound runes, which would trigger the next phase of the summoning after all the spirits had been summoned into the circle.
I could exchange earth of equal mass for each spirit to preserve balance and avoid further damage to the Weave, so that part came easily, but the potential of a prior hole and imbalance concerned me. I got down to some serious summoning calculus.
The farther away or the larger the object summoned, the more oomph your Sense has to exert to bring it back. You can mitigate how much juice you need with really complex and specific rune formations, which tends to be my favorite method of operation. I think of summoning as something akin to mathematical equations or chemical formulae. I put rune elements together that represent a specific solution or solid. My Sense doesn’t carry much oomph, and I’ve studied my ass off to make up for it. I probably have the most extensive knowledge of rune combos of anyone in the Grove. Even if my Sense does fall sadly short of the norm.
This summoning would flow out, and for each spirit, if it found an imbalance, it would mend and strengthen the Weave. If I found any giant holes that couldn’t be fixed immediately, I’d need to call for backup anyway, so I’d deal with that eventuality later.
To my great embarrassment, more than one person has called me a rune-prodigy for how quickly I appear to summon under pressure. What those people saw actually resulted from years and years of intense study. I’ve learned a multitude of possible rune combinations by heart. That perception also has help from the magnetic rune board I strap to my right arm. The runes are pre-drawn and raised from the tile so I can tell them by touch. I can usually line up the runes for all but the most complex summons in the space between breaths. Then I power them with blood and stretch my Sense through them like any other summoner. I don’t know why no one else has thought of having a board like me.

Or maybe they have, and it just doesn’t come up. I didn’t have the board today, since I’d planned on a day at the office. It’s all a much more stressful and slow process when you need to draw each rune perfectly by hand.
I finished up my third tier of compound runes and focused my Sense to power the summons.
For a fraction of a second the ring filled as full as a Tokyo subway with little spirits all cheeping at me reproachfully, and then they all vanished, replaced by a pile of rocks about four feet tall in a rough pyramid in front of me. A few rolled down from the top of the pile as it settled. Well, that didn’t bode well. If a small hole in the Weave existed, I couldn’t feel it. So how the hell had all those little spirits gotten in?
I risked one last cleanup summoning to send all those rocks out to the bottom of the bay. Then I dusted my hands off and headed back to headquarters. Somehow I just didn’t feel like eating fish anymore.
As I surfaced into the general throng, a familiar face ran up and sidled in next to me. She had blue eyes, red hair, and a temper to match. She was also the closest thing I had to a friend at the Grove headquarters.
“Hi, Amy,” I said. “I have to get over to the office. It’s been a hell of a day so far.”
“If you know you have to get over to the office, where have you been? They’ve been looking for you all day. Since we were planning some research this afternoon, I thought I’d come out and see if you were lounging around the waterfront before heading in. Which you were!” she finished accusingly.
“Wait, what? The office is already looking for me? Those guys haven’t been running around all day, have they? I’m pretty sure I took care of all of them, although we might need a cleanup team just to double-check.”
She squinted at me suspiciously. “I seriously hope you didn’t just call the Grove officials ‘those guys’ and act like you have this all under control. I really hate that they’re sending you. No matter how good your ranking is, this is just stupid.”
“Um, I think we have a miscommunication here. Let’s start over. Why is the Grove looking for me?”
Amy opened her eyes wide and stared at me. “You really don’t know?”

I shook my head. Her forehead wrinkled. Her lips turned down in a troubled frown. “I probably should let someone else tell you this, but it’s not fair if you just walk in there without knowing, either. Rumor is, the Spokane Grove has some serious problems. The council is being annoyingly close-lipped about it, but it sounds like something targeted and took out a whole bunch of summoners, even the very powerful ones. Several people have been asked to take in and provide housing for the folks who brought the news—and they’re barely more than kids. Probably just finished their apprenticeships.”
My feet just decided to stop moving. “Are you sure? Do they know what did it?”
“No. And...”

“And?” I prompted impatiently.

“They’ve transferred you there.”

Yep. Apparently Aisle 14 needed cleanup, and someone had just shoved the mop in my direction. It was turning out to be a bloody perfect day.


The Grove secretary looked like someone had been kicking her favorite puppy all day. Her face lit up with relief when she saw me, as if I was just the person to save little Fido. She also buzzed me right through to the inner offices, which is never a good sign. I took it as a sure indication the director was already waiting, and not very happy about it. It didn’t help my queasy stomach that the director’s office served as the principal’s office for the Grove—the only times you got called down were for kudos or smackin’s.

I felt pretty sure they hadn’t called me down to get a gold star.

I guessed someone had thrown me under a bus to save themselves. I wanted to get that person an I-really-loathe-you present. Something in line with ex-lax-laced brownies or a poison ivy plant. You know, something that just spoke to my appreciation.

It’s not like I could avoid walking in there, either. The Groves were established precisely because the laws against summoning are so harsh—and so are punishments for acting outside the Grove rules. All summoners must register and report to their local Grove to pass evaluation. We are a pretty tight-knit bunch; we keep to ourselves and keep ourselves under control. The Grove Councils from different cities work together to keep summoner-caused accidents and vigilante summoners under tight rein.

My Grove headquarters (at least the part that isn’t the library) is in a posh old hotel in downtown Seattle with the plush carpets your feet just sink into. Today it felt like I was walking through a swamp. I paused outside the polished mahogany door with its brass name plate that read, “Phineas Brandiole, Arboretum Director” to take a deep breath and compose my thoughts. As I raised my hand to knock, the door swung open, and I had to dodge to the side to keep from getting hit right between the eyes.

“You’re late,” a voice boomed inside.

I poked my head in the door and found the room full of people. Not only the director, but all the senior Grove officials. Perfect. I made my feet follow my head into the room, much as I’d have preferred not to.

“My apologies,” I said. “I stepped out early this morning, and didn’t realize you were trying to contact me. Nice to see you all. And, um, how can I help you?”

Director Brandiole motioned me to shut the door and take a seat in the one open chair. It was a red leather monstrosity with potted palms on either side, which made me feel even more like a sacrificial victim. I sat myself down gingerly and waited for someone to tell me exactly what was going on. The other three people in the room were all Grove bigwigs. The small office could barely hold all four of the people crammed in it; five if I included myself.

Mr. Brandiole cleared his throat and peered around the cramped room before turning to me. “You’ve probably heard we received news of grave import from our sister Grove in Spokane.” He paused, waiting for confirmation.

“I heard rumors, but they were non-specific as to the exact nature of the news.”

“Well, the official information isn’t as complete as we would wish, either. What we know is this: as of twenty-four hours ago, something invaded Grove headquarters, killing all of the Spokane Grove council and nearly all their registered summoners during an all-Grove meeting.” He waited for me to absorb the news, and I admit it, I was pole-axed. Not many things can actually take out a high-ranking summoner, let alone a whole group of them.

Annalisa Miller, Senior Grove historian, resumed the briefing. She wore a no-nonsense black pant suit that matched her plain features and tidy hair. “Currently there are one or two Spokane summoners who are only reported missing, as no body could be found, but it’s likely they have also been killed. The few summoners who are confirmed living were either not present when the attack occurred, or were incredibly low-ranking. Only one or two are any better than neophytes—”

Unable to wait any longer, Mr. Brandiole interrupted. “The Grove Cooperative Council has asked that we send immediate emergency aid to the Spokane Grove headquarters to evaluate and eliminate any current threats.” He paused and fixed me with a glower that made me want to squirm, but didn’t seem to want to proceed.

“So where do I come into all this? Surely this is something that requires only the best of our summoners. Not to belittle myself, but I’m still firmly in the middle of the pack.” I asked the question to make them spell it out, since I already had a nasty suspicion where this was headed. I was on the away team, and they were trying to pick out the folks who would be standing in front wearing a red shirt.

This time a thin balding man I vaguely recognized as the Grove Operations Coordinator spoke up. I scrambled to remember his name: something like Richard or Rickard? Anyway, his family name was Dewing.

“You may have noticed over the last few days we’ve had an increase in suspicious visitor activity in the Seattle area. There’s been a lot of pressure on our Weave, which requires us to send a lot more summoners out for maintenance and cleanup just to keep the status quo.”

“Now that you mention it, I did come across a bunch of mysterious little spirit hatchlings running loose down by the waterfront on the way in. I think I took care of them, but I’d recommend we send out a sweep-up team to check.”

“You illustrate my point excellently, then. Incidents just like that are happening with troubling frequency, and while we’re trying to pinpoint the cause of the instability, most of our manpower is already out repelling threats to Seattle. I can’t pull a full team off any of the tasks they’re currently assigned to.”

Mr. Dewing cleared his throat. For the first time in his speech he came off as a little awkward. I took that to mean I wouldn’t like what he said next.

“Our council has decided we must grant the Cooperative Council’s request, but it’s unlikely a large group would be effective at this point. Also, with the repeated Visitor incursions within city limits in the last few weeks, we have been advised against removing any of our current active teams from Seattle. In response to the concerns of all involved, we’ve selected you as our representative to go to Spokane and investigate the situation before we commit more resources.”

That was not the explanation I’d expected. What about my concerns?

“Wait, hold on here. Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. You’re sending me—just me—to fight something that has already taken out a whole Grove council with all its senior members present, and burned it all the way down so only the apprentices are left? No offense, but that sounds like a horrible idea.”

Mr. Brandiole shifted in his chair and patted his large stomach. “You have been recommended to the council as someone who has a head on her shoulders and an adequate level of power,” he intoned in that ponderous voice.

I noticed he didn’t actually say I had “a good head on my shoulders” like you might expect, but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. My voice deserted me. I didn’t think I acted like someone who loved to go on suicide missions. I thought of myself as more of a bookish type.

Ms. Miller apparently read my expression, and started back in more gently. “Assuming the situation is as described, anyone we send will be under intense scrutiny by the police as well as in a potentially dangerous environment. You have demonstrated in the past a very good mind for improvising. While the council has decided we politically cannot afford to decline the Spokane Grove’s request for aid, we do not wish to put our members’ lives in danger needlessly. Nor can we send someone who is already in a leadership role in this Grove, as the stakes are too high.” She sugarcoated it pretty well, but Mr. Brandiole interrupted her again.

“We chose you because you are least likely to attract government attention, while still having the most summoning experience,” he said bluntly.

You suck a little less than all the other people we considered, I translated silently. This guy didn’t get
the benefit of the doubt anymore, even if he did run the whole show. He was trying to get me killed!

“Assuming I take this suicide mission,” I said just as bluntly, “what are you expecting one mid-range summoner to do? I’m trying to believe that you wouldn’t send someone into a death trap just to appease your political obligations, but help me out here.”

The whole room looked like they would like to strangle me for calling them on their bullshit. Why can’t politicians anywhere just be on the up-and-up?

Little Ms. Miller threw up her hand in a calming gesture. “Your role will be to get to Spokane, assess the situation and submit a report to the council, who will then decide if any further action will be taken.”

“If you accept the transfer, we expect you to put your affairs in order and leave for Spokane by tomorrow.” Director Brandiole again. I decided I hated him, and if I lived through this, I’d move back to Kentucky. Also known as Moore family home territory. Go to the scene of a massacre with the perpetrator possibly still on the scene, and just...make a report. Yeah, right. Like anyone expected it to be that easy.

Mr. Brandiole, the rat-fink director, paused again as if expecting me to say something. I honestly couldn’t think of anything which wouldn’t literally send all the bridges in the vicinity up in smoke. An expression flashed over his face, barely more than a muscle tic, and I wondered if he could really be comfortable with telling someone they were expendable to their face. I hoped he had bad dreams tonight. I mean, what did he expect me to say?

“Yeah, I got this. No problem guys, easy peasy.” No one could have been more shocked than me when those words actually came out of my mouth. There was still time to backpedal—I waited hopefully for the good and bad angels to pop up on my shoulders and tell me the right thing to do, but nothing happened.

My mouth didn’t open itself back up to recant. I guessed that meant I would try to report on whatever big bad took out an entire Grove—while keeping out of the cops’ way—and oh yeah, keeping anything else from out of town from popping through Spokane’s Weave for a while. That shouldn’t be too hard for one gal to do by herself, right?

Now that I’d agreed, the director seemed almost gleeful. Like I’d already solved some big problem for him, which from his view maybe I had.

Ms. Miller broke the awkward silence. “Once you send your first report, we will be better able to prioritize which areas are most in need of aid and reallocate summoners as needed.”

That is, if you live long enough to report, I added for her pessimistically.

Well, if they were going to feed me to the wolves, I wanted to make sure I had all the artillery possible. “Fine. I’ve said I’ll do it. I’ll go and put my ass on the line for the Grove, but I have a list of tools I expect the Grove to provide me in return. Otherwise, no dice.”

Total bluff; I’d still go, but I needed to see if I could get some concessions out of them to improve my odds of survival. Access to the heavy weapons might be useful.

Director Brandiole assessed me for a moment. “Understood. Leave your list with the secretary. We’ll make sure you have it before you leave in the morning.”

“Good enough.” I stood up without waiting for other instructions and headed for the door. I stopped before exiting. “Catch you on the flip side.” In hindsight, probably an ill-omened quote, but what can you do?

Oh, well. It’s not like any of those fuddy-duddys would have watched that movie anyway.

Like what you see?  Purchase Grace Under Fire (The Gift of Grace) from Sky Warrior Books!  

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