Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Fiction sample--Raven's Song

Posted by: Shawna Reppert

Raven's Song is a gripping, suspenseful novella set between the first and second novels of my Ravensblood series. It was part of an Amazon bestselling multi-author anthology which is no longer available. I've recently released it as a stand-alone available on Amazon, but first try a sample below!


Raven’s fingers on the keys found all the right notes, but still the music was wrong. Mechanical. Because he was still thinking of each note, instead of the flow of the piece.
Damn. He took his hands from the keys, forced a deep breath. Bach’s thirteenth invention was a tricky little beast—the man had written it to put his children through their paces, after all, but he had written it for his children. Raven could play the piece, flawlessly and with feeling, and without conscious thought, when he was in General Academy.
The steady click-click of the metronome he had turned to in his desperation mocked him.
Relax, and it will go better. What did it matter, if it took him a while to get his playing back to where it once had been? He had no aspirations of playing professionally, nor even of performing. He played to amuse himself; what matter if the notes didn’t quite add up to the music?
Because he used to be good, damn it. And all the lost years ate at him.
It’s the same as the magic. You know what you’re doing. Just let your fingers find the notes, and let the music take you.
He switched off the metronome, put his hands to the keys and tried again. Eyes half-closed, he breathed with the piece, and at last found the music in the notes. Finally, the tune took over, came alive, moved like the breath of the world. His soul swelled in his chest.
The message crystal flashed.
He missed a note and the flow of the music collapsed. Damn.
Cassandra. She was out on a case. Had something happened?
He leapt from the piano bench, crossed the room in three long strides, and tapped the crystal to open communication. “This is Raven.”
“Mr. Ravenscroft, this is Greg Davison. One of Cassandra’s colleagues.”
“Has something happened to Cassandra?” Raven cut in.
“Not that I heard of, no.” The voice sounded vaguely puzzled by the question. Clearly the man hadn’t thought through the implications of a red-flashing message crystal and a call from the work associates of one’s lover. “Maybe Cassandra mentioned me?” the voice asked hopefully.
“Not that I recall, no.” This had better be important. Raven made his voice deliberately cold and intimidating.
His lover might be a GII agent, but that didn’t mean he felt particularly friendly to Guardians in general. Not after days he'd spent in interrogation before the Council finally decided to make good on the pardon they’d promised. Keeping that promise had nearly cost him his life.
Cassandra’s colleagues were nothing more than names on files that she brought home, at first surreptitiously and then with increasing openness, when the other agents asked her to get his take on some crime of magic that had them stumped. His lip curled. They might not trust him, but they were certainly willing to use his expertise.
“Um, yes, well, I’m a colleague of Cassandra’s,” the stranger said again.
Nervous. Frightened of the fearsome dark mage? He frowned. No, no fear in Davison’s voice. Discomfort, though.
“Look, there’s this case I’m working on. I admit I’ve hit a dead end on it.”
This was his idea of 'urgent'? His frown deepened to a scowl. If the Guardians had wanted his services on a full-time basis, they had had their chance years ago. “Send the file home with Cassandra when she gets back. If it interests me, I’ll give you my thoughts.” He reached to terminate the communication.
“It can’t wait until Cass gets back. Look, can you just meet me in my office?”
Warning bells went off. He wouldn’t walk into a building full of Guardians, not even for Cassandra. “No.” The word came out flat and cold. "If it can’t wait, then you’ll just have to figure out how to do your job without me. GII muddled along just fine without me in the years I was in William’s service.”
There. The stark reminder of who and what he had been should send the stranger skittering away like a rabbit beneath a hawk’s shadow. Smirking, he waited for the message crystal to go dark so he could get back to Bach's Inventions.
 “Damn you." The voice was exasperated now. "A woman’s life is at stake! Or are you still enough of a dark mage that that doesn’t matter to you?”
He almost snorted. Oh, yes, insults were going to make him that much more inclined to work with this Guardian. He reached out to tap the crystal and break the connection—
“I’m sorry.” The voice was softer, abashed. “I shouldn’t have said that.” The sound of a deep breath. “Look, I can understand how a single Mundane opera star wouldn’t seem particularly important—”
Raven cut him off. “Who?”
He had read something about a stalker, hadn’t paid much attention to the particulars. He’d dismissed it as an overly-zealous fan, but if GII had gotten involved. . .
“Madeline Love. I’m sure you’ve probably never heard of her—”
“I won’t come in to GII.” For a moment, he considered testing Davison’s resolve by suggesting that they meet at one of the posh uptown restaurants that would strain a Guardian’s paycheck, but Cassandra would not be amused if she heard about it. “There is a pub on the corner of Northwest Glisan and Twenty-first. The Blue Moon. Do you know it?”
“Not well enough to teleport, but I can borrow my wife’s car.”
He wondered if Davison was in a mixed marriage. Few mages owned automobiles. For that matter, few even learned to drive. Did Davison even have a license?
That was the Guardian’s problem. “Can you be there in an hour?” Raven asked.
“Yeah, I think. Traffic should have cleared by now.”
Cass had dragged Raven to the Blue Moon often enough that he could teleport to the sidewalk outside without difficulty. That gave him nearly an hour before he had to leave. He didn’t think his mind was going to settle back into the Bach.
He turned on the stereo—one of the few pieces of Mundane technology he had any use for—and traced a finger along the backs of his well-ordered CDs until he found one featuring Madeline’s arias, and let himself be transported by her voice until it was time to leave.
This late in winter, the sky was full dark by this time of the evening. It was a weeknight, and so the sidewalks held few shoppers when he faded back into being in front of the pub and stepped through the glass door of the Blue Moon. Dark wood made the interior rather more elegant than most pubs. Soft jazz played on the sound system. Not the classical music he preferred, but several steps above the jarring noise of modern pop that blared in so many places. The pool tables stood empty, but the fire in the central brazier had been lit long enough to have built to a healthy blaze.
An inquiry with the hostess confirmed that no one had asked for him yet. He selected a table in a corner with the view of the door and draped his long, black wool coat over the back of the seat. When the waiter came, a neatly-dressed and pleasant-faced young man saved from blandness by the emerald stud in one ear, Raven asked for a glass of Fireside port. He’d considered the house brandy, but he’d do better to keep his wits about him when dealing with GII. While he had no reason to expect trouble—his pardon was ironclad and he had done nothing since William’s fall to give further cause for arrest—he had little trust for Guardians, local or GII.
He had finished his port and was contemplating a second glass when the opening of the door caught his attention. For a moment, his breath caught. Blond hair, pale coloring…He relaxed and laughed silently at himself. Not William, after all. Not William, William was dead, had to be dead, even if they had never found the body. This stranger with the open face and the pleasant smile was a far cry from William. The hostess pointed him to Raven’s table, and his smile broadened as he thanked her with a slight bow.
Davison, for the stranger had to be Davison, then turned and approached Raven’s table. His gaze locked with Raven’s and his face hardened, his mouth thinning into a resolute, stiff line. All of Raven’s sense that he might actually like this Guardian fled. Clearly, to Davison, he was still a dark mage. No matter that Davison had asked for this meeting. No matter that he had asked for Raven’s help, that Raven had come when he could be enjoying a nice, quiet evening with Bach.
 “Mr. Ravenscroft?" He stopped at the table. "I’m Greg Davison with GII.”
Raven rose to his feet and deliberately held out his hand. Davison waited a long moment before taking it. Raven gave him an ironic smile, making it clear he recognized Davison’s distaste and found it amusing.
“Please, sit.” Raven gestured at the table's empty seat.
Davison did so, stiffness in his every motion.
The waiter came over to their table immediately; either things were really that slow or he remembered that Raven tipped generously. People had no problems dealing with a Ravenscroft when it came to cold commerce. Gods bless greed. He smiled thinly.
He went ahead and ordered a second glass of the port. Davison, after glancing at the menu, ordered White Rabbit, the house white wine.
“Will this be on one check or two, gentlemen?” the waiter asked.
“I’ll take care of it,” Raven said.
“Separate checks, please,” Davison said firmly.
The waiter looked from one to the other.
Raven shrugged. “Separate checks, then.” He turned his eyes on Davison. “You asked for my help.”
Satisfying to see the man across from him squirm.
“Ms. Love is being stalked,” Davison said. “We know the stalker is from the Art community.”
“How?” Raven interrupted.
“Several of the incidents could only have been carried out by a mage. Words were burned into her bedroom wall while she was out. Forensics confirmed it could only have been firewriting.”
“So unless he has a mage helping him—”
“Unlikely, since the profile says he’s almost certainly a loner.”
Raven inclined his head,. “So firewriting says he has at least a final-year General Academy level of training, or its equivalent. Magical signature?”
“Doesn’t match any of the staff. When we could, we brought in the Guardians that have worked on cases involving known sexual predators, but none of them recognized the signature. The Mundanes were out with their fingerprint kits, but all the prints they found matched someone with a valid reason to be there.” He shook his head. “We had to get prints from quite a few handsome young men to eliminate them from the roster of potential suspects. Opera divas must live quite the life.”
“Ms. Love is both lovely and talented,” Raven said stiffly. “Why shouldn’t she entertain her male admirers if she chooses?”
Davison took a sip of his wine. “I suppose. Outside my experience. I’m more a marriage-and-family sort of man.”
“So all you know is that the stalker is a mage with at least the talent of a last-year General Academy student. Or a younger prodigy. I could firewrite by the middle of my second year.”
Was it his imagination, or did Davison flinch just a bit at the reminder of who he was dealing with? Raven smiled.
“We also know that he’s smart enough to wear gloves. Narrows the field more than you might think.” Davison said. “There’s also some indication that he’s a bit more than the average mage.”
“Beyond the fact that he seems perfectly capable of running circles around you?” Raven couldn’t resist the barb.
“Beyond that, yes,” Davison answered mildly, though anger flashed in his eyes. “The magical signature seems strange. Muddled.”
An educated guess based on context, though he wasn’t ready to admit as much. Raven hadn’t known that such a magic existed, but new spells and charms were being created every year. While he’d learned things from both William and the Ravenscroft journal that would leave this Guardian stunned as well as appalled, some of the newer magics, especially those confidential or classified, would have gone under his radar. Still, the Ravensblood had been able to hide his signature entirely, so logically, other magic might have been developed that at least obscured the magical signature.
Davison shrugged. “Not sure. Quite probably. If it’s intentional, and not some weird anomaly of this man’s magic, it does narrow the field quite a bit.”
Raven leaned forward. “You said ‘this man’. You have some evidence of gender?”
“Statistical probability. Had to choose a pronoun, and ‘it’ wouldn’t be very professional.” He bared his teeth in a grin. “No matter how tempting, or otherwise a propos.”
Raven raised his glass in a toast of agreement before taking a sip of port.
“So, assuming intention for the moment,” Davison continued. “That would leave us with certain high-level GII agents in undercover and counter-espionage, and quite probably a handful of dark mages.”
“Why dark mages in particular? The magic doesn’t seem inherently evil.”
“Who else would want to obscure what they do with magic?”
“I can think of a few off the top of my head,” Raven said. “From a wife planning a surprise birthday party for her husband to pranking schoolchildren. Or your stalker, who has been terrorizing a lovely and talented woman using, so far as you have told me to this point, no magic that has been specifically classified as dark.”
Davison frowned in disapproval. “So you believe that no magic is inherently dark? Nothing should be banned outright? Do you believe that even death magic has its place?”
He closed his eyes briefly. A knife in his hand, a fountain of blood, the rush of death feeding his power…Raven’s stomach lurched. Even Cassandra had accepted that he had no choice, had forgiven him her cousin’s death. And still he had nightmares about Andy Burns’s blood on his hands. “If you brought me down here to debate the question of good and evil as it relates to various types of magic, I have more interesting problems awaiting me at home.” Raven gathered up his coat and stood, looking around for the waiter so he could signal for the check.
“You changed your mind about helping when I named the woman who was being stalked,” Davison said, desperation in his voice. “Whatever she is to you, she is in danger.”
Raven closed his eyes, seeing in his memory a dark-haired woman in the spotlight of an opera stage and a voice that moved even the most jaded to tears.
He sat back down. “So tell me the facts of the case then, and stop wasting my time.”
“According to Ms. Love, it started about a year ago,” Davison said. “Just letters, at first. She dismissed it as just some avid fan with an over-active imagination.”
“Was there a name signed to the letters?”
“He signed them as ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ ”
“Clever,” Raven said drily. “I take it that it went beyond letters, or GII would not be involved.”
“Valentine’s Day last year, she came home to find rose petals scattered on her balcony. Spring Equinox it was a replica stone age fertility symbol in her foyer. A basket of candy for Eoster with an article on the aphrodisiac qualities of chocolate that had been clipped out of a news magazine.”
“Didn’t she have a security system?” Raven asked.
“Set to body heat, same as the Council Museum. I understand you know how easily they can be circumvented.” Davison flashed an ironic smile.
“I wouldn’t say it was easy, exactly, but yes, I know how it can be done.” Raven’s involvement in the theft of the Mariner’s Crown was a matter of public record; no point in obfuscation.
“Beltane brought a fairly graphic depiction of a ritualized sex act done in fire writing on the dining room wall. At that point Ms. Love bought trained guard dogs from a reputable kennel and installed security cameras. That brought a reprieve that lasted through the solstice.”
Raven took a sip of port. “A reprieve of incidents only, or did the letters stop as well?”
“The letters continued, and became more graphic and disturbing. The author made it clear that he resented the dogs, and some of the letters accused Miss Love of, er, inappropriate behavior with canines.” Davison glanced down at his wine, flushing pink.
Raven let the pause continue a moment, enjoying the man’s discomfiture even as anger rose at the slander to the lady. “You said that the reprieve lasted through the solstice. I take it the incidents picked up again?”
Davison nodded. “Two days before Lughnasa, Miss Love woke to find the guard dogs dead and the security cameras disabled. On the center of the dining room table her stalker had left a red glass sculpture in the shape of a flame, everspelled to glow like a light bulb, with a note that said “All is forgiven. I burn for you.”
“All is forgiven?” Raven asked. “Doesn’t that imply some sort of a previous relationship?”
Davison shook his head. “Not necessarily. The connection could very well be entirely in the stalker’s mind. He could be forgiving her for, in his twisted view, playing hard to get, or for acquiring dogs to keep him out.”
Raven blew out a long breath. He’d seen all manner of insanity in his years with William, but this was a whole new kind of crazy.
“At that point, she hired bodyguards. She first called in an agency recommended by the Mundane cops. Why they waited so long to bring in Guardians. . .” Davison shook his head.
Raven smiled despite himself, remembering Cass’s rants on the lack of cooperation between Mundane police and Guardians, and between the local Guardians and GII.
“In September, Miss Love went on tour to Europe, very much looking forward to a reprieve from the attentions of her rabid admirer.”
“No such luck?” Raven guessed.
Davison shook his head grimly. “Labor Day, she came back to her hotel in London to find a full wardrobe of maternity clothes arranged in her suite, with a note saying that by that time next year, she would be pregnant with his child.”
Raven shuddered.
“Samhain in Sydney, her dressing room was decorated with bloody skeletons—“
“Skeletons?” Raven was aghast.
“Well, the plastic kind, like you would buy at a party store,” Davison amended quickly. “Still, grim enough, especially accompanied by a note describing the fate of her paramours if she didn’t cease, his words, ‘cheating’ on him.”
Raven tasted bile in the back of his throat. For an innocent woman to be tormented this way, her only ‘crime’ the beauty she brought into the world, was unthinkable. Mentally going through the holidays in order, he asked “Yule? Christmas?”
“In the days between the two holidays. The security guards she hired to protect her home were rendered unconscious—we’re still trying to figure out how, exactly. A display was left on the makeup table in the dressing room that adjoins her bedroom, a confused mish-mash of the two traditions, something like a crèche, but with symbolic references to the Earth Mother birthing the Sun God." He grimaced. “It seemed less a bid for the all-one-god traditions, more a muddle of dubious theology, with a note that seemed to suggest that he saw himself as the Sun God—son and consort and king.”
“I take it, not in the metaphorical sense of all-of-us-carry-divinity-within?”
Davison looked at him in surprise. “You studied Craft lore?”
Raven shrugged one shoulder. “ ‘Studied’ is probably too strong a term. But Mother Crone has been a friend to me on occasion, and one picks up things.”
Davison cocked his head slightly, as if trying to reconcile this new information with his preconceptions. Gods, even William’s knowledge was broader than 101 variations on death magic.
“Anyway,” Davison continued. “The letter was a frightening collection of delusion and weird religious references. The gist of it seems to be that he considers himself a god, or a demi-god. Something above mortal man, at any rate. And that Ms. Love would be going against the divine plan if she refuses to—his words—mate with him and bear his young.”
Raven took a long swallow of his port. “And here I thought I was done with narcissistic megalomaniacs.”
Davison swallowed, his expression sour. “It would be nice if William were the only twisted bastard out to control and dominate through fear, but in my job we deal with that kind every day. I don’t think William was necessarily even the sickest, just the most dangerous.”
Raven couldn’t dispute that; he’d seen enough in the case files GII sent him discretely through Cassandra when they were particularly stuck. “From what you have told me so far, the man’s magical strength may be only average or slightly above average, although he does seem possessed of some very particular knowledge regarding certain techniques.”
“Or he could be holding back to keep us guessing,” Davison said.
Raven cocked his head. “Why would he do that?”
Davison shrugged. “He seems to be playing games, toying with us as well as with Ms. Love. He’s sent us a few messages as well.”
“Left a half-mask like the one from Phantom on my desk.”
Raven shivered at the thought. “I don’t know if I could circumvent GII security. What is this man?”
“That’s what we’d like you to help us find out.”
“How can I help you?”
“Well, I had a dim hope that the bastard’s MO might remind you of one of your former associates that might have escaped William’s fall.”
Raven shook his head. “Sorry to disappoint. Most of the dark mages I knew were far more direct. William sometimes enjoyed convoluted schemes, but stalking really isn’t his style.” In fact, stalking was one of the few crimes he felt fairly certain William would draw the line at, but that wasn’t the sort of thing he would mention to a Guardian.
“As I said, it was a small hope.” Davison flashed an ingratiating smile. “I was rather more hoping that you might have a look at Miss Love’s security system to see if you can figure out how he’s foiling it. See if you can help us figure out how to stop him, or even better, catch him.”
Raven inclined his head. It seemed like a small enough thing to do, to help someone who had brought so much beauty into the world. It would be odd, working so directly with Guardians, and yet oddly like the dreams of his youth, when he wanted to be a Guardian.
But then Davison leaned in, looking at him intently. “I’m curious, though. You were reluctant to help until I mentioned Miss Love’s name. Is there a connection there I should know about?”
“Only a deep admiration for opera in general and Miss Love’s work in particular. I saw her sing in La Boheme at the Portland Opera. She was a true virtuoso.”
It had been the first event, other than Zack MacLean’s funeral, that had drawn him so far out of the reclusive habits he had adopted since his pardon. And it had been worth it.
“I see. And I understand that you are known for your innovative spellwork.”
Any slight bonhomie he had begun to feel fled. “Just what are you insinuating?”
“Only that our stalker is an opera aficionado and clever in his magic.” Davison flashed him a mock-innocent smile.
Raven finished his port, feigning insouciance, though the words struck him through like spell-lightning. “Much as I admire Miss Love, she is hardly my type.”
“Really?” Davison gave a quick, mocking grin, as he swirled his wine. “Because some mages go for Mundane women. They like the feeling of being more powerful.”
Raven answered Davison grin with a slow, dark smile. “Is that why you chose your wife?”
Davison slammed down his glass so hard that wine sloshed on the table. He half-stood, flushing. “How dare you!”
Raven maintained a relaxed façade, although he focused his will to strengthening his shields. He wouldn’t start anything, but damned if he wouldn’t finish it. Reckless, since there were many desperate to see his pardon revoked. His lawyer would make a most eloquent case for self-defense, if only to have the opportunity to strangle Raven himself.
 “How dare I?" He lifted his chin. “How dare you drag a civilian out under false pretenses in order to subject me to accusations with no foundations whatsoever? If the fact that I am in a committed relationship with one of your colleagues doesn’t weigh in your considerations, let me point out that, at the time the stalking began, I was busy risking my life spying for the Council in William’s sanctuary. And on the Spring Equinox, I couldn’t have possibly been breaking in to Miss Love’s home, as I was engaged in a duel to the death with the most powerful dark mage of our time. And then I was taken into custody for my troubles.
“I should point out, since GII is clearly too dim to figure it out, that no true aficionado of opera would ever mistake Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular fluff for true opera, and so no true aficionado would try to impress a singer he was courting by signing his letters ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ ” He raised one eyebrow. "Since I understand from news articles on the opera scene that Miss Love appeared in a commercial for Jaguar that appeared not long before the stalking incidents began, I suggest that, instead of confining your investigation to opera-goers, you expand it to anyone who had access to Mundane television during the period that the commercial aired.”
Raven stood then, took out his wallet, and threw down enough bills to cover both his port and Davison’s wine, plus a generous tip. If Davison insisted on paying for his own check, then the waiter would just get an even larger tip. He deserved it, anyway, for having to put up with a Guardian and a former dark mage causing a scene in his section.
“If you have any further questions for me, you can channel them through my lawyer.” He dropped the business card of Alexander Chen, attorney at law, in Davison’s lap and stalked for the door, pulling on his coat as he went.
“No, wait, please!” Davison rose to his feet but had the good sense not to attempt to follow. “For Ms. Love’s sake—”
Raven paused for a moment, then kept walking.

Want to find out what happens next? Buy the novella on Amazon!

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