This is the cold open from Forcefinder Phoenix. Other than a few prologues here and there, I always start my books right in the thick of things. Please note that this excerpt is intended for adult readers.
The Lower Heights were full of what they always were tonight: chaos and darkness and sin. Megan glanced across the dim whiproom at northwest Rafter Two, where her friend Beam was winking at her. Megan could barely make her out in the low fluorescent lights, but she returned the wink anyway, feeling the familiar surge of excitement in her chest.
The whole place was dark and rotten, smelling like sweat and men and blood and fear. Metal rafters formed a sort of scaffold twenty feet overhead, overlooking the sights and sounds of the things they did here in the whiproom: whips, of course, and sex, but also torture and death.
Megan was here for the death.
Beam gave her a little salute, swinging down underneath the metal rafter, strung up on a thin steel cable. Megan watched her go, admiring her skill.
She alighted on the ground, and there was a flash of reflected light as she dispatched Gentleman One, slicing his neck with her pinblade, holding his head just perfectly so his blood didn’t get all over the woman on the chair in front of him.
The woman was topless and chained, eyes sharper than they should have been. There was hope in her eyes, Megan saw—a good sign. Maybe she’d survive. The dim blue fluorescent light glimmered as the brute man died, sinking softly against Beam’s strong grip as she lowered him to the floor.
He was mercifully silent, at least. They needed silence in here.
All around the room, Megan could hear the sounds of low moaning, of piercing screams, the clink a chain makes when it wraps around your arm. She saw thrusting, sweaty plunging men, thick stomachs and fleshy breasts and a whip flashing in the corner of her eye.
She blinked, but the whiproom didn’t disappear. It was not a vision. It was not a dream.
She was really here, and she had a job to do.
Beam glanced at her, a look of urgency in her eyes. Her gentleman was now dead on the floor, and she’d already pulled the wallet from his waist. She took the whip from his hands as Megan watched, standing and stepping over to the topless woman in the cold metal chair.
The woman was staring at the dead man. Megan could see her legs shaking, her lips quivering as she mouthed words Megan couldn’t hear. Beam said something to her, pressed something into her hand, and the woman turned her head away. Then she was free, her chains falling away to the floor, and she was standing and turning away. Megan saw three thick slashes standing brightly on her back. Just three slashes, and her pants were still firmly on.
This woman was one of the lucky ones.
“Now!” Beam hissed up at her, risking discovery. Even in her dark, skintight clothes, other whipmen would eventually notice Beam’s slim form. Megan took a second to admire her body in the flicker-blue light from the ceiling, but then her friend hissed at her again.
“Sorry!” Megan whispered back, knowing that Beam couldn’t hear her. She had a job to do, and not much time left to do it.
Gentleman One was dead. There were three more left to go.
Megan clipped her steelstring to the rafterjoin—the Planners had built everything like this, with funny circular openings in the crevices between any two pieces of metal—and swung off Rafter Four. She gave numbers to everything—names were far too valuable. With a number, at least she could be sure of what things were. This mission was a four, for instance. One of the bigger jobs, and Megan was barely out of killgirl training.
She took a deep breath. She could do this.
She managed the descent, if not quite as gracefully as Beam had, at least as quickly. Gentleman Two hardly knew what hit him as her feet grabbed his neck and expertly twisted it, killing him in an instant. Then she landed, gloved hands reaching out to catch the gentleman before he fell.
His woman was more naked than the first, chained spread-eagled to another metal chair. Megan dropped Gent Two gently to the floor, watching to make sure she hadn’t yet been seen. Cries and grunts and lashes echoed around the whiproom, but everyone else was still intent on what they were doing. Megan and Beam were still unnoticed. Good.
She bent and grabbed the wallet from Gent Two’s pocket, wrinkling her nose as she accidentally brushed the still-hard bulge in his pants. They got off on pain, the ones in this room did. Pain and sex, but mostly pain. This one hadn’t even bothered pulling himself out, yet there was still a wet spot in his pants, even as he clenched the whip in his cooling hands. Megan swallowed the lump in her throat, turning away from him. She had meted out his justice. Now it was time to move on.
She released the woman from her chair, trying to avoid looking at her heaving, sweaty breasts. “Who are you?” the woman breathed, rubbing her wrists and shaking as she stood.
Megan put a hand on the woman’s arm. The skin was warm, despite the chill in the room. “Just a friend,” she said, pointing to Exit Three in the back. “If you go that way, another killgirl will help you out of the Heights. You’re safe, now, if you stay quiet.”
“Thank you,” the woman said, her skin flushing in the dark. “I don’t know how to thank you enough.”
“Just go,” Megan said, dipping the wallet into her little mesh backpack. “That will be all the thanks I need.”
“Okay.” The woman ran toward the door in the southwest corner of the room, bare feet padding, ass jiggling as she moved.
“You’re staring again,” Beam said, startling Megan. The other woman was standing right next to her, eyes bright in the dark whiproom.
“Two left,” Megan said, turning away. “Let’s go.” She was conscious of Beam’s eyes on her as she flicked her steelstring up, the little mechanism catching perfectly in the rafterjoin of Rafter Five—one east from where she was standing. It made an audible click as it connected, and she thought she saw a few of the Gentlemen glance her way. “Quickly!” Megan hissed, and Beam did that thing that made her special.
She used her magic.
Megan felt it propelling her upwards, her body no longer her own, the steelstring slipping quickly through her black-gloved hands. Air rushed by her as the magic lifted her straight up into the air, her hands pulling on the steelstring to move her sideways onto the rafter. She landed lightly on the thick steel beam, feeling Beam’s magic leave her. Megan turned, giving her friend a quick salute, but Beam was already off and running, flying up to Rafter Ten.
She watched Beam go, wishing she could fly like that. Megan’s magic wasn’t nearly as useful. Plus Beam was just good—there was a reason she was top killgirl. She got all the best jobs, the ones that required the highest level of skill. And the ones that paid the most. That made her the most valuable member of Her Majesty’s Navy.
Beside her, Megan was but a pale shadow.
But she still had a job to do. She tore her gaze away from Beam, running lightly south along her rafter until she reached Gentleman Nineteen, who was three rows south and one row east from the first man that she’d killed. This one was fat, a big fat man dressed in blue, and he had his big hand around someone’s neck underneath him, fat back held still as the naked body below him jerked and waved, obviously about to die.
And it wasn’t even a woman being held there in the Gentleman’s hand.
It was a man.
Megan reclipped her steelstring, pulling her right glove tighter. Then she swung down, being as silent as possible, angling herself for her signature neck kill. Her feet, clad as they were in simple skintight synthskin, pointed at the man. It would be easy to kill him, positioned as he was, bent over his captive man’s neck. All she had to do was grab his neck and twist. She could feel her muscles poised, ready to execute the motion she had done so many times.
But then the man turned and looked up at her, white teeth shining.
She let out a little shriek, unable to help herself, and tried to deflect her motion to the side. But it was no good—all she had was gravity, now that Beam was off doing something else. The man had a knife out of his own, much thicker than the pinblades Her Majesty’s Navy used. He had a look of skill about him, as if he had wielded a knife before. He looked almost happy that a black-clad woman was descending on him from the ceiling above, synthskin feet dangling, steelstring snapping.
Megan saw all this in a moment, and she knew that death was rising up to meet her.
She managed to swing her steelstring to the side just barely, her body moving a foot off to the right of the man and his other captive man. But the gentleman with the knife was ready for her: he sliced and met her foot, sending searing pain through the synthskin to her real skin underneath. Megan screamed, this time for real, landing heavily on the floor and twisting her ankle hard as she tried to keep her balance. Her foot felt like it was on fire. It hurt, as if the undersun had flipped the Framework in the sky, blazing down and piercing into her with all its horrible glory.
But she had to be strong. She had to survive. So she came back up, balancing weakly on her other ankle, pinblade out and ready to strike. Then she darted forward, ducking under a wide swipe from fatman and his blade, slicing inside his reach, feeling the slight resistance of flesh and cloth as her sharp pinblade dealt its damage.
The man staggered back, eyes wide, skin white. His blue shirt was sliced cleanly from right to left, the opening revealing skin and blood and beneath that ripples of fat and intestines and more blood. A lot more blood. The man lurched, grasped at his stomach, dropped his knife. Then he fell, gurgling something in the whip-loud room.
Megan wiped her pinblade on her pants and clipped it to her belt. She stood for a moment to quiet her heart, careful not to put weight on her damaged foot. It hurt, but she could manage it. She’d had worse before. Then she turned, moving her attention to the captive man in the chair.
The man was pretty, she realized in a detached sort of way. He had dark, curly hair and eyes she couldn’t see. The room was dark, and she was in a hurry, and she didn’t go in for men anyway. Her eyes flicked across his well-defined pectoral muscles and abdomen, down to his naked crotch, halfway aroused. The man had been near death, but somehow a part of him was enjoying this. Megan felt her stomach turn.
She stepped towards him, reaching under him to unlatch his chains, trying to avoid looking in too many places at once. His breath was hot as he turned to her, and the chains released.
“Th—” the man said, his voice coming out entirely as a choke. He coughed, and Megan finished undoing his chains and pulling them off. She stood, watching his veiled eyes in the dim room. His body was in great shape, for a man—perhaps that’s why dead fatman Gentleman Nineteen had wanted him so much.
“How did you end up here?” she asked. She couldn’t help herself.
The man sat up, abdominal muscles taut. Fatman had only slashed him a few times with his whip, she saw. His flesh was mostly unmarred. “I made—” he said, but then his coughing resumed. She waited. “I made a bad bet.” His voice was rough, raw, as if he’d screamed himself hoarse.
“I’m sorry,” Megan said, reaching down and helping him up. When he stood, he was taller than her by at least a foot. And there was something in his eyes, now that she could see them in the flickering light from the ceiling. Was it curiosity?
“The door is that way,” she said, pointing to Exit Three.
“Thank you,” the man said. “Who are you?”
Everyone asked that. They always wanted to know who had saved them. But Her Majesty’s Navy had a rule, see: you couldn’t say you were in Her Majesty’s Navy. And you couldn’t give them your framename, either, or you’d be excommunicated. You’d be dropped from the Crew.
But there wasn’t any rule about telling him her real name.
“Megan,” she said.
“Thank you, Megan,” the man said. He was so tall, now that he was standing. “I’m Eric.”
“What are you doing?” Beam hissed at her from somewhere behind.
“Go!” Megan said, pushing Eric toward Exit Three.
“Thank you,” Eric said. “I’ll find you.”
“Just leave,” Megan said, already turning away, “and never come down here again.”
Beam was still hissing at her, and Megan turned to see what her problem was. Had she dispatched her gentleman? Had they completed their mission? Could they leave, now? Megan turned and scanned her eyes across the whiproom, trying to take stock of what was going on.
Everyone had stopped what they were doing. Every gentleman was standing, now, leather whips in hand. The dark blue fluorescent lights flickered as they gleamed off skin and metal, everything sharpness and slickness and steel.
They were all looking at her.
And they were all smiling.
This excerpt contains:
- Strong language
- Graphic violence
- Triggers for torture
- Triggers for rape