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Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded My Familiar Stranger – A Paranormal Romance (The Order of the Black Swan), you’re in for a treat!
by Victoria Danann
“This book is not the usual paranormal story that I am used to reading. It is way better. … this book had it all.” – The Paranormal Romance Guild
“My Familiar Stranger was a wonderfully engrossing paranormal romance with just a dash of science fiction that grabbed me from page one and didn’t let go! Ms. Danann absolutely knows how to get a series going. My Familiar Stranger created a captivating new world with so many possibilities.” – Bitten by Paranormal Romance
“Victoria Danann is one of the hottest new talents in paranormal romance, emphasis on romance. She takes us on the best kind of adventure; the kind that involves great imagination, a strong femme lead, hot guys, and a story kissed with literacy and climaxing in true love. Think Anne Rice meets Kresley Cole.” – The Paranormal Romantic
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
My FAMILIAR STRANGER: The Order of the Black Swan, Book 1
Copyright 2012 Victoria Danann
Published by 7th-House.com
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?” the Mad Hatter, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
Elora Laiken stared at the old man. He was talking fast, urgently, but the words weren’t processing into fully formed thoughts. She didn’t actually think, I am in shock, but, on some level, she knew her consciousness was in pieces. The disorientation from witnessing the murder of her family, moments ago, was cause enough without adding to that the fact that a swirling vortex had just opened in the wall.
Catalonius Monq, tutor to the royal children, had opened a safe and produced a device that looked like any common remote control. When he pointed it at the blank wall, there appeared a circular opening of violet blue light. The space beyond was a cylindrical tunnel stretching to infinity.
Slowly it began to rotate like a tumbler. As it gained speed, turning faster, the optical illusion of spirals going round and round became hypnotic making it hard to look away.
She tried to focus on what Monq was saying, but she was numb, gone to that place where psyche separates from body in a bid for survival. As he hurried around the chamber, his waist long, white hair swayed with his agitated movements. “I’m sending you off world where you’ll be safe.”
In a moment of clarity, she shook her head and whispered, “No,” just on the improbable chance that such a thing was possible.
If Monq heard the barely audible protest at all, it went unacknowledged. “Destination has been calibrated to the nearest life pattern matching my own.” He turned, taking in the trauma apparent in Elora’s blank look and glazed eyes, but there was no time for sympathy. He embraced her with the affection of a father. “Look for someone very like me. And when you find him…” he removed the locket he always wore around his neck, “… give him this.” He helped her step out of the heavy costume. Underneath she wore black pants with a watch pocket. He stuffed the locket and chain inside, “Tell him to find the secret within.”
Normally Monq would have no chance of overpowering Elora. She was young and strong, at her athletic peak, while he was an old scientist and sometime sorcerer who spent his days puttering back and forth between lab and study. Two things were on his side: the element of surprise and the unquestioning trust of his favorite student. Using that advantage, Monq summoned what strength he could gather and pushed her through the opening.
“Be happy!” he shouted.
In less than a second she had disappeared from view. He turned the device off and the portal resumed its disguise as a plain, stone and mortar wall. Hearing pounding at the door, he rushed to put the handheld control in the blender he used to make smoothies and turned it on, thereby destroying any chance of assassins following her escape. There was just enough time to get to the other side of the room and wipe the hard drive before the ramming post broke through the door. He faced the intruders with a smile knowing that his life’s work and prize pupil were far, far away.
“Be happy!” was the last thing she heard as she was sucked into a giant vacuum hose. Mercifully, Monq had not seen that a layer of betrayal had been added to her stunned expression. In a matter of minutes, Elora Laiken’s life, which she would have previously described as boring beyond compare, had been turned upside down and inside out. Under other circumstances her mind might have begun trying to sort through these events and make sense of them, but pain trumps processing. And there was pain.
Perhaps she was screaming. She thought she might have been, but nothing could be heard above the roar. Over and over again she was beaten by the giant tumbler. Newly formed bruises, cuts, and abrasions became bigger bruises, cuts, and abrasions every thirty seconds until there was no part of her body that wasn’t bleeding, broken, or swelling. At times she thought she might have heard a thump every time the tumbler carried her up and dropped her again, but it was probably just the brain filling in blanks. Just as she had begun begging the gods to kill her and end it, she was blinded by a bright light, felt a blast of cold air, and was slammed onto a hard surface.
After a few seconds of stillness she realized she had stopped moving. That’s when the true punishment began. The pain was beyond describable, beyond mortal capacity to bear. But, through the curtain of anguish, she thought she heard voices, muffled, maybe far away. The noise in the machine had left her hearing partially impaired. If she thought she would live and be whole again, she might have cared.
But in the grey of the morning my mind becomes confused between the dead and the sleeping and the road that I must choose. “Question”, The Moody Blues
The Chamber of the Fort Dixon unit of Black Swan is stark and masculine in a medieval way. Cement block walls form a perfect square. Gas lit torches are spaced at regular intervals, reinforcing the impression of an ancient fortress. The walls are interrupted by four equidistant doors, placed at the quarter points, which balance the room energetically and symbolically forming an equal armed cross. The doors, made of high polished cherry, add warmth to the room despite the intricate glyph carvings suggesting the arcane, if not occult. There are no windows other than a large, domed skylight forty feet overhead.
The floor is a smooth, gray flagstone, close in color to the walls. The stones, fitted together in various sizes and shapes like abstract art, are polished to a luster that reflects the torch flames.
There are two rows of bench seating against three walls. The first row is two steps above floor level. The second is two steps above that. The benches are a simple design in the same polished cherry as the doors. Plush, thick cushions upholster the seats and backs making a welcome relief to the military-minimalist environment and helping to curb the acoustic echo that is the inevitable result of an essentially stone room. The fabric is the softest, red, Italian leather that would normally be reserved for expensive clothing.
On entering the chamber, eyes go immediately to the dominant focal point, the only decoration in the room – a huge silk banner, perhaps eight feet across and just as high, hung at the center point of the wall facing the entrance. The background is the bright crimson of blood as it appears in the moment when it first leaves the body, before adjusting to the chemical composition of air. The rich red background is relieved by a white, equal-sided cross almost as large as the banner itself. In the center, in front of the intersection of the arms of the cross, is a large black swan. The graceful bend of its long neck is exaggerated with bill resting on its shoulder giving an impression of sadness or melancholy. A medieval looking script superimposed on a banner across the bottom reads, Furchtlosigkeit im Gesicht der Hilflosigkeit.
On the opposite wall, behind the open space where now stands a portable podium, is a giant screen monitor. Some trouble had been taken to make it seem as inconspicuous as possible, but, although undeniably practical for modern times, its presence is at odds with these surroundings.
The three remaining members of B Team were in the Chamber recounting the exact circumstances of the death of their fourth and most senior member to their supervisor, Sovereign Sol Nemamiah. Sol was no longer field active, but had paid his dues when he was younger, collected honors, and had the respect of everyone in the organization.
His signature hair, a severe buzz cut, was out of date, but fashion was the last of his concerns. There was a little gray showing around the temples and ears and his tan face featured deep lines around the eyes. They might have been laugh lines on somebody else, but, on Sol, they were more than likely squint or scowl lines. He wasn’t known for being gregarious.
He might have been in his forties or fifties. It was impossible to tell, largely because he stuck to a punishing daily workout like it was a religion and had a muscle to fat ratio that would have been the envy of a twenty-five-year-old athlete.
The mood was somber as the departed, now being discussed, was far more than a coworker, more even than a trusted friend. How do you describe feelings for someone who watches your back in life and death situations? Family maybe. Brothers. Of course they were all aware that, in addition to debriefing, they were being collectively observed and evaluated by the unit’s psychiatrist. He sat a few feet away on one of the bench seats, quietly watching and listening, pretending to be invisible, but fooling no one.
They were near the end of the grim formality when there was a sudden, upward shift in temperature, like a hot, scirocco wind blasting a door open. That was followed by a flash of light and a pop as something the size of a person rolled into the fetal position materialized out of thin air, above the floor at waist height. It did not hover, but fell instantly to the stone floor, making a sickening, plopping noise on impact. It appeared to be a bloody, quivering mass of scored meat partially covered by shreds of fabric that were either black or blackened by blood.
The five men stared at the thing at their feet. Even in their line of work, being accustomed to highly unusual phenomena, this was astonishing. There they were. The scientist, the administrator, and three battle hardened knights of The Order of the Black Swan, members of the elite B Team, frozen in indecision, a development that is foreign to men whose lives depend on quick thinking.
Sovereign Sol was first to speak. “What sort of trick is this?”
“What is that?” Ram asked with an Irish lilt. To punctuate his revulsion, his face was screwed up the way it might be if something smelled very, very bad. He shook his gorgeous head of hair and leaned forward just a little for a closer look with laser sharp blue eyes. Rammel Hawking was the smallest member of B Team, or Bad Company as their peers like to call them, at just about six feet one. He had a thick head of multi-hued, blond hair that was at once a mess and a miracle. It waved, curled, stuck out in random places, and hung to just short of his shoulders.
Kay cocked his head then glanced toward Storm. “Shaped like a human.”
Sol sniffed and took a step to his right as if he could learn more from a different angle and answered for Storm. “Not much of a recommendation. So are lots of things that aren’t.”
While the five continued to speculate, the blob on the floor began to move and moan softly.
Ram was slammed with an acute case of gut instinct. His solar plexus was throbbing, sending off signals he couldn’t begin to interpret. He didn’t know whether to feel alarmed or intrigued. Moreover, he was disturbed by getting an autoerotic hard-on which was, at the very least disgusting, and, at the very worst, perverted. In a completely out of character moment, he went contrary to his usual impulsive, risk-taking behavior deciding to err on the side of caution. “I have a bad feelin’. I think we should kill it. Kill it now.”
The man standing closest to the thing, Engel Storm, looked down at its face, into thin slits of eyes – greenish blue maybe – recessed behind gruesome, protrusions of swelling that could make the most calloused warrior a little squeamish. It was then that the thing seemed to reach out to him. He hesitated for a heartbeat then knelt down, almost compulsively, trying to sort out the best way to gather it into a shape that he could lift and carry.
Sol stepped in. “Don’t touch it! We don’t know what it is. It could be anything… a disguised machine or a suicide mission carrying explosives or toxic chemicals or a spell.”
Storm ignored Sol’s comments not even bothering with the courtesy of a glance in his direction and continued rearranging the mess as gently as possible. Whatever it was, it was hurt. Badly. It groaned and whimpered in pain with every touch or movement, opening and closing its mouth in agony. It needed help. It had asked for help when it reached out to him and it was neither Storm’s style nor job description to stand around debating precautions when someone, or some thing, was in desperate need of assistance. Every impulse that drove him to choose a life defined by defending the weak, every instinct that had called him to minister to hurt or injured animals as a boy guided his actions now.
“Call the infirmary. Get them ready for an incoming emergency,” he said it calmly, but the team mates who knew him so well heard the underlying resolve.
Ram started toward the wall phone.
“Ignore that!” The older man said more forcefully. He was starting to sound exasperated and was glaring at Storm. “Are you not hearing me?” He wheeled on Ram, “Hawking, don’t you move another step!”
Ram hesitated for two seconds, looking back and forth between Storm and Sol, before saying to the older man, “Sorry. You know we do no’ do orders.”
“I’m not joking!” Sol gaped at him. “Two minutes ago you were voting to kill it now.”
Ram looked over his shoulder and shrugged as he punched in the infirmary code. “Stormy’s call.”
Engel Storm was six feet four with shoulders as wide as a doorway, but he still struggled to get to his feet with the thing in his arms. It was heavier than it looked. A lot heavier. Plus all the blood and oozing made it slippery. On top of that his sympathetic nature made him wince internally every time it tried to cry out in pain.
Seeing that Storm needed assistance, Kay had squatted down on the other side of it to help with the lifting. He pinned Storm with a pointed look and lowered his voice. “Might be better to have them send a gurney. You could be causing more damage.” He glanced down at the unidentifiable mass and said under his breath. “If that’s possible.”
Storm shook his head to get dark locks away from his eyes and turned that familiar, piercing, no nonsense gaze on his friend. “No time.”
Kay nodded and tried to help lift the whatever-it-was so that Storm could get a good enough grip to carry. “Hope you know what you’re doing.”
Once Storm and Kay had it up and balanced in Storm’s arms, the thing’s head lolled onto his chest and stayed there. He walked as fast as he could. The infirmary wasn’t far, but he was carrying what felt like his own weight. Fluids were leaking so fast that rivulets were running down his pants, onto his boots and under the soles making for slick footing. A couple of times he had to jerk an upright correction to keep from going into a skid on the polished marble flooring.
He was breathing heavy, but speaking quiet assurances, words of encouragement delivered in short sentences. “Hang in there now. It’ll be okay. We’re almost there. Almost there.”
Ram and Kay, passing him on either side, went ahead, crashing through the infirmary double doors a second before he arrived. “Where do you want us?” Ram shouted at the med staff that ran to meet them.
Within seconds the med team had taken Storm’s burden and moved it onto a gurney. The team hustled toward the operating theater firing questions about the nature of the injury on the way. Then the three remaining members of B Team found themselves standing side by side staring at the blank side of a door.
Ram looked at his team mates. “What the fuck just happened?”
“I guess they’re pretty good at their job. At least they’re fast,” said Kay.
Ram nudged Storm on the shoulder. “Stormy. Good call. Let’s go get a drink.”
Kay snorted. “Is there ever a time you don’t want to get a drink?”
Ram looked thoughtful as if he was trying to formulate a serious answer to that question.
Kay just shook his head smiling, “Never mind. You can’t help being Irish, but sometimes I think it’s your answer to the meaning of life.”
The two started away. Looking down at the front of his clothes, Kay realized he was wearing a lot of gore. “We might want to grab a shower and a change first.”
After a few steps they noticed Storm hadn’t moved. “You coming?” He continued to stand motionless, looking at the closed door. Kay eased back to Storm’s side and spoke in hushed tones. “Hey. What’s up? You’ve seen stranger stuff than this.”
Ram had come up on the other side. “Lots stranger.”
Storm blinked and looked down at the bloody mess that used to be his clothes. “These are gonna have to be burned.”
“Yeah. Probably. Let’s get cleaned up and grab a whiskey.” Kay nodded and glanced at Ram like he was projecting telepathically. He was thinking they’d been through a lot and that it might be showing on Storm.
Storm looked at Kay and focused in. He could see that, from their point of view, this would appear to be odd behavior. Truth told, he had been trying to cover up a little depression since Lan’s death. Intellectually he knew he wasn’t responsible, but his heart wasn’t in complete agreement.
“Thanks for the back up.” He looked between Kay and Ram and even managed a little smile.
Kay raised an eyebrow that said, “I’m not buyin’ it”, but let it pass. He was a couple of inches taller than Storm with sandy brown hair that streaked blond in summer and Northmen blue eyes. He was a poster child for split personality. At times such as these he was the essence of reason, the counsel you would seek if your life depended on good advice.
Then, there was the other side. Kay was a full blooded berserker from a legendary line that had immigrated to south Texas in the late nineteenth century and settled there. His name was actually Chaos Caelian. When he first landed on B Team, Ram started calling him Sir Kay, after the round table knight who was King Arthur’s foster brother, thinking the play on words was pretty funny. Ram has a talent for keeping himself entertained. It caught on. Pretty soon everybody else was calling him Kay and it stuck.
Ram gave Storm a grin that showed off teeth so white and even you would swear they were veneers. But they weren’t. “Anytime.”
Storm had to admire Ram’s ability to stay upbeat no matter what. He wasn’t exactly what you’d call easy going. In fact, he was downright excitable, but he was also optimistic and fun. Sure, people got mad about the practical joking.
One time he hired a big Rottweiler from a guard dog service and had it put in Geoff ’s pride and joy Porsche on his wedding day. Geoff was late to the altar and not thinking the delay was especially amusing. Neither was the poop. the claw scratches on the leather seats, or the drool marks all over the insides of the windows.
Another time he photoshopped Bran’s head onto a porn shot of a guy with a fifteen inch dick and sexted it to the somewhat reserved girl Bran was wooing on MatchMe.com. The fact that the only way Bran could prove he didn’t do it was to offer a nude meet-and-greet didn’t help his case.
Yeah. There were a lot of guys lying awake at night plotting payback. Somewhere in his future was a truckload of revenge coming down the road with a bead on that pretty, peaches and cream forehead. But, if the world was coming to an end, Ram would find a way to make it sound like an adventure and bring his own party. Kay and Storm had decided long ago that he was worth the maintenance.
“I’m gonna hang out here awhile and see what happens,” Storm said. He looked back at the door. “You know. Feeling curious.”
Ram leaned his shoulder into the wall thinking he might as well get comfortable, but Kay surprised him by saying, “Okay. Call if you need us. We’ll be close.” They started away.
“Stop right there!” The door to emergency was swinging closed behind Sol as he stalked toward them.
Ram rolled his eyes. “Uh oh. Stepped in it.” He looked at Sol. “Again.”
Sol motioned them into the waiting room which was empty to avoid a public disciplining of knights.
“Look. I know you three are going through a rough patch. I’ve been there. Lan meant something to you. I understand that better than you think. Team mates always feel that way, but you just took it upon yourselves to make a decision that could endanger everybody in this unit.”
He paused to shift his weight to a less aggressive stance and raked a hand over his nearly shaved head. “I know you’ve got problems with authority. Hell. That’s half the reason why you’re here. But you either compromise with the management – that would be me – or you’re no good to this organization.” He looked pointedly at all three, one at a time. “Is there any chance I’m making myself clear?” They nodded and tried to look sincere. “We have to finish the inquiry.” Seeing their faces fall and shoulders slump he said, “But we can do it another day.” They murmured thanks to Sol.
Kay and Ram slipped away. Storm went back to staring at the door. Sol left instructions at the nurses’ station to call him as soon as they had something to tell about the new arrival. Anything at all. She responded that, based on what she’d seen as the gurney went past, it could be a long time. Sol returned to Storm’s imaginary post outside the O.T. door and suggested he go clean up and change. Storm thought that it was a small concession he could make to appease the rift he’d caused by disobeying orders and agreed.
He jogged to his apartment on the fourth level, threw the ruined clothes in a plastic bag, showered quickly, and jogged back to the infirmary. He sat down in the waiting area and began to do just that. Wait. After a couple of hours, one of the staff brought him a cup of coffee and asked if he would like anything to eat. He took the coffee gratefully, but declined the offer of food.
Six and a half hours later, the O.T. doors opened. Two doctors and three nurses emerged looking exhausted. The patient was being rolled to intensive care. Storm jumped to his feet and hurried over to the orderly bringing up the rear. “Do you know what it is? Will it be okay?”
The orderly glanced at him, but didn’t miss a step. “Sir Storm, Sol would have my job if I gave you info without clearance. You know that.” They disappeared behind doors. Again.
Storm resumed his routine of alternately pacing and pretending to read “Two Wheel News”. A half hour later Sol walked past the waiting room on the way to one of the doctor’s offices. Storm hustled to fall into step with him. “I want to hear.”
He stopped and looked at Storm. “You’ll be briefed after the intel is evaluated.” When he turned away he felt something pull at his starched cotton sleeve. His eyes found Storm’s hand on his sleeve.
“Please.” The way Storm said the word suggested it felt strange on his tongue. He let go of Sol’s sleeve, but his eyes were still saying, Give me this.
Sol scowled and crossed his muscled arms while he looked at the floor. He wouldn’t want it rumored that he was a soft touch. How do you keep twenty four, raucous, second sons in line if they think you’re easy? The answer is – you don’t. You get replaced by somebody who’s better able to keep his sentimental impulses in check.
Sol liked to believe that he showed no favoritism, but Storm was one of those he had personally recruited. Storm had been a good looking fourteen-year-old, scary smart, and always in trouble. His school and his parents were out of their depth with a kid like him, but he was an ideal candidate for Black Swan. Sol told himself that he didn’t feel any particular pride in Storm’s record as he watched him work his way up to the Jefferson Unit B Team, the crème de la crème of Black Swan knights.
“Don’t be thinking you can get around me with drippy words like ‘please’. This stays between us.”
Storm nodded. “Thank you.”
The two of them were ushered into the office of the unit’s surgeon general. They sat on the other side of the doc’s desk in leather chairs, Sol with a handheld computer, Storm with twitchy hands and legs.
Storm hadn’t been in a room with a window for hours. He knew how much time had passed, but there was a part of him that was still surprised to see that it had grown dark outside while he’d waited.
The door opened and the doc swept in with a rustle of white coat, wearing glasses on the crown of his silver hair, and looking exactly like the person you would hire for that role if you were casting for a movie. The clipboard he carried made a loud clack as it was half-tossed onto the desk. He sat and rolled the tufted, high back chair forward in a business-like manner while pulling the glasses down over his nose.
Rifling through the pages held by the clipboard, he said, “The patient is female, human, or close enough though there may be some slight irregularities. One of those irregularities is the fact that she’s alive. We can’t understand how she survived whatever did that to her. There’s not an inch of her body that is uninjured. In addition to practically being skinned alive, she has multiple broken bones and extensive internal damage. Several organs required repair. We’re going to keep her soaking in an experimental ointment that Monq devised to prevent scarring in hopes that it will help regenerate skin.”
“Prognosis?” Sol asked.
“My medical opinion is that she shouldn’t live to see tomorrow, but, if I had to put up my own money, I’m betting she does. Don’t know about the ultimate outcome or quality of life. But she has strength of will.”
“I want to be kept current on any change. If she does live until tomorrow, the intensive care facility needs to undergo a little remodeling. I’m proposing a large, glass-front room facing the nurses’ station so that the patient can be observed at all times. The enclosure will be designed as secure, but the integrity will partly depend upon cooperation from your personnel.”
“A prison cell you mean,” Storm said. The other two men looked at him like they had forgotten he was present.
Sol spoke quietly. “It would be foolhardy to do anything else until we know more about the… patient. If you were in my position, responsible for the safety of everyone in Jefferson Unit, you’d do the same thing.”
Damn logic. Storm couldn’t argue with that. If he was in Sol’s position, that’s precisely what he would do.
Elora’s consciousness waxed and waned. During moments of fleeting awareness she registered blinding, bright lights and masked, people in blue milling around her body like it was an inanimate mound of flesh. She saw the remains of her clothing being cut away by one medic while another fastened a needle to her hand. When the locket was withdrawn from her watch pocket she tried to reach for it, but the protest came out as a moan so low it wasn’t heard.
There was a muted, rhythmic sound of a machine beeping, keeping time with the throbbing of blood being pumped through her ruined body. Every pulse was torment. Every breath was agony.
Images of the massacre of her family, most of the clan, slid across her mind like a slide show followed by the gut wrenching memory of Monq’s betrayal. The only constant was pain. Relentless, excruciating pain.
She might have been in that swirling tunnel for minutes or hours or days. Trauma overrides all sense of time passage. She remembered a sudden burst of frigid air that instantly chilled her wet body and, as a parting insult, she was dropped on a cold, smooth, surface that was hard as rock.
What little wind was left in her lungs was knocked out of her on impact. At first she couldn’t inhale and thought – hoped – she would expire from that. But, just when her vision was going dark, her body involuntarily dragged in an agonizing, ragged breath.
There were muffled voices. She tried to look around, but even the tiniest movement was restricted by pain, breakage, and swelling. Breathing hurt. Moving eyeballs hurt. She thought she was curled into the fetal position, but couldn’t be sure. Through wet strands of hair she saw a blood-covered arm lying on the floor in front of her face. She supposed it must be hers. Beyond that, large boots moved into view; well worn, brown, leather with squared-off toes.
First, she tried raising up on an elbow, but fell back when her wet forearm slipped out from under her. Once again her body slammed against the stone floor. She probably hadn’t moved an eighth of an inch, an action that would have been imperceptible to onlookers.
The voices were saying, “…trick. What is that?”
Next she tried to roll over onto a shoulder blade to get an idea where she was and who was speaking. Her first thought was that it must be assassins who had singled her out and were keeping her alive for ransom or torture. She opened her mouth to scream from the shooting pain of rolling over, but all that came out was a groan that sounded like it had originated somewhere else.
From the new position she could see blurred shapes. Oddly, she didn’t get the sense that she was in danger or that they meant her harm even though she thought she heard one voice say, “Kill it now”. Surely she could not be the “it” to which they referred.
She reached out to a large shape in dark colors, holding her hand toward the figure until her fingers slowly began to curl under involuntarily as if all muscle control wilted away with the last of her energy. Just before losing consciousness, she remembered thinking that was very likely the last thing she would ever do and she welcomed the peaceful escape of the silent blackness.
Suddenly she felt herself being pulled and lifted roughly, aggravating her injuries, jabbing the wounds, making the pain even worse than before. In her mind she was screaming. Just let me die. Please. Just let me be still for a minute. And die.
When her body came to rest it was against a surface softer and warmer than the stone floor. She was being jostled, pressed into the upper body of someone who now carried her. She smelled aftershave, a hint of cigar, and felt the timbre of a masculine voice murmuring assurances about being okay, calmly, but breathlessly.
The recovery room nurse looked at her face, noticed she was awake and said cheerfully, in a strange accent, “Hey there. How you doing?”
Elora tried to say, “Hurts,” but through torn and swollen lips, it came out more like a hiss, “urrrrzzz”.
“I know, sweetheart. We’re taking care of you though. In a minute you’re going to get some really good sleep.”
Now that she was lucid and responding to questions, they would grant the boon of deliverance drugs; drugs that temporarily allow the sweet mercy of sleep. She tried to ask for the locket, but, before she could make herself understood, she was claimed by a blissful wave of oblivion.
BLACK SWAN FIELD TRAINING MANUAL Section I: Chapter 1,#1 The plural of vampire is vampire.
The Order of the Black Swan maintains fifteen operations facilities for paranormal investigations around the world. This particular unit is located at Fort Dixon, New Jersey, although the military personnel on base know no more than that it is a Top Secret annex. Fort Dixon is forty five minutes from New York City by train, seven minutes by whister. There are a lot of advantages in housing an installation in a military no-fly zone with a doubly secure perimeter.
The operation is known as the Jefferson Unit because the original foundation was funded in perpetuity with proceeds from a portion of Thomas Jefferson’s estate. He had personally experienced a paranormal event that shaped his spiritual and political perspective and believed that the future depended upon a greater understanding of mysteries that are vehemently denied by the collective and its institutions while persistently lurking on the edge of individual consciousness.
For well over two hundred years the Foundation has worked with a secret government liaison who serves the appointment for life or until a violation of the mandatory vow of secrecy ends their… appointment.
The unit is housed in a facility built after the model of the Pentagon, not in the sense of seven sides, but in the sense that the hexagon-shaped building surrounds and encloses a large open area. In that opening, called a “courtpark” by residents and staff, are tall trees, garden walks with fountains, and picnic facilities. In the center is a rugby field with a track around it. There are no windows breaking up the plain, tan perimeter of the 1950’s style building. All windows, with the exception of the Chamber dome, face the interior park.
On the ground level are a large circular foyer called the hub, a glass solarium, the main meeting room known as the Chamber, the infirmary, library, mail room, dining hall, a small grocery, a coffee bar, billiards room, and a country club style lounge with an oversized oak bar, card tables and plush seating set in small conversational groupings.
The media center, server rooms, offices, workout facilities, training simulators, firing ranges, classrooms, and laboratories are on lower levels. Apartments for the seventy four personnel and trainees who live and work at the facility are on the higher floors. There are also two whister pads on the roof.
The building houses twenty four knights, twenty four trainees, medical personnel, teachers, administrators, clerical personnel, cooks, engineers, whister pilots, and maintenance crew.
Original funding for the organization was generous, but two and a half centuries of well-invested funds can render a treasury that would be the envy of most small nations. Black Swan knights might live with their mortality hanging by a thread, but no luxury is spared their off duty hours.
B Team has been trained to deal with several kinds of threats unknown to the general human population. One of those threats, their specialty in fact, is vampire. Knowing where to hunt vampire is easy. They like cities that stay open late with lots of pedestrian traffic. That narrows the hunting territory down a lot. In the Western Hemisphere, the number one qualifier is New York City.
Catalonius C. Monq was teaching at M.I.T. when he was recruited by Black Swan. They offered him unlimited funds and support for research in exchange for cutting edge innovation and weaponry. He was part philosopher, part inventor, part chemist, and part magician although he would never list the last descriptor on a resume. He also had enough training in psychiatry to function as resident shrink when necessary.
The death of a knight is an occasion classified as necessary. Surviving team members must deal with cross currents of grief and confronting the stark reality of their own mortality, at risk on every rotation of duty. That is why Monq was present in the Chamber for the debriefing when the “event” occurred. Hearing the recounting of the circumstances of death first hand meant that he would be prepared should team members arrive at his door one day looking for something needed, but not named.
He had attended many such debriefings over the years, counseled many bereft friends and peers, and helped many warriors come to terms with whether or not they could or should remain on active duty. It was the only part of his job that was unpleasant.
His work at Black Swan was challenging and never dull, but nothing could rival the excitement generated by the arrival of the guest who spontaneously materialized from nothing; living, organic matter springing into being where only air and space had existed the moment before.
Nothing could rival that except for the locket he’d been given after the patient was admitted to the infirmary. It was old looking, a mix of pewter and silver, decorated with a Celtic knot design. Handsome, but not particularly valuable. Certainly nothing that any adept thief would bother stealing.
What was valuable beyond his wildest dreams was the encoded data embedded in the design, an elegantly sophisticated and brilliant expression of “hide in plain sight”. It took several days to discern, then devise the means to extract and decrypt the data so that its mysteries could be analyzed.
It contained a lifelong journal of scientific notation including experiments in the theory of interdimensional intercourse along with the postulational and philosophical musings of one Catalonius M. for Mallory Monq; a name that was much too close to be a coincidence.
If the similarity of names wasn’t already shaved too fine for synchronicity, his mother had once told him that he, himself, was almost named Catalonius Mallory Monq because of her appreciation for Thomas Mallory, but that she had conceded to her husband’s wish to honor his late father, Chester. Had his mother been a hair more insistent, he would have been named Catalonius M. Monq, exactly like the owner of the journal.
At the moment he was the only one who knew the locket was something more than a simple personal effect and selfishly wanted a little more time alone with the precious find.
The data underwent thorough analysis along with blood and tissue samples drawn from the bearer of the locket. Within five days he could say with certainty that the information harvested was mind boggling even for someone such as himself who dealt in the supernaturally improbable every day. Knowing he couldn’t continue to keep a discovery of this magnitude to himself any longer, he scheduled a private meeting with Sovereign Sol in his sub basement level suite of office, labs, testing ranges, and living quarters.
The elevator opened promptly at three o’clock. Clocks could be set by Sol’s schedule. Monq welcomed him into the lab where he had been conducting the analysis, dismissed his assistants, and invited Sol to make himself comfortable in a wheeled, desk chair. Monq and Sol had a congenial, business relationship and occasionally collaborated.
Monq began with an intriguing tidbit – the near identical match between his name and that of the locket’s creator. When Monq paused to wait for a reaction, Sol emitted a small grunt as if to say, “If you’re waiting for me to emote, you’ll have to do better than that.”
“Among my counterpart’s notations was the theory of travel between dimensions and detailed specs on a device he was building to attempt such a journey. There was no indication that it had been tested or that there were plans to do so. The incident could have been a lab accident or there may have been some catalyst. We’ll know more when we can talk to the visitor.” Unsure how much technical information would interest Sol, Monq decided to give him the lecture and then dumb it down later if necessary.
“In order to explain what has happened, or what I speculate has happened, I need to tell you a story about P-Brane.” Monq’s eyes darted to an erasable board. He stood and wheeled the board closer, grabbed a blue marker, and spelled out P-Brane. “It’s a spatially extended mathematical concept that appears in string theory. The variable “P” refers to the number of spatial dimensions of the brane. String theory proposes eleven dimensions, but there could be multiple layers between dimensions vibrating at different rates which would make the number exponentially inconceivable.”
Monq sat down. “Did you ever play a musical instrument?”
“Trumpet. High school.”
“Okay then. As you know, musical scale doesn’t slide from a perfect middle C to a C sharp. There is a continuum range that exists between each step in the scale. That’s why piano tuners are so specialized. Perfect pitch means targeting a note and hitting it within its arbitrarily assigned center without wandering over or under looking for it. Most of us may not be able to distinguish all the infinitesimal changes in tone between C and C sharp, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
Sol nodded his understanding, prompting Monq to continue.
“This event is proof that there are multiple dimensions that parallel our own in similar, but not necessarily identical ways.
I believe our guest upstairs has come to us from another version of life as we live it. My findings indicate that the physical damage was caused, at least partly, from pushing a body designed for a different vibration, a different experience of reality, through the P-Brane. The fabric of her cells is slightly denser. Not much, but the tiniest variation would create the effect of being wedged through a giant cheese grater.”
“She’s human? Or essentially human?”
“Yes. Essentially human. And, as further proof of the parallel nature of her reality, she understands and speaks a dialect of English, albeit with either an accent or a handicap resulting from her injuries. We won’t know which until healing has progressed.”
“She will definitely to recover from the trauma?”
“Physically. Yes. Actually, this slight variance in cell density is probably going to assist her recovery. The live cells I’ve been working with have been trying to repair themselves with uncanny speed.”
Sol gave a big sigh. “Other differences?”
“We’re sure to learn more as we go along, but I expect her natural temperature will burn a degree or so warmer than 98.6.” Monq stopped again. This time Sol made a circular motion with his hand adding a little impatience to the gesture. ”Because of the increased cell density, she’s heavier than she should be. And very likely stronger, too.”
“How much stronger?”
“That would only be a guess at this point.”
“Strong enough to be a security risk?”
“She featured prominently in the other Monq’s journal. He was quite fond of her as a student, thought she was extraordinary in several ways. Based on reading the personal thoughts expressed in his journal, I have no reason to suspect a threat.”
“But you don’t know that for sure.”
Monq shook his head. “You already know the answer.”
“For all we know the journal could be part of a complex cover.”
After another half hour’s discussion, it was agreed that they would proceed to study the subject and maintain a reasonable level of alert meanwhile.