Natural Sorcery: First Chapter Preview and Pre-Order

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Pre-orders for Natural Sorcery are now up. The book will release on April 23rd as an ebook.

Chapter One

The sun beat down over expansive, even fields that stretched out towards a background of rocky hills. Farmlands were not my thing, so I couldn’t identify the various crops that were laid out in rows before me. Not that I had any business doing so, or even being here. I should have been out in the uncultivated wilds, conducting my research far away from where the food production happened—the legendary animals (called legimals) that I was interested in weren’t exactly a welcome sight here.

Instead, I found myself in the passenger seat of a pick-up as Tony parked it past a gated entrance, in front of a couple of small buildings. The oppressively hot air greeted me when I climbed out of the car, a layer of sweat appearing over my skin almost instantaneously.

Ah, the joys of Mediterranean summers.

On a normal field mission, the possibility of discovering something new would at least serve as a consolation prize. But today…today, I wondered what I was even doing here.

When my advisor had called me into her office and told me a local farmstead wanted us to investigate a problem for them, I thought the flat look on my face would have deterred her from pushing for it. Apparently not. Because despite the fact that there were actual emergency services for dealing with whatever problem these people were experiencing—I personally guessed it was the usual encroachment from the local legendary animals—Dr. Berti wanted me to go check up on it personally.

Me. A scientist. How did that even make sense?

I dealt with long-term research problems where we tried to answer complete unknowns, taking years or even decades of work to get just that little bit more information about the world. I did not do pest control.

This was a major downside to my team’s recent run-in with a massively dangerous situation about a month back. The knowledge of what happened was public, which made people associate us with both legimals and legends—both the animals and people who went around flaunting inexplicable abilities.

Never mind that the two had nothing to do with each other. Legends had always existed, often in their own communities that had little to do with us humans. But legimal populations only resurged some thirty years back, causing havoc ever since for reasons we didn’t entirely understand yet.

Glancing at my partner for this ridiculous affair, I noted the scowl plastered across his tanned face as he exited from the driver’s side of the pick-up. Not that I could actually know whether Tony was as frustrated as I was, since this was his normal resting expression.

The creak of an opening door drew my attention to the nearest building, where a tall, bulky man rushed out to meet us. A piece of fabric was wrapped around his head, covering one eye. The other regarded us with a hint of unease.

“Thank you for coming,” he said. “My name is Marco. We’re really…we didn’t know what to do.”

“What’s the problem and why do you think we’re the right people to deal with it?” I asked.

It was only after I caught a side-eyed glance from Tony that I realized my straight-to-the-point response had probably been rude–not that I understood why. What was the problem with getting right to business, especially when it was urgent? Why did everyone want me to engage in pointless small talk instead?

Thankfully, the man didn’t even blink, because apparently at least one other person in the world understood how priorities worked. “Come,” this Marco guy beckoned, leading us around the warm-colored building he’d exited from.

Despite myself, my curiosity kindled. I found myself leaning forward, trying to glimpse whatever was hiding behind the house that blocked our view. Expecting something dramatic.

When the rows and rows of vines that stretched into the distance came into view, I kept looking past them, trying to get a glimpse of whatever the fuss was about. But the man came to a stop right in front of the vegetation, almost grazing the browning leaves. Which prompted me to finally took a closer look at the plants themselves–the saggy state of the vines, the few shriveled greenish lumps hanging from them. It took me a moment to realize those lumps were supposed to be tomatoes.

“This is the problem,” he told us.

Uh, okay? But he was the agricultural expert here, while I studied terrestrial legimals. He should’ve had a much better idea of what to do than I would. So why was he even talking to me? I shot him a blank look, hoping he would clue me in on what he wanted.

Next to me, Tony shook his head in exasperation.

“They are dying, yes?” the man said, frowning at me.

“Obviously,” I responded. “What is it you think I can do about it?” I was going to refrain from telling him to irrigate them better, because there was no way I knew better than he did.

“No matter what we do, they keep dying. They dry out, unable to retain moisture.”

I paused. Unable to retain moisture? Eyeing the shriveled fruit, I wondered what that even meant. “So you’re saying that you don’t know why this is happening.”

“I am saying that we have ruled out the usual causes, and can only suspect magic.”

An instinctive surge of denial had me tensing up. The legends around Rome didn’t interfere with human society like this. In all the decades since the Boom—the return of legendary animals to the world—had put us all in close proximity, it just wasn’t done.

But for a brief period of time last month, that had changed. I recoiled at the idea that it might have changed for good.

This explained why he’d contacted my lab, at least. I shouldn’t have been the best person to handle this. I was a scientist studying legimal behavior and its effect on population dynamics, not a diplomat, or a detective, or a soldier. But Rome wasn’t equipped to deal with hostility from the surrounding legend communities. It was something our society had never prepared for, which in retrospect, seemed like a strange oversight.

Maybe the world had changed so much, become filled with so many new threats in such a short timeframe, that we couldn’t bring ourselves to handle anymore. Maybe we put it off because our society was barely staying ahead of the dangers of the Boom, barely putting itself back together after that first messy decade. But it had left us unprepared for a very real danger.

By pure bad luck, my lab group had reaped the consequences. We’d gotten a bit of publicity for dealing with one recent fiasco, when we’d narrowly averted a war. It put us amongst the few to have actually dealt with legends, ever, as bad as our experiences had been.

And now this was happening. I had a sense of foreboding, like the events of the previous month had only been the beginning. Maybe we hadn’t averted that war after all. Maybe we’d only delayed it.

But it was too soon to suspect an attack, wasn’t it? All I knew so far was that a few fields of crops had mysteriously dried out. Maybe it wasn’t caused by legends at all. Maybe it was some kind of blight. My eyes trailed over the browning bits of plant, wondering if it was consistent with any plant diseases. Unfortunately, figuring that out required knowledge of agriculture and plant science, and mine was practically nonexistent.

Still, if legends were involved…

Then someone was targeting our food supply. What else could that be, other than an act of war?

Well, aside from monumentally foolhardy, considering that much of the world was on the verge of a food shortage.

Everyone suffered when famine hit. Doing something like this on purpose? I couldn’t even fathom that kind of ridiculousness. Even if they kept their own crops safe, it was still a terrible idea. Being the only person around with food was practically as bad as not having it at all.

But bad plan or not, it would still hurt us.

I turned my attention away from the crops—it wasn’t like I was gonna figure out what was wrong with them by staring—and back towards the man, the farmer. Marco. He stood tall and straight, but there was a hesitance in his posture. Enough to indicate he had some serious worries over this situation.

And when one of the people responsible for keeping my community fed was worried, I was worried. I seriously hoped I wasn’t his last resort.

“Has anyone been here recently who wasn’t supposed to be?” I asked.

Maybe this wasn’t a legend, but with no clear cause to a mysterious problem, I had to take the possibility seriously. I wasn’t an investigator, but I had dealt with legends before. That meant my team and I were the best Rome could do, at the moment…which was a cause for concern all by itself.

“No one comes here unless they have a reason to,” he responded, with a discouraged droop to his posture.

Which in turn discouraged me. Because I was supposed to get information out of this guy, not deal with his emotional distress. In fact, I was pretty sure I couldn’t deal with his emotional distress. Would probably just make it worse if I tried. And how was I going to get any answers then?

Damn it, actual investigators were probably trained to handle this. To manage their witnesses’ feelings in a way that would properly get them the best account they could get. And me–well, I had Tony, who did have experience interviewing legends for his anthropological interests. Glancing at him, I wondered if he’d be inclined to help me out here. Only to find him watching thoughtfully with his arms crossed, seemingly not inclined to participate.

Which reminded me that he had a reputation for annoying the subjects of his interviews. Making him a bad option for help anyway.

So what should I do? I had an emotionally discomfited farmer on my hands, no social skills to speak of, and Tony of all people as my backup. I needed Luca or Hayley for this.

But they weren’t here. It was just me.

Okay, confidence. If I acted like it was alright, he’d believe me, right? It worked on Tony, anyway. Some of the time.

I thought about the logical progression of questions to ask, looking for something he’d be able to answer. Something to make him feel less useless.

Settling for a question I wanted to have an answer for anyway, I asked, “Do we have anyone trying to figure out how this is happening?”

Because suspecting magic wasn’t the same as understanding what caused this, or figuring out a way to counter it. Not that it mattered in the short term. Solutions took time, and we’d definitely lose crops before the scientific process gave us any.

It wasn’t really fair how much easier it was to break something than to fix it.

With a more confident nod, the man said, “A number of scientists have been out here already, multiple times. They took samples.” Saying the words seemed to make him feel better, which was all I was really going for.

“And what did they tell you?”

His lips fell into a grim line. “They don’t understand what this is, beyond that the crops have simply stopped retaining water.”

And there it was again. The problem. The sudden inability of plants to take up water, stated so baldly. Like it was something that made sense.

But it didn’t. It was like us humans forgetting how to breathe.

Not to mention, human beings relied on water intake, too. If someone was capable of dehydrating an entire field of plants, why couldn’t they do something similar to a person? Or a city filled with people?

Obviously, what I saw in this field wasn’t instant desiccation or anything, but a gradual descent into perpetual dehydration could be plenty dangerous on its own.

So why not do that, instead of hitting the crops like this? Targeting our community directly would’ve reduced the chances of us realizing something was wrong until it was too late. And it would only affect us, not the food security of the whole region.

Was there a technical reason that I wasn’t aware of, why someone’s powers could affect plants this way but not mammals? Or had it just not occurred to them yet? Without knowing the mechanism for how this was happening, I couldn’t answer those questions. Couldn’t even guess at the potential limits of this power.

Suppressing a shiver at the implications, I shoved these thoughts deep into the recesses of my mind. So long as I saw no evidence of this power being used on people, there wasn’t a point in wondering why.

“How many fields are being affected by this?” I asked. Because we had to concentrate on the problem we did have, instead of the ones we didn’t.

“Too many,” the man said. “If we lose the crops in all of them, things might get serious.”

And that was enough to remind me that the problem we did have already had the potential for catastrophe. “How serious, exactly?”

“I don’t know that anyone would actually starve to death, with very careful regulation of food distribution,” he said. “But it is possible.”

Starvation. As a real possibility for something that might happen, in Rome. Yeah okay, that was pretty horrifying.

The man’s hand hovered over a nearby vine, and its browned leaves looked so fragile I wondered if they’d crumble at his touch. “It will be worse if this happens another time. There’s nothing stopping them from doing this again, is there?”

No, there wasn’t. Apparently he was smart enough to know that. But I didn’t want him to be smart enough to know that.

“There is,” I insisted. “That’s why you called us, right?”

Oh, I’d done it now. I hated making promises I wasn’t sure I could keep. And yet, my instincts told me to keep him—everyone—as calm as possible. Just the thought of what might happen if people thought they were out of food made me anxious.

“Right,” he confirmed, his tone too noncommittal for me to tell whether he believed in us or not.

I sure as hell didn’t.

***

Tony drove faster than was strictly necessary on the way back, but at least he wasn’t anywhere near ‘crash into something and die from the impact’ speed–something I’d learned to fear from him.  That gave me enough calm, for the moment, to turn our current problem over in my mind.

In theory, this could have been caused by any as-yet-undiscovered phenomenon. But the most glaring unknowns in close proximity—at least other than the Boom and why we were living in a freaking apocalypse—were the legend communities. And I couldn’t shake the growing certainty that this was them. That this was somehow related to the almost-war we’d averted.

A small part of me felt inquisitive towards the problem, felt the desire to uncover how something I’d never encountered before was possible. A larger part of me dreaded the prospect of another crime involving legends. I broke into a cold sweat just thinking about the last one–about my terror at being abducted, hanging hundreds of feet above the ground. About the man I’d killed, and the look on his son’s face.

Yet even that part of me was drowned out by the overwhelming enormity of what was happening. The big picture that I’d promised myself I wouldn’t lose sight of again. Because if this was the prelude to a war, if one happened in the middle of this worsening crisis…

Life could go back to the bad old days of the first decade post-Boom. We wouldn’t be able to look to the future beyond our immediate survival.

I couldn’t remember the worst of it–I’d been too young–but my parents’ generation had lived through that whole mess. There were times when I could see the remnants of those experiences in them. My mom’s hard edge, Berti’s paranoia. The way our nice elderly neighbors would startle at sudden noises inside their own apartment. Even my gentle dad sometimes had shadows behind his eyes that I couldn’t explain.

Maybe I couldn’t understand what it had really been like, but I knew enough to realize I didn’t want to. As hard as things were now, with us standing right on the edge of a crisis, we hadn’t fallen off that precipice yet. I couldn’t fathom the consequences if we ever did.

By the time we crossed the bridge into the safety zone, I’d thought myself into a pretty worried state. Which wouldn’t do. Tony was distracted, so he wasn’t picking up on it yet, but I had to keep a calm exterior for when we arrived at the lab.

Taking deep breaths, I tried to focus on the here and now. The rumble of the car’s engines. The way we bumped along through the tiny cobblestone streets of Trastevere, where sidewalks didn’t exist because the road went right up to the base of the buildings. Tony was practically forced to slow down, due to the otherwise high probability of mowing down pedestrians.

As we rolled into a small parking lot, I noted a familiar set of figures loitering outside of our lab building. Hayley, Carter, and Luca.

Hayley hurried over to me, even before I’d finished getting out of the car. “About time you got here. The new security guy already checked our IDs twice.”

Carter grinned. “Only because, when he asked what we were doing here, you told him we were selling drugs,” he told her.

“Yeah, well, some people can’t take a joke.”

My coworker, roommate, and best friend, Hayley was a tall Indian-American woman with a flair for the dramatic. She and Carter, a Korean-American photographer who moonlighted on my field expeditions, had been working with me for years. Longer than Tony, and far longer than Luca. I didn’t know if it was our shared experience of immigrating from the United States or what, but the three of us fell into an easy camaraderie from the start.

Their familiar banter gave me something to latch onto, a safe harbor from the tumult of my emotions. My friends were still here, still joking. The world hadn’t collapsed yet. I felt the set of my shoulders relaxing, and while a reasonable amount of anxiety remained, I wasn’t in danger of getting sucked into the worst of my fears.

On the other end of the spectrum, Luca–a recent addition to my field team who worked the video feed for us–was all business. When I’d first met him, I assumed he had Middle Eastern heritage, possibly from the refugees who’d migrated to Italy at the beginning of the century—or at least the pre-Boom part of the century. Little did I know that he hailed from a legendary House whose heritage spanned the Mediterranean—encompassing Rome, Troy, and Carthage.

“What happened?” he asked, dark eyes on me.

I shook my head. “Inside.”

The last thing I wanted to do was discuss an impending famine in public. That was just asking for all kinds of rumors to start.

Without any arguments from my teammates, we made our way up to the lab. Our five lab benches took up the majority of the space, each filled with different equipment and reagents depending on our individual needs. A chemical fume hood stood in the corner for general use. The place was fairly empty, filled only by the hum of our lonely equipment, probably because the other field team wasn’t here. Only a new pair of technicians huddled together in the back, giving us weird looks as we stormed past them en masse, headed for Dr. Berti’s office.

Stepping out of the blandly colored lab and its practical set-up into Berti’s office was like stepping into another world. Covered with a deep rug and even furnished with a lush green couch, the office was aesthetically sparse–whereas the lab was filled to the brim with equipment both old and new. It would have been comfortable if Berti had a couple of visitors inside, instead of the mob we made as we arrived at her door.

Well technically, there was plenty of room behind Dr. Berti’s desk, but no one was going to venture into her personal space. That left us cramming ourselves into the space in front of it, encroaching onto Pradip’s–her assistant’s–work area. Since Hayley and Carter plopped down on the coach, while Luca and Tony stayed just inside the doorway, I huddled between the door and Pradip’s desk.

Probably earning his eternal hatred in the process.

Berti sat at her desk with her usual straight-backed posture, greying blond hair pulled back from her face. With a calm turn of her head, she shifted her attention to me without even glancing at anyone else. Completely ignoring the half dozen unnecessary ears surrounding us.

“Well?” she asked. “Have you assessed their situation, Jordan?”

I gave my audience the basics of what the guy at the agricultural complex had told me. Keeping the worst of my speculations to myself, because at least half of these people were perfectly capable of filling the blanks in our knowledge with their own theories.

As the others listened intently, I glimpsed one of the technicians nonchalantly passing by the door, way slower than he had to. So just in case–because while I trusted everyone here to greater or lesser extents, the concept of need-to-know existed for a reason–I kept words like ‘famine’ out of my mouth.

Dr. Berti shifted back in her chair as I finished up. “I suppose then that we’ll have to do something about this,” she said.

I swore I caught a gleam of satisfaction in her eyes. And why not? The more people that depended on her to solve their problems, the more power she had, right?

“But there have to be better people to handle a situation like this than us,” Luca said, daring to speak up when no one else did. There was his protective side coming out, and at completely the wrong time. Damn it, Luca, fight the battles you have a chance of winning. “Look around,” he continued. “This room is filled with…academics.”

–excuse me, but where did he get off saying the word ‘academics’ with that kind of skepticism?

“Luca,” Berti admonished. “There are perfectly valid reasons why this office has been contacted in particular. Think of how many lives are at stake here. Don’t you believe that this is the right thing to do?”

There was a weight to the way she shaped her words that I didn’t understand. But Luca obviously did, because he stiffened at her statement. I glanced between the two of them, wondering what I was missing.

A hesitation passed over Berti’s expression, and her voice turned conciliatory. “I only meant that someone needs to take responsibility for a matter this important.”

Did she just…back down? What the hell kind of conversation did they have that Berti actually felt bad about referencing it?

“That’s not the problem. Why us?” Luca demanded. Because if there was one thing guaranteed to make Luca unreasonable, it was the people around him being placed in danger. “We aren’t the police. This isn’t what we’re supposed to do.”

“No one is supposed to do this,” Dr. Berti replied, this time with what sounded like genuine regret. “These conflicts with the legends are new territory for Rome. Before the Boom, governments had agents who could investigate transgressions in other governing states in secret. After, the world we knew had changed entirely. Smaller communities, harder to infiltrate. Local conflicts that faced no need for such investigations. This is no longer a specialty that exists.”

“But there are still trained investigators–”

“Trained in investigating their own societies, yes,” Berti interrupted. “Where they are given authority to exercise over the population. But they have no authority over the surrounding legends. And these legends have no reason to submit to police questioning. Or to associate with any unknown investigators. But they might speak with us, because they already know of us through other channels. Because our lab has already had dealings with multiple legend Houses. Please be aware that no one is equipped to deal with situations like this, but nonetheless, the people in this room have the most experience.”

“The most experience,” Luca scoffed. “Sure, maybe. But only because someone tried to kill us. That’s why we got dragged into all of this, do you remember? Someone tried to kill all of us, multiple times, for going outside the safety zone and crossing their path. What do you think is going to happen if we invite trouble by actively intruding on the territories of the legends here to question them?”

“You may choose not to believe me, Luca, but I know.” And to my surprise, I could almost detect a hint of something personal behind her usual diplomatic tones. “But people will die if we do nothing. Perhaps you’re too young to remember how many of us stepped into roles we were not prepared for during the worst of the Boom. Too young to know how much we owe to those who rose to the challenge when no one was ready, but someone had to do it. And it may well be too much to ask of any of you to emulate them–I admit that you’re right about that. As such, this will naturally be a volunteer-only assignment. Compensation will be provided to those who choose to participate.”

Luca faced me immediately, his eyes pleading with me not to do it. But we both knew better. I had a stake in making this place as safe as possible, for the sake of the family I wanted to bring here. Luca couldn’t turn away from people who needed his help even if he wanted to. Neither of us was letting the other go alone.

End of contemplation.

I sighed. “I’ll do it.”

Luca turned away, disappointed. “Me too,” he said, though he didn’t sound very enthusiastic.

Hayley’s eyes shifted from me to Luca and back. “I can’t,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

I waved my hand to indicate that I didn’t care. It wasn’t like I wanted anyone else getting involved, and there was no point anyway. It’d just provide more potential hostages.

“Me neither,” Carter said. “I’m a nature photographer. I don’t have any business with these legends, and there’s no reason for them to talk to me.”

I’d wondered if Carter would want to tag along just for the adventure of it all, but his reasoning was solid. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. If there was someone I wanted watching my back, it was Carter. That feeling had been ingrained into me over the years we’d spent working together. Luca was great and all, not to mention the advantage of having a secret legend spy like him on my side. But he didn’t have the history with me that Carter had.

Berti’s office filled with silence for a moment, laced with expectation as we tried to figure out who hadn’t spoken yet.

A heavy sigh escaped from Tony. “I’ll drive,” he said. Every gaze in the room turned to him. Other than Hayley, he’d be the last person I’d expect to jump into danger. At least, not without some serious bribery involved.

He met each of our eyes with a look of exasperation. “What?” he challenged.

“Are you sure?” Hayley ventured.

Tony scowled back at her. “Look, we all know I don’t like danger. We also all know that I’m willing to risk it for the opportunity to learn more about legends.”

…okay, now it made sense. There was serious bribery involved, but in this case, he was the one bribing himself with a chance to indulge his intellectual anthropology side.

But that wasn’t the biggest surprise of the day. The biggest surprise was when Pradip spoke up. “You’re going to need me there, too.”

“You?” Tony asked, dubiously.

“Yeah well, for all your obsequious sucking up to anyone with the right genetic patterning, you’re still more likely to ask intrusive questions than to be diplomatic.”

Tony actually flinched at the statement. Wow, that was harsh, even for Pradip.

Hayley and I exchanged startled looks, while Carter tried to seem too deliberately nonchalant.

Luca, on the other hand, gave Pradip an assessing look. “Diplomatic, huh?” he questioned, looking back and forth between Pradip and Tony. That gave Tony a moment to recover, enough time to stick a bored expression onto his face.

Pradip just shrugged. “Take it or leave it.”

We’d take it. There was no question. He’d been kind of mean about it, but Tony did inspire irritation in a lot of people. And Pradip might not have been the nicest person to us in particular, but he’d pulled off quite a bit in the time I’d known him. He was the one who was actually interested in politics, and Dr. Berti chose him as her intern because he was good at this.

Which wasn’t to say that Pradip’s presence wouldn’t upset Tony. I could already imagine the headache that would cause.

“Alright people, let’s go,” I said, knowing they’d infer my decision from that.

I grabbed a set of car keys from Pradip’s desk, not even bothering to look at which ones they were. Though Berti’s parting words– “Please refrain from destroying this one” –gave me a pretty good hint. Still, she didn’t ask us to take the pick-up instead. I suppose even Berti had a limit to how far she would push us.

And we started moving out, not even discussing where we’d go first, because there was only one logical option. We needed to consult with Berti’s greatest ally in the legend community. The man she trusted even when she doubted other legends on principle. The one who’d helped and advised us before, even if he’d demonstrated the limits of what he’d do for us pretty clearly.

The Remus.