First two chapters of Shattered

Warning, this series was meant to be read in order.

Book #1, The Keepers

Book #2, Keepers and Killers

Book #3, Shattered

Chapter One

I leaned my head back against the leather conference chair as I rested the soles of my boots on the dark mahogany table. The room was packed to bursting, between the leadership of wolves, the Fae and humans. Eyes closed, I tried to listen through the din for specific voices but it was too chaotic to follow. They were all speaking at once.

“Enough,” Cormac said, or more accurately, yelled. He very seldom raised his voice but after the week we’d just had, I wasn’t surprised he was more on edge than normal.

One week ago today, we had closed the final tear in the universe, located exactly where New York City used to be. The hell that we unleashed was beyond any of our imaginations. Slow death by radiation was looking more and more like it might have been the better choice. That was no longer an option. We’d merged our existence with the plane of magic, and for better or worse, this was the new world, perhaps the only world.

There was no way of telling what happened to Vitor’s planet. It was too risky to try and open a wormhole now, if it were even possible. What once might have had a predictable outcome was now a game of Russian Roulette. That’s what happens when the machine gets all gunked up with extra crap in the engine. In this case, the extra crap happened to be magic.

Magic. Does anyone really even know what it is? If I’d been asked for a definition a year ago, I would have said it was beautiful and impossible things, unicorns frolicking under rainbows and pots of gold guarded by strange little men wearing green. It might still be all of those things…but it was also so much more. It was the ghastly images from nightmares and your deepest fears come to life. And now, it was just your run of the mill day, sitting at a meeting with creatures you didn’t know existed a year ago.

The packed conference room fell silent and I forced my heavy eyelids open. Cormac stood, leaning over the table, palms flat on its surface with his head bent down. His shirtsleeves were rolled up as usual, showing off the tense muscular forearms that accented even further how on edge he was, if you hadn’t already picked up on his “rip your head off” tone.

If he had been a mentally weaker man, this would’ve been his breaking point. I know if I thought it was an option, it would’ve been mine. I’ve never considered myself a slouch in the stamina department, but my limits were being tested daily.

I looked around the room as the silence continued. This was one of the many “open” meetings we’d had since our return. Everyone would all come in and wait for Cormac to utter some words of brilliance that would make things okay, would make sense of the chaos that ensued after New York. They just didn’t get it. There was nothing that was going to make this okay. We’d destroyed something that night and there was no fixing it. This was it.

Burrom, Vitor, Rogo and all their people…the ones still alive that is, had been waiting for us at The Lacard when we finally managed to get back. “We” is what’s left of The Keepers, a number that was less than it had been a week ago. We’d lost three just on the way home, not to mention the heap of metal that had once been a shiny 747.

“I don’t have any answers,” Cormac’s voice broke the silence and brought me roughly back to the present.

“What are those grey creatures hovering out there? The ones everyone calls the rippers?” A human named Sally asked. “They ate one of my friends! Tore him apart, limb by limb, in front of us.”

“I told you, I don’t know. We’re working on it.” Cormac ran a hand through his black hair, the shadow along his jaw darker than normal.

I felt human eyes upon me but ignored them. I had the Fae and wolves’ attention as well, and I ignored them too, staring up at the ceiling instead. They all wanted to come here to Earth. So much so, they’d been willing to do it by any means possible. Now that it had turned ugly, they wanted to blame The Keepers for it, and me most of all. And the thing I feared the most was, maybe they were right.

 It was hard to defend yourself when you could barely breathe past the guilt that weighed down your chest. I ignored them until their attention moved elsewhere, which I knew it shortly would. The anger was in plentiful supply and was being spread out liberally.

“I want the seventh floor. The ninth is unlucky and I won’t stay there anymore,” Burrom said, as the fight for domain began again. They’d been bickering between themselves nonstop about who would take what area. The stout little Fae was the only one in the room that seemed unfretted by everything else going on. All he cared about was his sleeping requirements.

“Done,” Cormac answered, I think relieved to have a problem so easily fixed.

“Wait…I already set up on the seventh,” Vitor said. You’d never know that Vitor and Burrom were of the same race. Vitor was the epitome of casual and refined grace, even if he was twitching more than a chipmunk on crack lately.

“Move your shit.” Cormac leaned a little further in the direction of Vitor. “I said you could stay here. If you’ve got an issue with the accommodations…leave. That goes for all of you.” He looked to Vitor, Burrom, Rogo and Adam, who was the human’s representative.

Now that the shit had hit the fan, there were no secrets left to protect. All the cards were on the table, well, as far as the humans knew anyway, but this was one of the open meetings. There were still the closed meetings where the real shit went down, but no one, including myself, thought the humans were ready for that.

“We need larger food rations,” Adam said, changing the subject.

“No, you don’t. If your people stopped hoarding what they get and actually ate it instead, they’d be fine,” Cormac said.

“They’re scared,” Mark defended.

“We’ve got enough.” Cormac flipped through a few sheets of paper in front of him.

He was looking at the inventory of supplies. I knew exactly what the papers said because I had prepared them. We still had enough if we were careful.

“And when we don’t?” Mark countered.

“We’ll get more.”

Mark dropped the subject but I wondered the same thing in my head. Cormac couldn’t single handedly grow food for everyone and we had a limited amount. I took a sip out of my coffee canister filled mostly with coffee and a drop of whiskey. It was only eleven a.m. I certainly couldn’t go to the straight stuff for at least a few more hours.

“What about my sister?” Vitor asked.

She’s probably dead, Vitor. They all are! Even if they aren’t, you won’t ever see them again so they might as well be. I sank a little deeper into seat as that sentence stole the last bit of energy I had left. I banged my head against the back of the chair but it was cushioned, so it lost all effect.

If Cormac and Vitor were going to finally come to blows, then so be it. One less mouth to feed, was the way I was starting to view it. Not that I was excited about our numbers dwindling, but if you were going to be a pain in the ass, I’d kick your butt out the door for the rippers myself. There was only so much food left and I certainly didn’t want to waste it on a whiner.

“What about her?” Cormac asked – it wasn’t a question, it was a threat.

“We had a deal.” I heard the slightest quiver in Vitor’s voice. He was realizing the same thing I was noticing; this wasn’t the same Cormac I knew a week ago. The Cormac of old would have beaten him to an inch of his life. This Cormac wouldn’t leave an inch. I was getting the distinct impression that Cormac was shedding his civilized façade just as quickly as civilization had fallen to ruins.

“Things change.” Cormac glanced at me and I got the message. It felt as if his eyes were piercing straight through to my soul. Vitor wasn’t the only person that had run out of time and he wanted to make sure I understood that loud and clear.

All eyes in the room bounced back and forth between Vitor and Cormac. Even I joined the dance.

Vitor, predictable as ever, continued on. “You are a Keeper. You keep the portals, the contracts, the peace. You can’t just disregard the agreements.”

“Everybody here better listen up.” Cormac scanned the room, meeting stare after stare. “The Lacard is the last bastion in the storm. And it belongs to me. My rules, my way. Yesterday doesn’t exist. You get in the way of my survival, then you get out.” He turned and looked pointedly at Vitor before he spoke his next words. “There will be no more portals, no more contracts and if you want peace, then you better be ready to fight for it.”

Vitor said nothing as Cormac grabbed his stuff from the table, preparing to leave. A few feet shuffled about as Cormac walked from the room, leaving everyone else to digest his words.

“Fair enough,” Burrom said in his deep gruff voice, then gathered up his people and left, presumably to the seventh floor to evict Vitor’s people.

Rogo , Adam and Vitor’s people that were still there, started bartering for the floors they wanted that were left. I leaned my head back again and closed my eyes. I’d get up in a minute. Right now, I couldn’t move.

I sensed a shadow and I opened them to see Vitor, sitting on the edge of the table in front of me.

“He’s turning into an animal.” His demeanor reminded me of the lunch lady on the playground in grammar school, when the kids got a bit too rough.

“Don’t care.” I hadn’t cared when the kids in fifth grade beat each other up, either. Cormac was acting as raw as I felt and I understood it. Vitor was reminding me of a spoiled child, who didn’t realize the world had a whole lot more problems than what was in his immediate vision. It didn’t help that I knew he was playing both sides, friendly to me when it suited his purpose, but just as ready to burn me at the stake when he needed a scapegoat.

“What happened to you?” Vitor furrowed his brow as he sized me up, sensing the changes in me.

His question drummed up memories of the tornados that had sprung up when we’d been flying back, and nearly ripped the plane apart. A wall of them had formed just as we had hit Montana. There had been nothing natural about them and everything terrifying.

I shook my head. “Nothing,” I answered, leaving off that I didn’t want to talk about it, but he got the hint. “I’d get over there.” I tilted my head toward the group on my left, who were negotiating only a few feet from us.

I stood, getting ready to exit the room. I’d rather drag my exhausted body upward than field anymore questions. “By the way, the fifth floor has the smallest square footage and, for some reason, the water pressure sucks.”

I passed by the remaining people, that were picking at the scraps of square footage left, as I walked out of the room.

Chapter Two

 I remained upright by sheer willpower alone, as I stepped into the elevator. My hand hovered over the penthouse button before I pushed the casino main floor level instead. I’d been existing on a couple of hours of sleep a night. The moment I recharged even a little, the adrenaline drove me awake again.

The doors to the casino floor slid open like the curtains being pulled back on a play about the end of the world. Huddles of people had continued to show up after we left and were still arriving by the hour, their homes destroyed. I wasn’t worried about the amount of people that showed up, I was worried that there wouldn’t be more. There was no way of telling how many people were left. By our current estimates, which were really no more than guesses, ninety percent of the population was gone.

Sabrina, the resident Keeper doctor, had made a makeshift office in the gift shop, right off where the main gambling floor used to be. She was tending to the people that came in and Kever was arranging sleeping accommodations. I knocked on the open door and her head swung up from the teenage girl she was tending.

“How’s it going? Can I do anything to help?” I asked her. Sabrina looked as bad as the rest of us. It didn’t seem like anyone slept anymore.

“It’s going,” she said with a shrug. “Can you hang out a minute?”

I nodded, relieved for an excuse to stop for a minute. I slumped into the chair off to the side, as I waited for her to finish stitching up a cut in the brunette girl’s arm.

“Okay, Colleen, that should take care of it,” Sabrina said as she stepped back and the girl stood.

I tried not to stare but I couldn’t help notice the girl’s huge purple eyes once she stood and looked up at me, recognition on her face. She knew who I was. The woman the humans called The Plague.

Sabrina laid a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Remember what I said to you. Just come to me, okay?”

I saw the girl nod and I recognized the look on her face. She’d never ask for help. Sabrina had probably dragged the girl in here practically by force.

Sabrina shut the glass door as the girl left, and sat down in the chair next to me. We had been on friendly terms before New York happened, or the shattering, as people were referring to it. We’d gotten a lot closer in the last week. She was just one of those people who radiated an emotional stability that you gravitated toward in times of upheaval.

“What’s wrong?” I asked as she paused. We were sitting in a room with two glass walls, and even though she’d draped fabric over them to block the view, you could still see in from certain angles. Her hesitancy was making me nervous, but I made sure to school my features and not reflect any concern that would scare an onlooker.

“Some odd things are happening,” she rolled her eyes, realizing what she had said sounded ridiculous. “I mean, beyond the storms and the rippers…”

The rippers were the dark grayish, lizard skinned beings that wandered the area. They had already taken out a few Keepers on our way back. They’d killed Ben within the first two days of appearing, as well as some wolves that had been making their way to the casino. No one could even count how many defenseless humans they’d gotten, or perhaps no one wanted to tally that number. I wasn’t sure what was scarier about them, how easily they killed or how they killed.

“This is the thing; we all know that this is a strange new world.” We both instinctively glanced through the largest gap to the group of humans congregating outside the room. “But, it’s not just the world changing for some.”

“What do you mean?” The purple eyes of the girl reappeared in my mind as I guessed where she was going. When did humans start having purple eyes?

“There have been a few odd things I’ve seen with some of them. The eyes on the girl who was just here, which I’m sure you noticed, were purple. She said her eyes used to be blue until a day ago. “

“Is there anything else?” Eye color changing was weird, but our environment had changed so perhaps not that weird. Maybe color changes were similar to getting tanned skin in a sunnier climate.

“This one is even stranger. A mother brought in her baby, who she thinks is growing a tail.”

“A tail?”

She nodded. “It’s just a nub but she swears it didn’t used to be there. I believe her.”

“How many people do we have here now?” I asked. Sabrina had been on the front lines since we left to go to New York. It didn’t matter what time I came here, she was already here before me, helping someone. She saw every person that walked through those doors and was a habitual note keeper.

“My last count was three thousand humans, give or take a hundred.”

“And are those the only two cases so far?”

“That I know of.” The way she said it implied she suspected more.

“Still, it’s not even one percent of the population. I don’t think we should worry anyone, just yet.” Anyone meaning Cormac. I knew that was why she had told me. Neither of us spoke his name because then it would be an actual decision not to tell him. This way, it was just a passing conversation.

“Cormac seems to be running a little hot since you guys came back.”

“That’s a nice way of putting it,” I told her and cemented our decision to not go directly to him with her concerns. “I’ve got some things to handle. Call me on the funny phone if you need me.” The funny phones that ran signals through the towers Cormac had erected were the only communications left. Satellite was gone, cable gone…everything…just gone.

“You should get some sleep,” she said.

“Yeah and so should you,” I said with a smile; for some reason, I found it funny at that moment that neither of us would probably see a bed anytime soon. “I need to go check out the gasoline supplies. Figure out how much longer we get to keep our electricity for.” I walked to the door and held it open as she joined me, walking out to fetch another human patient.

“Sounds like a plan.” She straightened the stethoscope hanging around her neck as she walked past me. “I’m going to go stitch up a couple more bodies.”

I watched Sabrina gather up another ravaged refugee before I headed off to the garages where the generators were housed.

I didn’t like to linger on the main floor, where the humans hung out, for too long but I was detoured when a loud clap of thunder drew my attention outside. Dark stood at the main entranceway, where he was stationed. Cormac had posted men at every door, but not to keep anyone in, this time it was to keep things out. 

Dark was our resident wolf adoptee who, after helping The Keepers, was persona non grata among his own. Dodd had taken him under his wing and even given him his spare bedroom. Good thing too, because it was a packed house these days.

“How long has it been doing this?” I asked as I watched softball size hail inflict even more damage to an already wrecked city.

“About an hour or so,” he said, and  flipped his almost feminine blond locks out of his left eye and absently petted the real wolf, Abby, who sat by his feet.

“You feel okay?” I asked, noticing his slightly flushed skin.

“I think I just ate something off. I’m fine.”

I knew a brush off when I heard one and I let the subject drop. I’d heard rumors that the wolves were having a hard time holding their form, lately. Whatever it was, it was putting a serious strain on his system.

I rested my forearm on the glass of the door and I leaned in, trying to get the best view of the area outside. The strange large cracks that ran up and around the building really looked like a moat now as they filled with water. I couldn’t remember the last time Vegas had seen so much rain. For a city that normally got a little over four inches annually, we’d already met our quota for the next twenty years.

“Any sign of rippers?” I asked, knowing Dark would already be familiar with the new slang.

“No sign of anything.”

“It’ll be dark out, soon,” I said as I watched the sky become tinged with purple.

Dark nodded. “The night crew will be on soon. Cormac upped the count to five per entrance.”

There had been a few sightings of rippers in daylight, but they were overwhelmingly nocturnal creatures. Maybe they hid somewhere until nighttime, like some sort of demented vampire breed. A schedule had been set up for watches and there was always someone on during the day anyway, just in case a random one showed up on the horizon.

“You know, this isn’t your fault,” he said after a few minutes of silence had passed.

“Yeah, I know.” And that was my cue to go. I wasn’t ready for a conversation on how much of this was my responsibility. I tried to smile like I meant it as I pushed off the door, leaving Dark to finish his watch shift.

The casino was huge and it took me about ten minutes to get to the area that housed the generators and gasoline supplies. Pat, one of the engineers on permanent staff, was already there, going over the monster machines. I’d met him several times when he had been working on fixing up the portal room, after my oopsy moments. He was Keeper-born, but a dud; what they call Keepers that don’t have any abilities. I was pretty sure it was a name no one used openly, kind of how they only called me the plague behind my back.

“How long before lights out?” I asked as I looked at the line of gasoline containers. They looked impressive until you realized how much juice these things burned.

“At our current rate of consumption, I’d give us another week, tops,” Pat said, his face showing concern.

“We need the scouting party to go further out to collect gas.” All the electricity had died sometime around the time the New York tear was closed. We weren’t sure if it had been the severe storms it that had kicked up at that moment, or something about the Magic that affected it, but The Lacard power had been running off a generator ever since.

Scouting parties went out during the day to retrieve any supplies they could find, but there was a limit to how far they could go and still make it back before nightfall, when the rippers came out in force.

“Even if they find some more, it’ll fix us for a while…but then what?” Pat dropped to his haunches as he tinkered with something on one of the larger generators.

He was right. The oil fields were abandoned. Refineries? Abandoned. Whatever existed now was all there would be for the foreseeable future. I’d never thought about it before, but civilization needed a certain amount of man power to keep everything running. Even if we managed to eliminate the ripper problem, we still didn’t have enough bodies to drill for oil, mine for coal, man the power plants and refineries, farm food or do most of the things needed to continue the life we had taken for granted. 

“Then we figure something else out,” I said with much more confidence than I felt. “We do whatever we have to.”