Deleted Scenes

This scene originally came before Will and Audra's dinner date, but I cut it, substituting the battle with fewer characters, in the interests of moving the story along:


Will paced through around the dig site one more time, checking. Ghouls lacked the ability to scry, and the magic here would block such efforts by the mage traitor working with them.

Griff knelt atop the mound, his shotgun slung over his shoulder, to watch the water on the approach to the pier. Most firearms killed a ghoul’s body but not its energy, which nearby ghouls then absorbed, making them stronger. Griff’s shotgun, however, was mage-crafted, rare because ghouls targeted mage gunsmiths, and lethal.

His voice low, Griff said, “We’re ready. Don’t overthink, bro.”

“Yeah, I know.” Because sound carried over water, Will kept his voice down, too.

Across the path, between the temporary pier and the tent, petite, brunette Lorelei Martin waited. Once Will made his rounds, he would join her there. If the ghouls came in via the pier, he and she would be the gate closing behind them. Lorelei’s crossbow and his gladius would cut off any retreat.

The slash pines, saw palmettos, and titi, a thorny shrub with narrow, autumn-reddened leaves, made any other approach unlikely. If the ghouls decided to blast their way through all of that, the mages would hear them coming. Besides, ghouls always glommed onto the path of least resistance.

By the edge of the dig site, Stefan stood, his naked broadsword in his hand, behind a clump of saw palmetto. Next to him, the Southeast Shire Reeve, Deke Jones, held an unsheathed scimitar. Will strolled over to them.

A grin split Deke’s dark face. “I’ve seen the reports on the ‘mysteriously destroyed’ ghoul nests for the last six years. This team kicks serious butt. I’m looking forward to seeing it in action.”

No one had known there was a team until the traitorous Council head, Gene Blake, had challenged Griff to trial by combat. Because Griff’s powers had been stolen by ghouls after Blake delivered him to them, the challenge had raised sheer outrage, not to mention fear for him, in every member of the team. They’d all rushed from the spectator seats at the trial down to the judgment floor to stand at Griff’s side.

“Me, too.” Will nodded. “I’ve missed it. But Stefan, you could’ve waited in the helo. Considering that one of us can take three of them. They’re unlikely bring as many as were in some of the nests we took out.”

Griff’s covert team had been limited to the handful of mages who didn’t think he was a murderer and a traitor. It was good to have his name clear at last.

Stefan grinned. “Been too long since I kicked some ass. Besides, without me, who’s going to save you if some ghoul guts you or a traitor sneaks up behind you?”

“The better question,” Will told him, “is who’ll be saving you if you’re that out of practice.”

“I never said I was out of practice.” With a smirk, Stefan added, “Watch your own ass, Dr. Librarian.”

Will smiled. “Too bad I don’t have time right now to make you eat those words.”

“Whenever and wherever.” Stefan raised his sword in salute.

Grinning, Will turned away. A few feet from Stefan, another clump concealed Javy Ruiz. The slight, dark-haired Hispanic accountant’s mild appearance always led opponents to underestimate his blade skills. Their mistake, a fatal one. Beside him stood Tasha, her saber still sheathed at her hip.

To Griff’s left, also in a thicket that concealed them from anyone on the water, Carter waited with Chuck Porter, a former NFL star who ran a security agency in Athens, Georgia, and coached college football part-time. In his forties, Chuck might not be able to hang in on the gridiron anymore, but he was a menace with a hand-and-a-half sword in his hand.

That brought Will back to the mound, where Val waited, broadsword in hand, behind Griff. When the action started, she would share her magical shielding with him.

She no longer wore the cheerful, welcoming expression of a happy cook. Now her hazel eyes had gone cold green, and her stony face belonged to the shire reeve she’d once been.

Will took his place across the path from them with Lorelei. He’d uncovered the trenches and scattered tools around so the site would appear to have someone working there. With luck, the ghouls would assume the archaeologists were in the tent.

He’d also reminded everyone they might need extra power to kill these particular ghouls.

Now we wait.

Until someone spotted or sensed something, they didn’t need to go into full battle mode. They were more like at yellow alert, but they would stay in their places so no stray sound of vegetation or footsteps betrayed them.

Minutes ticked by, then an hour. Come on, Will thought. Step into my parlor.

The ghouls would probably wait until late afternoon, though. They were stronger at night than in the daytime. But the dig team usually left well before dark, per refuge regulations. So the ghouls would have to come at less than full strength.

His mind drifted back to Audra. She’d seen them off this morning, dispensing coffee along with sandwiches she’d gotten up even earlier to make. Despite the evil little jerkwad in her head, he couldn’t believe some guy hadn’t realized what an asset she could be. To a guy who wanted to get married, of course.

She was smart, beautiful in the classic sense with that soft hair, eyes that were bottomless wells of brown, and those sweet curves, and she was a thoughtful, strong person. Stronger than she knew. So why the hell hadn’t some guy looking for forever glommed onto her?

Yeah, she had reservations because of her trespasser, but she was friendly to everyone anyway. Friendliness was a foot in the door.

Some guys were just idiots.

Griff flattened on the top of the mound and peered through the binoculars he carried because he could no longer extend his senses. For the rest of the group, minimal personal shielding would deter the chiggers, ticks, and other small, inhospitable residents of the swamp. But Griff had only his camos, which Val had bespelled to not only reflect his surroundings but repel tiny critters.

“Will,” Griff said softly.

Will scrambled up the mound to take the binoculars Griff held out to him.

“Look straight out from the pier. Then pan to your left,” Griff instructed him.

Silently, Will complied. The black water looked smooth, undisturbed...but not reflecting the blue sky or the gray-edged clouds overhead. Panning left, about thirty yards out from that non-reflective patch, a series of fading ripples broke the water’s smooth surface.

“That’s a boat wake,” Will murmured. “Rippling out from an imperfect screen.”

His eyes met Griff’s in shared triumph. For good measure, Will looked again, panning right. Standing cypress trees broke up the wake zone, but Will had seen enough. He screened himself and jumped to the ground.

Atop the mound, Griff pushed up far enough to bring the shotgun around front, then flattened himself again. The weapon had been magically treated to muffle the sounds of the shots. It wouldn’t do to have rangers from Stephen C. Foster State Park or the wildlife refuge hear them and come investigate.

“They’re coming,” Will told Val.

Screening himself magically, he strode to his place by Lorelei. Val’s voice passing the word to Chuck was as quiet as the wind through the branches. Chuck would tell Javy, and Will signaled to Stefan and Deke.


With a thunk, something bumped the dock. Through the trees, Will caught a sideways shift by the team’s boats. Something was pulling up beside them.

He tightened his grip on his gladius. Adrenaline hummed in his blood, and his mind settled into the cold calculation that carried him through a battle.

“You don’t need to screen, dickhead,” a rough, female voice grumbled quietly. “Nobody can scry this island.”

“Shut it, bitch,” a male’s deeper tones snapped. Heavy footsteps tromped over the dock’s planks.

Will’s eyes met Lorelei’s amused, blue ones. So much for sneaking up on the camp.

The soft thud of footsteps on dirt and the crunch of fallen pine needles reached them now. The ghouls must’ve dropped their screen.

Will stared at hard at Griff. When his friend looked over, Will held up five fingers, then flashed them for ten and raised his eyebrows.

Griff held up a hand in a wait gesture. His eyes narrowed. A moment later, he flashed five, the same again, and then three.

Thirteen, Will thought, nodding acknowledgement. Good odds for us, then.

He raised his blade, signaling everyone to screen, with Val covering Griff. Now the campsite looked deserted. Will and Lorelei merged their screens so they could see each other. The other pairs would do the same.

He and Lorelei were off the path but close to it. They had to wait until the ghouls were all the way into the dig site. Otherwise, the team would have to pursue them back down the narrow path.

The lead ghoul, a scrawny female with tangled, brown hair that needed an introduction to shampoo led the group in, talons extended. The reek of ammonia stung Will’s nose. Behind her came a burly male with a green Mohawk.

A gaggle of males and three females with various builds and coloring--and various stages of hygiene, as usual for ghouls--followed. This close, the muddy brown in all of their eyes where white should’ve been was obvious.

Guess we can’t wait until we see the whites of their eyes, Will decided, grinning slightly as the advice of the American commander at Bunker Hill popped into his head.

The ghouls wouldn’t be able to see the dig site until they were around the mound. Atop it, Griff would be shifting silently to bring his shotgun to bear. With or without powers, the guy moved like a ghost, which was handy now.

Grumbling about no one coming to see who had landed, the ghouls stalked around the mound. When the last one rounded the curve, Will and Lorelei silently closed the gap.

Will’s heart hammered. Everyone was waiting for his signal.

“What? Where are they?” a female demanded.

“The tools are out,” a male said. “Maybe they went in that tent.”

“Or not,” Will said, stepping into a slice at the rearmost male as he and Lorelei dropped their screens to raise their magical shielding.

His sword cut the ghoul’s hamstrings. Above them, Griff’s shotgun gave out a faint, muffled version of its usual boom, and the male in the front stiffened, his body arching. Then he fell.

Will stabbed the ghoul he’d attacked and snapped, “Morere,” the command to die. It let him use less raw power than he would otherwise need. Raw instinct had him duck as another ghoul, a burly female, blasted muddy golden magic at him.

Lorelei’s crossbow quarrel shot past his shoulder but bounced off the ghoul’s shielding. With a roar, the female lunged at her. A blast of muddy yellow ghoul magic sizzled through the air in front of Will, cutting him off from her.

Around the clearing, ghouls and mages clashed.

Will ducked, and then a big male lunged for him. He ducked again, pulled power from all the life around, and roared, “Morere!

This time, his blade penetrated the ghoul’s shield, even stabbed it, but not lethally. The ghoul slashed at him with its talons, but his reinforced shield deflected the strike. The movement carried the ghoul’s upper body around to its left. Drawing power again, Will stabbed at its unprotected side and muttered, “Morere.”

The sword bit deeply. Will fed power into the fatal command, and the ghoul’s eyes dimmed.

A blast of ghoul magic knocked him on his side, wrenching his blade out of the dead ghoul, but didn’t pierce his shield. Will rolled onto his back and channeled power through his sword. The blue stream of his magic and the lethal round from Griff’s shotgun hit the female at the same time.

Straightening, he realized the clearing was quiet. He and his friends had taken care of the entire group in a couple of minutes.

“Any of them left alive?” Griff asked.

Stefan glanced around. “Maybe one of the ones you shot. Anybody manage to kill one magically without using Morere?” No one spoke up. Wiping his sweaty face on his sleeve, Stefan said, “Yeah, I figured. Put enough power behind it, and it kills instantly.”

“As it should,” Val pointed out as Deke moved to check a bleeding ghoul. She glanced up at Griff. “Shotgun worked out pretty well.”

“Yeah.” He shrugged.

“This was the first test?” Will asked.

Griff nodded. Val was looking at him with a tiny furrow between her brows, but he seemed oblivious. Will made a mental note to follow up with her later.

“Got one,” Deke said, his voice grim.

Will said, “Lorelei, Javy, keep a lookout.” The others formed a loose semicircle, Tasha and Carter separated by Val, Griff, and Chuck.

Clapping Stefan on the shoulder, Will said, “Take a walk, bro.” Stefan was a born healer, and he saw the Hippocratic Oath as comprehensive. If he touched an injured creature, ghoul, human, or whatever, he felt a duty to save it if he could.

But saving a ghoul was like saving the copperhead that lived in your yard. Sooner or later, you were going to have to kill it anyway.

Stefan walked toward the water, his face grim.

Will dropped down by Deke at the dying ghoul’s side. “What are you here?” he demanded.

The ghoul sneered at him “Heal...me,” it panted. “Maybe I...say.”

“I can make your death easier,” Deke said. His set face showed his dislike of the situation. “If you tell us.”

Will’s heart softened in sympathy for his friend.

“What are you looking for?” Will demanded.

“Key.” The ghoul’s eyes rolled up in its head. “Portal.”

“What key?” Will prodded.

The ghoul bared its teeth in a sharkish smile. “Victory.”

“What kind of victory?” Will demanded. “You have to say if you want an easier death.”

The ghoul swallowed, and Will felt a tiny twinge of pity. Its death was necessary, but drawing it out went against the grain.

“Open...portal,” it grunted. “Find...pieces...of gate.”

Stunned, Will barely noticed Deke laying his glowing hands on the ghoul’s chest, presumably deadening its pain.

Pieces of a gate? Maybe the glowing space Audra had seen in that vision?

He turned back to the ghoul. “Was there a battle here?”

Again, it smiled. “Demons came, at last. Fought...mages. Many...different mages.”

It gave a choking wheeze. Its eyes rolled upward, and Deke carefully closed them.

Different mages, lots of them? That could explain the variety of weapons. And the glow.

“Will?” Val had her hand on her shoulder radio. It was useless with magic flying around but should work now. “Shall I call Josh for cleanup?”

“Yeah. Then we all need to talk.”