For posterity: my first attempt at Deviant Magic 5

Note: This is an unused chapter from the manuscript that eventually morphed into Vengeance Squad. It is not canon. It is here purely for funsies, and as an additional point of discussion for a post on my Substack. Enjoy!

The elevator dinged as Cade swiped his badge across the raised sensor. It dinged again as he punched the button for the penthouse level, smearing a streak of blood across the gold panel. He willed himself to remain standing until the doors eased themselves shut, then promptly stumbled sideways and collapsed against the mirrored wall.

“This fucking thing,” he grunted, fingering the hockey puck-shaped device in his coat pocket, “had better be fucking worth it.”

He knew it was. He’d seen it in action, and he understood the effect it could have on…well, everything. Hopefully his superiors would recognize the same.

His reflection in the mirrored wall caught his eye. The two Cades shared a laugh at each other’s appearance. Both of his eyes were black and puffy. Blood oozed out of his left nostril to soak his goatee. The furry brown overcoat he’d grabbed out of a dumpster was at least two sizes too small and the tuxedo he wore underneath looked like it had been used to mop the floor of a barn. If he’d shown up at home looking like that, James would’ve slammed the door shut in his face and called the cops.

The elevator cruised to a gentle stop less than halfway to Cade’s requested destination. The prim young woman who’d summoned it gaped at him in shock from the hallway, clutching a stack of overstuffed manila folders to her chest as if they might somehow protect her.

“Abby, right?” Cade said with what he hoped was a friendly smile.

She gasped, then nodded furtively.

“Good,” Cade replied, pleased that the beatings hadn’t ruined his famous ability to remember names. He’d first met Abby at last year’s Christmas party. They’d spoken for maybe five minutes, mostly about her doodle, Teddie. He’d left the encounter convinced she wasn’t going to last six months with the company. Too nice for Tallisker, he’d thought. He’d blown that assessment.

“Should I…get someone?” she asked.

“Nah.” Shaking his head made his jaw hurt. “I’m late for a meeting. Should’ve been there eight days ago.”

The signalled its impending departure with another ding. Abby rocked back on her heels and shrugged. Cade watched the steel doors shut between them, worried he should’ve ended their conversation with something more profound than a sassy quip about his ruined schedule. Truly terrible last words, if it came to that.

He shifted his weight as the elevator began moving again, groaning at the pain in his chest  and his thigh. He’d had his ass kicked before, but the punishment those elves had doled out was exponentially worse than what those bigoted frat boys had done to him outside of the Highball five years ago. This pain brought with it an odd sense of accomplishment. Yeah, the pointy-eared bastards had cracked his ribs, knocked out a few of his teeth, and possibly ruined his golf swing forever, but he’d withstood their worst and escaped with evidence of their most important secret.

He realized then that his blood was pooling in his ass crack and all sense of dignity or accomplishment abandoned him like a bad one night stand.

The elevator refused to speed up regardless of how he begged, pleaded, or swore at it. The contraption’s speed–or lack thereof–had been set with its riders’ safety in mind, a fact frustratingly ironic for a passenger worried he’d bleed out if the damn thing wouldn’t move its ass.

Ding! went the bell as it passed another floor, reminding Cade he was still alive. Ding! Ding! Ding!

“If I make it through this,” he croaked, “I’m taking the stairs from now on.” Which were also really shitty last words, he realized a ding! later.

Arrival at the penthouse level was announced not with the familiar tone but with the recorded blaring of regal trumpets. Cade responded with his customary eyeroll. He coughed up a mouthful of blood and spat it onto the starburst logo engraved in the marble floor, feeling oddly pleased with the mess he’d made.

Belinda Markstrom glared at him through the open doors from her big marble desk in the center of the reception area. “They’ve been looking for you,” she snapped.

“Well,” Cade said as he moved to a kneeling position and readied himself to try to stand. He hoped the damn doors wouldn’t shut on him before he could manage it. “Here I am.”

“There you are. What’s left of you, anyway,” she said mockingly, drumming her bright pink nails against the side of her widescreen monitor. “You didn’t give whoever snatched you any information, did you? Because that would be against company policy.”

Anger fueled the wobbly muscles that forced Cade back to his feet. “Just your home address, date of birth, phone number…”

The tight blond bun atop her narrow skull didn’t move a millimeter as she shook her head. “Too bad they didn’t take your tongue.”

He stumbled through the doors, lost his balance, and pirouetted into the wall beside the elevator. “I take it the board’s in session.”

“If you can still call it that, yes. Demson and his crew never made it back from Evitankari.”

“Jesus,” he gasped. Shit was falling apart even quicker than he’d worried it would. The chaos wrought as the next rung down the corporate ladder jockeyed to fill those open seats would surely paralyze the company. Cade looked down at the sunburst logo wrought in shimmering gold in the face of Belinda’s desk and once again saw his own reflection, beaten and bloodied. Apropos. He narrowly bit back a laugh.

“I take it you didn’t return to us empty handed,” Belinda said conspiratorially, smacking her plasticy pink lips.

“Maybe I did,” Cade replied, taking what he hoped looked like a few confident steps forward and ignoring the urge to cover his pocket and protect the device inside. “Maybe I didn’t and I’m hoping Marafuji will end me quickly.”

Belinda smiled like a predatory cat about to pounce. “I’ll give you five hundred thousand right now for whatever you’ve got.”

“It’d take a hell of a lot more than that,” Cade replied, stalling while he worked out a means of deflecting her permanently.

One of Belinda’s dark green tentacles snaked up out of her skirt to adjust her thick glasses. “Typical greedy human,” she snarled. “I could just snap your neck, take it, and throw your corpse out a window.”

“Then you’d be the one hoping Marafuji ends it quickly.” Dropping his mentor’s name would only get him so far. Belinda’s threat of violence had given him an idea, however. He reached into his pocket and ran his fingers across the device inside. “This thing’s been dropping our towers. Pretty sure it’d turn you into calamari.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You wouldn’t. Not in here.”

“What other choice would I have? If I don’t walk out of here, neither do any of you. Hands where I can see them, Belinda. All of ‘em.”

Seven more tentacles shot up into the air. “You drive a hard bargain. Marafuji would be proud.”

Cade forced a smile as he dragged himself past Belinda’s desk, giving her a wide berth. “See you at the staff retreat next week?”

“If any of us live to see it,” she scoffed. “You know you’re dripping all over the floor?”

Cade glance back at the trail of red droplets leading back to the elevator bank. “I sort of figured.”

“I’ll call janitorial.”


He continued toward the ominous double doors, hesitant to turn his back on Belinda but not really having a choice. He didn’t have enough energy to both force himself forward and keep an eye out for an ambush. The sound of the receptionist’s nails clacking out janitorial’s extension made him relax, but only slightly. “Hey Ron. We’ve got a bleeder up here. Yeah, I know we aren’t running a fucking emergency ward.”

Cade was out of breath when he reached the entrance to the boardroom. Decorum dictated that he wait for the executives inside to buzz him in, but the blood pooling in his left shoe said decorum could fuck right off. He leaned heavily on the big gold lever and shouldered one of the doors open.

“…I am the rightful monarch of Talvayne and you shitlicking demon scumbags will negotiate directly with me!” a woman’s voice declared through the room’s top-of-the-line surround sound system. That voice belonged to a beautiful young woman with blue skin glowering at the world from a projector screen on the far wall. A gauzy white dress hung lightly from her bony shoulders. In lieu of a crown, she wore a slender gold choker with Talvayne’s simple flower insignia carved in obsidian. Something about her bearing reminded Cade of both Kate Middleton and that raunchy drag queen he and James saw perform last summer. He loved her immediately.

“Our charters explicitly state that we deal with the king,” Marafuji replied calmly from his seat on the left side of the table. The short, slender Asian man had opted not to mask his horrible claws for whatever this meeting was, and they rested heavily upon the sleek tabletop like a pair of atomic bombs waiting to explode. His trademark black turtleneck and gray sportcoat were as crisp and clean as ever. Despite his disfigurement, he looked ready to hit the stage in front of a few thousand rabid fanboys and media influencers to calmly announce his smartphone’s newest and most useless features.

The woman–Talvayne’s new queen, Cade surmised, and a water nymph like her famously rotund father–scrunched up her face like someone had just vomited on her thousand dollar shoes. “Fine.” The gills in her neck fluttered in agitation.

The speakers crackled and the view jiggled as she picked up the camera. Cade took the opportunity to case the boardroom. He’d never seen it so empty, or so disheveled. Takeout containers, some still packed with food, covered the twenty-foot table in the center of the room like the aftermath of some greasy avalanche. Marafuji remained as stoic as ever, but the bags under his eyes and the slouch in his shoulders betrayed his exhaustion. Across the table, the blocky Chief Financial Officer, Hans Turkel, had shucked his tie and his shoes and unbuttoned his slacks. Whatever hellish appendages lurked under Executive Vice President Cindy Starling’s infamous fur coat hung uncomfortably limp in her lap. Tallisker was under siege–and the frightening braintrust that usually kept the ship sailing straight and true had been decimated.

Cade made a mental note to update his resume if he made it home. He cleared his throat, but the sound was drowned out by fresh activity onscreen.

“Here he is, in all his regal glory!” the queen declared as she set the camera down on a coffee table. The king–a bald elf in sweatpants and a Def Leppard t-shirt–was out cold on his side on a plush leather couch. A thin thread of hardened drool crusted his chin. Empty beer cans littered the scene.

“You have a call, Your Highness!” the queen crowed.

The king farted, smiled, and muttered “You do it. My Royal Majesty is busy.”

The view shifted again as the queen snatched up the camera and looked into its lens. She appeared ready to launch into some new tirade, but then her gaze locked onto Cade. “Rot, what happened to that poor slob?”

The demons at the table turned to look. Cade managed a weak nod in greeting. Marafuji punched a button in the console in the center of the table to kill the video call, then tapped the screen on his smart watch. “Send a healer to the boardroom,” he told whichever assistant he’d contacted. His voice cracked ever so slightly. “Now.”

“This had better be good,” Cindy Starling snarled in her deep, gravelly baritone.

Marafuji scampered to Cade’s side and guided his young protege to the closest chair. His hideous hands were surprisingly gentle and reassuring. “Help’s on the way, son.”

Cade smiled his thanks and fished the device he’d stolen out of his pocket. “You need to see this.” He set it down gingerly on the table, worried it would somehow break right then and there after all he’d gone through delivering it.

“Thank you for bringing us the world’s fanciest hockey puck,” Turkel growled.

Cade’s chuckle sent a jolt of pain up his side. The blunt German had a point. Round and squat and smooth, the precious device Cade had smuggled away from his captors looked for all the world like a neon green puck. But it did have one important feature that’d keep it from winding up on the bottom of some kid’s gym bag anytime soon.

“Hey, Talora.”

The device emitted a friendly beep and a hologram of an attractive woman in a modest dressed appeared in the air directly above it. “Hello,” she said with a smile. “How may I be of assistance?”

“What the fuck?” Cindy Starling snarled, her jaw slack and her eyes wide.

“Why is the new Pintiri’s wife living in that coaster?” Turkel asked.

“Talora,” Cade said, “tell us about Crim.”

The projection shuffled her feet, slumped her shoulders, and looked down at the tabletop. “Crim and I have been team leads on the Serat Project for ten years now. We’ve been lovers for the last five. He’s…nice. I mean, I know he’s done some bad things, but he’s so good to me–and I think maybe his heart’s in the right place, although he’d never admit it. I know he thinks it’s past time for Tallisker to change its ways.”

Marafuji leaned toward Cade ominously. “Where exactly did you get this?”