Background and Setup for this story
This Urban Fantasy tidbit is set in a future where Earth has survived climate shifts, pandemics, global changes, and the introduction of strange human evolutions, which the residents think of as being magical. People shift into animals, for instance. My main character, Hebe, is a Magic Ripper, which is also my working title. She has the power to “rip” the magic away and works for a faction of humanity that monitors evolution and sees to it that no one has more advantage than others have. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Hebe has to wear gloves around others to keep from accidentally removing their powers. Her parents are dead. Her sister hates her to the point of seeking her death. She’s also a widow.
I’ve not gone far with this story and I may not go further, but it was a fun way to begin. This small piece does capture the tone of the kind of Urban Fantasy I will be writing so I’m hoping it will help you decide whether or not you want to get ARCs of these books.
WARNING: This sample has not been edited. It is also in a first-person POV, which is what I found most Urban Fantasy was written in. I’m still working on getting good at it.
There was a fine and nearly invisible line between her and her team hunting the shifter, and the shifter roaming New Covington’s largest city park at night. If he’d found somewhere less public to indulge his inner beast, what she and team planned to do to him might not have been necessary.
“This is a good example of where hesitation can get you killed, or at the very least, cost you a takedown. You can’t let him shift into his beast form,” I instructed before I stopped and took aim.
Many, many years ago I’d nearly gotten gored by one of his kind because I’d hesitated to shoot someone who was still in his human form. And to make matters worse, I’d missed. It was a hard lesson learned for me and a mistake I was determined that no one I trained would ever make.
The bio-dart sang out its success when it hit and delivered. The guy fell forward and did not get back up.
When we got close enough to see him clearly, even in the dark, I looked at my trainees while I pointed to the ground with a gloved hand. “Identify his animal.”
I hadn’t told them what the guy was. Subduing the man in his human form was an easy takedown. One small dart delivered by my energy weapon did the trick. If he’d been in his animal form, though, it would have taken all three of us, and we would have emptied our weapons before slowing him enough to stop him from rampaging. We’d have had to call for backup to get him completely. Not many shifters took on an animal form as large as this guy’s. They usually chose one they could move around their city apartments in.
My female trainee leaned over and studied the unconscious male. “He’s some sort of exotic cat. His hands and feet are abnormally large for his human form.”
Her name was Cindra. She was twenty-two and hadn’t seen a lot yet, so I’d expected her to get it wrong. I didn’t take her out to all the jobs I got assigned to because she didn’t use her head enough to survive the tougher ones. It might be years before I had Cindra even a third of the way through her training. No one else wanted her because she didn’t respect her talents. I took her because of the commonality in our backgrounds.
Cindra’s parents had gone shifter rogue when she was in her mid-teens. She’d instinctually ripped her parents as a teenager and done what I had accidentally done to my family as a toddler. The end result was the same, but the consequences were different these days. If you ripped your family members now, you came to live at the agency until you learned how not to rip everyone around you. If your family wanted the move to be permanent, then you stayed there until adulthood and were counseled to forget your biological kin.
“He’s not a cat,” my newest trainee said quietly, as he knelt and held a hand over the man’s body. Being more experienced, Dane was trying to get an energy reading to back up his guess.
Older than all the rippers I usually trained, Dane was twenty-nine to my thirty-five. He’d been late coming into his talents and they’d put Dane with another master ripper when he was twenty-six. As he quickly progressed through his training, my colleague found Dane’s penchant for being right to be personally threatening.
Dane was calm-natured and an effective ripper. He didn’t have to wear gloves like I did, at least not yet, so I didn’t have the same level of concern about him. I had to rip trainees before, and I’d do it again if I needed to, but when I looked at Dane all I saw was potential. He had the skills to be a Master Ripper and I intended to turn him into one. We needed more like Dane who thought things through before acting. I did hope to speed up his thinking because five minutes had passed and I was still waiting for Dane’s best guess.
Finally, Dane pointed to the man’s feet. “There’s evidence of abnormal bone enlargement in his wrists and ankles. These indicate his animal form is much larger than even the largest cat. He also has an odd-shaped nose.”
Cindra bent closer. “Where? Oh yeah, I see that now. Guess that means he would be much bigger than a jungle cat when shifted.”
Cindra looked up at Dane instead of me, but I wasn’t offended. I liked that Dane commanded that level of respect from younger trainees. And so far, I hadn’t seen him taking advantage of that kind of admiration from female trainees—or male ones, for that matter.
“He’s much bigger than a jungle cat,” Dane said as he continued to study the guy.
Cindra straightened and shook her head. “Him being bigger than a jungle cat makes no sense to me. How can an average-sized human body like his expand to create a large animal form?”
Dane shrugged back. “Whatever allows it to happen, I’m sure this man shifts into something enormous. If he turns into an elephant, he’d be shifting during the day because people tend to love elephants, despite their size. If he turns into a hippo, he’d have been causing trouble in every lake and pond around the city instead of racing through a big open park at night. Given he was wandering through a large grassy field, his beast must need a lot of room to run.”
Dane met my gaze in the dark. I lifted an eyebrow while I waited.
“My best guess is he shifts into a rhino,” he said.
Cindra laughed at Dane’s pronouncement. Then she finally looked at me too. “That can’t be right,” she said to me with a grin. “Tell him, Hebe.”
The grin fell off her mouth when I didn’t grin back. “Dane is right, Cindra. If we hadn’t knocked this man out in his human form, we’d have had to call for backup to take down his beast.”
I walked over and knelt by the man. Cindra moved away and went to stand next to Dane.
I took off one glove and put only the tips of my fingers on his back. Both my trainees were somber as they heard him moan in rebellion. His mind was unconscious, but his body knew what was happening. Experienced rippers felt a kind of euphoria when draining someone’s magic. I kept my head bowed as I acknowledged the rush I got from drawing off his power. Like I always did, I reminded myself that this man wasn’t guilty of anything but bowing to Mother Nature’s new plan for him. I found a mental lecture to be a necessary part of my job.
The three of us watched closely as his ankles and wrists shrank back to normal. His nose changed as well. By the time I lifted my fingers from him, our target looked like a different human.
“Why didn’t you take his shifting completely away? Wouldn’t that prevent future problems?” Cindra asked.
Dane stared hard at her. “Being a shifter is not an abnormality these days. Hebe limited the man’s shifting instead of removing his ability to change forms.”
Cindra rolled her eyes. “I bet we end up chasing the same people a lot.”
“Not as much as you might think,” Dane said with conviction as he stared at Cindra. “Master Hebe reset his DNA possibilities. His body will be forced to choose something else now if he still wants to shift. It will slow him and reset his shifting to something less threatening to others.”
“Keep in mind that this man was only a perceived threat because of his unusual size, not an actual threat who’d hurt people already,” I reminded Cindra as I tugged my glove back on. “When I started with the agency, we used to rip all shifting magic away from a person. That drastic measure led to early deaths and often madness before people took their own lives. Now we leave what we safely can. You will be required to learn this level of ripping control, Cindra. Over-zealous rippers get ripped for not using restraint.”
Her somber nod answered my lecture.
No one knew how magic became a disease of the modern age. Some blamed it on the extra moon that drifted into Earth’s orbit centuries ago and stayed. Some blamed it on the AIO serum that made human DNA impervious to all known human illnesses at the time of its creation. Some blamed it on a combination of both. Whatever caused magic to infect all of humanity, everyone agreed that agencies like ours who controlled people’s baser instincts were necessary.
I was one of the first children born on Earth to those who’d taken the AIO serum during a now nearly forgotten pandemic. My parents had lived a few decades on an electromagnetic planet full of strange tides and geographical shifts. They gave me another dose of the serum right after my birth for reasons I’m sure at the time made sense to them and others like them. Many of the babies who got a second injection died. It might have better for my parents if that had been my fate.
By the age of two, I could shift into every animal I saw and I kept running away from my parents to go catch my own dinner.
At age three, I grew fangs and randomly killed things for their blood, if I wasn’t watched closely.
By age four, my hand chakras opened, and I started ripping magic from whomever I touched. My parents were my first two victims. My older sister by four years was the next. To this day, Sonora still hated me for what I’d done to her. Her magic had made her a lynx. Even though she was only eight when I ripped her, apparently, Sonora had really liked being a big cat. She was completely human now and unmagical, but that didn’t stop her from trying to kill me.
She’d gotten the second dose of AIO serum just as I did, but it had proved no match for my ripper skills. Discrepancies in a common gene pool continued to baffle scientists.
No one could explain the sudden appearance of rippers in humanity’s evolutionary chain, but everyone agreed it was nature finding a balance. My parents said they were relieved to be free of their magical burdens, but they both died during a plague pandemic within days of each other when I was ten and Sonora was fourteen. Lack of ability to heal became the downside of me ripping away the power of the AIO serum. Their human immune systems hadn’t been up for a fierce pandemic fight. No one knew how Sonora had even managed to survive.
Though the two of us are all we have left of our family unit, my sister keeps her distance unless she’s found new torture or come up with assassin money to try and kill me again. Sonora once told me that she went into science for the sole purpose of gaining back what I’d taken from her.
Thirty years of her studies proved only one thing though. Human DNA had a magic off switch and every ripper could flip it. The extra moon didn’t prevent rippers from doing their erasing thing. The AIO serum inoculated the recipient against all diseases and also itself. Once ripped from a person, magic couldn’t get back in and the AIO serum no longer worked to help a human.
Scientists worked for years to find something to reduce the less wanted effects of the AIO serum. As often happens on our planet, nature had found a balance without human help.
Once I thought ripping magic was a holy calling. Now I saw that removing magic completely only delayed human evolution.
Would Sonora have hated me if I hadn’t ripped her magic? This was one of the biggest, unanswered questions of my life, right under whether or not I was going to have to wear gloves 24/7 for the rest of my life. I was a five-year widow and boyfriends with glove fetishes weren’t all that easy to find.
I stood up and sighed. “He’ll be fine now and so will the people who contacted us. Let’s go home.”
The three of us quietly retraced our steps across the park where our agency-assigned driver waited. This was my third large shifter rip in the last two weeks. Normally, I only saw these once or twice a year. The increase had me a little worried, but so far none of them had become a serious problem.
Paperwork tied me up for an extra hour and it was after midnight when I put my hand on the security panel outside my home. I smiled as the double-seal door swished open almost silently. Rippers at my level earned a decent paycheck, but not the kind that paid for this amazing place. Coming home still caused shock and awe in me.
The only reason I could afford a spacious condo in this neighborhood was the money my dead husband miraculously continued to make. The first year, I hadn’t spent a penny of his ‘beyond death’ money, but by the next year, I needed privacy more than an enormous savings account.
I walked through the atrium and across the tiled hallway hoping not to be heard sneaking to my room. I should have known better.
“Hebe? Did everything go well tonight?” a familiar masculine voice asked from the common room.
I slowed and tried not to sigh. Max-2 always waited up for me. I didn’t want him to and never asked him to. Instead, I told him to shut down and recharge, but he said his work wasn’t strenuous enough to require daily reboots. I didn’t argue with his data on the subject. Technically, he was supposed to do as I asked, but I didn’t like bossing people around in my off-time. I did enough of that at work.
I veered off to the common room where I found Max-2 sitting in front of his workstation. I wasn’t a com addict in my off-time, so he’d converted the com center that came with this place. He closed everything away when he wasn’t working… or on the rare occasions where I had company over.
As I walked closer to him, I fought the ick feeling in my stomach that his appearance always caused me. He looked more robotic than human, but that would be altered sometime in the future. Max-2 had been programmed especially for me. Unfortunately, no one had programmed me for him. I hadn’t even gotten a say about his creation or that I would have to foster his existence. Instead, he’d been delivered the day after my husband died as a final parting gift I couldn’t refuse.
I didn’t want him then and still didn’t like having him around, but my dead husband’s company paid me well to keep him. Max-2 was a prototype of human evolution. My husband had worked on that technology until the very moment of his death. Now Max-2 was training to take over his work.
“Everything went fine tonight. Thanks for asking,” I said to him.
When his head bent in acknowledgment, I looked around the room. It was tempting to have the replication unit make me something alcoholic enough to bring on a buzz. But I didn’t because I’d learned in the last five years that the escape alcohol provided was too temporary to be worth the ill effects of indulging. Nothing would change the fact that Max-2 would still be here tomorrow.
I had to keep him for at least ten years before he could move out on his own. The money I earned from keeping him would let me live any kind of life I wanted. I could stop ripping, buy an island in the middle of the ocean, and never have to see another human being in my life. Everyone needs a dream. Right?
“How’s your work going?” I smiled as I asked the question. It was my job to socialize with him.
Max-2 turned and looked at the screen. “The last adjustment raised my cognitive test scores. I’ve been able to focus much better.”
“Good,” I told him. I even meant it. Mostly.
The first year he lived with me, Max-2 behaved like a sluggish robot. He did small tasks around the house and practiced his body moments. The second-year we lived together, he’d been like having a child who asked too many questions. I never had children, but I had friends who’d raised a few. During that second year, I’d hired someone to stay with him whenever I was at work or simply out on errands because he seemed to need constant feedback to operate smoothly.
We were at the five-year mark and I suppose I’d mellowed some. Each year I saw improvements in cognitive function, which my husband had warned me didn’t always happen in cases like his. Max-2 now seemed like a college roommate. He made small talk when I was around but didn’t complain when I was gone. He no longer tracked my every movement or asked me a thousand questions about where I went and what I did when I wasn’t home with him.
We arranged bi-weekly sessions where we discussed a list of concerns he’d made since our last meeting. I kept them faithfully to appease my own guilt for being glad the earlier years were behind us.
The ones who made Max-2 watched him change from robot to android to something now edging closer to an actual human. They called what was happening a leveling process. The next jump in his cognitive growth, if it happened as predicted, could catapult Max-2 into a nearly complete self-reliance. Only one percent of those like Max-2 ever made that jump successfully, but I had high hopes for him. Some of those like Max-2 simply stopped their growth at a point they concluded was optimal and gave up evolving. With my husband’s plans driving Max-2, I didn’t think that would happen.
“I’m tired, Max. I’m heading to bed.”
Max-2 bent his head again. “I enjoy hearing you say my name, Hebe.”
“That’s very human of you,” I said to encourage him. Then I yawned.
“You work too hard, Hebe.”
My eyebrow shot up. “Is that a conclusion or one of your programmed responses?”
Max-2 looked at his hands as he thought about it. “Conclusion. You were out late working. It would be better if you were out late dating. You must take care of yourself. That was your death promise and I was programmed to make sure you kept it.”
I shook my head, but he wasn’t looking at me. “Dating is not necessary for my contentment.”
“Sex is necessary for full biologicals. You require the hormones released during such activities.”
“We discussed this before, Max. I can’t talk about my sex life—or lack of one—with you. Remember to shut down your processors for at least two hours. I’m going to go shut mine down for four or five.”
I turned away and started to exit.
“Hebe? Was that last comment an attempt at humor?”
“Yes. You’re getting better at noticing,” I praised, but I didn’t turn back to explain.
I hated going to bed alone, but lack of sex was only a smart part of my loneliness. I missed those little whispers before sleep came. I missed tangled feet and sighs of longing against the back of my neck. It was beyond Max-2’s ability to understand that his presence could never make up for what I lost, regardless of my dead husband’s good intentions.
“Good-night. Sleep well, Hebe.”
I heard his typing resume as I left.