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The Cloak of Steel (The Magic Crystals, #5)
Parisian Tails
Corridors (The Magic Crystals, #4)
Hunt and Power (The Magic Crystals, #3)

Rock Haulter (The Magic Crystals, #2)

Excerpt from ‘Rock Haulter’

I'd never been to Kylie's house before, but I had some idea where it must be, because she lived next door to Natalie. Natalie lived in Greenly Street, referred to by some as the ‘bling-bling hood’, which summed it up pretty well, I thought. Her family were the richest people in not only Chopville, but most other neighbouring towns. The street was lined with business buildings on the north-side, and large, expensive houses like Natalie's on the south-side.

After about twenty minutes of walking down Main Street, we turned into Greenly Street, the last road off Main Street in Chopville, and part of what was locally referred to as the ‘Chopville Ring’—a group of roads which encircled the residential area of town. Most of the town's features were located within the ring, excepting the truck stop to the south, the train station, the cemetery and, of course, the surrounding farmlands on which Dad and Charlie had been raised. The town's original purpose a hundred years ago had been to support those farms.

Greenly Street and those roads which made up the far-southwest corner of town were somewhat separated from the rest by what we called the ‘Town Central’, because we couldn't think of a better description for it. It wasn't even in the centre of Chopville, strictly speaking. It basically consisted of the police station, fire station and hospital, plus a whole bunch of other business buildings and was right near our shopping town. If Chopville had been a city, or even a larger town, it could have passed for a central business district.

It was perhaps because there was a large telecom building right on the corner of Main and Greenly Streets that we didn't see what was waiting for us just around the corner. The first thing we saw as we rounded the corner was a group of about thirty people (give or take), crouching in a line under the windows of the building. A second later, as they registered our arrival, they sprang to their feet and moved into another line, this time right across the street, blocking us. They were all wearing masks and hooded cloaks, which would surely have made them really hot. Every one of them was also holding a pistol, and every one of these was pointing directly at us.

Kylie and Natalie screamed. James and Tommy jumped backwards, then, as though remembering they were on a mission, jumped forward and around the girls, putting themselves in front of the guns, which I thought was very brave of them. I was a little too stupefied and frightened to think rationally, so I didn't follow the line with my eyes as they moved, but continued to stare at the wall of the building. Two of the masked figures with guns hadn't moved. They turned to face us, and lowered their guns.

I recognised who these two were at once, even through their masks, but I wasn't sure the other four had. Their comparative stature made them noticeable in any line up. They were Ather Hignat and Ugine Wilwog, and they were the very last people I wanted to come face-to-face with while they had firearms.

“What do we do, shoot 'em?” called a person from the line.

Hignat raised his gun-free arm up to about a foot in front of his face and pulled the sleeve up slightly to reveal a watch, which he was evidently trying to check through the slits in his mask. When he seemed satisfied with the time, he raised his arm over his head and made some weird sort of hand movement to the line. At once, all the guns were lowered and all eyes were on Hignat and Wilwog and unfortunately me, since I was closest to them.

“This couldn't have been timed worse,” drawled Hignat, whose voice sounded slightly muffled through the mask but clear enough all the same. “1H3 said he'd be giving the signal around now.”

I felt another stab of panic at his words. I didn't quite understand their code, but I knew where it came from. That was the code the Hammersons used to make reference to their followers. I should have known Hignat and Wilwog were getting mixed up in their group. Then again, Stella had said last week that they were.

It also seemed, at his words, that James, at least, had worked out who these two people were as well.

“You!” he roared, bounding forward and nearly knocking me over.

There would have been a time when I thought James trying to physically attack anyone was a major event, but that was nothing compared to the reaction that followed it. Not only did Wilwog, being a much larger figure than any of us, especially Hignat, jump in front of James to knock him back from Hignat, but several deafening BANGS sounded from behind us. Tommy and the two girls screamed; even James lost some of his nerve.

Hignat and Wilwog now had their guns at the ready too, but Hignat was waving franticly, trying to get the attention of the line of shooters.

“NOT YET!” he bellowed.

Immediately—and I couldn't believe they'd heard him over their shooting, or perhaps they were responding to his arms—the firing stopped, though it left a strange echo in the air.

“You friggin' trigger-happy idiots!” he bellowed at the line. “When this is done, I swear I'm gonna make you all spend twelve hours reading and re-reading the dictionary entry for the word ‘discretion’.”

He wasn't looking at the shooters, though; his eyes were on some unseen point over my shoulder—the place where Natalie, Tommy and Kylie had been standing. I didn't want to turn my back on them, knowing what they were like—they would have gladly shot me from behind any time. I didn't have much of a choice, though, when he and Wilwog both moved around me towards where the girls and Tommy had been. Shaking all over, I spun around to look at what they were doing, and gasped.

Apart from the car across the street, which had been reduced to something beyond repair by the bullets, at least one bullet had hit its target; Tommy was lying unconscious on the ground, blood running down the side of his neck and onto the asphalt. Kylie and Natalie were standing over him looking utterly petrified.

“Get out of the way!” Hignat snapped at the pair of them.

They didn't need telling twice. They made tiny squeaking sounds and jumped aside to join me and James. Hignat approached Tommy swiftly, Wilwog right behind him. They both stopped over him, staring pitilessly down at his bleeding figure. As immobile as I seemed to be at that point, my feelings of panic had been completely extinguished. Now all I wanted to do was hurt Hignat, Wilwog, and whoever had shot Tommy as much as I could, and while I stood there, I didn't care how much I got hurt in return.

“Nice one,” Hignat called to his cronies. “1H2 and 1H3 gave us three names not to hit, and you went and hit one of them.”

A babble of talk broke out in the line at his words.

“It's only a shoulder wound, 4H53,” a guy on the end of the line called.

“Over here, examine him, 4S81,” Hignat called back.

At once, the person sprang forward to where Hignat and Wilwog were standing and bent over Tommy, studying him closely.

“Like I said, just a blow to the shoulder,” he said casually, as though this was no drama. “He'll be fine if he gets to hospital quickly, though I can't see him being too active for a few months—at least, I reckon so; I'm not a doctor or anything.”

“Who shot him?” Wilwog shouted at the line, and they all flinched as though they'd been whipped around the ankles.

“This one!” most of them called, singling out a person somewhere in the centre of the line.

“4Y18, was it you?” asked Hignat in his most deadly voice, which even I had to admit was intimidating.

“Come off it!” squeaked the person, who I realised at that point was a girl, the high-pitch voice sounded vaguely familiar. “He just said, he would live.”

“Tankom will have your blood if he doesn't,” said Hignat. “Back in line,” he added to the guy who'd examined Tommy; he obeyed immediately.

I looked around. There were plenty of houses around; surely somebody would have heard the guns. Why the hell hadn't anybody come? Hignat checked his watch again, then turned to face us.

“You'll pay for this,” James snarled, clenching his fists in front of him as he spoke; Wilwog did the same, while Hignat continued to make hand-movements at the line, advising them not to fire. It looked rather odd; James, taller than me but more tubby than anything else, against Wilwog, a massive block of muscle.

“I'll be paid handsomely if it all goes well, Thomas,” said Hignat smoothly. “It's a shame this one had to turn up.” he added, nudging Tommy slightly with his toe.

“What are you doing here, anyway?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level, but it still shook with inexpressible anger.

“If I wanted you to know that, Playman, I would already have told you. Honestly, your complete lack of common sense saddens me.”

“Try me,” I said coldly. “We already know it's for the Hammersons, whatever it is.”

Wilwog flinched at my mention of the name, but the masks made it impossible to know for sure if I had really disturbed either of them.

“We wouldn't be armed with such—common instruments—if we were working for the Sorcerers, Playman,” Hignat sneered, while the rest of the line nodded their approval at his quick thinking. “I'm quite sure the Sorcerers have much more powerful weapons than pistols. If I had my way, we would all be armed with rocket launchers, but they're a lot harder to get hold of.”

“Then why are you using their code?” asked James.

Hignat opened his mouth to respond, but stopped suddenly, listening hard. A moment later, a car roared past us at top speed down Main Street, as though it was attempting to leave Chopville as quickly as possible. A single gunshot was fired from the window of the car away from us, as the car sped off.

“Group!” bellowed Hignat.

Immediately, the line that was blocking the street recoiled against the wall, each trying to look as insignificant as possible. Wilwog hurried over to join them while Hignat bolted to the edge of the building and peered around the corner. He was there for about ten seconds before he dashed back to join the huddle against the wall. Around five seconds later, about five or six cop cars drove past, evidently in pursuit of the car that had belted past a moment ago. That was surely Chopville's entire police force right there, which explained why they weren't helping—what was more important here? James tried hopelessly to flag them down but they didn't even slow.

“See you lot later,” Hignat said to us as the group jumped to their feet. “It's show time.”

They all bolted past us and around the corner. We could hear thirty pairs of feet sprinting down the street for a while, before the sound eventually died away.

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