Best YA fantasy authors that I love

Today I had a book promotion that got me to #1 in a few categories, and I adore metaphorically rubbing shoulders with other bestselling authors in my genre – so I wanted to chronicle the moment by listing some of my favorite authors (and people) who write in similar genres. If you like my books, or YA fantasy in genre, make sure you read these!

#1 Sylvia Mercedes

Info coming soon!

#2 Michelle Madow

Info coming soon!

#3 Elisa S. Amore

Info coming soon!

#4 Laura Thalassa

#5 Kelly St Clare

#6 Melissa Haag

#7Alexandra Bracken

#8 Wendy Higgins

#9 Eva Pohler

#10 Raye Wagner

#11 Shannon Mayer

#12 Leia Stone

#13 Jaymin Eve

#14 Jane Washington

PS – why these authors? They all write in YA fantasy, with a mythological feeling or background (stories based on folklore) with rich worlds and deep character building. Most of them I’ve met in person, and their writing inspired me when I was just getting started.

Honorable mentions: K.F. Breene, Laini Taylor, Lucia Ashta, Jen L. Grey, Leigh Bardugo, A.L. Knorr, Alisha Klapheke, Chandelle LaVaun

Best books on writing (improve your craft)

Recently I made a big list of 25 best books on writing for authors who want to improve their craft but in case you missed it, here are the highlights.

Firstly – “how to write a book” isn’t the problem, it’s too big and too vague. What you really need to focus on, is how to tell a story readers want to read. That’s a genre consideration, not a marketing one.

Read nobody wants to read your shit or perennial seller or story grid to get your head around that.

Then, you need a story, which begins with plot. You can try writing a character based, drama only story but it might be a mess – in the beginning, a plotting structure will help you brainstorm ideas faster and make sure your momentum and pacing is tight. Start with the plot dot or plot perfect.

You can also grab my 25-chapter fiction plot outline templates.

Then finally, you need to get better at the craft of writing – but this probably isn’t what you think. Most authors can already string together purple prose and flowery description, but master comes from information management.

How and when you parse out critical information is important to avoid backstory, TMI, boring infodumps and lack of conflict, tension and suspense. I have some tricks for that in my new mammoth of a book writing guide.

Don’t worry about the writing – focus on the story elements. In most cases, the best way to improve is simply to avoid all the bad, amateur writing problems that crop up for most authors. I made a massive checklist of first-chapter problems and posted it to www.writethemagic.com – so check there, or this older article on self-editing your book.





 

Thirst for Vampire (Blood and Ash Book Two sneak preview)

Thirst for Vampire (Blood and Ash Book Two sneak preview)

I’m in final edits for this book, which I’ve been working on for nearly two years… read the first chapter and if you want more, please go preorder the book!

We raced through the dark woods until we were breathless, and even then we didn’t stop. The dry branches sheltered us from the burning embers that fell from the sky, but the blanket of gray ash left clear tracks that would be easy for King Richard’s guards to follow.

Jazmine began to lag behind, so I gave up my seat on the slagpaw. I frowned at Camina’s pale, sweaty skin, and the bloody wounds from the slagpaw’s razor-sharp claws.

She was losing too much blood, but we couldn’t afford to stop. I knew the king’s guards would be right behind us.

I helped Jazmine onto the shaggy beast and kept going on foot. I felt like I could run a hundred miles – my blood was still buzzing with elixir, and the angry red digits on my diamond wedding bracelet practically screamed a warning: 12%.

Already much higher than normal, but I knew it would drop quickly if we kept up this pace. I shuddered, remembering Jessica’s crazed, bloodshot eyes as she tried to take a bite out of my neck and slurp elixir straight from the source. First we were chosen, then trained to compete in the trials. But it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

One of the rebels—a woman with tight braids—saw me looking at my wrist and scowled.

“We need to get rid of that thing,” she said. “They’ll be tracking us.” A few dozen rebels had fled from the citadel after the attack, but they must have split up into the woods. Only the woman and two men were still with us, dressed in rough leathers and merchant clothes. I realized with dread that I had no idea who they were, or where we were going.

“This way!” the older man shouted. He had a dark beard and light blue eyes. His long hair was tied back with beads and leather straps. We cut sharply through the trees, emerging between a group of massive boulders next to a rushing waterfall. Ancient pipes and channels cut through the rock, along with the crumbled remains of a stone bridge, torn apart by ivy.

“Take off your bracelets,” he said, gesturing towards me. I turned my hands over in the light, my eyes widening at the dark, jagged markings on my palms and wrists. I’d always had the birthmarks, but the shapes seemed to have changed and morphed. When I realized it was because of the dried blood covering my skin, I stumbled down the rocks to the creek and began scrubbing my hands raw. The dark blood formed clouds under the water, staining the waterfall red for a few moments.

Jazmine took off her bracelet, then unfastened Camina’s as well. Camina’s eyes fluttered open and she whispered something, but she was too weak to resist. Jazmine handed both bracelets to the man, and nodded at me. I bit my lip, and unclipped the diamond wedding band from my wrist. I knew I shouldn’t be sentimental, but the practical value of it alone made me reluctant to part with it.

“Isn’t it valuable?” I asked. “Couldn’t we trade it for supplies?”

“Only if we live past today,” the woman smirked.

I glanced up at the thick gray ash, falling between the dark trees. My experience of the wild had been short hunting trips barely outside the walls of Algrave, and traveling to and from the citadel. I had no idea how to survive for real, and the open space around me seemed suddenly paralyzing. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves—but then choked as I tasted ash on my tongue.

My eyes widened as I realized I was out in the open, breathing the poisonous air without a scarf or mask. We were still wearing the gossamer pink skirts and white leather jackets the king had picked out for the trials, though now torn and stained with blood. I ripped off the sleeve of my shirt and tied it around my head as a makeshift filter. The leather jacket covered my neck and arms well enough, though my legs were bare.

The rebels were more prepared, in dark layers of heavy clothing, their hoods pulled up and fabric masks that attached behind their ears.

The bearded man took three large sticks and strapped the bracelets to them, then chucked them downriver off the edge of the cliff. I watched them bob in the water before disappearing around the bend. It made me feel lost and adrift.

“That should buy us a few hours,” the man said. “But we’ve got to keep moving.”

“What a shitshow,” said the younger man. His eyes were a dull green, and he was wearing dark jeans, studded leather bracelets and bands running up his forearms.

It was the first time I’d heard him speak, and his voice grated on my nerves. “Some rescue. Where’s Father Marcus? Where’s Trevor? All we got was three chosen – their elite are sure to come after them. This wasn’t the plan. We should leave them here, or let them go back.”

“Go back,” Camina rasped.

“You think you saved us?” I asked, crossing my arms. “You might have gotten us out of the maze, but you’d have been stuck at the gates if we hadn’t opened the the doors for you.” So would I, for that matter, if Damien hadn’t helped. It had all happened so fast. I could feel my brain trying to puzzle out what exactly took place in the citadel, but there wasn’t time. We had to keep moving.

“Go back,” Camina repeated.

“She’s burning up,” Jazmine said, with a hand against Camina’s forehead. She pulled back her thin blonde hair. Her silver eyes looked feverish against her pale skin. “I don’t suppose anybody has more elixir? I mean, you guys did steal some, right?”

The woman took out a small knife, and Jazmine’s eyes flashed. In less than a second her blade was drawn as well—the long, scrap of metal she’d torn from a mechanical spider during the trials.

“Hold up, I just want to check her wounds,” the woman said, palms raised. Jazmine stepped aside, eyes wary, and the woman cut open Camina’s dress. A deep, ragged gash cut across her abdomen, and three more sliced through her arm, nearly to the bone. The blood was bright red against her pale skin and the white costumes we’d been forced to wear. My stomach twisted painfully.

She would already be dead, if not for the elixir in her system, but she’d probably burned through it all trying to keep her together.

“We should just leave her,” the young man repeated again. He was a few years older than me, in a green hooded rain jacket. Brown hair poked out around his ears, and stubble darkened his chin. His bushy eyebrows and an unfortunately crooked nose gave him a grumpy expression.

“She’ll just slow us down. She’s not going to make it, anyway.”

I grabbed him by the shirt and lifted him up over the edge of the cliff, letting his feet kick over the drop towards the churning rocks below. His eyes widened in panic.

I could feel the elixir burning inside me, giving me superhuman strength. I knew it made me reckless, irrational – but right now I didn’t care. My loose hair whipped in the wind. I probably looked as crazed as I felt.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” I growled. “I’m grateful for the little stunt you pulled in the arena, but I don’t know you, I don’t trust you, and I’m having a really, really bad day. So either you save my friend, or we can part ways right now.”

The man lifted a pistol and pointed it at my head. I turned and smirked at him. I was pretty sure I could disarm him before he pulled the trigger.

“Easy now,” the woman said. She pulled out a small glass vial from her bra and held it up. It was mostly empty, but there were at least a few more sparkly drops clinging to the bottom of the vial. She gently removed the cork and tilted the vial to Camina’s pale lips. I watched as the bright blue drops of glittering elixir rolled down past her teeth. I counted three – three times the weekly dosage humans were allotted during the renewal ceremony, but only a drop more than the daily allowance we’d received since becoming chosen. I prayed it would be enough.

The woman shook the vial, then held it up again to show me the empty container.

Only then did I release my grip on the man and set his feet back on the ground. He scowled at me like a frustrated teenager, even though he was probably in his early-twenties.

My arm was burning from lifting him so long, but I stuffed them in my pockets so he wouldn’t see me shaking.

“We’ve got to go,” the man said. “We’re too exposed here.”

“Go where?” Jazmine asked, looking around uneasily.

“I left a package of supplies nearby, for emergencies. We pick those up first, then head for higher ground. I know a place we can stay the night, even hole up for a few days if we have to.”

The slagpaw whined and licked its chops, then sat down awkwardly. I realized for the first time the beast had several arrows buried deep in its hindquarters.

I looked at him, trying not to be unnerved by the creature’s glowing red eyes and jagged rows of teeth. Even sitting, it was as tall as me. I’d never been this close to one before, or had the opportunity to really study the creature. Slagpaw were the shadow demons of children’s fairy tales. Few people saw them and lived to talk about it. But I knew this one meant me no harm. It was like a dog, but with the shoulders, muscles and arms of a large man, with long claws that practically dragged on the ground.

“This is going to hurt,” I whispered in his large furry ear.

The creature nodded, then I grabbed the first arrow and yanked it out. The beast yelped and shuddered, but didn’t bite my arm off at least. I removed two more arrows, then led him to the creek and washed the wounds, up to my ankles in shallow water.

“How are you even controlling that thing?” the younger man asked.

“I’m not,” I said.

“Then why hasn’t it eaten us yet?”

I didn’t know how to explain. I wasn’t sure I was ready. Jazmine looked curious as well, but if I thought about what I’d done, I’d come apart, and we didn’t have time for that.

“Let’s get somewhere safe,” I said. “Then I’ll tell you everything. By the way, I’m Emily. This is Camina and Jazmine.”

Camina stirred at her name, and I looked to see her wounds were already starting to close themselves up as the elixir worked its magic. It truly was a miracle.

“Frank,” the older man said. “That’s Luke and Beatrice.”

As we went deeper and deeper into the wild, further out than I’d ever been before, my pulse began to race and I jumped at every sound. I was no stranger to the wilds, but I was usually better equipped, with my father’s bow at least, and much more quiet.

Up above, cawing drew my eyes to a handful of large, dark birds that followed our progress. Probably waiting for us to submit to the ash or exhaustion. Most of the wild animals outside the compounds wouldn’t turn down fresh meat if they could get it. I knew that some plants struggled in the shade and grey skies, but even if they survived long enough to bear fruit, it wouldn’t be fit for consumption. That’s why we had the compounds, and the purification engines. The only place where humans could survive.

We climbed higher up the side of a mountain, trying to stay on the wide granite stretches between the sparse pine trees. We were more exposed, but the wind-swept ground didn’t leave tracks behind us.

Finally, Frank pointed out a rectangular entrance cut into the side of the hill, framed by large chunks of rotting timber and sealed with a metal door and pile of boulders. Up above us, the exposed metal ribs of a large construction jutted out from the rock, with hanging, rusted metal stairs and doors that led to nowhere.

“We’re going in there?” Jazmine asked, frowning. I knew what she was thinking; I grew up warned against the structures of the Before. They were unsound and full of danger. If they didn’t collapse on you, the poisonous ash or slagpaw would get you.

But I knew now, not everything I’d been told when I was younger was the truth, and we needed to get out of sight. Frank shoved the door aside with his shoulder, and it screeched against the rocky ground.

“Do you mind leaving your friend outside?” Luke asked. “He gives me the creeps, and it’s small enough in there anyway.”

“Stay,” I said, pointing at the covered area beneath a ledge. The slagpaw whined at first, but then licked my cheeks, turning around twice before settling into a furry ball.

Slowly we followed the others inside the dark mouth of the cave. Beatrice lit a small gas lantern, and held it up, leading the way. Frank and Jazmine supported Camina, who was walking unsteadily between them, with Luke and I bringing up the rear. It was so dark, I had to watch my steps, even though I could barely see my feet. I gasped as we crossed a thin wooden plank. It wobbled, sending a cluster of pebbles richoteting off the deep walls of a cavern. I heard them plunk into water far below.

Frank led us through the twisted tunnels of stone and metal, then through a narrow crevice into a small cavern, that looked semi-furnished. In the middle was a campfire, some pots and pans, and bundles of old clothes and fabric, stuffed together with leaves and straw for a makeshift mattress. Broken glass and tin cans sparkled in the darkness like a treasure hoard.

It smelled of rot and nature, but wasn’t foul – I realized the stench that had followed us since the citadel had been Trevor’s thick fur and the unnatural stink of a mutid.

Luke started working on a fire, and Beatrice strung up a line of cans near the door.

“So we’ll know they’re coming,” she said sheepishly, seeming to recognize that if the elite found us here, we’d be dead before the early warning hit our ears. Then she pulled out some folding chairs and set them up around the fire.

I sank into mine, crossing my arms. The sensation was uncomfortable, to say the least. In the stillness and darkness of the cave, the events of the last few days came rushing back, and I felt my eyes water. I’d been running on survival mode so long I didn’t know how to sit still. I literally didn’t know who I was anymore. Emily Sharrow wasn’t even my real name; my mother had confessed as much before she died. Damien told me I was a half-breed. An impossible, and possibly the only, elite offspring.

A genetic experiment, he suggested, just before I’d been arrested on charges of conspiracy to murder the crown prince. The look of betrayal in Damien’s eyes when they discovered the pistol in my pocket scorched my heart and filled me with shame. But he’d helped me escape, even after all that. I didn’t know where that left us.

Frank passed out a bowl of soup, some kind of tough meat and wild carrots, then the others looked at me expectantly, their eyes bright in the reflection of the fire.

“Curate Marcus is dead,” I began, creasing my hands in my lap. “I think… I think I killed him.”

Beatrice sucked in a breath, and Luke flinched. I saw his hand move towards his weapon, but Frank held up a hand for me to continue.

“I didn’t realize, I didn’t figure it out until… the slagpaw,” I said quickly. “They’re human. I think it’s what happens if you consume too much ash. King Richard, he wanted me to kill them, he wanted me to kill the rebel leaders. When they attacked us in the arena, we were just defending ourselves. I think the first one, it must have been Marcus.”

“And the second is Trevor,” Beatrice murmured, her eyes flicking towards the entrance. “That’s why he didn’t attack you?”

“Hold up,” Jazmine said. “Forgive a girl for asking questions, but what the hell is even going on? All I know is, trials. Then Camina was hurt, then people were shooting at us. I came with you to protect her, not to join some rebel alliance.”

“Trevor’s my friend, from Algrave,” I said. “I didn’t know he was a rebel, not until after I was chosen. Curate Marcus contacted me, they wanted me to join them. I wasn’t going to at first. But then… the way Richard  treats us, you have to see it’s not right. He made Tobias kill Penelope, his own chosen.”

“She was a rebel,” Jazmine said, with a shrug.

“So?” I snapped. “She didn’t deserve to die. Not like that. When we went back to Algrave, it was to save my mother. Damien gave me elixir to save her, but then his guards came and started arresting people.” I flinched, remembering the truth. “The woman who raised me, the one I was trying to save, she was killed. They arrested me. The trials, it was supposed to bring me to heel. To prove King Richard could control me, by making me kill Trevor. But… I resisted him. When he realized he couldn’t compulse me, he would have killed me.”

“How is that even possible?” Luke said. I frowned, glancing around the circle, their faces red in the glow of the fire. I trusted Trevor, but I didn’t know anyone else here. Damien had sworn me to secrecy, but what did it matter now that the king knew I was renitent? He would hunt me down, which meant these people were in danger. They should know what they were getting into.

“Just before she died, my mother told me I was adopted; that my real mother was executed, and that my real father was an elite.”

“But that’s impossible,” Beatrice said, leaning forward.

“Apparently not,” I said. “Curate Marcus, he said it was because of my grandfather, John Patten. He stole something from the king – an antidote to the elixir. They think he did experiments on his own daughter, my mother, and that’s why she was able to get pregnant; and that’s why the king can’t compulse me.”

The silence lengthened, and I could tell the others were wary. I’d just confessed to a band of rebels that I was part elite. I was the enemy.

The moment was broken when Camina stirred, sitting up, her pale hair sticking to her warm face. Her fingers grasped for a weapon, before finding the large holes in her shredded shirt and checking her wounds carefully.

“What happened, where are we?”

“Don’t worry, we’re safe,” Jasmine said. “Outside the citadel.”

“What have you done?” Her eyes widened, taking in the rocky sanctuary. She rose to her knees, her legs shaking. “We’re escaped rebels now. We were raised to serve the elite. Loyalty, honor, courage. If I hadn’t been chosen, I would have applied to become a soldier or one of the king’s guard. This, this life, I don’t know how to do this.”

“But we can be free,” I said. “We can choose.”

“Are you serious?” She spat, glancing around at the cracked cement and creeping vines. “And what, live underground like rats? Hiding from elite and slagpaw forever?”

“You’re free now. You can choose your own path,” Beatrice said. “Like the rest of us.” Creases formed around her eyes as she smiled, handing Camina a bowl of soup.

“I didn’t choose this,” Camina muttered, turning away and facing into the shadows, away from the fire.

Despite my exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep. The stillness of the cave was broken by slow dripping water and a leathery rustling above that I suspected were bat wings. At any moment the king’s troops could slip into the darkness and slit our throats. And yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about Damien. Even after he thought I’d betrayed him, he still helped us escape. Did he think by letting me go, he’d be killing his own father? Probably not. At the trials, I almost tried, but I couldn’t risk hitting Jamie or Loralie. Damien couldn’t read my mind. I never had time to explain myself after getting arrested in Algrave. And now I’d run off with rebels. He probably thought I’d manipulated him from the start somehow.

My wide eyes searched the darkness. By the glowing embers of the fire I could make out faded graffitti on the cracked walls.

Vampires suck, wrote one in faded green paint, so old I could barely read it. I didn’t know if it was a joke or a warning.

The strongest shall survive, read another. It was the opposite of what I’d been raised to believe; that the two races could only exist together, symbiotic species that depended on each other for survival.

Death to Elites, read another, in scratchy writing that took up most of the wall. This was probably a rebel holdout, used since the race wars a century ago. When humans and elite had nearly destroyed each other, until King Richard saved them from the brink of extinction. This was the history I knew, at least. The history I’d been told. The very idea of killing elites sent a shiver down my spine; it was more than a sacrilege, it was a death sentence. Undermine the kingdom and the royal order, and we’d devolve back into decades of war, starvation, sickness and pain. Everyone knew this, and yet the rebels risked everything, trying to change the system.

I hoped Damien would be okay, that King Richard wouldn’t hurt his own son, but I wasn’t sure of anything anymore. In a few decades, he’d probably forget about me, like he had my grandfather.

In the meantime, I was all alone. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t know what came next. I wished Trevor was here, that I could talk with him. I sat up suddenly. Trevor was right outside. Would he stay a slagpaw forever? I remembered the scratchiness when I’d breathed too much poisonous ash; and coughing up dark phlegm. Without the elixir, I’d have died – or, perhaps, have changed, like Trevor. The elixir countered the effects of toxic poisoning. My heart pounded in my throat and I sat up suddenly. Was it possible Trevor was still in there, that the process could be reversed?

I glanced at my wrist, and glared at the bare skin where the bracelet used to be. I had no idea how much elixir was still in my system, but there had to be some. I wasn’t badly injured in the trials, which meant the unused elixir would stay in my blood longer, until I burned it up with activity.

I tiptoed back out of the cave, careful not to disturb any of Beatrice’s traps, until I opened the door to the mine and stepped outside into the cool night air. The flakes were light tonight, and I could see the patch of light behind the clouds that I knew to be the moon. I’d only seen it once, in a blood memory.

It reminded me of something else; something I’d seen when I kissed Damien at the gates and tasted his blood. A buried trunk, an unmarked grave. My eyes widened as I realized it wasn’t an accident. Damien had pushed that memory towards me; he must have bitten his own lip so he could pass me the information. It was a clue, a place to start looking.

But first, I needed Trevor. He wasn’t at the entrance where I’d left him. I felt exposed, looking out over the horizon. I could see the glowing towers of the capital, like jagged crystals against the dark mountains behind it. The citadel of lights. Coming from Algrave, it had always seemed like magic, but I knew now it was science and electricity.

I heard a deep Rumble that seemed to pierce through me. behind me and whirled around. My pulse spiked as I saw the slagpaw above me, a dark silhouette against the sky, on a boulder above the mines. His lip curled up in a snarl, displaying his gleaming white teeth.

“Trevor?” I asked cautiously. The beast jumped through the air and I ducked. It landed behind me and padded forward, its hair bristling.

He sniffed the air and his red eyes burned in the darkness, like twin coals. His claws clicked on the ground as he stalked forward, with a guttural growl I felt in my bones.

“Don’t eat me,” I said. “I think, I think I can still help you. If you drink enough elixir. I hope. Nod if you understand.”

What if it was too late, what if the Trevor I knew was already gone?

Tears welled up in my eyes at the thought, but I had to try anyway. I took the jagged shard of broken glass I’d grabbed in the tunnels and pierced my wrist, feeling the warm blood spill down my fingertips. Then I held them up away from my body.

The beast’s eyes grew round with surprise, and he whimpered.

“Do it,” I said, leaning forward. A gust of wind brushed past my dress, freeing my dark hair. It rippled in the moonlight. My white leather jacket, now shredded and torn, and chiffon pink dress, stood out like a rose against the barren landscape. I shivered, suddenly cold, as I cupped my palms into a bowl to pool the blood.

The dark shadow of the slagpaw hovered over me, hesitated a moment, then flicked out its rough tongue, licking my palms and wrists clean.

KEEP READING – click below to preorder now!

Prison Fae (Supernatural Penitentiary 1)

I just posted a list of some upcoming and new release “Supernatural Penitentiary” books, but also wanted to announce Marisa and I are working on an amazing new series, tentatively titled “prison fae” (cover reveal coming soon!)

Here’s an exclusive sneak peak! If you’re a book reviewer, we will have a limited number of ARC’s available in our private FB group.

Excerpt – kidnapped by Fae

I pulled my car into the parking lot of Sherwood Apartments. For a second, I sat in my car and gathered myself. The evening was…fun. Nice. Something warm fluttered inside my chest. I climbed out of my car, taking my phone in one hand and my keys in the other.

As I crossed the parking lot, I unlocked the screen of my phone.

Made it! Have a good night! <3

I sighed in relief and texted Ashley back with one hand.

Have a good night, Ash! I’m home, too.

Send.

Without warning, I struck something hard. My phone flew out of my hand, and I stumbled over Ashley’s heels, while I tried to regain my balance. I snapped my head up. My blood seemed to freeze as I locked eyes with the young man before me. Those eyes were the same light, crystal-blue as Ashley’s were, but Ashley’s eyes were always bright and smiling. This man’s eyes were like ice and sent a sharp, involuntary shiver racing down my spine.

Slowly, I noticed other features. He was about my age. His face was all sharp angles and his skin the palest milk-white I’d ever seen and stood in stark contrast with his night-black hair. I doubted anyone would ever call him handsome, but he was pretty in a strange, otherworldly way.

“Watch where you’re going, you idiot!” he snapped.

For a second, I couldn’t speak. It was as if he’d cast some sort of spell on me and rendered me speechless. He swept away, stepping on my phone and grinding it into the concrete, before continuing down the sidewalk. The crunch of my phone on the pavement was like a trumpet blaring in my ear. Suddenly, the spell snapped, and everything came crashing down.

“Asshole!” I shouted after him. “What’s your problem?”

Seething, I bent down and retrieved my phone. A long crack split the screen in half, but it looked like my case had kind of worked. This was salvageable, at least. I traced my finger over the broken split in the glass and scowled. My head jerked up, as I prepared to give that son of a gun a piece of my mind, but he was gone.

Strong fingers seized my arm and jerked me back. When I twisted around, pain jolted up my arm, all the way to my shoulder. It was him.

How did he get behind me so quickly?

“Excuse me?” he asked. “Did you say something?”

I twisted my wrist, trying to free myself, but his grip tightened. Something sharp and hot, like lightning, burst through my arm. “What did you do?” he snapped.

“Let go!” I shouted, deliberately raising my voice. “What the Hell is wrong with you?”

I didn’t see anyone around, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t. Someone might hear me.

“Apologize,” he said.

Apologize?” I asked. “For what? For you bumping into me?”

He smiled thinly. “I don’t take kindly to being called an asshole.”

“And I don’t take kindly to being grabbed, you weirdo!”

I moved into a fighting stance, and with as much force as I could, launched my foot forward. My borrowed heel gauged into his shin, and using the distraction, I twisted my wrist free. He fell back, hissing. In the streetlights, his blue eyes gleamed in fury.

“Now, get a move on before I call the police!” I shouted.

“You’ll regret this,” he said. His voice was cold and stern, as if he was delivering some deep prophecy.

Abruptly, he turned on his heel and walked away. For a few seconds, I stood, my hands curled into fists. I just wanted to make sure he really walked away. I waited until he vanished from view before quickening my pace. My feet pounded on the pavement.

There’s nothing he can actually do to me, I thought. He’s just a creep who doesn’t understand how to act like a freaking decent human being.

A shadow swept over the pavement before the apartment door, so sudden that I jumped. I halted. A toad. That was all. I let out a nervous, breathless laugh and bent down. “You need to stay away from the pavement,” I whispered.

I glanced up to ensure the creep wasn’t still lingering around, but I didn’t see him. Still, he might be hiding in the shadows, watching. I ought to just dart into the apartment and lock the door. But if I woke up in the morning and realized that someone had stepped on the frog or run him over with a car, I knew I’d feel guilty. Besides, now I was close enough to the buildings that someone would hear if I screamed.

And I’ll be damned before I let some creep dictate what I do.

The frog croaked. I smiled and after placing my phone beside the doormat, I scooped the frog in my hands. This one didn’t fight like the last one had. A chill tingled down my spine. I’d just quickly put him back. Gingerly, I kicked off my borrowed heels and padded down the cold pavement. I squinted in the darkness, trying to find the brambles, as I carefully made my way down through the grasses and weeds. As I placed the frog on the ground, something hard pressed against my palm. The frog croaked from the ground, gazing at me with large eyes. I tilted my hand, palm up, and frowned. There, resting in my hand, was a small gold ring. It was shaped like a tiara and set with twinkling, white stones.

“How did you get this?” I whispered.

The frog croaked again, as if that was an answer.

I straightened and slipped the ring onto my middle finger. It fit well, which was surprising. My ring size was a ridiculously small four-and-a-half. Rings never fit me.

“Thank you?” I said.

The frog hopped away and splashed into the drainage ditch.

Weird, I thought.

I cautiously climbed back from the weeds and brambles and back to the sidewalk. I rubbed my feet on the welcome mat before our apartment, grabbed my phone and borrowed shoes, and unlocked the door. My eyelids felt heavy. I just really needed to go to bed.

“Stupid creep,” I muttered.

I didn’t recognize him, though, which meant he didn’t hang around the apartments much. I’d probably never see him again. Thank God for small mercies.

I slipped inside the apartment, quietly closing the door behind me. In the darkness, I saw Cedric, sprawled over the sofa. Empty beer bottles littered the table before him.

Where is Mom? I wondered.

I stepped quietly into the bedroom, my eyes narrowing as I looked at the bed. Empty. My gaze darted to the bathroom door and the strip of light beneath it. I sucked in a sharp breath. I would’ve never imagined Mom would be awake when I got home, and here, I stood in Ashley’s red velvet dress and shimmering pumps.

I’m nineteen, and if I want to go out with my friend, I should be able to, I thought.

But at the same time, guilt rushed through me. I’d lied, and now, I was caught in my lie.

The door creaked open. I straightened my spine and waited, as the light spread over me. Mom stepped from the bathroom, stopping abruptly to look me. “Where have you—I thought you were at work.”

I gulped. “I was out with Ashley. Actually.”

“You—you lied to me?” Mom asked.

“Yes. I’m sorry,” I said. “I—”

Mom laughed. I frowned and furrowed my brow, unsure what she thought was so hilarious about being lied to.

“You’re not mad?” I asked.

Mom shook her head. “You sneaked out to a party or something? That’s not so bad. I did my share of sneaking around when I was young. Why, my parents hated your father! He had this long hair that they absolutely loathed. They said he looked like—” Mom cut off abruptly.

“My father?” I asked.

I remembered my father, and he didn’t have long hair. It was short and cut close to his scalp.

Mom flipped off the light. “Your father,” she repeated. “Yes. When he was young, he had very long hair.”

“I don’t remember that.”

Mom ran her finger along my ear and kissed my forehead. “You wouldn’t,” she said. “You were very young. Get in bed. It’s late.”

As I pulled off Ashley’s dress, I heard the creak of box springs as Mom climbed into our shared bed. She’d taken me lying…abnormally well. Maybe she was still mostly asleep, and the realization of what I’d said hadn’t really sank in. I fished a hanger from the closet and hanged Ashley’s dress on it. Then, I pulled on the first pair of pajamas I found.

My father had long hair, I mused.

I tried to imagine him young with long, dark hair, but the image didn’t want to come. Instead, I ran my fingers through my own hair. Just how long had his been? Was it between his shoulder blades like mine was, or even longer?

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. My dad had walked out of my life years ago, thank God, and he was never coming back.

***

My wrists hurt. I yawned and rolled over in bed, my eyes opening a crack, as I tried to get back to sleep. Metal scraped somewhere at the edge of my hearing. Probably Cedric. He never seemed to care that I worked until two in the morning. I groaned. My head felt too heavy, and my mouth tasted of iron. I sat upright, blinking blearily.

The blanket, for lack of a better word, was some a threadbare, stained piece of rough cloth. Like burlap or something. I lifted my hand to grasp it, and my wrists ached. Handcuffs! But they weren’t made of steel. Instead, the cuffs seemed forged of something gold-colored. Maybe bronze? But oddly, I found no seams or breaks in the metal. It was as if they’d been forged right around my wrists. I raised my wrists, twisting them in the light.

The handcuffs were still there, hard and unyielding. And already, they’d left red, raised welts across my skin. I pulled hard, testing the chain between them, but that only made the cuffs dig in more harshly.

What?

I looked wildly around. This wasn’t my bed. This wasn’t my room. The walls were made of rough, gray stone that ran the length of the room. It looked to be square and was barely wide or long enough for the bed, and the bed wasn’t exactly huge. At one end of the room, there was a wooden door, banded with a dull, black-gray metal. Behind the bed, there was a window, set with round, golden bars, through which I could see pale blue slats of the sky. My chest ached. All my blood seemed to rush to my head.

Where am I? What happened?

I stepped gingerly onto the floor, which was made of something sleek and gray. My foot ached. Ashley’s shoes had left blisters. And I—

I wasn’t wearing my clothes. A sharp, shrill scream tore unbidden from my throat. My chained hands fumbled with the dark blue cotton pants. This wasn’t my shirt either. It was the same color as the pants and embroidered with H-3157 in stark, black thread. I backed against the wall, my head reeling.

Someone changed my clothes.

My pulse raced.

Someone changed my clothes.

The words somehow wouldn’t register. I rushed mindlessly to the door and seized the knob, twisting and yanking. It didn’t budge. Some distant part of me knew that was to be expected, but another, louder part of me seemed to have all the control. And that part wanted to rip the door off its hinges.

But the door still didn’t budge. I stumbled back, my chest heaving. Was I shaking, or was it the room? I gulped greedily, trying to force air into my lungs. There didn’t seem to be enough of anything. This wasn’t my room, wasn’t my bed, weren’t my clothes, and—

All my thoughts crashed and collided so violently that my knees shook. I clambered over the bed and hauled myself up. I forced myself onto the balls of my feet, so I could gaze out the window. Grass and sky. It looked as though I was on the side of a hill. Or a mountain.

There aren’t any hills or mountains in Hattiesburg. Where the Hell am I?

I bolted from the window, tripping over the blankets. The mattress felt strange beneath my feet, all prickly and uneven. I edged into the corner, keeping my back to the wall and the door in my line of sight.

What happened? What happened? What happened?

My heart raced, the echo of its beats reverberating in my skull. This looked like a prison. But not quite. It didn’t resemble the prisons I’d seen in movies with the bare, tile floors and bunkbeds. There weren’t enough bars, and everything looked too old here.

But what happened?

I searched my memories. The part with Ashley. Travis and Alejo. That jerk in the parking lot. I felt a sharp flash of fear. But no, that was completely irrational. I’d made it home. I distinctly remembered talking to Mom. If someone had pulled me out of my room, I would’ve woken up. Or Mom would’ve woken up. Even as useless as he was, I doubted Cedric would let someone just break into our house and take me.

But what if whoever took me did something to them?

Bile rose in my throat. I felt like I might vomit. Just in case, I searched for a toilet, but all I found was an empty pail. I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled my knees up to my chest. Someone had brought me here, changed my clothes, and done who knew what else. I dropped my forehead to my knees and tried to fight back the wave of nausea that rose inside me.

My eyes burned with tears. I rubbed them roughly away against my knees. Focus, Gaudere, I thought. What do you know?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Maybe I’ve been caught by human traffickers, I thought, with cold and creeping dread.

Just recently, the vice president of the university sent out an email about human trafficking on campus. Someone had passed around fliers and made posts on Facebook about an alleged human trafficker, and after the university police department was flooded with calls, the university had to step in and ask people to stop calling. There was no proof of any human traffickers on campus. There never had been.

I sucked in a deep breath. What if it hadn’t been a hoax?

But, no. That was ridiculous. I’d made it home, where…

Where something terrible happened. I choked back a sob. Whatever this was, I had to be strong. But all I really wanted was to take a bath in boiling hot water, so I could scrub every inch of me.

And someone changed my clothes. I shuddered. What else had they done? Groped me? Or worse? I tipped my head back against the wall and dress a quick, shaky breath. No. It wouldn’t do to think like that. I’d only upset myself. I needed to pull myself together, so I could survive whatever this was. Just survive. I could do it.

Click.

Across the room, the doorknob turned.

***

There was no one there. I cautiously uncurled from the bed and padded to the door. Was it a mistake? Carefully, I peered out. Before me, there was a wide, round tower that stretched upwards as far as I could see. Just beyond it, there were several rooms, their wood doors thrown open. Around me, there were rooms, too. People flooded the halls, all of them dressed in the same dark blue pants and shirts.

“Get a move on!” a voice barked.

Someone shoved harshly against my shoulder. My head collided with the wall. Black spots obscured my vision, as I stumbled. Dimly, I made out a dark-haired man in a heavy-looking white coat. He seized my arm and dragged me forward, shoving me. The hall crowded with people bustling, shouting and moving.

I stumbled. A foot struck my shin. Pain thundered through my leg, and although I tried to keep my balance, it was impossible in the crowded hall with people rushing all over and around me. I fell, my wrists scraping hard against the ground. When I tried to stand, something collided hard with the back of my head.

I yelped. A foot stamped on my hand. I pulled my arms back, the cuffs digging into my wrists. “Stop!” I shouted.

But no one did. There was kicking, stomping, and moving. I tried edging towards the wall, but I was caught in a flood of people. Panic rose inside me. My chest hurt, and my breath came quickly. I fought, trying to force myself up with everything in me, before I was trampled, but I couldn’t make it. Cackling laughter rose in my ears. Someone kicked my face. My jaw ached.

“First morning?” A sharp, feminine voice asked.

A hand seized my bicep, hauling me up. I gasped, my head aching with the sudden movement. Stumbling over my feet, the hand pulled me through the throng. My head spun. All I could see of my rescuer was a froth of short, red curls and a slender figure, drowning in the same blue cotton clothes that I wore.

I quickened my pace, trying to catch up to her. Her arm left my bicep and drifted lower, her fingers pulling on my cuffs. “Keep up, Doll-face,” she whispered. “They’re a rude bunch! You can’t expect them to stop for you.”

I glanced at her profile and was so startled that I nearly stumbled. If she hadn’t gripped me so tightly, I’d have probably fallen again. She was shockingly beautiful, like an Instagram model who’d been put through a half-dozen filters and Photoshop. Her skin was the same golden-brown as the banding on a piece of polished tiger’s eye and just as smooth.

My gaze drifted lower. SP-4562 was embroidered across her chest.

Numbers, I realized, for identifying us.

Maybe that was how the human traffickers were keeping count of us.

“What’s going on?” I asked, shouting to be heard.

The woman’s green eyes remained firmly fixed ahead of us. “Breakfast! If you’re late, you won’t eat until six o’clock tonight. So don’t be late. Keep moving because no one will stop for you.”

“Breakfast?” I asked.

“Yes. You slept through the first bells. At six o’clock, you shower—”

“In the morning?” I asked.

She nodded sharply. “Six o’clock. You make your bed and shower. Breakfast is at seven. After breakfast, you return to your cell for roll call and inspection. The warden will likely remove the cuffs for you, provided you behave. At nine, is exercise. You have leisure time between ten and eleven.”

“Wait. A warden?” I asked.

The woman steered me down a crowded stairwell. The railing crushed into my hip as we descended. “Yes. A warden.”

“But—I’m in prison?” I stammered.

Her brow furrowed. “Where did you think you were?”

Prison. This was all a mistake, then. Hope blossomed in my chest. Even though I’d never been in prison before, one of Mom’s ex-boyfriends had gone to prison. There were laws and Constitutional rights. They couldn’t just keep me here. If it was a prison, there was still hope. “I—I thought this was human trafficking or something! It’s a prison?”

She nodded.

“So—so I get a phone call, right?”

“A…phone call? I don’t know what that is.”

What? I glanced at her, unsure if she’d misheard me.

“My mom,” I said. “I can call my mom. This is—this is a mistake! You can’t just throw someone in prison. There has to be a trial and—and evidence! I have Constitutional rights!”

“Not here.”

No, there had to be. “This is a mistake,” I insisted. “I don’t—I don’t belong here! I haven’t done anything wrong! This isn’t legal!”

“It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing you can do.”

Heat rushed to my face. Why was she so nonchalant about it?

Maybe she’s just messing with me, I thought. That must be it. Surely, I get a phone call. And if not, I’m sure Mom will call the police. Or Ashley will. Then, they’ll find me. They can’t keep me here forever.

We reached the floor, emerging into a round area. The tower base stood in the center of the room, surrounded by small, square tables bolted to the ground. The woman released her grip on my cuffs and shoved me forward instead. Already people—no, prisoners—were seated at some. I twisted around, searching. I bumped into someone and received a growl in return. The woman pushed me away. When I looked over my shoulder, my blood ran cold.

It was a man. No, not really. He couldn’t have been any older than I was, but I didn’t notice that at first. Instead, my gaze fell upon the straitjacket, strapped tightly over his massive form and the leather mask covering the lower half of his jaw. Another low growl rumbled from his throat. Clumps of his matted, brown hair fell into his blazing gray eyes. I shivered, as his attention fixed on me.

“H-2159,” the woman said quietly. “He’s always in a bad mood, so stay away from him.”

Considering I had no desire to go near him, that wouldn’t be very hard. Before me, I could see that two lines had formed. A cafeteria.

“This is the only time I can help you,” the woman continued in a low tone. “If you want to survive, you’ll get as far away from me as you can. I’m trouble.”

Without warning, she shoved me away.

“But I—I don’t even know—what’s your name?”

She tapped the number over her chest. “Can’t you see? Or are you blind as well as stupid? SP-4562,” she said, raising her voice. “Now, stay away from me, you bitch! The last thing I need is dead weight pulling me down!”

Infernal Betrayal: an Aztec Urban Fantasy

Infernal Betrayal: an Aztec Urban Fantasy

New release! I’m doing final edits on book three of the immortal assassin series – the magical system is based on Aztec mythology but only in book three do we (literally) dive deep into Mexican death cults. Book 3 continues all the action and romance of the first two books but leads to an epic reckoning… here’s a sneak peak of the first chapter!

Chapter One

Heat hazed the world around me, sending shivers of rippling color dancing across my vision. Perhaps that was why I was seeing a ghost. Because he had to be a ghost, didn’t he? I’d killed Ewan Saunders weeks ago. I’d heard his last, labored breath as he’d tried to suck in air through his ruined lung.

Ewan’s smile broadened, exposing a golden molar and twin sets of tapered fangs. I’d never asked him for the story behind his many scars. Now I was wishing I had. So Valerius had been right. He had sensed his psychotic twin sister on this island, being hosted by this crazy-ass redneck. My former colleague, and friend. The man I’d killed, trying to save my sister. Sparks flew as he tread closer towards me through the ash and scorched earth.

“What have you done?” I whispered out loud, not really expecting an answer. My mind raced, tracing through the progression of events that had lead me to this exact moment. My failed mission to the Barbegazi stronghold in the Alps. Being hired by vampires to take out Elle Dawson, under false pretenses, and then bound to an infernal demon in an unholy ritual that made me virtually immortal. Being stranded on Wolf Isle as a ticking time bomb. Against all odds, escaping the island, rescuing Elle and the cure, and defeating Algerone Lamonia…

Somehow it had made all this destruction possible; maybe even inevitable. Cat was alive, Lamonia was dead, but so were the thousands of wolves I’d left behind. Ewan sidled closer and I ducked into a crouch, automatically going for my weapon, though I knew it would do me no good in this situation. If Ewan truly had a demon within him, he wasn’t going to stay dead.

“You really wanna know the answer to that question?” he asked, stuffing his hands in his pockets casually, as if he hadn’t just blown the island all to hell. His innocent smile and Southern charm was incongruous with the destruction behind him. It grated against my frazzled nerves like fingers running along a chalkboard. I knew instinctively that I wouldn’t like his answer. But I had to know.

“But you’re a Trust agent. Why would you help the vampires?”

Ewan shrugged. “Why not?”

“They kill people, Ewan. They kill them and eat them.” Vampires were everything the Trust was against at a core level. Even if not exactly xenophobes, we understood that creatures which fed on human blood couldn’t ever be allowed complete control of civilization or they’d turn it into their personal feeding banks.

Ewan’s eyes narrowed. “It ain’t so different from what we do, eh, Nat? At least they got a reason. They need to feed, to survive. You and me, we just do it for fun.”

Bile crept up my throat and I turned my head, just in case I threw up. It sickened me, but he was right. Although the Trust was predicated on the ideal of equality for all supernaturals, most mages had a visceral disdain for bloodshed in general and vampires particularly. Officially, the elite team of hunters I worked with were only meant to enforce justice and police those who got out of control and hurt humans, but I’d taken matters into my own hands on more than a few occassions.

Even before Valerius, I’d used my skills to enforce vigilante justice. The vampires’ aura was a dull throb, like a tension headache, their very existence made me nauseous. Taking out a vampire offered a slight moment of ease and took some of the pressure off. It made me feel like, just maybe, I was doing something right, something good.

But I’d never confessed the sick pleasure I’d taken to anyone else on my team, and had assumed Dom’s flat condemnation of my actions was universal. I’d been kicked out and scorned, refused magic, and carefully watched by the Trust’s lackey to make sure I halted my murderous moonlighting. Yes, I’d turned to Landon and his crew of assassins when the Trust atrocities had grown too horrible for me to bear. But I’d never enjoyed my work. I’d never gone into a fight thirsting for the kill, or had I? A sinking doubt grew in the pit of my stomach that Ewan and I weren’t that different, and I raged against it, biting my lip until I drew blood.

This disgust, this feeling of wretchedness and betrayal, was this how it had felt for Dom when he’d discovered that I was moonlighting as an assassin? Because if so, I wanted to throw my arms around him and apologize for all the times I’d bitched at him. I’d considered Ewan a friend, and felt a constant sense of guilt about killing him when he was just doing his duty. But now I was horrified by the man that stood before me. I itched to sink my fangs into his throat.

Ewan studied my expression with a smirk. “See? I can read it in your eyes. You want to kill me.”

“You committed genocide, Ewan!” I yelled. “Hell yes, I want to put you in the ground. Tell me why you did it and maybe I won’t rip your arms off and beat you with them.”

Ewan took another step, trying to circle around me. He carried himself with all the lazy assurance of a panther at rest. Everything about him seemed to have changed. The loveable wizard with his whimsical smile and good-ol-boy charm was still there, but it hung loosely like a second skin, and for the first time I could see the monster beneath. Had he always been like that, and I’d just never noticed? Or was Bryne eating him from the inside out?

“My, my. Looks like I’ve struck a nerve. Did I offend your delicate, ladylike sensibilities, Nat?”

“But…how?” I asked. I’d been told that the demon could only be hosted by a specific bloodline. My bloodline, which had been the reason they’d targeted my sister and then me. We were descended from a line of ancient Aztec mages who’d been hand-selected to host Valerius or Bryne when the time came.

My eyes swept over Ewan once more, taking in his plain, middle-American appearance. He was as Caucasian as they came and, so far as I knew, had no native ancestry. I wished I’d had time to finish reading the book of ritual magic, the Aztec guide I was having translated. It was to be my reward for killing Elle, a way to save my sister and get my life back. I really still had no idea what I was up against, but everything about this screamed wrong.

Ewan picked idly at a hangnail, still scrutinizing my expression.

“You didn’t think you were the last, did you? Lamonia wasn’t innovative enough the first time he tried the summoning. The ritual requires the blood of a mage in your lineage. I had the magic I needed, just not the blood. I tried taking your sister’s blood at first, but Valerius nearly strangled me to death. And there was no chance of stealing any from you after you were exiled and the Five were disbanded. So I had to get inventive.”

Ewan began circling me again and I adjusted my aim, bringing the gun to bear. If I had to kill him, so be it. I could drag his sorry carcass back to the ship and let the wolves dispense their justice. Maybe if we threw him into an incinerator for a day he’d stay dead.

“Did Dom ever tell you what I was up to? Or did Algerone have you chasing your tail so long that you never thought to ask?”

“He said you fancied yourself Indiana Jones and were raiding old tombs for ritual artifacts.”

Ewan snapped his fingers jovially. “So close but no cigar. I was actually looking for a lost Amazonian tribe. Some of your relatives, in fact. It took some doing because they really covered their tracks, but I eventually discovered their little hamlet in the jungle. It took a whole group of village elders to do the trick. I transfused myself with their blood one-by-one, just before the Dawson mission, until the demon found my body a worthy and compatible vessel. I’d been warned you were coming and had the ritual done in secret. And just in time, too. You killed me and left me for dead.

“But you came back,” I whispered.

“As did you, and here we are,” Ewan spread his hands and finished with a light laugh. “Two supreme beings standing in the ruined wreck of a once pristine beach. Beautiful, ain’t it?”

My eyes swept the beach, taking in the debris that remained from the destruction of Wolf Isle. The force of the blast had scattered battered bodies, wrecked cars, and assorted furniture haphazardly. Half a couch smoldered nearby, surrounded by scattered glass and palm branches. I wasn’t sure what encompassed Ewan’s definition of beauty, but it clearly didn’t match mine.

Dread and horror filled me as my brain caught up with his words. I’d never been close to my heritage, my lineage. I hadn’t known much about it, or taken much of an interest until after Cat’s accident. And now they were gone. Ewan had tracked them down, sucked out their blood and experimented on them. He was a plague. A monster.

“But, why this? Why the wolves?”

Ewan shrugged.

“It was always Lamonia’s plan,” he said. “A hundred years ago, he’d voyaged around the world searching for a powerful ancient weapon. He found what he was looking for trapped under an Aztec temple in the south of Mexico: two young, extremely powerful demons. He brought them back, but they could only be awakened with a descendent or pure blood host. First he tried with your sister, then you, but your pure blood was too well suited to host the demons, which made you stubbornly immune to his influence. He was never a fan of my own solution, but I decided to risk it. When it worked, Lamonia fed me pints of his own blood to make sure I was properly bound to him. He wanted power – more than immortality. He wanted to yield it. He was frustrated at needing a human intermediary, but the blooding was an adequate safeguard. He sent me down here as a failsafe. I felt it the second he died. The shackles were off, as it were. I couldn’t have controlled Bryne if I’d wanted to… all that rage, centuries of simmering anger. It all flooded out of me, and, well, you see the results. Don’t you get it Natalia, you did this.”

I shivered, despite the heat. Lamonia had warned me this would happen, but I killed him anyway to satisfy a personal vendetta. And now, thousands of wolves were dead. All those infected by the lupine cure, and those shipped off to Wolf Isle simple due to their race. Thanks to Elle’s cure, they could have all been saved. I’d doomed them. Now Bryne was free and unrestrained. An immortal demon in the body of a psychopathic mage, and there was no way to stop him.

“You’re sick,” I hissed. “You need help, Ewan.” I couldn’t believe that the man I’d shared freezing cold tents and blazing hot bunkers with for years could be this much of a monster.

“Aww, how sweet,” Ewan crooned. “Little Iron Heart wants to save me.”

He sobered, the smile fading from his face with such suddenness I could have sworn it had never been. “But I don’t want saving, Nat. I was promised a front-row ticket to the apocalypse. I’m not letting you or anyone else get in the way of seein’ it. I don’t know how you managed to gag Valerius, but I ain’t letting your bleeding heart get in the way of my fun.”

“Fun?” My voice shot through two octaves on the way out. I slipped my finger into the trigger guard and sank into a crouch, ready to launch myself at him. “You think this is fun? What do you think comes after the end of the world, you nihilistic asshole?”

Ewan drew a hand through the air as though scooping something water from a bowl. A ball of superheated air congealed in his palm. I’d seen him use this trick before and knew just how devastating the results could be. He tended to aim for the middle, the heat of the air burning holes into the target’s guts while the force of the compressed air carried it through the torso, eating away at the innards as it went. He’d lob ball after ball until he tired of the assault and switched to a new element. It was like a game of dodgeball from hell.

“Simple,” he said, twirling the mini cyclone on the tip of his finger. “We’ll usher in new age of humanity, with me ruling them all…as a god.”

My eyes bugged with disbelief. I couldn’t decide if he was completely batshit, or if he really thought it would work. Bryne only clung to his body because he’d drained some poor bastards dry and transfused himself with the proper blood type. What, did he plan to save a camp full of humans from the end of days only to suck them down like juice boxes when they’d outlived their usefulness?

“You’re insane,” I said. “She’ll erase you, you won’t remember anything.”

 

“Who told you that?” he smirked. “Your dead vampire? He was trying to limit us, he was afraid of what we’d become. He’s old, but he doesn’t remember what it was like in the beginning… emerging out of primordial fire. Don’t you remember, when it was just you and me? We were alone. They killed our mother. They locked us up, put us to sleep, buried us away. For awhile, our worship powered dynasties of divine kings. Then we were placated by blood while they built stone tombs around our mortal coils. We woke up to eternal separation and darkness.

I shuddered despite myself. Had Valerius and his sister been buried alive in human hosts? Immortal, but contained by a mountain of stone. No wonder they were angry.

It was not pleasant, Valerius agreed. But maybe it was necessary.

He’s scared, I realized. Something in him had changed. He’d been bound to Cat for years, maybe it softened him. He was more human than Bryne. Did that make him stronger, or weaker?

If we start all over, Valerius continued, wipe the slate clean of humans… the gods will fight again, humans will be reborn, who knows what worse faits await? Why risk worse calamaties when I’m already free?

“Sorry,” I spat, the words dripping like acid from my tongue. “Valerius and I are going to pass on the end of the world shenanigans. It’s just not our scene.”

Ewan’s eyes narrowed to slits and he bounced the ball once in his hand. “Then you’ll die.”

Winding up like a major league ballplayer, he let the sphere fly. It hurtled through the air with enough speed to create its own sonic boom. I barely had enough time to flatten myself to the ground, realizing too late that doing so wasn’t safe either. The patch of sand beneath me shifted, tugging me down with the inexorable force of quicksand. I kicked, moving my body horizontally. It took the stuff a little while to stick and the best way to escape quicksand was not to become trapped in the first place.

I’d barely shuffled out of the deadly mix when Ewan’s knee came flying toward my face. The impact rattled my teeth and sent pain shooting up into my skull. It would have been less agonizing if he’d just shoved a hot poker up one nostril. My nose broke, spewing blood all over the denim pant leg before me.

I landed on my back with a cry and rolled away from the stomp that came down toward my head. With his newfound strength, the blow was sure to crush my skull like a duck egg and pulp my brains all over the sandy beach. Even knowing he couldn’t keep me dead for good didn’t lessen my horror at the prospect. This man wasn’t the person I’d known. There was no telling what he’d do with my body.

I had to stop him, somehow. Ewan seemed to have no compunctions torturing or killing me. And I needed more answers before I could do the same to him. His powers had increased in their potency since the transition into a monster. The key was to disable Bryne, so we’d be on somewhat equal footing. If I let Valerius off the leash to play, the conflict would only escalate until the whole world was consumed.

There was only one method I’d found that could pacify Valerius for a time. I had Barabbas Grieves to thank for the knowledge that violent blood sacrifice was necessary to pacify the ancient Aztec demons. But if Ewan suspected my motives, he wasn’t going to waste time trapping me in quicksand or blowing a hole through my middle. He’d set me on fire and hold me in the flames while I baked like a rotisserie chicken.

Rolling onto my back, I lined up a shot and pulled the trigger. I missed my intended target, his eye, and instead blew a divot the size of a quarter in one cheek. Blood streamed through the superheated air, floating like glittering rubies for a few moments before evaporating completely.

I regained my feet, launching into a right hook that snapped his head almost ninety degrees to the side. I heard something crack, at any rate. Ewan spat a tooth onto the sand and muttered a curse.

“Guess you don’t hit like a girl anymore, Valdez.”

“I never hit like a girl,” I snarled. Ewan lifted a hand to click his jaw back into place, and I noticed a glimmering tattoo on his neck. I wondered how many times he’d died, and how many tattoos and demonic powers were at his disposal. I glared at the Aztec symbol, wishing I could read what it meant.

My mind raced over my powers, but there was nothing useful on this barren island, nothing but death. My eyes widened and I touched the tattoos on my collarbone. Fire, darkness, blood and death. Could it be that simple? I flexed my fingers, reaching out with my aura, sweeping across the landscape. It took a moment to see them. Hundreds of wolf corpses, mangled and half burnt, some little more than bones, letting off a dark energy. They felt a little like vampires: an absence of life like a pocket or hole. I felt my aura tether with them, binding them to my will, and when I beckoned, they came. Shaking themselves off from ash and debris, smoldering bones and charred tendons reattaching. I smiled as the first launched itself at Ewan, chomping down on his leg with feral determination. He screamed in rage as another attached itself to his arm, bringing him down.

I raised my wrist up to my mouth, biting swiftly into the thick, fleshy pad of my palm, digging hard to reach one of the many veins in my hand. I pressed it to his mouth, getting a grip on his bicep before he could twist away from me. Pinning his legs in place with mine, I hauled us both to the ground and grappled with the cursing redneck until I was satisfied he’d gotten at least a half a pint from my injured palm.

Ewan stood, eyes flying open wide as he sensed the disconnect.

“What the hell did you do, you bitch?” he hissed.

“Leveling the playing field,” I said, retrieving the gun from its position mere feet away. I leveled it at his head, smirking. “Now that you’re mortal again, let’s talk.”

Make sure you get the first two books so you’ll be caught up when this one launches!

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