UPDATE! Book one is out and book two just launched! Here’s the first chapter.
Chapter One – 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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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!”
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!”
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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!
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?”
“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!
Sharp pine needles pricked my skin. The forest around us was wet and damp; my legs were shaking, but it wasn’t from the icy wind blowing through the forest. I sheathed my sword and gaped upwards at Reverie, the floating kingdom we’d fallen from. We shouldn’t still be alive. Without Lucian, we wouldn’t have been. The scent of mold and leaf-litter tingled my nose. Bright green buds were poking through the carpet of dead leaves, but it was too early for spring.
The muscles in my back shifted. I winced in discomfort as the black wings between my shoulder blades, Lucian’s creation, folded away.
I felt the demon shifting around in my thoughts. I’m so tired, he murmured. I think I’m going to hide in the sword for a bit. I nodded, still too stunned to answer.
A hand seized my wrist. I tore my gaze from Reverie and looked instead at Alexander. He held me so tightly that I wondered if he could feel my pulse racing beneath his slender fingers. The intensity in his blue eyes took my breath away. It was as if he could strip me bare and see everything I was thinking. Light dappled through the forest canopy, casting spots of light and shadow over Alexander’s golden hair and fair skin. As I looked at him, time seemed to stand still for just an instant. He really was beautiful. Then he spoke and ruined the moment.
“What just happened?” Alexander asked, his voice shaking. “There’s no way way could’ve…”
He looked at me with a mixture of awe and fear, as if were a powerful mage, instead of a fraud from the Scraps. Which, I guess, he still thought I was. When I arrived in Reverie, I’d been a fraud, just pretending to have magic and cheating my way into the magic academy. I didn’t know what I was now. But as far was Alexander was concerned, I was a rich girl from Argent, the gated citadel in the middle of the Lower Realms. One who could talk to demons. A useful talent for a prince like him, even if it was forbidden.
I wasn’t ready for Alexander’s questions. Not after fighting against one of my possessed classmates, not after falling from Reverie, and not after all the magic it’d taken to free Lucian. I was too tired to lie, so I kept my mouth shut, averting my gaze towards the forest floor. It was so dark and green. I crouched, running my fingertips over the moss and studying a trail of ants.
“Wynter,” Alexander said, kneeling beside me. He brushed his fingers across my upper lip, and they came away sticky with blood. It reminded me of our kiss in the library.
“No one has ever survived a fall from Reverie,” he said, wiping his hands on a white handkerchief he pulled from the inside jacket of his dark gray coat. It was lined with silver trim that glittered when he moved.
“We did,” I replied absently.
“Yes, but how?” He handed me the handkerchief, now stained with blood, and I used it to clean up the rest of my nosebleed. Alexander’s rapier was drawn but held down at his side. I supposed that was a good sign. He hadn’t resolved to stab me yet.
I bit my lip. “I didn’t save us,” I said slowly.
I don’t think you should tell him, Lucian murmured.
Maybe not. But I was so tired of keeping secrets from everyone. And would it be so bad if Alexander did know what I’d done? If anyone in Reverie would accept me releasing a demon, it would be Alexander. Probably.
When I snapped my gaze back to him, Alexander’s eyes searched my face. Whatever he saw there didn’t please him.
“You actually freed it?” he asked, sounding hoarse. “But why isn’t it attacking? Wynter, you can’t—can you control it? Or did you just—”
It? Lucian asked indignantly. Remind your princeling that I just saved his life!
“No,” I said, “I can’t control him, and he’d like me to remind you that he just saved your life.”
He dropped my wrist and backed away with a sharp suddenness. My heart sank. Alexander had been the one to warn me against listening to the voices. Like all mages, he thought the demons were evil creatures, whispering evil temptations and destroying minds.
Hundreds of excuses flitted through my head, like butterflies trapped in a glass jar. But I was too tired to deal with Alexander’s disappointment. Maybe I should’ve lied, even though no lie would’ve been good enough to satisfy him. We were both about to die. Freeing Lucian was the only option, and I didn’t regret it.
Alexander’s face lost all its color, and yet his eyes seemed to brighten and sharpen. Beneath the wariness and the alarm, there was a spark of fascinated curiosity.
“He can…hear me?” Alexander asked.
I nodded. “Lucian hears everything I do.”
Alexander laughed, the noise edged with something brittle and hysterical, and sank to the ground. After a few seconds, he fell silent. I let the quiet stretch between us, glancing over his shoulder into the dark woods. I’d never been this deep in the forest before, and I had no idea how to survive in one. I wondered how far we were from the Scraps. With a sinking feeling, I realized that Alexander probably hadn’t been in a real forest, either. He’d grown up in luxury, surrounded by sculpted gardens, and thought a visit to Argent was slumming it. For a moment I felt a stab of fear. Just because we’d survived the fall from Reverie, didn’t mean we were safe.
“This is too much,” Alexander said suddenly. “You—you weren’t—you weren’t supposed to release a demon! Wynter, what if he tries to kill us?”
“If he wanted to kill us, he’d have let us fall,” I said.
“What if it’s something…I mean…” Alexander trailed off. “How do we know we can trust him?”
“Lucian didn’t control our classmate and make her attack us,” I said. “And he didn’t tear apart the Academy floor and make us fall from Reverie. All he has done is save our lives, and I think if we’re going to talk about people we trust, Lucian is a safe bet.”
Alexander buried his face between his hands and mumbled something I couldn’t hear. I felt a pang of sympathy. He must’ve been so confused, but at least, he wasn’t angry. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be angry at all. I didn’t think I had the strength to fight him.
I looked back to Reverie, nestled in the fluffy clouds and draped in the colors of sunset. It looked as beautiful as it always had, only I knew now it was full of dangerous mages and backstabbing politics. The earthquakes, the demon attacks. I took a deep breath and realized the air was thicker here, full of oxygen. I let it clear my head. For a moment, I wondered if I could just go home and leave this all behind me. I belonged on the ground with Briar and Sterling. I could just find a direction, head to the Scraps, and never think of Reverie again. Maybe I could even get Alexander to tell everyone I was dead, so no one would come looking for me.
But then I remembered Tatiana in the hospital, and the wild look in Viviane’s eyes when she attacked me. Someone in Reverie was behind the demon attacks, and the same person had possessed Viviane and nearly torn the Academy apart. Whatever they were looking for, I knew it wasn’t over. Could I really turn my back and let more people get hurt?
I looked back at Alexander and met his sharp eyes.
“I hope Viviane is all right,” I said.
“Me, too,” he sighed.
Viviane was awful to me, but I still wouldn’t have wished any harm on her. It must’ve been terrifying, to be controlled by someone else and forced to hurt people. After I’d burned through the glowing sigils in her arm, she’d collapsed and stammered in confusion. I wondered how much she even remembered.
“I wonder who the target was,” Alexander said. “Was someone trying to hurt Viviane, or someone else? Because she was being controlled with sigils, it had to have been a mage. Probably one that was nearby, too.”
“Like one of our professors?” I asked.
Alexander nodded slowly. “I don’t understand any of this,” he said.
Neither did I. But whatever happened to Viviane was connected to something much larger—something involving demon attacks, earthquakes and potentially a magical charm. I thought of all the girls I’d met at the Academy, the girls who’d had classes with me and slept in the same dormitories with me. I thought of Celeste and Professor Gareth, who had both been so kind to me. Whatever was going on up in Reverie, it was unlikely to stop now, which meant everyone in Reverie was in danger.