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Devious Angel – urban fantasy free chapter!


“Cora, this is the worst idea you’ve ever had.”

I whistled between my teeth. “I do like to outdo myself,” I said.

I glanced over my shoulder at Noah, who was slowly losing a fierce battle with humidity. His brown eyes were half-hidden by the fog creeping up his glasses, and his black hair had fluffed out to nearly twice its usual size.

“You know. You’re welcome to leave and let me face the felding all alone,” I said, adopting the most innocent, pure-hearted damsel look I could muster.

With a sigh, Noah tore off his glasses and wiped them on his short-sleeved shirt. The black material was terrible at cleaning his glasses, though, and poor Noah ended up replacing humidity with dust and fabric fibers. “You know I wouldn’t,” he replied, giving me a cross glance.

Of course, I knew. I grinned and turned my attention back to the soft slap of the boats’ hulls and the dull roar of the waves, heavy with debris from the latest storm, beating lowly against the docks.

“We’ll be fine,” I said, as I resumed walking along the dock, Noah following despite his protests.

“How do you even know this is the right place?”

“I overheard Father and Professor Faye talking about it,” I said.

Overheard,” Noah said flatly.

Okay, maybe overheard wasn’t the best word to use. Overheard implied that it had been happenstance. And it wasn’t. I had snuck out of my room in the dead of night and listened through the crack in a barely open door, after all.

“Details!” I declared, waving flippantly. “Point is, I know. The felding is here. I promise!”

“And you couldn’t let your father and Professor Faye handle it?” Noah asked. 

“I imagine they’re both busy planning for the upcoming semester,” I replied. “They already have enough to do. We’d actually be helping if we dispatched this felding for them! Besides, we’re going to be acolytes soon, and—”

“And there’s a big difference between two new acolytes and alary like your father and Professor Faye.”

The alary were the elite warriors who secretly protected humanity from all the evil and creepy monsters in the world. But I was tired of letting them do everything, while I sat in the wings being treated like a fragile academy princess. I raked a few damp strands of blonde hair back from my eyes and looked across the road at my destination: the water treatment plant. The sound of churning water blended with the mechanical clang of grinding metal, as we waited for a car to pass by. Over the noise of the water treatment plant, a screeching snarl echoed off the buildings around us. I grinned at Noah, then sprinted across the road. I paused at a round, concrete wall, waiting for him to cross the road and join me. Despite there being no cars in sight, Noah looked both ways twice and sprinted across the road as if Satan himself ran in pursuit.

“Ready to slay a dragon?” I asked.

“Actually, I was thinking about Professor Lynn, whose great-aunt—”

“Had her head ripped off and eaten by a dragon,” I finished, rolling my eyes. “My father’s only told me that story a billion times. I don’t need it from you, too.”

“He’s just looking out for you,” Noah said. “As am I.”

I knew that, but sometimes, my father acted like I was nine instead of nineteen in three weeks. And I suspected if my father had his way, I’d be kept as far from danger as possible for the rest of my life. Even my angel-blessed blood and destiny as a warrior wasn’t enough to soothe my father’s fears of losing me. Like he’d lost my mother Aurora. Best not to think about her.

Noah wasn’t much different from my father, though he had absolutely no reason to be so protective. He was only twenty but fretted over me like an old, overly doting grandmother. But he’d once promised my father that he’d protect me, and despite that promise being made when Noah was eight, he took it very seriously.

“Besides, Professor Lynn’s aunt was killed by a fire dragon,” I said, forcing a smile. “This is a water dragon, and considering it’s just living in this water plant, it has to be small. The humans probably just think it’s an alligator.”

The hissing screech of the dragon split the air around us, just on the other side of the concrete wall. The solid, straight concrete wall. I tipped my head back, judging the height. Fifteen feet? Twenty? There didn’t appear to be any ladders or footholds and no nearby fence or tree to jump from.

“How are we going to get in?” Noah asked, as if he’d read my mind.

“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked.

It really wasn’t, but I refused to admit that I hadn’t foreseen this particular obstacle. I’d figure it out. I didn’t come all this way to be defeated by a concrete wall.

“We leave it to the alary, who have wings, years of weapons training, and blessings from the angels?” Noah asked.

“No,” I replied.

I kept walking along the length of the structure, searching for any way up. There was something odd, a place where the moonlight cast a short, horizontal shadow. I trailed my hands up the concrete, groping the space. My fingers brushed against an object, damp and solid, just above my head. It was the remains of something. A step or a ladder, maybe? “We climb,” I said, grinning.

Noah sighed and cast his eyes heavenwards, as if God Almighty might instill him with enough divine patience to handle me. I sucked in a deep breath and jumped. My fingers curled over the edge of the step as I hauled myself up. My eyes darted upward, squinting through the darkness. There was another step, a couple feet up. Carefully balancing on the narrow step, I pulled myself onto the next one and quickly scaled the side of the concrete. My arms burned as I reached the top and pulled myself onto the rim, being careful not to fall into the water on the other side. I turned to Noah, reaching a hand to help him stand as he joined me. “See? No wings needed,” I said.

He didn’t smile. Instead, he gazed into the murky pool of water beneath us. “Is it even in here?” Noah asked.

I bent down, peering closer into the water, but only saw my own distorted reflection in the smooth surface. In the murky water, my blue eyes looked black and my pale hair a dingy gray. I pulled at my black blouse, which clung uncomfortably to my skin. The humid air that struck my bare stomach didn’t offer the comfort I’d wanted. The sweat gathering under my breasts and beneath my sturdy, canvas pants was worse. If there hadn’t been the threat of a dragon, I’d have been tempted to jump in fully clothed, despite the filmy layer of grime floating on the water’s surface.

Without warning, a flash of blue lightning lanced through the water toward us, just as something slammed against the concrete. A jagged sliver forked up the side of the wall beneath Noah’s feet, a trickle of water seeping out of the crack. Noah stumbled backwards as the concrete shuddered under his feet. I grabbed his arm to stop him from stepping off the ledge.

“Careful,” I said, as he regained his footing.

I drew a four-inch cylindrical rod from my back pocket and pressed my thumb into the m-shaped rune – flicking my wrist the way I’d seen my father do a thousand times. The weapon extended into a nine-foot lance with a deadly point.

Noah’s jaw dropped. “Cora, no. You didn’t,” he said.

“Oh, but I did!” I replied, smirking. “What else were we going to use to fight a dragon?”

Noah smiled, a new eagerness flashing in his eyes. He reached over his shoulder and drew a star-bright Crusader’s sword from the sheath across his back. “The sword of Saint George?” he suggested.

“And you criticized me for stealing my father’s dragon lance!” I exclaimed.

“The good Saint’s sword was just gathering dust in the library,” Noah said.

“There’s hope for you yet,” I replied, “but God above, my father is going to kill us both.”

My father was the chancellor of Divine Providence, the academy that trained the alary, and as his daughter, I knew I’d get a good scolding and a slap on the wrists. At worst, maybe a month of latrine duty. But Noah could face real punishment, especially for borrowing a Saint’s weapon. His mother worked in the kitchens of Divine Providence, and his father had abandoned him long ago. Noah didn’t have a high-ranking family to protect him.

“It’s not too late to turn back,” Noah said, his voice becoming serious, “and pretend none of this ever happened.”

I shook my head and tightened my grip on the lance. “Not unless we’re hauling the head of a water dragon with us.”

The surface of the water churned a little. I watched for flashes of blue, studying the shimmer of moonlight reflecting on the surface.

“Do you see it?” I asked, as I circled around on the ledge.

I tucked my father’s lance between my bicep and my ribs and curled my hand around the weapon’s shaft, forcing it steady. My whole arm ached from its weight. It was bigger than me by about three and a half feet. That gave me a good reach, but I hadn’t anticipated it being so unwieldy. Father always made it look so easy, and the life-size mural of Michael and his six brothers slaying a dragon horde in the great hall made it look simple enough. Tuck under your arm, aim, pointy-end forward. But they had wings, which probably served as a counterbalance. God, why hadn’t I thought of that before? As blue lightning flashed in the water, I suddenly wish I’d brought a trident instead or a sword like Noah had.

A swish of a finned tail flicked up through the surface. I stabbed the lance down before the dragon could disappear into the depths again. Its snarling cry tore through the air and echoed off the water, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere.

The dragon dove, threatening to pull my lance with it. Frantically, I pushed on the rune, causing the lance to collapse once more. Red blood spurted from the tip, staining the water with a colorful cloud. Once more, I pressed the rune on the lance, extending it to its full length again. Beside me, Noah cried out. I barely caught sight of the triple row of jagged teeth, as the blue-scaled beast reared out of the tank behind us. For a split second, I stood frozen and mesmerized. I’d always heard of dragons as being monstrous beasts who ate the hearts of angelborn for power. A hundred angel hearts and—the bestiaries said—a dragon could become human. I’d seen countless illustrations and tapestries of dragons being slain.

But I’d never realized how beautiful they were. The dragon’s scales looked like sleek, polished sapphires, and its delicate-looking wings were thin and translucent like a dragonfly’s. Even the dragon’s sharp spines and crests seemed lovely, like icicles clinging from a tree. Then, the spell was broken, and I steeled myself for the coming attack. It snapped at Noah, who slammed into me, pushing me off-balance and into nothingness.

Over our heads, the dragon launched from the edge of the tank. It flew through the air with its short wings, then dove into the murky sludge just feet from us. When my body struck the lukewarm water, I floundered, struggling with the weight of my father’s lance. Praying that the dragon didn’t choose then to strike, I collapsed the lance and dragged my way up through the water, gasping for air as I broke the surface. My eyes stung with the rank, chemically treated water. My soggy boots dragged me downwards, but I kicked hard to stay above water. I reached the edge of the tank and leaned against it, swiveling my head to look for Noah.

He surfaced a short distance away, but then dove and disappeared for several heartbeats. When he surfaced again, his face was frantic.

“What is it?” I shouted.

“I dropped the sword!”

I growled in frustration and tucked my father’s lance into my back pocket. Instead, I drew out my mother’s twin daggers, as always, sheathed at my thighs. With my hands free, I swam across the water and shoved the hilt of the second dagger into Noah’s hand, just as the water beneath us began to churn.

I kicked away from the edge of the tank and out of the path of the breaching water dragon. It broke the surface, jaw chomping. I gasped, pain shooting up my leg as its teeth sank into my ankle. I sucked a frantic breath before the creature dragged me beneath the surface. Twisting my body underwater, I thrust the dagger down at the scaled flesh of the beast. The blade turned against scales, unable to penetrate the thick, natural armor. I almost screamed in surprise as a second scaled body slammed into my ribs, but forced my mouth shut to preserve precious air, biting my tongue hard in the process.

I slashed again at the dragon holding me, then kicked hard with my other leg. Its teeth ripped through the skin at my ankle and snagged on my boot, a chunk of leather coming away in its mouth. I kicked off its head to surface, took in a frantic breath, and dove again.

I roughly wiped away water from my burning eyes and searched for the dragons. I barely made out the flickers of blue as their scales and wings glowing in the moonlight. Their tails swished, cutting through the water as they circled back on me. The water rippled as Noah dove beside me. We nodded at each other as the first beast snaked its way toward us. It cut swiftly through the water with its short wings and swaying tail.

The beast’s mouth opened wide like the gaping jaws of an alligator. I kicked away, out of its reach, as Noah slashed his dagger across the eye on one side. I buried my hilt through the other. Blinded and enraged with pain, the dragon snarled and thrashed. My chest burned, and I pushed myself back to the surface for air.

I barely managed to gulp a fresh lungful of air before the second dragon rammed into me. It seized my left arm with its jaws and wrapped its wings around me like a cocoon, dragging me beneath the surface. I slashed out with the dagger, slicing through the delicate skin of its fragile wings until the blade struck bone. It thrashed and recoiled. I surfaced again, then cried out as its sharp spines dug into my back. Once more, its jaws gripped my bleeding ankle. “Noah!” I yelled before my head sank beneath the surface again.

My lungs burned from the lack of oxygen, and the moon above the tank grew fuzzy as the dragon’s deadly grip pulled me to the bottom of the tank. Blood stained the water and swirled around me in clouds of color. How much was mine? My ankle and arm throbbed, and the deep gouges in my back burned like wildfire.

A shadow blotted out the light. The dragon’s jaws loosened, and its whole body grew limp. I slipped out of its grasp, but my clothes were sodden and my muscles weak with exhaustion. I kicked and swished my arms through the water, but my movements were sluggish. Heavy, impossible. My thoughts were groggy, slow, and my vision grew black at the edges, as murky as the water around me.

Strong arms wrapped around me. A part of me wanted to thrash, to fight off this new attacker, but I was so tired. So very tired. When the night air hit my face, I gasped, coughing up water as I was lifted through the air. My rescuer’s feet struck the pavement at the foot of the tank. Did he just jump down to the ground? Impossible. The distance was fifteen or twenty feet.He loomed over me, night-black eyes gazing into my face with sharp intensity.

“Dammit, Cora,” he muttered.

His dark, velvety voice was familiar, although my mind was slow to put a name with it. I blinked in confusion. My eyes burned from the water, but I was almost certain I glimpsed fanged teeth between his lips.

“Aamon?” I whispered.

I must be imagining things. It couldn’t be him.

My body recoiled from the hard pavement as Aamon laid me on the ground. Every cell of my body felt hyper-sensitive and charged. I shakily sat upright, my throat raw. My eyes traced over his dark hair, his strong jaw, and the barely noticeable scar that cut just beneath his right eyebrow. It wasn’t a scar earned in battle or anything like that. He’d hit his head on the coffee table as a child.

“Aamon,” I rasped, choking on his name.

He glanced at something in the distance, then shook his head.

A second later, his thumb traced my cheek, his touch like lightning. “Please, don’t do anything stupid,” he whispered. “Anything else.”

I shivered at the chill on my skin where his hand had rested. Then, he was gone, as if he’d simply become one with the shadows around me. My head spun as I looked around, trying to find him.

“Cora?” my father cried.

I glanced up. His metal armor and star-white wings shined in the moonlight.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Noah,” I croaked, my throat is rough and raw, “The dragons.”

He sighed and flicked a hand to command the others. I swallowed, closing my eyes against the pain that throbbed through every part of me. I couldn’t bring myself to move. My thoughts were in fragments, but still, I wondered if Noah was okay and if we at least managed to get a dragon head out of this whole, stupid misadventure.

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Busted Angel urban fantasy free chapter


I was going to kill Lydna when I got back to Divine Providence. I glared at my boots, pink frilly dress and studded leather jacket. She’d sworn this look was popular with humans, but the other passengers wore muted, comfortable clothing. But it was a short flight, and all I had to do was watch movies and kill someone.

I wondered if I should order champagne, but I needed my head clear. I clocked my mark, a few rows ahead of me, just behind the curtain that led to first class. From what I could see, he had at least one travelling companion. My long legs were cramped behind the tiny seat, and I felt the weapons strapped to the small of my back. Vamps preferred guns, so I’d be the only one armed, not that it mattered. Taking down one vamp alone would require skill, even with the wooden stakes I’d snuck through airport security, and two was suicidal.

This is why the alary never went on missions alone, but I had to prove myself somehow. A year after giving birth and Joel still managed to keep me bound to the manor like an invalid. A high-value vamp was just the right target to prove to the chancellor I was ready for action.

But he’d be isolated from his horde, and trapped in a steel box, seven miles in the air. There was nowhere to run, which meant one of us wouldn’t be making it home tonight. This plan was either genius, or insane. Lynda would have called it post-partum psychosis or something like that, but a future of being homebound, learning to cook and taking care of an infant was infinitely worse than death. I’d been bred as a killing machine my whole life, and I refused to let my skills go wasted.

Besides, I’d killed dozens of vamps in only a few short years, some even before I’d earned my wings. Not to mention a handful of fae and djinn, though they were much rarer. I’d only seen a mermaid once, but we usually leave them alone, as they don’t interfere in human affairs and are absolutely deadly underwater.

I didn’t recognize the dark-haired bloodsucker in first class, but I’d done my research. Some kind of eastern european aristocrat. I was surprised he wasn’t taking a private jet for the instagram, but then I guess he wouldn’t show up in the pictures anyway. Vamps weren’t exactly insta-friendly.

And despite their wealth, they were cheap, which is how I knew he’d only be travelling with far fewer bodyguards. I heard a laugh ahead of me, and realized he’d starting chatting up another passenger, a pretty blonde with a white skirt and a gold necklace. She had far too much mascara and lips that were too plump to be natural. My heart pounded as she glanced at him wickedly, before getting up to use the restroom. He followed a moment later.

Charming bastard. Sure he’s handsome and rich as fuck, but that didn’t mean he had to bang every former gameshow hostess that crossed his path. With any luck, he was just thirsty. A few sips of first-class heiress blood would slow his reflexes, and keep him distracted so I could sneak up on him.

But that meant this was happening now.

The angelic brand on my arm started to glow in anticipation, but it was dampened by the dark leather jacket. I couldn’t stake his companion with so many passengers around, but thankfully they also disguised my smell, so I was able to sneak up close enough to touch him. The light flashed down my palms as I pinched the space behind his ear. My magic sparkled under his translucent skin. He flinched, but didn’t move, as my power held him paralyzed. With my other hand, I took a clove of garlic from my jacket pocket and stuffed it gently between his fangs. His eyes widened as the allergic reaction stiffened his limbs, activating the dormant rigor mortis in his black veins. I shut his jaw and strapped a disposable eye mask from the care package we’d been given.

“Night night,” I whispered, as I pulled my fingers away from his neck.

One down, one to go.

* * *

I saw a flight attendant glance at the bathroom door, but she just rolled her eyes. Apparently she was used to first class passengers taking their priveleges into the bathroom. I waited till she passed, then rammed the flimsy door open with my shoulder, busting the cheap lock. The vamp’s pale chin was covered in blood, his fangs fully extended, his back to me. I slashed out with the wooden spike, but he whirled quickly, blocking himself with the girl. I stabbed between her shoulder blades, but the wound was shallow. She moaned, still intoxicated from the vampire’s venom. I kicked the back of her knees, and she folded like a puppet, leaving the vampire exposed. This time I struck true, but in the tiny bathroom, I couldn’t get enough momentum to pierce his ribs. I felt the stake slide between them, inches from his heart.

Shit. This was not going well. He sneered at me, smashing my head into the mirror, before rushing past me into the main cabin. I took a deep breath and followed, picking bits of glass out of my hair.

When he reached his companion, he tore off the eye mask and pried the garlic out of his mouth, scowling as he wiped the vampire drool off against the plush seat fabric. In about a minute, I’d have to fight both of them. But I didn’t need a minute.

Passengers screamed as I charged down the aisle, leap-frogging over the rows of chairs to plant a boot into his jaw. He caught my leg and threw me to the ground, so hard the luggage compartment above us snapped open, spilling their contents. Movement to my left caught my eye, and I squinted at the dark shape outside the oval window, silhouetted by the moonlight sky.

I flinched at the sound of tearing metal. Green scales pressed up against the window.

“You fool,” the vamp croaked, just as one of the engines was ripped off in a burst of flame, smoke and a shower of sparks.

The plane rocked violently to the side, before going into a nose dive that had us tumbling across the floor, then sliding along the walls above the heads of the strapped-in passengers. Joel was going to kill me when he found out about this unsanctioned mission. If I lived that long.

I couldn’t fight a dragon with a wooden stake. This one looked centuries old, very mean, and nearly as big as the plane. They rarely attacked humans, and there hadn’t even been a sighting for over a decade, as far as I knew. What are the chances, I muttered.

I stood my ground as the vampire charged, tearing apart the upholstered seats with his elongated claws as he dashed across the ceiling. The oxygen masked popped down, and the passengers clutched each other as they strapped in tightly. If I could just get my fingers around his wrist, I could incapacite him, at least until I figured out what to do next. But before his blow landed, the plane was torn apart from beneath us.

Wind sucked him instantly out of the mangled shell of the airplane. I clutched hold of the nearest seat, wrapping my hands into the seatbelt straps, even though the vibrations of the shaking plane made my teeth chatter.

Behind me, voices screamed as the now-open main cabin of the plane tumbled downwards in a death spiral. A little girl looked up at me with wide eyes and I heard her whisper, “look Mommy, an angel.”

“Sorry kid,” I said. “I’m not that kind of angel.”

Then I took off, driving through the scorched carnage of the plane and narrowly missing the flaming engine. I felt its warmth as I tumbled past. Then I flattened my body, riding the air forward like a missile. I found the dark silhouette of my mark a few hundred feet away. He probably wouldn’t survive the fall, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I grabbed his torso between my legs and stabbed him with the stake. He fought me off at first, but he wasn’t used to the low oxygen.

The thin air at this altitude made him weak. Finally, I felt his ribs snap and the wooden stake plunged into his rotten heart, oozing dark sludge over my fingers. Then I kicked away from him, as he plummeted towards the earth. Wind buffeted against me as I tore off my leather jacket, and rolled my bare shoulders back to unfurl my wings. I glanced back at the airplane, now a flaming inferno spinning towards the ground, but it was too late to save them. I watched as it hit the ground in an explosion, close to where my mark had fallen.

That’s one way to kill a vampire.

* * *

I took a breath, slowly flapping my wings to maintain altitude, wondering if I’d made the right choice. I could have saved that kid, but I’d chosen to take out the vamp instead. I couldn’t save the whole plane, but that kid, her, I could have saved. Now she was just another soul on my conscience.

My head still buzzing from the fight, I didn’t hear the slow pulse of the dragon’s wings until I felt the warm steam of his breath just behind me. The burst of hot air spun me sideways and when I glanced back, it was too late to avoid the wall of scales. Its talons bound me like a vice, snatching me in its massive claw like a hawk with a trout.

I felt the angelic mark on my wrist glow with power as I extended my shield around me, narrowing it to just a razor’s-edge over my skin to keep me from getting crushed. Even so, the pressure was immense. Enough to turn an SUV into a tin-can.

I clenched my jaw as the dragon flexed his knuckles. When the creature didn’t eat me immediately, I realized it was tenderizing me. I cursed at the nearly-full moon, which was pink and low on the horizon. I knew I should have consulted the astrocharts before leaving.

It was nearly Summer Solstice, on the year of a super strawberry moon that only occurred every twenty years. Breeding season. Dragons were periodical; like locusts, they emerged every few decades from their underground burrows, in search of mates. I’d been an infant during the last cycle, but that was no excuse. It was a stupid, and potentially fatal, mistake.

The thought of being fed to a nest of hatchlings made my blood freeze. Killing a vamp with an airplane? Badass. Becoming infant formula for a brood of baby dragons? Not cool.

The runes on my arm scalded against my skin, drawing more energy than I ever had before. My wing was pinned at an awkward angle and I gasped when I felt it snap. I shifted, trying to relieve the pressure, and the sharp edge of the dragon’s talons stripped off a few dozen primary feathers from my carpal edge.

I watched them fall with a sense of loss; I knew how long those suckers took to grow back. It meant Joel would have a new reason to keep me grounded, assuming I made it back at all. But I didn’t have much time to think about it. If I lost consciousness, I’d be done for. The stakes were useless against a full grown dragon, but I wasn’t out of options. With a snap of my wrist, I threw one at the dragon’s eye. At the same time, I flexed out with my shield, with all my remaining strength.

The distraction was just enough to pry apart the talons, allowing me to slip out and plunge into free fall. A moment later, I was tumbling down towards the city. I flapped my wings, which leaned to the side. My broken wing felt like a razor slicing through my shoulder, and it was hard not to fold it in and fly in circles, but with my shield energy depleted, I wouldn’t survive a fall from this height. I scanned the city skyline, as the evening lights of Boston rushed towards me. The streets were still full of tourists, warming up and pregaming for a hard night of drinking. Fucking Fridays.

I found a dark spot in the grid below, and recognized the steep towers and turrets of a church, one of Boston’s oldest. I knew it had a cemetery in the back. Perfect. With any luck, the trees would break my fall. Maybe there was even a pile of leaves waiting between the gravestones.

I started braking a hundred feet up, using the warm, polluted air of the city to slow my descent. Despite my stripped and broken wing, I managed to reduce my speed considerably, nearly hovering over the cemetery for an instant—barely enough to scan for threats. But then my strength gave out, and I let gravity take hold. I was still coming in too fast. It would hurt, but I’d live. I tucked my wings in, preparing for a hard landing as the ground raced up at me. But I never made it. Something dark hurdled into me from the side, knocking my breath away. The momentum carried both of us through the rose-shaped stained glass of the main ocular window.

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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.

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