Hidden: the Dark Forgotten

Not even magic can hide forever …

Elite tracker Rafe Devries is summoned home to hunt the fae. He isn’t the first to track the mysterious Magician, but every other wolf who caught the enemy’s scent has disappeared. Rafe would sooner refuse the job—he’s already left the pack once to escape his Alpha father—but the Magician is luring innocents to their destruction. If Rafe doesn’t step up, the wolves have no future.

Lila, maverick daughter of an ancient fae family, meets her brother at a hidden way station in the woods. The secretive setting is a bad sign. Though she loves her kin, they’re experts at finding trouble—especially when blood loyalty and courtly ambition collide. The night only gets worse when a wolf shifter and his vampire sidekick break into the station, igniting a chain of lethal events. With her brother wounded and the rest of her family in peril, Lila must fight to save them.

When Lila captures Rafe, a battle of wits—and a dangerous attraction—begins. But surviving each other is just the beginning. The Magician holds sway over the faery court’s savage political games, where wolves and fae alike are mere puppets. Lila and Rafe must learn to trust one another enough to uncover their enemy’s true identity, or no one—least of all two unlikely lovers—will survive.

 

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Publisher: Rowan & Ash Artistry
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Chapter 1

 

There.

Scent danced on the breeze, an elusive wisp that beckoned Rafe Devries forward. He traveled in wolf form, a gray shadow gliding under the trees. He pushed through the ferns and low-hanging branches, but that invisible beacon—elusive even to his sensitive nose—vanished like a dancer beneath her veils. With a frustrated growl, he backtracked, enormous paws silent on the forest floor.

The bowl of the valley surrounded him like cupped palms, holding in the soft whisper of stream and lake. He worked alone, using his beast’s senses to tease out what surveillance technology could not. His quarry was somewhere in this wilderness—that much was certain—but no one had caught a glimpse of the fae for weeks.

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Rafe tasted the breeze, sifting through the smells. Each had a texture and color in his mind, as unique as faces in a crowd. He would—No, he must find his prey. The search hadn’t started with one lone wolf. The extended kin of the Devries family—bereft and furious—had been part of the hunt. Not many creatures could evade an entire werewolf pack hungry for vengeance.

But this fae could—and did. With every search, they had tracked the vile bastard to this valley, only to lose him like one more needle in the vast carpet of cedar and fir. In the end, the pack had sent for Rafe, their prodigal son, to come home and collect their debt in blood.

There.

This time, the tantalizing hint was stronger. Rafe turned toward it, breathing deeply. At first, the astringent wash of pine and loam drowned it out, but he caught that lingering note of something else—cinnamon on ice, hot and cold as freshly forged steel quenched in snow. The signature was uniquely fae. He’d found the trail once more.

He picked up his pace, moving as fast as stealth would allow. His quarry was directly ahead where the land rose out of the valley, exchanging dark shadows for fitful moonlight. Dense brush gave way to a sketchy path that wound toward still higher ground. Rafe broke into a loping run, unable to rein himself in.

A figure emerged from between the trees, striding steadily up the path. The broken light traced the silhouette. Graceful. Tall. Slender as a reed. Long, straight hair the shade of palest wheat.

Definitely fae. Definitely female.

He was hunting a male.

Rafe stopped dead, leaves flying as he skidded to a halt. Not even the backpack and loose jacket could hide those curves. A mix of disappointment and interest coursed through him. This creature was not his prey, but she was beautiful, even if she was one of them.

As if hearing his thoughts, she turned to search the darkness. Rafe flattened himself to the ground, silently cursing. He’d been too eager, too noisy. A fae’s hearing missed nothing.

The moonlight caught her features, confirming his suspicions. She was a light fae, with features almost alien in their fine-boned perfection. Rafe’s pulse quickened, the fae’s sheer loveliness demanding a response.

But this wasn’t his first hunt, and he knew better than to roll over for one of them. He remained as still as the twisted roots around him, cool and self-contained. The fae studied the path behind her, head tilted at a haughty angle.

Arrogant, like all the rest.

Eventually, her shoulders relaxed. With a half-shrug, she turned and resumed her climb up the hill, moving a little faster now.

Rafe rose to his feet. She wasn’t the one he wanted, yet he wouldn’t let her slip away. There were only so many reasons a fae—or anyone—would take a stroll through this remote valley. If he tracked this female, surely she’d lead him to his quarry.

He followed, soundless as mist. Where was she going? There were no buildings, no campgrounds, not even a treehouse in these woods.

Rafe paused long enough to scan the direction she’d come from. There was a secondary road on the other side of the valley, used mostly by outdoor enthusiasts on the way to campgrounds another thirty miles to the east. Had she parked on the roadside and walked in?

He returned his attention to the female’s dark-clad form, her long legs and elegantly curved hips. She moved in and out of the scattered moonlight as silently as a dream. Narrowing the gap between them was risky, but it allowed him to catch her scent again—wild, spicy, tantalizing. Now it seemed ludicrous that he ever thought something so attractive might belong to his real quarry.

The foul one. The killer. Memories of grief—his own and the pack’s—focused him.

The fae they sought was popular among the supernatural youth of East Bay—those old enough to attend a club and young enough to enjoy the noise and erratic hours. And wherever there was a hot, sweaty crowd with drink, dancing, and not enough clothes, this fae showed up.

That in itself was curious. Usually fae—especially light fae—kept to their own kind. They were an ancient people and, unlike the vampires, had never known what it was to be mortal. This one, though, he befriended the young—those caught just at the first glimmer of independence.

No one had thought anything about this fae’s influence until their cubs began to die. The only clue that linked the deaths was the fact that they’d recently spoken to that fae. Then the wolves—and vampires and witches—had howled for blood. For the one they called the Magician and whatever foul magic he used.

And for some reason, his trail led here.

Rafe followed the female, struggling to ignore everything but her usefulness as a guide. He kept that concentration at a cost. Without warning, an owl dove from the sky, snatching a vole from the ground. Rafe startled, caught unawares.

The female spun, a sleek pistol in one hand. Rafe dove for the shadows, but not before he heard her intake of breath.

“Who’s there?” she demanded in a voice like chilled velvet.

The night was silent but for the beat of wings. He could almost feel the fae’s gaze searching the darkness. The way she held herself—and the gun—said she was trained to use it.

Her fierce confidence made her even more compelling. The itch to confront her—to see who had the superior battle skills—almost made him forget his carefully maintained calm. His pulse thundered in his ears.

She turned away, shattering the moment. With a hop and scramble, she reached the lip of the valley, vanishing for a moment into the gloom beneath a pair of giant cedar trees. When she emerged again, she was outlined against the sky.

Then she raised her hand and spread her fingers wide. Rafe blinked as spears of light arced between them like a fistful of lightning. A spell crackled, raising the fur along his spine.

The brilliance rippled outward, making a corona against the horizon. Forgetting all caution, Rafe stood for a better look. Afterimages of the woman’s silhouette danced in his vision, merging with the trees.

What was she doing?

The sky wavered like the surface of a pond. Stars swirled and ran, reminding him of a Van Gogh painting. Then the darkness around her melted away, replaced by a modern, white-walled mansion sparkling with lights. It stood a hundred yards away, as if plucked from the cover of an architecture magazine.

The female stepped onto the smooth concrete path that led to the door.

Finally, Rafe understood. This was a glamour—a fae spell that confused the senses of their victims. Sight, sound, and scent could be confused. And a villain could hide in plain sight.

The fae had hidden an entire mansion behind their spell. The one they sought had been here all along, so close the wolves might have run him to ground like an autumn stag. No wonder the cubs called him the Magician.

The depth of the deception dragged an angry rumble from his chest. The female’s head turned slightly, catching the sound. She hurried forward, her boots all but silent on the walk. It was like watching a phantom falling into a dream. A moment later, the mansion—and the female—vanished. The horizon was nothing but stars and trees, empty of fae.

His gaze probed the darkness. Even in that short time, he’d learned the female’s form, and he wanted her within his sight. That made no sense. She was not for him.

Fae. The enemy. Anger crackled through him, bright as her magic spell—and now he could act on it. The killer had hidden himself away, but Rafe had found his den.

The hunt was on.

COLLAPSE

Leopard Ascending

a novel of gaslight and magic

Leopard Ascending
Part of the Hellion House series:
Editions:ePub
ISBN: 978-1-7770458-5-2
Kindle
ISBN: B0B52CTMS8
Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-7770458-4-5

When courage and a crack shot aren’t enough

After violence shattered Miranda Fletcher’s world, she swore to protect those she loved. An air captain’s daughter, she has courage enough to battle hungry monsters. Now a different threat hides among them—one much harder to destroy.

Miranda seeks out her rebel brother, Gideon, for aid. A private inquiry agent, he’s searching for victims no one else dares to find. When one of his father’s airships is blown from the sky, Gideon suspects his cases are linked to the disaster, and his family is the villain’s new target.

Danger hides everywhere—in gaslit clubs and drawing rooms, in the secret halls of the mages, and among the monsters of the forest. Uncovering the city’s dire truth could cost Miranda and Gideon their lives—or condemn them to a future more terrible than the grave.

Published:
Publisher: Rowan & Ash Artistry
Genres:
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Excerpt:

Chapter One

Gideon Fletcher slipped a hand inside his greatcoat, reaching for his pistol. Moments ago, as he’d crossed the cobbled street, he’d become prey.

Instinct alone guided him. The hunter was invisible, but Gideon had felt its gaze like the prick of a stiletto.

He kept walking, the rhythm of his stride even. Carriages rattled past, dodging around the occasional steam-powered vehicle. On this street of tidy shops, clockwork displays rotated behind bowed windows, spinning and flashing to catch the eye. He ignored the distraction, focusing on the shadowed doorways instead.

Anger blunted his fear. He’d been on the way to the Mercury Café for a drink and conversation. Even at night, he should have been safe on these gaslit streets. After all, didn’t magic protect the great wall enclosing the city?

Should wasn’t worth a brass farthing.

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Casually, he angled his body to the left as if peering through the window of a nearby café. A quick scan of the pavement behind him revealed little. The last of the afternoon crowds dotted the solidly respectable neighborhood, hurrying to their dinners and clubs. The men wore waistcoats and bowler hats, and the women had servants to carry their shopping. Outsiders would assume nothing but petty crimes happened here.

And yet the flesh along Gideon’s spine shrank as if cold, dead fingers caressed his back. He’d felt the same invisible eyes in the wilderness beyond Londria’s gate, where the Unseen roamed.

Gideon cursed softly, the frigid air turning his breath to mist.

Slowly, he resumed his journey, his gaze traveling up the old stone buildings to search for lurkers along the rooflines. Above, a passing airship caught the setting sun, the silks of its balloon turning the color of flame. He looked away before the brightness dulled his vision.

Movement flickered in the shadows of the nearest building, but when Gideon looked, the alley beside the old bank was empty. Without hurrying his step, he slid into the narrow passage, finally drawing his pistol.

“If you wish a fight, I’m all attention.” His words ghosted in the frigid atmosphere. Heart pounding, he strained to hear the slightest footfall above the clatter of the street behind him.

The tail of his eye caught a pale blur. He spun, unable to track the movement. The creature moved unnaturally fast, a kiss of air against his cheek, there and gone.

Gideon sucked in his breath, pulse kicking into a gallop as he flattened himself against the stone side of the bank. He cocked the hammer of his weapon as nervous sweat cooled on his temples. He’d fought the Unseen before—and knew his chances weren’t good.

Hugging the wall, he advanced a few steps, and then a few more. The darkness of the alleyway was a physical mass. The creature was ahead, but nowhere in sight.

The stone blocks of the bank gave way to the brickwork of the Regina Hotel. Space was costly in a walled city, and the builders hadn’t wasted an inch between the two structures. No hiding places there.

The end of the passage ended in a heavy door framed by enormous trash bins. Unless someone opened the door, he had the creature boxed in. Gideon gripped his pistol in both hands, moving more slowly now. Sunset done, the light was fading fast.

He almost missed the dark shape climbing the shadowed wall of the hotel. It was already a dozen feet above the ground. Tension twisted Gideon’s stomach.

“Stop,” he said, not bothering to raise his voice. The things had uncanny hearing.

The creature dropped lightly, landing in a crouch. As it rose and turned to face Gideon, it raised its hands in a mocking gesture of surrender. It wore a white shirt under a dark suit, no doubt stolen from a human victim. It even had a pair of fashionable leather boots.

Gideon’s chest tightened with fear. There were two kinds of Unseen—smart and crazy. The crazy ones were bestial, violent, and relatively easy to outwit.

This one was different. Intelligence glittered in the male’s brilliant gray eyes. The tall, slender figure had a mass of silver hair, sharp features, and chalk-white skin. The ethereal pallor was common to the smarter Unseen, as if their beauty and cunning were entwined.

It smiled, baring a mouthful of pointed teeth. Regardless of their varied mental powers, the Unseen all fed on human flesh.

Gideon aimed and shot. The sound roared in the small space—or maybe that was his own enraged voice. The figure sprang toward him, seemingly untouched by the bullet. Gideon’s back slammed to the cobblestones, pain lancing through his skull.

The Unseen’s lips moved, but the shot had dulled Gideon’s hearing. Clawed fingers gripped his jaw, the creature’s strange eyes intent. Gideon sucked in a breath, ready to shout for help. Surely, someone had heard his pistol shot.

The Unseen bent lower, its wild, earthy smell filling the air as if it brought the forest with it. It stopped barely an inch from Gideon’s face, tendrils of silver hair brushing his cheek. This time, it was impossible not to make out its words.

“I am Masson,” it—he—said in a cracked voice, as if something had gone wrong with his throat.

He spoke. For the barest instant, Gideon’s mind blanked with shock. Words made the monster like a human. More like him. He has a name.

“You’re the brother,” the monster added with a tinge of curiosity.

Shock made Gideon flinch. “What?”

Carnivore’s claws dug into his flesh, pricking deep. Pain seared through his surprise.

He thrust the muzzle of his pistol into Masson’s belly.

A door banged open to Gideon’s left, the sound of steel on brick ricocheting through the alley. Masson’s shoulders hunched in reaction, his posture feline.

Gideon pulled the trigger. The gunshot muffled the Unseen’s defiant shout.

Its recoil slammed Gideon back against the hard ground as Masson writhed away, hands cradling his gut. Dark blood spattered the ground, but the creature remained on his feet. Commotion rang from the open door, but Gideon didn’t take his eyes off his opponent.

Masson sprang, fangs bared. Gideon launched from the ground, driving his shoulder into a bone-jarring collision. The impact drove Gideon back, feet skidding. They grappled, claws tearing the pistol from his hand and taking flesh with it. Despite his stomach wound, Masson was impossibly strong. Gideon punched the creature’s temple, knocking him aside.

The reprieve didn’t last. Teeth aimed for Gideon’s throat, but he twisted and let the fangs bury themselves in the heavy fabric of his greatcoat. They scraped his collarbone, needle-sharp. Revulsion shuddered through him. He flung his opponent off with a guttural shout of disgust.

A figure darted into view, swinging a cudgel two-handed. The weapon connected with Masson’s upflung arm. A feral shriek followed the snap of bone, and Masson shrank away.

A second figure appeared, this one brandishing a long knife.

Gideon tried to snatch up his pistol, but his right hand refused to work. He grabbed with his left instead, unwilling to be the only one without a weapon. The other figures were running now, chasing Masson toward the dead end of the passage. He brought up the rear, ignoring the flare of pain from his ruined hand.

The faint golden squares of the hotel windows shed feeble illumination from above. Gideon followed the scuffle of feet, navigating by instinct. The need to strike back, to finish the enemy, drove him like madness.

You’re the brother.

There was only one thing that could mean. This was the Unseen who had murdered Gideon’s twin sister.

He put on a burst of speed. The alley seemed endless, though he covered the distance in seconds.

There was a scuffle and slide of boots on stone.

“Sainted mother of plague rats.” The man with the knife stopped.

Gideon nearly bumped into his back. “What’s going on?”

“There.” The figure with the cudgel—a woman—stumbled to a halt and tilted her face toward the roofline. He followed her gaze, barely making out what the two were staring at.

Broken-armed and gut-shot, Masson was swarming up the side of the hotel again, moving as if his injuries meant nothing. Cursing, Gideon aimed his pistol, but darkness made accuracy impossible. He fired anyway, sparks fountaining off the bricks. He swore again, this time with venomous fury.

Masson paused, taking one backward glance, and then silently vanished onto the roof. Rage pulsed through Gideon, making his wound throb. There was no point in pursuit—not when he was this far behind. The network of aqueducts that served the city’s rooftop gardens could take the Unseen anywhere.

“Missed him again,” the woman muttered.

“Again?” Gideon asked sharply. His pulse raced so fast, it left him lightheaded.

“That one’s been here before,” the man said. “We came when we heard your gunshot.”

“It was a good thing you did,” Gideon said, though resentment darkened his mood. These two had interrupted his vengeance.

“It’s the first time anyone’s drawn blood from that one.” The man twirled his knife in one hand. “Congratulations are in order.”

Gideon opened his mouth, but he couldn’t form a proper response.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the man said. “Few citizens of Londria know the Unseen breach the city walls, and fewer dare to admit such heresy. Yet, here we are.”

Yes, here Gideon was—furious and in agonizing pain. The only thing keeping him civil was unanswered questions. “Who are you?”

“Not so fast.” The man offered a one-sided smile. “It’s a dangerous game slaying monsters. The city fathers would sooner toss us behind bars than admit their magic can’t keep the beasties out.”

Gideon frowned. He’d learned the hard way that wasn’t exaggeration.

His silence wiped the smile from the man’s face. “If you want no part of this chase, walk away.”

“I appreciate your caution. I’ve fought the Unseen beyond the wall. And inside, too. I’ve seen what they can do.”

Something in his answer struck the right chord. The man visibly relaxed. “I’ve seen you around town. You’re one of the airship family. You flew rescue missions into the Outlands.”

Gideon nodded, equally reluctant and curious.

“Then let’s swap stories. Perhaps we can help one another.” The man stepped closer, the dim light showing his features. “The name is Ned Huntley.”

He was a few years older than Gideon, clean-shaven and wearing round wire-rimmed spectacles. He wore a fashionable tweed suit, as if on his way to a shooting party. Only the long knife hinted his quarry was more than grouse.

“Why no guns?” Gideon asked.

“Not when we’re in the heart of the city. Too noisy. The club has practical rules.”

“Club?”

“Happy to introduce you, old fellow.” Huntley extended his hand, welcoming but firm.

Gideon hesitated. This so-called club might prove to be a gang of raving crackpots. Who else hurled themselves at the Unseen with no more than a knife? Still, he raised his right hand automatically. Gideon had been raised a gentleman, and it would be churlish to refuse the gesture.

Huntley’s eyes went wide. “I say, you’re bleeding.”

Gideon looked down, and pain roared to life with an agonizing throb. Grooves dug into the flesh of his palm and fingers, soaking his hand in a red glove of sticky gore. His vision tunneled, the last rush of battle-frenzy collapsing like a punctured balloon.

The woman had remained in the shadows, staring after Masson, but now she snapped from her reverie. She cast a look their way and drew in a hissing breath. “Mr. Fletcher! I should have known it was you.”

The woman thrust her club into Huntley’s hand and hurried to Gideon’s side.

Recognition gave him a sudden start. “Layla?”

She caught his wrist, bending his arm for a better look. “Claws or teeth?”

“Claws.”

“Good. We’ll take you inside.” She shot Huntley a look that crushed any argument.

Gideon wavered, still disoriented. The Layla he knew—tall and lovely, with masses of strawberry-blonde hair—favored frills and lace. He’d seen her many times wooing clients in the soft opulence of Hellion House, her laughter bubbling like the brothel’s free-flowing champagne. Clubbing a monster seemed wildly out of character, and yet she’d done just that.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

She cast him the same quelling glance she’d given Huntley. “Same as you, I suppose. Now, be quiet.”

“I have questions.”

“They can wait.”

She used his handkerchief to wrap his hand, though the cloth soaked through as fast as she bound the wound. Wasting no more time, she led Gideon through a narrow door. It was the same one she and Huntley had burst through minutes before.

Their path led into the hotel, the passage turning into a servant’s stairway that crawled upward in a never-ending series of landings. Gideon had lost track of the flights—perhaps eight?—when they finally emerged into a dark-paneled foyer.

This part of the hotel was for private suites. Whoever Ned Huntley was, he had money.

The name tugged at Gideon’s memory. Huntley. Ned Huntley. There was something he should know about the man, but pain and exhaustion numbed his brain.

Huntley crossed to a set of double doors with shining brass knobs. He opened them with a flourish, and piano music eddied forth. Voices followed, along with a cloud of tobacco smoke and the scent of strong coffee. Gideon’s gut twisted at the smell, his wounds making him queasy.

Huntley strode through the door, raising knife and cudgel in a victorious salute.

“Huzzah!” someone shouted from inside the suite. “The conquering hero returns!”

“Did you get it?” cried another voice.

“Almost,” Huntley said with a theatrical sigh. “It went skyward before we caught it.”

“Come on,” Layla murmured to Gideon, taking his arm. “He’ll be here all night taking his bows.”

With that, she pulled him past their host and into the room. It was a vast salon, overdecorated in red velvet and far too many gold tassels. A drift of mismatched carpets muffled their steps as they entered, though any stray sound was drowned out as the female pianist struck up a triumphal march.

Besides the musician, a young man sprawled on a brocaded fainting bench. Across the room, two dandies played chess, the board balanced on the sofa cushions between them. There was a playful air about the group, as if they were ordinary young people whiling away the time. The pile of weapons on the lid of the grand piano said otherwise.

Layla seated Gideon on an ottoman. Instantly, the young man on the fainting bench rose and poured brandy from a crystal decanter, thrusting the glass toward Gideon.

Gideon set his pistol on the low lacquered table beside him and accepted the drink. At the other end of the room, Huntley regaled the crew with an account of the fight.

Layla helped Gideon out of his greatcoat, careful of his injury. “Stay here while I fetch water to clean you up.” She left in a swirl of skirts.

Gideon did as he was told. Voices receded as he sipped the drink, pain and brandy filling his mind until Layla returned with a cloth and basin.

“Bad luck.” The young man who’d brought the brandy produced a medical bag and began unpacking tools, arranging them on the table. “Have you encountered this monster before?”

Gideon submitted as Layla unwound the handkerchief binding his hand. The motion hurt and made his palm bleed again, but forced himself to answer. Talking was a distraction.

“Possibly. I’ve fought the Unseen many times but never had leisure to study their faces. This one called himself Masson.”

The medic looked up, large brown eyes wide. He had a thin mustache and goatee, giving him the air of a starving poet. “It spoke?”

Gideon gave a silent nod. Despite the loud conversation around them, everyone seemed to have heard. The noise faded as they gathered around. Blood dripped from Gideon’s hand into the basin with a hushed plop.

“It was one of the pretty ones,” Huntley said. “One of their ringleaders.”

There were other terms for the smarter Unseen—masters, herders, kings. Some speculated they were another species from their bestial cousins. Gideon had never cared much, loathing them all equally, but now he had a name. Now he had an individual to hate.

“Masson won’t be pretty for long,” he said in frozen tones.

Huntley gave a low laugh. “Very good, Mr. Fletcher. I knew you were a kindred spirit.”

A chorus of agreement ran through the group, and Gideon was briefly cheered. He raised his brandy glass in salute and drank the fiery liquid down.

In the meantime, the young man had finished organizing his medical instruments. “Just to reassure you,” he said, “I am a resident doctor at Walton Hospital, so I know my way around a row of stitches. My name is Fitzwilliam Arden.”

As he spoke, he slid into a professional manner. All at once, he didn’t seem so young.

“Gideon Fletcher.”

Arden took the washcloth from Layla. “Were you injured anywhere else, Mr. Fletcher?”

Gideon closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted. “The beastly thing bit my shoulder.”

For an instant, he drifted, the soothing touch of the warm water prompting him to drop his guard. A mechanical click snapped him back to attention.

He opened his eyes to the sight of his own pistol an inch from his face. Huntley’s grip was perfectly steady. All around them, the hiss of steel on scabbard whispered through the room.

There was nothing friendly in Huntley’s expression now.

“Did the bite break your skin?”

COLLAPSE

Fortune’s Eve

a short story of gaslight and magic

Book Cover: Fortune's Eve
Part of the Hellion House series:
Editions:ePub
ISBN: 978-1777045807
Kindle
ISBN: B08GJ88HSH

Not all monsters dwell in the woods.

The mages of the Conclave have questions—dangerous ones that put airship pilot Gideon Fletcher and his sister, Miranda, in the midst of an inquisition for illegal magic.

The Fletchers live in an elegant world of gentlemen’s clubs and Society balls, but their claim to fame is making daring rescues in the perilous Outlands. It’s all fun and monsters until they save a man wanted by the Conclave, and the mages turn their suspicions toward Gideon’s family.

Their scrutiny brings a new kind of peril. Little does Gideon know his sisters have much to hide. Trouble has arrived for the Fletchers, and it clearly means to stay.

For those who like steampunk adventure with a touch of magic—not to mention conspiracy, monsters, airships, and an adorable baby dragon.

Published:
Publisher: Rowan & Ash Artistry
Genres:
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Excerpt:

Chapter One

The Outlands

Late September

 

“If we don’t find the wreck soon, we’ll be obliged to turn back,” Norton Fletcher said.

Gideon glanced at the sky, calculating the remaining daylight. His father was right. No one risked traveling outside the city after dark. “That would be certain death for the crew of the wreck.”

“But not for us.” Fletcher’s face was rigid. “Don’t get caught up in the emotion of these missions. It’s a quick way to die.”

Gideon gave a low laugh to hide his resentment. His father never let go of his impulse to instruct his grown son. “I have compassion.”

“A waste of energy. Everything breaks and everything mends,” Fletcher said. “Live long enough, and you’ll understand.”

“Do you truly believe that?” Gideon asked, heat creeping into his words.

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“Yes,” his father replied, “and no. It’s what old men tell themselves to stop the ache of fear in their bellies.”

The words were terse, a bitter blend of the flippant and the true. Questions crowded Gideon’s mind, but Fletcher’s expression closed like a door banging shut, the Dragonfly’s captain replacing his father. Not that the difference was pronounced on most days.

Gideon studied his father, who stood at the pilot’s station with feet planted wide and back ramrod straight. Fletcher wasn’t a large man, but his stocky figure and lined features, weathered by decades of sun and wind, made Gideon think of petrified oak. As Fletcher eased a lever forward, the Dragonfly dipped closer to the river, twin propellers thwop-thwopping through the mist. Autumn fog trailed ghostly fingers around the dirigible as if the mist meant to snatch it from the sky.

A flare had gone up two hours ago, according to the report of the watchmen who scanned the forest from the great towers that flanked the city gates. Fletcher Industries—one of the premier airship firms in the city—kept half-a-dozen rescue crafts on standby, but the last week had been busy. When word arrived, only the Dragonfly was docked at the airfield and the crews were shorthanded. Norton Fletcher—owner, designer, and still one of the best pilots in the sky—had taken the job himself. Of course, Gideon went with him. He was heir to the Fletcher empire and familiar with the day-to-day operations, but he still took pleasure in watching his father work. Or he had. As the afternoon wore on, that first thrill had darkened to anxiety. So far, they hadn’t found any trace of the wreck.

Gideon peered over the edge of the gondola, estimating the distance to the dense treetops. Ash, birch, oak, chestnut, and the occasional conifer grew in a lush tangle. This area between settlements was called the Outlands. After the population fled the countryside, nature had thrown a party. The result was the beautiful but deadly forest that covered every trace of civilization. Gideon leaned out another inch, one hand on a sturdy cable. There was still plenty of clearance before the craft risked scraping the branches, but distance made it hard to see the river. Unfortunately, closing the gap would be unwise. That was the gamble with rescue missions—risk all to save the innocent, yet risk becoming a victim oneself.

A trio of dragons soared above the branches as the ship passed overhead. Their population had grown with the forest, but the city dwellers paid them no heed. Urban dragons were relatively small, weighing about twenty pounds. Even their wild cousins rarely grew larger than a goat, and humanity had far more to worry about than an invasive species of lizard.

For the hundredth time that afternoon, the broad silver swath of the river emerged from the encroaching trees. The Dragonfly had followed a zigzagging path, searching both sides of the water. They had seen a fleet of River Rats—clans of wandering thieves and magicians who lived aboard their crafts—and once a smuggler’s ship with its gun ports open. Both had probably been bound for the walled farms to the east. There was gold in river business—at least for those brave enough to risk it. Gideon would take the sky any day.

The foliage slipped from view, the water gleaming directly below. His heart skipped as he saw what the Dragonfly had come for—the wreckage of a midsized sailing craft.

“There,” Gideon cried, pointing over the side. “Bring the ship around again.”

The crew—four hands besides the Fletchers—jumped to obey, hauling on the lines that adjusted the auxiliary sails. Boilers hissed, feeding the engine that drove the propellers. Slowly, the Dragonfly, with its twin gray-and-white silk balloons, pivoted in the sky.

“Sir, we dare not go lower,” Higgins, the grizzled senior airman, said.

“Then get your gear on,” Norton Fletcher replied, guiding the ship into position above the wreck. “We’ll go down for a look, although it’s not promising.”

Hopeful or not, it was still their duty to search for survivors. Gideon grabbed his own equipment, wondering what they’d find. Fools had a way of getting what they deserved.

The river—cold, fast, and often foggy—was riddled with ruined weirs and the stumps of old bridges. Wise travelers took a River Rat who knew the water’s tricks. According to the harbormaster’s records—all crafts were required to declare their routes and crews before they cast off—Mr. Joseph Ellery, esquire, had not. On some level, Gideon wasn’t surprised. He’d met the weedy banker at parties and the theater, and he had been consistently underwhelmed.

By the time the Dragonfly hovered in place, Gideon, Higgins, and Crewman Yale were ready to descend. Flight crews typically wore supple leather suits as protection from wind and weather, along with high boots and close-fitting helmets. Gideon added a weapons belt and a rifle in a sling across his back, as well as long knives strapped to his thighs.

“You’ve got an hour of good daylight left,” Fletcher said. “Don’t waste it.”

Gideon tried to catch his father’s eye, but the goggles that protected against the burn of the wind made it impossible. He wasn’t sure why he bothered to grasp at that last moment of connection—he needed no reassurance, and emotional displays were not his family’s way. Still, the unknown that lurked below left a hollow feeling in his gut. When Higgins offered him a flask of smuggled French brandy, Gideon gratefully took a swig for luck.

A square metal plate, about five feet across, formed part of the Dragonfly’s main deck. Once unlocked from thick steel hasps, the platform could be raised and lowered with steam-powered efficiency. Cables spooled onto four large wheels that moved on a single automated crank calibrated to keep the plate perfectly level—a key feature of Norton Fletcher’s design. The rescue crew mounted the platform, crouching low and grasping the lines for balance while Fletcher himself released the brake. With a whir of well-oiled gears, they gently floated the forty feet to the river’s edge.

A breeze caught the platform, swaying it slightly, but Gideon didn’t mind. The scent of greenery and rich mud was a novelty, one he inhaled with gratitude. His home stank of smoke and too many bodies crowded close together for protection. The Outlands might be deadly, but at least they were clean.

The men jumped the last few feet, boots splashing in the shallow water. The wreck was in the middle of the river, but there wasn’t enough of the ship left for survivors to take shelter in it. The crew would have struck out for dry ground or been carried off by the current. As this was the closer bank, it made sense to begin the search here.

“By our calculations, that’s where the flare was fired,” Higgins said, pointing a dozen yards ahead. “Anyone hoping for rescue wouldn’t go far.”

Gideon nodded agreement and scrambled up the bank, not wasting time. He pushed up his goggles, needing his peripheral vision now. As the September shadows lengthened, the fog already misted above the water. It would be dusk long before the sun actually set.

Unholstering his rifle, Gideon strode onward, using his nose as well as his eyes and ears. Death had a smell, as did blood, but the wind was off the river and gave him no clues. A rustle in the trees caught his attention.

“Ellery? Hello?”

Gideon raised the rifle and turned slowly, realizing there had been birdsong a moment ago, but now there was none. Somewhere in the treetops, a dragon squawked and flapped in seeming fury. Gideon began to sweat, soaking the shirt beneath his jacket. He was still on the bank, the bush and trees barely a dozen yards away and hiding who knew what. Countless ruins lay buried along the riverside, evidence of a world before walls and the terror of the Unseen.

Gideon swept his rifle in a slow arc, his nerves alive with dread. “Ellery?”

The woods to his left exploded with movement and sound. He swiveled toward it, but was a beat too late. He had a swift impression of rags and bony limbs, but his senses failed. A long shriek of rage split the silence as the thing hurtled through the air, arms extended. Gideon had no chance to aim.

Crewman Yale’s rifle cracked, smoke belching from the muzzle. The attacking figure flew sideways, the force of the shot tearing a hole through its chest. The scream faded to a gurgle as its lungs failed, but the bubbling moan didn’t stop. The thing writhed, trying to turn over so it could crawl. The Unseen weren’t immortal, but they were extremely hard to kill.

Gideon registered the pale face and wide eyes, the sharp and blackened teeth. The Unseen hated daylight, but they’d brave it for an easy kill—which he’d been a moment ago. Barely aware of its mortal wounds, the creature made it to its hands and knees, gazing at him with hungry rapture.

Gideon blew its head off. He watched it drop, still twitching, as bile rose in his throat. He swallowed it down, icy and sweating at the same time.

Yale came to stand beside him. “You’re lucky, sir. It was one of the crazy ones.”

“Lucky?” Gideon echoed.

The crewman pulled a face. “It’s the smart ones you have to fear. Those will do worse than gnaw your bones.”

Gideon stared at the bloody ground—at the bits of gore scattering the weeds. The Unseen weren’t the only horrors in the woods, but they were the most common. No one knew where the creatures originated from, why they had appeared after the Great Disaster, or even exactly what they were. Men of science agreed they were living beings, and yet unlike any other species. They were perfect predators that had driven humanity from the countryside, defeating every army kings and generals threw at them. A sudden urge to run swept over Gideon, but he stood his ground, clenching his teeth to stop the chatter.

“Sir?” Yale asked, casting him a concerned glance.

Brutally, Gideon shoved the nightmare down to the cellars of his soul. “I’m fine.”

Higgins gave a sharp whistle. He’d stayed close to the platform, guarding their escape. Yale and Gideon turned to see another figure, this one using a rifle as a cane, limping from the trees. It was Ellery, hurt and clearly exhausted.

Gideon broke into a run, lengthening his stride to close the distance. “Where’s your crew?”

“Gone,” Ellery panted. “We were separated in the wreck. The captain fired a flare to summon aid, but no other ships came. The men never stood a chance. I just saw what was left.”

“You went into the forest?” Gideon asked, incredulous. “How did you survive?”

“I had to know it was over for them. I couldn’t just walk away.”

“And what did you plan to do if you found them?”

The man was clearly an idiot. Entering the forest meant walking into the jaws of death.

“It’s irrelevant now.” Ellery peered over his shoulder with the air of a man who’d seen his own grave. The Unseen dragged their meals beneath the trees, where they stripped the flesh like hungry jackals. Ellery’s nauseated expression filled in the details.

Gideon wrapped an arm around the man, half-carrying him toward the ship’s platform. If Ellery was the sole survivor, all that remained was to return to the Dragonfly and safety. Higgins stood on guard a dozen feet away. Already on the platform, Yale raised his rifle to cover their retreat.

Three Unseen burst from the woods, thin limbs barely covered by fluttering rags. One howled like the first creature, but the other two were silent, their eyes calculating. As Yale had said, the smart ones were dangerous. Gideon heaved Ellery across his shoulders and ran.

Yale fired, but only winged his target. Two of the Unseen dropped to all fours, springing forward like wolves. Gideon pushed faster, stumbling beneath Ellery’s weight and cursing as the rifle slipped from his grasp. He let it drop, not daring to slow down and retrieve it. Seconds counted now.

Higgins was closest and shot once, twice, but went down under the weight of the Unseen. Gideon heaved Ellery to the platform before turning back to help. Yale was already beside Higgins, dragging one attacker away. Gideon drew his sidearm, intending to shoot the second.

The thing’s head jerked up as if it had read his thoughts. Hate-filled eyes scorched him as the creature sprang toward the rifle Gideon had dropped. A smart one, then. It snatched up the weapon, raising it awkwardly. The sight filled Gideon with a new kind of horror. His pistol roared just as the beast pulled the trigger. The rifle shot skyward as the Unseen dropped, the back of its skull shattered, but the fight wasn’t over. A second creature lunged, hot and horrible breath fanning Gideon’s face. He bashed the butt of his weapon into its jaw, knocking the creature sideways. The pistol slipped from Gideon’s hand, spinning away. The Unseen staggered, but regained its balance in a single, dance-like shuffle. Gideon slid one of his knives from its sheath. As the creature surged again, he drove the blade deep between its ribs, twisting until he found the heart. This time, it went down.

Yale had killed the third Unseen, then heaved Higgins to the platform. Gideon grabbed his weapons before jumping aboard. Yale threw the lever that signaled the Dragonfly. With a click and a spin of gears, the platform began rising skyward. Gideon sat down hard, panting with exhaustion and relief. Below, Unseen littered the riverbank like broken mannequins. One of them tried to use the rifle, Gideon mused, but then pushed the idea away. Intelligence made them too human for comfort.

Higgins was on his knees, staring at his arm. The leather of his sleeve was torn from wrist to elbow, exposing a strip of skin. There, a perfect bite mark stood out in an angry red, a bruise already purpling around it.

“I’ll clean the wound when we get to the ship,” Gideon offered.

“No time,” the man said, pulling off his helmet. The shorn gray hair stood out from his skull in sweat-drenched tufts. He drew a knife from his belt, then poised it above the wound.

Gideon grabbed the crewman’s wrist, stopping him. The aftermath of the fight had left a tremor in his fingers, but pride was irrelevant now. Only Higgins mattered, a crewman who had flown into hell to rescue an innocent.

“That’s just a myth,” Gideon said. “The Unseen are living creatures. Another species. Medicine has proved you can’t catch a disease that turns you into one of them.”

The look the man gave Gideon was worse than any blow. What the gentry called superstitions were guideposts the workers used to make sense of their world. Gideon released his grip, suddenly conscious of overstepping a boundary. He was the captain’s son, but Higgins was his own master.

“There’s rules,” Yale said. “It’s the airman’s way.”

The knife bit deep, slicing beneath the broken skin in Higgins’s arm. The breath hissed between the crewman’s teeth, but he held the blade steady as he carved and lifted the mark away.

Yale drew his kerchief, folding it into a bandage as he waited. “It doesn’t matter what the so-called doctors put in their reports. A man has to know he’s clean.”

Gideon looked away from the spectacle, barely seeing the misty treetops as they ascended. Emotions twisted inside him, fumbling for a truth he couldn’t yet define. The sight of the blood, of the crewman carving his own flesh, filled him with angry confusion. Then his gaze fell on Ellery, who was massaging his swelling ankle. His crew had been eaten, his rescuers attacked, yet he’d escaped with no more than a sprain? Why was he whole when the members of his crew—and his rescuers—were not?

“Why the bloody hell were you out there?” Gideon snapped, giving way to rage. “Why risk a river passage? That’s not for amateurs.”

Ellery ducked his chin. “I’ve done it before. Running into that piling was pure bad luck.”

Bad luck. Higgins, sweating and pale, was done with the knife. Yale bound his arm. Gideon tried to keep what was left of his calm by watching Ellery’s expression. The man had the look of someone frozen in horror, as if his time in the woods kept repeating over and over behind his eyes.

“And the crew?”

“I used up my ammunition to save them.” Ellery swallowed hard. “I was stranded. There was nothing more I could do except choose how to die.”

Gideon digested Ellery’s words. There was no doubt the man was devastated, but something didn’t add up. “I wasn’t aware you’d made the river passage before. The harbormaster said nothing about it.”

But perhaps that was the point. Ellery had money, and the only reason a rich man would risk his life on the water was to hide something.

“Why the secrecy?” Gideon asked. “You know there will be an inquest after this.”

“I do.” Ellery’s attention shifted away to the fog-shrouded trees. Sweat trickled from under the edge of his helmet, highlighting the pale blue veins beneath the skin. “Not all the monsters are in the forest.”

“What does that mean?”

The man’s green gaze slid over to pierce Gideon. “Make up your mind once the time comes.”

 

COLLAPSE
Reviews:on Goodreads:

Airships! Zombies! Magic! Adorable dinky urban dragons in need of donations! This steampunk/high fantasy hybrid has it all.

on Amazon:

I give Fortune's Eve 5 stars for its intriguing magical read.

on Goodreads:

You can already see the spark of rebellion in the making.


Flicker

A prequel novella in the Crown of Fae universe ...

 

When hope is just a flicker, trust a dragon to light the flame.

Fliss is the youngest princess of Bright Wing, a tribe of dragon shifters defending Faery against the enemy Shades. She yearns to fight, but now she’s stuck at school far away. The situation is ridiculous. Intolerable. How can she save the world when she’s forbidden to fly after curfew?

The school at Penriva House is far outside the battle lines. The students are safe, or so everyone believes. But Shades attack Fliss before she arrives at the school, and now there are signs the enemy is hiding just beyond its walls. When the headmistress ignores the evidence, Fliss has to wonder whose side she’s on.

Terrified, Fliss is unsure where to turn with the secret she uncovers. There’s no clear way to save her newfound friends, much less herself. Does Fliss run, or risk all and fly into battle, one small dragon against a host of perilous foe?

 

Published:
Publisher: Rowan & Ash Artistry
Genres:
Tags:
Excerpt:

This story takes place years before the events of SHIMMER.

The tale begins in the Faery Realm.

 

Fliss had never flown so far, nor for a reason she hated more.

Wind buffeted her wings, but her temper gave her strength. She was the youngest princess of the Bright Wing dragon shifters, the air fae that had ruled the skies for as long as stories were told. At fourteen years, she was still a birthday or two away from joining her brothers and sisters in the defense of Highclaw Castle and its beleaguered mountain kingdom.

“You’re too small,” her father, King Vass, had pointed out last month, just after the first autumn frost.

“But I’m very fast.”

King Vass had wrinkled his brow, the lines deepened by fatigue. “Fast is good. So is agility. Sadly, we need dragons, not dragonflies. You’ve been sheltered from the war.”

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Annoyance—and a touch of foreboding—had tightened her chest. “Give me a chance.”

“I am—more than you understand. Pack your bags, sweetling.”

“What for?”

“You’re going to school. Penriva House is far from any battles and the headmistress is one of the best water mages ever to cast a spell. You’ll be perfectly safe and get a first-class education besides.”

School. She huffed a plume of smoke. What king’s daughter went to a common boarding academy? Proper princesses had tutors and drawing masters. But that was the very reason her father had chosen Penriva House, where the students were from good but ordinary families.

She’d found the place on a map and promptly stormed from the room in horror. It was going to be like exile. Penriva was on the southeast coast, well into the domain of the water fae. There would be no other dragons there, far less family. She wouldn’t know a soul. Worse, she wouldn’t be Princess Flissatania when she arrived—just plain, unimportant Fliss.

“That’s the point,” her father had said. “Living as an ordinary student will be an adventure.”

“How?” she’d replied darkly.

“Imagine acting in a play for months on end. It’ll be fun.”

Fliss knew a sales job when she heard one. This was her father’s way of putting her in hiding, and she hated it. Dragons were meant to defend and protect, not cower in the shadows.

She banked through the scattered clouds, following her older brother, Telkoram, who led their flight through the sky. The air was sharp with the promise of frost, as the autumn shadows grew long across the green land below. She thought she could smell the salt of ocean air, but so far no flocks of sea birds confirmed it.

Her luggage had gone ahead to the school so they could travel light. Besides the two royal dragons, there were four seasoned guards covering their flanks and tails. They had left at daybreak and followed the Ildaran River, only stopping to rest when they’d left the mountains. Then they’d used the Fleetfoot River as their guide toward the coast.

As Fliss scanned the forest below, she saw fewer pine and fir trees and more splashes of yellow and orange among the leaves. Small farms nestled in clearings and low-lying marshlands flashed silver as they passed overhead. The land was changing with every wingbeat, and already she felt hideously far from where she belonged.

Leaving her family behind was like abandoning part of her own flesh. As the youngest of nine, there had always been a sibling nearby. Had been. With the war, her world was changing too fast. Fliss turned her face into the wind, letting the breeze dry her tears before they could fall.

The brush of her brother’s wing against hers jerked her attention back to the present. Telkoram turned to regard her, concern in his golden eyes. He was huge and black where Fliss was a pale cream spotted with caramel. Embarrassment twisted in her chest. She’d drifted from her position in the flight, risking a mid-air collision. It was a sign of fatigue—Fliss was proud of her agility in the air, but her smaller wings had to flap twice as often to keep up with the others.

To her relief, Telkoram dipped toward a hilltop. It was high and bare, with only a few scrubby bushes clinging to its edges. One by one, they angled their wings and dropped, stretching out claws to break their momentum once they touched grass. Fliss forced herself to land lightly and stand straight, though her wings ached as she folded them. Nerves tingled, fading in and out of numbness as her flight muscles cramped. All the same, she refused to show her fatigue as she settled next to her brother. Instead, she pretended to take a bright interest in the lands below. After all, this what where she’d be living.

As in all of Faery, humans and fae lived and worked here side by side. Below, a swineherd shaded his eyes to see the dragons looming on the hilltop. The human’s interest was no wonder, since Telkoram was the size of a large farmhouse. They were lined four abreast, with two of the guards still circling above to patrol the skies for danger. The man’s obvious awe made Fliss preen a little, making sure the fading sun caught the shimmer of her scales.

Her respite was short-lived. Telkoram gave a faint rumble, pointing his nose toward the south. His long neck and horned head were like a thick, dark exclamation point. Fliss felt her stomach plummet. Far in the distance was Penriva House, familiar from the sketch her father had shown her. There was no mistaking the distinctive roofline, with its pointy stone towers. Her exile was drawing near.

So was a bank of dark cloud that rolled toward them with uncanny speed. Fliss drooped. She hated flying in driving rain. It was like being pelted with needles while trying to navigate through a mass of heavy, dark wool.

Suddenly Telkoram launched into the air, his huge wings spreading with the sound of thunder. The two guards who had landed with them followed suit, one sleek and gray, the other the dark blue of mountain shadows. Fliss sprang after them, alarm conquering her fatigue. For the first time in their long journey, the skin along Fliss’s spine tingled with warning.

A moment later, she understood her brother’s haste. As she climbed the sky, she tasted something new in the wind. A putrid tang made her gag, as if the air itself was decayed. Only magic—foul, hateful magic—made her recoil that way. It was the signature of their enemy, the Shades. The war was following them.

Terror made her cling to the space right behind her brother, matching his every move as if she held his tail between her teeth. It wasn’t easy. Telkoram was dipping and weaving, disguising their path with a series of evasions. Nervously, Fliss craned her neck, wondering where the enemy might be hiding. Their part of the sky was still blue and bright. That should have given her comfort, but it made her feel exposed.

Despite their erratic path, the dragons kept the inky clouds to their right as they raced to Penriva. The mass of darkness seemed to be shrinking as it grew more intense, like a hand closing into a fist. Stranger still, the clouds were moving contrary to the wind.

Fliss struggled to keep panic from freezing her wings. Her muscles were leaden, every action punctuated by a tiny, exhausted pause. No doubt sensing trouble, the guards drew nearer, ready to close in. Fliss desperately wished she was stronger. It was plain she was slowing them down.

The sun slanted low, blinding her as they circled closer to the river. Something swooped out of the bright halo of light. Fliss had a glimpse of bronze feathers and talons as huge as any dragon’s, then chaos.

The guard to her right spun suddenly, the sweep of his dark blue tail striking her flank as he fell. He tumbled in a flurry of wings and teeth, tangled with the huge eagle that had him in its grip and was bearing him to the earth. The attack was so swift and silent, Fliss wasn’t sure the others even knew it had happened. She roared a warning. Hers wasn’t the bellow of a war drake, but it was enough.

Telkoram wheeled, seeming to hover for a moment like a dancer in the air. Scudding storm clouds veiled the sun, turning the light the color of pewter. The black dragon inhaled, seeming to swell, and then let out a stream of flame. Ragged orange fire blazed, striking the eagle square on its back. The stink of Sulphur filled the air. The bird shrieked, a bone-jarring cry that sawed through Fliss—but nothing else happened. The bird should have been ash but, if anything, its lustrous bronze plumage just grew brighter.

Disbelief made Fliss falter. A firebird! It was a creature from the far south—one she’d always believed a myth. The Shades had finally found a weapon to use against dragons.

The other guards dove after the enemy, the sleek gray dragon in the lead. The eagle dropped its mangled prey. Fliss looked away, suddenly sick.

Telkoram flew beside her, nudging her toward the school with his huge, horned head. He wanted her to fly as fast as she could, making her escape while the others fought. No, Fliss thought bitterly, I’m not a coward. I refuse to run.

And yet before that day, she wouldn’t have believed anything could hold its own against Bright Wing warriors. The bird was only half their size, but it was utterly savage.  Worse, it was immune to fire—their best weapon. Shrieks and roars spiraled up from the battle, vibrating on the wind.

Telkoram snarled in fury. The eagle had broken free of the guards and was arrowing toward them, murder in its amber glare. It was coming for them, the royal siblings. Telkoram put his body in its path, blocking Fliss from the firebird’s sight. Her brother bellowed, needing no words to convey his order. Go. Fly.

Fliss exhaled smoke, signaling her distress. The storm’s unnatural gale tossed her like a leaf, and yet Fliss was pinned in place by sheer horror.

Her brother angled closer, nipping her ear. Go now. Flee. Be safe.

She was out of choices, exhausted, and afraid. Back and shoulders screaming, she swooped toward the school and fled, one wingbeat straining after the next. Lighting forked overhead, sending a waved of prickles over her skin. Panic lodged in her throat, making it hard to breathe. Even if her brother saved her from the enemy, the storm loomed over them, dark and deadly. Worse, the Shades were somewhere nearby.

Thunder boomed. She wanted Telkoram’s big, comforting presence at her side—but he was somewhere behind her. The bird was on a path to intercept her, feathers shedding light as if it were sculpted from flame. This time, though, Fliss saw the fine webwork of shadows encrusting it like ash. That was the poison of the Shades, the mark of magical corruption controlling the eagle’s will.

The gray dragon streaked in, landing a mighty slash of its spiked tail before diving away. The eagle dropped, rolling in the sky to deliver the guard a stab of its beak. Fliss roared in anger, unleashing her own flame. To her dismay, it came out as a mere child’s flicker. She might be in adult danger, but she wasn’t a war dragon yet.

The bird’s head jerked her way, eyes intent, but Telkoram had caught up. Her brother snapped long fangs on its wingtip, pulling it up short. The eagle kicked out with its huge talons, and the fight was on.

Fliss bolted. The knowledge that she was striking out alone welled up like a cold tide, threatening to choke her from the inside. The failing light made it harder to see where she was going—and it made her own pale form visible against an increasingly dark backdrop. The odds were mounting against her.

The eagle screamed, but this time there was no answering roar from the dragons. A second passed, and then another as she waited for their defiant call. When she could stand it no longer, she risked a backward glance. The bird was briefly silhouetted against the rising moon—and coming her way.

None of her dragons were in sight. What had happened?

Fliss had to think fast. She’d made it across the river but she still had a long way to go. There was no way she would make it to the school before the firebird caught her. The only option was to hide.

Fliss dipped toward the treetops, using her small size and agility to dodge between them. It was cover, but not enough. A triumphant cry sounded straight above her. She played the final card she could, and dropped to the ground. Branches whipped her hide, tearing at her wings as she struggled to fold them tight. The noise of her descent was a deafening cacophony of cracking wood that startled the ordinary birds from their sleep and sent them fluttering into the air. Finally, Fliss thudded to the loam-scented earth.

The forest floor was dark, rustling trees blocking out the last of the fading light. Fliss was limp with fatigue, finding just enough strength to shift out of dragon form. Pain swept up her limbs in rippling waves, the sudden feeling of lightness making her dizzy as her body mass melted away in seconds. Her skin itched and burned, then a sudden prickle in her sinuses made her sneeze. At last, she flexed her fingers and toes, adjusting her sense of where she began and ended.

Wings flapped like a whistling tornado, bending the branches above. Fliss rolled to her hands and knees, trembling with hunger and an acute need for sleep. And warmth—she realized with dismay she had no clothes.

None of that mattered if she didn’t find safety. Quickly, she crawled into the shelter of the undergrowth, small enough now to hide from sight. She bowed her head, letting her long, dark hair hide her pale face.

The wingbeats went on and on as the eagle tore at the treetops in frustration, letting out a shrill chirp. Fliss huddled in the bed of ferns until she was sure not a single inch of skin showed. After what felt like a month, the eagle abandoned the hunt, leaving only a single red-tipped feather in its wake. The sudden silence rumbled with retreated thunder. Thankfully, the promised rain never came.

Still, Fliss waited a long time before she stirred—and then she straightened gingerly. The pain in her back remained, reminding her that she’d flown far more than usual. Slowly, she crept from her hiding spot, the soles of her feet tender where they touched the stones and pine needles littering the ground. She half-expected the eagle to return the instant she rose, but it was looking for a dragon, not a girl. Stealth would be her weapon until she could find Telkoram and the school.

Fliss wavered a moment, suddenly unsteady. Now that she wasn’t about to die, there was room for more worries. What had happened to her escort? Her brother? Visions of Telkoram’s grin—the impish one he saved for Fliss—hovered in her imagination. In that picture, his dark eyes met hers, measuring her courage. Was she dragon enough to look after herself?

Tears threatened, pinching the back of her throat, before she swallowed hard and began looking for a path out of the trees. She hadn’t gone a hundred yards before she froze.

A large, shaggy wolf stood in her path, studying her as if she was a leg of lamb.

It licked its chops.

 

COLLAPSE
Reviews:on Amazon:

Love Ms. Ashwood's books, she writes such amazing worlds.

on Goodreads:

Ms. Ashwood is a rare find; her works grab the reader on the first page and hurtles them from the mundane into the fantastical world of her creation.

on Goodreads:

Fantastic clean read! This went well beyond my expectations.


Scorpion Dawn

a novella of gaslight and magic

Book Cover: Scorpion Dawn
Part of the Hellion House series:
Editions:ePub
ISBN: 978-1775027997
Kindle
ISBN: B08GJ7XWD3
Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-7750279-8-0

When the prey becomes the hunter

Miranda Fletcher lives in a glittering world of aeronauts and artists, dance cards and dandies, but terror lurks outside the city walls. The countryside is infested with hungry abominations called the Unseen, and a single crack in the capital’s magical defenses invites disaster and death.

When Miranda witnesses a murder, she learns the walls aren’t as secure as the Conclave—the city’s magical protector—claims. But despite a string of bloody deaths, no one is foolhardy enough to question the Conclave, much less battle the Unseen. Except Miranda. When tragedy shatters her home, she refuses to turn the other cheek.

Sometimes the smallest creature carries the deadliest sting.

 

Published:
Publisher: Rowan & Ash Artistry
Genres:
Tags:
Excerpt:

 

Chapter 1

 

“Watch for a moment,” Norton Fletcher said to his son, Gideon. “Then we’ll bow and scrape to the Conclave. I’d rather see this than their sour faces.”

They ran side by side down the stairs of the administration building to take a shortcut across the airfield. Gideon’s stomach tightened with worry. “Will they take the delay as an insult?”

“Probably, but I know how to be careful.”

“Are you sure?” The brief conversation they’d had when the Conclave arrived a half hour ago had been tense.

“I own this place,” Fletcher replied. “They don’t have the power here.”

Gideon wasn’t sure that was true—not in any way that mattered. Still, he couldn’t help looking over to where his father pointed one gloved hand.

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Far ahead, a shout rose from the crowd of workers as the mooring ropes released and the Scorpion floated skyward, sleek and nimble. Twin balloons hung one above the other, the silk striped midnight blue and silver above a narrow, high-prowed gondola. The feather-shaped crest of Fletcher Industries was visible along the side, even from where Gideon stood at the edge of the field.

“A beauty, isn’t she?” Fletcher said, adjusting the brim of his gray top hat. Of middling height, he was stocky and weathered by decades in the wind and sun. He had begun his career as an airman, then built his highly profitable empire one dirigible at a time. “I took her up myself yesterday. Still a few improvements to make, but she’ll be perfect for quick travels inside the city walls. Clever thing can fly right between buildings with a good pilot. Only needs one or two crew members to run it.”

Gideon had seen the Scorpion under construction, but this was his first glimpse of it in flight. The ship was perfect for a rich man in a hurry or a young buck eager to show off. With the new restrictions on long-distance flight, building urban airships was a smart business move—but that was Fletcher, always one innovation ahead of his peers.

As his heir, Gideon was eager and humbled all at once. “What’s its range?”

“Depends on the weather. It could go to the next city, but that would be chancy.”

Gideon shaded his eyes, admiring the graceful way the ship turned. Scents from the surrounding fields and work sheds mixed in a familiar, throat-catching way. He’d been around airmen and their machines for the last twenty-five years—since he’d been a babe in arms.

“The name Scorpion was Miranda’s idea,” Fletcher said. “She’s been showing an interest in the business lately.”

“How so?” Gideon asked, never knowing what to expect from his youngest sister.

Now the show was over, they resumed their course toward the edge of the property, the autumn sun slanting across the grass. No trees stood around the airfield, but the shrubs and brambles along the outskirts flamed October gold and scarlet. The early afternoon was still warm despite a bite in the air that promised frost.

“She’s been practicing at the shooting range.” Fletcher waved a hand toward the airfield’s training grounds. “She’s even been flying with the junior crew.”

Gideon couldn’t suppress a smile at the thought of his elegant sister terrorizing the young airmen. “I knew she was coming here, but not the details. How is she progressing?”

“I’d give her a real job if she wasn’t my daughter.”

“But?”

“Thank the gods her mother’s not alive to see her darling covered in grease and gunpowder.”

There were volumes of family arguments in those words—what Miranda wanted versus what she’d be allowed to have—but Gideon left those for later. They’d arrived at the spot where a handful of Fletcher employees toiled.

“The accident’s been cleared away,” Gideon said.

“That was fast work,” Fletcher replied. “Remind me to stand the men a round of the best ale next time they visit the tavern.”

The cleanup had been a massive job. One of the morning’s delivery carts had rolled free as it was being unhitched. As the story went, a rabbit had spooked the big draft horses, and the idiot beasts had thundered away from the flop-eared menace at top speed. The harness—buckles half-undone in the driver’s hands—had come free, but the resulting jolt had unlocked the wagon’s brake. The heavy load of iron fittings had rolled free before crashing into the wall bordering the airfield’s land, knocking a gap in the old stone. Humans, horses, and bunny were unhurt, though the wagon was beyond redemption.

The physical repair was straightforward, but the accident had smashed the Conclave’s handiwork as well. A delegation from the Citadel, the Conclave’s stronghold at the center of the city, stood grim-faced on the sidelines. They had insisted on personally assessing the damage to the wall the moment they’d arrived on the scene.

Inwardly, Gideon burned with a mixture of anger and depression. The presence of the Conclave was never good news. Two were dressed in frock coats and beaver hats, marking them as gentleman flunkies, probably present to draft reports and calculate expense claims. The other three wore robes—two in black and one in the pale blue of the Senior Council. A handful of liveried Conclave guards stood a polite distance away, frowning at the grubby workers but not offering to help.

They had made introductions earlier, so Gideon knew the blue robe was Councilor Ormond. He was a heavy-jawed boulder of a man with small, wide-spaced blue eyes. Ormond looked up as they approached. “You are certain nothing penetrated from the other side? The breach was hours ago.”

Fletcher’s expression flickered, his jaw jutting forward defiantly. Still, he kept an affable tone. “My men have been watching it constantly. Nothing has crossed through.”

A brief silence fell, broken only by the sound of stone being shifted into place. The twenty-foot wall was hundreds of years old—one of the original sections of the barrier. Each block had been meticulously cut to fit, like an enormous puzzle. Fletcher’s men had taken the time to shore up the foundations as they worked, which made it even stronger than before.

All the same, it wasn’t chiseled rock that kept the city safe. The barrier around the town was made from many materials—wood, hedges, wrought iron, and even barricades made from whatever rubble the slums could spare. None would have held against the enemy outside. Despite the city’s efforts, the Conclave’s magic was what made the barrier work. Until, of course, a reckless rabbit had turned their wagon into a battering ram.

“Your carelessness risked the entire city,” Ormond said, his voice dark with warning.

“It was pure bad luck,” Fletcher replied. “If there’s a fine, we’ll pay it.”

The councilor shot him a glare of pure disdain. “Spoken like a merchant.”

Fletcher colored, but he was interrupted before he could retort.

“We’re ready, sir,” called a voice from above. Three airmen stood on top of the repaired section of the wall, wearing heavy work gloves and brown coveralls. Gideon recognized the speaker as Higgins, a senior crew hand.

“Are you certain it’s sound?” Fletcher shouted back.

Higgins stomped a foot on the stone. “Tight as a banker’s fist, she is.”

Fletcher nodded to the Conclave’s men. When Ormond moved his fingers slightly, the two black-robed acolytes stepped toward the wall. One bore a satchel. From it, he took tiny pliers and snips, along with rolls of fine silver-colored wire. With deft movements, the acolytes began to mend the mesh that ran inside the wall. Around the entire circumference of the city, in fact. The Conclave’s magic flowed from their Citadel to course through that web. No unnatural creature could climb, fly, or burrow past the protective shield. It was all that stood between the city and the monsters outside.

With ropes and harnesses, Higgins and Crewman Yale helped the acolytes scale the wall, heaving them up a foot at a time as they made their repairs. The interaction between the two groups was cool with suspicion. No one exactly knew what Conclave did inside the Citadel. Magic, certainly, but what else?

Torture and execution, Gideon thought. Not long ago, he’d rescued a man—Joseph Ellery—from beyond the wall, but Ellery had vanished into the Citadel’s dungeon, condemned because magic ran in his blood. It was the same with fortune-tellers, hedge wizards, and wise women. Only the Conclave was allowed to wield such powers. A quiet, studious man, Ellery had perished to prove that point—and to save his daughters from the same fate.

Gideon’s jaw ached as he bit down on the memory, forcing himself to focus on the work above. The acolytes were near the top of the wall now, the mesh nearly complete. Higgins and the others reeled them in, fearless of the height—they spent their time in the sky, after all.

One of the acolytes was a good climber. The other hung from the ropes like a sack of meal, relying on the airmen to heave him upward. As they neared the top, he began kicking and groping for handholds like a small child struggling in the bath. Apprehension tightened between Gideon’s shoulder blades. Without thinking, he found a foothold between the stones and began climbing, heedless of his well-tailored clothes.

Before Gideon was halfway up, Crewman Black, one of the new recruits, bent to catch the acolyte’s waving hand. It was a mistake.

Gideon did not see the acolyte make his flailing surge to the top, but he saw Black topple backward, arms wind-milling as he tried to catch his balance. Heart plunging, Gideon scrambled up the last few feet. “Black.

The crewman screamed as his feet kicked into empty air.

Gideon crouched atop the narrow stones. The drop to the other side should have been fatal, but a thick growth of broom and juniper partially broke the man’s fall with a crunch of snapping branches. Black rolled off the greenery, then sprawled in the long, unkempt grass, legs twisted awkwardly beneath him. Gideon’s stomach lurched. It was impossible to tell if the man’s limbs were broken, or even if he were still alive.

Meanwhile, the acolyte blubbered with shock and vertigo. Higgins held the acolyte by the shoulders, his expression grim. “Shall I send this one down after Black?”

“No. Just get him out of here,” Gideon snarled. Yale and the other acolyte jumped to obey.

Gideon calculated the distance between Black and the edge of the lurking forest. There was perhaps thirty clear feet before all visibility was lost. As long as he could see around him, he might be safe.

“Find me a harness,” Gideon called. “I’ll put it on Black, and you can pull him up.”

“No, sir,” Higgins said, rubbing the gray bristle along his jaw. “Don’t.”

“Why not?” Black was not yet twenty—barely at the start of his life. He was worth the risk.

“There’s your reason.” The older man pointed. “I’d rather you asked me to bring you a rifle.”

Gideon followed his pointing finger. What he saw made a cold abyss of fear open inside him.

“Do it.”

 

COLLAPSE
Reviews:on Goodreads:

The characterizations, along with the artful descriptions of the settings they inhabit, make for world building at it's finest. If you like magic and murder mysteries, this Steampunk novel is for you!

on Amazon:

I loved the story and the strong, determined Miranda.

on Goodreads:

Action takes hold from the very beginning and hardly ever takes a back seat position.


Quake

Crown of Fae Book 4

Smolder

Crown of Fae Book 3

Book Cover: Smolder
Part of the Crown of Fae series:
Editions:ePub
ISBN: 978-1777045821
Kindle
ISBN: B093GKS12W
Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-7770458-3-8
Size: 5.25 x 8.00 in

A prince. A prisoner. The last embers of hope.

Leena is a fae and a fire dancer, as wild as her mountain home. But war with the Shades has crushed her tribe, and she is forced to use her powers for her captors’ entertainment. She obeys to protect her family, until the Shades enslave her young brother in a nightmarish spell.

Rich, arrogant, and devastatingly handsome, Morran is feared as an ally of the Shades. Known as the Phoenix Prince, he is a prisoner of a different kind, cursed to forget his bloodline’s legacy of magic. His familiar is the firebird, but it has been stolen—along with his memories, his power, and his sanity.

If Leena can heal the prince, she has a chance to rescue her brother—but it’s been centuries since Morran was cursed. Can she find the key to warming his heart again? And once the Phoenix Prince is free, who says she’ll be able to tame him?

 

Published:
Publisher: Rowan & Ash Artistry
Genres:
Tags:
Excerpt:

Chapter One

“Servant Leena, you know the punishment.”

The guard stood in Leena’s path like a wall of steel and leather. Behind him was the door to the sandstone banquet hall, where she should have arrived twenty minutes ago. Evening approached, and the pillars of the porch cast long shadows on the dusty ground. The day’s heat had been blistering, but now a soothing breeze stirred the white shawl that protected her face and arms from the sun.

Leena had been born in the mountain wilderness, far from Eldaban’s sweltering streets. Now she was here, with little money and less status. Tardiness meant a beating.

Anxiety spiked, but she bowed her head in silent apology. All she wanted was to report for duty with no one the wiser that she was a little late.

“Lord Dorth expects better,” the guard said.

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A rude retort slid through Leena’s mind, but she kept it to herself. Instead, she made another humble bow. “Delay could not be avoided.”

“Were you at the temple?” he asked.

“I was.” Leena straightened. She was tall and slim with an athlete’s lean muscles, and well able to meet his gaze without looking up.

She knew Guardsman Remmik and his wife. Like so many of Eldaban’s citizens, they had come to the Temple of the Flame in Eldaban when fever ran amok last spring.

The Kelthian fae—Leena’s people—survived through their healing skills. When she was young, her tribe had arrived in the city’s crowded slums to escape the war. They were seen as little more than barbarians—red-haired, pale-skinned shepherds, illiterate and ill-suited to Eldaban’s desert sun. And, in truth, they were hot-tempered and destitute, but they’d brought along their medical talents.

Remmik studied Leena for several moments, a battle between rules and mercy plain on his broad face. Leena had trained as a fire dancer and a maker of medicines. She’d been the one who’d given his wife a healing potion. Sadly, serving as a priestess of the temple didn’t bring in coin—and she was late for work.

Leena struggled not to squirm. The guardsman’s tired eyes were a match with the creases in his face. They all looked haunted these days. Everyone had lost the war, just in different ways.

Finally, Remmik stepped aside. “Go on and be quick about it.”

“Blessings, Guardsman.” She slipped past him, turning right to dart through the smaller entry only the servants used.

It was stifling inside the hall, the air thick with the scent of food and warm bodies. Leena pushed through the crowd of servers and kitchen boys. Some were human, while others were the solid, dark-eyed earth fae common in Eldaban. A few were slender Kelthians in their brightly colored tunics.

Leena’s destination was a small antechamber beside the main dining area, where she would wait until called on to provide entertainment. Lord Dorth had little use for the temple healers, but he paid good wages for their dancers—and Leena was the best. Judging by the crush of people, the fat lord of Eldaban had spared no expense tonight. There had to be an important guest.

She hurried down the corridor, with its high ceilings and marble floors. Her sandals clip-clopped as she ran, but the sound was lost in the hubbub of voices. The guests were just arriving. She still had time to get to her place, but only if she moved fast. There would be hell to pay if the Master of Revels noticed her absence.

Two burly fae passed with enormous platters, the golden dishes barely visible beneath heaps of food. The scent of herbed lamb and fresh bread made Leena’s stomach cramp. She hadn’t eaten since dawn, and there would be no time now. Swallowing the saliva flooding her mouth, she hurried on.

Her luck held. She skidded to a halt outside the door she wanted, smoothed her hair, and drifted in as if nothing were amiss. The room was full of performers, all faces she knew. There were musicians and jugglers, fire-eaters and acrobats. She slid onto a bench beside her friend, Elodie. Like Leena, she was a red-haired fire fae of the southern mountains. Unlike Leena, she was compact and generously rounded, her tight copper curls spilling over her bare shoulders.

“Where were you?” Elodie demanded, giving her a quick, one-armed hug. “You’re lucky the guests were delayed.”

“There were wounded.” Leena sucked in a deep breath, doing her best to stop panting from the run. “There was a skirmish outside the city walls.”

“Were the wounded from Eldaban, or were they true defenders of Faery?” Elodie asked bitterly.

It was an old argument. The enemy of all the fae—the one true enemy—were the Shades. The turncoat Lord Dorth of Eldaban had sided with the invaders, betraying the Kelthian tribe as well as the rest of the fae resistance. To be fair, it was the only reason his city still stood.

“I can’t blame the townsfolk,” Leena said. “They didn’t choose this fight.”

“They could have refused.”

“And we could have left Eldaban the moment Dorth swore to serve the Shades, but we’ve been glad to have shelter. Healing is how we pay our debt.”

Elodie opened her mouth to protest, but a black cat leaped onto the bench between them.

“Kifi,” Elodie squeaked, clearly startled.

“I know who the general is bringing to dinner,” the cat said in a small, childlike voice.

“Who?” Leena asked. “And what are you doing wandering the streets?”

“Temple cats are allowed to roam,” Kifi replied loftily, settling her sleek form between the two women.

“You are a temple cat in training.” Elodie’s tone was severe. “You don’t have permission to wander the streets.”

Ignoring the comment, Kifi curled her tail about her paws. “Do you want my news or not?”

“Who is Lord Dorth entertaining?” Leena asked, mostly to end the argument.

“General Juradoc, of course.”

He was the leader of the Shade army that occupied the lands around Eldaban. The name made Leena shudder.

“He has someone with him by the name of Morran.” The cat blinked golden eyes. “That one walks like a man with a storm cloud as his crown.”

“What does that mean?” Leena asked. Temple cats could be frustratingly vague, as if that were their job. “And who is he?”

Kifi’s answer was cut short by a loud, throbbing fanfare. The trumpeters had signaled the start of the banquet. Instinctively, Leena sat straighter, her pulse quickening at the sound. Pounding drums followed as the host and his guests paraded in. From where she sat, Leena could see the hall through the partially open door. She glimpsed Lord Dorth, his tunic stiff with gems and golden braid.

The Master of Revels circulated throughout the room, giving the performers their instructions. Tovas was squat and warty, as much goblin as fae.

“Be ready,” he said in a stage whisper, giving Leena and Elodie a wink. “The high and mighty are in a mood. We’ve got to be perfect tonight. Elodie, my sweet?”

Elodie hopped to her feet. She began checking the performers' costumes, ensuring laces were tied and buckles properly secure. There would be no mishaps on her watch.

The acrobats and jugglers were the first entertainment, meant to welcome the nobles filling the hall. They erupted from the room with a shout, balls flying as they somersaulted through the air. Leena’s feet twitched, aching to follow, but her turn would come. When she and Elodie took the floor, they would be the climax, the jewels of the feast, giving onlookers a glimpse of the sacred Flame. Nothing could follow that act.

Kifi crawled into her lap, her slight form surprisingly heavy. “There were portents about this evening. Dire events. I heard it at the temple.”

“Such as?”

“I’m not sure.” Kifi yawned, showing sharp fangs. “I was chasing a spider at the time.”

“You’re a terrible temple cat.”

“I am a perfect cat.”

“And therein lies the problem.”

Leena rose, Kifi draped in her arms, and stood closer to the door where she could see all the guests without being seen herself. The banquet tables formed a vast square along the edges of the cavernous room. The high table, where the dignitaries sat, occupied a raised dais at the front. Behind that were double doors to a marble balcony overlooking Eldaban’s main square.

Leena had a good view of the elaborate table settings and damasked silk cloth. Scarlet hangings draped the walls, the jeweled embroidery glittering with rubies. Servants hurried from the kitchens, adding food to the already-groaning tables. It seemed enough to feed the entire city twice over. Leena’s stomach growled again, earning her a sharp look from Tovas.

In the center of the room, the acrobats leaped and twirled for the guests. There were humans and fae, lords and merchants. Some of the fae were small and winged, while others sported horns or limbs covered in supple vines. One thing, however, was constant. Despite their fine clothes and practiced smiles, everybody looked nervous.

The figures at the high table had their heads together, conversing among themselves. These were the nobles Leena had to please. Kifi stretched to get a better view as well, her whiskers tickling Leena’s cheek.

“There is Lord Dorth. He’s scowling as if he’s eaten bad fish,” the cat said. “And there is Morran.”

“Huh,” Leena replied, at a loss for words.

He was taking his seat, somehow managing to occupy more than his allotted space at the table. Fae did not age, but, even so, she could tell Morran was just entering his prime. The language of his body was there for her dancer’s eye to read—the dominating, impatient quality of his movements, every gesture quick and certain. He had the bearing of a commander, not a follower.

And such good looks were rare, even among the fae. His hair was pure black, thick and curling as it fell across his brow. While his skin was a warm golden brown, his eyes were the deepest chocolate. Yet, Leena’s instant attraction was short-lived. There was no kindness in the set of his mouth or those heavy-lidded eyes. Despite the perfection of his features, Morran’s expression was deadly cold.

Foreboding slithered down her back, as if the man were fated to do her harm. Leena glanced at the window at the back of the chamber, where it overlooked the street. An irrational part of her wished she could fit through the tiny opening. She’d hurried to arrive tonight, yet now she yearned to be far away.

Morran had arrived with a contingent of guards in black-and-gold tabards. They were traitors, fae from across the land who had sworn allegiance to General Juradoc. They scattered through the room, standing back as the guests settled at the tables.

A handful of Shades commanded those guards. They wore black robes over their black armor, the hoods pulled forward to hide their faces. A few carried long, crooked staffs tipped with elaborate carvings. Warriors and sorcerers—both deadly. Shade magic left everything it touched lifeless ash.

And General Juradoc was the deadliest of the Shades who had invaded the south of Faery. Robed and hooded in inky black, he stood to one side of the high table, across the room from where Leena watched. He made no move to join Morran or Lord Dorth, though a throne-like chair sat between them. As far as Leena knew, Shades didn’t eat or drink.

At the sight of the enemy, Kifi gave a soft hiss.

“Hush,” Leena whispered.

The cat’s ears flattened. “The general smells like a butcher’s pail left in the sun.”

As if Juradoc had heard them, the Shade’s hooded face turned Leena’s way. There were plenty of rumors about what lurked beneath the Shades' robes—the enemy was an army of rotting corpses, skeletons, or nothing at all. Twin pricks of violet light glimmered in place of Juradoc’s eyes. The gaze snagged on Leena, holding hers for one heartbeat, then two.

He shouldn’t have been able to see her, not from where she stood beyond his line of sight. And yet, Juradoc’s presence seemed mere inches away. Intimately close. Terrifying.

Leena’s muscles drew tight. Kifi mewed a complaint and jumped to the ground, then leaped to the windowsill.

“Go,” Leena whispered. “Go back to the temple.”

“Flame guide you.” With a flick of her ears, the cat was gone.

A wise creature, Leena thought, drawing breath as Juradoc’s gaze released her at last. She stepped back, colliding with Elodie. Her friend braced Leena’s shoulders, giving her support.

“Easy,” Elodie said in a low voice. “We are just dancers, here to entertain. We are safely beneath the general’s notice.”

Leena wasn’t so sure. The sensation of that stare lingered like a slug’s sticky trail.

The acrobats had finished, and the hall fell quiet. Lord Dorth rose, his round face shining with the heat. He drew breath, clearly preparing for a speech.

Juradoc flicked a gloved hand. A flash of green light seared Leena’s eyes, followed by a clap of thunder loud enough to rattle the dishes on the tables. Someone shouted in alarm. Another person shushed them.

Elodie gripped Leena’s arm. “What’s going on?”

Juradoc strode to the middle of the room, black robes swirling in his wake. The startled acrobats sank into a deep bow. Juradoc dismissed them with a gesture, and they all but sprinted from the room. Leena envied them the chance of escape.

“Enough with these paltry entertainments,” Juradoc said, his voice harsh as he turned toward Lord Dorth. He spoke the fae language well, but with an odd accent. “You insult us with such frivolity.”

The words fell like barbs, chasing any pleasure from the room. Juradoc circled the space, his steps unhurried. “We allowed Eldaban to live, unlike the Ravaged Lands to the south. Nothing survives there now.”

Elodie’s indrawn breath filled the silence. The smoking ruins of the south had once been their home.

Juradoc kept pacing. The banquet guests were motionless, their expressions appalled. Morran picked up his goblet, sipping the wine slowly. He sat back in his chair with an air of boredom, giving an approving nod to the vintage.

“My captains and I were generous,” Juradoc continued, a snarl creeping into this tone. “We stayed our hand because Eldaban bought our mercy. You swore the ancient power you shelter within your walls would be ours for the taking. And yet, tonight, you try to amuse us with clowns.”

“Blame the Master of Revels,” Dorth stuttered, his small eyes wide. “He insists on leading up to the highlights, building anticipation.”

Leena winced, suddenly worried for Tovas.

Building anticipation?” Juradoc’s tone dripped with incredulity. He stopped, robes eddying around him. “Are we peasants at a fair?”

Blood draining from his cheeks, Lord Dorth sat without uttering another word. Leena almost pitied him.

“Do not think for a moment that we can be handled or impressed by trifles.” The Shade came to a stop before the high table, raising a hand to point at his host. “Do not presume upon my goodwill.”

Juradoc jumped onto the dais with a surprising lightness, then reached across the overflowing table to snatch the goblet from Morran’s hand. The Shade turned to the crowd, the heavy metal cup held aloft. Jewels winked along its golden rim.

Then, a pulse of green fire covered it—so quick, it was gone in a blink. But then the heavy gold powdered to black ash, sifting through Juradoc’s gloved fingers like sand.

Shade magic consumed all while leaving nothing behind.

Leena’s throat closed as memories of her home’s devastation crowded in. Entire villages and fields had turned to dust. The Shades had stripped the life from the mountains, leaving nowhere to live. Nothing but barren rubble.

Eldaban didn’t stand a chance. The banquet hall was still as a tomb.

“I grow bored with your cringing,” Juradoc sneered. He jumped off the dais as lightly as a temple cat. “Summon the fire dancers.”

Lord Dorth made a frantic gesture. In response, Tovas spun to face Leena and Elodie. “Get out there, now.”

Leena froze, struck by a horrible certainty. Juradoc had spied her tonight, and he knew what she could do. He’d seen the Flame inside her.

What Shades saw, they took. Terror threatened to turn her knees to jelly.

“Hurry.” Elodie pulled Leena’s shawl away, tossing it aside.

Mouth dry, Leena kicked off her sandals. She needed nothing special to perform. Her straight, coppery hair fell to her hips, and her simple blue dress was all the costume she owned.

“There’s no need for panic.” Elodie’s tone was firm. “This is what we do.”

She was right. The Flame was the soul of the fire fae, and it was as pure and unrelenting as the sun. It wasn’t so flimsy that one enemy, not even a Shade, could steal or sully it. They were priestesses, and the spirit burned hot and proud inside them. Leena would personally show the enemy she was unbowed.

By the time they were ready, Juradoc had retreated to a place by the wall, giving them the floor.

There was no music to accompany their entrance. Elodie went first—a spark of energy unleashed. Her white dress hung to her knees, leaving her tanned legs bare. She spun, curls flying, coming to rest only when she reached the far end of the room. Then Leena leaped forward, her motions long and liquid. She and Elodie were excellent foils, playing off each other like instruments in a duet.

Yet, when she turned to face the high table and bow in reverence, she faltered. Until now, she’d seen Morran only in profile. From this angle, she could see his face clearly. Her first impression was the same as before—an unbidden wave of attraction. His cheekbones were high, his dark brows slightly slanted. The overall impression was of strength and intelligence. A dark blue tunic stretched across his broad chest, embroidered in gold and silver thread with a firebird surmounted by a crown.

Shock momentarily numbed Leena into stillness. There was only one man who could wear that sigil—the Phoenix Prince, Lord of Tymeera. He was the mightiest of the fire fae and a warrior without equal. He had beaten the Shades back for years, protecting the south with magic and sword until his sudden disappearance.

Without him, Kelthia had lost everything—and here he was at Juradoc’s side. He’d betrayed them all. The knowledge was like a fist to her belly, robbing her of breath.

When Morran’s gaze met hers, his eyes were as dead as stone.

 

 

COLLAPSE

Shatter

Crown of Fae Book 2

Book Cover: Shatter
Part of the Crown of Fae series:
Editions:Paperback
ISBN: 978-7750279-6-6
Kindle
ISBN: B0859RH5RB
ePub
ISBN: 978-1775027973

One lover is lying. The other will kill them all.

Tessa Harrison takes a cruise to Alaska and—just like her love life—the voyage seems doomed. The fact that her ex followed her aboard is bad enough, but this time he’s brought sea monsters.

Tessa’s former lover—who reveals himself as the Sea King of the fae—isn’t her only surprise visitor on the ship. Maxwell Stokes, captain of the ghost ship Solitude, is a guardian of the gateway between the fae and human worlds. Betrayed by the Sea King, Stokes is determined to get vengeance until Tessa disrupts his every plan. She’s fire to his ice, and the result is unexpected steam.

Tessa’s survival means unlocking a destiny she never suspected.  Fiercely independent, she holds the key to both men’s future—or their eternal destruction. Both want her power. Both claim she is the only woman they desire. Which one is telling the truth?

Tessa must choose—and the wrong choice could destroy two worlds.

 

Published:
Publisher: Rowan & Ash Artistry
Genres:
Tags:
Excerpt:

Chapter 1

Dawn splintered the night as Captain Maxwell Stokes recalled exactly how bad a hangover could be.

He sat on the deck of the Solitude, his feet propped on a crate. He wasn’t sure where the chair he’d collapsed in had come from, but it didn’t belong on the ship. He ached as if he’d been in an epic battle, although he couldn’t recall any such thing. Worse, his mouth tasted as if he’d eaten a filthy blanket—perhaps one the ship’s cat slept on right along with the rats that were her meals.

On the positive side, he’d had a glorious time at his sister Lisette’s wedding—or what he could remember of it. The scatter of bottles, discarded pipes, and the sleeping crew who stretched across the deck would have to be cleared away first thing, but that would involve noise and bustle. For just a handful of seconds, he craved peace.

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The Solitude was at anchor in Margit Bay, the tiny western city-state of Pomandine stretched along the shore. The ancient buildings crowded around the harbor, with the grander houses rising along the steep mountainside behind it. High up was the castle, the white stone made rosy by the first streaks of sunlight. That was where Stokes had been born and where—someday, eventually—he’d return to claim his birthright.

In the meantime, Lisette and her new husband would govern in his stead. It was a love match, with good sense and compatible minds to support it. The groom was from a wealthy merchant family, ideally suited to help Lisette govern taxes and trade.

The shining happiness on his sister’s face made him long for a family of his own—but his desires didn’t matter. He commanded Pomandine’s small war fleet, and they had joined the high king’s navy in defense of the realm. Love would have to come for Stokes later—much later.

Last night’s revelry was all the rest and recreation he would get.

Stokes rose, stretching his limbs to warm them against the dawn’s chill. He moved across the deck, stepping carefully to avoid his sleeping men. The night sky was fading to a study in silver and pink, the scent of mountain pines on the breeze. The first of the fishing fleet was leaving the harbor, black silhouettes against the shining mirror of the sea. It was a scene that had played out every morning for a thousand years. The fleet bobbed like children’s toys beside his three-decker warship, and his chest tightened with the need to protect them.

Lisette had accused Stokes of loving adventure more than his duty to his people, but she was wrong. He fought so Pomandine and its fishers and silk merchants, its fine ladies and picturesque streets, remained untouched. Like a madman, he’d pushed his crew to reach home in time for the celebration, but he could not linger. The enemy—the creatures they called Shades—pushed farther west with every battle.

Stokes had no sooner finished the thought than a movement in the water caught his eye. Between two fishing vessels, a scrap of darkness rode the waves. He squinted, wishing the dawn was brighter. Cormac Manannan, the Sea King of Faery, ruled his kingdom beneath the western waters, and the dark shape might be one of his subjects catching his morning meal. While a sighting was rare, it was nothing of concern. The ocean fae were allied with the high king’s forces. And yet…

Stokes leaned against the ship’s side, wishing he knew where his spyglass had got to. He strained for a better look, concern clearing his brain of the last fumes of wine. Something was not right.

That was no mermaid sporting in the waves. It was a small, lean craft cutting through the water at a magically fueled speed. It headed toward the outermost edge of the scattered fishing boats. Stokes tensed, studying the scene. There was another such boat, a bit farther south. And a third. They were circling the fishermen, deadly as any sharks.

His sour stomach, still full from the wedding banquet, nearly rebelled. He’d seen these crafts before. Shades. Somehow, they’d slipped through the cordon of warships and sailed here, to his home.

Stokes nudged the closest sailor with his booted foot. “Wake up!”

The man groaned, flopping to his back and shielding his eyes from the blazing sunrise.

“Find Reynolds,” Stokes ordered. “Get him on his feet.”

Reynolds was the first mate, well-versed in managing half-drunk sailors.

“Aye-aye, sir,” the man moaned.

“There are Shades in the bay,” Stokes said.

His words were like ice water. Instantly, the man clambered to his feet and gave an awkward salute. “Sir!”

Stokes reached for his sword, then remembered he’d taken it off for the dancing. His mind raced, calculating their chances. He had one ship, but where there was one Shade vessel, there were always dozens more. “Sound the summoning horns. We need the sea king’s aid.”

The sailor’s eyes went wide as he took off at a run. Stokes followed, shouting orders as he went to arm himself for war. He’d barely reached his cabin when the great curving war horns sounded from high up the main mast. The growl of the huge instruments reflected from the mountainsides, echoing across the water. The waves seemed to shudder with the booming grumble, sending flocks of gulls wheeling in the air. Wisely, many of the fishing vessels turned, fleeing to the safe embrace of the harbor.

Those farther out were in trouble. As soon as he returned to the deck, Stokes saw the enemy crafts had multiplied, closing around the fishing fleet. The enemy was too close to friendly vessels to use the ship’s cannons, so Stokes ordered archers to employ their longbows from the round platforms positioned high up the masts. A poisoned arrow to the throat could kill a Shade when little else worked.

The archers were halfway to their positions when the first vessel went down. The Marli Jane was a modest size, but her white-and-green paint gleamed in the new sunlight. She was tacking hard to escape the Shade’s path, white sails bellied out with the morning wind. She was fast, but not as nimble as the enemy. A ball of darkness flew through the air to land on her deck, trailing wisps of something—smoke, mist, or pure pestilence—in its wake.

A shout of horror rose from the crew of the Solitude. They knew what the dark ball meant. Stokes had found his spyglass, and he now trained it on the Marli Jane. A stain spread from where the scrap of blackness had landed, crawling outward like a creeping mold. The deck crumbled where it touched, leaving nothing but rot and powder. The crew shrank away as the planks collapsed, and the proud sails blackened to tatters. A few jumped overboard, trusting their luck to the sea. The others clung to the vanishing boat, which eventually collapsed inward as if crushed by an invisible fist.

Stokes lowered the spyglass. He’d seen the Shades’ magic at work before, and it had left entire coastlines bare of life. Farther inland, they’d scoured the dragons’ lands, and the farms and villages near the desert. They seemed to kill for no reason beyond the wild joy of destruction. How could he stop them here and now, on his doorstep?

The ship’s archers fired, catching one of the dark-clad Shades through the shoulder. It was a good shot, especially since they were hard to see, hooded and hiding where the light was dim. The figure grabbed for the arrow, a gloved hand groping for the wound, but it collapsed to nothing, as if its cloak had been filled with air.

The Solitude’s crew cheered, but the victory was small. By the time they had killed a single enemy, a dozen ships had sunk. Stokes swore a vicious oath, wishing for a human enemy he could fight hand to hand—wishing for a magic spell of his own.

His curse was answered. Light bloomed from beneath the sea, spreading pools of violet, aquamarine, and sapphire through the water. The illumination came in wavering circles of brilliance, as if the ocean itself was waking.

Giant crystals broke the waves, rising on spears of gleaming gold. Then the King of the Sea himself followed, riding in a sea-green chariot. Seahorses crested the storm-tossed waves. His attendants were the merrows and merfolk, the sirens and selkies. Water streamed from them in glittering sheets, pooling in a white froth that chased the fleeing boats to the shore.

The Solitude’s sailors whistled and cheered. Some of the sea folk were beautiful, others wildly grotesque. Either way, Stokes had never seen such a welcome sight as Cormac Manannan rising in his chariot. The sea king was tall and heavily muscled, draped in sea-green robes. One hand held a jeweled trident, the symbol of his rule.

Stokes’s heart leaped with newfound courage.

“Your Majesty,” Stokes cried, waving from the deck. “We crave your aid to throw off these invaders.”

“You summon me, human, according to the ancient treaties between the high king and my people?” The sea king’s voice roared with the crash of waves and the cry of gulls.

“By the fae and by the dragon, I summon you,” Stokes replied, using the formal language of the old oaths. “By human’s sword and goblin’s hammer, I conjure you to defend the surface world. Faery is in danger, and the old alliances must rise. Help me save my people in Pomandine.”

Silence fell over the merfolk. Then, a loud keening rose from the sea king’s attendants, as if they mourned a death. Stokes covered his ears to block the high-pitched noise. The creatures lifted bare arms to the skies, wailing until the king silenced them with a wave of one hand.

The sound cut off abruptly. Relieved, Stokes took his hands from his ears. A bosun swore loudly, the words resonating over the water.

“Human,” Cormac said, his voice grave. “The old oaths served an old world. One before this enemy plague.”

Stokes gripped his brass spyglass, hands suddenly numb with dread. “What do you mean, Sea King?”

“If I give the Shades the land, they will leave the deep waters alone.”

Understanding slammed into Stokes. The sea king had struck a bargain with the Shades to save his own people. The Solitude was doomed. So was every fishing boat on the water—along with the men, women, and children who depended on their catch.

Volcanic fury flared in Stokes’s veins. “You traitor.”

Cormac Manannan ignored him, instead pointing his trident to the north. The waves lashed higher in that direction, responding to his command.

“What’s he doing?” the bosun cried.

Stokes wished he knew. The Shades had turned their boats in the same direction, abandoning the wreckage of the fishing fleet. “Fire on the bastards,” he ordered.

The crew hastened to obey. Soon, the brass cannons boomed and belched, picking off the enemy’s vessels as if this were merely target practice. The Shades barely seemed interested in evasive maneuvers. The crew’s cheers started out hearty, only to fade as realization set in.

The Shades were waiting as the sea king’s wall of water grew higher. When it towered like a great porthole above the ocean and far, far taller than the Solitude’s highest mast, Manannan lowered his trident. The sun was fully up now, and the shining, churning disk of water glistened in the sun like a silver platter. Like a mirror.

Stokes almost fell to his knees in horror. He knew little of Shade magic, but he knew of the spell called the Shimmer. It worked on the principle that two reflective surfaces could form a doorway between locations or even worlds. The sea king had just made the biggest mirror ever, and Stokes would wager his best sword one of those Shade crafts held a sorcerer.

He was correct. The giant disk of water turned ink black, and a flotilla of Shade warships sailed through the Shimmer. These weren’t the small, sleek runabouts that had attacked the fishermen, but massive ships with two and three decks, bristling with cannon.

“Fire on them,” Stokes cried, wasting no time rallying his crew.

Even as he gave the order, his thoughts spun. With the sea king’s help, the Shades had found a shortcut to the west of Faery. The innocent lives that had been safe yesterday were all but lost. Stokes gulped for breath, suddenly finding it hard to get air. Had he somehow invited this disaster by leaving his post for the wedding? Had he failed in his duty? The idea was emotionally true, but logically ridiculous. He hadn’t caused this, but the fact he’d taken a moment for pleasure savaged him with razor claws.

There was no more time for guilt. The Solitude’s guns fired, punching holes high in the deck of the nearest Shade vessel. It was all but futile—the odds were wildly against them—but defiance was all they had left.

Until they lost even more. The King of the Sea struck the waves with his trident, and the earth began to shake. Stokes spun to face the shore—to face Pomandine, where his sister and her new husband slept in their castle bedroom high on the mountainside. The city was his childhood, his anchor, his once and future home.

The three Shade warships had fanned out, training their cannons on the city. For a panicked moment, Stokes wondered if the Solitude was in the line of fire, but then realized they would miss the ship on either side. Then, as the three ships fired their cannons, Stokes wished he’d already been blown to smithereens.

There were no lead balls, no volleys of shot, but the guns fired something he couldn’t see. It hit with a clap that sent the crew staggering as the ship pitched in response. Then, with an indescribable thunder of falling stone, the whole of the mountainside that held Stokes’s world slid into the sea, taking the piers and harbor with it. Boats crumpled beneath the avalanche. Pillars of dust rose to the clouds. Even through the crash of destruction, Stokes could hear his people screaming.

Within seconds, there was nothing but bare mountainside and rubble. It looked as if a god had wiped the rock face clean. The crew of the Solitude fell deathly silent. Even the sea king and his people remained still as statues—at least for the moment it took to understand what had happened.

Then the wave came. A city had fallen into the ocean. All the displaced water had to go somewhere. The sea king plunged beneath the waves, fleeing to safety with his people. The Shade ships vanished into a tower of water, but the Solitude seemed to catch the crest, rising higher and higher as the ship was hurtled back toward the Shimmer.

Perhaps it was the sea king’s magic that kept them from capsizing. Stokes didn’t know, but he would seize this chance to retaliate. He grabbed the tiller, steering straight into the portal the Shades had used.

“Captain.” The helmsman clutched his arm. “What are you thinking?”

The man had no right to question his superior, but Stokes answered anyway. “Tell the gunners to fire every barrel of powder in the hold once we hit the Shimmer. Sacrifice is the only duty we have left.”

It was a fancy way of saying they were about to die.

Chapter 2

“Wagering on the devil’s number? Risky, even for you.”

His soft, deep voice caught Tessa Harrison’s attention, though her eyes never left the roulette table. She stiffened inside but worked hard not to show her fear. He shouldn’t be there.

She’d run and thought she would be safe. A mistaken calculation.

“If you add the numbers on the wheel,” Cormac McMann said, breath warm against her neck, “they sum to six-six-six.”

“Is that your number?” She edged her tone with ice, refusing to give ground even though he was very much inside her personal space.

“Is that meant to be amusing?”

“Take it any way you like.”

“You forget I know how deep inside you that demon lives. You already owe some dangerous men for this little habit of yours. Do you really want to add to your debt?”

The cold crawling through Tessa’s belly seeped into her limbs and then her thoughts, numbing her when she most needed to be swift and smart. Cormac was right, but she had no idea how he knew the truth. She’d been so careful in hiding it. Then again, he’d turned out to be nothing like she’d expected.

What else did he know about her? There were things she barely admitted to herself.

“Leave me alone, Cormac.”

“What, no banter?”

“I’m busy.”

A babble of voices rose around the table as a high roller put his chips on a single number. The room was crowded, the scent of alcohol and perfume heavy in the air. Light sparkled from the chandeliers, the diffuse radiance giving an aura of class. The décor promised wealth and discretion, as if money were no object to the patrons gathered there.

Tessa knew firsthand it was a lie. She put her small stack of chips down, refusing to bolt from Cormac’s presence. Prey ran and lost, and he was definitely a hunter. As he shifted closer still, she heard the rustle of his hand-tailored suit and smelled the warm musk of his skin. The man knew how to loom. At first, she’d thought it was sexy—who didn’t like a good alpha male? But now, it sent a flare of warning to the most primitive parts of her brain.

There were so many ways to gamble, and she’d tried most of them. This time, she was caught between a roulette table and a stone-cold killer. Tessa couldn’t seem to escape her bad choices.

The wheel spun one way, the white ball the other, flashing past black and red numbers in a dizzying, rattling blur. For an instant, she forgot Cormac, her chest aching with exhilaration and dread. Winning was glorious, but what Tessa craved was the dance between doom and wild hope. Nothing else made her blood pound the same way.

The ball dropped, bouncing and rolling until it landed on the red nine. Gasps and cheers rose from the crowd clustered around the table. Tessa’s stomach plunged like a falcon shot from the sky. She’d lost again, far more than she should have. Cormac must have seen her flinch, because his hand wrapped around her bare arm.

“Come away, Tessa.”

Cursing, she spun to face him. The movement forced Cormac to release her arm.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded.

“You left me behind.”

“A girl can take a vacation, can’t she?”

“You ran.” His brows dipped into a scowl. “You had no right to vanish without a word.”

“I can go anywhere I like, whenever I want.” Her voice went from chill to Arctic, her fingers gripping her clutch to hide their tremor. You don’t know I saw you kill a man, but I did.

The look in his eyes said he understood her thoughts—though it was plainly impossible. Almost as unlikely as a murder that left absolutely no trace for the cops to find. They’d thought Tessa was—how had they phrased it?—confused. The only one who’d believed her was a private eye, and she still wasn’t sure where he fit in.

“Besides,” she said. “You left on a business trip.” You got on a plane, then made yourself scarce while the police bungled the investigation and called me a liar.

After that, all she’d wanted was to get away, so she’d taken what little money she had left and booked a last-minute cruise to Alaska on the Pacific Swan. It seemed her plan had backfired. Now she was broke and trapped on a ship with him.

“Do you want me to beg for another chance?” he murmured, tilting her face up with a finger beneath her chin.

Cormac was well over six feet tall and built like a bull, his chest and thick arms all muscle. Now his impressive physique was wrapped in a Savile Row evening suit, and the contrast of brute force and elegance was intoxicating. Tessa’s cocktail dress seemed little more than a wisp of aqua silk, barely covering her overheated flesh. The ship’s casino was packed with passengers, all wound to a fever pitch. It was more than the air conditioner could cope with.

Tessa couldn’t break Cormac’s gaze. His eyes were a shifting blue green that contrasted sharply with his deeply tanned skin. Dark brows swept across a broad forehead. It was a brutal face, softened only by a wide, sensual mouth. He’d tamed his dark hair into a tight braid that hung a few inches past his collar. Everyone else would think him an exotic prince on the prowl for entertainment. All she could think of was the flash of a knife in the dark.

“We’re done,” she said. “And begging doesn’t suit you.”

“Begging?” He sneered. “Is that what you think I’m doing?”

She couldn’t stay there another moment. Unfortunately, she couldn’t avoid brushing against the hard curve of his chest and thigh as she pushed through the throng, her high-heeled sandals doing nothing for her balance. Cormac’s hand fastened in the fall of her hip-length hair, stopping her short. Tessa’s heart skipped, terror rising into her throat. He bent until his lips brushed her ear, his breath tangy with lime and salt. “Don’t think you can escape from me.”

Her gaze flicked across the crowd, wondering if she should call for help. She instantly discarded the notion. No one had believed her before. Why would this time be different?

Tessa stepped on Cormac’s foot, leaning in to drive her narrow heel through the butter-soft leather of his dress shoe. She felt the fine bones of his foot shift beneath the pressure. Cormac’s breath caught. Suddenly, she was free to turn her head.

“Back off,” she snapped, curling her lip.

They locked eyes, his darkening with fury. Cormac didn’t like to lose, but neither did she. It was the one trait they shared.

Tessa wasted no time slipping through the crowd. Her fingers tightened around her glittering evening bag, as if she needed something solid to hold on to. Not that there was anything of value in it besides her driver’s license and phone—the last of her emergency money was back at the roulette table. In a wild bout of magical thinking, she’d hoped to win enough to pay off her debts, or at least for her trip. Tessa cursed again, the words capturing the loss, herself, and all her failures.

Cormac. Her skin pebbled as she strode down the hall, each step putting distance between them. Although she was unlucky in love, this was a new low. To make things worse, the stress had sent her backsliding into old vices. She’d known better than to visit the casino—she’d even gone to therapy about her habit—but she’d slipped, convincing herself she’d only watch the other players. When she’d broken down and played a few games, she should have known enough to stop, yet she’d kept going anyway. Ironically, Cormac had done her a favor by interrupting her night.

Now what should she do? If he was aboard, chances were he’d already found out her cabin number. Running there first thing would be a mistake. Tessa slowed her steps, considering her options. She was on the entertainment level—deck four according to the sign on the wall. She swerved toward the elevator, hitting the button to go up even as she glanced back for any sign of her ex. There was no doubt he’d follow. Sure enough, she spotted his tall form emerging to tower over the crowd.

Luckily, the door opened at once. She stepped inside with a dozen other people. But rather than choose her destination, she let chance take her. The more she broke with her usual habits, the harder she’d be to find. When the doors opened on deck ten, she went to the Starview Room, one of several cocktail lounges on the ship.

It was busy, though not so much she couldn’t find a table deep in the mood-lit shadows. When the waiter came by, she ordered white wine. The single candle on the glass table reflected in the window at her left. The night was cloudy, so she could see little beyond the reflection of the lights on the ship’s wake. It looked as if they sailed through space, the rest of the world simply a myth. If only that were true.

She took a deep breath, shaking a little as tension finally left her body. The break with Cormac had been an act of self-preservation, but she wasn’t romantically crushed. In some ways, that was a blessing—she’d seen friends fall to pieces when their relationship had crashed and burned—but she’d always been safe from that kind of drama. A person had to fall in love before their heart could be broken. Tessa had tried, of course. She’d had her share of brief affairs.

Therapists loved her file—gambling and attachment issues, abandonment as a baby. Her adopted family had raised her well, but she’d never fit in. That was why Cormac had been special. He’d seemed familiar, making her a part of his world in a way she’d never experienced before. She already missed that sensation of belonging.

A fin flicked in the water below. As a professional diver, she saw a lot of sea creatures, but this was far larger than it should have been, even this far into the open ocean. It made her think of Jules Verne, of Leviathans and Victorian etchings of sea monsters. She leaned toward the window, frowning at the shifting water, but the creature didn’t show itself again.

Despair rolled through her. She’d lost her man, and she’d more than lost her money. Was she losing her mind as well? Seeing imaginary monsters? Bodies that weren’t there? Murders that never occurred? The sting of tears made her blink.

A figure joined her at the table. Tessa jerked her gaze away from the window, but she exhaled with relief when she saw it was a stranger and not her ex. He was dark haired and impeccably dressed, down to his gold cufflinks. Somewhere in his thirties, he was handsome in a rugged way, as if he’d spent a lot of time outdoors. A sailor, maybe, or an avid ski enthusiast. Or possibly another psycho, given her luck with men.

“May I join you?” he asked, setting down his martini glass. He had an accent—English, but not London. The West Country, perhaps.

Tessa just wanted him gone. “I’m not looking for a date.”

“Neither am I.”

“Seriously.”

“I am in deadly earnest, I assure you.”

“Deadly, huh?” Tessa studied the high cheekbones and lean jaw. This wasn’t the face of a playboy, however suave the outfit. He looked dangerous in a quiet, efficient way.

He gave her a wry smile. “Clearly, we both have enough problems without adding the tedium of romantic entanglements.”

Tessa’s wine arrived, and she automatically took a sip. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but never tedious.”

“My apologies,” he said, lips curving with self-mockery. “My manners have rusted away.”

“Don’t worry. I never had any. Why are you at my table?”

He sat back, brows drawing together. “So I can do you a favor.”

She’d irritated the man. At this point in her rotten evening, she didn’t care. “What’s your name?”

“Stokes,” he replied, lifting his glass.

He didn’t offer a first name, so Tessa didn’t ask. She straightened, folding her arms. “What kind of a favor are you offering? Do you have investments to sell? Maybe holiday condos in a swamp?”

“Not quite.” He gave a slight nod, indicating a table several yards away. “Those men followed you in. I noticed them watching you. I grew concerned.”

She knew better than to turn and stare, but a sideways glance showed her several people she recognized from the casino. One was wide and bald, the other tall with bleached hair and a scar down one cheek. They’d come straight from a box labeled, “well-dressed thugs.” She hadn’t noticed them come in, even though she’d kept half an eye on the door. Then she remembered staring out the window, contemplating sea monsters.

She reached for her glass, desperate to steady her nerves, then pushed it away instead. This was no time to dull her wits. It was time to stop reacting and take control.

“Do you know them?” Stokes asked.

It was a good question. There was her connection to the gambling world, but it was just as likely they’d come with Cormac. “They might work for someone I know.”

“And this someone is the type to send hirelings to follow you?” He said it evenly, though there was a thread of anger beneath the words.

“Maybe.” Definitely. Still, she wasn’t sure how much she could say. Stokes might seem chivalrous, but Cormac had taught her to be wary. “I’m leaving.”

Stokes rose when she did. “I’ll accompany you wherever you want to go.”

She was about to protest when she felt Bald Guy’s gaze. She couldn’t afford to refuse assistance. Once she got to her cabin, she could lock the door and be as antisocial as she liked.

Reluctantly, she gave in. “Thank you.”

Stokes offered her his arm. Her hand tingled the moment it touched his sleeve, as if he carried an electric current. She gasped slightly, then the sensation faded as they began walking. Perhaps it was just more evidence of her growing insanity.

Talking would steady her nerves. “Do you make a habit of rescuing strangers?”

“No, though I fought at sea for a worthy cause,” Stokes said. “I’ve done my share of knight errantry.”

“In the Navy?”

“A navy of a sort, yes.”

As they got on the elevator, she noticed Bald Guy typing on his phone—no doubt alerting the world Tessa was on the move. Anger stirred, finally burning away some of her fear. Good—she could work with anger.

Stokes was watching her, so she searched for something more to say. “Do you still have your own boat?”

He smiled, showing crinkles around his eyes. “Ship, not boat. She’s called the Solitude.”

“Solitude sounds peaceful.”

He gave a low laugh, as if it were anything but. Despite the circumstances, her blood heated, warning her she wasn’t immune to his very male presence.

“How about you?” he asked. “What do you do at home?”

“I’m a commercial diver,” she said, leaving out she was one of the best in the business and able to command an exorbitant fee. If her bosses had their way, she’d never take holidays. “I work with ecologists, science teams, and a few fisheries. I’m good with tools, so I do a lot of underwater repairs.”

“That can be dangerous work,” he said.

“Sometimes,” she agreed. “But then again, taking a vacation cruise turned out to be more than I bargained for.”

The elevator chimed, and the door slid open. They stepped out into the corridor, where doors to the passenger cabins lined either side. Tessa’s was halfway down on the left. Cormac leaned beside it, one knee bent to prop his foot against the wall. Tessa inhaled as Stokes grabbed her hand. His grasp was ice cold.

“Be careful,” Stokes said softly. “I know this cankerous whoreson and what he can do.”

“You know him?” Tessa asked in surprise.

“He destroyed everything I loved. I’ve been looking for him.”

Tessa’s stomach did a flip. “You didn’t meet me by chance, did you?”

Stokes didn’t answer, but took a step forward, his arms loose at his sides. A fighter’s stance, Tessa realized. Without taking her eyes off the two men, she slid off her high-heels and instantly felt better with firm ground beneath her. Then she gathered her shoes in one hand. The spikes might make a weapon in a pinch.

“Captain Stokes,” Cormac said with a toothy smile. “How nice to see you again.”

“Isn’t destroying one kingdom enough, Cormac?” Stokes demanded. “What did the Shades promise if you gave them this one, too?”

“What are you talking about?” Tessa demanded. “What Shades?” It sounded like a mob—gun runners or drug dealers. The idea fit what she’d witnessed—and what had made her run to the sea.

Both men ignored her. Cormac straightened to his full height, his glare fixed on Stokes. They were barely a dozen feet apart now. “You’re out of your depth, ghost.”

In a single swift gesture, Cormac reached into his pocket, then flung a handful of something into the air. Tessa ducked, covering her face, but felt only a tickle as the stuff struck her bare arm. White grains caught in her dark hair, scattering across the carpet. Her mind blanked with confusion, which was followed swiftly by dread. What had Cormac thrown? Drugs? Poison? Some kind of acid?

She looked up to where Stokes had stood a moment before. He was gone. Instead, a puddle of water soaked the floor. She spun around, but the man had utterly vanished.

At the sight of her bewilderment, Cormac gave a deep, booming laugh as he advanced her way. “That was nothing but salt, my love. The dead can’t abide it.”

What?” She held out her free hand, palm forward, as if that would stop him in his tracks. “You’re making no sense.”

Cormac shrugged. “Like I said, he went poof. Ghosts mean well, but…”

The impossibility of those words stalled her every thought. She began inching backward, keeping distance between them. Tessa glanced around one more time, desperate for aid. This was an enormous ship stuffed with passengers, but they were alone.

“Where is everyone?” Her voice cracked with panic.

Cormac’s smile only widened. “It’s easy to convince ordinary mortals to remain at their games and restaurants. Stay with me, and I’ll show you far more of my magic.”

“Magic? Is that, like, code for your manhood?”

His smile dropped. “Watch your tongue.”

“Or what?” Tessa’s back bumped against the wall. She began edging sideways in a futile attempt to escape. Memories clashed, present fear overlaid with past intimacy. She knew every inch of his bronzed flesh, had wanted it with unabashed hunger. Now all she could do was shrink away. However well she’d known his body, she hadn’t known the man.

Cormac stopped a few feet away, then planted a thick arm against the wall, blocking her path to freedom. “How strange you’re suddenly so eager to avoid my company.”

There was a wealth of threat and insinuation in those few words. Tessa’s skin chilled, realizing he knew everything—she was a witness, and she’d betrayed him to the cops. His mouth curled with triumph. But Tessa barely saw Cormac’s expression—she was staring behind him.

Stokes stood there, holding an enormous sword in a battered black scabbard. He grabbed the hilt, eyes fixed on Cormac.

“What?” Cormac demanded, clearly annoyed at her distraction.

Steel swished as Stokes drew the shining weapon. “I think it’s time for a pointed conversation.”

COLLAPSE
Reviews:on Amazon:

Another enthralling, action packed tale, high seas adventure with mystical overtones. Captivated from the first word until the final one. A very enjoyable read!

on Amazon:

While I've read a lot of Sharon Ashwood's books, these two (this series) are hands down the best, in my opinion, that she's put out in years!

on Amazon:

Don’t miss the ending! It’s EPIC!

on Amazon:

An absolutely fabulous book! I highly recommend reading this book! You won’t be sorry

on Goodreads:

It's an intense ride of action, adventure and love with an absolutely fantastic and thrilling ending! I can't wait to read where this author takes us next in this series! It has already been quite the adventure!

on Goodreads:

I decided to read this book 100% by the cover the tentacles spoke to me. I am so glad they did. This book had everything I could have wanted in a story action, romance, mystery, cool sea monsters, magic and a great heroine. -- I felt completely pulled into the world of Faery!


Shimmer

Crown of Fae Book 1

Book Cover: Shimmer
Part of the Crown of Fae series:
Editions:Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-7750279-5-9
Kindle
ISBN: B084TDXRF8
ePub
ISBN: 978-1775027942

Three wishes, two warriors, one chance at redemption

Fae martial artist Alana Beech demands justice when her teammate dies during a rigged fight—but no one cares. Injured and alone, Alana is forced to accept a last-chance job at a curiosity shop. There she finds a magic lamp—and a spark of hope—in a box of abandoned junk.

Ronan is a dragon prince imprisoned during the destruction of the fae homeland. He’s the genie bound to the lamp and forced to grant three wishes to every comer. As handsome as he is hazardous, Ronan joins Alana’s search for answers.

While their alliance turns passionate, Alana’s quest reveals a mystery that goes far beyond murder. The lamp is a lethal weapon, and Ronan’s enemies are hunting for him.  Alana will do anything to guard her lover’s back, but sometimes a warrior’s courage—like the genie’s wishes—carries an unexpected price.

 

 

Published:
Publisher: Rowan & Ash Artistry
Genres:
Tags:
Excerpt:

Centuries ago

The Faery Realm

Air snapped under the dragon’s wings as he caught the updraft, sailing higher. Sun gleamed on his pearly white and gray scales, turning them to rivers of iridescent blue and green. The fae dragons of the Wheel were massive, fearsome creatures of breathtaking beauty. They were also the lords of the land, and they protected what was theirs with fire and fang.

The extra lift gave the dragon a better view, and he twisted his sinuous neck to catch a glimpse of his quarry. There. Anger flared through him, bitter and red as spilled blood. There was the enemy, swarming like rats beyond the sharp-edged mountains. Hiding like…

Shades. Eternal enemies of the fae.

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With a snort of steam, the dragon angled into a circling dive, wind roaring past his membranous wings. He was Ronan, Prince of Bright Wing and commander of his kin. After King Vass, his father, Ronan was the greatest of the dragons who patrolled the sky against the Shades.

He snarled, the urge to protect thundering wildly in his blood as land, sea, mountain, and desert stretched below him. This was his world. His family governed the air fae. They sat on the council that met on the flat-topped mountain called the Wheel. The High King of Faery ruled the realm, but only with the council’s advice. The system was fair, if not perfect, and it had kept the peace for thousands of years.

Until now. Until war.

Ronan crossed the ridge of the first mountains and then flew low, hugging the tips of the tall firs. Recent battles had taught him caution. Shades were related to the fae, for they spoke the same tongue and bore similar shapes. And yet, their souls were forged of a different metal—one that was blackened and twisted. If the fae of the Wheel fought to protect their own, the Shades attacked for the pure pleasure of chaos.

The trees gave way to the green sweep of the valley. Ronan dipped with the land, keeping as inconspicuous as a huge white dragon could be. He’d seen the smoke from afar. Now as he saw the source, his anger congealed to ice. There had been a village on this hillside. All that remained were the blackened stumps of houses, the folk and their animals turned to ash where they stood. Some had been scrambling for the woods, others huddled for a last moment of comfort. Not even the dovecots remained.

Something inside Ronan cracked. Pain welled, ferocious in its intensity. These villagers had been innocents in need of his protection. Instead, they’d perished—not even by the cleansing fire of a dragon, but by something that left the stench of corruption behind.

Shades. They were gone now, moved on to destroy a different village in another valley. But how? How were they coming and going undetected?

Roaring his fury, Ronan beat his wings hard, climbing so quickly he seemed to challenge the sun itself. When he rose to the highest place the air would hold him, he spied what another of the mountain valleys held. In one bowl-shaped hollow that lay amid the jagged rock, there should have been a lake of crystal water. Instead, a midnight blackness shimmered in its place.

He alighted on a high ridge, where he had the best view—but where he was also the most visible. With an instinctive flash of magic, he shifted. It took hours to take his dragon form, but almost no time at all to assume a human body. Now much less conspicuous, he crouched where the ragged rocks gave him cover. Like all the noble fae, Ronan was tall and well-made, his warrior’s physique heavy with muscle. He ducked his dark head, peering down on the scene below.

It wasn’t the cold mountain wind that turned his bare flesh to ice. An army of thousands—of tens of thousands—marched from the inky waters of the lake. Except they weren’t waters at all, but a doorway made of reflection magic.

The Shimmer. He’d read about it in books, and he knew what it could do. This was Shade magic.

It spelled the end of his world.

 

Chapter One

Present Day

The Human Realm.

Alana Beech pushed the elevator button with all the enthusiasm of a felon on her way to the gallows. When the doors shuddered open, she gave an audible sigh, hitched up her shoulder bag, and prepared for the ordeal ahead.

It had been years since she’d searched for a job, but, after a month recuperating, she needed a paycheck fast. Sadly, few companies wanted a washed-up fighter giddy on painkillers. She’d suffered two knife wounds, along with a whole lot of bites and scratches, in a no-holds-barred tag-team match with two cat shifters. Underground fights offered no compensation for injuries and the losers were, well, losers—in more ways than Alana could count. That fight had smashed her entire life to pulp.

But the past was off-limits today, because even invalids had to pay the rent. No, today was about survival and moving forward, and that meant finding work. When a fighter was too hurt to perform, it was time to think outside the box, and Alana had ideas. While she had nothing in common with the hungry young corporate sharks who haunted the business district—except maybe the hungry part—they needed people with her talents. All she had to do was convince them of the fact.

The elevator dinged, the doors groaned open, and she stepped into a beige-on-beige hallway. At the end of the corridor, she could see the sign for the Wildwood Employment Agency, where the overhead light flickered like a dying firefly. She forced her feet into a confident march, though her wounds still throbbed with each beat of her pulse. Hiding her weakness was essential if she wanted to get hired, but she was used to masking pain.

To the casual eye, Wildwood was an old-school agency for temporary office workers. To those in the know, it did the hiring for all the fae businesses in town. Alana’s old coach, Henry, had called in a favor to get her the appointment. He’d been the only person in her corner once her universe swirled down the drain.

When she arrived, the door creaked open of its own accord. A wave of gooseflesh swept up her body, signaling the presence of magic. Warding spells, probably, checking to see if she had an invitation. Forcing a smile, she went inside. A reception counter faced the door, with a tweed couch and chairs framing a waiting area to her right.

“How may I help you?” asked a wizened figure seated at reception. As Alana approached, it raised a narrow, wrinkled face framed by ropes of frizzy white hair. Bones, beads, and the occasional paper clip decorated the trailing locks.

Goblin, Alana thought, cataloguing the threat out of habit. Despite their wispy frames, goblins were strong and could deliver a nasty bite. Like almost all fae, they were capable of hiding their appearance from human eyes. She could see what it was, but she was fae. “I have an appointment with Mr. Barleycorn.”

Rather than consult the computer, the creature lifted a thick tome onto the counter and opened it to a page marked by a ribbon. Dates and times divided the pages in flowing indigo script. Maybe the tech was just for show? Or maybe the handwritten record was for special, off-the-books clients like her? It would make sense to keep separate listings, since humans weren’t supposed to know about the magical world.

The goblin ran a clawed finger down the entries, stopped at a line, and consulted its shiny gold pocket watch. “Your appointment was at two o’clock. It is now two-oh-five.”

“My apologies,” she said quickly. “Traffic.”

The creature peered over the wire rims of its glasses. The eyes were yellow and slitted like a goat’s. “Punctuality is a predictor of professionalism.”

Alana’s cheeks heated. She was late because it hurt to move. Dressing was agony, and climbing the steps of the bus even worse—but she wasn’t about to admit that. Weakness paved the road to extinction. “I’m sorry.”

The goblin sniffed and slammed the book shut, then rose to its full, spindly height—which was still a head shorter than Alana’s five-foot-seven. It wore a forest-green suit, complete with bow tie and yellow waistcoat.

“I brought a résumé, if Mr. Barleycorn would like to see it.” She handed over the pages, and the goblin accepted them as if they smelled of rotten fish.

“Take a seat,” it said, gesturing toward the couch. “I will see if Mr. Barleycorn is still available.”

“Thank you.”

The goblin sniffed before disappearing through the door behind its desk. Alana sat, feeling the scratchy tweed fabric of the couch right through her skirt. Her fingers crushed the leather strap of her bag in a death grip.

It was then she realized there was someone else waiting. He was well into middle age, with a lined face and slicked-back hair gone gray at the temples. He wasn’t a full-blooded fae, but he had the characteristics of one of the mountain tribes—sturdy but not overly tall, with startling dark blue eyes and a faint indigo cast to his skin that only other fae would notice.

He moved closer, taking a seat on the couch to her left. “Hi. I’m Billy Randall.” He thrust out a hand.

“Alana. Pleased to meet you.” She shook, sizing him up. Left-handed, favors the right leg when he moves, smiles too much—a salesman?

“Are you here for the Martigen interviews?” He seemed faintly worried.

“No.”

Her answer must have meant she wasn’t competition because his brow relaxed. “What are you here for, then?”

“A gig in security.”

“An analyst?” He fidgeted with his tie, patting it into place.

The guy had all the nervous tics of someone waiting for an interview. Although the last thing she wanted was small talk with a stranger, she took pity on him. “More likely I’ll end up on the practical side,” she said. “That’s where my experience is.”

Randall’s jaw dropped slightly as he ran his gaze up and down, reassessing her slim figure. “No kidding?”

She allowed herself a smile. People always confused size with strength. “No kidding.”

“You don’t look like a bodyguard. You’re too pretty.”

“Thank you, I guess.”

She’d tried to pull off an acceptable appearance. Long sleeves covered the stitched-up knife wound that tracked from her left wrist past the bend of her elbow. Her skirt and blouse were plain but appropriate, her fair hair brushed into a sleek braid that hung down her back, and her makeup just dark enough to emphasize her wide gray eyes. Today, she’d armed herself for a different kind of battle.

“To be honest,” she added, “this will be a change of career.”

He studied her then, eyes narrowing. “You said your name was Alana. Are you Alana Beech? The Incorruptible?”

Reluctantly, she nodded, acknowledging her stage name. If Billy Randall recognized her, he was acquainted with the underground games.

“That last fight…” He trailed off, shaking his head.

There were a lot of ways to end that sentence. Finished her career. Killed her partner. Broke her.

Randall grabbed her thigh with iron fingers, leaning in so close she could feel his breath on her face. Yup, that grip said mountain fae. He could crush rocks with those fingers. She barely stopped a gasp of pain.

“That last fight cost me everything,” he snarled. “Every last dollar and then some.”

So he’d gambled and lost. Did that have anything to do with why he was here, hoping for a job? Alana felt a flash of sympathy, but the pain in her leg squashed it.

“Remove your hand,” she said quietly.

“Who paid you off?” He was breathing hard, his eyes boring into hers with sheer desperation. Her stomach fluttered with dread. All the chaos from that night came flooding back, the creeping conviction that something was horribly wrong with the match. She’d known it before the first bell, like a bad smell in the air. Now Alana could taste the terror again, lingering like an oily poison. She’d watched Tina, her fighting partner, sink to her knees, her eyes going dark in death.

It should never have happened. Betrayal. Waves of raw emotion pounded in, letting Alana know her true healing hadn’t even begun. The wounds of the body were just the tip of a hurt that went far deeper. Tears pooled in her eyes.

Blinking hard, she put her hand over Randall’s to pry it away. “You don’t seriously think I wanted to lose like that?”

“Who paid you?” His grip tightened another degree, setting her nerves on fire.

In one swift movement, Alana twisted, using the momentum to rise. A second later, she’d pinned him, one arm twisted at his back and his cheek squashed into the tweed couch cushion. “I told you to let go.”

Randall replied in gutter fae that should have melted the paint from the walls.

Alana had heard it all before. “You’re boring me.”

“Who paid you to lose?” he demanded again.

“You think if I got a big payoff I’d be here, looking for work? Use your head.”

Her point made, she let Randall go. He sprang away, spots of color high on his cheeks. She straightened her clothes, brushing away any wrinkles.

“Bitch,” Randall grumbled, but he did it under his breath this time.

The goblin chose that moment to return. It gave an annoyed cough. “Ms. Beech?”

She turned away from Randall, blanking him from her thoughts. If she didn’t, she’d do something that would get her thrown out, arrested, or both.

The goblin flicked its gaze between them with ill-disguised curiosity. “Mr. Barleycorn informs me that he is willing to honor the remaining fifteen minutes of your appointment.”

“Then let’s go.” Without a backward glance, Alana followed the creature into the private part of the office suite. Despite the faint scent of magic in the air, nothing seemed remarkable. Landscapes on the walls. Oak doors with brass nameplates. The smell of somebody’s reheated lunch. They stopped outside a corner office.

“Remember this is your one chance,” the goblin said in dire tones. “Take whatever job he offers you and like it. Mr. Barleycorn never sees a candidate twice.” Then it turned and retreated to its station in the front room.

“Great pep talk.” Alana’s temper stirred, along with a bad case of the butterflies. Sucking in a breath, she boldly went where thousands of desperate job-seekers had gone before.

Her steps went silent as her heels met the deep pile of the carpet. The office was huge, with a massive mahogany desk and bookcases that reached the ceiling. A woven map of the Faery homeland hung on the wall. Alana recognized the territories of the fae tribes from grade school: air, water, fire, and earth each in a primary color. Humans probably thought the map was from a fantasy book. They might as well—it was all ancient history now. The high king was dead, and the fae exiled to the human world. She gave the map no more than a moment’s consideration, focusing on more immediate concerns.

Barleycorn himself was dark haired and impeccably dressed, down to his monogrammed cufflinks. He appeared to be an ordinary human, but Alana knew better. She’d seen him around the fae community all her life, an aloof and important man with his fingers in every fae business and a few human ones, too. But the executive image didn’t fool her. Barleycorn was as fae as moonlight and dew circles, and was probably older than dirt.

As she approached, he closed the file folder before him and folded his hands. Maybe the gesture was meant to convey patience, but she felt like a child called to the principal’s office.

She came to a halt on the other side of the massive desk. “Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Barleycorn.”

“My pleasure.” He tapped the file folder lightly. “You have quite the history, Ms. Beech.”

“I also have skills.”

That seemed to amuse him, though his smile was the thinnest crescent. She itched to fold her arms over her stomach, to protect her vulnerable places from his scrutiny. Instead, she forced her hands to hang loose at her sides, her back straight and chin up.

“Henry Blackwell called me,” he said. “You’re here because you’re out of options.”

Henry, her coach. He’d told her she’d never fight again, and her body had seconded the opinion. Part of her still refused to believe it. “I need a job, sir.”

“And you don’t know how to do anything but fight.”

She set her jaw. “I can still work in security.”

He frowned, picking up a paperweight from his desk. It was a marble dragon, each scale exquisitely carved. “Do you know what happened to the air fae, Alana?”

She blinked, wondering where he was going with this. “They came here, like everyone else.”

“The little ones did. The pixies and flower fae, but the dragons stayed behind to fight the Shades. They shared more with the dinosaurs than long tails and bad breath. Oh, yes, they were strong, beautiful, and amazing creatures, but they were proud to the point of idiocy. Hence, you will never meet a dragon.” He put the paperweight down. “Learn to adapt to circumstances, Alana, or face the consequences.”

“I know I can’t fight like I used to, but…”

“You’re an orphan, a foundling of dubious pedigree, who never even attempted higher education. You want me to find you a job guarding important fae, yet your magic abilities are all but nil. Plus, your body is broken. You’re attempting to hide the agony of simply standing here, but I can sense it like a shrieking siren. What can you possibly offer?”

Alana’s body tensed, her heart beating faster. It was as if she’d suddenly found herself on splintering ice, and hesitation would get her drowned. But how was she supposed to respond?

He’d asked a good question. His words summoned old memories—schoolyard taunts, the disappointed eyes of her adopted parents. She’d been a useless mongrel with zero talent for the basic spells any fae toddler could do. Then she’d learned to fight better than anyone else, and doors to fame, if not exactly fortune, had opened.

Now those doors had slammed shut again. “I need a job to survive.”

“Why should that matter to me?”

Light dawned. He was testing her, seeing how well she conducted herself under pressure. Still, angry heat flared in her gut. “Maybe my welfare doesn’t matter to you, but it does to me.”

“Why?”

Another good question, but she knew the answer instantly. If she survived, then she could discover what really happened during that fight. She owed it to Tina to find out.

That wasn’t his business. “My reasons are my own.”

“And I have a reputation. I can’t recommend you to a client unless I know who you are.”

“You have my file.”

“That’s words on paper. I need to know you’ll see your work through to the bitter end.”

Alana raised a brow. “Sounds like fun.”

Barleycorn nodded slowly. “Something is motivating you besides money. Something greater than the pain in every one of your joints.”

Revenge. With a wrench, Alana realized she ached for it. She’d known it before, but in a fuzzy way. Now it was a crystalized goal with a name. She stared at Barleycorn, wondering what he wanted her to say. The guy had opened her up as if she were a shellfish. Was he spinning some kind of magic? Hypnosis? Mind-reading? She wasn’t fae enough to tell. Just another of her deficiencies.

Abruptly, she ran out of patience. The famous Barleycorn was a first-class jerk. She braced her hands on his big, shiny desk and leaned forward, hoping she left fingerprints. “You want insight? I need a job. I can’t afford to be picky. I’ll take whatever you have to offer.”

He sat back with a feline smile, as if she’d cut past the job-seeker posturing and finally given a worthwhile answer. “You truly don’t care what that job is?”

“Within reason. I’ll take anything that’s honest.”

That seemed to satisfy him. “Then sit down.”

Alana glanced around in surprise. A red leather chair had materialized where there had been none before. She sank into the soft cushion, her aches and pains easing. The relief was more magic, but she welcomed it.

Barleycorn eased a file from the bottom of a stack teetering in his inbox. “This isn’t much, but it should keep the wolf from the door.”

 

 

COLLAPSE
Reviews:Amelia on alwaysreviewing.com wrote:

5 Stars - There is originality all throughout the first book in
the Crown of Fae series. Characters have their own
distinct capabilities and personalities, while the
premise is uniquely imaginative. The history about
the various tribes that make up the fae intrigued
me, and how past battles shaped the future of these
fascinating beings was cleverly plotted. Sharon
Ashwood has come up with an inventive storyline
for her paranormal romance, where possible scenarios
could turn deadly or lead to lasting happiness.

Eva on Stormy Vixen's Book Reviews wrote:

5 Stars - This fairy tale romance is one exiting read that has readers’ dreams and imagination taking flight. Ronan and Alana are strong, spirited characters that readers just can’t help but fall in love with, they easily draw readers to them and thrill them with an adventure and romance of a lifetime. The romance is sweet as Ronan becomes captivated with the feisty Alana when she refuses to make her wishes and the more he learns the more the chemistry burns and the attraction sizzles.

The story is fast paced and full of thrills and excitement as Alana investigates the death of her friend and ends up on the wrong end of some heavy duty enemies that just happen to be Ronan’s enemies as they battle from Alana’s world to the fae world and back again with some stunning magical battles. Surprising twists keeps readers on their toes and there’s never a chance to become bored as this fairy tale romance takes flight on a magic carpet ride that readers can’t help but enjoy.

on Amazon:

Enthralling! Sharon delivers with this incredibly fascinating approach, spinning all the shenanigans and mayhem, with such ingenuity, immense passion and unique insight, welding this sparkling jewel together sleek, shiny and tight.

on Amazon:

Absolutely enthralling! A fresh and unique tale with magic, mayhem, betrayal, redemption, danger and desire...


Gifted: the Dark Forgotten

Who says the holiday season is just for humans?

For all the holly-jolly times, family gatherings are complex no matter who—or what—you are. When you’re hunting for the latest “it” toy to stuff a stocking, it doesn’t matter if you’re alive or Undead, fanged or furry—you’re just as desperate to be the cool dad. And then there are the family grumps who never send cards, the ones who eat all the good candy, and those who drool and dig up the neighbor’s yard.

No, the Yuletide Season isn’t for the faint of heart—and sometimes it’s downright demonic—but holiday miracles make it all worthwhile. Chance encounters and unexpected forgiveness remind us that joy doesn’t come in a gift-wrapped box.

This novella from the Dark Forgotten world catches up with favorite characters for a fresh take on the holidays. Those visiting the world for the first time will understand why Chicago Tribune called it “simply superb.”

Grab this book and return to the world of the Dark Forgotten. Santa Claws is waiting!

Excerpt:

“Don’t you want to go see Santa Claws?” Errata Jones asked in her husky, teasing voice.

“Meh,” Perry Baker replied, still grumpy at the prospect of crowds and gift-giving decisions. Plus, it was cold, gray, and rainy—a typical December day in the Pacific Northwest.

“Where’s your boundless holiday spirit?” She turned into the parking lot outside the Fairview Sports and Recreation Center. It was the final day of the Yuletide Holiday Market, an arts and crafts event by and for the local supernatural community. “Counting today, there’s only three shopping days till Christmas.”

“I really hope you’re not going to make me sit on Santa’s knee.”

“I don’t think so, darling. That would be weird, even for us.”

READ MORE

Errata swung her Jaguar coupe into the last parking space, beating out a massive pickup by a whisker. The truck made a sound like a startled dinosaur as it lurched to a stop on the frosty pavement. Turning off the Jaguar’s ignition, Errata smoothed her chin-length, jet-black hair, then glanced in the rear-view mirror, looking pleased with herself. Perry twisted in his seat to see the pickup driver turn a Christmassy scarlet and lurch off.

Perry willed his heart to resume its normal rhythm. Errata was a werecougar, and there were reasons cats shouldn’t drive. Werewolves like him were another matter. Wolves appreciated order, including stop signs. Cats did things because they could—like pester him into going to this stupid craft fair.

That’s what he got for befriending a feline. He cast her a sidelong look, taking in her high cheekbones and smooth, golden skin. It was all he could do not to reach over and stroke her hair, but that would be crossing a boundary. She’d made it clear from the start that cats walked alone.

Errata finished preening and gave him an arch look. “Shouldn’t you be shopping for your human, what’s-her-name?”

Perry released his seatbelt. “Her name is Tiffani. With an i.”

“Tiffani. Of course it is.” Errata patted his cheek with a pitying look. “Come on. First fifty guests get a goodie bag.”

“She’s fun,” Perry said, sounding defensive even to himself.

“Humans generally are,” she said agreeably. “You should buy her something really nice.”

“Men don’t shop before December 23rd,” he protested as he got out of the car.

“Friends don’t let friends give their sweethearts, even ones named Tiffani with an i, gift cards.”

“But gift cards make sense.”

Errata flung the end of her scarf over her shoulder with a flick of one gloved hand. “Be grateful you have me to watch over you.” She clicked the locks and swept toward the entrance of the building, leaving Perry to catch up.

“Cats,” he grumbled. “What do you want for Yule?”

“Not a gift card.”

COLLAPSE
Reviews:on Amazon:

Humor, satire and insight into the human soul combine to make this a memorable Christmas story. I highly recommend it to readers of the paranormal.

on Amazon:

A wonderfully charming and whimsical holiday read set in the world of the Dark Forgotten. -- Having only read —and absolutely loved—Fragile Magic before Gifted, I’m enthralled and enchanted and totally hooked on the world. Can’t wait to take a crack at the rest of the series!

on Amazon:

No matter who – or what – you are, this Dark Forgotten holiday special is heartwarming and thrilling!

on Amazon:

This story has a little of everything, sweet romance, sexy overbearing and frustrating alpha make and a beautiful woman who has the right heart and spirit. Thoroughly enjoying and entertaining.