Thursday, December 12, 2013

Don't arrest me! I'm only looking up _____ because I'm an author, I swear!

So, today I was searching for some detailed (aka gross) information about the stages the body goes through after death for Carlos's novella (The Ending: Beginnings, vol 1), when I realized this...
...if there's a government agency that tracks my Google searches, its agents must think I'm a deranged psychopath...
 ...which probably isn't the greatest thing for a government agency to think about a person. But it got me thinking...what are the most disturbing things I've searched for in the process of writing The Ending Series? And then I started think that such a list might be a fun/creepy thing to share with you all. Hehe. So, here goes...

Lindsey's Most Disturbing Google Searches:

  • stages of death
  • best way to burn down a building
  • can CPR revive a person who has been strangled to death
  • burning human flesh smells like
  • decaying human body smells like
  • what does it feel like to be electrocuted

Now that I'm about to hit the "publish" button, I'm realizing that this post may have been better suited to Halloween-time rather than the happy, glittering holidays, but...oh well. :)

Happy holidays, and as always, HAPPY READING!

Friday, November 22, 2013

INTO THE FIRE Released Today!

Into The Fire, the sequel to After The Ending, is now available!


The book can be purchased from:
In celebration of the release of Into The Fire, LP and I are running a month-long sale of After The Ending, the first installment of The Ending Series. You can find the ebook on AmazonBarnes & NobleKobo, and Smashwords for only $ .99! Sale ends December 24.

We're also running a release day blog blitz giveaway for a $15 Amazon gift card that ends tomorrow. Enter below!

Friday, November 15, 2013

First Chapter Reveal: INTO THE FIRE

Happy Friday, friends! As promised, there's only one week until the release of the sequel to After The EndingInto The Fire, and LP and I are giving you the first chapter early! We hope you like it. Only seven more days... :)

CONTENT WARNING: some adult language and themes beyond this point.


CHAPTER 1
ZOE
March 14, 1AE


No! No! This can’t be happening!

“Dani!” My voice carried throughout the eerily quiet field as I sprinted along the pasture fence, away from the barn and toward Dani’s bone-chilling scream. Jake was right behind me, the light from his flashlight dancing around my bare feet. Each breath was so loud, so raspy, it was like I could hear nothing else.

My mind started to feel odd, momentarily distracting me as I ran, but I ignored the feeling along with the frigid air biting at my skin and the jagged rocks poking the bottoms of my feet. My eyes blurred with unshed tears, and I stumbled over something, barely catching myself before colliding with the unyielding ground. I shook my head, trying to dispel the disorienting fog that was steadily creeping into my mind.

In the darkness a few yards ahead, I could see Jason’s shadowy form. His flashlight and gun were pointed in front of him as he swept into the forest with Jack, Dani’s German shepherd, leading the way.

I slowed, hesitating at the edge of the forest. Seeing Jason’s pistol raised scared the shit out of me. Did he find something? Who’s in there? What’s in there?

“D!” I cried out.

In an instant, a strong hand wrapped around my arm. I whipped my head around to face Jake. “What—”

“We have to be quiet, Zoe.” His voice was low and severe. He pointed into the woods, and I realized all I could hear was the sound of flapping wings and a hoot from an owl off in the distance. Jason wasn’t calling out for Dani; there were no voices.

I nodded, feeling stupid, but I still wanted to call for her. I needed her to know that we were nearby…that we would find her. Why is this happening to us? Why can’t we catch a goddamn break!

Turning back to the woods, I concentrated on controlling my breath and regaining some clarity. Why can’t I focus? Sanchez, Harper, Chris, and Carlos passed me, bouncing flashlight beams lighting their way into the dense forest. I vaguely noticed Biggs, Ben, and Ky following them, Biggs muttering curses under his breath. My head started to throb under the massive influx of foreign emotions. I shuttered myself against the onslaught and rushed into the woods, hardly feeling the scraggly branches poking and scratching me.

“What was she even doing out here?” I rasped. I stopped inside the tree line, wishing I had been levelheaded enough to grab a flashlight and a pair of boots like everyone else.

Jake stopped beside me, but Cooper trotted passed us, his nose skimming the ground for a scent. He locked on to a trail and began to follow it. I heard a barrage of whispers around me before everyone broke off into groups, but I focused on the dogs; they were following two different scent trails.

After what felt like an hour of following, searching, and waiting for Jack or Cooper to find some sign of Dani, both dogs’ trails converged at a narrow, jagged tree stump. Jack whined, and Cooper sniffed the pine needles around the base of the stump. The dogs had found something. Instinctively, my gut balled into a knot.

Ben, who was helping to keep his brother upright, began to say something. “I think—”

“Here,” Harper said, aiming his flashlight at the exposed roots of the stump. Crouching, he shifted a fist-sized stone and picked something up.

Chris stepped up behind him and peered over his shoulder. “Jason,” she said ominously, glancing at my brother.

He moved to her side, and hesitantly, I followed. I stopped almost instantly. Jason’s dread washed over me, a wave of nausea making my insides lurch, and I had to close my mouth and hold my breath to avoid vomiting. Every hair on my body stood on end at the thought of what they’d found. “What is it?” I croaked. Please don’t say a body part…

Stiffly, Jason squatted beside Harper, taking whatever Harper had found from his hand. A yellow piece of fabric?

“It’s just like the ones we saw back at Lewis-McChord,” Chris said quietly. Rising from his seated position next to Jason, Jack stretched out his neck to sniff the cloth and whined.

Chris glanced around at our confused faces and explained, “It’s an armband, or at least part of one. Some of the personnel were wearing these when they put our base on lock-down.” She shook her head. “We stole a few; it was the only way we could get off the base. The people wearing these”—she snatched the armband out of Jason’s hand and clenched it in her fist—“had something to do with the Virus.”

“I’ve seen those before too, on people from the Colony,” Jake said. He’d been trying to convince us that the supposed safe haven was dangerous since we first met up with him at Fort Knox. “It must’ve been them…”

An image of his sister’s dark hair and violet eyes flashed through my mind. He was remembering her. He was remembering the men who’d promised to help her, the men who had frightened her enough that she’d taken her own life before they could.

Everyone looked at Jake, including my dangerously quiet brother. “Why would they take Dani?” Jason asked as he rose and took a menacing step toward Jake. “How would they even know we’re here?”

I didn’t like Jason’s accusing tone, but Jake didn’t seem to notice. Never taking his eyes off the yellow armband, he answered, “I don’t know how they knew we were here, but if they wanted her bad enough to kidnap her…their resources are—were…” He paused. “It wouldn’t have been difficult for them to take her.” The images of his sister’s final breath played through his head…through mine. A gut-wrenching feeling of loss took root in the pit of my stomach.

“You seem to know a lot about them,” Jason probed, taking another step toward Jake. “Maybe you know more than you’re letting on. Maybe you—”

“You think I’d save Zoe’s life back at Fort Knox just to put her in danger again? You really are a piece of—” Jake inhaled and then emitted no further sounds, like he’d decided holding his breath for a while was the safer option. He was probably right.

He met Jason’s challenging stare a moment longer before turning his angry gaze on me. “I warned you not to come here.” His words stung with truth.

“Then how the fuck did they find us?” Jason’s voice was damning, his glare focused solely on Jake. I didn’t like it and felt a sudden desire to punch my brother in the face.

“How the hell should I know?” Jake snapped. “We’ve been here over a month and nothing. You get here and now they know where we are.”

Jason made a noise that was part exhale, part growl. “How exactly do you know so much about them?”

“Because they tried to take my sister, and now she’s dead,” Jake replied hotly.

The two men were standing less than two feet apart, Jason’s rage barely contained. He didn’t lose control often, but when he did…I shuddered, recalling the worst of the fights between him and our dad. Jason cracked his knuckles, an ominous sign I was all too familiar with, and I feared my brother wouldn’t be able to rein in his temper.

I stepped between them. “It’s not Jake’s fault, Jason, so back off!”

My brother ignored me, instead turning his aggression on Chris. “Stay the fuck out of my head,” he ordered, obviously feeling her cerebral fingers trying to manipulate his mental state into something more stable.

Jake and Jason weren’t the only ones on edge. Biggs was worrying about Sarah and their unborn baby, and Ky was in pain, practically folding under the weight of our collective panic. Ky’s Ability to feel volatility—to sense and internalize everyone’s destructive emotions—was physically debilitating him. He reached for the flask in his pocket without a second thought. Abandoning Jason, Chris ran to Ky’s side.

The weight and amount of negativity Ky was picking up on frightened me; it was as if he wasn’t just sensing our group, but all of the fear and hostility surrounding us. From Cañon City? From the Colony? Like Ky, I was pulled in all directions by the mounting unease and fear of everyone around us, as though I were being emotionally drawn and quartered. I wanted to scream.

The looming fog seemed to thicken in my brain, tangling with the barrage of emotions. What the hell’s going on? I searched my convoluted mind for something I could grasp on to—something other than anger and fear and resentment. I’d been so fucking naïve to think everything would be okay once we found each other. Keep it together, Zoe, Dani needs you.

Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of the forest—the sharp smell of pine needles, damp soil, and wood. The fog continued to spread its tendrils through my mind in a horrifyingly familiar way. I felt trapped in my own head, unable to escape the encroaching numbness. The only other time I’d felt such an overwhelming loss of mental control was when my mind had been invaded by Crazies in the hospital back at Fort Knox. What if we’re wrong? What if it isn’t the Colony?

Feeling a sudden jolt of panic, I opened my eyes. I could see the lichen coating the tree trunks in the dim moonlight, like spots on a leopard. But there were no snarls or howls or voices beyond our group. There were no fiendish sounds of Crazies cackling in the distance. There were no signs giving me cause to think anyone was there at all.

But someone took Dani.

A bolt of anger shot through me, jostling me from my statue-like state. I took a step toward my brother. “What the hell was she doing out here, Jason?” He’d always been big, bad, protective Jason—so why had he let Dani go outside, alone, in the middle of the night?

In the faint moonlight dappling his face, I could barely make out the hard set of his features. “Peeing,” he answered lamely.

“Peeing? Alone? In the woods?” My anger flared, fury consuming my disbelief and fear. “I can’t believe you, Jason! I just got her back, and now you—”

“Fuck you!” He pointed at me in warning, his eyes glinting silver in the darkness. “She was just peeing,” he muttered.

“I can’t believe someone was just standing here,” Biggs said and began pacing. “Were they just waiting for us this whole time? Sarah…the baby…” He looked up at Sanchez abruptly. “We need to get out of here,” he said evenly. “It’s not safe here anymore. We’ve—”

“Do what you want,” Jason growled. “I’m going after Dani.”

“You think you can just walk into the Colony and get her? We need a plan first,” Jake said, facing Chris and Sanchez. “We need—”

“Need to what? To wait for them to hurt her? To do worse?” Jason’s tone was scathing as, once again, he took a step closer to Jake.

“Calm down, Jason.” I placed myself between them again. “We need to come up with a plan first. I mean, what if it’s Crazies and has nothing to do with the—”

“It’s not Crazies,” Jake and Jason said at the same time. They exchanged an irritated glance.

I rolled my eyes. “If it is the Colony, they’ll outnumber us and—”

“Then you stay here and plan,” Jason said with a smirk. “I’ll go find Dani.”

“Get over yourself already!” I seethed. “You think I’m not worried about her? Like I haven’t been waiting to see Dani for months? Like I haven’t been worrying about her since all this bullshit started? Like suddenly I don’t care about her anymore because you’re in the picture? She’s my best friend, remember? Or did you forget that, since everything’s always about you?” My voice was riddled with bitterness and jealousy, and my words were laden with twenty-six years’ worth of resentment.

To my surprise, Jason remained silent.

Sanchez cleared her throat. “Look,” she said deliberately. “If we want to find your friend, we need to be rational. So grow the fuck up and stop arguing, and then we can come up with a plan that won’t get us all killed.”

“We can’t do much else in the dark,” Harper said, his voice breaking through the tension. “The sun’ll be up in an hour or so, then we can continue searching for signs of what happened.”

“I’m not finished looking for her,” Jason muttered and turned toward his tent.

“I wasn’t implying that any of us were finished looking for her,” Harper clarified, but Jason continued stalking away. The rest of us dispersed, some making their way back to camp, but Jake, Harper, and I stopped at the edge of the forest, watching…thinking.

“Look how close they were to us,” I said with a shaky breath. I gauged the distance between where we stood and the barn. Although far away, I could see the dim embers of the night’s fire and the outline of the hay bales and chairs surrounding it. I watched the dark figures of my companions as they moved around the camp. “We never even heard them.”

Suddenly, as if my skin had become animated, creeping over my bones and muscles, I shivered. The thought of never seeing Dani alive again after everything we’d been through—journeying across the country, surviving homicide attempts and Crazies—caused a rogue tear to roll down my cheek. Determination, Zoe, I told myself. I hurriedly wiped the tear away.

With my brother out of earshot, I turned to Harper. I recalled the fleeting look of unease that had flashed over his dark, handsome features when Dani had arrived the day before. Whatever he’d seen was startling enough to have made his green eyes flare with apprehension.

“You had a vision earlier…yesterday, when you were hugging Dani, didn’t you?” I knew I wasn’t going to like his reply the moment he closed his eyes in…regret?

Harper didn’t look at me when he spoke. “I saw her in darkness,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if she was sleeping or—”

“Unconscious,” I finished for him, refusing to hear him utter the word “dead.”

Thursday, November 14, 2013

INTO THE FIRE Map Reveal!

In just 8 days, Into The Fire will be released! Here's a sneak peak at where events in the book will be taking place. The book includes two maps at the beginning, one drawn by Zoe, and one drawn by Dani. Seeing as Zoe's the character with the artistic past, it should come to no surprise to anyone that her map is far prettier than Dani's. :) LP and I are only going to release Zoe's map, seeing as Dani's reveals a little too much about what's happening wherever the heck she is. Enjoy!


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book Review & Recommendation (especially for Egypt buffs): RED LAND, BLACK LAND by Barbara Mertz


I'm ankle-deep (though I should be knee-deep) in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) right now, and had to pause for a few days to do some hardcore college-style research...at least it's research into one of my very favorite subjects: Ancient Egypt. As such, I've devoured three textbooks, a historical atlas, and most recently, Barbara Mertz's Red Land, Black Land.

Side note: For those of you who are Echo Trilogy fans it should thrill you that finishing up the rough drafts for the rest of the trilogy is my NaNo project. Yippeeeee!

Here's my brief book review of Barbara Mertz's Red Land, Black Land:

This book is fantastic, as is Ms. Mertz's knowledge of the ancient Egyptians and her ability to make logical and believable interpretations of physical evidence. She makes the ancient world accessible to us modern folks, painting a vivid picture of the every day for these ancient peoples--which is VERY welcome when almost all publications on Egyptology focus on tombs and temples. After reading this, I have a much better idea of what it might really have been like to lived in various time periods throughout Egypts long history. Beyond this, the writing style is very accessible and easy-reading.

I highly recommend this book to people who aren't only interested in what the ancient Egyptians left behind, but what these artifacts can tell us about who they were and how they lived. Non-fiction doesn't usually float my boat, but Red Land, Black Land really was a pleasure to read.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Goodreads Giveaway: INTO THE FIRE

LP and I are running a giveaway over at Goodreads for 3 paperback copies of Into The Fire! The contest ends at midnight on the 21st, the night before the book's release. Good luck!



Goodreads Book Giveaway

Into The Fire by Lindsey Fairleigh

Into The Fire

by Lindsey Fairleigh

Giveaway ends November 22, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Thursday, November 7, 2013

15 days until the release of Into The Fire

Hia, folks! Here's a not-too-short excerpt from Into The Fire, the sequel to After The Ending, which will be released on November 22.


This one's from a Dani chapter. Enjoy!
Dr. Wesley was holding out her hand, her fingers crooked. “Come here, Danielle. I want to show you something.” She was standing in the shadowed doorway leading into my closet…at Grams’s house. Why is she at Grams’s house? Why am I at Grams’s house? And then it came to me: It’s a dream. 
The doctor turned and disappeared into the oppressive darkness, and tentatively, I followed. Like the small walk-in was actually a magical wardrobe into another world, I pushed through hanging sweaters and dresses—except instead of finding myself in a frozen, winter forest, I emerged into an enormous laboratory filled with a meticulously arranged sea of antique, metal-framed medical beds that stretched as far as the eye could see. It was as though an infirmary from the First World War had been transplanted into an infinitely expansive, modern laboratory. 
“Come,” Dr. Wesley said, walking away from me. 
“What…where…what…?” 
“Come.” Her voice surrounded me, a whirlwind of sound pressed into the single word. 
She stopped by one of the beds. It was empty, with crisp, white sheets pulled tight over the mattress. “You must choose. We can only make two more Re-gens, but we have three recently deceased to choose from. You must choose.” 
“What are you talking about?” I asked, looking away from her and back down at the bed. It wasn’t empty anymore. A body—a person—lay under the covers, the top sheet a shroud hiding his or her identity. When confusion drove me to raise my eyes, I found that all but three of the beds had disappeared and the walls had closed in around us. 
“Choose.” 
I shook my head and backed away, but a wall sprouted up behind me, preventing my retreat. 
“Why do you want me to do this? You’re the one who creates them. You choose!” I didn’t want to see the face of whoever was under the makeshift shroud. 
My stomach lurched as Dr. Wesley pulled the sheet back, revealing the face of the nearest bed’s occupant. 
Zoe. 
She looked serene, like she was merely sleeping, but I knew better. She was too pale, too still. 
No, no, no, no, no… I couldn’t tear my gaze away from her face. “Her, I choose her!” I whispered fiercely. 
“Are you so sure?”

Monday, November 4, 2013

Reader Challenge: 400 Facebook likes = Into The Fire chapter 1 reveal

Happy Monday, folks! On Saturday, Lindsey (LP) and I issued a challenge on The Ending Facebook page. Here it is...
The page is currently at 343 likes. We'll reveal the first chapter either on November 15, one week before the release of Into The Fire (11/22), or when the Facebook page reaches 400 likes. And...if it reaches 450 likes, we'll release chapter two! It's in your hands. :)
You can find the Facebook page for The Ending series here.

GOOD LUCK!!!

Friday, November 1, 2013

INTO THE FIRE Prologue Reveal!!!

It's officially three weeks until the release of Into The Fire!!!

As we've already announced (a while back), there's a third, supporting character POV included in Into The Fire in addition to Dani and Zoe. His name is Mase, and he's very different from our MCs, offering some interesting and unique insights to the world after The Ending. And for those of you who are worried Mase will steal page time from Dani and Zoe, have no fear, he only has the prologue and 3 chapters throughout the body of the book, and in all but the prologue, one of our MCs is present.

We'll be releasing the first chapter, which is from Zoe's perspective, closer to the release date (Nov. 22).

Alighty, Endingers...scroll down to read the entire prologue of Into The Fire!


***content warning: some profanity beyond this point***

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

PROLOGUE
MASE
JANUARY 5, 1AE


“I’m just sayin’ the General freaks me the fuck out, Mase, and…” Carter stopped talking—for once—as he shifted the beam of his flashlight to shine down the next aisle. “D’you hear that?”

Carter could be dense, but if he thought he heard something, there was something to be heard. Thanks to the Virus, the guy had the ears of a dog.

Mase lifted his left arm and made a fist, and the other two members of his fireteam froze behind him. Ahead, Carter stood, head cocked to the side. As one, they listened. Mase barely caught it—whimpering. After giving Carter a curt nod, he signaled for all three men to follow him, raised his M4, and crept closer to the noise.

Patrolling the supply warehouses had been their duty for over a month, ever since the Virus had wiped out almost everyone, and they’d yet to find an intruder. General Herodson’s standing order was that only select personnel could enter the warehouses to guard, inspect, and distribute food and other supplies. Unless Mase was grossly mistaken, they were the only patrol on duty at Warehouse F until the shift change at midnight, which was still hours away.

It looked like they’d found their first intruder.

As they crept down the aisle between two towering metal shelving units stuffed with pallets of shrink-wrapped supplies—paper towels, toilet paper, plastic cups—they swept each side with the lights attached to their rifles. Halfway down the aisle, huddled on the cold cement floor, was the intruder. The girl was hugging her knees and hiding her face like she was trying to disappear. Mase scowled.

Slowly, the girl raised her head, and when Mase saw her dirt-smudged face, his breath hitched. It couldn’t be her…not in the Colony. Her long, dark hair was ratted and clumped, tear tracks trailed down her cheeks, and confusion filled her eyes. Mase knew they were hazel from memory, even if he couldn’t see their color in the darkness.

“Stand down,” Mase said to the other soldiers before turning his attention to the young woman. “Camille? What are you doing here? Are you hurt?” His voice was always deep, gravelly, but concern or maybe fear made it even harsher. Hesitantly, he took a step closer to her.

Camille flinched, becoming an even tighter ball of folded limbs and tangled hair on the dirty cement floor.

For the first time in his two years as a Ranger, Mase regretted spending so much time lifting weights. She was afraid of him. But he knew her. He had to help her.

Clearing his throat, he put on what he hoped was a comforting smile and took another step closer.

“We won’t hurt you,” he told the teenage girl as he knelt down in front of her. “I promise.” When he touched Camille’s arm, she flinched again. “I promise we won’t hurt you,” he repeated. Intruders were to be taken straight to headquarters—to General Herodson—but he couldn’t do that. They tended to disappear after that. Of course, if the bastard found out Mase had disobeyed his orders, Mase would disappear himself . . . but it was Camille.

When she finally peered up at him, Mase did his best to look less intimidating by hunching his shoulders, hanging his head, not scowling. She watched him carefully, blank curiosity filling her face.

“What are you doing here, Camille?”

She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. She tried again. “Who—who is Camille?”

Surprised, Mase sat back on his heels and studied her. It is her, isn’t it? She was older—more a woman than a child, unlike the last time he’d seen her. Camille was a few years younger than him, so now she had to be at least seventeen. She still looked like a perfect little doll, though. There was no question in Mase’s mind that he was staring at the young woman he’d lived next door to nearly his entire life.

“You,” he said. “You’re Camille. And I’m Mase.” He remembered the day her parents brought her home from the hospital…the afternoon she fell off her bike and chipped her tooth on the sidewalk…the Valentine’s Day she gave him a card made out of pink and purple construction paper…the day he taught her how to coast on his skateboard without falling…the night she ran away crying after meeting one of his girlfriends. But if Camille could remember any of that, she was hiding it well. She just stared, not responding, and began to shiver.

Mase heard his men whispering and shuffling around behind him. He ignored them. “It’s okay, Camille,” he said, doing his best to soften his voice. “We’re friends. We were neighbors, remember? Back in Minneapolis? I used to look after you when your parents—”

The other men chuckled, Carter bursting into open laughter. Mase flipped them the bird over his shoulder. They only laughed harder.

“You…” Carter couldn’t stop laughing. “You…you used to babysit?”

Rising, Mase spun and pointed threateningly at Carter. “Shut the fuck up.” He glared at each of the men, warning clear in his eyes, until they quieted. “Nobody touches her. Nobody says a fucking word about this. Forget you ever saw her.”

Their amusement vanished, and they stared back at him with identical expressions—fear mixed with pity and regret. They knew what had to be done.

“Mase,” the nearest said. “We have to turn her in. The General’s standing orders are to—”

“I know the orders,” Mase snapped. “Fuck them. She’s not going anywhere near Herodson. Forget. You. Ever. Saw. Her.”

After a brief hesitation, all three men nodded.

Letting out a relieved breath, Mase turned back to Camille. She was watching him with eyes widened in interest, not fear. He knelt in front of her and explained, “It’s not safe for you here. You’re going to have to hide until I can get you registered as a Colonist.”

Surprising him, Camille reached out and touched the side of his face with her fingertips, frowning when he flinched. “Where am I?” she whispered.

Mase glanced back at his men, silently warning them to keep their mouths shut. If Camille didn’t have any memory of the Virus—of nearly everyone dying—he didn’t want to be the one to tell her. At least not yet. “You’re in the Colony. It used to be a military base. You’ll be safe here as soon as I get you registered.” He hesitated for a moment. “You have no idea how you got here?”

Quietly, Camille said, “No. I have no idea.” She studied him with eerily calm eyes.

A metallic bang stole Mase’s attention, and then the overhead lights flared to life. Someone else was in the warehouse. While the others stood nearby, rifles raised, Mase helped Camille hide between two pallets of paper towels. She was barely out of sight when the newcomers rounded the far end of the aisle. Mase’s stomach dropped when he saw him.

“Atwell! How is your patrol going this evening?” asked the man leading a dozen soldiers. Dressed in his usual officer finery, General Herodson strolled down the aisle toward Mase…toward Camille.

“Nothing unusual, Sir,” Mase reported, stepping away from Camille’s hiding place before the General was close enough to see her in the shadows.

General Herodson inspected Mase and his fireteam closely. “So it seems,” he said, giving Mase an instant feeling of holy-fucking-shit. Casually, the General glanced around, his gaze lingering near Camille’s hiding spot.

“How are the Ability transfers going?” Mase asked, hoping to distract him.

The General looked at him with cold, gray eyes.

Mase returned the man’s stare, refusing to look away. “Have there been any new developments? I know some of the men would like to get outfitted with regeneration or telekinesis.”

General Herodson bared his teeth in a smile. “Not yet, no. However, we have had an interesting breakthrough on another project. We’re calling them ‘Re-gens’—they’re reanimated corpses, more or less. They even retain their Abilities, though they’re altered somewhat from what they were during their first lives.” He paused, glancing up at the lights thoughtfully. “But the process wipes their minds completely clean, making them very easy to influence.” He rubbed his hands together briskly. “No need to deal with pesky memories or morals.”

Reanimated corpses. It took effort for Mase to keep his expression blank.

Abruptly, General Herodson said, “As you were,” and turned to leave.

Mase watched him walk away, reluctant to move. Why had the General told him about the Re-gens? Why had he come into the warehouse in the first place? Something wasn’t right.

As they neared the end of the aisle, General Herodson and his guards halted. “CL-one,” the General called out as he turned to face Mase again. “Come here, CL-one.”

Shocking the shit out of Mase, Camille wriggled out from her hiding spot and hurried to General Herodson’s side.

Mase clenched his jaw, realizing he’d just signed his own death warrant.

“CL-one is a particularly amazing Re-gen, don’t you agree, Atwell? We just finished her the other day.” General Herodson watched Mase like he was gauging every minute change in his expression. Mase kept his face hard and cold, like the General’s. “Take their weapons, my dear,” Herodson said to Camille.

Even at a distance, Mase could see the confusion on Camille’s face. “Why, Father?” she asked softly.

The General stiffened. “Because I told you to, my dear,” he said with strained affection. “These men must be arrested and put on trial. They broke the law. My law.”

“Oh,” Camille said, sounding sad, or maybe confused. “What will happen to them after the trial?”

It seemed to take a conscious effort for General Herodson to suppress his simmering anger. The man hated being questioned. “The other three will be banished from the Colony,” he said through gritted teeth. “Atwell will be executed and turned into a Re-gen.”

“Okay,” she said, smiling contentedly. She took a deep breath, then shut her eyes. Her mouth thinned to a flat line.

As Mase looked from her to General Herodson, hatred flooded his veins, quickly followed by adrenaline. His muscles vibrated with the unnatural strength that had increased steadily over the past two years. He was the strongest, fastest person he’d ever heard of—not that it would help him now. The General knew about his Ability. Mase figured that was probably the only reason he wanted to bring him back as a Re-gen: to be used…owned. Mase ground his teeth together and tried to think of a way out of this clusterfuck.

Suddenly, his M4 tugged out of his hands and floated upward. He tried to yank it back down, but it continued to float higher. Moving quickly, he untangled his arm from the rifle’s strap before it forced him up onto his toes. From the sounds of his men cursing behind him, he knew they were being remotely disarmed as well. Mase watched as their weapons glided into the hands of the General’s guards. His attention was drawn to Camille, who was still concentrating. She was doing it.

She opened her eyes and left the General’s side, a coy smile curving her mouth. Mase watched her approach him, frozen in remorse at what he’d caused. His men wouldn’t be “tossed out of the Colony”—they would be executed, regardless of what the General had claimed.

It felt like minutes, but finally Camille reached Mase. She caught his gaze, a spark of sharp intelligence lighting eyes that had once been hazel but were now gray. Almost inaudibly, she whispered, “Do not be afraid, Mase. I will take care of you, just like you used to take care of me. And with my friends, we will take care of Father.”

Mase barely registered her robotic intonation. He couldn’t believe what was about to happen. Soon, he would die, only to be brought back as something else. As someone else.

The reanimated young woman stood on tiptoes and lightly touched her lips to Mase’s cheek. “My friends really do not like Father.”



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Alright folks...that's it for the Prologue. You don't hear from Mase again until Chapter 13 of Into The Fire, and, wow, has a lot happened to Dani and Zoe by then! :)

Stay tuned for chapter one!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lady of Stone & Darkness: (2) Escape

Here's the second installment of Lady of Stone & Darkness, my new, semi-experimental and absolutely free online serial. If you're totally confused about what Lady of Stone & Darkness is, please check out this page devoted to the online serial.

Just a reminder...from the end of this installment onward, I'll be asking for reader involvement and input as to what happens later in the story.

Read the previous installment, OATHBOUND.


***some installments may contain mature content, themes, and/or language***
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Previously in Lady of Stone & Darkness: Deep within the City of Night, Elise was oathbound to the nightwalker king, Usire, but before the consummation ritual could begin, she and her life-long protector, Jidor, expressed their true feelings for each other. Unwilling to give up Elise, Jidor devises a plan of escape for both of them. The installments ended with Jidor saying, “This is what we’ll do…”

When Usire strolled through the arched doorway, I did my best not to let him see my all-encompassing fear. I was sprawled on my back on the expansive bed in the center of the chamber, my dress blending in with its bone-white sheets and my limbs splayed in an alluring manner. Or, in what Jidor had deemed an alluring manner. Considering the intensity with which he’d kissed me after arranging me so, I had to defer to his expertise. After all, I had none.

Usire leaned against one of the intricately worked limestone canopy posts at the foot of the bed. “Are you satisfactorily prepared, my sweet, sweet Elise?” His gaze trailed a tangled path of icy shivers all over my body.

“I’m afraid not, my lord.” I forced myself to meet his pale blue eyes, careful to keep my disgust covered by a mask of disappointment. His irises were so light that they almost blended with the whites of his eyes. The effect was undeniably eerie.

Usire eased himself down on the edge of the bed, leaning toward me to wrap his hand around my nearest ankle. “And why is that?” he asked, his tone conversational.

“Jidor couldn’t stir my desires because…” I glanced away, biting my lip and feigning shyness.

“Because…?”

I forced myself to speak before I lost my nerve. “Because I find myself yearning for another’s touch…your touch.” Heat flushed my face and neck as I again met Usire’s eyes, lending credence to the pretense that my apparent forwardness embarrassed me. I was embarrassed, but not by what I'd said. It was recalling my desperate pleas for Jidor to truly prepare my body, to explore every part of me despite the fact that we had zero intention of me following through with the consummation ritual, that set me afire with a heady cocktail of embarrassment and desire.

“This pleases me.” Usire jerked me closer to him, and I squeaked in surprise. He slid his hand up my calf, behind my knee, and up the back of my thigh, pushing up the thin silk of my gown along the way. “My touch can be an acquired taste.” He squeezed my thigh, his grip firm enough to bruise.

I held in a cry of pain, but couldn’t stop my pulse from racing or my breaths from turning quick and shallow. Both responses he could easily detect. I hoped he read my reaction as arousal, but if he recognized it as fear, it didn’t do anything to lessen his own desire.

He bared his teeth in a wicked grin. Like all nightwalkers, he had elongated canines and lateral incisors, but his were by far the longest I’d ever seen. They gleamed in the iridescent glow of the lichen lighting the chamber. He released my thigh and lowered his head to run his lips over the reddened area. When his teeth grazed my skin, my breath caught.

“Is that what excites you so, my sweet Elise?” His right canine nicked me, and he pulled back to watch a thin trickle of blood run down the inside of my thigh and stain the stretch of my silk skirts that was still beneath me. “The sting of my teeth sinking into your tender flesh?”

“Yes,” I replied, my voice hoarse. It was the truth, sort of. I wanted him to bite me, to take a deep draw of the blood flowing through my veins, more than I’d ever wanted anything. But, I was also terrified of the pain. Despite living among nightwalkers my entire life, I’d never been bitten. I’d been a puera, and as such, protected until I became oathbound to a nightwalker. Had any nightwalker attempted to bite me, they would have had to go through Jidor. Considering that everyone—human and nightwalker alike—acted as though they were terrified of my praestes, biting me hadn't been high on anyone's list of to-dos.

Usire smeared the blood around the small cut. “I’m never one to keep a lady waiting,” he said right before he struck.

His bite hurt like all a million suns were burning within my thigh, but I held in my scream, emitting only a throaty groan. Usire grunted in response, his nails digging into my outer thigh and hip as he drank deeply. Jidor hadn’t warned me it would hurt so incredibly much. I squeezed my eyes shut, embracing the agony.

Necessary. This was necessary.

After his third swallow, Usire stiffened and raised his head. His eyes glowed with shock. “What did you—”

I scooted further up on the bed until my back hit the carved limestone headboard. The effects of the blood Usire had ingested had to be quick, incapacitating him before he could lash out at me, or my next few breaths would be my last.
Shock turned to outrage as Usire realized what Jidor and I had done. He lunged at me.

I twisted out of his reach, falling off the bed completely, and staggered to my feet. I backed away from the furious nightwalker king, who was coughing up as much of the blood he’d ingested as possible on the formerly pristine ivory sheets. Only some of the blood was mine; the rest was Jidor’s, and the blood of their own kind is the deadliest poison to any nightwalker, even to the king. Another nightwalker secret spilled, courtesy of my praestes.
While he was supposed to be preparing me for the ritual, Jidor had actually been doing something else—something unheard of. He’d retrieved an emergency transfusion kit from a chest set against the wall—a staple in any chamber where a nightwalker might accidentally draw too much blood from a human—and had exchanged some of my blood for his. Humans and nightwalkers shared blood frequently, especially when attempting to propagate the nightwalker species, but it was always ingested; nightwalker blood was never injected directly into a human's veins. To do so was forbidden, sacrilegious to the point of being punishable by immediate execution.

Witnessing the way Usire was writhing in agony on the bed, I understood why. Nightwalker blood was poisonous to other nightwalkers.

I was still standing in the middle of the room, watching Usire warily, when Jidor rushed into the room. After only a quick examination of the bed and its pained occupant, his eyes swept over me, honing in on the blood spotting my gown around the bite and nail gouges on my thigh. His face transformed into a mask of fury. “Tell me it’s just from a bite. Tell me he didn’t have a chance to—”

Realizing what he thought had happened, that Usire had completed the ritual, I blurted, “No, Jidor, I swear!” I closed the distance between us, hiking up my dress so he could see the bite. The bleeding had stopped, which was surprising, but the punctures were still red and puffy. I didn’t care that I was practically flashing him my most intimate parts. “See? It’s just a bite. I haven’t been, um, spoiled.”

Jidor blinked several times, seeming confused by my word choice. Within seconds, his expression cleared, and he leaned down and kissed me gently. “That wouldn’t have mattered…other than to Usire…who I would hurt. Badly.”

The man in question rolled off the bed, his head hitting the stone floor with a sickening crack. Jidor crossed the room to the motionless king, kneeling beside him and slipping a large, hammered silver medallion out from the unconscious man’s robes and over his head. “This,” he said as held the medallion up to examine it better, “is the key to the surface.”

Before Jidor could rise, Usire caught his wrist in his weakening grip. “You played me for a fool, brother.”

My mouth fell open.

Brother?

But they looked nothing alike. It wasn’t possible. I took a step toward them. “Jidor, wha—”

“Not now, Elise,” Jidor snarled. He’d never spoken to me so harshly, and I snapped my mouth shut. I felt like I’d been slapped. Did this mean it was true? Was Jidor really the king's brother? Why hadn’t he told me? Why had nobody else? Shouldn’t he have been ruling over one of the other cities in the Land of Stone and Darkness like the other princes?

Usire’s glassy gaze shifted to me. “My bastard brother is a skilled actor, is he not?” The king coughed, spraying pink saliva into the air. His eyes fixed on Jidor. “And here I was, thinking that little incident with Roselle had been all her doing, that she’d aroused your bloodlust and enticed you into her bed…that it was a single, isolated act of betrayal. How long have you opposed me? Since before, or after I stripped you of your titles?”

“I was loyal to you until you had her executed,” Jidor snapped. “I loved her!”

“Sadly, Roselle was incapable of returning the sentiment, Blackheart.” There was a surprising note of sympathy, or maybe pity in Usire’s tone.

My feet seemed to be glued to the floor. I wanted to flee, to escape their disturbing revelations, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the two brothers and the tragic history they were unveiling.

I’d read of Roselle, the harlot Queen, who’d been executed shortly after my birth. Immediately after their initial consummation ritual, Roselle had threatened suicide if Usire refused to dispose of his other nineteen queens at the time. So great was his desire for Roselle, that he had the rest of his living queens and their nightwalker offspring banished to the unlivable surface to appease her. According to the common histories, she’d been executed after her affair with another nightwalker noble, but nowhere had Jidor’s name been mentioned. I was beginning to understand that history could be rewritten, especially if one is the king.

Jidor’s face was contorted with outrage at Usire’s claim. “You’re wrong. She loved me. She told me so many times.”

Usire laughed, which turned into a sickeningly wet cough. “As she did me. Likely she told the same to the other men she was bedding when she wasn’t with us.”

Jidor stood and took a step back, bringing himself closer to the drop-off at the edge of the chamber. “You’re lying.”

“Am I?” Usire’s attention shifted to me. “Take a look at our sweet Elise, dear, blind brother. How could you have spent so much time with her and not noticed her resemblance to Roselle?”

Jidor’s eyes were wide as he looked at me, and he was shaking his head. He took another step backward, bringing him dangerously close to the ledge.

“Watch you step, Jidor,” I blurted.

“It’s no use denying the truth,” Usire said. “You can hear Roselle in her voice as well, can’t you? You can smell her scent and likely taste Roselle in her sweet blood—at least when its not tainted with your own."

“No,” Jidor breathed, but his eyes were filled with horrified recognition, and he was still staring at me. “No.”

“Yes,” Usire countered.

“What are you saying?” I asked, my voice trembling, but I was fairly certain I already knew the answer. Roselle, the Harlot Queen, was my mother. It seemed impossible. Queens didn't have human children. Queens bore nightwalkers. That was just the way things worked.

“How?” Jidor asked.

Usire sighed, and something gurgled in his chest. “Fetch me a snack, and I’ll explain. Otherwise, I’ll let the truth die with me.” Usire coughed again. “Tick tock, Blackheart. Soon the damage will be irreparable.”

Jidor didn’t hesitate. He swept past me on his way out of the chamber. “Stay here, Elise,” he called back to me, and then he was gone.

I couldn’t have left if I’d wanted to—which I did. Jidor had used shadowtongue, a form of mental persuasion possessed only by the oldest, most powerful nightwalkers. I hadn’t known he could use it, let alone was old enough for it to be a possibility. How had I grown up as his puera, practically worshiped him for most of my life, and known so very little about who he really is?

“He’ll never love you, sweet Elise,” Usire wheezed. “Every time he looks at you, he’ll see Roselle. He’ll hate you.” His eyes flicked to the ledge. “Best to end it now, before he has a chance to reject you. It’ll be quick, and you’ll barely feel the landing.”

Unwillingly, I inched closer to the ledge. It was a well-known fact that Usire possessed the ability to use shadowtongue, and he'd most certainly used it on me. “Why are you doing this?” I asked, my voice barely more than a whisper.

“There’s too much of Roselle in you. You’ve proved as much through your failed assassination attempt. You’re cold and calculating, absolutely incapable of love, just like your mother. You’re not fit to be a lady, let alone one of my queens. The continued beating of your heart sickens me,” he stated coldly.

I was at the edge, the many spires of the Hall of Oaths’ facade rising up on either side of me.

“Take the final step.” Usire’s voice rang with power, and I lifted my foot.

“Elise, no!” Jidor shouted.

The discordant clang of their warring influence wracked through my body. I froze, one foot raised as I teetered on the ledge, a breath away from death.

“Aid the king,” he commanded right before his arms wrapped around me. He dragged me away from the drop-off. Spinning me around to face him, he searched my eyes, tension hardening his features. “Why, Elise? What were you thinking?”

“I—he—I didn’t want to!" I cried. "I had no choice."

Jidor’s eyes narrowed to dangerous slits as his gaze slid to Usire. He didn’t look away from his younger brother, who was feeding hungrily on one of the untouched, as he guided me toward the doorway. “We’re leaving.”

“But…your explanation. My—my mother…”

“Your life is more important.”

“He was a breeder,” Usire called as we hurried through the archway. “Roselle couldn’t even recall his name. When the child was born human, I had proof of the depths of her treacherous depravity.” A gleeful laugh followed us as we rushed down the spiral stairwell. “You thought the child had been stillborn…and that it had been yours”—the mad giggling continued—”but Roselle’s rotten offspring has been right under your nose all along!”

“Jidor—”

“Not now.” He increased his pace, dragging me down the steep stairs at a near-run.

“Jidor, wait!” I locked my legs in an attempt to stop his descent and nearly tumbled forward. I would have fallen had he not caught me with a firm grip just above my elbow. Staring up into his tortured, blue-gray eyes, I blurted, “I didn’t know the Harlot Queen was my mother! I swear!”

“I believe you, but this really isn’t the best time.” He righted me and continued pulling me down the stairs. “As soon as Usire is strong enough to move on his own, he’ll hunt down some guards and send them after us. There’s only one exit to the surface, and the sole purpose of the medallion is to enable its holder to pass through the ward. Usire knows exactly where we’re headed. If he catches us, the things he’ll do—you’ll wish he’d succeeded in forcing you over that ledge.”

We reached the end of the stairs and Jidor released me and slowed to a quick, inconspicuous walk. I was breathing hard and was glad for the temporary respite.

“I just needed you to know that I’m not like her,” I said quietly between deep breaths. “I would never do what she did. And…I can love. I do love.”

Jidor shot me an unreadable glance but said nothing. In silence, we walked side-by-side through the City of Night like we hadn’t a care in the world. We didn’t receive a single suspicious look. After all, it wasn’t unusual for humans to walk around with spots of blood on their clothing, especially not ladies who had supposedly recently completed a consummation ritual.

~~~~~~~

Much to my surprise, Jidor led me up the partially enclosed path toward our overlook. When we reached the familiar offshoot, he passed it by without a second glance and, increasing the pace, continued further up the unrelenting path than I’d ever been. We went through two doorways, pausing only long enough for Jidor to fit heavy iron keys into the locks.

“Take this,” he said, handing me the medallion. “Just in case.”

It was heavier than I’d expected, and felt cool against my breastbone as I settled its silver chain around my neck. Exhaustion made my hands shake, but I didn’t mention it to Jidor. We had neither the time nor the luxury to rest, and my complaining wouldn’t do anything to improve either of our moods.

“We’re getting close,” he told me, his tone distant. “Once we’re through the portal, you can rest.” He’d always been able to read me with the briefest glance.

I grunted and plowed on. The winding tunnel had narrowed, but a blueish light shone around the bend ahead. When we rounded it, I caught sight of the source of the glow and felt a burst of renewed energy. The ward shielding the portal to the surface glowed with a glittering azure light, reminding me of the shimmering surface of Nocturne Lake. I couldn’t see beyond the ward, but I didn’t need to. Beyond it awaited safety and rest and the glorious possibility of no more fear. Beyond it lay freedom. The possibility that Jidor might be wrong and that the surface might be toxic to me didn’t even cause me pause. Freedom, even if it was only for a few seconds, would be more than I’d ever had before.

I grabbed Jidor’s hand and tugged him forward, laughing joyously. “We made it, Jidor! We’re safe!” I didn’t hesitate before pushing through the shimmering veil. I glided through the tingly warmth…until somethine stopped me short.

All that remained on the opposite side of the ward was my hand, the one that was still clasped in Jidor’s. I yanked, intending to pull him through to the outside, but again, he refused to let his hand pass through. I stepped back into the tunnel.

“Jidor, what are you doing? We have to go now!”

He stared down at me, a mask a grief transforming his face into a visage that brought tears to my eyes. “The medallion won’t let both of us through.” He looked over my shoulder, swallowing several times. “I didn’t think…” Howling, he struck the rough stone wall with his fist. “It’s only going to work for whoever is holding it. Only one of us is getting out.”

I shook my head. “There must be a—”

Shouts echoed up the tunnel. Usire’s guards were on their way, and they were closing in quickly.

I slipped the chain over my head and, holding the medallion in the palm of my hand, grabbed Jidor’s hand. “There. If we’re both holding the medallion, we’ll both be allowed passage.”

Again I pushed against the barrier, but it was as solid as stone. In a fit of uncontrollable rage, I slapped it and cried out. It was an awful wail of despair and hopelessness and disbelief. I slapped the shimmering blue wall again and again, and when that did no good, I began clawing at it.

“Elise, stop!” Jidor captured my hand and pressed it against his chest. “You’re hurting yourself.”

I stared at my hand like I’d never seen it before. My nails were broken and bloody, and my pinky was bent at an unnatural angle, but I barely felt any pain. Or maybe it was just that the pain was insignificant in the face of our current, desperate situation.

Jidor sqeezed my shoulder. “You have to go. You have to live…for both of us.”

“No!” I shouted, tears streaming down my cheeks. “I won’t leave you in here! I won’t!”

Just as the first guard rounded the bend, coming into view, Jidor brought his mouth to mine with bruising intensity. Before I realized what he was doing, he closed my fingers around the medallion and shoved me at the barrier. I stumbled through, gasping for breath.

Knowing it was only a matter of seconds before the guards overtook Jidor, I thrust my face back through the barrier, found Jidor’s hand, and pressed the medallion into his palm. Our hands joined, I withdrew from the barrier as far as possible until only my hand and about a third of my forearm remained, and then I let go.

The pain was instant, sharp, and hot, and it was easily the worst sensation I’d ever felt in my life. Usire’s bite was a pin-prick in comparison. I doubled over, dry-heaving. Had there been anything in my stomach, it would have spattered the ground, but my nerves had kept me from eating anything all day.

“Elise! No! What have you done?” It was Jidor’s voice. I could hear him…which meant he’d crossed through the barrier. His arms were suddenly around me, and we were sitting, him cradling me in his lap. I couldn’t remember sitting down.

Blearily, I gazed up into his horrified face and smiled. “It worked.”

He reached for my arm and raised it, bringing it into my line of sight. “But your hand.”

I stared at my arm. My hand was…gone. In its place was a blackened, oozing stump. My hand…

I averted my gaze, staring at Jidor’s pale leather cuirass instead of my missing hand. It started to itch, and I pressed my face against the leather, breathing deeply to give me something else to focus on.

“That’s not possible,” Jidor whispered. “That’s not possible.”

What isn’t possible?” I squeaked, refusing to look.

“Elise, you’re healing…like a nightwalker.”

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NEXT PART: Mist (available now!)

Alright, here's your chance to have a say in where the story goes next. Please share your opinion regarding any of the following questions (or any other brilliant insights or inspirations that strike you), and I'll use your feedback as I delve further into the story.

1. What do you think will happen next?

2. What is the aboveground world like?

3. Is Usire truly evil, or does he just seem evil through Elise's eyes?

4. What the heck is going on with Elise's chopped off hand healing?


Thanks for any and all feedback! I can't wait to read your ideas and start weaving them into the story!!!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Lady of Stone & Darkness: (1) Oathbound

Here's the first installment of Lady of Stone & Darkness, my new, semi-experimental and absolutely free online serial. If you're totally confused about what Lady of Stone & Darkness is, please check out this page devoted to the online serial.

Just a reminder...from the end of the second installment onward, I'll be asking for reader involvement and input as to where the story goes from there. Think of it sort of like an online "choose your own adventure" story.

Premise: Centuries have passed since an epic cataclysm forced humans and nightwalkers to flee to the subterranean cities of the Land of Stone and Darkness, but to Elise, a twenty-year-old human woman, the City of Night is all she's ever known. Moments before she binds herself to the nightwalker king, her lifelong protector, Jidor, starts making startling confessions. Will she still fulfill her duty and pledge herself to her lord and master, King Usire, as one of his queens, or will she finally find the strength to be the master of her own life? And if freedom is too slippery to grasp, will death be a more attractive option?

***some installments may contain mature content, themes, and/or language***

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“Do you accept your role as Queen of Stone and Darkness?” The oathweaver's long, white beard trembled as he spoke, and his words echoed throughout the cavernous Hall of Oaths.
There was so much anxious energy buzzing through me that I was having a hard time resisting the urge to chew my bottom lip. Words my praestes, Jidor Blackheart, had repeated many times whispered through my mind.

Break yourself of that habit, Elise, and do it soon, or I’ll be forced to fight off nightwalkers who are too tempted to resist sinking their own teeth into your tender flesh.

Jidor had always been big on propriety where I was concerned, and for a puera, a lady-to-be, tempting random nightwalkers wasn’t the most proper of behaviors. It also wasn’t the safest. Nightwalkers like to bite and had the razor-sharp fangs to do so quite effectively.

I tore my wide-eyed stare away from the oathweaver’s glassy eyes to glance over my shoulder at Jidor. He was standing on the wide ceremonial dais behind me, his ageless face as hard and his body as immovable as one of the limestone stalagmites standing sentry throughout the Hall of Oaths. Even the pale leather of his cuirass, pants, and boots blended with the limestone; only the color of his skin, a brownish-gray darker than that of most nightwalkers, set him apart from the Hall’s stone architecture.

As soon as his eyes met mine, he recognized the fear filling mine. He clenched his jaw and shook his head the barest amount, and my mind replayed the conversation we’d had immediately before entering the Hall.


“What will you choose, puera? Will you turn back now?” He stared down at me with enough intensity in his quicksilver eyes to turn my spine to jelly. Honestly, considering his body was at least twice the size of mine and every possible ounce was hard, honed muscle, the spine-to-jelly effect seemed to come quite naturally to him. “Will you be a nightwalker queen, or will you be a nightwalker meal?”

I couldn’t help it; I pulled my lip between my teeth and stared at him, searching his expression for some sign that there was a way out. I didn’t find one. “You’re certain he won’t allow me to join the breeders? Being with my own kind—”

Jidor shook his head, denying my final attempt to reach for the one thing I yearned for desperately, but had never experienced: human companionship. “You have always been slated for him, Elise. You know this. I did what I could to put this off for as long as possible, but…” He shook his head. “We’re out of time. You have two options once you get in there. Give yourself to him, or don’t. But if you deny him the right to possess you as one of his queens, he’ll take your life’s blood as punishment”—Jidor’s voice gained a rough edge—”and that I won’t allow. I’ve invested too much in you.”

Invested. Like I was just a thing to him, an object. But I’d known that my whole life, no matter how badly my heart tried to convince me otherwise. Being my praestes
my keeper and protectorwas Jidor’s punishment for some failing unknown to me; he’d done something to infuriate the nightwalker king before I’d even been born, over twenty years ago. For Jidor, I was a means to an end. It was clear that he believed successfully preparing me to serve King Usire as one of his willing and obedient queens would return Jidor to the king’s good graces. 

“And what if I would rather give him my life’s blood than free access to my body?” There was iron in my voice, iron Jidor had painstakingly cultivated and honed through years of tutelage. He was right; he had invested a lot in me, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed being traded like a cask of moonwine.

Jidor’s nostrils flared, and fury raged in his eyes. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking I enjoy the prospect of either option, but at least if you become his queen, you’ll still be alive.”

I opened my mouth, intending a rude retort, but his words knocked me off balance. Closing my mouth, I searched his eyes. Frequently, I thought I caught hints of genuine affection in Jidor’s expression or tone, but he always shattered my misconceptions by becoming colder, harder, and more-closed off. At least, I’d thought they’d been misconceptions. Had I been wrong? Did he care about me as more than something valuable to barter? It was suddenly imperative that I knew the truth.

I took a deep breath, intending to ask why my life mattered to him, but before I could, Jidor answered my unspoken question wordlessly. His expression was heartbreaking. Pain. Longing. Loss. He raised a hand to my face and brushed his cool fingertips over my lips. I could barely breathe. “Would you still choose death if the alternative were to become oathbound to me
?”

I closed my eyes, holding back tears as I imagined it was his lips rather than his fingertips pressed gently against mine. Was this what it felt like to be kissed? I allowed myself that single, blissful moment before pulling away. 


“Why, Jidor?" I was suddenly furious. "How could you say something like that? Even if…” I narrowed my eyes, making a soft growling sound. “Maybe you just enjoy torturing me with impossibilities. I never expected such cruelty, not from you.” I glared at him in attempt to mask my wrenching pain. 

“Cruelty,” he spat. His mouth curled into a sneer, and in one of those lightning-fast nightwalker movements, his hand had shifted, grasping the back of my neck painfully. Towering over me, menace rolling off him in waves, he hissed, “Listen carefully, little puera. What I’m about to tell you is known only to nightwalkers.” I whimpered, and he squeezed harder. “Every living being has an eternal essence, part of them that continues existing even when their physical form is gone. When a nightwalker drains a being to the point of death and takes their life’s blood, the moment that being’s heart ceases to beat, their essence is absorbed by the nightwalker.”

My eyes went wide, and my heart pounded in my chest. What he was saying was impossible. I would have heard about something like that.

Jidor shook me again. “Do you understand what I’m saying? If you reject Usire, and he takes your life’s blood, he will consume your essence. It will cease to exist.
You will cease to exist.” He leaned down, his face a storm of wild, dangerous emotions. “If you refuse to be his queen, I will snap your neck before his teeth ever pierce your skin. I will not let him have that part of you.” 

Abruptly, Jidor released me, and I staggered back a few steps. Stunned and horrified, I stared at him. “Jidor…do you have any idea what he’d do to you if you did that?”

Killing me, denying the King Usire both my body and my life's blood, would be tantamount to stealing from the king, the gravest possible crime other than attempting to 
physically harm the king. Jidor would be tortured for days, months—unholy light, possibly even years—and then he would be dismembered and burned, and his ashes would be scattered in Nocturne Lake because doing so is the only way to truly kill a nightwalker. Well, that and the solar poisoning that resulted from extended exposure to the sun, but since the surface could no longer sustain human life, nightwalkers had no reason to venture aboveground. Solar poisoning hadn’t been an issue for many centuries.

“You’ll be one of his queens, or we’ll both die.” Jidor's expression was as fierce and harsh as his tone.



Turning my head away from Jidor, I shifted my focus to my soon-to-be lord, Usire, King of Stone and Darkness, who was standing less than three feet away from me. Tall, lean, and pale, Usire was well-known to be as cruel as he was handsome. As his lady, I would not only be a vessel through which new nightwalkers are created, but I would also be a Queen of Stone and Darkness. The title makes the position sound a lot grander than it is. Perhaps it’s the eighteen other “Queens of Stone and Darkness” that dilute the role, or maybe it’s knowing that I’ll have no right to turn down my lord’s attentions, painful and sadistic as they’re rumored to be.

Usire’s mouth twisted into a knowing smirk, and his anticipation for the rapidly approaching consummation ritual was palpable. I swallowed roughly. Could I go through with it?

Behind me, almost as though he was reading my thoughts, Jidor cleared his throat in a wordless reprimand. The sound reminded me I didn’t have a choice. I had to go through with the ceremony. I had to become oathbound to King Usire.

“Do you accept your role as Queen of Stone and Darkness?” the oathweaver repeated, wheezing slightly.

I took a deep, shaky breath. “I do.”

There was a collective exhale from the audience watching beyond the dais. The rest of Usire’s Queens were in attendance, along with their few children and the other high nobles who resided in the City of Night. It wasn’t relief at securing the longevity of my life that caused the exhale, but relief at avoiding Usire’s far-reaching wrath that any refusal on my part would have ignited. He’d chosen me long ago, before I’d ever shown signs of feminine maturity, and it had taken much quick thinking and quicker talking on Jidor’s part to keep me out of the King’s reach until my twentieth year. I'd always though Jidor delayed the inevitable for the sake of training me to be the best lady and Queen I could be, but after his recent revelations, I suspected he'd done so for far more personal reasons.

Jidor cared about me.

Only now did the reality sink in. He truly cared about me. Knowing that made what was about to happen seem so much worse. I felt like an invisible blade had been stabbed into my chest and was being twisted, shredding my heart and collapsing my lungs.

“Repeat after me,” the ancient oathweaver directed. “I, Elise, puera of Jidor Blackheart, do beg his eternal ruler, Usire the Everlasting, Lord of the City of Night and King of all of Stone and Darkness, to accept my body, my heart, and my life as a willing offering.”

I breathed deeply, then repeated his words, somehow managing not to choke on “willing.” When prompted by the oathweaver, I knelt at Usire’s feet. Usire ran his long fingers through my straight, flaxen hair, and I heard him emit a low chuckle. I allowed myself a minute cringe, knowing my face was hidden from all but the polished limestone floor.

“I accept your offering, sweet Elise. I accept it most readily.”

Again, I cringed, barely managing not to pull away from his deceptively gentle touch.

“An offering has been made and accepted,” the oathweaver stated, his wobbling voice emotionless. “Jidor, as the lady’s former praestes, you are tasked with escorting her to the consummation chamber and preparing her for the ritual. It is time.”

I felt Jidor’s hand on my arm, firm and demanding. He pulled me up to my feet and led me away from Usire without saying a word. Inside, I was screaming.
~~~~~

High up in the enormous cavern containing the main portion of the City of Night, there is a cliff that overlooks the entire city. Jidor often brings me there when I’ve done something particularly well, or when he believes my spirits need lifting. Though the climb up the zigzagging path of jagged, crumbling stairs is exhausting, the view is more than worth it.

Standing at the precipice, one can see the entirety of Nocturne Lake, from its glowing aquamarine core to the emerald rim curving along its sinuous perimeter. Graceful bridges arch across the lake at its narrowest stretches, and gleaming buildings constructed of polished limestone bricks huddle in chaotically organized clusters around the lake’s shores, reaching all the way to the cavern's walls on all sides.

On the far side of the cavern, at the place where the lake comes nearest to the wall, the brilliant facade of the Hall of Oaths reaches up toward the ceiling with such a dizzying array of intricately carved arches and spires that it almost looks as though it grew there over millions of years along with the forests of stalactites and stalagmites surrounding it.

That view is the most majestic sight I’ve ever beheld.

As Jidor guided me up a seemingly endless spiral staircase and, much to my panting relief, finally through an asymmetrical, naturally formed archway into the consummation chamber, I gasped. The far wall was, well, nonexistent; it was completely open, and beyond it spread the City of Night in all of its glimmering, iridescent glory. I barely even registered the bed in the center of the chamber lavishly draped with transparent silk curtains and pale satin sheets or the four people standing against the wall to my left, drawn as I was to the far edge of the room.

“Burn me, Jidor! Did you know this chamber was open?” I asked my praestes—my former praestes, I reminded myself—as my sandaled-feet neared the drop off.

“Language, Elise,” Jidor murmured, and I scowled.
“Maybe you should’ve watched your language around me,” I muttered under my breath. I knew he could hear me easily; nightwalkers’ hearing is extremely sensitive, as are the rest of their senses.

Jidor stopped by my side and curled his arm around my waist protectively. “You shouldn’t stand so close to the edge. The fall would be fatal, and I wouldn’t survive your death for long.”

I glanced at him sharply. “He’d execute you if I took my own life, even now? But you’re not even my praestes anymore. I know he’s not known for his fairness, but really…how could he blame you for that?”

One of Jidor’s rare, crooked smiles curved his lips, altering the harsh set of his chiseled features into something softer. I lived for the moments when he smiled like that, rare as they were. Especially because he usually looked like he was ready to rip someone’s throat out…

“That wasn’t what I meant.” He met my eyes for the briefest moment, then gazed out at the city. “And I will always be your praestes, just as you will always be my puera.”

Unable to formulate a response, I held my breath. I couldn’t look away from his bold profile. Jidor was full of all sorts of surprises today. Unfortunately, it was one day too late. Which begged the question—why now? Why was he telling me all of this now? It only made what was about to happen that much more painful. Now it would feel like I was betraying him, even if I didn’t have any choice in the matter. Which, as he'd made perfectly clear, I didn't.

Jidor raised his other arm, extending it in front of him to point at a spot high up on the opposite side of the cavern, too far away for me to see clearly. “There is our overlook.” Our overlook. It astounded me that he considered something to be ours, together, like we were one unit.

I squinted, unsuccessfully trying to make out the shallow outcropping I knew so well. “I can’t see it,” I confessed.

Jidor’s hold on my waist tightened. “I know. But I can.”

Understanding dawned on me. If he could see our lookout point from here, then he could see into the consummation chamber from there. “Is that where you’ll be...when he—he—”

Clenching his jaw so hard I thought I could hear his teeth grinding, Jidor nodded.

I cleared my throat, then swallowed. Both seemed louder than usual. “Will it be as bad as they say?”

“Worse.” Jidor’s voice was soft, cold. It was the most dangerous tone his voice could adopt.

“Oh,” I whispered. I’d started shivering, and not because my barely opaque ivory silk gown did little to fend off the main cavern’s ever-present chill. I was terrified of Usire, of the consummation ritual, and of the fruit the ritual would likely bear.

Jidor once brought me an old above-ground book about a man and woman who fell in love. The woman was human, but the man was something called a “vampire.” Jidor had explained that “vampire” was the ancient term the humans gave to nightwalkers, back in the days when they were still believed to be myths and humans still flourished on the earth’s surface. The vampire, when faced with the mortal truth of his lover’s life, decided to turn her into a vampire so they could spend eternity together. I’d found it amusing that my ancient ancestors believed a human could be turned into a nightwalker. I’d giggled and tossed the book at Jidor, telling him it was too ridiculous to continue reading. A human could be transformed into a nightwalker as easily as a glowfish could become a bat; it was impossible. There was only one way to bring new nightwalkers into the world: the consummation ritual.
The ritual can only be enacted between a male nightwalker and a female human, and no part of it includes the woman being transformed into anything other than what she already is: human. That is, unless one counts motherhood as a transformation. If, during copulation, a nightwalker exchanges blood with a human, any resulting offspring will be a nightwalker. Gestation is hard on the mother, as the fetus literally feeds on her blood while it grows within her, and frequently both perish during the process. That very danger is the reason why Usire and the other high nobles tend to keep so many ladies. The more ladies they had to carry out the consumation ritual with, the more potential offspring they had.

I wrapped my arms around myself, interlocking my finger’s with Jidor’s. His hand was so much larger than mine that holding it made me feel like a child. “I hope the ritual works the first time so I only have to do it once.”

“As do I, my puera. As do I.” Jidor's voice was grave. He stepped back from the ledge, taking me with him, and led me over to the people who were standing against the wall.

No longer entranced by the view, I noted that they were four human men with downcast eyes, each beautiful in his own right. As they were human, but their drawstring pants were white rather than the black worn by breeders, I knew they were also eunuchs—the untouched. The untouched were as much decoration as they were servants to the nightwalkers, and I had no idea why they were there.

I looked from the untouched to Jidor, my eyebrows raised in question.

Jidor finally released me and took a few steps away, backing toward the wide doorway leading out of the chamber. “Pick whichever of the untouched pleases you most. Your chosen will prepare you for the ritual, at least as much as anyone can be prepared for the ritual with Usire.”

I frowned and studied the attractive faces of the four men, each too feminine to be considered handsome, then turned to face Jidor. “I don’t understand. The oathweaver said you're supposed to prepare me.” Not that I had any idea what “preparing me” entailed, but I felt the sting of betrayal that Jidor could so carelessly pass my care to another, especially after his recent bittersweet claim that he would always be my praestes and I would always be his puera.

Mimicking the untouched, Jidor shifted his gaze to the floor. “As your praestes, yes, it’s my duty to prepare you, but…you don’t understand wh—”

“Then explain it to me,” I snapped. With my sudden outburst, heat flooded my cheeks, and I, too, cast my eyes downward. “Sorry.”

I heard the soft sound of his boots, then felt a cool hand on my cheek. Jidor was standing so close to me that when he spoke, his breath brushed against my forehead. “A praestes’s final duty to his puera is to prepare her body for her new lord.” His fingertips trailed down the side of my neck and lower, to my breastbone, tracing the path my blood took with each increasingly erratic beat of my heart. “The process can be very…intimate, which is the point. It’s seen as a ritual in and of itself, a way for a praestes to say goodbye to his puera.”

I still couldn’t meet his eyes, instead looking at his light gray boots. “But you have no desire to touch me intimately.” It was a statement, not a question, and my voice sounded hollow as I said it. I’d fantasized about him doing such things on multiple occasions, though I’d never thought it was an actual possibility. “Does the thought disgust you? Is it because I’m not pretty enough?” My questions were genuine.

Mirrors are banned throughout all of the underground cities in the Land of Stone and Darkness, because, when a nightwalker peers into one, it is said that their true age is reflected back at them. I’d caught Jidor’s reflection in water several times, and he never looked any different than my usual, familiar praestes, so I didn’t know if there was any truth to the myth. My own reflection, on the other hand, was that of a stranger—a pale-haired, pale-skinned, pale-eyed stranger.

I knew I wasn’t unattractive, since Usire had claimed me as intended for him when I was still a young girl, but almost all the human women in the City of Night were stunning. At least, all the women walking around the city freely, either as ladies or breeders, were stunning; the others were food. Most nightwalkers preferred to be surrounded by beauty and found little value in creativity or intellect, at least where humans were concerned. After all, how could any human ever surpass the creativity and intellect of a nightwalker who'd had hundreds of years to hone their mind?

“Don’t be ridiculous, Elise.” Jidor's voice was low and rough.

“Then, what is preventing you from—”

“I can’t ensure I’ll be able to resist completing the consummation ritual myself.” And doing so would mean death for us both. Even I knew that.

Stunned, I raised my gaze to lock with his. His eyes were an inferno of roiling, liquid emotion: passion and fury, hatred and regret. I was so very tired of death lurking around every corner, waiting for me to misstep. I needed a reason to keep on trying, something to remind me why living was so grand, because at the moment, life could go burn itself.

Unfamiliar boldness washed over me along with a whole new, far more exciting set of shivers, and I stared into Jidor’s eyes. “If you don’t fulfill your final duty as my praestes, I swear to you, Jidor Blackheart, I will throw myself off that ledge at the first opportunity.” I meant every single word.

Jidor searched my eyes. He swallowed several times before he could find his voice. “Leave us,” he told the untouched without breaking our eye contact. As they filed out, he reached his free hand behind me and placed it on my lower back, pulling me against him. He was so solid, like he really had been carved from the limestone of our underground world.

Slowly, he lowered his head and kissed me. My whole world—my whole universe—fell apart, reforming with this moment, this feeling, as the apex of my sheltered existence.

Jidor's mouth sealed over mine, and his lungs stole my breath, despite requiring none to sustain his own body. I drowned in Jidor, in the taste and feel of him. I wanted nothing more than to have the earth open up and swallow us whole so I wouldn’t have to live another second without my lips pressed against his. It was my first kiss, and if I were never to be kissed by Jidor again, I hoped it would be my last.

He broke our contact unexpectedly, turning away from me as he stepped back. Despite being superfluous, his breathing was as ragged as mine. “I can’t do this,” he hissed.

My eyes were wide, my mouth hanging open in shock. “What?” Burn me, was I that bad of a kisser? “But you said—”

Jidor leveled a fierce glare on me. “He will not have you!” As he spoke, I realized the glare wasn’t actually for me.

I took a step toward him, raising placating hands up to touch his face. “Jidor, you know that’s not possible.” As my fingertips touched his tensed jaw, his harsh expression eased, just a little. “Please don’t throw away what little time we have.” Unshed tears stung my eyes, and I blinked them away as best I could. “These next few moments together…that’s all I’ll have to sustain me for the rest of my life.”

“No.” His voice was hoarse. “It’s not enough.”

My hands fell away from him, hanging uselessly at my sides. I started to turn away, but Jidor moved more quickly than I could track. He was suddenly in front of me, his hands grasping my upper arms. He held me before him, refusing to let me mourn the loss of what could have been in peace.

“There's another way,” he murmured emphatically.

I shook my head, confused.

“If we leave the city…”

Frowning, I continued to shake my head. “You want to go on the run? But Usire has eyes everywhere—in all the cities. It’s impossible. And once he finds us, what he’ll do to you…” I shuddered in horror, but deep inside me, I also felt a mounting flurry of giddiness. Was it possible? Could we do this? Could we break free from King Usire's hold for good?

“No, Elise. I know of a way out…to the surface.”

My hopes, which had been rising with his excitement, evaporated. “You forget—I can’t live above ground. I’m only human, and the surface isn’t habitable for—”

“No, Elise,” he repeated. “Don’t you see? He lied. He’s been lying for centuries, ever since we retreated back into the underground cities. The surface was never uninhabitable, least of all for your kind. If it’s dangerous to anyone, it’s dangerous to nightwalkers, not humans.”

“That’s not…Jidor, that’s not possible!”

He shook his head emphatically, his eyes bright. “You were killing us. Your technology was too great, and even with our superior physical abilities, you’d become more than a match for us. You started hunting us, wiping us out, so we returned to the only place safe for us, and many of our loyal humans followed. Usire convinced us all that there’d been a disaster shortly after, and—”

“You can’t know for sure,” I argued. “It could just be a wild rumor. We might get up there, and—and I might die immediately!”

It was Jidor’s turn to shake his head. “Perhaps, but I don’t think so.” Another rare smile, wry this time. “Besides, would that be any worse than the fate awaiting you here...with him?”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “No, but—”

“I love you, Elise.”

That shut me up.

“Please.”

I just stared at him, wide-eyed, and nodded.

For the first time in my entire life, I saw a full grin spread across Jidor’s face, baring his elongated canines completely. Burn me to eternity and back, he was breathtaking.

He kissed me, hard, and pulled away far too quickly for my liking. “This is what we’ll do…”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Read the next installment: ESCAPE.