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***
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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.

Launch of LADY OF STONE & DARKNESS - my brand-spanking-new reader-interactive and totally free online serial.

Lady of Stone & Darkness is my new, semi-experimental and absolutely free online serial. Every once in a while--I'm hoping to come up with a regular schedule soon, but with NaNoWriMo fast approaching, I don't think that'll happen until December--I'll post a new, chapter-length installment in the series here, and with every few installments, I'll post a bundle on Amazon and Kobo as a "perma-free" novella. And, sometime down the road, once the whole wonderful mess has been edited and tightened up, I'll format a print version as well. Fun times ahead!

So, what exactly is it that makes Lady of Stone & Darknessexperimental? The first two installments are already written, but 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. I'm in love with the idea of giving you guys the chance to be part of my creative process, and I'm so excited to share the beginning of Elise and Jidor's story with you!


Lady of Stone & Darkness is a bit of a genre-bender. It's a mash-up of the post-apocalyptic, dystopian, vampire/paranormal, new adult, and romance genres. Here's the 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?
Check out the Lady of Stone & Darkness page, where each installment will be permanently archived once it's released.

And here's the first installment: Oathbound.

INTO THE FIRE is available for pre-order on Kobo!

Excitement! If you're a Kobo reader and a fan of The Ending series, you'll probably be excited to hear that Into The Fire is available for pre-order on Kobo's online bookstore! Only 27 days until it's released!!!




Thursday, October 24, 2013

29 Days Until the Release of INTO THE FIRE!!!

Here's a little Zoe excerpt from...
Into The Fire (The Ending, #2)
...to tide you over for a brief moment.

“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.”

Stay tuned for a special announcement about the book coming tomorrow. ;)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Fussy Librarian

This is just a quick note about a cool new service for readers...


It's like having a librarian of your very own! You choose from 30 genres and select content preferences, and the Fussy Librarian will send you daily ebook recommendations straight to your inbox. Oh, did I mention that it's free? Because it is! www.TheFussyLibrarian.com

And if that doesn't make them awesome enough, they're also including After The Ending as one of their featured reads on Halloween! Yay!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Echo Prophecy paperback giveaway...only a few days left!


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Echo Prophecy by Lindsey Fairleigh

Echo Prophecy

by Lindsey Fairleigh

Giveaway ends October 21, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: After The Ending gets a cover makeover and flies the coop!

I have two wonderful announcements to make...firstAfter The Ending has a shiny new cover! What do you think?


And second, and just as exciting...After The Ending is spreading. The ebook version is no longer restricted to kindle readers. It's still available on Amazon, but now it can also be purchased from Barnes & NobleKobo, and Smashwords! Excitement! 

Happy reading, friends!

Monday, October 14, 2013

This one's for the fans...

Wow. You are awesome. I just wanted you to know that.

I've been reading through reviews to pick out quotes to feature for marketing purposes (because, blarg, yes, as an indie author, marketing must take up at least some of my time...), and OH MY FREAKING GOD. You guys. You make my heart melt, but not in a creepy way.

Thank you for your praise and your love of my characters and the worlds they live in and the troubles they overcome. You are awesome. You are SO awesome. You make what I do worth doing.

Thank you.

Monday, October 7, 2013

And for today's Echo Prophecy blog tour stop...an excerpt!

Head on over to Judy Thomas's blog, Welcome to My World of Dreams, for one of my favorite excerpts from Echo Prophecy. This is the first time this excerpt has been posted anywhere on the blogosphere, so be sure to check it out! It's steamy...or pre-steamy... ;)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

COVER REVEAL: Into The Fire (The Ending, #2), sequel to After The Ending


The Virus changed them, but that was only the beginning…
…death…mutation…insanity…corruption…terror…
…all that remains is hope.

In the wake of destruction left behind by the Virus, it took Dani and Zoe months to find each other. But their reunion was short-lived. Dani has been taken, and though little distance separates them, they might as well be worlds apart.

From the moment she hears Dani’s scream, Zoe’s only goal is to save her best friend. She and her companions scramble to come up with a rescue plan, but when a ghost from Jake’s past reappears, lines are blurred, decisions become harder, and secrets are revealed…and some secrets are best left buried. To keep heartache and fear from consuming her, Zoe must cling to her determination. She will see Dani again.

Dani awakens inside the final hold-out of civilization: the Colony. Remnants of the former world surround her—electricity, safety, social order—but all is not what it seems. As she faces her most manipulative adversary yet, she loses sight of who she is and who she can trust. Friends become enemies, enemies become allies, and allies will betray her. Dani will have to decide what she’s willing to do and whose lives she’s willing to risk if she is to have any chance of breaking free.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Echo Prophecy virtual tour schedule

Echo Prophecy is on virtual tour starting today! Check out these stops along the way for excerpts, reviews, and some great giveaways! :)

  

October 2: The Crafty Cauldron
October 7: Author Jinni James
October 7: Welcome to My World of Dreams
October 8: Danita Minnis
October 9: M.G. Silverstein's Fantasy Blog
October 16: Beckstar Reviews
October 17: Sharing Links and Wisdom
October 18: Magic and Mayhem
October 21: Desert Rose Reviews
October 22: Sandra's Blog
October 23: Hope Dreams. Life... Love
October 23: Deal Sharing Aunt
October 24: Theresa M Jones
October 25: Books to Light Your Fire
October 28: Booklover Sue
October 29: Susana's Morning Room
October 30: Room With Books
October 30: It's Raining Books
October 31: Book 'Em North Carolina
November 1: Bunny's Review
November 6: Long and Short Reviews
November 13: Bea's Book Nook
November 13: Elle Hill
November 20: Mommasez...