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Blaze Ignites - Sample Chapters

~ Chapter 1 ~

 

Gun versus wand.

Lexi and I could see the standoff escalating beyond the crush of half-naked, leather-clad bodies on the dance floor. The patrons of the tavern, human and not, had ceased shimmying to the techno-rock of the house band and were drawing wands and daggers in every direction.

            "Let us through people." Raising my palms I called my powers. "Castian, come to me." A surge of arcane energy lifted my hair as my affinity awoke. "Get down!" I shielded Lexi and avoided the white-gold energy bolt zinging passed our heads. It hit the mirrored wall over the bar and burst into a shower of sparks and jagged shards.

A shot rang out. Shit.

Magic buzzed and crackled in the air like a bug-light in August. I threw out some heat to part the remaining sea of bodies. Ignoring the sneers of rubberneckers, we pushed through and my sister and I joined the altercation.

A scruffy, brute of a man wearing a bandana stood, gun poised, staring straight into the wand-tip of one of the Academy of Affinities' fifth-year wizardry students.

"Problem, gentlemen?" I asked, easing into their circle.

With shoulders rigid and wand steady, the student, Nash, focused straight ahead. "Jade, this asshole thinks he's dragging my friend back to the Modern Realm." I assessed the native girl shielded behind his back. She looked shaken but unharmed.

"I don't think," the brute hissed. "This is a family matter. Jade is it?"

Pushing down the urge to wipe the sneer off the bastard's face I tried to remain professional. "Jade is what friends and students call me. You can call me Blaze. That is my official nom de guerre."

I held up my wrist and revealed my Talon brand. Cold, sharp eyes narrowed on my copper skin as the trademark golden hawk of a Talon enforcer appeared. "Sir, you are armed with intent to do harm on Haven grounds. This entire mountain is a sanctuary and according to Fae law, the girl is welcome to claim refuge here."

"Screw the laws," he spat, shifting the business end of the gun toward me. "Fae laws force our race to live in the Modern Realm—force us to hide who we are as if we're worth less than those fucking humans. The gods won't care about one worthless runaway. Tell your boy here to lower his wand and we're gone."

Catching Lexi's eye, I glanced toward the girl and my sister dissolved into the crowd.

"Again, that would be no." The muzzle of the gun was pointed straight at my chest at an almost point blank range. My skin tingled warm. I pushed back my temper. "I know how you must feel—"

"You know nothing," he snapped. "You are human."

With his full attention on me, I wove more persuasion into my words. "As a Talon enforcer, I ensure the laws of both realms are upheld. You smuggled a gun from the Modern Realm onto sanctuary grounds. There's no chance you're leaving with the girl. The Portal Gates are sealed for the summer solstice and you have things to answer for. Your only option here is to lower your weapon."

When my suggestion had the barrel wavering, he clutched the grip with both hands and stabilized it. His jaw clenched as his index finger tightened on the trigger. I gave another push of energy and when I thought I was at my limit, I pushed further. Perspiration beaded across his furrowed brow. I held on. Needles of pain ran through my jaw as I clenched my teeth. After another minute, the Glock clattered to the tavern floor.

He lunged.

My feet were torn from the ground as his shoulder caught my cheek. Something solid connected with my ribs and I hit the dance floor in an awkward half-twist. My shoulder connected with the wood plank right before the back of my head bounced. I was still seeing white splotches bursting in front of my eyes when the brute's staggering weight lifted and two Were-lion bouncers took control.

One snatched the weapon and shoved it into the waistband of his jeans. His litter-mate grabbed the guy's thick arms and wrenched them back until I expected to hear the snap of bone. Rumbling like a storm cloud, the pair of Weres cable-tied the guy's hands and signalled to everyone that the show was over.

"And a good night was had by all." Lexi rolled her amethyst eyes offering me a hand up. "You good, girlfriend?"

I nodded, wiping the trickle of blood from my cheek as the crowd dispersed and the band resumed their set.

"Remove his bandana or he'll shift." The native girl peered from behind Lexi, then squealed as the brute surged.

"You little bitch," he snapped.

Lexi drew the knife sheathed to her thigh and the lion tightened his hold on his now-squirming, cursing prisoner. When the tie of the bandana was severed, the glamour—the illusion which made it appear as if his cloak were nothing more than a piece of cloth—shattered. What looked to be a flimsy black cloth covered in flames and a rebel flag dissolved, leaving Lexi holding a floor-length, thick fur pelt.

"Finfolk?" Lexi asked.

Long chestnut hair shimmered as the girl nodded. Definitely First Nations. Inuit maybe? I scanned the fringed cape draped down to the thighs of her jeans. It was probably glamoured, too.

"Two weeks ago," she said, "my parents were killed off the Alaskan Coast and my uncle took over my raft. He's a bastard, even by Finfolk standards, but was next in line to rule."

"And what race of Finfolk are you?" I asked, studying the thick, grey pelt in Lexi's hand.

"Otterkie," she said. "At first, I believed my parents were netted and killed by human poachers. That's what my uncle reported to the council, but last night I heard him in the den whispering with that man." She pointed to our prisoner. "My uncle was thanking him for a job well done. My parents were dead and nobody suspected a thing. Now all he had to do was kill off the whelps." She flipped her cape back, revealing a dark haired toddler in a carrying sling across her chest. "My race has always been proud to be Dark Fae. Dark, but not evil. I believe my uncle has betrayed our people to gain favour with the Scourge."

The pain in her wide brown eyes pegged me solid in the gut. The slaughter of my own parents still ate at me, jagged teeth gnawing my insides—even seventeen years later.

I gazed to the bouncers. Damn Were-lion littermates are tough to tell apart. "Boys, take our guests up to the security office at the castle. My brother's on duty and will do the honours with the paperwork. I'll call him and let him know what's happened."

After handing over the guy's otter pelt, Lexi and I headed back to our booth. My call to Julian about what happened was quick and before I knew it I was back to our evening.

"You okay, Jade?"

"Fine," I lied, forcing a smile.

Lexi bounced up on her knees and signalled our waitress for another round. "Okay, spill. What's wrong?"

I tipped back what had been left in my glass and focused my healing affinity on my ribs, cheek and shoulder. When that was taken care of, I wiped the blood from my face with a napkin. "It just pisses me off. I beat that idiot with my powers, I could have taken him if it came to weapons, but no matter how much we train or over-train I'm not freakishly strong like you. I'll never be able to muscle my way past half the men we come up against.

"You're way smarter."

"Maybe, but that's not going to convince Reign to treat us as equals in the field."

Lexi bit her lip. "I bet the take down doesn't even register with him. He's gonna go ballistic about a gun being on the property—and that it was pointed at you."

I winced. "Gods. He won't let us off site for a month."

"A month? If we're lucky. I figure a year."

I accepted two more wide-mouthed glasses of Rhapsody Cosmos from the waitress in the Daisy-Dukes and bit back a smirk. The deep cleavage lean-in went beautifully with the turquoise hair and the pounds of gold glitter cemented to her eyelids.

Gods, I hope that stuff didn't flake off. After a quick scan of the surface of my drink, I chased a drop of pink nectar down the stem of the glass and inhaled the fruity fragrance. It was dizzying how the heady scent mixed with the tavern's potpourri of tobacco, onion rings and lust.

Ahh, the Hearthstone, the Realm of the Fair's very own Vegas. Except, unlike the Modern Realm, what happened at the Hearthstone didn't always stay at the Hearthstone.

"To the summer solstice." I raised my glass, committed to drowning the onslaught of memories tonight had belched up. I swallowed hard, pushing past the lump in my throat. "To my parents. May we annihilate the Scourge from both realms and avenge every innocent who fell by their hands." I proceeded to chug what was my fourth—or maybe my fifth drink.

Lexi raised her glass, her light purple eyes glittered a myriad of emotions in the candlelight of the tavern. Reaching across the table she squeezed my hand. "What happened to your parents sucked Jade—no argument—but you're a survivor. Maybe it's all part of some cosmic plan." She tilted her head, her black spiky hair exploding in every direction. "If they hadn't been killed, you wouldn't have been brought here and we wouldn't be sisters. Maybe it's destiny somehow."

"Destiny my ass," I snapped. A wave of hurt crossed Lexi's face. Shit. I waved my empty glass until our waitress headed to the bar. "The truth is, when the Fates get bored with life Behind the Veil, they amuse themselves by tossing innocent people and random events into life's blender. You never know what flavour Slushie you'll end up once the hum of the blades stop. You struggle to pull yourself together, and when you finally think you've got control, the little sadists flip the switch and the whole shitstorm starts again."

"Wow. Good one." Lexi swirled her Cosmo and studiously watched the surface dance. "Remember what Bruin and Julian painted on the clubhouse when we were kids?"

We recited together. "Shitstorm Survivors: Come in peace or leave in pieces."

When Lexi lifted her head, her smile was back in place. "Julian was pissed he had to cover the gates tonight. He wanted to be here for you."

"Yeah, he stopped by the clinic before he went to the Gatehouse. Oh, and he gave me something. . . ." I scrabbled around in my purse and retrieved two shiny, touch-screen phones. "Julian's at it again. He's installed a GPS tracker on our SIM cards and downloaded a couple nifty new mapping apps for when we're in the field. All our mission specs open at a touch and sync up with our comm system when we're on the move."

Lexi scrolled through the upgrades and beamed. "Oh my gods, he's the best."

The little envelope on my screen was blinking, two missed messages—Bruin and Reign.

Was Lexi right? Maybe my adopted family was my destiny. "Who's on patrol tonight?"

"Who's not?" Lexi jumped on my change of subject and ran with it. "Calls have been flooding in from both realms all day: crop circles, people vanishing in plain sight, apparitions, cloud shapes, UFO sightings. We had a dozen exposure risks in the Modern Realm by the time Julian closed the Portal Gates at full dark. Hopefully that will contain—" Lexi leaned forward, her brow disappearing under inky bangs. "Well, that didn't take long."

"Wha—dammit." I ducked behind a menu and slid to the back of our booth. Peeking around my laminated shield, I assessed the leggy brunette Samuel was wearing around his neck like a pet chimpanzee. Joined at the lips, they stumbled and staggered across the dance floor and tipped, as one, backwards onto the bench of an empty booth.

"Is she kissing him or draining his blood? If it's the latter I should go help. She's nowhere near the carotid." Lexi pulled her dirk from her boot-sheath and spun it in her palm.

"Nah, we've had enough drama for one night."

With her lip pushed out in a pout, she sheathed her weapon. "Fine. We're here to get you smashingly drunk, not dwell on which Succubus your ex has sucker-fished to his throat."

"Right." I glanced over to the lovely couple. Samuel's shabby-chic hair was getting a good mussing and apparently, he was lapping it up. How long would it be before they headed somewhere more private? My gaze wandered toward the private bathrooms down by the office. I'd never been inclined to use them myself, though the oversized dimensions made them popular when regulars, especially the Weres and Centaurs, had a thirst for something they couldn't order at the bar. I swallowed hard and closed my eyes against the nausea churning in my gut.

Well then, Samuel finally gets laid.

I didn't blame him. Samuel was charming, hot and an unbelievable wizard. A sexual relationship just wasn't in me. Two years dating, teaching at the Academy and battling the Scourge together wasn't enough for him. As much as he'd hoped for a physical relationship, he'd never inspired a clear-the-table-take-me-now passion in me. No one had.

As Samuel's hands skimmed over the skank's ribcage and under her breasts I remembered every nuance of his touch, the warm softness of his wizard hands, the gentle strength of his fingers—Nothing. No weak knees, no racing pulse, no heat liquefying my insides.

There was something seriously wrong with me.

Lexi huffed at the display. "Let's turn him into a zombie and make him dance the Macarena naked."

"Entertaining, but no. Samuel deserves to be happy."

"Ew, how mature." She stuck her tongue out and refocused on her drink, downing half without taking a breath. How could someone so tiny drink so much and still be steady with a knife? "Okay, forget him," she said. "Do you wanna dance?"

I evaluated the hedonistic grind on the dance floor then the action at Samuel's booth. "No. Let's just get drunk."

"Wisdom for the ages." Lexi whooped and lifted her glass. "Here's to women everywhere, drinking far too much to be sensible and not giving a shit!"

A high-pitched clink signalled the resumption of our evening and I pushed all thoughts of Samuel and my emotional deficiencies out of my mind. "So," I said, "are we still going to the—Shit." The deep violet of Lexi's pupils was dilating and overtaking the pale purple irises. "Lexi, sit back, hon. You're about to go off-line."

Sliding deeper into the booth she pressed her back against the wall. "You sure? I don't feel—" Her face blanked out just as her eyes rolled back. When they blinked open they had done a quick-change to the shimmering violet of a velvet night sky.

I hustled to the opposite bench and slid in. With my back to the dance floor I set her limp palms over my own and started the mental upload between her vision and my mind. . . .

 

 

~ Chapter 2 ~

 

The indigo night was veiled in glistening stars. A group of Elves regarded a stately man speaking at the altar-stone of a ceremonial ruin site. Three men sat on display to the left of the speaker. Two had honey-flax hair and the third had silver. Each of them wore it shoulder length, pulled back and tied, exposing elongated, softly pointed ears.

Looking out over the gathering, every guest shared the same physical characteristics: medium to long hair, in one shade of gold or another, flawless alabaster skin and stained-glass blue eyes. The silver hair of the one at the front was the only exception.

My mind swirled in drunken dizziness that had nothing to do with the Rhapsodies we'd inhaled and everything to do with a race of Elves long believed to be extinct. Of the seven races of Elves, six were thriving in the Realm of the Fair. The seventh had been exiled eight thousand years ago—Highbornes.

*          *          *

"Tonight," the host said, turning to gesture to the three. "Galanodel, Thamior and Aust embark on their Ambar Lenn—Fate's Journey. As they embrace their passage from cub to wolf, sapling to oak, they seek purpose in the next phase of their lives. Upon their return, each male will assume his station and endeavour to become a male of worth." The crowd tilted their heads in whispered conversation. "Blessing and abundance," he said.

"Blessing and abundance," they responded.

The ceremony continued until, after a time, the host dismissed formalities in favour of festivities. Steins were drained, laughter was shared and everyone ate enough to hold them 'til the autumn rains. When it was over, Galan, Tham and Aust, as the three were called, watched the procession of exodus. Guests flowed down the path in silken waves like smoke on the night breeze. Slim-waisted, blush-cheeked beauties giggled and gossiped while the men conversed about tradition and the days, long behind them, when they accepted their stations.

"And they leave disappointed," Galan, the silver-haired one, deadpanned. "Many of them attended simply to witness our scandalous refusal to quest, no doubt."

"Nonsense, my rapier wit and stunning charm was the draw." Tham waggled his brow then sobered when Galan failed to laugh. "Regardless. The grains of sand have trickled through the sandglass for the last time. They may force us to abandon youth but become responsible males? Never." Tham's body shook with an exaggerated shudder and this time, Galan did smile. Tham squeezed his friend's shoulder. "Fash not, brother mine." They have tried to mould us for a century and have yet to succeed."

Galan pulled the tie binding his hair and scrubbed his fingers through it as it fell loose. "I cannot explain it, Tham. Deep in the knit of my bones I sense something will happen when we leave. Lia needs me and Nyssa is close to birthing. My every instinct screams to tell the Elder Council to shove the Ambar Lenn into any orifice of their choosing and leave me be."

"Mayhap speak with your Eda again."

"No." Galan said. "Disdain and unending criticism are the very bricks and mortar of my relationship with my sire. Our uniting bond from the day Naneth passed." He squeezed his eyes shut and sighed. "Whatever the Fates have in store, I am helpless to fight it."

Galan and Tham joined Aust at the altar-stone. The ivory, rectangular slab lay where it had for aeons, cracked and eroded from bearing the load of centuries past. Tonight it was buried beneath layers of silky, hand-stitched runners, littered with ravaged platters of sweets and breads.

Galan sifted through dozens of crock jugs tipped on their sides, bellies drained. Finding a half-size still corked, he laced his finger through the loop, swirled the contents and proposed a toast. "To success on our Ambar Lenn and returning to those we love." He drank deep.

Tham corralled the abandoned scraps of food onto one platter, tucked it into the crook of his arm and glanced around the vacated site while popping pastries into his mouth. "Is Faolan not questing with you, Aust?"

Aust lifted his gaze from the ground and shook his head. "The elders insist she remain in the village to 'allow me the opportunity to expand and embrace my possibilities'. Toeing the dirt, he kicked a rock soaring. "Faolan is vexed."

Tham popped a honey-glaze into his mouth and washed it down with a swig from Galan's jug. "Can you use your ability and explain to her?"

Aust glanced over his shoulder toward their host and leaned closer. "I have, yet she still refuses to see me off."

"Then your wolf and my father have that in common." Galan reclaimed the stone jug and drained it before placing it amongst its fallen brothers. Finding another containing a few sloshes he smiled. "Mayhap, Faolan should console him while we are away."

Tham snorted. "Or better yet, sink her canines into his gem pouch and shake until the old man turns blue."

They all chuckled.

"Did Lia not attend, Galan?" Aust asked.

Galan didn't drop his eyes as he shook his head. "No, she did not."

The heavy silence that followed was broken when their host asked them to make ready to leave. "Gentlemales, seek your purpose. Discover the path to personal fulfillment and the enrichment of our community. Inventory your lives as you inventoried your belongings for this quest. Some items were chosen for survival, though equal in importance are the talismans which give your guiding spirit strength. Decide which burdens are worth the weight to bear. Keep your load light and your hearts pure. Blessed be."

"Blessed be," they repeated.

With belts cinched, swords sheathed and bows slung, the three men grabbed their satchels and bedrolls. The worn path from the ruin site took them away from the village and along the larger of the two rivers heading north to begin their Ambar Lenn—Fate's Journey.

*          *         *

My mind spun in a vortex of surreal images as I disconnected from the vision. Breathe. I needed to breathe. How could they—

"Jade?" Lexi whispered, dropping her head forward.

"I'm here, hon."

Summer solstice was more than just the longest day of the year and my personal hell. Fae lore claimed it was the day when the veil between magic and reality was almost non-existent. I'd thought that was superstitious hoo-ha until now. Highborne Elves?

"Jade?" Lexi raised her head as she eased out of the trance. When her vision cleared she stared at me with the same Oh-My-Gods look I knew I wore. "We need to go."

I scooted to the edge of the booth, grabbed my purse and handed Lexi a chocolate. She peeled the wrapper and popped it in her mouth. When the sugar kicked in, her eyes began returning to their normal shade of light purple. "Are you good?"

Lexi tossed half a dozen silver pieces onto the table, then bounced down from the booth. Grabbing the edge of the table, she checked her balance. "No, but we need to find Reign."

Damn. "He's at that stupid exposure conference in Hong Kong. Cowboy?"

"On a mission. Savage?"

"Covering up that crop circle disturbance in Vancouver."

"So, who's in charge?"

Ah, double damn. My heart stopped mid-beat. "Samuel." I looked to his booth and fought the urge to bolt. I'd like to think we cared enough about each other to get past the failure of us as a couple, that Samuel wasn't going to trash me for all the times he'd felt rejected, that we could function on a professional level until the wounds healed.

That, of course, was bullshit.

"You want me to do this?" Lexi asked.

Yes. "No. I've got it." With clenched fists, I made my way to the other side of the dance floor to the booth where Samuel and his date were oh-so-cozy. She was draped over him like a blanket . . . a horny, skanky blanket and his face was buried somewhere under her back-teased brown hair . . . along her neck maybe or in her cleavage. I so did not need that visual.

Steeling myself against what was coming, I knocked on the table. "Excuse me."

Samuel's dark walnut, half-hooded gaze was unfocused when he lifted his head. I knew that look. As he registered the source of interruption, I thought I glimpsed the man I cared about. He vanished all too quickly. "Jade, are ye on for a pint or are ye on the pull?"

Ignoring the tone I raised my chin. "I need to speak with you."

"Do ye now? And where's the wee princess?" He struggled to lift his head. Glancing around the crowded tavern, he found her next to the exit. "Oh there she is. Never too far."

I ignored the one-fingered salute Lexi offered Samuel and the lazy roll of his unfocused eyes in reply. After she pointed at the door and stepped outside I refocused on what I was doing. "Samuel, forget her, I need you."

He blinked slowly, his lazy grin widening. "I may be a bit gone in drink, but I still recall that ye've never really needed me Jade."

"Look, Samuel, I need to speak with you. Could I have a minute?"

"I've company at the moment, luv."

"I see that. However, that's not what this is about."

"Really? Ye're sure?" The brunette looked up from his neck as if noticing me for the first time. Apparently I wasn't of interest because she lowered her head and went back to business.

"Look. Reign isn't here and I need to speak to you. Lexi had a vision."

Samuel straightened, resting his head against the back of the booth. "A vision, ye say? Well, very convenient that your sister had a vision during my date. Very convenient indeed."

"It's not convenient, Samuel. Something happened."

He leaned closer, propping his head in his hands. "I'm no so gone that I don't know this is the night of the solstice, Jade. Wallowing in the murder of your parents, are ye? Need a shoulder to weep on?"

"You bastard." My fists clenched as a dozen candles on surrounding tables hissed to life. Six inch flames leapt into the air as diners jumped back. When my eyes began to sting I spun. Do not cry in front of him. Heading for the exit, I fought the urge to break into a run. Using my parents against me was low. Samuel knew how badly I hungered to find the last of those responsible and claim my Right of Vengeance. The need was especially raw tonight. Everything in me wanted to go back to that booth and smack the sanctimonious scowl off his face.

Slamming through the door, I collided with a couple groping hot and heavy at the exit. The duo toppled like pins on a waxed alley. Lexi took one look at me bowling through lovebirds, cursed and headed back into the tavern. "What the hell did Merlin say to you?"

I caught her arm as she flew by.

"Forget him." I swiped at my cheeks. "Nothing has changed, we need a plan."

My mind cleared as we crossed the grounds back to the castle. Even without a plan, getting our gear assembled was a given. Twenty-five minutes later, we sat in my suite, gear packed and brainstorming. I turned the mug in my hands, studying my butter-caramel coffee as if answers would magically manifest within.

"Why did we get this vision, tonight of all nights?" I asked. "What does it mean?"

A flutter of serenity washed over me as a warm breeze stirred my locks and my senses filled with lavender and bergamot. Thank the gods . . . or god would be more accurate. I raised my gaze to the ceiling and closed my eyes. "Have you been spying on me, Sire?"

The presence in my mind was filled with male amusement. I prefer to think I watch over you, Mir. Spying sounds far too invasive.

Castian's endearment, Mir—his treasure—soothed me like a hot stone massage after training. "That's some distinction. So what does the vision of the Highbornes mean?"

I am releasing them from exile.

"You're kidding? After all this time?"

I think eight thousand years makes my point.

"I'm sure it does." Sipping my coffee, I held down the butterflies fluttering in my belly and waited for Castian to continue. Gods were not ones to rush.

Ready your mounts. You and Lexi will make first contact. The information you need will be sent to your phones.

"Us?" I set my coffee on the table. "Alone? There are a dozen enforcers more qualified. Why would you send us?"

Why would I not?

I winced at the cutting edge in Castian's voice. Did I just question the God of gods? Damn, I was off my game tonight . . . but that was it, wasn't it? At the Hearthstone, I did everything right and still got knocked on my ass. If the lions hadn't been there, I could have been in serious trouble. Maybe Reign was right; maybe I should stick to training at the Academy and joining raid parties. Then I'd always have backup.

Jade? Do you question my judgement?

I snapped back to my senses. "No. Of course not, Sire. I'm so sorry. It's just—"

What?

I took in the wide eyed WTF glare I was getting from Lexi across the table and shook my head. "Nothing, Sire. Thy will be done."

Good. This task is part of your destiny, Mir. I have seen it.

Destiny. I bit my tongue.

 

 

~ Chapter 3 ~

 

There was a long moment of silence as Lexi and I caught our breath. We had only just grabbed our gear and readied our mounts when Castian Flashed us to our destination. In a split second we dissolved from the Haven stables and stood on a leafy ridge, watching the first tangerine rays of sun come up over an enchanted, rainforest.

"This is where Highborne Elves spent the last eight thousand years?" Lexi wrinkled her nose. She would face off against deranged sorcerers and filthy, half-naked barbarians rather than rough it for a few nights in the wild. "Gods, it's sooo green."

A warm, fragrant wind blew strong in our faces, stirring a lush canopy of emerald-leafed branches high above our heads, swirling the earthy scents of growth and decay. The ground was overrun with sprawling plants and vines, the rich browns of the tree trunks, buried beneath spongy sage mosses. Even the weak morning light filtered in with dappled mint strobes as the tropical trees danced above.

"Is it possible for something to smell green?" Lexi scowled, running her fingers over the gem-studded saddle spanning the back of her bearded dragon. After adjusting the girth and harness, she patted her mount's scaly head. "Puff and I don't like so much nature. Do we Puff?" Puff continued chewing a chunk of sweet potato, not giving any indication of his preferences. "Are they Elves or Ewoks 'cause I'm getting a yub-nub feeling here."

I laughed. "You'll survive."

Lexi pushed the toe of her new Chloé boot into the stirrup and sprang into her saddle. Three strap, sable mid-calfs with buckles. Nice. Her predilection for inappropriate footwear in the field always made me smile. "Imagine being exiled here," she said. "No Victoria's Secret. No BeDazzlers. No True Blood!" She rolled her eyes.

"Don't sweat it. We'll make first contact with the Highbornes and be home for Eric and Sookie in—" I finished reading the mission spec downloaded to my phone and pulled up short. "Holy hells."

"What?"

"This isn't just first contact." I reread the last paragraph of our orders, waiting for that one to sink in. "We're retrieving the lost spell book of Queen Rheagan. Are, we ready for this?"

"Uh . . . yes." Lexi's body was almost completely shielded behind the frill of her bearded dragon, her black spiky hair bobbing in the affirmative. Gripping the two curved horns coming off the scales of Puff's neck, she turned away. "And even if we weren't, we sure as hell aren't going to admit that to Castian or Reign."

After tying my cloak, I secured my backpack to the saddle-horn and swung up onto my ebony panther. The crunch of leather on leather, as I sunk into the saddle, roused Naith from his catnap. Tendons and muscles quivered and lengthened as my mount bowed in a deep stretch and mrowled a yawn. His rising rump pitched me forward and then levelled, ready to ride.

Reining north, we crossed a clearing and headed on our course to intercept. No matter how hard I pushed the waves of nausea down, I had a sickening feeling that this mission was going to come back to bite me in the ass.

Ten minutes into our ride, Lexi stopped short. "Um, Jade?"

Naith and I strode alongside her and my mouth fell open. "What the hell is that?"

On a mossy fallen log, gently flapping, blue, iridescent tennis racket sized wings, sat what I could only guess was a pre-historic butterfly.

"This isn't the Ewok village after all," Lexi muttered. "We're in freakin' Jurassic Park." Both of us scanned the forest doing a complete 360. Now that I was looking for it, the leaves of the trees higher up were the size of bed sheets. "Jade, what if this doesn't go according to Hoyle and everything craps out?"

"Nothing's going to crap out."

"Could we at least have our full gear?" Her gaze jerked and darted to the shadows of the forest, following every sound, every movement. "Remember that goat getting munched by the T-rex in the first movie? One minute it was there and the next it was crunch crunch in the bushes."

I had visions of the trees rustling, hiding the unseen dinosaur. "I remember, but for first contact we're messengers—knives only and only for defence." I ignored the icy amethyst glare. "When we go for the spell book you can wear the entire armory."

"Oh, I don't need the entire armory." She patted the hilt of her dagger where it rested against her thigh. "Over accessorizing is tacky, right Puff?"

Puff swung his broad, triangular head from the trail and glanced back at us. His reptilian grin gave nothing away. Puff. I bit my tongue—only Lexi.

Naith padded along, swaying in a hypnotic rhythm. It was grace in motion that only a prowling jungle cat could pull off. Lying over his neck, I nuzzled deep into his velvety pelt. He smelled like musk and the cedar mulch from his barn stall.

Straightening, I watched the sun continue to rise. The solstice was over for another year.

Lexi slowed Puff until we were side by side. "At least you have memories beyond the bad. More than I've got."

I loosened the draw strings on my pack and pushed my hand inside. Which was better? Reliving the annihilation of your family over and over, like me, or living in a void of not knowing where you come from, like Lexi?

My fingers found the smooth curve of Castian's royal seal on the Highborne pardon. 'This task is part of your destiny, Mir. I have seen it.' Destiny. Was it my parents' destiny to be slaughtered? Was I supposed to live? Would I ever know the answers?

I drew a deep breath. Time to think about the now. What the hell was I supposed to say to these three men? Hi, I know you've never seen a human before and your people have been trapped in this valley for eight thousand years, but today's your lucky day.

A mint-scented breeze blew my curls away from my face as Castian's silky baritone entered my mind. Have faith in my judgment, Mir. Worry less, smile more, my child.

Easy for him to say, looking down from the Palace of the Fae. I rubbed my thumb over the royal seal again. "I like the mint. It's a nice touch."

Castian's tone was rock steady and serious. You need this, Mir. I've seen your tapestry. Trust in me, this journey is the path to the answers you've yearned for.

My mind went numb. "What? Are you sure?" I winced. Of course he's sure. He's the God of gods for god's sake.

Lexi met my gaze and cocked a brow. "Message from on high?"

"Ah . . . yeah." My voice was too high pitched and I tried to regain my wits before Lexi caught on and started up with an interrogation.

Thankfully, she wasn't paying attention to me. She tilted her head to the canopy and smiled. "I bet Castian's a total jaw-dropping hottie."

I shut my eyes, hoping in vain that Castian had signed off or tuned out or whatever he did to break his connection. The rolling laughter filling my mind made me cringe. "Lexi, you might think about exercising impulse control once in a while."

Having gone through every conceivable first contact scenario, I couldn't see how my destiny could be linked with the rediscovery of the Highbornes. The entire race had been segregated for eight millennia. I was twenty-five and barely qualified to handle this. There were other Talon enforcers who could, however, they were off covering up solstice exposures and dealing with realm issues instead of being available for what was important.

What a total waste of resources.

Lexi and I were strong in battle, unbeatable in the classroom, and now apparently we were emissaries? I shook my head. "Hold up, Naith." As he padded to a stop, I pulled up the topographical map Castian had sent to my phone. Tracing my finger over the screen I calculated the distance then checked the time. "If they left the coming-of-age ceremony last night here and took the side path along the north river, they should be intersecting this part of the forest soon."

"Unless they hopped the river and went off on a tangent."

Great. Then we'd be tracking them instead of letting them discover us. I pulled the hood of my cloak back so Lexi could see my face.

"What?" she snapped. "Don't give me the skunk eye, Medusa. It's possible."

On a sigh I stashed my phone into my pack. Rain was falling. Thankfully though, it was having trouble making it through the weave of the canopy. I squinted skyward. What sounded like a thundering downpour in the distance was nothing more than a patter and sprinkle to us.

"Jade, no offense but your hair is seriously scaring me."

I pulled the hood closer so it hung over my eyes. "It's this soupy humidity. I need a bottle of frizz controller."

"A bottle? Hon, you need a freakin' case." Lexi laughed and laughed as I rolled my eyes. "Just keepin' it real." She patted her chest then held out her fingers in a peace symbol. I had to laugh. How could anyone stay annoyed with her? "Okay," she said, shifting in her saddle. "My turn. How 'bout this one. Would you rather drink two shot-glasses of Centaur spit orrrr pick up Naith's warm, steaming poo with your bare hands for a week?"

"Really? Those are my choices?"

"Yep."

I thought about my options as the maze of trees pressed closer and we shifted to single file. Spit or poo? Hmm. The distant rumble of thunder joined the screech of cicadas, the caws of unseen birds, and the distant howl of monkeys.

"I'll go with the poo," I said. Lexi nodded as if she agreed and that gave me an idea for my turn. "Okay, would you rather—urghh"

Steel arms grappled my shoulders and slammed the breath from my lungs. Knocked from my saddle, we crashed to the dirt. Entangled in a mass of arms, legs and hair we rolled into a snarl of brush. The impact of the forest floor shot through my hip. A tree root jutted into my shoulder blade. My pulse raced in my ears. As my mind struggled to catch up with my body, I lay pinned beneath the silver-haired Highborne, both wrists manacled above my head.

Naith snapped at a wolf positioned between him and our struggle. He was crouched to pounce when a velvet voice barked a command from beyond. Both animals fell instantly silent.

The razor edge of Galan's dagger pressed against my throat as he yanked back the hood of my cloak, taking a handful of hair with it. "A female?" he gasped, in Elvish. Bold, blue eyes narrowed, scanned my face and then flared wide. Tightening his hold on my wrists, he removed the knife and placed it on the ground beside my head. He rubbed my curls between thumb and fingers, then traced my cheek with the touch of a feather. "Are you a goddess?"

I shook my head and grappled for words. The instant his ocean blue stare met mine it was as if the plug in my brain had been pulled and my thoughts had circled the drain. He was uber-hot, no one with eyes could argue that, but it was his touch that had me mesmerized. It tingled across my cheek where he brushed me skin to skin. For the first time in my life, I wanted to rise up and kiss a man inside out. "My name is Jade," I replied in his language, swallowing as the tingle on my skin grew into a zing. "Jade Glaster."

Flat on my back with that stupid root still pressing into my shoulder, I stared at the strong cut of his jaw, the depths of his blue eyes and the curve of his full lips. He smelled wild and woodsy, a heady blend of suede and sandalwood. His hips rested dead centre between my thighs, every hard, taut inch of him pressing intimately against every soft, pliable inch of me.

Oh, my. I swallowed. My breasts grew tight as heat bloomed in my belly, smoldered and moved south like the steady creep of a brush fire. His lips were moving. I didn't hear a word.

Dwinn. My voice whispered the word in my mind. Dwinn.

Warm breath brushed my cheek. Again I tried to focus, my mind swimming. A curtain of silver tickled my neck as he dropped his head to the side of my face and inhaled deep. Pulling back, his mouth hovered inches from mine, his eyes practically glowing.

Above my head, I pulled against his hold in a vain effort to regain control. Say something Jade. Just open your mouth and say something. "Please, Galan, let me up."

The spell was broken.

Galan's eyes narrowed as he released my wrists and reclaimed his blade. "How do you know me?"

"I know a great deal." I pressed my unsteady hands firm against his chest, softening my tone. "I know Tham, Aust and you are on your Ambar Lenn. I know Castian Larethan asked us to escort your journey as it ties in with His plans." I lifted my mouth to brush the pointed tip of his ear. "And I know you lying over me has grown far too intimate for a first encounter."

Galan pulled his hips back and rolled off me, grabbing his knife. He looked away as he sheathed the blade and when he looked up, a mask of calm covered his face.

After brushing bits of forest off my ass, I straightened. "I see you two have met my sister, Alexannia Grace."

Engaged as I had been rolling across the forest floor, I'd missed when Aust and Tham had secured Lexi. Well, secured was overstating the situation since she remained mounted on Puff and fully capable of liberating herself at any moment. She was, however, flanked by Naith and a large silver wolf with ebony points.

Tham stood beside Lexi, feet braced and arrow nocked. After a moment he lowered his bow and I swear he winked at her. "And are you a friend as well, little one?"

Her double take was priceless. "Umm, pardon hotness? Sprechen sie English?"

"Lexi's Elvish is spotty," I said. "She speaks Draconic though, if you do."

He nodded and tried again. "Merry meet, Lexi. I am Thamior." He moved her hand from her dagger hilt and brought her knuckles to his lips. "If it pleases, address me as Tham. This is Aust, his wolf companion, Faolan, and the silver-haired male accosting your sister is Galan." Galan threw him a lovely scowl and Tham laughed. "What brings such beauty to our valley?"

"That is the crux of it, is it not?" Galan snapped. "Mayhap we could refrain from overtures until we discover the why of things?"

Ignoring the fact that their Elvish lilt was like warm chocolate melting in my mouth, I fished the parchment out of my backpack. "Castian Larethan, God of Fae gods and ruler of The Realm of the Fair, is setting the three of you on a task." I set the missive in Galan's hands and stepped back. "When it's completed, Lexi and I will accompany you back to your village to deliver this pardon of exile to your people." I plucked a piece of grass from my hair and dropped it to the ground. "As of last night, midnight on the eve of the summer solstice, the enchantment on your valley was lifted."

The three of them staggered, staring from one to another. Dropping to one knee, Tham and Aust touched their foreheads mumbling some kind of prayer.

Galan remained standing, brow arched. "And Castian Latheron, Father of Fae, has chosen two females to be envoys of this momentous news?"

Rude much? "Sorry to disappoint. But yes, we are your welcome wagon."

After tossing me a do-you-think-I'm-an-idiot look, Galan cracked the seal and gave the document a cursory once-over. "What did you mean . . . as it ties in with His plans?"

"Well, the five of us are going on a little adventure. If we're successful, the Highbornes will be reinstated in the Realm of the Fair with honour restored and Castian's blessing."

"And if not?" Tham asked.

"Well," I flipped my hair behind my shoulders, "that's not really an option."

 

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