Beautiful Death Excerpt

Available from Drollerie Press.

“Damn, Thanatos, who pissed you off this time?”

“No one,” Isabella Thanatos replied as her second-in-command fell into step beside her. No matter the hour, the skyways were usually packed with busy citizens heading to MedCorp offices or one of the exclusive shops that crowned Athens the diamond of New Olympia. Today, the pathways circumnavigating their City were deserted. “Oracle simply ordered me to an audience with the Pantheon Council before reporting for duty.”

“And yesterday was simply a parade, right?” Herakles laughed, a grim, hard sound that sent Isabella’s hand sliding down to grip the gun on her hip. “Our perfect City still simmers with rage at such injustice.”

All citizens had selected new names when they were accepted into New Olympia, and it hadn’t surprised her when he’d chosen Herakles. He was the biggest human she’d ever seen. Unfortunately, he also had an equally big mouth. “Our citizens would follow Beautiful Death all the way to Olympus.”

Isabella shot him a dark look. “You’re talking about treason. I ought to terminate you.”

“But you won’t.” Grinning, Herakles shook his head. “I’m talking about justice and you know it.”

They paused at the entrance to Omonia Square, the most famous shopping mall in all of New Olympia. Nearly deserted, only a few people huddled in the corner shadows after yesterday’s riots. Demanding the immediate dissolution of the Pantheon Council, the rioters had tried to throw the Councilors outside Athens to face the rampant pandemic.

She’d stopped them, despite the dread banding her chest in agreement with the angry Citizens.

“Listen to them,” Herakles whispered, motioning his head at the patrons in the corner.

At the sight of the two black-clad Marshals striding through the empty café tables and abandoned benches, they chanted, low and fierce. “Beautiful Death. Beautiful Death. Beautiful Death.”

“Shit,” Isabella muttered. Responsibility weighed on her shoulders as heavily as the soaring biodome on the City’s massive cement pilings. Her throat tightened, her jaw clenching. I must keep them safe, even from themselves.

“I’ll never forget how they celebrated when you decked Councilor Perikles,” Herakles said so cheerfully she ground her teeth. “It was a thing of beauty.”

“I never touched him.”

Against the stark ebony of his face, Herakles’ ear-to-ear smile damned near blinded her. “One glare from the infamous Marshal and he fainted dead away. A very, very large sum of money must have been involved to put such a bunch of worthless morons in control of New Olympia. They couldn’t find their asses with both hands.”

“The only reason I requested an audience with the Pantheon Council yesterday was to stop the riots.”

“Requested?” Herakles guffawed, slapping his right thigh. “You charged inside the Parthenon with a fully-charged stunner in one hand and a sword in the other. No wonder they agreed to vote again.”

“They’re the idiots who decided to open the Gates in the first place.” Her stomach wrenched, clawed by dread and anger. Did they honestly expect her to kill innocents? “Why open our Cities and then kill anybody who steps inside? Especially when the biggest monster holds a chair on the Pantheon Council!”

“I know how much you love to hate Hades, but he’s not that bad.”

Jerking to a halt on the marble stairs to the Parthenon Building, Isabella turned and squared her shoulders. She gripped the butt of her gun so hard she was afraid it would crack. “Have you forgotten who brought the virus to Earth? Who started the pandemic?”

Standing at the base of the steps, Herakles slowly shook his head. He held his big hands up and out, well away from his own weapons. “I lost my parents and my baby brother to the virus. I haven’t forgotten one damned thing. Nobody in New Olympia ever will.”

Finger by finger, she unclenched her hand from the stunner. Herakles knew the cost of paradise as well as she, and he’d stood at her back countless times. But he hadn’t survived the streets in the midst of starving, suffering, dying multitudes. He didn’t know how the monsters feasted on the weak.

“Hades is responsible for thousands of deaths.” Her voice sounded harsh to her own ears. “Millions. Yet he sits safe and sound on the Pantheon. He even calls himself Lord of the Underworld now, while he’s the worst murderer in the history of our planet.”

“And every time you see him, you end up trying to kill each other.”

Clenching her jaw, Isabella fought to keep her hand off the gun. She took a deep breath, another, forcing her shoulders to relax. Her heart hammered in her chest, though, and she could feel her palms grow clammy. Every instinct that had kept her alive for two long years on the streets urged her to draw the weapon and hunt down every single monster still alive, starting with their leader, the worst monster of all.

“I’m just trying to finish what he started.”

“Yeah, well, if anyone can actually kill him, you certainly will.”

Herakles winked and turned back toward the skyways of Athens. “From what I hear, though, he’s one tough bastard. After all, he’s still alive with Beautiful Death gunning for him, what, five years, now?”

He paused, glancing back over his shoulder. The wicked glint in his eyes made Isabella groan. “By the way, I have a little bet with the First Marshal in Sparta. See if you can make Perikles do something worse than faint this time.”

Shaking her head, she laughed. Leave it to Herakles to make a joke. Butterflies still swarmed in her stomach, but at least she could smile without her face shattering. “I’ll see what I can do.”

#

“Kill any monsters today, Marshal?”

Halting before the ornate table, Isabella attempted a casual, confident stance, which was damned difficult considering she gripped a sword hilt with one hand and a gun in the other beneath her ankle-length coat. “Not yet, Councilor. My duty interval just started.”

Six chairs were occupied by the esteemed members of the Pantheon Council, leaving two chairs empty, including the position of honor at the head of the table. Founder of New Olympia and CEO of MedCorp, Zeus never actually made a personal appearance on the Pantheon. In fact, no one had seen him outside Olympus in years. Isabella swore to gleefully shoot him as soon as she caught sight of him.

Hades, too, was absent. The knots in her stomach loosened along with her grip on the weapons. Still, a twinge of disappointment fluttered through her stomach. She’d been looking forward to a good fight.

Already clammy and rather pale, Councilor Perikles cleared his throat loudly. “How many contaminants have you terminated for Athens?”

Isabella shrugged. “I lost count.”

“Marshal Thanatos has successfully terminated nine hundred ninety seven contaminants.” Oracle’s annoyingly helpful masculine voice sounded both in her earpiece and from the large monitor on the wall.

Beaming, the Councilors nodded and murmured with approval, their gushing goodwill as fake as the idyllic view of sparkling ocean waters and blue skies on the screen.

“Your service to Athens and New Olympia as a whole has been exemplary, Marshal.” Councilor Perikles’ face scrunched sourly despite his praise. “Without you, the peace our Citizens enjoy would be lost to chaos like the rest of Earth.”

Isabella’s face tightened, her jaw aching. She forced her fingers to unclench from the stunner before she shot someone. He had no idea what life was like Outside. He’d never killed to protect someone he loved. He’d never watched his family suffer the ravages of the virus, or worse, watched them be dragged off by the aliens who’d released hell on Earth.

She ground her teeth and glared at the empty chair on the end. The aliens should all be exterminated for what they’d done.

“To thank you for your faithful service these past five years, the Pantheon is pleased to promote you to First Marshal of Athens.”

Why did he glare at her like a beady-eyed gutter rat? He didn’t even mention yesterday, when she’d threatened them at gunpoint until they’d agreed to vote again.

She hated politics. As long as MedCorp kept churning out the latest and best vaccinations, she’d keep the skyways of Athens clear of trash. Too bad she couldn’t throw out the Pantheon as so much rubbish.

Councilor Perikles smoothed the front of his heavily embroidered robes with jeweled, well-manicured hands which had never picked up a weapon. The golden chain holding his Pantheon medallion of wreathed laurel leaves dug into his fat neck. “Aren’t you going to thank us, Marshal? The extra compensation should be quite welcome if your taste for clothing is any indication.”

His envious gaze trailed down her favorite On Death’s Wings original outfit: black neowear slacks gleaming as brightly as her polished boots; exquisitely cut coat with wide flaring tails perfect for concealing weapons; and a brilliant indigo blouse that matched her eyes perfectly, trimmed in cascading ruffles at the neck and wrists. Her best friend owned the shop, and Icarus always managed to design practical clothes that looked good. Even the ruffles never got in the way of her gun.

A wry smile curved her lips. The Councilor would probably suffer an aneurism if he knew she got her clothes at cost. “What’s my first order?”

Councilor Perikles looked down the table for assistance. Dressed in the unadorned white robes of Sparta, Councilor Helen answered in her usual brusque manner. “We have two orders, actually. There are rumors of a new monstrosity breeding near the Lost City of Argos. We suspect that Hera has continued unauthorized research.”

Isabella’s stomach clenched. The original virus mutated at an alarming rate all by itself, turning humans into ravenous beasts feeding on flesh and blood. Why would anybody tamper with such a thing?

“We authorize an expedition Outside to investigate these rumors. Any…creature…you encounter must be terminated on sight, of course.”

Her hand hurt, and she realized she gripped her stunner again. She hadn’t been Outside in five years. Even then, any sort of civilization and culture had already been abandoned in mankind’s desperate attempts at survival. How bad would it be now? “And the second order?”

“Oracle has sighted a criminal inside Athens. You will proceed to the specified coordinates and terminate Sybil of Delphi at once.”

Heat suddenly flared down her body, instant sweat dotting her skin. Two orders involving the Lost Cities exiled years ago? Something smelled bad and it wasn’t a decomposing, virus-induced, shapeshifter. “Is Sybil contaminated?”

Councilor Perikles wouldn’t meet her gaze. “Not exactly.”

“Kill the monsters before they kill you. That’s always been my motto.” Isabella smiled but shook her head stiffly, her neck and shoulders straining with tension. “I never kill humans.”

“Delphi was in full cooperation with Argos at the time of their exile. If Hera continued her research, Delphi must be assisting her. Sybil is a criminal and must be terminated at once! Monsters, they’re breeding monsters!”

An appallingly bouncy ditty from Athens’ tourism campaign played in Isabella’s head. We guarantee safety and purity for our Citizens’ health and security! “Look, we went over this yesterday. You’re the ones who voted to open the Cities again, making us vulnerable to Hades only knows what sort of mutations left untreated all these years Outside. Delphi and Argos may be exiled as far as you’re concerned, but if this woman’s not contaminated, I won’t kill her. I refuse to kill Outsiders just because they enter our City!”

Sweat oozed down the Councilor’s face. A sharp, bitter stench emanated from him. “I want Athens and our Citizens protected at all cost. You must terminate Sybil of Delphi at once.”

“Why her?”

Councilor Perikles stared down at the cold, smooth marble of the table, gripping the edge so hard his fingers turned white. Shoulders hunched, he forced the words out. “You know how instrumental both Hera and Apollo were in our initial vaccine trials, but you don’t know the entire truth. No one knows outside the Pantheon Council. At first, they merely studied the monsters. Who cared if they experimented on them? They were going to die one way or another anyway. However, their Cities were exiled when they–”

His voice broke, trembling and breathy. His gaze darted up to hers, his eyes wild and dark with the fear of a trapped animal. “They began deliberately contaminating people, twisting innocents into monsters in the name of science.”

A fist slammed into Isabella’s abdomen, talons unsheathing to twist and shred her stomach. Her skin felt tight, prickling with heat and stinging with cold chills. Sheltering monsters was bad enough, but the thought of somebody experimenting on humans–deliberately infecting them with the virulent virus–made her want to commit murder.

Her pulse raced. Her chest ached until she finally hauled in a deep breath. She knew first hand what atrocities happened to specimens in a laboratory. She’d grown up as little more than a lab rat. The sharp bite of antiseptic, the cold metal of the table, the instruments: the stuff of nightmares that she’d never forget.

“Sybil is Apollo’s research assistant. Who knows how many people suffered in Delphi’s labs at her hands.”

Isabella forced hoarse words through her tight throat. “Call the Erinyes down from Sparta. I’m sure–”

“Zeus recalled the Erinyes to Olympus,” the Spartan interrupted. “Besides, we do not send our most elite executioners after a simple criminal.”

No. You send me. Isabella tried to think of a valid excuse, but her head was stuffed with memories, whirling from nightmare to nightmare: her childhood, her father, the virus, and the hard years of life on the streets. Constantly searching for food, she’d fought off the maddened humans transforming into monsters before her eyes, keeping hope alive that her father would eventually come for her as he promised. He’d never come, though, and her hope had died with her mother. She’d lost her sister to the aliens and had almost died herself.

Athens had saved her. She’d dedicated the rest of her life to protecting the City and the Citizens within. If she could prevent Hera–and now Sybil–from deliberately torturing people, maybe someday the dismal failure and killing rage she carried in her heart would ease.

The thought of killing a human–no matter how justified–made acid burn in her stomach. “All right.”

They surrounded her, talking excitedly and patting her on the back. Even Councilor Perikles smiled, although the sour twist of his mouth betrayed him. Underneath their jovial praise, Isabella saw the truth.

They were afraid of her.

Within moments she found herself outside in the hall with the door slammed in her face. She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the cool marble wall. Her hands trembled and her stomach churned.

As if it were yesterday, she saw her sister slung over an alien’s shoulder all those years ago. She’d never struggled, cried out for help, or tried to escape. A look had come over her face that would still send Isabella shooting up out of nightmares in a cold sweat if she slept for more than an hour or two. Her sister had surrendered to the inevitable. She’d given up.

“Never,” Isabella whispered. “I will never surrender.”

“Ah, but what a sweet surrender that would be.”

Stiffening, she tried to whirl and draw the weapon, but it was too late. A hard male body pressed against her, pinning her to the wall. She knew that sinfully low voice, smooth and dark and rich. An alluring scent filled her nose, whispering of a decadent, secret world far away.

This alien starred in her nightmares as often as her sister. Her heart pounded in her chest, pumping adrenaline through her veins. She was going to get that fight after all. “Hades.”

He breathed in her ear, his long silvery hair caressing her face. “You thought to avoid me? How rude, First Marshal. I treasure each rare appearance you make to the Pantheon.”

“They call you Lord of the Underworld, Master of Erebus and Ambassador of the few aliens who miraculously survived your kamikaze mission of destruction. They even gave you a seat on the Pantheon, however reluctantly. But I will never call you anything more than a murdering monster.”

“They also call you Beautiful Death, my lovely Marshal. Have you killed any of my people today?”

Menacing power slid along her skin until she shivered. She hated the immediate thudding pulse of her blood at his touch. “Get off me and I’ll terminate you now.”

“I think not. No, I must take advantage of this rare moment of surprise.”

“So you can feed on me again?” Throat tight, she bit off the words, refusing to allow her voice to tremble. He would pounce on any weakness. “So you can drain me dry? Is it my lifeforce you want to steal this time, or my blood?”

He shuddered against her. “Both. I can’t get you out of my mind.”

Silver radiance filled the hallway, sizzling through her clothes, through her mind, stroking deep inside her. His power touched where no hand could reach. Breathing shallow and fast, she fought to remain calm and control her body temperature. For his kind, scent was an aphrodisiac. She certainly didn’t want him to know how much he affected her.

“Since I tasted you, I haven’t fed on any other woman. I need you, Isabella.”

What a liar. “You’re a monster. A murderer!”

“I never murdered a single innocent. Look into my mind and know the truth for yourself.”

She felt the subtle stirring in her mind, a tendril of alien thoughts uncurling in the innermost chambers of her brain. She slammed every mental door she had, locking him out forcefully. Her stomach clenched and dread boiled up in her throat. If he ever got a solid foothold in her mind, she might never be free of him.

Shifting between him and the wall, she drew the stunner out from beneath her coat. Calibrated to short out a contaminated human, it probably wouldn’t do more than give him a little jolt, but she always felt better with a weapon in her hand.

“I understand your fear, and I assure you, I will not lose control again.”

She slid the gun slid out of the holster. “I’m not afraid of you.”

His mouth grazed her neck and her knees turned to water. He didn’t hurt her, far from it. Heat coiled in her stomach, reluctant attraction stirring despite her loathing and fear, the memory of his ravenous power draining her dry. This damned desire terrified her more than facing a whole army of monsters without a single weapon in her hand.

“You’ve run from me so long, Isabella. When I do see you, you annoy me with threats and weapons. Let me show you how it could be between us. Feel me, now, instead of fighting me.”

His aura rubbed against her, tasting of his scent and dark, seductive power. His hair slid across her shoulder, pooling between her bare neck and the wall. He didn’t touch her with his hands. He didn’t have to. His power seeped into her, spreading a heavy, liquid heat through her body.

For a moment, she let herself forget what he was, what the aliens had done to her people, and how she’d nearly died at his hands years ago. Instead, she imagined his incredible silken hair trailing across every inch of her skin, his power sliding like velvet inside her, his lean, hard body beneath her…while his teeth sank into her neck and he sucked her down to the biggest surrender of all.

I must never forget that he’s a monster.

Hades whispered low tonal words in his language against her ear. Bathed in his purring energy, she turned her head to give him better access. Murmuring appreciatively, he kissed her neck, sliding his mouth higher.

Fangs scraped her skin.

Gasping, she arched against him. Her heart tried to claw its way out of her chest, even while her blood heated, burning with a terrifying need. His tongue stroked over the minor sting, easing her fear, and his hands came up to draw her hips harder against him.

“Feel me, Bella. No fear this time, only pleasure.”

She slammed her skull back into his face.

He grunted and eased back enough to let her turn around. She shoved the stunner’s muzzle into his chest.

Even now, his beauty stole her breath. His angular cheekbones and high forehead gave his face an exotic triangular shape, balanced by full lips and stunningly large, tilted eyes sparkling with all the colors of a rainbow. Waist-length silver hair fell thick and luxurious about his shoulders. Taller than her by a foot, he was deceptively lean and graceful like a dancer, when she knew that his species carried enough juice to shatter the biodome protecting Athens. In the worst of the chaos, she’d seen an alien demolish a skyscraper, burying the rampaging humans in rubble to protect himself.

His delicate, alien features should have made him look feminine–or at least sent her running in the opposite direction–but the untamed power rolling off him was wholly masculine and attractive. Her breath hitched in her throat and her body tightened, whether with desire or anticipation of all-out warfare, she refused to consider. “I said, get off me, Hades.”

Carefully, he moved his jaw back and forth, testing for damage, but he didn’t withdraw. He smiled. He enjoyed their occasional bloody squabbles as much as she did.

He stroked his fingers down the long column of his neck, drawing her attention to the scars framed by his high-collared shirt of glistening silver the same color as his hair. Those scars were hers, left by her pitiful human teeth and nails when he’d tried to feed on her, another brutal reminder of what he was capable of, and what she in turn was capable of when cornered.

Blood trickled down his chin. One of his fangs must have punctured his lip. “I’ll have you one way or another.”

“Never,” she replied automatically. But she couldn’t look away from the slow trail of red. She knew what his blood tasted like. Forbidden jungle fruit, ripened in the blazing summer sun, flavored with spicy flowers and wine to intoxicate her. The memory rolled on her tongue as fresh and real as five years ago. Had she really been fighting him so long?

His low, rumbling growl thrummed down her nerve endings to pool at the base of her spine. His rainbow eyes darkened, swirling with light and shadow both. This was not good. If his eyes went glistening black, she was in seriously deep trouble.

A sharp pain thrust through her stomach, startling a gasp from her lips. She actually glanced down to make sure he hadn’t stabbed her. Her skin suddenly felt too tight, too hot, too confining. Something deep in her gut crawled and pitched uneasily, as if her organs were in the wrong position.

He leaned closer, and the scent of his blood made her mouth water. “You will soon have need of me.”

Her finger tightened on the trigger, even while she felt her face slacken at the thought. He was so close, so warm, so powerful, so damned tempting. Was that her tongue gliding across his chin, making him tremble? Did she actually make that pitifully weak sound of pleasure at the heady taste of his blood?

His lips pressed against hers, silken heat and strangely gentle. All the times she’d woken up shuddering with a weapon gripped in her hand from the latest nightmare, he’d never been gentle. Monstrous, yes; arrogant, always; powerful, manipulative, merciless, all apt descriptions for her nightmares of him, but never tender.

His fingers fluttered across her cheek to tangle in the tight coil of hair at the base of her neck. She braced for the crushing strength of his body, the commanding press of his hand on her nape, but he simply stroked her ever so lightly. A soft, aching sound of need from deep in his throat broke through her defenses.

Wrapping her free hand in his hair, she jerked him closer. The heat of his body, the taste of his mouth, she couldn’t get enough. Hunger flooded her, roaring through her body. Every inch of her burned with need.

She wanted him frantic against her, power drowning her while he hammered into her hard and fast. As if he knew her thoughts, his scent spiced with musk. He smelled incredible, good enough to eat. She pushed her tongue into his mouth.

Fangs.

Wrenching her mouth aside, she laughed harshly. Foolish tears burned her eyes. She was so stupid to fall under his seductive spell for even a moment. One puncture, even accidental or innocent, would seal her death warrant. “I should have killed you when I had the chance.”

He sighed and backed away reluctantly. His hair slid through her fingers, a silken cascade that made her shudder. Despite every logical warning surging through her–shoot him, shoot him now!–she ached with longing. In fact, she ached so badly she couldn’t muffle a groan of pain. She sagged against the wall and concentrated on not sliding to the floor. “What did you do to me?”

“I hoped to spare you this.”

The regret in his voice sent her defenses screaming to full alert. She raised the weapon, struggling to hold her aim steady at his chest. “What did you do?”

“Come to me, Isabella.”

Horror roiled in the pit of her stomach, that terrible shifting sensation of imbalance inside her own body. What was happening to her? She swiped a hand across her damp forehead and shivered. Her teeth chattered.

“I’m the only one who can help you.”

“I’d sooner kill you first.” Her threat would have sounded better if her teeth didn’t punctuate each word with a jarring crash.

Hades turned and glided away with a boneless grace more animal than human. “You may wish yourself dead when next we meet.”

Every time she saw him, he pushed a little harder. The raw lust between them worsened. Somehow he even made her feel pain this time. He weakened her, left her trembling against the wall, dizzy and breathless and sick, her weapon forgotten in her hand. Damn him. Stiffening her spine, she shoved the gun back into its holster.

Come to me.

Like hell she would, unless she carried enough firepower to blow him back to his planet for good.

The Fire Within Excerpt

Available from Drollerie Press.

Blessed Lady above, let him kill me quickly.

Eleni refused to cower as her brother strode toward her, his darkened face twisted with rage beneath the simple gold circlet on his head. Blood splattered the front of his velvet frock and once pristine ruffled shirt. The messenger had been reduced to a dark smear on the white marble of the High Court.

From the very first day of Darius’s rule–when he’d killed his predecessor, wife, and their three-year-old child with his own hand–everyone in the Green Lands had learned to fear their new High King’s wrath.

“How close?” Veins throbbed in his forehead and neck, but his voice was painfully calm. Darius didn’t need volume to intimidate. “Can I stop them before they reach Allandor?”

“My contacts confirm she’s already in Rashan.” Eleni’s stomach clenched, but her hands were steady; her face, smooth; her voice, the same melodic and deliberately soothing tone she painstakingly cultivated. From an early age, she’d learned best how to diffuse Darius’s temper in order to survive. “Both Taza and Maston have already sided with her.”

Darius paced before the golden monstrosity he’d stolen with murder, treachery, and lies. Massive lions pawed above the High Throne, mouths gaping, claws like swords. Old blood stained the regal profiles. The last person to infuriate the High King had learned those vicious talons were not merely decorative. The young noble had suffered for two days dangling above Darius’s head before finally dying.

“The North Forest holds strong with me, and the Shanhasson Guard is mine.”

Prudence told her to remain silent, but she couldn’t when her brother needed information she possessed, no matter how much he would dislike it. “Your Shanhasson Guard is down to only two hundred, Your Majesty. An entire division was sent to silence the rising rebellion in the east, along with two divisions of Northerners. All were lost to Princess Jenna. You have few troops on hand, and resources stretched thin. We must–“

Darius whirled, charged, and before Eleni could soften the truth, she found herself dangling with his hand wrapped around her throat. “We, dearest sister? We must what?”

Her heart hammered in her chest, and instinct screamed at her to fight, dig her fingernails into his forearm, scream, and kick toward his groin, yet she did none of these things. Fighting would only inflame him. Crying out would only incite his need to hear more screams and pleading.

“Allies,” she forced the word out through her strangled throat.

He set her on her feet but kept his fingers locked around her neck. “I’m listening.”

Dark spots filled her vision and she couldn’t help a loud rasp, fighting for air through her constricted windpipe. Eleni gasped out, “disposable allies…fighters…no claim to Throne.”

“Who?” His voice was still cold with menace, but he grudgingly loosened his fingers enough that she hauled in a wheezing breath. “The bitch has taken Allandor, my strongest enemy, along with all its allies. Pella will stand with me, but it’s only a duchy, no match for the other countries in our happy republic.”

Eleni took another deep breath of air before answering. She had a feeling he would dislike this answer as well. “Keldar.”

“Savages?” Darius laughed, his dark eyes dancing as he slowly squeezed his hand shut again. “Why should the High King of all the Green Lands seek help from desert bandits?”

A wave of nausea flooded her stomach as the darkness rolled back. So many times she’d feared he would kill her. She’d dreamed it for years, in a thousand gruesome ways. Surely he wouldn’t kill her this way, so easily; endless torture was much more to his liking. She forced the word out. “Revenge.”

He waited for her to continue, but she couldn’t get enough air. Head aching, lungs blazing in agony, she clutched his wrist and tried to keep the pleas out of her eyes. Keep calm, she thought. No panic, no tears. That will only infuriate him.

Impatient, he slung her on the floor. She fell on her back, barely catching herself on her elbows to avoid smashing her skull open on the marble. Panting, she concentrated on breathing. With her skirts tumbled crazily, her silk stockings were bared to the room, but she made no move to cover herself. Darius would enjoy humiliating her before the entire High Court with worse if she acted missish. He’d done so, countless times already. He knew very well how best to torment and punish without a single mark.

“I’m waiting.”

“Would it not be poetic justice for you to use her distant relatives to quell her rebellion?”

Darius stroked his chin and jaw. “Perhaps. The idea has merit, but only if the savages would consider such an alliance. From the little we know of Keldar, they have no such inclinations. They know only thieving and killing.”

Now to play her most important card, the one ace that might free her from beneath her brother’s boot heel. “They’ve shown an undue interest in Green Land women in the last few years, don’t you think?”

Eyes narrowed, he stared at her for several long moments before gesturing that she could rise and continue.

“We’ve lost two caravans to Keldari raiders in the past month, and both times they took the goods and Green Land women. The men were either killed or ignored. The merchant of the last caravan had a Mambian wife, and she was untouched.”

“Perhaps the savages have no taste for exotic women.”

“I can find out for you,” she said, trying to keep the eagerness out of her eyes. “Once they capture me, I’ll bargain with their leader and win them to your cause.”

“You?” Darius turned away, hiding his face from her. He knew how well she read people. “I can’t spare you, Eleni. I considered sending you to Princess Jenna instead to parley.”

“Humbly, Your Majesty, I suggest that might be a mistake. Do you want your greatest enemy to have your best eyes and ears? Why not use me, instead, to win a horde of savages you can loose on the rebels?”

He paced, silent and hard and grim. He valued her skills as a negotiator, but he was also possessive of her. Why, when he enjoyed beating and berating her for the simple pleasure of seeing her broken yet again?

“I can’t lose you, Eleni.”

Despite all the years of torture and abuse, her heart still warmed. He was her only family left in this entire world. He’d done horrible things, and forced her to join him time after time. Yet he was her brother, and she loved him.

“Before Father died, he told me that he’d dreamed I would seize the High Throne and legitimize his royal blood. The key to my success was you, dearest sister. As long as you were by my side, I would hold Shanhasson. But if I lost you…“

Darius threw himself onto the High Throne and buried his face in his hands. Stunned, Eleni went to him and hesitantly laid her hand on his head. She’d never seen such vulnerability from her brother.

“He told me I would be better off to cut your heart out of your chest before ever letting you out of my sight.”

Her hand froze. Horror churned her stomach, burning up her throat. She could well picture their father telling young Darius such a thing. Their family had long been tormented by nightmares, darkness, and taint through their bloodline. Touched by Shadow, they wrought evil in the world without premeditation simply by breathing. Since their grandfather had raped his own High Queen all those years ago, her family’s existence was a testament to the evil done in the world by men’s hands.

Ignoring the terror screaming through her body, she forced her fingers back to his hair. She stroked him like a little boy and deliberately lightened her voice. “I’m never out of your sight, Your Majesty, not when you haunt my dreams every night.”

“True.” Darius raised his head, a smile quirking his sensual lips. His eyes were dark with madness, hurt, and death. Worst of all, though, was the mirth. The foul joy he found in such atrocities. He could kiss and pardon or murder with his own hand, and his eyes would never change. “I will walk in your dreams every night, dearest. I will know if you intend to betray me.”

He reached out and touched her neck with the steel blade of a knife she hadn’t even seen him draw. His voice lowered to a silky smooth seduction that prefaced his most horrific crimes. “I can kill without laying a single hand on you, Eleni. But it would be much sweeter to hear your screams, taste your blood, and earn your agony with my own hands. Do not fail me, dear sister, or I will leave my throne for that bitch, Jenna, who dares to challenge me and hunt you down in the darkest, farthest reaches of the world.”

Relief and terror warred in her heart. He would let her go, for now.

To win her freedom, her brother must die. She couldn’t do it herself, though, and the very people who would bring him to justice would rightfully execute her as well. She had to win an ally for herself. She needed someone far from Shanhasson and strong enough to protect her from him, someone who could kill him.

Darius had chained her at his side her entire life with her love and duty. Now, before the darkness growing in her heart claimed the last bit of the hope, before he killed her with that love, she had to flee.

Survive My Fire Excerpt

Available at Drollerie Press.

A foreign scent intruded while I slept. A warrior. Miles away and on foot, he wouldn’t reach my lair until dusk. Sweat and musk, muscle and pride. Oh, how tasty, how divine a feast.

My dreams became torment in the roasting heat of afternoon. Memories returned from centuries ago, of my life before the curse. Rage crawled in the dark secret fissures of my heart, a fire stoked hour by hour. Trapped in this prison of wing, scale, and claw, I hated the approaching warrior. His phantom blood burned on my tongue.

I would tear him limb from limb. Shred his skin and lick his spicy blood from the unforgiving sands. Crack bone to feast on his marrow. I would dine on his fear, shred his dreams and char his most secret hopes.

As soon as the sun touched the horizon and shadows stretched across the red sands, I crept from my lair.

Hundreds of warriors over the years have braved my domain. They came with sword and magic, bows and shields, hearts bursting with courage, hope, rage, envy, even lust.

They came, and they died.

I killed them all.

This one would be no different.

Ah, but he was a cocky son of a bitch. He stood in plain view on the highest point of my barrens. His back to me, he stared out over the empty Well of Tears. The Well I had not been able to fill despite an eternity of suffering.

The dying sun blazed behind me, outlining his warrior’s body, the proud tilt of his head, and then the chiseled lines of his face as he turned. Dark eyes, shadowed, hollowed with misery. Keldar was a hard land, a hard life, even for a warrior.

A curved scimitar gleamed in the growing shadows, ready in his hand but not offensive. Not threatening, not yet. The black taamid flapped about his shoulders like wings, loose and flowing to the ground. Leather knife straps crossed his chest, and a coiled whip hung on his hip. I could smell the sweet herbed oil used to keep the dragon hide supple.

No fear flickered in his steady gaze. No emotion showed on his stone face. He stared at me, waiting. For what?

Casually, I flicked a wing at him. He ducked, tucked into a smooth roll to the side, and flipped back to his feet. Impressive. Instead of trying to knock him down, I flipped around and grabbed him with my tail as thick as his body. Squeezing scaled muscle around his chest, I locked him in bands of living iron he couldn’t possibly break.

Crush him. I would crush his bones, blood spray–

Pain.

The curved blade slid into my flesh, just enough to anger me. I slung him to the ground so hard I heard his ribs creak. But no grunt of pain. Not from him.

The scent of blood–even my own–brought my hunger roaring to life. I breathed deeply and threw my head back. Flames blazed to the heavens. The ground rumbled and cringed beneath my claws. I heard horses miles away scream in terror and I knew people quaked in their flimsy hide tents and whispered prayers to deaf and uncaring Gods.

The warrior before me licked my blood from his blade.

He dared to taste my blood. A shiver crawled down my spine. This was no ordinary warrior. Already, I felt a gnat’s brush against my mind through the fragile blood bond he attempted to weave.

I dared say mine was a bitter and noxious brew compared to the sweet wealth of his blood that would soon roll in my belly. With my hunger fully awakened, I ignored my unease. I flapped my wings and scrambled at him.

He dodged aside with a roll and then leapt, kicking sand in my eyes. A child’s trick. I didn’t have to see him. I smelled him. Burnt cinnamon, roasted sage, sweat, warrior.

I would eat him alive.

He led me on a merry chase, and I found myself strangely reluctant to end the game. He smelled so good, fought with such tenacity. I felt something other than rage. Or hatred. A strange joy burned in my dragon heart.

Enough. I seized him delicately in my front claws, pinning him flat on his back against the red sands. Panting, he stared up at me. No fear, still, and he even gave me the barest hint of a smile, if the faint wrinkle around his eyes was any indication.

“I’m Jalan tal‘Krait.”

I cocked my head, trying to remember what words meant. Tal, chief, of the tribe called Krait.

“I’m the last Krait dra’gwar.”

I blew hard, shaking my head. I had no understanding of the last word. Warrior class, I guessed. The last? The Kraits were once a mighty clan even in my day, second only to the Mambas. Oh, how the years eroded everything. Even the unshakeable rock crumbled before the winds of time.

Lowering my spined muzzle, I sniffed at his neck. Peeling my lips back, I snagged his clothing in my teeth and tugged it aside to reveal darkly bronzed skin. Black hair spilled like blood against the rock.

I tasted him, just a lick, a graze of teeth. He shuddered in my grasp. My claws broke his skin despite my care.

Blood. Oh so sweet, so rich. I licked the fine red trails from his skin. The only element missing was fear. A few high-pitched screams to flavor my meat.

So I gripped harder, shaking him. No sound, no cry of pain, no harsh intake of breath. Curious, I raised my head.

He searched the sky behind me, and at last a small smile curved his lips. Night fell around us while I played with my food. So why was it so bright?

Why did my scales twitch and dance along my back? Why did my wings tremble, white feathers and scales raining about us? Agony wracked my body, twisting and crunching my bones, reshaping my body. I roared with fury, but flames died in my mouth. Ash filled my lungs.

Straddling my prey, I jerked around. A full moon hung low in the sky, enormous gleaming silver. Melting my shining white scales to skin. My wings to limbs. My powerful body to this slim, fragile gossamer of blood and skin.

Human.

How had he known?

The Rose of Shanhasson Excerpt

Available from Drollerie Press.

Blessed Lady above, why have You forsaken me?

Scanning the waters of Dalden Bay, Shannari looked for some sign of hope. Ceaseless prayers throughout the night, at the holiest site in the Green Lands, had been offered for naught. The silvered full moon mocked her with its silence.

The thick bayside air tasted like tears. Shannari swallowed the choking lump, her shoulders drooping with misery. Weary, she rubbed her aching, dry eyes and turned from the mist-covered waters. Power pulsed with the gentle moonlight, resonating in her blood and soul. Her skin tingled with the sweet melody, her heart aching, yearning to use that inborn gift.

If only she could find some way to restore her magic…

But no. That was another failure entirely. Her heart was dead.

Waiting at the last column, the High Priest took her chilled hands between his own. Father Aran’s snowy white hair and beard gleamed against his scarlet robes. “Our Blessed Lady has heard your prayers, Your Majesty.”

Shame clawed her chest and she dropped her gaze. She didn’t deserve the title, let alone his respect. “Please, don’t call me that.”

“I’ve known since your birth that you would be the next High Queen. I saw the Rose Crown on your head even in the cradle.”

“So you say.” Shannari jerked her hands back and clenched them into fists at her sides. “You also told me of the great power I would have as the Lady’s Last Daughter. Yet here I am, my magic crippled, my country surrounded by enemies, and betrothed to Prince Theo, the one person who most wants me dead.” Her voice broke. She would never forget the malice in the Crown Prince’s eyes, nor the suffocating horror that came over her when he’d touched her. “I’m trapped.”

The High Priest flinched. “The mistake was mine, Your Majesty, I–”

“How can I refuse to marry him now without starting a civil war?”

“Our Blessed Lady wants Her tainted son removed from the High Throne at all cost.” The High Priest stared through her, deeper, seeing beyond to some future that made his eyes flash with hope. “A way will be provided.”

Shannari refused to let that gleam of hope move her. She’d seen the same look in his eyes too many times to no avail. Seeing a possible future and knowing the Lady’s prophesy didn’t make it happen.

“Dark at times, clouded with Shadow and fraught with peril, your path is steep and treacherous with ravines on either side. If you fall, all the Green Lands will fall with you. This I know in my heart. Yet hope comes, though from where I cannot See.”

She knew all too well the dark prophesy of doom waiting for her people if she failed. Other children grew up on nursery rhymes and fairytales; she learned her destiny of blood and darkness and death. Death loomed closer than ever in these dark times.

Inwardly sighing, she joined her waiting father, King Valche. Surrounded by guards, they walked toward the village curving along the shoreline. Chittering raucously, gulls fought for scraps on the beach of sand and broken shells and the stench of rotting fish made her stomach churn.

Vessels ranging from local fishing boats to sea-worthy trading ships lined the docks. From crates full of rare spices from the jungles of Mambia, to exotic furs from the frigid ice of Jjord to the extreme north, exotic things from all over the world came through this port. Without Dalden Bay, Allandor’s tables might miss the sea’s natural bounty, but the largest blow would be felt in the merchants’ pockets.

Shannari ran through her options again and came to the same conclusion. Surely an alliance with Allandor’s greatest enemy was worth the risk to herself if it would save all the Green Lands. Shivering, she rubbed the nape of her neck. She had the nasty feeling that an invisible axe loomed over her head.

“I despise Stephan,” King Valche muttered beneath his breath. “I hate his clingy, sneaky ways, how he always cozies up to Theo, oozing snake oil promises.”

“Tell me any other way, Father, and I’ll do it.”

King Valche sighed heavily and ran a hand through his silvered hair. “We need him, slime or no.”

Dressed in Allandor’s regalia of midnight blue trimmed in gold braid, he presented the perfect image of control and regal civility. Ruefully, Shannari wondered what image she projected in her leathers and chain mail, sword within easy reach at her side. Her father had begged her to wear a court gown to emphasize her lineage and legitimate claim to the High Throne. Nevertheless, Last Daughter of the Blessed Lady or not, she went nowhere unarmed, even when escorted with a full contingent of guards. She’d learned that lesson at a very young age.

“Let’s try polite conversation first and see where we stand with Stephan,” King Valche said. “Maybe he’ll surprise us. Maybe he’ll take a stand against Theo for once and do what’s right.”

“No, I’m afraid not. Stephan knows nothing but taking. The only bargaining chip we have is Dalden Bay.” Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Lightly, she touched the hidden scar on the left side of her chest above her breast. “I’ll marry him if I must. Anyone’s better than Prince Theo.”

A silent warning shrilled in her head, and ice chilled her blood. Her heart pounded as adrenaline surged through her. Crippled and stunted her magic might be, but she knew a warning from the Lady when she felt it.

Struggling to maintain a normal demeanor, Shannari looked about them with her hand nonchalantly on her sword hilt. While the docks were busy this early in the morning, the main cobblestone street was deserted. The appointed meeting place, the best inn in Dalden Bay, towered above the smaller shops and houses of the villagers.

Flanked by guards, she couldn’t identify a visible threat, but the chill increased. Her teeth chattered and her fingers cramped on the hilt. Danger approached, but from where?

An alley opened up on her right. As they walked past, the shadow of deadly intent raised the hairs on the base of her neck. Choking back a cry, she took another step, waiting, waiting…

Behind her, steel whispered in the crisp dawn air. Shannari whirled and drew the sword. The nearest guard reached for his, too, turning too late. Slipping around him, the assassin rushed the last few steps, closing quickly so she couldn’t entirely block his thrusting blade. She fouled his aim and the knife slammed into her right side.

An iron fist of pain exploded in her ribcage. Grunting, she took a quick step back to gain some space. Thank the Lady for chain mail. Swinging the sword in a hard arc, she slit the assassin’s throat.

Blinking in shock, the man fell to his knees, his hands wrapped around the gaping wound in his neck. His mouth opened and closed wordlessly and he pitched face first onto the ground.

Eventually, she would fail. A knife would find her back, this time slicing her heart beyond repair. She would never forget the dark pool of blood spreading on the floor, her beautiful mother shattered like a porcelain doll.

I must wrest the High Throne from Theo soon, before one of his assassins succeeds in killing me.

King Valche bellowed, his face dark with fury. Shamefaced Guardsmen crowded closer, their swords at the ready. More soldiers raced down the street led by Sergeant Fenton. The baker across the way poked his head out the door.

Firm but polite, Sergeant Fenton brought the baker outside his shop. “Do you know this man? Did you see anyone about this morning?”

Shannari pushed the assassin over onto his back with her boot.

The baker recoiled and shook his head, wringing his hands in his apron. “No one, sir, other than the King when he passed right at dawn. I heard the guards about at The Slumbering Lion, but nothing else.”

Turning her attention to the body, Shannari dismissed the witness with a nod.

The assassin stared upward with glazed brown eyes. He was perhaps thirty years of age with nondescript features. She didn’t recognize him. His brown coat and breeches were clean and cut from quality cloth but not extravagant. His boots were serviceable and scuffed but well made. He wore no jewelry or insignia. Anyone could have sent him.

So many enemies, so much blood on her hands. Her ribs ached and she resisted the urge to hunch over in pain. Wincing, she bent down and wiped her sword and hands on the dead man’s coat. At least the blood hadn’t splattered her leather pants too badly.

“Are you hurt?” King Valche’s voice quivered with rage. “Should we cancel this meeting?”

She stood and sheathed her sword. “We can’t wait, Father. We need the Duke now more than ever.”

“This attempt could very well be his doing.”

“He won’t assassinate me before he learns how much we might offer. I’ll do whatever is necessary to secure this treaty.”

“I wish there were another way.” King Valche stared down the street at The Slumbering Lion, his jaw clenched. “I’ve delayed with every tactic I know. High King Rikard has every right to demand your presence in Shanhasson. If we don’t gain enough support, he’ll send an army large enough that we’ll be forced to accept his terms. Allandor is strong, but could we stand against the entire might of the Green Lands?”

He turned his tired, concerned gaze to Shannari. “I did my best. The betrothal bought us a little time, but I wish I could keep you from bartering away your life and your hand in marriage for a crown, even the Rose Crown of all the Green Lands. Your mother chose me, chose love, instead of the High Throne. I hoped you could have both. I failed you, Daughter, just as I failed to keep her safe.”

Years ago, Shannari had almost made the same mistake as her mother. She’d foolishly believed that love’s power would make her magic invincible. Instead, she now bore a vicious scar as proof that love could never be trusted. “Oh, Father, we haven’t failed. Father Aran said Our Blessed Lady will provide a way. We have to believe.”

“What I believe is that Theo would rather see you dead than beside him on the High Throne.”

The pulse of ice through her veins echoed the assassination warning and confirmed her father’s fears. Shannari hardened her voice to steel. “Then Lady help me, I’ll see him dead first.”