So, by now I've been teasing all of you with this book for a while. I thought you might like a small sneak peak to wet your taste buds.
So, without further ado . . .
HE NEVER SHOULD have let the beasts get this far down the mountain.
Branches cracked. Brush rustled. One by one, the wolf-like maviel squeezed through the dense oaks, their backs scraping tree limbs eight feet off the ground. One of these days Zade wouldn’t be able to hold them back. What would happen to the villagers then?
He gripped the leather-bound hilt of his blade, his gaze darting between each pair of glowing red eyes piercing through the night as the maviel surrounded him.
Five. Six. Seven.
Only seven? His breath hitched, every muscle tightening. When the maviel took wolf form, they normally traveled in packs of ten. Where were the others?
He stretched out his senses, searching for their life signatures in the surrounding trees. A faint signature shifted behind him.
Zade jumped for the branches ten feet above him. Claws bit into his calf and raked along his leg, stinging as the maviel yanked him down. The creature’s breath lifted the hair on the back of his neck. As he spun to face the beast, the leather binding of his knife dug into his palm.
Teeth closed next to his ear. His blade sliced through the wolf’s throat as easily as cloth. Hot blood sprayed over his hands, the sharp metallic tang mixing with pine and earth. He landed on one foot, not trusting his injured leg. The creature crumpled at his feet.
Stupid. I never should have let them get behind me.
He shoved the blade into its sheath and scooped a half dozen shuriken from the pouch strapped to his waist, ignoring the ache spreading through his leg. He balanced the sharp, star-shaped blades between his fingers as shadows took form beneath the branches. Red eyes shone like specks of hate through the darkness.
Seven enormous wolves crouched, hackles raised and teeth bared.
Zade’s grip on his weapons tightened.
Hindquarters bunched and the wolves sprang, little more than blurs of motion.
Shuriken flew from Zade’s fingers and embedded deep in the wolves’ chests with a thud. Three crashed to the ground, spraying dirt into the air. The others skidded to a halt and regrouped only feet away.
The thick, heavy air constricted around him. Zade reached into his satchel for more weapons, every muscle tensed. Now that their numbers were depleted, would they dare continue the attack?
One wolf gave a low, guttural snarl and fled. The others thundered after it, cracking and swaying branches as they disappeared among the oaks.
The soft murmur of crickets resumed their chorus, cutting through the tension like a knife. Zade’s clenched fist loosened around his last remaining shuriken, and he pulled his hand from his satchel as the creatures’ howls moved ever farther away. Pain lanced through his calf as he limped forward. His breath hitched.
Don’t look. Weapons first, then safety.
He bent over a dead wolf. Moonlight glistened off the bloody shuriken as Zade pulled it from the still-warm body, coarse hairs brushing his skin. He wiped the weapon against his rough woven pants, leaving a crimson streak along his thigh.
Liquid trickled down his flesh, tickling his ankle, but he couldn’t check. Not yet.
He stretched out his mind, searching the area for any more maviel. Four of the wolf-like creatures stalked through the forest nearly a mile away, their flight halted. The missing two joined them at the ridge.
Zade straightened, slid the shuriken into the bag at his waist, and checked for bandages. Hard metal weapons, a round wooden flute, and his last small loaf of bread . . .
A groan escaped. He forgot to replace his bandages before rushing from the house to stop the maviel.
He removed his dagger and sheared off a strip of cloth from the bottom of his shirt. The black fabric stuck to his leg as he wrapped it around the wound, covering the worst of the damage. He limped up the mountain, focusing on the bough of an evergreen, the sharp incline of rock, stars peeking through the leaves of an oak—anything to keep his mind off the wound.
Blood seeped through the makeshift bandage and slid down the back of his heel. Each step along the worn pathway announced his injuries to the maviel. If they were smart, they’d press their advantage. Race back down the mountain and tear him apart before he had the chance to escape.
His leg buckled. The world twisted, a blur of dark green and shadows swirling around him. He grabbed a branch and hopped on one leg until the pain eased. Breathe. Home isn’t far now.
He placed his weight on his injured leg and straightened to his full height. A short climb through the trees and he’d be at the top. Just a few more agonizing steps and he could get his bandages. Maybe the maviel would even decide they’d had enough for a few days. He hobbled toward the rocky cliff and climbed onto the lowest branches of an oak.
The roar of a waterfall echoed through the trees and ricocheted off the rocks. Branches shivered beneath his feet as he leapt between them. Leaves grazed the exposed gashes on his leg, bringing tears to Zade’s eyes. He slowed, careful to avoid the devil-speared foliage as the muscles in his leg screamed in protest.
The edge of the cliff—safety—stared at him from ten feet away. Just one little jump and they wouldn’t dare come after him—unless they’d figured out he was alone.
No. He couldn’t think like that. He’d just have to trust that they still feared this place, still thought there were more Amodinajai to protect the valley than just him.
He blew out a breath, bracing himself as he eyed the gap to the edge of the cliff and the clearing beyond. One little jump with his leg half-shredded. He could do this.
He inhaled, coiled, and launched across the gap. Rocks ground into the bottom of his feet. A sharp stab shot up his leg. Biting back a scream of pain, he threw out his arms and held up his injured leg. The burn through his calf slowly faded. He breathed, focusing on the mountain clearing he called home as he willed the pain to dull.
A stream meandered around the outer perimeter of the clearing and fell from the edge of the cliff. Mist rose from the waterfall, thinning out along the stones and over the ground like a thick white blanket, giving an ethereal quality to the area. Once the sun rose, the mist would burn off, but for now there was something about this place, something that seemed like . . . home.
Faint memories surfaced—a woman with lavender hair smiling at him as she hummed some tune, a baby crawling around, purple fuzz on his head. He shook it off. No memories tonight—especially ones that weren’t even his. He couldn’t afford any more problems, and losing control of his other side was definitely a problem. At least when he was in the clearing, it was easier to control himself. Perhaps that was why the Amodinajai chose this spot as their home—that and the stone outcropping which gave a view of the entire valley.
He hobbled toward the hollowed out boulder he used as a shelter. Tight muscles along his neck eased as he pushed open a rough wooden door fixed in the stone.
Threadbare blankets spread over top of a fleece mattress squished against the wall. A line of shelves filled with half-empty boxes woven from reeds stood across from it, only two feet of space between them. He yanked a box from the end. Two rolls of tan cloth rolled along the bottom. He sighed and pulled them out, fingering the threadbare fabric and frayed edges. These weren’t going to last much longer.
His lips tightened, knuckles white.
Hopefully this year’s tribute would be more than a few worn blankets and poisoned food.
He shoved the box back on the shelf. Moonlight spilled through the open doorway. Sinking to the edge of the bed, he pulled off the drenched strip of cloth he’d used as a bandage. Dirt clung to his flesh, filling the gouges in his skin. As if getting wounded weren’t bad enough. He should have paid more attention, remembered to keep his focus on the beasts closest to him. But the last few days they’d changed tactics, hounding him to exhaustion as they tried to get past him and down to the village. He dropped his pants, and fabric peeled away from his flesh. A cry of pain lodged in the back of his throat. He peered at the gashes, blood staining the skin around them.
This wasn’t so bad. He’d been through worse.
He grabbed a worn set of doeskin pants—his last pair—and limped out the door.
The stream wound around the clearing like a snake. Life pulsed through the forest. Rabbits huddled in their burrows, and birds lay in their nests, hiding from the dark creatures that roamed the night. Hiding from him. Everything within miles remained safely holed away—except the maviel prowling the upper regions of the forest.
This battle couldn’t continue forever. One of these days some tactic they tried would succeed, and he’d end up as dead as the rest of the Amodinajai. He’d been injured more times than he could remember. What would happen if he just . . . stopped fighting?
It’s not as if the villagers would miss me. At least, not until the maviel were on their doorsteps.
He sought out the cluster of log houses in the valley below, nothing more than shadows in the darkness, a few glimmering lights peeking out like beacons. Seven hundred people counted on him to protect them. Seven hundred people who didn’t even acknowledge his existence. Seven hundred people he could never risk meeting.
But it would be so nice to just be able to talk to . . . someone. Anyone.
He scowled. What was wrong with him tonight? He wasn’t usually this sentimental.
He dropped down next to the stream. Icy water stung his flesh as he slid his leg into the stream’s cold clutch. Blood and dirt swirled away, joining the cascade that spilled over the edge of the cliff to the valley below. Four furrows ran down his calf, the flesh pulling apart as if the muscles were trying to escape. He lifted his half-numb leg out, picked thick moss off the rocks, and pressed it to the ragged flesh. At the very least it would stop the bleeding and dull the pain. Hopefully, it would heal quickly. He couldn’t afford to hobble around the mountain with an injury like this. There was too much to do—too many creatures to keep at bay. It would be nice to have some real medicine, something to stitch it up with, but that was a distant memory from a time before the villagers tried to kill off the “demon in the woods.” He snorted. They didn’t even know what a demon was.
A new energy flickered at the edges of his senses. Zade stiffened and focused.
Four humans made their way through the forest up the mountainside. His gaze darted to the edge of the clearing, sensing out the maviel. Too close. Of all times . . .
Zade bound his leg tightly and yanked his pants on, ignoring the pain. He strapped his satchel around his waist, ran to the cliff, and catapulted off the side. Rough bark scraped his feet as he landed, toes digging into the branch. Pain rippled through his calf. This night was going to be torture, but he wouldn’t let them die. He couldn’t. He leapt to the next bough. Wind whistled through his hair and chilled his flesh.
The maviel drew closer, racing for the easy feast climbing toward them. He had to get there first.
Branches whipped past, leaves tearing away as if they’d been caught in a whirlwind. He landed in a tree above the first two humans of the group and twisted toward the maviel, shuriken in hand. Each breath rushed out, harsh in the darkness. The maviel slowed, sensing Zade as easily as he did them. They halted just out of sight.
A girl stopped below him, auburn hair tied in a braid down her back. “Did you hear that?”
A soft breeze whispered through the leaves and brushed along the boy’s short hair, nearly white in the moonlight. Head swiveling back and forth, he clutched a knife like a life-line. “It’s just the wind.”
“This is stupid. We shouldn’t be here, Ehlrin.”
She had that right.
The boy glared at her. “I’m not going back.”
The two moved on. A moment later, two nearly identical boys slunk through the shadows beneath him.
The twins were back again. Zade glared at them. This game of theirs was going to get someone killed. Maybe he should just let them protect the village and see how long they lasted against those monsters.
He dropped to the ground behind the two boys. One of them stopped. His head turned, and Zade slid around a tree, blending with the darkness as if it were a second skin.
Green eyes brushed past his and moved on. The boy tapped his twin on the shoulder and inched closer to him. “Maybe we should call this off. Something’s not right.”
The other boy scowled. “And miss the chance to see Ehlrin squirm? No way.” He continued forward, his footsteps barely stirring the dead leaves matted on the forest floor.
Zade had to get these kids out of here before they got killed. The twins wouldn’t frighten easily, they’d been up here too often, but the others might. Zade crouched and picked several thumb-sized stones from the ground. He climbed into the branches and made his way to Ehlrin and the girl.
Hidden among the branches, Zade tossed a rock at the side of the girl’s foot. Dirt spattered over her shoe. She spun, pressing her back to Ehlrin’s, and clutched her knife in front of her.
Quick reflexes. Maybe she wasn’t completely helpless.
He lobbed a pebble at a tree next to them. Thud! The oak creaked and swayed.
“You know those stories about Demons’ Point?” Ehlrin’s voice trembled.
Good. Maybe he was starting to get the picture.
“Yes.” The girl’s voice quavered.
“I’m beginning to think they’re true.”
“Ready to go home?” A spark of hope filled her voice.
Her lips tightened, and she widened her stance, flexing the fingers around her blade. “How long until dawn?”
“An hour, maybe two. It can’t be more than another mile to Demons’ Point.” Ehlrin inched forward, his fingers curled around his short knife. As if that would save him from the maviel. With his strength, it probably wouldn’t even get through their fur.
Silent as death, Zade slid through the branches above them and dropped to the ground out of sight. He didn’t have time for this.
He reached into his pack, fingering his flute. The fear it once created had waned among the wolves with each unanswered call.
The maviel were going to figure out eventually that there was no one left to provide backup—no one he could call for help. He was alone, the last defender.
He shook his head and shoved the whistle deeper into his bag. The flute was a last resort.
He crouched and grabbed a large, old pinecone, each woody scale the size of a thumbnail. If a swaying tree doesn’t make them go home, maybe a fireball will. He tugged the knife from the leather tie around his neck and cut symbols into the scales of the pinecone.
The crunch of brush grew louder. Someone should teach these kids not to make so much noise, but then if they were more than just beginners they wouldn’t be up here at all.
He cut the marks into a second pinecone and checked on the maviel. They roamed just outside of easy reach. With his leg injured, he couldn’t hope to chase them away.
Ehlrin and the girl stepped from between two trees.
Softer than the breeze, Zade whispered, “Blazen.” Fire crackled to life over the wood, caressing his hands like an old friend. With a pinecone in each palm, he rose up and threw them. A blazing ball streaked through the air, inches in front of Ehlrin and the girl, and crashed into a tree. Sparks showered them.
“Ah!” The girl threw up her arms and jumped back.
The second ball of fire smashed into the ground at their feet. Flames leapt up to scorch their shoes like beasts going in for the kill.
They bolted through the trees in opposite directions.
Zade leaned against a trunk with a sigh. Why did they have to run up the mountain?
The crackle of flames died out, leaving nothing but a dark singe on the trunk. Zade stretched out his senses and found their energy signatures once more. The twins raced after Ehlrin, leaving the girl alone—and she was heading straight for the wolves.
The first light of predawn painted the sky in deep grays. Another hour before the sun broke over the ridge and forced the maviel to retreat.
He couldn’t let these people die. Not tonight. He just had to deal with the pain until then.
Just one more hour.
If you're interested in seeing the rest of the story, print and e-book are available at Amazon.