Friday, January 14, 2022

Sneak Peak - "Ruinous: Book 4 of the Marked Mage Chronicles"


Take Me To Church

Mystic Harbor during the holidays was nothing short of breathtaking. The cobblestone streets in the Old Port historic district could easily be mistaken for an English village. Christmas decorations covered every last storefront, wreaths hung from the gaslight lampposts, and the undisturbed sheet of snow that settled across the sidewalks made it look like a Thomas Kinkaid painting come to life. 

But where holiday shoppers should have been milling around were nothing but cold, empty streets. Every last shop was pitch-black inside, and not one light—from the decorations to the abandoned cars to the streetlights—was working. The only thing illuminating the desolate boulevard was the continuous strikes of lightning that doubled in frequency with every passing minute, its accompanying thunder clashing with the sirens wailing in the distance. Smoke and flames rose from the decimated hotel several streets north as creatures from the Realm of the Damned ran rampant out front. The world was falling down around me…

But all I could focus on was my world. The Forsaken—an ancient, indestructible fallen angel resurrected from the pits of Hell—held a blade to my mate’s throat.

And yet, that wasn’t the worst of it. 

All I could do was scream and sob as Val’s weight fell into me, dragging us both to the ground no matter how hard he tried to stay on his feet. The gunshot still echoed in my ear, Blaine and Dominic roared in anguish, and the Forsaken was still gloating, but I couldn’t focus on any of it.

All I could see were Val’s eyes. The incomprehension. The pain. The inevitable, horrible understanding of what was happening, why he couldn’t drag in a breath, why there was blood coming from his mouth as he tried to force the words out, why blood pooled out between the fingers pressed to his chest. 

“Tsk, tsk, my pretty pet,” she purred. 

I knew those words…


The three-hundred-year-old witch’s melodic voice had been haunting me in every waking moment and even followed me into my dreams, despite the fact that she was dead.

But it wasn’t her who said it.

The cadence was dead right, but…  

I lifted my eyes just enough to see over Val’s shoulder. Not ten feet from me lay Dominic, his body practically convulsing as he clutched his head. And behind him…


Blood ran down both sides of her neck from her ears, her elegant black and silver ball gown was torn and tattered, and her once-flawless makeup now bled beneath her eyes in tear-streaked black lines.

And yet she was smiling oh-so sweetly down at us, Dominic’s handgun still aimed at Val’s back…where she had shot him.

“Valor, Valor, Valor. A cold, heartless bastard of legend reduced to a simpering, sentimental fool,” she purred again in that horribly beautiful cadence. “What a pity.”

With no more than a blink of the eyes, the brown and white in them turned black, confirming exactly as I feared.

She was possessed. But not just by a demon.

By Angélique.

She clicked her tongue, eyeing Val as if he were nothing more than a pinned butterfly. “It really would be the humane thing to do to put you out of your misery, but where would the fun be in that?”

Val’s entire body spasmed in my hold at the sound of her voice, silver lining his eyes as he tried so desperately to speak.

“Oh, I’m sure I can find some.” There was nothing pleasing to the voice that cut in as black smoke materialized right behind him. Only the vaguest outline of a man took form inside of it when Val hawked on the air forced from his body.

A massive blade tore so deep into the center of Val’s back, its fine tip exited through the front of his chest. The impact and sheer force sent warm, red liquid spraying into my face before the sword was promptly pried back out, Val’s body carelessly discarded to the pavement.

Meaty fists grabbed the back of my hair, jerking my head up as that black smoke petered away to reveal its host.

My father.

“Shall we begin?”

I couldn’t do anything more than seethe as that black smoke manifested once more. But it wasn’t around him. It blanketed my body, and just like that, the ground gave out from under me.

I fell,

and fell,

and fell…

before slamming into the earth.

Mystic Harbor’s downtown was long gone, replaced by the cold barren expanse of a field. At the sight of trees lining the frozen grasslands, I mistook it for Jameson Battlefield, but the terrain was far too hilly and lanterns didn’t line the property.

What little comfort I should have taken in the fact that I wasn’t sent to the place I was destined to die vanished almost instantly. Because there were torches, over a dozen positioned atop posts to form a circle at least twenty feet in diameter.

And in the middle of the circle…

A star-encrusted pentagram had just been scorched into the frozen grass, smoke still simmering from the charcoaled blades. And just as I’d seen once before, pale rocks and strange, bone-white branches were arranged at its very center to make a misshapen diamond. Looking closer, I realized those weren’t all just branches. 

It was bone.

Actual bone!

This was the very same sacrificial ceremony used to break the Anastasis Seal, the portal that could unleash Hell’s worst nightmares onto Earth. Six of the seven necessary victims had already been killed. All that remained was Daisy, a Seer that Reese had abducted from the hospital.

At least a dozen people closed in around me, but none had her distinctive brunette hair streaked in purple.

The one person I did recognize:


The boy who I had fallen for not so long ago. The boy who stood by my side when it seemed like no one else would. The boy who had promised to never give up on me. The boy who now towered above my sprawled body, the Sanctus blade unsheathed in his right hand. The boy who grinned down at me with the predatory gleam of a wolf. 

This wasn’t my Reese, even if this monster wore his face. “Hello, Princess.”

A taunt.

A taunt to the nickname he’d gifted me with once, to the title that I may very well have bore if given the chance.

He was still dressed in the sleek black suit he had worn to the gala, a far cry from the gothic Steampunk fashion he was notorious for. But this wasn’t Reese. Not really. Not as long as that hideous branding on his neck glowed with its sickly, pale yellow light. The hex that had warped his mind into something unfathomable.

And blood.

There was blood everywhere. Across the frozen grass, on Reese’s hands, on me.

The air bit with the kind of unrelenting cold that burned my skin. The white chiffon fabric, high slits, and low cuts of my gown offered the protection of tissue paper against it. The only thing warm was the slick red stains marring every part of me.

Instinct overrode my comprehension long enough that I looked down at my runes, expecting them to flare to life, the pale blue lights and vibrations granting me the energy I needed to blast this imposter across the field.

But as I should have already known, nothing happened.

And nothing would…so long as my father’s sword was anywhere near me. 

Up until a minute ago, I’d been under a plethora of misassumptions, mostly concerning that particular individual. My father, the Angel of Death, was supposed to be working to keep the Anástasis seal from falling. It was his job to keep Hell’s gates closed.

But lo and behold, the asshole had been at the helm of this little endeavor the whole goddamn time. 

He was in control of Reese’s hex. He had made the coven of witches betray the Reapers when they used Blaine’s blood to weaken the Anástasis seal after Mr. Reynolds slit his throat.

My father didn’t want me dead in order to prevent Hell from opening its gates…

He wanted me dead so that he could tear it down himself.

“Well, look who just caught up.” Reese tssked, running a finger along the Sanctus blade’s fuller. “It really is a shame about Val. But let’s be honest, we already have enough assholes roaming around here. What’s one less?” 

That was all it took.

I didn’t care what Reese held in his hands. I didn’t care that my magic lay dormant. I didn’t care that my entire body stung with the constant bombardment I’d taken tonight.

Reese saw what rested behind my eyes, only amusing him further. He lifted the blade, as if that would deter me. It would, with anyone else. A single slash from that steel could kill you, even if not initially. It cauterized wounds in a way that made it nearly impossible to staunch the bleeding. 

So, color Reese surprised when I shot up to my feet and launched myself at him.

He had admitted back in October that he wasn’t much of a swordsman, and it showed. Reese wasn’t weak by any means, but I knew how heavy that sword was. It also didn’t help that his movements were clumsy. As soon as he’d taken a step, it was evident he was favoring his left leg, and there was a dark, damp splotch pooling on the front of his thigh. 

Reese was bleeding. 

He staggered back, and a sickening wave of satisfaction rolled through me as I tackled him with every ounce I had behind me. My upper body leveled right into his stomach, and I hooked my arms around his uninjured thigh. 

Even with his thin build, Reese easily outweighed me. Between my momentum and the fact I left him with nothing but a disabled leg to stand on, however, he crashed down onto the frozen grass.

And I made no move to get off of him.

With just how many people were around, I didn’t delude myself into thinking I could run away. But this?

This I could do.

It seemed his coconspirators were more invested in the Sanctus’s ownership rather than Reese’s wellbeing, because they all scrambled to pull it as far from me as possible, leaving Reese at my mercy.

And I was feeling far from charitable.

He had manipulated us into going to the Christmas gala. 

He had lured us into a trap. 

He planned to strip me of my runes, of my mating bond. 

He was the reason I was covered in Val’s blood.

The scream that tore from my lungs was nothing short of savage as I slammed my fists into anywhere I could connect to Reese’s body. He deflected several punches and managed to catch hold of my wrist, but I rewarded the effort by tearing my nails into his flesh, shredding through the back of his hands, his cheek, his eyelid— 

Reese bucked his hips, knocking me off balance, but I drove my foot down onto his leg. The heel of my shoe dug right into what I could only assume was a bullet wound as the stiletto gained purchase in the hole. I wrenched my foot backward, splitting the wound further, carving into muscle and bone.


A sharp jab registered in my jaw from his fist, but I didn’t care, even as blood filled my mouth. Something primitive had been awakened in me, thirsting for his pain, demanding an inkling of repayment for what he had done.

Even after multiple sets of hands grabbed at me, I continued thrashing, clawing, and swinging with everything I had until I was at last pried off of him.

He scrambled back in a daze, his face a roadmap of claw marks and swelling. Any satisfaction drained from me as Reese’s chest began shaking. He lay there in the dirt, bloodied, beaten, and…laughing. The muscles in his face split the slashes further, but it only seemed to amuse him. Reese dragged a finger along one of the deeper scratches, catching and smearing the blood that now blossomed from the cut. “Well now, look who finally decided to grow a backbone.”

Reese could still feel pain, made evident by his grimace and the hand that gripped his injured leg as he pulled himself back up. But the predatory gleam in those once-beautiful amber eyes spoke for itself. 

“I was beginning to think you didn’t have it in you, to attack me. But let’s be honest, darling, when you point your finger at someone, there’s always three pointing back. All anybody needs from you to break the Anastasis Seal is some of your blood, but instead of just lying low—like any rational person would—you’re out and about, waving a neon sign in everybody’s face.” Reese let out a theatrical sigh, flicking a hand to the branding on his neck. “Even when you knew the hex was about to enact, you still went running into the fray to try and ‘save’ me. And then you were willing to make an even bigger public spectacle going after Daisy at the gala.”

He snickered, prowling closer.

“Your parents really did a number on you, didn’t they? I mean, honestly, how low does your self-worth have to be? Fallen angels are going to come pouring out of that portal when the seal’s broken, but you’re willing to risk it all for a girl you’ve spoken to for…what? A whole five minutes? And not only did you think this was a good idea, but so did Blaine, when you had the resources to send how many other Underworld lackeys to go and fetch her. Clearly, Pride isn’t your greatest sin, because time and time again, all you both prove to be are pawns.” Reese ran a finger over one of the larger gashes I’d torn into his face. “Tell me, Princess. Would you be able to do the same if the roles were reversed? Would you be able to carve into your mate’s flesh?”

 Every muscle, bone, and cell in my body stilled at that—at his words, at that knowing look, at the sheer delight he found in the prospect.

Reese removed what appeared to be a river rock from his pocket. It was smooth and gray, save for the engraved black symbol carved into the top. “Seems we’ll just have to wait and see.”

My runes may not have worked in the Sanctus’s presence, but the sight of that stone sent me reeling back, or at least, I tried to. The hands pinning me into place only fortified their grips.

The design may not have been the serpent branded to Reese’s neck, but I recognized the rock for what it was.

A hex.

“Sadly, it doesn’t work on Underworlders with Enochian magic,” he crooned, nodding down at the tattooed runes decorating my left forearm and hand. “But no worries. We’ll be correcting that as well.”

He motioned to someone over my shoulder, but before I could look, another person kicked the back of my legs out, forcing me to the ground. The impact of my knees hitting what had to be frozen stone sent pain shooting all the way down to my feet. It still paled in comparison to the searing hot manacles suddenly clamped around both of my wrists.


The cuffs were linked by a thick, three-foot-long chain.

This wasn’t the first time I’d found myself wearing such a thing, but the modification to this particular one was definitely new.

At the center of the chain was a giant chunk of bone-white flint, misshapen and yet oddly beautiful, like a demented, excessively large paperweight. There was a hole in the middle of the rock, allowing the manacle chain to run right through it. As soon as its owner set the slab on the grass, everyone released me and backed off.


Despite the added weight slowing me down slightly, it wouldn’t do much to secure my captivity.

At least, that’s what I thought.

The moment I tried rising to my feet, I found I could only get as far as the chain would allow. No matter whether I attempted to lift the slab by the chains or pick it up with my own two hands, I couldn’t get the damn thing to budge. The rock couldn’t have weighed more than fifteen pounds…

Yet, I tried every which way to move it, unable to get the slab to shift so much as a millimeter. 

Seriously, it was like Thor’s hammer.

“Adder stone,” Reese mused, admiring its glassy surface. “Otherwise known as a serpent’s egg. By itself, it isn’t harmful to Underworlders, but what most people don’t know is that the stone is a conduit. With the help of a skillful practitioner, it can manipulate Enochian energy. Every pound of this rock will feel like two hundred.”

And it did.

Based on its size, I’d probably have better luck trying to move a dead car.

“It’s rather perfect, isn’t it? The holes here form naturally,” he said, tapping to where the chain fed through the rock. “Rumor has it that one of Hell’s princes was buried alive beneath hundreds of small adder stones some centuries ago. The weight didn’t crush him, as he would have likely preferred. It just felt like it.”

Reese’s grin turned into a horrifically beautiful smile.

“Imagine, your body slowly wasting away from dehydration and hunger as it felt like the weight of several elephants pinned you down, pulverizing your insides.” He clicked his tongue. “Rough way to go, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps something you should keep in mind for your own prince.”

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you it isn’t polite to play with your food?” I jeered. “If you plan to kill us both, then grow a pair and do it yourself.”

Taunting him may not have been the best strategy, but the idea of him playing puppeteer with my body so that I’d kill Blaine?

It didn’t get much worse than that.

Reese stopped just shy of my reach, that grin spreading into an all-out smile. He knelt down, resting on his haunches to meet me at eye level. “You really have no idea what’s going on here, do you?”

“Enlighten me then.”

He clicked his tongue. “Oh, but what fun would that be? The whole villain monologue is rather cliché.”

I gave him my own chilly smile. “So you admit you’re the villain?”

“As long as Blaine’s claws are in you? That I am.”

“I believe we already established he didn’t hex me.”

“No, he just forced a mating bond on you…that just so happens to let him crawl around inside your head.” 

“He didn’t force anything on me—”

Reese snickered. “Come on, Kitty Kat. You can’t be that naïve.”

The most aberrant laugh escaped me, somehow lovely and yet malicious. “‘Equals in heart and mind.’”

Those five single words strung together landed their blow, ripping that impish façade from Reese’s face. “That’s bullshit.”

“Is it?” Now I was the one clicking my tongue. “Don’t tell me you never suspected it.”

“That’s bullshit!”

I laughed, even as Reese lashed out, his hand seizing my throat. “Tell me, what bothers you more? Losing me, or losing me to him?”

It was no secret that Reese couldn’t stand Blaine, even before any of this started. He made that perfectly clear when he did nothing but badmouth my mate at his own funeral service.

“You’re not his,” Reese snarled.

“And if you’re what a Twin Flame is supposed to be, then all that tells me is that such a relationship is toxic.” Another laugh tore from my lungs. “You can cover every inch of my body in hexes. I wouldn’t willingly touch you with a ten-foot pole.”

By the fury brewing in those amber eyes, I was sure he would crush my larynx as his grip tightened…

Only, that fiendish grin returned as Reese abruptly let go of me, his gaze fixed somewhere over my shoulder. “Well, if it isn’t the girl of the hour.”

I caught sight of the brunette as she was quite literally dragged across the frozen grass. 

The purple streaks in her hair weren’t discernible in the torchlight, but the moment Reese brushed the front strands from her face, I recognized who the young woman was.


As Reese said, I’d only met this Seer once, but even if I hadn’t, I couldn’t just let her die.

And it didn’t seem Daisy was too keen on the idea either. Her hands were cuffed behind her back, and two men who were easily twice her size held the girl by each of her arms. That didn’t stop her from thrashing and bucking with everything she had. 

I pulled at my own handcuffs, trying to study the lock mechanism in the limited light. As my horrible luck would have it, I didn’t have any pins in my hair that I could use to pick it. At this point, I wasn’t past dislocating my thumb to slip out of at least one of the cuffs…

But they were too tight.

Each was adjusted to the smallest part of my wrist, so unless I somehow managed to all-out crush my hand, these cuffs weren’t going anywhere.

And neither was I.

Reese tore the duct tape covering Daisy’s mouth, and the girl let out the kind of scream that  could rival a banshee’s. He just laughed. 

“Make all the noise you want, my dear. We’re in the middle of a forest preserve, during a polar vortex. There isn’t a soul around here for miles.” Reese gave a cursory glance over his shoulder at his audience. “At least, not one that’ll help you, anyway.”   

He nodded to the men stationed at her side and headed back towards me. Again, Daisy was hauled along, her feet slipping uselessly over the frozen ground as she desperately tried to gain traction. The backs of her knees were kicked out, forcing her legs to buckle under her. All she could do was cry out as her captors quite literally dragged her across the field.

The men had no other choice but to lift her up when they reached the makeshift symbol of debris and bone, as to not disturb it, and they dropped her into the center with a harsh thwack. Something in her snapped upon impact, likely her shoulder dislocating by the looks of it. 

Daisy’s entire body trembled, and the sight only invited another horrible thought.

We were in the middle of a polar vortex.

Everybody, apart from Daisy in her hospital gown and me in a literal one, was at least dressed in somewhat appropriate clothing. And yet, I didn’t feel nearly as cold as I should have.

Seeing as how I just barely recovered from hypothermia, this didn’t inspire much confidence. If my body was in shock from prolonged exposure, it could easily give me the hot flash currently warming me. The best I could do was pray this was merely a side effect from adrenaline instead. If it wasn’t, I likely wouldn’t be in the mental or physical state to do much of anything if the opportunity arose.

Everyone around me—save for the hulk of a man likely meant to serve as a guard—moved forward, coming to stand just outside the perimeter of the symbol as they all began to chant. Daisy tried rising to her feet, but she barely managed to get to her knees when Reese gripped her hair from behind and wrenched her head back hard enough to make her cry.

He whispered something to her, but I couldn’t hear it. Whatever it was proved to be enough though to make her go still, because every muscle inside Daisy went as taut as a bowstring.

The group guarding the symbol spread out to form a circle, blocking Daisy and Reese from my view just as white-hot flames burst free from the ground. It took a moment to realize…

No, it wasn’t the ground.

It was the material used to create the outline of the symbol, even the bones. 

The utter wrongness of it all prickled at every inch of my skin. 

Bones didn’t burn. At least, they shouldn’t have. Not by an ordinary flame.

But these did. The fires soared higher and higher, until they became an outright fence of flames. Reese and Daisy couldn’t be seen, even as the people who had been obstructing my view stepped back. 

I didn’t need nor want to see what was happening in there. I witnessed it myself a couple of months back, when I’d entered into an astral projective dream state. Hellhounds had slashed open a girl’s throat and left her to bleed there, all done to break another of the Anastasis’s locks. 

And same as last time, there was nothing I could do.

A sound—sharp but guttural—came from behind that wall of flame, and I could only imagine it was Daisy as she choked on her own blood, the way Blaine had. I wanted to scream…

But something else followed.

A grunt.

Blatantly male.

Any chanting abruptly ended just as another sound followed. Only, it didn’t come from inside their creepy cult inferno.

It came from behind me.

Though it had to be at least twenty yards back, the single blast was harsh, loud, and propagated with the very distinctive energy that could only come from a rifle.

It was immediately accompanied by a sharp slap! that sounded…wet. Before I could even think to drop flat to the ground, warm liquid painted my back.

Two hundred pounds of literal dead weight collapsed on top of me with a definitive thud, stripping the air from my lungs.

Instinctively, I attempted to climb out from under him, but the impulse drained as quickly as it came when more and more shots rang out.

Bodies fell, people scattered, and the flames from the ritual were instantly snuffed out. Fear rang through me at the sight of Reese and Daisy crumpled on the ground, but from what I could tell, the latter wasn’t hurt. Reese, however, gripped the side of his head with one hand while trying to make a grab at Daisy with the other. She bucked her hips, drew up her foot, and drove the heel into his cheek.

The impact was enough for her to escape his grip, and taking low to the ground, she took off for the nearest tree line. 

Everybody else was rewarded with gunfire, but a distant voice barked an order, the words inaudible over the clamor. In just a few swift seconds, a young man emerged from the forest, running at an all-out sprint in Daisy’s direction.


He was moving far faster than she was, so I could only hope that she could lose him in the confusion of the woods. Daisy managed to disappear into the thicket, leaving only Reese and me from what I could gather. No one who had attempted to run was left standing, the field a mess of bodies and blood.

With my wrists still trapped, the best I could do was play dead, which wouldn’t be too hard. I was covered in enough blood to rival Sissy Spacek at the end of Carrie. 

But that only would get me so far. 

Several voices were calling out from somewhere behind me, at least four from what I could distinguish, and either they were yelling louder or they were getting closer. If someone checked for a pulse, I was obviously fucked. And if not, then I’d likely freeze to death out here amid my charade.

The adrenaline was wearing off, and rather quickly, because any warmth in me was the wrong kind. My skin burned, but only from the sheer chill of the ground as I was forced to lay pinned down upon it.

I expected Reese to try army crawling or something out of view, especially with the subtle hills in the terrain. From where he was, he stood a chance of making it out of here without taking a bullet to the back like his cohorts. 

But the idiot rose to his feet!

I wanted to scream at him, though it wouldn’t serve any good. More gunshots rang out, but to my odd sense of relief, nothing struck him. Every bullet came within feet of him, only to hit an invisible barrier. Each impact against the wall sent sparks ricocheting off it, and in the brief illumination, I could see subtle cracks growing.

Whatever magic shield he’d thrown up wouldn’t last, and he knew it.

With one last look towards me, he snarled, slid the Sanctus blade into a sheath strapped to his side, and ran (or rather limped) towards the same tree line Daisy had disappeared into.


Half of my body was being crushed beneath someone twice my size, I was turning into a human icicle for the second time tonight, and this asshole—who still in his deluded state swore that he loved me—was ditching me!

Really, what the fuck, universe? Do you hate me that much?

Before I could wallow too much in pity, the gunfire ceased, bringing clarity to the voices.

And one in particular.


What little energy I had left rose at the sound of that British accent as I bucked and barely managed to pitch the dead man off of me. “Raelynd!”

Never had I been so happy to see my mate’s boss in all my life.

The guy, as always, was sporting a three-piece designer suit, but like the rest of us tonight, he looked rather worse for wear.  There were tears everywhere in his clothing, the left sleeve clinging on by nothing more than a thread…which just so happened to be covered in blood. And he was in full-demon mode. The entirety of his eyes was black, matching the pronounced, inky veins that pulsed all along his face.

I could imagine how I looked in comparison.

His expression gave me a pretty good idea the second he spotted me.

Slinging his rifle over his back, he screamed for a medic before he even charged over to me. It was only a greater relief to see that there were over a dozen of his men behind him. 

Raelynd dropped to his knees and was about to put his hands on me…but seemed to think better of it. Scoping the extent of blood on my body, it was clear he didn’t know where was safe to touch.

I tried to answer his questions, but it suddenly felt like a clamp was on my throat. I didn’t even realize I was crying until I felt the warm streak of tears rolling down my cheeks. All I could manage was a shake of the head.

Raelynd understood it wasn’t my blood, but it did little to comfort him. “Blaine?”

Another shake. I mouthed Val’s name, the single syllable leaving me to choke on a sob.

The demon peeled off his blazer and draped it over my shoulders, offering what warmth it could as he studied my handcuffs and the stone I was chained to. “Fucking hell.”

Rae called out to someone named Maddox, demanding a kit of some kind, only…he never got a response. The demon rose to his feet, muttering a plethora of obscenities—

Until he looked behind me at the tree line.

A thick fog rolled out of the forest, the powdery white pallor and composition unnatural at best. It didn’t move like natural fog. It billowed out in an ever-thickening wave, the way it might when produced by a dry ice machine. But its expanse was too great, and the color only further clarified its wrongness. Red particles akin to glitter hung in the air, appearing to melt when the fog fully enveloped them. The effect made it look like the fog was outright bleeding.

“Ventus Cicuta, aquilo!” someone screamed.

I hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant, but I had a feeling it wasn’t anything to do with cuddly puppies and magical rainbows as everyone started fleeing across the field. My suspicions were confirmed when the men who were too close to outrun the billowing mass all collapsed to the ground not five seconds after it reached them.

Raelynd tried and failed miserably to break my handcuff chain with the bud of his rifle, leaving me with one horrible option. The risk was apparently worth it, because he had me pull the chain as taut as it could go, allowing what little space I had to help shield myself from any potential shrapnel.

Keeping my head low, I tried to make myself as small as possible as Raelynd fell back to take aim. He didn’t bother counting down, charging the air once again with gunfire as a single blast detonated. 

Before I could brace myself, gravity sent me hurtling sideways as the chain snapped. It would have been a relief, if not for the white-hot pain that lanced up my right arm.

But I didn’t get the chance to look at the damage.

Raelynd had his arms hooked around me, hauling my frozen, agonized body back up to its feet and forcing me into a run.

The handcuffs still singed my wrists, and the two halves of the broken chain dangled from each end. That, too, was made of silver, acting as fire-hot whips. They swung with the force of my momentum as I ran, lashing my exposed skin. The pain in my arm was only intensifying, barely eclipsing the sharp stabbing sensations reverberating through both my knees—

But Raelynd refused to let up. Even as my bare feet slid between patches of dead grass and frozen snow, he didn’t slow down, resorting to damn near carrying me around my underarms.

We made it within ten yards of the furthest tree line when he cursed.

“Hold your breath!”

The effort left me with the sensation that my lungs might burst, but I managed one last inhale before that fog bank rolled over us.

Raelynd hauled me just over the border of the forest, and we both spotted a pair of headlights through the thicket, not thirty feet ahead.

But even without breathing, something felt wrong.

My legs suddenly felt leaden, my feet may as well have been made of cement, and my arms could have weighed a hundred pounds each for how heavy they seemed to be.

And I wasn’t the only one feeling it.

Raelynd stumbled at the same time I did, and neither of us could muster the strength to recover. We both collapsed to the ground with an ungainly thud.

Even the men who had gotten a head-start all buckled under their own weight, staggering and crumpling to the earth just shy of the headlights that punctured the blanketing fog.

I anticipated the air to burn my lungs as I, at last, had to inhale…

But nothing happened.

There wasn’t even the noxious sting of chemicals I expected to breathe in. If anything, it smelled like burnt syrup or cookies that had been left too long in the oven.

Raelynd and I still tried crawling over the dead foliage and snapped twigs, but it took us more than a minute to trek a couple of feet. 

The weight of my body was too much.

My arms gave out, and I didn’t have it in me to move.

Hell, it was too much effort to even talk.

Thankfully, that weight didn’t settle onto my lungs, because breathing was the only thing I could do. We just lay there, hearts thundering, lungs heaving, and bodies inundated by what may as well have been adder stone.

My left cheek was mashed into the dirt, giving me a clear view of Raelynd’s sprawled body beside me…as well as my right forearm.

A hooked piece of metal protruded from the inside of the appendage as blood still leaked from the top…which I realized was the entry point.

The shrapnel had cut straight through my arm, but had apparently gotten stuck before it could fully exit.

After several minutes, the fog thinned out to wisps before vanishing entirely. Some foolish part of me thought I would be able to move again, but that pressure didn’t let up.

A chill that had nothing to do with the weather raked down my back like spiny fingernails as I heard what sounded an awful lot like a car door opening and closing somewhere up ahead.

Fallen branches and dead leaves broke and crinkled under several pairs of footsteps, striding right for me.

I didn’t know how Raelynd still had it in him to move so much as a finger, but he managed to drag a handgun out from somewhere strapped to his body. He struggled to lift his head, aiming as best as he could. The demon squeezed the trigger, but just as he did, an invisible force wrenched both the gun and his hand sideways, slamming them into the trunk of a tree with a nauseating crack. 

A pair of heeled boots stepped between Raelynd and me, their owner’s feet not six inches from my face. Another set of hands grabbed me from my other side and rolled me onto my back.

The sight was…unsettling, to say the least, as I was forced to look up at whoever loomed over me.

A heart-shaped face, two-toned eyes, and long, pale blonde hair just shy of being silver.

It was me.

Or someone who looked an awful lot like me.

“Hello, daughter,” she sighed.

The sentiment could have been a comforting one…if not for the needle that accompanied it as she knelt down and stabbed a sedative into my neck.