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Spell of Shattering (Dark Caster #4)

Written by Anna Abner

Copyright 2015 by Anna Abner

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Cover Blurb:

Dive into the heart-pounding final chapter of the Dark Caster series!

If the Chaos Gate opens…
Demons will infest the world.

When the charismatic mayor of Auburn hires junior agent Jessa McAvoy to acquire him a very specific property, she hopes this is her big break. She’ll do anything to make her first real estate client happy, but the one favor he asks of her is impossible—convince her former friend Derek Walker to come out of hiding. Doing so will not only bring her into the orbit of dangerous casters, but force her to confront long-buried feelings for her missing friend.

After failing his tasks for the Dark Caster, necromancer Derek Walker is hiding in Alaska from his humiliating defeats as a card-carrying member of an evil dark cabal. But when his old boss begins opening the Chaos Gate, there is nowhere on earth Derek can hide. With no other options, he must return to the last place he wants to go—home.

When Derek Walker joins forces with Jessa and the entire Raleigh coven, the dark cabal’s biggest disappointment may be the only thing standing between earth and total destruction.

Chapter One

With a little pressure, Derek Walker punched his boning knife through the throat of a dead Silver Salmon. Working the knife like a saw, he removed the head and tossed it into the trash, and then got to work gutting the unlucky creature. Bright fish blood swirled in the lake below, creating an abstract waterscape.

Bo’s voice carried over the sound of the lapping tide. “Ice is the strongest element there is,” he shouted at Stubby.

They were certainly surrounded by the stuff. Bits of frost clumped in Bo’s scraggly beard, heavy snow clung to drooping tree limbs, and gray clouds swept across the sky ready to shower ice upon their heads at any moment. Derek hoped the storm would hold off a little while longer, though, at least until the men finished fishing.

“Bullshit.” Bo’s friend Stubby dug through the nearby cooler but came up empty. The six-pack was long gone, and it wasn’t even ten a.m. Frustrated, Stubby spit brown tobacco juice into the mud. “Fire’s stronger than ice.”

Derek shifted weight from one foot to the other and skidded in the mud, catching himself on a rock. It may be August in Alaska, but the wet ground around Bear Lake at first light was cold and seeped through his sneakers.

“No it ain’t,” Bo argued. “Glaciers carved up the earth, you dummy. A few drops of frozen water will break boulders.” He waved Stubby off. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Stubby seemed to take the argument personally. “Fire melts ice. End of story.”

Derek prayed it was, but of course, it wasn’t. Bo and Stubby could argue for hours over the most accurate brand of deer rifle, the stoutest superhero, or the most potent tequila. This latest debate could rage on for days.

Derek sliced up two beautiful fish fillets and wrapped them in paper for his boss’s dinner. Most likely, Derek would sear them on the grill with some peppers and serve them up tonight to a small house party of world-class belchers and bearded survivalists on Bo’s deck.

It surprised Derek he could even wield a knife or a BBQ grill in his condition. The memory spell Holden Clark had hit him with four months ago had devastated his mind. Literally. He may as well have dropped him headfirst from a forty-story building onto broken glass and concrete. Holden had stolen every single memory, skill, and instinct Derek possessed, leaving him alive but hollow.

Waking in a hospital bed blank and vulnerable had been the most terrifying moment of his life. He picked up the second fish and attacked it with the knife.

Generally, the work he did as Bo’s assistant was exhausting, which suited Derek just fine. He didn’t need the money. He needed the distraction.

Actually, it wasn’t that much different from the work he’d done in Auburn as Rebecca Powell’s assistant. Then, he’d redecorated houses, delivered paperwork, sometimes picked up coffee and her dry cleaning, and most of the time surfed on his computer or chatted with Jessa McAvoy, the adorable junior agent working as Rebecca’s protégé. Here, he bought groceries, cooked rudimentary meals, lugged trash to the dump, and drove Bo home when he drank too much.

Whether it was good living or not didn’t enter his mind. It was just living.

“All done, boss,” Derek said with effort, throwing the last of the slimy scraps into the trash and tucking the fillets into the cooler. It was a constant struggle to form words and transfer them to his tongue. He was getting better, but he feared he would never be whole again.

“Anything else?” Derek asked, rinsing his bloody hands in the icy lake.

“Yeah, run into town and get another twelve pack, will ya’?” Bo asked.

“Sure.” He ambled for Bo’s pickup, jingling a ring of keys as he went.

“You’re putting too much weight on your bobber again,” Stubby accused. “You’ll never catch anything that way.”

“You don’t know what you’re yammering about,” Bo shot back. “I’ve caught twice as many fish as you have, and that’s just today!”

Derek climbed into the truck before he caught Stubby’s reply.

He didn’t care. He didn’t care about much anymore. Even after the memory-destroying spell had been reversed, he still wasn’t the same. Like tying shoelaces. He just couldn’t get it. No matter how many YouTube videos he watched, he couldn’t make the bunny go round the tree or the fox go in the hole or whatever nonsense he was supposed to do with ease. It worried him how much he didn’t remember. What else was gone, never to return?

Kissing, for one. Surely, he must have kissed a woman at some point—he was a grown man—but he couldn’t recall specifics. Or even gather the desire to try it again. It seemed silly to him. That and sex. Bizarre, pointless endeavors when he had other much more important stuff to worry about.

Like how he was…

“…A huge fucking disappointment,” the spirit spat at him. “A total waste of good space. You think you deserve a second chance? What have you ever done…”

A grizzly of a dead man with a full beard and hunters cap hovered beside Bo’s truck, a gleeful smile on his pudgy face. For the past four months, the ghost had been his unwanted but constant companion.

Derek tuned out the ranting. It was getting a little easier. Night was the hardest. Trying to sleep while a nasty ghost screamed obscenities and curse words at him from the ceiling was challenging. Ear plugs only muffled the noise. They didn’t erase it completely.

The irony was, Derek was especially good at shield spells. With a spirit’s assistance, he could produce an invisible barrier impenetrable to both magic and spirit chatter. With a spirit of his own, Derek could cast banishing spells on all the ghosts the Dark Caster sent to torment his every waking moment. But Derek didn’t have a spirit companion anymore. Robert had been destroyed back in Auburn, North Carolina in the magical fiasco that had stolen Derek’s memories. And a necromancer without a spirit was just a man.

Almost the way a stray, foul-mouthed ghost couldn’t do any real damage without a necromancer to channel his spirit power.

He and the taunting soul were in the same boat—stuck with each other and frustrated.

It didn’t make listening to his insults any easier.

“Go away,” Derek murmured.

“What’s that, you miserable piece of crap?”

Clenching his jaw, Derek glared through the mud-streaked windshield at his new boss reclining in his favorite camp chair.

“Lost your voice?” the spirit taunted. “Loser,” he chanted. “Imbecile. Idiot.”

Alaska seemed far enough away to be safe.

So far, the worst the Dark Caster had managed since Derek’s escape was the big-mouthed ghost clinging to the inside of the truck.

Derek cranked the engine and steered away from the lake at a leisurely five miles an hour. Driving was something he had only re-learned since he’d been in Alaska. With the way Bo drank, it was a necessity.

Derek drove slow. Probably too slow. He remembered, vaguely, driving his former sports car fast on long, lonely stretches of highway, taking turns at warp speed and weaving recklessly through freeway traffic. Not anymore. Now, he was worse than an old woman. He didn’t drive the speed limit. He drove under it. When Bo teased him about it, which Bo loved to do at all times about all things, Derek blamed it on the rain and snow, but it honestly had little to do with weather conditions.

Just one more thing Holden Clark had stolen from him.

He parked in front of the town’s shopping center, bypassing a hardware store, a smoke-filled tavern, and the post office to pull open the heavy glass doors of a grocery store. Derek selected a twelve-pack of cheap, cold beer from the refrigerator case in the rear of the shop, and when he spun around, he came face-to-face with the eighteen-year-old checkout girl.

“Hi, Derek,” she said, grinning brightly.

It was too cold, too quiet, and too depressing to be so happy.

“Hello,” he returned, veering around her.

“Going fishing again?” she asked, trailing him down the baked-goods aisle.

“Bo is.” Derek didn’t fish. He’d never learned and didn’t see the point.

“I love to fish,” she exclaimed, scampering behind the register as he set the beer on the counter. “I’ll teach you how. I mean, if you don’t know how. Do you know how?”

While he rearranged possible responses in his mind, he studied the girl. Lea, read her nametag. She was young and dewy, and he envied the ease with which she spit out words, but something was missing. There was no light in her. An overabundance of enthusiasm, but no inner glow.

The thought of touching her in any way, let alone kissing her, made him slightly queasy. Definitely uncomfortable. And not in a good way.

“No, thanks,” he said, the same as every other time Lea had invited him somewhere.

Her face fell. “Oh. Yeah. Some other time.”

He paid for the beer with Bo’s credit card and turned to leave.

“You’re gay, right?” Lea called after him. “That’s it. You only like boys?”

He lowered his eyes and exited fast, tossing the beer in the cab of the pick-up.

Derek had been called worse in his life. It hardly bothered him anymore. He knew what kind of person attracted him. At least, he used to know. Since Holden’s spell, it was hard to say what turned him on anymore because nothing did.

He just wasn’t interested in being tangled up in someone else’s life. Or worse, someone tangling up in his. Because his was a twisted disaster of epic proportions.

To prove it, as if Derek held any doubts, his least favorite ghost appeared in the seat beside him.

“Worthless,” he repeated, making his voice purposefully ominous. “Worthless…worthless…worthless…”

Arriving at the lake a bit distracted, Derek stomped around thick-trunked trees toward Bo and Stubby’s camp chairs and silently arranged the twelve-pack in their cooler.

“Thanks, my friend,” Bo exclaimed. “Come pick us up later.”

“I will.” Until then, Derek would be working on his cabin. Struggling, he finally spit out, “Text me if you need anything.”

Once Bo and Stubby started drinking, though, they’d be arguing good-naturedly and downing cold beers for hours. Derek would have the rest of the day to himself.

“…just kill yourself already…you spineless worm… The Dark Caster’s spirit trailed him toward the truck. “…cut your own throat, and I’ll laugh while you die…”

Or maybe not.

* * *

Jessa McAvoy glanced from the weather report on her computer monitor to the beautifully embossed, rose-colored invitation in her lap.

Mr. Holden Clark and Ms. Rebecca Powell request the pleasure of your company…

Rebecca was getting married—Jessa double-checked the date—in almost three weeks.

She wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Conflicted, definitely. She was happy for Rebecca, but at the same time it made Jessa feel like she was stuck in neutral while everyone around her raced off to new and exciting destinations.

Though there was one bright spot on her horizon. Two days earlier Carly Pritcher had hired her, verbally, to be her real estate agent. So long as her boss allowed it, Jessa was on the verge of cutting the apron strings.

“Jessa?” Speak of the devil. Ryan Rohmer emerged from his office.

“Yes?” She crammed the invitation back into its drawer.

“Pull up the phase-two forms and personalize them. Here’s the info.” He slapped a pink post-it to the door beside his head. “And I smell coffee. Can you bring me an extra large? Two sugars. Thanks.”

The sticky note lost its purchase and fluttered to the carpet.

Jessa exhaled weakly as the note swooped through the air. This wasn’t her dream. Not by a long shot. As she crossed the room to collect the slip of paper, she knew she couldn’t stay with Ryan for much longer or risk being his junior agent forever.

Jessa hated her job. No, hate wasn’t a strong enough word. Loathed maybe. She’d spent a long time as Rebecca Powell’s junior agent. When Rebecca quit the real estate game, Jessa had taken a new job with Ryan Rohmer, assuming she’d be an agent of her own. But no. She was still a junior agent, just for a different person. She hated it. Loathed it.

Jessa was a good Realtor. She should have her own business, run her own shop, be master of her own destiny. Instead, she was fetching coffee, delivering paperwork to clients, and answering Ryan’s email as if she were his assistant, not his partner. Like she was Derek Walker, Rebecca’s former assistant.

There was someone Jessa worried about a lot. She hadn’t heard from in him months, not since he had up and disappeared. Hadn’t even said good-bye.

“I don’t know why you’re sighing all dramatically,” Karen snarked from her nearby cubicle. “I work my ass off day and night for leads and you and I make the same paycheck.” She curled her upper lip. “I’d count my blessings is all I’m saying.”

“It’s not about the money,” Jessa retorted.

But Karen ducked her head over her keyboard as if she hadn’t heard.

The money made no difference at all. Yes, Ryan paid Jessa a percentage of every commission he earned while she assisted him, but she didn’t want to be an agent for the money. The chase excited Jessa. Schmoozing clients. Running down leads. Closing deals. That’s what she craved. The thrill of the hunt.

Not filling out forms and pouring coffee.

She emptied two sugar packets into an oversized mug.

“Here you go, Ryan,” she said, handing him the steaming drink through his office door.

“Mmm.” He accepted it, smiling gratefully. “Just what I needed. Thank you.”

He sipped, nodded, and returned to his computer monitor, essentially dismissing her. But she had something to tell him, and if she didn’t spit it out soon she may never say it.

Having an actual client in her back pocket gave her courage. “I didn’t get my Realtor license,” she began, “to be a junior agent my whole life.”

Ryan’s fingers stilled on the keyboard. “Are you unhappy with your job here?”

Yes. “I want to close my own deals, and every lead I’ve had in the past few months you’ve taken out from under me.”

His eyebrows collided. “That’s the contract you signed. You assist me in finding clients, you help me keep those clients happy, and if I close a deal you earn twenty percent of my commission. There are lots of people who would love to do what you’re doing.”

“I guess I’m not lots of people,” she said. But when he gave her a wounded frown, she rushed to add, “I’m thankful for my job. All I’m asking for is a couple clients of my own.”

“Are you ready to be cut loose?” he returned. “Because I can’t use you if you’re distracted with your own clients. I need you available to me twenty-four seven. So, this is what we’ll do.” He steepled his arms on the desk and stared disdainfully at her. “You continue working as my junior agent, but if you actually find a serious client and close the deal, I’ll let you out of your current employment contract and then you can be a free agent in my office.”

Jessa exhaled. “Thank you. I’ll take it.”

“Okay.” He refocused on his monitor. “But until then, I need those phase-two forms and then track down someone—anyone—who’ll approve the Jones’ for a half a million dollar home loan. Thanks.”

She returned to her cubicle and scrolled through her business contacts list. In the past month, she’d either left voicemails or spoken personally to each and every person, hoping to sniff out leads. Sometimes finding a client was about being in front of them at the right time. Today, she was beginning callbacks. Just to check in and chat.

She dialed her former neighbor, Carly Pritcher, but the call went to voicemail. “Hi, Carly,” she greeted brightly. “I hope you’re doing well. Did those tomatoes ever come in the way you wanted? If so, let me know. I’d love to swing by the old neighborhood and buy a couple. And while I’m there, we can talk about properties.”

She said good-bye, and her hand hovered over her phone to dial a different number when it buzzed with an incoming call.

“Good morning. Jessa McAvoy with Ryan Rohmer Real Estate. How can I help you?”

“This is Anastasia,” greeted a brusque female. “Please hold for the mayor.”

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Spell of Vanishing (Dark Caster #3)

Written by Anna Abner

Copyright 2014 by Anna Abner

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Cover Blurb

Cole Burkov is a necromancer, but waking from a devastating nightmare spell has left him confused about what’s real and what’s fantasy. Afraid of hurting more of his friends, he casts a vanishing spell on himself, except something goes wrong. He’s not invisible to spirits. He’s invisible to everyone.

Talia Jackson doesn’t want to help Cole cast his vanishing spell. She’s too busy trying to collect him for the Dark Caster. But when Cole uses her, against her will, to create the spell she becomes the only human being on earth that can see him.

Together, the unlikely allies will seek out one of the most diabolical casters in the dark cabal—the White Wraith. But when the witch fights back, Cole and Talia discover the only way to survive her furious assault is by working together.

Chapter One

Rough asphalt dug into Cole Burkov’s knees, but he couldn’t remember why he’d knelt in front of a burned down church in the first place. His memory was in tatters, made up of a pinch of nightmare, a dash of reality, and a whole lot of lost time.

Blood was what brought him back to himself. The old, itchy blood on his hands and the fresh, slimy blood smeared across his left forearm, obscuring the line of scars of varying ages running up his wrist like railroad tracks.

When he cast magic he was always careful to cut shallow slices, but maybe sometime during the night, lost in his muddled memories, he’d cut himself too deep.

He couldn’t remember.

Cole sucked in a deep breath, hoping the rush of humid, North Carolina air would stimulate his memory, but it only made him dizzy.

Something wasn’t right.

As he gazed up at the charred skeleton of a former religious building, he got the funny feeling he was supposed to be doing something. That he wasn’t there on his knees by chance.

But the only other living being in the vicinity was a large, ebony crow peering at him from a willow tree at the edge of the parking lot. Crows were bad luck. One in a churchyard was an omen of death. The bird flapped its wings once and took flight, soaring low over the parking lot before disappearing behind a brick wall.

“Cole!” A familiar ghost appeared in front of him, her face a mask of agony. He’d never seen his spirit companion Stephanie so distressed. “I found Dani. She’s coming. Can you hear me? She’s on her way. Just hang tight and everything will be okay.”

Daniela Ferraro. His friend. The witch.

Bits and pieces of the last few days resurfaced. He’d strangled Dani in a hospital room and then escaped, hiding out on the streets and in the woods ringing the town. The night before he’d slept sheltered among a copse of pine trees behind Auburn’s movie theater. The night before that? Hard to say. He thought the clothes he wore, black scrub bottoms and a yellow smiley face tee, were castoffs from the hospital. Or maybe that was part of the nightmare spell. Maybe he’d never been inside a hospital.

Either way, unable to suffer the guilt a moment longer, he’d come to the Dark Caster’s last known gathering place to face him. Or join him. That, too, was vague.

Of course the bastard wasn’t there.

But if Dani was on her way it meant one of two things. Either he was still in the nightmare spell and Cole would be forced to kill her again when the evil inside him rose up, or he hadn’t killed her and she’d try to stop him from going to war with the Dark Caster.

Neither of those things was going to happen.

“Tell her not to come,” he said. “Tell her not to come anywhere near me.”

* * *

Cole Burkov didn’t look like much of a threat. Talia Jackson had seen homeless people with better personal hygiene.

Black hair made even blacker with days of clinging dirt and grime. Chalky pale skin peeking out of secondhand clothes. Dirty, bare feet.

But she did what she was told, the way she always did, and got out of her car. She straightened a pair of barely-there shorts and a new gray tank top. Even after midnight, late April in North Carolina was muggy, and tendrils of cinnamon curls stuck to the nape of her neck.

She crossed the parking lot, her flip-flops kicking up ash and bits of charred wood from the meetinghouse’s remains. Creepy place. She’d been sent there by one of the Dark Caster’s messenger spirits, Johanna. Not on his orders, though. No, the White Wraith herself had organized this pick-up. And, to be honest, Talia was much more afraid of the wraith than she was of the DC, the Dark Caster himself. Witches freaked her out.

Of course, Talia had never actually seen or spoken to either the big boss or his right hand woman. It didn’t matter. Their reputations were enough to give her nightmares.

Fear of them both was the only reason she stood in the remains of their meetinghouse. To say she was there willingly would’ve been one heck of an exaggeration. She was there because her nephew was being held by the dark cabal—a sinister group of followers of the Dark Caster—as living, breathing collateral. And Talia was terrified of what would happen to him if she refused.

Burkov hadn’t noticed her yet. He had his back to her, studying something on the ground.

According to Johanna, he was a valuable asset. Or a target. It was difficult to guess the cabal’s true motives sometimes. All Talia knew was she was supposed to get over there, ASAP, never mind the time, and acquire the scraggly bum with the crazy eyes and bare feet. His spirit companion, an equally nonthreatening soccer mom type, blinked erratically around his periphery like she had a short in her wiring.

Talia really needed this assignment to go smoothly and for Burkov to get in her vehicle without a fight. Because this was one more notch on her Must Impress the DC belt, and one step closer to finding her nephew Sylvester.

“Miss, you must put him to sleep,” Hugh whispered at her. Her spirit companion did not trust strange men. Annoyingly old-fashioned, he still fussed when she went out in public unescorted. “Do not give him a chance to speak. He may hurt you before you can protect yourself.”

Talia had drawn an emergency spell circle on the roof of her Honda two-door for just such a contingency. She may need it tonight.

The simplest course of action was to put Burkov to sleep—against his will—drag him into the backseat of her car, and then dump him on the Carver’s front lawn.

But she didn’t do any of those things.

“Cole Burkov?”

He faced her, and only then did she see the dried blood up both arms to the elbows. God, what kind of magic had he been casting? The sight of so much blood triggered a memory. The Carver had warned her Cole was seriously, ridiculously, take-no-chances dangerous.

She slid a step in reverse, her breath freezing in her throat.

“You’re not the Dark Caster.” He scratched at two days’ worth of whiskers. “Are you?” But he didn’t go for a weapon. He didn’t draw any glyphs.

So, she straightened her shoulders like she would with any big-mouthed freshman. Once a less than impressive fourteen-year-old had sneered at her, “I don’t have to listen to you. You’re just the school nurse.” He’d quickly learned disrespecting her was more trouble than it was worth.

“He sent me to collect you. My name’s Talia Jackson. My car’s in the lot.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” the spirit in workout clothes shouted at him. “She’s a liar. She’ll say anything.”

“I’m not a liar,” Talia grumbled, stung. She’d done terrible things, but she’d never lied.

“Shut your mouth,” the ghost snapped. “You don’t care about him the way I do. And he’s not going anywhere.” She turned on Cole. “Listen to me. Just hang on for a little while longer. Your friends are coming.”

The threat of his so-called friends made Talia nervous. She wasn’t strong enough of a caster to overpower him and his cohorts, too. And if she failed to deliver Cole to the Carver…

The repercussions were too awful to contemplate.

Cole waved the ghost away like swatting a buzzing insect. “Who are you?” he demanded of Talia.

“Talia Jackson,” she said again. Nervous, she blew sticky auburn curls from her brow, and then glanced over her shoulder toward her car and the spell circle on its roof. “I’m a member of the dark cabal. I was told you’d be here. And I’m kinda in a hurry.”

He stumbled nearer, blood dripping a trail from his fingertips. So near she could tell his eyes were an intense shade of green.

“That’s close enough,” she warned. Ill or not Talia didn’t trust him to play nice. All the other people the DC had introduced her to had been criminally insane. She had nothing to convince her Burkov was any different. “I will protect myself, if I have to.”

He produced a bloodstained pocketknife and cracked it open.

Screw it. She reverted to plan B.

Quick as a cat, she scrambled up the windshield of her car. Even though the roof creaked in complaint and dipped beneath her feet, it was worth it to stand surrounded by spell marks. Magical power tingled in her fingertips.

“Miss, I don’t like the look of this man,” Hugh said softly as he hovered at her side.

Neither did she. “Stop,” she shouted at Cole. “We’re only doing this my way.” But he didn’t stop. “Please don’t make me do this,” she muttered. She didn’t want to put him to sleep. She didn’t want to hurt people anymore. And without the Carver, his buddy Jeff, and their spirits standing over her goading her on, she faltered.

Cole squinted up at her as if he could read every thought, every criminal act, and every doubt in the contours of her face. “You don’t work for the Dark Caster.”

“I do.” Not by choice, but that was none of his business. “And he is anxious to meet you. If you will please get in the car, I’d really appreciate it.” At any moment reinforcements may roll up, incapacitate her, and run off with her target. Seconds ticked by, and she bounced a little in frustration.

“You don’t seem like you practice black magic,” Cole said, staring hard with those penetrating green eyes of his.

“I’m a casting all-star,” she bluffed.

He made a grunting noise. “If you say so.”

“Well, I do.” She only bent the truth a little. She may not be the best necromancer in the world, but she’d been born one and that made a huge difference.

He caught her eye, and she had the unsettling feeling he was leveling with her. Maybe even trusting her a tiny bit.

“I’m not going to hurt you, as long as you don’t cast on me,” he said. “Deal?”

She believed him, which was absurd. She didn’t even know him. And he had all kinds of reasons to want to hurt her.

“I guess.”

When she started to get off the roof of her car, Cole held up a hand to stall her. “I need a favor first.”

She didn’t want to perform any favors, have any conversations, waste anymore time. But he’d piqued her interest. She couldn’t help herself.

“What kind of favor?”

“I need you to help me with a healing spell, and then I’ll go with you.”

Not a bad compromise. “Okay. Just do it quick. This place gives me the creeps.” She may as well have been trampling over fresh graves. Odds were no one had died on the property, but it felt like they had.

He pulled a black marker from his pocket and paired it with the knife.

“Cole Burkov, are you listening to me?” His spirit sounded a bit like an aggravated mother, which amused Talia.

Unperturbed, Cole drew a spell circle, but then he did something Talia had never seen any caster do. He used his very unsanitary looking knife to slice the tender skin of his left forearm, and fresh blood pooled.

“Why did you do that?” she exclaimed. The guy couldn’t afford to lose any more blood. In fact, he flattened one hand on the pavement to remain upright.

“I’m fine,” he mumbled, though that didn’t exactly answer her question.

“Please, Cole!” His spirit broke down and wept with undisguised anguish. The type of grieving wail Talia’s mother had made after her eleven-year-old grandson had been abducted.

Just to end the agony, Talia cast an amplification spell at Cole.

Different spells affected her in unique ways, but they all began as a tingle in her extremities, and this was no different. Then, as Hugh fed her more power, an electrical current flowed up from her fingers and toes.

Nothing strange there. Not until Cole channeled both his spirit and Talia’s. He soaked up her juju like it was an oil spill and he was made of paper towels. He dragged raw power out of her by the roots, and she winced. It felt like he was tearing the skin off her bones.

She should’ve known he wouldn’t be so greedy with her magic for a simple healing spell.

Rather than mend his cuts and bruises, he rounded on his spirit companion. “Sorry, Steph. I need some time. Vanesco,” he said.

Talia didn’t speak Latin, but no way had Cole cast anything helpful or soothing.

The vibrations of Hugh’s power died down. The pulling sensation ceased.

“Cole!” Steph sobbed, seeming to lose sight of him in the dark parking lot. “Goddamn you, Cole!” She sent Talia a final, scathing look, and then disappeared.

Talia, though, had no trouble whatsoever seeing Cole. “You used me,” she accused. “I don’t appreciate being tricked, Burkov. I should turn your eyes inside out for that. What spell did you use me to cast?”

“A vanishing spell,” he admitted.

Oh, that was new. She slipped her cell phone from her back pocket and opened a journaling and sketching app she really liked for studying spells. It gave her the freedom to draw glyphs with her fingers and add captions with the on-screen keyboard as well as attach photos.

“What was the Latin word you used?” She tapped a quick summary, and then snapped a pic of the glyph on the asphalt.

“I’ll tell you later.” He stood, weaved, and took a knee. “Sorry I couldn’t be upfront with you, but Steph wants to help me, which means stopping me.” He blew out a long breath. “I don’t want to be helped.”

He’d made himself invisible to all spirits, even his own. Tricky, tricky fiend.

On his second attempt, Cole climbed to his feet. “You said something about a car?”

Blood dribbled over his palm and rained upon the ground. But he did nothing to stop it. Like he didn’t care if he bled to death. Like it might be a relief.

“Cover that cut, would you?” Talia put away her phone and hopped off the roof. “Your blood pressure must be in the toilet.”

Without a word, he pulled his T-shirt over his head and wrapped it around his left arm. Talia froze, absorbing the sight of him unexpectedly bare-chested. He was on the thin side, but that only accented the ridges and plains of his torso. His wide chest had a fine covering of dark hair trailing down and disappearing beneath the waistband of his pants.

“This your car?”

“Yeah.” She forced herself to focus. “Get in.”

* * *

“Becca?”

Rebecca Powell rolled to the left, expecting to find a warm body to curl into. But Holden’s side of the bed was empty. The sheets were still warm and smelled of his skin, though, and she burrowed deep under the comforter. Her nagging to-do list attempted to break through her consciousness. So much to finalize. Especially if she and Holden Clark were ever going to open a second Sparky’s diner on the far side of Auburn. But she mentally pushed those thoughts away.

Later.

“Becca, you have to get up.”

She mumbled something to convey that it was still dark out and she’d much rather sleep until at least dawn after the workout he’d given her the night before. Muscles she didn’t even know she possessed ached. But in the very best way.

The bed rocked under his weight, and a gentle hand pulled the silken sheets below her face. She scrunched her nose. No fair.

“Believe me, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than in this bed with you, but Dani just called,” he said. “She’s freaking out. She and David got word Cole is at the cabal’s meetinghouse, which is closer to our end of town than hers. He needs help.”

Rebecca sat up, fully awake. “Is he okay?”

“She’s not sure, but she basically ordered me to get my ass over there and pick him up, whether he likes it or not.”

“Of course.” She scurried out of bed and dressed in the clothes she’d tossed onto Holden’s bedroom floor the night before. “Let’s go.”

When she’d been in desperate need of support Cole Burkov had been there for her. He’d woken Holden from a hellish nightmare spell while Becca had been helpless. She would do anything for him.

“Who’s Cole?” asked the snarky female spirit that had been haunting Becca for days. She lurked in the corner between the dresser and the master bath, her head cocked to one side.

Rebecca refused to answer. Her strategy so far had been to ignore the ghost and hope it simply faded away.

Holden, though, worked off of different instincts. “How long are you gonna ignore Jolie?” he asked gently. “She just wants to get to know you.”

She didn’t know how to explain to Holden the feelings churning inside her.

Becca remained silent as she followed him outside and climbed into the passenger seat of his stripped-down Jeep.

Ignoring people was becoming second nature. Luckily, he didn’t seem bothered by it.

“Last I heard Cole had woken from a nightmare spell like yours,” she said as he rolled the vehicle onto the street. “And disappeared. Anything I’m missing?”

“I don’t know.” His mouth compressed into a tight line. “I remember how disorienting it was coming out of that spell. I couldn’t tell what was real. And he was in it for a lot longer than I was.”

“I hope he’s okay,” she said, but Cole’s loitering around the Dark Caster’s meetinghouse said otherwise. What reason could he possibly have to go there?

Turning her palms up, she studied them. She’d accessed her new necromancy powers once. To save Holden from Derek Walker, a top member of the dark cabal. But she hadn’t tapped it since. Honestly, she never wanted to again. If there were a pill to take necromancy away, she would swallow it. But it wasn’t so easy. For the rest of her life she’d be able to cast magic and see spirits of the dead trapped on earth. Whether she liked it, or not.

“We’ll make sure he’s okay,” Holden promised. “I owe the guy.”

But when they drove into the parking lot of the burned out building, the whole place was deserted.

“Damn it,” Holden swore, hitting the steering wheel. “Dani’s gonna kick my butt.”

Becca snickered, couldn’t help it, imagining the tiny woman fighting a full grown man, but Daniela’s power didn’t lie in her physical form. She was a witch. And terrifying.

She stifled her laugh.

“Some chick came and picked him up.”

Becca jumped at the sound of the young man’s voice. She’d never get used to spirits popping up at random times.

Tony, David Wilkes’ teenaged spirit companion, appeared beside Holden. Dani and David were spending a lot of time together and sometimes sending a spirit messenger was faster than a phone call.

Tony added, “Dani told David to tell me to tell you—”

“We get it,” Holden snapped. “Where is Cole?”

“On the move. Dani’s meeting us. I’ll navigate.” As if he were corporeal and not a hazy image, Tony swung into the back seat and pointed north. “It’s up Western.”

“This lady,” Holden said, “who was she?”

With the wind whipping around the cab of the Jeep, Tony’s reply was no more than a whisper in Becca’s ear. “I don’t know her, but she drove off and no one’s seen Cole since.”

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Panacea (Red Plague #3) Chapter One

Enjoy this free sneak peek of Panacea’s 1st chapter!

Panacea (Red Plague #2)

Copyright 2014 by Anna Abner

Back Cover Blurb:

The red plague has devastated the human race, turning billions of people into zombies with red eyes and an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

No closer to extracting the cure from inside Ben Sawyer, Maya Solomon is ready to give up her quest to cure the zombie virus. But Pollard and Hunny have gone ahead to Washington, DC in search of other survivors. Alone and vulnerable, Maya and Ben begin a final and treacherous journey north in the hope that somehow the secrets locked inside Ben’s blood will finally free the world from the grip of the Red Plague.

Chapter One

I shoved open the door of our borrowed VW Bug and stumbled into several inches of gritty beach sand. Past a craggy dune, the Atlantic Ocean burst upon the shore. Over and over, undaunted. Behind me, Ben curled in the passenger’s seat, his long legs bunched to his chest to fit the cramped interior. He hadn’t woken when I drove hell-bent across fields and marshes to escape Camp Carson. He hadn’t woken when the car stuttered to a stop, empty of fuel, on the Virginia beach. And he didn’t wake as I stood over him, chewing at my bottom lip.

Smart had done more than lie about extracting my dad’s antiserum from Ben’s blood. He’d drugged him. Among other things. He might not wake up, not completely, until morning. Four hours or more.

He needed help, first aid, possibly a doctor, but all he had was me.

I searched up and down the beach. If a pack of quick-footed red zombies, sufferers of the 212R virus, found us, we had no protection except the car. So, not much protection at all.

“I’m going to search the trunk.” He didn’t answer, but talking to someone, anyone, made me feel better. “Okay, Ben?”

He flinched at the sound of my voice. The sedatives he’d been fed hadn’t worn off completely. I grabbed his hand so he’d know he wasn’t alone anymore. Reflexively, he squeezed back, his fingers twining with mine.

In the storage compartment I found a raincoat, but no emergency flares or forgotten bottles of sports drink. Certainly nothing useful. I tossed the coat into the back seat with my gear and then closed the trunk.

“Don’t worry,” I told Ben, “we’ll be fine.”

We probably weren’t going to be fine. Not alone and unprotected.

I turned toward the sound of the surf. “I just need a minute to make a plan.”

The whitecaps looked and sounded exactly the same as they always had. With all the chaos in the world and all the changes that had hammered down upon the human race, it didn’t seem right the ocean kept rolling across the earth, oblivious.

“I’m scared,” I signed at the horizon, my hands stuttering through the motions. Really, really scared.

But the surf kept washing upon the beach in a slow, quiet rhythm. Tempo adagio. Like a hymn. I hummed a counter-beat, and the sad melody I couldn’t shake returned.

Way down here … I disappear.

The water was black as tar with the occasional silver reflection of starlight from overhead. I tried to stay out of the surf, but it was tricky in the dark determining the tide’s reach, and cold salty water splashed over my sneakers.

“Aw, crap.” I didn’t have spare shoes, which only reminded me that my survival knowledge was nil. I knew how to run, hide, and disinfect. That was about it. Because I came from a family of technology loving city folks, not rugged survivalists. For the millionth time I wished my dad hadn’t left to finish his antiserum for 212R. He may not have been able to teach me about hunting or shelter building during the apocalypse, but at least I wouldn’t have spent so much time alone.

But if Dad hadn’t left, he wouldn’t have finished the elixir and Ben would still be a Red. My dad had wanted his work to mean something. To help people. And it had saved Ben.

So, it was worth it. I just wished I had both of them, Ben and Dad.

I glanced over my shoulder, but the compact car was a shadowy shape across the sand. More than anything, I felt alone. For the first time since the plague it wasn’t a pleasant sensation.

Night stretched and lengthened, seeming to last forever.

Where was Pollard?

I shouldn’t have pushed to separate our group. I should have fought to stay together, but I’d been so sure the four of us—Pollard, Juliet, Hunny, and I—would be too visible, too loud, too obvious, breaking into Ben’s locked room. I’d argued to be the only one to pull off the rescue mission.

Maybe it hadn’t been a good idea because everywhere I looked I saw only sand, water, and sky.

Pollard should’ve been on the beach.

But he wasn’t, and I had no way of contacting him. 212R had infected so many people, and so quickly, there was no one left to run water, trash, and electricity services. No GPS, no cell phones. Wherever he was, he was out of my reach.

I walked south, but didn’t catch sight of my friends. Or any human beings at all. Not even a single house or a forgotten beach umbrella. Pivoting, I marched north as far as I felt comfortable. Off in the distance I recognized roofs and a white fence. But that was it. No Pollard, no Hunny, no Juliet, and no sign they’d been anywhere near there.

Thirst drove me back to the car.

As for supplies, we were pathetically undergeared. In my backpack I carried my personal belongings, a canteen of water, some snacks, and a couple changes of clean clothes. An extra-long screwdriver. My short sword, a fully functional replica from the Lord of the Rings films that had been my dad’s before the red plague. And the golden-hued guitar Ben had given me.

Definitely not enough to build a secure shelter and hunker down for days.

Depending on the temperature, my water supply might only last twenty-four hours. The same for the snacks.

And with Ben not in his right mind, everything fell to me to do. Except I wasn’t any good at taking care of other people. I was okay at caring for myself, but awful at taking care of others.

I opened the driver’s side door and reached between the seats for my pack and the canteen inside it. Because of the tiny interior I was forced to get very, very close to Ben. I tried not to disturb him, but my ribs brushed his arm. He snapped awake, and I squeaked in surprise, banging my head on the roof of the car.

“Maya?” he exclaimed, and then he scampered out of the car on all fours into the soft sand.

“It’s me,” I confirmed, climbing out and massaging the top of my head.

“What happened?” He used the car to push himself upright.

“We escaped from Camp Carson,” I explained, glossing over the rough parts. Like the fire. The torture chamber. Unstrapping him from a gurney.

He turned in a circle, scanning the area, and then pinned his intense red eyes on me. “Are you okay?”

“I’ve been better.” Muscles and joints I didn’t even know I had ached. I stretched my arms over my head, and my spine crackled like pretzel rods. “How do you feel?”

He was standing and alert, and he had color back in his cheeks. All good signs.

“I’m okay. How far are we from the base?” He squinted down the beach.

“I drove about fifteen miles-an-hour for two hours.” Camp Carson was southwest of Richmond, but after traveling north and east I could no longer picture our location on a map. We definitely weren’t near any big cities. “The car’s out of gas. I haven’t seen or heard anyone.”

“Where’s Pollard? And Hunny?”

I kicked at a clump of grass. “They left a hole for us to go through. I stayed behind to get you. We said we’d go straight east and meet on the beach.”

“Did you go straight east?”

No. I had messed up. I should’ve forced Ben onto his feet and gotten us through the trees the night before, but I’d been so scared I’d wanted to get as far away from Smart as possible. He’d tortured Ben for days in his locked room, and I was scared he would follow us and recapture Ben.

And because of it, we may have lost Pollard and Hunny for good.

“There were woods to the east,” I said. “I drove north until I found beach access. I guess they went a different way.” Or, worse, went back to rescue us. If they had, they could be locked in Ben’s old prison.

“Was there a backup plan?” he asked.

“Meet at the Washington Monument. Pollard thinks there might be people there.”

Ben blew out a long breath. “Have you seen any sign of them at all?”

“I searched while you were sleeping. I walked up and down the beach but I didn’t see anything. Not even a piece of trash blowing in the wind. It’s too dark, but if I turn on a flashlight I might attract trouble.”

“I need some fresh air.”

I bit my tongue to keep from saying, “We’re already outside. How much fresher can the air get?”

But he was determined and wobbled across the sand to the edge of the water. Just as I had done, he inched too close and wet his boots. Except he didn’t jump back like I had. He stood in the surf and let it wash over his feet.

A memory of him strapped to a gurney in Smart’s barracks room flashed in my mind. What had they done to him?

After he’d injected my dad’s antiserum, I’d been so sure the right thing to do was get him to a doctor and pull the answer to reversing the red plague out of his blood. But Smart had lied to me. I’d thought Ben was being cared for by the residents of Camp Carson. But as soon as they’d closed the door on him, they’d started the horror show. They could’ve done anything to him in there. Surgery. Amputation. Complete exsanguination.

One thing they hadn’t done was extract the cure.

“Are you okay?” I asked hesitantly, afraid to spook him. I stepped closer, itching to feel his brow for fever, but I didn’t dare. Not with him so unsteady.

“Stay away from me,” he gasped. ”For God’s sake, Maya, just stay back.”

I moved away so quickly I nearly tripped and fell on my butt in the sand. But I steadied myself and then kept a healthy distance between us.

Ben’s expression was tense as he turned toward the churning surf. “I don’t like being tied up,” he growled. “They tied me up. Do you understand?” He sucked in a ragged breath. “It was like being in lockdown in Dogwood.”

The Dogwood Juvenile Detention Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The one Ben had been sentenced to. The same one my twin brother had been inside when the red plague hit.

Mason had been incarcerated when he was fifteen and ordered to serve time until his eighteenth birthday. A milestone he probably would never make. We didn’t turn eighteen for three more months. If he hadn’t escaped before 212R spread, then he would have been trapped inside the jail when chaos erupted. Theoretically, he could still be inside.

I shivered. “Can you walk?” I asked. Silly question. Ben was in no condition to walk. He could barely stand. “Nix that. I’ll get you some water. You need to drink lots of fluids. Fruit would be nice.” I was babbling like an idiot. We didn’t have fruit. We were lucky to have clean, drinkable water.

“Here.” I tossed the canteen at his feet so he didn’t have to touch me. Or smell me. “Drink.”

Whatever progress he’d made in the last few days seemed lost. He was just as unstable as the first day after injecting the elixir.

“It’s not safe here.” He took a long swallow from my canteen, and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Carefully, he straightened his heavy boots, then the cuffs of his trousers, and then the sleeves of his black T-shirt. Finally, he rearranged his dark hair. “We have to keep moving.”

“No.” One thing was obvious. Some awful stuff had gone down in Smart’s so-called lab and Ben had regressed to near zombie status. “It’s two o’clock in the morning. We should stay here and sleep. At dawn, I’ll forage in the woods.” I glanced at the Atlantic Ocean rolling away from us. “Maybe I can even fish something.”

“You said Pollard is going to Washington, D.C.?” He frowned as if piecing a puzzle together. “Then we have to follow him.”

“What? No.” I advanced a step, and then reversed trajectory. “Sorry. I mean, you need to rest from,” I eyed him up and down, “whatever happened. We don’t have to rush into another trip.” Because I wasn’t even sure if Pollard was in D.C. Or okay. Or alive.

“You came back for me.” There was a growly resolve in his voice. “I will take you to your Pollard.”

“He’s not my anything,” I said quickly. “And you’re not ready to go on another road trip.”

“You should be part of a family, Maya, even if it’s not your own family.”

I huffed a laugh. Where had that come from? “I’m fine by myself,” I assured. “Besides, I had a family. They’re all dead.”

But Ben had stopped listening. “Is D.C. north of here?”

“It has to be.” There was no way I’d passed it during the night.

“Please pack our stuff. I just need another minute.” He plopped onto the sand again, pressing his palms against his eye sockets.

“Headache?” I guessed.

“Mmm.”

I left him in the sand to collect my backpack from the car, as well as my guitar and short sword. By the time I closed the Bug’s door, Ben was back on his feet.

“I’ll follow you.” His pace would be my pace, even if it meant slowing to a crawl.

Without saying a word, he lifted the backpack right off my shoulders and walked up the starlit beach, veering away from the water where the ground was firmer and easier to navigate. I jogged to catch up.

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Elixir (Red Plague #1) Chapter One

Enjoy this free sneak peek of Elixir’s 1st chapter!

Elixir (Red Plague #1)

Written by Anna Abner

Copyright 2014 by Anna Abner

Elixir1800x2700

Back Cover Blurb:

The red plague has devastated the human race, turning billions of people into zombies with red eyes and an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

The 212R virus sweeps through the population so quickly a possible cure is left to rot. Seventeen-year-old Maya Solomon may be the only survivor who knows where it is. But to reach the lab in Raleigh, North Carolina she will have to outrun the infected boy tracking her every step and cross into a city swarming with monsters.

Chapter One

A buzzing circular saw woke me five minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off. Instant, achy terror consumed me. I scrambled out of bed in my PJs and crouched at the end of the hall, peeking around the corner into the living room beyond the foyer.

“Dad?” I hissed.

He stood, hands on hips, in front of our big screen TV staring at local news.

I sagged against the wall in relief. For a moment I’d thought… But no. We weren’t being attacked by red-eyed plague victims.

Dad hadn’t heard me, but around and between his arms I watched the agitated news anchor struggle through her report.

“If you are in a heavily infected area,” the hollow-eyed brunette read off the teleprompter, “you are instructed to shelter in place. Do not attempt to travel. Roads and highways are impassable, particularly in Raleigh and Charlotte. The safest thing for you to do is stay where you are. Lock your doors and windows and wait for further instruction.”

A tiny hiccup of fright escaped my throat, and Dad whipped his head around. His normally slicked back blond hair was dry and messy as if he hadn’t bothered to comb it at all.

“Maya,” he exclaimed, pasting on a friendly smile. But under the positive facade I could tell he was just as terrified as I was. The world was falling to pieces and we both knew it. “Good morning, baby girl. Did the construction wake you up? I told them not to make noise until after six.”

Baby girl. He hadn’t called me that in two years. Not since Mom’s funeral.

“Dad,” I said, twisting my fingers around a long tendril of dark hair. “What is going on?” I had fallen asleep worried about the incredibly fast-moving 212R virus and woken up in a construction zone.

“Oh.” He glanced through the kitchen archway toward the saw noises. “These men are building a survival bunker in the pantry. I think I mentioned it last week. It’s like a panic room, but it won’t require electricity.”

“Why do we need that?” Was I not panicking enough? 212R was infecting densely populated urban areas and, after three days of fever, stripping the diseased of their higher level thinking skills and replacing them with insatiable cravings for raw flesh and blood. Victims were crawling all over the larger cities. We were safe, for the moment, in our suburb. But we might not be for long.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, showing me another fake smile, making me even jumpier. “It’s an insurance policy. Get dressed and we’ll have breakfast.”

I slipped into my bedroom and tugged on my track gear—shorts, tee, and cross-trainers—in record time to catch up to Dad and one of the construction workers at the kitchen island.

Dad pulled stacks of wrapped twenties from his shoulder bag and slid them across the granite counter toward the man.

“It’s more than I told you,” Dad said quietly. “Can you finish before two?”

“No problem, boss.” The man glanced at me. “With the four of us working nonstop it’ll be done in a couple hours.”

“With an independent ventilation system?”

“Exactly like we talked about.”

“Sanitation station?”

“Roger’s putting in the piping now.”

I cleared my throat. “Do you want cereal, Dad? There’s some oatmeal left.”

He flinched as if he’d forgotten I was there. “Baby girl, make whatever you want. I have to go in a minute.”

My belly plummeted. “You’re going to work?”

The television, the small one next to the toaster oven, was tuned to cable news. On the screen was a fuzzy snapshot of an infected man, his face splattered with blood and his eyes a distinct and deep shade of red.

The news anchor said hotly to his guest, “We will not call them the Z word, Professor. They are ill and need our support, not our ridicule.” He choked up, covering his mouth for a moment. “My mother has been sick the last couple days. Her eyes went red last night.” He inhaled a shaky breath. “I won’t stand for that kind of language. Not on this show.”

On the right side of the screen was a cautionary graphic with bullet points. Stay indoors. Conserve energy. Boil water and keep it in sealed containers. Phone calls for emergencies only.

“I’m sorry.” Dad used the remote to turn off the TV. “You don’t need to watch this nonsense. It’s all posturing and fear mongering.”

Well, they had succeeded. I was terrified. “Should I stay home from school?”

“No,” Dad said. “The virus isn’t here yet. The best thing for you to do is go to school, see your friends, run track, just be normal.”

“But the news—“

“It’s bad in the cities,” he agreed, “but we’re not in the city. If 212R is here, it’s new. We have time.”

Up to three days. That’s how long it took the infection to invade a body and take over completely.

“Your lab is in Raleigh,” I reminded him. “It’s not safe there.”

He cupped my face, and though his touch was gentle, his fingers were tense as talons against my cheeks. “A cure exists, Maya, but I have to finish synthesizing the antiserum. If all my staff shows up I can finish it today. I have to go.”

I opened my mouth to argue further. He was one chemist toiling in a Center for Disease Control lab full of scientists and technicians. What difference would his absence make, honestly, in the grand scheme?

“I can put an end to this,” he said, his voice turning husky with emotion. “I can fix everything. I can save them.”

I saw in the set of his jaw and the steel in his spine I was not going to convince him to stay.

My stomach unraveled like an old scarf. “But you’ll come home tonight?”

“Of course.” He backed away, gesturing to the counter by the sink. “On your way to school, will you return Mrs. Kinley’s dish? It’s been sitting here for a week.”

“Okay.”

“I’m sorry I’m in such a hurry,” he said, collecting his satchel, keys, and cell phone. “The CDC is sending a helicopter to pick me up.”

I walked him to the front door, getting that itchy feeling I used to get when he dropped Mason and I off at day care years ago. I didn’t want him to go.

“Don’t forget,” he said, pausing at the threshold, “wash your hands constantly. Carry sanitizer with you. No shaking hands. No hugs. Eat and drink from sealed containers only.”

“I will, Dad.” I’d heard his cleanliness rules so often, especially in the last few weeks when 212R was all anybody could talk about, I knew them by heart.

“Come home tonight,” I pleaded one last time. Since Mom died and my twin brother Mason went away, Dad was all I had left. “Promise me? No matter how much work you still have to do?”

“I’ll come home. And I’ll bring a generator for the bunker.” He kissed my forehead and drove off in his car.

I had almost forgotten the workers banging away in my kitchen until I shut the front door and came face to face with their crew leader.

“Any little extras you want in there?” he asked, smacking his lips as he studied my hair. “Since your daddy is paying for it. I can throw in carpeting. Would you like that? What about a bulletproof peephole?”

Tucking my hair behind both ears, I edged toward the hallway and my bedroom. “Sounds good. Thanks.”

I twisted my hair into a bun, packed a bag with a change of clothes, my copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets for English class, and my school binder. Before leaving my room I hesitated in the doorway staring, unfocused, at my honey colored guitar. Holding it in my arms, strumming the strings, and feeling the chords’ vibrations in my ribcage was the best part of my day. But it would be a pain to carry it from class to class so I left it behind, promising myself to play it when I got home.

I left the house in a hurry, snatching the baking dish off the kitchen counter on the way out.

Mrs. Kinley opened her front door, but only after I knocked five or six times. And when she did, her hair usually in a sleek ponytail down the back of her neck laid loose and wild.

“Maya, what are you doing out there?” She yanked me inside, slamming the door and locking it behind me. “Are you watching the news? It isn’t safe.”

“Have they closed the schools?” Maybe I wouldn’t have to go after all, no matter what my dad thought.

“Not here. But they did in Raleigh.” Her cat Freckles darted across the room as if she had a ghost on her long fluffy tail. “They’re closing down the whole city. This zombie plague is ridiculous.”

The Z word, the word we weren’t supposed to say.

“Do you know what they just said on TV?” she added. “Reds can’t speak.” Her eyes filled with unshed tears, and she reached for my hand. Her fingers were cold, but strong. “Isn’t that the saddest thing you’ve ever heard? Even if they wanted to communicate, they physically can’t.”

Extricating my hand, I tried to smile reassuringly, but I feared it was more of a sneer. “It’s sad.”

“The saddest,” she said, turning back to the box she was packing on her living room sofa.

“My dad went to work in Raleigh,” I said. “He’s trying to finish a cure.”

“Bless his heart.” Her words were kind, but her eyes were resolute as if she’d already written him off. “Do you want to stay here with me until he gets home?”

“I’m going to school,” I announced bravely, though I felt anything but. “I just wanted to give this back.” I showed her the dish. “Thanks again for the brownies. They were really good.”

“My pleasure.” She pulled me in for a longer and tighter than normal hug, and I rested my chin on her shoulder. Enveloped in Mrs. Kinley’s soft, sweet smelling arms, I missed my mom more than ever. “Be safe. Not even our little corner of the world is immune to all this.” She waved her hand toward the living room to encompass the news on the TV.

“I will.” Readjusting my backpack I crossed her lawn and slid behind the wheel of my car, a rinky-dink coupe my dad had bought for me to practice on.

Palmetto High School was practically deserted. And it wasn’t just students ditching under the threat of plague. Half the teachers were absent and only a handful of subs showed up to cover their classes. Lots of kids crammed into classrooms they wouldn’t normally be in.

But my track coach was right on time and ready to sweat.

“I hope you delicate flowers came to work,” Coach greeted us. “No bird or pig or, I don’t know, raccoon flu is going to stop us, right?”

I glanced to my right at the three other runners who’d shown up to morning practice and nodded woodenly.

“That’s what I love to see.” Coach blew her whistle. “Warm up mile. Let’s go, ladies.”

I took off, quickly outpacing my teammates.

My best event was the one thousand meter. I was fast on a normal day. Maybe the panic and anxiety helped fuel me because I was better than fast. I was a machine in drills, not even caring about the humid, North Carolina air hanging heavy and thick. As I sprinted sweat blossomed, coating me in sticky moisture, but I never slowed down. By the time the first bell rang I was wrung out. I showered in the locker room and hurried to first period.

My history teacher Mr. Coates had the TV on and nobody even pretended to study or finish assignments. We scooted under the television and absorbed live footage from New York and Miami, the hardest hit U.S cities so far.

And North Carolina was right between them.

Infected plague victims, red eyes seeming to glow, swarmed the streets attacking and consuming people. Survivors jammed all major routes of transportation—freeways, train depots, airports.

“Lola Rodriguez had no way of knowing her first floor apartment would be attacked in the middle of the night by a 212R sufferer,” Daniela, a veteran reporter announced to the camera. “Thanks to her quick thinking she not only saved her own life but the lives of three of her neighbors by waking them up and hiding them on a second floor terrace.”

They looped a short video clip of a Red climbing a staircase, getting about halfway up, and toppling over like a toy soldier on a shaky table.

“As we’ve learned in the past few days,” the anchor continued, “212R affects the inner ear. Sufferers will not be able to either rise or descend more than a few feet before feeling uncontrollably dizzy.”

I glanced at the windows. Red eyes, no speech, and an inability to climb. Oh, and an insatiable craving for raw flesh and blood. And they were out there, not that far away, in Raleigh and Charlotte.

The reporter wrapped up her segment. “If there’s one thing to take away from the last hour,” Daniela said, “it is to shelter in place. Please, please, if you are in any of the major plague centers immediately find a safe spot to be for the next few days.” She smiled sadly. “My heart goes out to those suffering, both victims and survivors. If you can hear my voice, stay safe. Stay vigilant. We will get through this.”

The show went to commercial at the same time the bell rang, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

On the way out of the room, even though it was against the rules, I brought my cell out of my bag and texted my dad. “Did you make it to work?”

Seconds ticked by. A minute. I waited in the hall. Just as I was about to put it away and go to my next class I received a text.

“I got to ride in a helicopter! Everything good. Working hard. Are you in school?”

“Yes. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

The next three classes went about the same as first period. At lunch I did what I always did, slipped into the band room to play guitar with my friend Guinevere. But Gwen wasn’t there so I stuck a granola bar in my mouth, pulled a student guitar from its case, and plucked a couple notes.

I played an upbeat country pop song on my instrument. The kind of song I loved. Normally.

It rang false. Nothing about the world was light and snappy anymore.

The side door slammed open and Cal poked his head in, his cold, calculating eyes discovering me sitting all by myself. The very sight of him caused a sour fear to spike inside my chest.

On any other day there were enough people in the room to create a buffer between Cal and I, but it was just the two of us.

Apparently, not even the threat of infection and death could suppress his sadistic impulses.

“Hey dork.” He grinned as he produced a chocolate milk grenade and pretended to bite an invisible pin from the top of the container. “Incoming!”

I abandoned the school’s guitar and took off a split second before he threw it overhand, digging my feet into the carpeting and sprinting for the back exit to the soundtrack of his cackling laughter. The warm milk exploded against my hip, splashing me from shoulders to knees in sugary, sticky mess.

I ran hard across the grassy quad and toward the girls’ locker room, not looking back.

“Attention students and staff,” a voice boomed over the loudspeaker. I slid to a stop next to a soda machine and spun, but Cal hadn’t chased me. “You are ordered by the county Sheriff’s department to go directly home at this time and stay there.” A pause. “A 6:00 p.m. curfew will be strictly enforced.” Another pause. “God bless us all.”

The emergency alarm screamed through the halls and pulsed from every classroom.

I hurried for the parking lot, joining the crowd of people headed the same way, and pulled my cell. “School’s canceled,” I texted my dad. “On my way home.”

He didn’t reply right away, but he kept his phone in his office, so if he was busy in the lab it might be a while.

The streets were congested and it took twice as long to get home. I steered my Honda with both hands fisted on the wheel. Twice, I narrowly avoided collisions with cars zigzagging through traffic.

My phone beeped. “Busy,” Dad texted. “Move garage gear into panic room. See you tonight.” I was too worried about dying on the road to stop and answer him.

The work trucks were gone from my driveway when I pulled up.

“Maya!” Mrs. Kinley came off her front porch with Freckles in a carrier. “Is your dad coming to get you?”

“He’s in Raleigh,” I said, “but he’s been texting. He’ll be home tonight.”

“Okay.” She popped the carrier into the backseat of her car. “I’m going to meet my parents in Nashville. You can come with me if you want. I’d love the company and 212R isn’t as bad in the country as it is in the cities.”

“I have to wait for my dad,” I said. “He’s really close to finding a cure.”

She smiled wistfully. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful.”

“Be careful out there,” I said and bolted myself inside my house.

I did what I’d been doing the last two weeks or so after school, as part of my dad’s safety checklist. I stripped to my underwear in the laundry room and immediately took a hot shower in the hall bathroom. Only then did I change into comfy pants and a tank top and inspected our new panic room.

The crew had done a good job. It looked solid. Impenetrable, even. Our old pantry was now a metal cell with a heavy swinging door that sealed from the inside with a wheel crank. I crossed the square of extra soft carpeting and decided I could live there for a few days. As long as my dad was with me.

Speaking of, I texted him again. “Panic room is done. Looks sturdy.”

While I waited for him to reply I made myself a sandwich and turned on the TV.

More bad news. Most of New York City was black and offline.

“The president has declared the entire city of New York a disaster zone,” the reporter said. “The National Guard is on the ground as we speak doing all they can to quarantine plague sufferers and evacuate survivors.” A video flashed on of a giant tank driving down a street choked with cars and people.

I didn’t feel particularly optimistic about the military response. The threat to the city was a microscopic virus, not anything that could be shot or detained.

Done with my snack I followed my dad’s directions. He’d been busy the last few weeks, even busier than I realized. Locked in our garage lay cases of drinking water and canned food, a first-aid kit, a tub of survival gear, and two narrow cots. I spent the afternoon sweeping up after the workers and moving and organizing the supplies into the old pantry.

“If you have a fever,” the news anchor announced, “go immediately to the nearest emergency room.”

I pressed the back of my hand to my forehead. So far so good.

“The best hope we have is to contain the virus,” the reporter continued. “Once infected, though, you can spot a ‘Red,’ as some folks are calling them, by the red color of their eyes. We now have Dr. LaVay from the CDC to tell us more about why and how 212R affects the color of our irises. Doctor?”

I turned off the TV and texted Dad, “Lasagna for dinner? I’ll start at 5.”

While I waited to hear from him I collected my guitar from my room and strummed a song I had written the year before called “Red Shoelaces.”

When the tray of frozen vegetable lasagna was hot and ready at six I served myself and ate in front of the television. Every five minutes or so I checked my cell to see if my dad texted anything and I had missed the beep, but nothing came in.

“Many of the services we take for granted,” the reporter said, “will no longer be available as early as tomorrow morning along the entire eastern seaboard. 212R has spread so quickly, incapacitating so many people, there may not be enough qualified people to run power, water, and sanitation services.”

I set my dinner in the trash and double-checked that all the doors and windows were locked tight and then turned on my phone. No new messages.

“We here at the news desk will keep reporting,” she added, “as long as we can to get you the information you need to stay safe. If the power in your area goes out, don’t panic. Scrolling on the screen right now are the radio channels broadcasting emergency information in your area. So, if you have a battery powered radio in your survival kit get it out and test the batteries.”

Something that sounded like a firecracker popped outside the front door. Then twice more.

Gunfire? I couldn’t be around gunfire. It reminded me of Mason and my mom and the horrible, awful thing that happened two years ago.

I ran to the window, but the street was deserted.

My cell screen was blank. No new messages, no new texts, no missed calls.

“Dad,” I whispered at my phone. “Where are you?”

The power blinked off, draping the house in quiet, purplish dusk.

“Lights went out,” I texted Dad. “What do I do?”

Somebody outside screamed. The living room window shattered. Someone or something in the yard growled like a pissed off panther.

I snatched my guitar, my song diary, and my iPad.

The front door crashed open, and I ran for it, slamming the bunker’s door closed with a resounding clank.

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Antidote (Red Plague #2) Chapter One

Enjoy this free sneak peek of Antidote’s 1st chapter!

Antidote (Red Plague #2)

Copyright 2014 by Anna Abner

Back Cover Blurb:

The red plague has devastated the human race, turning billions of people into zombies with red eyes and an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

The only known cure to the 212R virus is locked inside of Ben Sawyer. To get it out, seventeen-year-old Maya Solomon and a group of survivors will take him on a journey to what may be the last bastion of human civilization, Camp Carson, Virginia.

Chapter One

“Maya!” Pollard made a hard right, the RV bounced over a median, and I held Ben even tighter. “He’s a zombie. Back off.”

“He injected the cure,” I argued. “He’s not a zombie anymore.”

“You don’t know that!”

“He said my name,” I stated, still rocked by the memory of my name on his lips. I’d never heard a red-eyed infected person speak. No one had.

I felt the pulse at his throat and was rewarded with a strong thrumming against the pads of my fingers. Like plucking a bass guitar. His forehead, gritty beneath my palm, radiated heat. The fever had come on fast.

“Do we have Tylenol?” I called out. I didn’t even possess a proper first-aid kit. And there were so many other things that could go wrong.

“Not that I know of,” Pollard answered.

I wasn’t even sure if a fever was normal in a person infected with 212R, the zombie virus. Maybe he’d had one all along.

“I can do this.”

I had never done this. Over winter break I’d volunteered at St. Joseph’s Hospital to make my dad, the chemist with two medical degrees, happy. I had alternated between stocking supplies my manager re-organized after I went home—which was awful—and trailing actual nurses as they did their work—which was awesome. One LPN used to narrate every single thing she did, from inserting IVs to checking blood pressures.

But none of it had prepared me for this.

“Where are we going?” I asked. If we found a hospital or a clinic I might be able to scrounge medical supplies.

“Away from this nightmare,” Pollard said.

Away from the flaming remains of my dad’s CDC lab. Away from anything he’d made or left behind. All that was left of his work coursed through Ben’s veins and nowhere else.

As gently as possible, I unbuttoned the top two buttons on his shirt and peeled the dark navy fabric away from his skin to inspect the gunshot wound. A dime-sized hole, surrounded by angry swollen flesh, stared back at me.

I replaced his shirt and something like rough paper in his breast pocket, the one over his heart, stalled my fingers.

I pulled out a wallet-sized school photo and immediately dropped it.

“Crap.” Fumbling, I picked it up off the RV’s dirty linoleum floor and stared into my own face.

Mine.

To be certain, I flipped it over and my narrow, jagged signature adorned the back. Last Christmas I’d mailed the photo inside a care package to my brother Mason. It had been addressed to the Dogwood Juvenile Detention Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.

But if I’d mailed it to Mason, how had it ended up in Ben’s shirt?

“Hang on to something,” Pollard called.

I stuffed the pic into my pocket. If Pollard or Hunny asked questions about it, I had no answers, yet.

I tested Ben’s pulse again, this time the one at his wrist, just to be sure it still beat. But my touch jumpstarted a chain reaction. His fingers twitched, and then the tremors spread to his arms and legs.

“Oh, no,” I cried out. His legs spasmed and his head knocked against my belly and thighs. Hard. “Ben? Can you hear me?”

Fear twisted my insides into origami as I held him through full body convulsions. Finally, his muscles quieted. I checked and re-checked his pulse.

“What’s wrong?” Pollard shouted.

“The medicine made him sick.” Understatement. More likely, it had poisoned him and his internal organs were failing.

“You’re not going to die,” I whispered as his seizure faded to a few quivers in his hands. Not with my father’s only remaining elixir in his blood. “I’ll take care of you.” Whatever he needed. A bath. Decent clothes. Soft blankets and a pillow. How long had it been since he’d slept on a pillow? If he needed medicine, I’d find it.

I wanted to take care of him. Because with my father’s antiserum in his veins, he felt a whole lot like family.

And I didn’t have much family left. My gaze wandered across the interior of the RV from Hunny’s blonde ringlets to the back of Pollard’s head.

Pollard cursed loudly, clipping the rear end of a compact car and sending it spinning away. The RV swayed to the left and I knocked into the mini fridge.

“I noticed the neighborhoods are less crowded than the highways,” he said.

On our two-day trip into downtown Raleigh, we’d stuck to major thoroughfares and been slowed down at every turn. Nothing but streets bottlenecked with abandoned vehicles, packs of red zombies, and overzealous snipers. I glanced down at Ben’s dirty face. He’d be a major hindrance if we were forced to change vehicles, or worse, walk part of the way back to the truck stop.

“Get the map out,” Pollard said. “Please?”

He swerved around debris, and it felt like the RV went up on two wheels for a moment, sending my stomach into a tailspin.

“Hunny,” I called. “It’s in my backpack.” I was afraid to move. Afraid to jostle Ben, even a little bit, and maybe hurt him.

I shifted, positioning his head on my lap, and cupped the side of his face. To keep him still. To reassure myself he was still breathing.

The little girl, ringlets bouncing, leapt over the unconscious Red and rifled through my pack.

“Here,” she said, returning to the front of the RV and handing the paper to Pollard.

“Spread it out,” he said. “I’m not stopping this thing. Not for a single minute. It’s too crazy out there.” To prove his point, he waved at something on the other side of the extra-tall windshield. “You see that pack of zombies? Must be twenty-five of them.” As we passed the pack by bouncing onto the sidewalk, Pollard checked the side mirrors. “And now they’re running after us.” He caught my eye over his shoulder. “We’re gonna get out of here,” he said, his usually pretty blue eyes steely with resolve. “I promise you.”

With the map unfolded and laid out on the dash, he pointed at different sites. “We’re about here.” He glanced up and turned the wheel to avoid a decorative brick wall around someone’s front yard. “We’re going west through the suburbs,” he announced, nodding as if convincing himself as well as us. “Then we’ll turn south and come up on the truck stop from the back.”

“It took two days to get here the first time,” I reminded him.

“It’s not going to take that long.” He smiled reassuringly at me in the rearview mirror. “On a good day I can drive there in twenty minutes. So…”

But since 212R had ravaged the human race, changing over ninety-nine percent of us into flesh-eating monsters, time seemed to pass differently. What had once taken a few minutes now took hours when you factored in the loss of electricity and scavenging for gas and hiding from Reds.

“Just hurry,” I added unnecessarily. “We need a safe place to stop and regroup.” To process the sight of my dad’s empty and looted lab. Or the fire. Or Ben’s injecting what I hoped was the antiserum. Or his saying my name.

Pollard was right. As soon as he passed through the heart of the city, there were fewer parked vehicles, less random debris, fewer Reds. He rolled over streets, driveways, access lanes, and sometimes even sidewalks and front lawns to keep us moving in the right direction.

“Maya?” Hunny climbed out of the passenger seat and stepped tentatively down the narrow walkway between the gas range and the dining table. “I saw snacks in your pack. Can I have some?”

I couldn’t remember what was in there. “Of course.” Then I recalled another helpful item I’d collected along the way. “And grab the baby wipes, will you?”

But she crept as far as Ben’s boot and then hesitated. “What’s wrong with him?”

I wiggled a little, changing positions, but kept his head in my lap. He didn’t react, just continued sleeping against me. “He injected the antiserum to 212R.” At least I hoped it was the antiserum. If it wasn’t, he may have ruined everything by injecting himself with poison.

Hunny scrunched her nose. “What?”

“He took the cure,” I said. “But probably the wrong dose. It’s making him sick.”

Her green eyes traveled up his body from his dirt-caked black boots over his stained blue work clothes to his blood-splattered face. “Are you going to be a zombie now? Because you touched him?”

“No,” I said quickly. “If I haven’t been infected yet, I probably won’t be. Besides,” I added, nodding at the back of Pollard’s head, “he thinks we’re immune.”

“It’s just a theory,” he said, proving he was eavesdropping. “It doesn’t mean you should touch him, Maya.”

“I think it’s a good theory.” It made sense to me. No matter how catastrophic a virus was, there was always a fraction of the population naturally immune.

“What are you going to do with him?” Hunny asked. She nudged his boot with the toe of her tennis shoe and Ben’s leg wobbled, but he didn’t wake up.

“Easy,” I warned. He was a human being, not a toy. “I’m not going to do anything with him. He’ll wake up,” I hope, “and we’ll find out if the antiserum worked.”

She bobbed her head, but I sensed she had something else to say. Finally, she whispered low enough Pollard couldn’t hear, “Maya, I took something.”

My guts clenched. “What did you take?” And from where?

“I’m sorry,” she said in a rush. “I know you told me not to, but it was just sitting there, and it was so cute and little.”

“What did you take?” I pressed. We’d been in a lab where hazardous chemicals were stored. “It could be dangerous.”

“No, it’s not.” She pulled a silver rectangle from her pocket and offered it to me. “Here. Look. It was on your dad’s desk.”

The moment it landed in my palm I knew what it was. Immediately, like turning a faucet, I teared up.

“It’s me and my brother when we were little.”

I opened the small, hinged frame and stared at a pair of black and white portraits, cropped to show just the faces and nothing else. At two, when the pictures had been taken, we’d looked so similar. We both had wispy black hair. The same brown eyes. Only our smiles were different. Mine was smaller, more hesitant. Mason grinned whole-heartedly, showing off tiny baby teeth.

“This is me.” I touched the glass over my pale face, and then my twin brother’s. “This is Mason.”

So much had gone wrong since we’d taken the photos, but in the snapshots we were still young and sweet and the future seemed bright. Maybe that’s why Dad kept it on his desk, even after Mason was incarcerated. Maybe he’d liked to remember his kids before the darkness descended.

I thought of the picture tucked into my pocket. Is that why Ben liked it? Did my face somehow remind him of his life before the plague?

“I’m sorry,” Hunny said again.

I closed the frame and returned it to her. “It’s okay. I’m glad you took it.”

“You should have it.” She tried to give it back. “It’s yours.”

“No.” I shook my head. It hurt too much to look at. “Keep it. You can give it back to me later when you’re done with it.”

She wedged it into her pocket and unzipped my backpack. “Here.” She handed me the wipes and then returned to the passenger’s seat with a box of yogurt-covered raisins.

I scrubbed vigorously at my hands with a moist towelette, rubbing between my fingers and up both wrists. I repeated the process with a second cloth, removing layers of blood, dirt, and grime. No matter how hard I washed, though, I couldn’t remove every mark I’d gathered since the red plague exploded out of South America and then the world. Maybe I’d never be completely clean.

There was so much blood caked on Ben’s hands they looked black, but up his left arm was a fine misting of white paint. Evidence it had been him who’d written me a message on asphalt, and no one else. Proof he was different than most Reds. I reached to clean it off when the RV hit something so big I was weightless for an instant.

“Ladies?” Pollard announced, spinning the giant steering wheel. “We’re almost there.”

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Elixir (Red Plague #1) Is Free!

Or, Download Your Copy Of The YA Zombie Adventure Today

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Elixir is free on Amazon from Feb. 25 – Mar. 1!

Back Cover Blurb:

The red plague has devastated the human race, turning billions of people into zombies with red eyes and an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

The 212R virus sweeps through the population so quickly a possible cure is left to rot. Seventeen-year-old Maya Solomon may be the only survivor who knows where it is. But to reach the lab in Raleigh, North Carolina she will have to outrun the infected boy tracking her every step and cross into a city swarming with monsters.

 

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Meet The Necromancers Of NC For $.99

Or, Spell of Summoning On Sale Now

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Between Dec. 1, 2014 and January 15, 2015 the first novel in the Dark Caster series is on sale at Amazon for $.99.

Cover Blurb:

Holden Clark walks into Rebecca Powell’s life, a tall, blue-eyed stranger who stirs long forgotten desires. But nothing, including this man, is what it seems. A dark necromancer is targeting Becca for a full-blown demonic possession. She is thrust into a world she never knew existed—a world where dark casters create chaos and necromancers talk to the dead.

Holden has no faith in his power. A necromancer, he communicates with the dead, but he has never embraced his gifts. Now, he has no choice. He must stop the dark caster attacking Rebecca, but accepting this mission means he’ll be delving into dangerous magics he’s never used before.

Under the protection of the damaged and mysterious Holden, Rebecca will question everything …

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