Seven weeks and counting until AS LIE THE DEAD hits shelves! I admit, I'm on pins and needles waiting for reviews. Second books always seem to carry more expectations than first books, and I really hope AS LIE delivers for you guys. I absolutely adore some of the new characters in this book, and I think at least one of them will capture your attention (*cough*wingedhawtness*cough*).
So to further entice you, here's the rest of Chapter One. I posted an excerpt several weeks ago that you can find here.
Yeah, not my fault. Maybe if I said that a few more times, I'd even believe it.
The Hunters and Handlers continued collecting bodies as the sun inched higher into the morning sky, turning purples and crimsons into pinks and golds. The odor of rot intensified as the cool morning gave way to warmth. A different sort of body pile was rising near our Jeep—six dead Hunters, each carefully covered with a cotton blanket. While fewer in number, those losses hit much harder. Adding in the death of Rufus's entire Triad team yesterday, we had lost forty percent of our trained forces.
The battle had ultimately lasted only an hour, but the effects would be felt for a long time—not only among the Triads but also among the many species that inhabited both the city and the surrounding mountains. The goblins—a scavenger species that spent more time in the city's sewers and subterranean tunnels than aboveground—had shown their manipulative hands by joining forces with Halfies and openly attacking us. They'd be hunted mercilessly for it. The Halfies—not fully vampire but no longer fully human—had no real power other than as thugs and roving street gangs, but someone had managed to keep them organized long enough to cause serious carnage tonight.
Their collective status had just gone from Irritant to Public Enemy Number One.
The Triads could handle the goblins and Halfies. We'd been doing it for years, in secret, keeping the existence of such creatures from the general public. No, it was the orchestrator of their activities that had the potential to cause the most upheaval. The Fey Council, humanity's largest champion, had been betrayed by one of their own—an elf named Tovin, one of the very few elves known to exist. He had tried to release a demon into our world by transplanting the thing's consciousness into Wyatt. We'd stopped Tovin and trapped the demon.
Temporarily trapped. Amalie, Queen of the sprites, would likely send someone along shortly to collect the lemon-sized onyx crystal the demon had hardened into, for proper storage and disposal. She'd given me the magic spell to stop the demon; I trusted her to handle it from here.
But perhaps the most important outcome of tonight's battle was that the Triads had found a tentative ally in the vampires—something I'd never expected three days ago from a species who did their collective best to ignore us and, when they didn't, looked down their noses at us. It was an alliance that sprang out of more than just a unified view that all Halfies should be wiped out, only I couldn't put my finger on the more.
And I was too exhausted to worry about it now. "Let's just get the hell out of here," I said.
"You going to file an official report on this, Truman?" Baylor asked.
Wyatt snorted. "Are you offering me my job back?"
"Not mine to offer, but you had a huge part in this. Once a Handler, always a Handler, right?"
"Yeah." That time he seemed to mean it.
I grabbed Wyatt's wrist and tugged him away. He came without further prompting, seemingly as ready to get out of there as I was.
Christ, what now?
Gina Kismet jogged over from the direction of the pavilion opposite the Visitors' Center and pulled to a dead stop in front of us, not even out of breath. Her left leg was bandaged, red already seeping through, but the red-haired, pint-sized Handler seemed unbothered by the wounds. She held out a black cell phone; I eyed it.
"Instinct tells me this isn't over," she said.
"Then take this, just in case."
I did, slipping it into the rear pocket of my jeans. "Thanks."
"We'll see you."
She wandered back, already barking orders at someone else. I didn't know her well but decided then that I liked her. Ballsy and strong, like a Hunter—only not. Flaming red hair disappeared among the remaining figures, though I knew I'd see her again. Probably a lot sooner than I wanted.
Last night, Wyatt and I had come in via the forest, but we decided on a more convenient route back to our hidden car. Several dozen yards down the potholed access road, barely halfway back to the main road, he started laughing. I stopped in the middle of the leaf-strewn pavement and stared at him. He waved one hand at me, not overcome, just privately amused at something in his own head. I glared at him, waiting for an in on the joke.
"I was just thinking," he said. "Here we are walking a mile back to the car when you could probably teleport us both in less than a second."
I hadn't even considered using my newfound Gift to get us back. It would take time to orient to it, just as it would take time to orient to the fact that I'd just taken full possession of my current body. A week ago, I'd been tortured to death by goblins. Three days ago, I'd been resurrected into the body of Chalice Frost, recently deceased via suicide. Less than two hours ago, the magical bargain that gave me only a three-day afterlife had been broken in a flurry of memories and physical sensations. Permanent possession of someone's body apparently also came with the memory of that body's life experiences.
Weird didn't even begin to cover it.
Wyatt and I had also stumbled onto the fact that, unbeknownst to her, Chalice had a Gift. A direct tether to the Break—the source of magic for the world. Only a handful of humans possessed that tether, giving each a unique Gift. Wyatt's was summoning inanimate objects; Chalice's—now mine—was teleportation. I just needed to learn to use it better.
"Not this morning, pal," I replied. "I'm barely over teleporting three people through the force field Tovin put around the Visitors' Center; I haven't slept more than a few hours at a time since, oh, I was dead; and I'm so hungry I could close down a buffet house. I'm done teleporting for the immediate future. Come to think of it, I'm done doing a lot of things for the immediate future."
I started walking again. A gentle breeze swirled from behind, bringing with it the acrid odor of burning things. Not sweet like charred meat but heavy and oily. Disgusting.
"I'm exhausted, Wyatt," I said. "Mentally, physically, emotionally, and any other l-y you want to toss into the mix. I just want to find a motel in the middle of nowhere and sleep for a week. Then take a long, hot bath and sleep for another week."
"And after you've slept for two weeks?" he asked, from somewhere behind me. A second, unvoiced question followed, hinting at the one thing I'd left off my list—him, sharing in these activities.
Maybe after the first week of sleep, I'd have the stamina to contemplate my new Evy/Chalice supercombo existence and his place in it. Part of me wanted to haul him into that hypothetical motel and physically celebrate surviving the battle until we were exhausted and sore. But fear of my reaction to him the last time we'd attempted intimacy kept sex firmly out of my near-future plans. My new body may have given me a physical distance from the memories of being tortured and raped by a goblin, but Wyatt was right—three days was nowhere near enough time to process it all. With my deadline over, I had time to figure out this thing I felt for Wyatt. The attraction had started in Chalice and been fueled by my memories of him, and it was now something entirely its own.
Something I was unable to articulate.
I'd figure out how to articulate it later. "After I've slept for two weeks, maybe I'll use this cell phone to give Kismet a call and make sure the world hasn't gone to hell in a handcart while I've been asleep."
"Hell seems pretty keen on crossing the Break."
"Well, Tovin's dead, the Tainted is contained, and the Fair Ones still guard First Break. I'd say their chances of getting across are looking pretty damned bleak, wouldn't you?"
"Sure, until someone else decides to take over where Tovin left off."
I sped up my pace, unable to outrun the stench of the bonfire that was raging out of sight. "There's always been someone trying to unite the species against us, Wyatt."
"Before Tovin, no one ever actually got them to do it. Especially the goblins, who are notorious for not playing well with others."
I didn't want to admit that he had a good point. Saying it would give his point power, and I was sick of others lording power over me. Sick of being spun around, manipulated, and used. The Triads had done it, Wyatt had done it, and Tovin had done it. No more.
"Hey, look at me."
He grabbed my left wrist. My stomach clenched. I pivoted, twisting my wrist at the same time, then ducked and spun around behind him, effectively bending his arm backward and up against his own back.
"Do not grab me," I said in his ear.
I let go and stepped back, breathing hard for no good reason. Not like that little defensive move had winded me. No, it was the damned adrenaline pumping through me. My heart hammered as my body caught up to my brain. His grabbing my wrist should not have caused such a reaction. Of course, maybe it wasn't my reaction at all.
I had a lot of Chalice Frost to sort through while my brain became acclimated to her residual memories. Taking permanent residence in a dead woman's body was going to require some getting used to. Especially a woman dead by her own hand. My entire life was about not giving up no matter the agony or overwhelming odds. Chalice had killed herself rather than face the figurative demons fueling her depression. I knew now it was rooted in her undiscovered Gift, but she hadn't. She just gave up.
I wanted nothing to do with it. But did embracing her attraction to Wyatt mean embracing her fatal weakness, too? If I couldn't have one without the other…it wasn't in me to give up. Not the me that was Evy Stone.
"I really don't want to talk about this, Wyatt," I said. "I don't want to talk about Tovin, or the Fey Council, the goblins, the Bloods, or anything else that isn't related to me getting some time off from this unholy shit storm called my second life."
"You can't ignore it forever, Evy," he said as he turned to face me.
"I'm not planning to ignore it forever. Just for the immediate future."
"You also going to ignore Chalice for the immediate future?"
"Kind of tough to do now, wouldn't you say?"
"I don't know. You haven't exactly been forthcoming with the details of what happened when I died."
I looked at the ground, wishing he'd stop saying that. Stop talking about dying so casually—it was my routine, not his. Maybe Wyatt's death had broken the resurrection deal and allowed me to live, but the healing crystal I'd accepted from an elderly gnome named Horzt almost hadn't worked. We'd almost lost.
A single finger touched the bottom of my chin and pressed. I let him raise my head high enough to stare right into his coal black eyes. Full of curiosity and pain and life. And deep down, probably so as not to scare me, love. Not the platonic love of a Handler for his longtime Hunter but the love of a man who'd willingly exchanged his soul to give me a second chance at life.
The kind of love I wanted to return and couldn't. At least, not physically. Not until I reconciled Chalice's past with my own. "You really want to know what happened when you died?" I asked.
"My heart shattered in my chest. Metaphorically. Happy now?"
He made a strangled sound in his throat, caught between a gasp and a cry.
"About five seconds later," I continued, "I saw a blinding gray light, had about a thousand different memories flash through my mind, felt a hundred unfamiliar sensations all over my body, and nearly combusted when I realized how powerful my connection to the Break had become."
My new body's Gift of teleportation had been strengthened by this connection, in turn strengthening me. In the instant Chalice and I had finally became one entity, my perspective had changed. My senses had altered. The world wasn't quite the same shade as it had been two hours ago. I didn't know what sort of residual "self" remained behind when a body died, but bits of Chalice had made themselves at home in my brain.
"You saw her memories?" Wyatt asked.
"Some of them, I think, but it's not like how I remember my life. More like emotions and sensations attached to events. Growing up and feeling like an outsider, how she felt about Alex."
God, what about Alex? Chalice's best friend had given his life to help me. I knew nothing about his family, his job, his friends. People in his life would be wondering where he'd disappeared to. They'd want answers. I certainly couldn't tell them he'd been turned into a half-breed vampire, and that I'd shot him in the head to put him out of his misery.
Grief tightened my throat. My eyes watered. I bit the inside of my cheek—no more tears. I had to keep it together.
Wyatt's hand drifted to my shoulder and squeezed. I reached up, twined my fingers with his, and smiled.
"We should keep going," I said. "It's still a long walk back."
I knew him well enough to see how much he held back—the things he wanted to say or do, and didn't. "Okay," he said.
We reached the main road and continued along the shoulder. No cars passed this early in the morning, and we arrived at our hidden (stolen) car a few minutes later. The gas station was just waking up, its neon "Open" sign blazing orange in the window. I smelled bitter coffee—the kind you buy only when no other option presents itself and it's down to overbrewed sludge or falling asleep at the wheel.
My stomach grumbled. Too bad. We were both slathered in blood—human and other. The clerk would call the police before we got five steps inside the door.
"We'll have to ditch this car soon," I said once we were back on the road to the city. The guy we stole it from should be waking up soon—if he hadn't already—and reporting the incident. Regular cops knew nothing about the Triads, and I didn't like the idea of spending the day in a holding cell.
"We also need to figure out where we're going," Wyatt said. "A motel's a good idea, but we need food and fresh clothes."
"What about the were-cat's apartment? The one we stayed in a few days ago?"
He shook his head, slowing the car for an approaching intersection. We were coming out of the forest, into the outskirts of the city, and the road expanded into four lanes. "He'll be back in town today."
"Damn." It was my best idea. "I don't suppose they kept our old place on Cottage?"
"It was the first place the Triads ransacked when you went rogue."
Figured. The two-bedroom apartment on Cottage Place was a hole, but it had been home for the last four years. I'd inherited the closet-sized single room from the dead Hunter I replaced, while Jesse and Ash bunked in the moderately larger second room. It was big enough for sleeping in and close enough to Mercy's Lot for convenience hunting. I hadn't been back since the night before my partners were killed. It never seemed necessary. I had no personal possessions to collect, nothing sentimental to mourn.
Maybe it was why I kept the cross necklace close. I reached into my back pocket and pulled it out. A smudge of blood darkened one corner of the silver cross, but the words etched on the back—"Love Always, Alex"—were still visible. A little piece of her and a little piece of him.
"It's a safe place to rest for a while," Wyatt said.
My head snapped sideways. He was right, and I hated it. I didn't want to go back to the apartment Alex and Chalice had shared; I just didn't see much of a choice. The Triads knew about it, but now that we were on their side again, we didn't have to worry about a sneak attack. Kelsa knew me as Chalice, but she was dead—no reason to think the goblins had a clue. Isleen and her Bloods had no reason to attack us.
"What if Alex told the Halfies who he was?" I asked as I put on the necklace. "They could know about the apartment."
"Most of them are dead, Evy."
"The patio door is busted out."
"Then we won't stay long. But frankly, it's our best option."
The city passed by in a familiar blur. South into Mercy's Lot, then west on the Wharton Street Bridge, and into the nicer neighborhoods of Parkside East. I directed him to the correct block, more out of some strange instinct than actual memory. Chalice knew this place; it was part of her. The first time I was here, three days ago, I'd felt uneasy in the clean, wealthy surroundings. Coming back today felt natural. Like home.
I pointed out the building when we passed—just another apartment complex with clean walls, decorated balconies, and underground parking structures. Wyatt drove around the block and down an alley between the freestanding buildings. He parked near a row of Dumpsters. We wiped the car down before we exited.
"We're going to attract some attention," I said. The neighborhood was waking up around us, more and more cars emerging onto the road for their commute into the city. I joined him in front of the parked car.
Wyatt looked at his shirt, one sleeve dirty white and the other dark red. "Maybe we'll start a trend."
"Or a panic. Her apartment's a block away, on the fifth floor."
"I'm not teleporting us."
"You may have to anyway, once we get to the door."
I tilted my head. "And why's that?"
"Do you have keys?"
My hands went to my pockets. I hadn't had Chalice's keys since… Well, I wasn't sure. Two days ago, when I returned to her apartment to ask Alex for help, I let myself in with her keys. After that? "I must have put them down in the apartment. Shit." I spun and slammed my heel against the car's fender. It scuffed but didn't dent. I didn't feel any better for it.
"It's not the car's fault, Evy."
"It's nobody's fault, right? It just happened."
His eyebrows furrowed. "What the hell—?"
Metal screamed and squealed. Glass shattered, tinkled to the ground, and pinged off nearby metal. Rubber popped; air hissed. Bits of debris hit my left arm and cheek. Wyatt grunted and we fell sideways, away from the noise. Pavement scraped my other elbow.
Something heavy had landed on the car. I looked up at a male figure, semi-backlit by the lightening morning sky. He stood on the sunken roof of the car, back straight and arms by his sides. Tall, lean, and muscular, in jeans and shoes and nothing else. I stared, my mouth falling open as two new shadows fell across us.
Shadows cast by his twelve-foot wingspan.