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In Deception’s Shadow Bundle

In Deception’s Shadow Bundle

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Enemies by nature. Companions by choice. When unforeseen circumstances force natural enemies to become allies, something far more enduring than animosity is born.

Main Tropes in this eBook bundle:.

  • Sinfully Sexy Crown Prince of the Phoenix 
  • Aforementioned sexy prince has never even so much as been kissed
  • Warrior-women (Ashayna is as inexperienced as the prince. Amusing awkwardness abounds between these two)
  • Enemies-to-lovers
  • Touch her and die
  • Touch him and die
  • Royal Romance and Court Intrigue
  • Sexy Shifters
  • Fated Mates
  • Slow-burn romance
  • Not Fade-to-Black

~*~*~ Betrayal’s Price ~*~*~

Warrior-Scout Ashayna Stonemantle has no awareness of her fate until her sentient magic manipulates her into seeking out one of the enemy—Sorntar, Crown Prince of the Phoenix. If she dare trust the word of an enemy prince who is also an avian shape-shifting mage, their souls and futures are eternally linked.

When their willful magic awakens early and forces them into an unbreakable bond, Ashayna and Sorntar are accused of being corrupted by an ancient evil. To prove their innocence, they must work together to discover what happened in the past to pit bondmate against bondmate. As the search for the truth draws them closer together, Ashayna realizes she has growing feelings for Sorntar. But before she can tell him, his tainted power enslaves him.

Faced with an impossible decision, Ashayna chooses to fight for Sorntar’s soul even at the risk of her own.

~*~*~ Herd Mistress ~*~*~

Magic. It turned Sorsha Stonemantle's world on its head. Yet she can't hate magic for without it Shadowdancer, the Santhyrian ambassador, would never have come into her life.

In the days following their first meeting, Sorsha knows Shadowdancer completes her soul. There's only one problem. Any relationship beyond friendship is impossible.

From the moment Shadowdancer encountered Sorsha, he knew she was a Herd Mistress—a rare worker of magic, key to the Santhyrian nation's survival. His first obligation is to protect her and bring her back to the safety of the herd, but when Sorsha is threatened by Lord Master Trensler and his priesthood, they soon discover Trensler serves a darker master, one willing to devour all magic until the world dies. And that evil wants Shadowdancer and Sorsha.

When a second ambush set by Trensler cripples Sorsha’s magic and traps Shadowdancer in the form of a man, they barely escape with their lives. Unwilling to allow her lack of magic to rule her life, Sorsha sets out to teach Shadowdancer that being human isn't a curse. The proud Santhyrian stubbornly tries to push Sorsha away, but when they are endangered once again, they realize they must work together to find a way to heal themselves. If they fail, Trensler’s master will devour first them and then everything else Sorsha and Shadowdancer ever loved.

~*~*~ Maiden’s Wolf ~*~*~

Beatrice, a young healer living on the outskirts of the human port settlement of River’s Divide, simply wishes to hide herself from the searching eyes of the Priesthood of the Revealing Light. The last thing she wants ‘revealed’ is that she is host to a Larnkin—a spirit creature of vast and forbidden magic.

Her already complicated life grows more perilous when a lupwyn scout stumbles into a trap set by the priesthood. If she sits back and does nothing, the wolf-like shapeshifter will be drained dry by the priests until he is an empty, soulless slave. As a healer, that isn’t something she will allow. But lupwyns have no love for the newly arrived humans.

For the sake of mutual survival, Beatrice hopes this lupwyn can see beyond the hatred caused by two warring peoples. If not, she might die at the hands of the male she is trying to save.

~*~*~ Death's Queen ~*~*~

Death wants his queen back.

After her two sisters are caught up by destiny’s call, Lamarra Stonemantle is the only one left to play the role of dutiful noble daughter. A task she embraces in an effort to hide the dark magic living inside her own soul. Now that power is whispering its seductive promises again, telling her only a long dead king can complete her soul.

That unknown being terrifies her, but when Lord Master Trensler orders his acolytes to capture Lamarra, she must flee her home. To her dismay, she is rescued by tomb guards sent by her dead king.

Lamarra soon learns her fate is just as terrible as she thought, but Dead King Soryn isn’t anything like she feared. He’s worse. Yet he’s also gentle and kind and he knows a way to track and destroy the acolytes’ evil god.

But Lord Master Trensler has his own plans. If he cannot match power with the Dead King, then he will go back in time and eradicate Soryn before he ever has the chance to become the Dead King.

There is one thing Trensler did not factor into his plan—Queen Lamarra and the protective instincts she feels towards her new king.

Snippet for Betrayal's Price:

When the heroine loses control of her magic and nearly assassinates the enemy Crown Prince of the Phoenix and now, for the sake of peace, a human must fight in a sword duel against him. 

If the person loses, they will belong to him.


Crown Prince Sorntar

A tall, slim figure moved between human soldiers, being careful to squeeze through or weave around obstacles. As he came closer, Sorntar saw why. A mage-cloak offered protection against human eyes, but his passage would only go unnoticed if he avoided running into anyone. To Sorntar’s disappointment, the cloak also prevented him from learning much about this person.

The evening breeze carried the newcomer’s scent—pleasant, with a hint of saltiness, feminine. A female? Here? Sorntar didn’t think humans permitted their womenfolk to learn fighting skills. By her ease of movement, a young, confident opponent faced him.

Within him, his Larnkin stirred, its emotions a mix of confusion, wanting, and sleepy pleasure.

It was her—the woman who had touched his mind earlier. It had to be.

A dozen paces distant, she unclasped the cloak and let it pool around her feet. A ripple of surprise—and something else—slid through Sorntar’s Larnkin. Eagerness? Despite never meeting her before, he sensed a familiarity within her.

She moved with grace, her long strides covering the distance quickly. A pace away from the sword, she stopped and tucked her braid down the back of her leather vest. The movement drew his eyes to her gentle curves, that slight softness an alluring contrast to her otherwise toned body. She was reaching for the sword, the first tongues of flame licking at her fingers, when another human ran forward, bellowing threats and curses.

With barely a thought Sorntar formed a barrier behind the girl, preventing the male from coming closer.

From behind the barrier, the officer’s eyes bored into the woman’s back. “Ashayna, this is not your challenge to answer. Come here at once.” He slapped his thigh, then pointed at the ground directly in front of him. “That’s an order.”

“It’s too late. I’ve already answered this challenge.”

“You don’t understand the risk.”

“Risks—those I understand completely.” Then much lower, almost under her breath. “More so than you realize, Captain. Be glad of your ignorance.”

“Ash, don’t do this. Let one of my men...”

Sorntar added another layer to his shielding, blocking all outside sound. Much better.

The woman hesitated for a split second, her trembling fingers poised to grasp the burning sword. With a sigh, she squared her shoulders and closed her fingers around the hilt. Her bravery impressed him. Not many humans would touch a magic talisman, especially not while it burned. She rolled the sword around, her wrist flexing as she tested the sword’s balance. It cut through the air with a wavering hiss, blue flames danced along its heated length. Adjusting her single-handed grip to a two-handed one, she ran through a quick warm up, before she inclined her head in his direction.

She had to be responsible for the Gate incident, but why had she attacked? Still, this new revelation explained why Marsolwyn and his sisters had come. A human with a Larnkin needed investigating.

For the first time since he had heard of their capture, the tight knot of unease in his middle began to uncoil. This human, strangely, calmed him in some unnamed way. Now, if he could only get through the coming fight without theatrics from his Larnkin. He stepped off the warm stone and traversed the broken ground.

“I am Sorntar, Crown Prince of the Phoenix. You honor me by answering my challenge. Might I ask the name of the one brave enough to do so?” He stopped a bare pace in front of her and was pleased to see she held her ground without flinching or cowering back from the heat cast by his fiery wings.

“Ashayna Stonemantle, scout in the Emperor’s Army. I will do anything to save my father’s life.” Her voice was pitched low and smooth. She gave him an elegant bow, which seemed at odds with her leathers, light armor, and weapons.

“Father? I think there’s an interesting story here.”

“Perhaps after the duel?” Eyebrow raised, she saluted him with her sword. “And are there any rules I should be aware of?”

“No killing. First to bleed loses. Pretty much anything else goes.” He eased back two steps and arched his wings out behind him. Blue fire hissed and flared as he moved. The way her eyes widened as she tracked his wings wasn’t lost on him. It wasn’t fear he saw, though. Perhaps he wasn’t the only one with questions and a large dose of curiosity. His earlier rage diminished another small notch; still there, but at least he could think about something other than ripping into humans with his talons.

Ashayna studied his wings a moment more, and then relaxed her arms, extending them out before her with the sword’s tip nearly touching the ground.

Clearly, her opening was a deception. A brief hint of humor curled in his chest, a smile ghosting across his lips for a moment. More than willing to be lured into her trap, Sorntar lunged. Her blade snapped up into position, meeting his and deflecting the point.

Quicker than he thought a human could move, Ashayna cut upward at his crest. A bare heartbeat ahead of her stroke, he whipped his blade up into a defensive position. Moments flashed by, but her blow never landed. Instead she feinted and reversed her swing. She swiped at his legs. Sorntar leapt clear of her strike—barely. Surprised and off balance, he stumbled backward. Ashayna followed him, her sword’s point uncomfortably close. She crowded him, her nearness preventing him from using his longer reach and greater strength to full advantage.

Swift, sharp strikes continued to meet his blade. While each impact didn’t have a devastating force behind it, she still rained blows down upon him in rapid succession. Adapting to her style, his blocks grew swifter. Surprise at her skills melted away as he warmed to the fight, testing her. A human’s stamina wasn’t equal to that of his kind. He knew her swift agility had a cost—sweat already beaded on her brow. With a couple brutal moves on his part, he could end this fight before it had truly began...but finding out just what Ashayna was capable of might prove more interesting.

Ashayna came at him again. Their blades met, hilts tangling together. With a grunt he knocked her sword aside. She kept her grip but stumbled, her momentum carried her to the side. She slammed into his wing and crashed to the ground. He spun around to follow her, thinking it a trick. She crouched on the ground, her back turned to him.

Her voice came to him muffled. “No rules, right?”

Then in another surprising burst of speed, she turned and tossed something at him. A small cloud of dust and pebbles pelted him in the face before he could shield his eyes. Cursing, he backed away.

He blinked his watering eyes. The blurry shape of Ashayna lunged forward, sword pointed out ahead of her. Sorntar braced himself and kicked off of the ground while flapping his wings to hold himself aloft. With a swish of snapping flames, her blade’s edge cleaved the air, narrowly missing his feet. He dropped back down to the ground amid a small storm of blue fire, dust, and a few pieces of clipped tail feathers. Anger flowed through his blood. No one had marked him in combat in many seasons, yet this human had—he’d allowed her to maim his tail.

“Flying is cheating.” A smirk spread across her face. “Sorry about the tail feathers.”

Sorntar retaliated with a series of slashes and thrusts, driving her back several paces.

She blocked each of his strikes, but didn’t waste energy on anything fancy. He inclined his head at her show of discipline.

“Maybe I’ll give you a haircut, human.”

She rushed him, binding their blades together at the hilt, and took him by surprise when she pushed his blade aside with ease. She slammed her sword hilt into his abdomen. He grunted. His opponent was stronger than a human should have been. When Ashayna came in closer, he inhaled a deep breath, scenting her magic.

“Using magic to strengthen your assault should also be cheating.” When his remark gained him a puzzled look, he tried a different tactic. “You’re using magic to make yourself stronger.”

Her coloring darkened to an angry red. She lunged at him again. Even though she was fast, he was prepared for her and moved faster. He hooked his arm through hers, spun her around until her back was to his front. Reaching forward, he closed his hand around her wrist and applied pressure between the bones until she released her weapon with a yowl. Once disarmed, he hoisted her into the air until her feet dangled a hand’s span above the ground.

The enraged human shouted colorful curses at him—a full half of them he didn’t know the meaning, the rest rather too clear. Her head slammed back into his chest—she’d likely been aiming for his chin, but he was too tall. She twisted in his arms, her legs scrambling for traction. Before she managed to land a painful blow, he tossed her away from him. She stumbled onto her knees, and then flat out on her belly as all breath escaped in a sharp hiss. It was no act this time.

He turned his back upon her and retrieved his other sword.

Footfalls coming up behind him warned of Ashayna’s move. She certainly had spunk. He turned his head in time to glimpse her as she threw herself forward, a long bladed dagger aiming for his thigh. Sorntar spun away. Heat from her knuckles caressed his skin. The little human had come far too close that time.

Well, it was a fight to the first blood and neither of them bled yet. With a shrug, he tossed a sword hilt-first to Ashayna. She caught it, a mild look of surprise on her face. Then she grinned, her white teeth flashing at him.

“That was stupid.”

“Perhaps, but this is the most enjoyable fight I’ve had in ages.”

With a snarl she closed in on him again, so near he could smell sweat mixed with the scented soap she used to clean her hair.

He used the opening to snap a wing out, catching her in the chest. She wheezed and fell back a step. He followed, his sword-tip hovering near hers as they continued to circle. She darted inside his defense, sword thrust at his middle. Sorntar twisted barely in time. The hot edge of her weapon brushed his side in one, dangerous line.

Twice she’d nearly had him. Perhaps he’d been a little too arrogant to fight without armor. “Charming. Trying to impale me or gut me? You do know this is merely a battle to first blood.”

“You’re fast.” Her voice was strained. “Figured you’d get out of the way...only bleed you a little.”

“Not just yet. Perhaps another time, sweetling.” He’d meant for his words to come out sarcastic, but they lacked a sharp edge. Though, by the way he had to leap out of the way as she renewed her assault, his words still annoyed her. He matched her strike for strike. She was almost a match for him, their blades dancing in a blur of bright steel and blue flame. But as time slipped by, Ashayna began to falter. Her sword arm continued weakening despite her magic.

“How can you…not…even be breathing hard?” Her voice rasped, yet she still managed to infuse it with a strong note of displeasure.

“Two hearts and lungs twice the size of yours. Flying requires much strength.”

“That’s hardly fair,” she grated out between ragged breaths.

“No. I suppose it isn’t.” Sorntar rolled his shoulders in a shrug.

“You’re a better fighter. End this while I can still stand.”

Ashayna let her guard slip. His sword-tip neatly sliced a shallow cut along her upper arm. Using his blade’s edge, Sorntar made another cut in his own arm. Then with steady fingers, he brushed his talons along the cut and mixed it with the sample of hers. He held his bloody fingers out to her. She dabbed some of the blood off his talons while giving him a suspicious look.

To show her there was no bad blood between them, Sorntar raised his talons to his lips and sampled the cooling liquid. Even before the pleasant, coppery taste had fully registered to his senses, his Larnkin struck. A surge of magic, powerful like a strong mountain river in spring, caused his wings to tremble as the Larnkin tried to force his way free.

His Larnkin scented his bondmate. Fear, spurred by the knowledge that the only thing his Larnkin needed to temporarily summon its full strength was to link with Ashayna through the ties of shared blood, helped Sorntar maintain his focus and fight for control.

With a small fragment of his consciousness not committed to battling his Larnkin, he noted her look of revulsion. It lasted a moment, about as long as it took her to notice his power beginning to crawl up her arm. Her look changed to fear, followed by anger. He attempted to release her and found he did not have control of his hand.

He poured every bit of his will into breaking his Larnkin’s hold. When it fought, he narrowed his concentration down to a fine point, asserting his will over his obstinate Larnkin. While they remained frozen in silent battle, magic—with no will to guide it—flared uncontrolled along his skin, then his fiery magic dripped to the ground. Ashayna hollered curses and tried to jump out of the power’s reach, but there was no place for her to go. It encircled them both.

His magic wouldn’t harm her, but by the rising scent of her fear, Ashayna did not know she was safe. Her desperation gave him strength enough to break his Larnkin’s hold. With the magic once more his to command, he reached out and calmed the burning fire.

His Larnkin still seethed and churned within him, raging that he dared to deny it its bondmate. Sorntar drew in a deep breath and waited. The Larnkin’s emotional bombardment of anger, frustration, and resentment halted, leaving behind a hollow sensation in his mind. The Larnkin drew in upon itself, curling into a knot, taking all warmth of its magic with it. Even after it faded, Sorntar still didn’t relax. Moments crept by. Then he felt it building.

A wave of agony welled up out of his bones, buckling his knees and dragging a scream from his throat.


Sensation slowly crept into Sorntar’s sleep-fogged mind.

Cold. A world without heat.

A nameless emptiness churned deep in his core, a ragged hole...a fundamental part of him was missing.

His mind snapped to full alertness. Alarm hummed in his veins. He tried to move, but both arms were lumps of dead weight. He couldn’t even shift them. The rest of his body was just as unwilling to heed his commands. Something unpleasant had occurred—a great trauma. But what?

Long moments passed. A shiver sliced through him. Bone-deep cold saturated his body. His head throbbed in time to the pounding of his hearts where they lurched unevenly in his chest. Fear clutched his gut into knots.

His elemental fire was gone. Its loss left a gaping void in his soul where his Larnkin should have been. Panic seized him. His Larnkin was gone. What could kill a Larnkin?

He couldn’t survive without it. The cold—was he already dead? Had he passed into the spirit world?

Before terror got a stronger foothold, a painful tingling started in his chest and worked its way out to his arms and down his legs. Feeling slowly returned in its wake.

Surely death didn’t hurt. Fragmented memories stirred, returning a bit at a time. The human lands…a rogue Gate…the duel….

His bondmate…a human bondmate.

Merciful gods.

He wasn’t dead.

The cold, the emptiness…his Larnkin had punished him for his interference. Anger sparked within Sorntar, washing away some of his confusion. What was he supposed to have done? Let the fool of a Larnkin take her then and there in front of all, and burn the camp to the ground during the fiery bonding ceremony?

He groaned and blinked up at the wooden rafters of an unfamiliar ceiling. Where was he? Woolen blankets covered him in a heavy mound. Their weight added to the sensations of entrapment.

Was he a prisoner? All too likely if he was within one of the humans’ timber buildings. Sorntar forced his lungs to slow, taking deep, calming breaths as he ordered himself to think.

His Larnkin was no help. It had left him with so little power; if he was to escape, he’d have to do it without magic. Panic still lurked at the edges of his consciousness, but he fought it down. He needed to get free of the humans, find his people.

Feeling continued to return while he lay and formulated a plan. He had to get mobile, assess the state of his body. Even without his Larnkin, he was still formidable. Escape would be infinitely easier if he was flight-worthy. But he couldn’t move his wings yet, not with them trapped under his unresponsive body.

A warm weight rolled up against him. He grunted in surprise, thoughts scattering when something snuggled closer. Moist breath puffed against his side. No, not something—someone. Very definitely someone. An arm curved across his chest and fingers feathered along his abdomen. Shifting enough to displace the coarse blankets, he peered down at the bed’s other occupant. She stretched out full length against him, her legs entangled with his. Everywhere they touched, heat and power flowed into him, the delicious sensation driving away the last of his lethargy.

She banished the emptiness within him. His opponent, his bondmate—such a strange mix.

Long-dormant instincts guided his arms around her shoulders and waist. He rolled to his side and mantled a wing over them. Lifting his head, he scanned the room.

If the smell of greenwood was any indication, the rather primitive building had recently been constructed. Close-packed, narrow beds lined two walls. A meager light came from a few oil lamps sitting on tables at either end. Even though numerous beds lined the walls, it made sense his people would situate her so close. Best not to anger his already-moody Larnkin.

A compelling pull dragged his gaze back to her.

“Ashayna.” He rolled the word on his tongue.

Mild surprise engulfed him. It was already as familiar as his own name. Her eyelashes fluttered once, but she didn’t wake. Her hair was a mess, mostly unbraided, in need of a good grooming. The pillow beneath her head had left marks upon her pale cheek, a smudge of dirt rested on her nose...still, she was pretty for a human. The memory of her dark eyes, an intense brown with a hint of honey at their irises, flashed across his thoughts. Of their own accord, his fingers found her hair and began grooming tangles out of the thick mass. Ashayna drew a deep breath, mumbling something in her sleep. His eyes dropped to her full lips. Would she welcome her bondmate even while she slept? His magic flared at the thought, escaping his control.

Swallowing hard, Sorntar cursed his own stupidity. What was he thinking? He’d be more likely to feel the kiss of her knife than her lips yielding to his. He knew finding one’s bondmate caused emotional havoc, but no one had bothered to tell him his brain would abandon all logic, or his body would do as it pleased. Before he could get his magic under control, it flared again. The soft snap of a spell breaking told him his magic had just obliterated one of his people’s weaving.

He glanced around, surprised. Somehow, on his first quick survey of the room, he’d missed the spell that had held the glamour in place. As he watched, a mirrored image of his sleeping bondmate vanished from the bed opposite. Which was bad enough, but then his mind reacted too slowly, and the linked glamour suspended over him vanished, revealing what was really going on.

He hadn’t yet gathered his thoughts when the soft scuff of boots against the wood floor disturbed the silence. Five human guards approached, their expressions promising trouble. Two in the lead had their hands resting on sword hilts. Sorntar blinked and three of his bodyguards were blocking his view of the humans. An angry exchange woke his human bondmate, but for the first time since the rising of the sun, he was a full heartbeat ahead of disaster and already in motion. By the time her eyes snapped opened and focused on him, he’d perched himself innocently on another bed.

Ashayna bolted upright and scrubbed at her eyes. “Where…what happened?” She focused on him and her cheeks colored an interesting shade of pink. Then, a couple moments later, the becoming blush gave way to anger. “The last thing I remember is you trying to burn me to death.”



Enemies by nature. Companions by choice. When unforeseen circumstances force natural enemies to become allies, something far more enduring than animosity is born.

~*~*~ Betrayal’s Price ~*~*~

Warrior-Scout Ashayna Stonemantle has no awareness of her fate until her sentient magic manipulates her into seeking out one of the enemy—Sorntar, Crown Prince of the Phoenix. If she dare trust the word of an enemy prince who is also an avian shape-shifting mage, their souls and futures are eternally linked.

When their willful magic awakens early and forces them into an unbreakable bond, Ashayna and Sorntar are accused of being corrupted by an ancient evil. To prove their innocence, they must work together to discover what happened in the past to pit bondmate against bondmate. As the search for the truth draws them closer together, Ashayna realizes she has growing feelings for Sorntar. But before she can tell him, his tainted power enslaves him.

Faced with an impossible decision, Ashayna chooses to fight for Sorntar’s soul even at the risk of her own.

First Chapter

Chapter 1

Ashayna shivered at the slow trickle of moisture down her back. The day had dawned unusually humid for so early in the spring. Still, her discomfort had little to do with the heat and everything to do with the stomach-souring dread currently tying her in knots.

Glancing down at the tracks she’d been following since dawn, Ashayna frowned. Her anxiety spiraled up another notch as an unseen force guided her mare around a pile of deadfall, taking the same path as the tracks. Lupwyns had increased their raiding in recent days, and she’d seen similar sights on other scouting missions. At first glance, this set of prints was ordinary enough, but it didn’t explain why she couldn’t set one foot in any direction but forward.

Lord-Master Trensler and his acolytes would be quick to label what forced her onward as ‘demonic magic’—the darkest of evils. If she had to call it something, she preferred the name ‘sentience.’ It was somewhat less dire than calling herself demon-possessed. A chill swept down her spine at the thought. Naming it didn’t help her out of her current predicament, nor did it explain how she’d become possessed in the first place, or why the sentience was so interested in this particular lupwyn’s tracks.

Time to test fate again. Her stomach twisted as she exerted her will against the sentience and reined in Swiftrunner. Her mare halted with a questioning flick of one ear. Ashayna sought a calm place in her mind while she waited. It didn’t take long for the reaction she had come to anticipate.

Spreading out like ripples on a pond, waves of hot and cold washed over her, flowing down her arms all the way to her fingertips while other tendrils reached out for the rest of her body. Power. Magic. Heresy. It wouldn’t be long before iron bands of pressure forced her into obedience like it had the last four times she’d stopped or turned away from the tracks.

“Fine. You want me to follow these damned tracks?” Ashayna challenged the sentience. “I’ll follow them.” With a huff she dismounted and glared at the prints. “But my horse isn’t going to become some lupwyn’s evening meal.”

She started up the trail, one slow step at a time. With each one, the sentience loosened its hold by small degrees, much like a snake uncoiling from its lifeless kill. A shaky breath escaped her. “I am a Stonemantle. I am not afraid of you—whatever you are. I. Am. Not. Afraid.” She wasn’t certain if she believed herself, and doubted the sentience believed her either.

Pressing the heel of her palm against her forehead, she tried to stave off the beginnings of a headache left over from the rapid departure of so much power. It probably wouldn’t work, but at least the sentience was content. For now.

Ignoring the grasping fingers of the wind, she pushed errant strands of hair back from her face. Much like the wind, the sentience was unpredictable and dangerous—and just as persistent.

Ahead, the prints veered off the path, sloping towards where she could hear the soft rumble of a stream. A hemlock’s expansive branches obscured her view. With a muttered curse, she ducked under the wet foliage.

The stench of rotting vegetation rose up to swirl through her nostrils. Prickles of anger danced along her control when her feet slipped from beneath her and she slid to an ungraceful heap next to the water’s edge.
The sensation of being herded hadn’t ebbed completely. She gritted her teeth, wanting to strike out at something, tired of feeling helpless. But fighting, yelling, or sobbing wouldn’t do her a lick of good. Answers were what she needed most, and the only way to get those was to continue on the path the sentience chose. She flexed her fingers to stop their shaking. She just hoped her own personal curse didn’t get her killed by a lupwyn. Or worse, burned alive. A shudder raced over her at the thought of the punishment awaiting her at the hands of her own people, should her demonic possession be revealed—maybe it would be better to be a lupwyn’s dinner after all.

Hunkered on her heels, she appraised the ground. Ignoring the icy mud and moisture seeping between her boot laces, she sank ankle-deep into the quagmire. The tracks didn’t disappear into the water. Rather, a little ways north of her position, three sets of tracks now marred the mud.

She crouched next to the new tracks and skimmed her fingertips along them with a light touch, afraid the saturated soil would collapse. Embedded alongside the familiar prints of a lupwyn was a much rarer track. Human-like, the prints had three elongated, forward-facing toes and a thicker, heavier digit at the rear. Each ended in a deep gouge mark where talons had sunk into the soil.

Sticking a finger in the icy water, she measured the depth. A low whistle escaped when her fist touched the mud before her finger reached the bottom.

“Damn big talons.” Though she’d never seen their likeness, she knew these were made by a phoenix. They fit the sketchy descriptions she’d heard soldiers whisper about when the acolytes weren’t near.

Was this what the sentience wanted her to find?

She glanced up, scanning the stream and its bordering trees. Their branches far enough apart, a phoenix flying overhead might be able to navigate between them to land safely in the water.

A phoenix here?

This new development explained the increased lupwyn patrols she’d been evading. This was the closest the enemy had ever come to the vast city of River’s Divide. What if they were mobilizing for an organized attack?

She prowled along the stream, scanning the ground for more clues. A few steps from where the phoenix tracks first emerged from the water, something glimmered in the dappled light filtering through the canopy. Ashayna edged closer until the mystery resolved itself into a bit of silver and a bright slash of indigo. Reaching down, she plucked the silver chain from the mud.

An indigo feather the length of her hand dangled from a silver clasp. Frowning, she stroked a finger down its silken length. A surprisingly pleasant scent—reminiscent of heat, spice, and the crisp, fresh air of a mountain plateau—tickled her senses.

And it wasn’t the only thing tickling her senses. An alarmingly familiar mix of heat and cold stirred in her blood again, tightening its bands of control. Numbness spread across her palms. Her fingers tingled with a frosty ache. When she tried to drop the necklace, her hand wouldn’t obey.

Even as she backed up the slope to solid ground, the hairs on the back of her neck stood. Desire rose, so strong it robbed her of her breath. Power radiated out like tentacles. Not again, she moaned at the sudden rise of the sentience.

Like a hound on a scent, it flowed below her skin, alternately caressing, and then probing forcibly at her mental barriers. A second wave of energy crashed against her shields, buckling them. The sentience invaded her mind. Where fear and desire had been its favorite tool, it now flooded her with joy. Delight, elation…those feelings seemed too small, too insignificant to encompass what she felt beneath her skin, within her mind. Her possession was now complete—every sense was alive with the feelings, even as she watched it from afar. Almost against her will, her hands looped the medallion around her neck.
Silvery flames burst to life along her arms to pool between her hands. It didn’t hurt. Agony she could have dealt with; this…this new sense of rapture was so much worse.

A cloud appeared in the air, to hover an arm’s length from her. Faint as smoke, it thickened, swirling and rolling like fog. Churning and spinning, colors danced until it had grown in size.

Vivid greens, muted greys, sun-bleached whites. They formed a stone courtyard adorned with fountains, statues, and lush foliage. Then darker whorls of indigo mixed with lustrous browns, coalescing into an exotically handsome man. He was tall, bronze-skinned, bare-chested, and wore some kind of bright, indigo-colored cloak. The cloud of magic spun itself larger, revealing more of the man. Oh, it wasn’t a cloak. He had…wings. Not a man at all, this must be a phoenix. She glanced at the indigo feather hanging from the necklace, then lifted her gaze to what—or rather, who—might be the source of the feather. While she’d spent a dumbfounded moment staring down at the feather in her hand, he’d turned, his back now to her as he looked out over a stone-tiled courtyard. His fingers tapped against his thigh in clear agitation. From behind, he looked less human.

A stiff breeze ruffled his crest feathers into disarray and plastered a long, fan-shaped tail against his calves. He whirled around, whipping his tail out of the way, and paced in her direction. She focused on his face. His strong brow, well-defined cheekbones, and firm jaw surpassed human beauty. Still, the intensity of his gaze would give a wise woman pause. She wasn’t sure if his frown was a normal fixture or just a reflection of some inner conflict.

Her gaze roamed his broad shoulders, down the naked expanse of his muscular chest to his waist where a paneled-leather kilt hung low on his hips. He truly was majestic, exuding a sense of contained power in his every move.

“Hmm, perhaps I’m not the wisest of women.”

She sighed, mentally pushing aside the faint hint of longing. There would be no place for such feelings. It was war, and those who commanded armies had already decided their species would be adversaries. “Yes, he’s attractive, but you must have other reasons for revealing him to me.”

Magic swirled faster through her blood. “Guess that’s a yes.”

Wincing at the throb in her head, she concentrated on his image.

He paced in a semi-circle, his frown deepening as he searched his surroundings. When his gaze locked onto something in her direction, tension rippled along her spine and lodged between her shoulder blades.

Graceful and predatory, he stalked toward her and swiped the air. Nothing happened. He continued to look perplexed, his feathered brows furrowing into a frown.
Sweat dampened her skin in a sudden cold flush; her breath grew shallow. Ashayna scooped a handful of debris and heaved it at him. It flew through the image and smacked into a tree trunk behind it. Was it just a vision?

His expression turned thoughtful. Tilting his head to one side, he closed his eyes. His lips moved, shaping unknown words. Instantly, the sentience flared in response, sending a wave of its foreign wanting through her. She clamped her will down, determined she wouldn’t be enslaved. A rush of power surged through her mind, expanding out, breaking past her control. For one horrifying moment, she felt her body gathering itself to move closer to the strange window, but blessed and merciful Creator, something distracted the phoenix from his work. He looked over his shoulder to someone behind him, just out of Ashayna’s range of view. The outer edges of the magic window blurred, softening...until, one tendril at a time, the cloud destabilized and vanished.

With the disappearance of the window, the wellspring of the sentience’s chaotic magic slowed, its attacks less focused. Slowly, its chilled touch receded from her mind and followed her blood vessels back to her heart, where the sentience coiled in upon itself. She sucked in a surprised breath and flexed her fingers to restore circulation.

Was the strange window to some distant place really gone?

Ashayna hugged herself, cold down to her soul. Shivers started in her arms and fingered their way down her back. Even her knees shook. A pulse pounded in her head. The ground heaved uneasily to her eyes.

Woozy, she slammed a shoulder into a nearby tree for support. Rough bark bit into her back, grating against her leather vest as she slid to the ground. Pine scent engulfed her. Her hair snagged in the bark and tangled in the small drops of pitch leaking out of fissures.

Lowering her head, she pressed her forehead against her knees. “I’m a Stonemantle, I don’t cry, I will not disappoint my father. I can deal with this. I will deal with this.” She inhaled slowly, forcing her breath through her nose and willed her heart to calm.

Something nudged against her hip. A strangled sound, half-grunt, half-yell, burst from Ashayna’s throat. Swiftrunner shoved at Ashayna a second time, continuing her quest for one of the few patches of grass struggling to grow in the dense shade. A shaky laugh escaped her. She shifted her knees and the mare snatched up a mouthful of greens.

When Ashayna’s body shivered as her sweat cooled, she reached for the new weight around her neck. Wind caught at the feather, making it dance on the end of its silver chain. From the coloring, this feather belonged to the phoenix she’d just seen in her vision. It seemed the sentience was very interested in making his acquaintance.

She closed her fist above the delicate clasp and brought her other hand up to stroke the feather. Its strangely familiar scent wafted around her. Gently she tucked the feather under her vest, ignoring her first instinct to rip it from her neck. After all, she might find a use for the necklace at some point, and it seemed to pacify the sentience.

Swiftrunner jerked her head up, grass trailing forgotten from her mouth. Her ears riveted forward as one hoof dug a furrow in the mud.

“What is it, girl?”

The mare flicked an ear in Ashayna’s direction, then snapped it back towards the trail. A shadow the size of a small horse glided between the trunks of two large evergreens. Her stomach flipped when another twig snapped much closer to her position. Snuffling sounds to her left set her heart racing.

She stood and reached for the reins. Her mare nickered, dancing in the mud as Ashayna settled into the saddle. At her quiet word, Swiftrunner broke into a trot. There was a sharp bend in the trail ahead, and then a straight, level run. They approached the bend. Twenty paces, ten paces, less than five and she urged the mare into a canter. She chanced a glance back.

Three lupwyns—reminiscent of giant wolves—loped into the open, abandoning the shelter of the trees for the better footing of the path. Ashayna bent low to Swiftrunner’s neck and the mare broke into a ground-eating gallop.

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