The Garden of the Gods crackled with magic as Bastien Dunne entered it, leaving behind the clang of swords and the hissing of attack spells. His own powers—normally humming on a low frequency—sparked hot as he stepped foot into the circle before settling again. As innate to him as his own heartbeat, the warrior caste magic passed down through his bloodline was something he often took for granted.
It was there, and he knew how to use it for attack or defense.
Just as he knew how to gut a man ten different ways with his sword.
As he moved deeper into the garden, a sacred space meant for reflection and peace, the sounds of battle training receded. Bastien was tired after a long day and was sick of trying to mold young men into hardened soldiers just so he could send them out to die.
At the center of the park, a large pressian tree rose from the ground. Its thick trunk split at the base into several arms that grew up and outward to form a protective arch over much of the garden. Smooth of bark, the wood was the color of bleached bone, the leaves a deep purple threaded with glowing veins of misty white. The tree served as a sign of strength in the land, withstanding dry heat, humidity, or ice, depending on what region of Vyronas you traveled.
The pressian also had delicate qualities, growing fragile, five-petaled flowers that felt like silk and tore just as easily. They not only perfumed the air but were used for many healing potions and even spells that required the paradox of strength and vulnerability.
Not that Bastien had experience with that. His magic was very particular to what he was—a soldier.
No, that wasn’t quite right.
He was the commandant of an army that was being decimated, and he was out of options.
Around the perimeter of the pressian tree, but still falling under the canopy of shimmering leaves, stood five stone statues representing each of the five gods. They were life-size, each figure clothed in robes and one-shouldered cloaks that hung to the ground. Three women and two men—all referred to as gods regardless of gender—were once called the Infinites because they had always been so.
At least according to legend.
Gardens such as these were all over the realm of Vyronas, allowing respite for weary travelers who wanted to pray and seek help from their gods.
This space was built only seven years ago when the army of Kestevayne settled into the valley and built what was supposed to be a temporary village until they could defeat Ferelith.
The evil sorceress was an unknown, rising to power through murder and blood magic. She used blood oaths to garner soldiers and summon demons from the Underworld, and with her immense powers, she swept through the capital city of Kestevayne right into the palace where she killed the king and queen.
Ferelith had magics no one had seen before because it was banned in Vyronas. She gleefully bled victims to increase her power and systematically brought Vyronasians under her boot heel by conquering the other regions around the capital. It had been a long seven years of skirmishes, battles, death, and resilience. Bastien and his army made it one step forward for every two steps they were thrown back, and he had little left to offer his people.
And yes, they were his people, for now. With the rightful ruler of Vyronas in hiding for her safety, he was the one who held it all together. Some of the other royal houses were too fearful of Ferelith and swore fealty to avoid death and destruction. Those who tried to fight her usually perished.
Some royal houses in outlying cities had held out, but that was merely because Ferelith’s forces had not ventured that far yet.
She’d eventually get to them. She wouldn’t be satisfied until every single subject of Vyronas paid sole homage to her or died in their refusal.
Bastien walked around the statues, easily identifying them by sight. The sculptor had done an exceptional job.
There was Circe, the god of Fate, which included free will and destiny. She was not someone Bastien routinely prayed to. He was of the firm opinion you made your own path in life by reasoned decision.
Veda was the god of Humanity, which included love, hate, and virtue. Rumors purported she had silver eyes, but no one knew for sure. She was as much myth as potential reality. Their likenesses had been memorialized over time in books, paintings, and statues like this, though, and thus were recognizable.
Next to Veda stood Rune, the formidable god of Life, which conversely meant he ruled death as well. He was the steward of the Underworld—and the most feared of them all.
Bastien’s favorite god, Onyx, was next. She was the god of Conflict, which included both war and peace, and the one Bastien prayed to most.
Every night, in fact, to give his men strength, cunning, and skill. He asked for protection over them and for weakness to befall his enemies. Whether Onyx listened, he didn’t know. It certainly felt like his recent prayers had not been heard if the rising death toll was any indication.
He came upon the last statue—the god of Nature, Cato. His statue stood taller than the others, as it was rumored he was seven feet tall. He could command all the elements and use them for punishment or grace. The farmers of this world offered gifts of fruit, vegetables, and grains at the base of statues they’d erect in their fields with the hope the gods would bless them with fair weather.
Those hardworking citizens who tilled the earth had faith in Cato and the other gods.
It was something Bastien sorely lacked right now.
He sat on a bench at the base of the pressian, kicked out his long legs, and leaned back. Head tilted, he gazed up into the amethyst canopy above and considered his options. Bastien wasn’t sick at heart over the losses their side had taken, because he had no heart.
But he was tired of talking to widows and orphans, trying to explain how their loved one died in a war that seemed never ending and hopeless.
Folding his hands over his midsection, he closed his eyes and tried to disconnect from it all.
Just for a little bit.
It was a blissful few seconds, until a sense of danger skittered up his spine, and with no thought other than trusting his gut, Bastien flew off the bench and drew his sword, pointing it at the source of peril.
Standing there, behind the bench where he had been sitting, was a man.
Reaching out with his senses—soldier honed and magical alike—he quickly realized this wasn’t a man.
At least not by conventional standards.
He pulsed with power, although he looked no different from Bastien. He was tall and muscular, with blond hair not unlike Bastien’s own, although this man’s hair was long—to his shoulders—whereas Bastien wore his cropped close to his scalp.
His clothing was odd, but a style Bastien recognized as coming directly from the First Dimension of Earth. Strange for a man—well, something obviously more than a man, for he had powers—to be dressed in the clothing of a dimension that was ironically known to lack magic.
Which never made sense to Bastien, since the First Dimension was the original source of most magic.
“Who are you?” Bastien demanded, keeping the tip of his sword aimed at the intruder’s chest. He also powered up a spell in his free hand, ready to launch if needed. It had enough punch to knock the intruder clear out of the garden if unleashed.
The stranger extended his hands, palms out—a universal sign to show lack of harmful intent. “Relax, Commandant Dunne. I’ve come to help.”
It did not reassure Bastien that this man knew his name and rank, nor that he offered help. He kept poised in defense. “Come from where? And to help with what?”
“I come directly from the gods,” he replied smoothly, and that startled Bastien so much his sword tip dropped an inch. “Namely Onyx, although Veda sends greetings as well.”
A slight wave of dizziness passed over Bastien. In all his life, the gods had never given him a sign, and his faith was never very strong, which kept him wary. This man could be an enemy, using the gods in vain. If that were the case, Bastien prayed they struck him dead for his temerity.
“My name is Maddox.” The man looked around at the statues and nodded toward the one of Rune. With a flick of his hand, the stone cracked and fell into pieces before disintegrating to dust that disappeared on a soft breeze. His gaze came back to Bastien. “Rune is no longer the god of Life which also meant he governed death. Zora is now your new deity.”
Bastien’s jaw dropped, for with another wave of his hand, the man created a new statue out of thin air. This one wasn’t of stone but rather shining gold, and the god was beautiful to behold with long, flowing hair and jeweled eyes that sparkled with prisms of blue, green, and gold.
Maddox stared at his creation for a moment, a pleased smile curving his mouth before he turned back to Bastien.
“How did it come to be that Rune is no longer a god and there is a new one in his place?” Bastien puzzled, his curiosity now genuinely piqued, although he was more skeptical than not.
This could be nothing more than fancy magic to gain his trust.
With a sigh, Maddox glanced at the statue of Zora before bringing his forest-green eyes back to Bastien. “It’s a long story, but I basically helped prevent a world-ending apocalypse originating in the First Dimension.”
The First Dimension—sometimes referred to as the Earth realm—was the primary plane of existence on this planet. Through the use of magic, other dimensions had been created and were referred to as AltVeritas. The First Dimension (or Earth realm) was merely the original, but over millennia, hundreds of other AltVeritas had been created.
The braggadocio in the man’s tone should have made Bastien doubt him, but weirdly, it only made it seem more real. And it was a shocking reminder that Vyronas only existed if the First Dimension existed.
World ending meant if the First Dimension was destroyed, every other AltVeritas would die as well. Vyronas had been created from magic originating in the First Dimension when a meteor struck in the middle of Egypt’s Western Desert. It was so inundated with magic that just a tiny stone chipped from its mass, in the hands of the right people, could create new worlds from nothing but the imagination.
Vyronas was just such an example. It was an entirely separate entity from First Dimension—existing on its own plane and layered upon countless others created from the stone’s magic. While Vyronas existed independently and exclusive of the Earth realm, its heartbeat came from the stone magic that created it. Vyronas’s life force was still linked to the Earth realm’s primary dimension, and if it ended, so did all dimensions.
“What happened?” Bastien asked, his warrior instincts wanting to learn all about how such an event might occur—and be thwarted.
“Kymaris tried to break through the veil into the First Dimension—”
Bastien scoffed. “Kymaris, queen of the Underworld?”
“That’s the one,” Maddox replied, snapping his fingers, then pointing at Bastien. “Her nefarious plan was to tear open the veil so that all her Dark Fae, daemons, and other nasty creatures she created in that cesspool called Hell could pour out and wreak havoc in the First Dimension.”
How in the gods’ names had original inhabitants of the First Dimension managed to repel such an invasion when they were not particularly magical as a whole, nor even aware of such evil below? Oh, they had their faiths and religions, but they had no clue.
All their myths and legends remained just that, with faith in the fantastical bred out by generations of logic, reason, and modernization. No one needed magic as inventions sprang forth from brilliant minds, and magical practice unfortunately died out.
“The veil surrounding the Underworld is impenetrable,” Bastien said.
“But is it really?” Maddox replied, a smirk on his face.
Bastien didn’t really know. Kymaris was an original fallen angel, stripped of her wings after trying to lead a rebellion against God and cast into the Underworld. She and her brethren became known as Dark Fae but were thought to be powerless to break through the veil separating her world from the First Dimension.
But the thing with magic, as Bastien well knew, was that anything was possible.
“How was she stopped?” Bastien asked, abandoning the need to know how she did it and curious how she was defeated. Perhaps he could glean something to help against Ferelith.
“A human savior named Finley and her twin sister, Zora—”
“The same Zora who has taken Rune’s place?” Bastien interrupted.
“The one and only,” Maddox quipped. “They managed to defeat Kymaris with the help of a lot of magicals. Mostly Light Fae and daemons, a couple of demigods, and even some Dark Fae who didn’t want to be under Kymaris’s thumb any longer.”
It pleased Bastien to hear that daemons played a role in the defeat of such evil. Vyronas itself was founded three thousand years ago by druid-practicing daemons—offspring of Light and Dark Fae—as well as a multitude of humans who inhabited the early creation of Vyronas. He was descended from their combined blood.
“Anyway,” Maddox continued, gaining Bastien’s full focus again, “Zora and Finley killed Kymaris, the veil was repaired, Rune was stripped of his powers and imprisoned for interfering in a prophecy, and Zora took his place. The First Dimension was saved, and now I’m here delivering a message.”
“Quite the lowly drop in duties,” Bastien muttered, still not sure whether to believe this man.
“A request by Onyx to deliver a message is never lowly. It’s always with purpose.”
This took Bastien aback, as he’d forgotten that the stranger had said he was sent by Onyx, god of Conflict. That meant if Maddox was legitimately a messenger on behalf of the Council—the formal name given to the group of five deities—then it pertained to this never-ending war.
But if nothing convinced Bastien that Maddox was indeed sent by the gods to help, his next words did. “It’s time to retrieve your princess and put her on the throne to become queen.”
“Thalia?” Bastien asked incredulously, taking an involuntary step backward as if the notion itself was an enemy to be leery of. “It’s not safe for her.”
“No, it is not,” Maddox agreed, moving around the bench to approach Bastien. He was bothered neither by the pointed sword nor the power emanating from the commandant. “But it is time, and she can help win the war.”
Bastien waited to feel something about Thalia and her possible return, and he got almost nothing. Perhaps a faint flicker of annoyance that he’d have to change battle plans to retrieve her, but his emotions weren’t stirred otherwise.
“Time is of the essence,” Maddox announced.
Frowning, Bastien lowered his sword. He sensed Maddox wasn’t a physical threat, but he wasn’t willing to trust him with this directive yet. “I don’t know you. I don’t know the gods. This could be a trap or a misdirection.”
Maddox didn’t seem offended. “I was created by the gods to do their bidding. Sometimes it’s to fight their wars, sometimes it’s to help others fight their wars. Sometimes it’s just delivering messages such as this one.”
Bastien’s frown deepened. “Created?”
The man shrugged. “No clue how that really works. I’m a demigod and nearly as immortal as my creators. I promise I’m here at their behest. And again, time is of the essence.”
Bastien shook his head to bring his focus back to the issue at hand. The Conclave had no intention of bringing Thalia back to Vyronas until Bastien had defeated Ferelith and regained the throne. While Bastien commanded the army, the Conclave were the magical advisors to the ruling family, and they had his trust.
“If nothing else will get you going,” Maddox drawled as he opened his hand to reveal a ring resting in his palm, “then this will.”
Bastien cursed as he took in the small golden circle with a dome-shaped top set with a smooth black oval stone.
Bastien had no choice but to sheathe his sword, step forward, and retrieve the jewelry from Maddox. His teeth were gritted in fury when he asked the demigod, “How long ago did you take this from her?”
“Just before I arrived here,” Maddox replied with a careless shrug.
“You should have started with that,” Bastien snarled, because if that ring wasn’t on Thalia’s finger, then she was in grave danger. It was the source of protective magic that ensured her safety while in the First Dimension. It hid her existence and location in that realm as long as she wore it. She’d been bespelled with compulsion to never remove it, and gods knows how Maddox got it from her.
Regardless, without it on her finger, Bastien had no choice but to trust the demigod and all that he had said.
He turned away, prepared to bend distance to his brother so they could leave to find Thalia.
Maddox’s words stopped him. “Veda says you cannot give up on love.”
Whirling to face Maddox, Bastien frowned. “Love?”
Maddox nodded. “Love. You and Thalia.”
“There is no love,” Bastien growled. “Tell your god she’s wrong. You can’t give up on something that doesn’t exist in the first place.”
And with that, Bastien disappeared into thin air.
Not everyone could bend distance. It was a magical means of travel within Vyronas, but only those highly skilled in magic could accomplish the feat. Coming from the warrior caste in the House of Dunne, Bastien had the ability, though he rarely used it.
Only in emergencies, and this was the biggest one he’d ever faced.
The instantaneous method of travel didn’t propel the physical form through time and distance but rather pulled two separate geographical points together so one could step from one into the other. It all happened in the blink of an eye, and those experienced in it barely felt a shift in balance.
It was how Bastien was able to appear at his brother’s bedside within a second of leaving Maddox in the Garden of the Gods.
True… it was midday, and true, there was work to be done with the soldiers, but Kieran was taking a lunch break with one of the camp followers. A busty redhead who was busy on her knees before Bastien’s brother.
Always unflappable, Kieran didn’t so much as twitch a muscle at Bastien’s sudden appearance. The woman, however, squealed in fright and scrambled away, trying to cover her nakedness.
“Get out,” Bastien barked at her.
She didn’t need to be told twice. Commandant Dunne was the highest-ranking leader of the citizens of Kestevayne right now, and until the throne was restored, no one dared to disagree with him about anything.
Except maybe Kieran.
“That was rude,” his brother drawled as he tucked himself back into his pants, but he didn’t really sound put out. The redhead was nothing but a leisurely passing of time for Kieran.
“Thalia’s in trouble,” Bastien said, and Kieran instantly went on high alert. Holding the ring out, Bastien recounted his meeting with the demigod, Maddox. “I have to go to her now. You’ll stay and take over my command.”
“Fuck that,” Kieran said, ever the wordsmith. “If she’s without that ring, Ferelith has already sent someone after her. More than one someone, I’m betting. The army won’t fall apart while we’re gone.”
Bastien considered that this was probably true, but his instincts as a leader didn’t like leaving his army with no guidance. It was antithetical to everything he’d been taught growing up in the warrior caste.
“It will be a quick in and out of the veil,” Kieran pointed out, referring to that magical barrier that separated the dimensions. “We won’t be gone long.”
True enough. Travel through dimensions was too hard for most, but both Bastien and Kieran had the ability. Not only was their bloodline thick with magic, but it was strengthened by the ley lines that traversed Vyronas.
When this realm was created from a chunk of the meteor, it had been done by a sect of druid daemons who, though not overly powerful in any magics themselves, were incredibly smart. They used the stone’s power to set up a framework of magical ley lines that crossed the land with concentrated power hubs in the capital cities. Those with magic in their blood used the lines not only to charge their powers but also to cultivate and grow them with study and practice.
It was how the brothers would travel freely to the First Dimension without the Conclave’s aid. Not all dimensions were accessible, but the veil between Vyronas and the First Dimension of Earth was easy to breach.
They could get to Thalia in a matter of seconds, and get her back here where she would be better protected. Bastien had no thought to leave her there, even if he installed the ring back on her finger. Maddox had shared enough that Bastien believed the demigod was indeed delivering a missive from the gods, and he intended to obey it. He’d probably have conflict with the Conclave later for not discussing it with them first, but there was simply no time to do so.
As it stood, Thalia was on her own in a land called Wyoming. He’d only been there once before to set up a home for her to live in peace and safety until she could be brought back to Vyronas. Seven years ago, Bastien had helped the Conclave perform a ritual against Thalia’s will, stripping her of her memories and implanting fake ones in their place. A whole lifetime of falsities she would use to remind herself she lived a placid existence in a remote region of the First Dimension. They even programmed her to never want to leave the tiny horse ranch Bastien had acquired. Thalia loved horses more than just about anything, and he’d wanted her to be happy.
When she’d realized she was being sent away against her will, oh, how she’d hated him.
But then he made her forget that too.
Bastien was now going to have to bring her out of that false reality she’d been living in and restore her to her true self.
And when he did, she was going to hate him even more.
Not that he cared.
“Scoop, lift, toss. Scoop, lift, toss.”
I grunt out this mantra as I muck the stall, moving horse shit to the wheelbarrow, which will later be dumped on the manure pile at the back of the barn. Sweat runs in rivulets down my face, grabbing the dust and grime left by a hard day’s work, but this is my last stall and then I’ll be done for the day.
“Scoop, lift, toss.” It’s a ridiculous chant, but I’ve always found some sort of cadence helps me with the repetitive chores.
My gelding quarter horse and number one man in my life, King, is tethered in the aisle while I clean his cozy abode. He’s watching me with eager eyes, knowing he’ll get his evening feed once I’m done.
Sliding my shovel under the last of King’s “contribution” to my workload, I dump it into the wheelbarrow and push it outside the stall. King doesn’t shy away from me or the wagon whose rusted wheel squeaks. He’s the calmest, gentlest, most steadfast horse I’ve ever had, and at ten years old, he just gets more mellow with age. I could crawl under him right now and go to sleep between his four hooves and under his thousand pounds of weight, knowing he’d never so much as bump my body with his.
Removing my work gloves, I toss them onto an old pine bench against the far wall. It’s a five-dollar purchase I made at an old antique store in Casper this past weekend, and I high-five myself for such a thrifty and practical purchase.
Grabbing a peppermint from a bucket, I remove the cellophane and offer the candy to King. He uses his lips to sweetly pluck it from my palm, and I use the opportunity to lean into him for some pets and snuggles.
They don’t last long, though, as King is hungry for his dinner. He snorts in annoyance over my attention, shaking his head to dislodge me.
“Fine,” I drawl as I lead him back into his stall. “Choose food over me. I won’t forget it.”
He nickers softly, not understanding what I’m saying but reiterating he’s hungry. I refresh his water, scoop feed into his bucket, and take one last moment to admire him after I slide the stall door shut and bolt it.
King is a chestnut quarter horse with a beautiful blaze of white running down his back right leg, from hip to hoof, and stands a little over sixteen hands high. My parents gave him to me for my seventeenth birthday, and it was love at first sight.
“See you in the morning, my man,” I murmur as I turn away and head out of the barn. The other horses are quiet, all having been fed and shut in for the night. All except for Dealer, a big bay in the last stall and the only breeding stallion I currently have. He kicks the back wall as I walk past.
“Be nice,” I admonish softly. “I’ll turn you out in the morning.”
He snorts in response and kicks the wall again. He’s really a big baby, and I love him to death, just as I love all my horses.
I exit the old barn but leave the two swinging doors open. It’s going to be a crisp night, and the fresh air will be good for them.
I relish the last lingering smells of fresh hay, horse, and leather as I stop at the water spigot. These are the smells of my ranch, and they are sweet to me.
I quickly wash my hands and dry them on my jeans. Grabbing the water bottle I left outside, I drain the contents and cross the enclosed paddock that connects to the barn.
Beyond that, the majestic, snow-covered peaks of the Teton Mountains still manage to take my breath away, despite having lived here my entire life. The setting sun paints an orange glow on the upper peaks’ remaining snow that sparkles like crushed diamonds lit on fire.
It was warm today for early July in Wyoming, but as the sun drops, I can feel the chill creeping in. The exertion from cleaning stalls has soaked my shirt in sweat. My back aches slightly from the constant shoveling, and my shoulders are sore from the repairs I made to the front paddock gate earlier today. These are all feelings I cherish because they confirm I have the strength to carry on my parents’ work and make this old ranch flourish.
Pulling off my Stetson that shielded me all day from the blazing sun, I wipe my sweaty forehead with the back of my shirtsleeve and push the hat back into place on my crown.
My parents taught me that I could do anything I set my mind to, which included taking over this ranch after they were killed eight years ago. I made the choice to leave college and come back here, determined to make it work in my parents’ memory. God, I’d give anything for them to see what I’ve accomplished. Whenever I think of them, I hurt so deeply in my chest, it steals my breath.
I have no other family members. While I don’t think it’s totally weird, I really don’t have any close friends. Oh, I have acquaintances in the horse community, but no one with whom I can share my innermost thoughts.
And yet, despite that loneliness, it’s never occurred to me to leave home. To venture forth to a city where I could be surrounded by people. A part of me likes the solitude, and I’m not merely content but happy here. I feel most at peace on the ranch, nestled and protected in the shadow of the Tetons, surrounded by raw beauty and the soft nickers of horses joyful to see me every day.
I grab the cooler I keep stocked with bottled water and snacks for while I’m out working and head up to the main house, eager for a hot shower, a good dinner, and a nice romance novel after I’m tucked in bed.
By eight o’clock, I feel human again. The steamy shower worked out my sore muscles. My skin is slathered in sweet-smelling lotion, a nod to my girly side since I’m sweaty and grimy most days. My hair is blown dry and left to hang long since I normally have it in a braid down my back. After polishing off two microwaved meals (because I didn’t have it in me to cook after physical labor all day), my belly is full.
In a pair of leggings, fuzzy socks, and a long-sleeved, soft cotton tunic, I sip a cup of tea and nibble on shortbread cookies while flipping through bills. Breeding and training quarter horses is my passion, but the paperwork is the pits. A necessary evil.
Working solidly for the next half hour, I write out checks, stuff envelopes, and resolve to reconcile my checking account tomorrow.
Affixing a stamp to the last envelope, I lean back in my chair and stretch, satisfied with a productive evening and looking forward to relaxing.
I take my teacup and empty plate to the sink and wash them by hand. The dishwasher is on the fritz, and I don’t have the spare cash to replace it. And I’ll have to get a new one rather than repair it as the current machine is avocado green, meaning it’s really, really ancient.
The kitchen is my favorite room in the old family ranch house. It was the first thing I renovated after my parents passed on, wanting to keep the same charm but needing to make it mine, as well. I restored the knotty pine floors and whitewashed the cabinets. I couldn’t afford to replace the appliances, but I more than made up for that by finding my kitchen table at the junkyard. Made from reclaimed chestnut, it’s hand-carved with square inlays and a trestle base. I only had to do some minor refinishing, and it looks amazing under the wrought iron chandelier with metal roosters. Of course, there’s a hodgepodge of mismatched chairs surrounding it, but I don’t think it in any way diminishes its beauty.
Nabbing a cloth from the drawer, I wet it and move to the table to wipe my crumbs when all the horses in the barn start to whinny at the same time. There are several loud bangs, and I can tell Dealer is kicking the back of his stall again. Something has them worked up—I’m guessing a coyote might have gotten too close. Perhaps even went into the barn to look for food.
“Goddamn it,” I mutter as I toss the cloth back into the sink and head for the front door.
I slip into my boots and shrug into a jacket since the temperature has dropped to the low fifties. Before stepping onto the porch, though, I grab the shotgun hanging on the wall and check to make sure it’s loaded.
I peer hard into the darkness surrounding the house. The porch light illuminates just a few feet outward, but over to the right, the outside bulbs on the main barn light up its front as well as part of the paddock. Only the area between me and the barn is dark, but it’s a quick walk, and I’m confident with my gun.
It’s always with me if I go out at night because you never know when a serial killer might be lurking behind a bush, just waiting for the dumb female to walk his way. That won’t be what’s written on my epitaph.
Instead, it will say, She went out with a fight.
Another loud bang as I get closer to the barn. Clearly, Dealer’s kicking out his displeasure over something.
Admittedly, I’m a little spooked in the dark, but I don’t feel any real apprehension. Moose Gap is a safe community. Crime is virtually nonexistent.
Freezing mid-step, I snap my head toward the barn and listen intently.
That’s a different sort of noise, not a horse kicking at his stall.
As I step into the light spilling at the barn door, a weird sensation prickles the back of my neck. Shaking off my foreboding, I step inside and turn on the interior lights. The center aisle is flooded with brightness, and all looks well, just as I left it not long ago. All the stall doors are shut and bolted. One of the horses lets out a whinny that sounds like a greeting, not a whimper of fear.
I move forward, traversing the aisle and double-checking to make sure each stall door is still bolted shut. At King’s stall, he nickers, but I don’t offer a greeting. I’m listening for the sound I heard before. Dealer is quiet, almost as if he knows I need the silence to figure out what’s going on.
I walk the remaining length of the barn to the back door, also shut. I turn the latch and step outside, thankful for my foresight in installing lighting on the back of the barn too. I’m immediately bathed in a soft, sulfurous glow, but it only extends so far. Past that, I peer hard into the dark, but I can’t see anything.
Because I don’t want to get back into the house and have the horses set off again, I decide to walk the entire outside of the barn to make sure everything looks okay. Between the lights on the front and back of the building, there’s enough castoff illumination to see where I’m going, so I easily move around the back corner and head toward the front.
After only two steps, I trip over a shovel I must’ve left on the ground. Falling forward, I land on my hands and knees, my gun tumbling out of my grasp.
“Shit, shit, shit,” I mutter as I push myself up and wipe my dirty hands on my leggings. I feel my cheeks flush with embarrassment, even though no one could’ve seen me except maybe a foraging chipmunk.
Bending over, I grab the shovel in one hand and the shotgun in the other. Just as I straighten, I catch movement from the corner of my eye, and I whip that way.
I’m boggled and frozen in fear for I am now face-to-face with what can only be described as a monster from a nightmare.
Am I dreaming?
Blazing red eyes radiate pure evil, clearly not a man or animal even recognized by man. I take it all in quickly—tall, standing on two legs with arms hanging almost to its knees, reed thin except for a potbelly, blotchy gray skin, and completely hairless. It has a squashed-in face, and when it peels its lips back to reveal yellowed, pointed teeth, I know I can’t afford to consider this a psychotic break.
I have to believe this is very real.
I’m right-handed and that is where my shovel is gripped. I’m not able to muster up a big swing, but I bring it across my body as hard as I can, catching the thing in the side of the head.
If it were a man, it would have dropped him to the ground. But my blow did nothing except cause the creature to snarl.
With lightning-fast reflexes, one long arm shoots out and wrenches the shovel away from me before tossing it aside where it bangs into the side of the barn. I take a few steps back, horrified as it stalks toward me slowly, matching me step for step. Its head pushes forward, tilting back and forth as it creepily appraises me.
As if I’m its next meal.
Without hesitation, I take a large step backward, raise my weapon, and shoot. There’s no aim required as it’s a shotgun and my target is only a few feet away. The blast catches the thing in its upper right arm, causing it to stumble backward. I almost gag when I see the arm is torn—muscle gaping to expose bone—and the monster looks down at the wound almost curiously.
It attempts to move its limb, but when it dangles uselessly, the beast becomes infuriated. Head swiveling my way, it opens its mouth, tips its head back, and lets out an indignant, earsplitting screech.
I don’t stick around, pivoting hard and running to the door at the rear of the barn. As I round the corner, I slam into something hard and let out an involuntary scream of terror, assuming it’s another hell-beast.
A hand comes down over my mouth, my shotgun is torn from my grasp and tossed to the ground, and then I’m being dragged through the open barn door. My adrenaline surges, and I punch, kick, and claw at my captor.
The arm squeezes around me tighter, and then I feel lips near my ear. A deep, rumbling voice says, “Hush and be still. I’m here to help you.”
Understanding that this is a human speaking and not a slimy creature from my worst nightmares, I sag with relief.
“You good?” he asks.
Fuck no, I’m not good. But I nod, anyway.
Slowly, his hand slides from my mouth and reaches to shut the door, latching it from the inside.
Releasing me from his embrace, the man takes my arm and pulls me along the aisle. I get a glimpse—a mere first impression—and note he is tall, easily over six-five, with dark blond hair shaved down to his scalp. His shoulders are broad, muscles bulging under a brown shirt that hugs his frame. When he glances over his shoulder at me, his eye color is indistinguishable in the shadows, but I can tell they are incredibly light.
Not once do I consider this person to be a danger. I follow him, intrinsically knowing that at this moment, he’s a safer bet than whatever that was outside the barn.
The stranger stops at the ladder that leads up to a loft. I don’t keep hay up there—it’s stored in a separate barn—but rather boxes of junk. “Get up,” he says quietly, nodding up to the platform bolted into the barn wall and supported with beams along the edge. “Hide near the back, and don’t come down until it’s safe.”
“My gun,” I whisper, glancing at it lying on the ground near the door. “I need it to protect myself.”
“Your gun is useless against an erchras. I’m your only hope.”
I have questions.
What the hell is an erchras?
Is it a new species in Wyoming?
And how did this man just mysteriously appear?
However, the erchras has reached the barn door and is rattling the latch. I scramble forward, right into the man for protection. His hands come to my shoulders, and he turns me toward the ladder. “Get up there now. And stay absolutely silent.”
The barn door rattles violently, the damn thing on the other side clearly not understanding how a latch works. The door isn’t locked—all the erchras has to do is turn the handle clockwise and it can easily walk inside.
I don’t wait around, instead flying up the ladder and moving to the back of the platform where I sprawl on my stomach. The flooring is no more than about twelve feet wide, so I flatten myself as much as possible and hope I can’t be seen. The boards are old and shrunken, and I can peek between them to the barn aisle below.
The man has disappeared, and for a brief but crazy second, I wonder if he was real.
The barn door judders again, and then it goes silent.
Did the thing give up?
A huge explosion of wood and the sound of shrieking metal has me clasping my hand over my mouth to stifle my scream. I can see through the crack in the planks that the entire door is gone, and the erchras is entering. Its arm still dangles useless, dripping blood so dark, I think it’s actually black, which means it was strong enough to pull that barn door free with just one hand.
My entire body trembles with fear as I start to understand that the man below won’t be a match for this creature. What it doesn’t have in brains, it certainly makes up for in brute strength.
I need to calm down, but my blood pressure steadily rises. Deep breathing will make too much noise. Hell, I may just die of a heart attack rather than being pulled limb from limb by that thing. My body is once again so racked by terror, I shake uncontrollably.
Through the wooden slats, I watch the erchras move down the aisle toward the ladder. As it nears the first stall, the horse inside starts blowing and snorting. Hooves kick at the stall walls, riling up the other horses.
The erchras ignores their cacophony, instead tilting its head left and right as if it’s plagued by curiosity. The beast’s shredded, dangling arm and slouched posture with protruding potbelly make it no less intimidating.
It reaches the ladder, and I fervently pray for it to keep moving, but it stops. Dealer’s stall is opposite, and the big stallion is going crazy inside. As if noticing the horses for the first time, the erchras’s head swivels almost ninety degrees to look at the stall, saliva dripping from its mouth. It seems mystified by the noises, but when it licks its lips and moves toward Dealer’s stall, I’m horrified that it’s no longer looking for me.
Where in the hell is that man? Shouldn’t he be doing something, or did he abandon me?
Dealer screams in fright as the erchras nears his stall, and I can’t stand it. Twisting my head, I spot an old baseball bat a few feet away. I inch over, grab it, and sling it as hard as I can over the platform edge. It bounces on the concrete floor ten feet to the left of the creature.
As expected, the bat gets the erchras’s attention. But rather than move to the bat or even turn back for Dealer, its head lifts and it appraises the platform. It shuffles toward the ladder, that creepy head tilting side to side.
I shrink back into the shadows, my heart hammering so hard, I’m afraid the monster can hear me. The erchras stops at the ladder, tips its head back, and sniffs deeply.
Goddamn that sweet-smelling body lotion I put on after my shower. I might as well have a neon arrow flashing above me.
The creature’s lips pull back, exposing those sharp teeth, and it lets out what I can only describe as a howl of victory. At this very moment, I know I’m dead.
It moves to the ladder, uses its good hand to reach out to a rung, and lifts a leg to begin its upward climb. I glance around, looking for a weapon, but that freaking bat was the only thing of use.
I look back at the erchras to see it has climbed halfway up. I start praying.
Before it can take another step, though, something hurtles from the left, ripping the creature from the ladder, followed by a loud crash to the ground. I don’t think as I belly crawl to the edge to peer over.
It’s the man, and he and the monster are both on their feet, tearing at each other with fists and kicks. The erchras is strong, backhanding the man, launching him fifteen feet down the aisle. He rolls to his feet quickly, pulling a sword I hadn’t seen from a sheath at his hip, and runs toward the thing.
Teeth bared, the man swirls the long blade around his head once in mid sprint, moving so fast that the erchras can’t react. The sword hits it at the bottom of its neck and cleaves its head right from its shoulders.
The head thumps against the wall as the body pitches forward toward the man. He launches a power kick to its chest and it flies backward, crashing into one of the support beams holding up the platform.
There’s a split second when all is quiet. Then I hear the beam crack before snapping loudly. One end of the platform tilts downward, and I hear bolts ripping out of the walls. With one lurch, the entire floor angles steeply, and I slide toward the edge. Scrabbling to grab on to something to stop my fall, I come up with nothing but a handful of dust as I’m propelled over, a few of my hoarded treasures sliding after me.
The fall is not overly long, but it seems to take forever before I’ll inevitably crash into the concrete floor and break every bone in my body.
Except… I don’t hit the aisle but rather land in the muscled arms of the man. I have no clue how he moved so fast, but he has me cradled, staring at me. Those eyes are now distinct, an incredibly light shade of blue.
And then, he’s dropping me.
Not to fall on my ass. He makes sure I’m on my feet before he turns his back and walks to the erchras.
I think the danger is averted, but I don’t know for sure, and my mom raised no fool. I run for the barn door, which catches the man’s attention.
“Don’t,” he barks. “There are more.”
But he misunderstands. I’m not running to flee him but rather to get my shotgun.
I skid to a stop, bend, and grab it. With the barrel pointed straight at him, my finger hovers above the trigger. He might have saved me from whatever the hell that thing was, but he is still a stranger.
A very strong, deadly stranger, and I don’t trust him at all.
“No offense,” I say as I keep the barrel pointed in his direction, “but I don’t know you.”
“Of course you do,” another man’s voice says from behind me, deep and rumbling but with a tone of amusement.
Before I can fathom another person being in the barn or fully pivot to face what could be new danger, the gun is jerked out of my hands, and I snarl in frustration.
Whirling, I find a man just as tall as the other, this one with crystal-blue eyes and wavy brown hair that looks perfectly messy.
He has an easy smile that oddly puts me a little at ease before moving his gaze to the other man standing near the dead creature on my barn floor. “There were two more outside, but I took care of them.”
The other, much more dour man, by all accounts, nods curtly.
I don’t like being ignored or having my gun taken away, so I whip my leg back and launch it forward, kicking the man in the shin. Not sure it hurt him much, but it startles him enough that I’m able to grab my gun. I back up several feet, now standing between the two men but keeping the barrel pointed on the second since he was the one who disarmed me.
“Now, who the hell are you two, and what the hell is going on?” I demand, looking back and forth between them.
“I’m Kieran Dunne,” the brown-haired man says, again with that warm smile as he leans against the doorjamb where the barn door stood just moments ago. He crosses his arms casually over his chest and nods toward the other man. “That’s my brother, Bastien.”
I glance back at that guy, and he doesn’t smile. Expression hard, he stares at me.
“One of you better explain things,” I snap, now swinging the gun toward the man named Bastien since he appears to be more of a threat, despite his brother taking my gun away before. “One minute my horses are going crazy, and the next minute, monsters are trying to kill me. I better get some answers, or I’m apt to start shooting.”
The blond man looks irritated. “If you’ll just relax—”
“Relax?” I screech in indignation. “You have to be fucking kidding!”
Kieran laughs. “She’s got a mouth on her now, huh, Bastien?”
I glare at the handsome man. “You act like you know me. You said I knew you when you took my gun.” My attention goes to Bastien who stares at me dispassionately, so I swing my regard back to Kieran. “You said I have a mouth on me now, implying I didn’t before or that you knew me before. I can assure you, as a rancher’s daughter, I’ve been dropping F-bombs since I was thirteen.”
“We need to explain things,” Bastien says flatly. “Perhaps we can go into your house and sit.”
“I’m not inviting you into my home,” I seethe with mounting anger and fear. “You’re both strangers to me, and I’m starting to freak out.”
“I can explain everything,” Bastien says with a huff of annoyance. “If you just—”
“Allow me,” Kieran says, straightening up to face me. “You are the princess and sole heir to the throne of Kestevayne in the dimension of Vyronas. It’s this whole other world, which you are originally from. Through the power of magic, you’ve been living here, in Earth’s First Dimension, for the past seven years, with no memory of your prior existence. The erchras are hunting you… to kill or capture, we don’t know. But more will come.” He points at himself, then Bastien. “We are here to ensure your safety and return you home.”
My jaw drops, and I’m actually sorry I asked for an explanation. Of all the stories possible, I couldn’t have made this up. “You’re nuts,” I stammer.
But, how do I explain the erchras? That’s a creature not of this world, I’m sure of it. Up until now, I guess I’d been thinking perhaps it was an alien, but the mention of magic has me second-guessing that.
Kieran said more would be coming. I don’t buy any of his bullshit that I’m a princess with no memories, but I am terrified that there could be more of these creatures. I can’t defend myself against them.
With a heavy sigh, I realize there are no good options. If they’re going to hurt or kill me, they could do it here just as easily as in my house. They had my gun, and still saved me from certain death.
Even though I think I may be tumbling into madness, I hear myself say, “Come on inside. I could use a drink, and you can tell me your story.”