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By KATE DOUGLAS
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Kate Douglas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe steady slap, slap, slap of Taron's sandals echoed off the rough stone walls. He checked his sword, made sure his tunic and pants were properly fastened, and wondered if he'd ever get used to this absurd style of clothing.
After a lifetime in scholarly robes, it was difficult to believe these new designs were more practical, though he had to admit that the pants didn't tangle around his legs the way his robes often had. Of course, he'd rarely had to rush as he rushed now, hurrying down the dark and empty utility tunnel toward the training grounds.
Any other time he would have taken the main passage, but these narrow tunnels, used mostly by the Lemurian Guard, were more practical when one was in a hurry. Besides, there was little risk of being waylaid by any of his fellow scholars. He didn't want to have to explain why he, a well-known scholar and philosopher, was now training some of Lemuria's new Paladins.
He still wasn't quite certain himself.
"Who the nine hells do they think they're kidding?" He would have laughed if it didn't sound so pathetic. Though well-trained in battle strategy and swordsmanship, he was a man who won battles with words, not a sword.
Gods be damned, even his own so-called sentient blade still didn't think enough of his fighting skills to speak to him, but times were changing.
He did have the skills, and he had, after all, volunteered.
After Roland, the new Captain of the Guard twisted his arm.
A flash of blue caught his eye as he rounded a curve in the passage. He jerked to a stop.
It couldn't be ... could it?
"Willow?" His heart pounded as he flattened his palm against the wall and searched for the elusive blue sparkle. He'd never thought to see that amazing little will-o'-the-wisp again.
He drew his sword and used the light from the crystal blade. "Willow ... are you there?"
Carefully he searched the narrow passage. She couldn't be ... but there was always a chance, always ... A small chip—a bit of crystal embedded in the tunnel wall—reflected swordlight with a flash of blue. Gods be damned.
He let out a big breath and sheathed his weapon. "Of course you're not here, are you?" What the nine hells was he thinking? Willow was gone, nothing more than consciousness now, that amazing mind, that beautiful little sprite, stuck inside the body of a stupid dog.
Sighing, remembering Willow, wishing the impossible and feeling like a fool, he continued down the tunnel to the training field.
"Nine hells, woman. Be careful!"
Blinded by sweat, Taron lunged to one side. His foot slipped out from under him on the slick stone floor; he ducked his head and rolled to the left. Shoulder first, he hit the ground hard, a hairsbreadth ahead of the sharp edge of the Paladin's sword. The shimmering crystal blade sliced much too close to his throat.
Lying on his back, gasping for air and absolutely livid, he glared at his opponent. "This is a training exercise, Isra! You're not supposed to try and kill me!"
Isra held out her hand in immediate apology. "I am sorry, Taron. Thank the gods you're so quick! I guess I got a bit caught up in our battle."
"Mock battle, Isra. And gods be damned, but quick had nothing to do with it. I fell on my ass or I'd be a dead man. Please, try to remember I'm one of the good guys." Shaking off his unexpected anger, he took her offered hand.
She tugged and he stood, but she didn't turn him loose. Her full lips lifted into a sexy smile. "That you are, Taron of Libernus." Her voice had gone low and rather husky, and she cocked one dark eyebrow as she studied him with unabashed interest. "You are most definitely one of the good guys."
He glanced at their hands—still linked—and back at her face. She continued to assess him in a most forthright manner. He wasn't quite sure how to react—the average Lemurian woman was not so bold.
Isra, though, was a Paladin. Once a slave in the crystal mines, now she was a soldier in Lemuria's new army of women warriors.
Paladins knew no fear, nor did they lack confidence.
Taron could use a little of that confidence himself, he thought, staring uncomfortably at their linked hands. He'd learned long ago that women were not for him, and he wasn't about to let this one distract him from his scholarly goals.
Isra glanced at their clasped fingers and then raised her head. "Would you, by any chance, be interested in ..."
Gods-be-damned, no! Taron quickly extricated his hand from her grasp. "I'm flattered, Isra, but I'm a scholar. My interests lie elsewhere."
Frowning, she stepped back a pace and stared at him like he had two heads. What? Didn't the woman believe him when he said he wasn't interested?
Still staring, she said, "You're well-formed and powerful. You move with a soldier's grace and speed. You're here, training women to fight. Not a very scholarly occupation, is it?"
He shrugged. "We do what we must in times such as these. Once the Paladins are fully trained, I will return to my studies and my solitude."
Laughing softly, she shook her head. Why would she look so confused? It was only the truth, after all. "Are you a celibate?" she asked. "Or is it possible you prefer the company of men?"
His laughter surprised him as much as her question. "No, Isra. I do not prefer the company of men. I am celibate by choice. It's not unusual for a man to choose a life of quiet study over the constant turmoil of politics and warfare—or love."
She grinned at him, still shaking her head.
"Do you think I make light of you?" He honestly didn't know what she thought. He didn't really care, though he did not want her to think him rude. Women had always been, and probably always would be, a mystery to him.
One he had absolutely no interest in solving.
Still smiling, Isra was the one to shrug this time. "I know better, Taron. You are not one to make light of an honest question. I guess it's just not the answer I expected."
"Well, I certainly didn't intend to confuse you, though I'm pleased you realize I would never play you false." Truth be told, she was a lovely young woman, and if he were so inclined, he might be showing interest in Isra the female rather than merely dodging her crystal blade in training.
Isra reached for a cup of water while he turned away and grabbed a towel. Wiping the sweat from his face he tried to think of Isra as a woman, as someone with whom he might want to form a relationship.
He couldn't do it. He saw her as a Paladin and nothing more. It wasn't the Lemurian way to lust after women, and it certainly wasn't his way. Control of what he thought of as his baser instincts, that wild creature buried deep inside, was more than a matter of honor—it was the way he had chosen to live.
It was a choice many of his peers had made, though that so-called "Lemurian way," like many other things in their society, was undergoing a rapid change. For one thing, these strong-willed, intelligent women now training as warriors were not quiet and soft-spoken like their aristocratic counterparts.
No, they were bold beyond measure.
Taron found their attitude refreshing, invigorating, even, though he had no intention of pursuing any of them for romance.
They were much too distracting.
This was different, though, this position as a trainer for the women who'd once been slaves. This was a role that had essentially chosen him—one he found he enjoyed in spite of the risk to life and limb.
Of course, Isra's sentient sword would never have allowed her to actually harm him, which was the only reason they were able to train with their crystal blades. Nor could he blame her powerful strike on demon influence. His people, for now at least, were free of the bastards. None remained who were possessed by demonkind.
Isra—an average-sized woman fully a foot shorter than he and with only a fraction of his reach—had almost taken him down, proving once again that women had the ability to stand as equals beside their men.
One more long-standing Lemurian tradition that had quickly been erased. Like the one that said a woman waited all her life to be chosen by an interested male, so she might then focus her life on making his easier.
Taron had a feeling that particular tradition was already gone. But just as women were now free to flirt, Taron was free to ignore that flirtation. Setting his towel aside and smiling ruefully, he did exactly that, shaking his head over Isra's skill and his own clumsiness.
"You've learned quickly, Isra. I'm going to need more work with Roland if I expect to best any of you in battle, mock or otherwise." He bowed his head in respect. "You have done well. All of the Paladins are doing an amazing job, but you have truly excelled."
A brilliant flash of blue light set him back a step. Again, the image of Willow and her trail of blue crystals entered his thoughts, but only for a split second. A strange voice-a woman's voice—echoed from everywhere, yet from nowhere in particular.
"Taron is right. You have done extremely well, Isra."
Taron was almost certain his heart stood still. He stared at Isra's glowing sword, unwilling to believe what he'd just heard, but there was no denying the truth.
Impossible. Absolutely impossible. How could this be? It was too soon—Isra was too new a warrior. He swallowed back a curse, raised his head and focused on the wide-eyed woman.
"Isra. Your blade. It speaks."
Ginny Jones redialed her cousin's number, but the call didn't go through. She stared at her cell phone long enough to register Markus's panic and the blinking icon telling her the battery was going dead. Then she shoved the phone in her pocket, turned around and walked right into the solid wall of red rock.
In seconds she'd passed through the portal at Red Rock Crossing in Sedona, Arizona, and entered the vortex. She bypassed the tunnel to Bell Rock where the main entrance to Lemuria was located, and took the small portal leading directly from this vortex to the Council of Nine's chancellor's office.
It took mere seconds to step out of Earth's dimension and enter Lemuria's, something that never ceased to amaze her.
She'd have to save the amazement for later. Ready or not, there was another crisis looming, but where the hell was her team? The damned chancellor's office was empty.
"Shit. Where is everyone?" Ginny brushed her hand over her crystal sword, as much from habit as the need to connect to her ever-present companion. After another quick glance about the empty chamber and adjoining rooms, she slipped through the doorway and took off at a full run, heading for the great plaza with her cousin Markus's panic-stricken words echoing in her ears.
Ginny! Something bad is going on. Animals are acting really weird. I mean really, really weird. Tom the cat's got all those teeth again and he just ate the neighbor's dog. Like chewed him up and swallowed him. And the dog's a Rottweiler. Uh ... he was a Rottweiler. Ginny? Answer the phone! Where are you?
Skidding as she rounded a jeweled column, Ginny collided with Alton. Her mate grabbed her arms, steadying her as she gasped for breath.
"Ginny? Sweetheart ... what's wrong?"
Blowing so hard she couldn't speak, Ginny linked up and telepathically shared Markus's message with Alton.
Hanging on to her arm, Alton spun around and looked out across the great plaza. He called out to a familiar figure near the dais. "Dax! Grab Eddy. See if you can find Daws and Selyn. We need to go to Sedona. Now."
Eddy Marks popped out of one of the council chamber rooms. "What's going on? We were just headed back to Evergreen to check in with Dad and see how Bumper-Willow's doing."
Ginny shook her head. "There's no time. I just got a message from Markus. It sounds like a full-scale invasion in Sedona. I tried calling him back. He didn't answer, but my battery's really low. I barely got a signal."
Dax, Selyn, and Dawson Buck trotted across the plaza. Ginny waved them over. "Can you guys leave now? We really need to hurry."
Dawson nodded. "We're ready. I need to check on the clinic anyway, make sure my assistant's got everything under control. He's a good vet. Esteban's used to running the place, so if animals are affected again he'll have heard." He checked his blade and then glanced toward the plaza filled with citizens. "Should we tell anyone we're going?"
Alton nodded. "I've contacted Taron. Told him we've got a new demon outbreak in Earth's dimension. I wonder if this is the group Isra saw the demon king sending toward Sedona?"
"It has to be." Ginny took off at a trot toward the council office and the small portal. "We couldn't find any sign of them when we were there a couple days ago, though. Makes me wonder what they've been up to."
Alton shook his head as he pushed the pace. "Nothing good, that's for sure."
He and Ginny led Dax, Eddy, Daws, and Selyn through the door into the chancellor's office. Dawson paused by the portal—the one that led directly to the small vortex at Red Rock Crossing.
"Let's go to my place first," he said. His home was close to the portal. "We can charge our cell phones while you use the landline to try and reach Markus. I'll get in touch with my clinic, see if they've heard anything, but we might want to fan out, cover as much area as we can."
Ginny nodded. "Works for me. Let's go."
They slipped through the portal and entered the vortex at Red Rock Crossing. The entire chamber reeked of sulfur, and Dax stopped everyone with a wave of his hand. "Look. The portal to Abyss. It's open again."
Ginny drew DarkFire. "I've got it." Anxiety rippled across her shoulders as she pointed her sword at the pulsing gateway to hell. A beam of dark light shot from the end of her amethyst blade. Silently she willed DarkFire to hurry. In less than a minute, the small portal was once again sealed. Ginny slipped her sword into the scabbard and set a glamour over the blade.
The brilliant amethyst sword faded from sight.
Dawson was the first to step through the portal out of the vortex and into the waning light of a late October afternoon. The area was empty, the blue sky a welcome change after the caverns of Lemuria.
Ginny took a deep breath of the clean, desert air. No sulfuric stench of demon here, no sense of danger, but Markus had sounded absolutely terrified.
Alert and moving quickly, she followed the others—this amazing band of demonslayers—along the well-marked trail. It led to a shortcut that ran cross-country for a small distance before eventually dropping them into the back side of Dawson's property.
It would be night soon. The perfect time to hunt demons.
Visibly trembling, Isra clutched the hilt of her crystal sword and stared at the shimmering blade. "Why, Taron? I heard her voice, but ..." Slowly raising her head, Isra stared at him. "I've done nothing to deserve her praise. How can this be?"
The other women in the training room gathered close as Isra's sword shimmered, diamond bright, and pulsing with life.
Once again the blade flashed and the sentience within spoke. The voice was soft and melodic, definitely female. "You will call me FrostFire, Isra. My name will forever be a reminder of the cold that once encased your heart. I speak because I wish to, because it is time. You've had more personal demons to overcome than most, Isra, once a Forgotten One. You turned away from evil. You saved Nica's life. You have fought your own demons to become a stronger, better woman. You've done this, not for personal glory but for Lemuria. We will make a formidable team, you and I."
The glow faded, the blade was once again merely faceted crystal. Isra raised her head and stared at Taron, not as a man she wanted to bed, but as a friend, one who might understand what had just happened. All sense of her earlier flirtation was gone. Tears coursed down her cheeks, but she didn't say a word. Her rapt expression spoke volumes.
Isra's silence was not unexpected. Taron figured if his gods-be-damned sword ever condescended to speak to him, he'd not know what to say, either.
He bowed low to Isra, a heartfelt show of respect.
Respect tainted by his own unfathomable jealousy—a foolish and unwelcome response he quickly buried. "Your sword is correct, Isra. You will make a formidable team. Congratulations to you, and to FrostFire. May your partnership be long and successful."
Excerpted from crystalfire by KATE DOUGLAS Copyright © 2012 by Kate Douglas. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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