Raine Stewart is convinced she’ll die young and alone in Alabama, the victim of a chronic, mysterious illness. Even when a man in a cloak steps out of her mirror and demands her help fighting a bloodthirsty wizard, Raine shrugs it off as a hallucination—just one more insult from her failing body. Only when the handsome stranger kidnaps her does Raine realize she’s just stepped into a world of utmost danger—and urgent purpose.
Ruled by unpredictable gods and unstable nations, Tandara is a land of shapeshifters and weather-workers, queens and legends. Monsters and bounty hunters patrol the mountains, riverboats are pulled by sea-cattle . . . and nightmarish creatures stalk Raine in pursuit of her blood.
But Raine isn’t helpless—or alone. She’s part of a band as resourceful as it is odd: a mage-shy warrior, a tattered wizard, a tenderhearted giant, and a prickly troll sorceress. Her new friends swear she has powers of her own. With their help, she might just live long enough to find out what they are.
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Through a Glass Darkly
Raine settled deeper into the upholstered armchair and opened her book. It was after midnight, but she wasn't sleepy. God knows she spent enough time in bed. A breeze blew through the screen window, and she tucked the blanket around her thin legs. The April air was cool, but she didn't mind. Alabama summer lurked around the corner and this might be her last spring.
"Watch this," Mimsie said, whizzing around the bedroom like a helium balloon escapee from a birthday party.
Raine smiled at the ghost's antics. Mimsie was a vision today in a polka dot Suzy Perette dress with rounded shoulders, full skirt, and cinched waist. A triple strand of pearls graced her slender neck and she wore her light brown hair curled and brushed away from her youthful face, a face Raine recognized only from faded photographs. The elderly relative who'd taken her in after her parents had died, the woman she remembered, had been more than half a century older, wrinkled and riddled with arthritis.
Mimsie paused in her aerial high jinx. "You look awful. When's the last time you ate?"
"I don't know. I'm not hungry."
"You're skin and bones. I'll see what's in the kitchen."
The ghost sailed through the bedroom wall, leaving a cloud of Arpege in her wake.
Raine shook her head in amazement. It had been five years since Mimsie had died. Five years without so much as an ectoplasmic peep and then bam! Mimsie was back. The ghost's sudden appearance a few weeks earlier had sent her scurrying to the doctor, convinced she had a brain tumor. Headaches, nausea, blurred vision, and now the ghost of her dead aunt — what else could it be?
The scans had come back negative. Raine had been sick her entire life, tested for every disease known to man with no diagnosis. The MRI to rule out a brain tumor was just one more procedure. She was twentyfive years old and she was dying, and no one could tell her why.
In the ghost's absence, quiet settled over the old house, unbroken but for the creak of a settling board and the hum of the electric clock on the table by the bed. Raine returned her attention to Ghosts of Behr County, a worn volume of eerie tales, and one of her favorites. She was engrossed in the story of the Wampas Kitty, a feline banshee whose shriek warned of impending death, when a sudden gust of briny air made her lift her head. The tangy scent of the sea blowing through the open window was overpowering and intoxicating.
Raine loved the smell of the ocean, but she lived sixty miles from the Gulf. Inland. The universe wasn't satisfied with hallucinations. Now she was imagining smells.
A flicker of movement in the dresser mirror caught her eye, and the book in her hands tumbled to the floor. A ship rode a wintry sea in the silvered glass, the image shaky as an old silent movie. The sky above the vessel was sprinkled with stars, hard chips of brightness against the inky black, and a sliver of moon peeked from behind dusky clouds. A tall, broad-shouldered man strode about the narrow deck, flags on a mast snapping in the breeze. He paused and looked back, as though sensing her regard.
Time slowed and stilled. How long she sat there — seconds? hours? — Raine did not know. The neighbor's dog barked, breaking the spell. She blinked, disoriented for a moment, and shook off her paralysis. Brain tumor. Definitely. Closing her hand around the heavy flashlight by her chair, Raine hurled it at the mirror. The glass shattered, and the ship and the man disappeared.
Mimsie darted back through the wall. "I heard a noise. Are you hurt?" She spotted the broken glass. "Oh, dear. Why'd you break the mirror?"
"There was a roach," Raine lied. "One of those big, icky ones with wings. You know I hate those things."
Raine got to her feet and tightened the string at the waist of her cotton pajamas. She'd lost more weight. Mimsie was right — she should eat something, but she had no appetite. Averting her gaze from the broken mirror, she headed for the bedroom door.
"Careful of the glass," Mimsie warned. "You're barefoot." She fluttered after Raine into the upstairs hall. "There's chicken noodle soup in the pantry and saltine crackers."
"Yay. I'll have a whiskey instead."
"You don't drink."
"I've decided to take it up."
Raine needed a drink. A lot of drinks. First the ghost and now the medieval hunk in the mirror. She'd lost her ever-loving mind.
"But what about the glass?"
"Later, Mims. It's not going anywhere."
Holding on to the rail, Raine staggered down the stairs and made her way into the library with the ghost at her heels. She switched on a lamp and grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniel's out of the liquor cabinet. Sloshing two fingers into a glass, she took a hefty swig, coughing and gasping as the fiery liquid burned its way down her throat.
"Don't guzzle it. That's good sipping whiskey."
"For goodness sake, stop pecking." Raine wiped her streaming eyes. "You're worse than a broody hen."
"I'm not pecking," Mimsie said. "I'm trying to educate you."
Raine took another cautious sip. "Tell me something. Why show up now? You've been dead for years."
The pretty young ghost sniffed. "I didn't just show up, Mary Raine. Been here all along. It's not my fault you couldn't see me."
"I can't get over the way you look." Raine waved the glass at Mimsie. "You are not the Mimsie I remember."
Mimsie smoothed the silk dress that covered her slender figure. "I was eighty-four when I died. Why go through eternity an old woman if I don't have to? Now I'm dead, I mean to live it up."
The doorbell rang, interrupting them before Raine could think of a response to that bit of nonsense.
"Good grief," Raine said, lowering her glass. "Who could that be at this time of night?"
"Betcha a dollar it's that nosy Mamie Hall. Probably saw the lights on."
Raine groaned. Her next-door neighbor was a notorious busybody. "You're right. What in the world am I going to tell her?" "You don't have to tell her anything. It's your house. You don't owe the old biddy an explanation."
The bell rang again, shrill and insistent.
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Raine said. "She keeps that up, she'll break the damn thing."
She set the glass down and hurried into the hall. She yanked the front door open. The porch was dark and empty, but the old bell in the middle of the door spun like mad, as if turned by an invisible hand. The porch lights flared on and the bell stopped ringing.
"That's strange," Raine murmured, squinting at the glare.
"Raine? Get back here. You need to see this."
What now? Raine thought, closing the door. Hurrying into the library, she found Mimsie standing by the window, her slim form shining in the dim light. The ghost raised her arm and pointed to the mirror over the mantel. The glass rippled like wind-tossed water.
Raine gasped in shock as the billowing folds of the mirror parted and a man with shoulder-length auburn hair stepped out. He held a brilliant jewel in one hand and he was dressed in some sort of costume — a tattered brown cloak, a knee-length rumpled brown tunic worn over loose leggings of the same color, and scruffy brown boots. He was handsome, Raine's stunned brain realized, but he was not the man on the ship. Oh, no. This was an entirely different apparition. She stumbled back, tripped on the hem of her pajamas, and crashed to the floor with the grace of a hippo en pointe. Ignoring her aching rump, she gaped at the stranger.
"Do you see what I see?" Raine asked Mimsie, her gaze on her brain's latest manifestation. Boy, when she had a meltdown, she had a doozy.
"If you're talking about the man in the funny getup, absolutely," the ghost said. "Call the police."
"And tell them what? 'Scuse me, officer, could you send someone over? A man just broke into my house through the library mirror? They'll lock me up and throw away the key."
The man gave Raine a quizzical look and said something in a strange language. He waved the jewel at her and took a tentative step closer.
"Forget the police," Mimsie said with a hiss. "Run. I'll create a diversion."
Raine scrambled to her feet and backed toward the door, her gaze on the stranger. He spoke again and the jewel in his hand flared, bleaching the library walls white. Raine's muscles went stiff and hard as rock. She froze, unable to move, pinned to the floor like a bug.
"Let her go," Mimsie screeched.
She flew at the man, passed through him, and came out the other side, but if the intruder noticed, he gave no sign. With a despairing wail, Mimsie disappeared, leaving Raine alone with him. Closing the space between them, he lifted Raine's arm and examined the splotch on the underside of her left wrist. She stared at him, dizzy and disoriented. His hands were strong and uncallused, and his palms were hot against her skin.
He felt awfully real for a dream. No matter, she told herself. Tomorrow morning when I wake, he'll be gone.
The stranger regarded her, his gaze troubled. "There must be some mistake."
English, the man had spoken English, though his accent was peculiar.
He released her and stepped back. "You are not what I expected, but you have the mark." He stroked his chin. "Still, best to be sure."
He waved the stone again. Raine's petrified muscles relaxed without warning, and she crumpled to the floor.
"Allow me to introduce myself." The man bowed. "I am Archimedes Brefreton, a wizard of the order prime. You may call me Brefreton, Bree, or Red — anything but Archie, which I detest. What is your name?"
Wizard? The guy was a total nutter. Correction: she was the nutter. She'd had a complete brain melt.
"There's a good girl." Brain Tumor Boy gave her an encouraging smile. "Tell me your name."
Raine struggled to her feet and straightened her pajamas. This was ridiculous. She would not be controlled by a lump on her brain.
But, to her fury, the words tumbled out of their own accord.
"Mary Raine Stewart, but that's my adopted name," she heard herself say. "No idea who my birth parents were. They left me on the steps of Saint Mark's Episcopal Church when I was a baby. My father's aunt raised me after my parents died."
She stamped her foot and glared at this latest fancy of her beleaguered brain. "Stop that. You're making me talk and I don't like it."
"Then I suggest you stop fighting me and cooperate." He looked her up and down, taking in her ashen complexion, frizzy locks, and gaunt frame. "You are unwell?"
"Wow, someone give Captain Observant a free T-shirt."
"What ails you?"
"Ding, ding, ding. That's the fifty-million-dollar question. The only thing the doctors know for sure is that I'm dying."
"Dying? Inconvenient, to be sure, but hardly insurmountable." He brandished the gemstone at her. "Do you know what this is?"
"You got a shiny rock. Yay."
"It is not a rock. It is a god stone and very powerful. With it, your vitality can be restored."
Talk about denial. She was so desperate to be well that her psyche had cooked up this garbage. Pathetic.
"Come with me." He held out his hand. "Help me save my homeland and you will be made healthy and whole."
"Mister, I wouldn't go to the corner store with you, even if you were real. Which you are so not."
His handsome features hardened. Grabbing her by the arm, he pulled her close. "You are under a misapprehension. You have no choice. One way or another, you will accompany me. There are more lives at stake than your own."
Lifting the jewel, he began to murmur in that strange language, and the mirror over the mantel shimmered and pulsed in response.
Something clattered outside the window, and he turned with a start. "What the–"
Good old Mimsie. She'd promised to create a diversion and she had, rattling the garbage cans around and making one hell of a racket.
Raine jerked free of the man's hold and punched him in the nose. Hard.
"Ouch." She shook her throbbing hand and glared at him in outrage. "What gives? Dreams aren't supposed to hurt."
He winced and prodded the bridge of his nose. "Now, see here, young lady," he said as she drew back her fist. "Do not —"
Raine took another swing at the man. He cursed and made a defensive move, and her fist glanced off his upraised arm and slammed into the jewel. It blazed bright as a miniature sun and flew into the air.
A tremendous wind howled through the library. Books tumbled off the shelves. Vases and bric-a-brac crashed to the floor. The couch skidded across the room and Mimsie's favorite Queen Anne chair smashed into the wall. Raine was lifted off her feet like a papier-mâche doll and tossed toward the mantel mirror. She screamed in helpless terror as the glistening surface of the glass parted like a pair of grotesque lips and swallowed her whole. She tumbled, head over heel, through darkness.
Stars melted around her. Down, down she plummeted, toward a distant shard of light. The splinter of brightness widened, and she caught a fleeting glimpse of mountains and an ocean of trees. Then something slammed into her head and Raine knew no more.
The broken moon Petrarr smiled upon the temple with crooked teeth. Una, her twin, glowed beside her, round and smooth as a new cheese. The moons were high in the sky by the time the priests had finished their cleansing rites. Chanting, they held their lanterns aloft and marched down the hill, swaying to the beat of the drums.
When the last priest had droned past, Gertie crawled out of the woods and up the treeless slope on her belly. Pausing at the bottom of the stone stairs, she fixed her unblinking gaze on her quarry. Two men guarded the temple entrance. Torches flared on the landing and on either side of the ornate double doors. The wind shifted and Gertie wrinkled her nose. The humans stank of leather and sweat and the smaller one reeked of garlic. She crept closer, her body blending into her surroundings.
Shifting their weapons, the guards peered into the darkness.
Nervous as a lamb at a wolf's wedding, Gertie thought with an inward chuckle. They sensed the danger, though they couldn't see her. Trolls had a talent for camouflage.
At the top of the wide stone steps she tensed her hindquarters and sprang at one of the guards, slashing his throat with her claws. He slumped to the pavement with a gurgling cry. The other man whipped around at the noise, his eyes widening when he saw the crumpled figure lying in a pool of blood.
"Who's there?" he demanded.
His question ended in a shriek as Gertie lifted him into the air and fastened her jaws around his throat. The hot, sweet taste of blood filled her mouth. When the man ceased to twitch in her arms, she tossed the body aside and shed her disguise. Her muzzle and claws were wet with blood and the light from the torches threw her hulking shadow against the temple wall. Stepping over the dead man without a backward glance, she stalked across the landing to the temple doors.
Mauric slid out of the darkness, a bloody knife in one hand. As he was human and could not cloak himself in the manner of trolls, he'd disguised himself with black garb. His pale skin was smeared with dark paint, and a black cloth covered his pale locks.
He cleaned his knife and slid it back in his boot. "What took you so long? You're slowing down."
"Don't start with me. I shouldn't have let you come. It's far too dangerous."
The warrior's eyes gleamed. "That's the fun of it. In any event, you couldn't have stopped me."
Gertie glared at him in annoyance. The young devil was enjoying this. They were deep in enemy territory with plans to kidnap the Dark Wizard's ward, and he acted like it was a lark. She glanced around, her predatory instincts jangling from adrenaline. Glonoff and his soldiers were camped a short distance from the temple. Hara and her attendants were alone inside ... now that the guards had been disposed of. It was now or never.
"The moons are on the rise," Gertie said. "We're wasting time. We do not want to be here when Magog wakes up."
She stalked inside and looked around. Few outsiders saw the secret confines of one of Magog's temples, unless they were being sacrificed on the altar. The shrine was vast, the ceiling lost in darkness. Fire danced in golden braziers, their flames casting flickering shadow monsters on the vast columns. On a dais in the center of the temple a gigantic statue of Magog was enthroned. Padding closer, Gertie studied the god's features. He was as she remembered, golden and beautiful by human standards, but cruel. A blue sapphire the size of a man's fist gleamed in one eye; the other socket yawned dark and empty.
Excerpted from "A Meddle of Wizards"
Copyright © 2017 Alexandra Rushe.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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