The Riders: Three immortal brothers who kept the Baba Yagas safe, now stripped of their summons to protect. But fate is not finished with them—and their new callings are even more powerful...
Though his physical wounds have healed, Gregori Sun, the eldest of the Riders, remains in spiritual turmoil. His search for his mother, the one person able to heal his soul and save his life, is failing—until he crosses paths with a beautiful and fascinating librarian who might be the key to his salvation...
Ciera Evans’s bookish ways are just a guise. The product of a difficult past, she has dedicated her life to saving lost teens—by any means necessary. She works alone, but when a dark, brooding stranger proposes they team up to solve both their problems, she is tempted—in more ways than one...
After Ciera and Sun’s plans are derailed by dangerous enemies, they find themselves entangled in an ungodly affair—one that will force them to either find new strength together or be forever haunted by their pasts alone.
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Gregori Sun stared at his reflection in the spotty bathroom mirror of a cheap motel: waist-length straight dark hair pulled back in a tail, black eyes set at a slight slant over the flat cheekbones of his Mongolian ancestors, and the Fu Manchu mustache he'd worn since he'd become a man, longer ago than anyone who met him might imagine. The harsh glare of the light fixture glinted off the straight razor in his right hand. It trembled almost imperceptibly, a leftover echo of the debilitating damage he'd taken a year ago at the hands of the deranged and powerful witch who had once been his ally and trusted friend.
A deep breath and a moment's focused attention banished the tremor and steadied his hand for the task ahead. Sun entertained the wistful thought that it would be nice if all his other remaining issues could be dealt with as easily. But he was not a man who would have taken the easy way, even if there had been one available, which there was not. Hence this next step.
Before he could change his mind, the razor flashed-once, twice, three times. Black hair fell into the sink, its darkness a stark contrast against the pitted white porcelain, just as his former life was a stark contrast to his present existence and his future path. The acrid smell of the motel's antiseptic cleaner echoed his mood.
Now the face staring back at him seemed to belong to a stranger. Clean-shaven, with hair barely long enough to be held back by the leather thong he wore, the man in the mirror seemed somehow younger and more vulnerable, although he still wore Sun's habitual aura of impenetrable calm. As with much else in Sun's life these days, it was more semblance than reality.
The Buddhist monastery he was entering didn't require first-year novices to shave their heads, any more than it mandated specific formal clothing. Students were only expected to obey the basic rules and follow the regimen of study, practice, and service. Sun had laid aside his traditional red leathers and silks anyway, as another way of putting aside the past, and now wore loose black wool pants and a black cotton turtleneck more suited to the frigid Minnesota winters.
The commitment he was making felt worthy of a symbolic sacrifice, even if no one was aware of it but him.
This was a new beginning in search of a new man; he couldn't go into it looking the same as he had for more than a thousand years. Sun was so changed on the inside, he barely knew who he was anymore. His outside might as well reflect that.
The alley reeked of rancid garbage, burning grease from the Chinese restaurant at the far end, and other pungent odors best not examined too closely, the smell so strong it almost seemed like a solid presence. An abandoned collection of ramshackle cardboard, once the temporary shelter for a homeless person, continued its slow, decaying crumble down the side of the brick building to her left, and rats scrabbled over some half-frozen garbage in an overturned can to her right.
Ciera Evans ignored them all as she concentrated on her silent pursuit of the man she'd followed for the last six nights. He vanished into the back of a dimly lit building, the door gaping open long enough to reveal a smoky interior and a circle of men sitting around a faded green table playing poker. Drunken laughter spilled out into the night and then cut off with a slam that even the rats ignored. It was that kind of neighborhood.
Not what she was looking for, she thought. Not tonight. But soon.
She backed away, careful not to trip over anything in the alley as she tucked a stray lock of dark curly hair under the hoodie that kept her reasonably warm on this cold Minnesota night while also masking her distinctive features. The worn brown leather jacket she wore on top of the hoodie fit right into the usual local attire, so she wasn't too worried about being noticed on her way back to the car.
A couple of blocks away, though, Ciera realized she was being stalked in turn. Ironic, really. And a little inconvenient, but she could feel the pulse speed up in her throat and admitted to herself that on some level she was almost eager to be forced into action after long nights of watching and waiting and doing nothing.
The two men who followed her no doubt thought she was easy prey. They were about to find out just how wrong they were.
"Hand over your money and your phone and nobody needs to get hurt," said the bigger of the two toughs as they closed in on her. His heavy boots clattered on the icy sidewalk, the same sound that had alerted Ciera to her unwanted escort.
"That's what you think," Ciera said, using a low, raspy voice to disguise her sex. A twist of her wrists sent her fighting sticks sliding out of her sleeves and into her hands, and she set her feet in a stance that was both rooted and flexible. "Last chance to walk away, boys."
The shorter man, underdressed for the weather in ripped pants and holey sneakers, shook his shaved head. "Not a chance, dude. In case you haven't noticed, there are two of us and only one of you, and you're kind of scrawny. A couple of pieces of wood aren't going to save you." He nodded to his friend and they both moved in closer, scruffy faces wearing matching expressions of stubble-adorned menace.
"Too true," Ciera whispered, lower than they were likely to hear. "But a couple of pieces of wood and years of self-defense classes will go a long way."
She didn't bother to show off-showing off was a rookie mistake-attacking instead in a flurry of kicks and hits aimed at vulnerable knees, elbows, and collarbones that left the men lying groaning on the ground behind her. She shoved the fighting sticks back up her sleeves and kept on walking without a backward glance.
A few twists and turns later she was back at the car she always used for her evening forays. It couldn't be traced to her since it was registered in the name of a woman long dead. A practical vehicle, it also served to remind her of why she did what she did. The dead woman had been her friend. More than her friend-her savior. Now Ciera carried on her friend's mission, because it was the only way she could repay the debt she owed. And because she'd made a promise to the only person in her life who had ever kept their word to her.
Back in her apartment, she stripped off the anonymous hoodie and stared at herself in the bathroom mirror. She wasn't sure she recognized the woman staring back at her. It was hard to say which one was real-the face she showed the world during the day or the one she hid at night. Maybe neither. But if there was another Ciera beyond those two, she wasn't sure what that woman would look like. Or if she'd even like her if she ever had a chance to find out.
Sun unpacked his few belongings into the plain pine dresser that was one of only three pieces of furniture in his narrow room at the Shira-in Shashin Monastery, the other two being a twin bed covered with a wool blanket and a wooden meditation bench. Once he'd been forced to admit that he was unable to regain his spiritual balance in the solitude of the Otherworld, Gregori had crossed through one of the few doorways between that enchanted place and the more mundane world of Humans, and searched for a likely alternative.
After much thought, he'd decided to become a Buddhist monk, hoping that the peaceful, introspective path would finally enable him to find the connection to the spiritual world he'd lost when the crazy Baba Yaga Brenna had tortured him and his half brothers until they were nearly mad and on the brink of death.
In the end, the true Baba Yagas, Barbara, Beka, and Bella, had rescued them, with the help of Bella's dragon-cat, Koshka, and a hefty dose of the magical elixir known as the Water of Life and Death. But even the powerful witches hadn't been able to get to them in time to save their immortality, and now he, Mikhail Day, and Alexei Knight were as mortal as the Humans they had chosen to live among. Mortal and more than a little bit broken.
It was a new experience for Gregori, who had spent most of his very long life in a state of poised, calm control, at one with the natural world and in harmony with the universal energy that surrounded him. He had always supposed that this was in his nature, although nurture had certainly played a part, since his mother had been a powerful Mongolian shamaness. Now that he had lost that connection and balance, he questioned everything he'd ever been. And had no idea of what he would become.
Gregori hoped that embracing the monastic lifestyle would give him back the equilibrium he had always taken for granted. At the very least, it should be quiet; quite the change from the years he and his brothers had spent as the Riders, companions and warriors for the Baba Yagas, who traveled together in between assignments, brawling and drinking and generally enjoying one another's company.
Those days were behind him now, for better or for worse, and the sooner he accepted it, the better off he'd be.
Broken bones eventually mended. Broken spirits were a much more difficult and lengthy matter.
Sun had chosen the Shira-in Shashin Monastery for a number of reasons, including its somewhat nontraditional approach; its roots in Yellow Shamanism, which sprang from the same Mongolian soil that he had; and its location in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Admittedly, the location wouldn't have been a selling point for most people, with its bitterly cold winters and abundant snowfall. But Sun enjoyed the stark beauty of the landscape, which reminded him of the Siberian steppes where he and his long-lost mother had taken yearly treks with her disciples when he was a child. Its proximity to the Wilson Library, part of the University of Minnesota, was the other basis for his choice, since he thought it was his best chance of actually tracking her down. If she was still alive, which even he realized was unlikely in the extreme, given the many centuries that had passed since he'd last seen her.
Still, as someone who had spent his life in the company of Russian fairy-tale witches and their Chudo-Yudo dragon companions, traversing the boundaries between the Human world and an enchanted land filled with faeries, ogres, and other mystical creatures, Gregori Sun knew better than most that unlikely was not the same thing as impossible.
He had already made the decision to enter a monastery; it was possible that a rare moment of sentimentality had influenced his choice as to which one. Either way, the Shira-in Shashin program offered him both discipline and freedom, a vital combination.
The expectations for a layperson living at the monastery were simple: hours spent in meditation and study, following the general rules of the residence (no alcohol, drugs, sex, or violence), and performing some form of community service. Other than that, his time was his own, which would allow him to pursue the knowledge he sought.
It was assumed that most who entered would eventually find the constraints of the spiritual life to be unappealing and leave. Those who did not would be allowed to continue the long path that would lead to becoming a monk.
Sun hoped to find some kind of peace and perhaps a place to live out the rest of his life. Giving up the temptations of the outside world was no hardship at all. If anything, it would be a relief. There was nothing out there for him anymore.
Ciera was doing some research on the computer at her desk when someone cleared his throat gently. She started, dropping the pen she was holding so that it hit the deskÕs cluttered surface with a muffled thud, rolling from there onto the white tile floor. She prided herself on her ability to be aware of her surroundings at all times; she couldnÕt remember the last time someone had approached her without her sensing their presence. And yet a man stood in front of her desk, and she hadnÕt even known he was there.
Of course, now that she saw him, he was impossible to miss.
The dark hair and sharp Asian planes of his face were attractive-maybe even striking-but there was something more than mere handsomeness about him. Some might have thought his expression stern, but Ciera thought he had a kind of poised, self-contained air that made him stand out from most of the people she met, and yet there was a sadness in his black eyes that made her instinctively want to reach out to soothe whatever it was that had caused such pain.
The strength of her reaction caught her by surprise. Men weren't a part of her life, not outside of professional interactions, anyway. She'd made that choice a long time ago and never for one moment regretted it. Until now. She ducked under the desk and scooped up her fallen pen, using the action to get a grip on herself. It's pheromones or something like that, she told herself sternly. A chemical reaction at the back of your brain. Ignore it and it will go away. At least as soon as he does.
She sat up, back straight as she put the writing implement down with a decisive click, and put one hand up reflexively to make sure that her unruly kinky-curly hair was still firmly tucked into the neat bun she always wore it in at work.
"Good afternoon," she said in a pleasant voice. "Can I help you with something?" There, see? Nothing but business.
"I hope so," the man said, his voice smooth and deep and touched with the hint of an accent. Russian, she thought, although from his looks she would have expected maybe Japanese or Chinese.
There were plenty of foreigners who did research at the Wilson Library, with its special collections covering such esoteric branches as the Ames Library of South Asia and the East Asian Library, both of which contained parts of her areas of expertise, as did the Bell Library, located on the fourth floor, which housed noncirculating rare books, maps, and manuscripts that documented trade and cross-cultural interaction throughout the world prior to around 1800. Maybe he was a professor she hadn't met yet, or some kind of visiting expert. He certainly didn't seem like a student, although these days, you never could tell. She thought he might be in his thirties, or possibly a youthful forty.