Sociopath. Killer. Deviant.
Monster, devoid of morals, incapable of human emotion. The villain known as Spark has been called this and more, and as a super-powered aberrant has masterminded countless crimes to build his father's inhuman empire. Yet to professor Sean Archer, this fearsome creature is only Tobias Rutherford—antisocial graduate researcher, quiet underachiever, and a fascinating puzzle Sean is determined to solve.
But one kiss leads to an entanglement that challenges everything Tobias knows about himself, aberrants, and his own capacity to love. When his father orders him to assassinate a senator, one misstep unravels a knot of political intrigue that places the fate of humans and aberrants alike in Tobias's hands. As danger mounts and bodies pile higher, will Tobias succumb to his dark nature and sacrifice Sean—or will he defy his father and rise from the ashes to become a hero in a world of villains?
|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
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About the Author
Xen is a New Orleans-born Southern boy without the Southern accent, currently residing in Seattle. He spends his days as a suit-and-tie corporate consultant and business writer, and his nights writing genre-bending science fiction and fantasy tinged with a touch of horror and flavored by the influences of his multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual background—when he’s not being tackled by two hyperactive cats. He wavers between calling himself bisexual and calling himself queer, but no matter what word he uses he’s a staunch advocate of LGBTQIA representation and visibility in genre fiction.
He also writes contemporary romance and erotica as Cole McCade. And while he spends more time than is healthy hiding in his writing cave instead of hanging around social media, you can sometimes coax him to come out and play for a Twitter party before he disappears into his hamster ball again.
Read an Excerpt
From the Ashes
Fires of Redemption
By Xen Sanders, Alethea Spiridon
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Xen Sanders
All rights reserved.
I am not my father.
I tell myself that every day. I tell myself that now, as I press my eye to the microscope viewer and try to restrain the urge to pull a man's spine out through the back of his neck. One man in particular, who's currently watching me in the sterile silence of the lab, his nose sneering and thin. Langdon. Always Langdon, whose personality is the living embodiment of the lab's perpetual stink of chemicals, astringent cleaner, and mouse droppings. Every day I'm tempted to kill him. Leave him strewn on the floor in pieces, red staining the lab's endless white. Every day he gives me a thousand opportunities.
But I don't.
Because no matter how many people I hurt, no matter how many I kill, no matter how many nations I topple beneath the crushing fist of tyranny ...
I am not my father.
I'm only his shadow.
My name is Tobias Rutherford, and I am the instrument of mankind's destruction.
To the human world, to my father, I have only one name: Spark. I suppose it's a fitting name for the son and second-in-command of the world's most feared villain: the Lord High General Infernus Blaze. Yeah. I know. Some name. If I had a choice, I'd call him Michael. Dad would work, too. Dad would be easier. But he prefers Blaze — and if he's the flame, I'm only a glimmering reflection of his glory.
After twenty-five years, I should be used to the sidekick role. I grew up trailing in my father's wake. When he conquered Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, I stood at his side. While he set loose his flame and burned them to the ground, I watched. In my earliest memories he stands wreathed in embers and hellish smoke, his eyes alight with rage and madness, while Bangkok crumbles around us and our home goes up like paper touched by a match, and all around the sparks flit like fireflies in a slow and strange dance.
I was nine.
Nine years old when I understood my purpose, and my place in this world.
The humans make villains of us, Spark. They fear us. They hate us.
Borders flaked to ash amidst the screams of the dying, uniting destroyed nations into the foundation of his empire. Those who lived, served. Those who refused, died.
Not much of a choice.
We will show them hatred. We will show them fear. We will give them the villains they crave.
Under his orders, I took Laos. The country fell at my feet. They called me a thunder god descended from the heavens in a chariot of lightning, yet my work was still his victory. It was always his victory.
Only then, my son, will we rule this world.
I thought I'd escape it if I left. I couldn't run forever, but I'd found a brief reprieve at graduate school in the States, studying for my master's in biogenetic science at UC Berkeley. I want to know what makes people like my father and me different. I want to know what's so very broken in the cells that even now swell into violet-dyed, strange neon art at the other end of my microscope's lens as I slip another slide onto the plate. I want to know if it's true that we're predisposed to go bad. That it's encoded in our genes, a hardwired mental disorder that gives rise to these powers. That there's no changing us. No treatment for our diseased minds. No variant to our deviant genetics that might offer hope for something different.
Sometimes I think there is no hope.
No hope for us to be anything but monsters.
They call us aberrants. Aberrant genetics. Aberrant psychology. We are sociopaths, psychopaths, sadists, freaks — a sickness of the worst kind, rejected by man and nature alike. We're the villains painted in every shocking role on television. Serial killers. School shooters. Pathological offenders. Yet as long as we're just fiction, we're the compelling rogues humans love to hate, painted with a certain form of pathos that minimizes our atrocities and allows us empathy. Make us real and we become less than human. Terrifying. Monstrous. Unworthy of empathy, unfit for psychological treatment, incurable. They fear our power, but our power isn't what's truly frightening.
You know the old saying: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's not true. We corrupt the power. We use it to destroy, to wreak terrible punishment on the species that gave birth to us. It's no surprise the humans hate us.
I think, were I capable of feeling more than shallow echoes, I would hate myself.
No one here knows I'm an aberrant, at least. No one knows I hurt people, break people, kill people. Not even the other grad students have a clue that quiet, antisocial Tobias is Spark. Neither does Langdon.
Excuse me. Doctor Langdon. I've no idea how he landed the role of head research scientist in the biogenetics department, but he makes sure I never forget his seniority. Langdon is the only thing standing between me and my predoctoral qualification. Without his approval, no PhD candidacy — which is why I spend my evenings slaving in his lab, sorting slides and listening to him preach about curing the monstrosities of aberrant genetics.
He calls me his research assistant. I think he confuses "research assistant" with "indentured servant."
Yeah. Even here, I'm just a sidekick. I'd wonder if it was a racial thing, but frankly Langdon's just a prick.
Really, it would be so much easier if I killed him.
He's on the warpath today. He's gone from staring at me to pacing the lab, talking to himself in that high, weaselly voice, his head bobbing on his thin neck like a stork hunting for frogs. He stares down at his own reflection, which grimaces up at him from the glossy, pale-gray tiles.
"I don't understand it. All the pieces are there, but the carrier continuously destabilizes after propagation and I — I —" He moans and drags his hand through his hair. A few strands come loose in his fingers. "I can't present this before the board. They'll laugh me out of the department and give the grant to that asshole Brady."
Without lifting my head from the fluorescence microscope, I murmur, "Maybe there's an unknown autoimmune element. It only takes one trigger to wipe out the carrier before it can deliver the payload."
His frigid stare practically peels the skin from the back of my head. He clucks his tongue. "If you have time to theorize, you have time to run the comparisons from last year's transgenic mouse trials."
"Already done." I slide off my stool, shrug out of my lab coat, strip my latex gloves, and drop them in the bin. "And I've run comparative analyses on today's slides."
When I brush my fingers over the tray of dated slides, I let slip a small burst of electrical current — not even an amp, barely enough to prickle my fingertips with a fleeting sizzle, invisible to the human eye ... but enough to rupture the cell walls on the samples. It's easy this time, thanks to the conductive quartz slides used in ultraviolet fluorescence microscopy. Using fluorescent elements lets us track modified viral RNA, which acts as a carrier to insert corrective genes into the cells of transgenic mice modified with aberrant human DNA. The glass slides used in other tests are harder to tamper with, but I'll find a way. I always find a way. I don't want to be corrected.
I just want to understand.
"This batch looks like a bust," I say. "The carrier's too aggressive, and it's still propagating after cell penetration. The cells burst after first-stage replication."
"Thank you, Mr. Rutherford. I wasn't aware you were running this lab."
"Of course not, Doctor. I spoke out of turn. I'm sorry." I've mastered the ability to mask scathing sarcasm and violent homicidal urges behind polite deference, but sometimes I wonder how it flies over his head so easily. Restraining a sigh, I scoop up my backpack. "I'm late for my evening class."
Langdon flicks his spidery fingers at me. "Fine, whatever. Just get out."
I suppress my smile and, weaving through the rows of narrow tables and equipment, slip out of the lab. Even here I'm still doing my father's work, but in this case, I don't mind. I may not like being my father's shadow, but I'd never help a human exterminate my kind. We're born the way we are. We can't help it. There has to be some middle ground that will let us simply live, and if I can, I'll find it before people like Langdon unleash a "cure" that will kill us all.
My Bluetooth headset rings as I clatter down the stairs. I tap the switch on the edge. "Hi, Dad."
It's on my tongue to call him Blaze, and it tastes bitter. But I'm in public, and sound carries. The last thing I need is some pimply undergrad catching me talking to the leading contestant on America's Next Top Psychotic Dictator.
His voice is deep, almost soothing. Maybe that's why aberrants flock to his cause. It's hard to imagine that voice as evil. He plays the benevolent shepherd too well, sheltering society's loathsome rejects in his love. Promising a safe haven where they can be free of human persecution. Vowing to give them the strength to fight for their rights. It's a good message, in theory. In reality, the execution is a bit bloodier and more despotic, but even I still buy into the cult sometimes. Too many memories, I guess.
When I was a kid, I thought that warmth was real.
"Any progress?" he asks.
"Minor sabotage. Langdon hasn't unearthed anything worrisome, but I'd rather keep him stalled."
"That's likely best. At the moment, though, I need to reposition you. While Langdon's research is a concern, I have better use for you elsewhere."
I stop at the foot of the steps, gripping the cool metal bar of the door. Through the slit of a window I can see the night outside, dark and defined by blue shadows. "Where?"
"New York. I'd like you to deal with a certain senator."
I glance over my shoulder. The stairwell is empty, but I drop my voice anyway. "If I assassinate a political figure, I'll be exposed. I thought the point was for me to stay in deep cover."
"The point," he says, his voice chilling, "is for you to be my presence in America, and to act on my behalf. I need you in New York. For as long as it takes. You can disable him without killing him and still maintain your cover."
"I can't transfer now. It's nearly the end of the semester. It'll look too suspicious, and there aren't any universities in New York with an equivalent to my degree program."
"Once you've finished your mission, you'll come back here. I don't see any point in remaining overseas for your education when we have perfectly competent scientific personnel here. You're old enough to be out of school and doing something with your life."
Of course. As long as that "something" is helping him dominate the world at large and never forgetting that my will is not my own; just an extension of his. I grit my teeth. "Is that an order, sir?" "It is," he says flatly. "I'll have the necessary data sent to your email. Is your connection encrypted?"
"New algorithm every thirty seconds."
"I'll expect an update soon."
"Sure. You know me. Ever faithful."
I can't listen to another word. With a sigh, my stomach heavy as a brick, I hang up, close my eyes, and lean against the door. It figures. The moment I get settled in and start making a life for myself, he uproots it for the sake of his grand plan. Not that "burn everything standing" is much of a plan.
Not that I have much of a life, either.
* * *
I drive home to an empty apartment, an echoing and sterile space that looks like a show home for a jet-setting socialite. No roommate. No friends. No boyfriend. I don't even live on campus. I can't afford to let anyone too close. One casual slip, and it's over. My first year in the States, a lab assistant caught me using my abilities to interface with the campus intranet and access Dr. Langdon's personnel files, class schedule, and records of his grant applications. Hiding the corpse wasn't easy. Harder still was removing the fingerprints, and the teeth.
The face was already burned well beyond recognition. A hundred thousand volts at point-blank range will do that.
I've had to do the same to two others over the years. Kalen was the worst. Possibly because Kalen thought I loved him. That I was even capable of love. I'd met him through Debbie, who'd been my mentor in the biogenetics program. Nice girl. Had a girlfriend, Patricia or something. They'd been my friends, back when I thought I could still pretend to have friends. That having friends would help my cover, instead of just exposing me to greater risk that someone would realize what I am.
Kalen had been just a touch stupid, in a sweet way. Stupid enough to make for acceptable cover. But Debbie had been smart; smart enough to keep me on my toes in the lab. Smart enough to notice something was off.
Smart enough to start to figure me out.
I'd been dating Kalen for a few months by then. At first I didn't understand why he'd started acting strangely. Until the questions started. The kind of probing, analytical questions Kalen wouldn't think to ask. He was all puppy-dog eyes and that confused tilt of the head that came every time he didn't understand something. It didn't take long to figure out Debbie was behind the interrogation. Debbie suspected I might be an aberrant, and was using Kalen for information.
At that point, I'd had to get rid of them both.
Sleeping with a human had been a mistake, no matter how short-lived. Letting down my guard, though? Sheer idiocy. Naïveté.
You can be damned sure I wasn't that stupid when disposing of the bodies.
I'd rather not have to do that again. It's more difficult to deal with when I don't have the mask, the identity of Spark, to hide behind. I don't like seeing their faces, instead of just a wave of bodies collapsing at my feet. It's hard not to remember the look in Kalen's eyes when I killed him in the same bed where we'd fucked the night before.
The day after, I'd felt like I should cry. Should miss him, with his weird little habits and the way he'd looked ten years old when his face lit up with that stupid smile. Should grieve the way Patricia had grieved, obsessively walking the campus and putting up signs with Debbie's soft brown face and a phone number below tall, blocky, accusing letters reading HAVE YOU SEEN THIS WOMAN? So much genuine emotion that I should have been able to reflect in some way. Any way.
I felt no remorse for anything. Not killing. Not hurting people. Not lying. Not the lie I'd told Langdon about my evening class, either. Ethics of Transgenic Animal Testing, taught by Professor Sean Archer, was officially canceled for the night. Something about Archer being sick. I'd overheard my classmates planning to fill in the hours with a San Francisco beach trip. I hadn't been invited. I hadn't expected to be. Even if people don't know, they never feel quite comfortable around me.
Yeah. I don't have much of a social life anymore.
Frankly, I'd rather be in class. The subject of ethics itself bores me: tedious human morality, people desperately grasping at anything to convince themselves they aren't animals. Instead, I spend the lectures listening to Archer without really hearing him. He's from Manchester, and that cultured British lilt to his otherwise rough, gravelly voice tends to hypnotize me. That voice shouldn't fit him so well. It's the voice of a large man, a dangerous man. Archer, while tall and broad-shouldered, is lean and bookish and almost too pretty.
The only thing dangerous about him is his eyes. They're sly, a green so pale it's almost white. Those eyes always find me the moment I've zoned out and lost track of the discussion topic. He's embarrassed me in class more times than I can count.
Maybe I should be glad class is canceled.
By the time I swap slacks for jeans and settle on the couch with my laptop, my email is already overflowing with messages from my father's aide, Jeremy. I open the files and skim through. Senator Rick Cranston, New York, landslide winner of the 2014 congressional election. So he just took office a few years ago; interesting. If he's made himself a threat already, he's probably young. Ambitious. Arrogant.
I like arrogant. Arrogant men are easier to kill. They make more blind mistakes, confident they won't fail.
Excerpted from From the Ashes by Xen Sanders, Alethea Spiridon. Copyright © 2017 Xen Sanders. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I picked From the Ashes up on a whim and am so very glad I did. It intrigued me from the first page and never loosened its grip. Every emotion was palpable and the story told so vibrantly, I couldn’t help but be lost in it. An urban fantasy romance with cross-genre appeal, the narrative is told from the first person POV. The main character, Tobias, is an antihero who struggles with the warring principles of his human side and his aberrant side (a human mutation). There’s a pervasive air from the outset that isn’t quite mysterious but shadowed uncertainty. This tone lent itself to the anxiety and indecision Tobias faces, making those emotions come alive and leaving me on edge. The story is structured wonderfully, contrasting the good and bad. The reader knows the evil deeds Tobias participated in, but has empathy as he struggles to control his compulsions and accepting his predestined future. The characters were beautifully complex, hard lines and vulnerabilities which captured my compassion. There was a depth to them that isn’t always achieved in shorter books. I thought the romance between Sean and Tobias wove perfectly into the plot. It didn’t take center stage, but rather injected humanity into Tobias’s character and created a secondary conflict that made for an interesting climax. I also enjoyed the discussions between the main characters. They were profound without being pretentious. I often found myself rereading lines, because they were interesting and applicable to the current world. The pacing was brisk, detailed but with action driving the plotline forward and never letting my attention wane. While the story has a satisfying “for now” conclusion, it does have an open ended finish to entice readers to return for the second book. I will certainly be reading more from this series and author. *Reviewed for Alpha Book Club*
I love a book that has me perched on the edge of my seat and Xen Sanders hits the ground running with From the Ashes, bringing us a paranormal M/M story, told from the protagonists POV, with diverse characters and filled with the unpredictable, action, passion, intimacy and emotion. Tobias Rutherford is far from your stereotypical hero or in this case, anti-hero. He's a character with many layers and such a breath of fresh air to discover; he may be a killer but he's adorable and with a real edge. Using his position as a graduate researcher to fly under the radar, Tobias is an aberrant--inhuman with superpowers--who has been the driving force behind crimes to protect his father's empire. He keeps his emotions buried, that is until the sparks fly between himself and British University professor, Sean Archer, and unfamiliar feelings deep within him are unleashed. "We are the storm and the storm is us." What I loved? These men are strong and powerful without oozing the alpha. They're not exactly on a level footing seeing as one party has superpowers, yet at the same time they very much are and Sean's not without his own arsenal. And running alongside the thrilling storyline of Tobias' quest to assassinate a US Senator, is a romantic journey of two men discovering one another. It's not an easy path for either Tobias or Sean, but it is one that balances perfectly timed humour with content which is touching and passionate. "We are all monstrous, each and every one. But you’re the only monster I’ve ever let close enough to be able to break my heart." I've never made a secret that I can't get enough of this author's writing: his descriptive style gives the reader everything they could possibly need to visualise this story, from the general atmosphere to the fight scenes, the intimate moments, the passion and the subtle but important nods at real-life. From the Ashes is absolutely one to grab.