Ayra's father is forcing her to marry to make alliances, her brother has gone off the deep end in a big way, and to top it all off, her reaper powers have been awakened, something she hoped would never happen. Who the hell wants to put down other werewolves for a living?
And now, just as she's starting to figure out her place in the world, Vidar's back from Iceland, looking hotter than ever and still managing to ring all her bells with just a look. All Ayra wants to do is lose herself in him, in the past, but it's never going to happen. He's only back and paying attention to her because she's the reaper. And there's a little snag in the form of a vow of celibacy he took.
The sparks are undeniable, and Vidar swears he's the only one who can help her on her journey. But he already left her once...
Each book in the Wolves of Hemlock Hollow series is STANDALONE:
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Being chosen wasn't an option. It was necessary, essential, vital. I had to get back to her. For every uppskera — reaper — there has always been a verndari monk from the Order of the Verndari at their side. I had to be that verndari for Ayra. I forced myself to go faster, until my legs were no more than a blur as they flew over the forest floor. Pine needles and twigs tickled at my bare feet, feathery boughs brushed at my arms. The wonderful, sweet, heady scents of the forest poured down my throat, but something else came right behind them — the musky odor of my rivals. Their feet brushed the ground behind me, and their breath touched my shoulders.
The rocky terrain grew steeper. Fighting the instinct to slow, I forced myself faster through the ferns and brush clinging to the mountainside. From somewhere nearby, the clean, fresh scent of a waterfall carried to me. The trees thinned the closer I drew to the top, letting the afternoon sun breakthrough in large, warm patches, too warm on my sweaty, ebony skin. I concentrated on trying to outrun the light itself.
I reached the top of the plateau I'd been ascending and launched across it. A hundred feet away stood three raised stone-encircled platforms. The fighting rings. The slightly salty scent of the sun-warmed sand within them drifted to me. Close to a dozen men and women clothed in simple linen uniforms stood at attention in an arc on another raised area around the platforms.
I went straight for the highest ring. My feet slapped on the stairs in a few heartbeats. Sand gave way beneath my feet, a welcome relief after an hour of running barefoot on rock and dirt. The brows of a few of those waiting rose, but otherwise, they didn't react.
The smaller ring would be the most challenging of the three. Three winners would emerge at the end, and the waiting priests would choose one of us based off how well we performed, and how much risk we took.
I would take every risk I had to.
Chest pumping like a bellows as I regained my air, I turned to see who else would make it. I found my calm center and sunk deep into it. My breathing slowed. Clarity filled me, followed by determination. One by one, my muscles relaxed as I willed them to. Power hummed beneath my feet, and the ground vibrated slightly. That power tugged at my own, encouraging it to rise and rejuvenate me. The Order had chosen this place for the trials specifically because of that power. It ran deep through the earth and fed our kind as surely as the air that filled our lungs.
The others soon burst up over the edge of the plateau; men and women all eager to be chosen. Eager for the wrong reasons. To them it was an honor, one that would bring them fame and renown. I saw it in their wide eyes, smelled it on their sweating skin.
My fangs sprouted from my top and bottom jaws, and a growl forced my lips apart.
In only running shorts — and sport bras in the women's cases — the strengths and weaknesses of each were on display. One ran with a limp, another sucked air so hard his chest looked in danger of collapsing, and another bled from a gash across her abdominals. They all glared at me with a ferocity that made my hackles rise.
I bared my fangs at them out of instinct.
The first four went to the other two rings without hesitation. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as they rested, some bending over to put their elbows on their knees, others collapsing onto the sand. Only one remained standing, and she looked as though she may fall over at any moment. Despite our training, not one of them calmed themselves or drew on the power of this place to replenish their energy.
They weren't worthy of her.
At last, the sixth and seventh candidates burst over the plateau edge; both tall, broad, blond men native to the Icelandic soil we stood on. But then, so was I. It made no difference that my ancestors had been stolen from English slave traders and brought here over a thousand years ago. I was just as native as they were. Some didn't see it that way, these two included. Even now their expressions tightened with judgment. My ancestry, coupled with the fact that I wasn't born in Iceland, rubbed their fur all kinds of wrong ways.
One of the final two took one look at me, hung his head, and collapsed on the rocky soil. For once, my reputation served me well. Or rather, it served Ayra well. She deserved someone far more determined to protect her than that man. They were good monks, each one of them, but that didn't mean they were what she needed. I smiled, enjoying the furious snarl of the remaining man that strode to my ring.
Despite his swagger, the reluctance in his eyes and stiffness in his gait made it clear he would have rather gone to any ring but mine. For that alone I would have to beat him. He sauntered up the steps at a leisurely pace. Clearly, he meant for me to think he was confident he'd win, but I could see right through the ruse. Each slow step gave him more time to suck in air and recover a little. Fine by me. I wanted him at his best, or as close as he could get.
No wounds covered his pale skin. He didn't limp or favor any part of his muscled body as he moved. Sweat plastered locks of his shoulder-length hair to his glistening skin. He rolled his neck as he climbed the steps. Slipping into a fighting stance, he swung his arms out and around to loosen them, then flexed his pectorals until each bounced in rhythm. One of my brows rose as I swallowed a derisive comment.
A man and a woman leaped onto the outer rock ring that surrounded my fighting pit; two of those who had been waiting for us. They walked to opposite sides of the circle and stood at attention. From the raised arc surrounding the three rings came the voice of the High Priestess.
"Welcome. Congratulations on being the top six to complete the second round of the physical trials. The very fact that you have made it here means you are favored by the gods."
Keeping Mat in my peripheral vision, I gave the priestess my attention, as was proper. Back straight, muscled arms behind her, blond hair woven into a single, massive plait that trailed over one breast and down to her waist, she looked every bit the priestess of Odin. The knotwork tattoos on her bare upper arms and trailing down her neck into her cleavage completed the image. Still, she was nothing compared to Ayra.
The remaining competitors began to climb — and in some cases, crawl — their way up onto the plateau. They sat on the rocky ground around the three rings, eager spectators for an event that would go down in our kind's history books.
The priestess went on. "There can be only three potentials. You will fight by the old rules until a winner is declared. Judges, ready?"
Six collective affirmatives shouted out.
"Begin!" the priestess announced.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mat move. Fists rising, I shadowed him. We danced back and forth, around and around for several moments. Kicks, punches, jabs, and more flew, as we blocked, spun, and sidestepped in an attempt to gauge one another's skill. With the blinding speed that only our kind can manage, Mat kicked for my abdomen. That one move signaled the dance's end and the fight's beginning. The kick was fast enough it was going to hurt, but I didn't block it. Instead, I raised my hands to block the second kick that I knew would come for my face.
Sure enough, the first had been only a good fake, and the second one, even faster, came at my jaw. I caught it easily, cupping my hand to grasp his heel and throw Mat's leg back at him. Rather than let the motion jam his own leg into him, Mat used the momentum to backflip away. When he landed on all fours, it was as a brown wolf. Almost before his paws touched the ground, he lunged with teeth snapping.
Instead of sidestepping, I crouched and grabbed his furred throat, holding those sharp teeth at a distance. Continuing with Mat's momentum, I rolled onto my back and placed my foot in his chest to throw him past. As I turned to face him again, I saw him skidding to a stop in human form, teetering on the edge of the circle.
His display had blown his running shorts to pieces. Bits of them fluttered down to the sand. Most wouldn't have thought to try shifting back to catch themselves from falling over the edge, or even been fast enough. Stepping or being thrown out of a circle meant losing.
His ability to shift in mid-fight meant he had the power of an alpha's verndari, or possibly even an alpha. I hadn't expected that. I smiled as our eyes locked again, and this time Mat bared his fangs at me. That look told me he knew I had underestimated him. But I wouldn't do it again. We paced around each other to the sound of a cheering crowd.
Then we were on one another in a flurry of kicks, blocks, and strikes, too fast to see. I had to feel, instead, to open myself up to instinct. I kicked for Mat's chest. He sidestepped and caught my leg, locking an arm around it. Unable to pull it back, I pushed against him and jumped into the air, twisting and kicking. He let go, but too late. By the time he ducked, I shifted into my hybrid form — half man, half wolf — and the different angle of my leg allowed me to land the kick solidly into his back. He collapsed, the air forced from his lungs with a loud grunt. He rolled to the right, escaping my second blow and getting closer to the center of the circle.
The crowd gasped and cheered louder. The hybrid form wasn't something many of our kind could do. Even those that could had to practice long and hard to pull it off, something I did daily. I was lucky to have a father who could also shift into the hybrid form, and he had taught me well.
I leaped for Mat, my hybrid form giving me the extra reach I needed to grab him by the shoulders with my black furred arms. I spun him around, and with deadly four-inch claws, marked him across the chest with shallow gashes. Mat's eyes shot open in shock as blood trickled down his chest. I had moved far too swiftly for him to even begin to block. Speed was another thing I worked on incessantly.
The crowd fell silent as we straightened and stood looking at one another. All knew I could have opened Mat's chest and torn out his heart. The fight was over. No judge could challenge that. But I remained ready, just in case they did, or Mat got any ideas to keep fighting.
"Match!" both of our ring judges called at once.
Mat fell to one knee and bowed his head nearly to the ground. Sweat and blood dripped into the dirt. With a thought, my body flowed back into that of a man.
The judges turned their backs to us. As they deliberated silently with hand signals, the other fights to our left and right slowly came to an end. Mat rose but kept his head bowed and his eyes averted. It was no less of a submission. The stench of defeat — a mixture of a sour, sweaty smell and tangy rot — hung heavy on him. Our judges approached us at the same time the others approached their fighters. Mat's gaze finally lifted to mine. Respect shone in the depths of his blue eyes, and his shoulders slowly drew up. We smiled at each other.
Just because I was the clear winner physically didn't mean the judges would pick me. The match was won by skill, creativeness, and passion. He had fought well and earned my respect. There was a good chance he had earned the judges' favor as well.
The winds of anxiety and doubt attempted to blow me out of my calm center. Controlled breaths and years of discipline helped me stand fast.
One judge took hold of my left hand while the other took hold of Mat's. My breath caught in my throat, making it feel as if my chest was about to collapse.
"Judges, choose your winners," the priestess commanded.
The judge holding my hand thrust it high into the air. A triumphant howl rose from me before I could stop it. The howls of the other two winners soon joined mine, reminding me this wasn't over yet.
After the howls died down, the priestess said, "Winners approach."
Quelling the urge to keep howling, I found my calm center again and gathered my wits. I bowed deep to both the judges and my opponent. The new respect in Mat's eyes as he bowed in turn heartened me. I leaped down from the fighting ring and approached the base of the steps where the priestess stood. The other two winners, a man and a woman whom I knew to be excellent fighters, joined me. The woman smiled and nodded while the man glared with a ferocity that tried to call both my anger and my power up. Being sure to retract my fangs, I grinned at him. He glared all the harder.
Tall and broad as I was, these two were not diminished in the slightest standing beside me, not even the woman. At less than three inches shorter than me, she possessed the muscular build of a big-boned Norse woman who dedicated her days to the gym. The other male finalist was cut to the point that he probably possessed zero body fat. All well and good if it were a bodyguard Ayra needed. But she needed much more than that. Her body wouldn't be the only thing in danger.
The judges joined the priestess on the raised platform before us. Their solemn gazes weighed heavy on each of us in turn. Snowcapped peaks of jagged mountaintops rose behind them in an arc that hugged the horizon. As it so often did, the beauty of this place added to the poignancy of the moment. One way or another, I'd be leaving tomorrow, and I'd miss this magnificent island deeply. It had a way of digging deep down into one's soul and nesting there. But I had to go. Whether it would be as the chosen, or as only a friend, I had to return to Ayra. Not even my love of this island could keep me from her. Four years away was too long.
Behind me, I felt the press of the other competitors' power as they gathered to witness. My fighter's instincts didn't like them at my back, but I couldn't turn away from the council in front of me. I didn't need to see the other competitors anyway. Their defeat and acceptance of it weighed heavy in their power.
The priestess stepped forward, her glacial gaze sweeping over me and the other two winners with an impartial air. To my left, the other potential fidgeted as if disturbed by that gaze. It comforted me. Impartiality meant she would choose based on logic, not favoritism. I could only hope the other six would do the same. The priestess's gaze settled on the woman to my right.
"Why do you want to be the uppskera's verndari?" she asked her.
The reaper's protector. The very phrase seemed an oxymoron. The reaper of those varúlfur — werewolves — who'd gone mad and started killing people. My Ayra, my childhood best friend, had become the thing all monsters fear. But the uppskera's verndari was only an oxymoron to those who didn't understand why the reaper needed a protector. Sadly, many of today's competitors didn't. That knowledge was lost to the ages in which we didn't have an uppskera. But I had found it, I knew. These competitors just wanted to be her verndari for the glory it would bring their family, their pack. Which was part of why it had to be me. Ayra was more than just the uppskera to me. So much more.
"To honor Odin and his plan for our kind," the woman said.
Giving no reaction whatsoever, the priestess turned her head to me. "Why do you want to be the uppskera's verndari?"
I swallowed to wet my throat and loosen my words. "To ensure both the uppskera's physical and mental health." Not a grandiose answer, but it was mine nonetheless. Raw honesty was always my policy.
The priestess asked the man to my left the same question. He puffed his bare chest out. "To help protect our kind from both discovery and persecution." His overconfident tone made him sound like a student who knew he had the right answer.
Each time one of us answered, the council of six would scribble in the small notebooks they removed from their belts. I tried desperately to discern what those notes might be by the sound of the writing. Who was to know though if less or more scratching was good or bad? Their power weighed heavy on us. It crawled across my skin like a prickling breeze, searching, feeling, judging. With practiced control, I kept my own power from flaring up in reaction. The others didn't do quite as well. Whether mine or theirs was the proper reaction was hard to say. But I found comfort in my discipline, so I was sticking with it.
Still looking at the man, the priestess asked, "Would you kill for the uppskera?"
"Yes," he answered far too eager for my liking.
Both myself and the woman answered yes when the priestess asked us. For the third question, the priestess looked to me first. "Would you die for the uppskera?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Twice Turned"
Copyright © 2018 Heather McCorkle.
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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