Leads & Lynxes
From the USA Today bestselling author of the Gargoyle Guardian Chronicles comes an extraordinary new series filled with elemental magic, mythic creatures, and heroic gargoyles.
Only $4.99 on Kindle!
Be careful what you ask for…
“You’ll be swept up in Kylie’s story and the magical world she lives in from page one.” (Reading Between the Wines)
Kylie got into journalism to write important stories. Ones about gargoyles and dryads, elemental warriors, and thwarted magical attacks on her city. The bigger the story, the better. So when she lands the opportunity to ask an enchanted everlasting tree for the answer to any question she desires, she doesn’t have to think about it. She wants the story of a lifetime.
So does her nemesis, Nathan. If anyone is going to write a high-profile story, the senior journalist believes it should be him—and Nathan’s not above playing dirty to get his way. Kylie must work fast or risk losing control of her story.
But with every new lead forcing Kylie and her gargoyle companion Quinn deeper into a deadly maze of murder, warped magic, and monstrous beasts, rushing could prove fatal. Kylie is determined to publish her dream story, but she is beginning to wonder…will she survive long enough to write it?
“You’ll be swept up in Kylie’s story and the magical world she lives in from page one.”
I craned to see the everlasting tree through the press of people, a familiar excitement humming through my veins. Any day now, the tree would release its seeds, and I would be one of the thousands of people to receive one. I still couldn’t believe my luck. My entire life could be changed by this one event, and anticipation made me jittery. If I could have, I would have jogged, but the crowds confined me to a sedate crawl.
“Coming through,” a man bellowed, shoving a floating cart of manure ahead of him.
I shuffled to the edge of the dirt road with the rest of the foot traffic, squeezing past an ox-drawn cart loaded down with what appeared to be half a village’s belongings. When an opening appeared between a packhorse and a woman carrying baskets of hooded cockatrices, I darted into it, veering down a narrow alley. Audrey followed close on my heels, one hand latched on to my shirt so we didn’t become separated. A fellow journalist with decades of experience, Audrey served as my temporary boss while we were on assignment at the everlasting tree, but she had taken to using me as a guide in the mornings.
“I swear this road didn’t exist yesterday,” she grumbled. “You would tell me if you were lost, right, Kylie?”
“I know where we are.” I envied Audrey’s ability to scan any crowd and pluck out the one person with an interesting story, but she had no sense of direction. Or maybe it was Seed Town that made her roam in circles.
Rumors of the everlasting tree’s imminent bloom had sparked a migration, and the temporary town had sprung up overnight in the valley below the tree. Every day, the town grew as people flooded in from across the continent for this rare, once-in-a-lifetime experience. If Audrey and I hadn’t been here almost two weeks while the town built up around us, I might have found the haphazard dirt roads zigzagging between tents difficult to navigate, too.
“We are headed straight for the marketplace,” I assured Audrey. “Or as straight as anything is around here. See, there’s Baker Lang’s pavilion, and at the next junction will be the blacksmith you drool over, even if he is young enough to be your—”
“Fine. You know where we are. No need to rub it in.” She gave me a reproachful glare that would have been more effective if her gaze hadn’t drifted up the street. Patting wayward strands of her gray-streaked hair back into its tight braid, she pinned them in place with pinches of air.
I grinned, prepared to tease her more just to watch her blush, but a gaggle of kids thundered past, raising a cloud of dust. I held my breath and settled for poking Audrey in the ribs when her steps lagged in front of the blacksmith’s tent.
The delicious aroma of fresh-baked bread hung in the still air, and my mouth watered even though we had already eaten. I considered stopping to purchase a snack from Lang, but the line stretched eleven people deep, and I didn’t want to delay. The mayor had been spotted at the marketplace this morning, and if I didn’t hustle, she would disappear before I got my chance to interview her.
“Do you think the tree will bloom today?” Audrey asked.
We took turns posing this question to each other every day, and I gave Audrey the same answer she had given me yesterday. “If not today, then tomorrow.”
Everlasting trees didn’t release seeds yearly. Decades, sometimes centuries, could pass between one everlasting tree’s bloom and the next, but some rules of nature could not be denied. The sun chased spring into summer, baking the landscape and drying all the tree’s seedpods. Eventually, the heat would burst the seeds open, and everyone gathered would finally get their answers.
I checked the everlasting tree again. Perched atop a slight rise, it dominated the northern horizon of the valley, and its massive canopy could be viewed from anywhere in the town. No other tree in the vicinity—no other tree on this half of the continent—rivaled the everlasting tree in size. Its huge trunk would require fifteen people to circle it, and the top of its highest branches could be seen for miles. Shaped like a cross between an oak tree and a cottonwood, the everlasting tree’s branches started over thirty feet in the air and twisted and curled as far outward as they did up. Glossy emerald leaves decorated its limbs, and at the tip of every twig rested a seed—enough for everyone in the town to receive one; enough for everyone on the continent, most likely. My mind boggled at the thought.
“Are you sticking with your question?” Audrey asked. “There’s still time to think of something more . . . meaningful.”
I rolled my eyes. I didn’t want to have this conversation again. Fortunately, we had reached the hub of the town’s commerce, and I could pretend the cacophony of the crowd had drowned out her words.
The marketplace sprawled along the northern boundary of Seed Town, over five hundred feet from the base of the everlasting tree. Even from this distance, the radiant magic of the enormous tree permeated the air, heightening the elements. I collected a modest dose of air, earth, water, wood, and fire and rolled them through my senses for the sheer pleasure of it. In one of my first articles for the Chronicle, I had likened being in the tree’s presence to being submerged in an aura of purity, every particle of the elements undiluted and invigorating. The description still held true.
I wasn’t the only person to savor the clarified elements. Everyone who arrived made the trek to the base of the tree, drawn to its magic, and most people found one reason or another to linger close by—Audrey and myself included. With so many people loitering in the vicinity, it was inevitable that the marketplace would have formed here.
“Didn’t you say you were looking for Mayor Valeria Clee?” Audrey asked. “I think that’s her holding court at Tess’s.” She pointed toward a popular tea shop set beneath a temporary awning. A plump woman sat facing the marketplace traffic, her keen eyes taking in the bustle even as she talked with two men standing beside her chair. The knitting needles in her hands never faltered.
“Good eye,” I said.
“I’ll meet you back at our tent after lunch. We need to get the latest batch of articles off before nightfall.”
I nodded, already angling for Tess’s. Audrey slipped into the crowd in the opposite direction and disappeared. As the only two representatives from the Terra Haven Chronicle, we had been running nonstop since we got here, tracking down story after story for the special editions being published back home. Our mission was to make those who couldn’t undertake the pilgrimage feel as if they were part of the experience, too. Among articles about the jovial, expectant atmosphere of the town and various events and happenings, we collected tales from the myriad people who had gathered, hunting for anecdotal, poignant, humorous, or exciting stories to encapsulate the experience. At one point or another, I had talked to everyone in town, or so it seemed. Only one person in a hundred had anything interesting to say, but I was getting better at picking out who those people might be, and my story senses told me a chat with the self-appointed mayor of this pop-up town would make for an excellent article.
I wove through the thickening foot traffic, then paused at the edge of the tea shop’s awning, waiting a polite distance from the mayor and the men talking with her, though I openly eavesdropped.
“A burn like you’ve described needs Faramond,” Valeria said, her knitting needles clicking rhythmically. “He’s got a special touch with fire wounds.”
“Where can we find him?” the shorter man asked.
I thought I recognized his voice and shifted to get a better view of his face. Searching my memory brought up his name: Ian. I had interviewed him my second day here and remembered him because I had included one of his stories in an article. His question for the tree had been about finding his sister, who he had been separated from when they were toddlers. I had been pleased to use the Chronicle to expand others’ awareness of his search for his sibling, and I hoped having the details of his story printed in the paper along with whatever clue his seed gave him would speed his reunion.
“Faramond is on the west side of town, between the pegasi saddle maker who uses a feathered horseshoe insignia and the Rothfuss clan—there’s about twenty of them, and they’re all blond, so you can’t miss them,” Valeria said. “Oh, and stop by Sharri’s on your way.”
“Who is—” Ian started to ask, but Valeria continued to speak over him.
“Sharri’s tent has green and white tassels all over it. Faramond could use some of the milk from her goats. That should help offset the cost of his healing.”
I marveled at her memory. I may have spoken with the majority of Seed Town’s residents, but I couldn’t keep track of everyone’s professions, locations, and needs. Valeria made it appear effortless.
“Thank you, Mayor.” Ian tipped his hat in respect. When he turned to leave, he caught sight of me and tossed a quick greeting in my direction before hustling off with his friend.
“What can I help you with, child?” Valeria asked, turning her perceptive gaze on me. Up close, she looked vaguely grandmotherly, with her steely gray hair tucked into a loose bun, but few wrinkles marred her mahogany skin, and the eye-popping teal and yellow hues of her floral dress lent her the aura of a younger woman. It was only her eyes, weighted with a lifetime’s wisdom, that betrayed her age.
I held up my press badge, which shimmered with the seal of the Terra Haven Chronicle. It was one of my most treasured possessions.
“My name is Kylie Grayson. I was hoping to interview you, if you have a moment.”
Valeria studied the badge, then my face, her fingers never slowing on her knitting. Finally, she gestured for me to take a seat, even as she said, “I’m sure you can find more interesting people than me to talk to.”
“More interesting than the mayor of Seed Town? I doubt it.” I formed a recording sphere, weaving the elements together to hold the words of the interview for later reference. Then I pulled up a chair and tugged my notebook from my bag.
“I’m no mayor. No one elected me.” Valeria gestured to our surroundings with her knitting needles. “And this is no town. It’s a camp.”
“Are you sure?” I made a show of looking around. This “camp” was larger than the five nearest towns put together, and its population continued to swell every day. “No matter what term you use for it, it’s a lot of people. Any gathering this size needs structure, and you’ve done a lot to provide it. Everyone here knows that if they need something, you’ll know who has it. How did you—”
A child darted through the market to Valeria’s side and whispered in her ear. Sweat plastered his black hair to his scalp, and he bounced on his toes while he spoke.
“Some shepherd brought his whole flock?” Valeria asked, leaning back in exaggerated shock. “Those poor sheep must be skin and bones to have walked this far. Put them on the southeast side, but grab Michael and Johanna to take with you. Oh, and let Butcher Theo know.”
The boy spun to run off, but Valeria clutched his shirt, holding him in place. “Whoa there. Take a moment to breathe, Will. And drink this.” She handed the boy her cup of cooled tea, and he downed it in three gulps. Valeria rooted through a pouch at her waist, then pressed a coin into Will’s hand. “Don’t forget to eat today.”
“Yes, Nana Clee.” He scampered off with a grin.
Valeria watched him go with a fond smile before resuming her knitting. “Will hasn’t stopped moving since he came out of the womb. If he could run in his sleep, he would.”
Tess brought over a fresh pitcher of sun-warmed hyson tea and refilled Valeria’s glass before pouring mine. We both thanked her before she bustled off.
“Do you decide where every new person should set up camp?” I asked, sipping the earthy beverage.
“Oh my, no. That would be a full-time job around here. But some folks need to be prodded into the right place to keep the whole camp organized. Wouldn’t it be dreadful to have your tent overrun with sheep? Better to keep them out on the edges where the beasties can mill around without bothering anyone.”
“So you’re facilitating town planning—excuse me, camp planning. You’re the person everyone comes to with their problems, and everyone calls you Mayor Valeria, but you still insist you’re not the mayor?”
Valeria shrugged. “I’ve got a lot of common sense, and I know how to run a ranch. This is little different. That doesn’t make me mayor, but when you’re as bossy as I am—and when you’re fortunate enough to have people who let you boss them around—they like to give you a title. It makes everyone feel like they’re taking orders from someone important. If they want to call me mayor, who am I to stop them?” Her easy chuckle invited me to join in. I added radiates charisma to my notebook.
“What are you writing there?” she asked.
“I’m taking notes. If I can mimic your style, maybe people will let me boss them around, too.”
Her head tipped back with laughter. “I like you, Kylie-child.”
We chatted for the next twenty minutes, during which time I learned Valeria ran a training and boarding stable in Pombokom, a small town to the north. She was also the matriarch of an impressive seven children and sixteen grandchildren, all of whom had accompanied her and a herd of horses to the tree. After the horses had been sold the first day she arrived, Valeria had turned her attention to the town.
“I don’t do idle well. I can be patient, but I’m not going to waste the time I’ve got,” she explained, and her knitting needles waggled at me for emphasis.
“Are you the mayor of Pombokom, too?” I asked.
“Who has that kind of time? My horses and family keep me plenty busy.”
“Something tells me you still run the town.”
Valeria’s eyes twinkled. “Townsfolk like to drop by to get my opinion now and again.” She lifted the blanket and examined it, nodding to herself. A thread of fire element darted through the weave of her blanket, locking on to the earth spelled into the yarn. She manipulated the elements as deftly as she had her knitting needles, finishing the warmth spell with practiced speed before relaxing back with a sigh. “If I stayed here the rest of my days, I’d never grow tired of the way the elements feel this close to the asking tree.”
Her use of the colloquialism for the everlasting tree was one I had heard often. Since we all had traveled here to ask the tree a question, it made a certain amount of sense, but I preferred to call it an everlasting tree. It had been standing when the first human walked through this valley, and even if no one else ever returned to ask for a seed, it would outlive the last human to travel the earth.
“Enough with my past. We both know the question you want to ask me, Kylie-girl.”
“You don’t mind?”
“I’m too old for secrets.” Valeria resumed knitting, adding a fancy border to the blanket.
“What are you going to ask the tree?”
In the hundreds of people I had interviewed in Seed Town, I had found shockingly little variety in the questions people hoped the everlasting tree would answer. Most wanted more money, true love, an enhanced social standing, increased magic abilities, or a way to stave off death or illness. A smaller group of people sought to improve others’ lives. Few came to the everlasting tree with noble questions and the betterment of society in mind. I couldn’t blame them—we each got only one seed, one answer, one chance to voice the question that beat deep in our heart—but I hoped my question would serve the greater good.
Valeria’s answer surprised me in its originality.
“A long time ago, I was forced to sell the best horse I’d ever owned and trained. She wasn’t anything special to look at, but she had enough heart for three horses, and more brains than a few of my sons-in-law.” Valeria quirked an eyebrow at me, inviting me to commiserate. “I loved that mare to the depths of my toes. But my husband broke his leg, and I had children to feed. Selling her got us through the winter, but by the time we were in a position to buy again, I couldn’t find her or the horse trader I had sold her to. I searched for years. She’s long dead by now, but maybe her spirit lives on in her offspring. I’m hoping the asking tree will tell me where I can find her descendants. People are nice enough, but that horse . . . I’ve only got so many years left in me, and they would be so much sweeter if I could live them with a horse like her.”
“True companions are a blessing,” I said, thinking of Quinn. I scanned the sky for my gargoyle companion. He had left on his own story-scouting mission this morning, and I hadn’t caught a glimpse of him since. He took his job as my unofficial assistant seriously and had been an enormous help during our weeks in Seed Town. It had been Quinn who landed me interviews with the centaur queens camped at the edge of town, and it had been his friendly face that convinced a ragtag group of orphans to hold still long enough to tell me their collective story. Dahlia, the Chronicle’s editor in chief, had been especially pleased with that article.
“I just hope I have time to figure out how to unlock my seed’s answer,” Valeria said, pulling my attention back to the interview.
“Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones, and your seed will be easy to interpret. You could get your answer within the year.”
The everlasting tree didn’t grant wishes, and it didn’t give straight answers. It bestowed a single seed in response to a person’s question—no matter how simple or complex the question—and it was up to each individual to interpret their seed, take the appropriate actions, and evolve their seed into its ultimate form before it could be planted and the answer attained. Historically, a seed quest could take anywhere from a few days to a few decades to complete. Personally, I wasn’t in any rush, but most people were.
“What about you?” Valeria asked. “What question are you taking to the tree?”
“I’d rather not say. It’s private.” In truth, I didn’t want to waylay the interview with a discussion about my question. I had had a hard enough time explaining it to Audrey, a fellow journalist; explaining my question to Valeria would take too long.
The mayor squinted at me. “It’s not about a boy or love, is it? You’ve got plenty of time ahead of you for that, and men are too easy to come by to waste a question on.”
“No, it’s not about a boy,” I promised with a smile.
“Good. Just look around: You can’t crack a whip without hitting a handful of men. Some of them might even qualify as good men. Like this one.” Her smile widened, pulling wrinkles across her cheeks and brightening her eyes. For the first time, Valeria’s hands stilled in her lap.
I turned, and a jolt of awareness shot through me when I spotted the man Valeria had locked eyes on: Grant Monaghan, Terra Haven’s own Federal Pentagon Defense captain and my personal crush.
I had never seen Grant out of uniform before, and the sight of him relaxed and off-duty sent miniature phoenixes darting through my midsection. Worn denim encased his long legs, and his shoulders stretched the limits of a pale-blue, short-sleeve shirt, showing off his tanned forearms and the impressive curve of his biceps. The sun gave his dark hair glossy highlights and twinkled in the premature gray peppered through his sideburns. Yet despite his mellow expression and civilian clothing, he still looked like an FPD man. Every muscle in his body had been honed by the demands of his job, and he moved with a grace and self-awareness only achieved through years of serving as one of the nation’s elite warriors.
I drank in the sight of him. Quinn had told me Grant was here, but I hadn’t run into him before now—though I had kept an eye out. The last time I had seen Grant, he had been shirtless and battle-worn. He looked fully recovered and as delectable as ever.
His dark eyes landed on me, and my breath constricted in my lungs. I did my best to school my expression to polite surprise. Plenty of women around the marketplace already ogled Grant like moon-eyed fools; I didn’t need to feed his ego by letting him know how much the sight of him had flustered me. Besides, I wasn’t just a stranger, eager to make the handsome captain’s acquaintance. Grant and I had worked together and faced perilous situations together. Obviously he felt a connection to me; otherwise he would have walked past rather than changing course to come over and greet me.
“What can I do for you, Captain?” Valeria asked when he ducked beneath the awning and stopped beside us.
“Nothing in particular.” Grant’s mouth quirked in a disarming, easy smile full of charm, and my heart flipped in my chest. “I just came over to make sure Ms. Grayson’s not pestering you.” Then he planted a large palm on the top of my head and rubbed it back and forth, tousling my hair the way he might have a precocious child’s.
My whole body stiffened, my greeting dying in my throat.
“She’s got a bit of a reputation for sticking her nose in other people’s business,” Grant said, adding a final pat before retracting his hand.
Fire flared in my cheeks, anger and embarrassment coursing through my veins. I opened my mouth, but indignation clogged my throat.
“She’s a journalist; of course she sticks her nose in other people’s business,” Valeria said.
“It’s one way to make a living.”
I startled at Seradon’s low voice. I had been so fixated on Grant, I hadn’t noticed her standing right behind him. Like the captain, she wore casual clothes that didn’t disguise her fighter’s physique. Amusement crinkled her brown eyes as she surveyed my reaction to being treated and talked about like a favorite dog.
“I prefer an honest living,” Grant said.
“Telling the truth is the definition of my job,” I snapped. Rather than giving in to the impulse to stab Grant’s thigh with my pencil, I tugged my fingers through my rumpled hair, smoothing it. I didn’t glance up until I had regained control of my expression. I was a representative of the Terra Haven Chronicle, and I would be professional.
“And how do you two know each other?” Valeria asked.
“I’ve covered a handful of their assignments back in Terra Haven.” I included Seradon in my explanation. As the earth elemental in Grant’s squad, she had played an instrumental part in several of the events I had written about. I didn’t mention I had also worked solo alongside Grant on his last mission. We had parted on good terms, too; I would have even said as friends. I didn’t understand why he was acting like a complete jerk now, but I wasn’t about to hash it out with him in front of the mayor.
Grant hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and gave Valeria another easy, charming smile—the kind he had never directed toward me. “Ms. Grayson is quite the story hound. I can’t seem to shake her.”
My molars ground together. How many different ways could he make me sound like a wayward puppy chasing his heels?
“Seems to me it was you who came over here.” Valeria quirked an eyebrow at Grant.
“Just doing my civic duty.”
Be professional. Don’t kick him in the shins. Despite my pep talk, icy fury chilled my voice. “If you don’t mind, Captain, the mayor is a busy woman, and we’re in the middle of an interview. I’m sure you have—”
My stomach lurched as a wellspring of magic unfurled inside me. The elements rushed to my fingertips, waiting to be used.
Quinn was near.
Even after more than half a year in Quinn’s company, chasing stories with him and enjoying his friendship, I had yet to grow accustomed to the breathtaking sensation of his magic. Like all gargoyles, Quinn could enhance the elemental powers of others—when he chose—and he never failed to boost my magic whenever he was within range.
I pivoted in my seat, searching the sky through the awning’s thin cloth. Grant and Seradon turned at the same time, both squaring off in the same direction. I followed their line of sight and caught a flicker of gold through the fabric. Of course. Quinn must have spotted Grant and Seradon and included them in his boost. Normally I would have thought nothing of it—they were friends and trusted protectors—but with Grant acting like a jerk, I wished Quinn hadn’t been so generous.
“Is that your gargoyle, Kylie-girl?” Valeria asked.
“It is.” A surge of pride pulled my spine straighter.
Quinn soared over the crowded marketplace, his lion body suspended beneath feathered stone wings. Wavy lines of quartz hair filled out his impressive mane and tufted the tip of his long tail, but delicate curls of dragon scales covered the bulk of his body, and all of him shimmered in iridescent tones of golden citrine. I squinted as the sunlight reflected off his glossy sides, momentarily blinding me. The gargoyle swooped low, back-winging to land near the awning, and Grant raised a quick wall of air to shield us from the spray of dust.
“Kylie!” Quinn cried, but the urgency crinkling his expressive face already had me on my feet. He tossed a look over his shoulder, toward the tree.
My stomach somersaulted. It’s happening.
I tied off the recording sphere and shoved it into my bag along with my notebook and pencil.
“Thank you for your time, Mayor. Best of luck in finding your horse.” I shrugged the strap of my bag over my head so it hung diagonally across my chest, dodged Grant’s shield, and sprinted for Quinn.
“It’s blooming!” Quinn exclaimed. “The everlasting tree is blooming!”