Terra Haven Chronicles
Deadlines & Dryads: a Prequel (FREE ebook)
Getting the scoop might cost Kylie and her gargoyle companion their lives…
Dryads are a reclusive, passive species—or they used to be. Overnight, the peaceful woodland creatures have turned violent, attacking travelers with crude weapons and whipping the trees of their grove into a ferocious frenzy.
When rumors of the dryads’ bizarre behavior reaches journalist Kylie Grayson, she pounces on the story, determined to unearth the reason behind the dryads’ hostile transformation. Accompanied by Quinn, her young gargoyle friend, Kylie plunges into the heart of the malevolent grove. But nothing she’s learned prepares her for the terrifying conflict she uncovers…
USA Today bestselling author Rebecca Chastain returns to the beloved world of the Gargoyle Guardian Chronicles for a brand-new spellbinding adventure of elemental magic and courageous gargoyles. If you love action-packed stories filled with mythical creatures, brave heroines, and adorable sidekicks, you’ll love Deadlines & Dryads.
Series Reading Order
I drummed my fingers on my open notebook, resisting the urge to bounce in my seat. Tension crackled in the charged air of the writers’ bullpen, where every single Terra Haven Chronicle reporter had gathered this morning at the behest of the editor in chief. She’d given no reason for the meeting, and speculations buzzed through the curiosity-saturated atmosphere.
“Does this happen often?” I asked the junior journalist next to me, who had been at the paper a few months longer than me. I had to raise my voice to be heard above the energized hubbub.
“No. Whatever’s going on, it’s big.”
The editor’s door cracked open, and all conversations in the room died off. Everyone leaned forward when Raquel Jervier, the newspaper’s gryphon scout, sauntered out. She swept her gaze over our rapt faces and grinned, her white teeth bright against her dark face. Unperturbed by everyone’s intense scrutiny, she took a seat at an empty desk, leaning the chair back on two legs to prop her heavy boots on the desk’s corner. The writer nearest her started to whisper a question but immediately quieted when Dahlia Bearpaw, the editor in chief, strode into the bullpen, coffee cup in hand. With short, spiky gray hair and a wiry, regal bearing, Dahlia looked as much a gryphon rider as Raquel—and had been in her youth. Now she ran the paper with the same firm hand.
“I think I might have a riot in here if I don’t get right to the point,” Dahlia said, taking in our eager expressions. “So, here’s the deal: The western everlasting tree is starting to bud.”
A collective exclamation of excitement exploded across the room, but I remained frozen in place, my thoughts pinging so fast that I temporarily forgot how to move. Forty years ago, one of the immortal trees in Asia had bloomed. It had been the first everlasting tree to show signs of fertility in centuries, and people had flocked to it. Standing beneath its blooming branches, they had asked their myriad questions. In response, the tree had unleashed a flurry of seeds, one per person, no two seeds alike. Just as legend had foretold, the seeds had served as maps of sorts, guiding each person to their answers—if they put in the time and due diligence. It hadn’t mattered the nature of their inquiries—personal or professional, selfish or altruistic; the tree had answered them all.
Everlasting trees were as rare as their bloomings; fewer than two existed per continent, and each released its seeds once every century, if not once every half millennium. I never thought an everlasting tree would bloom in my lifetime, especially not the tree nearest Terra Haven.
“Calm down. I know it’s exciting, but I haven’t finished my announcement,” Dahlia shouted above the uproar. “The Chronicle is going to send two journalists.” Silence dropped over the room as every writer leaned in, waiting to hear who she would select. “The lead journalist on the story will be Audrey Cintrón, but I have yet to pick who will accompany her.”
A sea of envious gazes swept to Audrey, who exchanged a solemn nod with the editor. A veteran journalist with decades of experience at the Chronicle, Audrey had earned her right to attend this monumental event. Her elegant, precise prose made her the perfect choice, and I strove to rein in my jealousy. From my table at the back of the room, cramped elbow to elbow with the other first-year journalists, I studied the remaining senior writers with a bitter eye. This was a story of a lifetime, and it had come years too early for me.
I mentally tabulated my savings, my connections, and my current standing at the paper. I didn’t have the finances to reach the everlasting tree on my own, and I didn’t know anybody with the resources to get me there, either. Even if I did, I couldn’t afford to take the weeks off work the trip would necessitate, not if I expected to have my job waiting for me when I got home. A knot of resentment settled in my gut, and I leaned back in my chair, defeated.
“Before you all bombard me with your qualifications—which I already know, or you wouldn’t be here,” Dahlia continued, “let me deliver the second part of this announcement. The position for the second journalist will be determined by whoever brings me the best story in the next forty-eight hours.”
I shot from my chair so fast it tumbled over backward. I had a chance!
The room around me had erupted in similar reactions, though several senior writers looked less than pleased. I couldn’t muster any sympathy for them. I had written a few good articles for the paper, which was why I had a seat in this room, but I was far from one of the editors’ go-to writers when it came to handing out assignments. If I could win this competition, not only would it prove to Dahlia that I had what it took to cover the everlasting tree, but it would also cement my career at the Chronicle.
Dahlia’s astute gaze cataloged everyone’s reactions, including mine as I sheepishly straightened my chair. When she called for silence again, everyone was quick to comply.
“You may have noticed Hernando isn’t here today. I sent him out before dawn to cover an invasion of poisonous serpents spotted in Lincoln River, upstream of the city. You’ll need to top that story to have a shot at winning.”
A collective groan spiraled around the room. Lincoln River flowed straight through Terra Haven and served as the main source of drinking water for a greater portion of the city. The deadly serpents would be a huge story for the Chronicle, and one not easily topped.
My hand shot into the air, and I waved it around to get the editor’s attention, but she was already pivoting in my direction.
“Unsurprisingly, the first question comes from junior journalist Kylie Grayson,” Dahlia said, her tone wry.
“She’s always got the most questions because she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing,” Nathan said, pitching his voice to carry across the room from his corner desk in the senior writers’ section.
I ignored him. I wouldn’t let him shame my curiosity. “When will the chosen journalists leave?” I asked.
“As soon as I’ve made my selection,” Dahlia said. “Even traveling gryphonback, the trip will take you several days, and we can’t predict when the everlasting tree will release its seeds. I want reporters on the ground posthaste. This is a once-in-a-generation story that deserves more than a few articles; I want to run a special edition, perhaps a series of special editions.”
I hadn’t thought the room could get any more tense, but at the potent words special edition, every single writer went on point. A special edition would mean dozens of articles. Split between only two journalists, we’d each get entire spreads to fill. Contemplating all that column space left me light-headed with yearning.
“One last thing,” Dahlia said. “If you’ve got the vacation time and you’d rather attend the blooming at your own expense, I’ll accept the first five vacation requests.”
Half the room surged toward the editor, and in the chaos, I slipped out the back. I didn’t have the vacation time to use even if I did have the money to get halfway across the country in a few days.
I passed through the exit into the sunlight and paused, realizing I didn’t know where to go. I had a few rumor scouts in the field, and I had a few leads I could follow up on, but would any of them evolve into a story spectacular enough to win me this competition?
I pulled my journal out of my bag and opened it to peruse my notes, moving to the edge of the sidewalk to get out of the way of foot traffic. The city had woken up while I’d been inside, and the downtown streets bustled with people headed to their jobs. A horse-drawn wagon trundled past, the driver fighting the reins as the team shied at the sight of the enormous gryphon perched atop the Chronicle’s two-story roof. I tilted my head back and acknowledged the tiny shiver of fear that darted down my spine when the gryphon cocked her massive eagle head and pinned me with a golden eye. Rationally, I knew she was Raquel’s tame companion and would never eat a human, but my instincts still kicked in, telling me to run. Suppressing them, I scanned the rest of the roofline for Quinn’s bright citrine face, but when I didn’t spot the gargoyle, I turned back to my notebook.
The door burst open beside me, and Nathan stepped out, sweeping his dark hair off his forehead in a practiced motion. Lanky, with a perpetual black, bristly beard and thick-framed glasses, he looked like a caricature of a hardworking investigative reporter—a style he’d obviously cultivated. He spotted me and grinned, spinning on a toe to confront me.
“Tell me that was for show,” he said. “You don’t actually believe you can snag a story that’s more impressive than anything a senior writer can get, do you?”
“You heard Dahlia. We all have a shot.”
“Come on, Kylie. You’ve been here less than six months. You don’t have a chance.”
“I’ve had two front-page stories already,” I said, knowing I shouldn’t let him goad me but unable to help myself. “How many front-page stories have you had in that time?”
Nathan’s thin lips tightened and he shoved his hands into his pockets. Score one for me.
“You got lucky. Twice,” he said. “But this time you can’t just wait around for an article to fall into your lap. Or do you plan to pump your gargoyle friend for another story?”
I pushed my hair out of my face and gave him my best glare. I hated that he was partially right; I had been lucky in landing two major stories before anybody else knew they were happening, thanks to my best friend, Mika. In the last couple months, she had rescued several gargoyles and had become the city’s one and only gargoyle healer. The very first story that had gotten me noticed by Dahlia had been the tale of Mika’s daring rescue of the gargoyles. A small part of me wished I were bringing that story to the editor now, because it would have guaranteed me a victory in this competition. Now I needed to present Dahlia with something even more impressive, and every lead in my notebook fell well short.
Not that I would admit as much to Nathan.
“Don’t worry about me,” I said, injecting false sweetness into my voice. “I already have another amazing story lined up.”
“You do? Just like that?”
“I do.” I managed to infuse confidence I didn’t feel into those two words.
Tilting my journal so Nathan couldn’t see its contents, I scanned my notes again. Maybe the thefts at the fish market would develop into something bigger than petty crime. If not, I might be able to spin the story into a larger commentary addressing the socioeconomic disparities . . . Ugh. No. Maybe I would have to hunt down Mika and see if she had encountered any new gargoyles in trouble. Of course, Dahlia might not be impressed with a third story in a row about gargoyles.
“You’re riding high on your past successes, but don’t let your beginner’s luck fool you,” Nathan cautioned, his patronizing tone setting my teeth on edge. “Do yourself a favor and don’t burn yourself out trying to compete with experienced journalists. Put in the time, put in the legwork, and you’ll eventually pull in some big stories on your own.”
This wasn’t the first time Nathan had given me his “sage advice,” which basically amounted to take it slow and don’t upstage senior writers. I had no intention of listening to him. “I’m not sure why you’re concerned about what I’m going to write if you’re so certain your story will be superior.”
“Oh, I’m not worried. It’s just I see promise in you, and I don’t want you to get your spirit crushed before you even start your career.”
Two front-page stories! I wanted to shout. My career had already started, and it’d begun with a bang.
“I’m flattered you noticed my journalistic skills. Excuse me, Nathan, I’ve got to run.” I snapped my journal shut and stalked off before he could say anything else—or before I said something I’d regret.
I hadn’t made it halfway down the block when I spotted my rumor scout barreling down on me. The snarl of elemental energy whipped through the air, tight bands of air and fire woven through thinner strands of earth, water, and wood, all of it holding precious information. I glanced back over my shoulder and picked up my pace. Nathan tracked my retreat, and his eyes narrowed when he caught sight of my elemental creation. Damn it.
Half jogging, I met the rumor scout at the end of the block. Shaped from my magic, it honed in on me with a precision that had taken years to perfect. I shoved my hair out of the way as the bundle of magic coiled over my right ear, forming a soundproof seal against my scalp. Immediately, a stranger’s voice spoke into my ear, the words having been collected and recorded by the scout.
“. . . dryad chased me. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve taken Wicker Road hundreds of times, and I’ve seen my share of dryads, but not like this.” The man’s deep voice held the accent of a Southern merchant, and he sounded out of breath. He didn’t pause to give whoever he was talking to a chance to speak, either. “The dryads looked . . . they looked . . . predatory.”
Predatory? Dryads were peaceful creatures. They lived in harmony with the trees to which their lives were bonded, and their personalities were the equivalent of an oak given mobility. They nurtured the forest and they lived quiet, hidden lives. I couldn’t even picture what a predatory dryad would look like; it was like trying to picture a hostile tree—one that had apparently chased this man.
My journalistic instincts perked up.
I had been hearing rumors about increased restlessness in the local Emerald Crown Grove dryads since the tail end of winter, which was why I’d tailored a rumor scout to seek out and record any conversations in which the word dryad was mentioned. I’d also read up on dryads at the city library, learning that their abnormal agitation could be due to an impending violent storm or a possible encroachment of a new road or predator into their grove. I’d held off pitching the story to Dahlia because I had my own, third theory that involved the timing of the dryads’ restlessness, but I’d been waiting for it to pan out.
I hadn’t even considered that the dryad story might be worthy of today’s challenge, but this new development held promise. Maybe I wouldn’t need to go to the fish market after all.
“Don’t do it,” the anxious voice continued. “You don’t want to chance—”
Claws of air magic ripped the rumor scout from my ear, tearing out a hunk of my hair.
I spun around. Nathan clutched my rumor scout in a thick lasso of air and held it suspended in front of him, studying it with avid curiosity.
To continue reading Deadlines & Dryads, pick up your copy today!
“a deliciously intense adventure in the world of gargoyles”
—The Book Drealms ★★★★★
“Oh my what a book! …virtually impossible to put down”
“Rebecca doesn’t write normal, boring stories. What she creates is memorable books that keep you coming back for more.”
“I absolutely loved this tale… It has all of the ingredients required for a fabulous, light-hearted read!”
—Tome Tender ★★★★★
“Really interesting story!”
“This is a brilliant start to Kylie’s series… fun and fast paced and… full of interesting supernatural creatures”
“Deadlines and Dryads is packed with everything that initially drew me to the Gargoyle Guardian Chronicles: strong world-building, unique magic, derring-do and narrow escapes, and well-rounded characters.”
Leads & Lynxes, Book 1
Be careful what you ask for…
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?
Series Reading Order
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!”
“You’ll be swept up in Kylie’s story and the magical world she lives in from page one.”
“Fun reading that never lets up from start to finish! Highly recommended!”
“Chastain’s take on classic monsters is wonderfully original…Leads and Lynxes is a terrific first book in a new urban fantasy/paranormal romance series.
“I enjoy how many different weird and wonderful magical creatures we’re getting to meet.”
“Leads and Lynxes is a mix of mystery and fantasy, with a good dose of action and a hint of romance….I really like the world the author has created, especially the characters.”
“there is never a dull moment”
“This one sounded like a lot of fun and full of adventure. And I was so right! …It was almost a breathless adventure.”
“This book has it all gargoyles, phoenixes, hot attraction, and a mystery to be solved. I was on the edge of my seat”
Headlines & Hydras, Book 2
Dive back into the extraordinary new series filled with elemental magic, mythic creatures, and heroic gargoyles today!
Pursuing the story of a lifetime is supposed to be Kylie’s greatest achievement, not her biggest regret. It certainly isn’t supposed to be personal.
When her latest lead points to deadly, banned spells pilfered from her parents’ business, Kylie is too late to spare her parents from being thrust into the headlines—or to prevent herself from being dragged into the spotlight with them.
Every journalist in the city pounces on the scandal, but none with more relish and venom than Nathan. Kylie’s rival at the Terra Haven Chronicle has vowed to destroy Kylie’s career. He’s more than willing to implode the lives of anyone she loves if it will enable him to enact his vengeance.
Kylie must recover the stolen spells before her life, and her parents’ lives, are ruined.
With her loyal gargoyle companion, Quinn, at her side, Kylie plunges into the perilous investigation. She’s faced danger before, but this time is different: If she fails, her parents will lose their livelihood. To succeed, she will have to sacrifice her dream story.
But first she has to survive…
Series Reading Order
A rapid hammering jerked me awake. I seized a fistful of air element before my bleary vision cleared. I shouldn’t have let my guard down. It’s too dangerous—
The familiar sight of my apartment punctured my panic. I was home. Safe. My escape from Lunacy Labyrinth hadn’t been a dream, though the horrors I had witnessed there haunted me in my nightmares.
Breathing deep, I released my magic and fought free of knotted, sweat-damp sheets. Pain flared through my thighs and biceps, and I bit down on a groan. After mending the cuts and scrapes I had received yesterday, the healers had claimed doing more—like soothing away the soreness of strained muscles—would have overtaxed my exhausted body. Allowing those muscles to relax overnight had only invited the stiffness to root deeper.
A fist pounded the balcony door again, hard enough to rattle the whole wall. “Are you awake?” Mika asked, her voice muffled through the door.
“I am now,” I grumbled.
Normally I appreciated living on the second floor of a large Victorian house, renting a room connected to my best friend’s by a balcony.
However, my best friend normally didn’t wake me at dawn.
Grunting with each step, I hobbled to the door and opened it.
Mika burst into my room, haloed in morning sunshine. I shielded my eyes as I staggered back to my bed, slumping onto the edge. She followed, too fast for my tearing eyes to track. Her long strawberry-blond hair hung loose, still snarled from sleep, and she hadn’t bothered to change out of her striped pajamas or put on shoes. Oliver trundled into the room on her heels, his sinuous dragon body casting a red glow across the ceiling as the sun refracted off his glossy carnelian scales. Despite the gargoyle’s stubby legs, Oliver’s head now cleared my bed, and I hoped he was close to done growing. If he got much bigger, he wouldn’t fit in our tiny apartments.
“Is everything all right?” I asked before I spotted a copy of the Terra Haven Chronicle clutched in Mika’s fist. My heart sank. I scooted back on the bed and drew my feet up in front of me, wishing I could crawl under the covers and avoid this conversation.
“Is this true?” Mika spread the paper open and waved toward the black-and-white print beneath a picture of a firebird. “Are you the Airstrong heiress?”
“I . . .” My thoughts scattered when Mika lifted her gaze to mine, the pain of betrayal glistening in unshed tears.
I hadn’t wanted Mika to find out about my family like this. I hadn’t wanted anyone to find out, period. I had chosen to leave behind my parents’ world and their upper-crust lifestyle in favor of making my own way. With their blessing, if not their understanding, my parents had freed me from the expectation of assuming responsibility for their international shipping empire and allowed me to pursue my passion as a journalist. Doing so anonymously had been my decision. I had wanted to make sure I succeeded on my own merit, not because someone owed my parents a favor. It had taken years of scraping by before I landed a junior journalist position at the Terra Haven Chronicle. Now, just when I was starting to get noticed by the editor in chief, my nemesis, Nathan, had taken it upon himself to out me to the world in his front-page article.
“Your real name isn’t even Kylie,” Mika said, her voice soft. “It’s Harriet, isn’t it?”
I flinched. I hated my first name and loathed hearing Mika use it. It had been bad enough to see it printed in the paper. Grayson daughter, Harriet, has been operating seemingly independent of her parents’ business under the alias Kylie Grayson. I would never forget the line—nor forgive Nathan for writing it. The article should have focused solely on the recovery of the missing firebirds and the destruction of Lunacy Labyrinth. However, my parents’ shipping company, Airstrong, had been the business responsible for the firebirds’ transportation. Having the firebirds discovered in the possession of the Airstrong heiress—another deplorable quote from the article—had given Nathan the opening he needed to slander me to the world.
Keeping my voice neutral, I said, “Kylie is my preferred name. My full name is Harriet Kylie Grayson.”
“You used an alias—”
“Not an alias,” I said, hating that Mika was quoting Nathan.
The paper crinkled in her fist. “You lied to me about your name.”
“I didn’t lie—”
“Stop parsing words with me. You lied by omission.” Her words landed between us, the vulnerability in her expression cracking and anger seeping out. “You let me believe you were someone you’re not. What else have you been lying about?”
“Nothing. I swear.” I leaned forward to stand, but she didn’t give me enough room. “I wanted to tell you. I just . . .”
“Let me guess. You couldn’t find the right time in the last half decade.” Mika spun away, pacing in the limited space, stepping over Oliver without seeming to notice the gargoyle. Confined by the tight room, she about-faced and bore down on me. I fumbled for the right words to make her understand, but her glare silenced me. Reversing course, she paced away from me again. Oliver hopped onto the love seat and curled his slender tail out of the way, his wide eyes tracking Mika. He reached a paw out to her when she stomped close but withdrew it when she didn’t acknowledge him.
Golden light bounced across the walls as Quinn dropped from the roof to fill the doorway, worry etching his feline features. Sunlight slanted across the gargoyle’s broad lion shoulders and glinted off his long wings. Quinn’s citrine body sported an alarming number of clear quartz patches, a testament to all the injuries Mika had healed. Navigating the blood-magic ruins of Lunacy Labyrinth had been harder on Quinn than it had been on me, and I resolved not to complain about my own soreness.
Against my will, my gaze dipped to Quinn’s everlasting seed. It hung from a cord around his neck, ugly and brown. Thanks to our adventures in Lunacy, it had evolved into its current shape, though maybe devolved was more appropriate. The original artistic ebony knot of a snake biting its own tail had transformed into a fist-size mess that resembled a muddy, half-melted, half-exploded pinecone. Staring at it made me woozy. Quinn had used his one question to ask the everlasting tree how he could best help me, which was why I tried not to let on how unnerving I found his seed’s new shape. Especially since saving my life had been the catalyst of his seed’s evolution, whereas initiating my seed’s transformation had nearly killed us both, and its current shape pointed toward even greater danger.
A bundle of elements coasted through the open door, drawing my attention from Quinn’s seed. The tight knot of magic curved in the ubiquitous lines of a message sphere, but the magical signature—the texture of structured fire and steady winds underlying the spell—was unmistakably my boss’s. Expecting the sphere to settle into my message bowl, I nearly levitated when it dropped to pop in my face. Editor in Chief Dahlia Bearpaw’s brusque voice spilled out, as loud as if she were standing in the room with us.
“Ms. Grayson. My office. Now. Don’t make me wait.”
My stomach flipped. Nothing good could follow that tone.
“Did she know?” Mika asked.
I shook my head.
“So it’s not just me.” With Quinn filling the balcony doorway, Mika’s pacing space had become confined to a few steps, and she stopped to glower at me with her hands on her hips.
“I understand why you’re mad,” I began.
“Oh really? Please enlighten me, Harriet.”
My teeth clenched, but I forced them apart. “I should have told you, but honestly . . . it wasn’t important.”
“It . . . it wasn’t important?” she sputtered. Her hands twisted the hem of her shirt, her eyes bright. “Because I’m a commoner and it doesn’t matter what I think?”
“That’s not it at all,” I protested. “Mika, please—”
“What is all this to you?” She swept a hand to indicate the cramped apartment, with its secondhand furniture, faded curtains, overflowing hamper, and claustrophobic bathroom. Or maybe she included the entire low-income neighborhood beyond the curtains in her gesture. “Is this some sort of elitist rite of passage? See how long you can slum it? Now you’ll return to your ‘peers’ and regale them with tales of living among the pitiable poor?”
My explanation withered on my tongue. I shoved to my feet and pointed at Mika. “This is the other reason I never said anything! I knew how judgmental you would be.”
“I’m the one to blame for your lies? That’s rich. Very full spectrum of you. I didn’t ask you—”
The house’s wards broke, the magic popping against my eardrums as it shattered. Something heavy crashed into the roof, rattling the whole house. I ducked, my hand flinging out to find Mika’s.
The rafters creaked and popped. Breath held, I stared at the ceiling, straining to see through solid matter. Mika’s fingers clamped a vise around mine. The Victorian’s roof had endured extraordinary strain in the last half year from the weight of five growing gargoyles roosting nightly along its ridges, but their movements never made this kind of racket. These steps sounded wider, more scratchy, like a dragon or a—
“Harpy,” I whispered, my muscles locking in a wave of terror. The stench of sunbaked feces and carrion oozed into the apartment, confirming my words.
Zipporah had found me.
Quinn whimpered. I jerked my gaze from the ceiling.
“Get inside,” I hissed, frantically motioning him forward.
Mika backed up to give Quinn room to squeeze into the apartment, and I half fell over him in my rush to close the door behind him.
How had Zipporah figured out where I lived? Did she know I didn’t have her payment? Was she here to collect anyway? The only item left on the bartering table was my life.
I rubbed sweaty palms down my cotton shorts and glanced around for inspiration—or for an escape. I didn’t fool myself into thinking we were safe inside. The bay windows were cloaked by curtains, disguising our movements, but once Zipporah figured out where I was, those panes would be no barrier against her talons.
“What’s going on?” Mika whispered.
The answer came from above. “Kylie Grayson, show yourself!”
“Where are Anya, Herbert, and Lydia?” I asked Mika, listing Quinn and Oliver’s littermates, who also frequented our rooftop.
“They went to the park before dawn.”
“So no one’s up there?”
Mika shook her head, and I let out a tight breath.
“Why does a harpy know your name, Kylie? What are you mixed up in?”
I bit my lip, debating if we had time for an explanation. “I made a bad decision and—”
“Little girl, I can smell you inside,” Zipporah called. “Come out, or I’m coming in.” She screeched the last words loud enough to echo through the neighborhood. If my landlady hadn’t been woken by the house wards breaking, she was awake now—along with everyone else in a three-block radius.
“We can’t let her find you,” Quinn said.
“I think it’s too late for that.”
“She hasn’t seen you yet.” He nosed me toward the apartment’s front door, which opened onto the upstairs hallway of the Victorian. In a few steps, I could be downstairs, protected by the bulk of the enormous house instead of one thin layer of rafters and shingles. But as much as I longed to flee, I didn’t let him move me.
“Don’t make me wait!” Zipporah shouted. “I’m not in a patient mood.” Claws raked across the roof, the deafening swipe tearing apart shingles and timber. The pictures on my walls rattled and crashed to the floor. I flinched, eyes darting to the ceiling, expecting to see the harpy’s claws puncture the roof. The wood held, but it wouldn’t take much additional abuse before Zipporah burst through.
Grabbing Mika’s shoulders, I gave her a shake so she would focus on me. “Go. Get downstairs and take Oliver and Quinn with you. Make sure everyone stays inside, even Josephine.” I had a horrible vision of our middle-aged landlady rushing up to the roof with a broom and a handful of questionably legal repellent spells, thinking she could chase away a harpy as easily as she did the occasional gang member who thought to cause trouble on our street. Zipporah would flatten her without a second thought.
Mika allowed herself to be pushed a step before she firmed her stance. “What are you going to do? You can’t go out there.”
I couldn’t stay inside either. Zipporah was fully capable of tearing the roof off a house, and even if I was all right with allowing the harpy to destroy my home—my rented home—there was nowhere I could hide that she couldn’t find me. Running was out of the question, too. She was faster, had an aerial advantage, and could brush aside any spell I cast with depressing ease. But most important, I couldn’t allow Zipporah near Mika or the gargoyles. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if they were hurt because of me.
“I’ll get Grant,” Quinn said.
Zipporah tore into the roof again, ripping a chunk free with an earsplitting screech of shattering boards. A shadow flashed past the drawn curtain; then the lumber hit the cobblestones below with a resounding clap.
“There’s no time.” I braced myself and eased open the balcony door.
The foul odor of excrement engulfed me, and I wavered. My debt to Zipporah was straightforward: I acquiesced to a favor of her choosing or I died. At the time I made the foolish bargain, my choices had been the same—owe her or die on the spot. I had envisioned all kinds of frightening requests Zipporah might make, but none came close to her horrifying demand that I bring her the Chiefmaker, a deadly, blood-magic artifact last seen inside Lunacy Labyrinth. She had even gone so far as to toss me into the hellacious ruins. Neither of us had expected me to survive. Yet here I was, empty-handed but alive.
How was I going to convince Zipporah not to kill me?
On watery legs, I crept onto the balcony and peered past the roof awning. The harpy filled the sky, her oily wings spread, every glob and crust of filth caking the undersides of her giant bird body intimately visible from this angle. She faced the opposite direction, one clawed foot braced on the roof’s peak while the other gouged a hole through the shingles.
I pulled a thick ward of earth and air around myself. The magic came easily, enhanced by Oliver and Quinn. The gargoyles’ natural ability to boost the elements in others gave me twice my usual strength, and I added extra layers to my protective ward. It did little to reassure me. Zipporah had proven she could rip through my gargoyle-enhanced wards before, but I couldn’t step outside without at least the illusion of protection. I glanced down at my thin cotton pajamas. I might as well be naked for all the protection they would afford, but I didn’t dare take the time to change.
Quinn squeezed out onto the balcony behind me, and Oliver and Mika stood inside the threshold. Did they not understand how dangerous Zipporah was?
Stay back, I mouthed. I wouldn’t try to stop Quinn—he knew the dangers, and it would take too long to convince him to stay behind—but for once I wished Mika was more of a coward. If she involved herself in this confrontation, she would only get hurt.
Giving Mika one last, stern glare, I vaulted onto the balcony railing, then up to the roof above Mika’s room. The abrasive shingles bit into my bare feet and scraped my palms. I scrambled for the peak of the roof where my footing would be the most stable, every nerve in my body tensed in anticipation of being skewered. A dog barked several houses over, and I caught glimpses of shocked faces pressed to the windows of the nearby homes as hasty wards flashed into place.
Quinn sprang onto the railing, then surged up the roof after me, so close his half-spread wings brushed against my legs. I wanted to order him to fly away for his own safety, but his determined expression stopped me. Instead, I laid a grateful hand atop his shoulders and extended my ward to encompass him.
Mika and Oliver hunkered in the shadows just inside my apartment doorway. Mika mouthed something, but I couldn’t read her lips.
Zipporah hopped in a tight circle, shaking the roof as she turned to face me. I bent my knees for balance, hands splayed as if I could hold her at bay by sheer will.
“How disappointing. I thought you might try to run,” she said before launching toward me. Torn shingles and ripped boards scattered into the air behind her. Snapping her wings wide, Zipporah closed the distance between us in a single flap, her talons splayed before her. I ducked beneath them, clutching the shingles with my fingertips. Her next flap cupped around me as she back-winged, drowning me in noxious fumes. I struggled to rise, stumbling when she added an elemental enhancement to the buffet of her wings.
Quinn caught me, a sturdy stone wing supporting me until I regained my balance. I glanced over my shoulder. The drop-off to the street two and a half stories below yawned behind Quinn’s back foot, one meager misstep away.
Cackling, Zipporah landed, crowding me with her filthy body as she folded her wings loosely against her back. The movement thrust her flaccid human breasts toward me, the skin mottled with sun spots and puckered with permanent gooseflesh above the brown feathers of her abdomen. We were almost matched in height, but she effortlessly loomed.
“Here you are. Alive.” Zipporah shoved her face into mine.
I fought against the instinct to retreat. I had nowhere to go. Instead, I squared my shoulders and lifted my chin, attempting to project courage and pretend my knees weren’t quivering. Up close, Zipporah’s features looked less human than ever. Grime crusted the wrinkles etched in her bald forehead, around her yellow eyes, and down her hollow cheeks. Spindly feathers matted the rounded crown of her leathery head, giving the impression of oily hair, and her nose jutted like a misplaced beak above her lipless mouth.
“Which makes me wonder,” she hissed, revealing razor-edged teeth caked with gore, “where is my bloodstone? Where is the Chiefmaker?”
I choked on her exhale, my eyes watering at the olfactory assault.
“I was—” I coughed, struggling for a breath without actually inhaling. “I was unable to find it before the firebirds destroyed the ruins.”
That wasn’t precisely true, but even if the Chiefmaker hadn’t been destroyed, I would never have handed it over to the harpy. The bloodstone had granted the user complete control over anyone with blood running through their veins. I had been helpless against it when it had been used against me, and when I had held it . . . The power the stone had offered would haunt my nightmares for years to come. If someone as immoral as Zipporah had gotten the Chiefmaker in her clutches, she could have wreaked unfathomable devastation.
Zipporah cocked her head left, then right, as if trying to decide if I was telling the truth—or perhaps to decide which piece of me to eat first. “Isn’t that unfortunate for you. Or do I have to remind you of the consequence of coming back without my bloodstone?”
Ice crystallized down my spine. “I did my best. In fact”—I summoned the paltry argument I had pieced together last night in anticipation of this confrontation—“I searched as long as I could, until I was forced out when the ruins collapsed. I did everything you instructed.”
Zipporah’s eyes narrowed, her nostrils flaring and her wings flexing. Quinn’s wing dug into my hip as I shrank away from her fury.
Licking my lips, I rushed to get the rest of my words out. “Beldame Zipporah, our deal was that I owed you a favor. You called on that favor when you sent me into Lunacy Labyrinth. I went; therefore, I am no longer in your debt.”
Zipporah’s foot shot forward too fast to avoid, her steely talons knocking Quinn aside as if he weighed nothing. The gargoyle tumbled helplessly off the roof. I yelled his name, shoving a brace of air beneath him. It wasn’t enough to stop his plummet, but it slowed him. Quinn’s wings snapped open, and he flapped heavily to regain altitude. By then, it was too late: Zipporah’s claws encased me.
Effortlessly, she crushed my ward. The broken elements snapped back into me. My vision tunneled, pain bowing my body. Zipporah squeezed, grinding my ribs together, robbing me of oxygen. Mika hurled a blade of earth magic at the harpy, but Zipporah shattered it with a negligent slice of wood, then used a punch of air to toss Mika and Oliver deeper into my apartment. A second later, the harpy’s magic slammed the door shut and fused it in place.
Zipporah lifted me until I dangled inches above the rooftop. Lungs burning, I clutched her filthy toes, each larger than my thighs, straining to get free. I might as well have tried to straighten an oak’s branches with my bare hands.
“Our deal was your life for a debt,” Zipporah said. “I see no debt paid, which leaves only your life as payment.”
Quinn dove from above, an arrow of golden quartz. Zipporah bludgeoned him with a club of air, and he tumbled into the ruined roof above my apartment.
“Don’t hurt him,” I wheezed. I would have begged Quinn to stand down if I could have projected my voice that far. Air scraped down my throat in painful rasps, coated in Zipporah’s putrescence. Black flecks danced at the edges of my vision. “Give me another chance.”
Zipporah tipped me, dangling me higher above the sloped roof. If she dropped me, I wouldn’t have time to catch myself before tumbling to the hard cobblestones far, far below. I stopped struggling and twisted to meet her rapacious gaze. The angle exposed my neck, and her hungry eyes sliced to my visible, pounding pulse.
“Please, one more chance. I won’t let you down again,” I babbled.
She relaxed her grip. I screamed as I dropped half a foot before she clutched her talons around me again.
“One more chance?” Zipporah unfurled a wing, exposing the bony digits that protruded from the alula like a deformed skeletal hand. Fanning the fingers, she drew a clawed tip through my hair, catching a snarl and cutting through it with a sharp tug. A clump of my pale hair drifted to the rooftop. Dread caused goose bumps to break across my scalp. I trembled helplessly as Zipporah drew the digit down the side of my face, scratching lightly into my jaw, then more heavily down my throat. An involuntary hiss escaped my lips at the white-hot pain that followed in the claw’s wake.
“For all I know, you’re lying to me about finding the Chiefmaker. I’m not inclined to be lenient.”
“I’m not lying to you. I swear the Chiefmaker was destroyed.”
“You sound awfully certain for a woman who claims she didn’t find the bloodstone.” Zipporah’s cadaverous fingers squeezed my throat, and I fought not to swallow, afraid I would puncture myself if I did.
“The firebirds,” I rasped.
“Yes, the firebirds,” Zipporah agreed with a foul sigh that drew bile up the back of my constricted throat.
Sweat trickled down my temple. I wracked my brain for a spell—any spell—that I could use against the harpy. Quinn and Oliver still boosted my magic, but it was no use. With their help, I might be able to fashion an elemental weapon powerful enough to hurt Zipporah, but I would never be able to complete an attack before she slit my throat.
“Few are stupid enough to disappoint me. No one has lived to do so twice,” Zipporah said, stroking her bony claws down my neck again, lighter this time, the scratches chasing shivers down my body. She observed my reaction with unblinking eyes.
In my peripheral vision, Quinn struggled to stand, but Zipporah held him pinned to the mangled roof above my apartment with a sheet of air. She had used the trick on him before, and we both knew he wouldn’t be escaping until she let him.
“I can be useful.” I hated the words coming out of my mouth as much as I despised my pleading tone, but I had no choice if I wanted to live.
“We’ll see about that.” Zipporah dropped me.
I plummeted to the roof and slid. The drop-off rushed toward me, and I scrambled for purchase on the steep incline. Fiery pain flared in my hands, knees, and feet, but I managed to claw to a stop with my toes curled into the shingles inches from the edge. Heart pounding, I shoved to my hands and knees, craning my head to look up at Zipporah.
She remained at the peak of the roof, studying me indifferently. Shouts echoed from farther up the street, and Zipporah’s head swiveled toward the commotion. Distaste twisted her expression. She hopped to the edge of the roof, shaking the house beneath her. I curled my toes and fingers into the rough shingles, wishing I had a solid handhold.
“I always collect my debts, and yours just got more expensive,” she promised. “See you soon, Kylie Grayson.”
The gusts of Zipporah’s departure rocked me, but it was the full import of her words that caused my arms to collapse. I rolled to my side and stared blindly after the harpy.
One way or another, I had a feeling I wouldn’t be free of my debt to her until I was dead.
“Wonderful characters, fascinating magic, nasty villains and one more fabulous adventure to fall into!”
“Fun and exciting”
“…a fantastic, worthy sequel to Leads & Lynxes. It continues to deliver on the fantasy, mystery, and romance fronts while providing an ever deepening mess for Kylie to figure out.”
Muckrakers & Minotaurs, Book 3
The exciting conclusion of the Terra Haven Chronicles!
Kylie’s everlasting seed is supposed to guide her to the story of a lifetime, but that hardly matters now. Suspended from her position as a journalist for the Terra Haven Chronicle, she can’t publish anything.
However, a stymied career is the least of Kylie’s concerns. Someone is targeting her mom. First, they tried to make her look like a criminal. Now they’re trying to kill her.
Kylie will stop at nothing to save her mom. Unfortunately, the only people who might have useful information are pyromaniacs and prisoners, and they would rather see Kylie dead than help her.
Determined to flush out her enemy, Kylie must follow every lead, no matter how dubious. And this time, not even Kylie’s loyal gargoyle companion, Quinn, can keep her safe…
Series Reading Order
My heart hammered against my rib cage, desperation clogging my throat. Not Airstrong. Please, don’t let it be Airstrong burning. In the still summer air, the column of black smoke billowed high into the sky, easily visible half the city away. The echo of the explosion still rang in my ears.
“Hang on,” Grant ordered.
I tightened my grip on his belt. Squeezed cross-legged behind Grant on his personal flying carpet, I leaned into the turn as he took the corner fast enough to raise a spiral of dust from the cobblestones eight feet below. Ocher clapboard and a dizzying rush of reflective windows flashed past inches from my shoulder, whipping my hair into my face. I blinked stinging tears from my eyes and searched the horizon.
Grant barked orders into message spheres while dodging low-flying air carts and pedestrians on slower carpets. The elements cupped to his mouth prevented me from hearing his words, but I recognized the magical signatures of his squad embedded in each spell. In seconds, four disparate messages blasted into the air, arcing toward their intended recipients.
A slash of orange burst through the smoke tower, soaring on hawk-size wings. From this distance, I couldn’t pick out the individual black bands on the bird’s amber feathers, but its fiery marigold chest—and its proximity to the burning building—was enough to confirm my worst fears. The explosion was no accident; someone had planted a phoenix egg in the warehouse district and allowed it to hatch.
The carpet jumped, then dipped, and only my white-knuckled grip on Grant kept me from flying off the narrow surface. By the time I stabilized myself, the phoenix had caught an updraft. In seconds, it was little more than a speck against the magenta sunset.
I reached for the elements, feeling for Quinn. No boost amplified my magic. The gargoyle was still out of range. Whereas Grant and I were constrained by the limited levitation of the carpet, forced to zigzag through the streets of Terra Haven, Quinn had flown straight over the rooftops.
I silently willed speed to Quinn’s flight. The people at the explosion site—the hatching site—needed his elemental boost.
The people. The generic term bounced around my head, a pointless attempt at distancing myself from my fear. Mom was the people. Mom had been at Airstrong today, managing her shipping company’s operations. Mom would need Quinn’s special magic. If she wasn’t . . .
I refused to finish the thought, instead resuming my silent prayer. Please don’t let it be Airstrong.
Somehow, Grant muscled more speed from the carpet’s propulsion spell once we cleared the busy downtown district, pushing us to a reckless speed. Emerald Station raced past, the busy train terminal swarming with confusion and defensive spells. More than one person pointed to the sky, either at the smoke or the phoenix. The deadly bird’s hatching would monopolize the front page of every newspaper tomorrow. Despite our mad dash to the scene, I wouldn’t get the scoop, but I didn’t care. The story could go to some other journalist—one not currently suspended—so long as Mom was safe. Please let her be safe.
We careened into the warehouse district, and relief chased the familiar gut-flipping sensation of a gargoyle’s enhancement amplifying my elemental strength. Quinn was close. I drew on his boost, gathering twice as much magic as I’d previously held, prepared to offer aid in whatever form was needed. I no longer had to crane my head to see the column of smoke. It billowed far too close for my earlier prayers to be answered, funneling through a massive water-and-earth ward visible over the rooftops—a spell designed to contain fire. Then we banked around the final corner, and the last of my hopes died.
A cavernous hole had been torn through the corner of the brick warehouse, from the first floor to the roof four stories above it. Chunks of wood and brick from the collapsed upper levels filled the bulk of the cavity at street level. Thick, acrid smoke streamed out the top of the jagged opening and poured through gaping holes where windows had once been.
The carpet shot sideways, the curved horn of a wild-eyed ox tearing through the air inches from my knee. The beast thundered past close enough for me to count the flecks of sweat on its flank, the flap of a torn harness strap whipping against the underside of our carpet. Panicked, the ox veered down the nearest alley, but not before clipping the edge of the brick building, shaking it on its foundation.
Grant slowed, and I jerked my gaze back to Airstrong. The pulverized wooden sidewalk and dozen-foot radius of decimated cobblestones defined the blast crater, but the damage extended much farther. Overturned carts, broken crates, and shattered glass lay strewn along the street in front of the ravaged building. Terrified hippogryphs and horses churned debris underfoot and threatened to trample the frantic riders and drivers attempting to soothe them.
Three buildings down from Airstrong, a trio of men in blacksmith leathers freed a centaur trapped beneath a mangled air sled. Injured and dazed people sat or lay sprawled among the havoc, healers already darting among them. Spells saturated the air, cooling, mending, containing, protecting—and speeding down side streets and over rooftops to carry messages to people beyond the disaster. I clung to Grant’s waist, my gaze bouncing from one bloodied face to the next, my heart in my throat.
Where was Mom?
The oblong ward encasing the warehouse narrowed through the alleys on either side and bulged into the street, preventing the fire from spreading to nearby businesses. The fluidity of the spell’s shape and the ever-shifting magic swirling within it radiated a herd harmony unattainable by ordinary humans. I scanned the ward’s perimeter. A smattering of statuesque figures were posted at even increments along the spell. Each was over six feet tall, female, and as voluptuous as she was large boned. Each also possessed a tan-and-black bovine head. A frisson of hope cut through my panic. Minotaur magic cradled Airstrong. If the minotaurs had reacted fast enough, Mom might be all right.
Grant jerked the carpet to a halt, dropping the levitation spell fast enough to click my teeth together. When he leapt to his feet, my fingers spasmed, cramping into a fist. Spinning, he planted a hand on my shoulder when I tried to rise.
“Wait here and be careful.”
He jogged off before I could respond, calling out to city guards already on the scene. They readily relinquished control of the disaster site to him. As captain of the city’s Federal Pentagon Defense squad, Grant Monaghan outranked everyone in the vicinity. He also possessed years of experience in the FPD working high-risk situations with volatile magic and deadly creatures. I hadn’t had a chance to ask, but I doubted this was his first run-in with a phoenix. It obviously wasn’t his first time running post-catastrophe cleanup. He quickly began constructing order in the chaos. If I hadn’t been so worried, I would have been impressed.
Quinn dropped from the rooftop behind me, a flash of the late-evening sun reflecting off his citrine lion body catching my eye. Snapping open powerful wings, he slowed his descent, landing with a clatter of quartz paws on cobblestones. His wings kicked up debris and swirled smoke into my eyes, but I didn’t care. Leaping off the carpet, I rushed to him.
“Have you found Mom?”
Quinn shook his head. “I’m boosting her, though, so she’s close. In that direction.” He pointed toward Airstrong just as a heavy crash inside loosed a cascade of broken bricks from the front wall. Someone on the street screamed. Fresh smoke gushed out of the roof and high windows.
My heart squeezed tight. A handful of people milled about between us and the warehouse, but Mom was tall, pale, and blond, like me. If she had been among them, I would have spotted her.
I crossed my fingers and spun together a tracking spell with more speed than finesse. Maybe Mom was behind the warehouse, standing safely on the loading dock. To be certain, I tossed a second tracker high into the air. Both golden arrows dove straight into the burning building, disappearing for a breathless count of four seconds before returning through a smoke-choked window. I caught them in a trembling net of air.
Oh mercy. She was inside.
Alive, or my spell wouldn’t have found her magical signature, but something was preventing her from escaping the warehouse on her own. I searched the street for Grant, but he had vanished. I couldn’t delay.
Hang on, Mom. I’m coming. “Quinn, you should stay—”
“I go where you go,” he declared.
I shot him a tight smile. “Thank you.”
Banishing the extra tracker, I anchored the remaining arrow to me, then darted around a spilled bin of used horseshoes and scrap metal, Quinn on my heels. Broken glass and jagged hunks of wood forced me to slow when I wanted to sprint, and I almost fell when my foot slipped in a murky puddle leaking from toppled casks. Quinn caught me, and together we pushed through the ward. For one step, the spell bathed me in an elemental waterfall, cool and cleansing, the acrid odors of charred stone and campfire smoke washed away. Then heat battered me. I gasped, expelling clean oxygen from my lungs and swallowing a mouthful of ash.
The nearest minotaur lunged for me, and I dodged her long reach. “I’m going in. Mom’s inside.”
Her brown eyes widened when they snagged on the tracker quivering at my side, and her ears stiffened. “We missed one,” she shouted to the minotaur on her right. “Someone’s inside!”
The cry was taken up along the line of minotaurs, and their magic shifted, spiraling cool tendrils around me. I gratefully gathered their magic inside mine, forming a pocket of breathable air around myself and Quinn. Then I plunged into the wreckage.
The minotaurs’ magic preceded us across the tattered threshold, pushing aside the smoke. A long, narrow room stretched the width of the warehouse. Yesterday, it had been a peaceful lobby with an assortment of comfortable furniture, large windows to let in light, and an employee’s desk on the far right, where prospective clients claimed and booked shipments. Along the back wall, a sturdy door had guarded the warehouse, separating the lobby from the bustle and dangers of an active shipping yard.
Today, it was unrecognizable. A shadowy mound of rubble loomed on the left, all that remained of the front corner of the building. Thick wooden beams protruded from the floor at disorienting angles, flames licking along their ragged breaks despite the fire-retardant spells coating them. Broken bricks and grit were spewed across the lobby’s encaustic tiles clear to the desk on the opposite side. Molten puddles of phoenix egg residue dotted the floors and walls, providing eerie, flickering lighting. I squinted against the gloom, hunting for the door to the warehouse. It was missing, along with half the wall and the no-trespassing ward that had previously defended the opening.
I flinched away from the splintered front doorway, the heat of the battered frame singeing my elbow through my thin cotton shirt. The tracker blazed bright in the dim interior, its tip pointing toward the remaining section of the back wall. Thank goodness. A bank of offices marched along the opposite side of the wall, accessible only from the warehouse. Beyond the offices stretched the open floor of the warehouse, stocked with shipments awaiting transport or pickup. Anything from textiles to fireworks to cockatrices could be stored inside the warehouse on a given day.
“Stay close,” I told Quinn.
He pressed to my side, the coolness of his rock shoulder seeping through my jeans. We shoved our way under a crooked board and over a pile of plaster and wood that had once been the second floor. The material cracked and popped beneath Quinn’s weight. I scurried forward, and Quinn leapt free before the wreckage collapsed. Dust and ash billowed into the air.
Swiping sweat from my brow, I formed a glowball and floated it ahead of us, forging a convoluted path through the detritus. The arrow gradually rotated, pointing first to our right, then behind us, but crumpled shipping crates blocked a direct route, forcing us deeper into the warehouse. The minotaurs’ magic weakened the farther we traveled. When it faded completely, ash choked my shield and heat beat against my skin. Darkness pressed in on me, my light unable to penetrate more than a foot or two of smoke, turning the cavernous warehouse into a claustrophobic nightmare. My breath hitched, my pulse thundering in my ears. The groans and pops of burning boards became the rumble of rock above my head, threatening to collapse and bury me.
This isn’t Lunacy Labyrinth, I reminded myself. I don’t have tons of rock above my head.
Just one partially collapsed roof, more than heavy enough to crush Quinn and me both.
Not helpful, I told myself.
A spray of sparks rained from the ceiling, illuminating ghostly shapes in the destruction as they fell. The first two offices were unrecognizable, pulverized under the weight of the collapsed floors above them. My heart migrated up my throat, worry strangling me. The tracker pointed toward Mom’s office at the end of the line. In the darkness, I couldn’t make out if it was still whole. It had been farthest from the blast, but the ceiling might have—
A loud crack split the air above us. Short pops like bones snapping echoed through the building, then the warehouse released a pained growl.
“Watch out!” Quinn shoved me to the ground. I slammed to my knees, then to my stomach under the weight of Quinn’s paw. Hunkering low, he straddled me, his wings forming a quartz cocoon even as I hardened a ward above us. Something heavy hit my shield and shattered it. Magic backlashed, whipping pain through my brain, and I sucked in an ash-clogged breath. Coughing, I scrambled for the elements. When I shoved a ward against the weight above us, it didn’t budge. Cycling the elements, I attempted to purify the air, but it was too late. All the clean oxygen had dispersed.
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“Muckrakers and Minotaurs is exciting and swoon-worthy. A perfect ending to the series.”
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