by Theresa McClinton
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“Maybe because they knew what a complete ass you are, and there was no one better for the job.” She lunged at the book and tore out several pages before he was able to react. The pages scattered around their feet.
He grabbed her wrists. “That, guardian, was a step over the line.” He pulled her so close their bodies touched. “You made the mistake of thinking I need you.”
He knocked the wind out of Ashley’s lungs with a punch to the gut. The taste of salt and metal coated her tongue. Warm liquid spread over her shirt. Ashley slowly lowered her gaze to find the handle of a knife protruding from her side.
Was it possible? Could somebody who was already dead, die?
Sarian let go of her arm and shoved her back. A dull ache spread through her gut and she fell to the ground. She rested her head back and stared up at the dirt trapping in hell’s sun. Zanya’s emblem sat beside her. Ashley grabbed it and held it against her chest for comfort.
Everything had gone so wrong.
Sarian’s expression changed. She pushed up on her forearms to see what was happening. The knife twisted, and she muffled a shriek by biting her lip. With a deep breath, she gripped the handle, and did what had to be done. With one swift jerk, she yanked it out of her belly. It was impossible to trap the scream. She let go of the blade, and it clattered to the ground. Her hand shook as she pressed her palm over the wound.
When Ashley was able to force herself to a sitting position, she spotted a woman strolling through the genocide as if nothing were happening. Of course she would come. The vixen had the audacity to show up just in time to watch Sarian finally get what he wanted.
Contessa didn’t make any effort to pick up her gown or avoid stepping in puddles of scarlet as she strolled toward the temple.
Ashley watched the woman twirl a strand of hair while she passed the remaining underworlders being dismembered and pulled beneath the earth. The visible roots were now plump with blood, pulsing and writhing above the surface. As if they had their fill, they moved out of her way, dodging Contessa’s light footsteps.
“Hello, lover.” Contessa’s voice was like silk. She stopped at the altar’s base. Her stance was wide and her index finger tapped her bottom lip.
The deepening creases around Sarian’s mouth gave away his surprise.
“What? Not happy to see me?” Contessa turned to her. Ashley’s muscles tensed, sending a spike of pain through her body. “Oh dear,” Contessa said, ticking her tongue. “I see you aren’t doing very well.” The woman didn’t attempt to climb the steps. Instead, she stood in place, her emerald eyes gleaming. “Allow me to make an educated guess.” She tilted her head to the side. “Stabbed? Luckily for you it wasn’t through the heart.” She turned back to Sarian. “And you.”
Sarian glanced around the quiet city. “This wasn’t part of our agreement.” Ashley might not have heard it if she weren’t so close, but his voice quivered.
“It may not have been part of your plan, but it was part of mine all along.” She swayed her hips side to side as if she were a playful child telling a story, delighted to be the center of attention. “You couldn’t have honestly believed I would give up the lock of the guardian’s hair out of the kindness of my heart, did you?” She paused. “Oh, wait. I don’t have a heart any longer. You pierced it.”
“We agreed on a price, and you will get what you want, as soon as I am finished with it.”
“Yes.” Her smile vanished and her expression turned to stone. “You can be sure I will get everything I want.”
Sarian closed the book and scooped it under his arm. He shifted his weight. Ashley had never seen him look so nervous. “Stop playing games, Contessa.” He scanned the bloodstained valley. “Where is he?”
“The king. I assume you are here because you’ve informed him of my plans. Or are you here for another reason?” His shoulders relaxed, and he leaned on the altar with a smug grin. “A second chance at earning my good favor, perhaps?”
“As much as it would please you to have me groveling at your feet for an opportunity to claim the throne you once promised me, that’s not at all why I’m here.”
A shadow cast over Sarian— the first shadow Ashley had seen in this realm. It loomed over him and stretched across the altar, then down several of the stone steps. Sarian stood up straight, his brows furrowed.
Contessa smiled widely. “I merely came to watch.”
Sarian spun and found himself face-to-face with a beast. Its muscular legs quivered under sleek black fur as if it had just learned to stand. Probably thirsty and weak like the others, it was most likely drawn there by the scent of blood.
Ashley pressed harder on her wound, but her hands were already coated in scarlet. She hoped her blood wouldn’t stand out from the others’.
The beast bared its teeth. The pads of its paw flattened against the stone when it took a step forward. Its breath blew a strand of Sarian’s hair away from his face, now drained of color.
Ashley held her breath and hoped it didn’t hear her pounding heart. The creature’s dark eyes gleamed with specks of gold. Sleek, midnight black fur covered its entire body, the only exception being a patch of gold on its chest.
Sarian’s face began to stretch, and the cracking of bones snapped through the air. His nose grew long, and the color of his skin morphed into slate, armor shielding his underbelly.
The animal snarled and lunged at Sarian before he had a chance to change completely and match the beast’s size and strength. The animal’s jaws clenched around Sarian’s shoulder, and it thrashed its head side to side until the ground was dotted red. Sarian’s frantic efforts to morph into his beastly form only seemed to anger the creature. He managed to slice the animal’s face with a sharp blow. It snarled and threw Sarian’s mangled body against the altar, then towered over him. The beast’s snout came within an inch of his face. Sarian reached out with his hands, now trembling like a child. He opened his mouth to speak.
The beast didn’t give him the chance.
It snapped down and tore off Sarian’s head. Blood sprayed over the steps as the animal discarded its trophy. Sarian’s head bounced down the steps until it rolled to a stop at Contessa’s feet.
Bile rose in Ashley’s throat. She pressed her hands over her mouth and dug her back into the stone—as if curling into a ball would somehow make her invisible. She remembered doing the exact same thing in the orphanage while drifting off to sleep, hoping Sarian wouldn’t be waiting for her in her dreams. It didn’t work then, and she had no idea why she was doing it now. Maybe instinct. Maybe just wishful thinking.
Contessa stared down at the remains. Her head tilted to one side as if in morbid curiosity, and she merely stepped over Sarian’s head as if it were a piece of garbage littering the ground.
A long time enthusiast of things that go bump in the night, Theresa began her writing career as a journalism intern—possibly the least creative writing field out there. After her first semester at a local newspaper, she washed her hands of press releases and feature articles to delve into the whimsical world of fiction.
Since then, Theresa has been married, had three terrific kids, moved to central Ohio, and has been repeatedly guilt tripped into adopting a menagerie of animals that are now members of the family. But don’t be fooled by her domesticated appearance. Her greatest love is travel. Having traveled to over a dozen countries—not to mention an extended seven-year stay in Kodiak, Alaska—she is anything but settled down. But wherever life brings her, Theresa will continue to weave tales of adventure and love with the hope her stories will bring joy and inspiration to her readers.
Coming Soon: 13th Street, Novella 2.5 of The Stone Legacy Series.
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