Free Read to Celebrate

Shocking Finds (A Finder’s Keepers Novel) is finally out… At the end of this post you will find the Excerpt that a lot of you have already read, plus a little more; as well as links to buy the book… But I thought it would be a nice treat to see how the Queen used to pick Sentinels… Sentinels are the ones charged with apprehending the Danshue (Evil Fae)… Right now the Sentinels are missing, but not for long.

20151007 Shocking Finds cover

Now for your free read… Let’s see how Joffrey was chosen to be a Sentinel by the Queen. Joffrey is one of the Earth-side Sentinels, and currently searching for his missing Sentinel Brethren… Hopefully, Marin will be able to help him Find the others but that is for the future novels… right now, let’s look into the past 😛

Joffrey Accepted

Joffrey Kane moved through the shadows, his hands shaking from the sub-zero weather. Getting into the Lower Reaches was a bitch. How could such biting cold surround land built of fire?

As he reached the edge of the first fire pit, Joffrey could see the Fire Bluestems flowers that he needed for his potion work. Most of the land in the Lower Reaches was filled with burnt and charred earth. He could feel his limbs beginning to thaw as the heat of the fire pit reached him. Pins and needles attacked his system. He needed to get to the roots of the flowers. Breathing through the pain of his body heating back up so rapidly, Joffrey prepared to run to collect his ingredients.

“Excuse me…” A small hand tugged at Joffrey’s pant leg.

A Winter Brownie, one of the few Brownie breeds with moonlight skin, stood at his side with sweat sliding down her cute little pug nosed face. Seeing the white crystal skinned Fae so close to the edge of the Lower Reaches was odd enough. The small Fae lived in the heart of the Cold Zones, never venturing out of their preferred frozen landscapes.

“Can I help you?” Joffrey fought not to shake his head. “You should not be herr.” The last thing he wanted was for the Brownie to get sick from the sulfur layered heat.

“Tis true, but Our Queen requests your presence.”

Joffrey jerked, stepping back from the Brownie. “Eep…” Joffrey gave a gruff of pain. His shock had caused him to step backwards into the heat of the Lower Reaches, going from temperatures of about thirty degrees to temperatures of damn near over ninety. The painful pins and needles quickly ramped up from jabbing to slashing.

Jumping forward, back into the cooler temperature, would only make the situation worse. “Just a moment. If you wait closer to the Frozen Lakes I will be with you in ten minutes. Promise.”

Joffrey didn’t wait for an answer. Plucking the flowers from the charred land would allow him time to calm down and wrap his head around the thought of being face to face with the Queen. This didn’t make sense. He was no one. The greatest men in Fae history rarely got an audience with Queen de Platadreki. Who was he to get such a privilege?

Joffrey walked forward and dropped to his knees. He didn’t know what protocol demanded, not that it mattered. He couldn’t stand with the feeling of the Queen’s royal presence filling the room even if he wanted to.

“Joffrey Kane, I call on you to travel Earth-side. My Sentinels have their hands full. I need you to get as much information as possible about the Danshue calling himself Landus. He is believed to be hiding in the area of Earth-side known as Kentucky. More importantly, the Kentucky caves.”

Joffrey didn’t understand. If they already knew that this Danshue, the most evil of Fae criminals, was hiding in this cave, why did they need him? “But… I am no one.”

“You are the best of my subjects at traveling through rapidly changing temperatures. The outdoors should be high in heat, while the caves should be varying from cool to cold. The deeper the cave, the colder it may be. All this is within acceptable temperatures for the most Fae. But this Danshue has previously used his stolen power to mimic the temperatures of our Frozen Lakes.” The Queen laid a hand on his bowed head. “But do not worry. You will not be alone. Cimbolin will accompany you.”

“Where will I find this Cimbolin?”

“She is the Brownie that brought you here, and is waiting down in the dungeons.”

That was shocking enough to force his eyes up to the Queen. “The dungeons?” Joffrey didn’t know what the small Winter Brownie could have done to be placed in the the dungeons. By definition, Brownies were kind and caring. Shaking his head, Joffrey did his best to wrap his mind around traveling to a different realm with a criminal. “Should I arm myself against this Cimbolin?”

The Queen shocked him a second time as she threw her head back and laughed. “She is no criminal.”

“Then why is she in the dungeons?”

Queen de Platadreki covered her mouth, her eyes bright with humor. “Because the dungeons are cold.” With that she walked away, allowing her laughter to consume her.

With the Queen’s royal presence finally gone, Joffrey pushed up from his knees. This was insane. He was expected to gather information on one of the most vile and evil of their criminal kind, and he had to do that with a Fae that broke out in sweats when faced with forty degree temperatures. Well, this should be interesting.

Exiting the portal, Joffrey stood and waited for Cimbolin to get her breath back.

She started stripping off her clothes, throwing them on the ground and cursing in a high pitched Brownie dialect. When she stood in a shorts and a bra, no shoes or shirt, Joffrey grabbed her hands as she reached for the button of her shorts. “Whoa there. I can not walk around Earth-side with someone that looks like one of their human children. Especially not a naked one.”

“But it is just fabric. Fae always remove their fabrics when uncomfortable. Always. And I am hot. This heat sticks to me. I must be free.”

Pacing back and forth, Joffrey tried to think. “You could go back to the Frozen Lakes.” The more he thought about it, the better that sounded. He could move more freely if he didn’t have to worry about the human law enforcers putting him in chains because he looked like he was dragging around a naked child.

“I must stay. The Queen believes me useful, and I refuse to let my Queen down.”

Joffrey wanted to scream. Instead he started digging through his potions satchel. “Okay, okay. We need to find the nearest cave. I asked before we left, and Kentucky is known to have the largest number of cave systems. I had hoped that we would have a dozen or so to search, but I was wrong. This area is littered with them. Once there I can create an amulet to help block the heat from your system.”

Gathering her disgarded items into her arms, Cimbolin sniffed the air and turned to the east before she started walking off. “I can feel one no more than twenty yards away.”

Joffrey rushed to catch up. “How can you know?”

“I feel the cooler air seeping from under the land. Cool and damp.”

Well, damn. Looked like Miss Cimbolin would come in handy after all.

Twenty-three caves. Twenty-three caves and not a hint of Danshue activity. Joffrey was cold, muddy and soaked. He could adjust his core temperature with ease, but even he could only wade through waist high underground water systems for so long. Ice cold water that soaked him to the bone, limestone rock that numbed his fingers as he climbed cave tunnels, and mud that caked to his skin and clothing, leaching out all body heat… No one could survive these conditions for days, weeks… months.


Joffrey turned his frozen glare Cimbolin’s way. “You have got to be kidding me.”

“I feel great. This temperature regulating amulet you made me makes everywhere we go feel colder. I was only sweating a little while we walked between caves. I could totally live here. I had no idea that Earth-side had caves systems with -”

“Cimbolin… please. My teeth are chattering, and your enthusiasm is giving me a headache.” Joffrey sloshed his way through yet more water, his entire body shaking. He couldn’t wait to get through with this cave. It seemed to be filled with ten times more water than any of the other caves they had checked out. There may be dozens more to cover, but at least his body could warm up a little between tortures.

Cimbolin took a running jump into the water, sending mud and freezing liquid everywhere. Joffrey wanted to be as carefree as his little Brownie friend, but the water was just too cold. His limbs didn’t want to move, his joints began to ache and protest. The water was… it was actually starting to freeze.

The water rapidly turned to ice, racing for his position. Cimbolin hadn’t seen the approaching threat, or maybe she was just so used to quickly dropping temperatures that she welcomed the ice. Frozen water was one thing, but Joffrey could also a curse attached to the ice crystals floating in through the air, bent on stopping all intruders.

Joffrey ignored the approaching ice and dove for Cimbolin, ripping the amulet from her throat just as the ice wrapped around his legs and started climbing his body.

“Hey. You said I could keep that.” Cimbolin stamped her foot, sending ice shards into the cave walls.

Joffrey watched the ice pierce the limestone walls. He couldn’t move, couldn’t speak or tackle Cimbolin to the ground so she would stop ranting. The last thing they needed was for the caster of the curse to realize that his trap had failed to stop them both. Even his eyes were frozen wide open.

Cimbolin shook the ice from her arms and started climbing over the newly frozen underground pond. Her eyes stayed focused on the amulet encased in ice, in his hand. Joffrey prayed to Lac Mar, the Fae Goddess, that Cimbolin would catch on. That she would understand. He could only keep his core temperature up for so long.

Cimbolin reached his side and started yanking at the amulet, but neither his hand or the amulet moved. Taking a step back from him, she placed her hands on her hips and started examining his body and the ice. “You stuck?”

When Joffrey didn’t answer, she threw her hands in the air and closed her eyes. She appeared to be sniffing the air, then she moved closer and started sniffing at the amulet and his clothes. “You do this?”

Joffrey wanted to jump with excitement, and shake her with exasperation at the same time. She obviously knew something was wrong but not what.

Finally, she took a small climbing axe out of her satchel. Joffrey tried to jerk away, but still his body didn’t move.

Cimbolin hummed as she ran her hand along his potions satchel. “I do not deal with magic, never have. I work to feed the Winter Brownie children while the Elders deal with this stuff.” Then she growled, “Spell lovin’ crazies.”

Joffrey wanted to close his eyes, but instead he was forced to watch as Cimbolin brought the axe over her head and then gave it a good swing. The cover flap on his satchel shattered into shards, flying into her arms. One piece cut a jagged line into her cheek.

That’s when things went from bad to worse. Cimbolin started pulling out potions and tossing them at Joffrey. Potions for fire, for healing, for wind storms, for fertilization… every damn thing she could get her hands on, she threw.

With the last potion, the ice encasing Joffrey exploded into the air. His body flew one way, Cimbolin’s the other way. He slammed into the cave wall, his head bouncing off the limestone with sickening force. Darkness clouded his vision. Joffrey saw the Danshue creeping around the corner, rubbing his hands together with glee, but then he saw no more.

Joffrey came to with a splitting headache. It was probably due to his collision with the cave wall, but then, Cimbolin’s small hand smacking the hell out of his cheek wasn’t helping the matter. “Stop.”

“Oh, thank Lac Mar. I thought you dead. I do not deal with dead. Never. Nope. Only living things for me. I-”

“Cimbolin, please.” His head needed quiet. Or maybe to be cased in ice again.

Cimbolin huffed and sat back, her arms crossed. “Well. We stuck down in some hole. Bad Danshue man probably gonna kill us, suck up all our power. His skin already sagging from his bones. I seen it. That mean he need to kill, need to torture, need to suck up all the power he can find. He will-”

Throwing his hand out, Joffrey covered her mouth but he couldn’t speak. He watched as his hand flickered from flesh and bone to insubstantial nothingness. His damn hand was disappearing. He had to clear his throat a few times before he could demand, “What the hell?”

She slapped his hand away. “Oh, that. You been sliding in and out of phase for hours. You should really get a handle on your power. You too old to lose control like-”

“No. I do not have-”

“You do not have manners, you do not. You interrupt too much.”

“Well, I am freaking out here. And rightfully so.”

Getting up to pace, she started counting off explanations. “You could be confused. You hit your head real hard. Maybe you forgot about your powr?”


“Maybe you are cursed and will disappear for good, but I do not smell magic on your skin. I could have missed it.”


Stopping in her tracks, she looked to the cave ceiling nearly forty feet above them. She started pacing again, she stopped, and then back to the pacing. She was driving Joffrey insane. He really needed an answer to his flickering molecules. His hands and legs, and most likely his entire body, continued to flicker in and out of phase. Disappearing from sight.

Stomping her small foot, Cimbolin growled, “Either you do not remember, or you have hit a new power level. You have a new gift.”

“That is insane. We may get stronger with age but we do not get completely new powers out of the blue. It just does not happen.”

“Apparently you are wrong. Cause you have a new gift you say you did not have before.”

Joffrey opened his mouth to tell Cimbolin she was delusional, when a scream for help reverberated through the cave. Joffrey didn’t say anything, he couldn’t. His body disappeared completely, falling out of phase, and flowing up into the air. He could feel and see everything, but knew that his body gone from Cimbolin’s sight. He was somewhere between the here and the there. He was nowhere and everywhere. He landed on a rocky edge overlooking the hole where Cimbolin stood glaring up at him.

Cimbolin grunted, “Stupid Fae flies away, leaves me behind. But did I leave him. Noooo. I stay and protect, he runs off. I-”

“Cimbolin, stop it. I did not do this on purpose. Just… just wait a minute.” Joffrey starting searching for a rope, a ladder… some way for the Danshue to climb in and out of the damn hole. Throwing his hands into the air, he moved back to the edge of the hole. He jerked a little as Cimbolin popped over the hole’s edge.

“Move please.”

Joffrey scratched at his temple. “How?”

Cimbolin pushed him out of her way. “Winter Brownies climb well.”

Shaking his head, Joffrey reached for her hand and pulled her to her feet. Another scream rent the air and they both stopped moving. This wasn’t his mission. He wasn’t a Sentinel. Saving innocents, fighting Danshue, that was a job for a Sentinel, not a potion’s master and a Winter Brownie.

He knew it was insane. He knew it was certain death. But one look into Cimbolin’s eyes, and they both nodded before rushing for the screams.

Rushing through the cave tunnels, Joffrey and Cimbolin followed the screams. The sound went straight to his soul. The pain, the lose of hope, pushed him to move faster. Suddenly, his body began to tingle, his hands to flicker in and out of existence. Then Joffrey disappeared completely, his molecules flowing through the tunnels faster than sight.

Whipping around the corner, Joffrey saw the Danshue. The evil Fae stood over his prey, a small girl of no more than six, cackling with his head thrown back and his knife wielding hand raised into the air as his sagging skin started to fill out into a healthy appearance.

The cavern seemed so big, the dying child so far away. Joffrey felt torn. He wanted to rush the Danshue, he wanted to cover and protect the child, he wanted to rewind life so that this child was still safe in her home. She was lying in a puddle of blood, small cuts and bruises covering her fragile skin.

His molecules continued to move toward the horrific scene, his concentration fractured, and his body began to flicker in and out. Just as he solidified, the Danshue turned, eyes wide and knife lowering to his side. As Joffrey slammed into the Danshue, the knife sliced through his arm and they both tumbled to the ground.

The Danshue gasped, the wind knocked from his lungs. Before the evil Fae could regain his breath, Joffrey grabbed for the knife but the Danshue held on tight. Joffrey lost track of all the punches thrown and received. He lost all composure. Nothing hurt, even as the knife slipped from his grasp and sliced through his hand. Desperate, Joffrey collapsed onto the Danshue and grappled for the hand holding the knife. The knife slashed at him with inhuman speed, the Danshue using the strength he had gained from torturing his prey.

One good jab and the knife got stuck in Joffrey’s side, and still he tried to latch onto the Danshue’s flailing hands. Joffrey thought that all hope was lost. The knife was jerked from his side and he knew that he had failed.

Joffrey continued to hold the Danshue tight anyway he could, his teeth grinding together. He was about to slam his head forward in the hopes that he could discombobulate the Fae responsible for the pain of so many children. Jeffrey knew that the sagging skin that the Danshue repaired meant that this Evil Fae had been torturing and stealing powers for years.

Joffrey’s head was about to slam forward when the knife entered his peripheral vision. He flinched as warm blood covered his face. But it wasn’t his blood. Joffrey stared in shock as the knife stayed lodged in the side of the Danshue’s head. The tension went out of the Danshue and Joffrey collapsed in exhaustion.

Rolling over to the bleeding child, Joffrey threw his hand out and put as much healing energy into her body as could. He knew he would eventually recover from the cuts and contusions, but the little girl was so still, so quiet. Cimbolin moved around to the child’s other side and placed her hands on the motionless chest.

The small girl gasped for air, and then let out a weak cry. A cry that got stronger with each passing moment. It was the best sound he had ever heard. Now he just needed to get up and make sure everyone got back to where they belonged.

Joffrey stood in front of the Queen for the second time in his life, Cimbolin at his side. They had managed to get the little girl to a healer, and they located an Earth-side Sentinel that was willing to take care of the dead Danshue.

Joffrey didn’t know why the Queen wanted to see him. She merely sat on her throne and whispered to the man at her side. Finally the doors to the receiving hall opened and the Queen focused on them at last. “Now that Warthen has arrived, we can begin.”

Joffrey looked at the man she called Warthen. He was the Sentinel that had helped them with the dead body. The Queen got up and went to Warthen’s side. “So…”

“It is as you said, my Queen. I can feel a connection. Plus, he manifested latent power in a time of need.”

Joffrey didn’t know what was doing on. The Queen and this Warthen weren’t making sense.

The Queen glanced from Joffrey to Cimbolin. “And the Winter Brownie?”

Warthen began to walk around Joffrey and Cimbolin. “I have read Joffrey’s mind.”

Joffrey flinched, but said nothing. Mind reading was supposed to be a lost gift, but he didn’t think it would be wise to correct the Queen or the man she seemed to hold in high esteem.

Stopping in front of Cimbolin, Warthen said, “This one showed great courage. She stayed in a place of danger because Joffrey was vulnerable. She also placed herself in the middle of the altercation, saving Joffrey and the child.”

The Queen nodded, and moved to leave the room. “All the signs have come to fruition. You are the Earth-side Sentinel leader, do what must be done.”

Joffrey watched the Queen leave the hall, taking a step back from Warthen. Forcing himself to stand still, he braced for whatever was to come.

Warthen gave a light laugh. “Relax Joffrey. The signs all point to you becoming one of the Sentinels. Welcome to the brotherhood, man.”

Joffrey didn’t know what he had done to deserve the honor. He held his body still, doing his best not to grin. “And Cimbolin. What did the Queen want with her.”

“Hey, I can talk for myself.” She squared her shoulders and faced Warthen. “Well… what did she mean? Am I in trouble? Was I supposed to do things differently? Should I have searched the caves while Joffrey was lying-”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa… do you always babble.” Warthen shook his head and Cimbolin fell silent. “You are worthy of aiding Joffrey in his Sentinel duties. If you are brave enough to fight at his side, you will be his Sentinel Aid.”

Cimbolin stood there for a moment, then started running around the room. “Woo-wee. This rocks. I am a Sentinel’s aid. Oh, yeah. The rest of the Brownies will be so jealous. I can run down Danshue, with my tursty amulet.”

She raised her temperature regulation amulet into the air and continued to babble. Joffrey threw his head back and laughed. The future was going to be one ride after another. And he couldn’t wait.


Chapter One

Marin Yarthine had trouble containing a childish giggle or two. She had managed to locate an Orion Starbrary Indigo Violet Aura Lemurian Seed Quartz Crystal for her boss. The longest, oddest name for a rock, but Anton had been very specific. Besides, she was the best Finder at Finder’s Keepers, who better to go on this mission.

Okay, so her job wasn’t actually to go out in the field and complete a Finder’s mission. Completing Finds was handled in a different department than hers. Marin knew that she was nothing more than a high paid researcher. She could take a piece of cloth and tell you where it had been, what had been near it, who had touched it, and more importantly, she could visualize where any related objects might be located.

Yesterday, Anton handed Marin an old textbook written in something that looked like Latin, and asked her to Find a rare crystal for his collection. The words on the book had been meaningless to her, but once Marin had held the fragile text in her hands, she had known exactly where to go.

Marin had wanted to complete just one mission on her own. She had been prepared to search the dank and cold Kentucky cave systems, not stopping until she had her Find. It was a simple case, with no danger involved. She would never attempt the kidnaping cases, or one of the Finds involving a murder weapon.

Marin had been surprised to feel the newest store in the area, Crystal Sights, pulling at her Finder’s gift. Anton had sworn up and down that the crystal would be hard to locate. Aisle six – rare gems and crystals was not her idea of difficult. In and out and no one had gotten hurt.

Her aunt, Lindal, refused to even allow her to look at the building as they drove past, and now Marin had been inside and explored.

Marin had completed her first solo Finder’s mission. She had located exactly what Anton needed and managed to purchase a crystal of her very own. Not that she believed in crystals and magic. Her aunt had explained how her own ability, to locate the lost or stolen, was the closest thing to real magic left in the world. If Lindal knew that Marin had purchased one of the crystals for herself, her aunt would lose her ever lovin’ mind.

For once in her life, Marin didn’t care. She had felt the heat coming off her crystal as she held it in her hands. Maybe her aunt was wrong. Maybe the shopkeeper had told the truth, and the fragile but beautiful rock would help Marin come through her Transition with more protection and control.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Eep.” Marin barely managed to turn her full throttled scream into a small startled cry. She crashed into the small angry redhead, the one suddenly blocking her path, as she cleared the store exit.

Marin snapped her lips together on the urge to ask her aunt questions. Like where the hell she had come from? Trying not to lean away from the look on Lindal’s face, she waited for the sarcasm and disdain to flow. When Lindal merely stood there, glaring in silence, Marin whispered, “I had to run an errand for Anton.”

Lindal’s face brightened to a nice deep red, as her arms crossed, her mouth flattened out in displeasure, and her foot tapped out her impatience. “Don’t lie to me, missy. You work in the office or at home. You do not run around mingling with charlatans.”

Marin held her tongue, her heart beginning to race. She hated fighting with Lindal, and there was no way that this tirade was over. Lindal did more damage with words than lions did fighting over dinner. Marin wanted to be one of those people that could take a browbeating with a grain of salt. But she knew that this time wouldn’t be any easier to take. Tomorrow would mark twenty-one years of ranting. Lindal’s personality could be vicious, and hard to take, but Marin didn’t have any other family.

Lindal jabbed her dainty finger at Marin, her words hissed with the pressure of contained rage. “Do you want to die like your mother? Do you enjoy making me worry and endangering your life like this?”

Marin lowered her head and whispered, “If magic isn’t real, then I should be safe enough. This is the only unscheduled stop I made.”

“Don’t back talk me, girl. Magic is for fools. And places like this are for those too weak to hold on to their money, those willing to purchase lies because they are unhappy with the imperfections they were born with. If your mother had stayed home, she would be alive. Instead, she was mugged in some back alley and left to bleed out with the trash.”

Marin flinched, yet yearned to hear more. It was the most Lindal had ever said about her mother, or the events that had led to her death. Taking a chance that her aunt would continue sharing, Marin asked, “Is there any way to be safe?” She wanted to ask more about her mother, but feared that Lindal would clam up if she pushed too directly.

“Listen and listen good. People, those freaks with meddling gifts, can see how weak you are. They are abominations, just like you, but they can and will plant thoughts inside your mind, and lead you into danger. Everyone has enhanced senses these days, but you are an oddity. Abnormal, just begging for some fool to believe he can steal your curse, and use it for his own plans, by taking your life. The crap sold in places like this will not give you a shield from the evil in this world.” Lindal had explained many times over the years that Marin had been born without the natural shields that protected a person’s mind.

“But if there are people that can play tricks, put thoughts in your mind, then maybe there could be some small magic that’s real.”

Placing the bag with her new crystal protectively behind her back, Marin fought not to back away from her aunt. The look in Lindal’s eyes told her plainly that she had pushed too far. Any sign of weakness would light a match to these attacks. “Tricks. Nothing but tricks. Your mind is just too weak to figure them out.”

Marin ground her teeth together and avoided her aunt’s eyes. Feeling her hands tighten around her gift bag, her eyes sought out the parking lot for anything to distract Lindal. Marin needed something for both of them to focus on, so that she could get her impotent rage under control. Getting defensive never helped. The woman looked weak and innocent, but ruled their home with an iron fist and razor sharp words.

Instead of continuing to explain all the reasons that Marin had screwed up, Lindal stiffly turned and walked into the parking lot. Apparently her aunt planned to wait for a private moment to vent the rest of her displeasure. And vent she would. Lindal’s stiff movements and flushed complexion warned Marin that the conversation coming her way would be one of the worst.

Marin didn’t need the lecture repeated. She had it memorized. Rocks and stones are just that. Real magic didn’t exist. She needed to stay at home, safe, except for work. Blah… blah… blah. But Marin wanted more information. How did ordinary people put thoughts inside someone else’s mind? How did her co-worker’s little boy manage to move objects out of her reach when Marin wasn’t looking?

Not knowing what else to do, Marin followed Lindal into the parking lot. Lindal would be in a snit for days.

Marin still couldn’t contain the occasional squeal though she attempted to keep them as quiet as possible. She needed to get her happiness under control.

Luckily, she had the entire length of the parking lot, to calm herself down. The lot seemed to have more cars than the entire area of Ashland, Kentucky had residents. Crystal Sights had managed to expand on the word grand in Grand Opening. The opening had been scheduled for the first day of the yearly hometown festivals and had drawn quite the crowd. Marin didn’t relish Lindal’s anger, but still thought that today had turned out better than she could have hoped. Smiling, she glanced around, as she walked behind her aunt, taking in the different types of shoppers.

Marin watched as three little old ladies climbed out of a bright yellow Caddie, their hair ranging from hooker red to bonnet blue. She saw a younger man pulling his reluctant girlfriend – or possibly wife – from the cab of their truck, her very pregnant belly leading the way. The woman was shaking her head, pointing to the insane number of people, still lining up to enter the store. Marin tried to stop herself from bouncing with every step, not wanting Lindal to see her happiness. This was the closet she had come to attending one of the hometown events, thrown every spring. Festivals that would only become larger when summer finally arrived.

Across the street, by the river, Marin could even see the over-night-assembled rides and concession stands being mobbed by crowds of yet more tri-state citizens. So many types of people rushed around, laughter in their eyes. Even the pregnant woman had managed a smile, once she made it out of the truck and into the man’s arms.

Every squeak of excitement that Marin failed to contain received a reprimanding glare from Lindal. But Marin was too hopeful to allow Lindal’s mood to kill her joy completely. Claudette – the store owner – had called the stone a Maturation Crystal. Marin’s fingers still tingled from when she had touched the crystal earlier, giving her hope for her Transition Birthday. Everyone went through their twenty-first birthday hoping that they would have better control of their enhanced senses. Even if her birthday came and went without an improvement, the crystal marked Marin’s first independent action.

Marin didn’t want to fight; she wanted to celebrate. With that in mind, she put on a burst of speed, passing Lindal, as she said, “Where are you parked, Aunt Lindal?” Marin wanted to get in her car and head for home before Linda started listing more ways that this trip had been a mistake. An evening alone in her art studio, admiring her Maturation Crystal, sounded like perfection.

Marin crossed her fingers that Lindal wouldn’t be as irate as the time that Anton had encouraged everyone that worked for Finder’s Keepers, to participate in self-defense classes. Marin had been excited. The free classes took place in the gym, off the back of Finder’s Keepers. As far as bosses went, Anton ranked with the best. He even allowed her to compose her Finds at home, in her private studio. The information she came up with helped other Finders on their missions, and working from home kept Lindal from bitching.

Great work hours or not, Lindal still despised the man. Her sneering had managed to run Marin out of more than one room when the subject of Antonius Slade came up, especially after the self-defense debacle. Marin had managed to keep the classes a secret for two years before Lindal found out. And boy had that been memorable. Lindal had found and burned all the workout clothes and the fighting stick that Marin had stashed in her van. She flinched, remembering how the blaze had lit up the front yard, and how Lindal’s reddened face seemed to match the flames. Lindal had burned with rage, expressing her displeasure by instituting her own version of self-defense classes. Marin rubbed her sore hip, trying to shake off yesterday’s lesson.

Marin had gained a good ten feet of distance from Lindal before her aunt decided to reply. Reply and reprimand. “Slow down, child. It is rude to run in public. And I took a taxi, so that we could talk on the ride home. Talk and decide what to do about your current attitude.”

Marin stumbled a little, but otherwise didn’t reply. She absolutely refused to allow anything to put a damper on her spirit. As long as the crystal remained in her possession, she could handle any punishment.

Lindal sneered as she inquired, “Why in the world did you park so far away?”

Marin slowed and turned to walk backwards. She couldn’t believe that Lindal chose to ask such a question. “I had hoped that by parking as far away as possible, I could avoid the humiliating gymnastics needed to re-enter my vehicle. That woman we passed a moment ago was actually climbing in through her sun roof. I don’t know if this type of place is always this packed, but if so, they need more parking. I was lucky to find a spot, no matter how far away it is. But I admit that I concentrated on the area to the rear of the parking lot. Everyone fights for the ones closest to the store. I swear that broken down Toyota back there was circling the lot when I first arrived.”

Marin watched, as the poor rusted contraption made its rounds. She felt sorry for the car, and the driver. Mostly she felt bad for everyone currently being forced to breathe in the ozone killing balls of smoke emanating from the Toyota.

“Turn around and walk correctly. They can have our spot… once we get there,” Lindal hissed. Her aunt ignored the opportunity to vent some of her rage on the circling motorist. The parking lot had so many cars that the grassy incline along the edges of the parking lot had begun to fill up with unrepentant motorist.

Marin turned and quickened her pace as she yelled, “I’ll just air the car out.” They were almost to Marin’s van, which always smelled of oil based paints and some before-the-invention-of-odorless paint thinner substances. Mainly, Marin wanted to put off the fight building with each of Lindal’s hissed and clipped words.

“Don’t turn the car on. You’ll…” Lindal’s words ended on a grunt of pain.

Before Marin could turn to look, her aunt’s body flew over her head. She watched her aunt tumble through the air and land, with a sickening crunch, on the hood of her van. She realized that the frighteningly loud cry filling the air was coming from her own mouth, but Marin couldn’t stop. Lindal’s body slide to the ground like a rag doll, a line of blood marking her movements along the bright orange paint. Mere seconds had passed, but Marin felt like she had been frozen to the spot for hours, consumed by her disbelief.

The sound of squealing tires caught her attention, but Marin stood rooted to the spot and continued to scream.

Eventually, the other sounds in the vast parking lot penetrated her haze. One moment, she was happily looking forward to examining her crystal, watching the dozens of other shoppers laugh and dream of the wonders to be found on this perfect spring day. Now, she watched as the only family she had ever known crashed onto the unforgiving asphalt. The need to complete a mission, or purchase her own crystal, started to feel pretty hollow.

Forcing her way out of her hysteria, Marin snapped her mouth closed and glanced around as she rushed forward. The Toyota she had pointed out to Lindal was moving in reverse as she ran for her aunt. No innocent circling for that murderous bastard now.

Marin looked back at Lindal, and her ears filled with a high pitched ringing. She tried to convince herself that this couldn’t be happening. She knew that POS Toyota was to blame, even without seeing the car ramming into her aunt’s vulnerable body.

Marin reached Lindal’s side, attempting to forget about assholes with toxic road rage, so that she could focus on the various wounds. As she fell to her knees, by Lindal’s broken body, she heard an engine being revved. She could smell burning rubber as she twisted to glance over her shoulder. A horrible metallic noise rent the air, as the Toyota bounced off the lane of cars, and angled in their direction.

Marin sat slack jawed as she realized that the man had the balls to make a second attempt. The Toyota was scrapping along the nearby cars, hell bent on committing death by rust bucket. She didn’t know if she was more upset that someone wanted to kill both her and Lindal, or that her van was about to be harmed in the process.

Marin couldn’t move Lindal to safety, and she refused to leave her alone. She glanced frantically around, searching for a miracle. Run down though the car was, it was still out of her weight class.

Marin twisted back, to face the oncoming vehicle completely, her hands in the air.

A plea for mercy? A supplication or a surrender? Marin didn’t know. Time seemed to slow as the Toyota came closer. She felt her usually denied emotions rush to the surface, her anger leading the charge. She felt the rage heat along her skin begging to be released.

Holding her ground, Marin remained kneeling by Lindal’s side. A blood-curdling scream left her mouth, and for the first time in her life, she allowed her feelings to come to the surface with destructive force. In that moment, Marin felt no fear, no shyness. Just rage. A rage that felt at home and welcoming as it exploded in the air. Even her confusion and denial – those feelings she felt most at home with – had been buried under this red-hot mixture of emotion.

A jolt of pain, from some invisible force, threw Marin to the ground. Lying on her back, her head pounding, she felt as if an invisible entity flowed from her body and zeroed in on the offending car. Her skin tingling, Marin watched, through eyes of indignation, as the tires on one side of the car suddenly left the ground. The Toyota was thrown into the air and onto the tires on its other side. The car slid off course, hitting the vehicles on the opposite side of the lane, and continued to tip, until it was rolling away from Lindal’s defenseless body. Crashing into the cars perched on the grassy incline, at the end of the lot, the Toyota rocked to a stop. It had looked like the car had been encased in some kind of protective shield, a wavering bubble of air, as it rolled away from Lindal’s position.

Marin shook her head to dispel the insanity. Shields didn’t work that way. Lindal had explained that a shield was an invisible defense, in the mind, to keep out unwanted thoughts and ideas. She felt the back of her head, wondering how hard she had managed to hit the asphalt. Did she have a concussion?

The Toyota had slammed off the cars in the grass, tottering back and forth, landing in the correct upward position. Marin didn’t know what had just happened, and at that moment, she didn’t care. She took a second to watch, as the Toyota clipped the back of a few cars, and miraculously sped away.

The smell of burning rubber and the sound of a hanging bumper, creating sparks along the pavement, were the only proof that this nightmare had ever happened. That and dozens of dented automobiles. The way the Toyota had rolled away from them, as if a giant was playing with his Tonka Trucks, would haunt Marin’s nightmares for a long time. She decided that the entire event needed to be firmly placed in her denial box, as she moved to check on Lindal and to call for an ambulance. She needed help; she needed help now.

Kyland Marcuson’s left eyebrow lifted, as he stood staring in disbelief. Seeing a woman with the power to move a few thousand pounds of metal, or even the brutal act of vehicular homicide, didn’t move him. These acts weere common place to those of the Supernatural Community. The astounding number of people, exiting their cars and the store, to stand around gawking also left him unmoved. Supes and Norms alike enjoyed a good train-wreck-worthy incident.

After all this time, he had finally found her. Kyland had searched for Marin for more than twenty years. He had managed to locate her, only to watch as she fought for her life. Kyland shook his head and allowed the pull of the woman’s essence to lead him to her side. His Queen had given him this mission, saying only that she would be the one to save them from the Danshue, the evil Fae.

Once the Queen vanished, Kyland had made it his sole purpose in life to locate Marin, a small babe he knew nothing about. The end of his journey, and the child was now a beautiful woman, with more questions surrounding her than answers. Her blonde hair, big blue eyes, and button nose gave her a vulnerable look. A look that was obviously a lie.

Kyland also felt surprised at the lust tearing through his system. He was here to protect this woman, not bed her. Still, those curves… Marin had to be more than a foot shorter than his own 6’8″ height, but she was still built like a dream. A dream he wanted to memorize with hands, mouth, and tongue. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Kyland continued forward.

People stood on the sidelines, watching and waiting, afraid to step forward, to help. Kyland pushed and shoved people out of his way to reach the woman he suspected to be the woman he was searching for. When he’d undertaken this mission, more than two decades ago, he was told that the child he needed to find and protect would have no real power. Her biggest gift should have been an overabundance of sensitivity. She should have been as close to powerless as she could get, without being human or a Norm, a powerless supernatural being. Apparently, some very important information had been withheld.

On the other hand, Marin had appeared shocked as she watched the car’s near miss. Maybe she didn’t understand her abilities, abilities that she shouldn’t have. Kyland could see in her eyes a slight refusal to believe the reality she now found herself in. He had watched as she shook her head, physically pushing away her confusion.

Kyland was close enough now to feel the denial coming from her psyche in waves. Her emotions were so strong; he could barely focus on anything else. He could also see that the Queen had left out a thing or two about the child’s identity when they’d discussed this mission.

Damn, damn, damn. Right now, Kyland needed to check on Marin and the woman lying at her side. But he needed to move forward carefully. He didn’t want to frighten the young woman, especially after she had just been traumatized. He needed to save her friend, if possible, and slowly build a connection, a bond of trust. If she were the correct person, then… then the future of his people would depend on her. He didn’t understand, not completely, but the Queen had given him a name, a location, and a time frame. He needed to find Marin, somewhere within Earth-side, before her Transition.

Well, if this was Marin, he had the woman/child; he was in Kentucky, so he was Earth-side, just like the Queen’s prophecy; the time frame was the remaining key. Kyland had less than a month left to complete the first step. Hopefully, the rest would fall into place, and by the end of the year, the Queen would be returned.

Kyland had spent the last two decades learning every new medical procedure, every medical aid technique of any discipline, as they were improved on. The Marin he was sent to retrieve had been kidnaped, and kidnap victims were rarely treated well. Why else would she be stolen at birth unless it was to harvest her power? Supe children could be used as batteries, for the sadistic and depraved. Evil men and women, or Danshue, that sought power above all else and were willing to do anything to obtain it.

Dropping to his knees, Kyland could see that the woman on the ground didn’t appear to be breathing. Time was short, but still he approached slowly. Perhaps the surrounding crowd of useless onlookers had the right idea. If he was correct, the beautiful blonde could toss him across the parking lot, if he surprised her.

“Do you need help?” Kyland slowly reached to check Marin’s friend for vitals, before tilting the head, to begin CPR. The woman he worked on was extremely small, broken, and bleeding. Her flaming red hair seemed familiar, but Kyland couldn’t worry about his patient’s identity. Not with a confused and wary Marin, watching his every move.

“Please… I don’t know… what to do… I can’t…” Marin didn’t know if she should trust this stranger, this mouthwatering man, but she needed help. Lindal needed help. She had already called 911 and told the operator what she could, but now her phone had disappeared. The best Finder the U.S. could offer, and she couldn’t even locate her own cell phone. She held her hand near the side of her aunt’s face, afraid to touch her. Didn’t the people in movies always stay on the phone when they called 911? She needed her phone. What was she- How could she-

Marin couldn’t breathe. She was screwing up. Lindal was hurt. She should have told the operator more. Couldn’t. Breathe.

“Do not worry. Just take a calming breath and work with me. I need you to stabilize her head for me. My name is Kyland, by the way, and I will do what I can to help, if you will let me.” Kyland took her hand, and it was suddenly easier to breathe. “Can you do that?”

Kyland had a manly beauty, one that sculptors would kill to etch. She found it hard not to stare at Mister Tall, Dark, and Handsome, her eyes continually jumping back to outline his features, even in the midst of her worry. He had to be nearly seven feet tall, and his eyes gleamed like flecks of coal.

When Kyland leaned forward to recheck Lindal for breath, Marin could see that his eyes were actually an extremely dark gray. His hair fell in a wave of black silk, to his shoulders, and his muscles looked edible in a glowing reddish brown tone.

Kyland had one of those year round natural tans that women the world over dreamed of. Marin would have assumed a Native American background, but there was just something more, something different, about him.

Marin gave herself a mental shake, to push his looks from her mind, and focus on the woman that had raised her. She would do anything and everything asked of her. She would follow Kyland’s lead and hope for the best.

Nodding her head rapidly, Marin moved to Lindal’s head to do as indicated. She had a purpose. The ambulance was coming, and Kyland would help Lindal until they arrived.

Marin hated the way that Lindal treated her, but she wanted distance and independence, not this. This couldn’t be happening. What if she lost the only family she…

Just as the panic started to take over again, Marin felt someone squeezing her hand. Kyland gave her comfort as his other hand rechecked for a pulse.

As the blonde did as instructed, Kyland continued compressions. He couldn’t think of her as Marin, not yet. There had to be another reason for her to look like… Kyland took a deep breath, to focus on the here and now. He had cleared his patient’s airway, while sending a healing spell into her body. It would help, but whether it would be enough or not, he didn’t know. He had to get her breathing again if he hoped to save her.

Kyland had done two sets of compressions, and was bending to blow air into her lung, when the woman took a deep breath on her own. Her eyes snapped open. Eyes that he knew, hated, and could never forget.

“You…” The word slipped out of his mouth before Kyland could think about stopping himself. He barely managed to cut off his words before a barrage of her suspected crimes left his mouth.

Well, damn. Kyland hadn’t recognized the injured woman with her eyes shut, but he should have. The wrinkles were obviously an illusion, but the fire engine red hair, the small stature… and now, those liquid sliver-green eyes couldn’t be denied. Only one person had eyes the shade of mixed mercury and vibrant new grass. Lindal Rencoff. Murder, treason, the thief of power by painful means… the list of her suspected crimes went on and on. Lindal needed to be tried for crimes against the Queen and Fae alike, for being Danshue, a Fae willing to lose his or her soul in exchange for stolen power.

The Queen definitely hadn’t informed him that he would find the woman/child that he was looking for with the traitor Lindal Rencoff. What the hell was going on here? His mouth turned down; Kyland had to fight the urge to wrap his hands around Lindal’s neck.

Every Supe in the Supernatural Community believed that Lindal had been cut down, marked as one of the dead or missing, in the last Great War. Instead, she’d hid among a bunch of humans, with her kidnap victim, a woman the Fae people desperately needed. He ran his hands roughly over his face and looked to the heavens for some kind of sign.

Kyland’s gaze darted around to locate any other enemies but found only curious onlookers and banged up cars and trucks. He took a moment to decide if he should call in back up or not as his gaze went to Marin. Why had he been sent alone on this mission?

To answer that, he first needed to answer one every important question. Did the Queen fear her own people?

The fact that Kyland had been sent alone, to retrieve someone that deserved an armed escort, was pretty much answer enough. Had the Queen foreseen that she and her entire house would be cursed and hidden from the rest of the Fae, from the entire Supernatural Community, never to be seen again?

Kyland had been sent alone on this mission, and he had nearly failed. Watching the car closing in, he had known that he would not make it in time. Even moving out of phase, as one with the shadows, Kyland would have been too late. None of his personal magic could have stopped the car from taking the life of the woman he could feel calling out to his essence. He had spent over two decades in search of a poor defenseless child in need of protection, only to find that Marin had the ability to save herself.

The car had been pushed and flipped, as if unseen forces had been displeased. If it hadn’t been for his ability to sense the magic being used, he might have believed the unseen forces theory. After all, he had been told that Marin couldn’t reach, or use, her gifts yet. Dammit. If the power he had felt represented Marin’s untapped gifts, they would all be in a world of trouble if he couldn’t find a way to ease Marin’s power slowly past whatever had them blocked.

If Marin’s gifts exploded from their containment all at once… more than just her psyche and body were in danger. It would be like the magical version of an atomic bomb. Kyland had less than a month, and eventually time would run out. The block had to have been placed over Marin’s psyche, her power. A block Marin’s power had managed to break through, like it was child’s play, only to disappear completely once the danger was past.

Yep. Kyland was in deep and all out of paddles. This mission became more important with every passing second.

Chapter Two

Her perfect crystal now sat in the parking lot of Crystal Sights; Lindal was in surgery fighting for her life, and Marin gazed blankly at the ugliest green wallpaper she had ever seen. Hospital waiting rooms shouldn’t remind a person of moldy vomit. They should be peaceful and comforting. Reminders of the split pea soup incident from the Exorcist were neither peaceful nor comforting. Even a stark white would be more pleasant that the current color palate.

Marin feared that the need to scream and never stop would finally win out. She wanted answers but also needed to forget. Right this second, she’d settle for a nice friendly coat of paint. It would give her mind something to focus on while she waited for the doctors to fix her aunt.

Body shaking like she needed a large hit of Meth, Marin pulled her knees up against her chest and rocked quietly in her less than comfortable chair. She glared at one of the chipped areas of vomit-itis paint. It had been hours of waiting with only her headache, stale coffee, and these horrendous walls to keep her company. Everyone else in the room had managed to fade into the background, her mind uninterested in their presence.

The door to the waiting room opened, causing Marin to glare in that direction. A man in hospital scrubs searched the room for someone. His mouth moved, not that Marin could hear anything over the pounding in her head that caused her ears to ring. The name tag proclaimed that this was Dr. Criss. He had a nice looking mouth, but the rest of his features remained out of focus.

Marin counted the handful of people waiting for news, shocked to realize that the room held a deep well of silence. Surely there should be something to hear. The quiet murmur of loved ones consoling each other, the drone of the television, or even the gurgle of the coffee pot, but Marin caught nothing like that. She couldn’t even remember if the room had been so full hen she first arrived.

The doctor looked straight at Marin and walked in her direction with purpose in his posture and compassion on his face. Was he speaking to her? Her feet dropped to the floor at the same time that her gaze sought out anyone else sitting nearby that could be his intended target. The warring emotions, to get answers and to deny that any of this was real, fought for supremacy.

Marin examined the people sharing the room with her closer. An elderly woman with two small children worked to console her youngest child. No more than two, her little face contorted in distress and hopeless anguish, as she sat clinging to her grandmother. Tears ran down her little rounded cheeks. Her face red and body shaking, the child ignored modern rules of society, and expressed her pain the only way that she knew how. It looked almost freeing. Still, she heard nothing.

Marin could see a man on a pay phone, another man holding a softly crying woman, and a few teens. But not a single sound managed to accompany their actions. Her eyes took in the expressions of pain and sadness, but her mind refused to allow her to hear their distress. That seemed wrong.

The doctor had nearly reached her side. Marin couldn’t see that as a positive sign. The paramedics had told her that things looked good; the beautiful stranger had promised everything would be fine before he had disappeared. Lindal’s breathing had seemed even and controlled when they’d pulled up to the emergency room doors. Marin just couldn’t see how anything good could come from five hours of uncertainty after what had to have been positive lies.

The doctor stopped in front of her, his lips still moving. Maybe he had a tick or something. Marin fought the need to smile. The doctor’s brow crinkled, and he reached out to touch her face. Grasping her chin, he lifted her head up. When he moved closer, to look into her eyes, Marin jolted from the chair.

The world was suddenly rent by a mournful cry, a cry that only the young could dare make. Not yet fearful of what others will think, a child will throw her head back, and shriek her pain to the heavens. Marin wanted that freedom. The little girl with the head full of auburn curls and the extremely healthy lungs continued to cling to her grandmother. Her pain the first sound to shatter the unnatural silence of the waiting room.

The silence hadn’t been that bad, in a way. Marin preferred the denial.

“Miss Yarthine?” the doctor asked.

Dammit. Marin finally made eye contact with the doctor. She needed to do better. She needed to focus before she ended up with her very own hospital gown.

Afraid to speak, Marin just continued to stare. Wanting to release her own cathartic wails, she wrapped her arms protectively around her body, and managed a small nod. She felt something touch her shoulder and glanced back in the doctor’s direction, not remembering when she had turned away. This had to be shock. There was a constant buzz emanating from her temples, and that couldn’t be good either.

Marin’s head felt like a stranger. She could feel this ticking beat, as if her heart had managed to make the climb in to her head. The noise in her head kept changing. Sometimes, she felt like she had a few bees in residence, and at others she just knew that an angry band had taken to using the space between her ears for practice.

Smiling kindly and reclaiming her attention, the doctor said, “Your aunt is unconscious at the moment. She hasn’t woken yet, so we’re keeping her in the ICU at least until she wakes. Visiting hours are over until tomorrow afternoon, but I think we can let you come back to see her for a few minutes. Her brain received quite a trauma. All her other injuries appear stable for now, but the brain… we really can’t know more until she’s conscious.”

Marin didn’t know what to say. Her head bowed, and she covered her mouth with a shaking hand. Her knees wanted to buckle. She felt weak as the weight of so much worry lightened. With a barely repressed sob, Marin managed to choke out, “Thank you.” The news wasn’t perfect, but at least her aunt was still alive.

The doctor turned to leave, and Marin followed him and a nurse that had managed to go unnoticed. Somehow managing to find the strength to make her legs steady, as they went down the hall, Marin couldn’t help but feel impatient. She wanted to run, to see Lindal with her own eyes.

Maybe if Marin held Lindal’s hand, felt her precious warmth…Who was she kidding? Marin needed her aunt to open her eyes and give one of those frosty glares that she had perfected over the years.

Marin’s hand flew up to catch an inappropriate giggle, and the buzzing in her temple started pulsating to a new rhythm, but she didn’t care. She needed proof that Lindal was still alive, that her only family member would continue to make her life miserable.

The small room where they finally stopped sat behind a glass wall, the privacy curtain only partially closed, so that the end of the bed could be clearly seen from outside. The crash cart sitting within easy reach of the door left a less than comforting ache in Marin’s chest. The sooner Lindal could be moved to a less threatening room, the better.

“Ten minutes. But then you’ll need to come back during visiting hours,” the nurse explained in a firm, but sympathetic voice. The doctor had already disappeared.

Marin could barely hear the nurse’s words; she seemed kind enough, but at that moment, Marin wanted to be alone. Seeming to understand, the nurse gave her another sympathetic look, and left Marin to peek around the curtain by herself.

Lindal’s small form, lying quietly in th midst of tubes and wires, barely filled half of the twin-size hospital bed. Her aunt had always been small, even shorter than Marin’s own five-foot-two-inches. In the hospital bed, the force that naturally radiated off Lindal’s every movement became subdued, and her strong personality lessened. Her aunt look abnormally vulnerable.

Rubbing her arms, Marin wanted to take a step away from the unreal sight; instead, she forced her hands to grip the footboard tightly. She had come so close to losing Lindal.

The paramedics had arrived quickly, but they never would have made it in time. Marin wasn’t stupid. Lindal hadn’t been breathing, and that meant one thing, and one thing only. Lindal had died. With only Marin to help her, she would have stayed that way. Stranger or not, Kyland had saved Lindal’s life.

Kyland had come out of nowhere and disappeared the same way. Marin shook her head, doubting that she would ever be able to find him to thank him. On one hand, some unnamed tension left her body at the thought that she would never have to face him again. Face the emotions he’d stirred. Still, his absence left a hole in her heart, and a choking thickness in her throat. Which made absolutely no sense. Marin knew nothing about this man. How did he cause confusion strong enough to overwhelm her mind in such a short time period? Marin shook her head. The who and where of Kyland were problems for another day. Right now she needed to focus on Lindal.

Marin needed answers. Like why had they been targeted? The parking lot hadn’t exactly been lacking for vehicular violence victim contenders. There had been a group of at least four women, standing by their cars, chatting after they’d finished shopping. Courtesy demanded that their parking spots be relinquished quickly on such a busy day. Why not them?

The man, and Marin was only guessing that the driver was a man, had bypassed those without parking lot etiquette and zeroed in on Lindal. If she had continued her slow progress through the parking lot, would Marin be in this horrible room with its beeping monitors and bleached air instead of Lindal.

Staring down at her aunt’s unmoving form, Marin tried to find a place to rest her hand. She needed to touch her. She needed to know that the only person willing to take her in, after the death of her mother, was really here and still alive.

“They will find him, Lindal. He won’t get away with this,” Marin made her vow as quietly as possible, not wanting to disturb Lindal’s recovery.

Glancing up to keep tears from falling from her eyes, Marin noticed something swinging off of Lindal’s oxygen line. “What the…” It looked like a Barbie doll with wings, perhaps six inches tall. The odd little creature wore a loin cloth and sported some overly obvious male attributes. Was it wrong to be checking out the abs of someone no larger than a child’s toy? Marin shook her head trying to dispel the illusion.

His arms tugged and his muscles bunched as he attempted to make a knot in Lindal’s oxygen line. His silver skin tone went beautifully with his tri-colored wings, a mix of light purple, maroon, and gold. The little man didn’t seem to realize that Marin was staring at him.

“Stop,” Marin shouted. Dammit, this was a hospital. She needed to lower her voice. She also needed to go upstairs to the psych ward. Head trauma, shock, or hallucinations¼ something wasn’t right. If she told Lindal about this, her aunt would call her every kind of fool.

Hallucination or not, she grabbed the little man by the wings, pulled him from Lindal’s oxygen line, and tried to speak more calmly. “What do you think you’re doing?”

She finally had her figment’s attention. A striking, though small, pair of lavender eyes glared at her through overly long sandy brown bangs. On closer inspection, she could see that his hair was actually multicolored. It seemed to go from crystal white sand to bronzed gold. Obviously, she had a very strong imagination.

“Well, answer me. What do you think you’re doing?”

“Waiting for you, of course.”

“What are you?” She was losing it. The buzzing in her temples was increasing. And she was now speaking to a figment of her imagination. Yep, she needed to be medicated.

The creature put its tiny fists on narrow hips. “A Sprite, of course. Don’t you know anything? I have my work cut out for me.” Now she was being insulted by her imagination. Great.

“Nope. Too Much,” Marin said and tossed the little man with wings out of the hospital window. She needed coffee. Either that or a large dose of Thorazine. Or maybe both.

Chapter Three

The smell reached her first. Marin tried not to gag, quickly covering her mouth with her hand as she glanced around the quiet street, trying to pinpoint the source of the foul stench polluting the air supply. She had never been subjected to anything so horrible in her life. The strength of the odor nearly knocked her off her feet, indicating that the source had to be close.

Behind her, Marin could see the café she’d just left and little else. A thrift shop and a dollar store stood a few blocks farther down the street. If the smell had come from one of those buildings, she would have noticed sooner. The aroma in the café had been wonderful, and it had taken over a block before the air around her had lost its caffeinated buzz. Marin was considering turning back and returning to the baked bread and roasted coffee beans just to escape the repulsive smell.

To her left and right, she saw little shops selling antiques. A few mom and pop stores that were already closed for the night filled in the rest. The sound of frogs mating came from every direction. Marin should have felt surrounded honeysuckle not sewage.

Honeysuckle grew more rampant than most weeds, but the smell brightened a Kentucky night in spring. Or it should have.

Nothing around Marin appeared capable of creating the current stench. The hospital sat in front of her, a few blocks away, but that couldn’t be it. Surely, the EPA would have issued a warning by now if a medical facility randomly produced toxic gas. That only left the kids she watched coming around the corner, between her and the hospital’s front doors.

The small group of kids turned and headed Marin’s way. Cocking her head to the side, she wondered what they were doing out so late. Even the café was about to close. Which meant midnight was closing in. The young boys swaggered her way only wearing ragged short, without a pair of shoes between them. Odd. Oh, Marin knew that people took the returning of hot weather as an excuse to leave their footwear behind, but that was in their own yards. Children did not run barefoot while roaming downtown Ashland.

Marin cringed, thinking that if they were the cause of the revolting odor, then their parents needed to be shot. Her kinder side wanted to warn them, to scream at them to run in the other direction, as fast as possible. Especially as the horrible stench continued to worsen. Marin could see the headlines now… “Small town overwhelmed by invisible toxic waste. At least six dead.”

Perhaps the kids hadn’t noticed but Marin’s overly sensitive nose screamed in pain. She lifted her coffee closer, but didn’t drink. Adding anything to her stomach at this point seemed like an unnecessary risk. Enhanced senses weren’t uncommon. Still, true enhancement was rare enough that most people kept the strength of their senses quiet. Being born without an enhancement meant that you ran the risk of being called plain or average. People like Marin, with more than one enhanced sense, were considered freaks. But even with her steaming drink pressed close to her face, she felt overwhelmed by the attacking odor.

The café made the best latte in three states. The person responsible for ruining her beverage owed Marin a serious apology. She wished that she could rewind to this morning. What good did seeking out a mission to complete and a birthday gift really do? She had lost the crystal and could still lose her aunt. This day couldn’t have been worse. The sooner she reached the hospital and its bleached smelling green halls the better. The waiting room would be her new home until Lindal was well enough for a regular room.

Marin suddenly found herself face down on the ground, instead of inhaling her drink and rushing toward the hospital. Her wonderful smelling, yet ridiculously hot, beverage had thankfully been thrown away from her body. She rolled over to find herself surrounded by five of the ugliest kids she had ever seen. Their arms were too long, or at least longer than normal, and their legs seemed too short for their bodies. Their ears were large and slightly floppy. The varying degrees of red in their rather large eyes had to be from contacts. It was not a natural eye color. And each nose she glanced at seemed to be larger than the last.

Marin ground out, “What the hell?”

Ugly or not, one of these little shits had tripped her. Marin had also located the source of the unholy odor. One or all of their parents needed to be charged with crimes against humanity and punished for not hosing the little monsters down occasionally. Marin swallowed, did her best to breathe through her mouth, and tried to keep from throwing up. She could only hope that her sense of smell began to fail sometime soon.

Ignoring the children, Marin tried to get to her feet with some dignity. She needed to be done with the day that would not end. Being picked on by a group of adolescent terrors had her flinching at how she ranked in the world.

One of the demon children got a firm hold on Marin’s ankle and tossed her through the air. Okay. So maybe these weren’t children. Unless the local elementary had a problem with steroid usage, Marin felt safe in the assumption that these were not your average ten-year-old boys.

The air left her lungs in a rush as Marin landed with jarring force. Refusing to take in any more of the vile air, she began begging for unconsciousness, just to escape the gag factor.

Finally, gasping for any oxygen she could find, Marin tried to figure out what she had slammed into. She knew that bruises were beginning to form, and that something wet ran down her temple. A temple that had exploded into a riot of sound. The buzzing had morphed into an angry rock band impersonation and pulsating as if it wanted out of her mind to manifest and subdue her angry half-pint attackers.

Lying on a small patch of grass, off the beaten path and unlikely to be seen, Marin did her best to ignore her pounding head and aching body, to focus on her assailants. Anton’s free self-defense classes, plus the daily embarrassments from losing to Lindal, flew through her mind. She quickly rolled into a crouch, knowing that the martial arts teacher that Anton had hired would be very disappointed if he could see her now. Sensei Liu Kuan’s favorite phrase had always been, “Anyone can be a threat.” Staring at five volcanic midgets, she finally understood.

Marin waited for their next move. She noticed that aside from the two carrying batons that had come out of nowhere, one had a knife. An extremely large knife. The last two didn’t seem to have any weapons. Maybe they wanted to kill her old school and just beat her to death. Or maybe they were just here as an audience. Like any good blood sport, they were going to watch her get her ass kicked.

The one with the knife came at Marin first. As she dove out of the way, she felt the knife nick her shoulder, having barely missed her neck.

One of the unholy terrors broke the unnatural silence with a hissing snicker. Marin continued to roll, moving in the direction of the baton brothers, hoping to knock one of them to the ground and earn a weapon for her trouble.

As she rolled into a crouch and launched herself at the feet of one of the baton carrying bastards, Marin felt long denied emotions heating her blood and tingling along her skin. Rage strong enough to take on a life of its own allowed her to forget that her attackers looked like helpless minors. At that moment, Marin wanted to lash out with the intent of doing permanent harm. Her quiet rage had come out of nowhere, sudden and strong. She sucked in some of the foul oxygen. She was pissed.

A baton came down, barely missing Marin as she quickly rolled away and lashed out with her foot. She heard a satisfying pop and the ugly little man – no way was this a child – let out a high-pitched screech, grabbed for his destroyed kneecap, and collapsed to the ground. She continued to tell herself that she wasn’t facing children as she snatched up his dropped weapon. It was that or let herself be murdered.

Keeping her body low and loose, she waited for the next attack. She now had one of their batons and four short but freakishly strong attackers to deal with. With a cry of fury, she swung for another set of knees.

Out of the corner of her eye, Marin saw the knife coming her way, but she had already committed to her swing. All her focus was on knee-capping the second baton wielder. These bastards should at least come at her one at a time. It was the polite thing to do.

Marin barely felt the pain of the knife cutting across her right side as she allowed her momentum to take her into another roll. Baton brothers one and two were now disarmed and moaning with their ruined knees as the one with the knife came in for another pass.

Marin was getting sick and tired of losing blood. The cutting had to go. At this rate, the guy would eventually succeed in slitting her throat.

Focusing on the knife heading for her neck once again, Marin forgot about everyone else and aimed her baton at the wrist joint. By the scream of pain reverberating along the street, she could tell that her strike was unexpected but successful. If she lived through this, she would have to thank Sensei Liu for the exercises dedicated to joint weaknesses.

Marin could admit that she regularly went unnoticed and underestimated, but these guys should be taking her more seriously. Especially if they planned to kill her. She had always been faster and stronger than most women her size. At 5’2”, Marin’s height was considered below average for a woman, and her slender frame made her appear so much smaller. Most days, she even felt vulnerable. But for the first time in her life, she didn’t. She felt powerful. She felt not only that she could, but would, use all those hours of martial arts to defend herself.

Having lost his knife, the third guy cradled his wrist and backed away. Marin turned only enough to be able to focus on the remaining men, while still keeping her downed attackers in the corner of her eye. She hoped that the baton would give her the slight edge she needed.

“Well, damn,” Marin hissed.

The last two men were now armed. Carrying what appeared to be stone clubs that had to weigh at least a few tons each. Okay. Maybe they didn’t weigh tons, but talk about unfair advantage. The last two guys moved together like a pair of evil ugly-assed twins. Marin knew she should have stolen the last guy’s knife. How the hell were they even picking those clubs up?

Her body tense, Marin’s gaze searched for a distraction, anything to scare them off. That’s when she saw him. Lindal’s savior from earlier popped out of nowhere, running toward the fight. Smiling, she knew that Kyland would be too late but would deal with her attackers.

Two stone clubs were zeroing in on her. It was going to be impossible to avoid them both.

Choosing to focus on the twin to the right, Marin made her move. Throwing up her left arm as a block, she turned slightly and jabbed her baton into the groin of her target. Picturing the baton going through the groin and coming out the other side, Marin made sure to grunt just as she had been taught in class.

She pushed to her feet as her jab connected, giving it as much force as possible. The man from the right fell to his knees, his mouth open in a silent scream of agony. His swing lost most of its force, but still connected with her thigh before he abandoned the fight and doubled over in defeat.

“Son of a…” Marin couldn’t finish her expletive.

The man from her left made up for his twin’s less powerful swing, with a blow that would have taken off her head if Marin hadn’t pushed to her feet, while jabbing the other guy in the groin. The stone club slammed into her chest with the force of a freight train. She flew backward into the man with the damaged wrist. With a grunt of surprise, the previous knife wielder pushed her toward the feet of one of his friends. By now she really didn’t care which bastard was which, if she had the energy, she would crush them all. Or try.

The last thing she saw as someone’s leg pulled back for a vicious kick aimed at her skull was her would-be savior. She could see that Kyland had found what appeared to be a short sword.

Having lost her baton, she threw up her arm in the hope that it would protect her head, and silently wished Kyland luck. Marin hoped that those stone clubs didn’t crush his sword too quickly.

Refusing to go out like the weak kitten she normally felt like, Marin decided to go for an ankle, when her retched smelling attacker tried to punt her head like a football. Gritting her teeth, she held tight to the large rock jabbing into the side of her hip. Moving as quickly as possible, she threw her arm into the move. The rock strengthened the force of her swing. She moved quickly but not quickly enough.

Marin could hear fighting and grunts of pain as the foot made contact with her head. The world around her darkened. She allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction as she finally gave in. She had seen the look on Kyland’s face. These four-foot fecal drops were in for a world of hurt. She really hated to miss the show.

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