Authors: Angie West
Tags: #romance, #love, #friendship, #fantasy, #magic, #warrior, #contemporary, #war, #series, #shadow, #portal, #shadows
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters,
places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or
are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any
resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons,
living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright© 2014 Angie West
Published at Smashwords
All rights reserved. No
part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in
print without written permission.
Also by Angie
*Spirit of the Wolf
*The Fifth Hour
*Return to the Shadows
A huge thank you goes out to my sister,
Jennifer, for all those early brainstorming sessions! Without you,
this book wouldn't be what it is today. I would also like to extend
a special thank you to my first readers and wonderful beta readers.
Aaron, Angela, Amy, Cassy, Diana, Lanie, Nathalie, Robin, and
Storm. You guys are amazing.
For Aleksander. Welcome to
the world, my friend. May it forever be filled with love,
adventure, hope, and an enduring sense of wonder.
Border patrol. My least favorite task of the
day. Oh, I'm sure I could have come up with a thing or two that
might be considered worse, if I had to, but at the end of the day,
what did it matter? I reasoned with infallible logic and shifted
uncomfortably against the heavy chain link vest. I hated wearing
the damn things; they clung to the male soldiers' chests but on me
they hung clear to mid-thigh. The bow fit nicely in my hand. I
exhaled, slung a leather-bound quiver of arrows across my back, and
stared at the forest beyond. It would soon be dark.
The changing of the guards, as it was, took
place in six-hour increments now that we were so great in numbers.
I recalled the half-a-day long shifts of the not too distant past,
right after the war began and mass confusion, chaos really, had
Those were dark days, I reflected with an
uneasy frown. It wasn't something any of us liked to talk about.
Hell, it wasn't something I even wanted to think about, though I
often forced myself to do exactly that, having learned the hardest
way possible that it doesn't pay to hide from reality, no matter
how foul or ugly it may be.
May have been, I silently corrected,
narrowing my eyes and doing a slow sweep of the darkening shadows
that gathered upon me with the swiftly approaching night. Life
hadn't been truly foul or ugly in a while, though there was no
denying most days the memories of pain and loss were still too
fresh and sharp and real. Things weren't perfect and I was enough
of a realist to know they never would be. Only blind idiots strive
for perfect harmony.
But, I conceded, we were incredibly
fortunate; what began as a thirty person operation had, at last
count, swelled to over four hundred strong and our numbers were
growing every day thanks to the hard work and dedication of people
like Mark and his men and of course Claire.
The thought of my best
friend was enough to make my lips curve gently into a genuine
smile. I was supposed to meet up with her after patrol duty was
over. For a couple of months now, since the week after her wedding,
in fact, Claire and I had been meeting every week for coffee and a
late supper. More often than not, we also went night swimming and
moon bathing up near the Grandview Springs beach. But that was
something we kept a secret between the two of us. Her family tended
to be a little on the overprotective side and there was certainly
no denying that everyday life in Terlain held a huge potential for
violence. I shrugged and rocked on the balls of my booted feet,
flexing the arm that cradled the bow. It seemed as if lately
everything was dangerous and there was a good reason for that-for
the most part it
The situation wasn't likely to change
anytime soon. In fact, just the opposite was probably closer to the
truth. Despite the weeks-long period of relative calm in Terlain,
the fine hair at the back of my neck had remained tingling and
alert, my skin tight with an awareness that spoke of impending
trouble. I glanced at the thick, silent tree line and took a deep
breath, then let it out. Lots and lots of trouble.
Suddenly, a twig snapped, close by, and
I whirled at the voice, at the sound of
footsteps coming up behind me. Lightning quick, a sharp tipped
arrow was held in suspension on the bow and my muscles strained
with the effort it took to hold my position, to keep myself in firm
check and not shoot.
The man at the other end of the clearing
stopped abruptly and was still, his eyes locked on mine.
Aranu.” The weapon sagged
in my arms until it was pointed at the ground instead of the
soldier who had come to relieve me for the night.
Aries.” he nodded, the
expression in his eyes unreadable, but he was once again moving
across the wide grassy space that separated us. If my reaction had
startled him, and surely it must have, he made no mention of it.
Instead, he came to stand beside me and simply asked. “Rough
No. I haven't heard a
peep all day, only a few squirrels and a playful fox.” I
The look he gave me was brief and
Okay, so I was a bit touchy now and then. So
what? My eyes challenged him.
You're not taking watch
on your own, are you?” I shaded my gaze against imaginary light and
scanned the clearing.
Li should be here in a
I can stay with you if he
doesn't show.” I didn't want to, but of course I would, if it
became necessary. Besides, it's not like Claire wouldn't understand
if I had to cancel on her and I could just as easily see her
Li will be here.” Aranu
murmured, his back to me as he knelt down and slid a soft deerskin
cloth over his heavy broadsword.
I watched the muscles in his back ripple
beneath a black shirt as he polished the weapon to a dull gray
shine before carefully setting it aside and picking up a short
dagger that he'd kept strapped to his thigh for as long as I'd
Aranu had grown up in one of the villages
not far from the woods of my childhood home and had fought beside
me when the first wave of Kahn's guards had come. He was one of the
original thirty and I was close to him, or as close as I could get
to most people, anyway.
Yes, he's reliable if not
punctual.” I agreed with a brief nod. “Still, you're right, he will
be here. Eventually.”
Aranu laughed and went on polishing the
dagger. “He's only a few minutes late. You're too hard on the men,
Too hard on the men,
right.” I scoffed. “First of all, someone has to be,” I pointed
out, glaring at his broad back. “Not that I think it's even
possible to be too tough on a man.”
No, I suppose you
wouldn't.” he replied easily, still crouched on the
What's that supposed to
mean?” I demanded.
He turned then, glancing at me evenly over
one shoulder a second before he rose gracefully to his feet. I only
had to crane my neck a little bit to glare up at him and glower I
did, for all I was worth. With the exception of Claire, only Aranu
would dare to be so bold with me and while I allowed her that
familiarity, from him it was intolerable. I didn't stop to question
why this was the case, I only knew that deep down, it was.
Aranu's eyes dropped to my sides and I
watched him take in the way my hands were clenched into tight
fists, the way my chest was rising and falling with each sharp
intake of breath. His head cocked to the side as he stood there,
clearly trying to decide how far he could push me. I squared my
shoulders and kept my gaze level with his own dark eyed stare,
every bit as stone still as he was. More so because I had to
Guys?” Li's deep voice
shattered the intense battle-of-wills stand off that Aranu and I
had been engaged in. He walked up to us with a deceptively casual
stride; Li was tough, despite the easy charm he exuded. Right now
he was blatantly curious.
meant...nothing.” Aranu held my eyes for a moment longer before he
turned and walked to the edge of the forest, giving me his
Fine.” I bit out,
irritation rising. “See that you don't bring it up
I only meant that you're
tough.” he said without turning around.
That's right, I am, and
you'd do well to keep that in mind.” I took a deep breath, almost a
gasp really, and glanced quickly to the west so that Li–and Aranu,
should he decide to turn around–wouldn't see the turmoil I was
certain would be obvious in my flushed face.
Why was I being such a bitch? I liked Aranu,
most of the time anyway. We had grown up together. He wasn't a bad
person, I reminded myself, feeling composed enough now to toss a
glance at his stiff shouldered form.
I expect it'll be a quiet
night.” I spoke the words to Li, though I continued to stare at
Let's hope, eh?” Li
smiled and I gave him a curt nod in return.
Yes.” I managed a tight
smile, still smarting over the terse exchange with Aranu. “I'm
leaving now. Look for me at Claire's if there's a problem before
Two days without patrol.”
Li tsked. “You'll go soft, Aries.”
I choked out a laugh and shook my head.
“Dream on. I'm leading a rescue mission to Coztal. I'll be back in
a week, if all goes well. If not...”
I lifted one shoulder and let the statement
trail off. It went without saying, if there was trouble, the
projected one week time frame would be shot to hell and there was
always the chance I wouldn't make it back at all, though not if I
could help it.
Stay safe.” Li gave me a
Yes, I will. You too.”
With one final glance at Aranu's back, I shrugged and walked
The forest was pitch dark by the time I'd
finished the small jog from the edge of Bellview's eastern
perimeter. I stood there in the middle of the dirt path for a
moment, hands resting lightly on the dark leather belt that rode
low on my hips, and considered the best way to go. The path on
which I rested would certainly get me back to Grandview, to Claire,
with a bare minimum of fuss.
No doubt it was the safest direct path to
where I needed to go. But...if I took a shortcut through the woods
I knew I could shave at least ten minutes off my time. If I flew,
another five. I grinned recklessly and eyed the trees for a moment,
looking for a good, thick, solid branch. There. That one. Less than
thirty seconds was spent debating the wisdom of taking the shortcut
before I lowered into a crouch and sprang for it.
With an ease bred from familiarity, I caught
the sturdy branch I'd selected. Even though I couldn't remember
quite that far back, not with clarity anyway, the odds were good
that I had learned to fly almost before I'd learned to walk. Most
woodland nymphs did; it was simply a more effective way to travel.
It was not, however, always the safest mode of transportation. Not
by a long shot. But I hardly gave the potential danger a second
Danger and I were, more often than not, two
ships passing in the night. At least when I was flying. Other times
didn't bear thinking about but here in the trees, well, I was in my
element. At this height, birds and tree climbing beasts were the
only real threats, that and maybe Kahn's guards. Up here, the
forest was pleasantly quiet without being foreboding or silent.
Only the faint rustle of the wind as it murmured through waxy green
leaves could be heard, a clear enough indication that no predators
As for Kahn's guards, well they were in
short supply these days, I acknowledged with a tight feeling in my
chest that was half way between nerves and pride. Besides, as fast
as I was flying, swinging from branch to branch in the zig-zag
pattern that had become habit, the guards would only pose a threat
if they were excellent marksmen and I knew from experience most of