I’m super-excited to share the first chapter of CROWNED! The full title launches on November 28th, and it marks the fourth and final book in my Beholder series. There are so many aspects of this series that have been waiting for the fourth installment in order to reveal…I can’t wait for the 28th, and I hope you enjoy chapter one in the meantime!
It was never a good idea to spy on the gods, as a rule.
That said, I was never one to follow the rules.
All of which was why I now stood in a hilltop ringed with skulls, staring out over a deserted landscape. A shiver of foreboding rolled across my shoulders. This place gave new meaning to the word bleak. Ashen soil stretched off in every direction. Charcoal-colored clouds wheeled overhead. A freestanding archway made from chipped stone loomed nearby. The thing looked like a ruin, but it was actually a magickal gateway called the Skullock Passage. Soon, this archway would also serve as my supernatural keyhole for spying on the gods. Quite possibly, I’d be killed in the process.
Considering my situation, it was a risk worth taking.
I glanced up at the darkening sky.
Almost time to begin.
Any minute now, a slash of blood-red light would appear by the horizon, marking the arrival of the Martyr’s Comet, a heavenly body that showed itself once every two thousand years. Unfortunately, the Martyr’s Comet had all sorts of dark legends surrounding it, such as the prophecy that whoever was the strongest Necromancer alive when the comet appeared, then that same Necromancer had to die when the comet vanished.
This particular legend had changed my life from bad to worse.
First, the bad part. About two months ago, my one-time Mother Superior, Petra, informed me of the Martyr’s Comet prophecy, including the bit about the strongest Necromancer dying. That was certainly bad news; some poor mage was supposedly doomed.
Second, the worse part. Then Petra shared that I was the strongest Necromancer alive and she planned to end my life when the comet vanished. In other words, about three days from now. As I said, worse.
Of course, I’d no intention of dying any time soon. I just needed more information so I could foil Petra’s schemes—hence my spying expedition.
A flicker of light appeared at the horizon. My gaze locked on the spot. Was that the Martyr’s Comet?
I squinted into the darkening sky. The brightness clearly shone white, not red.
Only a shooting star, then.
A weight of disappointment settled on my shoulders. In some ways, I was looking forward to the comet’s arrival. With it, there came additional powers over gateways, especially for mages like me. Tapping into those extra abilities, I’d turn the Skullock Passage into my personal spy-hole.
Take that, Petra.
A small cloud of dust began spinning on the ground nearby. The particles whirled in curlicue shapes that were too perfect to be natural. Magick. My heart lightened. Perhaps my mate Rowan was arriving. I had expected him to magickally transport here any second.
Sadly enough, blue lights sparkled deep within the haze. A weight of dread settled into my bones. Someone was casting a transport spell, only it wasn’t Rowan. My mate was a Creation Caster, so his power came from life and his magick glowed red. This brightness shone blue, which meant the visiting mage was a Necromancer like me.
Most likely, Petra was sending yet another messenger my way, asking me to fulfill the Prophecy of the Martyr’s Comet and die willingly on the comet’s last day. Meeting these messengers was never pleasant, but it wasn’t particularly dangerous, either. Petra wouldn’t try to kill me until the Martyr’s Comet was just about to disappear.
Small comfort, really.
Within seconds, a wisp of a girl materialized beside me. She looked about sixteen years old with large brown eyes, pale skin, and raven-dark hair. The image of her skull had been magickally marked onto her face in dark tones. Her clothes were long black robes decorated with a few ties, which was the formal dress for a Sister, the lowest level of initiated Necromancer.
The girl spied me, gasped, and fell to her knees. A small puff of dried earth flew up where she landed. “Greetings, my Tsarina.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. All Petra’s messengers fell on their knees when they first laid eyes on me. It was rather unsettling. I wasn’t this girl’s Tsarina, and even if I were, bowing and scraping weren’t my idea of fun.
“I’m Elea. Just Elea. What’s your name?”
The girl clasped her hands under her chin. “I am called Petra’s Echo.”
Not again. Petra was forever renaming her followers. So far this week, I’d met Petra’s Consolation, Petra’s Light, Petra’s Patience, and now, Petra’s Echo. It was demeaning to steal away someone’s identity in such a manner. My one-time Mother Superior was turning crueler by the day.
“What’s your real name?” I asked.
“I gave it to you. Being called Petra’s Echo is an honor for me.”
It was an effort not to roll my eyes. Should I fight her on this point? Perhaps. This girl seemed more open and innocent than my past messengers, so I might be able to break past Petra’s brainwashing. Plus, I did have some time before both Rowan and the comet arrived. I decided to test the waters. “How about I call you Echo?”
“Whatever you wish, Tsarina.”
I fought the urge to smile. None of the other messengers had allowed me to de-Petra their names. Maybe I could help this girl.
Echo glanced nervously around, as if Petra might be lurking under a nearby rock. “But make no mistake. Everything that I am today comes from Petra and Petra alone. I owe her my life.”
I sniffed. “That’s not how I remember it happening. As I recall, there was a great battle. On one side, there was the evil mage Viktor. On the other side, there was me and my mate Rowan. During the fighting, I summoned an army of Necromancers back from the dead to help win the day. You have my skull-mark on your face. That means you were one of those mages. Petra played no part in it.”
“Oh, how disrespectful I have been to you, my Tsarina.” Echo leaned deeper into her kneel, stopping only when her forehead slammed against the ground. “You did indeed raise my physical body from the dead. However, Petra has since renewed my soul. I beg you to forgive me. Hear my vow: I promise to worship you as well, my Tsarina.”
“That’s not what I meant.” I knelt beside her. “I wish you wouldn’t worship Petra or me. When you regained your mortal body, it’s true that my death magick reached out to your spirit. But never forget—it was your will that tapped into my spell. You hauled yourself back into the realm of the living. On its own, my skills couldn’t have done that. Power and light dance inside you; those are yours alone. Don’t ever give credit for them to someone else. Not even me.”
Echo angled her head against the dusty earth, stopping when her gaze met mine. “This is all a trick.” Her voice quavered. “You are testing my faith.”
“No, I’m trying to help you. How about we both stand up?”
“As you command.” Echo hopped upright and stared wide-eyed toward the horizon. When she spoke again, her voice held the singsong notes of a trained speech. “My name is Petra’s Echo. You are our Tsarina, born Elea of Braddock Farm. You raised my body from the dead, and now my soul is led by Petra, the Most Holy Messenger of the Gods.”
With slow movements, I forced myself to rise once more. “You’d best share what you came to tell me.” I glanced up at the sky. No red slash of light; the Martyr’s Comet had yet to arrive. There was still time to convince this girl.
Echo kept speaking in her singsong tone. “Petra is the Mouthpiece of the Gods, and she has a request for you. Our people believe you are our Tsarina.”
“I’m aware.” When I refused to take over ruling the Necromancers, Petra simply told everyone I was leading them from afar. It was most annoying.
“The Mouthpiece of the Gods has trusted me with a great secret.” Echo lowered her voice to a whisper. “You are not truly our Tsarina. You haven’t completed the sacred rites.”
I sighed. “I’m aware of that as well.”
“Don’t you want to be Tsarina? You’ll be hailed as the strongest Necromancer alive.”
“That’s precisely why I don’t want the title. Right now, being confirmed as the strongest Necromancer isn’t exactly a good thing.” I shook my head. “Not that you’d know that. The messengers never receive all the necessary information.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. The divine Petra has told me everything I need to know. Her message to you is this: complete the rituals and take over your true mantle as our Tsarina. Cease your pointless refusals.”
Here we go again. Every missive from Petra was the same, as was my response, which always came in the form of a question. “And has Petra told you why I refuse?”
Because she never does. I’m sure Petra wouldn’t find so many willing messengers if they knew the truth. No one wants to tell someone powerful that they must die soon. “Did Petra give you totem rings, by any chance?”
“Two of them. It is an honor.” Echo lifted her dainty hands. She wore two silver thumb bands carved in skull patterns—the classic sign of Petra’s totem ring creations. The reason for the bands was simple. Necromancer spells required exceedingly long incantations. Grand Mistresses could load magick onto rings and activate them with a single word.
“She always sends one messenger and two totem rings.” I shook my head. “Those bands aren’t a gift; they’re a means of controlling you. Petra has loaded that first ring with a memory wipe spell. It will activate once we’re done talking, usually when you speak the formal Necromancer farewell, valedictions. The second band is loaded with a transport spell to bring you back to Petra’s side. That one will launch when you say the word transport.”
“You’re wrong about the totem rings, you know.” Echo lifted her right hand. “This isn’t a transport spell.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What is it then?”
“I see.” This girl was proving tough to reach. It was time to call in my best weapon. “You never answered my question. Do you wish to know the truth about why I refuse to become Tsarina?”
Echo hugged her elbows for a moment. Then, she nodded.
“Good.” I gestured to the rickety arch behind me. “This is a gateway. Have you seen any before?”
“Yes, there’s one hidden in our Cloister. It leads to another world—the Eternal Lands of the Sire and Lady.”
“Quite right. The Sire of Souls and the Lady of Creation fashioned all the magickal arches in our world. Most of them lead to the Eternal Lands, but some connect elsewhere instead. In fact, legend tells of a place called the Meadow of Many Gateways where the arches link to nothing but other worlds.” I gestured to the night sky. “Every two thousand years, the Martyr’s Comet appears and weakens these gateways. Since our world has been magickally tied to so many others, we can’t risk those arches falling apart. The very foundations of this world would collapse.”
Echo popped her hand over her mouth. “Is that true?”
“Unfortunately.” As if to highlight the point, a low rumble shook the earth. These quakes were becoming more and more common. “Up until this point, Petra and I believe the same things. But what I’m about to tell you next? That is where we differ. Petra also believes that the Martyr’s Comet carries with it a prophecy. Have you heard of it?”
Echo frowned. “A prophecy related to the Martyr’s Comet? Never.”
“I hadn’t heard of it either until a few months ago. This prophecy states that when the Martyr’s Comet arrives, the greatest mage must sacrifice their life and power into one of these very gateways. The arch will then soak in their magick, distribute it to the other gateways, and maintain our world. The most powerful Necromancer alive is supposed to rule our kind. As a result every two thousand years, our Tsar or Tsarina always sacrifices themselves to the gateways.”
Echo blinked. “I don’t understand. You need to die?”
“The Martyr’s Comet will appear any minute now. It will then cross by the horizon and vanish in three day’s time. At the end of the third day, Petra plans to kill me and toss my body onto one of these gateways. But I won’t let it happen.”
This last part was a bit of a lie. I’d cast vision spells, pored over ancient texts, consulted Seers, and hired legions of mortal researchers. All of them confirmed that some unlucky Necromancer always died to fulfill the prophecy of the Martyr’s Comet. According to every vision spell and Seer, the next sacrifice was likely to be me.
Echo’s pretty features fell slack with chock. “But everything will fall apart without the gateways having magick. You said so yourself. Don’t you want to save our world?”
“I do, but there’s always more than one way to accomplish any task. In my case, I am mated to Rowan, a Creation Caster. We’ve shared our Necromancer and Caster energies to create a new kind of hybrid magick. It’s incredibly powerful. In fact, I think it could fix these gateways. But Rowan and I need access to the gateways in order to test out our spells.” We also needed to spy on the gods for more information before the testing could begin, but I didn’t volunteer that fact.
“Oh, that won’t happen. The Sire and Lady have warded every gateway. You can’t even approach them safely, let alone cast a spell.”
“I’ve noticed.” I scanned the dark sky again. “Once the comet appears, that will change. I’ll be able to cast a spell or two.”
“And the Sire and Lady will allow that?”
“No, unfortunately. I’ve pleaded with them for information about the gateways and hybrid magick. They’ve refused. They won’t even lower the wards so I can test out a few minor spells. Don’t you think that’s suspicious? Shouldn’t I be allowed to try something else before giving up my life?”
Echo stared at her totem things. “This is all very confusing. I’m failing at my task.”
Poor Echo. She seemed so deflated and miserable. “Look, you’ve failed at nothing. Petra has no real verbal message for me today. She merely sends Sisters like you to show me that she can get to me whenever she wants to…And she plans to find me at on the third day of the Martyr’s Comet.”
Echo twisted her totem rings in a nervous rhythm. “The Mouthpiece of the Gods warned me that you wouldn’t agree. But I’m not to transport back to her like the others. I’m to activate this totem ring, bringing the Divine Petra here to speak to you directly.”
I frowned. This was different for Petra, and with the Martyr’s Comet about to appear, I didn’t like things changing, especially with someone as young and inexperienced as Echo around.
“Listen to me carefully, Echo. Do not speak the word to launch that ring.”
Echo went on anyway. “Possession!” With that word, Echo’s totem ring flared with blue light. Instantly, an indigo haze enveloped the girl. Her eyes took on a glazed and empty look. When she spoke again, Echo’s voice had a distinct monotone. “I have taken control of this lesser mage. Now I give my true message to you, Elea.”
I’d heard that voice many times before. Petra. She’d cast a spell of possession on young Echo. A chill of fear crawled up my limbs. This wouldn’t end well.
I cupped my hand by my mouth. “If you can hear me, Echo, you need to stop speaking.”
On reflex, I reached out with my mage senses, getting ready to cast a counter-spell. Necromancer power lay all around me, resting heavily in the bones and fossil-laden rocks under the earth’s surface. I drew that energy into my soul. Magick flowed into my limbs, making the bones in my arms glow blue with power.
When Echo spoke again, it was still with Petra’s voice. “You’ll never pull in enough power in time to help this lesser mage. You must stop fighting me and pay attention. You have forced me to possess this girl’s body because I must teach you a lesson. When you disobey the gods, this what happens to those you love.”
Blue light flared once more from Echo’s totem ring. More possession spells. With unnatural speed, Echo turned to face the deadly gateway.
I gasped. “No!”
Without so much as a glance in my direction, Echo rushed toward the magickal arch at a supernatural pace. I quickly glanced upward. The Martyr’s Comet still hadn’t appeared. Echo was headed toward a gateway that remained fully warded and absolutely deadly. I simply had to stop her.
I raced toward the girl. “Wait!”
But Echo didn’t seem to hear my words. Just as Petra had predicted, there wasn’t time for me to cast a spell or catch up by running, especially considering Echo’s magickal burst of speed. I could only watch in horror as the young girl stepped under the arch. For a moment, Echo stood frozen in place. After that, her body took on a glass-like sheen, like she was made of porcelain instead of flesh and blood. Blue light illuminated her from within. Dark fissures formed along her skin and robes. My heart cracked as well.
The gateway’s magick was about to pull Echo apart.
With a great boom, Echo shattered into a thousand glowing shards of blue light that flew into the illuminated stones of the gateway. For a moment, the arch’s rocks flared with such a bright shade of blue, they almost looked white. A weight of sadness settled into my soul. There was no coming back when you were obliterated by a gateway.
Echo was dead.
Around me, everything returned to its non-magickal state. The gateway’s stones returned to being non-illuminated blocks of gray. I stared down at my arms. Blue light still shone in my bones. There’s still so much power in my body, all of it ready to cast a counter-spell. Plus, if Rowan had been here, we could have brought hybrid magick into the mix as well. That was even more energy.
And yet, I couldn’t save that innocent girl.
Echo was gone, but her words—or I should say, Petra’s—reverberated through my soul: “When you disobey the gods, this is what happens to those you love.”
Petra kills them.
Meaning I should sacrifice myself or she’d take those I cared about.
Waves of rage tightened up my rib cage. Petra had moved on from sending threatening messengers to murdering mages before my eyes. My one-time Mother Superior had made her point: she would do anything to force my sacrifice, one way or another. And there was no question who she planned to go after next.
Those I love.
If Petra’s intention was to frighten me into submission, it didn’t work. With each passing moment, more of my will hardened into stony resolve. I would still spy on the gods and get some answers. Then I’d use that information to learn hybrid magick and fix the gateways.
And after all that, I’d make Petra pay for what she’d done to Echo.
END OF SAMPLE
Beholder CROWNED launches on November 28th. Preorders are live today.