Ashayna shivered at the slow trickle of moisture down her back. The day had dawned unusually humid for so early in the spring. Still, her discomfort had little to do with the heat and everything to do with the stomach-souring dread currently tying her in knots.
Glancing down at the tracks she’d been following since dawn, Ashayna frowned. Her anxiety spiraled up another notch as an unseen force guided her mare around a pile of deadfall, taking the same path as the tracks. Lupwyns had increased their raiding in recent days, and she’d seen similar sights on other scouting missions. At first glance, this set of prints was ordinary enough, but it didn’t explain why she couldn’t set one foot in any direction but forward.
Lord-Master Trensler and his acolytes would be quick to label what forced her onward as ‘demonic magic’—the darkest of evils. If she had to call it something, she preferred the name ‘sentience.’ It was somewhat less dire than calling herself demon-possessed. A chill swept down her spine at the thought. Naming it didn’t help her out of her current predicament, nor did it explain how she’d become possessed in the first place, or why the sentience was so interested in this particular lupwyn’s tracks.
Time to test fate again. Her stomach twisted as she exerted her will against the sentience and reined in Swiftrunner. Her mare halted with a questioning flick of one ear. Ashayna sought a calm place in her mind while she waited. It didn’t take long for the reaction she had come to anticipate.
Spreading out like ripples on a pond, waves of hot and cold washed over her, flowing down her arms all the way to her fingertips while other tendrils reached out for the rest of her body. Power. Magic. Heresy. It wouldn’t be long before iron bands of pressure forced her into obedience like it had the last four times she’d stopped or turned away from the tracks.
“Fine. You want me to follow these damned tracks?” Ashayna challenged the sentience. “I’ll follow them.” With a huff she dismounted and glared at the prints. “But my horse isn’t going to become some lupwyn’s evening meal.”
She started up the trail, one slow step at a time. With each one, the sentience loosened its hold by small degrees, much like a snake uncoiling from its lifeless kill. A shaky breath escaped her. “I am a Stonemantle. I am not afraid of you—whatever you are. I. Am. Not. Afraid.” She wasn’t certain if she believed herself, and doubted the sentience believed her either.
Pressing the heel of her palm against her forehead, she tried to stave off the beginnings of a headache left over from the rapid departure of so much power. It probably wouldn’t work, but at least the sentience was content. For now.
Ignoring the grasping fingers of the wind, she pushed errant strands of hair back from her face. Much like the wind, the sentience was unpredictable and dangerous—and just as persistent.
Ahead, the prints veered off the path, sloping towards where she could hear the soft rumble of a stream. A hemlock’s expansive branches obscured her view. With a muttered curse, she ducked under the wet foliage. The stench of rotting vegetation rose up to swirl through her nostrils. Prickles of anger danced along her control when her feet slipped from beneath her and she slid to an ungraceful heap next to the water’s edge.
The sensation of being herded hadn’t ebbed completely. She gritted her teeth, wanting to strike out at something, tired of feeling helpless. But fighting, yelling, or sobbing wouldn’t do her a lick of good. Answers were what she needed most, and the only way to get those was to continue on the path the sentience chose. She flexed her fingers to stop their shaking. She just hoped her own personal curse didn’t get her killed by a lupwyn. Or worse, burned alive. A shudder raced over her at the thought of the punishment awaiting her at the hands of her own people, should her demonic possession be revealed—maybe it would be better to be a lupwyn’s dinner after all.
Hunkered on her heels, she appraised the ground. Ignoring the icy mud and moisture seeping between her boot laces, she sank ankle-deep into the quagmire. The tracks didn’t disappear into the water. Rather, a little way north of her position, three sets of tracks now marred the mud.
She crouched next to the new tracks and skimmed her fingertips along them with a light touch, afraid the saturated soil would collapse. Embedded alongside the familiar prints of a lupwyn was a much rarer track. Human-like, the prints had three elongated, forward-facing toes and a thicker, heavier digit at the rear. Each ended in a deep gouge mark where talons had sunk into the soil.
Sticking a finger in the icy water, she measured the depth. A low whistle escaped when her fist touched the mud before her finger reached the bottom.
“Damn big talons.” Though she’d never seen their likeness, she knew these were made by a phoenix. They fit the sketchy descriptions she’d heard soldiers whisper about when the acolytes weren’t near.
Was this what the sentience wanted her to find?
She glanced up, scanning the stream and its bordering trees. Their branches far enough apart, a phoenix flying overhead might be able to navigate between them to land safely in the water.
A phoenix here?
This new development explained the increased lupwyn patrols she’d been evading. This was the closest the enemy had ever come to the vast city of River’s Divide. What if they were mobilizing for an organized attack?
She prowled along the stream, scanning the ground for more clues. A few steps from where the phoenix tracks first emerged from the water, something glimmered in the dappled light filtering through the canopy. Ashayna edged closer until the mystery resolved itself into a bit of silver and a bright slash of indigo. Reaching down, she plucked the silver chain from the mud.
An indigo feather the length of her hand dangled from a silver clasp. Frowning, she stroked a finger down its silken length. A surprisingly pleasant scent—reminiscent of heat, spice, and the crisp, fresh air of a mountain plateau—tickled her senses.
And it wasn’t the only thing tickling her senses. An alarmingly familiar mix of heat and cold stirred in her blood again, tightening its bands of control. Numbness spread across her palms. Her fingers tingled with a frosty ache. When she tried to drop the necklace, her hand wouldn’t obey.
Even as she backed up the slope to solid ground, the hairs on the back of her neck stood. Desire rose, so strong it robbed her of her breath. Power radiated out like tentacles. Not again, she moaned at the sudden rise of the sentience.
Like a hound on a scent, it flowed below her skin, alternately caressing, and then probing forcibly at her mental barriers. A second wave of energy crashed against her shields, buckling them. The sentience invaded her mind. Where fear and desire had been its favorite tool, it now flooded her with joy. Delight, elation…those feelings seemed too small, too insignificant to encompass what she felt beneath her skin, within her mind. Her possession was now complete—every sense was alive with the feelings, even as she watched it from afar. Almost against her will, her hands looped the medallion around her neck.
Silvery flames burst to life along her arms to pool between her hands. It didn’t hurt. Agony she could have dealt with; this…this new sense of rapture was so much worse.
A cloud appeared in the air, to hover an arm’s length from her. Faint as smoke, it thickened, swirling and rolling like fog. Churning and spinning, colors danced until it had grown in size.
Vivid greens, muted greys, sun-bleached whites. They formed a stone courtyard adorned with fountains, statues, and lush foliage. Then darker whorls of indigo mixed with lustrous browns, coalescing into an exotically handsome man. He was tall, bronze-skinned, bare-chested, and wore some kind of bright, indigo-colored cloak. The cloud of magic spun itself larger, revealing more of the man. Oh, it wasn’t a cloak. He had…wings. Not a man at all, this must be a phoenix. She glanced at the indigo feather hanging from the necklace, then lifted her gaze to what—or rather, who—might be the source of the feather. While she’d spent a dumbfounded moment staring down at the feather in her hand, he’d turned, his back now to her as he looked out over a stone-tiled courtyard. His fingers tapped against his thigh in clear agitation. From behind, he looked less human.
A stiff breeze ruffled his crest feathers into disarray and plastered a long, fan-shaped tail against his calves. He whirled around, whipping his tail out of the way, and paced in her direction. She focused on his face. His strong brow, well-defined cheekbones, and firm jaw surpassed human beauty. Still, the intensity of his gaze would give a wise woman pause. She wasn’t sure if his frown was a normal fixture or just a reflection of some inner conflict.
Her gaze roamed his broad shoulders, down the naked expanse of his muscular chest to his waist where a paneled-leather kilt hung low on his hips. He truly was majestic, exuding a sense of contained power in his every move.
“Hmm, perhaps I’m not the wisest of women.”
She sighed, mentally pushing aside the faint hint of longing. There would be no place for such feelings. It was war, and the commanders of armies had already decided their species would be adversaries. “Yes, he’s attractive, but you must have other reasons for revealing him to me.”
Magic swirled faster through her blood. “Guess that’s a yes.”
Wincing at the throb in her head, she concentrated on his image.
He paced in a semi-circle, his frown deepening as he searched his surroundings. When his gaze locked onto something in her direction, tension rippled along her spine and lodged between her shoulder blades.
Graceful and predatory, he stalked toward her
and swiped the air. Nothing happened. He continued to look perplexed, his feathered brows furrowing into a frown. Tilting his head to one side, he closed his eyes. His lips moved, shaping unknown words.
Instantly, the sentience flared in response, sending a wave of its foreign wanting through her. She clamped her will down, determined she wouldn’t be enslaved. A rush of power surged through her mind, expanding out, breaking past her control. For one horrifying moment, she felt her body gathering itself to move closer to the strange window, to cross over the threshold.