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Once Upon a Midnight Drow

This is going to be one super fantastic week of new releases!!!!

 

I have something super special for you to check out today! I can’t even tell you how excited I am about this completely new book coming out later this week. For those Oriceran fans, sorry, this isn’t part of the Oriceran Universe. It’s a totally new series not connected to anything else, yet!

 

Chapter 1

It was time to do the impossible.

L’zar Verdys felt it coursing through him—the rightness of the moment, the tug pulling at his core to rise to the call and finally put into motion everything the soothsayer had predicted. For two hundred years, he’d waited for this night.

“Lights out in five.” The night guard stalked down the walkway of cell block Alpha, his boots clicking on the metal mesh.

“Not even gonna give us a pass for the new year, huh?” L’zar’s neighbor Relaude let out a low whistle.

The guard’s rhythmic footsteps stopped at the cell on L’zar’s right, and the metallic ping of the man’s cattle prod for magicals echoed through the block. Just a light tap-tap tap against the bars. “You don’t get a pass for another fifty years, Relaude.”

“Forty-nine, actually—”

The weapon cracked against the cell bars, throwing up a sizzling flash of purple sparks when the buzzing, electrically charged nightstick struck the cell’s magic-dampening wards. “We can double that if you want, inmate. Or you can keep your fat Orc mouth shut.”

Relaude let out a low, rumbling chuckle but didn’t say another word.

L’zar stretched out on the thin mattress of his single bunk, slate-gray arms folded behind his head of white hair as the guard picked up his slow, rhythmic march down the cells lining Alpha block. It sounded like Richardson, and sure enough, there was Richardson’s bulbous nose lit up in perfect profile as the man passed L’zar’s cell. The guard didn’t pause as he swept a quick gaze over the Drow prisoner’s bare, tidy box of a room. Just one eyebrow lifted in contempt, then he continued down the row.

It’s the last thing these idiots expect. L’zar Verdys doesn’t make a sound, and it’s almost like he doesn’t even exist. They’ll notice when I’m gone, all right. And by the time they find out which direction I went, I’ll already have everything set in motion.

It was time to do the impossible, sure. The only problem with that was L’zar’s status as a convicted magical felon from the other side. But if the gateway couldn’t stop him from crossing over a dozen times to try his luck again and again with the soothsayer’s prophecy, a few dampening wards and human guards with low-tech tasers and fell darts didn’t stand a chance.

Let them think I’ve got my head down for the rest of it. L’zar sniffed, shifted his head more comfortably against his folded arms so his pointed ears could breathe a little, and crossed one booted foot over the other. Tonight, I’m getting out.

Richardson’s echoing footsteps receded down the block, then silence settled over Alpha until the guard in the tower pulled the huge lever that looked more like a breaker reset than the light switch on a max-security prison for non-human cons. “Happy New Year, inmates. Way to break in the twenty-first century.”

The lights cracked off with an echoing boom, plunging Alpha block into a half darkness punctured only by the red lights flaring to life above the guard tower.

Red for locked up tight. What a dangerously stupid human misconception.

For the first half hour, the block echoed with the rattling coughs, grunts, snores, and farts of Chateau D’rahl’s most dangerous magical prisoners as they settled in for the night in their single-inmate suites of concrete and metal frames and high-voltage dampening wards. L’zar waited patiently through all of it without a sound until the symphony of unrestricted bodily functions from at least four different races came to a standstill.

Then he pushed himself up on his bed, glanced through the bars of his cell door at that dauntless red light, and stood.

“Hey, Verdys,” Relaude whispered harshly from the next cell over. “Trying to stay up to watch the ball drop?”

L’zar ignored him and moved toward the steel toilet at the back of his cell.

“Man, what I wouldn’t give for some end-year grog and a good battle pit. Might be what I miss most about home.” The Orc’s low voice brought its usual muffled thickness through Relaude’s sawed-off tusks, the ends of which still protruded at broken angles from his thick lower jaw. L’zar saw those tusks in his mind’s eye every time his neighbor spoke. “Hell, I’d even fight you.”

“You’d lose,” L’zar muttered, working around his prison-issue sweatpants to relieve himself. Just another inmate hittin’ the John before hittin’ the sack. But the whole time, he was counting down to the perfect moment.

Relaude snorted. “You don’t think I could kick your Drow ass back to Ambar’ogúl?”

“Not if we were already in a ‘Ogúl battle pit, Greenskin.”

Another low chuckle came from the next cell over. “That how you got popped and dragged into this hellhole? Tried to mind-fuck the CDO into lettin’ you off clean by arguing semantics?”

“You even know what semantics means?” L’zar flushed the steel toilet and took two steps away from it along the back wall of his cell.

A quick thump rattled the cement wall beneath Relaude’s thick fist. “Hey, if you were as smart as you think you are, you wouldn’t be locked up right next to me, would ya?”

“Watch me,” L’zar whispered.

An irritated growl rose from the other side of the Orc’s cell. “Shut the hell up, Relaude.”

“You wanna count down to midnight with me, Troj?”

“When the doors open, I’ll be countin’ down to your last breath if you don’t shut your fat green face.”

Relaude chuckled again, and the cot beneath the massive Orc groaned when he flopped back onto the disturbingly thin mattress. “Y2K. Gotta give it to these human chumps, am I right? Makin’ such a big deal about the end of the world and all. They don’t even know the half of it.”

That might’ve been the only thing out of Relaude’s mouth with which L’zar agreed completely. Saying it out loud would’ve been an invitation for more attention than he wanted right now.

The sound of Relaude scratching his hairy green armpit sounded more like a blade scraping against a whetstone. “Dumb and tiny and weak.”

“Shut up!”

L’zar stood just a few inches from the back wall of his cell and waited for his neighbor’s laughter to fade. Alpha block settled into another round of half-enforced silence, and the Drow closed his eyes to listen for his next signal.

The door to the guard tower clicked open and shut behind whichever one of them had drawn straws to re-up on their coffee for the night shift. L’zar’s pointed ears twitched at the muffled thump of the other guard’s boots being propped up on the console in front of him. That was Jones, then, settling in for a night of reading whatever cheap book he’d grabbed off the library cart.

And no one was watching the Drow standing just beside his toilet, facing the wall like he’d lost his mind.

L’zar’s fingers worked quickly in a short, intricate pattern in front of his thigh, undetectable by the swiveling cameras set high on Alpha block’s walls. The air shimmered around him, and his illusion spell formed at the back of the cell. Any guard who checked the cameras or stepped past his cell for another round of patrol would only see the Drow’s back, standing there beside the toilet, looking half asleep. And L’zar would be long gone before anyone realized how odd it was that his projected image hadn’t moved since an hour after lights out.

He placed his other hand on the concrete wall and muttered the words he’d been waiting twenty-five years in this dump for a night like this to say. Just a whisper, but the spell phased his hand right through the wall, and the rest of him followed. No alarms, no flashing lights, no reaction whatsoever.

They couldn’t budget the money to pay a conjurer for wards on all four walls of every cell. Relaude was right. Dumb and puny and weak. L’zar glanced both ways down the narrow, abandoned corridor stretching behind the newer, smaller cells of Alpha block. Of course no one was here. There probably wasn’t a single guard in Chateau D’rahl these days who knew the original bones of the prison.

Smirking, L’zar closed his eyes and brought up the memory of the prison’s layout. Almost fifty years ago, he knew he’d be making his way through these walls from the inside out instead of the other way around. Before the renovations.

“Time to do the impossible,” he muttered and set off for the sealed-up staircase that would stop him just as much as warded bars and a ten-foot box he’d called home for a quarter of a century. For a Drow thief, impossible didn’t exist.

 

Fifteen minutes later, L’zar crouched beneath the grove of bare cherry trees just beyond the barbed-wire fence around Chateau D’rahl.

“Barbed wire.” He snorted and shook his head. “These humans have a lot to learn.”

His fingers moved again in a series of twisting gestures for one more illusion. Gray sweatpants and white t-shirt filtered away, replaced by a well-tailored pinstriped suit. The Drow’s long white hair pulled back in a knot behind his head shortened and darkened, followed by the erasure of the dark gray, nearly purple pigment of his race’s skin. He glanced down at much shorter fingers on pink-hued hands, his flesh now bright beneath the moonlight. And no one would see the pointed ears of his race beneath the light-brown curls he’d adopted. No one would know a thing.

The pull of his destiny tugged at him again, like a hook through his chest. L’zar turned from Chateau D’rahl beneath the bright lights spilling over so much stone and concrete and iron and followed the tingling trail of magic he could no longer ignore.

“Where is she?”

The night was cold enough by human standards, but the Drow didn’t feel the cold. L’zar used to wonder what that meant until he realized it didn’t matter. The dark elf dressed as a businessman in a slim-fitting suit from the 1920s instead of a man setting out on the last night of 1999 moved swiftly down the frontage road, away from Chateau D’rahl and toward the heart of Washington D.C. Even if he’d had a car, it couldn’t have taken him as quickly through the industrial district hiding a high-security magical prison as his own two feet. He moved as a blur in the moonlight until he crossed the river into Capitol Hill and hit the first overwhelming glimmer of lights and traffic and bars open for New Year’s.

He stormed down the sidewalk, fighting to keep his eyes open as he followed the trail of magic leading him on. Not her magic, no. My own. And the magic of our—

L’zar wouldn’t let himself finish that thought. He had to find the woman first, whoever she was, and putting the magical cart in front of the flying horse wouldn’t do him any favors.

Once he made it to 16th Street, the busy street echoed with the undertones of live bands blasting music from every bar, of laughter rising from open car windows and restaurant doors. A bellhop in a bright-red suit with gold buttons nodded at L’zar as the 1920s businessman stepped in front of the hotel entrance. Then the man continued pushing the luggage trolley across the sidewalk toward the car waiting on the curb.

The Drow in disguise froze at the sharp twinge of that tingling call yanking him sideways. Slowly, he looked up at the hotel’s entrance and saw the printed sign in silver and white, the half-dozen silver balloons buffeting against each other in the stiff breeze blowing down 16th Street.

I’ve seen those balloons before… This is it.

With another glance at the St. Regis Hotel’s brilliantly lit sign, L’zar made his way through the turning door, fighting not to phase himself through the glass partitions just to get inside that much faster. The lobby was bursting with D.C.’s finest socialites who’d come to bring in Y2K with a bang. That thought made him smirk, and he scanned the faces for any recognizable feature. Of course the soothsayer hadn’t given him a name or an image or even a specific year, but tonight felt drastically different than all the other nights. Tonight, that call blazed like a siren in his head.

“The right place at the right time. Now I just need the right…” As he moved through the laughing crowd in the lobby, a group of women in short, glittering dresses and beaded headbands passed him and headed toward the event room just off the bar. One of them glanced back and offered him a coy smile, which the Drow returned politely enough. That’s not her.

But the magic of prophecy in his veins pulled him after the women anyway.

L’zar watched them make superficial conversation with two men standing just inside the ballroom doors. He waited until they entered the room, then stepped up to follow only to be stopped by a man in a tux clearing his throat.

“Your invitation, sir.”

The Drow reached into the manufactured inside pocket of his pinstriped suit jacket and whipped out a five-by-eight piece of thick cardstock. Without looking at the overly dressed bouncer, he snapped the fingers of his other hand and let his illusion spell do the rest of the work for him.

“Thank you.” Seeing whatever it was he wanted to see on the perfectly fake invitation, the tuxedoed employee handed the card back. “Enjoy your evening, sir.”

L’zar snatched up the card and made a show of tossing it into the pristine silver trashcan just inside the doors. The fake invitation disappeared in a swirl of thin white smoke, and the Drow convict moved through the ballroom like a panther on the hunt.

A four-string quartet played in the far corner, accompanying a man in a suit very much like L’zar’s who stood in front of a microphone to cover Louis Armstrong. Silver tinsel hung from every surface, silver ornaments dangling from the ceiling. A massive banquet table lined the wall on his left, laden with caviar and finger sandwiches, cocktail shrimp, beef tartar, artisan cheese. Even after a quarter-century eating gruel that didn’t even meet state prison regulations—Chateau D’rahl wasn’t state regulated in the first place—L’zar almost made a stop at the table.

A warm golden light shimmered at the other end of the ballroom. The Drow’s entire body lit up with that tingling pull, buzzing through his veins now because he was so close, just a room of people away.

“Where are you?” he whispered, scanning the faces. “Show yourself—”

“Champagne?” A woman in a short cocktail dress passed in front of him with a tray of full, bubbling champagne flutes.

“Thank you.” L’zar didn’t look at her either as he pulled a glass off the tray by its delicate stem and took off across the ballroom. Drinking was the last thing on his mind. This thread tying him to a woman he hadn’t met yet was making him drunk enough.

“The elections turned out very much the way we expected…”

“…would be nice not to talk shop for one night, Senator, don’t you think?”

“…when the Democratic Whip knocks on your door and asks for a favor…”

L’zar moved through the crowd, weaving between milling bodies and searching for that golden glow again. Part of him wanted to shed the illusion and gain the extra foot his Drow form would have afforded, but this was definitely not the place. Especially when most people this side of the border didn’t even know what a Drow was.

Two men in suits and freshly lit cigars—one of them pointing to his monocle and chuckling—passed in front of the Drow thief. L’zar huffed out a breath and flicked his finger. The monocle leapt from the man’s eye and clattered to the ground. The man bent to retrieve it, and L’zar slipped through the opening in the crowd. With small, short bursts of magic, he moved the partygoers out of his way—a woman’s beaded necklace pulling her sideways before snapping and spilling beads all over the marble floors; a stiff-backed caterer tripping over his own shoe; two cabinet members, judging by their snippets of conversation, both feeling a tug on the back of their suit jackets before turning around.

“Out of my way,” L’zar muttered.

“I’m sorry?” The redhead in a dress of copper-colored fringe turned and flashed the pinstripe-suited man a surprised smile.

“I said hell of a day, huh?” The Drow met her gaze, hoping he’d found her.

“And the day will be over in half an hour.” She grinned. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m—”

The pull reignited in L’zar’s chest, and he lurched away from the woman to follow it. “Excuse me.” That’s not her.

When he reached the other side of the ballroom and stood at the same place he’d seen that flash of golden light, he stopped, turned around, and studied the New Year’s Eve party from a completely different angle. None of these faces was remotely familiar. None of the bodies fit the mold of the woman he’d been trying to meet for centuries now.

Sighing, L’zar lifted the champagne flute slowly to his mouth and shook his head, scanning the faces and waiting for that tug of destiny to pull him again like a fishhook through the cheek. “If that soothsayer’s been playing me all this time…”

“Well you can’t believe everything you hear these days, can you?” The woman’s voice drew closer behind him, followed by a soft, subdued ring of laughter. “And if I were to have that conversation, Mr. Matthews, I’d like to see it written into my calendar first—”

A small weight bumped against L’zar’s back, and he leaned forward only to keep the champagne from spilling over the side of the flute.

“Oh, I am so sorry.”

He turned around, that tingling pull buzzing wildly now in his chest.

She laughed again. “I didn’t even see you there.”

L’zar Verdys froze and stared at the woman patting the back of her neck, dark curls piled atop her head. She wore a simple black cocktail dress and functional pumps, a string of pearls and matching earrings her only other adornment. But her blue eyes shone up at him above her hesitant, apologetic smile. I found her.

“You didn’t—I didn’t spill your drink all over you, did I?”

The Drow blinked and raised the champagne flute toward her in an un-sipped toast. “Not a drop.”

“Oh, good.” Her eyelashes fluttered a little faster than normal, and a small flush of color rose to her cheeks. “Have… we met before?”

Only in a future foretold. L’zar smiled. “I would definitely remember if we did. My name’s—”

“All right, Ms. Summerlin.” A man wearing a ridiculous-looking top hat stopped just beside them and dipped his head at the woman. “I’ll have my secretary call your office and set something up. You look a little busy.” He winked and turned away without acknowledging L’zar’s presence.

“I look a little—” She blinked rapidly and let out a startled giggle. “It’s a party. And I’m… I’m sorry.” When she looked up at L’zar again, her blush deepened. “You were about to tell me your name.”

“Leon Verdys.” L’zar offered his free hand, and he would have tossed the champagne flute behind him if that wasn’t sure to make them both the center of attention. That’s the last thing we need now.

“Leon. You know, I’m very good with names, but I don’t remember yours. And you still seem so…” The woman licked her lips and shook her head a little, trying to clear it of the strongest sense of déjà vu she’d ever had. “Bianca Summerlin, Mr. Verdys. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The minute she slid her hand into his, the world might as well have stopped turning. A jolt of centuries-old certainty coursed through L’zar’s entire being, and Bianca Summerlin gasped.

“Did you—” She stared at their clasped hands, then cleared her throat. “Did you feel that?”

“Feels like the end of the world.” He didn’t let go of her hand.

“I’m sorry?”

“Y2K and all that. Right?” The Drow let himself smile with a face that didn’t belong to him and finally, gently, released Bianca’s hand.

“Something like that.” She turned her head and studied him sidelong, then glanced at the champagne in his hand. “You’re not drinking?”

“I was about to. Then you found me.”

Bianca licked her lips, eyed him up and down, then lifted a hand toward the server coming by with another tray of champagne flutes. “I’ll join you.”

“I was hoping you would.” Before Bianca could pass him to grab another drink for herself, L’zar reached out with a curt nod and deftly plucked one more flute from the tray. The server kept walking, oblivious to the lightened weight of his carefully balanced tray. Bianca laughed when he handed her the drink and lifted his for another toast. “To new beginnings.”

“And hopefully not the end of the world.” They clinked their glasses lightly together, and before she raised hers all the way to her lips, L’zar took a brazen step toward her.

“You know, I’d almost given up hope tonight.”

“Oh, really?” Though she stared up at him without looking away, her breath still hitched in her throat. “Hope for what?”

“That I’d find the perfect person to bring in the new year with.”

Bianca laughed and lifted her champagne flute higher. “That’s an excellent pickup line.”

“Only if it’s working.” L’zar finally took his first sip without breaking her gaze. Even beneath his illusion spell, he was still a good six inches taller than Bianca Summerlin and had to peer at her over the rim of the glass.

Another breathless laugh escaped her. “I can’t believe I’m actually about to say this, Mr. Verdys—”

“Leon. Please.”

“Leon… It might actually be working. Your line, that is. But don’t let it go to your head.”

“I would never.”

“And I’ve had too much to drink.” Grinning, caught in the web of destiny ensnaring them both now, Bianca took a sip of champagne. She almost spilled it down the front of her dress when the announcer in the ballroom cut through the end of the song.

“Dear friends, honored guests, and gracious benefactors, we are nearing the last minute of the century.” A screen lit up over the doorway to the ballroom. “Please join us in counting down to the new year and the beginning of the 2000s!”

A cheer went up around the room, followed by laughter and a round of freshly poured champagne making its way through the crowd.

L’zar bent toward Bianca’s ear and muttered, “You look nervous.”

“Oh, I do, do I?” She offered a polite laugh, but the returning blush gave her away. They were both intensely aware of the fact that she didn’t lean away from his lips nearly brushing against her ear.

“I promise you don’t need to be nervous. Not tonight.”

She looked up at him and blinked. “And what—”

“Ten! Nine! Eight!”

When L’zar winked, she looked away only to down the entire glass of champagne in two gulps.

“Six! Five!”

“A night like this only happens once in a—”

“Century?” Bianca’s smile returned, this time fueled by the same unquestionable pull that had brought the Drow thief all the way to the St. Regis from Chateau D’rahl. “That’s hardly an excuse to throw all caution to the wind, Mr. Ver—Leon.”

L’zar leaned closer. “But you are.”

“Three! Two!”

She was trapped in his gaze. “I…”

“One! Happy New Year!”

Amid the tinkle of cutlery chiming against crystal glass stems, the cheers and hoots, the laughter and uncorking of a dozen more champagne bottles, L’zar placed a hand on the small of Bianca Summerlin’s back and bent to press his lips against hers.

What little willpower she’d still had after three hours of drinking with Washington’s political elite filtered away beneath that kiss. The empty champagne flute slipped from her fingers and shattered against the marble floor of the ballroom, unnoticed by everyone. No one noticed the tall man in the pinstriped business suit—perfectly fitted to the 1920s theme of a 1999 New Year’s Eve party—and the blushing, grinning research economist slowly making their way together to somewhere far more private, either.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

L’zar glanced at the clock on the bedside table—3:27 a.m. Beside him in the king-sized bed with one-thousand-thread-count sheets, Bianca Summerlin lay motionless in sleep, her dark curls spilling in a tangled, careless array on her pillow. The Drow turned toward her and brushed a lock of hair away from her cheek; the sight of his human-colored skin against hers brought only a momentary twinge of discomfort, but then it was gone. She sighed in her sleep when he leaned over her and pressed a soft kiss against the corner of her mouth.

“I found you for a reason, Bianca,” he whispered. “I hope you remember that. And I’m sorry for how long you’ll have to wait before you discover what that reason is. I’ll be waiting too.”

The corner of her mouth flickered in a dream-induced smile. The Drow thief passed a hand lightly over her curls one more time, then slid from beneath the sheets and got dressed. He was quick and silent, still full of energy despite having lain awake in that bed beside her for the last hour after she finally drifted off to sleep.

He stopped at the minibar and muttered a summons under his breath. A pale, shimmering light flared at his fingertips, and when it faded, the copper-coated puzzle box covered in Drow runes rested snugly in his palm. This L’zar set with an uncharacteristic tenderness beside Bianca’s small black purse on the minibar. When he gently tapped the top of the box, a wave of light spread from his fingertip around the trinket, then disappeared. He nodded and muttered, “When it’s time, you’ll know what to do with this. Both of you will know.”

With a final glance at the beginning of his destiny lying in the hotel suite, L’zar placed a hand on door and closed his eyes. No one in the hallway on this floor, which was just as well. He muttered the spell and phased through the door, just so he wouldn’t chance waking her. Then he straightened the lapel of his illusioned suit and moved toward the elevator.

 

Now that he’d done his part, that tingling, pulsing tug on his being was completely gone. The Drow moved through the streets of D.C. to a much less frequented part of the city right outside Capitol Heights. A cab might have given him a chance to relax and let someone else take the wheel for twenty minutes, but he wasn’t finished. And I can’t let anyone else see me until I’m ready to go back. Even like this.

The abandoned warehouse on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue was completely unchanged after twenty-six years. He just hoped the inside hadn’t changed, either.

When he reached the unmarked side door, L’zar’s fingers moved in another complicated pattern until his spell illuminated the faint green glow of the security wards. “Just the way I left them.” He chuckled and pressed his finger against the shimmering shape of a long, thin star with only four points. The wards flashed then disappeared, and he pushed open the door.

The blue-skinned troll sitting with his back to the door whirled away from the long desk of computer monitors and keyboards when the door’s rusty hinges squealed. “Who the hell are you?”

“Oh, come on, Persh’al. Is that how you treat an old friend?”

“Look…” The troll chewed on his bottom lip and raised both hands in part surrender, part wary caution. “I don’t know how the hell you got in, but whatever you think you’re gonna find, you better—”

Smirking, L’zar snapped his fingers with both hands, and his human glamour melted away. He gained another foot in height, his short brown hair lost all its color and dropped into the white knot tied loosely at the back of his neck, and the pinstriped suit was once more a white t-shirt and a pair of gray sweatpants with CDR stamped down the left leg.

Persh’al leapt to his feet with a shout of surprise and slapped his hands together. “L’zar! You dirty thief.”

The Drow spread his arms and grinned. “That’s what they tell me.”

“Well, ‘O’gúl Crown be damned.” A bark of a laugh escaped the blue troll before Persh’al stalked across the warehouse’s main room toward L’zar. “You’re full of surprises, ain’tcha?”

“Comes with the territory.”

The magicals clapped one another in a quick embrace before Persh’al stepped back and stared his old friend up and down. “What’s with the getup?”

“I’m serving a hundred-year sentence, Persh’al. Chateau D’rahl ran out of ceremonial robes before they booked me.”

“No…” The troll’s golden eyes widened, and he clapped a hand to his head shaved bald on either side of the neon-orange mohawk sprouting from the center. “You broke out of high-security prison for O’gúleesh, and you decided to come here.”

“Well, it wasn’t my first stop. But yeah.”

Persh’al sniffed, looked the Drow over one more time, then nodded and turned back toward the three long desks spread out in rows in the center of the warehouse. “I wouldn’t be my first stop, either. You sure nobody followed you?” When L’zar just raised an eyebrow, Persh’al snorted. “‘Course you’re sure. Who am I kidding?”

They stopped together at the first desk, where the lines of code blinked and scrolled in white, blue, and green across four different monitors. “I’m assuming you guys have been keeping an eye on things in here while I’ve been gone,” L’zar said, quickly scanning the information in front of him.

“Well, you’d be right.” Persh’al nodded and folded his arms. “None of us wanted to see you chained and locked up, but we’re not abandoning the cause just because you weren’t here breathing down our necks.”

“And here I was, thinking the whole operation would fall apart without me.”

Persh’al blinked quickly and stared at his friend before huffing out a laugh. “I see prison hasn’t humbled you a bit.”

“I was born with an indestructible immunity against humility.” L’zar fought back a smile.

“Yeah, sure. If that’s what you wanna call it.”

“So tell me what’s happening with the Res at Border 4.” The Drow nodded at the center monitor and folded his arms. It made him feel a lot better now to see his own purple-gray skin in front of him.

“Everything’s running as smooth as ever, man. Fifteen came through in the last two weeks. Half a dozen Orcs who wanted to start some kind of supply train. Four more trolls. Represent.” Persh’al pumped a fist in front of his chest. “Only two Nightstalkers this time, which is a lot better for everyone, if you ask me. They keep to themselves. And three Goblins. But they don’t really count.”

L’zar snorted. “They never do. Until they do.”

“Yeah, well, we’re watching everyone closely. As far as I know, none of the human organizations have noticed a thing, and they won’t.”

“You sound so sure of that, Persh’al.”

“Hey.” The troll turned toward L’zar and spread his arms. “I see everything from right here in this executive freakin’ desk chair, okay? Genuine Italian leather and everything. The humans on this side are never gonna crack this code, and they’re never gonna know we’ve got our hands in these proverbial cookie jars.”

The Drow gave his friend a tired smile. “Never say never.”

“Relax. My boys got it covered. Hey, they’re still your boys too, don’t forget. And they’re gonna light the deathflame torch when they hear you’re out.”

“No, they won’t.” L’zar looked down at his blue-skinned friend and cocked his head. “This is all temporary, got it? I don’t want any of the guys to know until I’m long gone.” He turned and headed toward the torn, sunken couch against the far wall.

“Long gone?” Persh’al snatched up one of the energy drinks he’d been pounding for the last five hours, took a long pull, and lurched after his friend. “Where you goin’ after this?”

L’zar slumped back onto the couch, shifting around to get the broken spring out from under him, and propped his legs up along the cushions, crossing one ankle over the other. “Right where I belong.”

“You think they’re gonna let you back across the border? Do they brainwash the inmates at Chateau D’rahl before they seal you up behind the wards that you somehow just…  broke out of?”

“Don’t be an idiot, Persh’al.”

“An idiot? Me?” The troll slowly approached the couch and drained the rest of his energy drink. “Okay, I might not have a Drow’s superior intellect, but any dimwit with half a brain knows that they’ll cut in you half the minute you step foot back in—”

“I’m not going back to Ambar’ogúl,” L’zar muttered. He folded his arms behind his head again and leaned back against the couch’s armrest. “You know as well as I do that I don’t belong there any more than the humans.”

Persh’al snorted. “That’s stretching the truth a lot farther than it can go, I think.”

“Well, you can think what you want.” The Drow took a deep breath of dust and rusted metal and the slightly burned odor of plastic casings in Persh’al’s powered-up rigs. “Smells like you need some new fans in your towers, by the way.”

The troll glanced back at the desks and the custom computers he and his men had built from scratch. Then he scratched the back of his head, ruffling the spikes of his orange mohawk. “Hey, I already ordered new parts for the server. My guys’ll handle it. Look, L’zar, whatever you’re—”

“Two days.”

“Huh?”

“Two days is all I need, Persh’al.” L’zar opened his eyes and slowly turned his head to look at his friend. “I’m just waiting for one more sign, and then I’ll be out of your house and your… hair.” He eyed the troll’s mohawk and smirked.

Persh’al sniffed and folded his arms. “Just two?”

“That’s what I said.”

“And you want me to keep everyone out of here for two days so you don’t blow your cover of an escaped convict.”

The Drow closed his eyes again. “That’s a good way to put it.”

Persh’al puffed out a sigh and shook his head. “You’re a piece of work, you know that? That was a rhetorical question, by the way. Don’t bother answering. I got your back for two days, brother. Least I can do to repay the last couple centuries.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

With a relenting chuckle, Persh’al turned back toward his computers and sank back into the executive desk chair he was so proud of.

L’zar cracked open one eye to look at his friend, then closed it again and let himself fully relax into the couch. One last sign. This has to be it, now. I finally found her, and there’s no way I missed the timing. Just have to wait for it all to line up the way I was told it would.

The escaped Drow thief fell asleep that night thinking of Bianca Summerlin and wondering if the child he wouldn’t get to see would have her mother’s curls.

 

Two days later, the final sign came just like he knew it would.

“They’re crackin’ down,” Persh’al muttered, rubbing his hand vigorously over his blue forehead covered in orange spots. Then he leapt from his chair. “I gotta go. You good here?”

“Go do what you gotta do.” L’zar finished the last of the energy drink his troll friend had gifted him and tossed the can in the trash.

“Right. Yeah.” The troll snatched up his black messenger bag propped beside the desk and slung it over his head and shoulder. Then he headed for the warehouse door.

“Hey, Persh’al.”

The troll stopped and turned over his shoulder. “What’s up?”

“Thanks for holing me up in here. It was good to see you.”

Persh’al chewed on his bottom lip, his eyes narrowing as he gazed at the Drow convict. Then he nodded, because now they both knew what this meant. “Yeah, you too. I’d tell you not to get into too much trouble, but… that’s pretty pointless.” With a wry chuckle, the troll raised a hand in farewell and slipped out through the side door.

L’zar waited forty-five minutes before he made his move. He took on the same human form in which he’d brought in the year 2000—in bed with Bianca Summerlin—and opted this time for a pair of jeans and a sweater. Then he phased through the warehouse and its security wards and made his way back through D.C. toward Chateau D’rahl at undoubtedly inhuman speed.

The  weren’t looking for this face, of course. They only knew him as Inmate 4872, six-foot-seven, slate-gray skin tinged with purple, long white hair. They knew him as L’zar Verdys the Drow.

So it came as no surprise when, as he stepped through the open chain-link gates outside of Chateau D’rahl, the guards stationed there had no idea who he was or what to do with a human.

“Sir, you’re gonna have to move along. This is a high-security facility, and it’s not open to civilians.”

L’zar spread his arms and raised them just a few inches above his head, then walked slowly forward.

“Sir, stop where you are and turn around. Did you hear me?”

The man in jeans and a sweater looked up at the security cameras lining the front of the magical prison. The guards’ radios crackled, and a muffled voice came through.

“Yeah, we’ve got a man out here trying to walk right onto the premises.” Crackle. “I have no idea what he wants. I’m not gonna invite him in and ask him for his whole life’s—what the hell?”

L’zar let go of his illusion spell and felt the glamour fade away. Even more satisfying than that were the looks of disbelief, then terror, then rage passing over the guards’ faces. He grinned at the cameras. Just a little something to remember me by. They’ll find this when it’s time.

“On your knees!” Three weapons all trained on the returned prisoner, two of them loaded only with bullets, the third with fell darts that might or might not be discharged at the Drow any second now. L’zar could smell it. “I said on your knees, inmate. Hands behind your head.”

L’zar did as he was told, staring up in amusement as the guards headed toward him, weapons at the ready. The closest one—his nametag read Thomas—holstered his firearm to remove a pair of magic-binding handcuffs from his belt.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the man hissed as he folded L’zar’s arms behind the Drow’s back, met with no resistance whatsoever.

“Aw. Did you miss me?” L’zar sucked in a sharp breath when the dampening cuffs clamped down around his wrists.

“You’re in deep now, inmate. Stand up.” Thomas jerked the Drow to his feet and jostled L’zar toward the prison’s front doors, flanked by the two other guards who would not yet lower their weapons.

The Drow thief glanced up at the slightly elevated surveillance booth outside the prison entrance and grinned at the guard gaping down at him. He caught just the last piece of the radio conversation before the doors buzzed open and Thomas pushed him inside.

“O’Brien, you’re not gonna believe what I’m looking at right now. It’s Verdys. Just showed up out of nowhere and… Christ, he just turned himself in.”

 

 

Chapter 3

 

September 4th, 2021

“Are you kidding me right now?” Cheyenne lowered her beer bottle to the table, and while she didn’t mean to slam it down, exactly, it sounded a lot like she did.

“Nope.” Ember leaned back in her chair, smirking, and slowly spun her gin and tonic on the table. “I think you can help. No, I know you can help.”

“Help with what? Em, I didn’t understand a single word out of your mouth just now. And even if I did, I’m the last person you should be talking to about this.” She swallowed, wanting to chug the rest of her third beer and knowing that would just make her order another one sooner than she wanted.

“You’re the only person I can talk to. Listen. These guys have been pressing in on us for a couple months now, but they just took it to a whole different level. One of them showed up at my friend Trevor’s work, Cheyenne. His work. Right there in front of everyone.” Ember stopped twirling her glass and leaned closer over the table, lowering her voice. “Trevor didn’t do anything wrong, but this stupid Orc threatened him with a body bag. And magic.”

Cheyenne blinked and hoped she looked clueless. Is she serious? “Orcs, huh?”

“Yeah. Big ones.”

“And you think I’m gonna sit here and play along with whatever fantasy world you’re living in?” Cheyenne was acutely aware of her grip tightening around the beer, her black-painted fingernails nearly scraping against the glass, and she might have felt the bottle crack just a little beneath the pressure. Or at least a tiny fracture. Keep it together, Cheyenne. This is not the right place.

Ember squinted at her and shook her head. “What do you mean, ‘fantasy world’?”

“You just…” Cheyenne glanced around Gnarly’s Pub on East Clay Street and lowered her voice. “You’re talking about Orcs and magic, Em. I’m not stupid. If you’re trying to shock me into believing this crap, you’re wasting your time. It sounds like your friend Trevor’s dealing with some kinda gang issue, and I’m not gonna touch that, either.”

“Seriously?” With a snort, Ember took a long drink of her gin and tonic and set the glass gently back down. “I know there’s a lot of hush-hush going around, especially with the borders unofficially officially open now. But I’m not buying it for a second that you have no idea what I’m talking about.”

“Oh, I get it. This is about money.” Cheyenne jerked her hand away from her beer and folded her arms. The chains dangling from her wrists clinked against each other, cold against her sides through the thin fabric of her black tank top. “I thought we were both adults, Ember. If you need to borrow some cash, all you have to do is ask.”

“Money? You think this is about—” Ember threw her head back and laughed a lot louder than the conversation warranted. “I don’t want or need your money. I need what you are. And so do my friends. People like us have to stick together, and I haven’t seen you with any other magicals since… well, since I met you, actually. I can’t be your only friend.”

People like us? Cheyenne ground her teeth and took a deep breath, trying to force down the rage boiling up inside her. That would just make things worse, and it would prove her friend’s point better than anything Ember could say out loud. “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you,” she muttered through clench teeth. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on, Cheyenne.” Ember thumped her fists on the table. “Drinking at dive bars and living in a dumpy apartment does a pretty good job of hiding who your mom is, sure. And yeah, it’s a good mask to cover up the fact that you’re the only person I know who’s not actually worried about trying to support themselves through grad school. But this…” She gestured toward Cheyenne with one sweep of a hand.

“This what?” Cheyenne’s nails dug into the palms of her clenched fists.

“This whole Goth thing, girl. I mean, sure, most of the world’s not even gonna try to look past the face paint and the piercings through it, so good job fooling everybody else. But you can’t hide who you are. If I saw it freshman year, you can bet other magicals around Richmond with a lot more experience are gonna pick you out of a crowd no matter what you’re wearing.”

Cheyenne snorted. “Me being Goth doesn’t automatically mean I believe in magic and Orcs and whatever other bull you’re trying to convince me of right now.”

“True. But you’re a bad actor and an even worse liar.” Ember smirked, lifted her glass in a toast she didn’t expect her friend to join, and took another long drink. “So, are you gonna come help out your only friend, or what?”

“I can’t give you what you want.” Cheyenne shifted her folded arms, then finally couldn’t keep still any longer and reached out to swipe her beer off the table again. “And I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Seriously, Cheyenne, I have no idea what’s stopping you or why you’re so set on playing this game. Still. Honestly, until I met you, I really thought halflings were just a legend. But the Drow’s already out of the bag, so to speak—”

“The what?”

“Oh, please.” Ember snorted. “Don’t tell me you’ve never heard that word before, either.”

That did it. The bottle in Cheyenne’s hand burst, sending shattered glass and foamy ale all over her hand and the table and the already sticky, grungy floor of the bar. She stared at her shaking, sopping hand, feeling the heat rush up her spine and curve across her shoulders without being able to do a thing to stop it. Just this once. Please, just one time, don’t let it come out…

“Cheyenne.”

“What?” Why do I keep breaking things but never cut myself?

The amusement had drained from Ember’s face now, replaced by a sympathetic frown as she pointed to the side of her own head. “Your, uh… your ears—”

The chair screeched behind Cheyenne as she launched herself away from the table and to her feet. Before the chair tumbled over backward and clattered to the floor, she was already rubbing her black hair vigorously with both hands, trying to cover up the changes she knew most people wouldn’t believe but that her only friend had apparently picked up on four years ago.

One of the bartenders stopped beside their table with a rag in hand, ready to clean up the mess. “Everybody okay over here?”

Cheyenne’s hip bumped against the corner of the table as she stormed away from him toward the Gnarly’s front door. Ember just barely managed to catch her own drink before it joined her friend’s beer on the floor, but she stayed in her seat. “Cheyenne. Hey, come on. You don’t have to leave. I’m not—”

The door burst open with a little jingle from that stupid bell some idiot thought would be fun to tie to the handle, and then Cheyenne was outside in the fresh September air. The door bounced shut, and she stalked down the sidewalk in front of the bar, taking deep breaths. How does she know?

“That’s a stupid question,” she hissed at herself, shaking out her hands as she stalked toward the alley on the other side of Gnarly’s. She slipped between the buildings, pressed her back against the brick wall of the alley, and closed her eyes. “She knows because you have serious anger issues. That’s how.”

The chains she wore every day, rain or shine, sleeves or not clanged against each other as Cheyenne lifted her hands toward her face and peered at them in the half light mostly blocked by the alley’s shadow. The dark blotches of grayish-purple skin dotting her forearms were already starting to fade, leaving nothing but her pale, vampirically white skin instead. “I have no problem with the vampire jokes. But she wasn’t joking, was she?”

She brought both hands up to her head and poked around in her mess of black hair, which now looked like she’d just rolled out of bed and rubbed a balloon all over it. Not that she spent a lot of time on her hair, anyway. But what Cheyenne was trying to gauge with her fingers had in fact been successfully hidden by that mess of hair she’d been dying High Voltage Raven Black for the last six years. Her fingers ran up the sides of her ears, brushing over the industrial piercings and the half-dozen rings passing through each piece of cartilage until she reached the very top.

Perfectly round, human-shaped ears. No pointed tips. Hopefully they weren’t that slate-gray color anymore, but even if they were, that would disappear soon too, anyway. Cheyenne puffed out a sigh and ruffled her thick hair until it covered her ears and all the silver rings again completely. Then she dropped her head back against the brick wall and stared up at the escape ladder and the catwalk on the other side of the alley.

“She could’ve just been messing with me.” The heat of her rage had almost completely faded from her body now. “No, she actually brought up the ears. Out of all the other things, why does it always have to be the ears?”

The lid of a dumpster a few yards down the alley clanged against the brick wall, and a skinny man in a kitchen apron with a serious case of adult acne lugged first one giant trash bag and then another onto the almost overflowing pile. “I can’t say anything about your ears, kid, but it sounds like you have some serious issues.”

Cheyenne turned to look at the cook who’d been firing up jalapeño burgers for her every Tuesday night since last year and jerked her chin up at him, smiling. “Bite me, trash boy.”

“Hey, that’s more like it.” Grinning, the cook—she thought his name was Sam—slammed a hand against the side of the dumpster and pointed at her. “Don’t lose that winning attitude, Wyoming.”

“Yeah, you think it’s cute. I was born here, by the way.” She stared at him until he slipped back into Gnarly’s side door, stopping just long enough to shoot her a wink. Then she was alone in the alley again, the rage was gone, and Cheyenne was ready to go talk to the one person besides her mom who apparently knew what she was. Shaking out her hands again and calmed by the cold, heavy clinking of the chains around her wrists, she stepped out of the alley and headed back toward the bar’s front door. “Okay, let’s start over.”

If Ember knew about Cheyenne’s little secret—which really wasn’t so little but had been easy enough to keep under wraps, or so she’d thought—it didn’t change anything about their friendship over the last four years. Except for the fact that she’s apparently a better liar than I am.

And if Ember was coming to her now for help with whatever this Orc problem was, after four years of never crossing this line into humans-versus-magicals territory, maybe she really did need Cheyenne’s help. Maybe there was actually something the half-Drow Goth chick could offer that no one else could.

When she was only a few yards from the bar’s entrance, the door burst open with that stupid jingle, and Ember stepped outside. Cheyenne opened her mouth to start the slippery slope into heartfelt apologies, but her friend turned in the complete opposite direction and moved quickly down the sidewalk. Ember hunched over, one finger stuck in her ear while the other hand pressed her cell phone against her cheek. “Are you serious? Why would he—” Ember groaned and briefly glanced up at the night sky. “Yeah. No, Jackie, listen to me. I’m on my way, okay? Just… keep him from doing anything stupid. Please. Hey, if anybody can do that, it’s you. I’ll be there soon.”

Shutting her mouth, Cheyenne frowned and followed her friend down the sidewalk. She paused beside Gnarly’s front door for a quick glance inside, but nobody seemed to care about the two regulars in a dumpy bar full of regulars, all of whom had their own problems to deal with without chasing down someone else’s.

Maybe I should’ve listened to her. Cheyenne glared at her wane reflection in the door, backlit by all the lights on East Clay Street. The ring through her septum glinted in the light, and in the warped glass, it almost made her look like she was smiling.

“Sometimes.” She glanced back down the sidewalk to see Ember turn the corner around the building, cutting across the parking lot. Maybe there was something Cheyenne could do to help.

Time to find out what she meant by ‘people like us’.

 

______________________________________

WHOA! This is getting intense! I can’t wait for later this week when this one comes out! Can you?

Check back later this week to see this book launch!

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