The Seelie court is gone, and the Tower has fallen into darker hands. Now nightmare creatures terrorize the Fey races, and the whole Fey world turns to frost and shadow.
Liz Larson holds the last remnant of the Seelie Sidhe's power. The elves look to her for guidance, but all she has to offer them is the disturbing story of their origin, the final truth that will turn many of them against her. With her dwindling number of allies, Liz needs to reopen the borders, to find the missing Marcus Bramble, and to avoid the sudden, terrifying attention of the new Fey ruler, the Unseelie Speaker and new master of the Sidhe Tower.
While her friends in Mundanity race to pry open the gates, and Marcus searches for the answer to a puzzle that could save or damn them all, the Unseelie Speaker marches north, bringing his army and his wrath to focus on Elizabeth.
What can one, fairy-touched human do in the face of the Unseelie court's full fury? How can she fight when the enemy's anger is only partly blind, when she can see all too clearly the traces of justice behind it?
Frances Pauli was born and raised in Washington State. She grew up with a love of reading and storytelling, and was introduced to Science Fiction and Fantasy at an early age through the books kept and read by her father.
Though she always held aspirations to be a writer, she chose to obtain her Bachelor’s degree in visual arts. The stories, however, had other plans for her. By the time she entered her thirties, they were no longer content existing solely in her head. Compelled to free them, she set aside her easel and began to write in earnest.
Her original love of Speculative fiction combined with her covert excursions into the Romance section led her into the realms of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance, where she finds herself quite comfortable. Her fascination with Science Fiction and a growing passion for the NASA channel divert her happily into tales of the far future, alternate dimensions, and the wonders of space, usually with at least a touch of romance.
Frances currently resides smack in the center of Washington with her husband and two children. When not writing she dabbles in insane things like puppetry, belly dance and playing the ukulele. She collects rocks, and is a firm believer in good wine, fine chocolate and dangerous men. Her short fiction has appeared in Alternative Coordinates magazine.
Visit Frances online at http://francespauli.com
Hoof beats rang like gunfire down the alley. Their sharp echoes ricocheted along the side of the dumpster, rattling the metal and waking the woman who leaned against it. She groaned and wrapped the rags more tightly across her shoulders. Shadows wove across the alley, and the woman shivered against the cold as much as the unfamiliar sound of hooves on asphalt.
She listened to the beats, pressed her thin frame closer to the brick wall and waited for the authorities to dislodge her. When the noise stopped and no cold voice shouted for her to be up and moving, curiosity got the best of her. She ventured a peek around the dumpster’s rusted corner and squinted against the darkness until she’d nearly written off the sound to her unreliable brain’s imaginings.
Then the blackness snorted. It moved, shifting its weight from one gleaming hoof to the other. It lowered its head as if it knew she watched, as if it waited for her to move. She sighed. A wave of excitement swarmed from the depths of her despair, and she responded, drawn by the flick of an ear and the twitch of a velvet muzzle. Her hand reached out. Her fingers curled toward the temptation of horse flesh.
The beast’s nose stretched closer, and she caught the gleam of an arched neck, the cascade of tangled, black mane. Her hand brushed satin. One of the hooves stamped, loud and hollow against the night. The lips tensed and pulled back from a row of jagged teeth.
The woman froze. She felt the first stutter of panic as the horse’s head tilted to regard her with fiery, red eyes. The silky nostrils vibrated, and a snort like thunder echoed against the bricks. The lips pulled back further, killing the equine resemblance completely. She saw the shoulders, the broad ebony chest, and the thick thighs that bent in the wrong direction. Her panic exploded in a scream, cut short by the first flash of pointed teeth.
The stone rampart rested under a skin of ice. Beyond it, the land lay frozen, each blade of grass encrusted with frost, each bare tree branch shimmering in the early light. The forest sparkled like a jewel. Above the keep, the snow level had dropped. The trees just behind their sanctuary frosted at the tips. The stone peaks flashed white against the sunlight. The fairy cloud, the last remnant of color in the mountains, had abandoned the tower when the weather turned.
Liz pulled her cloak tighter and leaned on the crenellation at the very top of the keep. Her breath fogged and drifted visibly on each exhale. She could smell the snow coming. The sharp scent of it had lingered on the wind for the past three mornings. But today, the sun triumphed over the growing press of clouds. It rose clear of obstruction and cast a pink glow across the courtyard.
Horses called from the stable--the same building where Marcus had been held prisoner--for their morning ration of hay. A few cloaked and bundled figures drifted from one outbuilding to another, warming foot paths through the icy grass and leaving dark green trails behind them.
The trap door creaked open and then landed hard against the stones. The bang split the quiet of the rooftop, echoing against the mountain peaks. Liz watched as Lockland scrambled through the opening and tried her best not to giggle.
"How many tunics are you wearing?" she asked. His cloak bulged and lumped around his torso. He held it so tightly wrapped that he resembled a giant pupae. Wisps of white hair danced out from under his hood.
"I’m freezing to death." His boots clipped against the stone as he negotiated the icy surface. He loosened his wrapper enough to slide an arm around her waist and rested his chin on her left shoulder.
"I was just thinking how beautiful it is," she said. He felt spongy against her, had to be wearing at least half his wardrobe.
"What is?" he asked.
He sighed and turned his face into her hair for warmth. "We don’t have winters." Despite the truth of this, his world was slowly freezing over. The cold fell on them with unnatural speed from the moment the Tower passed from the Seelie court’s hands.
"I know." She leaned back into him and looked skyward. There had been little time to put up stores, no time to prepare for a winter that could last forever. "We should send a party down to Limbar today."
"They’re running as low as we are."
"I know. But sometimes the refugees bring supplies with them." She didn’t add, and more mouths to feed. "We can gather news, at least. And it will give the Ambassadors something useful to do."
"If you can get any of them to venture out in the cold."
"Right." She frowned and pulled her own cloak tighter. She hadn’t asked to be anyone’s leader, but then, she hadn’t needed to. The gift that the late Sidhe Vision had forced upon her bought her the elves’ loyalty regardless. Still, the Ambassadors proved less than useful. Like lost sheep, they’d followed her to the keep, mainly for lack of any other direction. Now they spent the days drifting through the wide hall, fighting with one another, and complaining to anyone who’d listen. Liz found productive tasks for them whenever possible.
"I was thinking of hunting again soon," he said. "Daimon, at least, is good with a bow. Maybe I can take a few of the others as well."
"Good." Time alone to continue unraveling the visions in her head might help her to sort out more of the puzzle she’d inherited. Getting Daimon away from her for any amount of time would also ease her nerves. The man still avoided any contact, but he’d taken to shadowing her movements. She couldn’t look up without catching him sneering in her direction. "He’s giving me the willies."
Lockland held her tighter and breathed into her hair. He laced soft kisses across her neck. They turned together when the ladder rattled again. Laurel’s head popped into view, swathed in the deep green of her cloak.
"You’re letting the cold in!" She clambered onto the rooftop in a sea of skirts, lifted the trap door and settled it back over the hatch.
"Sorry," Lockland muttered into Liz’s neck.
Laurel shrugged and looked across the rampart. The snake road curved away through frosted trees. "I was thinking of making another run down into Limbar."
"You read my mind," Liz said.
"No, that’s your job." Laurel shifted her cloak and joined them at the wall. "But I’m getting weary of sitting around here, and we could use the news." She flashed Liz and sideways grin. "You want me to take Daimon along?"
"Lockland’s taking him hunting, thank gods. Maybe I could go down with you, though. I think I could use to get out too."
"Someone’s coming." Lockland broke into the discussion. He pointed down where the road disappeared into the forest. "Walking."
Liz stiffened and pinned her gaze to the spot. They got few refugees at the keep. Most chose to remain at Limbar rather than climb the long road into the mountains and even lower temperatures. Now, however, shadows broke from the tree line, and two dark figures approached on foot.
She squinted against the sun and examined their guests. At this distance, the travelers appeared as indistinct, dark lumps, but the dawn’s angle cast their shadows in magnified perspective across the silvery ground. One dwarfed the other.
"It’s a gnome," Laurel said. "And, I think. Is that a troll?"
The two continued at a steady pace toward the keep. Liz leaned out over the battlement and felt Lockland’s grip on her waist tighten. Nothing could mask the size discrepancy between the new visitors.
"Thump," Liz said.
"How’s that?" Laurel asked, cocking her head.
"It’s Thump, I’d bet on it. And Edgar or Ethan, but..." She slid back to upright and contemplated the duo. There should be three of them. Lockland brushed at her hair.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I know them," Liz said. The approach finally drew the attention of the Ambassadors currently manning the watch. Two riders broke from the keep’s shadow and trotted to the head of the road. The rhythm of hoof beats just reached them on the rooftop. "They’re friends of mine"
Laurel nodded and turned back to the hatch. "Well then, we should probably head back down."
Liz followed them back into the tower that had been her prison, that had held both Marcus and Lockland as well. In Lockland’s case, it has served more as hell than prison. They took a short ladder down from the roof, and she waited on the rickety landing for Laurel to close the trap door. Was this the spot where Brendan vanished from the tower? They’d never be sure where the bastard had stood when he used Sylvia’s blood tie to escape them the first time, but at least the mystery of the means had been solved. At least the man was dead.
She shivered at a last gust of frigid air slid in. Laurel bolted the hatch and led the way toward the stair that would take them into the keep proper, past the boarded off room with its hallway of dingy cells. Brendan might have been dead, and his body abandoned to the cobblestones and whatever a rain of fairies might remember into existence, but the keep still housed the remnants of what he’d done. It still had its ghosts. They whispered at her in the night, just as the Sidhe’s memories flickered in her peripheral during waking hours.
The stair dropped into the huge hall where she’d seen Lockland’s doppelganger fall, where the imposter’s blood still stained the flagstones. The cluster of Ambassadors huddled around the hearth spun toward them as they left the alcove. Liz had the urge to hide, to slink down until Lockland and Laurel barred her from view. She’d grown so weary of the expressions, the expectations. Eventually, she’d have to tell them what the Sidhe remembered. She’d only hoped to untangle the many layers first--or maybe she waited for something better, some bright twist or inspired wording that might make the story more palatable.
She sighed and turned away from them, but not before catching Daimon’s scowl. A blast of cold air joined it from the tower entrance. She couldn’t have said which was chillier. Still, her heart warmed at the silhouettes she found in the doorway: Thump and one of the gnomes who’d helped her escape both from Brendan and her descending madness. More friends at the tower would be a welcome addition.
She rushed to greet them, stopping short only when the doors shut and the sconces illuminated the newcomers more clearly. Thump’s huge shoulders sagged. A bandage wound around Edgar’s middle, and a large portion of it boasted an unmistakable bloodstain. The gnome limped along, supported by a crooked stick and the thick arm of his companion. Both of them looked shredded.
"What happened?" Liz knew. They’d heard the stories from other refugees, of skirmishes with the dark Fey races, of the horrible things haunting the southern woods. She didn’t want to ask the obvious question, but she’d never seen the young gnome without his father. Where was Ernest?
"Three blood caps and a dozen boggins happened." Edgar’s eyes shimmered once and then shifted to his boots. He shook his head. No need to ask, then.
Liz sighed and tried to smile. They had room for two more. They’d find some way to provide, winter or no. "Welcome." She held out her hands to both of them. "You’re safe and welcome here, my friends." She completely ignored the grunts from the elves by the fire. Daimon could go to hell. She’d be damned if she’d turn these two, or anyone else, away.
Marcus woke to the egg’s pulsing. The stone floor made a hard bed, but the surface was smooth enough to allow for sleep. The crystal egg nestled in an indentation where whatever hands hollowed out this place had seen fit to grind out a spot for it. The facets flashed pink and orange and refracted prisms onto the dome overhead.
He touched it. His fingers flowed across the surface, drawing a random pattern. The glow subsided at his touch, burning only at the core, a knot of fire flickering in the egg’s heart. He placed both his palms against the warmth it emitted, and the color shifted, yellow, green, blue-white. "What now?" he whispered. Like every other time he asked, the egg gave him no answer.
If he’d been condemned to death, the plan had gone awry. He knew no thirst, nor did his stomach request sustenance. Since his arrival in the tomb, only warmth and silence touched him. As he slept, and woke, and paced around the room’s perimeter, the egg sat silent and glowing in its center.
He’d examined the circular mural until the images blurred together. The script had no meaning in any language he knew. He abandoned his efforts to decipher it when staring at the squiggles started to give him a headache. Instead he passed his waking moments contemplating the egg. He stroked its surface and watched the play of colors inside.
At some point, he started talking to it. His story poured over the crystal and tainted the atmosphere of the cave. Still he spoke to the egg, told the clear surface about his people, about his friends, and eventually, about Laurel Haven. The glow absorbed his words without changing. The egg didn’t crack at his touch, the touch of a villain. It didn’t turn dark against him. The damned thing didn’t answer him at all.