Query and Chapter One of Betrayal’s Price

Since I haven’t thought of a good blog topic, I’ll post chapter 1 of Betrayal’s Price, contracted by MuseItUp Publishing.

http://museituppublishing.com/

(This hasn’t yet been edited)

Here’s the query/blurb:

For some, rebirth is not a reward.

Centuries ago the gods demanded Ashayna Stonemantle sacrifice her demon-tainted lover. She did, and then ended her own life. It didn’t fulfill her obligations to the gods.

Reborn into a new body, Ashayna has no awareness of her former life until her sentient magic rouses and it manipulates her into seeking out Sorntar, Crown Prince of the Phoenix. Sorntar reveals that she is host to a Larkin—a spirit creature of vast power. If she can trust the word of a man who is part avian, he is host to her Larkin’s other half. Their Larkins will one day awaken and force them into an unbreakable bond.

When Ashayna and Sorntar are accused of possessing Larkins corrupted by an ancient evil, they must work together to discover what happened in the past to pit bondmate against bondmate. During their search, she falls in love with Sorntar, but before she can tell him, his tainted Larkin enslaves him. The gods demand she kill her beloved, as she did once before, but she will not do it, even if it’s the only thing that will keep her soul safe from his darkness.

Chapter 1

A line of dampness trailed its way down Ashayna’s back. The day had dawned hot, the air unusually humid for so early in the spring. With midday still distant, there’d be no relief from the clinging heat anytime soon. Still, if the sweat trickling along her spine had been caused by the heat and not stomach-souring dread, she would have considered herself lucky.

She guided her mare around a pile of deadfall. When they were clear, Ashayna’s gaze drifted back to the side of the path where a lupwyn’s wolf-like tracks were embedded deep into the mud. Lupwyn raids were on the rise, and she’d seen similar sights on other scouting missions. At first glance, there was nothing unusual about these particular tracks, no hint as to why the cursed magic in her breast reacted whenever she tried to move away from them.

“Time to test fate again,” she mumbled to herself. Her stomach twisted with nerves as she reined Swiftrunner in with a white-knuckled grip. Then taking slow calming breaths, she waited for the sentience’s magic and foreign desires to invade her mind.

A mix of heat and cold expanded within her chest as the magic uncoiled from where it rested under her heart–just like the last four times she’d stopped or turned away from the tracks.

“Fine. You want me to follow the tracks?” Ashayna asked the sentience. “I’ll follow the thrice damned tracks.” She tossed a leg over Swiftrunner’s back and dismounted, then glared at the lupwyn’s prints. “But my horse isn’t going to become the evening meal for some lupwyn.”

She started up the trail, one slow step at a time. Now that she was moving, the magic loosened its hold on her mind. She didn’t know if she’d stumbled upon some kind of magical trap that might diminish in time, or if what infected her was something darker, more permanent. No matter how many times she shied away from thoughts of possession, she always came back to that possibility.

She heaved out a shaky breath and pressed the heel of her palm against her forehead, but it did nothing to dull the beginnings of a headache. Wind-driven strands of hair had escaped her braid and whipped around her face. She battled the persistent breeze as she dragged the wisps out of her eyes, and then tucked them behind her ears. The sentience reminded her of the wind–unpredictable and capable of great destruction.

Ahead, the prints veered off the path, sloping towards the stream where a hemlock’s expansive branches obscured her view. With a muttered curse, she ducked under the wet foliage and began slipping and skidding her way to the water’s edge.

The sensation of being herded still hadn’t ebbed completely, but her mind was clearer.

Mud oozed around her boots and moisture seeped between the laces as she sank ankle deep into the quagmire. The tracks didn’t disappear into the water like she’d expected. Ashayna leaned closer and caught her breath. A little ways north of her position, three sets of tracks now marred the mud.

She crouched next to the new tracks and skimmed her fingertips along the prints with a light touch, afraid the saturated soil might collapse. Embedded in the mud alongside the familiar wolf-like prints of a lupwyn was a much rarer track. The strange prints were shaped somewhat like a human foot with the exception of the three elongated forward-facing toes and one shorter, heavier toe at the heel. And each ended in a deep gouge mark where the talon had sunk into the soil.

Despite the chilled water filling the punctures, she measured the depth with one finger, then whistled in surprise when she didn’t hit bottom.

“Damn big talons.”

She’d never seen their likeness, but these must be the tracks of a phoenix.
Was this what the sentience wanted her to find?

She glanced up at the sky and scanned the trees bordering the stream. Their branches were far enough apart that a phoenix flying overhead might be able to navigate between them and land safely in the water.

This new development could explain the increased lupwyn patrols she’d been evading the last several days. She’d never seen lupwyns this close to River’s Divide before, and if the tracks continued in the direction they were presently headed, it would bring the enemy far too close to the port settlement.

She walked along the stream, scanning the area for more clues. A bit of silver and a bright slash of indigo lay embedded in the mud next to one of the tracks. She scooped up a silver chain.

An indigo colored feather as long as her hand dangled from a silver clasp. It was a necklace–a surprisingly clean necklace. She frowned at it, and then stroked a finger down the feather’s length. At the contact, a surprisingly pleasant scent filled the air. It reminded her of heat, spice and the crisp fresh air of a mountain plateau.

Numbness spread across her palms and her fingers began tingling with a frosty ache. She tried dropping the necklace, but her hand wouldn’t obey. Even as she backed up the slope to solid ground, the sentience’s intense desires flooded her as it expanded in her chest. Threads of power radiated outward, 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 before fear had been its favorite tool, joy now flooded her. Delight, elation…those words were too small, too insignificant to encompass what she felt. Against her will, her hands looped the necklace around her neck.

Silvery flames burst to life along her arms and pooled between her cupped hands. It didn’t hurt. Pain she could have dealt with, but this…this new sense of rapture was so much worse.

A cloud appeared in the air, hanging an arm’s length from where she stood. Faint at first, it thickened like fog rolling in from the harbor, becoming opaque. It churned and spun while it grew in size, then took on a more solid substance. Colors moved within the cloud, forming shapes. Her mouth went dry.

Vivid greens, muted grays and sun-bleached whites formed a stone courtyard adorned with fountains, statues and lush tropical plants. Then darker whorls of indigo mixed with lustrous browns, coalescing into the image of a phoenix. He stood with his back to her as he looked out over the stone-tiled courtyard. If his fingers tapping against his thigh were any indication, he was agitated about something. This close, the phoenix appeared more human than she’d expected….if she disregarded the massive wings, broad feathered tail, and impressive crest.

A stiff breeze ruffled his indigo-colored crest feathers into disarray and plastered his tail against his calves while he paced around a stone-tiled balcony. The phoenix tracked the breeze as it picked up leaves and other bits of debris. Stalking forward, he snatched a leaf out of the air and traced its shape with one thumb.

He whirled around, whipping his tail out of the way, and continued pacing around the courtyard. She got a good look at his face. His strong brow, well-defined cheekbones, and firm jaw surpassed human beauty. Still, the intensity of his gaze would give a wise women 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, and then followed the naked expanse of his muscular chest to his waist, where a paneled-leather kilt hung low on his hips. He truly was lovely.

“Perhaps I’m not the wisest of women,” she muttered.

Not that it mattered. War had already decided their species would be adversaries.

Her fear had vanished at some point, replaced by anger. “Yes, he’s attractive, but you must have other reasons for revealing him to me.”

The magic swirled faster through her blood.

“Guess that’s a yes.” She winced at the throb in her head and concentrated on the 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. He approached and made a swipe at the air where the window–or whatever it was–would have corresponded on his side. Nothing happened. He continued to look perplexed, his feathered brows furrowing into a frown.

“Oh, that can’t be good.” Ashayna scooped up a handful of mud and pine needles and heaved it at the phoenix. The lump flew through the magic cloud, smacking into the trunk of a tree behind it. She sighed with relief. It was just a picture after all.

His expression turned thoughtful, and tilting his head to one side, he closed his eyes. His lips moved, shaping words she did not know. The sentience flared in response to whatever he’d said.

She clamped her will down, determined she wouldn’t be enslaved. The sentience struggled, fighting her, but blessed and merciful Creator, the vision unraveled one tendril at a time until the cloud destabilized and vanished. The sentience receded from her mind, following her blood vessels back to her heart, where it coiled in upon itself. She sucked in a surprised breath and flexed her fingers to restore circulation.

She studied the area, but there was no sign of a window to a distant place. She slumped against a tree, then slid down to sit at its base. The rough bark poked into her back, and here and there, small drops of pitch leaked out of fissures, soiling her clothing, but she didn’t care. Lowering her head, she slowed her breathing and waited for her heart to calm.

A few moments later, a nose pushed against her hip and nudged Ashayna out of her misery. Swiftrunner shoved at her a second time as she continued her quest for one of the few patches of grass struggling to grow in the dense shade. Ashayna shifted her knees and the mare snatched up a mouthful of greens.
When Ashayna’s nervous sweat began to cool, she reached for the new weight around her neck. The wind caught at the feather, making it dance on the end of its silver chain. If she was to judge by the coloring, this feather belonged to the phoenix she’d just seen in her vision, and it seemed the sentience was very interested in making his acquaintance. That couldn’t be good.

She closed her fist just above the delicate clasp and brought her other hand up to stroke the feather. The strangely familiar scent wafted to her. She gently tucked the feather under her vest instead of ripping the chain from around her neck and dropping it on the ground, like she wanted to.

Swiftrunner jerked her head up, grass trailing forgotten from her mouth. Her ears riveted forward as one hoof dug a furrow in the mud.

“What is it, girl?”

The mare flicked an ear in Ashayna’s direction then snapped it back towards the trail. A shadow the size of a small horse glided between the trunks of two large evergreens. Her stomach flipped when another twig snapped much closer to her position. Snuffling sounds to her left set her heart racing.

She stood and calmly reached for the reins. The mare continued pawing at the ground until Ashayna settled into the saddle. At her quiet word, the mare broke into a trot. There was a sharp bend in the trail ahead, and after that, a straight level run. They approached the bend. Just twenty paces, ten paces, less than five and she urged the mare into a canter. She chanced a glance back. Three lupwyns–reminiscent of giant wolves–loped into the open, abandoning the shelter of the trees for the better footing of the path. Ashayna bent low to Swiftrunner’s neck and the mare broke into a ground-eating gallop.

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