SNEAK PEEK: Praetorian Rising Chapter 1

Hello Peeps!

I am SO very excited to share chapter one of my very LONG AWAITED (well, for me anyways) book release for PRAETORIAN RISING. I am getting closer every day to the final release and I wanted to give my loyal readers and followers a little sneak peek into the opening of this story, the world and some of my favorite characters.

Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging. I plan to release Chapter Two and Three prior to the book release, so you will definitely have some additional Chapters to keep you going until this book is on the market!

A couple of other side notes – The Book Cover reveal is soon to come! I am working away with my artist and am looking forward to getting this one wrapped up in very short order.

Can’t wait to hear your feedback, I can’t wait to see your reactions! Enjoy this first chapter my peeps. Without further discussion, here it is:

PRAETORIAN RISING

Chapter One: Lost Memory

Wind whistled through the dense overgrowth of Dun L’er Forest, a high-pitched whir of warning dogging his every step. The rustling maple and stark pine hunched like ghostly sentinels, the foggy fingers of breaking dawn stretching toward him as he ran. They were watching him, the ancient eyes of the forest, their aged and weathered limbs creaking against the pressured air. They would hold his secrets in their entombed silence, but the gods knew what he’d done. 

Vesyon ignored the tickle of panic slipping down his spine, a rivulet of ice pushing his legs to move ever faster. There was no going back now, the deed was done. He had her. They had escaped.

“We’re almost there,” he whispered as he readjusted the precious form cradled in his arms. Tucking away the young woman’s hair beneath the dense fur of his cloak, he pushed through a bramble bush as he continued south toward Sierra Village. Thankfully the beasts tracking him had seemingly lost his scent miles behind his current location. He no longer heard the crash of paw racing on his heels. Despite the small reprieve, he’d kept moving with haste. One could never hide from the High Court for long within the depths of Aspera. The eyes of the crown stretched far and wide.

He was vividly aware of the danger encroaching as he pressed into the barrier lines of Sierra Village, especially if anyone saw the young woman with the brilliant tumble of red locks tucked in his arms. Thankfully his destination wasn’t far—just beyond the forest’s edge—but he could never be too careful.

Her breath was warm against the crook of his neck, a slow and steady reminder of the depth of her induced sleep. He was grateful for it, wishing she could remain in the peaceful swirl of dreams instead of wake into the harsh reality of her impending future.

A mysterious and silent creature followed him in quick pursuit, dodging between bush and boulder to keep up with Vesyon’s steady gait through the dense forest terrain. Short tufts of black and brown fur helped camouflage the creature’s every move, allowing him to accomplish his task of the silent companion with pristine perfection. After so many years together, Vesyon couldn’t help but think of his small feline friend, Neeko, as one of his closest confidantes.

Up ahead past the battered wooden fence skirting Sierra Village, he saw a dulled lamp light flickering wildly among the gray infused morning. The orange glow of electricity was like a beacon, perched on top of a well-weathered cabin. He hurried toward the sagging walls and ancient slatted roof with eager anticipation.

An elderly man with a grizzled gray beard stepped out of the low-slung doorway, a look of intrigue and growing curiosity spilling across his weathered face. His milky blue eyes fixed quizzically on Vesyon’s young face, the old man’s features were lined with the weight of age compared to the bold steady edges of Vesyon’s youthful appearance.

 “It’s been a long time, my dear friend,” the aging man, Peter Shroder, remarked with a simple mischievous grin. “I’m surprised the guards let you sneak by.” His anxious blue gaze swept over the deserted village grounds, his caterpillar brows furrowing into a single line over squinted blue triangles. The cracked skin of Vesyon’s lips stretched wide in humor, affectionately watching as Peter caressed the dagger hidden at his waistband like a cherished friend. Being the town butcher had its positives for Peter; no one questioned his love of sharp blades.  

“Too long,” Vesyon replied in earnest agreement as he readjusted the sleeping woman and ducked through the cabin’s doorway.

A flickering expression of shocked bewilderment swam across Peter’s face as he glared at what Vesyon held in his arms. Would she remember the old man, or would she dismiss him as a complete stranger? Vesyon couldn’t be sure. His eyes traversed the broad lines of the man’s face in grave worry, not wanting to introduce his old friend to the storm of chaos she would invoke, yet knowing he had few options available.

 “You weren’t followed?” Peter asked though he knew the answer. Vesyon wouldn’t be in his home if he were tracked.  It didn’t mean they were safe, it just said they had a little time to discuss details. Vesyon shook his head before setting the young sleeping woman down on the fire warmed hearth, bringing the wrap of fur blankets more securely around her shoulders.

The old man’s cabin was nothing more than a single room; kitchen, living room and bedroom were all combined, scarcely lit by one swinging bulb over the kitchen table and a glowing fire in the corner. Electricity was quite a luxury in the rundown Villages of Aspera, but Sierra Village seemed to make do with what they had. Peter, despite the electric icebox in his butchery, kept his personal home almost wholly stripped of those technological advancements the wealthier villagers had. The old man wasn’t one for fancy when he had a simple and functioning home.

Above their heads through the latticework was an attic large enough for the eight-year-old boy who’d been snoring softly through the late-night commotion, undisturbed and seemingly unaware. Peter’s home was small, but cozy, a welcoming stop after a very long journey through the wilderness of Aspera.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” Peter said, his tone strained yet friendly. Trespassers weren’t welcome in the village, and Vesyon was well aware of the consequences if he were caught inside the grounds by the wrong person.

“I had little choice,” he replied smoothly. Which was almost right, but he wasn’t ready to think over the details of his decision. Few were trusted by Vesyon like Peter was a hardened man through experience but with a wide-open heart and unending compassion for those without a leg to stand on. Leaving the woman in Peter’s capable hands was the safest choice imaginable.

Peter’s lips parted as though to speak, his features laced with hesitation. “You really think she’s ready for this?” he asked, nodding his head toward the still-unmoving girl on the hearth.

It was a substantial question. Vesyon wasn’t sure of the answer himself. He sat down on a wicker stool, pulling the heavy fur cloak from his shoulders. The glowing heat billowing from the hearth felt good, and he closed his eyes in a moment of peace within the comfort of warmth.

Removing a rusted poker from its hook on the wall, Peter shuffled the coals in the hearth with quick, sharp stabs, stoking the smoldering wood into a soft flame. A curling smile lifted the corner’s of Vesyon’s lips as he observed Peter’s strength through the lowered sweep of his sooty lash. Despite the frailty infused after years of use, the man held his own. His age-spotted hands and knobby knuckles seemed a mere facade of old age.

Approving of his freshly stoked fire, Peter nodded once before grabbing a plate of meat slices from the kitchen table and offering them to Vesyon.

“I have no idea,” Vesyon finally replied, politely declining the offer of sustenance. Instead, Vesyon pulled a worn pipe from his cloak, spreading open a thin canvas bag filled with the dried leaves of his favorite tobacco. He carefully pressed the delicate tobacco bits into the wide pipe end and stared at the dancing flame in the hearth with a sense of momentary calm. It wouldn’t last, he knew that. The second he walked out the door the chaos would consume him once again. It was just a few minutes reprieve, a moment to catch his breath, he told himself even as his legs twitched to be on the move again.

“LeMarc had her locked in his dungeon for the past seven years,” Vesyon said, his voice tinged with a hint of vexation as he pulled a knife and flint stone from his pocket.

He noted Peter’s stern glare of Vesyon’s disrespectful use of the High King’s first name, but Vesyon ignored the wide-eyed rebuke. He’d never think of LeMarc Lowenhaar as a King, let alone the High King of Aspera. The man was a deceitful, power-hungry monster. Vesyon saw no reason to show the man any sort of respect whether in his presence or not.

“We honestly can’t be certain of anything.” Vesyon lit his pipe and puffed three times in quick succession to catch flame on the dried leaves. The sweet tang of tobacco smoke filled Vesyon’s lungs, and he sighed in silent relief at the tingling sensation buzzing through his veins as he exhaled.

Peter’s gaze shifted to the bundle of fur by the hearth and landed on the heavy brown boots poking out the bottom. “She looks too fragile. Is there no other option? No one else?”

Vesyon turned from the flame to glance back at the girl, studying her delicate features currently highlighted by the glow of the fire. Peter was right; despite her age, she looked too young and innocent for such a battle. She was someone he would give his life for, and Vesyon hated knowing what she was about to endure. “She’s all we have. Our rebellion can’t wait for a second longer—she must be prepared.”

 “How long will she need to be here?” Peter whispered, pulling the fur blankets more securely around the young woman. Bitter fall air seeped through a cracked windowpane, and noticeably Peter shivered—Vesyon wasn’t sure whether it was from the weather, or the heavy responsibility he’d just heaped on the old man’s shoulders. “It’s going to take time to assess how destructive her induced amnesia is. From what Langhorn expressed to me, she might not remember anything at all.”

Vesyon’s upper lip twitched downward at Peter’s probing words, a subtle tic of his displeasure he tried his best to hide. He hoped she would remember nothing, prayed what Langhorn had done would work. Her memory had been obliterated from everything she’d endured over the last seven years; if she were lucky, she would wake up without recalling even the smallest detail of her life before that point. It was cruel to rip away someone’s identity in such a manner, but they’d had no choice. If even an inkling of her memories survived, they would all pay for the atrocious and horrible things inflicted on her mind, body, and soul while she’d been locked inside LeMarc’s torture chamber.

Peter’s eyes assessed Vesyon’s unshaven face before he lowered his creaky body onto the stool placed near the fireplace. Bones snapped and popped as he settled into the sagging wicker, reminding Vesyon of the extreme fragility most Asperians seemed to develop from lack of proper nutrients over the years. He couldn’t restrain the wince of barely concealed worry from flickering across his features, but thankfully Peter didn’t appear to notice.

“Tea?” Peter asked, pushing a heavy blackened pot into heat.

Vesyon nodded, knowing he should leave with quickened haste, but felt it would be rude not to partake in such a quick and pure comfort. He had asked Peter for an incredible favor, it was his duty to give the elderly man a moment of his company despite his growing urgency to leave the quiet confines of the cabin. No one knew he was here. He had the time to drink a cup of tea, but only one cup.

“Do you have an idea of where the High King is?” Peter asked as he handed Vesyon a steaming cup of lavender tea.

Vesyon habitually blew across the rim of the dingy grey mug, watching the wafting tendrils of steam curl into the bitter air and disperse like mysterious ghosts. “I don’t have a clue,” he replied without pause. “Metus…,”

“The King Regent,” Peter snapped, correcting Vesyon’s slip.

“Yes,” Vesyon replied trying to hide the smirk tugging at the corner of his lips. Peter hated the High King and the King Regent as much as anyone involved with the rebellion, but he was a stern believer in respectful attitudes toward those in power, and Vesyon wasn’t one to press too hard on that button. “He is still managing the throne and has been since the Praetorian Exile. However, I don’t believe for a second LeMa..the High King,” Vesyon corrected smoothly. “He won’t be idly sitting by. His absence is worrisome, but more than that, his complete silence over the last seven years proves Langhorn right. The High King is up to something of grand proportions, and I want to ensure I’m ready when he lays out his cards.”

Glancing out the frost-riddled window, Vesyon smiled with genuine affection at Neeko, whose mouth was currently full of fresh forest mice as he stood guard like a sentinel on the windowsill. It had been a good idea to bring him along. The thought of leaving the woman to her own devices there in Sierra Village deeply troubled Vesyon; but he saw no way around it. He knew she would be safe with Peter—as safe as she could be until Vesyon returned. 

Just beyond the cat’s darkened form, he studied the thick clouds rolling in over the forest canopy. A storm was coming. It was time to leave. There was still so much he had to do, and not nearly enough time to accomplish it.

Tipping his tea glass up, Vesyon took a hefty gulp of the delicious liquid and almost choked as the scorching heat burned down his throat warming the confines of his belly. He grunted once in mild discomfort before the burning sensation dispersed as though it hadn’t happened. Peter eyed him with an arched brow of concern and mild bemusement, but Vesyon waved him off and blew more intently on his tea. “I can’t thank you enough for this Peter. I have no possible way to repay you for taking care of her.”

Peter shook his head, a tender grin running over his lips. “Consider it a payment repaid to a dear friend, one very much deserved mind you.” Vesyon opened his mouth to protest, but Peter raised a withered hand warding off even the smallest objection. “I have always hated being in debt to favors, even when it comes to friends. As I see it now, watching over her is a small contribution to pay for what you have given me these past years. If my wife were here, or my daughter,” Peter said, a glistening tear pricking at the corners of his eye. “They would have said the same.”

Vesyon felt the zing of guilt deep in his chest at the mention of Peter’s family, his loved ones that hadn’t escaped the slaughter. He only had to close his eyes to see their hallowed faces again, thick red blood run down from the open gash in their throats. Twin bodies slumped to the ground, lifeless. He couldn’t nod in agreement with Peter. The man was giving far more than Vesyon had ever been able to give back. It wasn’t a fair bargain, but Vesyon had little choice but to accept that as payment repaid.

“Knowing she’s with you puts the fear at bay,” Vesyon said with genuine frankness, his gaze drifting back to the young woman’s face as he now carefully sipped his moderately scalding tea.

“Well, she’ll be with me and your little furry shadow,” Peter chuckled, his milky iris’s twinkling with mirth. “I might just bore that poor cat to tears in this village. The most exciting adventure he’ll have is chasing down a rat. Are you sure he is actually willing to stay?”

Vesyon eyed Neeko perched at the window, his stoic haunches barely twitching from the bitter rush of wind snaking down the mountain and through the village grounds. He would miss the little furball, but it was the only protection he could provide that would remain at Camille’s side. In the coming moon cycles, she would need security and companionship. “Willing is a strong word,” Vesyon replied with a slight smirk as he dumped the ashy remains of his tobacco into the dwindling flames of the fire. “He’ll stick by her though, and that’s what she’ll need.”

“Well as far as Count Jenkin’s is aware, I have a distant relative staying with me until further notice. He’ll meet her as soon as she acclimates to the village. I don’t expect a warm welcome,” Peter said with a slight frown. It was not an uncommon practice to be wary of outsiders, or random trades-folk. Pretending the woman was a distant relative of Peter had been the only way Vesyon could be certain she wouldn’t be shunned or even forcibly removed. Sierra Village wasn’t in the practice of being hospitable to strange folk, and despite every excuse Vesyon had fed himself of keeping Camille close at hand, he knew this was ultimately the best plan of action. “But they will accept her well enough,” Peter assured, assessing Vesyon’s pinched expression with obvious concern.

“She’s with you Peter, I have no doubts she’ll be in good hands. Teach her everything you know about hunting, trapping, and tracking. She’ll be a bit rusty when she wakes.”

Peter nodded in understanding. “Any idea when you’ll come back for her?” he asked, taking the half-empty teacup from Vesyon’s hand and placing it on the bare kitchen table with a subtle ‘clink.’ As the flames of the fire stretched out its last arm in a dance of withering energy, Vesyon packed up his pipe and tobacco before shrugging into the heavy warmth of his fur-lined cloak.

“You have twelve moon cycles. I will come for her then,” he said. Their eyes met, and they grasped each other’s hand in farewell. Peter’s shake was firm, but Vesyon felt the tremble beneath the steel exterior. Without a word of explanation, Vesyon retrieved the heavy iron pistol from his belt and placed it on the rickety table near the door. The smell of gunpowder singed the lining of his nostrils, sharp and bitter and recognizable to any warrior.

Peter eyed the weapon wearily. “Is that necessary?”

“Just in case,” Vesyon said with a final swift glance at the woman fully shrouded in fur blankets. “I’ve given you two bullets. It’s all I have left. Hopefully, it’s enough for you and Lunci if our plan turns south.”

A heavy silence filled the air with Vesyon’s clear intention. No words were needed to explain; Peter seemed to understand the weight of his role in Vesyon’s plan as well as the consequences. Without hesitation, Peter nodded. “She’ll be ready.”

“Keep her safe Peter; keep her hidden from the High Court. No one must know she’s here.”

Peter stared at him, his wild caterpillar eyebrows dipping over squinted blue triangles before consenting with a curt nod.

“I need to get back to Romeo Village before the High Court realizes what I took from them—I can’t leave Phillip alone with the mess they’re in right now. The poor man hasn’t yet recovered from what happened in Charlie Town.”

Peter raised an impatient hand at Vesyon’s rushed words. “I know, no need to explain.”

Vesyon could see Peter empathized with the extreme conditions he’d endured to free the woman from the LeMarc’s grasp, and knew the consequences of what would happen if anyone found her in Sierra Village. There was no other route, no other option. They had one path: forward.

With a quick nod of appreciation, Vesyon ducked out the wooden door to disappear into the darkness of the forest edge, not once looking back.

 

***

 

The woman’s eyes fluttered open, and she shied away from the intruding light and heat that assaulted her fragile senses. She couldn’t place her location, and her back felt stiff and weary as though she hadn’t moved in ages.

“Awake, are you? It’s about time. You’ve been sleeping for days.”    

The woman sought out the source of the voice; an old, scruffy man perched close to the glowing hearth. She didn’t consciously decide to snap to attention or rise from the fur blankets so that they pooled around her worn leather boots. She didn’t pay attention to the blade’s smooth wooden handle as she yanked it from the old man’s belt, and she didn’t hesitate before angling the freshly sharpened metal against his throat.

“Where am I?” the woman croaked. Her throat was raw as if she’d rubbed it with sandpaper. It felt like she hadn’t spoken in years. But that couldn’t be right, she’d just been… The woman stopped; she couldn’t remember where she’d last been. “Who are you, and what do you want with me?”

“I’m a friend, and I want nothing but to keep you safe.” the old man said carefully, holding himself stiffly against the blade. “Do you remember how you got here?”

She looked around the small room, noting small knick-knacks, a wooden bowl filled with overly ripe apples, and a bed-frame close to the hearth with a feather mattress and aged brown quilt. She wasn’t in prison or a holding cell; she was in the old man’s home—and a cozy one at that. A small iron kettle hung over the glowing coals, presumably filled with water to make tea. She smelled fresh rye bread in the pantry and smoked turkey wrapped in salted bindings being kept fresh inside a nearby icebox. “No,” she snapped out in sharp frustration. “Where am I?”

“Sierra Village. In my home,” the old man said, keeping his eyes locked on hers. “Hungry? I can make you something.” He gestured to the kitchen area, but she refused to look anywhere but at his face while deciding whether he was lying or not.

“No, I want answers. I don’t need your food.” Her stomach growled mightily just then, and the woman scowled.

“It would seem your stomach says otherwise. I’m not a threat, child; I’m here to help you.”

The woman pressed the knife more harshly against his skin. “‘Help me?’ You want to help me? Then give me answers!”

He stared at her blankly, and she seethed.

“Who are you?” the woman shouted wildly, body shaking in terror. “Help me by telling me who you are!”

“I won’t hurt you,” he said, raising his hands in a show of peace. “My bones are far too old and fragile.” The woman remained vigilant, blade to his throat, and the old man chuckled. “My name is Peter Schroder, and you’ve been in my care for a week. You won’t remember me, but we have met before.”

His features twitched, and she sensed a deep sadness emanating from his entire being as he spoke the words. Their last meeting hadn’t been a pleasant one, it seemed.

“Where? How do you know me? When did you last see me? When?!” The woman’s words tumbled out in rapid fire, but Peter remained calm and collected.

“I don’t have all the answers to your questions, child. But I promise you’re safe in my care.”

His response did nothing to temper her racing heart, but she removed the blade and stepped back. She remembered nothing about herself; not even her own name. Where had she been born? Who were her parents, and where were they? This man wasn’t familiar to her in any way.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, sitting on the bed once more and placing the knife beside her. 

The woman pulled the furs more tightly around her shoulders, shaking her head. She’d smelled that knife, its hard steel tang, before visually locating it on Peter’s belt. She’d identified every entrance and possible exit in the tiny home before her fingers had even reached the blade—they amounted to four if she counted the little window above her head. She could also hear the soft rush of breath from a sleeping child just above her in a makeshift bedroom loft…all these skills, yet she couldn’t recall anything before the moment she’d awoken in Peter’s cabin.

Peter appeared to understand her fright and confusion and busied himself with stoking the fire into a decent flame as she angrily wiped the wetness from her eyes. “Your name is Camille Scipio, and you were brought to me eight nights ago by a close friend. I’m to care for you until he returns.”

“Cam-EE-ill,” she said, rolling the syllables of her first name around her tongue but feeling no familiarity.        

“I have no doubt you’re wary of your surroundings right now, but in due time, things will come back to you,” Peter continued with a small smile.

Camille looked up at him with curious, searching eyes, before staring at the skinny black and brown cat by her feet. “That’s all you have to say?” Camille asked furtively, reaching down to scratch the cat’s furry head. How curious, she thought with each stroke, that this cat’s presence makes me feel…calmer.

“I’m afraid so. I’m to care for you until it is no longer needed. That’s all I know.”

“That doesn’t tell me anything,” Camille countered. “Who left me here? You said it was a ‘friend.’ Who were they, and how do they know me?” Her bottom lip poked out with indignant frustration as she glared at the man hoping her icy glare would force loose a sliver of information. The man remained unmoved like a new gravestone, unyielding and aloof hiding the depth of its secrets far beneath the surface.

“I can’t say any more, child. I apologize. But I can assure you that you’re safe and most welcome in my home,” Peter said, pouring Camille a steaming cup of tea. 

She accepted the chipped stone-ware mug and sniffed at the purple-tinged liquid inside; it smelled flowery. “What’s this? Some sort of draught to knock me out?” Her stomach gurgled again in a desperate plea that she indulge the offering, despite her apparent misgivings.

Peter glanced at her with a comical expression as he pulled a slab of turkey from the icebox. “It’s just a cup of lavender tea.”

Camille couldn’t muster the energy to question him further, the heaviness of her eyelids dragging her down with more insistence than the hunger pangs. She consented to sip the warm liquid that tasted of lavender and mint. Giving a final pat to the cat as he cuddled against her hip, Camille laid back down on the flat feather pillow, immediately drifting off into a heavy sleep.

 

***

 

The wind picked up, whipping against the ancient trees of the Dun L’er Forest like a hungry monster, every branch alive in the sporadic dance of early fall. Nothing, not even the pounding sense of danger emitting from every wisp of wind, could dampen the relief Peter felt. The uprising was finally underway, a whisper of reckless abandon humming through the bitter air—and this time they’d be ready.

Peter shuffled from the kitchen counter to the whistling kettle to pour himself a fresh cup of tea before he settled down across from the sleeping Camille with a plate of turkey and cheese. Neeko was curled into a ball against her stomach, purring contently. The pair of them appeared at ease in their slumber, short-lived but much needed. It had been so long since he’d last seen her, but even to his old and frail eyes she hadn’t changed in the least.

He recalled the first time he’d seen her face, seven years before on a night bitter cold with the oncoming of winter. Her eyes had blazed a vivid red, and her entire body had been slathered in blood—she’d worn it like a token of achievement.

He should feel fear having her there after witnessing what she’d done to the ones he loved. Almost his entire family had been slaughtered right before his eyes, one after the next, in a swift slash of metal. Whoever hadn’t escaped his village when she’d arrived had been slaughtered—yet she’d left him and his grandson untouched. Not a word had been expressed, not a single sound had crossed her lips as she stared down at them, eyes ablaze with ballistic rage, before she turned and walked away.

He didn’t know then or now why she’d kept them alive, but it was enough of a reason to allow her into his home. Peter believed Vesyon—Camille was the key to their rebellion, and her past was not a reflection of who she was, but what she was capable of being. Aspera had suffered enough under the strong arm of the High King. Allowing this woman to sleep under his own roof was the least he could do to aid the rebellion if it kept their weapon safe from the High Court’s greedy fingers.

He’d made a promise to Vesyon, an honest vow to keep her protected and hidden no matter the consequences. Despite the truth of his word to lay down his life to protect Camille, his grandfatherly worry for the small child sleeping above their heads prickled against his conscience. But without her help in the rebel movement, Aspera would fall, and there’d be nothing left to fight for, and no viable future for his grandson Lunci.

“Please, Mother Ma’Nada, giver of life and protector of this land—please guard my family against evil,” Peter whispered as he brought his palms together before his chest. He repeated the prayer over and over again, his words a constant stream of steady faith and devotion. The Mother Ma’Nada, though fierce and powerful in the many stories of his faith, had always bestowed good fortune on Peter. The loving goddess had never abandoned him through his many battles, and he held tight to his faith with white-knuckled determination.

The storm began its rhythmic song as the wind whistled through the empty grounds of Sierra Village, picking up speed and rattling the fragile windowpanes in Peter’s kitchen. His eyes flicked back over to where Camille slept her vivid red hair cascaded over her shoulders in a wild array of curls. Though he couldn’t see them now, he’d been utterly surprised earlier to know that she possessed green irises just like her mother’s. She looked so much the normal girl of seventeen; lithe and gawky, with muscled biceps, curls that flowed halfway down her back, and a spray of freckles along the bridge of her petite nose—but he knew better.

She was their only weapon against High King LeMarc, but if she didn’t learn to control the monster living inside, no one would be able to survive her next explosion.

“Ad Astra per Aspera,” he whispered, sipping his warm tea. “To the stars through difficulty, Camille.”

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