EMERALD BLAZE is #5 on New York Times Bestseller list and #4 on USAT, which means that last week we had the #4 bestselling book in US in all categories. 🙂 Thank you os much for making this release special. It means so much to us.
We are posting the next chapter of Ryder for you as thanks. When we last left our intrepid heroine, she fought a hodag with Derek and was making her way home because of the storm. We changed Marrok Argent to Darren Argent. It wasn’t because Patty Briggs used the name – so please don’t fuss at her fans – but because we both decided that Derek picked his alias and it’s not in his character to name himself Marrok.
We are not hiding the mysterious chapter 13 from you. I just typoed in the title. 🙂 Fixed.
Monkey waved at me from my couch.
I paused with my keys in my hand. I had put up Tulip, walked in, and there she was. The layer of grime covering her face and hair was gone, revealing a cute seven-year-old. Soft, copper-brown hair fell in soft ringlets around her adorable tan face. But her eyes were exactly the same, a light golden hazel full of mischief.
Monkey grinned at me. “I found you.”
“I see that. Where is Sophia?”
“You didn’t lead her into quicksand and leave her trapped somewhere, did you?”
She shook her head. “She had homework. I snuck out.”
How in the world had she snuck out past a shapeshifter? They could hear a fly buzz two hundred yards away. “How did you know where I live?”
She was not going to answer. As soon as the magic came back, I’d scan her.
I shut the door. It was raining cats and dogs, and by now Sophia was probably going out of her mind.
I pulled off my boots and took my dripping self to the kitchen. Here’s hoping Barabas still had the same number.
Sophia picked up on the first ring. “Gilliam residence. How may I help you?”
“Have you misplaced a small child?”
“Ms. Ryder, I’m so, so sorry. I left her playing video games for twenty minutes and she was gone. I tried to track her, but the rain is too heavy. I’ll come and get her right away.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s flooding, so you can get her when the rain stops.”
I gave her directions and hung up.
Monkey slunk into the kitchen and climbed onto a kitchen chair. “I saw a boy in your house.”
Don’t tell me. “What did he look like?”
“He was pretty. He had dark hair and big grey eyes.”
Conlan. How were the children finding me? I spent all this time and money making a secret hideout and literally everyone now knew where it was.
“Did you talk to him?”
Monkey shook her head. “I got shy. He’s scary, but still pretty.”
I would tan his hide when I saw him. I specifically said, “Don’t look for me.” Apparently, my instructions meant nothing because I was chopped liver.
“He talked to me,” Monkey volunteered.
“What did he say?”
“He said to tell you, ‘Tag, you’re it.’”
My phone rang. Probably Barabas or Christopher. I picked it up.
“You haven’t spoken to your grandmother in six days,” my uncle said.
How did he get my number? He wasn’t even in the same state. “Does everybody know where I live?”
“Everybody who cares about your safety. Do you know how I know that it’s been six days? Ask me.”
Oy. “How do you know?”
“I’m so glad you asked. Your grandmother mentioned it to me five times in the last two days. She called me twice through the fire and three times on the phone. Hold on a second. PUT DOWN THAT COW!”
I held the phone away from my ear.
“Sorry about that.”
“How did she call you? Phones don’t work for her.”
“Apparently, someone dials the number for her and she stands across the room and screams at it. Your grandmother has no trouble making herself heard. Boy! Yes, I’m talking to you. What did I say?”
I shook my head trying to get the ringing to stop. The two of them could roar loud enough to be heard all the way across a battlefield. I’ve heard them do it.
“You seem pretty busy.”
“Call your grandmother. She’s worried about you, and she’ll keep calling me until she hears from you. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to come to Atlanta in person to verify that all of your arms and legs are still attached, and you have not lost the ability to speak into a phone. And we both know how much I enjoy visiting Atlanta.”
Oh gods. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll call her as soon as the magic is up.”
“Are you doing okay? Do you need anything?”
“If you do need anything, you tell me. If you need backup, you tell me. I’ll come down and smash some heads for you.”
Aww. “Thank you.”
“Gotta go. OR WHAT? I WILL SHOW YOU WHAT. YOU’RE ABOUT TO FIND OUT AND YOU WILL TELL YOUR MOTHER THAT YOU BROUGHT THIS ON YOURSELF.”
I hung up.
“Was that your daddy?” Monkey asked.
“No, that was my uncle. My dad doesn’t yell. He mostly roars.”
“My daddy is nice.”
I thought she was an orphan.
“He brings me treats and presents. But he can’t be with me right now.”
What kind of father let his daughter live on the street? I got this really sick feeling. “What does he do when he sees you?”
“He tells me stories and he does magic tricks.”
“Does he ever touch you anywhere?”
Monkey scrunched her face at me. “He gives me hugs. He’s not a creep.”
Creep was street slang for child molester. For a seven-year-old, Monkey was really sharp.
“What happened to your mommy?”
“I killed her,” Monkey said. “When I was born.”
I held out my arms and she hugged me. “You didn’t kill her. Sometimes things like that just happen.”
“Can I stay with you until the rain stops?”
“Of course. Are you hungry?”
“Let me make another phone call and we’ll cook dinner.”
Monkey gave my kitchen a suspicious look. “I looked in your fridge and there was nothing there.”
“I have a secret fridge.”
Her eyes lit up.
I picked up the phone. It was half an hour before five. I bet Stella was still in the office and I was right.
“I thought you were coming by. What happened?”
“In Atlanta? Are you shitting me?”
“Nope. Big one too.”
“Do you need me to bring you some lemons?”
“No, I’m good. Could you check on a name for me?”
She sighed. “What am I, your secretary?”
“I’ll owe you one.”
“Fine, fine. What’s the name?”
“Sounds odd enough. At least it’s not John Smith. Who is he?”
“Someone I ran into.”
“Okay. I’ll check it out.”
I said thank you and hung up.
Monkey jumped off the chair. “Secret fridge?”
The rain stopped about nine, and fifteen minutes till ten someone knocked on my door and then rang the bell.
Monkey looked up from her spot on the divan. She had eaten an entire steak by herself and two helpings of roasted potatoes. I still couldn’t figure out where it all went. Afterward she settled on the plush cushions. I gave her a book with pictures of dinosaurs, which didn’t seem to hold her interest. Next was a book about cats, then dogs, and finally we settled on the Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. It had tons of pictures and she sank right into it.
“I don’t want to go. I want to stay in your secret garden house.”
“It’s not safe for you here.”
Monkey flopped on her back and put the book on her face.
“I still see you,” I told her.
“I like you better,” she said.
“I like you too. When things calm down, you can come and stay with me.”
She lifted the book and gave me a squinty stare. “You promise?”
The doorbell rang again.
“Come on,” I told her.
She sighed and crawled off the couch, slow enough to give a sloth a run for its money.
“You know this is a secret place,” I told her on the way to the front door.
She gave me side eye. “I’m not a dummy.”
I opened the door to Sophia dressed in pink bike shorts and a matching pink tank top. The pale hair was damp, her glasses foggy. I didn’t see a vehicle, so she probably ran here on foot. There were times when being a shapeshifter came in handy.
“Once again, I’m dreadfully sorry.”
“Once again, don’t worry about it. How are the two of you going to get back?”
“My other father is coming to pick us up. Can we wait here? He shouldn’t be long.”
Sophia came in, demurely sat down in a kitchen chair, and took in my kitchen. Clearly, certain calculations were taking place in her head. I had paid with a lot of silver, which didn’t line up with my shabby house.
I waited. She just sat there with a small smile on her face, offering no information and waiting for me to say something. Pure Barabas.
I set the tea to boil and set out three teacups. “I’m curious about something. What do you have against Ascanio Ferrara? You had a strong reaction when I said his name.”
Sophia flushed. Embarrassment or crush?
“I didn’t realize. Thank you for making me aware of it. I’ll make a better effort to hide my disgust in the future.”
She was the most serious kid I’d ever met. “But why the disgust?”
“Ascanio Ferrara is the devil,” Sophia announced. “One day he’ll get what’s coming to him, and I hope to be there.”
A shadow swooped down on my lawn. I caught a glimpse of massive wings, just before they vanished, and a tall man strode to my front door. Monkey sat up and smiled.
A careful knock sounded. I opened the door. Christopher Steed stood outside. He wore a light grey suit that fit him like a glove. Tall, pale, with platinum blond hair, he had one of those refined faces that looked elegant no matter his expression. His sharp eyes locked on me.
You don’t know me. We’ve never met.
He stared at me for five long seconds. “We lost your child. My apologies.”
“Monkey is resourceful.”
“I suspect she’s much more than that.”
That made two of us. “Please come in.”
I added another cup to the table. Christopher took the chair next to Monkey. She gave him an angelic smile.
“We were talking about Sophia’s disdain for Mr. Ferrara.”
“Ah.” Christopher allowed himself a small smile. “By all means, continue.”
“It’s like this,” Sophia said, as I poured tea into the cups. “I have a group of friends.”
I put a jar of honey in front of Christopher and set a small bottle of cream next to it.
“We are a very capable group.”
Christopher hid a smile and added honey to Monkey’s tea. She gazed at him like he was the most wonderful person in the world.
“Most of my friends live in the same neighborhood, but one of them, Bea, lives in the Pack.”
Baby B, Raphael and Andrea’s daughter.
“Her parents are what you might call overprotective.”
Andrea and Raphael? Overprotective? Raphael gave Baby B a dagger for her second birthday and then laughed when she tried to stab him with it.
“When Bea doesn’t return to her Clan House on time or when she forgets to tell them where she’s going, they send Ascanio to fetch her. And since we’re usually together, he takes it upon himself to fetch us as well.”
“For which your parents are deeply grateful,” Christopher said.
“That’s beside the point, Father. The point is, he isn’t my babysitter, or Conlan’s, or Mahon’s and Ricardo’s. He isn’t in a position of authority over me. He simply decided to be insufferable.”
“The tea is exquisite,” Christopher said.
“I’m glad you like it,” I told him.
Sophia took a sip. Monkey got a hold of the honey jar and was busily spooning honey into her cup. At this rate, she’d end up with honey tea syrup.
“You’ll have to drink some of the tea to make space,” I told her.
“For example,” Sophia said. “One time we went to play in the sewers.”
Monkey stopped with her spoon in mid-air. “There are impala worms in the sewers.”
“We were being very quiet. It was perfectly safe until Ascanio found us and yelled at us, and of course, an impala worm showed up. He didn’t have to fight it for half an hour, and he didn’t have to almost drown. He created this situation and then chose to be dramatic about it.”
I stared at her. “How old were you?”
Conlan would have been six. Mahon and Ricardo would have been five. Oh my gods.
“Then there was another time we wanted to go to Savanah for the pirate festival. We would have been back by morning. And all of us could swim. The boat was sinking very slowly, so there was no reason to panic.”
“I feel like you skipped a part. How did you get on a boat?” I asked.
“We took a ley line to Savannah, but it doesn’t go straight to the city.”
Ley lines were persistent magic currents. They lasted even during tech, although they lost a lot of their speed. The ley line was like a train track with a continuous train running at high speed.
To travel on a ley line you had to have some kind of platform, a raft of metal, plastic, or wood. I’d ridden ley lines on old doors and one time in a very large Styrofoam cooler. Anything worked as long as it separated you from the current. The magic of ley lines sheared anything living, and walking into one would leave you without your legs. That’s why the government put up billboards with graphic pictures of bodies cut into pieces by ley points.
The points were another fun ley line feature. The current wasn’t continuous. It had breaks called ley points, and when you reached one, the current ended abruptly and jettisoned you out. You had no choice about it.
“I know that ley point,” I said. “It dumps you in a salt marsh.”
Which was why most people shipped goods from Atlanta to Savannah by cart or car. The ley line that led from Savannah to Atlanta was just fine, but that was the post-Shift world for you.
“We didn’t know that bit,” Sophia said.
“So, it dumped you in the middle of the marsh. Was it dark?”
“There was some light.”
“Was it moon light?”
Christopher smiled into his tea.
“We were fine until the tide started coming in.”
I stared at her.
She shrugged. “There were no signs telling us where to go and the scent trails were confusing. We found a boat. It was leaking only a little bit, so we were completely fine. It was fun. We were going to paddle to the coast. Except Ascanio showed up and made us go back.”
“Then there was the minotaur,” Christopher said quietly.
“I don’t understand how the kids keep escaping,” I said. “Was nobody watching them?”
“Shapeshifter children come with unique challenges,” Christopher said. “A certain degree of independence is highly encouraged.”
It made sense to some degree. An average shapeshifter toddler was stronger and faster than most human adults, and their regeneration kept them relatively intact. But they were still kids.
“Unfortunately,” Christopher continued, “when these six get together, they seem to develop an unshakeable confidence in their own abilities to handle things regardless of the reality of the situation.”
Sophia glanced at him. “Five, Father. JJ is too young. We don’t always invite him.”
JJ? “Tell me about the minotaur.”
“It wasn’t an actual minotaur, which was a huge let down,” Sophia volunteered.
“No, it was worse,” her father said. “Most minotaurs are calm until they’re provoked. This was a buffalo shapeshifter gone loup. He’d taken off into the North Forrest after massacring his entire family. The Pack’s herd leader was away at the time, and the decision was made to wait until Eduardo returned to avoid unnecessary loss of life.”
Dad would have gone in there by himself and killed it. I opened my mouth to ask why he didn’t and caught myself. Oops. Eh… “Why didn’t the Beastlord take care of it?”
“His predecessor would have. However, Shrapshire is not that hands on. The Pack has developed procedures and protocols to handle a variety of situations, like this one, and he doesn’t get involved until all other avenues have been exhausted.”
Interesting. That was always the problem with the Pack and Dad. He’d made the Pack, or rather it accreted around him, and he was the answer to all their problems. It wore him down. There were days when all he did was run around putting out Pack fires. It looked like Jim had installed a structure that had been missing. And this type of incident could get ugly fast. If the wolves or the cats killed a bovine shapeshifter, even one gone loup, it could open a big can of worms.
“One of my friends wanted to hunt the minotaur,” Sophia said.
I choked on my tea. I knew exactly which friend that was.
“When was this?”
“A year ago.”
Damn it, Conlan. “Sophia, how old were you? You should have known better.”
“It was perfectly safe.”
Clearly, that was her battle cry. Everything was on fire, and sharks and dragons were circling us, but it was perfectly safe. “How?”
“We hid in the brambles, the black kind with red thorns. He was circling around the bramble bushes, but he couldn’t get to us, because he was too big. He would have gotten bored and gone away, but Ascanio showed up. Again.”
I put my hands over my face.
“As I have pointed out before,” Christopher said, “this was less of a hunting a minotaur and more of a hiding, trapped, with no escape route, while your parents frantically searched the entire city for you since the lot of you left a note that said, ‘Gone on a monster hunt.’”
“Did he kill the loup?” I asked.
“Yes,” Christopher said. “Eventually. Ascanio suffered a broken femur in his left leg, two broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and multiple fractures of the left arm, but he did kill the loup. My guess is, he thought the children would die if he failed.”
“We helped! Towards the end. Well, Conlan helped the most.” Sophia grit her teeth. “Do you know what he did after? He cursed at us. An adult man. And then, when I told him that we could run away from him because of his broken leg and he should be nicer, he put us on a chain.”
“He had a chain in his SUV,” Christopher said. “He brought it to fight the loup, so he tied the children to each other around their waists and led them out of the woods like that.”
Sophia flushed. “Everybody saw. Everybody. I’ll never forgive him. He’ll get what’s coming to him.”
Oh my gods. He had to walk them out on a broken leg. And the ribs. Every breath would be fire.
“And now you know why my daughter isn’t a fan of the man who constantly saves her and her friends from themselves.”
Sophia opened her mouth.
Christopher looked at her. “It’s time for you to return home. Be careful, the roads are muddy.”
“Yes, Father.” Sophia rose. “Thank you for the tea. And for giving me another chance with Monkey. I promise there won’t be any more escapes.”
“Ms. Ryder, if I could offer a word of advice?”
“The situation in the Pack is delicate. Jim Shrapshire, the current Beastlord, wants to retire. Leading the Pack is an exhausting, high pressure position, and he gets little thanks but shoulders all the blame. He’s missing the childhood of his children and it’s wearing on him. He will, however, continue until a worthy successor presents themselves. Such a successor must have support of the majority of the clans. Ascanio Ferrara is sizing up the Beastlord’s throne, and he thinks it will fit him. He may be right, but he has a long way to go. He has the brains, money, and the drive but he lacks experience and the sheer physicality required for the role.”
“He took on a loup buffalo.”
“He’s a superb fighter. The question is, can he inspire people to follow him? Can he walk onto a battlefield and lead the charge? That remains to be seen. Whatever you and he are involved in, and I’m not insinuating anything by that remark, keep in mind that if you put yourself in the path of his ambition, he will bulldoze over you.”
He turned to Monkey. “Ready?”
She gazed at him, her face serene. “Are we going to fly?”
“We are. The only question is, how high would you like to go?”
“Wait.” I ran to the back of the house and came back with a thick sweatshirt and pulled it over Monkey. It swallowed her. “It will be cold up there.”
Monkey hugged me and held out her arms to Christopher. He picked her up and carried her out the front door. For a moment they stood poised in the moon light. Then two enormous blood-red wings burst from Christopher’s back, beat once, and he streaked into the sky, taking Monkey with him. The theophage who had devoured Deimos, the Greek god of terror, was flying away with the little girl I cared about and I was totally okay with that.
A pair of ruby eyes caught the light in the shadows across the street. A bouda. Ascanio must have left someone to watch my house and they just gave themselves away. Sloppy. Or they wanted me to know I was being watched.
My phone rang. Looked like my night wasn’t over yet.
I went inside and picked it up.
“I found Darren Argent.” All humor was gone from Stella’s voice.
“I have a feeling I’m not going to like this.”
“Do you know what Ice Fury is?”
“The largest shapeshifter pack in the United States. They’re based in Alaska, half of them have gone wild, and they don’t like outsiders.”
“Darren Argent is the Beta of Ice Fury.”
Cold washed over me. I remembered where I heard the name.
There was no way. It couldn’t be Derek.
“There are more warnings on his file than I have ever seen. This guy is death on legs.”
“Is there a description?” Maybe he just used the name.
“Male, white, early thirties, dark hair. He’s kind of hard to misidentify. He’s got scars all over his face.”
Blast it all to hell and back.
“You said you ran into him.” Urgency vibrated in Stella’s voice. “Tell me he isn’t in Atlanta right now. Because if he is, Knight Protector has to know. I can’t know this and not tell him.”
Of course. A prominent member of the largest shapeshifter pack entered Atlanta’s Pack territory and didn’t announce himself. Nick would expect a shapeshifter war.
“Go ahead and tell him.”
“I already did.”
“Then why the hell did you ask me?”
“I wanted to know what you would say.”
“Feldman wasn’t happy. He wants you to come in.”
“Let him know I’ll be there first thing in the morning.”
“No, he wants you to come in right now.”
Right now wouldn’t be happening. I had to figure out how to handle this situation, and I was so exhausted, I could barely stand. “I’ll be there in the morning. Tell him that it’s not a shapeshifter war.”
Stella exhaled into the phone. “Aurelia…”
“In the morning. I have to go.”
I hung up.
A few years ago, a family of wererats joined the New Shinar, husband, wife, and their two children. They were originally from California but had a falling out with the rest of their extended family and had gone up to Alaska to join Ice Fury. Things didn’t work out, and once the husband’s father died, they packed up and moved back south to take care of the husband’s mother.
Erra had wanted as much information about Ice Fury as she could get, and the family spent several days telling us about their former pack. Some of it we already knew, a lot of it we didn’t.
Ice Fury consisted mostly of wolves and bears. At least half of the huge pack had gone wild, meaning they spent more time in fur than in human skin. Atlanta’s Pack was forced to interact with human society. Ice Fury made sure they didn’t have to.
About ten years ago, Mihail Kamenov, a huge Kodiak from Siberia, took over as Ice Fury Alpha. He favored a hands-off style of leadership. From what the rats said, he spent most of his time in the woods, coming out only when there was a problem that needed to be crushed with his giant paw. Ice Fury was run by a series of Betas. The latest Beta and the one who’d lasted the longest was Darren Argent.
They couldn’t really tell us what was so special about Darren, but when they described him, their eyes glazed over. He had some sort of pull, some kind of magnetic thing about him that other shapeshifters, wolves especially, instantly recognized. Shapeshifters flocked to him. According to the father of the family, Darren could have taken the pack away from Mihail whenever he felt like it, and Ice Fury would back him up.
At the time, I guessed that Darren was a First. The legend said that during prehistoric times some humans made bargains with animal deities, and that’s how the first shapeshifters came about. Descendants of those bloodlines were very rare, even during the time of the Old Shinar. I only knew of one – Dad. The Firsts were capable of remarkable things. Other shapeshifters sensed them somehow and would follow them through fire.
Derek wasn’t a First. Someone would have recognized it by now. It wasn’t a thing one could hide. His dad had gone loup, and the Firsts had the highest loup resistance. According to Erra, they were practically loup-proof. And if his mother had been a First, she would have squashed his dad like a bug. Whatever that magnetic thing was, the old Derek didn’t have it.
Why Ice Fury? Derek has always shown zero interest in climbing the shapeshifter leadership ladder. He actively avoided it. Desandra had offered him the Beta position repeatedly and he declined every time. So, he leaves Atlanta for no apparent reason, goes up to Alaska, and becomes the de facto ruler of Ice Fury. Why? What was going on in his head?
More importantly, why in the world did he think it would be a good idea to come back to Atlanta and not take care of basic diplomacy? It looked bad. It looked like he was here to access the Atlanta Pack for a possible attack. Although Ice Fury was far away, rival shapeshifter packs were known to stage raids. The very act of him entering the city could be taken as a declaration of war. He left the Pack with Dad and it gave him the right to be in the city without being subject to Jim’s authority, but that was before he became the Beta of a rival pack.
I bumped my head against the nearest wall. It didn’t resolve anything, but it made me feel better.
Why? Why, why, why…
And Ascanio was chasing Derek all around the city. Most likely, he hadn’t reported it to anyone, because he had a chip on his shoulder. Did he think there was an angle to this that could benefit him? Or did he want to subdue Derek and bring him in, pulling him out like a rabbit from a hat? Look at who I found! He probably had no idea Derek was Darren Argent.
It would backfire. Oh dear gods, it would so backfire. If he somehow succeeded, he would assault and drag a foreign Beta before the Beastlord. If he failed and got hurt, a foreign Beta would have injured the Beta of Clan Bouda.
The two of them were idiots. What were they even doing? They hadn’t seen each other in years. Did they honestly think they still had a teenage feud going? Two grown men.
If I were still Julie, maybe I could talk some sense into them. No, it wouldn’t. It would make everything way worse, because then they would have an audience of someone who knew all of their history. It would just spur them on.
And now Nick knew. Nick, who was in love with Desandra and who was the stepfather to her two boys. In a shapeshifter war, Desandra would be on the front lines and unless the Order gave him their blessing, he wouldn’t be able to fight beside her. He would react. I had no idea how, but it would be bad. Really, really bad.
I bumped my head on the wall again. It didn’t knock any wisdom loose.
I had to contain Nick. I bought myself a little bit of time, but I couldn’t dodge him forever. How the hell was I going to manage that?
And why didn’t Jim know any of this? Why didn’t Andrea? If the Bouda Alphas knew, Mom and Dad would know in minutes. Dad would be scouring the city looking for Derek.
If Dad were still the Beastlord, Derek would have been given about six hours of freedom, and then he would get a formal invitation. Something along the lines of, “We’re delighted that the Beta of Ice Fury has graced us with his presence and anxiously await his arrival at the Keep. We’re dying to meet him face to face.” It would have been delivered by the Rats, and knowing them, it would just magically appear on Derek’s pillow while he took a shower.
Where were the Rats? Clan Rat handled the Pack’s security. I hadn’t seen a single Rat operative in the city. They were very good, so I might not have noticed them, but still, they would keep an eye on Ascanio.
What in the bloody hell was going on with Atlanta’s Pack?
Argh. I didn’t have time for any of this. I needed to get to Mark Rudolph and squeeze the information out of him before any more people got murdered or ma’avirim made their next move.
My head hurt and it wasn’t because of the wall. I was so tired, my brain refused to deal with any of this. It felt like I repeatedly tried to walk through a glass door and kept bouncing off because I was too dumb to figure out how to open it. Either I went to bed now or my body would shut me down and I’d fall asleep right here, on the floor.
Maybe I would get a flash of brilliance in the morning.
I locked my doors, both of them, and dragged myself to bed.