Excerpt for Wardens of Starlight (A Soulmark Series Book 3): Lycan & Vampire Soulmark Series by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Wardens

of Starlight



Rebecca Main







































www.RebeccaMain.com


© 2017 Rebecca Main. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



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Want more Soulmark Series?


  • Coven (A Soulmark Series Book 1) — Available

  • Midnight Scoundrel (A Soulmark Series Book 2) — Available

  • Wardens of Starlight (A Soulmark Series Book 3) — Available

  • Mr. Vrana (A Soulmark Series Book 4) — Coming Spring 2018

  • Lycan Legacy (A Soulmark Series Book 5)

  • Lunaria (A Soulmark Series Book 6)


Contents



Amethyst of the Aztecs

Retribution

Secrets to Keep

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Bad Reputation

Supernova

Lying in Wait

Dance with the Dark Side

Girl Talk

Let’s Make a Deal

Sealed

Brother Where Art Thou?

Lesson Learned

Hit Like a Girl

Down the Rabbit Hole

Revelations

Walk on the Wild Side

Too Little Too Late

Cross Your Heart and Hope to Die

Forever and Always

Epilogue


Acknowledgements

Connect with Rebecca Main


Chapter 1


Amethysts of the Aztecs



Relics line the walls of the atrium. Sacred hammers and swords. Vinewood wands and staffs of yew. Rings of amethyst, pearl, and pewter. Each with their own unique history and power. Some forged by gods of old. Others by those of new. I’m still learning them all. The Wardens of Starlight seems to have an almost endless supply.


Five months into my training as a Starlight Warden and I have only just finished learning the upper level of relics housed in the atrium. Five months since I was reassigned from the Stellar Warriors and sent here, to the Banks Facility. The Starlight Council had called it a blessing. A righting of a wrong. I’ve lost count of how many people told me that I was lucky to be reassigned as a Starlight Warden. After all, among my kind, women weren’t seen as "well suited" for the call of a Stellar Warrior. No. They are much better suited for other trades. Trades such as Shadow Scouts or Occult Scholars. Even a Weapons Master is better suited for a woman than a position among the Stellar Warriors. Or so everyone thought.


My fingers itch to toy with the butterfly knife hidden snuggly beneath my belt and sweater. Not a year ago, I had proven myself worthy of the elite group of warriors, yet one mistake and I had been kicked to the curb. Banished here instead.


Guilt coils heavily in my stomach.


It had been more than a mistake. It had been a tragedy. A massacre. And the blame for it could only be put on my shoulders. Maybe they’d been right to strip me of my warrior status after all.


“Are you listening, Callie?” Still lost in my thoughts, I let my head bob carelessly along. The triplets who occupy the atrium with me continue to speak, seemingly satisfied with my assurance. Then, an elbow smashes between my sixth and seventh rib.


“What was that for?” I wheeze, rubbing the offended bones. Nova sends me a smirk, her heavily lined eyes sparkling with mischief.


“Let's just say I had a gut feeling you weren’t listening,” she replies. I let out an unladylike snort.


The triplets are known for their “gut feelings” and uncanny ability to understand the power of the Borealis and the relics we keep safe. Most find their shared ability off-putting, but I didn’t mind one bit.


“We’re only trying to help you, Calliope,” Noelle gently scolds. “Your final exam with the head warden is only a few weeks away.”


“And she will not go easy on you,” Naomi affirms, eyes large and doe-like. A wistful sigh falls past my lips. How unsurprising. Felicia Metzart is tougher than diamonds and smart as hell to boot. She expects no less than the absolute best from those under her tutelage, and I’m no exception.


The Starlight Wardens are the keepers of magical relics, but more importantly, they’re the handlers of starlight. Only the Wardens are allowed to harness the mystical power sent forth from the sun—Borealis Matter—to infuse into our weapons and make them unimaginably stronger. Only the Wardens know the vast secrets and knowledge of the world's hidden relics. Daggers that can cast a single un-sealable cut. Brooms that allow the rider to sift from place to place in the blink of an eye. Liquid gloves that can tame any flame. It is an honor to be among them.


Too bad my heart belongs to the warriors. Those who fight and kill the dark supernatural forces littering the earth.


“I know. I know,” I finally lament, toying with the velvet cloth that drapes the altar we stand around. The rich fabric is out of place among the sleek white walls and glass display cases that houses the relics.


Noelle lets out a distinct humph. “Daydreaming about your time with the warriors won’t do you any good now, Calliope.” I send her an unimpressed look, enjoying a bit too much the way her cheeks color in embarrassment. “Your thoughts and talents are better put to use here than with them anyway. Don’t you have your degree in astrophysics?”


“Yes,” I confirm begrudgingly. Not that I wanted to, I think bitterly. Why JJ was allowed to go straight to his apprenticeship instead of having to run the ramparts of higher education is still a mystery to me. A niggling voice in my head croons a familiar tune; it’s because he is our parents’ favorite. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s right. JJ is everyone's favorite. Including mine.


“Just because we don’t risk life and limb to fight the monsters underneath the bed, doesn’t mean we aren’t cool,” Nova teases. We share a smile.


“Oh, we’re cool all right. We’re stuffed in a glorified igloo up here in the middle of nowhere, Alaska. Reading books and dusting shelves all day. Oh lord,” I groan, “we’re librarians.”


The three sisters wear matching expressions of disdain. “Librarians are cool,” Naomi insists, fiddling with the glasses perched atop her head. My bluster deserts me as I take in the slump of her shoulders. Of all the Stavok sisters, Naomi is the most sensitive.


“Librarians are cool,” I concede.


“Hell yeah, they are!” Nova agrees. We share another smile. I spent most of my time with Nova. Whether studying dusty tomes or showing her how to handle my butterfly knife properly. We always seek each other out in the small fortress. Noelle rolls her eyes, smoothing a hand over the tight ponytail she typically sports as she fights down a smile. Nova continues, “Let’s not forget we get access to the best shit. Did you know Felicia keeps the Baltic ivory harpoon head on her for ‘safe keeping’? At all times. If that isn’t a perk, I don’t know what is.”


“I do like that we get to wear our bracers all the time.” The iron cuffs that adorn our wrist are etched with intricate spirals and notches. When activated by the wearer with a purposeful twist of the wrist, the etchings fill with a pale green luminescent light—the sacred power of the Borealis. The power increases both our strength and speed to almost supernatural proportions, but only the Wardens are permitted to wear the bracers at all times.


“What was that?” Naomi asks, mouth modestly agape. The conversation dies as our ears perk to catalog the faintest hint of movement or disturbance in the air. For a tense moment, my breath catches before Noelle shoots her sister an annoyed look and relaxes.


“Nothing, Naomi. You must be hearing things,” she says. Naomi flushes, but her eyes dart nervously toward the sliding glass doors that lead into the atrium.


“What did you hear?” I ask.


Naomi flushes brighter and tugs the glasses off her face to clean them, a nervous habit of hers. “I just thought I heard a pop.” While her face is downturned, I spare a look toward the other sisters. They wear matching frowns, but Nova’s seems to set itself deeper as her head cocks to the side.


“I don’t hear anything,” she finally says, stance relaxing. I mirror her movement. My shoulders relaxing from their stiff pose. I hadn’t heard anything either, but the glass doors of the room are thick. Bulletproof-thick.


“Me either,” Noelle agrees, gently patting Naomi on the shoulder. The youngest of the triplets flushes and places her glasses back upon her crown.


“Maybe something was dropped in the hallway?” Noelle opens her mouth to reply—no doubt to offer some half-hearted and thoughtless agreement—when a second pop occupies the moment. My gut clenches, and once more the atrium fills with roaring silence. The cool metal of my knife digs into my spine as I shift and walk toward the door.


“Where’s Nathan?” Where indeed? The hallway is unusually empty, though protocol dictates at least one guard should be stationed at the end of the hall to patrol its length.


“Something isn’t right,” the triplets respond in unison. A tingling sensation flashes across my scalp and down my spine. An eager restlessness is quick to follow through my nerves and muscles.


Lights flash from overhead. They blink red in unison three times, pause, then repeat. That alarm sequence means only one thing.


“Wolves,” I hiss. A sharp twist of my wrists outward and the bracers ignite. “Nova, get the dragon skin and balaclava. Noelle and Naomi, unlock the cases,” I order stepping back from the doors.


“Who put you in charge?” Noelle gripes, though she does as she’s told. I may not have seniority when it comes to the Starlight Wardens, but my fighting experience is far greater than the sisters’.


My eyes don't stray from the empty corridor. There is a fair chance the wolves won’t make it this deep into the facility. There is also a fair chance that Nathan is dead.


“Here.” Nova presses the dragon skin armor into my arms, along with a modified balaclava. Our eyes meet for a split second just before the room goes dark.


Chances are the wolves have made it past the outer web, the first level of the facility, which means there’s only one more floor between them and us.


I slip on the armor, which wears like a duster. It falls just above the knee with a slit in both the front and back to allow the wearer better movement. It fits almost as well as the bracers and protects better than the strongest Kevlar. By the time the generator sputters to life, I’m slipping the balaclava over my face and we can all see Nathan’s body lying awkwardly at the end of the hallway, a pool of red ballooning around his head.


“What’s your poison?” Nova asks. I glance at the sisters to see what they’ve chosen. Naomi holds a yew staff, Noelle a crossbow with silver darts, and Nova sports two souped-up .44 auto mag pistols. My fingers ache for the butterfly knife in my pants, but I gesture to the bone harpoon.


“Predictable,” she taunts. I hold my hand out expectantly. The auxiliary lighting is nothing more than mediocre fluorescents, but they are enough. Minutes tick by as we wait impatiently for an attack, but the only thing to note is Nathan slowly bleeding out.


“Did you hear that?” Naomi asks.


No, I think, just the sound of my heart in my ears. Or the slight creak of the floor as Nova shifts restlessly from one foot to the other and the soft whisper of fabric as Noelle adjusts the crossbow in her hold. My eyes drift to Naomi. She is entirely at ease, her body loose, the staff griped only just enough in to keep it standing, eyes closed.


“What do you hear?” I breathe, tilting my gaze back toward the glass doors. The triplets give pause.


“Currents,” Naomi answers.


“Electricity,” Noelle corrects softly. The fluorescent lights begin to spasm, and one by one burn out. Thankfully, our bracers provide more than enough illumination.


“Fucking wolves,” Nova mutters disgustedly as the steady hum of electricity comes to an end all around us. I find myself nodding in agreement. Why is it that every beast and demon chooses to fight in the dark?


Figures emerge, eight in all, and approach the doors.


“W.E.S.T. formation,” I order softly. “Naomi, take the south position. Noelle and Nova, flank middle. Trigger point is me.” The triplets move quickly and silently to their places as I set myself firmly in the lead point of our diamond shape. The door opens, and a man with raven hair steps cautiously into the glow of our bracers. He sports a lazy smile and a cut on his brow.


“Now, now,” he murmurs, “no need for any more bloodshed. We’re just here for a teensy, insignificant piece of jewelry. A ring, as it would happen.” Something clicks, and a thin flashlight illuminates more of the room. It scores the walls in pursuit of the ring.


“No piece here is as you describe,” Naomi responds without inflection. The wolf turns a wayward glance over my shoulder toward her before following the line of the flashlight.


“I stand corrected,” the man replies. I note the way his gaze lingers on the south end of the room and stiffen.


“Leave,” I command. “You desecrate this sacred place with your mere presence.” The man shifts, placing both feet wider apart as his hands form fists at his side.


“That’s not very nice,” he comments, voice heavy with contempt.


“You’re a mongrel,” Noelle says.


“A beast,” Naomi adds.


“A dog,” Nova snarls. She fires at the floor. The bullet lodges itself an inch from his toe, but I’ll give the wolf some credit for he doesn’t spare it a flinch.


“Woof,” he snarks back as something rolls between his legs. A cloud of smoke blooms from the rolling canister and into the heart of the atrium. It fills the room quickly—too quickly—and in seconds we are wreathed in a filmy white haze. Nova fires into the doorway. The sound of splintering glass and tearing flesh bear the brunt of her blind attack.


“Naomi! Fall back to the—”


“On it!” she replies before I can finish. If it’s a ring they are after, the southeast section needs to be guarded.


A fist plants itself in my stomach before another thought can dart through my mind. I lurch backward, the force of the hit taking my breath and doubling me over. I clutch the harpoon tightly in my right hand and thrust it up and forward into my attacker's side. The figure in front of me lets out a throaty, masculine growl.


I yank the harpoon back, swinging it about to smack him across the face next, with the light of my bracers to guide me. He hits the ground a second later, and I feel a dark thrill of excitement rush through me. It feels almost sinisterly good to take down my opponents.


My breath sounds heavy in my ears, despite the commotion around me. For a brief second, scenarios and outcomes of the battle whir through my mind. There is no telling how many guards and Wardens have been taken out already on the upper levels, so I must assume the worst; we are all that’s left to guard the relics. The bleak thoughts drive my fortitude and thirst of blood.


They’ll retrieve their precious ring over my dead body.


I slash my harpoon to the left at the sound of feet. It catches on a body, and I ram it forward with relish. A raspy gasp follows as I yank the head out, then swing the harpoon in an arc to my right. It cuts through the thick smoke but nothing else. My feet shuffle backward, ears straining to hear the next oncoming threat. Another step back. I spin on the balls of my feet and swing the harpoon out to catch another enemy. Nothing.


Action blares behind me. Luminescent green streaks the smoke in jabs and thrusts. Some pause midair, strained and quivering, before forced left and right. There is no time to hesitate.


Instinct guides me as my other senses go into overdrive to compensate for my weakened sight. My harpoon strikes and latches on arms and legs, the press and pull of each motion dragging me closer and closer to the real fight. It feels as though the harpoon is an extension of my body. With each hit, my body surges and feints away, and I can’t help the grim smile that lights upon my face as I take another punch to the gut. Then one to the face.


There it is again. The spike of adrenaline. The thirst for pain, whether to inflict or receive it, surges inside me without pause. Something inside me craves the fight. An irrational, adrenaline-laced rush I can't ignore. A darkness inside me, I think as I strike out with the blunt end of the harpoon to jab at the wolf behind me. A darkness I have lost control of once before.


Something smashes against a glass display case. Or somebody. The empty click of Nova’s barrels sound, followed quickly by a startled cry that is unmistakably Naomi’s. I favor the weaker sister and dart to Naomi at the southeast end of the room, promptly tripping over a body and falling onto the glass-laden floor.


“Ouch! Watch it,” a very feminine reprimand yelps from the ground. I suck in a deep breath and maneuver quickly into a crouch, diving forward into the body. She lets out a cry as we crash into the ground, squirming viscously and banging her hands against my chest as I fight to claim her wrists. “Get off you bitch!” she cries.


The sprinkler system activates above us, reacting to the smoke at long last. The woman beneath me sputters in indignation as the water doses us. Giving me the perfect opportunity to capture her hands. She struggles weakly against my hold. It’s almost pathetic how weak she is against me. Almost too weak.


My breath catches in my throat, a sudden horrible realization stunning me.


“You’re not a wolf,” I pant, releasing her hands as if they burn.


The smoke is slowly dissipating around us, and I can make out the fright across her features. But only barely. I scamper off her, a thousand dreadful thoughts slashing through my mind, but one screams above all others: not again. Memories unleash themselves upon me with ruthless intent.


A scared and broken girl clinging to my leg and the last remnants of her humanity. A plea for sanctuary tearing past her blood-soaked lips—


A secret and betrayal. The strange nuance of hope that things will be all right—


Human bodies torn to bits and pieces spilled across a chapel floor. The small child feasting on the steps of the altar. My mercy. My mistake—


The blinding lights of the Auroral Bastille cast down upon me as I answered to the Councils accusations. Falling to my knees at their sentence and wondering how I could have been so wrong—


Something bashes into my back, knocking the air from my lungs. I fall forward. The raven-haired man helps the blonde up off the floor, pulling her into a dramatic kiss.


“Are you all right?” She nods, sparing me a wide-eyed glance. “Do you have it?” She nods again, and the man sounds off a shrill whistle.


No. A sharp burst of panic startles me into action, the feathering darkness pooling inside of me goading me back into the fight.


Stay low, my instincts tell me. Use your environment to your advantage. My harpoon lays somewhere behind me, but weapons coarse the ground. A jagged piece of glass is clutched in my hand in the next instant, and I slam it into the wolf’s foot. He lets out a howl of rage, limping backward and dragging the girl with him.


I stagger to my feet as he rips the glass from his foot, my eyes frantically scanning the room to see most of the wolves retreating and the sisters regaining their ground. A knee surges into my line of vision too quick for me to process and knocks me solidly under the chin. Pain erupts inside my head as I crumple to the ground, my equilibrium further stolen by a heavy blow to my cheek. A final kick to my side leaves me grounded and watching in agony as the wolf and girl sprint away.


“Follow them!” I manage to order, watching as Nova and Noelle give chase through the darkened hallway. Sturdy arms wrap under mine to haul me up, tugging me forward as I take in a few strangled breaths.


“Are you all right?” Naomi asks. I nod and push her away, stalling at the doorway as a rogue idea swims into my head. We needed more bodies to take on the wolves, and I know just the place to get them.


“Stay behind and keep guard,” I tell her, turning back around and running to the back of the room where a hidden panel leads to a passageway.


“Where are you going?”


“To fight fire with fire.” I throw a quick grin over my shoulder as I pick up my harpoon and the bloodied shard of glass from the ground. Then, I’m running as fast as I can down the passageway to the back of the Banks.



Chapter 2


Retribution



My heart is hammering by the time I reach the cages. I cast a wary glance to my left and right, searching for the figures I know to be racing away. Gunfire sounds relentlessly from the Banks, which means not everyone is dead. Thank God.


It's late at night, sometime close to midnight, but with the Alaskan summer, that hardly means a thing. In truth, it's barely dusk. As I approach my destination, the dogs we keep bark eagerly from their kennels. I race to unlock their doors, letting them all take a good whiff of the blood-caked shard of glass and harpoon.


“Take a good whiff of that, Dakota,” I instruct as the lead dog makes its way to the front of the throng. “Gehen!” Go. The large malamutes and huskies bark and bristle with enthusiasm. “Attacke.” I snarl the German command just before unleashing them into the bright night, the cage door swinging open with a clang as they rush past me. The night air presses through my armor into my skin, but the biting chill doesn’t hamper the heat coursing through me. It invigorates me. Fuels the flame of my desires. Though the summer months are coming soon to their end, the nights still bear a slight chill in the air this far north. It is a fine night to hunt, I think as I chase after the dogs whose barks and hollers fill the air.


Fire with fire. They certainly won’t be expecting this.


The dogs intercept the wolves just as they reach a stash of motorbikes hidden amongst the trees. Several are already equipped with drivers geared up and ready to make their grand getaway. I tighten my grip on the primitive harpoon, feeling the pulse of the Borealis skirting across the surface of its shaft. I adjust the pace of my run, swing my arm in an arch, and release. The harpoon sails ahead, the length of rope attached to it spindling behind. It pierces the arm of some slender wolf, and victory flushes through my veins. Catching the rope midair, I skid to a halt and rewind the rope between my hand and elbow. Once it’s taut I give a hearty yank. The wolf stumbles sideways and gives me a look between horror and anger. Its eyes flashing gold in the night.


The wolf yanks back, but I bear down. Heals digging spitefully into the earth. I just needed to hold out a bit longer, until reinforcements—


A body slams me into the ground out of nowhere. I move with the momentum, tumbling forward with the strong arms wrapped around my waist. My feet find purchase on his side, and I push out of his hold, rolling away to tuck myself into a crouch. He mirrors my position, a dark scowl on his features as he pulls himself slowly into a standing position. The bounty of his muscles ripple across tattooed flesh. I cast a rueful glance to the side where the rope lays forgotten.


“I don’t want to kill you,” he tells me in a husky baritone. I scoff as I mimic his posturing, slowly beginning to circle him. He's much larger than me, somewhere around 6'3" to my 5'9”, and with his hair trimmed short, the cut of his jaw seems all the harder. Deep caramel eyes dig into me in assessment, but with my dragon skin armor and modified balaclava, there isn’t much for him to see. His eyes linger over my chocolate hair and eyes—eyes which hold the faintest hint of an angle due to my Native Alaskan heritage. His jaw clenches, the muscles of his neck cording slightly as his gaze flickers down then back up. Men.


“I can’t say the same,” I tell him, taking my butterfly knife out. It flashes open with a mere sleight of hand into my palm, and I take a moment to savor its familiar weight. His scowl deepens, and his fists rise defensively. I bare my hands low and wide, ready to attack with the knife, held in possession of my right hand.


We meet in two easy strides, my hand lashing out to deliver a cut to his forearm. He takes the hit with good grace, angling away and throwing a punch before I can retreat. His fist catches my cheek. But it glances off as I swerve back. The wolf presses on, and I force my knife into a more defensive position. I duck the next blow and skirt inward, stabbing at his ribs and hitting my mark. But not without receiving a blow myself. We go on for what seems like ages. Blocking and pressing. Hits landing or steering too wide.


He’s good, I credit to myself, a little too good.


He moves with military precision, unafraid to press forward even as my knife keeps marking his skin. My foot catches, and a look of shock passes over both our faces as I ungracefully pitch to the side. He’s on me in an instant, knocking my blade from my hand and thrusting me against a tree. His hand a sudden vice around my neck.


I struggle to break his choke hold, my feet kicking forward with little effect. He draws himself close, pressing into me and blocking my lower assault. The warmth of his breath skirts across my cheek in heavy puffs as I attempt to strike his face. I aim for his fighter’s nose, slanted slightly to the left, the point is moot. I am fighting a losing battle. Black spots emerge in my vision as I struggle to breathe. A tightness ruthlessly grips at my chest. There is no relief from the pain, and it’s quick to spread throughout my body. He wears a look of… pity? Sympathy? Either way, it rouses in me one last push. My hands grab his forearm, nails digging viciously into the arm that holds me captive.


His frown returns. The pressure of his grip increasing just a fraction. Just enough. My hands slide down the length of his forearm, one hand falling away completely. The other barely holds on, trailing across his skin like some gentle caress. Our eyes lock and the world stops as my fingers brush past my worst fear.


Oh no.


I’m engulfed in a whirlwind of sensation. My lungs begging for breath as my hand clenches around its purchase. It is unlike anything I have ever known, and all from a singular touch. A storm folds over my vision, the creeping darkness fractured by spears of lightning. Something aches inside of me. My soul crying out for more as my eyelids flutter closed.


A startled gasp breaks past his lips as he stares at me aghast. For the briefest of moments, I dare to think I see his eyes flash gold.


“You,” he breathes, eyes wild as he takes my wrist and pulls my hand away from the mark on his arm. His soulmark. The sensation of warmth—of electricity and fire—departs in an instant. Almost painfully so, I realize when my body shivers at the loss. My heart aches.


The wolf tugs me forward, and like some damsel, I crash into his chest, staring up at him in muted horror. He pulls off my balaclava, staring down at my face with such intensity I dare not move. His eyes roam down the slope of my nose and high-cheekbones before settling on my full lips.


“You.”


I find my nerve at long last and shake my head, pulling back to no avail. “No.” No, this can’t be happening. Yet, the soulmark that lies upon my hip seems to sear itself deeper into my flesh, sinking itself into my blood and bones. This wolf doesn’t wear just any soulmark, I think with dismay, he wears mine. There is no other way to explain what I feel when I touch his mark. And we both know it. This… this beast, is in possession of the other half of my soul, and for all intents and purposes, is my soul mate. My deepening horror draws the blood from my face. This can’t be happening.


“Where is it?” he asks almost frantically, eyes darting over my form as I continue my struggle.


“Let me go,” I beg, feeling a wave of fear tear through me. This can’t be happening. If anyone finds out about my soulmark, I will be banished. Exiled. And if they find out I have found my soulmark… I rip myself out of his hold, calling on the strength of the bracers like never before. He gapes at my retreat for but a moment, before a steely look crosses over his features.


“Come with me.” The husky timbre of his voice drops an octave. A promise lingers at the edges of his posturing. He stretches out a hand. My heart, the traitorous thing, skips a beat. Before I can deign to reply, a sharp crack sounds in the air, and he stumbles sideways, grasping his arm with an angry scowl. My head whips to the side. Nova stands on the back of a motorbike, Noelle in the driver's seat speeding toward us.


“Run,” I whisper harshly, eyes never leaving the sisters. I don’t dare look back at him, but I can hear his hesitation. Nothing sounds for a long pause, and then the forest floor crunches beneath his hasty departure. I drop to my knees just as the twins near and Nova jumps off the bike, the mysterious man already lost in the dense woods.


“Are you all right?” Nova drops down in front of me, her hands skating over my body to check for injury. They slip upward to cup my face, her fearful gaze cataloging every bruise.


I nod numbly, fighting the urge to cry as Nova rests her forehead against mine. What am I going to do? I draw in a shaky breath and let Nova help me stand and guide me to the bike. She speaks soft assurances near my ear as her sister rounds up the dogs. I lean into her hold in hopes of staving off the memory of his touch. But it’s no use. No use at all.


+++


The Council and various members of the Stellar Warriors arrive at the Banks Facility roughly two hours after the attack to take stock of events. There had been only two deaths, but over a dozen people had been injured. Apparently, the wolves had relied heavily on tranquilizer darts and KO gas to gain access to the facility, and the Council was not pleased. They chose to gather in the observatory to hold their summit and collect information. It held just enough space for the Alaskan branch of the Council, all eleven members, plus a few extra.


“I wish they would hurry up,” Nova complains. She sports a nasty black eye, made complete with a popped blood vessel that stains her sclera a vibrant red. Her sisters and I fair better, though we all sport some variation of black and blue across our bodies.


Naomi nods her agreement, but it’s Noelle who responds to her sister. “I need a hot shower.”


A hot shower. A warm bed. Some kind of laser removal treatment for the blasphemous mark on my hip. I still feel some strange phantom reverberation from our earlier contact. Small flashes of euphoria send little bursts of electricity throughout my body when my mind draws his face into focus. That handsome face with its cross demeanor and slightly crooked nose. Or his arms stacked with muscles and lined with ink. Or the way he seemed to tower over me. He exuded masculinity effortlessly, and there was no denying the fact that my body took notice.


“Callie?” My gaze snaps to Nova and her expectant expression.


“Sorry, what did you say?” I ask, giving a small shake of my head to rid myself of my reflections.


“Are you all right?” It’s not the question she had been asking by the way her voice softens, and I catch the similar look of concern her sisters cast me.


“Just upset that they got away with the ring,” I respond with a sigh. Some Wardens we are. As upset as I am to have been unable to protect the relics, I carry an altogether separate worry in my heart. What if the Council deems me unfit to serve the Wardens of Starlight at all? Will they rest the blame for tonight's events solely on my shoulders? Will they count this as my second strike?


“It wasn’t your fault, Callie,” Noelle tells me firmly. “The odds were against us. We were outnumbered, and the attack was planned. This isn’t the first time the Banks has been attacked, you know.”


“But it is the first time they’ve been successful,” Nova counters.


“That’s not true,” Naomi corrects lightly, adjusting her glasses carefully so as not to rest them on the cut across her nose. “Three years ago, that rogue group of Eldritch Witches attacked and stole the Wand of Sorrow. A select group of Wardens and Warriors hunted them down and brought it back.”


“Yes, but the Wand of Sorrow meant something to them. It held significant meaning. With it, they could control the shadows. Those wolves stole the Amethyst of Aztec ring. What the hell would they want with that?” My clipped rebuttal stops further protest. “I don’t get it.”


Nova frowns, mouth opening to speak when the iron doors finally open. We file in silently. The Council arranges themselves in a semicircle with three chairs sitting slightly farther forward than the rest. In the chairs sit Sterling Hall, Karen Baker, and Joseph Sawyer—my father.


“The Council is now prepared to hear your testimony regarding tonight's events. Noelle,” Mr. Hall has his pen poised to take notes, “begin.”


“The testimony would best be given by Ms. Sawyer,” she responds. A murmur of discontent arises from the Council. “Ms. Sawyer took the lead position in response to the attack. She should give testimony.”


“Very well,” he says, voice neutral and pen still poised. “Ms. Sawyer, when you’re ready.”


I take a fraction of a step forward and begin, relaying the evening’s time line in succinct detail. After completing my version of events, the Council turns its unnerving attention back to Noelle. She explains what occurred when she and Nova separated from the group. Then Naomi gives her account. After answering a multitude of questions, the Council dismisses us to review our testimony.


“Do you think they’ll demote us?” Naomi asks, her nerves naturally frayed. The Council had directed most of their questioning toward the youngest Stavok, making their displeasure clear at her lack of action. My intervention on her behalf had done nothing to help.


“No,” I tell her, my hand reaching out to give a reassuring pat on her shoulder. She gives me a small smile and shrugs out of my touch. I don’t take the minor slight offensively. The Wardens of Starlight aren’t known for being affectionate, even in such paltry measure. “They don’t gang up like that if they intend to demote or reassign you. At least not in my experience,” I say, fighting down a small swell of shame that surfaces at the mention of my past. “It’s more pointed. Plus, only one member of the Council will address you. I think we’ll be fine.”


“We’ll be reprimanded,” Nova offers, and I nod in agreement. The reassurance does little to relieve Naomi's tension.


“You may enter,” a cool voice calls as the door cracks open once more. We enter again, faces devoid of any emotion.


“After reviewing the events of this evening, the Council would like to remind the Starlight Wardens of the Banks Facility of the following: first and foremost, that you vowed to forfeit your lives to protect the Relics of Terra. Yet here you stand, all in one piece,” Mrs. Baker remarks, a patronizing lilt to her voice. “Second, that leadership is based on seniority”—I keep my eyes trained on the wall behind the Council’s head, well aware of their harsh regard—“unless otherwise sanctioned with Council approval. Lastly, the Starlight Wardens act as a cohesive unit. Wardens do not act alone in their duty, such as scouts or warriors, but as a team in all efforts. I trust this reminder will not need to be issued again?”


We give a clipped, “Yes, ma’am,” in return. Mrs. Baker lets out a small sigh and leans back slightly in her chair.


“The Council would also like to commend the Wardens on their ingenuity. We recognize the unusual and difficult circumstances you found yourselves in; faced with a lack of support in an unstable environment, while being outnumbered threefold. You managed to take down four wolves in total and, by your accounts, injured several more. As such, we give further commendation to Ms. Noelle and Nova Stavok for the forethought of using tracking bullets in their pursuit of the attackers, and to Ms. Sawyer.” My spine straightens as I look Mrs. Baker in the eye. “Releasing the dogs was a rather clever idea. One that paid off. Furthermore, the Council recognizes your quick thinking and leadership benefited the night’s events instead of hampering them.” Gee, thanks.


“Thank you,” I reply, tipping my head toward the Council. She returns the nod and shuffles the papers in front of her.


“Now, onto the next matter: the retrieval of the ring.” My heart skips a beat. If the Council has any sense, they’ll choose me to go out with a small guard of warriors to retrieve the ring. Or better yet, they’ll send me alone. I possess the knowledge and training of both Warrior and Warden, and can retrieve the ring without distraction. It will be like killing two birds with one stone.


I roll my shoulders back, chin lifting an inch. It has nothing to do with the fact that I would be able to do a little reconnaissance on the side. Find out more about the hulking specimen of a man who bore the fang that is our soulmark. Nothing. At. All.


“—which is why the Stavok’s will go in two days’ time to retrieve the ring,” Mrs. Baker finishes.


“Wait—what?” I receive a collective of frowns at my outburst and feel myself color.


“Calliope.” My father's voice rings heavy with indignation, and I bow my head.


“My apologies, I only thought—”


“Your thoughts are not what was asked for, Ms. Sawyer. In fact, before you so rudely interrupted, we were about to explain what is expected of you while your cohorts are away.” I maintain my submissive stance, though a wave of resentment and unease takes hold. “You will stay behind along with a personal guard of Stellar Warriors to guarantee the safety of the facility and partake in your final examination with the head warden in a week’s time. Additionally, you will catalog all the relics to assess the full damage of tonight's offense. Stavok’s, you’ll be briefed tomorrow with more detail regarding the retrieval of the ring. You’re dismissed.”


My shoulders sink as we exit the observatory and head down to the second level of the facility to our rooms. So much for my plans.


Chapter 3


Secrets to Keep



“I can’t believe they don’t want me to go,” I bemoan, “or that I have to take this stupid exam, weeks early. As if being reassigned wasn’t bad enough, now this? It’s like throwing salt in an open wound. I have the training of both a warrior and a warden. I’m more than capable of handling this assignment.”


Nova raises a brow. “And my sisters and I aren’t?”


I run the butterfly knife over my knuckles in quick repetition. “I didn’t say that,” I tell her flatly, my eyes tracking her movements as she places another shirt into her duffle bag. “You’re very capable of going out on assignment, but they’re not even sending warriors out with you.”


“We’ve all been trained in the art of combat, Callie,” she reminds me tersely. I relax my rigid position and fold the butterfly knife closed in my palm.


“I know,” I respond, voice placating and smooth, “but you’ve never been out in the field. This is the most experience you’ve had facing supernatural creatures, right?” She nods with a forlorn sigh and zips her bag closed. The triplets are two years younger than me, and though their training is just as extensive as mine—even more so as Starlight Wardens—they couldn't match my skill as a warrior.


“That doesn’t mean we aren’t ready for this.”


I let my silence linger, flipping the knife back open and over my knuckles. “I just think—”


“—that you would be better suited for the mission. I know. But that doesn’t mean you’re right.” Her words bring me to a standstill.


“Excuse me?” I ask incredulously. Nova crosses her arms over her chest, her waist-length hair catching in the action.


“Listen, Callie. Noelle might not have noticed because she was driving, but I saw that wolf almost take you out.” I swallow the sudden lump in my throat, ignoring the discomfort I suddenly feel. “Just when I thought you were about to lose consciousness, all of a sudden it looked like you were about to break your back… and then he let you go. His face looked shocked. You looked shocked.”


“You were at least a klick away, Nova,” I respond irritably, feeling my calm reserve waver. “How could you have possibly seen?”


“I had a scope on the assault rifle.” The color drains from my face as I look away.


“He was shocked because I got a grip on his radial nerve and sank my nails into it.”


“He said something to you after. What was it?”


“Some parting words about ‘fighting like a girl.’”


The weight of Nova's regard feels like a ton of bricks. I fight to keep an outwardly calm composure, meeting her dark eyes unflinchingly until she unwinds. Nova offers me a small smile.


“I hate it when they do that. Can’t guys come up with anything clever?” I let out a forced chuckle.


“Apparently not.”


“You’re sure everything is fine? I get why you’re upset about not being chosen, but you seem more amped up about it than I expected you to be.”


Nova comes to sit next to me, her thigh and the length of her arm pressing infinitesimally into my own. The truth crawls at my throat. Nova is my closest friend, and if I’m honest with myself, she is the one person who might not shun me for finding out my secret. The thought carries a strand of hope with it, and I allow myself to lean into her side, taking comfort in her steady presence.


“Can you keep a secret?” I ask quietly, eyes darting nervously to the half-open door of her private quarters.


“I am an expert at keeping secrets,” she says with a slightly breathless quality to her voice. I cast her an uncertain glance, noticing the way she leans in closer.


“He didn’t let me go because I pinched his nerve. And he didn’t make some sleazy, predictable comeback about me being a girl.”


“What happened, Callie?”


I worry my bottom lip, surprised to feel a nervous tremor run down all the way to my fingertips. Nova’s hand brushes against my own, taking hold of it with a reassuring squeeze. “He wears my soulmark,” I blurt out. Nova’s grip tightens. Her widened eyes meeting my own as her lips form a small “O.”


“He wears your soulmark?” she asks rhetorically. “As in, you have a soulmark?” The blood recedes from her face as her gaze falls downward to our joined hands. I give the faintest squeeze in response, holding my breath for her next words. “Oh, Callie.”


“It’s not like I planned it,” I tell her defensively, trying and failing to pull my hand from her grip.


“I know that,” she bites back frostily. “You don’t get to choose if you have a soulmark or not. You’re either born with it or not. I can’t believe you never told me before now.” My expression goes slack.


“What?”


“I thought we were friends, Callie. More than that even… shit.” Nova screws her eyes shut and releases me.


“I’m sorry, all right. You are more than just a friend—you’re like a sister to me. But you know the consequences I'll face if anyone else finds out I have it.” My voice strains at the end, the harsh reality of the Wardens of Starlight’s predictable retribution stabbing me squarely in the chest. Banishment, if I’m lucky. Death, more than likely.


“I would never tell anyone,” she tells me earnestly, eyes lifting to meet mine. “I know how the Council would react. They’d tear the mark from your flesh with their bare hands, then banish you from the community for having it in the first place. Anything connecting a warden so intimately to the supernatural is forbidden.”


“Anything connecting a warden to the supernatural is forbidden,” I respond flatly.


“Where is it?”


I let out a brief sigh. “It sits low on my hip. It’s always been hidden by my underwear, so I’ve never been too nervous about anyone spotting it.”


“Wouldn’t your parents have noticed it when you were young?”


“The shape only became more distinct as I got older. By the time I was eight, it was fully formed, and I didn’t need my parents to give me baths anymore,” I joke weakly.


“Right,” she breathes, swallowing visibly as her gaze darts curiously to my waistline. “Can I see it?”


“Close the door.” Nova rushes over to shut it while I stand slowly and unbutton my pants, tugging the zipper halfway down. When she returns to stand in front of me, she places her hands expectantly on her hips, but there are patches of red stealing up over her throat and cheeks.


“Hurry it up,” she says jokingly. “I don’t have all day.”


I fold down my pants on the left side, pushing down my panties an inch as well. The mark is in sharp relief against my tan skin but doesn't look remarkably out-of-place due to the number of tattoos on my body. Nova reaches out before I can protest and runs her fingertips over the slightly raised skin.


“Does it hurt?”


I shake my head and step away from her gentle touch, redoing up my pants. “It’s just like a birthmark,” I mutter.


“A birthmark that just so happens to have an identical twin on some maniac wolf that also happens to house the other half of your soul.” Nova takes a large breath after her mini-rant.


“Exactly.” We share weak smiles.


“That’s why you wanted to go on the assignment?”


My head bobs. “Partly. I still stand by everything I said, but yes. It is partly why I wanted to go—not to be with him. Obviously. I mean he’s a lycan for goodness sake. I don’t actually plan on going through with the binding process.” A semi-hysterical laugh bubbles forth. “That would be insane. I would be exiled, and then for good measure, they would send someone to assassinate me for daring to humiliate the cause in such a way.”


“I don’t think they would do that…,” she hedges. When she catches my unimpressed look, she lets out a hoarse laugh of her own. This one carrying a more honest tune. “They’ll just kill you.” We both burst into laughter at the gallows humor, the bent-at-the-waist-clutching-at-your-sides kind of laughter. When we finally trickle down into giggles, she takes my hand once more.


“It’ll be fine,” I tell her, though the words feel sour on my tongue.


“He’s your other half. He was made for you,” Nova scolds me lightly, “and you were made for him.”


“Didn’t we just go over the whole 'they’ll kill me' thing?”


Nova squeezes my hand before letting go and taking a step back to begin pacing the room. “What were you going to do if you were assigned?”


I sigh and shrug pathetically. “Just observe. See what he’s like from afar, I guess.”


Nova frowns at my apathetic response. “That’s all?”


“I already told you I don't intend to do anything about the mark, or anything equally as stupid.” Her frown remains. “What?” I snap, feeling my defenses rising. “You and I both know the Council has my future neatly planned out for me.”


“You mean Mrs. Baker and your dad?”


“I’ll finish my training with the Wardens, stay for a few years, and then start my study as a council delegate.”


“And marry Wyatt,” she adds with surprising bitterness. Wyatt Baker, Mrs. Baker’s only son. A founding family just like my own. A sinking sensation dwells in the pit of my stomach. Wyatt and I had dated years ago but ended things when I started training as a Stellar Warrior. It wasn’t part of the "plan," he had protested to no avail. The Baker women always held positions on the Council, and Baker men always held positions as Head Stellar Warrior. Not the other way around.


I give another helpless raise of my shoulders. “It is what it is.” Unless I find some way to validate a life without Wyatt to my dad, or forge a new path on my own.


Her lips purse unhappily as she stops her pacing, her hair swishing dramatically to the side. “And you're positive it’s him? That the wolf is your soulmark?” There’s a sort of desperation in her tone, a pleading, but I nod my head along sadly.


“You said you saw it yourself. I touched his mark and the reaction was instantaneous.”


“All you did was touch it? You’re sure he didn’t seal the mark? Or anything else?”


“I’m positive,” I tell her with more confidence than I feel. “There are words that have to be spoken while the soulmark is being touched for the sealing to happen,”—at least that’s what our books on the subject say—“The same goes for the other two steps; the marking and binding of the soulmark. Words are said. The soulmark is touched.”


“And once all three steps are completed, the sealing, marking, and binding, your souls are joined as one,” Nova finishes, staring off into the distance. I feel my stomach turn uneasily. So the books say.


“But he didn’t say anything,” I persist. “And I didn’t say anything. So we aren’t sealed.”


“And what I saw?” Nova questions somewhat cautiously.


“Shock and awe,” I offer after a moment’s hesitation, the truth spilling forth. “One second I’m on the verge of passing out. The next, we’re both hit with a tidal wave of emotion. It was like being swept up in the sweetest storm as it rained down this tremendous heat and—” desire “—fullness," I finish lamely.


“Fullness?” she asks dubiously.


I nod fervently. “It’s hard to explain,” I tell her, opening and closing my butterfly knife as I begin to pace as well. “It was as if I could feel this all-consuming feeling in every part of my body.”


She raises an eyebrow, arms slow to fold over her chest once more as her lips twitch upward. “Feeling?”


I blush. “Not that kind,” I lie.


“Right.” She snorts and goes to sit on the bed by her bag. “Well, if you want, I can do some covert reconnaissance on him for you? Find out the basics. Name, age, history, medical records. You know, just the basics.”


The weight of my secret lifts fully from my shoulders, and I give a breathy laugh. “That would be,” I pause, thinking of the right word and coming up empty, “nice.”


Nova gives me a small smile in return, one that doesn’t exactly meet her eyes as she pats the spot beside her. “You’ve got it. Now, show me that knuckle trick again.”


+++


It’s late, and the triplets left hours ago. The remnants of my displeasure linger in my muscles and mind. I appreciate what Nova is doing for me, but I still can’t stem the jealousy I hold, or the stifling notion that things are falling into place, just as my father has planned.


My fists careen into the punching bag with ruthless efficiency, the bracers I wear enhancing my force and sending it nearly off its hinges. I grasp onto it, steadying the bag as I pant from my exertion.


“You’re in a fine mood tonight, Calliope,” comments a familiar voice from behind. Wyatt. I frown at the bag and keep my back toward him. His light footsteps echo in the empty gym until he comes to stand by me. I cast a wary look his way.


“What do you want?”


His eyebrow arches scrupulously while his gaze ventures the length of my body. I tense, but he sends me an easy smile, relaxing his stance and shoving his hands into his pockets.


“Need any help?” His eyes flick to the bag and then to my bracers. “You’ll knock it off if you keep going at it like that.” I nod begrudgingly. There’s too much adrenaline in my veins to stop now, and the whole purpose of coming to the gym is to tire myself out, so I can sleep tonight. Wyatt moves to stand behind the punching bag, placing his hands securely on it.


“One-two, weave, weave, two-three,” he instructs me, voice dropping any lilting amusement in favor of something more serious. Jab, cross, double weave, cross, hook. I nod and bounce on my feet, taking in several deep breathes before going into the combination. Even with Wyatt stabilizing the bag and providing resistance, my hits push him and the bag back.


“How about something more… challenging?” I ask, stepping away from the bag after completing a repetition. Wyatt peeks his head out from behind the bag to study me.


“How long have you been going at it?”


I shrug. “Maybe forty minutes?”


He frowns. “And you want to keep going?”


I nod and put my hands back up in front of my face, bouncing once again on my toes. He gives a small shake of his head.


“Fine. Lead front kick, one-two, lead side kick, back kick.” I catch the gleam in Wyatt’s eyes and feel a grin tinker at the corner of my lips. That combination is more of a challenge.


Wyatt knows just how to push me—which is both a good and bad thing. With Wyatt I learned to push past my limits, exceeding my expectations time after time with him at my side. He gave me the confidence to believe in myself, but he also knows how to take that confidence away. Wyatt knows exactly what buttons to press and triggers to pull to bend me to his will.


My left foot nails the side of the bag with a sharp smack. As I plant it back on the ground, I twist myself around to deliver the back kick with my right. Smack.


“Feeling stressed?” he asks.


I feel my concentration waver for a moment, and my lead front kick doesn’t land nearly as well as the previous. A frustrated air issues past my lips. Jab. Cross. Am I feeling stressed? I move with the bag, toggling from side to side before launching into my side kick and twirling into my back kick with vicious accuracy.


“You know you can talk to me, right?”


I scoff, sending him a look that displays my skepticism. Talk to Wyatt? Never again will I let this man in on my innermost thoughts. My feet shuffle backward and forward as I find my pace again, speeding through the next interval with concentrated breaths. All the while his eyes are on me, staring me down in a way I’m much too familiar with. I’m lucky Wyatt never thought twice about my fanged soulmark. To him, it was just another tattoo among the many. A moon on the back of my neck. A trident down my forearm. A shield on my shoulder blade. A dozen other tiny insignificant markings to hide the one that meant the most.


“I’m fine,” I tell him through gritted teeth, pushing on. The punching bag rattles with each hit of my fists and feet, Wyatt’s small grunts of effort providing infinite satisfaction.


“Right.” He snorts, pulling back and signaling me to stop. He shakes out his wrists, eyeing me with a small level of disapproval. “How about you fight against something that’ll give you a real challenge?”


I take a couple of steps back, my breath coming in deep gasps as I attempt to catch it. “Are you suggesting yourself?” I ask dryly.


He gives a confident smirk in return, popping the knuckles on his right hand. “We both know I can give you what you want,” he says, a husky edge to his voice. Not bothering to wait for my response, he strips off his shirt and goes to grab the hand wrap and a set of gloves. “No bracer power,” he comments over his shoulder. “Just us. One on one.”


I flick my wrists with purpose, and the luminescent light sinks back into the iron bracelets. If he thinks he can beat me, he has another thing coming to him.


“Ready?” I ask after he’s taken a few minutes to warm up.


He gives a brief nod and circles forward. At first, we both pull our hits, dodging and feinting as we take up the violent dance. In no time at all, our movements become quicker. Harder. There is a comfort in this act with him. At least to me, there is. It touches the part of my soul that craves the fight, that yearns to inflict pain. My darkness; an all-consuming feeling of feral rage, that dominates me as I lose myself in a fight. It is considered a curse among our people, a blemish on one’s sanity, but if I’m honest, the soulmark feels more damning.


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