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Featured Story - Free Complete Excerpt from DESTINY'S PROMISE
By Janeau L'voe
Prologue - Dreams of Destiny
Darkness surrounded her, blackness seething at the edges of her vision. Jivelle could see nothing, but she felt the danger that was near. Very near. Her life hung in the balance. The threat was subtle, hidden in many shades of gray. She could not find the source of the danger.
An odd sense of desire and need mingled with her apprehension, and a softer emotion touched her heart. Could it be love? Or was it simply compassion?
Intuition warred with logic. Logic deemed that she find the threat, and face it. Magic would fight magic. And her magic was powerful. But intuition told her that this threat could not be fought. Only in love and trust could she win. She must submit, or die.
Submit? How could she submit to danger? Would evil not crush weakness? Was not weakness found in submission?
The dream faded, and Jivelle awoke, wondering what it could all have meant. Many times her dreams were prophetic, and she did not like the dark significance of this recurring nightmare. What was she to face in the future that would demand strength in submission, and complete trust of an unnamed threat? She knew not what it was, but she dreaded its coming. Subservience was not something that she was good at, nor was trust.
The sun was setting low in the sky when Shera finally staggered into the outskirts of the village. Her head pounded, her throat was parched, and every part of her body was battered by fatigue. Her muscles screamed with it. The heavy pack that she wore on her back almost flattened her to the dusty ground as she stumbled the last few steps onto the porch of the little cottage.
She knew that her life was almost at an end. She knew by the feel of the weakness that coursed through her, as constant as the beat of her heart. She could feel the last of her strength leave her, just as her hand grasped the door handle.
Her knees buckled, and with a groan, she collapsed in a heap into the dirt.
A tear escaped her eye, trailing through the dust on her cheek. She had failed. She did not even have strength enough left to call out to her daughter. Dizziness assailed her, and blackness stole her vision, narrowing her perspective to no more than a pinpoint of light before it was gone completely.
Shera knew no more until she felt a rasp of wetness against her cheek. A high canine whine roused her from unconsciousness. Her eyes fluttered open.
A large, black face stared down into hers. Brown eyes, liquid with simple love, adored her, before the dog swiped her cheek with his large tongue again.
"Ash..." her voice was a harsh croak, the sound barely a whisper, but the dog heard her. His tail thumped in greeting against the dusty boards of the porch as his gaping mouth grinned down at her.
Shera realized that she lay on her back, the bulky pack supporting her in a half-upright position. The sun had long since gone down, and now a huge witch's moon shone upon her. Full and yellow, its light illuminated the tangle of bushes growing on both sides of the porch.
Something moved in the darkness to her right, and Shera tried again to speak to the large animal at her side.
"Ash," she rasped. "Jivelle...fetch..."
Ash closed his gaping jaws, and gazed at her quizzically. He tilted his head to the side, then back again as his brown eyes stared at her.
"Jivelle," Shera tried again, knowing that it was probably a wasted effort. Though the huge canine was very smart, she doubted that even he would understand the garbled command.
The movement in the darkness at the edge of her vision grew closer. Shera shuddered. Ash was all that stood between her and the danger that lurked there at the edge of the trees. If she sent him away, there would be no hope if it came for her. She could not even stand to defend herself. But the dog would not stop the evil, not if it really wanted her. Ash would die. Only Jivelle could save them.
"Ash..." Shera tried to force a sterner tone. "Ash! Go! Jivelle!"
The dog backed away from her slowly, a thin whine issuing from his throat. He did not want to leave her, but he was too well-trained to ignore a command.
With one last look in her direction, Ash turned and loped away into the darkness of the rapidly cooling night, leaving her alone and vulnerable once again.
Shera's eyes slid closed, though she fought to keep them open. She hated the fatigue that pulled at her, hated the treacherous betrayal of her own body. When had she become so frail? She could not remember an exact time, only the slow loss of strength over the long years of her life. Though she was ready to die, had been for some time, she did not want to go this way. No, she wanted Jivelle to remember her peaceful smile as she drifted off to the netherworld in her sleep. If Jivelle came too late, and found her lying on the steps in a pool of blood, she knew her daughter would be forever haunted by the image of her grisly death. She did not want Jivelle to remember her that way.
A faint sound, coming from the line of trees off to her right, forced her sagging eyelids open. Though her body had deteriorated badly over the years, her eyesight was still keen. She could see the glowing eyes of the Shape-shifter clearly. For a moment, Shera wondered why he had not come for her yet. She had been lying there for a long time, long enough for the darkness that he loved so well to come. Why had he not murdered her yet?
Surely it was only a matter of time; she knew what he was, and that fact alone had made it necessary - at least to him - that she die. That was why she had made the hard journey to Jivelle's little cottage at the edge of the mountains. Otherwise, she would have waited until the endless heat of summer had lifted. She had not known that he would follow her so quickly. Silently, she whispered a prayer to the Great One. If Jivelle's magic was not strong, then she would have endangered her daughter's life, as well. Shera could have cried with the pain of that knowledge.
"Hello?" The shout came from across the yard, out of the blackness of the night. Ash had done as she wished; he had fetched Jivelle. Be careful, my child, danger is near. Shera wished that she could shout the words, but her throat had grown so dry that she could not even whisper them. "Hello, where are you?"
Ash's great head broke through the blackness of the night as he loped to her side. Jivelle followed him closely, her long, black hair swirling around her in a curtain of shiny ebony curls. She was running, her plain brown skirt hiked up to her knees, the white shirt she wore a bright beacon in the dark night.
"Mother!" Jivelle knelt by her side, sliding her strong youthful arms under Shera's shoulders. "Oh, Mother. What have you done to yourself? Why did you not send Merc for me?"
"Danger..." Shera muttered, the word rasping in her dry throat. "Inside...please."
Jivelle's head jerked up at the first word, her sharp eyes searching the darkness for any threat.
"All right. I understand." Jivelle helped her to her feet, stripped the heavy pack from her shoulders, and all but carried her into the cottage. She dropped the pack in a corner, commanded Ash to guard the door, then lay Shera gently down on her own bed.
After tucking a pillow under her head, and removing the dusty boots from her feet, Jivelle ran a gentle hand over her forehead. "Lie still, Mother, I will fetch you some healing tea, for your throat." She lit the Solarc candle on the small bedside table, then left the small room.
Shera let her aching body settle more deeply into the soft mattress of her daughter's bed, comforted by the lingering scent of moonroses, a fragrance that Jivelle always wore. She was safe now; she hoped that the Shape-shifter would not harm Jivelle. He would not want to expose himself to anyone else. She was safe as long as she stayed near the village. The Shape-shifter could not fight the whole village.
"Here's your tea, Mother. Let me help you sit up. Would you like something to eat?" Jivelle sat on the mattress next to her, helping her to sit up enough to sip from the cup that she held. Thoughts whirled through Jivelle's head in an odd flurry of quicksilver images. Something was terribly wrong, or Shera would not have ventured from home to cross the mountain in the summer's heat. Outside, Ash let out a low menacing growl. Shera immediately tensed, fear filling her eyes. Jivelle took the cup from her lips, setting it down on the small bedside table near the flickering candle. "Worry not, I won't let anything happen to you. You are safe here. I only wish you had contacted me. I would have come to you. There was no need for you to make such a hard journey." Love shone in her eyes as she looked at the frail body of her mother lying on the mattress. "I will return in a moment."
Jivelle tucked another pillow behind Shera's head before turning away. She took her staff from its place on the wall behind the door, flicking the small fabric cover away from the Luanstone adorning the top. The long, smooth length of polished briarwood felt warm in her hand, comforting. Power lit the surface of the stone, vibrating down the dark wood, and she smiled. Whatever was outside was in for a surprise this night. It had hunted a defenseless old woman to her door, but now it would deal with her. And she would not be merciful.
She opened the door quickly, the staff brandished in front of her, ready to say the words that would call forth its power. Ash still sat on the steps where she had left him, the long fur on his neck and shoulders now bristling with warning. His sharp eyes scanned the darkness, lips drawn up in a silent snarl.
"Come inside, Ash, and guard Mother." The dog slowly stood, casting one more glance into the night before brushing past her legs into the cottage. He took a place beside the bed, facing her as she slipped into the night, shutting the door behind her.
What menace awaited her? The pale glow of the witch's moon did nothing to illuminate the threat.
"Come forth and face me!" Jivelle demanded, searching the darkness for signs of movement. A whisper of sound made her turn to the line of trees across the yard. In the dense growth of leaves and vines, a pair of eyes gleamed at her, glowing gold.
Jivelle advanced upon them, the Luanstone talisman glowing brightly with her hostility.
She stopped halfway across the yard when a man stepped from the cover of the trees. He was darkness embodied; all of him, from the jet black hair that crowned his head to the black boots that encased his feet. A dark cloak swirled around him. Only his eyes were not dark, but a pale feral yellow, seeming to glow with an inner light.
"I mean you no harm, Mistress." His voice was shadowy and bewitching, deep, with a slight burr of some accent that she did not recognize.
"Why have you come here?"
"I have followed the old woman. She is in need of assistance. Will you help her?"
Jivelle nodded. "She is no longer your concern."
The stranger bowed to her, his cape falling over his shoulders to brush the ground. "As you wish, Mistress." He turned to go.
"Wait!" Jivelle demanded, and the Luanstone hissed a sizzle of white fire as she stepped forward.
The man turned back to face her, his stance arrogant and unafraid.
"Why have you followed her?"
The man's shoulders lifted in a shrug. "She was afraid of me. I could not offer my assistance. The journey is long over the mountain, and evil stalked her the whole way. She would have been killed two nights past, for she had fallen asleep in Taltak glade, near the Kithn Pond. It found her there, but I intervened. She is safe now. Your beloved mother."
Jivelle gasped, stepping closer, she held up the staff so the light from the stone shone on his face, "Who are you?"
"I am no one, Mistress, that you should concern yourself with. Again, I mean you and your mother no harm. Believe that."
"How do you know Shera? What evil stalked her? Is it near?" The light of battle was in her eye as she looked past him, searching for the threat that had pursued her mother across the mountain, the evil that had sent her fleeing her own home, causing her to exhaust herself to the point of unconsciousness. Her mother was a frail elder; what kind of monstrosity would have hunted her?
In the pale light of the stone, a smile tipped up the corner of the man's lips, "Be not afraid, Mistress, for it has not come this far yet." The smile faded, and his amber-gold eyes shone fiercely at her. "But beware, for it shall, and you will be the only one to protect your mother."
"I am not afraid! I only wish to know that which I shall face. Will you tell me?"
"If you wish, I will stay until the danger has come and gone, but I will not tell the secrets of the one who approaches. It is not my place."
What did he mean by that? Jivelle eyed him mistrustfully. It could very well be that he was the one who had stalked her mother. She did not trust the power in him, nor the intense glow of his eyes. Magic surrounded him; she could feel it.
"I do not need your help in protecting Shera, but I would offer my thanks that you looked after her on the journey. Would you have a token of my esteem? Perhaps a meal to fill your belly?"
Again the smile appeared, and for the first time she noticed the startling male beauty of his features. He had the face and body of a warrior, strong and solid, but his lips were full and sensual. His shoulders were broad under the cloak, his legs long and heavily muscled.
"I need no token for what I have done, though I would be grateful for a meal."
"Come, then," Jivelle turned away from him, heading back to the cottage. The man followed along at her back. She led him around to the front door. If Shera had been frightened of him, and she had certainly been afraid of something, then her mother need not see him dining at Jivelle's table. "I have soup and bread, and I will pack a few small cakes that I baked this morning for you to take with you when you go."
"Many thanks, Mistress," the stranger said, as he doffed his cloak at the door.
"Please, sit," Jivelle gestured to the table with her staff. Moving over to the hearth, she pulled the large iron pot from the fire, removing the lid with a folded length of cloth. Fragrant steam issued forth, filling the air with mouth-watering aromas. Jivelle glanced at the man from the corner of her eye as he settled into a chair, and found him watching her with those disconcerting golden eyes.
After placing the Luanstone staff on the mantle, she fetched a bowl, filling it with soup. She set the steaming fare before him on the rough-hewn table, then placed a loaf of bread beside it. "Would you care for wine? Or water?"
"Water, if you please."
Jivelle filled a cup, then placed it before him, and, after gathering her staff, left him to his supper as she went to check on Shera.
Brawyn sipped at the hot soup, letting the flavors mingle in his mouth, savoring the taste of real food. He had eaten none for ages, it seemed. Jivelle was the first to offer him sustenance on his long journey. Most were afraid of him. It was his eyes; they frightened people with their savage glow. But Jivelle was not frightened, and he wondered why.
The woman fascinated him. He could not read her thoughts as he could those of her mother. The old woman had been easy to read. Her thoughts had been frantic and terrified, only images of her daughter giving her ease. Brawyn had not expected Jivelle to be beautiful. Shera's mental images had not done her justice.
Shera's daughter did possess the solace that he sought, though. Through her, he would achieve his goal. The Luanstone would not protect her from his power.
If only her beauty was not such a distraction. Her long fall of glossy, black hair begged to be touched; only then would he know if it was as soft and silky as it appeared. Her expressive eyes, dark blue and full of mystery, had captivated him with their interest, their lack of fear. He had never seen interest in another's eyes before, only loathing and suspicion. Yes, Jivelle was uncommon, and she would serve his needs well.
He smiled as he finished the soup.
Shera slept peacefully, and Jivelle was relieved. Her mother meant the world to her. If something should happen to her, Jivelle would be bereft.
If Shera weren't so stubborn, she would have agreed to move to the village, and live there with her daughter. But she would not. Shera preferred her home on the mountain, and no amount of pleading on Jivelle's part had made her change her mind. As for Jivelle, she could no more leave the village than her mother could leave the mountain. Her home had become a part of her. She was known for her magic in the village, and was accepted by the villagers as one of their own. It would not be that way elsewhere, for magic, even beneficial magic like her own, was often a cause for mistrust among those not possessing a similar power for themselves.
Therefore, Shera made the journey over the mountain twice a year, staying with Jivelle through winter until spring came again, then returning to her beloved home. Jivelle always made the trip with her, for she knew, even if Shera would not admit to it, that her mother was growing frailer by the day. Soon, she would not be able to make the journey at all without help from the Luanstone's magic.
Jivelle sighed, then bent to blow the flame from the Solarc candle before she returned to the stranger at her table.
He was still there, though the soup was gone from his bowl, and the bread was half finished as well. His golden eyes watched her as she crossed the room to him, but he said nothing.
Jivelle wondered how long it would be before he felt the effects of the sleeping herbs that she had dropped into his soup. Not long now, she was sure.
"The fare was delicious, Mistress, I thank you." The stranger said, after a long silence.
"It was my pleasure to serve you; you have my eternal gratitude for your protection of Shera. My name is Jivelle of Sandsdown." Jivelle gave him a slight curtsy, letting her fall of dark hair slide forward to hide her expression from him. His eyes were sharp, and she feared he would see the deception in her own gaze if he looked too closely.
"Brawyn." He offered the name as he stood, then offered his hand as well. Hesitantly, Jivelle put her fingers into his. Immediately, she knew it had been a mistake. An image of his intent came clearly to her mind as emotions hot as fire snaked up her arm. She saw his purpose, her eyes widening in astonishment, and knew that he was aware of her own deception in that moment. Though the knowledge had come too late for both of them.
"No!" she hissed, trying to jerk her hand from his. His fingers gripped hers harshly, though, and she could not break his grasp.
Following the heat of emotion came the languor of enchantment. Jivelle felt all thought slip away from her as he held her in thrall. His wishes became her fondest desires, her eyes closing against her will, as a mist of rainbows danced in her mind.
Only the strength of the herbs saved her, for they took effect before he could mesmerize her completely. His grasp on her hand loosed, then slipped away entirely as he slumped to the floor.
Myriad thoughts still swirled through Jivelle's mind after his touch left her, dimming her own purpose as she swayed dizzily. It took a moment for reason to return, and with it came her wrath. He had meant to use her. He, Brawyn, was the 'evil' that had stalked her mother over the mountain. But he had never intended to hurt Shera. No, he had no use for her mother. It was Jivelle that he had come for, and through her, the power of the Luanstone. He meant to meld himself into one shape forever, for he was a thing of mists and memories. A Shape-shifter. One of the few yet remaining.
In their brief moment of contact, before his enchantment had flowed into her mind, she had felt his weariness. His life had been a long one, fraught with fear and loneliness. Not once had he known love or kindness, and he meant to take a mortal shape so that he could die. He meant to steal her identity, using the power of the Luanstone to seal his fate, and hers, as well.
She had felt something else in his thoughts as well, though. A reluctance to do her harm, an attraction to her beauty, and a flicker of an emotion most unusual to one who had never felt it before. He felt love for her. That was why, when she came completely back to her senses, Jivelle knelt beside him, instead of sending him to Perdition with a bolt of fire from the Luanstone.
Shape-shifters were not known for their kindness, and Brawyn had known none from others in his long life. How, then, could he feel love for her? Jivelle did not know. She knew only that she could not harm one that felt the gentler emotions. Had she felt nothing but purpose behind his sorcery, then she would not have hesitated to banish him from her home. Likewise, if his purpose had been to harm Shera, then she would not have waited to erase his existence. But the threat he offered was only to her, so she did not harm him, only tied his hands and feet tight with cord of Wythe, and moved him closer to the fire. She divested him of his boots as she settled his sleeping form on a soft rug before the hearth, then covered him with his own cloak, and waited for him to awaken.
The Wythe cord, steeped in the sacred waters of the Kithn pond, would suspend any magic that he had. He would not be able to change shape until she removed it, and as long as she did not touch him, he could not enact his spell upon her.
Jivelle settled in a chair to wait, dozing off as the heat from the fire seeped languor into her bones. When she awoke, Brawyn's golden gaze was bright on her face.
"Why have you done this to me?" he rasped, though he knew the answer right enough.
"You would take my life from me, yet you ask why I have chained your magic?" Jivelle stood up, shaking the wrinkles from her skirt and the sleep from her mind.
"I wished only to share your life with you, not take it." His eyes gleamed at her, their unholy glow as bright as the fire that burned behind him.
"My life would not be my own, then, would it? Nor would my body obey only my commands. No, I will not allow you to do this thing. You only wish to die, not live. My body is young, it will be many years before I am ready for the grave."
A satyr's smile tipped up the corner of his sensual lips. "Don't think that I did not notice, Mistress."
Jivelle looked at him quizzically, "I would not be averse in helping you reach your goal. The Luanstone has many powers. Perhaps you would not need to join with me to become mortal."
Brawyn shook his head, the smile gone from his lips, "No, Jivelle, I must. This curse I bear is far too strong. I have tried all else, but for the Luanstone. Surely its power is not so great as that?"
"Doubt its power not, Brawyn, for the greatest magic of the Luanstone draws its source from love. And love is the most powerful of all emotions."
Brawyn snorted in contempt. "Love! What would I know of that tender emotion? I have never been the focus of love, only hate. People fear my presence, so I hide it from them. Love will not save me, Jivelle."
"I am a healer, and my powers come from the Luanstone. It focuses my love for others, changing it to magic as I will it. Without love, the stone will not work miracles; it would only produce random power. If you were to force me to join my form with you, in stealth and deception, the Luanstone would cease to function as you willed it. Shall I prove to you the power of love?"
Jivelle knelt beside him, laying the Luanstone staff at her side. She pulled the stone from the staff, settling it into the amulet that she wore around her neck.
"Do not resist my love, for you must be willing, also. Think only of your fondest wish, and it will be done." Jivelle bent forward, bringing her face close to his. His golden gaze burned into her own, but she did not falter. To doubt her magic was to make it weak.
Her lips touched his in a light feathering caress, and to her surprise, Brawyn moaned at the contact. Jivelle pulled back, uncertain if this was the right course. He could enchant her through any contact, even a kiss, and the Luanstone could not protect her from that.
"Please, Jivelle, release my hands."
She felt only a moment's indecision, then realized what she must do. Submission and trust. The cords of Wythe fell away under her fingers, and she gazed into his eyes. "Do with me as you will, but remember that I alone have trusted you."
His hands reached up, grasping her shoulders. Jivelle waited for the heat of his touch to consume her, to enchant her beyond reasoning, but it did not. Instead, he drew her back down to him, bringing his lips against hers once again. His arms embraced her, and he murmured against her lips, "My fondest wish is but this. You humble me, Jivelle, with your trust."
Jivelle gave herself over to his kiss, and the warm emotions that seeped through his lips into hers. It was like nothing she had ever felt before, and silently, she wished that he could stay with her forever.
The Luanstone burned bright as magic surrounded the two of them, and Jivelle knew that she had done well to trust her dream. Brawyn was her destiny, and she his.
If you liked this story, the DESTINY'S PROMISE anthology also contains:
The Imminent Future: Meet Sylver Dreeming, the foremost geo-thermal expert for CosmoTeck. Follow her efforts to find a solution to the problem of Earth's overpopulation in the year 2193.
Maxwell's Promise: Los Lunas, New Mexico - City of the Moon. Is the curse of the werewolf greater than the power of love?
Midnight Mist: Every night at midnight, a magical mist creeps into the corner of Selene's parlor: but this time it has brought with it a man, an immortal creature who rides the mists of time as easily as a hawk rides the wind.
MIDNIGHT MIST - excerpt:
Selene glanced at the tiny Ormolu clock perched on the marble mantle above the fireplace. The clock’s gilded face read three minutes to midnight. Three minutes until she must face madness yet again. Surely it wouldn’t happen this night? Again?
She sat frozen on the small rose-patterned settee, wanting to run from the room – from the very house – but held in place by a strange macabre fascination. She shuddered, wondering if she were, indeed, crazed, and feeling cold to her bones despite the roaring fire in the hearth.
The seconds ticked by, oddly seeming to go both too slowly and too quickly at the very same time. Selene’s gaze fastened fixedly on the clock’s small face, following each movement of the hands as time went inexorable by. One minute left.
Her gaze was drawn to the corner of the large room, where shadows chased each other across the walls. The parlor maid had not lit anything more than the fire in the hearth, and the room seemed cloaked in mystery and danger, as well as darkness.
As of yet, she could not see anything unusual in the seemingly harmless corner. The wallpaper looked as it should, burgundy roses twining across a background of pale, butter yellow fabric. The dark mahogany wainscoting shone with a high gloss where the flickering light touched upon its beeswax-rubbed patina. A tall wingback chair, upholstered in moss green velvet, sat regally upon carved walnut feet. Everything seemed so very normal. But in a moment that would change. When the minute of midnight arrived, the corner would seethe with unnatural forces.
She looked to the clock again – only five seconds remained until midnight. Her gaze skittered back to the corner. She clutched her hands tightly together in her lap, and drew in a deep breath. For an instant, she could not stand the suspense a moment longer, and her eyes slid closed in a moment of cowardice. Her lungs began to burn, and she realized that she had been holding her breath in dread.
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