With her soulmate by her side and the remains of her Vanguard, Melanie strives to maneuver a maze of political scandals designed to make her falter. If she fails, she will not only lose her throne to the traitorous Lord Rossi, but also her life to the fiery Alaman.
Melanie can only pray her secret that the Ace of Hearts is alive and manipulating them all in a final deadly game is never revealed.
If there was one thing Melanie
S’velare was sure of, it was that her soul was in jeopardy because she was a
witch. Not because she’d made a demonic deal, but because she suspected her
powers might be stronger than she was. She was afraid that one day, the lightning
and thunder churning inside her would rip through her control, leaving her soul
and body open to the Ace of Hearts, like an unlocked door to a burglar.
Ace of Hearts, if it was still alive, would kill for that chance.
are you listening?” Mrs. Elyse Clovis Bouchard asked. Melanie’s tutor in
political arts, Mrs. Bouchard was of average height, average weight, and fish
mouthed, which sent the whole picture of the woman off kilter. When she spoke,
spit flew across the library in direct proportion to how much enthusiasm she
had for the subject. She was currently attempting to teach Melanie the finer
arts of political maneuvering that led to the rise of the Ottoman Empire, known
not only for its wealth, but in the secret world that Melanie occupied, for its
elemental power over huge swaths of civilization. Mrs. Bouchard’s spit had
spattered on Melanie’s notebook paper in three fat drops.
Melanie said, looking up from the spittle wrinkling the paper. She was in a
class of one, no longer able to attend public school because of the unusual
things that tended to happen when she was in any sort of mood that wasn’t
perfect relaxation. That, and she’d destroyed an entire classroom and
traumatized several students three months previously when an azri had attacked
her, tried to eat her soul and take the Ace of Hearts, her reliquary of power,
from her. Also, Melanie was a huge insurance liability because she tended to
start electrical fires every twenty-eight days or so when her emotions took a
turn into the depressive and destructive, in a three day hormonal sprint.
you some other place to be?”
pushed herself straight in her chair and rapidly blinked her eyes, trying in
vain to force herself awake. “No,” Melanie said. “I’m just having
a hard time staying awake.”
I bore you, Princess?” Mrs. Bouchard looked down her nose over those fish
lips at her.
swallowed. She needed to know these things. She needed this strategy if she was
ever to be a good leader for her people. There were other covens out there in
the world, and the political interactions in the magical community made the
mortal world’s politics seem like commercials for cupcakes. “No, I need to
learn this. Please, keep going.”
we will take an extended lunch today. Let’s meet back here in an hour.”
sighed and nodded. She needed to get out of the dreary library. She gathered
her bag and put her books inside, thinking that she would study over lunch. At
the bottom of the bag, a bottle of unused pills rattled. The prescription
anti-anxiety meds messed with her ability to keep control of her magic, so
she’d stopped taking them weeks ago. She still couldn’t control the flood of
panic every time she thought a shadow was the noir reaching out to corrupt her.
wouldn’t be attending a public school again, not until college. She was far too
dangerous. One stray argument with pretty much anyone, and in seconds there
could be an electrical storm of biblical proportions terrorizing all the
teenagers at her high school, setting off fire alarms, with follow-up videos
posted to the internet. The damnable internet.
video of Melanie, in the grips of the Ace of Hearts’s consciousness, while she
and her Vanguard tried to destroy it, had surfaced online. She couldn’t afford
to be recognized by anyone as the girl in that video. There would be far too
many questions, and it would endanger the coven. The last thing anyone wanted
was a conflict with the mortal humans. Melanie had also learned that there were
strict international laws about magic and its use in public. The kind of laws
that, when broken, resulted in death, dismemberment, or worse.
to several of her mother’s advisors, Lord Rossi’s mustache among them, she
wasn’t fit for public interaction because the risk that she would break one of
those international laws of magic. One fuzzy video of a girl with auburn hair
spewing lightning from her hands at a man who looked like a teacher, and she
was banned from public appearances beyond the rare outing to lunch. Not the
glamorous, paparazzi-filled life of the crown princess.
a good thing she wasn’t in public very often. Her control on her magic was
still weak. She could snap at any second and voila! Twenty thousand volts of
raw witch anger, depression, or just downright irritation could electrocute the
nearest bystander. She could probably solve the world’s energy crisis if
someone hooked her to a set of jumper cables and a battery array. Until she got
control of her powers, she was on a strict “no use” ruling from her
lesson?” Jack, her friend and a member of her Vanguard, asked as he caught
up to her. He’d been reading in an overlarge chair near the door. He was her
guard today. He and his twin sister, Luciana, attended public school, with him
taking classes Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and Luciana attending
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
sighed dramatically and hiked her bag higher on her shoulder. “Do the
words ‘ce n’est pas terrible’ cover it?”
didn’t laugh. It wasn’t that funny. With his six-foot-two frame, his shoulders
broad enough to make any body builder salivate, Jack walked with both a natural
swagger and like a man about to crack skulls. He kept pace at her side and
considered. When Jack considered, he took his time about it.
to get out of here for lunch?” he finally asked, his impossibly deep voice
rumbling in his chest.
need to study,” Melanie said. “I need to know this stuff if—”
he said. “You’re going to break something if you keep that up. Relax.
Let’s just find a place to eat. Someplace you like, that you won’t accidentally
burn down.” From their mind-to-mind connection, Melanie felt a flicker of
emotion from Jack: a dash of comfort, some humor, a hefty helping of happiness,
and the relaxed satisfaction of belonging. There was only one place that filled
that order: the Tattered Ear, where the local pack of Scottish-bred shape
shifters met. It was also where Ignatius Bruce, the pack’s alpha, and Melanie’s
soul mate, worked during the day.
didn’t take much prodding to get her to agree. “We’ll have to sneak
out,” she said.
go then,” Jack said. His huskiness intimidated the shape shifters enough
that Melanie soon learned if any of her Vanguard would be accepted into the
pack’s circle, it would be Jack. Also Ignatius co-owned the local pub with his
uncle, Fergusson. “Sneak out the back?”
thoughts, exactly,” she said. Besides, it was finally warm enough to go
outside without a parka, so walking wouldn’t be miserable.
a lid on the weather,” he said. “It’s a dead giveaway whenever you
are up to something.”
felt her smile slip. “Right,” she said.
Jack said, stopping, “I’m sorry.” He ran a hand through his short
brown hair. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
problem with having a Vanguard who was blood bound to her is that they could
sense her emotions and her thoughts through touch. Any one of them could
pinpoint her exact location as long as they were within a ten-mile radius of
each other. So when her depression hit her like a two-ton brick, he felt the
shockwave. Likewise, his remorse filtered through the bond, and the combination
was a power-punch of teenage angst, regret, and mutual suffering, that neither
of them wanted or needed more of.
worry about it,” she said, forcing her thoughts away from the one thing
she couldn’t think of, the one thing she kept a secret from everyone. The one
thing that terrified her as much as her out of control abilities did.
“Let’s just go.”
nodded and waited for her to go first, still feeling as sorry as a kicked
puppy. Which made it worse, because Jack was like a puppy. He just loved
everyone. When he was sad, it was like a double shot of negativity in her brew
of already-hard-to-swallow latte called life.
was huge. Castle huge. It was also decorated with expensive furnishings that
were the remains of Melanie’s family history. Her ancestors were mostly
Italian, and the frescoes and tapestries were of spreading fields of olives and
grapes and European landscapes. It was all very idyllic, very much a lie
compared to the truth about the S’velare’s.
normal circumstances they would shift
out, using their magical abilities to travel through the space. Lately,
Melanie’s magic had become a liability rather than a boon when jumping from
place to place. It was safer to walk. The last time she’d made the attempt with
another person, it had been in the depths of February, soon after Valentine’s
Day, and she and Luciana had ended up waist-deep in a frozen pond, halfway to
their destination. An emergency trip to the witch doctor had saved them both
from hypothermia. Still, Melanie hadn’t tried to shift since. She didn’t trust her control not to accidentally drop
her and Jack over a cliff, or worse, inside
go out the back this time. I’ll throw you over the wall or something.”
had to smile at the joke. She sensed his humor in her mind, and it helped.
smile vanished when they rounded the corner and her black-eyed brother, Owen,
stood in the exact middle of the corridor, waiting for them.
placed a protective hand on her shoulder, ready to draw her behind him. She
could feel his pulse through the contact, his shock and the sudden instinctive
fear that matched her own.
eyes were black as pitch, like an azri’s, but he wasn’t one. He was still a
mage, but he no longer had a soul. He’d been totally exposed to the raw
darkness of the noir, black magic. What looked out through his eyes was neither
human nor azri, but something in-between. Melanie felt stripped down to her
soul when he turned that black gaze on her, as if he could see every secret she
was keeping from the coven, her Vanguard, and her boyfriend. Worse still, Owen’s
soullessness was her fault.
is looking for you,” he said, tonelessly. “To give you a message.
Listen carefully to what he has to say. It will be very important.”
is looking for me?” Melanie asked.
frowned. “I don’t know. I just know that someone is looking for you. I
will cover your escape.” Then a slight tug of power filled the air and her
brother vanished, shifting as if it
were child’s play. He was only thirteen and such abilities should have been
beyond him, or at least more difficult. But without a soul, Owen was thirteen
going on infinity.
sweat broke out over Melanie’s body.
Let’s agree to not think about it,
Melanie thought to Jack.
nodded, his brown eyes still wide. I’m
going to have nightmares tonight. I
wish he wouldn’t do that.
didn’t respond. She always had nightmares. Ever since the Ace of Hearts had
come into her life, night was rife with terror of the thing she couldn’t let
her waking self think about. No one could know.
guards posted in the early spring garden were absent. Jack gave Melanie a leg
up near the back wall closest to the dark forest of silver aspens and spruce
spires before he pulled himself over and joined her on the other side.
took a deep breath of the free air. When she first arrived in Park City, Utah,
she had hated it. At the time it had been under several feet of snow. Now, a
cool wind caused the trees to sway gently, and the spring shoots poking through
the waves of gray dead grass from last season, rustled under foot. Park City
was beautiful, and possessed a wildness all to itself that conjured images of
plaid button-downs and leather boots. Everything smelled perfect, no hint of
city pollution for miles in any direction. The trees and mountains parting its
streets dispelled any urban feel and replaced it with artsy communities of
athletic outdoorsmen. Park City itself was an elementally charged place. Even
without the magical inhabitants, it was a magical place tucked away from the
rest of the world.
walk into downtown wasn’t long. Soon the sounds of main street were close, the
rumble of cars and conversation of people interweaved with nature’s rhythms.
his hands in his pockets, sighed. “I love this town, but you know,
sometimes I just wish we could leave.”
smiled at him. She didn’t have to say that she did too.
many times had she wondered that? The shape shifters could do it. In fact,
Ignatius, Nate for short, had done it several times when he needed a break.
She’d never seen him leave before; he was always where she could find him, or
finding her when she wasn’t looking for him. But she knew he had escaped into
the wilderness more than once. At night, when he wasn’t allowed in the
ManorManor, he would sit at the edge of the trees and watch over her until the
moon rose high and heavy among the stars. Those were the nights when she slept
until morning. For him, it wasn’t anything to melt into the trees and disappear
from a world that was happy to forget about him.
that was the problem. The world was not ready to forget about Melanie S’velare,
Keeper of the Ace of Hearts, heir to the S’velare throne, the strongest witch
ever to live.
think you’d end up living in a rockslide or something,” Melanie said as they
stepped from the forest onto concrete sidewalk.
he said. “But that would be pretty cool. I bet I could.” Jack’s
reliquary was the King of Spades, meaning he was a mage gifted with power over
earth. Luciana’s reliquary was the Queen of Spades and she also had power over
earth, but over plants instead. Together they were a badass team of nearly
smiled and adjusted the bag on her shoulder. It was a warm day, the Utah sun
already beating down, promising a dry and brutal summer ahead. She shielded her
eyes and looked up toward the tallest buildings, the two and three story
historic constructs comprising main street, a mass of artistry, talent, good
food, and outrageous resort pricing. The ski lifts were still active in April
due to the unusual snowfall this year. Snowboarders and skiers carried their
equipment in bikini’s and swim trunks. Here, the beach wasn’t a sandy stretch,
it was where the snow met the street. Lawn chairs were set out and people were
year the resorts were doing well. Melanie’s nightmares messed with her emotions
enough that, for several weeks, nightly blizzards had coated the resort town in
some of the best powder Utah had experienced in years. The result was a longer
season and a boosted economy. So while she was damn good at destroying
buildings with accidental tornadoes, many members of the coven had complimented
her on the increased income her instability had brought them. Lord Rossi and
her mother were decidedly not pleased by this.
are you looking at?” Jack asked, leaning down next to her and squinting in
the direction she was looking.
think there’s someone standing on top of the theater.” With the sun behind
the person, it was hard to tell. It could be a movie gimmick, or something from
one of the new indie films coming to town. The wind picked up and the man’s
clothes shifted. His coat, too warm for the unseasonably warm weather, swept
out behind him like a cape and Melanie recognized him.
swallowed and lowered her hand and he disappeared in a sliver of black vapor.
Gavin was an azri, a soul eater. He was also her birth father.
Mikki Kells is both a writer and a rider. She spends her nights crafting fantastical stories and her afternoons bowing to the demands of her beloved horse. Her interests in fantasy and paranormal subjects developed from a childhood of imaginary exploits and continue to influence her professional career. She resides in central Utah.