Excerpt for The Last Queen Book One by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


The Last Queen

Book One

Copyright © 2017 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com

 





The Last Queen

Book One

Try to imagine this. Try to imagine that you’re the last of a dying, powerful breed. Try to imagine that you can’t live alone. You have to marry a modern-day king, or you’ll die.

That’s me – the Last Queen. As my life falls apart, I’m forced into a world of dark magic, death, power, and arrogant kings who will do anything to acquire me.

In this violent game, I will need to align myself to live. But, instead, I will choose to fight….

The Last Queen is an action-packed, fast-paced urban fantasy from Odette C. Bell. It’s sure to please fans of The Frozen Witch.


Chapter 1

I don’t know what I’m doing. I haven’t known what I’m doing for the past year and a half, ever since the changes started.

No, who am I kidding? The changes started a hell of a lot longer ago than that.

Ever since childhood, I’ve been… undergoing something. A transformation. Miraculous changes that don’t make any damn sense.

But in the past several months, those changes have been coming quicker, they’ve been harder, and there hasn’t been a goddamn thing I can do to stop them, let alone ignore them.

I’m walking through a darkened laneway, hands stuffed in my pockets, fingers curled all the way into my palms. Any harder, and I won’t just cut the skin, but I’ll start that process again. That process that happens whenever I force too much strength into my fingers.

Charges of electricity, maybe. Power, possibly. I don’t know. There’s never been anyone for me to call on, anyone to rely on to figure out what the hell is happening to me. Just a few notes I’ve found here and there in family files. Nothing else.

Carefully, I slink along the side of the darkened building.

Thankfully, there are no lights on. Maybe that’s by design. Maybe it’s by accident. I never can tell until I figure out what I’m hunting.

Shit, hunting. I’ve been trying to stop myself from thinking like that. Though I’ve come out like this every night for the past month and a half, tracking those creatures, I’ve been desperately trying to hold onto a sense of normalcy. But it’s starting to slip away, isn’t it? Like goddamn water through my shivering fingers.

I cram my hands harder into my pockets, shifting my head to the side with a hard tick as I try to dislodge my heavy fringe from over my eyes.

I should get it cut. I should get my whole damn head shaven. Even though my silken, long dark hair has always been my crowning glory – about the only feature that sets me apart – it’s starting to become a nuisance. Hell, everything that ever set me apart, everything I’ve ever found special is starting to become a goddamn nuisance.

Friends? My surrogate family? Even the people I work with? There is a part of me that wants to push them all away before whatever changes that are happening to me go too far.

I shiver at that prospect. A hard, darting shiver that snakes all the way down my back and plunges into my coccyx. It makes me walk just that little bit quicker. And that’s good, because finally I can hear the footfall. Quick, darting, probably a good hundred meters in front of me. Before you ask how the hell I can pick that up – considering no ordinary person would be able to discern footfall a good half a block away – just don’t. Don’t ask. Because I stopped asking myself a long time ago. There are no answers. No information whatsoever about what’s happening to me.

There’s only one thing I can rely on – a fact that seems embedded right there in the center of my chest and beats all the harder as I kick into a sprint.

I can’t stop this. I’m compelled. Every night whenever I sense that distinct energy that warns me of those creatures, I have to roll out of bed, throw on my boots and jacket, and I have to get out here. I have to do something.

God knows the cops can’t do anything. Once or twice I tried to call them, but it never ended well. They might have guns, might have weapons, might have fast cars, and might technically have the law on their side, but in a fight with these creatures, nothing matters.

Only power does. Only magic.

I wince as I think of that word. Good God, I’ve been hiding from it for years now. Because the day I accept that what’s happening to me – the power that darts in my veins – is magic, is the day I should check myself into a psych ward.

Because magic doesn’t exist.

I used to be a big believer in science – a big disbeliever in anything my eyes couldn’t see.

But then this world rose up to meet me.

The creature I’m tracking suddenly puts on a burst of speed. Maybe it can sense me behind it, maybe it can’t.

Then I hear it – this shrill pitching, keening cry. It reminds me of a crow somehow combined with a wolf. The exact shaking, piercing quality of the tone is so damn penetrating that instinct alone tells me it should wake up every single person on the block.

It doesn’t. Because they can’t hear it.

Only I can.

If you want any more evidence that I’m going crazy, this is it. Surely this is it. But I don’t suddenly shift to the side, set myself down against the cold, damp brick, call an ambulance, and wait to be taken away.

Instead, I put on another burst of speed.

The more I fight them, the more skills I unravel. Jesus Christ, it’s happening faster every day. I swear it is.

Last night, I discovered that I can survive being thrown off the top of a building.

And that is a hell of a discovery to make as you’re pitched off a 10-story apartment block and your body strikes the bitumen below, but your head doesn’t crack and your brain doesn’t splash over the pavement.

I can jump. High. I can run, blisteringly fast.

And what’s more, I can produce magic.

I don’t shy away from it this time as I surge forward and throw myself around a corner fast enough that I finally catch sight of it.

I call them pawns. Not because I think they’re expendable chess pieces, but because that’s what they call themselves. Once or twice, I’ve heard them talking. Either muttering amongst themselves or hissing down their phones. And don’t even get me started on the fact that these creatures have mobile phones. There’s so much about this world that doesn’t make any damn sense. If I ever have the chance to sit down long enough and assess it, I will probably take a gun to my head to end it all.

I don’t have that option.

The pawn, on the face of it, looks like a human. From certain angles, that is. It’s almost as if it has been carved or painted to resemble a person. But if you move quickly enough – which I can – you can catch them off guard, and you can see something underneath.

What that thing is, I have no freaking clue.

The pawn is blocky, squat, muscular, with a large, round, hard head. It has wide, penetrating eyes that are a yellow-brown, like the color of a fatty liver.

It has sharp, jagged teeth, too.

And yet it doesn’t look like any monster from any myths I’ve ever read. And trust me, because as soon as I saw my first pawn, after I’d calmed down long enough to think straight, I went straight to the local library. I looked up every single image from mythology I could, desperately searching for anything like this creature.

Nothing.

It is too ornate, almost like a carving come to life. And it lacks the grisly, animalistic quality of monsters from legend.

I put on another burst of speed, and the pawn finally slices its head to the side, its big, fat, yellow, wide eyes blasting wide as they lock on me.

For a second, I can tell it is trying to look more like a human. Whenever the pawns try to hide their true appearance, they do this thing with their bodies, almost as if they are settling down into their disguises like a man fixing the shoulders of an ill-fitting suit.

The pawn does that now. It makes itself look like a businessman. An ordinary, middle-aged businessman with a bald spot on his round, shiny head and a briefcase under his arm.

No matter how many times I fight the pawns, they don’t recognize me – because every time I fight them, I win.

Even the first time I was attacked by one, I won.

And that moment? Goddammit, it is seared into my mind. Every single time I roll into bed at night and try to close my eyes, there it will be. For it is the moment when my life changed forever.

I am starting to learn that speed is everything.

Never give them a chance. Because if you do?

People die.

Honest to God, people will die.

I’ve seen these pawns go through people like a knife to butter.

They kill them. Though they won’t rip them apart with their block-like hands. Oh, hell no. They will… suck something out of them.

Like a spirit, like a soul – I don’t goddamn know, but as soon as it is removed from the person’s body, they die. Right there on the spot. Sometimes in my arms.

So I know the cost of waiting.

I finally pull my hands out of the pockets of my thick leather jacket.

I’ve never been a girl for leather. But ever since I tore through three expensive woolen winter jackets, I realized the sense in keeping tough hide around me.

I’m not made of money, and I can’t afford to buy new clothes every single night.

Plus, this old, tattered leather jacket I bought for 10 bucks at a thrift store is almost starting to be my uniform. Whenever I shrug into it at night before I go patrolling, just the scent of it alone and its trace of warmth bolsters me.

Right now, if flaps around my hips as I thrust forward.

I immediately form a hand into a fist. As I do, I open my mind through my circulatory system. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But not too long ago, I found I could direct my blood with nothing more than mental control. And with my blood – or within it – comes the power.

With a snarl parting my lips and a charge of blue light blasting over my hand, I strike it into the seemingly ordinary businessman.

I move so fast that he barely has time to react. Just a second, in fact. A second where his eyes open as wide as they possibly can and his lips crack back into a snarl.

As they do, they reveal the pawn’s real teeth.

It doesn’t have a chance to use them on me. As soon as my electrified fist strikes its face, it falls hard to the side.

I don’t wait for it to get up. I round on it, grab it up by its collar, and thrust it against the wall. As its body impacts the brick, all semblance of the businessman extinguishes like two fingers pressing against the flame of a candle.

In a snap of a second and with a crack that sounds like a glass being pushed off a table, its true appearance is revealed.

Though most pawns I’ve fought look similar, they’re often wearing different clothes… almost as if they’re in uniforms.

In my head, that tells me they come from different armies.

That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Armies of pawns with magical abilities prowling the streets at night and killing unsuspecting people?

This is crazy.

A fact I keep repeating to myself over and over again as I slam the pawn into the wall once more.

It now obviously appreciates I’m no normal person. It jerks its head toward me, its massive lips opening wide as its snarling teeth gnash toward my face.

I don’t give it a chance to lock that jaw around my neck and slice through my jugular.

I yank one hand off its collar, cup its chin, and slam it against the brick wall. Once, twice, then a third time.

I’m taking this fight slowly. Not because I want to enjoy it. Jesus Christ, these fights terrify me, even if I am getting better at them.

No, the reason I’m taking this slowly is that even though I can end it now, to do that would be to gather too much attention.

I have… more than one ability.

Like I already said, I seem to be discovering new abilities every single night. But whereas I can keep myself relatively hidden by simply jumping off buildings and punching these pawns in their faces, if I use some of my other powers, I will draw way too much attention.

Once when I tracked a pawn into the basement of a building, I almost destroyed the entire thing when I accidentally shot a blast of light out of my body as if I were a goddamn cannon.

I have other abilities, too. I can call on swords that spin around me and that can form barriers.

I can slam my fist into the floor, too, and crack concrete with all the ease of a wrecking ball being slammed into it at a hundred kilometers an hour.

I can’t use any of those abilities now.

To the side of us is an apartment block. And to the other side is a squat office building.

Though it’s late at night, the office block still has lights on. The last thing I can afford to do is plow through a wall and let an ordinary person see me.

So I just round my hand into another fist and strike it against the pawn’s jaw.

It tries to fight me, but there’s nothing it can do.

One more hit.

I keep it pinned against the concrete as I allow a true, powerful surge of magic to wash through my veins. It concentrates on my fist, plowing into my fingers as I open them then close them with a snap.

I strike it on the jaw.

The pawn’s head jolts back, slams against the concrete once more, and then the light simply goes out from its eyes. It’s like I’m looking at two globes that have suddenly blown.

Its body begins to shudder. Harder and harder, as if I’m holding onto a jackhammer.

Then it happens – the light simply disappears from the pawn. For a split second, there’s a perfect copy of it made out a faint blue glow. It shifts several meters above the pawn’s body as I take a step back and allow it to slouch down.

Then the light just disappears. Shoots across my left shoulder. It always does that. And I always feel this particular prickle as the hair along the back of my neck stands on end and the skin feels momentarily as if it’s been touched by ice.

I take a step back, let my hands spread out wide, half close my eyes, and I breathe.

It’s over.

Another hunt is complete.

I shake my head, fighting back tears as I think that. “I’m not a hunter. I’m normal,” I gasp at myself as another tear trickles down my cheek. But even my desperate, shaking words can’t convince me.

Nothing can.

As I take another step back, I don’t need to worry that I’ve left the body of some mystical creature in an abandoned laneway to be found in the morning. No, it jerks several times, then with a hush like falling sand through an hourglass, it just disappears. For several seconds, a pile of dust remains right there next to the dented brick, then that too is caught by the wind and chased away.

I take one final step back. I close my eyes as tightly shut as I can as I tip my head back, press my bottom lip hard into my teeth, and shove my hands into the safety of my leather pockets.

I stand there, trying to hold myself. Then I open my eyes, ready to head away.

But I don’t get the opportunity.

I hear a scream. Pitching, keening, loud. Human.

I jerk my head to the side, eyes blasting wide.

Jesus Christ, there’s another pawn.

I missed it. And now it’s out there, attacking someone.

I’ve never moved faster in my life as I throw myself down the laneway, as I run so damn fast, that if anyone is watching me from the office block above, they will know that I’m not human.

But what am I? While I can point out that there’s no way I can be human anymore, I can’t give myself an answer as to what I am instead.

I’m shaped like a human. I think like a human too, don’t I? So what’s this power that washes through me? Where do these abilities keep coming from, no matter what I do to stop them?

I have no answer. Nor do I have time to search for one.

As I round the corner, I see a young boy, no older than 15. He’s in an expensive, well-tailored uniform, and I instantly recognize it as belonging to one of the most expensive private schools in the city.

That’s irrelevant, though. He has his bag off his shoulder, his white-knuckled grip on the handle as he attempts to draw something from the open zip as quickly as he can.

But there’s a pawn in front of him. One that has a sword in its hand.

Though I never give the pawns time to arm themselves, they can.

Back there in the laneway if I’d allowed that so-called businessman time, he would’ve made his briefcase transform into a sword.

They don’t look anything like my own weapons. The swords of the pawns – no matter what uniform they wear or what army they belong to – are all short, all stunted, and none of them glow. In a way, they almost look like cheap props from some high school drama. That is until the pawns use them against living flesh. The instant one of those swords slams against a breathing human being is the moment that breathing human being dies.

I try to rush forward. I put on a burst of speed, but I don’t get there in time.

The kid is fumbling in his bag and gives the pawn all the time it needs to dart forward quickly and slash the sword right across the kid’s side.

The kid tries to turn away, but in doing so, he just reveals more of his flank.

Though most humans die instantly the moment one of those swords touches them, I’ve started to figure out that the likelihood of perishing on the spot is contingent on how much of your flesh that sword touches.

And this kid obviously doesn’t know that fact. For, in turning his flank to the pawn, he simply offers more of a target. It’s one the pawn gleefully takes. There’s nothing I can damn well do as the creatures’ sword slices right down the boy’s arm all the way down to his hip.

The kid staggers back.

I expect him to die. Right then and there. In a flash.

He doesn’t.

He still has a hold of his bag, and he somehow manages to jerk it away from the pawn, even though it reaches for the bag with a greedy hand.

I finally reach the pawn.

The kid can see me now. And even though his movements are weary and drawn out as he staggers down to one knee, his eyes open with shock. “Get out of here,” he mutters as blood splatters from his mouth.

I don’t get out of here. I make a run for the pawn just as the creature slashes toward the kid once more.

I don’t give the pawn that option. I duck in from the side, somehow grab a hand around the thing’s throat, and then slam it down against the bitumen with all my strength.

I’ve never fought a pawn harder. And tonight, I access a new depth of strength. More and more power blasts through me until my hand lights up like a goddamn Christmas tree.

Though it should usually take me several strikes to down a pawn, right now, all it takes is one as I slam it against the pavement with so much strength, it’s buried halfway up to its face in cracked bitumen.

The kid splutters in shock as the pawn shudders, the light leaves it, and it quickly turns to dust.

I turn around. I push up, try to get to the kid as he falls forward.

I let my arms furl around him, guiding him down into my lap. “You’ll…” I begin. But I can’t push the words out. There’s no way this kid is going to be okay. He managed a small miracle in surviving long enough to see me dispatch the pawn, but he won’t be able to live any longer. I can see the light starting to shift through him even now.

The kid still stares up at me in unabashed wonder.

I expect the kid to die with every second, but somehow he keeps holding on. Long enough to reach a hand up to me. There’s such a shocked quality to his expression. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if he thinks I’m a god or something.

“Just stay still,” I try.

He coughs, and more blood splatters over his lips. “You’re a queen,” he says. “You’re an unattached queen. Jesus Christ,” he begins. He coughs again, and more and more blood splatters over his lips. But it doesn’t stay on his lips. It quickly shifts into that same light that occurs whenever something dies and its sole leaves them.

“Just stay still,” I try.

“You need… you need to tell John. You need to warn him about what’s coming. You need to help him,” the kid says, words coming quicker as more blood splatters and dribbles down his chin only to evaporate into light.

“Just keep quiet, I’ll… I’ll try to get you some help,” I try, even though I know it’s goddamn useless. I have to do something – say something. Because I can’t just kneel here with this kid in my arms as he stares at me like that. As he stares at me as if I’m the solution to every problem there ever was.

“You’ve… gotta warn John.”

I can’t push away his desperation anymore, even though I want to. “Who’s John?”

“John Rowley. I’m one of his pieces. You… you have to warn him that a war’s coming. You have to help him. Please.”

I look at the kid.

I know he has seconds left now. No more pushing it off. His body is starting to shake.

I form a soft fist, and I manage a nod. “I’ll relay your message.”

“And help him,” the kid manages. Then he dies. Right there in my arms. One shudder, two shudders, then three. His soul leaves him. The light’s beautiful as it shoots over my shoulder. It leaves such a tingle down the back of my neck that it’s as if somebody has shoved electrodes into my skin.

The tears come thick and fast as the kid’s body jerks like a leaf in a hurricane until finally it turns into dust.

I sit there and bawl my eyes out. Not loud enough that I can raise any alarms, but the sorrow is just the same. It wrecks my body as I desperately try to push the dust off my pants, as I try to rid myself of the specter of death that now hangs off me like a shroud.

It takes a long time for me to stagger to my feet. Even longer for me to turn away from the dust that had once been a living human being.

I manage it. But then I stop. I see the kid’s bag out of the corner of my eye.

I frown.

The pawn had been reaching for it. In fact, as I cast my mind over the fight, I realize the pawn had definitely been after that bag.

I pause.

I never usually take anything back from a fight – because there’s usually never anything to retrieve. Anything that’s touching a person or a pawn when they die is usually turned into dust. But the bag is fine.

I hesitate.

I’m not a thief – I try to tell myself that. That bag belongs to the kid’s family. And if I leave it here, maybe someone will find it, maybe someone will tell the police, and maybe then they’ll figure out that this kid is dead and call his folks.

… Or maybe someone will just steal the bag, my better judgment tells me.

I hesitate for one more second, then I reach over, pluck up the bag, and lift it easily. I know it’s technically heavy – I can tell that from the way the fabric struggles against the strap. But I can’t feel it.

I feel like utter shit as I finally walk away from the kid, lug his bag over my shoulder, and make no attempt whatsoever to dry my tears.

Maybe… maybe there’s something in this bag that could be useful to me. No, not the kid’s wallet, not his laptop – not anything I can hawk. Just information. Because right now, information is everything. If I can just find out what’s going on with me, I can… I can what?

This has been happening to me my entire life. And for the last year and a half, there’s been no stopping it. No break. Back when I was a child, I only saw glimpses of this world. But now this world has expanded to take up my every living, breathing moment.

I know there’s not going to be a damn thing in this bag that’s going to stop that. But maybe there will be something to help me figure out what’s happening to me.

So I shrug the bag further over my shoulder as I walk away.

Chapter 2

I wake up early that morning. Did I say wake? I didn’t sleep. How the hell could I sleep? That image of the kid staring up at me with such gut-wrenching shock will be with me for life. It can compete with all the other horrendous memories the keep vying for my attention during every waking moment.

I shift out of bed, don’t even bother to shrug into the dressing gown that’s hanging over my chair. I ignore it. It’s a seriously cold morning, and I don’t have any heating on. I don’t bother paying for it anymore. I can’t feel the cold. All it takes is a single moment of concentration, and I can call on the fire within. It will warm me and anything I touch.

Heck, if I want a hot drink, I don’t even have to bother boiling the kettle – I just put water in a mug and then heat it from the outside in.

God, I’m a freak.

I’m a freak.

I bring up a hand, lock it hard over my brow, and let my fingers drag down over the skin.

I walk over to my crappy old laptop sitting on my equally crappy old chipboard table.

I turn it on as I gulp. One of those hard, long gulps that make you feel like a fish desperately trying to draw in its last breath of air before it’s plucked from the ocean.

Every morning I do this. And I swear, every morning it gets harder.

Because every morning it simply gets more likely that I’ll be found out.

That’s what I do as I quickly check news sites, social media, news feeds, everything.

I look for any mention of a woman in a leather jacket trying to protect a kid from a monster.

Nothing. Even the more fringe conspiracy sites don’t mention me.

Locking a hand over my mouth, I shift all the way back in the old, crappy plastic chair at the kitchen table, close my eyes, and draw in a full breath of air. I let it settle in my lungs for several seconds until I push up, walk over to the fridge, and yank open the door.

Goddammit.

“Again?” I swear as my fingers tighten around the door of the fridge.

For a second, I’m not paying enough attention, and my fingers actually eat into the metal.

“Jesus,” I stutter as I jerk back, staring wide-eyed from my fingers to the marks on the door.

I did that.

My fingers bent through goddamn steel, and all it had taken was a single moment of inattention.

“You’re not human anymore. There’s no way,” I say as a tear trickles down my cheek.

I stand there for several seconds, indulging in that awful realization, and I tick my head to the side.

The fridge is empty of food, and with a growl, my stomach grumbles.

One of the consequences of changing at the rate I am is that I eat food. All the time. It’s like I’m a pig at a trough some days. If I don’t eat enough, I get tired quickly.

Logically, it’s because I’m spending more energy, right?

If I don’t feed myself enough, maybe I won’t be able to win the next fight I get into with one of those god-awful pawns.

I think about that as I reach for the carton of milk in the door and drink it down in one gulp, splashing drops all over my top.

Finally I let my gaze tick toward the kid’s bag. It’s by the door. That’s where I left it last night. Exactly where I dumped it after I staggered in and bawled on the couch for half an hour before dragging myself to bed.

It’s almost as if I don’t want to bring it further into my house. Not just because it would be incriminating as soon as anyone finds out that the kid’s dead, but… because I swear it’s staring at me.

I swear that kid’s final message is somehow imbued in that bag.

“John Rowley,” I mutter to myself under my breath as I dump the empty bottle of milk into my sink, wipe my hands on my pants, and take a careful step toward the bag, then another.

I’ve fought some seriously creepy things over the past year and a half, but this bag seems to be imbued with this goddamn sense of doom. It’s as if with every single step I take toward it, I’ll never be able to walk away again.

“I know that name… I know that name,” I say to myself under my breath as I draw my phone out of my pocket.

I’m halfway through typing it up, and Google starts suggesting things.

John Rowley, richest bachelor in Rival City.

My eyes widen as my cheeks pale. “No way – the kid couldn’t have meant that John Rowley, right?”

I remember why I know that name – everyone in Rival City knows that name. Because John Rowley is the richest man in the country. He’s located right here in Rival City, despite the fact it’s a shit hole. He owns most of the buildings downtown. He’s located in this massive, super fancy, huge office block right next to the mayor’s building.

It was designed by this world-renowned architect, and I’ve always wanted to go inside because apparently there’s this ancient history museum on the first floor. There are exhibits dotted around in the foyer. There’s meant to be some pretty expensive stuff, too.

Suffice to say, it’s just another dream I’ve never had the chance to go through with. Because I’m not the kind of girl who has a lot of free time on my hands. Not only do I have to work during the day to fund my seriously expensive food habit, but at night, I have to save people.

“Save people. Jesus Christ, girl, did you actually just think that? You sound like a goddamn superhero.”

As I spit the word superhero out, it’s bitter. Tastes like lemon right on my tongue. Modern society may have a fascination with superheroes, but trust me, that’s not what I feel like. I feel like a goddamn freak. Like a secret you have to hide from prying eyes in case I’m carried away and stared at in a laboratory. Or, who am I kidding? If people find out what I can do, they’ll just kill me, right? Because superhero movies paint a seriously rosy picture about how ordinary people deal with freaks. No one would be able to understand the power that rushes over my hands. Nobody would be able to understand the swords I can call to my side.

When ordinary people encounter extraordinary people with powers they do not understand, it doesn’t lead to mass acceptance. It leads to violence. And I’m aware of that – so goddamn acutely aware. It’s the reason I check the news in a flood of fear every frigging morning. It’s the reason I can never sleep right anymore.

With my phone in one hand, I finally pluck up the kid’s bag and nurse it all the way back to the table. As carefully as I possibly can, almost as if I’m dealing with a corpse, I bring the bag up and settle it on the table.

I’m still clutching my phone in a tight grip, and I have to keep reminding myself not to let it tighten any more – do that, and I’ll smash right through the gorilla glass.

I can’t let it go, though. It’s not because I honestly believe that this kid wants me to go contact the John Rowley, right? Because, despite the fact the kid was in the expensive uniform of one of the richest private schools in town, this just… there’s no way. It can’t be that John Rowley.

When I got home last night, I told myself that I’d go through with that kid’s wish. I’d find his John Rowley and warn him about… this oncoming war. I won’t help John, though. There’s no way I can reveal myself to anyone. Even if it’s to fulfill some kid’s dying wish.

“But you still have to find him,” I mutter to myself bitterly as I hear a crack from my phone.

Fuck,” I spit as I instantly release my grip. I check my phone, stabbing the screen with my thumb, and a flood of relief washes over me when I realize it still works. There’s a massive crack up the side of the metal casing, though.

It will probably come good with some sticky tape and glue. I can’t afford a new phone right now. A fact my stomach reminds me of as it grumbles so loudly, I’m surprised the neighbors don’t hear.

I get back to carefully staring at the bag.

Though it takes me a while, I finally find the courage to lean forward and start looking through the bag.

There are school books, a set of gym clothes, a laptop, a phone, and a wallet.

I’m silently thankful that the kid’s wallet was in his bag and not on his body when he died. If it had been on his body, the wallet would’ve turned to dust with the rest of him.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt sicker as I force myself to sit, press the back of my hand against my mouth, and make a gagging noise. It takes a heckuva lot of will to push my hand forward and pluck up the kid’s wallet.

I rightly feel like I’m picking over a corpse.

“Come on, you can do this. You have to do this. That kid died right in your arms. This was his last wish. Come on.” My pep talk is all it takes. Pressing one last breath through my teeth, I pluck up the wallet. I open it.

There’s his name staring right back at me from his bank card.

Walter D. Shepherd.

There are a workbook and a pencil case resting on the table. Without thinking, I reach forward to grab a pen and write his name down as I start to take notes. Then I realize that’s wrong. I can’t use his stuff; it feels like writing all over the memory of him. So I head back into the kitchen, grab the notepad attached to the fridge by a magnet, pluck up a pen from the bench, and head back. I write Walter D. Shepherd down and underline it.

There’s something refreshing about doing that. Almost as if writing the kid’s name down and continuing to scribble notes as I search through the rest of his bag makes me like an objective cop noting down the details of a crime scene. And I can really do with some objectivity now before I get so nauseous from picking over the kid’s stuff that I throw up my milk.

I pluck up the kid’s phone and laptop – but they’re passcode locked, and I can’t access them.

I put the phone on top of the laptop, neaten up the other goods from his bag, then kind of just… kind of just sit there and stare at it all. It is almost as if I expect the kid to come back and get his stuff.

But he can’t, because he’s very much dead, and I now need to figure out what I will do next.

Don’t… don’t I have an obligation to tell his parents?

After my few minutes of snooping, I now know the kid’s name, date of birth, and address. Shouldn’t I go to his house and inform his parents he isn’t missing – that he’s dead?

As soon as I think that, I shake my head so hard, it could fly off and hit the floor.

If I do that, his parents will ask how he died and where his body is. And I won’t be able to answer those questions.

Again I lock a hand over my face as I realize how impossible this situation is.

Finally I get up from the table, rip the sheet of paper I was working on from the notepad, fold it up neatly, then just kind of clutch it as I stand on the spot, pushing back and forth on the tips of my toes.

I clench my teeth hard, looking from the kid’s phone to his laptop to the rest of the contents of his bag.

Though I’m getting new abilities by the day, I haven’t yet unlocked the skill to hack through a kid’s passcoded phone. And I seriously doubt I will ever be able to do that. Which means one thing, right?

That saving this kid’s bag had been a waste of time. If I’d honestly taken it because I thought the pawn was interested in the contents – and if I’d thought those very same contents could somehow help me to figure out what I was – I was sorely mistaken.

I shake my head. “You still have to do something,” I chide myself. “Not just stand here and stare at the kid’s bag. Go deliver his message.”

As I think that, I clench my teeth again. I still haven’t confirmed that this kid wanted me to contact the John Rowley. And I need to confirm that, don’t I?

I pluck up my own phone, and though I pause, thinking of the best way to phrase the search, I soon decide to look up John Rowley and not Walter D. Shepherd. The kid is dead, after all, and though I want to doubt that he was any relation to John Rowley, if he was and I start looking up the dead kid’s name on Google, surely someone will be able to track my search history?

So I settle on searching for John Rowley, instead, and I am instantly hit by a wealth of information. Everything from news pieces about his unrivaled business acumen, to his status as the country’s most generous philanthropist, to the fact he is still unmarried.

He is meant to be the world’s most eligible bachelor – a fact the Internet keeps repeating to me. A young, handsome, rich, self-made billionaire. What is there not to love?

I honestly don’t frigging care. The only thing I want to know—

I stop.

I am surfing through photos of him from one of his recent charity functions, and I pale.

There he is – Walter D. Shepherd standing next to John. Though I could innocently assume that they are just both in the same shot, John has a hand flat on Walter’s shoulder.

It is a brotherly move. In other words, not the kind of thing you do to a stranger.

I tip my head all the way back, squeezing my eyes as tightly shut as they will go. “Shit,” I say quietly, “shit,” I bellow at the ceiling once more.

I even make a fist and bring it down toward the table, but I stop myself just in time, just as a blue fleck of magic escapes over my skin.

I stare at it, wide-eyed, and realize that if I allowed my fist to come in contact with the table, the damn thing would’ve exploded in a charge of broken wood.

I shake my head.

I shove my phone in my pocket, and I turn to walk away from the table. To walk away from the kid, from his bag, from his message.

Then it strikes me – the things he told me. As he stared up at me after I saved him with such a surprise-filled face, he told me I was a queen. An unattached queen, whatever that means. Though I could pretend that the kid had been dying and that of course he hadn’t been thinking straight, he appeared to know what he was talking about.

… But what the hell was he talking about?

Unattached queen?

Though either of those words kind of make sense on their own, they don’t make sense in combination. Also, while I am unattached in the sense that I am not hitched to anyone, I very much am not a queen. In my beaten leather jacket and with my fat fringe, no one would be able to mistake me for one.

So what the hell?

“You have too many fucking questions and no answers,” I spit at myself as I whirl back around and stare at the kid’s stuff. “And the only way you’re going to get answers is if you follow this down the rabbit hole. That kid knew something about you. He also wasn’t surprised by the pawn,” I continue to explain to myself out loud as I bring up a hand and scratch my cheek. “In fact, it almost looked like he was trying to fight the pawn,” I add as that realization strikes me. “So maybe… maybe this John Rowley knows something?” I manage in a choked voice.

I stand there and stare at the table.

So what if John Rowley knows something? Am I actually just going to walk into his office, slam an electrified fist down on his desk, and ask him to tell me what the hell I am?

Just thinking about it makes me cold.

I go to turn away again, but… I can’t.

“You have to do this,” I tell myself one final time.

And sure enough, I do.

I pack up the kid’s stuff, shove his bag under my bed as if I’m some kind of dumbass criminal, shrug into some semi-decent clothes, and I walk out my door.

I have no other option.

But little do I know that striding into John Rowley’s building is the worst damn thing I can do.

Because I’m an unattached queen. And even if I don’t know what that means, everyone else in this world does. They also know what I’m worth.

Chapter 3

My stomach is practically groaning with hunger. Though I stopped off at several food vendors on the way and grabbed five hot dogs and wolfed them all down, it wasn’t enough. I swear, these days every single morning when I wake up my hunger intensifies by 100%. By the end of the month, I’ll be going through a truckload of food a day. While some people would think that would be awesome – as I can pretty much get away with eating whatever I want from doughnuts to fast food – it isn’t awesome. My bank balance very much does not think it’s awesome. And while I’m here, taking a day off work to track down what John Rowley could possibly know, I’m making no money, which means no food tomorrow.

I try to ignore that as I finally reach the base of the Rowley Tower.

It’s huge. And though I’ve walked past it on many occasions, I’ve never just stopped and stared up at it.

Fortunately, I don’t look too conspicuous as I do, as plenty of tourists often line the streets as they take photos of it. After all, like I said, this building is one of the architectural wonders of the world.

But… that doesn’t account for the feel. I swear there’s this unique… sense about the building as I stand there and shift my head all the way back until my neck’s arched like a swan’s.

It feels… God, I don’t know. Like staring up at a castle from medieval times. There’s this… import about it. That’s right – that’s the right word. Import.

This building is the architectural equivalent of someone grabbing me by the shoulders, turning me around, and staring right into my eyes as if they can pierce the veil of my very soul.

I try to shake that particular notion off as I finally take a step forward, bring a hand down, and smooth it down my cardigan.

I look frumpy. I know that. There would’ve once been a time when I would’ve cared. That time is no longer. I have no money whatsoever to spend on clothes. Plus, though my sturdy leather jacket has managed to survive most of my fights these days, I go through pants and tops like nobody’s business.

So I had to scrounge some clothes from the back of my closet this morning that weren’t my sales uniform.

Hence the old slightly moth-eaten pastel pink cardigan, a kind of flowery blouse, and a black skirt.

I look like I’ve come fresh from a librarian conference from the ‘50s.

I don’t goddamn care.

I stride up the short set of stairs that lead to the imposing, polished brass, glass fitted doors.

There’s a doorman. An actual doorman. This is the modern age, and short of highfalutin fancy hotels, no one needs a doorman.

Rowley, it seems, does. As my gaze quickly ticks over the man’s body, I realize he’s big, well-built, and from the exact way he apportions his balance on his sturdy shoes, he’s well-trained. He also assesses me with a quick glance as I walk past and smile at him.

There would’ve been a time not so long ago when I didn’t automatically assess people as I strode past them. That time ended as soon as I started hunting nightly. Now I do it without thinking. I see somebody, and with a single glance, I realize how much force it will take to knock them out or outright kill them. And yeah, that thought is just as scary as it sounds.

It’s damn clear from the smile this man flicks me that to him I’m no threat.

“Um, excuse me,” I say in my lightest, sweetest voice. “I heard that there’s some kind of ancient history museum in the foyer of this building. I heard it was free admission?”

He nods. “Sure is, ma’am. John Rowley is very generous. The public has free admission to the foyer of the building. However, we ask that you do not venture near the elevators at the end of the atrium. Those are for employees only.”

I smile. “Thank you so much. Have a nice day,” I add automatically, a habit after working in sales for so long.

The man tips his head at me, then quickly slides his gaze to the next person approaching the building. This guy’s much larger and gets more of the doorman’s attention.

The doorman must be ex-army, I think to myself. Maybe an ex-cop.

There’s a very practiced quality to the specific way the doorman assesses every single person who approaches the building. My God, I can even track the small muscle movements around his eyes and jaw as he stares at people.

Now I’m out in public, I can hardly draw my hands up, flatten them over my face, and scream at how much of a freak I am. So I just stride through the doors as they open and enter the atrium.

God, in here, it’s even worse than out there.

As several tourists stride past me, ogling the amazing atrium, I just kind of stand there for several seconds and try not to be bowled over by this sense of import.

I take it back – it isn’t like facing a castle from medieval Europe – it’s like having one built around you. Entering this building is like striding into the strongest battlement that has ever been. And yet, it’s just so much steel, glass, and stone.

It takes me a few seconds to unstick my old Mary Janes from the floor and to shift forward.

Though all I want to do is be drawn forward by that powerful feeling that’s welling through this building, I have to stop myself – because if I do that, I’ll be led straight toward the elevators. And though the doorman hadn’t pegged me as a threat, if I go ahead and do the one thing he’s told me not to, he’ll act.

Though I can take him – on any day – I won’t be able to do it in public. So I keep my head low and head straight for the first exhibition item.

The atrium is massive. Though there’s a huge counter to one side with 10 receptionists behind it, there are little alcoves and glass display cabinets dotted around the room and the sides of the walls.

With my hands in the pockets of my old, worn cardigan, I stride toward the nearest exhibition item.

It’s a set of old vases from ancient Greece. As I read the information board quickly, I’m not really interested, and I dart over to the next piece, then the next piece.

Everything is impressive. From old pottery to jewelry to weapons. It’s the jewelry and weapons that get most of the tourists’ attention – of which there are about 20 other sightseers in the atrium.

In fact, it’s damn conspicuous as they huddle around those exhibition pieces.

Me?

I find myself being drawn right over to a strange alcove in the side of the wall. It doesn’t match anything – from the design of the building to the other exhibition items to the feel of the place. And that – more than anything – is what gets my attention.

I won’t say I’m the human equivalent of a divining rod, but ever since my body has been changing, I’ve been… starting to get this sense of things. It’s like I can feel ancient energies pulsing through the Earth. And if I follow them, they always lead me to places I need to be. When I am out hunting at night – even though I really don’t want to admit to myself that it’s hunting – often, I follow those energies. All I have to do is close my eyes and start to concentrate on that feeling of energy rushing through the world. Then I follow it. And right now, that feeling leads me toward that alcove.

I can’t control my expression as I stride toward it.

The alcove is nestled in the wall, and there’s an object behind an inch thick pane of glass.

While all the other exhibition pieces on display in the atrium are protected, none of them are protected like this.

The object isn’t just nestled in the wall. No, the alcove is lined with steel. And as I dart my gaze over it, I can appreciate the metal is seriously thick. The glass is bulletproof, too, and it would take a punch or two from even me to get through it.

So you’d think that the object protected by that much steel and glass would have to be seriously impressive. Maybe an enormous diamond, maybe some rare artifact that every single museum in the world wants to get their hands on.

That’s what I expect… but that’s not what I get.

I get a chessboard.

It doesn’t even look that old. It’s made out of polished, smooth metal that has an unusual shine to it. And though it isn’t recognizable as a chessboard immediately, as I tilt my head to the side, I can see that familiar checkered pattern.

It… it makes no sense, but the sight of that chessboard sets my heart pounding at a million miles an hour. I want to bring a hand up, lock it over my chest, and will the muscle to calm the hell down.

I feel sweat slick across my brow, and I’m thankful for my massive, heavy fringe. Even though it makes me look dated, at least it hides how pale my forehead becomes as I continue to stare at that chessboard.

Unlike everything else in the exhibition, there’s no information on this thing.

Just a chessboard protected by a seriously expensive, seriously hard-to-break security system.

I think I lose myself as I stand there and stare at it – I must do, because even though I usually have extended senses that can track people a block away, I fail to hear somebody walk right behind me and clear their throat.

“An unusual piece, isn’t it?” they say.

I jump, not expecting the voice.

“Sorry – didn’t mean to startle you.”

I turn around. I’m expecting the doorman or just a security guard. That’s not what I get.

I get a face full of John Rowley.

He’s standing right there behind me, dressed in an expensive suit, though he’s wearing it casually. His tie is loosened, his sleeves are rolled up, and his jacket is over his shoulder as he takes one look at me then nods at the chessboard. “Not too many people are interested in that piece.”

I have to use everything I have to control my expression.

For so many goddamn reasons. It isn’t just the fact that I strode into John Rowley’s building on the off chance that I would find him and be able to relay the kid’s message. No. It isn’t even the fact that I’m meeting the city’s most eligible bachelor – I don’t have the time to give a frigging care about something like that.

No – it’s… the feel of him. I’ve never met anybody like him. He seems to have this… magnetic connection. This connection that’s trying to draw me in.

I’m not making this up. This isn’t because he’s meant to be hot – in many ways, he isn’t my type. He’s too chiseled, too perfect-looking. He looks as if he’s been carved by Pythagoras himself and then Gucci has dressed him.

I prefer my men to have slightly unusual looks. Also, I care far more about personality.

But none of that matters. Because the surface of this man isn’t important. His hard jaw, his bright eyes, his easy smile – they’re all irrelevant. What draws me in is what’s underneath.

You know how before I said that I can feel things these days? If I half close my eyes and concentrate, it’s almost as if I can access the Earth’s energy or something? If I allow it to direct me, it will lead me somewhere I need to be, right?

Yeah, well that sense is acting up. Acting up in a way I’ve never felt. It wants me to reach out, wrap my arms around this man, and embrace him like he’s some kind of long lost lover.

Suffice to say, I don’t frigging know him. But it’s the hardest thing in the world to control that desire.

Though John gets distracted staring at the chessboard, he cuts his gaze back to me. “You like it?” he asks.

Is there… a leading edge to his tone? An ordinary person wouldn’t be able to pick it up, but I can, because I can see the micro muscles around his jaw contracting.

Pull yourself together, girl, I chide myself quickly.

I shift my hands behind my back and curl one hand into a hard fist. Nowhere near hard enough that I will activate the magic in my veins, but hard enough to distract me.

I force myself to shrug. “I guess it’s… unusual,” I manage, coughing as I try to hide the waver in my tone. “Its location, more than anything, got my attention. Why is it away from the rest of the exhibition?”

He shrugs. “Because it’s not part of the exhibition.”

My brows click down. There’s something in that answer. What’s worse – there’s something in his look as he continues to gaze at me.

There’s a certain… strange quality, isn’t there? And though a part of me still wants to rush forward, wrap my arms around his neck, and whisper into his ear that he’s found me – whatever the hell that means – the rest of me wants to run away.

Honestly, there’s some kind of war going on inside me. Though I want to desperately be seen by this guy, at the same time, I want to run a mile.


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