The Shadow WandBy: Laurie Forest
HER WORLD-ALTERING SECRET CAN’T BE HIDDEN MUCH LONGER
Elloren Gardner hides the most powerful secret in all Erthia—she is the Black Witch of Prophecy, and destined to triumph...or be used as the ultimate weapon of destruction.
Separated from everyone she loves, isolated and hunted, Elloren must turn to the last person she can trust—her fastmate, Commander Lukas Grey. With the Mage forces of Gardneria poised to conquer all of Erthia, Elloren has no choice but to ally with Lukas and combine their power to keep herself out of the hands of Gardnerian leader Marcus Vogel...the holder of the all-consuming Shadow Wand.
With just weeks to train to become a warrior, and no control over her magic, Elloren finds unexpected allies among those under orders to kill her. It’s time to step up. To fight back. And to forge onward through the most devastating loss yet.
Fifteen years ago...
Edwin Gardner sits on the silk-cushioned chair in a haze of grief.
He watches his distraught sister, Vyvian, pace her ornate parlor, and wishes that he could wash his hands of his family’s cursed legacy of magic.
And that the news Vyvian just imparted wasn’t so completely horrific.
Incredibly, in the midst of this world-altering day, Vyvian is dressed as impeccably as ever. Her long, gleaming black hair is artfully plaited, not a strand out of place. Her formfitting, midnight-colored silk tunic and long-skirt are perfectly pressed and patterned with lush pine boughs. And there’s luxury everywhere in this cursedly opulent room—dark, polished Ironwood trees set into the walls, their obsidian branches tangling overhead. An oak-leaf-patterned rug beneath his feet. Panoramic windows edged in luminous stained-glass vines that overlook Vyvian’s expansive garden of bloodred roses.
The finest of everything, Edwin considers with bitter anguish. All this wealth secured by his mother’s cruel reign of fire. Edwin sends up a prayer that future generations will not inherit her terrible, corrupting magic.
Vyvian continues to pace, not bothering to look at the three children huddled miserably in the corner, as Edwin’s grief threatens to tear him apart.
His brother, Vale, and Vale’s fastmate, Tessla, are dead.
Edwin’s throat is tight, his breathing irregular and stifled over the loss of two of the people he loves most in all the world. He wants to rip at his hair and cry out in misery to the heavens. To shake his fist at his powerful sister, at the entire monster that is Gardneria. But he can’t fall apart. He has three children who need his protection. Vale and Tessla’s children.
Rafe, Trystan, and Elloren.
* * *
“You can’t fight the Gardnerians,” he warned Tessla just a few months ago, overcome with worry as he faced her in her Valgard home. “You don’t know what cruelty my mother is capable of. Her power has turned shadowed, Tess. It’s consuming her.”
“I have to fight,” Tessla countered, her voice rough with defiance. “They’re rounding up all the Fae, Edwin! The children too. We have to help them!”
“We have to. Don’t you see? The Gardnerians are doing the same thing that the Kelts and the Urisk did to us! Children are being seized. Whole families. Do you know what that’s like? Watching your family, your people, herded together to be killed? The children screaming?” Tessla’s cheeks were flushed, her green eyes blazing.
She was so beautiful in that moment, it was hard for Edwin to look at her.
He’d tried to reason with her. “Think of your children.” They were being left with him for longer and longer stretches as Vale and Tessla fought this unbeatable evil. “What will Rafe and Trystan and Elloren do if something happens to you?”
Tessla shook her head. “I can’t sit by and do nothing about this horror.”
“You can’t win, Tess!”
She and Vale were tempting fate, Edwin knew. Tempting the awful power of his mother and the Gardnerian military by secretly working for the Resistance. Both Vale and Tessla were involved in smuggling Fae children and families through the Spine’s Eastern Pass, the two of them in league with Beck Keeler, Fain Quillen, and Jules Kristian. And others.
The ever-present knot of dread tightened inside Edwin.
He feared it was only a matter of time before Vale and Tessla were caught and executed, then made to look like war heroes, their Resistance activities neatly covered up.
To save the reputation of the Black Witch.
* * *
Now he’s sitting here, grief burning in his chest because that’s exactly what happened—Vale and Tessla were apprehended three days ago, as they attempted to save a group of Asrai Fae children from being shipped to the Pyrran Islands. Both of them had been dragged to the nearest military base and executed at his mother’s command, the truth of their Resistance activities hidden from all but a select few.
And this morning, trailing that catastrophe like a cataclysmic cyclone, is news that’s sending shock waves through both the Western and Eastern Realms.
His mother, the Black Witch, is dead.
Slain by an Icaral who died even as he killed her with a bolt of Wyvern flame—a fitting end to a reign of fire that had threatened to enslave the entire Western and Eastern Realms. That had destroyed leagues of forest and turned the lush plains of the East and the southern Uriskan lands to scorched desert.
Foreboding curls under Edwin’s ribs, constricting his chest.
The Gardnerians will be set on vengeance. And they’re not weak anymore. Because of his mother, Gardneria is now ten times its original size, and its people will be the major power in the region for a long time to come, rivaled only by their uneasy allies, the Alfsigr Elves.
And they’ll be looking for their next Great Mage.
Alarm rises inside Edwin as he looks at the children.
His nephew Rafe Gardner sits on the leaf-patterned carpet, steadily watching his uncle and aunt. At five, little Rafe has the stoicism of a much older child, quickly appointing himself the protector of his younger siblings. He cries silently, his arms draped protectively around tiny Trystan.
Trystan has curled himself into a tight ball of misery as he keens and whimpers, “Poppa. Momma. Poppa. Momma,” over and over.
Edwin’s heart wrenches. Trystan’s a fragile child, prone to tears and fear. The skinny two-year-old’s eyes are dazed and frightened.
And then there’s three-year-old Elloren.
She’s balled up next to her brothers, hugging the quilt Tessla sewed for her, a blanket lovingly crafted for Elloren when she was still in Tessla’s womb, featuring a branchy tree with bright green leaves stitched onto the fabric, with little embroidered birds and animals darting all around. Elloren is whimpering softly into its folds.
Overcome, Edwin goes to Elloren, kneels, and embraces her. She reaches out small arms to cling to both him and her quilt, her body racked with sobs.
Edwin glances at Vyvian, and his sister’s expression sends an icy chill straight through him.
She’s glaring at the children like they’re hideous blowback, her hatred for Vale and Tessla on full display and spilling over onto these innocents. Edwin’s hold on Elloren tightens as he takes in Vyvian’s cruel, unforgiving expression and he realizes what he must do.
The children need him, and he loves them.
“The children will stay with me,” he tells Vyvian, his voice hoarse but staunch, and he surprises himself with how unwavering he is in the face of his intimidating sister.
Vyvian’s frown deepens, her fists clenching and unclenching, her glare sharpening on Edwin. She seems uncharacteristically rattled, and Edwin knows it’s for all the wrong reasons.
“Very well,” she says, and her mouth thins as she flashes one last resentful look toward the children, as if wanting to rid herself of this terrible business and dispose of them. She moves to leave, but pauses at the door and slowly turns, her gaze fixing on the children in a way that raises the hairs on Edwin’s neck as her hateful glare morphs to one of appraisal.
She meets Edwin’s gaze once more, her expression and tone hardening to a needled point. “You’ll need to wandtest them,” she insists. “And soon. If they have power, you’re to immediately let me know. Mother would have insisted on it.” Her voice breaks, and tears glisten in her eyes. She blinks the tears back firmly. “Our family legacy might not have died with Mother.” She gestures toward the children with a flick of her elegant hand. “Their parents were traitors, but perhaps, if raised correctly, the children can grow up to be champions of our people.”
Edwin blinks at his sister and, in this moment, he hates her.
No, Vyvian, he wants to rail against her. Our brother and his fastmate!
But Edwin knows that Vyvian has her blinders firmly in place. There is absolutely no nuance in her perspective. To Vyvian, the world is divided into clean halves—there are Evil Ones, and there are Gardnerians. And you have to pick one side or the other.
Edwin knows what he will do. Not what Vyvian wants. But not what Vale and Tessla would have wanted either.
Forgive me, Vale. Forgive me, Tessla.
He hugs Elloren close as a fierce wave of protective love washes over him.
If any of the children has inherited his mother’s power, he will hide it from the Gardnerians. He will protect the children from all of this.