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Welcome to my Writing in Real Time serial novel experiment – this first story in the Realm Wraith Trilogy will unfold here on my blog in weekly episodes, and is yours to enjoy. Friendly discussion and thoughtful comments are welcome. Who knows – your ideas might just help shape the story as I write!

***

Warrior Elf Blooded

There’s a thin line between love and hate, and an even thinner veil between this realm and the next. Both are about to be blown to oblivion…

The Empyrean Defense is the faerie realm’s best defense against the human race and its self-propelled trajectory toward annihilation. If humans ever succeed in destroying their own dominion, they’ll take the faerie world out along with it. But the EDL is not about to let that happen.

Cadet Bliss Hoarfrost is an over-achiever with daddy issues and a chip on her shoulder, but she’s also the best agent for the job. Any job. Just one mission away from a coveted commission in the EDL’s uber-elite Realm Wraith Squadron, Bliss will stop at nothing to get the gig. But when she’s given the assignment that will make or break her career, she discovers the price of success just might be her soul.

Assigned to track down a once trusted EDL operative turned eco-terrorist, Bliss is ordered to infiltrate the human realm and hunt down the rogue before she unleashes a weapon that could unmake both worlds. It’s a do-or-die mission and Bliss is more than up to the challenge. There’s just one minor hitch – the rogue Bliss is after is also her sister.

With only 48 hours to complete the mission and earn her commission, Bliss soon discovers she isn’t the only hunter on the trail. The truth behind her sister’s defection is far more complicated than she has been led to believe and Bliss finds herself stranded and almost out of options. Reinforcements are on the way, but it could already be too late. An eons-old blind seer and a hot-but-morally-conflicted half human double agent are all she’s got until real help arrives, but the conspiracy Bliss has uncovered might be more than even the Realm Wraiths can handle.

I’ve had better days.

The instigator of my current demise steps back to re-center herself, dominating the training mat with that cold, clear confidence I envy so much. Sergeant Velvet Firethorn outmatches me in more ways than rank – something she takes every opportunity to reaffirm. But from where I stand, or have just landed a little harder than I want to admit, it’s only a matter of time before I figure out how to best her.

Velvet’s lanky limbs instinctively form a modified horse stance, an autonomic defensive posture hard-wired into her nervous system by discipline and experience. With one hand Velvet sweeps shaggy, white-blonde bangs from her eyes and waves me forward with the other. “You’re gonna have to come at me harder than that, Cadet.”

That last elbow jab to my nose had knocked me off balance, but it was the fall that really hurt. Ignoring the sticky trickle congealing on my upper lip, I scramble back to my feet, hoping it isn’t obvious how much I’m struggling. Not that Velvet doesn’t regularly kick my butt during close-combat drills, but today is particularly ugly. I am not at all on my game.

“Ok, ready.” I’m lying. I can’t quite catch my breath, but I am riding an adrenaline rush that has me so amped I can’t quit. “Let’s go again.”

“Yeah?” Velvet flashes a crooked smirk, mocking me with her expertise and the spunk that comes from knowing her own strengths. Nearly half an hour now and my whole body is dripping with sweat. She isn’t even glistening. “So bring it, already.”

Where Velvet is all long and lean, I am compact and curvy. She has reach and overview to her advantage. I am learning to use that against her, but not fast enough. I’m going down again, no doubt about that, but I am not about to make it easy for her.

I need time to rethink my strategy, so I begin a slow, sidling circle to my right hoping to stall long enough to come up for a fresh approach. I’ve used all the holds I know. Velvet is already anticipating my moves and every scenario I envision ends with me on my ass again, or worse.

Somewhere below gut level stirs the uneasy realization that once again, I am stuck in an analysis loop. I overthink things. It’s what I do. Often enough, I catch details that other people miss. But sometimes it’s just a self-defeating trap, and right now I can’t seem to escape it. Then I remember – sometimes a girl just has to give in to blind instinct and roll with the hits. It won’t be pretty, but she might just get out alive.

Following the impulses as they come, I fake right and then lunge left, rushing Velvet’s stand with a sliding tackle. My foot clips her ankle and she drops, but not backward as I expected. Velvet launches her weight forward and lands on me in a classic pelvis straddle, pinning me to the mat with a forearm choke I can’t break. In a matter of seconds I feel myself losing consciousness, but she won’t let up. Not even a little.

“Girl, please.” The harder I struggle, the more pressure Velvet applies to my throat. Her eyes are steel-edged this time. She’s not playing. “This can end one of two ways. Either you submit while you’re still conscious, or you pass out. Either way, I win.”

For a moment, I consider resisting until I pass out. At least that way I can claim I never gave in. A jolt of panic-fueled energy instantly obliterates that thought and I feel the fight instinct surge through the lack-of-oxygen haze. With what breath I have left, I attempt a double ankle-grab sweep by wrapping my legs around her waist to leverage my weight. Suddenly, I am the alpha. Somehow I manage to flip the hold, and I don’t know which of us is more surprised. Velvet is stunned, but only for a moment. Before I can get a good hold, Velvet bucks and pulls a reverse sweep. Just as suddenly I am the beta again, but this time, she is grinning down at me.

“Not bad, Bliss.” Her fist bumps my chin, a little harder than necessary. “Not bad at all.”

“That’s enough for now.” The Realm Wraith squad leader charges into the gym. Auger Mangrove’s normally brooding expression is more surly than usual. “Hoarfrost, go suit up. You report to central command for mission briefing in fifteen minutes.”

“What?” I’m not sure I’m hearing the lieutenant right. Oxygen is still working its way back to my brain.

Velvet rocks back onto her heels, and straightens to a stand. She offers me a hand up, but I am still trying to process what Auger said. He’d made it pretty clear earlier that morning that he wasn’t going to sign off on the assignment that had come down for my first solo mission. He didn’t think I was ready. “Now?”

Auger scowls at me like I am wasting his time. “You got a problem with that, Cadet?”

“No, sir.”

I don’t, and he knows it. Everyone knows it. I had been on the career fast track ever since enlistment and took an early lead in the over-achievement department. It helps that I’m smart and capable, but Auger worries I don’t have the life experience to gut out the tougher scenarios an ultra-elite covert strike team can face. But even if I am the youngest candidate to ever be put up for a commission, no one would ever say I haven’t earned it.

And that’s no small thing, either. The Realm Wraith Squadron is the best of the best in the EDL. But then, any post in the corps is considered an honor. For thousands of years the Empyrean Defense League has fought like hellfire to keep the mortal races from annihilating themselves and taking the magical world out along with them.

Humanity, in its infinite hubris, has been systematically dismantling its only livable environment for countless generations. The only reason their realm has survived this long is that a force far beyond their ken has been holding the line between chaos and order. All I have ever wanted is to serve.

I roll off the training mat and bounce to my feet. “On my way.”

*

“Oh, come on!”

This can’t be happening, not now. Fifteen minutes have easily passed, and I’m still fighting. With myself.  For a third time, I attempt to stretch the protective gossamer body sheath up from my ankles, but just as I manage to inch it over my knees the fabric slips through my fingertips and snaps back around my ankles.

What is my problem? Months of tactical training, skill tests, and trial runs, and I can’t even manage the basic readiness task.  I am one objective away from making the squad for good, and the opportunity is literally sliding out of my hands. And along with it, my self-respect, my dignity, whatever admiration my father might ever have for me, probably the rest of my career.  I can’t crash and burn now, not before the mission even begins.

I can do this. The clingy, iridescent casing is literally a second skin, which makes it a struggle to get into under the best circumstances. Stuffing sweaty, girly body parts into this suit should be a medal-worthy accomplishment. I’ve done it before, plenty of times, and in record time. I just need to chill.

“Hurry up, Cadet.” Auger’s fist pounding against the metal door ratchets up my nervous system and the razor-edged bristle in his tone makes my mouth go dry. “The CIC is waiting on you.”

I am dangerously close to screwing myself out of this mission. “Two minutes, sir. I swear.”

He leaves, but I sense his escalating aggravation. This is so not turning out the way I had planned. It’s not like I’m looking for anyone’s approval, but earning Auger’s admiration matters. Too much, probably, and if today is any indication, I’m nowhere near earning it. I am not in control of this situation, and I need to be.

“Get a grip on your aura, girl.” Hearing my own voice fall small and flat in the priming chamber is a cringe-inducing experience. My thoughts sound even more weak and whiney outside my head than inside, but the self-shaming is unexpectedly motivating.

A deep exhale and the willful steadying of my breath puts my panic on pause long enough to assess what is going wrong. My nervous system seems to be overpowering the calming effect of the alabaster that lines the walls of the room. The spell charged stone tiles are supposed to nullify any errant energy discharges so that the fae natural form can be contained. But anxiety is oozing from my skin and pinging off every surface.  My palms are sweaty, even though they shouldn’t be.

In moments like this, I am my own worst enemy, and yet I can’t stop myself from wallowing in self-pity. Sometimes it feels like I have to work twice as hard just to prove myself half as good as everyone else. Others tend to assume family connections have paved my career path, but the truth is my father has never used his position in the Empyrean Defense League to help me. Not even the one time I asked. In fact, I’m fairly certain he has leveraged his influence against me more than once. But in spite of everything, in spite of him, I have gotten myself this far. I have every right to be proud.

Okay, so maybe not so much right now, as I fumble around like a total newb. I’m better than this. I swear I am.

At last, my dew-fingered grip on the gossamer holds and I manage to work the sheathing up my calves and over the uncooperative curves of my hips and backside. But the process is slow going. A full sixty seconds to wriggle the rest of me into the suit, and another thirty to jog across the glass-ceilinged skybridges linking the crew barracks and briefing rooms in the outermost ring to the control hub at the center of the compound.  The complex resembles a giant spider web. Sometimes it functions like one, too.

A top-level security clearance or an official escort is required to access the command core, but my gossamer sheathing produces a biogenic signature that allows special access. The organic defense system should recognize me or at least it had better. The last thing I need today is to be swarmed by six-legged sentry beetles and cocooned in security webbing.

The doors to the General’s briefing room slide open as I approach and my heart skips half a dozen beats. All my hard work is about to pay off. It’s really happening. This is my moment. So why is there a clump of terror stuck inmy throat?

Auger stands at attention in the far corner. A reluctant advocate, but I know he has my back. General Erebus Hoarfrost, Commander-in-Chief of the Empyrean Defense League, is seated behind his command bridge. He shifts his attention away from one of the monitors embedded in the desktop to acknowledge me, but not with the familiarity a daughter might expect from her father.

I override the impulse to glance at Auger for reassurance and present myself. I need them both to see me as capable and confident, but it’s kind of hard to convince others of something I don’t totally believe myself. “General, sir. Mission Specialist Hoarfrost, Operative beta-five-nine-five, reporting as ordered.”

Reproach raises the naturally disdainful arch of the Commander’s grizzled eyebrows even higher, and my gut tweaks a little. The last thing I want is to add weight to Auger’s arguments against this assignment. I am ready.  Late, but ready.

General Hoarfrost nods as though he is still assessing his decision. A tap on one of the implanted modules on his desk brings up a holographic image of the mission dossier. He and Auger wait while I review the file.

One of our specialized infiltration operatives, also known as a changeling, violated the neutrality protocol of her watch-and-report assignment and interfered with events in the human realm. The timeline of the breach of conduct isn’t clear, but recently the situation has gone critical. It is my job to find the operative and bring her back before she does something really stupid.

General Hoarfrost shifts in his seat, a clear signal that he wants me to redirect my attention. “You understand what is being asked of you, Specialist?”

“Yes, sir, I understand.” It seems fairly straightforward. “I’m to intercept and apprehend operative zed-three-seven-nine and return her to the home realm to face charges and possible disciplinary action.”

“Yes, essentially, but I doubt it will be as simple as that,” he explains. “This isn’t just any changeling.”

That much I had already gleaned that from the dossier. This particular operative was originally part of the long term reconnaissance team: a group of specially trained agents who were planted in human families, usually under the guise of a fostering program for homeless youths with sketchy pasts, to keep eyes on potential trouble spots. This particular operative had gone under cover as a tween, and now, nearly fifteen years later, was a fully functioning citizen of human society. She had achieved a level of integration no other agent had ever been able to manage, but something had driven her way off track.

“Of course not, sir.” I mean for my response to reflect a strong grasp of the situation but my tone is more aggressive than I intend. “We’re talking about a highly capable agent who is at home in the human world. I don’t expect it to be easy, but I do expect to get the job done.”

The Commander’s brow furrows deepen. “We’re talking about our most successful undercover operation in decades, maybe even generations. But we should have seen this coming.”

By ‘we’, the Commander means ‘he’. According to the dossier, the signs were there along – small sidesteps and unorthodox judgment calls overlooked because of the complicated nature of the assignment and the agent’s stellar record. But, over the last few years, the operative had taken on a personal crusade. A handful of incidents involving benign environmental activism escalated to full-on eco-terrorism.

The operative’s handler sent a spy to spy on the spy, and the reports were alarming. By combining her fae powers with her human education, the operative had invented a magic-infused technology that she was using to disrupt industrial operations harmful to the human environment.

But whether she knew it or not, the technology the agent created was disrupting the invisible filament wall separating the realms. Every time it was deployed, layers of the filament peeled away, putting both worlds at risk. Even the tiniest perforation in the realm wall could create a dimensional implosion – destroying the very thing the operative was trying to protect.

After receiving orders to cease and desist, the agent cut off all contact with command.

“Now we have a volatile situation, and limited options.” The Commander’s glower is focused on me, but I don’t know what he’s thinking. Is he assessing me or his decision? Both, maybe. Probably. I never have been able to decipher my father’s expressions. To me they are all a variation on the same theme – his general disappointment with everyone and everything.

“There’s something else you should know … something that isn’t in the dossier.” He sucks in a deep breath and forces it out through his nose in a long and deliberate stream of dissatisfaction. As if circumstances are forcing him to reveal things he does not want to share.

“Zed-three-seven-nine is your sister.”

“Melody?” I don’t remember the last time I said her name out loud. My sister is older by nearly seven years and left home to enter the intelligence service when I was only five. I barely remember her. All I know of the person she has become are the monthly status reports detailing her accomplishments — feats my father is eager to boast about. Until now, at least.

“I trust that won’t be a problem for you.”

I assume he is asking if lingering sibling affinity will impact my ability to execute my duties. “No, sir. No problem at all.”

“Is that so?” General Erebus cocks an eyebrow, challenging me. “No problem at all.

For a moment I wonder whether he is concerned about my ability to detach, or his. This is a complication neither of us would have ever expected to face. Melody is the last being in all the fae races I could ever imagine running afoul of the great Erebus Hoarfrost. She is his legacy, his greatest achievement. To me, she is a painful reminder of what I will never be, at least in his eyes.

My mind begins to piece together the subtext, and all of a sudden, the entire scenario coalesces like a fractal – a random pattern that isn’t really random at all, once you step back to get a good look at it. I’m the right person for the job, but for all the wrong reasons. My father isn’t sending me despite the family connection, he’s sending me because of it.  I have no idea how this works to his advantage, but I should have known. My father has no problem with nepotism, when it suits his own needs.

Whatever. No way am I taking this bait. “The identity of the target is of no consequence, sir. It’s the mission that matters.”

This satisfies him, I think, although any conflict or uncertainty or regret he might be experiencing is too well masked by his unshakable sense of decorum. My father is a cold man, completely committed to his career. Nothing else matters to him, except maybe Melody, and even then it’s all about how her successes, and now her failures, might reflect on him. I am fairly certain he is incapable of experiencing most emotions.

“Carry on then, Specialist.” The Commander turns his attention back to the screen on his desk. “Stop the rogue before she destroys us all, whatever the cost.”

“Yes, sir.” I offer the answer he expects, but his order is disturbing. Recall missions sometimes go bad, very bad. Extreme measures are often unavoidable. But take out my own sister? That is an outcome I can’t wrap my head around. Surely he can’t expect it will come to that.

“That will be all.”

I have been dismissed, but the conversation feels unfinished. I have no idea what I want to say or hear, but the need to resolve my sense of dread holds me in place. It is pointless to wait for him to acknowledge me further. As far as he is concerned I am no longer in the room, and the gentle swish of the door opening behind me prods me into motion.

Auger leads me into the hall, and I force myself to wait for the doors to close before letting the rush of confusion and disbelief spew. “What the –?”

“It’s like I said. You aren’t ready for this.” Grim-faced and stern, Auger holds up a crossing key hung on a gossamer lanyard. He slips the lanyard over my head and around my neck, staring hard at me with those ice-blue eyes. “I sure hope your father knows what he’s doing.”

“Yeah.” The steady, nothing-rattles-my-cage façade I work so hard to maintain is cracking under the pressure. “So do I.”

*

 

“Well, THIS is a freaking nightmare.”

The words gush over my lips before the doors to the crew’s ready room slide closed behind us. I feel Auger’s warning glare burning through the back of my head and try to reign myself in. The other five members of my team are gathered around the briefing table, evaluating my every move. Each of them has had a hand in my training these past months. How I handle myself now is critical.

“So.” A steady exhale traps the emotional eruption at the base of my throat. My lungs burn, but I manage to avoid embarrassing myself. “You old-timers got any advice for a rookie who’s totally screwed?”

“Rookies are screwed on general principle,” Rip quips. He gives the empty chair across the table from him a shove with his boot, indicating it is for me. Auger’s second-in-command, Captain Ripsaw Buckhorn is the only being I know who has any real sway with Auger. So far he has been my ally and an unexpected source of support and encouragement.

Digger and Torch sit at the far end of the table, barely holding back the shit storm of mockery they are no doubt dying to fling in my direction. These two have more cycles of service in the squad than I have in this realm, and are far more likely to be amused at my expense than empathetic.  But they were all rookies once and they know what I’m up against. They’ve also got my back – no matter what.

Even though I am too wired to sit, I plant my butt in the chair. It is an offering, and the right thing to do is accept it.

Rip looks over my head at Auger, who is still standing near the door.  “I see she got her crossing key.”

It hadn’t registered at the time, but Auger’s hanging that lanyard around my neck in the hall outside my father’s office was a big deal. With that gesture, he had essentially signed off on the mission and cleared me to go. I knew he was still uncomfortable with the situation, but he was backing my play anyway.

“So, kid.” Velvet, who was the resident communications specialist when she wasn’t kicking my butt, yanks a chair back from the table and whips it around to straddle the seat backwards. “What’s the job?”

“Kid? Seriously?” I flash a scowl in Rip’s direction. Intended or not, the implication in Velvet’s comment is a slight. I may be a newbie as far as this crew is concerned, but at nineteen cycles I am already two years into a stellar military career, and a decorated officer candidate. “What is she, like, three rotations older than me?”

Velvet kicks the leg of my chair so hard it almost shoots out from under me, but I manage to keep my seat. The warning glare I level in her direction is met with cool calm.

Rip wasn’t about to help me out. “Sarge asked you a question, Cadet.”

I adjust my attitude and my ego a few degrees south of arrogant, just to be safe. Velvet’s personality is only slightly more paradoxical than her full name suggests – as smooth and subtle as she is sharp and combustible. She and I get along okay, partly because I admire her, but mostly because so far I have been smart enough not to push her too far. Velvet had my respect long before I got here.

Only a handful of female operatives have won commissions in the Realm Wraith squadron. Not that sylph recruits aren’t common in combat divisions, but tactical assault squads like the Wraiths are specialized units that attract a certain personality type – generally reckless misfits or legacy brats with something to prove. It was no secret why I was busting my ass to make it. But Velvet had already made her mark and so far, she’d been willing to show me the ropes. It didn’t make sense to screw with that.

“Personnel retrieval and reintegration,” I answer.

“Yeah, I meant the part we don’t already know.”  Velvet tilts a taunting look in my direction and rakes her hair back with the fingers of both hands – a nervous habit, I think. Like the rest of her, her hair is a contradiction in terms – long on top and shaved short on the sides and back, framing the soft edges of her pixie-ish face with hard angles. “Who’s the rogue?”

“A changeling who’s been under cover so long she’s forgotten which side she’s on.”  Auger interrupts, as if he wants to shut down the conversation. “And the CIC’s oldest daughter.”

“No shit?” Velvet snorts. “The kid’s sister?”

Auger’s sneer underscores his obvious irritation with the entire scenario. “Giving Bliss this assignment violates about a half dozen regs, not to mention some pretty basic command protocols, if you ask me. But nobody’s asking me.” He crosses the room to the armory lockers lining the back wall and roots through the gear. “So, here’s the run down. Our Cadet here is going to jump solo, as planned, and track down this rogue just like any other.”

Auger flings a loaded tactical vest onto the table and levels the full measure of his commanding gaze directly at me. “Once you’ve got eyes on the target and have fully assessed the situation, you tap into the interdimensional com network and report your status before you intercede. You got that?”

“I got it,” I said.

“I mean it, Hoarfrost.” Auger shoves the vest across the table, hard. “First sign of real trouble, or you even think you might be about to get in over your head, you call in the team. Understood?”

“Yes sir.” My full-throated bellow is less impressive than intended, but there is conviction in my voice. I think.

Auger’s stare is a laser-focused bullshit detector, scanning for even the slightest indication of uncertainty, but I refuse to give him so much as a flinch to use against me. Still, knowing he isn’t a hundred percent on board with the mission is making it tough to be tough.

He turns his attention to the rest of the team. “For the next forty-eight hours, this squad is on standby. No lockdown yet, but no one leaves the Wraith command hub without my say-so until mission resolution.” He looks at me again, this time with steely resolve instead.  “Gear up, Cadet.”

*

 

The fae have always existed alongside mankind.

Eons ago, all the races – magical and mortal –even shared the same realm. Although, not without conflict. The never-ending struggle for dominion eventually threatened to drive us all to extinction, so the magical societies joined together and decided to wall off a world of our own. We’ve been fighting to keep it safe ever since.

Only seven active kedge stones remain in the Empyrean Realm, where once there were dozens. Each of these giant sarsens is an anchor that literally exists in two places at once, tethering the preternatural dimension to the mortal one. The distinction between a kedge stone as it exists in the Empyrean realm and its corresponding state in the mortal realm is a matter of perception. The preternatural races know what the stones are and how to use them. Humans no longer remember.

For the fae, kedge stones are markers indicating trans-dimensional connection points in the ley line array, a metaphysical energy grid that crosshatches both dimensions. In the human world, the grid map is divided into seven patrol sectors, one for each kedge stone.

I stare at the north face of the kedge for Sector Five, Melody’s last known location, re-running the mission parameters in my head while Auger hovers. It’s his responsibility to monitor my crossing, but he hasn’t said a word since we left the compound.

“Stop worrying,” I say. “I’ve got this.”

“Yeah.” He sounds resigned, maybe even defeated. “I know you think you do.”

I know what Auger thinks; I’m headstrong and impulsive, not disciplined enough to respond calmly in unexpected situations, and not seasoned enough to know how to get myself out of real trouble. Like it or not, I still had a lot to prove.

“You should know I flat out refused to send you when your father first asked me to assign you this mission.” There is no apology in his words or expression. “The Commander overruled me. That’s the only reason you’re here.”

“I know what I’m doing.” I feel a little betrayed, but frustration compels me to plead my case.  “I’m smart, I’m well-trained, and I’ve got great instincts. Most recruits wash out long before they get to this point. You said so yourself, more than once.”

“Most recruits aren’t sent to hunt down their own siblings.” Auger is always direct, but not always so blunt. “I’m not so sure you’re processing this the way you should.”

“Are you serious?” My head snaps around so fast I don’t have time to wipe the snarl from my scowl. The implication is insulting and it’s a struggle to keep my pride from overriding a respectful response, but on some level I know his point is not entirely off target.  “You really think I can’t set aside family loyalties to do my job? Have you met me?”

Auger’s narrow lips twitch without shifting the clench in his acutely angled jaw. As near a smile as I was likely to get from him today. “You don’t think there might be a conflict of interest here?”

“Maybe.” I shrug. “If I was sympathetic to my sister’s cause, but I’m hardly even sympathetic to my sister’s existence. So I think I’m good.”

Auger winces at my snark. “Yeah, that’s not exactly where I was going with that. You may not be soft-hearted where your sister is concerned, but your father is. And I know how you feel about your father.”

“No love lost there, either.” To avoid his critical glower, I reposition my gaze and my indignation on the kedge stone, pretending to examine a particularly bushy clump of cap moss.

“Right,” Auger quips, a little too sarcastically. “You forget it’s my job to know you better than you know yourself, Cadet. And I’m telling you right now there are two things driving everything you do: earning your commission and impressing the great General Erebus Hoarfrost.”

There is no point denying these particular truths, but I still resent his pointing them out. “So?”

“Hey,” Auger’s tone softens. “I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. There’s something a little twisted driving all of us, if you want to know the truth. But I am saying you might just be a little short-sighted where the general is concerned. He’s not doing you any favors here. He’s got his own agenda. You get that, right?”

“Yeah, I get that.” I don’t want to talk about my father anymore, and I certainly don’t want to admit that I am already seeing this mission as an opportunity to step out from under the total eclipse of my sister’s life and accomplishments – at least in our father’s eyes. She’d finally gone too far afield of the wide, sheltering embrace he’d always held open for her. This is a chance, finally, for me to be seen. “I don’t really care what his ‘agenda’ is, as long as I get my sigil.”

The Realm Wraith sigil is an unofficial rite of passage, a ritual blooding performed by the ranking members of the team that signifies a recruit’s acceptance by the squad. Each Wraith is branded with the squad’s insignia – the rune symbol ehwaz, for loyalty.

Auger falls quiet, thinking. It’s hard to tell what is really going on in his head. When he has something he thinks you need to hear, Auger speaks his mind without reservation. Otherwise he tends to keep his thoughts to himself, even when asked for his opinion. His silence can be crazy making.

“I knew it,” I snap. “You seriously don’t think I can do this.”

“Of course you can do this,” Auger snaps back. “But the whole setup feels a lot more like a career ender to me than a career maker. And frankly? You aren’t looking at this from all the angles, and that’s a concern for me.”

His criticism stings, but I’m pissed that he thinks I’m so naive. “I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on how big a jerk my father can be. It’s not like I don’t get how assigning me this mission makes him look tough. Duty or death, that’s my dad, right? Only a total hardass would send one daughter to hunt down the other. All due respect, Lieu, but nobody knows the CIC like I do.”

“Oh, ok.” Auger’s expression hangs between amusement and annoyance, which only infuriates me more. “So you’re totally cool with him putting you between him and any potential fallout.”

Though I hadn’t considered mission failure might mean I would take the political and professional hit instead of him, I shrug it off. “I’m used to it.”

“Maybe you are, Cadet,” Auger says. “But you forget: you’re a Realm Wraith. What you do affects all of us. We stand together, and we fall together – even when one of goes a solo.”

A heaping pile of humility isn’t exactly what my ego wants right now, but I get it. “Guess I’ll just have to kick ass, then.”

This brings a sparkle to his eyes, like gold flecks dancing on a cerulean pond. Yeah, it’s true. Faeries sparkle. Just not in a glittery, rhinestone kind of way. It’s more of a glimmer, really. And we all have the same cerulean blue eyes. It’s a fae thing.

The barely perceptible slackening of Augur’s jawline makes me think he’s coming to terms with the scenario. “We’ve got your back. Just don’t wait until you’re in too deep before you reach out.”

“Thanks, boss.” I am relieved, although my gut argues that I shouldn’t be. It is going to be okay. I am going to be okay. “Don’t worry. I’ll call in the team if I need to.”

“Right.” Auger juts his chin at the tactical vest slung over my shoulder. “Secure your gear.”

Anticipation trills through me, and I am suddenly eager. If I don’t go now, I never will.

The gossamer harness snugs my shoulders and torso, layering a sense of calm over my inner frenzy. As I cinch the straps tight, I take a quick mental inventory of the vest’s load – an assortment of magical energy distortion charges, standard issue silver-plated iron shackles for prisoner transport, and a spell-charged dagger with an Auraen steel blade for close combat. The tools of my trade are confidence builders, and I feel powerful. “Good to go, Lieutenant. Let’s do this thing.”

“All right then,” he signals. “Initiate the jump sequence.”

The jump order triggers an adrenaline surge. It’s really happening. I remove the gossamer lanyard from my head and take hold of the silver crossing key by the crescent shaped bow.

On the surface of the kedge is a narrow, hand-hewn channel concealed in a rune glyph. I am looking for raidō, which represents ‘journey,’ but it is difficult to see the ancient etching in the weather-worn stone.

A subtle contrast in the mottled grays and browns near the top catches my eye. In a darkened spot near the center of the kedge, I finally see the shadowy outline of the channel. My heart is pounding so hard I feel it thudding in my head, but somehow, my hands are steady.

Aligning the double-sided pin so that the protrusions on either side connect with the corresponding recesses inside the lock, I press the key in until the shank drops into place. The stone begins to thrum, raising a tingle in my fingertips as magic worms a passageway from one dimension to the next. In the shadow of the sarsen, a faint shimmer appears as the glassine membrane separating my realm from the human world thins.

With one hand gripping the gossamer lanyard attached to the key, I take a single side-step and scrunch my legs to jump. Once the crossing key is pulled from the lock, I have only an instant to leap through the thin place before the opening closes. My timing has to be precise. If I miss the window even by half a breath, I’ll be crushed in the collapsing vortex.

The risk is as thrilling as it is terrifying. Even my toes curl as my coiled body waits. I suck air deep into my lungs and hold my breath, yank the lanyard, and launch myself into the void.

“You’ll rock this job, Cadet,” Auger calls out as I slip between the realms. “Just don’t lose that key.”

Read Episode Two

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