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Time To Be Hexed

Time for an adventure!

On March 12th, a new adventure begins! The first trilogy in the Hexed Heroes Saga hits the stores with the arrival of Thornbane the Lost. For those of you looking for a DnD-type book adventure, look no further. This series is for you, and I'm going to share the first two chapters here!

Before I share them, let's take a quick look at what Thornbane is all about.


A kingdom plunged into chaos. A woman branded a demon. A power she didn't choose becomes her only hope.

On the morning of the bell tolls, Cynn Jade wakes to find her world shattered. The baron and his wife, murdered. Hexed by powers she doesn't understand, Cynn is forced to flee all she knows. Hexed by enigmatic powers, she becomes a demon, an outcast shunned by the very world she could save.

Changing her name to protect the family line will only go so far as she discovers the true depth of the war she’s fighting.

Lost in a world she can no longer call her own, she must rely on the kindness of strangers. A ranger, who knows more of her story than he’s sharing. A goblin, exiled by her own kind who must do the last thing she wants to do to keep Thornbane alive. A mage with an unsavory reputation for pushing magic too far.

Haunted by a demon's shadow and ostracized by her people, Cynn is an exiled heir. If she embraces her cursed transformation, she can unlock a powerful hidden magic. But will doing so save the barony or consume her soul?

To regain not only her throne but also save her people, Cynn must find a cure to the curse. Her quest leads her down a perilous path, forcing her to face a magic far older and wilder than she ever imagined.

As the shadows deepen, the question lingers—will this newfound power save her or become the instrument of her destruction?


As you can see, we're about to be swept up into something epic! So allow me to whet your appetite with the first two chapters of book 1, Thornbane the Lost. <----GRAB YOUR COPY BY CLICKING THE LINK.


1 – Morn of Bell Toll

Cynn gasped, bolting upright in her bed. Gripping the blanket, she loosened her grip and turned to face the three large conical-shaped windows facing toward the east.

Her heart thudded in her chest. Something was wrong, but sleepiness still shrouded her thinking.

Cynn blinked away the night's fog and listened.

Away and below, outside the castle, the indistinct sounds of life drifted up from the yard. She couldn't distinguish anything specific, just that the city's life sounded different. Readied to throw off the deer-skin blanket and jump from the bed to see if anything below her windows would satiate her curiosity, Cynn stopped at the sound of a bell.

Her breath caught.

Gong-gong. Gong-gong. Gong-gong.

Three rings. Three times.

In a raspy voice, she said "No." Clearing her throat, she put a hand to her chest at the strange rumble sounding from within her chest. Was it the sickness? Couldn't be. She'd been forced to take her mourning rest since being sent back to Emeralis following her husband's death. How many times had her father threatened to walk her up the two hundred steps and throw her in the bed himself if she didn't follow the corpsmaster's instructions? Being forced to return to the barony she never wanted to leave was enough to deal with. An angry father was the last thing she'd needed.

She loved him dearly. Disobeying him, even as an adult, hurt too much. So, her time since coming home had been restricted to these chambers. Cynn saw more of her bed in the name of honoring her period of mourning than she had during her childhood when she was relegated to it as punishment for her curious nature. A woman grown, sent to her bed like that same child.

Her chest was light, free of the phlegm typical of the sickness. Still, Cynn hacked, trying to eject the infirmity she feared.

Gong-gong. Gong-gong. Gong-gong.

The bells were a signal, rang only for a specific reason. One of her parents was dead.

Cynn grabbed the blanket, about to toss it off and race out of her chamber, when she stopped and stared at her hand.

"What madness?" she asked, her voice far too husky.

She only recognized her hand's size. Everything else about it, the sheer horror of what she saw, nearly convinced her she was still asleep.

"Yes, a nightmare," she said, unconvincingly, in a deep voice that rumbled more than her dead husband's had. Flexing her hand, her fingers, red as blood, curled into a fist. Nails, black as coal, dug into her palm. She winced, flashing her hand open again. Thick lines of skin had blackened and curving bands, looking like… What?


No nightmare. This was too real.

Pushing her sleep dress sleeves up, Cynn traced the blackened lines past her wrist. They crossed and entwined. Slivers departed from the rivers to form angular shapes, almost like letters. Just in a foreign tongue.

Gasping, she touched the skin. Normal skin. The trails of designs were flat, not a miniscule edge or bump of raised skin. Her left arm was the same. It was as if someone had snuck into her bedchamber in the middle of the night and painted these designs on her arms for as normal as they felt.

Gong-gong. Gong-gong. Gong-gong.

With the bells interrupting her nervous examination, Cynn threw her blankets off. She was determined to get to the window to see if the dissonant noise was indeed related to her fear about the sounding of the bells. As soon as the blankets freed her legs, she froze for a second time. Not only were her hands and arms the color of blood, with rune-shaped trails as black as coal, but her legs were as well.

Panicked, Cynn yanked the hem of her sleep dress up to the middle of her thighs. From her feet, all the way to her dress, her exposed skin was an angry red. Here, too, the runes carved across her skin. Each line was wider than those on her arms, but the nature was the same as if drawn by the same designer.

"This can't be happening." She growled. Her exasperation sounded like an animal's growl. She'd heard wild dogs that sounded less animalistic. "I need to find the corpsmaster."

She threw her legs over the edge of the bed. The stone floor was clammy, with an early humidity of another oncoming hot summer day. Cynn ignored the flash of calm that came at the subtle reminder of home. The Eastlands were too cold for her. Donnelly had called her weak, but he'd have never survived here. Just as she'd never made it long in the Eastlands, where his family only accepted her out of a sense of duty. Yet for her, the sweating stone was a reminder of all the good things in her life. Good things, like her parents.

Pulling her sleep dress off and throwing it on the bed, Cynn was about to go to the wardrobe when a burst of voices sounded from outside her chamber. The distinct clack of the door ring told her she was about to have company. Someone to explain this absolute horror.

Gong-gong. Gong-gong. Gong-gong.

Already in her small clothes, Cynn snatched the blanket from the bed and pulled it around her body as the heavy door clattered open.

An attendant Cynn had only met upon her return, and hadn't seen since, raced into the room. The young woman's face was stretched taut with stress. "Honorable Cynn—" A foot inside the room, the woman stopped.

Cynn had a moment to get the attendant's attention, but failed. The face staring back at her twisted in shock. The opportunity was lost when fear pushed the attendant to act.

Cynn cursed herself for not remembering the woman's name. Their introduction had been short and part of a larger acclimatization to the newer members of staff. Though her marriage was half the length of her travel to and from the Eastlands, changes had come to the castle and its grounds. This servant was someone she hadn't had the time to come to know. Now, that might cost her.

"Please," Cynn said, holding up her hands to show she wasn't a threat. "It's me. Cynn. The baron's daughter."

With each word, Cynn saw the reaction coming in the small ways the servant's lips trembled and how she shuffled her feet back toward the door.

"Please," Cynn repeated, taking a step forward, her hands, her red hands, still raised, "I need he—"

The servant didn't give her a chance. As soon as Cynn took the next step closer, the servant's mouth fell open, and she loosed a shriek that would have flung robins from the sky. Without thinking, Cynn snatched for the woman's dress. Black nails, too long to be hers, raked through the fine fabric her mother dressed all the castle's women in. The material peeled apart in four fine lines, eliciting a high-pitched shriek from the terrified servant.

A mistake, Cynn realized a moment too late.

With clumps of the thin fabric in her hand, a strand of unraveling threads stabbed by a long, black nail, Cynn watched the woman spin away. She grabbed the door jamb. The tendons in the servant's hands strained as she jettisoned herself around the wall and out of sight.

Cynn stumbled forward. Her balance was off. She felt stiff. What flexibility she'd had before, and there was plenty, was now sluggish. Her movement was disjointed.

From outside her chambers, the fleeing servant screamed, but now she interspersed the word "demon!" as she moved through this wing of the castle.

Cynn slammed the heavy door closed and threw the latch, racing thirty feet to the three conical windows.

The courtyard directly below was empty. At this time of morning, ladies normally would mill about, sharing the latest city gossip or talking of the day's work to come. Soldiers would be changing shifts, detailing their reports from the night before and talking about how they might swallow a flagon of ale before heading home for a meal, time with their wives, a tussle with their lads, and much-needed sleep.

Yet, no ladies chittered. No soldiers complained. No pairs of priests drifted, heads bent together in conspiratorial planning or sober debate. Though she was an only child, her mother having suffered a barrenness since her birth, that didn't stop other children from playing in the courtyard. Sunn, her mother, secretly loved having the staff's children around. Cynn knew it filled her mother in a way the gods had deprived her of twenty and a half years ago. Yet today, no giggles and teasing taunts rose into the warming morning air.

Outside the keep walls, shouts and yells echoed in the nearby streets. None sounded panicked, but neither did they resemble the merchant calls and shrieks of upset wives that'd help pass another typically boring day while filling the well of rumors that kept the castle's ladies entertained.

The Jawl River lay in the background, partially blocked by the taller homes and city walls. For a moment, Cynn thought she saw a small flotilla. At this distance, she couldn't be sure if they were fishing vessels or something else.

From the city center, she spotted something more concerning than a few rafts or boats. Fire. Just south of the castle grounds, a column of black rose into the air, thicker than a single house. Too far away to distinguish the cries and yells, she could only guess how many homes were ablaze.

"What's going on?" she said, pushing back from the window.

Outside her chambers, more shouts filled the hall. Most came from the ladies, but there was a sprinkling of men among the voices. Whether they were soldiers, craftsmen, or clergy, Cynn couldn't tell with all the noise.

"I've got to get out of here."

On the other side of her bed was a vanity table with a mirror and chair, both barely used. Her mother had always criticized her for not playing the role of the daughter or a baron seriously enough. Cynn couldn't be bothered with the pretenses of the station. She'd played her part, always. After all, she adored her parents. But her role was a reluctant one and the vanity often went unused, Cynn preferring to depend on her friend Cara to help make her presentable. Her practice blade was used more often than the vanity her mother insisted she keep in the chamber.

Cynn went to it. Her red leather riding pants were draped over the chair. She'd not bothered to have them taken away to be cleaned last night because she'd wanted to ride again this morning. Snagging her pants, she checked that her water skin was still attached. She was about to remove the hand drum she'd latched to the belt before she and Cara headed to the Dried Twig Tavern after a long day on horseback when she stopped and stared at the reflection of the person in the mirror.

That's not a person, she thought, swallowing.

Gong-gong. Gong-gong. Gong-gong.

As with her arms and legs, Cynn's neck and, most dishearteningly, her face, were an angry red. Her dark hair was now as black as pitch. The runes littering her appendages hadn't touched her face, but that one grace couldn't encourage her. Too distracted by what grew from her head.

Lifting a shaking hand, Cynn reached for one of the black horns. When she gripped the coarse bone wrapped in keratin, she yanked her hand away as if she'd stuck it in a fire.

Her gasps had turned into pants. Leaning closer to the mirror, she tentatively reached out her other hand and touched the horn on the other side of her head. Cynn didn't know what she expected to feel. Surely, it wouldn't differ from the bony appendage she'd first touched.

None of this could be real. Yet it was. Red rune-etched skin. Thick horns, each wider than the widest blade she'd seen any of the soldiers handle, curled backward and down toward her ears. She tipped her head, holding back the rush of adrenaline threatening to overwhelm her. Doing so didn't change the weight she would have normally felt. It was as if the horns weren't there.

But they are. This is who I am.

"This is how they'll see me," Cynn told the reflection in the mirror. "How everyone will see me."

She scrambled for a tunic in the chest at the foot of her bed and pulled it over her head before she realized how closely its color matched her new skin. At the wardrobe, she flung the doors open and dug out her brown leather gambeson. A tight fit. It was the piece she was most comfortable with, even with the thin pauldrons her armorer badgered her to include until she finally conceded. Uton Thopson was a feisty man who didn't understand the definition of the world 'no,' and Cynn knew when to stop fighting him. He'd come through on his promise to ensure they were light and allowed flexible movement. She pulled it over her head and made for the door, ignoring the noise drifting up from the streets below.

As she approached the door, she put her hand against it, leaning closer and ignoring the fact that the red hand with black nails pushing against the door was hers.

The shouting and yells outside her chamber were more frantic and distant now, but still close enough to convince her she didn't need to be isolated in her room. Whatever was happening outside the castle was as potentially bad as what happened inside it to her.

The thought hit her hard. What if this also happened to people around the castle and city? To the women or children too? What if they had no one to help? When she walked out of her chambers, she'd have corpsmasters to assist with poultices and ointments. What did the poor have?

What if that smoke was from homes set to fire because others have been touched?

Gong-gong. Gong-gong. Gong-gong.

That spurred her to action.

Back to her mirror, she steadied herself. What stood, reflected, was a monster. At twenty and five years, Cynn had lived a comfortable life as a baron's daughter. She'd never wanted for anything more than to be allowed to practice with weapons. For years, she'd been forced to do that in secret because her father would have never approved if it wasn't to prepare her for hunts. Her mother thought it un-lady-like, but never stopped Cynn. She had hobbies and warmth in the winter and cool from the solid castle in the summer months, like now. The water and wine she drank were clean. Her bed, comfortable. Meals were regular and satisfying.

Cynn glanced down at the vanity, where three small jars of various lotions sat. Lotions for her skin. When some people in Emeralis didn't have a single meal in a day.

If she wasn't the only one suffering this affliction, she had to do something for others who had less than her.


Cara, she realized. Cara could help.

But before her best friend could do anything for her, she had to understand what she was going through.

From as early as she could remember, she knew how to use Insight. Her mother taught her how to draw on the skill long before Cynn's memory.

One thing father approved of.

As the baron and baroness of Emeralis, Sunn Jade expelled the utility of the skill for political situations. Cynn learned early and often that Insight wasn't to be used out of spite. There was no room for it in children's games either.

Even now, Cynn remembered a time when she was eight that her mother had made her practice at a gala, held in honor of King Bailen Eversteed. The king hadn't journeyed to the barony at any point in Cynn's life up to that point, and the city was abuzz for weeks at the news of his impending arrival. Sunn had made Cynn practice Insight every single night when the baron was in meetings or overseeing preparations.

"You'll learn more this way about the nature of royalty and politics than any other," Sunn Jade had said when Cynn asked if her father would be upset about the lessons. "Plus, your father wants you to learn. It's a Jade family trait. You must become strong."

Years later, Cara had told Cynn that her Insight was magic, but that was nonsense. Magic only existed in the stories oldwives told children to frighten them away from things that could bring harm. It wasn't real. Insight was a learned ability. That was all.

Cynn had caught on quickly with Insight, thanks to those early lessons. Sunn always told her she was strong and would be an influencer in court when her time came. That proved to be true and resulted in her being betrothed to Donelly Gandy and sent to the Eastlands to wed. Cynn believed it also had something to do with being sent home to Emeralis before her new husband's corpse had cooled. The Gandy family knew how strong she was in the skill, though they called it 'magic,' and wanted no part of her being around their barony any longer than necessary.

Setting herself, Cynn faced what she'd become, closed her eyes, and drew on her focus. Clear and present, she found her calm, grasping her Insight skill and opened her eyes.

She couldn't breathe.

The beast staring back at her, the angry red skill, the thick horns, the black runes polluting its skin, mimicked her in every way.

Insight was supposed to show her someone's nature, their truthfulness, or their intent. Those skilled in Insight, like her, could see someone's true appearance if they disguised themselves like one of the street artisans. As true as every time she focused on the skill, Cynn saw her true self once again. Her smooth, pale skin. Her long, flowing dark hair. The hints of dimples.

She lifted a red hand. In the mirror, that hand was small and delicate, hiding callouses that came because of her secret weapons training and the stable work her father disapproved of.

She touched her face. Her privileged skin felt as smooth as it had when she washed it last night.

The first traces of smoke drifted into her chamber from outside, and her narrow nose fluttered as she inhaled.

Cynn leaned closer. The mirror image's hazel eyes stared back, replacing the black orbs that filled the monster's eyes.

When she raised her hands to brush a horn, the mirror's image tussled dark locks of groomed hair.

As comforting as it should have been to examine her true form, to know it was there underneath the layer of deceit of this bestial form, it did little to balance the disturbance she felt at what surrounded her mirror image.

A purple hue outlined Cynn's reflection. The woman in the mirror was her true self. True, but tainted.

"It… can't… be." Cynn growled, so bothered by what she saw that her feral voice went unrecognized.

She'd seen the purple hue around a soldier once. Her father had called a tourney to help strengthen bonds among vassals after a tumultuous period. Though many of his advisors warned him against the tourney, not only because of the cost, but because of the ill-feelings many still held for him, her father denied their advice and carried on. On the second day, a knight from Daly Mires, near the Red Water, made for the stands during a round royal fight. Because the fight involving twenty knights was still in mid-stride, few saw the knight approach. Cynn had, and used Insight to calm her nerves, only to discover his intent was to assassinate the baron. The man was even willing to die. She'd sounded the warning, and the guard had killed the knight on the spot.

He'd had the same purple hue her mirror reflection showed now.

During the investigation, she'd testified to what she saw surrounding the knight. Her father's scholar was called, and took Cynn's testimony last. Though she may have been an afterthought until that point, the scholar took great interest in what she had to say, and returned the next day to inform her father that the knight was indeed cursed by magic.


The purple hue shrouding her mirrored image explained her new form.

But magic wasn't real. Children's stories. Fables passed in taverns by drunkards to keep entertained through long winter nights.

Yet her Insight told her how wrong she was.

Cynn cut off her focus to Insight, and the beast replaced the daughter of the baroness.

Taking a deep breath, she touched her focus again, drawing on Insight as easily as taking a

breath, and opened her eyes with a new aim. To see the true nature of the curse.

This was harder. With the knight, she'd never gotten the chance because she didn't understand what she was seeing with him. Since that time, she'd never come across another cursed person.

Not until now.

Cynn Jade, the human daughter of Baron Alger Jade, stared back, surrounded in purple, examining the red demon as she was examined herself.

In the purple, Cynn felt something. This was more than a curse. As inconceivable as those were, this was something more. Something worse.

In a flash, her Insight exploded beyond her focus. It pushed deep into the purple hue, breaking down the band of color into particulates. At that level, small orbs floated and swayed without rhythm, as if driven by madness. Chaos incarnate.

Pushing her focus deeper, Cynn separated the small orbs, singling three out. Deeper in, she examined them side-by-side. Each orb, fuzzy like frayed wool, wasn't empty. Inside each, as they bounced as if trying to avoid her analysis, she noted a swirling black mass, like a long tail of a fox. It dipped and whipped in circular arcs, striking the boundaries of the orb before rebounding in a new direction and repeating the cycle four times for each breath she took.

Gong-gong. Gong-gong. Gong-gong.

Her Insight surged. She pulled on her focus, trying to rein it in, but her grip slipped and her Insight plunged into one orb toward the swirling black tail.

A roar filled Cynn's ears, and she cried out. Her Insight burst apart and the chamber came back into her awareness as she stumbled away from the mirror.

Catching herself on her bed, it disheartened Cynn to see a red hand gripping the blanket. Insight taught her she'd been cursed. Nothing more. Not who had sent the curse or why.

A hex, its reasons unknown. To her. The scholars would know.

"I need to get to them." She pushed off the bed.

Without another thought, she lumbered toward the door, ignoring any apprehension she felt at stepping out of the safety of her room in this form. She couldn't hide in here until the curse abated. Who knew if it would? The scholars held the answers to her dilemma, and she intended to get to them before things got worse.

2 – A Stranger Comes

Everything was worse the moment she threw open the door

"The baron is dead!" came the call from the stairwell.

Cynn stumbled back, clutching for purchase on the wall. Father? Dead? No!

"Baroness too!" a voice, this one haggard, answered. "Check on Cynn. Get her to the inner solar."

Breath. Caught. Cynn put a hand, a beast's hand, to her chest. Mother? Gods, no!

"Not the grand hall?"

The haggard voice said, "Not secure enough. Those beasts will find her. Got to hide her. Keep three men with her and, gods dammit it, man, don't let her outta yer sight."

"Yes, sir!" Pounding footsteps followed the proclamation, drawing closer with each step.

What beasts were the soldiers talking about? Would they see her as one as well? More like her? If so, would they give her time to explain who she was before they ran her through with a blade?

Cara! She had to get to Cara, now more than ever.

Cynn held the sobs she wanted to release for her mother and father, and turned away, fleeing in the opposite direction. The path would be a longer route to her friend's small chambers, but it would hopefully be free of soldiers pumping with adrenaline.

Cynn made it to the stairs, stopping halfway down and listening for any sign of trouble. Between floors and away from the windows, she couldn't hear anything of what was happening outside the castle. At least, that temporarily spared her the torture of the clanging bells announcing the death of her parents to the city. The noise from her floor was harrowed but muted. She heard nothing from this floor, not even hurried footsteps.

Cynn crept down the stairs, ready to leap away as the shouts from the floor above reached her. The soldier sent to scurry her away to safety was at her door, pounding on it by the sounds of it.

Soon, he'd grow tired of waiting for her to answer and would either send for a lady to pry, or he'd do so himself. Recalling the fires outside the walls and the fact that her parents were dead, Cynn doubted the man would let much time pass.

Mother. Father. Dead.

She couldn't think about that. Not if she didn't want to become the third Jade to die this day. Accidental or not, it didn't matter. She knew what any soldier would see in her.

Cynn pulled up at a distant clicking. Maybe a cane. Could be a lazy soldier tapping the butt end of a haft on the stone. Possibly someone's hard-soled shoes? The clicking neither drew closer nor did it drift away. It was as if someone walked the hall side to side.

"Open, please, my lady!" the soldier shouted into her chamber on the floor above. A moment passed, and he pounded on the door, repeating his plea.

The clicking sound stopped, as if whoever was pacing below was interested in the happenings above.

"Lady, please!" the soldier called into the room he didn't realize was empty. This time, the pounding that followed sounded sharper.

When her chamber was breached, the soldier would raise the alarm. She was almost out of time.

Cynn squatted and tipped to the side, her head angled dangerously, almost throwing her off-balance.

When a booted foot and gaiter slid into her view, she pulled back. Her back against the wall, one foot on a step above the other, she ran through her options. Above, her chamber door was being rammed like a city gate.

She took a tentative step down. Bending, she checked to see if the soldier clued in on her presence.

Click. Click. Click.

She lifted her other foot, ready to make her presence known.

The castle shook, and Cynn nearly fell as something crashed into the stone wall. Something large enough to agitate incalculable tons of stone.

The click-click soldier scurried into the distance.

Holding onto the rough stone, Cynn slunk down the steps.

The next floor was empty. Grabbing the banister, she whipped around the landing, moving lower.

Halfway down, she stumbled when the wall nearest her shuddered. Too far away from those above to hear the man attempting to break into her chamber or the ladies scrambling to preserve the sanctity of the Jade line, Cynn pressed to the next floor. Cara's floor.

The way was clear, but that didn't mean she'd race forward recklessly. Cara's room was still halfway down the hall. She'd have to pass four other chambers before she reached her friend. The castle had been her one and only home until she was whisked away to the Eastlands and the Gandy family's barony of Astria. Every nook, each secret passage, in the castle was familiar. She knew the gossips housed in those rooms.

Cynn slunk forward, feeling the power in her thighs as she did. She flexed her arm and felt the strange muscle contract.

Two doors away, the deep boom of violence sounded again. This time, so far from the wall, the shudder under her feet was subtle. Still frightening. Never in her life had the barony fallen under attack. Cynn never believed it would happen.

The knowledge that there was a force outside battering the castle, setting the city to fire, made strategizing difficult. What was she going to say to Cara to convey her true identity? Her upbringing had conditioned her to prepare for many circumstances, but never this. Cara was more superstitious. Maybe Cynn could leverage that? Maybe she wouldn't get time.

Outside Cara's door, Cynn knocked once. Even trying to contain herself, these new hands wrapped loudly. Cynn held her breath, listening for the sounds of the curious. She only breathed again when the hall remained silent.

From the stairwell, an uproar of voices told her that her room had indeed been breached. Soon, too soon, servants, ladies, and soldiers would start a wider search.

Cynn didn't dare call out to Cara, not trusting her new, foreign voice. Pushing the lever, Cynn leaned into the door, throwing it open. She snagged the door before it slammed into the wall. Her long fingernails scratched the stile, carving four troughs into the veneer.

The woman across the room, only half-dressed, held a tunic up to her bare chest and shrieked.

Cynn winced, which only seemed to frighten Cara more, and slammed the door behind her. "Cara, it's me. Cynn."

Cara Biggs was of modest height and build. Her nose was her most prominent feature, yet Cynn and many of the men around the yard considered Cara to be stunningly beautiful. Cara's small hands, the color of bronze, clutched at the tunic, pressing it to her chest as she inched backward.

Cynn held her hands up. "Please. It's me."

"Wh—what? Who?"

She stepped closer, and Cara lifted another shriek. By the fortune of the gods, another boom sounded. The floor vibrated again. The roar likely covered the sound of Cara's terror.

How many more times can I get lucky?

Cynn growled. The entire caste staff would descend on the room the next time Cara did that. "Stop it, Cara Biggs."

Using her full name seemed to get the smaller woman's attention. She ceased backing away. But it was fleeting. Cara blinked, almost looking like she was going to shake her head.

"Stay. Stay back." Cara swiveled, pulling a candle holder off the table at her side and raising it like a mace. The candle wobbled and toppled at her feet. She stepped over it, moving away.

"It's me," Cynn said. She turned as Cara moved along the wall, but didn't dare take another step closer to her best friend. "I don't know what happened. I. I." She looked down at her spread hands. Her red hands. "When the bells tolled, I woke to… to this. Cara, please. It's me. I need your help."

But the plea came in a demon's voice. Each word, delivered with the subtle rumble of her new nature, only seemed to alarm Cara more. The candle holder shook as she held it aloft. Her dark eyes, usually soft and enticing, flared with fear.

"I mean it," Cara said, sounding more sure that she might create problems.

"Stop," Cynn said, holding up a hand before slapping the blight to her side. "I can't explain what happened. This is a hex. I've been cursed. The castle is under attack. If the soldiers find me, they'll think I'm involved. We've got to get help. Someone we can trust. Can you help me do that?"

Though Cara's movements were subtle, though her eyes locked on Cynn, sharing her obvious trepidation, she still shifted toward the door.

Cynn side-stepped. "No. Listen—"

But she didn't get a chance. Cara cried out, flung the candle holder, striking Cynn on the cheek.

Cynn's head rocked. Her skin radiated. She could already feel arm blood oozing from the new cut. Her vision was blurry, but she saw clearly enough to know the form racing along the wall aimed for the door.

"Cara! Please!"

The clang of the ring handle striking its plate told Cynn that her friend was already at the door and pulling it open.

"I need help. Please!" Even that sounded like a roar.

Cara yelped and disappeared into the hall.

Cynn chased. This was her loyal friend, her one ally. The only person in the entire castle she'd spilled her deepest secrets to. Without Cara, how was she going to survive the day? She had to make Cara see.

Cynn lunged into the hall, a guttural sound bursting from her chest.

Cara was already nearing the end. Turning right would take her to the kitchens. Left, toward the soldiers' armory and barracks.

Her tunic still clutched to her chest, her bare shoulder blades protruding as she fled, Cara turned left.

"No!" Cynn groaned. In moments, the clanging of armor would signal whatever forces Cara could spur into action. The time to linger had evaporated, along with her hopes.

Where now? Who now?

Cynn looked helplessly at the mouth of the hall. She couldn't just wait for a contingent of soldiers to appear. They'd surely slaughter her where she stood long before she could get the first word of explanation out.

Cynn spun, racing back the way she'd come.

Going up a floor wasn't an option. Passing her floor, going higher into the tower wasn't wise. Each floor would reduce her escape options.

The thought hit her as she took the first flight of stairs. She was the only surviving Jade now. With her parents dead, the rule of the barony fell to her. Emeralis wasn't like the backwater places in the Eastlands. Here, a woman could rule, and so she would once word reached King Eversteed. The scramble to ensure her safety would only intensify.

Not like this, I won't, Cynn realized. A demon cannot become a baroness.

She was about to take the turn on the landing to descend to the next floor when she stopped. Someone was above her. Following.

Could it be Cara coming to her senses? Or was she showing a squad of armed men where she'd last seen 'the demon?'

She wouldn't be able to fight armed soldiers, and she didn't trust herself enough to outrun them, either. Still, she had to believe her friend wouldn't abandon her.

Cynn crept up a step, then another when she trusted her heavier feet to not give away her position. The smell of smoke filtered down the stairwell. Not heavy, not yet, but prominent. She couldn't swallow. Couldn't think straight. She only had to continue moving.

Mother. Father. Gone. Both of them are dead, and I'm alone. A weight pressed on her chest and she nearly collapsed against the wall. To do that would be to give in to whoever lurked above.

Another step higher and Cynn was convinced someone else was slinking down in her direction. As that realization came, the mystery dissolved.

A young man, thin of face and body, raced down, taking two steps at a time. He halted, his large eyes going wide at meeting hers.

Cynn had seen him around the castle often. The son of Jurel, a dependable carpenter who'd served the barony for years. Iden, Cynn remembered. His name was Iden.

He blinked and opened his mouth.

To sound a warning?

Cynn didn't know and refused to wait to discover. She turned and jumped to the next landing. Her feet struck, making a thunderous racket.

Down, down she plunged.

The servant. The soldier. Cara. Iden. How many more chances could she take before the next one was her last?

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