No one is more disappointed than me at the slow progress I’ve been making on Running From Illumia, book two in the Illumia series.
But the good news is I’m making progress, and I’m excited for how it’s shaping up. I’m working super hard on getting book 2 out, but until then, I thought you all might enjoy a preview–a first look at the drama unfolding.
Please be aware that this is not a finalized copy, and additional changes may be made before the book goes to publish.
Thanks again for your support, and if you need something else to read while you wait, I suggest checking out Shifter Academy. The first trilogy is out, and a prequel novel is getting ready to release. Plus, there’s so much more in the works, and with five of us writing in the world, you’ll be getting a new book every six weeks or so!
Running From Illumia
Astrea had barely spent one day in the castle, and already she was trying to steal out of there like a thief. She hated that it was like this, but she had to answer her father’s note. And if his words were to be believed, she was in danger. She had to find out what he meant.
She had to meet him.
For so many years, she’d thought her father was the man she’d grown up with, the big man with red hair and beard who’d taught her to sharpen a knife and told her stories about Zippy the Zuzzletub. She’d only known better for about a week, but the questions that came with that knowledge had plagued her through the Mist.
What was he like? Were any of the stories she’d heard about him true? And if so, what kind of a man was he?
Her excitement was tempered by the knowledge of what he’d done to produce her–an act she was neither willing to forgive nor forget. Still, she wanted to meet him, to see for herself what he was made of–and if she’d inherited any of it.
She tugged at the sleeves of her white robe, trying to get the itchy silver trim away from her skin. Being a part of the Illumian Council, she had to put away her leathers for the current monstrosity. It made sneaking around the castle more conspicuous, and she idly wondered if they designed the garment as a means of self-mutilation.
She turned a corner and gasped, her heart threatening to gallop out of her throat. She’d become distracted. So much for the mighty huntress she’d thought herself to be. She tucked her hand behind her, hoping Xia wouldn’t ask about the note.
“Oh, up already?” Xia purred. Her head tilted to the side, exposing the red dragon scales that trailed up her tiny neck. The tips of black wings shimmered from behind her back–a shocking sight made possible by the absence of her cape. The dragonfae looked far too awake for this time of morning.
“Just feeling a bit restless,” Astrea answered, swallowing down her nerves and forcing a smile. “It’s not time for my training yet, is it?”
“As Mouthpiece, you’re never truly free of responsibility,” Xia said, her eyes narrowed. “But, seeing how it’s your first day, we can wait until after breakfast to begin.”
“Thank you.” Astrea cleared her throat, Gander and Windmane’s warnings about the small woman ringing in her head. “Well, I’ll just be going, then.” Astrea took a step, but Xia stopped her, long golden nails pressing into Astrea’s arm.
“I’m sorry. We got off on the wrong foot, but you can understand my position. It’s been a long time since anyone’s seen a moon elf, and I’d gotten quite comfortable taking over duties as Mouthpiece.”
Astrea’s ears burned, and she ducked her head. “I’m sorry. If it weren’t for this promise I’d made–”
Xia held her hand up, palm out. “Just . . . keep an ear out. You are their voice now, and if you’re not Hearing, no one is.”
“Right.” Astrea nodded, and Xia let go of her arm. Lesson one, I guess.
Astrea hurried away, carefully bringing the note in front of her body. She gave one last backwards glance at the woman half her size yet more frightening than a lynx. It was strange, seeing Xia so calm, so helpful. Just yesterday the dragonfae had thrown her in the Solune, where the sun and moon magic had nearly torn Astrea apart. But the Illumian Council had decided to let Xia stay on to mentor Astrea in her new role. She hoped they knew what they were doing.
After a few more twists and turns through the castle halls, Astrea found the exit. She nodded to the soldiers standing guard, grateful when they didn’t stop or question her.
She aimed toward the edge of the city, weaving through the empty streets. A few vendors milled about, setting up shop, paying no heed to the girl in council robes creeping past them. The smell of spices she had no names for were muted by the crisp scent of the morning dew. Birds chirped a merry tune–a far different sound than the buzz of the throngs that would fill the walkways in just a few hours.
As her nerves began to relax, her mind turned to the Mythics. Xia had admonished her to Listen, but Astrea loathed the idea of submitting herself to the cacophony. She’d only experienced it twice, and the first time hardly counted, as out of it as she was. But her head ached even thinking about opening herself to their voices. Well, if lessons could wait until after breakfast, then so could her duties.
The walls of the perimeter loomed in front of her. She’d been so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t realize she’d come so far already.
It didn’t take long to spot Windmane’s pure white hide and long silver horn among the more earthy colors of the city limits and surrounding countryside. He looked even more magnificent on this side of the Mist, though the pink marks marring his sides served to remind her of the trials they’d faced to be here.
“Windmane!” Astrea said, careful not to shout too loudly. She sprinted toward him, hiking her skirt to her knees as she silently cursed Illumians and their fashions.
Windmane dipped his head, pulling his mouth into a toothy grin. Astrea stood on tiptoes and threw her arms around his neck.
“Miss me already?” Windmane asked, the usual tease in his Mythic voice.
Astrea laughed. “It’s barely been twenty-four hours.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Windmane rubbed his soft muzzle against Astrea’s cheek.
She sighed, then backed a couple of paces, glancing around. “Where is he?”
“Hop on and I’ll take you to him.”
Astrea blinked. This wasn’t what she’d expected. The note hadn’t specified, but she’d assumed he’d be here, not . . . elsewhere. “Why doesn’t he come meet me, himself?” She had duties to attend to–duties that ensured her family was fed. Surely, Solar knew that.
“It’s not safe for him in Illumia right now.”
Astrea raised a brow. “Is that why he snuck through the castle to get me that doll?”
Windmane’s head swayed back and forth. “He sent someone in his stead.”
Astrea grimaced. “I don’t suppose he just asked them to help.”
“Does it matter?”
“You say that like it’s no big deal–stripping someone of their free will.” She’d only done it once, and it left her feeling like she hadn’t bathed in a week.
“It was temporary.”
“And that makes it okay?”
Windmane shifted his stance, letting out a lip-flapping sigh. “We can talk about this on the way.”
Astrea shook her head, suddenly aware of something she’d known since she got that letter. “I can’t.”
Because he has answers, and I might not like them, Astrea thought. After everything that had happened, everything she’d been through, she wasn’t ready for more. She needed time to process, time to explore her new surroundings.
No, she wasn’t ready to face the man whose blood ran through her veins. Maybe she’d never be. “I’m not– I just can’t.” She squared her shoulders, meeting Windmane’s thoughtful gaze.
The unicorn looked around, then leaned toward Astrea. “And you’re not worried about . . . the dangers you’ll face.”
Astrea raised a brow. “You know I’m the only one who can hear you, right?”
Windmane sighed. “You’re not taking this seriously.”
“I’m in Illumia! I’m living in a castle. With guards. What’s there to be afraid of?” The only danger she saw came directly from her father, in the form of his powers, which he seemed to have no qualms in wielding. “Besides, I proved myself–or at least broke the Solune. I have duties to attend to.”
“What about Xia?”
Astrea folded her arms. “What about her?”
“She’s dangerous. Gander and I warned you of her.”
“I don’t think the Illumians would keep her around if she were that dangerous.” And as far as she knew, Xia was the only person capable of teaching Astrea how to be Mouthpiece. Astrea would give the dragonfae the benefit of the doubt.
Windmane whinnied. “You’ve heard of a troll in sheep’s clothing, right?”
Astrea rolled her eyes. “Maybe the woman just needs a friend.”
“And maybe I just need to be castrated.” Windmane stamped a hoof. “Look, she’s not on your side.”
Astrea flung her arms in the air. “I don’t need you or some wannabe dad telling me what to do. I can take care of myself!”
Windmane’s gaze softened. “I’ve no doubt.”
Astrea’s mouth closed, surprise cutting off her retort. She sniffed, then gave a small nod. “Thank you.”
“You know I’m not the enemy, right?” Windmane nuzzled into her neck, his warm breath leaving her skin tingling.
Astrea’s mouth tightened into a sad smile. “I know . . . I should go. Duties and all.” And if she didn’t leave now, there was a good chance she’d ride off with the unicorn. Windmane had become such a source of comfort during their time in the Mist, she almost felt like she’d known him her whole life, rather than just over a week. And she had missed him fiercely in the short time they’d been separated. She was half-tempted to invite Windmane back to the castle, but dismissed the idea. The Illumians had already dismissed him once.
Windmane nodded, taking a step back. “Very well. If you need help, just give me a call.” He turned and began to saunter off.
“How will I find you?” Astrea wasn’t planning on asking for help, but she felt ill-prepared to say goodbye.
“You’re a moon elf,” Windmane said over his shoulder, not bothering to stop.
“Right,” Astrea muttered. She watched as Windmane left, wondering when she’d see him again. If there was one friend she would hate to lose, it was him.
And he was trotting away like he didn’t even care.
Astea turned and walked back to the castle, willing each step to distance herself from what she was feeling. About halfway back she again remembered Xia’s words, and having nothing else to preoccupy her, she focused on Hearing the voices of the Mythics. They chattered away, filling her head with more words, thoughts, and ideas than she could possibly sort through.
At least she no longer felt alone.
Astrea briskly walked through the castle corridors, looking for Xia’s room. She’d lost track of time as she listened to the Mythics, meaning she was now late–at least, she assumed so. Breakfast had already concluded, and she hadn’t had a bite.
At least her hunger was a familiar thing, unlike the many halls and stairways that had her completely turned around. It didn’t help that her head pounded an angry beat that nearly drowned out the voices of the Mythics that still streamed through it. She tried to swallow her nausea, but the feeling wouldn’t leave.
Frustrated, she cut off the voices, sagging against the wall with a sigh. Her head and stomach continued to rebel, but at least the symptoms weren’t being prodded by the Mythic’s constant onslaught. She had to be doing something wrong for the voices to be affecting her this horribly. Hopefully Xia would be able to help her correct whatever she was doing.
If she could find the woman.
Astrea pushed off the wall to continue her search. But as she rounded yet another corner, she nearly collided with the dragonfae. Again.
Xia’s eyes widened. “There you are! I was beginning to worry you’d run off.”
Astrea’s eyes fluttered closed, and she pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to stem the throbbing in her head. “No. Not running off. Just lost,” she mumbled. Not that the idea hadn’t crossed her mind. “We’ve got to stop running into each other like this.”
Xia gave her a knowing smile. “Come. You look miserable. Let’s get you some food.” She placed her hand on the small of Astrea’s back, guiding her through the halls. “So, where have you been?”
Astrea groaned. “I . . .” I what? Could she tell Xia the truth? Astrea decided to leave out the part about trying to visit her father. She knew so little about both Xia and Solar, it probably wouldn’t do to bring him up. Besides, she hadn’t even seen the man, only Windmane–who she also didn’t feel was a safe topic for conversation. “I went for a walk to clear my head. And I started practicing listening to the Mythics, like you said, but I got a horrible headache in the process, and then got turned around in this castle.”
Xia led Astrea into the dining hall and sat her at a table, sliding into a chair next to her. “A headache?” she asked, her brows creasing with concern.
Astrea nodded as gently as she could manage. “Is it possible I’m doing something wrong? I’m not sure how else I could go about listening to the Mythics.”
Xia sighed. “To be honest, I’m not sure that there is a wrong way of listening to the Mythics. Perhaps that problem will go away with time and regular use of your skills.”
“So I continue to practice?” Astrea asked, her stomach doing a somersault. She wanted to be a good Mouthpiece, but she didn’t fancy the idea of torturing herself to do so.
Xia smiled. “Yes. But for now, let’s get you something to eat. I didn’t see you at breakfast, so I assume you didn’t get any.”
“Mmmm.” Astrea rested her head on the wooden table, the cool surface smoothed by years of use. It felt good. And with her arms around her head, she could block out most of the light filtering through the windows, which seemed to multiply the hoofbeats pounding through her temples.
Xia snapped her fingers, and one of the servants hurried over, their feet scuffling against the stone floors. “The Mouthpiece requires food,” Xia commanded.
Astrea tried to lift her head. “You can call me Astrea,” she managed to whisper, but the receding footsteps told her the servant was already out of hearing range.
Xia put her warm hand over Astrea’s, the red scales on the back peeking out from under her long sleeve. “You’re a figurehead now, dear girl, and should be treated as such.”
Astrea gave an amused huff, but otherwise didn’t respond. She wanted to be treated like a normal person, not some untouchable figurehead. But she didn’t make the rules. Perhaps this was lesson number two. Maybe she’d ask later, when her head didn’t hurt so much.
Xia tugged on the chain around her neck, a bottle slipping out from between her breasts. Astrea hadn’t even noticed it before, the necklace well hidden beneath the flare of lace on the hem.
“If you’d like to get rid of that headache, I have something that could help,” Xia said, holding up the bottle and shaking it so the contents winked and chimed.
Astrea eyed it, but she recognized that black-and-red dust. She wanted no part of it.
But looking up at Xia’s expectant face, she had to wonder if the dragonfae knew she’d already tried some. Gander worked for the woman, and she still didn’t know Gander all that well. Who knew what he’d told her about their travels.
But she didn’t see anything in Xia’s eyes but concern.
“Thanks, but no. I’ll be fine in a bit,” Astrea said, hoping her words proved to be true.
Xia frowned, but nodded, putting the vial back. “If you ever change your mind, let me know.”
Astrea doubted that day would come. As desperately as she wanted to get rid of the headache, the feeling of being so out of control still haunted her. It made her sick, thinking about the blank looks on Gander and Windmane’s faces as they came under her compulsion. No. She wouldn’t do that again. She’d have to find another way to get rid of the headache.
Xia sat up straighter. “I wish I could just send you to bed to ride out your headache, but you’ve got a lot to learn. Do you think you can manage?”
Astrea groaned, but nodded. She sat up, hoping to prove her capability, though every inch of her creaked in protest. Forcing a smile to her lips, she met Xia’s gaze.
Xia gave a sympathetic smile. “Perhaps the best place to start is by telling me what you Heard.”
Astrea’s fake smile withered. “Nothing, really. There were too many voices.” She looked down at her hands. “I don’t know how you do it.”
Xia laughed, a ringing sound that seemed to tinkle. The sound reminded Astrea vaguely of she’d met in the Mist. “I don’t.”
“You don’t?” Astrea asked, her eyes widening.
One corner of Xia’s mouth lifted. “I’m not a moon elf.”
Not like Astrea could forget that. She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling like she was missing some important detail. “But you serve as Mouthpiece.”
“I have magic on my side. I’m able to tap into the most important voices when needed, but I can’t sustain it. Not like you can.” Xia’s nails lightly tapped the table, her face pinched.
Astrea picked up her head as the servant came back, carrying a cup of water, a bowl of soup, and a plate with a fresh loaf of bread. The woman scurried away before Astrea could say thanks. Her mouth watered as the savory aromas wafted her way, though her stomach threatened to rebel again. “And how do you know so much about what the moon elves can do?” she asked, trying to distract herself.
Xia smiled. “I’m a Mythic, dear girl. I think I understand that relationship rather well. But, I’ve also had help–from a moon elf, himself. Solar. Your father, if I’m not mistaken.” She looked at Astrea, those dark brown eyes piercing.
“How did you–?”
“Your necklace. It was his. A rather unique piece.” Xia gently tugged at the chain around Astrea’s neck, pulling the necklace from beneath the thick cloth of her robe. Letting the pendant rest in her palm, Xia stared at it, her eyes taking on a distant glaze.
Astrea kept a steady eye on Xia, trying to discern what was going on in her head. It occurred to Astrea that she might be able to Hear it, if she opened herself to the Mythic voices, but her stomach wasn’t ready for such a trial, and her mind balked at such an invasion. It was one thing listening to the voices of faceless Mythics, but quite another trying to read the mind of one right in front of her.
Astrea bit her bottom lip. “I only recently learned he was my father. Could you tell me what he was like?”
“Only that he was both charming and a worm. We worked quite closely, he and I.” A smile curled Xia’s lips, the faraway look still in her eyes.
“Were you two . . . ?” Astrea’s brows rose. From what Gander had told her, Solar was trying to get Xia pregnant, and she couldn’t help the morbid curiosity that overcame her.
Xia shook her head. “No. There may have been something there, once, but we were from two different worlds, and I’m afraid his intentions with me were not as honorable as I would’ve liked to believe. No one has seen him since the moon elves disappeared, though.”
“I’ve heard of that. Any idea why they’ve all disappeared?”
Xia shrugged, glancing at Astrea’s untouched food. Astrea got the hint and picked up her bowl, taking a tentative sip. The warmth brought a little comfort, and she hoped the soup might help ease the headache clouding her mind.
“It’s the big mystery of Illumia. They started disappearing years ago. I’m sure some ran off to escape whatever was plaguing them, but no one knows where they went or why they started disappearing in the first place. Now they’re all gone.” Xia blinked slowly. “Well, all except you, that is.”
Astrea winced as the pounding in her head flared. Her mind reeled, a foreboding feeling seeping in. No, she wasn’t the only moon elf left, but her father hardly counted, being that he was in hiding, too.
Astrea picked up her spoon and dipped it into the thick broth, pulling up chunks of bright vegetables. Blowing on the spoonful, she lifted it to her mouth, letting the meaty flavor wash over her tongue, followed by the sweet flavors of the vegetables as she crushed them between her teeth. Fortunately, her stomach held, and the additional warmth and nourishment seemed to ease her head a little more.
“But enough about impossible mysteries and unavailable men.”
Astrea swallowed, a lump of soft potato sticking in her throat. She grabbed the cup of water as she began to cough, beating on her chest with her free hand. She gingerly took sips of water as the tickle in her throat began to die down. Unavailable men? Was it just her imagination, or did Xia seem to know about Gander’s time with Astrea?
Xia chuckled. “Remember to chew before you swallow, child. We wouldn’t the last moon elf dying on us, now would we?”
Astrea beat her chest a couple more times, and cleared her throat. “That would be bad,” she croaked out.
Xia wore a thoughtful look, her gaze raking over Astrea, examining her, picking apart her every feature. “Would you like to take a tour of the castle, or . . . ?”
Astrea squirmed in her seat. “Or what?” she mumbled around another bite, her fist in front of her mouth.
Xia’s mouth turned down into a disapproving pout. “Yes, I think we should start with Illumian etiquette.”
“Oh.” Astrea stared at her bowl, watching as bits of carrots and potatoes rolled off her spoon and sank out of sight beneath the murky broth. She felt so out of place here, especially under Xia’s scrutiny. She wanted to disappear, to melt into the background like the potatoes melted into the soup.
“Oh, come. It’ll be fun. We’ll fix your hair and set your style. You’re the Mouthpiece now, child. You’ll need to embody that roll in every aspect of your life.”
Astrea bristled at the term “child,” but she forced a smile to her face. Xia was just trying to help.
A troll in sheep’s clothing. Windmane’s words echoed in her head. Astrea couldn’t detect anything but sincerity from the woman. But Xia had been the one to throw Astrea in the Solune–without consulting the Council first. Astrea stared at her food a moment, gulping down her latest bite.
Xia leaned forward conspiratorially. “What seems to be the matter?”
Astrea turned to face Xia, peering at her. “I’m just . . . I feel awful for taking your job.”
Xia waved a dismissive hand at Astrea. “It would’ve happened sooner or later, I’m sure. If not you, then the Council would’ve dismantled the position or replaced me with a human. I’ve been a woman on the run for a long time, now.”
Astrea began to shovel down the rest of her food, which was beginning to cool. She couldn’t find the words to express herself without bringing the possible wrath of the dragonfae down on her. She wanted to believe the best of Xia, wanted to believe that being a fellow half-blood would bring a kinship she’d never quite experienced before. But the warnings of Windmane and Gander stripped away those hopes, leaving Astrea full of doubt.
Xia must have sensed Astrea’s hesitation. “You know, my mother and I were kicked out, way back when I was a child. The dragons all shunned her when they saw the abomination she produced. A half-blood. Part fairy, no less. It was a violent exit. My uncle wanted me killed. He and my mother fought tooth and nail.”
“I’m so sorry,” Astrea said, feeling genuine regret. She didn’t want to pry, but Xia continued anyway, and it felt as if layers were being stripped from between them, leaving Xia raw and open. Astrea doubted she could be so brave with a complete stranger, and she felt a sort of admiration for Xia grow.
Xia shrugged. “Arxo said that I shouldn’t be allowed to live, but my mother, she loved me, regardless of who or what I was.”
Astrea’s mouth hung open, her soup and bread forgotten. Arxo. The dragon that had made her swear to take the position of Mouthpiece, binding it with a magical Oath that nearly killed her? Sure, he had promised to feed her family in return, but only after Astrea had pushed for it. What kind of a family feud had she gotten into the middle of?
The dragonfae smiled as she continued, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “The cave my mother and I found was cold, isolated. It eventually became the death of her. I often wonder what life would’ve been like if I wasn’t rejected for my differences. I wonder what Illumia would look like if humans weren’t so bent on dominating everything and everyone they don’t consider their own.”
Astrea reached over and squeezed Xia’s small hand.“Maybe you and I can make such a world a reality.”
Xia’s mouth turned up at one side. “Maybe so.” She stood, her red scaly tail slipping out from under her skirt for just a moment before the yards of fabric settled back over it. “But it won’t happen in the dining hall. If you’re finished?”
Astrea grimaced and pushed her bowl away. Of course. She had already wasted so much time, chasing after absentee fathers and wallowing in the difficulties of her new position. She stood, smiling despite the dull ache that still throbbed in her temples.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
Xia nodded and led the way–to where Astrea wasn’t sure, but she found herself trusting the dragonfae, despite the warnings. Xia inspired a sense of importance in her, and Astrea wanted to make the woman proud. Astrea may have been in a position she’d never wanted, in a place she’d never dreamed she’d go, but she was here now, and she was determined to prove that she belonged.
If you haven’t read book 1, now is a great time to get started.