SOMETIMES YOU CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES. AND SOMETIMES, THEY CHOOSE YOU...
Once, Max dreamed of a career, a home, a loving family. Now all she wants is freedom...and revenge. A witch named Giselle transformed Max into a warrior with extraordinary strength, speed, and endurance. Bound by spellcraft, Max has no choice but to fight as Giselle's personal magic weapon -- a Shadowblade -- and she's lethally good at it. But her skills are about to be put to the test as they never have before....
The ancient Guardians of the earth are preparing to unleash widespread destruction on the mortal world, and they want the witches to help them. If the witches refuse, their covens will be destroyed, including Horngate, the place Max has grudgingly come to think of as home. Max thinks she can find a way to help Horngate stand against the Guardians, but doing so will mean forging dangerous alliances -- including one with a rival witch's Shadowblade, who is as drawn to Max as she is to him -- and standing with the witch she despises. Max will have to choose between the old life she still dreams of and the warrior she has become, and take her place on the side of right -- if she survives long enough to figure out which side that is....
Francis (Path of Fate) begins her high-energy, gritty new Horngate Witches series by introducing Max, a magical warrior forced to serve her ex-roommate, "witch-bitch" Giselle. When the ancient Guardians of Earth decide to destroy the mortal world and recover its magic, Max discovers that she has been prophesied to save both her coven home and all humanity, and she must put aside her anger at her servitude to soothe coven rivalries and lead her fellow Shadowblades against powers much bigger than themselves. Emotions run mercurial, flashy and unsubtle throughout, and Max's near-invulnerability, self-healing and possession of an unrestricted wishstone make her more of a superhero than a woman dealing with real internal conflicts. The tough, feel-good, grand-scale supernatural fights, however, will keep action fans coming back for book after book. (Nov.)
Showing 1-1 of the 1 most recent reviews
1 . One to read
Posted June 10, 2010 by A. Klein , Salem, ALI have re-read this book many times. Has interesting characters, great story and can't wait for the next book in this series.
October 25, 2009
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Bitter Night by Diana P Francis
Max's phone rang. It was set to a high-pitched tone that most humans couldn't hear. But being human hadn't been Max's problem since 1979. She eyed the cell, then reluctantly picked it up out of the console. The caller ID said it was Giselle. Instantly Max's body seized tight. All the Zen detachment she'd scraped together on the long drive from the covenstead in Montana shattered apart as craptastic reality returned in a shitflood.
She drew a deep breath. Her lungs felt like rocks. She exhaled slowly before flipping open her phone. "Yeah?"
"Where are you?"
Max grimaced. Just the sound of the witch's voice ignited familiar hate in her gut. It was like a bottomless volcano. She swallowed the heat down, tasting its bitterness with determined satisfaction. She banked it like a campfire. It belonged to her -- the only thing that did, and the witch-bitch could never take it away. "Coming into Barstow. Why?"
"I want you to go check out a nasty little murder near Julian. It tastes of both the Uncanny and the Divine."
"Don't you think that's a little stupid? You can't just go fucking around in another witch's territory. It could mean war if I get caught. Are you ready for that?"
Giselle didn't hesitate. "It's a risk I have to take. Thevision was -- "
She broke off and Max wondered what it was she'd stopped herself from saying.
"It was too powerful to ignore," Giselle continued. "I have to know what's going on there. Just look around and get out." She gave a pained sigh. "And, Max, I shouldn't have to tell you this, but do not accidentally on purpose let anyone see you."
"Why would I do that?" Max replied all too innocently. "I couldn't anyhow. You tied me up in compulsion spells. They would never let me do anything you didn't want me to do, right?" Except there were ways around the spells. And Max had made herself an expert at them. "Besides, you know how I feel about you. Your wish is my fondest command."
Silence. "Then I wish you wouldn't be such a pain in my ass all the time. Stop trying to sabotage everything I do. This is important, Max. Don't screw it up."
The tense uneasiness in Giselle's voice triggered a cascade of alarms inside Max. It was like a switch was flipped inside her as her compulsion spells took over. Her anger cooled instantly and every one of her magically heightened senses strained to hard alertness. She sat up in her seat. If one thing was true about Giselle, it was that the witch-bitch didn't get nervous. As far as Max knew, she didn't have the gene. Just what had been in that vision? What sort of apocalypse was going down in Julian?
There wasn't any point in asking. Giselle would already have told her if she was going to say anything. "Anything else I need to know?" Max asked, turning businesslike as she allowed the predator inside her to take over. Cold detachment slid over her like armor, and her mind focused into sharp, clear lines. It wasn't that she couldn't feel. She just didn't want her emotions to interfere with what she might have to do. She gave a slight shake of her head. No, it was that her spells wouldn't allow her feelings to get in the way, which only made doing what she had to do that much worse. Better to become ice and deal with the thaw later. Much later.
"There's an orchard north of town," Giselle said, interrupting her thoughts. "That's where it's going to happen."
"In a couple of hours, give or take. It's fixed, you can't stop it. I'll see you in San Diego tomorrow." Giselle stopped, but didn't hang up. Then: "Max -- be careful. This might be ugly."
The phone went dead. Max looked at it a moment, hesitating, then speed-dialed a number. Oz answered in one ring.
"Max? What's wrong?"
"Does something have to be wrong for me to call you?" she asked, then winced. Ask a stupid question...
"I've been with Giselle almost as long as you have. In all that time, you've never called me except when the shit's in the fire. So what is it?"
Max lowered her phone to her lap, thinking. Oz said her name impatiently. She stared down the freeway. Should she say anything? But the undiluted worry in Giselle's voice prodded her. She lifted the phone back to her ear. "I've got a feeling something bad's coming, and I can't shake it. Just make sure you and your Sunspears stick tight to Giselle. Have my Blades do the same."
She could almost hear his grin. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you actually cared about her."
"Don't make me kick your ass. I told you, if anybody gets to kill Giselle, it's going to be me. In the meantime, keep her in one piece until I get there."
"When is that?"
"By morning, if nothing goes wrong. I've got a stop to make first."
Max didn't give him the chance to answer or ask questions. She snapped her phone shut and dropped it back onto the console before swerving off onto the shoulder and grinding to a dusty halt in the desert darkness.
According to her atlas, Julian was about a hundred and fifty miles away in the mountains. The drive would take her almost three hours, but it didn't matter when she got there. The murder was fixed. She closed her eyes, leaning her head back on the headrest, rubbing her fingers over the spot between her eyebrows. It wasn't her job to help people. She was no one's knight in shining armor. She was a killer, Giselle's favorite weapon. Besides, even if she could get to Julian in time, nothing said that anyone there was worth saving. She swallowed hard. Giselle had said the murder tasted of the Uncanny and the Divine. So that meant that whoever was mixed up in this likely deserved it.
Her stomach didn't believe it. She reached for the steering wheel again. Her stomach didn't get a vote. Besides, she hadn't eaten for hours. She was just hungry.
Max pulled back onto Highway 15 and hit the gas. It was nearing ten o'clock, and behind her lights beaded in the darkness coming down the hill from Las Vegas. In Victorville she pulled off and stopped at a McDonald's.
In the parking lot, she considered going through the drive-through, but her bladder had other ideas. She glanced through the dark-tinted windshield, considering. It was a night short of the full moon and not a cloud in the sky. Grabbing her leather jacket from the backseat, she pulled it on and zipped it up to hide the .45 in the holster against her left ribs and the knife sheaths on her forearms. She had a .380 strapped to her right ankle and another double-bladed combat knife in the small of her back.
She yanked her Big Sky Brewing Company hat down low over her sunglasses and short silver-blond hair and pulled up the collar high on her coat.
Pocketing her keys, she opened the door of the Chevy Tahoe. Instantly she felt the burn as the brilliant moonlight bubbled her skin. The reflected sunlight seared the backs of her hands, a seam on her neck, and the unshadowed portion of her face. There was a faint sizzle and the nauseating smell of burning hair. She grimaced and strode quickly to the door, heading straight for the bathroom. There was no one in the dining area to notice the blisters, or that as she walked between the tables, her skin smoothed back into flawless marble. She ignored the unrelenting itchiness that followed after, a side effect of her healing spells.
Inside the bathroom she peed and splashed her face. The compulsion spells that required her to protect and obey Giselle sent pulsing aches down Max's spine to her heels. They read her worry and wanted her to hustle off to the witch's side to protect her. They didn't care much about what Max's orders were, only that Giselle be kept safe. She's got plenty of protection, Max told herself. Oz and his Sunspears and all of my Shadowblades are with her. My absence won't do any harm.
She returned to the dining room and ordered forty double cheeseburgers and a large Coke. Todd, the pimple-faced cashier, lifted his brows.
"You gonna eat all those yourself?"
Max laid a fifty and a twenty on the counter, her brows flicking up. "Do I look that hungry?"
"Naw. You don't look like you eat much."
His glance was admiring. Max could imagine what he saw. A pretty girl a few years older than him, looking sly and tough and wild like a biker chick or a metal band's roadie. She was taboo and exotic -- every high school boy's wet dream. If only he knew what she really was -- how many people she'd killed. He'd start running for the hills and wouldn't stop until he hit Canada, and maybe not even then. She did her best to look sweet and harmless.
"So you going to a party or somethin'? I get off soon. Maybe you want to go together?" he asked hopefully.
Her gaze ran over him. He was maybe seventeen and cute beneath the ugly uniform and acne. His face was still curved with baby fat, but in a few years he was going to be a lady-killer. She felt her face hardening. In a few years, he'd be a tempting target for a witch. He blanched at the sudden violence in her expression and took a step back. She heard his heart start to race and smelled the sour scent of fear. In a minute he'd pee his pants.
Fuck. She grabbed her change and the Coke cup and went to fill it. She leaned her hip against a bolteddown chair and studied the floor until her burgers were ready. No danger here. No danger here. She repeated it to herself, hoping Todd would feel it and believe. When he plopped the two grocery-size sacks on the counter, she grabbed them without a word and strode out the door.
In a few minutes she was back on the freeway. With effort she put Todd from her mind and began eating. The burgers were hot, greasy, and tasty. She gobbled one after another. The magic in her body sped up her metabolism so that she required around twenty to thirty thousand calories on a normal day. That was if nothing tried to kill her, if she didn't have to pick up a car and throw it, if she didn't have to run fifty miles in a couple of hours...in short, if she didn't have to use the spells that made her what she now was -- a Shadowblade.
In forging a coven, a witch created warriors to serve and protect her. Some took their power from the sun, the dark poisoning them. Some took their power from shadows, the sun -- even reflected from the moon -- burning their flesh. Sunspears and Shadowblades. Max was Giselle's Shadowblade Prime -- leader of the thirteen Blades in her crew. Oz was her Sunspear counterpart.
She sighed, finishing the last of the burgers and fiddling with the stereo. Guns N' Roses's "Mr. Brownstone" began pumping through the speakers. Max turned it up so that she couldn't hear anything else. She had a bad feeling that in the next few days, she was going to need a whole lot of calories. This trip was going to be nothing but trouble.
She pulled into Julian just before 2 a.m. It nestled in the desert mountains northeast of San Diego. It was small and dusty -- there hadn't been a lot of rain this year. The moon had gone down and Max had the windows open. In the distance she could smell the salt brine blowing up from the Pacific Ocean. Overlaying it were the scents of pine, juniper, and oak, along with the hot tang of apples and grapes from nearby orchards. Signs all over the small town invited visitors to come to Harvest Days and the Grape Stomp Fiesta.
Max had turned off her stereo and lights as she came to the city limits and began driving slowly through town. She sifted through the air and eventually found a hint of what she was looking for -- the earthy, metallic flavor of the Uncanny, and the creamy, caustic flavor of the Divine. It's not that the two couldn't be found together -- she was Uncanny and Giselle was Divine. The basic division between the two was that Uncanny beings lacked the ability to cast spells or share their magic in any way. The Divine could. The obvious conclusion was that a witch was here with her Shadowblades and whatever other pets she might have in tow. And they had killed someone. Why? was the question. And what did it have to do with Giselle?
She followed the trail to the other side of town. When she turned north on Farmer Road, the smell of magic billowed suddenly and her hackles rose, cold sliding like oil down her spine. Giselle was right. Something big had happened here -- maybe was still happening.
It was time to get out and and go on foot. Max slowed and eased off onto a dirt lane, rolling across an irrigation creek and parking behind a mounding blackberry tangle on the fringe of an apple orchard. She killed the motor and donned her hat again before quietly lifting herself out the window. She reached for and grabbed her cell phone, thumbing it off before tucking it into a roomy thigh pocket on her black fatigues. Next she opened the back door and popped up the bench seat. Beneath it was a small armory of weapons and ammo that included guns and steel knives, flash bombs and grenades, bags of herbs and salt, knives of rowan, hazel, willow, and silver, and a collection of charms. Max ignored most of it, opting for the pistol-grip sawed-off shotgun. It was lousy for distances, but most fights were up close and personal, and it would make enemies of most stripes -- magical or human -- think twice. She loaded it and shoved a handful of shells into her front pocket before pushing the seat back down and shutting the door.
She turned, letting her senses unravel across the night like a gossamer spiderweb, collecting every last scent, sound, taste, and texture. Nightbirds sang and an owl hooted. She heard the yip of coyotes and the deep bark of angry dogs. A horse whinnied and a calf bawled. Somewhere close, something scritched in the dirt. She cataloged the sounds, sifting through them for anything that didn't belong. But there was nothing. Max swiveled her head, sniffing. The stench of magic overwhelmed almost everything, even the tang of the orchard and the wet, green smell of the irrigation ditch.
Magic slid over her skin like a sticky web, stinging and caressing at once. It was like a runway beacon pointing the way. She slung her shotgun over her shoulder, her right hand wrapping the grip and holding it ready before her. Just in case. She glanced around one more time, then slid like a shadow under the orchard canopy, following the magic.
She broke into a ground-eating jog, zigzagging between the squat trees. Adrenaline pumped through her. Her arms flexed and her stomach tightened, her muscles rolling beneath her skin. She loved this feeling. She felt powerful -- like she could pick up the world on her back, like there was nothing she couldn't do. As much as she hated to admit it -- and she'd die before she ever told Giselle -- being a Shadowblade was better than any other high she could imagine. It was better than being the soft, weak human girl she'd been. Now she was fast, strong, and capable. She didn't wander through her life scared of anything -- not roller coasters, not jumping out of airplanes, not the big bad monster in the closet or under the bed. She'd met monsters; she'd killed them. If she could have this feeling of being the hunter and never having to cower helpless -- if she could have that without Giselle and without the horrors that went with serving the witch-bitch, then Max would never want anything else. It would be every Christmas and birthday present wrapped into one.
She covered the sloping ground quickly, pausing hereand there to test the air and listen. About a mile along,she picked up the first scent of blood. She stopped anddropped to a crouch beside a knobby tree trunk. Thecoppery flavor marked the blood as human, and therewas a lot of it. Enough to cut through the stench ofmagic. There was Uncanny blood, too. The smell tingledat the back of her throat, tasting hot and corrosive.She didn't recognize it. She scowled, something angryrising hot and hard in her. Suddenly she started running.Someone might be alive. Giselle could be wrong.
A mile farther in, she topped a rise. Between the trees she could glimpse a set of buildings on a hill beyond the orchard. Even from here she could see the lavender witchlight flickering through the trees. The smell of blood was stronger, and there was something else -- something wet, cold, and bleak, like winter wind over a frozen lake. It was Divine.
Max crept closer, clinging close to the tree row. She paused every hundred yards to scan the trees and listen, but there was nothing. Everything was silent except for dogs barking some distance away. The din was unrelenting. Dogs knew the stench of magic when they smelled it.
She knew when she stepped into the chaos zone. They used to be called faery circles, but faeries weren't the only cause. The zones were places where magic had exploded out of control. Maybe a spell ruptured, maybe a circle couldn't contain the conjuring, or a ritual had gone haywire. It wouldn't be safe until the magic dissipated, which could be a few seconds or a few centuries.
Max strode inside without hesitation. The protection spells Giselle had carved into her bones and flesh protected her from most malevolent magics. A little wild magic just cleared her sinuses.
Inside, there were no natural sounds: no nightbirds, no crickets, no mosquitoes, nothing. The barks of the dogs snuffed out like blown birthday candles. Currents of thorny magic twisted in the warm, still air. She jerked as a high shrieking sound wrapped her skull and sent darts of pain down her nerves. She shook her head, crouching low as she jogged forward. When she came to the treeline, she dropped and crawled beneath a John Deere tractor, concealing herself in the shadows of a massive tire.
A nimbus of lavender witchlight surrounded a twostory, red-steel-roofed farmhouse. A white, crushed-gravel drive led down to the road beween lofty, smooth-skinned English walnut trees. It circled the house, corralling a close-clipped lawn dotted with bushes and flowers and a large gazebo covered by climbing roses and grapevines. Behind it was a barn-style garage with a matching redsteel roof that looked big enough to hold six cars. On the other side of the house was a pool. Max could smell the chlorine. A brass-and-iron sign above the steps leading up to the rustic veranda said JULIAN SPRINGS ORCHARD.
From her vantage point, Max could see four human bodies sprawled on the white gravel. One woman, three men. Trails of blood on the ground indicated they'd been dragged there. There was nothing to say who had done it, nor was there any evidence of ritual in the killing.
A sudden squabbling gabbled up loudly from the other side of the house. Growls and whimpers were followed by a snarling and loud cursing. Max couldn't make out the words. She was pretty sure they weren't speaking any language she knew. Then suddenly the shrieking sound erupted again. It bored into Max's eardrums, made hypersensitive by Giselle's spells. Max pressed her palms against her ears until it stopped.
As soon as the noise died, she crawled out from under the tractor and ran down the low hill to the driveway. She carried the shotgun in front of her, her finger resting lightly on the trigger. She stopped at the first body. She wanted to be clinical and detached. She didn't want to care for strangers who'd never even had a chance. She didn't know them and she sure as hell couldn't help them. But as she surveyed their wounds, anger and horror crashed together like locomotives inside her chest. Max gasped, hot tears burning in her eyes as an unexpected need to find them vengeance swamped her. She knuckled her eyes and examined the bodies, not letting herself look away.
The first corpse had been a young man, maybe in his early twenties. His chest had been ripped open. His ribs were a mangled mess, and his entrails were gone. There was a smell of shit and urine and rotting meat. His legs had been gnawed on and one of his arms was missing. His eyes were open and staring, his mouth wide-open, his tongue protruding. Around his neck he wore a gold chain with a peace sign pendant.
The other three victims were in much the same condition, although the woman had been chewed on more than the other two. Her legs were twisted and splintered, and most of the flesh had been chewed off them. Both her arms were gone.
Max's fury flamed as she looked at the woman. She was wearing shreds of a pink nightgown, like she'd been snuggled in bed when she was attacked. She was hardly a woman -- maybe just into college. On her wrist was a butterfly-tattoo bracelet in blues and purples.
The anger twisted and dug hard claws into Max. She drew a sharp breath. They were all so innocent and so horribly ruined. It made her want to kill someone -- find them vengeance. Her mouth drew into a tense line. At least these four had been permitted to die. It could have been worse. She tried to take comfort in the thought, but it was elusive. She wiped more tears from her cheeks and ordered herself to be done with crying over crap she couldn't change.
She stood slowly, her jaw hardening. Someone was going to pay, she promised herself.
She let the predator in her rise, animal instincts flattening human concerns. Her head dropped and turned as she searched the yard eagerly. It was time to hunt. She jogged to a corner of the house. Bushes provided her with cover as she edged into the backyard. There was no one here. She loped across the lawn, hunching down and staying close to the house. At the other corner she stopped and peered around.
A small swarm of wizened redcaps were milling around the edge of a charm circle, its boundary glowing lavender witchlight to match the nimbus above the house. There were thirteen of the creatures, or had been. Three lay dead. The remaining ones were growling and yipping at one another, pushing and shoving and tearing with their hooked claws and orange teeth. One was chewing on a human arm like it was a turkey leg. Others were garlanded with the intestines of the four murdered people on the driveway.
It took all that Max had not to blow the little beasts away with her shotgun. She wanted to -- oh, how she wanted to make them suffer. Her hands clenched. But more was going on here than a simple murder, and it would be beyond stupid to rush in without knowing what. She gritted her teeth, her lips pulling back in a snarl, and scanned the scene again.
Inside the charm circle lay something human-size, though Max couldn't make out what it was through the gyrating little bodies. The one thing she knew for sure was that the vicious little redcaps were Uncanny, and whatever was inside that circle was Divine.
She needed to get closer. She inched back out of the bushes, then skimmed back around the garage. She skirted the hedge dividing the orchard from the back of the yard, stooping to keep out of sight. The hedge intersected the weathered wood fence that hid the large swimming pool. Max vaulted silently over the five-foot fence, landing in a crouch amid the thickly perfumed camellias and geraniums on the other side.
The pool was a rectangle of inky black surrounded by a wide patio-walkway. Nothing moved here. Max picked her way out onto the sidewalk. She hurried up to the opposite end, careful not to knock into any of the tables or chairs littering the poolside. The charm circle was opposite the gate. Slowly she eased up the latch at the top, letting the gate drift open a bare inch.