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Crystalfire is the fourth book in
The Demonslayers series.
Taron is a scholar pressed into service in the battle against demonkind. Willow is merely a sprite trapped in the body of a mongral dog. Together, the fate of all worlds is in their hands, as Taron discovers the warrior within, and Willow learns what it means to be a woman of power.
“Nine hells, woman. Be careful!”
Sweat blinded him as Taron lunged to one side. His foot slipped out from under him on the slick stone floor, so he ducked his head and rolled to the left. He hit the deck as the Paladin’s sword cut much too close to his throat.
Lying on his back, gasping for air and absolutely livid, he glared at his opponent. “This is a training exercise, Isra! You’re not supposed to try and kill me!”
Isra held out her hand in immediate apology. “I am sorry, Taron. Thank the gods you’re so quick! I guess I got a bit caught up in our battle.”
“Mock battle, Isra. And gods be damned, but quick had nothing to do with it. I fell on my ass or I’d be a dead man, Paladin! You need to remember I’m one of the good guys.” Shaking off the unexpected burst of anger, he took her offered hand and allowed her to help him to his feet.
She tugged and he stood, but she didn’t turn him loose. Instead, she held on to his hand much longer than necessary. Her fingers felt warm in his, a bit damp from their exertion, but her grip was firm. As he catalogued the physical impressions of holding the hand of a young woman, Isra stood very still, assessing him in a most forthright manner.
The average Lemurian female would no more have looked at a male with such blatant interest—much less considered holding his hand—than take a swing at him with a crystal sword, but Isra was different. She was a Paladin. Once a slave in the Lemurian crystal mines, now a soldier in Lemuria’s new army of women warriors, she carried herself with a bold confidence that was uncommon among the more traditional women of Lemuria.
A confidence Taron found absolutely fascinating, though his fascination was merely from the point of view of a scholar. He felt no interest in her as a female. At least, not the kind of interest she appeared to have for him.
Her full lips lifted into a sexy smile. “That you are, Taron of Libernus.” Her voice had gone low and rather husky, and she cocked one dark eyebrow as she studied him with unabashed interest. “You are most definitely one of the good guys.”
She watched him for a moment longer, as if waiting for him to say something, to respond to her obvious invitation. Much too aware that she still held on to his hand, Taron had absolutely nothing to say.
She glanced at their clasped fingers and then raised her head. “Would you, by any chance, be interested in...”
Taron slipped his hand free of her grasp. “I’m flattered, Isra, but I’m a scholar. My interests lie elsewhere.”
Frowning, she stepped back a pace and stared at him as if she really didn’t believe he’d turned her down. “Yet you’re here, training women to fight. Not a very scholarly occupation, is it?”
Shrugging, he said, “We do what we must in times such as these. My life has been spent in the pursuit of knowledge, in intellectual discourse among my fellows. Once the Paladins are fully trained, I will return to my studies and my solitude.”
For some odd reason, she seemed confused by his simple declaration. “Are you a celibate? Is it possible you prefer the company of men?”
His laughter was as unexpected as her question. “No, Isra. I have merely put the physical needs of my nature aside. It is my way. Many Lemurians have chosen solitude and study over the pleasures of the flesh, the quest for knowledge over the pursuit of a mate. It’s not unusual to prefer lives of quiet contemplation to the constant turmoil of politics and warfare—or love.”
She grinned at him.
“Do you think I make light of you?” He honestly didn’t know what she thought, and he didn’t really care. Woman had always been, and probably always would be, a mystery to him.
One he had no interest in solving.
Smiling, Isra merely shook her head. “I know better, Taron. You are not one to make light of an honest question.”
“I’m pleased you realize that.” Truth be told, she was a lovely young woman, and if he were so inclined, he would quite possibly be showing interest in Isra the female rather than merely dodging her crystal blade in training.
But it was not the Lemurian way to lust after women, and it certainly wasn’t his way. Control of what he thought of as his baser instincts was more than a matter of honor—it was a way of life. The way he’d consciously chosen to lead his life.
That so-called “Lemurian way of life,” of course, like so many other things in their society, was undergoing a rapid change, now that so many unattached females had been added to their small population. Men no longer outnumbered the women in such large numbers. Nor were these women now training as warriors the type of females to be hidden away in marriage.
No, they were all strong-willed and intelligent, bold beyond measure, and after a lifetime of slavery none of them had any intention of being controlled by any man ever again. That didn’t, however, mean they weren’t interested in men. They were already forcing change among a people who were often slow to adjust, but adding one hundred attractive, single women to the population—women who weren’t at all hesitant about making their needs and desires known—was bound to cause a ripple or two.
Taron found their attitude refreshing. Invigorating, even, though he had no intention of pursuing any of them for romance. He would much rather watch from the sidelines and study the effect of so many changes to a once stagnant society that had long been under the rule of demonkind.
One thing he was sure of—romance was not in the future for Taron of Libernus. He’d known that since he was but a small child. One troubling event had led to a powerful understanding of himself—his need to constantly learn had made it imperative that he remain apart from women as much as possible.
They were much too distracting.
The danger of falling in love was too great, the consequences greater than he cared to risk.
Besides, what woman would ever understand or accept that study and discovery outweighed his interest in her or in the physical side of a relationship? He knew himself—if there were a choice to be made, he would choose knowledge over love every time. The entire concept of maintaining a relationship based on physical needs was something demanding much too much time and effort.
This was different, though, this position as a trainer for the women who’d once been slaves. This was a role that had essentially chosen him in the new Lemuria. He was honored to have the ability to help these women become a functioning, powerful part of the new society—one developing without the influence of demonic rule.
At least he knew it was merely an accident that Isra had almost taken his head off. She hadn’t intended to cut so close, and her sword would not have allowed it. The sentience would have stopped the blade before damage was done, which was the only reason they were able to train with crystal.
He certainly couldn’t blame her powerful strike on demon influence. Lemurians, for now at least, were free of the bastards. None remained who were possessed by demonkind.
Isra had already come a long way. She showed pride in her bearing and a growing confidence in her stance—a young woman who had every right to be proud of herself.
She had left slavery behind, and Taron was not an easy opponent to best.
He might be primarily a scholar, but he’d always trained regularly and kept in excellent condition. He had no doubt in his abilities—he was a skilled swordsman, and generally more than a match for any man. Isra—an average-sized woman fully a foot shorter than he and with only a fraction of his reach—had almost taken him down, proving once again that Lemurian women had the ability to fight demonkind as well as the intelligence and skills to stand as equals beside their men.
One more long-standing Lemurian tradition that had quickly been erased. Like the one that said a woman waited all her life to be chosen by an interested male, so she might then focus herself on making his life easier.
Taron had a feeling that particular tradition was already gone.
But just as women were now free to flirt, Taron was free to ignore that flirtation. Smiling ruefully, he did exactly that, shaking his head over Isra’s skill and his own clumsiness.
“You’ve learned quickly, Isra. I’m going to need more work with Roland if I expect to best any of you in battle, mock or otherwise.” He bowed his head in respect. “You have done well. Adding women Paladins to the Lemurian guard is building a formidable army for our world. All of you are doing an amazing job, but you among the others have truly excelled.”
A brilliant flash of blue light set him back a step. A strange voice—a woman’s voice—echoed from everywhere, yet from nowhere in particular.
“Taron is right. You have done extremely well, Isra.”
Taron was almost certain his heart stood still. He stared at Isra’s glowing sword, unwilling to believe what he’d just heard, but there was no denying truth.
Impossible. Absolutely impossible. How could this be? It was too soon—she was too new a warrior. He swallowed back a curse, raised his head and focused on the wide-eyed woman.
“Isra. Your blade spoke.”
Ginny Jones stared at her cell phone just long enough to register her cousin’s panic. Then she shoved the phone in her pocket, turned around and walked right into the solid wall of red rock. In seconds she’d passed through the portal at Red Rock Crossing in Sedona, Arizona and entered the vortex. She bypassed the tunnel to Bell Rock where the main entrance to Lemuria was located, and took the small portal leading directly from this vortex to the Council of Nine’s chancellor’s office.
It took mere seconds to step out of Earth’s dimension and enter Lemuria’s, something that never ceased to amaze her.
She’d have time for amazement later. The damned chancellor’s office was empty.
“Shit. Where is everyone?” Ginny brushed her hand over her crystal sword, as much from habit as the need to connect to her ever-present companion. After another quick glance about the empty chamber, she slipped through the doorway and took off at a full run, heading for the great plaza with her cousin Markus’s panic-stricken words echoing in her ears.
Ginny! Something bad is going on. Animals are acting really weird. I mean really, really weird. Tom the cat’s got all those teeth again and he just ate the neighbor’s dog. Like chewed him up and swallowed him. And the dog’s a Rottweiler. Uh...he was a Rottweiler. Ginny? Answer the phone! Where are you?
Skidding as she rounded a jeweled column, Ginny collided with Alton. He grabbed her arms, steadying her as she gasped for breath.
“Ginny? Sweetheart...what’s wrong?”
Still sucking in air, she linked and shared Markus’s message.
Hanging on to her arm, Alton spun around and shouted at Dax, who huddled with Roland on the far side of the plaza. “Dax! Grab Eddy. See if you can find Daws and Selyn. We need to go to Sedona. Now.”
Eddy Marks popped out of one of the council chamber rooms. “What’s going on? We were just headed back to Evergreen to check in with Dad. He’s got BumperWillow.”
Ginny shook her head. “There’s no time. I got a message from Markus. It sounds like a full-scale invasion in Sedona. I tried calling him back, but he didn’t answer. Plus, my battery’s really low. I barely got a signal.”
Dax, Selyn and Dawson Buck trotted across the plaza. Ginny waved them over. “Can you leave now? We need to go.”
Daws nodded. “Roland will work with the Paladins. I’ve been planning to go back and check on the clinic anyway, make sure Romeo’s got everything under control.
Romeo? Ginny glanced at Eddy then back at Dawson. “Did you say Romeo?”
Daws laughed. “I did. Esteban Romero. Romeo’s a more fitting name, but he’s a good vet. He’s running my clinic, so if animals are affected again, he’ll have heard. Should we tell anyone we’re going?”
Alton nodded. “I’ve contacted Taron. Told him we’ve got a new demon outbreak in Earth’s dimension. I wonder if this is the group Isra saw the demon king sending toward Sedona?”
Ginny took off at a trot toward the council office and the small portal. The others followed.
“It has to be,” she said. “We couldn’t find any sign of them when we were there a couple days ago, though. I wonder what they’ve been up to?”
Alton shook his head. “Nothing good, that’s for sure.”
He and Ginny followed Dax, Eddy, Daws and Selyn through the door into the office. Dawson paused by the portal—the one that led directly to the small vortex at Red Rock Crossing.
“Let’s go to my place first,” he said. His home was close to the portal. “We can charge our cell phones while you use the land line to try and reach Markus. I’ll get in touch with my clinic, see if they’ve heard anything, but we might want to fan out, cover as much area as we can.”
Ginny nodded. “Works for me. Let’s go.”
They slipped through the portal and entered the vortex at Red Rock Crossing. Dax stopped them with a wave of his hand. “Look. The portal to Abyss. It’s open again.”
Ginny drew DarkFire. “I’ll get it.” Anxiety rippled across her shoulders as she pointed her sword at the pulsing gateway to hell. A beam of dark light shot from the end of her amethyst blade. Silently she willed DarkFire to hurry. In less than a minute, the small portal was once again sealed. Ginny slipped her sword into the scabbard and set a glamour over the blade.
The brilliant amethyst sword faded from sight.
Dawson was the first to step through the portal out of the vortex and into the waning light of a late October afternoon. The area was empty, the blue sky a welcome change after the caverns of Lemuria.
Ginny took a deep breath of the clean, desert air. No sulfuric stench of demon, no sense of danger, but Markus had sounded absolutely terrified.
Alert and moving quickly, she followed the others along the well-marked trail leading to a shortcut that ran cross-country for a short distance before it eventually dropped them into the back side of Dawson’s property.
It would be night soon. The perfect time to hunt demons.
Visibly trembling, Isra clutched the hilt of her crystal sword and stared at the shimmering blade. “You’re right, Taron. She did. I heard her voice.” Slowly raising her head, Isra stared at him. “I’ve done nothing to deserve her praise. How can this be?”
The other women in the training room gathered close as Isra’s sword shimmered, diamond bright and pulsing with life.
“You will call me FrostFire, Isra. My name will forever be a reminder of the cold that once encased your heart. I speak because I wish to, because it is time. You had more personal demons to overcome than most, Isra, once a Forgotten One. You turned away from Evil. You saved Nica’s life. You have fought your own demons to become a stronger, better woman. You’ve done this, not for personal glory but for Lemuria. We will make a formidable team, you and I.”
The glow faded, the blade was once again merely faceted crystal. Isra raised her head and stared at Taron, not as a man she wanted to bed, but as a friend, one who might understand what had just happened. All sense of her earlier flirtation was gone. Tears coursed down her cheeks, but she didn’t say a word. Her rapt expression spoke volumes.
Isra’s silence was not unexpected. Taron figured if his sword ever condescended to speak to him, he’d not know what to say, either.
He bowed low to Isra, a heartfelt show of respect,
Respect tainted by his own unfathomable jealousy—a foolish and unwelcome response he quickly buried. “Your sword is correct, Isra. You will make a formidable team. My congratulations to you, and to FrostFire. May your partnership be long and successful.”
She nodded, but her attention shifted quickly from Taron to the crystal sword clutched in her hand. Taron turned and walked away as Isra’s sisters gathered around her...walked away, clasping his own mute sword in his right hand.
The proof of a warrior’s value was in the sentience of his sword. Isra, who’d partnered with a crystal sword for mere days, had already been validated as a warrior, while he, a Lemurian aristocrat who’d carried crystal for millennia, who’d wielded his blade in battle, still must have no value. None.
If he’d proven himself, his sword would have spoken by now. Would have at least acknowledged him as a demon fighter. What did he lack? What did he need to do? He had fought the bastards, and fought them bravely, yet obviously it wasn’t enough.
Even if he’d wanted to romance a woman—and he knew he could choose any of the Forgotten Ones with the odds of a successful outcome—he was not worthy.
Even though his sword had been the one chosen to replicate the crystal blades which now armed those same women.
Even though he’d killed demons in battle, had stood bravely against powerful odds, it had not been enough.
No matter what he did, it was never enough.
He knew he should not be so beholden to anyone or anything for affirmation, but the truth of it pained him. He needed it from his blade—needed to know he was worthy. Though he might have proved himself a worthy scholar, he would not feel complete unless he knew, without doubt, he’d achieved enough worth to earn the voice within his crystal sword.
There was no one else. He was a man without family—Alton had been the closest thing to a brother he’d ever known. His parents were long gone. Now that Alton had not only found love with Ginny but the voice of his sentient sword, Taron was truly alone for the first time in his life.
Head down, heart heavy, he walked slowly back to his quarters, much too aware of the disconsolate sound of his footsteps as he headed down the long tunnel. His shadow, the dark shape of a powerful warrior bearing a sword, mocked him.
Once inside his lonely room, he set the sword down on the low table in front of his couch, sat back in the comfortable chair and stared with unexplainable bitterness at the blade.
He’d felt as if he paused on the precipice of history when he and Alton made the decision to free the demon slayers from their cell. He’d believed the choice they’d made that night to defy the Council of Nine’s edict would bring about change.
Change for the better of Lemuria. And, in many ways, it had, even though the demon king still lived.
Artigos the Just now governed Lemuria with his son beside him. The new Council of Nine would be seated in a couple of days—a council that included both women and common folk for the first time since the great move to this dimension in the depths of Mount Shasta. The women, those brave Forgotten Ones, were no longer slaves. Now Paladins, they had become honored guardians of Lemuria, ready to usher in a renewed age of strong women warriors.
But where was Taron of Libernus’s place in the new order? What role would he be called upon to play?
If he were called to play any future role at all.
He stared at the sword, running through all that had occurred since that moment just four weeks ago when he and Alton had first spied the humans sitting forlornly in their prison cell. Dax and Eddy had looked absolutely pathetic, and the silly dog hadn’t been much better.
And Willow. Dear, beautiful little Willow. Unexpected tears stung his eyes when the thought of her. He’d been fascinated with the sprite from the very first moment he saw her. Not even as tall as his smallest finger, she’d stood there in the palm of his hand and actually flirted with him.
The others hadn’t noticed, thank the gods. She’d spoken mind to mind with him and every word had been loaded with teasing innuendo. It should have sounded ridiculous, coming from such a tiny creature, but there’d been something special about the sprite. Something that tugged at his soul and made him smile even now, though inexplicably, his heart was breaking.
How could he grieve so for one he barely knew? Still, the thought of that perfect little body being eaten by the demon king as the tiny sprite bravely battled evil made Taron’s failings even more painfully obvious.
Willow’s consciousness lived on, but that kind of existence would have to be the same as casting her into a hell of its own making. Poor, poor little Willow, condemned to life inside a silly looking mutt like Bumper. He couldn’t imagine how horrible it had to be for her.
From what Ginny’d said, Willow was making the best of it, which made Taron feel even worse. He could do no less. He sighed and rubbed his hands over his eyes. Sitting around feeling sorry for himself was not his way, especially when there was so much to be done.
Stretching his arms over his head, he wondered if he could blame it on exhaustion. That had to be it.
He’d not had a bit of rest since the day he and Alton had helped Dax and Eddy, Willow and Bumper escape their prison. If only that had been the beginning of the evil that had befallen Lemuria. They now understood that their problems and the trouble facing their world had started long before then.
Demonkind had actively invaded Lemuria just five days ago, but Lemurians had discovered that wasn’t the beginning of the invasion. No, they’d learned that their world and all levels of their society had been undermined by a long and insidious penetration carried out by hundreds of demons.
Evil had infiltrated the very heart of their society, from the Lemurian Guard to the Council of Nine, up to and including the chancellor—Alton’s father. Demonic possession so invasive that removing the symbiotic creatures had led to the deaths of many Lemurian citizens. Since cleansing their society as best they could, they’d all labored nonstop to rebuild a world much shattered by demonic corruption and lies.
Taron had been among those working to integrate the Forgotten Ones into their new lives as free folk. He would be forever challenged by the strength of those women, by their ability to adapt to the changing world around them.
He hoped he could be as strong. Much change had come and would continue to come to Lemuria. Artigos the Just had relied heavily on both Alton and Taron to bring him up to date on the current war being waged against the foul denizens of Abyss.
The reinstated chancellor had quickly taken control, put Roland of Kronus in charge of the Lemurian Guard and set the Paladins up as a special unit that would work within the same rules as the Guard, though under separate leadership.
The Paladin Selyn and her human lover, Dawson Buck were temporarily leading the women, though Selyn had mentioned naming Isra as their commander. Isra had certainly shown great promise as a strategist—and after today’s display, it was obvious she was a skilled swordswoman as well. Surprising after her rocky start, but even greater surprises had occurred.
Isra’s transformation was merely one of many.
So many changes, so much to do...it made Taron’s head spin.
He closed his eyes and leaned back against the sofa. Consciously, he slowed his breathing, eased the taut muscles in his shoulders and hoped the knot in his gut would finally settle.
Nine hells, but what a long month this had been...and yet, it felt as if all their lives had changed in the blink of an eye.
Which was quite close to reality for a man with a near-immortal span of years. What was one month in thousands of months? One year in millennia? He drifted, falling deeper and deeper into a sea of calm, relishing the sense of utter relaxation, if only for a moment.
A thought flittered through his mind, that it was probably not the smartest thing, to steal this time for himself...sort of like inviting chaos or tempting the gods.
As if merely giving freedom to that thought had opened a door, a brilliant blast of light flashed brightly through his closed lids.
Nine hells... Blinking, Taron opened his eyes. Shut them tightly, opened them again and stared.
The entire room glowed. His crystal sword flashed again—blue fire almost blinded him. He blinked and jerked away from the shimmering light, then slowly leaned forward. Heart racing, he gazed, transfixed by the glowing blade. There was a sense of portent about the moment, a feeling that power gathered.
Tempting the gods, indeed!
Chills ran along his arms. He rubbed them, barely aware of the act, at least until a voice filled the room. A man’s voice, speaking with strength and conviction.
His gods-be-damned crystal blade was actually speaking.
“Nine hells and then some...” Taron swallowed back another curse as the voice rang out.
“Taron of Libernus? Prepare. The final battle draws nigh. It is time.”
He took a deep breath. “I’m listening. What should I do?”
“Go now to Evergreen. Post haste. Time is short.”
The glow faded. The blade went silent.
Evergreen? It wants me to go to Earth’s dimension?
He thought of Alton’s brief message, received a short time ago. His friend was probably there now, slipping into Earth’s dimension as if it was no big deal. He’d done it often enough over the past few weeks as one of the soldiers on the front lines of the battle against demonkind.
But not Taron. His work had all been here, in Lemuria.
Until now. Time is short. How short?
Still in shock, Taron ran his fingers over the faceted surface. The crystal felt cool to his touch, though it pulsed with a new sense of life.
His fingers trembled as he stroked the blade. His throat felt tight. He gazed at the crystal he’d carried for thousands of years, lost in wonder.
He couldn’t wait to tell Alton, but his friend was probably already out of reach, already in Earth’s dimension. Well, if Taron followed his blade’s orders, he’d be seeing Alton soon. He couldn’t wait to tell him his sword had... “Nine hells and then some.”
Taron burst into laughter. Shoulders shaking, he laughed like a veritable madman, until the tears ran down his cheeks and he knew he looked and sounded like a total idiot.
Finally he got himself under control. Wiping his eyes, he stared ruefully at the silent sword. “The least you could have done after all these years,” he said, “was tell me your name.”
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