Eight years ago, free-spirited Ashlyn Li helped her friends save the world. Apparently that wasn’t enough to satisfy the gods, because now she finds herself dragged into the midst of a war in her homeland, and coaxed into accepting leadership of her father’s kingdom. Somewhere along the line, she manages to fall in love with a coldhearted vampire and catch the attention of a wisecracking rogue assassin (which, admittedly, isn’t all bad).
But at the heart of the matter is a truth that Ashlyn doesn’t want to face- the fact that her father is leading the opposing army, and at some point she will have to challenge him herself. Torn between the blood of her kin and loyalty to her kingdom, Ashlyn struggles to become the leader she was born to be.
Ashlyn looked back, seeing the first of the black cats scaling the city walls. They were already pacing the top, looking for a way down. “There’s no time,” she said. “When will the army be ready?”
“Thirty seconds, maybe,” Skye said, drawing his sword. “They were distributing weapons when we left them.”
“Not fast enough,” Vargo snapped.
Ashlyn reached back and grabbed the hira shuriken. Her heart was pounding, but she refused to let her nervousness show. “Are you telling me a Spartan can’t stay alive for thirty seconds until reinforcements arrive?”
“You challenging me, princess?” He tossed a grin over his shoulder as he faced the walls, baton at the ready.
“Just wondering if you’re going to turn tail and run,” she retorted, “Not like you’ve ever done that before…on the train tracks…in Endro.”
“Hey now,” he complained. “Low blow!”
“Less talking, more ass-kicking, Spartan!” Ashlyn rushed forward, watching keenly as one of the cats jumped from the top of the wall to the crow’s nest and began bounding down the stairs. Her adrenaline hadn’t quite kicked in yet, but she still knew that being on the offensive was a better idea than waiting for the cats to come to her. She met the panther at the base of the stairs and dove into a roll as the cat jumped at her. Ashlyn came up onto her feet and spun, casting an ice spell on the ground and sending the feline sliding. Vargo was there to intercept where the ice patch ended, cracking his baton down on the panther’s head with one swift movement.
Ashlyn charged up the stairs, determined to stop the rest of the cats before they reached the ground. From the corner of her eye she saw one cat jump to the ground from the top of the wall- a risky move, considering how high the wall was- but there was nothing she could do about that now. She’d just have to leave it to FLD to deal with that one.
Three of the cats were already departing the crow’s nest, and one began running towards her when it saw her advancing. Ashlyn jumped up onto the railing and ran up the thin beam like a tightrope, waiting until the cat was almost upon her before she launched herself into a flip, slicing cleanly through the animal’s spine in mid-air. A second cat lunged at her, and Ashlyn danced sideways, deflecting the cat’s claws with her shuriken. She spun in a roundhouse kick, catching the panther on the side of the head and knocking it over the railing.
The third cat was hanging back, seemingly wary of jumping into the fray. Ashlyn yanked her knife from its sheath on her thigh and flung it sideways. The cat drew back, snarling, but didn’t move fast enough, and the knife embedded itself in the creature’s shoulder. Ashlyn didn’t give it any time for recovery, dashing towards it and leaping into a flip kick that brought the back of her boot down hard on the cat’s head.
The black panther collapsed against the staircase, either unconscious or dead, as Ashlyn scrambled to her feet again. She jerked the knife out of the fallen creature’s shoulder and continued up the stairs. It hadn’t occurred to her before, but if she could get onto the wall, it might be possible for her to hold the cats off for at least a little while with her stanes. She wasn’t sure if the bears were able to climb, but she hadn’t seen any on the walls yet, so it seemed unlikely.
A loud BOOM shook the crow’s nest as she entered it, and Ashlyn grabbed the railing for support. The vibration had shaken the entire city. Kou’s army was trying to break down the gates! Ashlyn looked over her shoulder, and breathed a sigh of relief as she saw the Toryn army advancing. Skye and Restlyn were already shouting orders to the troops, readying themselves to intercept any cats that jumped down from the walls and defend themselves if the rest of the monsters did manage to break through the gate. Ashlyn felt a rush of gratitude for her friends’ presence. Thank Drago for FLD!
She turned back to the wall, and steadied herself before taking a running leap. She jumped up onto the crow’s nest railing and used it to launch herself into the air.
She landed on top of the wall just as another impact shook the heavy wood slats. Ashlyn lost her grip and slid off the opposite side, but managed to catch herself before she fell off by stabbing the knife into the wall for purchase. Grunting from the effort, she dragged herself back over the edge, taking a moment as she regained her balance to look down at the army outside Toryn.
There were perhaps sixty creatures milling about below, far more than she’d expected after the devastation of the two attacks that she had made with Skye and Drake. Most of them were bears, but there were a few snarling cats who were steadily climbing the wall. Ashlyn blasted one with fire, and smiled in grim satisfaction as the panther fell to the ground. She didn’t typically take pleasure in hurting others, but after watching what they had done to her father, she couldn’t bring herself to feel an ounce of sympathy for these monsters.
The bears were hurling their bodies at the gates in pairs- a surprisingly organized move- and Ashlyn could see that the already-weakened wooden gates would not hold up much longer. She pondered freezing the gates to add some additional protection, but before she could make a decision, she saw a cat pull itself up onto the wall a few feet away. Several yards down, another cat was nearing the top.
Ashlyn ran towards the first panther, jumped over a swipe from the big cat and threw a punch that landed in the middle of its bony forehead. Ashlyn’s hand smarted from the impact, but she gritted her teeth and followed up with a crane kick, her foot connecting solidly with the animal’s lower jaw. The cat growled and shook its head before charging. Caught off-guard, Ashlyn managed to collect herself enough to leap up, dancing down the panther’s back and landing on the opposite side. Her last step, with her foot at the base of the cat’s spine, threw the animal off-balance, and it fell off the inside edge of the wall. Ashlyn couldn’t stop to watch its descent, sprinting towards the next panther. When she got close enough, she leaped into a spinning attack, the knife in one hand and her shuriken in the other.
The cat never had a chance.
As its body fell to the ground below, Ashlyn crouched on top of the wall, trying to keep her balance as the bears continued their assault on the city gates. Amidst the writhing bodies below, she saw Kou- unshifted and in human form. How were the shift monsters not attacking him? Did he have that much control over his army, even when they were in animal form?
The wall shook again beneath her, and there was the sound of splintering wood. “Crap,” Ashlyn exclaimed, unable to think of a more suitable curse word for the moment. The bears had broken the gates.
Clearly she wasn’t going to do any more good up here. She stood and ran back towards the crow’s nest.
Hopping from the wall into the crow’s nest was much easier than jumping up had been, and Ashlyn sprinted down the stairs, trying to take stock of what was going on below her as she ran. The Toryn army greatly outnumbered the shift monsters, but she knew not to count on numbers as a match for experience. She saw the flash of Skye’s sword in the front lines, and tried to pick out some of the other members of FLD from the masses, but couldn’t find anyone.
At the bottom of the stairs, a Toryn soldier was trying to cut down a bear with his katana. Ashlyn took the opportunity to use the railing as a vault, landing on the bear’s back and driving her knife deep into its neck. The big animal shuddered and roared, but fell to the ground beneath her. Ashlyn nodded to the soldier and rushed towards the next creature she saw. She wanted to find Kou, but it would be almost impossible to pick him out from everyone here, and the next best thing would be to rid Toryn of as many of these monsters as she could.
“Princess!” Vargo appeared beside her. Blood spattered the side of his face, and the sleeve of his jacket was torn, but he grinned at her, clearly in his element in the midst of battle.
“Spartan!” she shot back, ridiculously happy to see him. She ducked under his arm as he swung his baton at the bear behind her, turning as she did and sending an ice spell straight up the bear’s nose, freezing its muzzle. The creature howled and fell backwards, pawing at its muzzle in agony.
A flash of black hair in the sunlight caught her eye, and Ashlyn straightened up, trying to peer through the crowds, aware that the Toryn soldiers were all wearing head coverings. She glimpsed Kou, fighting his way through the throngs of soldiers- and moving away from her. Where was he going? Ashlyn shoved past two soldiers and ran after him. She leaped over a fallen bear and detoured around a pair of soldiers battling a panther, frowning as she realized that Kou seemed to be headed for her house. What could he possibly want from there? Maybe Tag was still in the basement? Was Kou trying to pull off a rescue?