Winter Wolf

WW h The Hunted Wizard

When Nicole dabbled in the occult, she lost it all: Her voice, her family, and her name. Now on the run from the Inquisition, she must prove to herself—and the world—that not all wizards are too dangerous to let live.

The savage murder of a bookstore employee throws Nicole into the middle of Inquisition business, like it or not. Driven by her inability to save the young man’s life, she decides to hunt the killer on her own. Using forbidden magic to investigate the past, she learns that the murderer is in fact a disease that could kill the entire werewolf race.

Forced to choose between saving lives and preserving her own, Nicole embraces the magic that sent her into exile. Without werewolves, the power of the Inquisition would dwindle, and she could live without being hunted.

Nicole’s only hope for success lies in the hands of the werewolves she hates and the Inquisition she fears, but finding someone to trust is only the beginning of her problems. There are those who want to ensure that the werewolves go extinct and that the Inquisition falls.

But, if she fails to find a cure, her family—including her twin sister—will perish…

Winter Wolf can be preordered from the following vendors:

Chapter One

I slammed my car’s door, spun on a heel, and swore I would have a perfectly normal visit to the mall. All I needed was one little book. Even I could walk into a bookstore, pick up a novel, and leave without causing any trouble.

This time, I wouldn’t blow out the lights. There wouldn’t be a single power surge. I wouldn’t turn on every unplugged device in the electronics store on my way across the mall. In the ten minutes it would take me to get in and out, the only thing anyone would notice about me was the fact that I wore a high-collared sweater in late summer. I had a mission, and I would complete it without fail. The novel my agent insisted I read would be mine.

For a long moment, I considered turning around and getting back into my car. Dominic would forgive me if I didn’t start reading the book until tomorrow. I could call in a favor and ask someone to pick up a copy for me. Then I definitely wouldn’t run any risk of blowing anything up. If I had been smart, I would’ve just ordered the damned thing on the internet, but I had waited too long.

Fishing my cell out of my pocket, I unlocked the screen with a swipe of my finger. The charging icon mocked me. Despite running every battery-draining app I could find, the battery held a full charge. I opened another app, a devilish program capable of killing the battery in ten minutes. It wouldn’t, not with me around, but if I was too busy keeping my phone topped up, maybe my mall shopping trip would prove to be mundane.

I shook my head, laughing at my foolishness.

No one would notice my phone. No one would notice me for more than a second. They’d notice my clothes, and then they’d file me away as yet another weirdo wearing something strange to catch attention. L.A. was full of people like that.

I had no reason to worry. Even if I managed to embarrass myself yet again by losing control of my powers, no one would know I was the cause of unplugged electronics turning on or unusual power surges.

Straightening my shoulders, I fixed my eyes on the line of glass doors and marched my way across the parking lot.

In and out. No blown lights. No power surges. No feeding power to unplugged electrical devices. No charging batteries for strangers. I was in control, and I would charge only my phone.

Making my way to the entry, I paused long enough to hold the door for a little old lady who insisted on making her way through the regular doors despite her walker. I couldn’t blame her. If I lived to be her age, I wouldn’t want to rely on automatic doors either.

She thanked me with a pat on the arm. Flashing her my best smile, I slipped inside.

Nothing happened.

Perfect.

I could handle ten minutes in the crowded corridors. Maybe if I told myself that enough times, I’d believe it.

I stuck to the center of the hallway, dodging kiosks as I worked my way to the bookstore. Despite being so close to closing time, the place was busy, leaving me to navigate a sea of bodies. I considered stopping at one of the jewelry kiosks. There was something appealing about the humble, cheaper baubles, but I didn’t quite dare.

In and out. No stops, not even to admire the gemstones twinkling under the display lamps. This time, I wasn’t going to break anything, not even a single light.

When I reached the bookstore, I paused at one of the display tables, staring down at the cover of some thriller novel. Picking it up, I pretended to read the back. I focused my attention on the hum of electricity around me. First, I heard—and felt—the lights overhead. Power radiated from them, their glow bleeding energy and heat. Then I felt my cell phone, siphoning energy from me like some inanimate, modern-day vampire. Its little battery hungered, desiring everything I could give it and more. It wanted to be charged.

One by one, I became aware of all of the little devices around me. Almost everyone in the store had a phone. Dormant devices, from reading lights to mobile chargers, littered the tables. One woman, browsing books nearby, had four battery-powered devices in her purse. One was a phone, and like mine, it hungered. Its need was strong; its battery waned to the point of failure.

If I wanted, I could charge it for her.

No one would notice if I did. Maybe the woman would wonder how her phone hadn’t died before she got home. It only had a few minutes left. It’d take me all of ten seconds to fix it for her. If I did, I wouldn’t be so aware of it. But to do so, I’d have to touch her—or her phone. Some things I could manipulate without having a direct conduit, but cell phone batteries were tricky, greedy things.

I cringed a little, setting the thriller book down. I picked up the next nearest title. I flipped it over, not reading the text on the back. Did I dare? Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the woman browsing through the books. All it would take was a few seconds. I could charge it without her noticing.

That was one thing I was actually good at.

I put the novel I held down and wandered to the same table, careful not to look at her. Book by book, I investigated the titles, circling to where she stood.

“You’re Nicole Thomas, aren’t you? The actress. You’re her.” My quarry appraised me with a pleased expression.

People normally recognized the mainliners, people with beautiful faces and voices to match, people who didn’t avoid crowds.

In short, people other than me.

I met her gaze, abandoning my perusal of novels. “I am,” I replied, wincing a little at the sandpaper-rough quality of my voice. At least I hadn’t been reduced to a whisper—yet. My fatal flaw was my rough, grating voice. Chronic laryngitis did that to a person. It ruined careers, as it had mine, though I hadn’t quite given up on being an actress. I’d already lost the ability to sing.

I wasn’t going to let a stupid disease take everything away from me.

The woman smiled, not seeming to mind talking to someone who sounded more like a zombie than a human. “You’re taller than I expected. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

She thrust out her hand.

We shook.

I left her phone alone.

“They keep putting me next to giants,” I quipped. It was true. When I did manage to get on the silver screen, I worked alongside actors easily a foot-and-a-half taller than me. “It’s a pleasure to meet you too.” I matched her smile. She didn’t tell me her name, and I didn’t ask for it.

It took all of my will not to fiddle with her phone. All it would take was a murmured word and a thought, and it’d be done. It would have been easy to charge the battery when our hands had been clasped together, but I hadn’t dared.

If, sometime later, she noticed her phone had magically been charged—literally—she might remember me. She knew my name.

And in true cowardice, I couldn’t bring myself to help her. If she connected the strange behavior of her phone with me, she might tell someone. If she did, I’d be as good as dead—or worse. I had dabbled in the occult, and the occult had dabbled back, and there were those who didn’t like when that happened.

The last thing I needed was them finding me.

“When is your next film coming out?”

“Next year. The release announcement will be coming out soon.” Like most of my roles, I was in a secondary role, although it was a semi-major film. All things considered, my casting had been a miracle. Dominic was a genius as an agent, and I still had no idea how I, the Sandpaper Queen of L.A., had managed to land him. It certainly hadn’t been through the sparkling qualities of my voice.

The woman smiled, shaking my hand a second time. “I look forward to it.”

Music played from the woman’s purse, and she pulled her cell out. The device, starving for electricity, called out to me. Looking down at the display, the woman made a displeased noise. “Sorry, I have to take this.”

“Have a good night,” I replied, smiling at her, retreating so the phone’s hunger wouldn’t tempt me anymore. I abandoned the display tables and hunted for one of the employees. The store would close soon enough, and if I wanted to read the book tonight, I needed to get home.

Wise actresses didn’t anger their agents, and we had a dinner appointment tomorrow. If Dominic wanted me to read a book, he had a reason for it, and it wasn’t for my personal amusement.

I found a young man stacking novels on one of the tables near the escalators. He straightened when I approached, his eyes widening as he looked me over. “Can I help you, ma’am?”

Giving him my best smile in the hopes he’d be too distracted by my looks to notice my rough voice, I glanced down at his name tag. “Hey, Scott. Do you have a copy of Among Us by M.L. Silverston in stock?

Scott blinked, his dark eyebrows rising at my question. “Sure, this way please.”

He led me straight to the fantasy section, gesturing to a pile of hardbacks arranged on a small table in the corner. “Thanks,” I murmured. The word came out as a rasp.

A blood-splattered cover with a shuffling zombie greeted me. I bit back a sigh, stashing the novel under my arm.

Nicole Thomas, ready-made zombie. With my voice, I’d make a great undead. Maybe I’d get an upgrade to a lich or something. Liches, at least, were unique and way more interesting than zombies or vampires. With my luck, I’d end up snack to some zombie or vampire in the film.

Murphy and his crappy law were my constant companions, and he got perverse enjoyment out of making me squirm.

I eyed the stack of books and the decaying woman depicted on the cover. Dominic often asked me to read the source material for a new script before sending me to an audition or popping an offer for a film. For the first time in a month, I had hope my agent had managed to find something for me. My career was going through a dry spell worse than California’s persistent drought.

If he did have a role for me related to the book, I’d be golden. Movie adaptions of bestselling novels often did well. Better yet, on a movie set, it was easy to hide my affinity with electricity-powered devices. There were so many places I could unleash excess energy without anyone ever noticing, not even after close inspection of the electric bill.

Until filming was done, I wouldn’t have to worry about anything. By the time I returned home each night, I’d be exhausted—physically, mentally, and magically. I could go out to the mall and not even have to worry about things like magic because I’d be so tapped out that my cell would be all I needed to control my unwanted powers.

“Is that all you need, ma’am?” Scott asked, startling me from my thoughts.

I smiled for him again. “Yes, tha—”

The store’s lights dimmed so low I could barely make out Scott next to me. Several moments passed before they brightened again with an erratic hum and buzz. I stiffened, staring up at the lights. My heart skipped several beats before racing in my chest. Had I unwittingly lost control? I didn’t feel like I had drained the electricity from the lights. There was no telltale tingling or the twitchy nervousness I associated with having an abundance of energy to play with.

I could still—although faintly—feel my phone sipping away at the power I offered it.

“Again?” Scott asked, his voice deepening with annoyance. “That’s been going on all day.”

“Weird,” I replied, forcing myself to look at anywhere other than the ceiling. “Anyway, thanks for the help. Have a good night, Scott.”

The lights dimmed again, brightening after several long moments.

“You too, ma’am.”

When I headed towards the registers, Scott followed, pausing now and then to straighten the displays. I caught him staring at me several times, but I pretended not to notice. Was I committing some sort of fashion crime? I adjusted the collar of my red sweater, checking to make sure it covered the scars on my shoulder and neck. It did. I wasn’t wearing anything special. I’d left my jewelry at home. The only thing interesting about me was my leather heeled boots, and those were hidden under my worn jeans.

A little bemused over Scott’s staring, I headed towards the register, reaching into my pocket for my wallet.

The lights went out.

“Oh my,” the cashier murmured.

“Again? Really? What’s this, the fourth outage this week?” Scott cursed, and I heard him bump into one of the display tables nearby.

“Fifth,” woman behind the register corrected. “You’re cursed, Scott. It’s always on your shift! The power will be back on in a minute. Sorry about this, ma’am.”

“No problem,” I replied, staring up at the ceiling. I could feel the residual energy in the lights as tendrils of heat seeped into my skull. If I wanted, I suspected I could route my power through the floor and light the place up.

I probably had enough strength to light the entire mall if I wanted. I concentrated on my cell phone, focusing my will on it. I wasn’t going to break anything, not even a single light. I definitely wasn’t going to light up the entire mall.

No one would learn the truth about me.

I clutched the book, drumming my fingers against the dust jacket. Someone giggled nervously in the darkness. A cell phone glowed on the other side of the store.

“You know, if you have exact change, I can do the sale manually,” the cashier offered. “I wonder why the generator—”

A high-pitched sound sent shivers up and down my spine. For a moment, all I could do was freeze. Something—someone?—screamed. At least, I thought it was a scream; there was nothing human about the hair-raising shriek.

“Jesus Christ!” Scott’s voice sounded weak. “What wa—”

The wet, dull crunch of breaking bones silenced Scott’s voice. For a moment, I wasn’t in the bookstore, but in my twin’s car, crashing through the guardrail into a ravine. My leg, my arm, and my shoulder had made similar sounds before my screams had drowned them out.

My breath caught in my throat.

The splat of something wet hitting the floor nearby freed me from the nightmare of the past. The stench of fresh blood hit me hard. Another stench clogged my nose. I gagged, recoiling a step.

Warmth dripped down my face.

“S-scott?” the cashier gasped out. There was no answer. “Scott? Scott, damn it all, this isn’t funny.”

Thud. Thud. Thud.

The noise came from nearby, so close I feared I could reach out and touch the source. With a thought and murmured word, I severed the connection to my phone.

Silence.

I tightened my grip on the book, hugging it to my chest. At home, I would have had one of my focal stones to work with, allowing me better control of my powers. At home, there wouldn’t have been witnesses. If I turned the lights in the store on, I’d be found out.

Then I’d be killed.

“Scott!” The cashier’s voice rose in pitch.

Scott didn’t answer.

“Come on, Scott. This isn’t funny anymore,” the cashier whispered, her voice trembling.

I swallowed back my own fear and drew several deep breaths. The cashier had said the lights would come back on in a minute.

With a shudder, I closed my eyes. I couldn’t wait that long. Something had happened to Scott.

The lights flickered on, dimly illuminating the bookstore as I started to speak a word that would unleash my power. As I choked back the first syllable, my skin tingled as I suppressed the energy, keeping it from surging into the electronics nearby.

Scott was gone. Squinting in the faint lighting, I looked for the young employee. I was certain I had heard him nearby, but there was no sign of him.

Across the counter from me, the cashier shrieked, holding one hand to her mouth while pointing at the floor in front of me. “Oh god. Scott!”

I looked down. The pale lump on the ground, splattered in crimson, wasn’t large enough to be a human. It was too misshapen, colored in gray and red instead of flesh tones. I stared, unable to tear my gaze away.

With a flicker and a surge of electricity, the lights flared to full brightness.

Something warm and wet dripped down from the ceiling. My hand trembled as I reached up and touched my cheek. The tips of my fingers came away red with blood. Crimson stained the floor, the books, the tables, and had splattered on the ceiling.

I had been right. The shape on the floor was too small to be a person.

It was only part of one—a part of Scott.

The occult had dabbled with me, but it had ripped him to pieces.

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