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Author Showcase – Jeffrey L. Kohanek (An Imperial Gambit: Wardens of Issalia Book 3)

A conflict of ideals – magic versus fire-powered weapons. The fate of Issalia hangs in the balance.

A new Empire has risen to power. Already in control of the east coast, the Imperial Army sets its sights on Issalia’s western kingdoms. Tensions rise as both sides prepare for war.

What deadly weapon will the Empire develop next?

Brandt and Quinn are espions – part spy, part thief, part assassin. Under false identities, these spies find themselves deeply entrenched within Empire headquarters. There, they gather information, seeking a means to foil the Empire’s plans for conquest.

One misstep by either warden could result in death – their own and thousands of others.

They are joined by a small squad of fellow wardens:

  • Wildcats – warriors trained to fight while powered by magic 
  • Rangers – experts in nature, these archers scout enemy forces 
  • Gadgeteers – engineers who invent magic-powered machines and weapons 
  • Arcanists – those who can wield Chaos – a destructive, rune-based magic 

Driven by the core belief that Chaos magic is evil, the Empire seeks to stamp out this scourge. If victorious, Chaos will be outlawed. Those who can wield it…will be executed.

The wardens must stop this Imperial gambit.

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The game is afoot – a game like no other. The world is my Ratio Bellicus board. The game pieces are real people with hopes and dreams and lives they believe they control. I know the truth of it – a truth my peers don’t even acknowledge.

While my enemy hides their pieces from me, I know the hand that moves them. In that knowledge, I have an advantage. My opponent’s motivation remains clear and they believe in that clarity. They see Chaos as evil. I see it as a tool, not so different from a knife. A knife can carve beauty from wood, slice an apple, or stab someone through the heart. How the tool is used defines its purpose. Magic is no different.

To my opponent, my hand remains hidden – my game pieces and their abilities unknown to them. Within this subterfuge, I study and consider, and I scheme. I shift a game piece here and move another there. The game pieces used are as important as the schemes guiding them.

My prodigy and her counterpart now dwell inside enemy headquarters, feeding from a well of misguided trust as they prepare for an act of betrayal. Sometimes, piercing your opponent’s heart actually becomes the knife’s purpose.

There may soon come a time where I become an active participant rather than simply the hand that directs others. When the time comes, my enemy best beware that I am well versed in knives and betrayal. Beware the hidden assassin, for a successful Imperial Gambit hinges on the placement of such a game piece.

From the journals of Master Espion, Delvin Garber

 

Natasha, Amazon Customer, 5⭐: OMG this series by is so good! It just keeps getting better and better. Idk how he does it but Kohanek is able to create such vivid imagery that I just get lost in his books. And I love all the characters! Quinn is by far my favorite though. I admire strong, loyal, brilliant women and Quinn is a character every girl and woman should look up too. All the other characters are wonderfully dynamic and admirable too so there’s never a lack of of that hopeful feeling. The world building is perfectly balanced and there’s enough action to keep things interesting but enough intrigue to keep me guessing. I wasn’t able to predict any of the big moments about this book which is so refreshing. I can’t wait to continue this series and read everything else Kohanek writes!
 
illidia, Amazon Customer, 5⭐: Jeffrey Kohanek has written another gem in An Imperial Gambit. The books in this series just keep getting better and better. I loved reading about the continuing adventures of my favorite characters and seeing them grow. I can’t wait for the next book in the series!
 
Megan, Goodreads Contributor, 4⭐: Another great one in the series

This book is another great addition in the Wardens series. It is the best book so far and I like that the books keep getting better as the stakes for the characters keep getting higher. 

This book focuses more on missions for various Wardens as well as some development of weaponry at the Ward. The story strikes a very good balance between these with all the events being directly related to the overall plot. There are no filler missions or filler characters which I really liked. Most of the book focuses on Quinn and Brandt. Their story is extremely interesting and somewhat unpredictable. The banter between. Them as well as Chuli and Jonah is quite entertaining. This book definitely builds up the tension between the Empire and everywhere else and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

 
Fiona, Goodreads Contributor, 5⭐: As always another awesome adventure written in glourious wide sweeps of imagination. A world full of all sorts of people who are fighting to end the rule of a corrupt section of people. The characters are well written and described. The world of Issalia rocks. I love all of Mr Kohanek’s books. I highly recommend grabbing a copy of this series, curling up with your favourite beverage and lose yourself in a fabulous series.
 

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Author Showcase – Judith Sterling (The Cauldron Stirred) (The Stone Awakened)

~~ The following books are on sale until March 21st for only 99 cents! ~~

 

Guardians of Erin, Book One

 

Ashling Donoghue never dreamed moving to Ireland would rock her perception of reality and plunge her into a mystery that brings legend to life.

At seventeen, she’s never had a boyfriend, but she feels an immediate connection to Aengus Breasal, the son of the wealthy Irishman who’s invited her family to stay at his Killarney estate.  For the first time in her life, a guy she likes seems attracted to her.

But Aengus is secretive, with good reason.  He and his family are the Tuatha Dé Danann, ageless, mythical guardians adept at shifting between this reality and the magical dimension known as the Otherworld.  Evil forces from that world threaten the Breasals, the Donoghues, and all of Ireland.  Ashling must open her heart, face her fears, and embrace a destiny greater than she could ever have imagined.

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            The night air was deliciously cool. Moonlight and darkness held equal sway over the backyard thanks to the shifting clouds. I dashed across the lawn and halted in the exact spot where Aengus had stood. Panting, I looked around, willing some kind of clue to materialize.

            The ruins in front of me darkened as large, heavy clouds swallowed the moon whole. The wind tugged at my long, loose hair and pajamas. Tiny raindrops spattered on my nose and cheeks. I turned my palms to the sky, and cold rain pelted them.

            “Great.” Intending to return to the house, I swiveled around.

            I gasped. My right hand flew to my chest. “Aengus?!”

            The man himself stood an arm’s length in front of me. “Why are you here?”

            “You scared the crap out of me!”

            “Whisht!”

            “What?”

            “Shush!”

            Pop!

            The strident sound came from the ruins. I whirled around and stared at the dark keep.

            Aengus grabbed me from behind. He pulled me to him and wrapped his arms around me. I reveled in the feel of his taut body, of his warm flesh against mine.

            Suddenly, everything changed. The rain stopped. The wind died. The entire landscape was bathed in the soft hue of twilight. Breasal Castle looked brand spanking new, just as it had during the bizarre dream in which I brought Aengus to the cottage. But this time, I knew I was awake.

            Dumbfounded, I gawked at the medieval magnificence before me. I had no idea what had happened and no desire to pull away from his embrace.

            His lips brushed my right ear, sending a shiver down my spine. “This way.”

            His right arm released me, and his left slid down to my waist. Maintaining body contact the entire time, he steered me toward the stand of oaks on our right.

            Once sheltered by the trees, he turned us around so we faced the castle.

            “Are we hiding?” I whispered.

            “We are.”

            “Why? And what just happened?”

            “I can’t say.”

            “Can’t or won’t?”

            “Both.”

            Until that moment, I’d forgotten I wore pajamas. Now I was acutely aware of it. Satin was pleasing to the touch, but something told me my attire had nothing to do with his grip on me.

            I looked up at him. “Not that I mind, but why are you holding me so close?”

            His hand tightened on my waist. “It’s necessary.”

            “I don’t suppose you can explain that, either.”

            With his gaze locked on the castle, he shook his head. He pressed his right forefinger against his mouth in a silencing gesture. Then he pointed up at the keep.

            High on the battlements, the black-haired woman from my dream—and from Branna’s painting—paced back and forth. Her hair whipped about her pale face and slender frame.

            She paused beside a gap in the crenelated wall and glared down at the fairy mound. Her colorless lips curled into a sneer. Then her human form morphed into a dark shadow, which fragmented into what seemed a million black particles. They swarmed into the air and shot across the twilit sky, disappearing into the distance.

            I took a deep breath. “So she’s real.”

            He nodded. “She’s real, to be sure. Come.” With his arm still hooked around me, he led me out of the woods and toward the fairy mound.

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Guardians of Erin, Book Two

 

Since moving to Ireland, Ashling Donoghue has tackled one challenge after another.  Now the mystery of her parents’ disappearance seems unsolvable.  Are they dead or only missing?  No one—not even the godlike Breasals—has a clue.  Hope and fear war inside her, but she’s determined to find answers and stay strong for her siblings.  Even as she hones newfound powers, her banshee-in-training sister Deirdre needs her support.

Ashling could use a little help herself.  She’s struggling to navigate her first romance, and while Aengus Breasal stirs her body, mind, and soul, his nemesis Lorcan does too.  Both men harbor secrets about her past life as Caer.  One has ties to Aoife, the scheming wind demon whose influence is on the rise.

As the Stone of Destiny awakens, so does the conflict within.

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            Thunder shook the night as the Dullahan’s black stallion reared beneath him on the sweeping lawn below. The horseman thrust his severed head toward the sky and called out the names of those he hunted.

            “Dylan Donoghue! Maeve Donoghue!”

            Powerless to stop him, I watched from the bedroom window. The glass panes infused my palms with the chill of death itself. Out of sight, my parents screamed, then fell silent. The sound of laughter followed.

            Exultant. Spiteful. Malignant.

            Aoife! The wind demon whose foul plot shattered my family with a single blow.

            Hate and despair welled inside me. “No!”

            “Ashling, wake up!” My sister shook me awake.

            She switched on the lamp between our beds, and I scanned the room. The same sash windows as in the dream. The same luxurious décor in shades of periwinkle, white, and gray. Even my slippers beside the bed were the same. But the night was quiet, and there was no immediate danger.

            Deirdre tucked her long, blonde hair behind her ears and gave me a knowing look. “Another nightmare about the Dullahan?”

            Nodding, I wiped the sweat from my brow. “And Aoife.”

            “Sounds almost as bad as my dream the night he took Mom and Dad.”

            “We don’t know he took them.”

            “We don’t know he didn’t.”

            “They’re not dead!” Dread clutched my heart, and I pushed out a long breath to calm myself. “They can’t be.”

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Judith Sterling is an award-winning author whose love of history and passion for the paranormal infuse everything she writes. Whether penning medieval romance (The Novels of Ravenwood) or young adult paranormal fantasy (the Guardians of Erin series), her favorite themes include true love, destiny, time travel, healing, redemption, and finding the hidden magic which exists all around us. She loves to share that magic with readers and whisk them far away from their troubles, particularly to locations in the British Isles.

Her nonfiction books, written under Judith Marshall, have been translated into multiple languages. She has an MA in linguistics and a BA in history, with a minor in British Studies. Born in that sauna called Florida, she craved cooler climes, and once the travel bug bit, she lived in England, Scotland, Sweden, Wisconsin, Virginia, and on the island of Nantucket. She currently lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her husband and their identical twin sons.

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Review of “Fountain Dead” – Theresa Braun

Mark is uprooted from his home and high school in the Twin Cities and forced to move with his family into a Victorian in Nowhere-ville. Busy with the relocation and fitting in, Mark’s parents don’t see what’s unfolding around them—the way rooms and left behind objects seem alive with a haunted past. 

Of course, Mark keeps his ghostly encounters to himself, all the while sinking deeper into the house’s dark, alluring, and ultimately terrifying history. As romantic entanglements intensify, the paranormal activity escalates. Past and present come together. Everything is connected—from the bricks in the walls to the hearts beating in their chests, all the secrets of Fountain Dead are finally unearthed.

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(review request submitted by the author for an honest critique) 

 

Fountain Dead is a carefully crafted story that takes place in two time periods, in two POV’s.

Emma, born in the 1800’s, didn’t have a lifetime of love and happiness. There was a brief period of time she thought she’d achieve her HEA but her life took a grisly turn. Family turned against her and she learned the hard way not to trust anyone.

Mark’s story took place in 1988 when his family moved to Winona and into the Durley house, Emma’s family home. From the start, Mark knew something was off about the house. It was messing with his mind, his sister’s and eventually it turned its attention to others. The house was cursed. Anyone who entered it was prey.

Mark didn’t want to live in the house but a child must live where their parents tell them. His parents were oblivious to the danger lurking in the house but Mark wasn’t. He saw the spirits, humanoid creature, and saw the effects of possession firsthand.

As we watch Emma’s life progress, we see every monumental point in her life was somehow tied to what Mark and his family was living through in present time. At first, the time period/POV’s flip-flopping did mildly annoy me. It was occurring way too rapidly. I actually started taking meticulous notes because I wondered how each moment in the past would have an impact on Mark in his time period. It wasn’t until I was about mid checkpoint that I didn’t mind the flip-flopping speed as much because NOW the puzzle pieces were clicking together and the grand picture was almost revealed.

The link between past and present was mapped out very well and the ending was spectacular.

Cliffhanger? Yes, Theresa’s final moments in Fountain Dead let readers know there was more evil to battle.

 

Heart Rating System:

1 (lowest) and 5 (highest) 

Score: ❤❤❤❤

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Theresa Braun was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and has carried some of that hardiness with her to South Florida where she currently resides with her two fur babies, who are her creative sidekicks. She enjoys delving into creative writing, painting, photography and even bouts of ghost hunting. Traveling is one of her passions—in fact, her latest adventure took her to Romania for a horror writers’ workshop where she followed in the steps of Vlad the Impaler. She writes horror fiction and the occasional romance. Oh, and she likes to guest blog about writing, television shows, movies, and books, mostly in the horror genre.

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Author Showcase – Jeffrey L. Kohanek (The Arcane Ward: Wardens of Issalia, Book Two)

A dark enemy rises, driven by radical beliefs and armed with destructive weapons. The Wardens must respond.

Urgency forces ICON to accelerate the training of their new recruits, for a new Empire has captured the eastern kingdoms and seeks to conquer all of Issalia. Although a raw and untested squad, the Wardens might be the only hope of stopping this imposing threat.

Everson is a gadgeteer, tasked with harnessing a magical power source. Leveraging his brilliance, he enhances existing machines and creates new inventions that astound his superiors. His next amazing discovery might save lives…or it could destroy them.

Destined to become an espion, Quinn hones her skills in preparation of her first mission. Intense training, combined with her fierce determination and fearless nature, transforms her into something more…something lethal. However, skills of a different nature are required when she finds herself alone and surrounded by enemies in a land far from home.

Joined by magic-wielding royal twins and a small group of veterans, these individuals shall become Issalia’s shield against monsters and tyranny. Regardless of what occurs, ICON must remain vigilant, for the machinations of their enemy extend far beyond what anyone suspects.

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Parker Thanes pushed the tavern door open, stepped inside, and was greeted by a cacophony of cheers and laughter. The smell of salt air mixed with stale beer and unwashed bodies made him grimace. I don’t understand why she likes these places.

He pushed through the crowd as he headed toward the bar. Jostled sailors, spilled drinks, and a trail of curses followed in his wake. Ignoring the upset men, he scanned the crowded tavern until he approached his destination.

A hefty woman in her middle years stood behind the bar. The brunette filled a pair of tankards, turned, and placed them before two bearded men, one of whom had a pale scar on his tanned face, the wound running from his forehead to his cheek. After pocketing two coppers, she shifted her focus to Parker.

“Hello, Tess,” Parker greeted the barkeep.

“I’m glad you showed. Things are getting out of hand.”


Parker frowned. “Where is she?”


Tess flipped her head to the side. “Around back. You might want to hurry.”


Stifling a sigh, Parker forced his way around the far end of the bar. He turned the corner and found a thick crowd – the source of the cheers that arose earlier. Another round of shouts erupted, fists pumping into the air. He forced his way into the mass of bodies, emerging to find the back area open but for two people.

A man – tall and sinewy, with shorn dark stubble on his head and cheeks – stood facing a woman. She was short, even for a female. With blond hair that ran to her shoulders, she was dressed in a simple tunic, cinched at the waist with a studded belt. Her brown breeches were tucked into tall black boots, each with a knife strapped to them, matching the knives strapped to each thigh. Between the two was a round table with a dozen mugs on it. The man lifted a mug and drank, foam running to his chin as he chugged the ale. When finished, he tipped the mug upside down and slammed it on the table, where it joined the other empty tankards. Cheers rose up from the crowd while the man shook his head to clear it.

As the crowd quieted, the woman grabbed the last full mug and lifted it to her lips, emptying its contents without pausing for a breath. When finished, she lowered it, stumbled, and blinked, her blue eyes glazing over. A mixture of laughter and mutters came from the crowd until she flipped the mug over and slammed it down beside the others.

The man scowled, twisting a tanned face marked by a gold ring through one nostril. “Now, we will see who is better.”

He pulled a dagger from the sheath on his hip and gripped it by the blade. Turning away from the crowd, the man cocked his arm back and threw the knife, striking a hair below the intersection of an X carved into a wooden post fifteen feet away. He drew and threw another knife, which landed just above the first, the two hilts touching one another. When he turned back, his grin revealed the noticeable gap of a missing tooth.

“Your turn, Tenzi. Let’s see if a sodden girl like you can even hit that post.”

The woman moved toward the man, stumbling as she pushed him aside. As Tenzi stared at him, swaying, a satisfied smirk crossed the man’s face.

“Watch this,” Tenzi mumbled.

Her eyes seemed to transform, her half-mast lids narrowing with intensity as she stared at the man. Tenzi spun about, her hands a blur as a dagger appeared in each and flew toward the post. Without pausing, she unleashed the daggers strapped to her legs and they joined the first pair. A bend and a flick sent the two knives from her boots into the post. She then reached behind her back, pulled a blade from her belt, and flung it.

The seven knives perfectly formed an X, with the last blade landing directly on the intersection of the carved target, somehow fitting between the man’s two thrown blades. The crowd fell silent, the moment lasting a few breaths before loud cheers and shouts erupted. Heads shook in amazement as the men and women surrounding Parker began exchanging coins from bets placed.

Tenzi held her open palm toward the man. “Pay up, Ridley.”

The man snarled. “Leave off, Tenzi. I’m keeping my silver.”

In a flash, Tenzi had a knife in her hand and pressed against the man’s throat. “Didn’t know I had a blade strapped to my upper back, huh? I find it wise to always have an extra, just in case.”

With narrowed eyes, Ridley glared for a long moment before his lips pressed together and he slowly dug out a coin purse. Tenzi pulled the blade away and held out her other hand. After setting five silvers in her palm, he shook his head.

“Another ale and I would have had you.”


Tenzi smirked, gripping the coins in her fist. “Perhaps. Not today, though.”


The crowd began to disburse with many heading toward the bar for another drink. Parker shifted closer to Tenzi, frowning at her grin.


“Why do you spend time in these seedy places?”


Tenzi shrugged. “A girl’s gotta have a little fun now and then.”


Parker snorted. “I know you. Nothing you do is little.”


She moved toward the post and began retrieving her blades. “Why are you here? I thought you were staying on the ship tonight.”


“I was, but Joely and Hex came back early. They said that four others got into a fight at The Wind Sock tavern and were arrested.”


Tenzi slid two daggers back into the sheaths on her thighs, rolled her eyes, and grabbed the last three knives. “Again? Why can’t they stay out of trouble?”


Parker raised a brow. “I wonder who may have taught them to cause trouble.”


“You’re hilarious.” Tenzi slid a knife up each sleeve and waved toward Parker. “Let’s go. It looks like Ridley’s silver is going toward bail money, straight from him to the city coffers.”

Parker turned and squirmed through the crowd with the much smaller Tenzi in his wake. When he stepped out into the alley, the noise of the bar quieted and was replaced by a distant boom, followed by shouts and screams. With a furrowed brow, he led Tenzi down the alley and to the lit street.

People ran past in all directions, some heading toward the city wall, others toward the docks. Cries filled the air only to be engulfed by the boom of a distant explosion.

“To the docks!” Tenzi broke into a run.

Parker ran after her as she weaved her way through the foot traffic and around carts. They emerged from Downside – the portion of the Sol Polis that lay between the city wall and the docks – and found people crowding onto the pier. A flash of green flames erupted from a ship moored to the docks. People on the pier screamed and tried to reverse direction as the flames on the ship turned from green to orange.

“Flashbombs!” Parker shouted. “Someone is launching flash bombs!”


“That was a fleet ship,” Tenzi said. “We have to get the fleet out of the harbor.”

Fighting against the crowd, Parker and Tenzi pushed their way through oncoming traffic and onto the pier. An explosion blasted water into the air, sending two nearby ships rocking as seawater rained down on them. Running, Parker led Tenzi down the pier, running beside a handful of sailors trying to get to their ships.

“Why did we have to moor on the end this time?” Parker groaned as he ran.

They ran past the ship on fire. The flames had burned the length of the mooring rope and were licking the post tied to it. An explosion to the other side knocked them off their feet, Parker almost falling into the water as he gripped the pier edge. He sat up and turned toward the ship that had been struck. A wall of green flames raged upon it, turning orange as it spread. Burning debris lay scattered on the pier. Body parts as well. Tenzi cried out and frantically swatted the smoldering leg of her breeches.

Parker’s focus shifted toward the shoreline, and he saw armed soldiers running toward the pier. His eyes widened and he grabbed Tenzi’s wrist. “We need to run!”

Following his gaze, she saw the force collide with the crowd, cutting through them without resistance. Parker and Tenzi scrambled to their feet and ran toward the ship at the end of the pier. While Parker had never moved faster, he seemed be running in slow motion, the distance between him and the ship closing at an agonizingly slow pace. Until, finally, they reached it.

“What’s happening?” Shashi called out from the rail.


“Sol Polis is under attack.” Tenzi shouted. “Make ready to set sail!”


Parker reached the plank first and ran up it, heading straight for the pilot deck. Behind him, Tenzi shouted.


“I need Stein. Is he here?”

“Yes. Below deck,” Joely replied.

“Get him up here. Now!”

Sailors scrambled about the ship, some untying it from the mooring while others began preparing the lines. Parker turned toward shore and found dozens of armed men charging the pier.

Joely reappeared with Stein in tow, the latter rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“Stein. We need to take down the pier before those men reach us.” Tenzi pointed toward the soldiers and Stein’s jaw dropped. Without a word, he ran down the plank.

Parker unshouldered his bow and drew an arrow. He nocked it and prepared to fire. His gaze landed on Stein and found the man kneeling on the pier, tracing a rune with a chunk of glowstone. An explosion sent a thump into Parker’s chest as a wall of green flames blasted from the nearest ship. Again, flaming debris rained upon the pier and into the sea. Stein scrambled to his feet and ran up the plank as the enemy soldiers stormed down the pier. The moment Stein was on board, Shashi kicked the plank aside and it fell into the water. With its lines untied, New Horizons, the flagship of the Kalimar Navy, drifted from its mooring.

“Climb the rigging!” Tenzi called orders as she scrambled to the quarterdeck. “Raise mainsails!” She turned to Parker. “I’ll steer. You shoot.”

Nodding, he shifted away from the wheel and shot, the arrow arcing before it fell. A soldier in the vanguard stumbled to his knees and was bowled over by his companions. Another arrow launched as the rune on the dock began to glow a bright red. The rune pulsed while a third arrow found a target, striking a soldier who spun around and fell into the water. A fourth arrow struck an enemy soldier in the throat as the force reached the end of the pier. Archers stopped and raised bows toward the ship as the glow beneath them faded, the rune falling dark.

In a violent blast, the closest half of the pier exploded, launching debris and bodies into the air. Parts of both rained into the sea while angry red energy crackled and sizzled in glowing bolts that arced across the broken pier and the surface of the water. The portion of the pier that lay closer to shore remained, as did the soldiers who hadn’t made it any further.

As New Horizons gained speed and sailed out from Sol Polis, another explosion emerged from within the city. Based on its location, Parker surmised that the tower of flames came from the citadel. The city was lost. The capital of Kalimar had fallen in surprise attack. Again.

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** Keep scrolling for more reading material! **

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Jeffrey L. Kohanek grew up in rural Minnesota where comic books sparked his young imagination, inspiring fantasies of heroes with super-powers saving the day. His tastes later evolved to fantasy epics featuring unlikely heroes overcoming impossible odds to save worlds born from the writer’s imagination.

Now residing in southern California, Jeff uses that imagination to weave tales of engaging characters caught in fantastic plots to inspire young adults and the child within us all.

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Author Showcase – Tricia Copeland (Lovelock Ones)

Jema and Troy mange semi-normal lives at the Port Orford Naval Base despite global warming and mandatory genetic typing. With the threat of a second worldwide flu epidemic, their parents send them to a remote desert community. Jema’s sister contracts the virus, and Jema and Troy must decide whether to compromise the group to save one. Can Lovelock develop a cure in time to avoid mass casualty? As the political stage shifts, who can be trusted?

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Part Two: Bred One

 

Chapter 1 – Troy

“I’m never going to get this.” I let the bow fall to my side.

“Mark.” Jema used my Lovelock name. “I’ve been doing this for ten years. You’re not going to be perfect in a couple of months. It’s muscle memory, just like with football. You’ll get it.”

We’d been practicing for almost three months, both shooting and adapting to our community names. I called her Cleo about sixty percent of the time and hit the center target only one in ten.

“But for you it’s like breathing, Cleo.” I forced out her new name, trying to make the switch in my psyche. She would always be Jema to me.

“Have you never had to work at anything?”

“Yeah, this.” I held up the bow and arrow.

She kicked at the sand under her feet. “Maybe I’m not a good teacher. I just remember how my dad taught me. Think about it like throwing a football. You aim and then release, right?” Cocking her arm back, she faked a throw.

I dropped the bow. “If you put your arms around me like this.” I took her hands and wound them around my waist, so our lips were inches apart. Even in the dim light, I could see her cheeks flush. I loved feeling the warmth from her face. One day I would get up the courage to kiss her again.

Backing away, I lifted the bow and drew the string and arrow to my ear. “Twenty more and then we’ll run.”

“Might help if you use your night goggles like the rest of us.” Her voice trailed off as she walked away.

Swish. I let the arrow fly and fitted another on the string until my quiver emptied. I jogged to collect the arrows and turned to scan the area for Jema. I grabbed a bag and headed to her. “Commander Butler will be happy.” I held the open sac out to her.

“It’s a big one. It will have to hold him till we’re back.”

“You’d think he’d get tired of these.” I synched the bag closed.

“He loves rabbit.”

We walked to the blacktop, and I set the bow on top of her catch. Bumping her shoulder, I faced into the wind. “You ready for this?”

“You beating me again? Never.”

“No, tomorrow.” I pumped my knees up and down in place a few times.

“Yep.” She started a slow jog beside me.

“Not nervous?”

“Always nervous. I hate that it has to be a different place every time.”

“Yeah, and this is the farthest west we’ve been since our marrow run.” I shook my head, clearing the image of the dead soldiers from my brain.

“I do not like that the rendezvous is half an hour from the border.”

“Butler says they’re tightening security.”

Beside me, Jema’s shoulders trembled. “I feel like General Zhou is waiting for us at Port Orford.”

“Yeah, I can see him sitting at your kitchen table, wondering where you went.” I elbowed her, and she jumped to stay in stride.

“Fine. Whatever. Make fun of my nightmares.”

“At least you don’t dream about punching the commander every night.”

Hitting the one-mile mark, my body slid into the familiar rhythm. I watched Jema out of the corner of my eye. She’d become comfortable with our pace after three months of training. Thinking back to our first days in exile, I chuckled at how I pushed her to run. After our rogue mission, we switched to a night work schedule with the rest of the security and supply teams. Waking at 1600 every evening, we ate supper with the community and started our workday. The acquisitions training included physical conditioning, weapons drills, tactical maneuver and psychological warfare study.

Even though the other supply teams switched out, Cmdr. Butler sent Jema and me on each of the last two monthly restocking runs. The next supply run was scheduled for the next day, and we were, again, on the roster. I think Butler tried to keep us busy, so we didn’t plan any tangent missions. Besides being hungry all the time and the lack of friends, cave life wasn’t too horrible, considering marshal law had been issued in the states. At least they’d upped our food portions after we each lost four pounds the first month. Still, it’d taken another month to get my body to stop signaling the need for food.

At the three-mile point, I swirled my finger in the air, and we looped around to head back to the cavern. In addition to the team training, Jema and I ran just before dawn each morning. Then, we showered, and went to sleep just as the rest of the community members started their workday. Mom didn’t like seeing me for only an hour a day, but I appreciated the space from her. Jema and I roomed with the security team, and we had bunks beside each other. This arrangement counted as another plus in my head. Rooming with your mom at eighteen just wasn’t cool.

Nearing the cave we slowed our pace and walked to cool down. Taking in the last few breaths of open air, I snagged the bag with the rabbit and caught Jema’s hand. She smiled and squeezed my fingers, and I wondered if she wanted to kiss me too. But it might’ve made things weird if I pushed beyond our friendship, so I stayed my course.

Inside we dropped the night’s catch in the kitchen, showered, and joined the rest of the community for breakfast. Then, Cmdr. Butler briefed us in the command room, and we made our way to our darkened dorm.

“You ready, Mark?” One of our supply run leads, Garrison, caught up with me in the washroom.

I stood up straight. “Yes, sir.”

“Better not let that brunette mess with your head. I need you sharp tomorrow.” Chuck, the other team leader, pointed at me.

“Cleo? We’re not together. You know that.”

Chuck shook his head. “Commander wants you guys focused.”

I turned to face him. “We are. We’re just friends. We make a good team.”

“It’s more than just your life out there.” Chuck pushed his finger into my shoulder.

I straightened my spine and leaned towards him. “I know, dude.”

“Hey.” Garrison slapped my arm and turned to face Chuck. “Mark and Cleo are solid. They know what they’re doing.”

“Okay, if you say so.” Chuck swung his towel over his shoulder and walked away.

I held my hand out to Garrison. “Thanks, man.”

He clenched my palm. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been on the past two runs with you.”

I hated people doubting my skills. “Well, keep spreading the word. Mark and Cleo are the real deal.”

 

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About the Author

 

Tricia Copeland grew up in Georgia and now lives in sunny Colorado with her family. Her novels include the award nominated contemporary romance series, Being Me, Best Book Award finalist urban fantasy series, The Kingdom Journals, Lovelock Ones, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, and Drops of Sunshine, a YA paranormal novella. Find Tricia and her books at www.triciacopeland.com or on your favorite social media.

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