THE SYLPH HUNTER
Former concubine Eapha now sits on the throne as the carefree—if negligent—queen of a corrupt desert empire. As the ambassador from Sylph Valley, Devon Chole travels to Meridal, aided by an air sylph named Airi—and saddled with a crippling fear of battle sylphs. Upon his arrival, Devon quickly falls for Zalia, a young virgin waitress who has recently become the object of a supremely handsome battle sylph’s unyielding lust. But there are worse dangers than battle sylphs…
Unseen and insatiable, it threatens to consume all life in its path. And should it reach the heart of Meridal, even an army of battle sylphs will be helpless in the face of a creature known only as The Hunter.
Release Date: 4 March 2014
The sylphs were dancing.
There were hundreds of them, a storm of colors swirling around each other in a glorious celebration of life. Despite the fact it was once a place used to lure and trap their kind, the underground chamber they used was now a brilliantly lit place of joy. Air, earth, water, fire, healing, and battle, they whirled in a mad happiness that had no music.
Over by the far wall of the massive chamber, Gel sat on the floor with his arms across the tops of his knees and watched the sylphs play. They were ecstatic with the idea of being free, the joy of being allowed to do what they wanted and to interact as they never had before the queen came. Not in Meridal, where even human beings were once sold as slaves and sylphs had been nothing more than property.
In the center of the chamber, a circle of noncolor gleamed, floating a dozen feet above the ground. The sylphs danced around it, calling those on the other side to come through and join them.
He’d been told it was a small hive past the gate, one badly depleted by predators, though Gel couldn’t imagine what kind of predator would threaten sylphs. He’d seen the battlers the day the queen had arrived. He’d seen how much they had destroyed, including all of the nobility and even the emperor himself.
Gel closed his eyes, not really wanting to remember that day any more than he did any of the days before it. He’d spent years locked in a cage not much larger than he was himself, his tongue chopped out to keep him from speaking to the earth sylph who had been bound to him. She was only supposed to feed from him after all, him and the four others caged with him.
Are you all right? he heard Shasha ask in his mind.
Gel opened his eyes. Before him stood what appeared to be a young girl, except her skin was formed of smooth marbled stone and her eyes were rubies. She looked at him critically, her hands clasped behind her back while the sylphs behind her continued their silent display. The only real sound in the chamber was the chanting of the priests, left alive for their skill with the gates, and the fearful chattering of the humans brought in—sometimes against their will—to become masters for the newest sylphs. Most of the more experienced masters were like Gel, sitting against the wall and watching. To them, none of this was truly real and it was easier to just stay out of the way.
His earth sylph kept watching him. Her official master had been killed by the battlers during the rebellion for the newly established crime of having kept a sylph under control like a tool. Gel had been nothing more than a feeder, one of the five men kept caged for her to feed from, all of them tongueless to stop them giving commands. Of all of them, he was the one she’d chosen to be her only master after they were freed. Gel didn’t know why, but he wasn’t unhappy about it because he’d always liked the little creature. When he’d been in his cage, she was the only highlight of the day, coming as she did in the shape of a pillar of earth and somehow seeming both sad and kind to him. He’d loved her a little bit and had always wanted to set her free. Perhaps she’d sensed that in him.
“I’m okay,” he said slowly. The feel of his regrown tongue in his mouth was still alien to him and his words slurred.
Behind Shasha, the gate continued to glow, the storm of sylphs happily flickering around it . It shimmered briefly, and a tendril dropped out of the hovering gate like a thread drawn across his vision. Gel blinked.
“Do you want to leave?” the earth sylph asked. Spoken aloud, her voice was gravelly.
Gel shrugged, hugging his knees. Where was there to go? At least it was cool in here and there were no expectations. “It’s all right.”
“Okay.” Leaning forward, she kissed him quickly on the cheek and turned, stomping back toward the dance. Gel lifted a hand to his cheek and touched the skin where she’d kissed him with a trembling smile.
The line swished again, dragging across the floor. Gel blinked a second time, squinting to try and see it more clearly, but the sylphs were in the way. He wasn’t even sure he was seeing anything at all, since it was almost invisible and no one else appeared to notice it at all. Gel blinked a third time and shook his head, but the thread didn’t go away, though the sylphs continued to ignore it. If they didn’t see it, it had to be imagined. Gel sighed, feeling odd and out of sorts. He had his freedom, but he didn’t know what to do with it. Going in a heartbeat from slave to . . . what? What was he?
Shasha came back toward him, her expression concerned. Gel didn’t know what to say to her or what she wanted from him. Not much it seemed, save his energy and his company. She certainly didn’t expect him to work, though he accompanied her when she did. Gel didn’t like the idea of being alone. This whole freedom concept was much easier on her than him, but then again, sylphs in Meridal were now the rulers. All of the old leaders and masters of the former regime were dead or being hunted down. Those who remained weren’t allowed to give orders at all; they were just supposed to exist in harmony with their sylphs.
Gel didn’t have any urge to order Shasha to do anything, but harmony wasn’t something he was sure he could ever get his mind around.
Shasha hunkered down beside him, looking at him with worry he could feel as well as see. She put a cool stony hand on his shoulder and he just stared toward the swirling dance and the gate, not knowing what to say, or even what word to put to this tumult of emotions inside him. Being mute had been so much easier.
The gate was swirling now as well, in a mimicry of the sylphs around it. That distortion was one that everyone saw. Gel watched the sylphs stop their dance, many even becoming solid as they peered curiously at the gate, and the battlers started to move in. Everyone seemed puzzled; they still didn’t see the thread that swayed down from it. No, threads. Gel saw dozens now, dropping out of the gate and swishing across his vision. Hundreds? Gel blinked, now seeing the entire opening of the gate bearded by them, though that was the only place where he saw them. If it was his vision gone strange, wouldn’t they be everywhere? Some were thicker than mere threads, grown in width to the thickness of a man’s arm, or even a man’s body. Gel stared. Shasha looked at him, confused by his confusion, and turned to peer uncomprehendingly at the gate, seeing absolutely nothing.
A water sylph that looked like a rolling ball of liquid wandered into the forest of threads. Immediately, she turned translucent and vanished, flowing so swiftly up the length of the tendrils that she was gone before he even realized she’d been touched. Gel’s breath caught.
The sylphs definitely couldn’t help but notice that. Even as the water sylph’s master started screaming from somewhere at the edge of the chamber, the battlers began to roar. They didn’t have time for more than that.
Things exploded through the gate, and these weren’t thin as the first threads had been, but tentacles that were thick and barbed. The sylphs still couldn’t see them, and even to Gel they were clear as water, visible more as a distortion than an actual object. He drew breath, forgetting he had a tongue to scream with, and saw them tear into the sylphs, lashing together dozens with a single tentacle and yanking them in, only there were hundreds to lash with. Ozone stank in the air as the sylphs vanished, turning strangely gray before they were sucked away and the tentacles reached farther, sweeping through the room where the only sounds were sylph wails and human screams.
Gel finally remembered how to scream then, forgotten after years in the cages. His voice came out shrill and inhuman and he clutched Shasha’s arm tight, his fingers turning white and painful against her stone. She was staring around, terrified and not understanding even as everyone else died.
We should have left, was all Gel could get himself to think. We should have left.
Something forced itself through the gate, ripping it apart but still managing to hold it open while the priests died. Gel continued to stare in horror. Whimpering, Shasha threw herself at him and he felt her arms go around him as tentacles ripped through the air toward them both.
It had been a good feed, the best it had had in a long time, but one that would have been dangerously rich had it been in free air. If it hadn’t been in this enclosed space, it could have made itself float much too high above the ground, with the risk of winds tearing it apart or pushing it to where there was no food. It had just been so hungry though. Already through the gateway before it realized the way back would close behind it, it swept through the chamber, looking and feeling with its tentacles for more food, but it had devoured everything.
It paused there for a moment, collecting itself, but it was pressing uncomfortably against the ceiling and the way it had come was gone. There was nothing left to do but go out through an opening in one wall. There was no other exit and it could smell more food that way. That was all in the world that mattered. Just the sky and the food.
Picking the only route out of this place where the food had drawn it, it lashed a thousand tentacles, some as thin as a human’s hair, others as thick around as an oak, flashing them down a wide corridor, and anchored them into the walls. Sure of its grip, it pulled itself forward, sliding its way down the corridor. The way was tight, but the creature was malleable when it had to be. Still, it didn’t like this feeling and it swept its tentacles farther, grabbing and pulling.
It found even more food during the process. When a human wandered around the corner, drawn by the noise, it wrapped a dozen tentacles around him and sucked him in to feed. The taste was strange, different from anything else it had ever tried, but it was food and the food was all. It chewed, swallowed, absorbed, and nothing but a splatter of blood was left as it pulled itself forward again, making its way into a huge area of abandoned, shattered cages and catwalks. There it let itself float, squeezing its way upward to the ceiling and then across to another, smaller corridor. That was harder to get into, but it managed, pulling itself through and to an even smaller staircase that led up. It was almost trapped there, but it exhaled some of the gases inside it, forced itself out, and finally was free, letting its tentacles hang below it as it floated up, giving itself wearily to the winds and wherever they decided to take it.
Anything it saw on the way, it ate.