"...Together these stories can provide some spine tingling entertainment for paranormal fans. I found the group all together perfect for the upcoming season and a little scary - just what you need to get in the mood for Halloween.
"...Nocturnal is an entrancing collection of paranormal and fantasy stories, filled with captivating characters. This read will take you on a scintillating and steamy vacation from reality."
"...Nocturnal is a must read for any paranormal lover, and one you will want to read more than once. It gives you shivers and cheers from the beginning to the last page."
"...NOCTURNAL is every reader's dream with a few of the best authors all in one book. Full of paranormal beings, intrigue and, of course, romance, what more could I ask for. All the stories were well written and had me turning the pages to see what would happen to our heroes and heroines next."
Mari Schwartz glared at the red and blue lights flashing on the highway patrol cruiser as it pulled in behind her. Cursing softly but steadily, she dug out her registration papers. She was just reaching for her purse when the California Highway Patrol officer leaned over and gazed at her through the window.
Rolling it down, she plastered a bright smile on her face. “Hello, Officer.”
He nodded. “Ma'am. Did you realize you were doing eighty-five miles per hour in a fifty-five zone, one that's zoned for construction?”
Innocent smile. She could do this. “I was? But I couldn't possibly have...”
Stern glare. Obviously he wasn't falling for the innocent-maiden shtick.
He nodded and held out his hand. “Yes, ma'am. We got you on radar. Your driver's license, proof of insurance, and auto registration, please?”
She sighed. For a day that had started out so shitty, she honestly hadn't thought it could get any worse. Obviously she'd been wrong. Mari handed over the requested paperwork and stared straight ahead, just waiting.
It didn't take long. She could tell he was trying to maintain, but his snort didn't disguise his laugh. “Marigold Moonbeam Schwartz?”
She glared at him out of the corner of her eye. One of these days, she really was going to change her name. Raising one eyebrow she said, very drily, “Conceived during an exceptionally good acid trip, according to my parents.”
This time he laughed out loud. “You or the name?”
Sighing deeply, she shook her head. “Both, I imagine.” This time she looked him straight in the eye. He was definitely cute and appeared to be about her age. His blue eyes twinkled as he held out his hand. “I'm Officer Phoenix Rising Friday. Believe me, you have my utmost sympathy. I go by Nic, and daily I thank the good Lord I'm not a sergeant.”
She shook his hand, laughing. “I don't blame you. I'm Mari.”
He released her hand and stepped back, but he was still grinning. “I'm not going to write you up, Ms. Schwartz. I can't do that to a kindred spirit-bad karma, as my mother would say. Just a warning this time, but please slow down and drive safely. I'd hate to see a name as unique as yours in the obits.”
“Thank you.” He was cute and nice and...she glanced at the simple gold band on his left hand. Married. Definitely married. “I really do appreciate it, Nic. Not getting a ticket, I mean. I'm in a hurry to get home. My father's had some emergency surgery and...”
“Then get going, but drive safely. You won't help your parents any if you're in the hospital, too. Construction ends in another mile and you can legally go seventy.” He shook his head, “But not eighty-five.” He stepped back.
“I'll remember that. And thank you.” Mari carefully pulled the used Miata she'd recently purchased back into traffic. Thank goodness she'd dodged that bullet. A ticket in a construction zone would have cost her double, and for an unemployed investment banker with a very thin savings account, it could wipe her out financially.
Which was another reason she'd agreed to come home to Evergreen to run her mom's shop until her dad recovered. Well, that and the fact she couldn't afford to keep her apartment in San Francisco, not to mention the beautiful leased Mercedes she'd had to surrender now that she didn't have a job.
Damn, she'd surrendered way too much. Her 401k was long gone. As of today, so was the gorgeous little studio apartment with the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and even the boyfriend she'd thought she loved, who'd once talked of marriage.
Of course, if she was totally honest, losing Brad was the only positive thing that had happened lately. What a jerk! Telling her he loved her, that she could count on him. Then when he'd been among the first laid off when the bank downsized, he'd blamed Mari, like it was entirely her fault.
The bastard. How could she possibly have been so stupid?
It was bad enough when her own pink slip had arrived a couple days ago. Worse when she checked her savings account and discovered that Brad had burned through most of her ready cash impressing a new girlfriend she'd somehow not noticed.
Thank goodness she'd already turned in the Mercedes and given notice on her apartment. It hadn't taken long to put her belongings in storage, spend way too much of her cashed-out 401k on a used car, and get the hell out of Dodge.
So here she was, Stanford grad with MBA and pride in hand, headed home to Evergreen, California, to run what was nothing more than a tourist trap. Without a job or anything waiting, she hadn't had an excuse when her mom asked her to manage Crystal Dreams, the successful little business she'd had in Evergreen since before Mari was born.
Spirit Schwartz, who claimed to be a witch...for crying out loud, would be busy caring for her beloved husband during Freedom's recuperation from back surgery, while Mari, with all her amazing business background, sold magic crystals and potions to gullible tourists and serious New Age nuts.
“Aaarrgghh!” Mari huffed out a big breath along with her primal scream. “Damn, that felt good.” She blew out another breath and passed through the last of the orange construction cones, hit the open road, and pressed down on the accelerator.
She carefully kept it just under seventy, as per the officer's instructions, but as foothills and farmland disappeared behind her, she wondered again for at least the millionth time-why couldn't she have had normal parents instead of a couple of sixties throwbacks who'd never quite come down from the last acid trip? What could she possibly have done to deserve parents who'd stuck her with a name and a legacy she'd never live down, no matter how long she survived?
And how in the hell was she going to stand living so close to Freedom and Spirit? She loved them both dearly, but even their phone calls made her nuts. Living in the same town within hailing distance of her parents and running Crystal Dreams was going to turn her into a raving lunatic.
An unwelcome shiver raced along his spine. Darius of Kronus grasped his crystal sword with both hands and studied the wall opposite his position. He'd been guarding the portal to his home world of Lemuria for almost a week without any sign of trouble. Even now, all was well with the Lemurian gate, but the once sealed gateway to the hell that was Abyss and home to demonkind suddenly glowed with a most unsavory pulse of life.
After a quick glance over his shoulder, Darius stepped across the silent cavern and stood directly before the same portal the now exiled Alton of Artigos, son of Lemuria's leader, had so bravely closed with his crystal sword not quite two weeks ago.
Darius glanced at his own sword and wished once again that it would gain sentience and speak to him. He hadn't been raised to carry crystal. He had no idea what the gods-be-damned thing could do, though he'd observed how crystal killed demons.
He'd never seen one close a portal before, and it appeared the gateway to Abyss was about to reopen. “Nine hells.” He held the blade up and frowned. “If you would speak, you could at least tell me what I'm supposed to do next!”
The sword remained silent, but new light ebbed and flowed at the center of the portal, pulsing with the cadence of life. Heat surrounded the entire area and the dark stone began to change, spinning faster and faster. Colors flowed and spread-shades from white to orange and then blood red.
Darius leaped back as the center spun too fast for the eye to follow. The pulse took on sound, a sense of life that expanded with each breath he took. He glanced over his shoulder again. Should he notify his comrades? But he couldn't move. Something held him in thrall, some sense of portent-a power that drew him close even as it repelled.
Mesmerized by the swirling colors, the thrumming pulse, and the harsh intake of his own suddenly labored breathing, Darius stared into the very center of the awakening portal.
Like the lens of an eye expanding in darkness, it opened.
A black mist seeped through the deepest, reddest part of the reawakened gateway. Demonic mist, thick and oily and entirely formless flowed out through the center. Like purulence from a festering wound, it slid down the wall to the ground. Another wraith followed, and then another.
Faster now, boiling up and out of the portal, flowing along the wall, filling the chamber within the vortex, the demon wraiths oozed out. They bled away from the Abyssian portal and merged into a black, foul-smelling cloud that ebbed and flowed across the floor.
There was no sense of purpose to their movement. Not yet. They spread across the floor toward the portal to Earth's dimension-an Earth Darius knew was already reeling under demon attack. Then they doubled back and oozed up a wall, down the way they'd come and across the floor toward the Lemurian gateway.
Snapping out of his rapt fascination with the hypnotic demons' danse macabre, Darius held his breath and slashed his crystal sword through the black cloud.
He prayed to his gods-Let this blade be death to demonkind.
It had never been tested before, but then, neither had he.
Sparks flew. It worked! A banshee cry deafened him as the demon mist morphed into a single entity and faced him. He'd seen demons only once before, in a battle inside this same vortex when Alton and his mate had battled demonkind. Then he, a lowly guardsman, had carried a steel sword, useless against demons.
That day had been a turning point in his ordinary life-he'd been gifted with crystal. Empowered now, armed with a demon-killing blade, Darius slashed through the wraiths once again and the screams and cries, the sparks flaring and then dying in a sulfuric stench, told him that his blade cut true.
Again and again he attacked the dark mist.
Demons died, yet more came, spilling out of the portal, one after the next, dark and ugly and stinking of sulfur. More than Darius could fight alone. More than any single man-even a man wielding crystal-could hope to stop.
He raced to the Lemurian portal and stepped through the dimensional gate into his world. Down a short tunnel, through the energy veil that protected his unsuspecting people from the threat their ruling council refused to admit even existed.
He sent out a telepathic call to the sergeant of the Lemurian guard, his cousin Roland. Waited a brief second for Roland's reply.
Stop them. At any cost. Do not let any of the demons survive. I'm on my way. I'll bring the others.
The others. Only four of the guard-and that included himself and Roland-carried crystal blades. Four swords to protect an entire world. Darius turned and ran back to the vortex, back to stop the demons from invading Lemuria.
Except, when he arrived, the demons weren't coming toward the Lemurian portal. No. They'd changed course once again. As he watched, the seething mass of demonkind reached the gateway to Earth's dimension. Between one heartbeat and the next, they hit the portal and disappeared.
Only their stench remained.
Darius stared at the blue and green gateway that led into a world he'd only imagined. He glanced toward the portal to Abyss. It was quiet now, glowing softly red, and though it practically screamed its own malevolence, it was, in reality, silent.
Lemurians had long been forbidden entry into Earth's dimension. It was how they'd remained hidden for thousands of years, and yet, Darius had met citizens of Earth. In fact, two of them, both women, carried sentient crystal swords, an honor given to very few Lemurians and never before to a human.
He gazed at his own sword. He'd been honored to receive crystal, but his was not sentient. No, until he proved himself in battle, his sword would remain silent. He glanced toward the portal, the one the demon wraiths had passed through to Earth. That way led to the true threat. For now, anyway, demonkind appeared more intent on invading Earth than Lemuria.
He had his orders, directly from Roland of Kronus, sergeant of the Guard. Stop them. At any cost.
The alarm had been raised. Maybe Roland would know how to close the reopened portal from Abyss. Darius didn't have a clue how to do it. He was useless here. The real battle lay on the other side of the gateway-in Earth's dimension.
Earth. He'd dreamed all his long life of one day setting foot on the world Lemurians had once called home.
He glanced once more at his silent sword, raised his head, and stared at the doorway to Lemuria. Then, before he had time to talk himself out of such a precipitous move, Darius of Kronus threw caution to the wind and stepped through the blue and green portal, away from everything he knew.
Yet in many ways, he was actually going home.
Long before his birth, Lemurians had lived on Earth until their continent had disappeared beneath the sea. His ancestors had escaped the destruction of their home, but stories of the lost continent had filled Darius with dreams of one day setting foot on the world his people had once known.
He couldn't believe he'd actually done it, when, a few short steps later, he stood on the solid reality of Earth-more precisely, on the upper flank of Mount Shasta-just above the tiny community he'd heard of, called Evergreen.
The sun-the sun he'd never seen in his almost ten thousand years of life within the Lemurian dimension-was sinking beneath the broad curve of the earth, disappearing behind the silent mountains that stretched to the west. The sky above glowed in shades of violet and dark blue, edging to pale peach and yellow where the brilliant slice of sunlight hovered for one brief second longer before finally winking out beneath the horizon.
Caught in the awesome beauty of the mountain on which he stood, in the vast world around him unlimited by cavern walls and painted frescoes, Darius paused in total amazement.
Nine hells. So this was the world they'd been denied, this huge, limitless expanse of greens and golds, of blue sky and tall trees and vast mountain ranges. This was the world where Lemuria had once prospered, where her children had enjoyed the glory of sunlit days and star-filled nights-glory that was now merely legend and the stuff of dreams.
This was the world demonkind had chosen to attack, a world so filled with beauty Darius fought a powerful yet exceedingly unmanly urge to weep.
Instead of giving over to tears, he sheathed his sword, put a glamour upon it to hide it from unsuspecting eyes, and tightened the belt around his long, blue robe-the uniform of the Lemurian Guard. He shivered, suddenly aware of the chill air and the crystals of frost already forming on the ground around him. When he exhaled, a soft cloud of steam formed before his lips and nose.
Then he caught a hint of demon stench fouling the pristine air. His duty was clear as he headed down the mountain, following the sulfuric stench toward the tiny lights twinkling in the distance.
Humans would be there.
So would demons, and hadn't he been told to stop them at all cost? Darius tossed his many long braids over his shoulders and placed one sandaled foot in front of the other, following the narrow trail that led down the flank of the mountain. He might be here to hunt demons, but by the nine hells, he was finally going to see Earth.
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