I’m excited to join five other amazing fantasy authors in a new collection, Faery Worlds. For the rest of the week I’ll be featuring the other novels you can find in this ebook full of magic, love and fae.
Anthea Sharp’s Feyland: The Dark Realm
Faeries. Computer games. When realms collide, a hero from the wrong side of the tracks and the rich girl he’s afraid to love must risk everything to defeat the dangerous fey.
What if a high-tech computer game was a gateway to the perilous Realm of Faerie…
Jennet faced the Dark Queen, her mage staff at the ready. Excitement fizzed through her blood like it was carbonated. This was it. She’d completed the quests, mastered each level of the game, and made it here. The final boss fight.
“Fair Jennet.” The queen’s voice was laced with stars and shadow. “You think to best me in battle?” A faint smile crossed her pitiless, beautiful face. Her dress swirled around her like tatters of midnight mist.
“I plan on it,” Jennet said. She tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear, then shook off the sudden anxiety that settled on her shoulders, cold as snow.
She had no idea what this particular fight held. Feyland was the hardest sim she’d ever played, full of weird twists and turns. She thought about it all the time. The game filtered into her dreams, shaded the edge of her days. Sometimes the computer-generated world felt more real than her ordinary life.
“Very well,” the queen said. “I accept your challenge.”
Jennet couldn’t see any weapons on her opponent, and that dress was no substitute for armor. Safe bet that this was going to be a magical duel, spell-caster against spell-caster. Jennet flexed her fingers around the smooth wood of her staff. Anticipation spiked through her, tightening her breath.
Fantastical creatures watched from the edges of the clearing: feral-faced women with gossamer wings, dark riders with red-eyed hounds at their heels. The sound of drums and pipes wove through the shadows. Overhead, a sliver of moon tangled in the black branches of the trees. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, silence fell.
A dark figure stepped forward, forbidding in midnight armor and a wicked helm, and Jennet’s stomach clenched. The Black Knight. She’d barely beaten him in an earlier quest. If he got involved in this fight, she was in severe trouble.
He held his gauntleted fist high and grated out a single word. “Begin.”
It echoed eerily through the glade, and the fey-folk let out a rough cheer. There was no one to cheer for Jennet.
Without hesitation, she tipped her staff and shot a bolt of fiery white light at the queen. A sphere of shadow appeared, blocking her attack and swallowing the fire into its dark depths. More spheres materialized and began floating toward her, called by the Dark Queen. Jennet ducked and wove, avoiding their deadly touch.
Lightning crackled from her staff, illuminating the clearing with shocking white light, but the queen evaded her bolts. Still, Jennet kept pressing the attack. The dark spheres were multiplying now, bobbing in the air on all sides. A low, menacing hum surrounded her as she tried to find a clear shot.
She couldn’t afford any mistakes – but the fight was pushing her to her limits. Worry started to nibble at the edges of her concentration. She just had to watch for an opening… there. She took aim and sent another bolt crackling through the air.
White fire sizzled and Jennet heard the queen gasp. Yes! She could do it. She could beat this game. The first player ever to claim victory over Feyland.
A dark sphere brushed against her shoulder. Ice stabbed into her skin, sent numbness down her arm until she could barely hold onto her staff. She stumbled back, trying to regain the rhythm of the battle. Keep breathing. Keep fighting. But where was the queen? The place where her opponent had stood was now filled with twisting shadows.
Everything rippled, as though the clearing was made of cloth billowing in a sudden gust. Jennet heard high, chiming laughter as she fell backward…
And landed in an ornate chair set before a feasting table. What? She jumped up, heart racing, and knocked the edge of the table. A goblet sitting in front of her shook, sending a drop of deep red liquid to stain the white tablecloth.
“Sit down, Fair Jennet,” the queen said from her place across the table. “This is the next stage of our battle.”
Pale candles in thorny candelabra illuminated the feast. Their silver flames reflected in the queen’s fathomless eyes.
“You changed the rules! You can’t do that.” Jennet’s legs felt shaky as she edged back into her chair. She was so not prepared for this.
The queen laughed. It was the sound of ice shattering on a black lake. “Of course I can. This is my court. My realm. You are but a visitor. Please – drink.” She waved one delicate hand at the goblet.
Jennet’s mouth said the words, but her hand reached out anyway and lifted the heavy silver goblet. A sweet, thick smell drifted from the cup. Roses and burnt sugar. The edge of metal touched her lips.
No. She was not going to do this. The queen might try to control their battle, but she could still fight back. Fingers trembling from effort, Jennet forced the goblet away. The air around her was sticky and nearly solid, like dough. She pushed against it, her breath coming in gasps, until at last the cup touched the table.
“Very well.” The queen’s voice was edged with frost. “If you disdain my hospitality, then you must answer a riddle.”
That seemed safer than drinking whatever was in the goblet. And the game wasn’t giving her a lot of other options. “A riddle? All right.”
The candles flared and the queen’s eyes glowed. “Listen then, and listen well, the answer to this riddle tell, or forfeit of thyself will be, and never more wilt thou be free.”
Jennet shivered. The queen’s voice was ominous, her words intoned with deep meaning. Whatever happened, it was clear that failing to answer the riddle carried a price. Jennet curled her fingers tightly into her palms and tried not to show the fear flickering through her.
“Ask me your riddle,” she said.
“As soon as it begins, it is ending. Without form, still it moves. When it is gone, it yet remains.” The queen smiled, sharp as a blade. “You have three guesses.”
“Ah…” Jennet’s mouth was dry. Her mind beat against the riddle like a bird trapped behind glass. Without taste or form. Something powerful, but insubstantial. “Is it the wind?”
A low sighing went through the branches of the dark trees. The candle nearest her snuffed out, as though some invisible hand had abruptly doused the flame.
The queen shook her head. “One chance gone.”
A circle of watchers had formed around the table. Lithe women with gossamer wings gathered beside the queen. Gnarled brown creatures with sharp teeth and fingers that were too long for their hands swayed next to them. Red-capped goblins and capering sprites – they all watched her with avid, gleaming eyes.
Freaky. This whole battle had turned beyond strange. Jennet pulled in a deep breath, though her chest felt tight, and gave another answer. “Music?”
The second she said the word, she knew it was wrong. She shivered as a second candle flame went out. The watchers surrounding her tittered, and the low breeze rustled the branches.
Jennet squeezed her eyes closed, blocking out the shadowy glade, the fantastical figures, the wicked curve of the Dark Queen’s smile. Her heart thumped loudly in her chest, and she tasted the metal edge of fear on her tongue. Think. She had to figure this out.
“Your time has run, Fair Jennet. Speak your final answer.”
She opened her eyes, to see that the Dark Queen had risen to her feet. A single candle burned between them.
Panic banged through her, like a hundred doors slamming shut. The watching creatures grew still and silent. Even the wind quieted, waiting. She had to answer.
“Is it … a dream?” The words floated from her mouth and hovered there, just beyond her lips.
In the silence that followed, Jennet felt shadows gathering closer. Dread crawled through her, carrying the awful sensation of failure.
The last candle died. A high, wailing music started up, the keening cry of pipes swirling through the air. Slowly, the queen shook her head. Diamonds sparkled like frost in her dark hair.
“No,” she said. “You have lost. Now, mortal girl, I take my due.”
The queen held up a hollow crystal sphere in one hand. With the other, she scribed strange gestures in the air. Her fingers left glowing streaks of silver against the darkness. Then she pointed straight at Jennet.
“Ahh!” A sharp pain speared through Jennet, as though the queen had stabbed her in the chest. She doubled over, gasping, while agony iced her blood. Oh god. It hurt.
“Behold, Fair Jennet,” the queen said. “The answer is Life. Your essence is captured here. It will serve us well.”
Jennet looked up, tears clouding her vision. The queen held the sphere aloft. It wasn’t empty any more. Inside was a bright swirl of color, like rainbow flames. They pulsed and danced, trapped inside their crystal prison. Wavering, calling to her.
“How,” Jennet forced the words out through lips tight with pain, “how do I get that back?”
Every game had a second chance, a third. You kept fighting the last battle until you finally won. Failure wasn’t permanent. Not like in real life.
The queen laughed, and the sound carried a bitter chill. “You cannot. Without a champion, you are lost. Now go. Go! I send thee, defeated, from the Dark Realm.”
Pain wrenched through Jennet and she screamed. Golden light blinded her senses and she swirled through a sickening vertigo. Blackness waited, merciful and dark, on the other side. She opened her arms to it, and fell.
Jennet woke, aching, in the sim chair. Her fingers were stiff inside the gaming gloves, and when she sat forward, fire exploded in her shoulder. She could barely lift her arm, but it was impossible to take off the helmet one-handed. Trying not to whimper, she gritted her teeth against the agony and pulled off her gear.
She had lost.
Feyland was more than just a sim game. The clues had been there all along, but she hadn’t paid enough attention until now. Now, when it was too late. And she’d done worse than lose the game.
There was an icy hollow in the middle of her chest. The Dark Queen had taken something from her – something she feared she couldn’t live without. Bright flames trapped inside a magical sphere. Her mortal essence, the queen had said.
She had to get it back.