Strangehold

Out Now!

Morgan Tenpenny has retreated from her painful, magical past, choosing to live quietly as a guardian of one of the gates between worlds. But her sister Gwen is married to a lord of the High Court of Faerie—and when Gwen asks her to protect her nieces, it’s time for Morgan to emerge from her seclusion. The gates to Faerie have inexplicably closed, and no one knows why, not even Falcon, the fae Morgan finds trapped on her side of the gate.

As a devastating illness that only affects magic users starts to sweep through the country, Falcon tells Morgan of a way to reach her nieces in Faerie through a mysterious place called Strangehold—if Morgan can trust that Falcon is all that he seems. But with the Queen of Faerie increasingly defensive of her borders, even their combined powers may not be enough to win them through.

With relations between fae and human falling apart and a deadly illness threatening all of her old colleagues, Morgan finds that her past isn’t as dead as she’d thought. She must navigate the threats in time to save her nieces—and just maybe the world.

Strangehold is available for purchase here.

The Goodreads page is here.

 

What People Are Saying:

“My favorite new urban fantasy in years! Sears’s writing is confident, assured, and full of magic, just like her practical and powerful spellcaster heroine. I can’t wait for the next story in this series.”

– Stephanie Burgis, author of Masks and Shadows and The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart
“Strangehold is a fabulous creation, in every sense of the word, and I cannot wait to read more! Grounded and real, yet infused with startling wonder. Highly recommended.”
-Julie E. Czerneda, author of A Turn of Light

 

Excerpt:

MATTHEW

Water slapped against the side of the boat. Matthew pulled the oars hard, pulse beating in his throat.

The boat rocked into shore, bottom catching on sand. Matthew pulled in breath and waited. He needed to set foot on the shore, but he couldn’t make himself. He hovered, hands clenched on the boat’s edge, then pushed himself out.

His foot splashed into shallow water. No one died. He stepped onto land.

No matter what happened next, it was a sweet step.

His toes curled in wet sand. He pulled a loaded backpack from the boat, stepped forward again. And again.

Isabel had begged him not to go, but in this, as so many other things, he’d had to disappoint her. Maybe, once he was dead, she could find some reconciliation with her family. But, against the odds, he was not dead yet.

It had been a gamble, coming here. Even now, the Council’s curse tightened about his neck like a collar. It would become a noose if he set foot on the mainland, but this island didn’t—quite—count. Or so he had hoped, and it seemed he had been right. Now he had one last chance to finish the job he’d started nearly twenty years before.

He wondered, briefly, if his old teacher or his fellows would be able to tell it had been him, but he dismissed the thought. The spell had been years in the planning—it was his life’s work—but at this point, result was more important than recognition.

He used a brief wisp of magic to send the boat back out into deeper water where it could drift until someone found it. The hot white sand was pleasant beneath his feet. On his island, there were only pebbles on the shores. Music and occasional shrieks of laughter drifted from further down the beach. A lighthouse rose above the trees, striped in black and white. He pulled a twist of light around himself so that no one could see him. Even Isabel’s eyes would’ve slipped by.

The steps up the lighthouse were cool and shaded against his bare feet. He put one foot after another; as he did, he found he missed the light.

He reached the top, and cast a spell of aversion. All the tourists fled, fleeing down the steps as if they’d found the top landing full of vomit, and he was alone with his hatred.

Sometimes, in his weaker moments, he feared it was only a grudge. Once he’d had a sister—once he’d had one person in all the world who loved him. Sometimes he felt no other love since then had mattered.

His parents had been profligate in their trade with Faerie, carrying bespelled items across the gates, selling to the fae, and then back to the spellcasters who traded in their goods. Perhaps they thought of their fae contacts as friends, or thought their usefulness would keep them safe.

It didn’t.

Changelings were not supposed to happen anymore—long ago, a healthy babe might be replaced by a sickly fae simulacrum and the babe raised in Faerie, but now there were treaties between overhill and under meant to prevent it.

Once he knew a trader, a tall man with pale braids, who had juggled balls of light to make him and his sister laugh, who had given them sweets and told them stories of the creatures that lived in the deep forests of Faerie. He had liked the man, until one day his sister disappeared from their campsite. Only after the fae become involved and took the search to Faerie did they find the man with the braids, and with him, Matthew’s sister.

The fae had punished the man. He had been forbidden his trade, and whipped by the Queen’s Blade until his back was flayed, and cursed to bear the wound unhealing for five decades, to show the human Council that the Faerie queen took breaking the treaty seriously.

Long ago, they stole babies, and maybe an infant took Faerie in stride. His sister had been ten, and she was never the same afterwards. She startled at things that weren’t there, and flinched away from him and his family. She had nightmares. When she was fifteen, she killed herself. They found her drowned face-down in a duck pond she could easily have crawled out of, if only she had wanted to. His parents eventually divorced; his life had been turned upside down; the sister he loved was dead.

The fae who’d stolen her had been punished. In the eyes of the fae court and the Council, justice had been done. In his eyes, not remotely.

But this wasn’t about revenge; at least, not solely.

Spellcasters and fae weren’t meant to be as close as they’d become. They were literally from different worlds, and though they had reached an uneasy truce, for centuries they had been predator and prey.

The problem, as he saw it, was that people liked to lie to themselves. They wanted to believe the fae were friendly, that only monsters stole children, that the queen really had put away her Blade.

The only way to save them from themselves was to break the truce irreparably and expose the fae as the monsters they were. One could remember a laughing tall man with pale braids giving candy to traders’ children. One must also remember that the same man stole sisters and returned them shattered beyond repair.

His hands clenched into fists. He exhaled, slowly, and made them relax. It was not only his sister—it was everyone’s sister, everyone’s child.

He opened his backpack and pulled out what he needed: the diagram he worked out what felt like ages ago, chalk for the circle, a silver charm in the shape of a frog that Isabel had given him years before, when things had been good between them. The leyline here was powerful, much stronger than the thin power on his island, and he allowed himself a moment to revel in it before he got to work.

He chalked the initial lines of the circle and hesitated for only a moment before he crushed the frog charm in his fist, aided by the application of a little magical force. Magic poured out of it. He kept drawing.

No one would thank him for what he did here—if anyone ever knew what he had done. But maybe future generations, free from the fear of fae allies turning on them, could breathe a little easier. Isabel, I’m sorry for all of it. He chalked the final lines, checked them against his diagram, drew on the power of the ley, and cast his spell.

 

MORGAN

The last time I saw my sister, Gwen was hugely, radiantly pregnant, and asking me to be happy for her.

This time she was hunched over a coffee, wan and tired, while the twins stacked blocks and knocked them over at her feet. As I tried to find the right words, one girl knocked over the other’s tower before she was done building, and a squall of anger disrupted their play, a brief tempest of disappointment that the world wasn’t going according to her plan.

I knew exactly how she felt.

Shadows ringed Gwen’s eyes, proof of sleepless nights, but a darker circle marred her left eye, bruise-purple even beneath the heavy foundation she had smeared over it in a futile attempt at concealment. No amount of makeup could hide the swelling; her left eye looked half asleep, while her right was haunted, searching. She winced as she took a sip of coffee and I stopped searching for the right words and let the wrong ones come out, the ones I’d been trying not to say.

“I’ll kill him.”

Gwen stared at me, then burst out laughing, and some of the tension left the knot between my shoulder blades. If Gwen could still laugh like that, maybe things would be all right, somehow. “Ow.” Gwen winced again, touching the puffy flesh at her eye socket. “Oh, Morgan, it’s not Elm. He would never do this to me. It’s her.”

I leaned back and tugged at my sleeves, hoping to smooth down the gooseflesh before my sister noticed. There was only one person Gwen would refer to solely by a pronoun like that.

Gloriana, the queen of the fae.

I had only had the dubious pleasure of seeing the queen once before, and it was not an experience I was eager to repeat. I had never really understood how Gwen could bear to live in Faerie. “She can’t. You’re the ambassador from the Association.”

Gwen’s lips twisted, as though she’d tasted something far bitterer than coffee. “That doesn’t mean as much as it did.”

One of the girls squealed at my feet, and I leaned down to pass back the block that had gotten caught in the cuff of my trouser leg. Dread curled in my stomach, churning the heat of my drink into ice. “What happened?”

“I don’t know exactly. She thinks someone overhill is trying to attack Faerie. She thinks I know something. She sent one of her enforcers to ask me about it.”

I winced and stirred my coffee. The fragile peace between human and fae had lasted four decades. I had no desire to see it slip away. My mentor, Marcus, had told me stories of how it had been before the truce: will o’ the wisps and phoukas luring the innocent to their deaths, duels between fae knights and human spellcasters, fae raids against human towns, using glamour to lure people into Faerie. The Queen’s Blade carting off casters in the night, or leaving them dead where they slept.

Not that humans had never been aggressors, but before metal became widespread, we’d had little defense. The tide had turned around the industrial revolution, and stories of the fae became myth and superstition. The general human population had been able to forget that Faerie had ever been a threat, that Faerie ever existed.

Those of us with magic never had.

“Does she think you had anything to do with it? Or the Association? There will always be idiots, but she has to know no one official would do anything to endanger the truce.”

Gwen’s smile was old, or maybe that was the swollen eye. “Does it matter? She sees a threat.”

“How can I help you?”

Gwen’s shoulders relaxed infinitesimally. The hesitation stung, though it shouldn’t. I had made no secret of my disapproval of her choices. Gwen’s fingers tightened around her coffee cup. She looked at the web of cracks in the plaster of my kitchen ceiling as if she could find answers there. “I’m not worried about myself.” Gwen went on before I could say anything. “Oh, there’s plenty that could go wrong for me, I know that. It’s just that it’s too late to fade back into the shadows. She knows me. If she’s angry with me, there’s nothing any of us can do about it—not you, not me, and not Elm. It’s them I worry about.” She turned her head until she was facing the twins crawling around on the ground. “Look at them, Morgan. You’ve barely glanced at them since we got here.”

“Your black eye distracted me.” She shook her head. I steeled myself and looked under the table.

They were beautiful children, but then, they would be. I had long since decided that children weren’t in the cards for me, but I’d looked forward to nieces or nephews to spoil. That had been before Gwen lost her head over a lord of the high court of Faerie. I hoped that remained just a metaphor.

Time was funny underhill; to me, it had only been six months since I’d seen Gwen pregnant, but the girls were toddlers already. I regretted not knowing what they had looked like when they were babies. They were still chubby, still clumsy with their youth, but even without caster’s sight, I could see the people they would become in their faces. Those people weren’t human—not entirely.

Instead, their high cheekbones and slightly pointed ears showed the fae heritage from their father. Their mother was present too: the sweep of hair, the rounded jaw—human traits. They’d have to be older to see if they’d be able to pass for human in the mundane world. They’d never be able to in the fae court, whose residents could read their magic as easily as look at them, but it was different there; they had always welcomed changelings, while overhill had tried its best to forget Faerie when Faerie withdrew in response to the rising tide of iron in the world above.

But she hadn’t meant just look at them. I summoned spellsight and saw the girls and everything else in my kitchen overlaid with faint traces of silver. A leyline would have been bright silver, but no line of power in my house was that strong. Magic was like water. It flowed downhill, and it followed the path of least resistance, but unlike bodies of water, it existed at least slightly almost every place on earth. Leylines were like rivers, but the magic free-flowing in my house was more like a sprinkling of droplets: there wasn’t enough of it to be useful. That was all right; every caster had her own way of compensating for the thin places. Mine were mostly inked on my skin.

The girls were still busy playing, so I could watch them unobserved. The traces of silver were maybe a little denser than they would have been in a human, unmagical child, but most of us didn’t come into our abilities until later in life, so that didn’t mean anything.

My sister watched me watch them. I glanced at her. “So who’s who?”

“Igraine is darker, and Iliesa is fair.”

I shot her a smile; our entire lives people had refused to believe we were sisters. Gwen was like our mother, pale and fair, while I took more after our father, a tall, dark, and British Arthurian scholar at Johns Hopkins.

“If anything happens to me, I want them to go to you.”

She didn’t look at me, and I was glad. I wasn’t sure what my face looked like. Was this a presentiment of doom? “What about Elm?”

Gwen rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I don’t know that he’d be able to protect them the way you would. He’s of the court, and he wouldn’t be comfortable taking them overhill, and if they were anywhere underhill, she’d be able to find them.”

“What are you worried she’ll do to them?”

“I don’t know.” Gwen hesitated. “A week ago, I’d have said nothing, and thought no one in Faerie would harm them. But that was before…” She touched her black eye and shrugged.

“All right, then. Just—don’t let anything happen to you. I’d be a terrible mother.”

“I’m not asking you to be their mother.” Gwen tried to smile, but with the bruise along the ridge of her cheekbone it looked like a scowl. “I want you to be their aunt, if they need it.”

“I promise.”

“I want to make it official.” I frowned, not exactly understanding. She misunderstood and thought I was offended. “Not for you! Not for you. I trust you.” She blinked rapidly, the brittle edge of her composure fracturing. “If it—if something goes wrong and Elm can’t help them, I want them tied to you and not the court.”

“Of course.” I swallowed the lump in my throat.

Gwen leaned down to the girls. “Iliesa. Igraine. I need you to pay attention to your auntie Morgan.” They turned eyes on her, one set Gwen’s dark brown, the other a brilliant grass green, and then looked as one to me. They seemed unnaturally focused for children that small, but then I didn’t know many toddlers.

“Girls, let me hold your hands.” Iliesa immediately put her warm hand in mine, while Igraine measured me with her eyes for a moment, then took my other hand. How strange did I look to them, used as they were to more angular fae faces, and glamour all around them? Magic was different in Faerie; underhill was so much smaller than earth, magic filled it and permeated it. There were no thin places, and conversely no leyline rivers of power. Did overhill look different to them, empty of the magic they breathed like air at home?

I was stalling. I took a breath and cleared my mind of everything except what I needed to do. Gwen said she wanted me to be their aunt if they needed me, but I was already that. They needed a guardian, in the old sense. I pulled a thread of energy from the tattoo over my heart, a stylized oak tree—for something this important, personal energy felt right, and this energy, kept against my skin, was the most personal I had—and sent a tendril unfurling toward the girls. When I was young, I’d have used a drop of blood, but I was older and subtler now.

“I promise fidelity. I promise protection. If you need me, I promise I will be there.” There were more complicated oaths I could have sworn, but this felt right. I sent a surge of silver power from the tattoo over my heart to the two of them, binding myself to the words I spoke. Both sets of eyes, dark brown and improbable green, widened. They had both felt it. They glanced down in unison at their left hands. It’s not creepy. They’re my nieces.

So they had felt that, too. “Look, Gwen. Igraine, turn your hand up so your mother can see your palm.”

Gwen and frowned and bent over Igraine’s hand, the ends of her red-blond hair brushing over her daughter. “I don’t see anything.”

“Good.” I rummaged through a drawer past unopened kitchen scissors and balls of twine until I found a magnifying glass. “Now look through this.”

Gwen’s right eye widened as she took it in. “I thought it was a freckle, but it’s…an acorn?” She glanced at me. Gwen had seen my oak tattoo. “Both of them?”

“You asked for my protection. They have it. I hope they never need it.”

Gwen pulled me into a hug, her vertebrae all too fragile beneath my fingertips. “Thank you. I hope so too. But it gives me peace, just in case.”

“Just in case,” I echoed.