Book Sample

Tropical Hazard

Chapter 1

For a very long second, Dhane just stared into the moonlit, stony eyes of Challenger Sarah. They were in the cemetery of Dedu Tedu Novus, his blade firmly pressed into her chest.

Her eyes were full of fear, the very same fear the Cobalins expressed in their stone statues at the Royals’ party. Her brows were pressed up and together. Her lips parted. And two tracks of tears were frozen in their race down her cheeks.

The sight of her like this speared his insides with a sense of terrible guilt. She had done everything she could to fight what she thought was evil, which—honestly?—was commendable.

She could have easily Returned within Ceratree City. Instead, she threw herself into known danger. How many people would sacrifice themselves for the greater good?

It was possible her last text message before turning to stone didn’t expose the location of Dedu Tedu Novus. Yes . . . it might have been a simple, Got here safe-ish. Moving dungeons SUCK!

Or maybe she spontaneously wanted to ask for someone’s Netflix password? Very reasonable. Or she saw a Cobalin and thought it was the cutest thing ever. Or maybe it—

A vibration—a wiggle in his mental interface—revealed a new message from Ricky.

¤ Messages

» 8:34 p.m.—Yo dude, yer not near the northern edge of Terralacoos, are ya?

» 8:34 p.m.—Pshaw, definitely not! Right? That would be craaazy crappy because, ya’know, the Army of Light is heading there right now.

Fuck! Occam’s Razor. It was precisely what Dhane had feared and the most likely explanation as to why Sarah was texting anything at all. Now, that sense of guilt had rage and dread warring against each other.

Octoralis soothed those emotions, replacing them with a warm, fuzzy one, like wrapping him in a giant laundered sock, still hot from the dryer. <We never never never give up, Daddy!>

Right. It was just one more tiny problem in the legion of problems threatening to wipe him and his little village out of existence. But giving up wasn’t the answer.

He pulled the dagger free from Sarah’s chest. The blood crystal attached to the hilt glowed in the night, her soul trapped within.

It was then that he noticed the missing colorful rainbow of swirling flower petals that marked the moving dungeon’s entrance. All that remained was the wooden barricade with a red X to deter curious Cobalins.

What happened to Brittlely Bright?

He desperately hoped she was okay. But just as that thought bounced down his synapses, the slumbering knowledge at the back of his mind so helpfully proclaimed, Nah.

Nah, wasn’t very precise.

Nah, didn’t help his inner turmoil.

Others rushed over, holding torches. “Dhanie make pretty pretty statue!” Knock said, hurrying up to Sarah. He bounced onto the tips of his toes and slapped his hands on her breasts. “But why you no make boobies big big?”

“Knock!” Desley yelled and palmed her forehead. “You no touch Great Shadow’s boobies. Or art.”

“It’s not . . . art,” Dhane said, mentally reprioritizing his list of problems within the Notes app and making Impending Attack bold at the top.

“Sarah?” Evelyn said in a small voice, standing among the crowd of green Cobalins and concerned humans. Her gypsum-colored skin, hair, and sundress stood out as if she were a ghost haunting the cemetery.

She flicked her luminescent red eyes between him and the impossibly life-like statue of her once mistress. “Errr, that’s not really her is it?”

“Bro,” Kevin said, running his fingers through his blond hair, “you turned her into stone. Ha! That’s sick. They were going to do that to us.”

“N-no . . .” Evelyn said, stumbling forward, her delicate fingers reaching toward the statue. “Let her out. Please? She doesn’t deserve this.”

“S-s-she’s a . . . challenger,” Tom stuttered, his eyes looking everywhere except at Evelyn. “Challengers are th-the enemy. Ya know?”

“But . . .” she said, then worried her lower lip, clearly not knowing what to say.

Tom was right. The challengers answered to the Changed Reditai now and were their strongest fighters in this war.

Dhane toggled the switch in his head aptly labeled King of Shadows. Sarah’s fate was not their most pressing concern right now, not with every able body of Light being alerted to the location of Dedu Tedu Novus.

He mentally deposited the sacrificial knife, turning it into a plume of black smoke. “Challenger Sarah sent our location to the Army of Light,” he announced to everyone, and all discussions ceased, filling the air with a thick sense of dread.

“Hells, man,” Devron said from the cemetery’s side entrance. He was wearing a crown of pink and purple flowers and giving two Cobalin girls a piggyback ride. “That ain’t good. What do we do?”

All eyes traced from the big guy to their wise leader, a leader who had existed in this heaven for precisely nine overly eventful days. For unknown reasons, that didn’t seem to matter to them.

And so, doing what Dhane did best—doing what he just absolutely loved doing; there be sarcasm here—he came up with an impromptu plan.

* * *

“Move the village?” Devron asked from within the inn. His brows were pinched, mirroring the confused expressions worn by humans and Cobalins alike, all comfortably crammed around tables like toys in one of those toy claw machines, hoping to be plucked and set free.

Sure, the idea of moving the village might sound a little insane; villages didn’t simply get up and tiptoe away from approaching threats.

But insanity had always served Dhane well. If this worked out, maybe he should stop pretending to be the King of Shadows and take up his true calling: the Mad Genius, equipped with maniacal cackles, a twirly mustache, and a pieced-together monster of his own making.

In any case, the village just so happened to be small. Really small. So small, in fact, that someone might be able to pick it up and do the tiptoeing for it.

As he explained this thought, it didn’t sound so insane, which either meant it was a good idea or he was further along the path of Mad Genius than he had realized.

“It’s either move the village or abandon it,” Dhane said. “And I can’t imagine herding a few hundred Cobalins discretely. Nor do I have another village seed.”

The notable Cobalins—the ones given leadership roles—nodded sagely while other Cobalins watched in wonder or pressed their faces against the cracked windows from the outside.

Oh! Me have goody-good idea,” Tooky, the carrot farmer, said. “We make big big balloons en float away!”

“Big big balloons?” Knock asked. “Idiot! Me have gooder idea. We make naked women illusions! Evil adventurers no want smash village when lusty for me busties.”

“Knock. . . .” Desley said, rolling her eyes. She was already back to her old self, perpetually annoyed by her other half.

“Turtles!” Kuby announced, jumping onto the table and shaking the wax candles. “We get lots en lots of em. They pull village to safety!”

Dhane suppressed a sigh and said with fake enthusiasm, “That’s a great idea. Recruit as many Cobalins as you need to find turtles.”

“Yes, Hope Bringer!” Kuby shouted, grinning.

“Turtles be better than sexy women?” Knock asked, his voice clearly showing his disappointment in this new direction.

“Knock,” Dhane said, “you are the Master of Defense. Gather your fighters and prepare to defend the others.”

“Yes yes! We no fodder no more. We beat up bad bad humans!” He looked up at Aditi standing next to him and added, “Goody humans be safe safe!” To illustrate this point, he patted her leg reassuringly.

“All other Cobalin leaders,” Dhane said, then mentally read their names from the Notes app while pointing at them, “Bigboy, Blop, Box, Figlop, Rendy, Tin, Yogurt, and Tooky—I need you to gather Cobalins into groups and wait for further commands.”

“Yes, Great Shadow!” they all shouted before rushing out the door, leading a swarm of others as they went, some riding on shoulders.

Rendy’s quiet voice squeaked outside, “He still knows my name!”

Now, with the room nearly empty, everyone could breathe the foul, left-behind odor of unwashed Cobalins. Baths might need to be written into law.

Aditi tapped her lips with two fingers, then said, “You’ah wanting to move the village, but we’re deep underwater, yeah?”

That was, indeed, a major hurdle. The village had to be a thousand feet underwater. By itself, that might stave off an attack. But it wasn’t the only problem in the mounting tsunami of problems.

It would appear, quite unfortunately, that their mana source was melting—for lack of a better term—which meant the moment they regrew, they’d be surrounded.

Tom looked like he wanted to contribute something, then glanced at Evelyn and started fidgeting with his shirt instead.

“Sophie and Tyra,” Silas offered, leaning back in his chair, arms crossed. His brown-blond hair was in loose braids, hanging past his shoulders. “They’re holdin’ up in the shed. Can’t say for certain if the ladies are game to help any. But given the situation, might be a smart move, not that I’m sayin’ women are the beacon of wisdom or anythin’.”

He chuckled to himself.

Both Aditi and Evelyn glared.

He stopped chuckling. “I just mean . . .” The glare intensified. “Fine. Whatever. I take it back, alright?”

Kevin laughed. “That’s Silas for you.”

“Shut up, pal.”

“How do they help?” Devron asked. “Ya’know, the women in the shed.”

Silas shrugged a shoulder. “They’re Aquandas. Water mages, sorta speak. They can talk to the fishies and, more importantly, breathe underwater. But if they were reasonable”—he chanced a glance at the two young women in the room and cringed—“th-they’d be in here already. That’s all I’m sayin’.”

“I’ll handle it,” Dhane said, delighted in having the perfect solution to his perfectly insane plan. Besides, he was the king, this was his plan, and, for . . . reasons, he was the master charmer of women.

<Because,> Octoralis projected, <you pretty, Daddy!> What she didn’t say—but so helpfully conveyed in a mental image—was that he was even prettier while wearing a black dress with boobies.

He really needed to get rid of that.

Nick, who had been leaning on the back wall by the stairs, cleared his throat. “I don’t want to poke holes in all these good ideas, but you all know the waypoint is locked, right? Got that war going on. How are we getting out of this one, bud?”

Everyone turned to Dhane.

“There’s a second waypoint,” he said, thinking about a certain room full of mana crystals below. Wisps of smoke swirled into the shape of a book on symbols. “And I intend to repair it.”

* * *

In a matter of minutes, the whole village of Dedu Tedu Novus had important tasks to attend to and . . . some not-so-important tasks.

“Turtle!” called a Cobalin. “Turtle!” called another, as if a turtle would magically appear when called. . . .

Other Cobalins darted around, steak hanging from their slobbery mouths, gathering plant fiber for ropes or preparing for Plan B.

When it came to impromptu plans, having a Plan B—and . . . C, and every other letter of the alphabet—was truly important.

Dhane, on the other hand, marched up to the shed, intent on converting two young women to the dark side. He really needed to keep a supply of cookies on hand.

Evelyn followed incessantly, nearly stepping on his heels. “Don’t leave her like that,” she said in a pleading voice, pointing back at the cemetery.

“She’s not in the statue,” he said, turning and mentally counting the minutes until the Army of Light would be on their figurative doorstep.

Ehhh, she’s not?”

“The Veritai made blood crystals to hold souls. She’s just . . . taking a nap,” he said, nodding slowly as a way to justify using one of the Veritai’s terrible tools. He did to Sarah the very thing he was afraid they’d do to him.

It didn’t sit well.

In many ways, it resembled the joyous sensation of taking ibuprofen on an empty stomach. A gnawing discomfort permeated his gut. But he had no other option!

“Yeah,” he said, now more to himself, “a nap. And, by the looks of it, she really needed one.” Everyone needed a nap here and there. He was doing her a favor.

Evelyn frowned, her concern still present.

“Look,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder, “I can’t let her out right now.”


“No but. She’d attack everyone the second she Returned. It’d be a slaughter. However,” he said with a sigh at the vampiric-red puppy-dog eyes she was giving him, “if—if—we survive this, I . . . promise to hear you out. Okay?”

She smiled and nodded, making her white hair bounce around her shoulders. She had an adorable sort of energy despite the approaching doom. “So, how can I help?”

He grabbed the shed’s handle. “Maybe you can give me a glowing review? It’ll go a long way in convincing them I’m not evil.”

That seemed like a brilliant plan: use a vampire to convince others of his good intentions.

He swung the door open, and the vibration lines of what looked remarkably similar to a pitchfork speared him through the stomach.

Chapter 2

Dhane slammed the shed door shut. His assailant tore her weapon free at the last second, yelling something like, “And stay out!”

“Did . . . that hurt?” Evelyn asked.

He nodded, jaw flexed. “A little,” he breathed, the agony of metal through soft flesh still hot and sharp. That’d teach him to not keep Spider Armor enabled.

A minuscule part of his brain wondered why his possessing dagger hadn’t reacted to the attack.

<You are not possessed,> projected the dagger, which, until this moment, had remained quiet like a good weapon should. At least its markedly male voice, which had been raspy and exhausted in times past, seemed more lively.

Good for it. . . .

A swirling sense of an apology made its way to the base of Dhane’s skull, carrying with it a sort of knowledge. Apparently, Vvitablades occasionally slept from time to time. This was why he needed to train to defend himself. Or give his dagger a wake-up call before taking a stroll into a dangerous shed.

There really was no faulting that logic. Even so, the two of them would have a nice long chat someday when the sky wasn’t falling.

Dhane—sucking in quick breaths as if ready to plunge into an ice bath—triggered Spider Armor, reserving 40 of his 125 mana, leaving him with 85/85.

“You might want to look away,” he told Evelyn, fear coiling its frigid fingers around his heart. Spider Armor was amazing, and amazingly terrible when triggering it.

Evelyn scrunched her brows, then gasped at the first plopping spider that fell like a raindrop onto his shoulder.

<Hiii hiii!> it projected, full of cute exuberance to be needed once again.

<Zizi is back!> Octoralis projected happily.

Zizi? She named it? But that was beside the point, the point of there being a swarm of spiders wanting to climb into him.

Dhane balled his fists, anchoring them to his sides to prevent himself from going full assassin mode on the fragile arachnids, his allies.

They- are- allies. They are ‘my’ spiders.

Octoralis tried to soothe his emotions.

But still, he squeezed his eyes shut, which only highlighted all the tiny nightmares advancing on his location. He focused his attention on Evelyn, making the vibration lines bright and solid around her, carving the shape of her in the void of darkness.

She didn’t scream or start beating the shit out of him like Aaliyah had on the bleachers. No, she did a totally unexpected thing. She reached out and held his hand despite a spider scurrying its way up the sleeve of his ¤ Katsen Leather Armor.

A lengthy minute later, when his Armor Points topped off at 108ap, he mentally told all the spiders still approaching that auditions, unfortunately—but truthfully, quite fortunately—had concluded.

There was a psychic chorus of disappointed sighs, and the spiders went back to whatever hell they had climbed out of.

He opened his eyes.

“So, umm, spiders?” Evelyn asked, still holding his hand. When this little fact became known, she yanked her hand back and worried her lower lip.

“Spider Armor,” he explained in a strained voice, turning back to the shed that was exuding a sense of hostility. “You can’t compel people, can you?”

Hehee, no, but that would be super cool! I can Charm, but it only works on neutral mobs. C-can you . . . umm, compel?”

He smiled at her, feeling his heart return to its natural rhythm. “Don’t believe the rumors. You’re here of your own volition and for passing your test with flying colors.”

She blushed.

<You no need compel.> Octoralis projected. <I be scary scary scary spider!>

Ah, yes, that could work. Drop a giant spider in the room, and most people would be stupid not to do as he said. This made that bit of his soul with eight legs giggle.

He swung the shed’s door open again, prepared this time, and looked inside. Two young women were huddled behind an assortment of once-pristine tools that were now tossed about, featuring their fair share of bite marks.

His kingly persona stifled an annoyed groan. He mentally added Dunce Cap to his Notes app. Anyone caught biting buildings, furniture, or tools would answer to . . . HR, AKA Octoralis.

<Yes, Daddy. I bite crappy Cobalins!>

That might be crossing the line. Might. A stern staring contest would likely do the trick. Just the thought of looking into her eight creepy eyes—err, very pretty eyes!—sent liquid ice down his spine.

Do spiders even blink?

The answer, apparently—by Octoralis’s smug emotion of being an eye-staring contest champion—was no.


“Stay away!” Sophie yelled.

She was the one with curly chestnut brown hair, as described by Silas. It was so dark in the shed, the only thing Dhane could make out were the vibration lines that wrapped her form, the bouncy texture of her hair, and that of her pitchfork held out in defense.

The other young woman was Tyra. She was described as having blonde hair that was tied into a neat ponytail. Unlike her stalwart companion, she merely shook, eyes wide, breaths shallow.

Evelyn hurried off toward a standing torch by the line of dinner tables. Devron was over there organizing Cobalins into groups of twenty in the very likely case they needed to make a run for it.

“I’m not here to hurt you,” Dhane said, holding his palms out.

Sophie made a jabbing motion with her pitchfork. “We won’t be your sex slaves!”


“Plug your ears, girl,” she whispered to Tyra. “He’s the devil. One little word is all it takes until you’re naked in his love nest.”

He opened his mouth to say, once again and with emphatic emphasis, “What?” but then decided to change his strategy. Spur-of-the-moment plan changes were so much fun!

Yay. . . .

He didn’t have time to overcome their fear. Unfortunately, these two were crucial to Plan A, the plan that didn’t include recruiting a bale of turtles to save the day.

Smoke whooshed around his form from withdrawing and depositing his four metal gears. His bone mask materialized equipped. He said, in his deep King of Shadow’s voice, “You are correct.”

Both of the young women tensed, obviously not plugging their ears. Some part of his subconscious mind pieced together that they might not entirely object to the idea of being naked in his love nest.

He punted that idea right out of the damn window before mini-Dhane could voice any thoughts on the matter.

He needed to focus on the problem at hand, the problem that required a solution if there was going to be a village for much longer.

“I could ravage your bodies,” he said, waving his hand gently through the slight texture of swirling smoke, mesmerizing his audience.

Evelyn stopped five feet away, her eyes widening, her pulse quickening.

He mentally sighed.

Every- single- damn time he went off on some demented new idea, someone had to step in at the wrong moment. He wished he could psychically tell her he was acting.

Octoralis, eager to be useful, jumped from his soul and formed on Evelyn’s shoulder. The now tiny spider projected a loud, <He acting!>

Which went as well as anyone could expect. Evelyn jerked and dropped her torch.

Luckily, with the reflexes of an Assassin, he caught it before it could light the shed on fire. He didn’t need everyone thinking he was willing to burn people alive. . . .

“Sorry,” she whispered, doing a stellar job at not swatting the head of HR.

“But devils,” he continued as if nothing had happened, now holding the torch in front to give his mask an eerie glow, “pride themselves on persuasion. We like willing participants. What is it you desire?” he asked, channeling Lucifer from the TV series.

“What I desire?” Sophie asked, her pitchfork now swaying with a lack of vehement need to poke holes into things, most notably, him. “I want a vibrator,” she blurted.


“You don’t know how hard it is to get off as a woman. It has been weeks! Th-that’s what I want.”

“I . . .” Tyra said, her voice uncertain. “Ees it okay for me to say?” She had a Swedish accent. “There ees something I vould like, ja?”

“Go on,” Dhane said, rolling his hand forward. His mind—always a glutton for a mental challenge—was preoccupied with solving the puzzle of a fantasy vibrator.

In truth . . . now that he had given it a few seconds of thought, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult. He could quickly cycle the shrinking sigil on and off. And since it didn’t have to shrink an entire village, the mana usage should be negligible.

“I vould like a never-ending box of chocolates,” Tyra said, nodding to emphasize how much a box a chocolates was worth her soul, not that he had any use for more souls.

With their desires so evidently aired, he let a short span of time pass as if he needed to consider their requests, then nodded slowly. “I can grant these desires, but not in exchange for your souls,” he said, then hastily added, “or your bodies.”

“No?” Sophie asked, her voice sounding disappointed. So many freaking mixed signals!

“No,” he said, mentally telling mini-Dhane to shut up. “I have something else in mind.”

Chapter 3

Now that deals with the devil had been struck, Sophie and Tyra seemed more amenable—no, excited—to the idea of following Dhane to the stairs that led down to King Gigeneepa.

Vibrators and chocolates.


He lowered his mask to look at the village and see what was truly on the line. Failure would rob them of everything they had built—the inn and cabin and carrot farm, the outside dinner tables and wooden chairs that guaranteed slivers.

But all of that could be replaced. The Cobalins, free from their chains and hardships, could not.

He soaked in the moonlight that shimmered through the watery globe above, revealing enormous silhouettes of fish out for a casual night swim. If all went well, the night sky would be blanketed in stars in a new place far from war.

Nick had corralled a group of Cobalins together and got them to chant “meat, meat, meat” as if they were extras in Dragonheart, featuring Sean Connery.

They were now growling like rabid dogs. All they needed were utensils, and they’d be a force to be reckoned with.

The meat merchant was, quite honestly and impressively, a Cobalin whisperer with how well he persuaded them to do his bidding. Maybe he should be the King of Shadows.

That was wishful thinking.

No . . . the most to come from his unusual gifts of taming the untamable Cobalins would be an unfortunate performance with them dancing and juggling chicken drumsticks.

Dhane sighed, his mind being pulled from the seriousness of the task ahead. He slid his mask back up and focused.

At the top of the stairs, he turned to Evelyn. “You should stay,” he said, maintaining his King of Shadows facade for the benefit of his new followers.

“But . . . I-I should be with you. Right?” she said. “I’m your blood slave.”

Sophie and Tyra’s eyebrows raised, no doubt hearing the lovely sound of ringing alarm bells.

“She’s not a slave,” he told them. That damn label was getting re-labeled to something not so evocative as soon as he could dedicate a few brain cells to the task.

Before he had the chance to elaborate, Tom hurried over. “M-m-master! I . . . I want to—” His lips flapped shut at the sight of Evelyn, and his heart started pounding his ribs like a caged gorilla.

“— help?” Dhane finished.

A follower of the Bear had extra Strength. And, in truth, there was no telling how big Dedu Tedu Novus actually was. Extra Strength could help.

<I strong, Daddy!>

For a thirteen-foot massive spider, he didn’t doubt that for one second. But he had no idea what they would find out there, provided he was able to repair the waypoint stone at all.

A lot was resting on unknowable things, which fed him with a constant drip of unease.

He didn’t want a big team for this job. They weren’t going out there to fight but to sneak away into the night. And should they fail, it was onto Plan B and C, which needed people here.

But having one more person might help.

“I do have a use for you,” he told Tom.

“If he’s going,” Evelyn said more forcefully, her brows pulled together, “then so am I.”

Tom’s throat seemed to be closing off at the thought of adventuring with their local poltergeist. He let out a long squeak to communicate his thoughtful thoughts on the matter.

“Ho, Great Shadow!” Knock yelled, running up. He wore his rugged leather armor.

Dhane drew in a breath and stared up at the void where the fish swam. “Yes?”

“Me ready,” Knock said. “We find many many turtles. But Kuby be chicken. He no prepared to leave for best plan. What you call it? Plan Z? Z sounds like important number!”

If Devron saw all the extras clambering their way for a chance to die a terrible death out beyond the village, he might have some choice words that started with Shit and ended with Tuna. The guy wanted to go on the next adventure, but this wasn’t an adventure.

“Then,” Dhane said, still channeling his inner king, “it has been decided. Follow me.” He turned quickly—lest someone else decided to approach—and descended the stairs, eager to get his ridiculous plan underway.

No one talked on their rapid descent to the realm of giant crabs and easily offended stone golems. This silence lasted until they neared the giant geode of glowing pink crystals.

The walls rumbled, and streams of dirt fell from the high ceiling. <Youoo shell-less crab break diamondoo!> projected King Gigeneepa.

Dhane hurried through the large stone doors to find that one of the massive diamonds was missing entirely. Shit! Without its mana, the forcefield would shrink even faster.

There were three sharp intakes of breath from behind. “Diamonds!” Sophie yelled the single word the other two were clearly thinking.

Apparently, diamonds made up the third thing the fairer sex loved: vibrators, chocolates, and sparklies. He mentally jotted that down in his Notepad app . . . just in case.

“Don’t touch that!” said a familiar male voice, even if it sounded a little different, a little higher pitched.

Dhane dismissed his bone mask and breathed a sigh of relief. It was Mahai! A . . . much younger-looking Mahai, but Mahai nonetheless.

He was holding a stern finger out toward Sophie, who was ready to stake her claim on the two remaining diamonds. It didn’t seem to matter that their absurd size rendered them impractical for anything she might have in mind.

Knock gaped at the old Dedu Tedu leader.

Tyra’s pale cheeks had turned a rosy red as her eyes traced down Mahai’s naked form to the empty gap between his legs. This seemed to break her spell, and she let out a puff of disappointment.

So . . . size did matter.

That might have gone into the Notes app, too.

<Surface Kingoo,> King Gigeneepa projected to everyone, notably by how they jumped and stared at the giant crab. <Ioo defend diamondoo from de tainted crabs. But uglyoo human—>

“I am not human!” Mahai yelled, then spun on Dhane. “You! You must be the one responsible for draining the mana from my rebirth stone.”

“Mahai,” Dhane said, “I’m glad you’re—”

“Do not act like I should know you. I will eat you for your unthinkable disrespect!” Mahai rolled his neck, his jaw elongating.

Shit, shit, shit!

Now was not the time for another problem. There was already a line of patiently waiting problems to get to. Perhaps a mandatory grievance form could help filter them out.

Octoralis jumped from his soul, making Tyra scream. Sophie ogled the black and orange spider. Her back straightened, and she clenched her jaw, the diamonds clearly forgotten.

Knock patted her on the leg. “Me strong en will protect weak women.”

Tom rushed forward and slammed a materializing tower shield against the ground. White cracks raced from one side of the prickly pink room to the other, and a wall of glass formed in front of him.

In a matter of seconds, Mahai had transformed, then jerked his serpentine head up. “Why are you so big!” he screeched in a tiny voice, befitting the tiny flying snake.

“Why are you so small?” Dhane asked in shock, remembering when the white scales and blue feathers could fill an entire room.

Aw! You are a cute snake,” Evelyn said.

“Cute!” the snake . . . dragon . . . Volantes Serparie hissed and struck the shield, not hard enough to produce a damage number.

“Can I, umm, keep it?”

Mahai’s jaw fell open. “I am not a pet, vampire! I am the great and powerful Mahai. And you,” he peeped accusingly at Dhane, “did this to me!”

“We,” Dhane said, “will have to discuss this later. Your village is going to be attacked.”

“I do not have a village.”

“The Cobalins?”

“What are Cobalins?”

Great. All hope of happily stepping aside and letting Mahai return as the leader just evaporated. “There’s more mana,” he said, pointing at the two other diamonds.

“I would not take from my sisters!”

“Sisters?” There were more Volantes Serparies like Mahai? And Dhane was draining them of their mana, of their memories and life. Shit. That was just another reason why they needed to move the village.

<Ioo eat snake?> King Gigeneepa asked, a trace of hunger trickling across their psychic connection.

“No one is eating anyone,” Dhane said.

“I will consume you!” Mahai screeched and slammed into the shield again and again.

“No you won’t. You’re not even big enough to damage Tom’s shield. We didn’t know these were rebirth stones. And now that we do, we will stop using the mana as soon as we can. But we need to do something first.”

The flying snake had backed up for another run at the impervious shield, then stopped. “What do you . . . need?

Dhane patted Tom’s shoulder to get him to dismiss the wall. The shield shattered to shards of glass that dissolved into flakes of pearlescent mana.

“We need,” Dhane said, taking three steps aside to reveal the broken waypoint stone, “to repair this.”

* * *

Mahai not only repaired the waypoint stone, he made it private. The only ones able to access or see the waypoint within the System were those who had invested mana to keep it operational or were given its specific set of location symbols.

It cost 3 silver coins—half of what he had—to use the waypoint for six people, an amount that could have bought him three nights at the Cali Bali Inn and three indestructible bread rolls.

Penny. . . .

The thought of her brought with it a sudden stab of loss and the haunting memory of her silver and gold eyes as she stabbed him, looking triumphant.

Before he could dwell further on that terrible moment, the rush of golden light and warmth flowed through him. It pushed all those feelings—feelings he didn’t want to feel—away.

Now was not the time to think about her and what was done to her. No, now was the time to take in their new surroundings.

In a blink, the party of six appeared on the closest waypoint stone to the village, two miles away. Among the massive white trees with blue leaves were dark leather boots the size of a double-decker tour bus.

This conclusively illustrated an unfortunate truth. The Army of Light was already here.