Piper Jones is in a real jam. Her dangerous journey from powerless orphan to the Princess of Faerie has brought her to a perilous crossroads. The fey king's minions are stealing witches from right under her nose, and her mother, the fey queen, has come to collect on her favor—one with potentially devastating consequences for everyone she loves. Piper's next move could be her last, and whatever her decision, one thing is clear:
The fey king and queen must die.
BENEATH THE DUST
A Force of Nature Novel
© 2019 Amber Lynn Natusch
The rancid smell of burning and death was everywhere, and I struggled to stand against the ringing in my ears. Fire was burning brightly, the only light cutting through the smoke in the yard. I screamed for the others, the memory of the attack at the lodge so clear in my mind that I almost wondered if I was dreaming.
And then I heard the cries of the wounded and knew that I wasn’t.READ MORE
“Piper!” a voice called. I struggled to hear it over the din, but I did—and it sounded hurt. I followed it through the wall of thick grey around me, tripping on the wounded and dead along the way.
I couldn’t get my bearings—had no clue which way I was headed—but I knew I had to get there. The sense of urgency and need drove my every step.
“Piper! I’m over here!”
I rushed toward that voice, colliding with others in the melee. I shoved them aside, rushing toward my target like I was tethered to it. Like nothing else mattered. Because it didn’t.
“I’m coming!” I yelled, picking up my pace. I could hear shouting in the background—shouting that seemed directed at me—but I ignored it. I was almost there. I could save him.
Suddenly, a figure took shape in the smoke before me, standing straight and strong.
Thank God he’s okay…
I reached my hand for him, my heart in my throat, but before I could touch him, I was ripped away by a brutal, painful force. I flew through the air, crashing to the ground hard. Anger like I’d never known tore through me. I wanted to see who had dared to interfere.
I wanted to rip him limb from limb.
With a muttered order, the smoke cleared, swirling up into the air until it was nothing at all. Hovering over me was someone unexpected, his brown eyes murderous. But they weren’t for me. They were for the man off in the distance. The one I’d been searching for.
And he wasn’t at all who I’d been trying to save.
Grizz stood outside the shower with a towel in his hands, waiting for me to get out. In the twenty-four hours since we’d returned from the fey king’s land, he hadn’t let me out of his sight. Apparently, even bathing was too risky without an escort.
“Thanks,” I said as I took the towel from him and wrapped it around me. I moved to walk past, but he stepped into my path and stared. The concern in his eyes was evident. “I know, buddy, but there’s no other way. I don’t think Knox will rest until he knows whether Liam survived.” The man-bear huffed at my words. “Do you think I want to go back to Faerie?” He frowned at my rhetorical question and folded his arms across his chest. “Exactly, but I don’t think we have a choice. Liam could be our best chance to gain inside information on the fey king and what he wants. We have to do this—even if we don’t want to.”
He glared at me for a minute longer before stepping aside to let me pass. It was almost seven, which meant the others were likely gathering in the meeting room to discuss the plan. The enforcers would not be aiding us, which left only the werewolves, Merc, Jase, and Dean. I’d asked Merc if he’d ordered his vampires to stay behind, and he had avoided the question diplomatically. I wondered how he was fitting into his new role as vampire king. I also wondered how the others were acclimating to having a notoriously unstable leader. Though the reputation wasn’t totally warranted, it remained nonetheless. I prayed it wouldn’t undermine his authority when it counted most.
I slipped on my clothes and made my way downstairs through the kitchen, hoping to grab a snack on the way. I knew the meeting would surely get heated; we were about to drop some major bombs on everyone. Royal-sized ones, in fact.
Kat, who apparently shared my need for sustenance, was in the fridge when I arrived. She popped her head up over the door and smiled.
“So, rumor has it we’re going back to Faerie. Are we testing out the ‘third time’s a charm’ theory, or are you just that hot for the fey king?” She closed the fridge and leaned against it, taking a bite of the peach she’d found.
“Definitely not the latter,” I said as I walked past her to the pantry. There was a protein bar in there with my name on it.
“Wanna tell me why, then?”
I let out a sigh. “Liam…”
Her hand stopped halfway to her mouth. “The psycho who tried to kill me? The fey king’s pet? You want to go back there for him?”
“I don’t want to—”
“But you are?” she said, interrupting me. She turned her attention to Grizz, who was hovering near the island. “And you’re good with this—going back there?”
The man-bear shrugged.
“I’m doing it for Knox—”
“The Liam he knew is long gone, Piper. I don’t care how you think he’s changed—what shred of humanity you saw in him before you escaped—he’s tainted. You can’t bring him back here.”
“I’m doing it for Knox,” I repeated, my hands balling into fists at my sides.
She shook her head and took another bite of her peach.
“You two…you’ve lost your fucking minds. It’s one thing to go there for Merc, but it’s another to go there for the memory of a being Knox once knew, who’s probably dead anyway. What if this is exactly what the fey king is counting on? Have you considered that?”
“That is what the meeting is for,” Merc said, entering the room from the hallway. His dark presence carried a weight with it that I didn’t remember him having until he became the vampire king; a power he hadn’t previously possessed. Kat stared at him for a moment before heading toward the door he’d just come through.
“You need to talk some fucking sense into her,” she said as she passed.
“I plan to,” he replied.
Kat disappeared, leaving the three of us alone in the kitchen.
“Are we ready to start?” I asked. I picked at the wrapper in my hand nervously, its crinkling the only sound in the room.
“This will not go well,” he said. “This meeting—this plan. Neither will end as you hope, especially not once they all know who you truly are.”
“I was hoping to shock them all with that and then follow up with the plan. Hit them while they’re stunned.”
He smiled at my idea, knowing I wasn’t kidding at all. “A solid tactic, my love, but not foolproof.”
I shrugged. “It’s all I’ve got.”
“No,” he said, heading my way, “you have me. And you have Knox and Jase and Dean and Grizz—Kat, too, once she calms down. You have the pack—though I fear this decision may divide them. I do not envy Knox’s predicament in this.”
I didn’t either. Liam had killed many of his boys. To risk others to save the one who’d murdered their brothers was a big ask at best. At worst, it was a total slap in the face.
“Shall we?” he asked, giving me his arm. I took it, and he led me down the hall to the room where the others had congregated. I could hear the ruckus growing as we neared, and I wondered if the discussion had started without us. The second I set foot in the room, I knew it had. Liam’s name was being flung around like an insult, and I could see Knox struggling to keep his composure. It seemed like it was him, Foust, and Brunton against everyone else. Jagger was uncharacteristically silent.
I hated seeing the pack at odds. It hurt my heart. They’d been through so much already. They didn’t need another obstacle to overcome.
“I’m the princess of Faerie!” I shouted over the din. The room went silent in an instant; so quiet I could hear Kat take a bite of her peach and chew it methodically, like she was trying to figure out how best to strangle me for not telling her that detail before that moment.
“I guess we’ll have to get you a Fairy Princess mug now,” Dean said with a smile as the rest of the room gawked at me in silence.
“Well that’d be great since the other one broke. Again.” Since I had the floor, I went ahead and told them everything I’d learned from my time with the fey king in Faerie. How he wanted to use me against the queen. How he’d turned against Liam when Liam had attempted to help us escape. How absolutely batshit insane he was at his very core. And how he’d dropped the ‘mom’ bomb on me. By the time I was finished, most of their mouths were hanging open while they stared. “So…I’m going to go back there because we need information about how to undo this magical spell or curse or whatever it is that prohibits me from killing the bitch.”
“Well when you put it that way,” Kat said, smiling with a cheekful of peach, “it seems far more appealing. I’m in.”
“And we’re also going to bring Liam back,” I added, wincing as I said it. The room went deathly quiet again.
“I’m not asking any of you to go,” Knox said to the pack. “I understand your anger and frustration with this situation, and if I were you, I’d feel the same way. But this is bigger than what Liam did to our family—it’s about what the fey king plans to do to us all, and I can assure you, that outcome will be far worse if he succeeds. He’s coming for Piper. He admitted as much. If he gets her, shit will get ugly.”
“Then why go to him?” one of the wolves asked.
“Because if Liam is alive, we have to save him from his fate in Faerie. The king will never send him here now that he knows he’s been compromised. Liam helped us escape—helped Piper get me out of there. I wouldn’t leave any of you behind. I can’t leave him, either.”
“He was pack before there was a pack,” Foust added. “I won’t leave him there. We did that once. Never again.”
Brunton merely grunted in response.
The discord in the room lessened, but the murmurings of the pack still weren’t all favorable. A rift was growing among them. We couldn’t afford to be divided with a war in the city and two fey royals after us.
“Those of you not coming will be charged with protecting the mansion, as well as aiding the enforcers in whatever capacity they deem necessary,” I said. “The rest of us leave in an hour.”
I got up to exit before the arguing could begin again. Grizz filed out behind me, as did Kat. I headed back to the kitchen, needing some space from the pressure cooker we’d just been in. I splayed my hands across the marble countertop of the island and hung my head.
“They’re right, you know,” I said to no one in particular. “I’m delivering myself right back into the hands of the very being that threatened to come for me.”
“Glad to hear you’re finally making some sense, your highness,” Kat replied.
“Don’t bother. It’s not really important.”
“Not important?” I asked.
She shrugged. “We already knew you were descended from her. How closely descended seems insignificant-ish.” I turned to find her smiling at me wickedly, her blue eyes full of mischief. “Guess it’s a good thing the fey king isn’t your daddy since you made out with him the other night.”
I felt my eyes go wide before I burst out laughing, the tension of everything that had happened over the last twenty-four hours finally breaking. I slid to the floor, clutching my stomach as it seized from my hysterics. Kat soon joined me, her hand on my knee.
“For the record, I think this is a shitty idea, but I’m going because I have a bone to pick with Liam,” she said, shooting me a knowing look, “and more importantly, I won’t be left behind like that ever again.” She gave me a squeeze, and I looked over at her tight expression. It lacked any hint of humor. “I’ve lost a lot in my lifetime, Piper. I can’t afford to lose you, too.”
I leaned my head on her shoulder. “You won’t, Kat. We fey royals are a pain in the ass to kill…”
She choked on a laugh. “You really are.”
We sat like that for a minute, sharing a silent moment while Grizz kept watch, as though the fey king or queen might show up to whisk me out of the kitchen. The quiet was so peaceful, a feeling I barely remembered. It was almost foreign. In an hour, we would leave to find the portal back to the fey king’s realm and Liam—and possibly the king as well. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer that we would be safe. That we would find Liam and get out of there before anything could go wrong.
But I knew my prayer wouldn’t help.
My power didn’t work so well in the fey king’s land.
A little over an hour later, Merc and his brothers, three of the four Originals, Kat, and I stood in the same alley where we’d encountered Liam, looking for the portal to Faerie. Jagger and Grizz had been made to stay behind, much to their chagrin. The thought of returning there made me sick to my stomach; nothing good ever came of our journeys there. I looked at Kat, Merc, and Knox, all of whom had lost so much to that vile place, and wondered if going after Liam was worth it.
Or if we were making a terrible mistake.
The alley was dark and narrow and seemed to taper as we walked along. Around the bend, I could hear a struggle. Knox and Merc took off in a flash, and the rest of us followed suit, racing toward God only knew what. The war among the breeds was still raging; the likelihood of walking into a battle seemed high.
When silhouettes finally came into view, I stopped dead in my tracks. Beings like nothing I’d ever seen before—bulky, shapeless, earthy-looking monsters—had four females in their awkward, wet grasps. The captives’ bodies were being absorbed into the creatures that held them like they were sinking into quicksand. I knew I’d never forget the look of terror on their faces as they disappeared.
Knox and Merc were already attacking the monstrous things when we arrived, but every blow they landed seemed to slip right through the creatures with a sucking sound, leaving little to no damage in their wake. The beings continued to swallow the girls whole, their screams dying off as their mouths disappeared behind the dirt and clay. Kat, Foust, Brunton, Jase, and Dean joined in, trying to pull the females free to no avail.
Time was running out.
“Release the girls!” I shouted at the grotesque creatures. They paused and looked at me, their flat, unanimated faces giving nothing away. Then they continued on their mission.
I sent the wind after them, hoping to pull the girls from their soon-to-be earthen deathbeds, but it did nothing more than encircle the creatures in a funnel of debris that did little to hinder them. I sent fire next, but it was dangerous with the victims inside and still slightly exposed. Water would have drowned the girls, whose mouths gasped for breath as the clay sucked them in deeper.
As my frustration grew, I reached out with my power, trying to connect with the matter the attackers were constructed from, and found only the slightest connection. They were not born of this land, or the fey queen’s, either. That left only one other option.
The fey king had sent new minions.
With little control over them, I instead reached out toward the magicals they had swallowed up and pulled them toward me. They were witches, and their power spoke to mine—the warlock DNA in my veins. I watched as hands re-emerged, clawing for anything they could grasp; anything that could help free them from their fate.
Knox was soon at my side, helping fuel my pull on the witches, while the others fought the earthen enemies and extracted the girls. Once they were free, I again focused my energy on their attackers.
“Get out of my realm,” I seethed. Wind gusted down the alley, blasting against the fey king’s nightmares. This time, they staggered backward toward the portal, featureless faces staring at me in warning. The fey king wasn’t done in NYC. Not yet.
One by one, they disappeared through the portal, and the alley went still. The witches’ cries were all that could be heard.
“What in the actual fuck was that?” Kat asked, wiping red clay from her face with her shirt.
Knox and Merc shared an uneasy look. “Golems,” they said in unison.
“Golems?” I asked.
“They’re inanimate creatures made of earth and controlled by magic,” Knox said. “I haven’t seen one in a very long time.”
I turned to Foust and Brunton and found their faces paler than before, their eyes wider. The witches they held in their arms clutched them like lifelines. I walked over to the one in Foust’s arms and laid my hand on her.
“What happened?” I asked, my voice soft and gentle.
She turned her clay-covered face to me, the reddish shade contrasting the deep umber of her skin but mimicking the warmth in her wide caramel-colored eyes.
“We were attacked…I don’t know why. They just came out of nowhere and started dragging us toward the wall.” She pointed to where the golems had disappeared through the portal. I tried to hide my disappointment. Her story didn’t give us much to work with.
“The coven queen must be informed,” Merc said, taking out his phone. “I will be right back.” He walked away from the group.
“Thank you,” the girl said to me. “I owe you a life debt.”
“We all do,” the one next to her said. She pushed her soiled blonde hair out of her face and squared her shoulders. “So many have gone missing already—I guess we know what happened now.”
“How many?” I asked.
Her expression was grim. “Ten in the last twenty-four hours.”
A jolt of fear shot through me, and I looked back to Knox. “Why would the fey king want them?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” he replied, “but we damn sure need to figure it out.”
“Do their powers work in his lands?”
“I don’t know. Yours didn’t—not well, anyway.”
“But I’m not a witch…”
“I heard him,” the third girl said from where she stood near Jase. “The fey king…I heard him when I was inside that…that thing.”
“What did he say?” Jase asked. He looped his arm around her thin shoulders, and she leaned into his touch.
“I…I don’t remember exactly. It’s like I felt his words more than heard them, if that makes any sense at all.”
“It does,” I said, trying to shake the memory of his voice caressing my skin in Mack’s apartment the night it had tried to coax me into joining him in Faerie. “Just tell us what you can.”
“It was something about sacrifice…about doing our part?” She shook her head in frustration. “That’s the best I can do. My mind feels so fuzzy right now…I can’t think clearly.”
“You’ve been through a lot,” Jase said. Then he looked at me. “We should take them home.”
“No,” the blonde said, finding the strength in her voice. It contrasted her petite build, which made it clear that she was powerful enough to command those around her in other ways. “We will go to the coven queen. Alone.”
“The fey king may send them again—”
“Then take us to Central Park. We will risk the rest of the journey on our own.”
“Suit yourselves,” Brunton muttered under his breath.
Jase and Dean shared a silent conversation, then a nod. Moments later, they took two of the witches and disappeared with them. The remaining two looked concerned at first, but when the boys returned not covered in their sisters’ blood, relief washed over their faces.
Just before the brothers could take them away, the blonde turned to me and gave a tight nod.
“I don’t understand why you came to our aid this evening or what you stood to gain from it, but I will honor that life debt, Magical.”
Before I could reply, the four of them disappeared, leaving the rest of us with nothing but questions and no way to find answers.
“If the fey king has dispatched golems to do his dirty work…” Foust said, his words drifting off.
“…then Liam is likely dead.” Brunton, never afraid to spell things out, said what I, and apparently the others, had already been thinking. That our mission to retrieve the final Original was over. It was too late to save their brother.
“Maybe, maybe not,“ Knox said, anger growing in his tone, “but we are not giving up without knowing first—"
“The coven queen has requested a meeting with us,” Merc announced as he approached the group. “I told her I would arrange something, but due to how poorly things went the last time we met, I would be in charge of all the details.”
“And?” Knox pressed.
“She agreed without hesitation because her daughter was one of the girls we saved this evening.”
“Like that bitch has a heart for family,” Kat said with a scoff.
“Even the coldest of beings has a soft spot,” Merc countered. “You, Kat, are no exception.”
She turned away and swore under her breath.
“So when do we meet?” I asked.
His pale face turned to me, the moon’s eerie light highlighting the sharp angle of his jaw as it clenched.
“When I deem it safe to do so. For now, we return to the mansion.”
“What about Liam?”
Merc’s eyes narrowed. “I agreed to this rescue mission only because I thought there was a chance it could succeed. Given what we’ve witnessed tonight, one of two things has happened: the first is that Liam is, in fact, dead; the second is that he’s been imprisoned. Either way, we cannot help him.”
“We can’t leave him—”
“We can and we will,” Merc said, silencing my argument. “I am sorry for this, I truly am, but we have more pressing matters to deal with now that don’t involve Liam.” Without another word, he walked over and grabbed my hand; seconds later, we were standing outside the front entrance to the mansion. “I fear the war is spilling over into Faerie,” he said, pulling me into his arms. “Though I cannot understand it, the signs are there. Neither fey ruler has had much interest in this realm for centuries.”
“So why now?” I asked, nuzzling his chest.
“Why indeed?” he mused. “I think it has something to do with a particular magical I happen to love.”
“But I have nothing to do with the war,” I argued.
His silence drew out for too long, and I pulled away just enough to find his dark expression staring down at me.
“I fear that might not be true.”COLLAPSE