House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J Maas – Book Review: Disappointing

This book had such potential, but unfortunately fell disappointingly short. That said, I won’t trash it entirely. The novel kept me reading, even though at times I was scratching my head with the inconsistencies and sudden, impromptu twists. The story had intricate elements which were at best intriguing, but at many points did not cohesively mesh together.

My thoughts:

1 – Pacing issues. For 800 pages, perhaps the story would’ve gripped the audience more securely if things had been sped up. I do not know if the book was rushed in its editing period, but I felt as though at minimum 200 pages might have been trimmed down even further, if not removed entirely.

2 – When twists surfaced in the plot, I often felt they had not been properly set up for the reader. They came without warning and sometimes felt out of character for the person in question. Perhaps more foreshadowing would’ve aided the transitions and actions.

3 – The copious amount of swearing, and mostly at the beginning of the novel, felt as if it cheapened the writing. Having read Maas’ other works, I know how well she can write without resorting to that measure. They began to feel like a crutch to support the story, especially since about halfway through the book, less expletives were used by the characters. That character inconsistency there made it feel as if they were unnecessary and added only for shock effect.

Note: I’ve read and enjoyed many books where the characters swore (and far more copiously and colorfully than in this one), but it seemed natural for them to do so. The usages in this dialogue seemed unnecessary and forced.

4 – The allusions to banging everyone in the bathroom only added to that ‘cheapened’ effect. And considering everyone knows that Maas’ previous adult books have been loaded with sex scenes and pulled them off without devaluing the story or the characters (Rhysand and Feyre being deliciously sinful examples), it was disappointing.

When the two protagonists finally did get around to their love scene, all the other references to meaningless sex had already burned out the powerful effect of a good romance scene. It’d already weakened the moment to the point it didn’t stand out at all between the two of them and felt like more of the same we’d already read. It made the attraction less meaningful. In this sense, a double positive equalled a dismal double negative.

5 – Character issues. Much of the character building was lovely and very well done. The devastation of many of the events was very well expressed and brought sympathy for the characters. But again, things would often surface that did not feel consistent.

(SPOILER) Hunt, for example, as a trained soldier, was unrealistically unaware of his surroundings at times. When he was ambushed twice, it felt as though he deserved it for being so lax about monitoring the goings on around him. I’ve known soldiers, and they keep their eyes open so to speak. It was out of character for him and his skill set.

Pros:

When the novel finally did get to the climax, the story exploded. The last 150 pages were fantastic and kept my attention flawlessly. Everything was action packed and it leapt off the page. I only wish the beginning half or more of the novel matched it. The few glimmers of action in the beginning and middle act of the book were promising, but did not keep up the momentum. If they had, the story would’ve been outstanding. They felt like two different books entirely, but with the same characters.

I almost feel as if this book would’ve benefited from more time spent being edited and smoothed out. All the elements of a sizzling best seller were there, but the potential for it was seemingly unreached. Having read Maas’ other works, this novel could’ve surpassed them entirely. Unfortunately, it did not.

All I can hope is that these kind of issues will not plague the next in this series. Or the next book in the Court of Thorns and Roses series, A Court of Silver Flames, which is set to release next January.

Regretfully, 3 stars. ⭐️⭐️⭐️

– Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel


If you enjoy Urban Fantasy action and romance series, you may instead enjoy:

Cursed Hart: Book 1 in the Vaktare of All Realms series, TOP TEN FINALIST FOR BEST URBAN FANTASY 2019 – CAFFIENATED FANTASY AWARDS. –

Click HERE to read it now.

You Are Loved Amidst This Storm – My Personal Letter To You For June 2020

Whew! What a week! Hackles seem to be rising in every corner. 

But in the midst of this storm, I wanted this message to be a calm contrast for you. Even I noticed that my own newsfeed has erupted into a flurry of fiery mixed opinions, everyone wanting to have their say at this difficult time.

I didn’t want to be the next person to arrive on the scene, inserting my two cents and throwing my hat into the ring. With the amount of bullying going on out there on the internet (and having gotten several direct, pointless doses of it myself this week), I instead wanted this moment to be a chance for you to take a deep breath. The only kind of trolls I want you to be thinking about are the ones that live under bridges (and perhaps reside in the fictional world of Arestina). 

I want to let you know that in this small spec of time, you are loved. You are cherished. You are valued. I want you to inhale and take a soothing breath. Knowing that many of my friends suffer from anxiety depression and are overwhelmed by what is happening in the world, I am simply sending a hug to all corners of the globe. This is a safe place, free of the bullying tone the internet has taken on this week. 

At this moment if you need an escape, you are free to check out this week’s complimentary chapter of Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell. I hope it provides a momentary reprieve from the chaos around us. Sometimes fiction can be a handy distraction from our fears and tension.

Having spent many moments in hospital ERs and recovery rooms, I know that the escape of a book can be a lifesaving escape. It is one of the reasons I am so passionate about writing. Not only has it helped me through many difficult times and helped tackle social issues of the world, but I also know that it can do the same for others when they are in need. And I hope in this time, I can help you as well. 

No matter where you stand, I want you to know that I am with you. I am here for you. I need not voice my opinions on the matters of racism and bullying. My written works, Wings of Caligo in particular, have already taken my stance on the subject. Still, I will voice one final truth that so many wish to ignore this week.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

We are all in this world together. 

As always, feel free to reach out to me and reply to this message. I’m here for you and send my love amidst the raging storm in this world. Division is our greatest enemy at this point and I want to extend a hand to anyone who reaches out. God bless you and may peace prevail over all our hearts. 

Love and hugs,

Maggie Lynn 

Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | Part 5 – Splash Dunk

Hello dear reader! Here’s to hoping that your Friday is going off without a hitch. Without further ado, here’s chapter five of Del Muerta. If you haven’t been reading along every week, here’s a directory of the previous chapters. Otherwise enjoy!

Chapter Five – Splash Dunk

The congratulatory dinner was going swimmingly for those who cared about its success. Father was still raving about the ratings from the TV stations’ broadcasts.

The dance floor oversaw the entire hall, letting me see all the VIPs who turned up for the event. Twenty round tables lay before us, all lit by dim candles. The string quartet in the corner played a mournfully boring tune. Everyone who was somebody (or wanted to be), was here; the height of the social season.

I wanted to gouge all their eyeballs out. Between all the fake laughter and the congratulations over what a ‘glorious event’ it’d been, I was ready to commit a massacre.

Elena was still drugged out of her mind over in the corner. Though this time it was sedatives making her drugged, not the cocaine she’d snorted between commercial breaks.  

I grimaced as I waltzed with Haynesworth, willing my pain to go away. My hands and knees were still throbbing with pain from earlier. Like the games, this dinner was televised. A few pop stars had performed already, doing some elaborate, ritual-like dance numbers that made me even more sick on the inside.

My anger was starting to wear off again.  Now I was just emotionally wrecked. I stared straight ahead as we danced, without seeing what was in front of me. But I blinked as I realized that Haynesworth had spoken to me.

He leaned down and hissed in my ear, seeing that I hadn’t been paying attention. “I said you look marvelous in that color.”

Was it bad that I couldn’t remember what color I was wearing?

Since I was practically tottering along because of my heavily blistered feet, he kept one eye on me. “I wasn’t kidding,” he said, his eyes glinting mischievously. “You look like an angel.“

“A pained angel,” I grumbled, avoiding his eyes as his hand tightened on my waist.

Haynesworth chuckled, reeling me in closer. He knew all eyes were on us and he was quite obviously enjoying that fact. “Relax. You seem tense.”

“You wonder why?” I hissed back, wincing with every step. “My mother is stoned, Father is drunk, and I’m…”

“Stuck sober?” he chuckled, starting to annoy me. He seemed scarcely aware of my pain, continuing with, “But a vision of fashion and the envy of every woman in the room.” When I didn’t reply, he tried to further cheer me by adding, “All the cameras are on you. Smile.”

I did, feeling like it was more of a snarl than anything. Faces whirled by as we waltzed, Haynesworth dipping me to the floor. But that was where my tolerance ended. The boning of the dress dug into my side, making me cringe. He noticed as he righted me, seeing my pained expression. “Something wrong?”

“Just need to get to bed,” I said truthfully, patting his chest and stepping back.

He merely smirked in response. “Care for me to join you?”

All I could do was stare at him, beyond the ability to respond with any emotion. I gave up trying to think of a response and just shrugged. “G’night.”

Heading for the door, I didn’t care who’d try to stop me this time. I needed an out before I fell apart. Fortunately for me, no one tried.

The doormen opened the double doors for me as I headed toward the private area of the hacienda where no one but the family was allowed. In two minutes I was there, beyond the eyes of those at the event.

Finally able to breathe without an audience, I slipped my shoes off and hobbled up the curved staircase. Before I could make it far, I heard a voice call out after me. “Is that squid always like that?”

Turning back wearily, I discovered Kit behind me on the bottom step. He leaned up against the railing with a snicker, clad in an ill-fitting suit. “Yeah, they didn’t expect me to make it, so they lent me this penguin suit last minute. But that slick-ass police guy is as slimy as they come.” He rolled his eyes, hands stuck in his pockets. “Anyone can see you were miserable, yet he dragged you around the dance floor like a ragdoll.“

If it were any other day, I’d have been morbidly amused by his commentary. But for now, I sighed and shifted my shoes to my other hand. “I need to get to bed, Kit.”

He smiled with lopsided sadness. “Sure. I’d planned to ask you to salsa with me but then I saw how pained you were. But we need to talk.“

“I can’t,” I said flatly, turning to go. But I paused, murmuring back to him over my shoulder. “I’m glad you survived.”

Kit nodded, his playful exasperation fading. “Si. But you’re still thinking of those who didn’t. I can see it. Go take care of your feet.”

Before one more word could be said, he headed for the staff stairway. That meant they must’ve been housing the competitors somewhere in house and on premises. I should’ve remembered that they’d done that with the other competitions, but I hadn’t cared enough about it to keep it in mind.

Heading up to my room, I sighed as I made it in the door to my suite. If it were any other evening, I’d be giving my punching bag another round of beating. But after today, all I wanted was a bath to force my muscles to unlock from all the stress. Quickly stripping off my dress, then lingerie which included a full corset, I threw them on the bed. I ran the bath as I let my hair down and removed my makeup.

Once the majority of it was gone, I sank into the enormous whirlpool tub. The water was soothingly warm, though my scrapes stung. Giving in to the urge, I ducked under the surface and held my breath. Hopefully it’d permeate the hairspray.

Surfacing, I took in a deep breath and sat up. As I leaned back against the wall of the tub, I had a near heart attack as a voice sounded from next to me.

“You know…” Kit said from his perch on the edge of the tub. I hastily dunked my body below the water in alarm and covered my breasts with my arms. He met my eyes with some humor, continuing, “I think I’m starting to get why you’re so uptight. That corset inside on your bed isn’t meant to enhance. It’s meant to flatten what all designers hate and every man ogles.”

He kept speaking even as I sputtered, looking around wildly to figure out where the hell he’d come from. “How did you get in here?!”

“Same way I got through the maze unscathed,” he said with some smugness, wiggling his eyebrows. “I know you wondered why I chose ropes instead of weapons…”

“You shouldn’t be in here!”

“Probably,” he admitted with a shrug before gesturing back out at the bedroom. “But I came with a peace offering since I saw your poor excuse of a meal earlier. They served me the equivalent of a last supper, anything I wanted before the event, so I asked for Chinese.”

He chuckled, sitting forward over the tub’s edge as I glared at him. “I have a good sampling of leftovers so you can choose what you want. I stuck them all in the microwave before I came down.” Before I could stop him, he seized my hand to inspect the angry, red scrapes on my palm. “Sorry about that. She was stoned, right?”

Knowing better than to answer, I said through my teeth, “Let me get out.”

He got up with a nod, sauntering toward the door. “I’ll be out here. And no worries, chica. I may be unorthodox, but I’m no creepizoid.”

As soon as he was away from the door, I hopped out of the tub and pulled my terrycloth robe on. Not bothering to dry myself and completely outraged that he’d gotten in here, I charged out after him into the main room of the suite.

Kit was perched on my couch munching on an egg roll with about ten boxes of Chinese takeaway in front of him on the table. Somehow in the short time since we’d parted ways downstairs, he’d divested himself of his suit, throw on jeans and a black T-shirt, and carted the food here. The question in my mind was still how. My door remained locked.

“Take your pick,” he said with a full mouth, gesturing at the boxes with a set of chopsticks. “I thought you looked thin last night, but then I saw you in the tub. You’re about twenty pounds too skinny and not by choice.“

He wasn’t wrong. The salad that’d been brought to me earlier was so tiny that I felt hungrier than when I started. I was below a hundred and five pounds. Any more lost and I’d be positively skeletal.

Looking to my balcony, I saw the door ajar with a rope dangling down from above it. There was another balcony above my room on the fourth floor. “So that’s how you got in.”

He only winked. “Same way I got through the maze. I disappeared on the cameras, right?”

I nodded, reluctantly letting him stay just to sate my curiosity. The panic button I kept was three feet away if I needed it.

Kit snickered, digging into one of the boxes. “A month ago one of my buddies offered me to go work a construction gig. It turned out to be the maze being built. Figured out as we built it that I could climb up on the walls. Got the idea watching the stray cats walking along the beams one afternoon.”

He spoke so fast, voice going up and down in pitch with an excitable tone, that I struggled to keep up with it all. He sniggered. “Spent the better part of my early childhood in a circus, so I’m damn good at tightrope walking. Also knew where the construction was the strongest, considering I hammered in most of the nails.”

He shoveled a wad of noodles into his mouth as I sat on the edge of the couch, just watching him. He smiled, this time with humor. “You don’t know what to do with me, do you?”

“I can’t seem to get past your audacity,” I admitted, looking at the open Chinese boxes. He’d helped himself to all of them. I’d wait a few minutes before partaking on one that he’d already chowed down into. Less chance of poison, though I very much doubted that was his aim.

Kit merely shrugged. “I waited until you got in the tub. You got to see me in all my glory ‘n I didn’t take advantage of you in the same state of nature.”

He tossed a plastic fork in my direction as I warily sat on the chair across from him and put my feet up. He laughed merrily, pointing his chopsticks at me. “Besides, I know you were planning on throwing yourself a guilt trip pity party. I’m here as a distraction. You should be thanking me.”

Something told me that Kit was an almighty chatterbox. He talked fast with emotion and a great deal of gusto. For whatever reason, he’d decided we were going to be friends and that was that. For now I’d play along, providing he kept a feasible distance from me.

I peered inside one of the boxes of noodles he’d put down. Lo Mein looked good right about now. I twirled my fork around then took a bite. Oh, yes. Mother would throw a fit if she knew about this. Then as Kit shifted a little closer and abruptly picked up my foot, I squawked, “What’re you-?!”

My objection turned into a sigh as he massaged the bottom of my foot. I looked at him questioningly and he shrugged. “You came to my aid, so I figure I can repay you by taking care of this. They look painful and I hate seeing people in pain around me, so humor me.”

I would if he kept up what he was doing. Despite my better judgement, it felt too good to tell him to stop. He glanced up at me, continuing, “Whoever orders your shoes doesn’t care altogether much about your comfort.”

That I definitely agreed with. He smiled wider, seeing I was eating. “Yeah, you’re not a rice cake kind of a girl. So tell me of yourself, chica. I’m amazed you’ve kept any muscle on with the way you eat. I’ll bet the punching bag back there has borne the brunt of your aggravation.”

So he’d noticed it. “I box.”

“Box?” he repeated, seeming to test the idea out in his mind. Then he nodded. “I can fight, too. Grew up in the rough end of town. But you move with grace, so I’ll bet you were a dancer, too.”

Man, did he speak fast. And he was observant. I took another bite before conceding, “Rhythmic gymnastics. Once I graduated, I wasn’t allowed to keep competing.”

He picked up my other foot to rub it. “You really don’t have much say in anything, do you?”

That left me pausing, catching his eyes and then looking away. “If you get caught in here, you’re going to be in trouble.”

“You’re not going to rat me out so why worry?” he said.

“Oh, won’t I?”

“No, querida,” he said with something akin to triumph. “Who else will bring your takeout every night that I’m here?”

That made my amusement fade fast. “Providing you live, that is.”

“I will,” he said confidently. “God didn’t create something He’d give up on in me.”

Switching tactics, I said pointedly, “Does your tia know you’re here?”

His expression flickered guiltily. “Eh, no. We don’t own a TV, so she won’t know until I go home. Alvin stayed with her today.”

I choked on my noodles and his triumphant grin came back. “Sending him to school over a juice box. When he told me, that was the final straw. I had to come back. You’re a keeper.”

So he knew Alvin? Did that meant Kit’s tia was Alvin’s as well? She ran the orphanage. But something was still off with Kit’s story. Way off. My eyes narrowed. “You’re here for another reason. Don’t feed me that line.“

“Believe what you want, Aiyla. You’ll come around.” I cut off my protest as he hit a particularly nice spot on my foot. He chuckled. “Feels good, eh? I give good neck rubs, too. You wait ‘n see.”

That made me scowl. He seemed to get a bang out of my reactions, continuing to chuckle as he said, “Yeah, I know. You’re waiting for an excuse to kick me out. But I’m being so nice you can’t complain.”

I said nothing for a minute, letting him massage my foot. But he kept talking. “Or is it usually Haynesworth up here with you, catering to your every need? He’s no idiot.”

He just laughed as I yanked my foot away after hearing the innuendo. “He wishes,” I sniffed, starting to get annoyed again.

Kit leaned over, his eyes full of devious intentions. “Interesting. With the way he’s been talking, one would think he tucks himself in your bed every night. Should I worry about him dropping by unannounced?”

 “Worried about crowd control?” I parried with a forbidding edge.

“No. You don’t seem the type to be parading men in and out of here. You don’t really say much,” he continued, pausing in his babbling. “Is that a choice or a force of habit? You certainly had a way with words this morning, practically foaming at the mouth over my reappearance. Gato got your tongue?”

Boy, did he have nerve. I sat back. “I find listening a lot more telling.”

“Why do they call you Anna?” he asked, managing to ask the wrong question again. “Your real name is nice and you look better without all the war paint they put on your face.”

Now he was venturing into territory I wasn’t comfortable with. “It’s supposed to put citizens at ease. Make me seem like one of them with a more socially acceptable name.”

He snorted derisively, rolling his eyes. “If they want to appeal, they should stop doing you up as a… Well, I’ll bite the bullet.” He looked me dead in the eye. “You come across as a stuck-up snob. Then again, now knowing what they make you wear, I’m guessing the ‘snob’ expression is actually one of pain. Between your shoes and flattening contraptions-“

Okay. That was it. I’d officially reached my limit. Mr. Chatterbox was starting to give me a headache. ”Look, I need to get some sleep.”

“I’ll shut up,” he said abruptly, changing his tune. “Maybe I should ask what you like to eat besides Chinese so I can request it tomorrow evening. Italian maybe?”

“Nothing with garlic,” I said flatly. “Mother will notice.”

He just stared at me. “She gives you the sniff test? Gee, mi Auntie is strict, but at least she’s sweet.“

“Are you always this much of a chatterbox?”

Adorably enough, he giggled unrepentantly. “Si. That’s not a turn off, is it? I can’t help myself. Been that way since I was little. Whatever I think comes out of my mouth. I’m nothing but honest since I don’t have time to come up with lies.”

He stopped for a few seconds, regarding me shrewdly before pointing at me as if something was dawning on him. “So that’s it. You’re used to the political horse shi-“ He stopped, editing himself. “BS. So used to the BS that you’re on overload with me.” He clapped his hands together. “Yes. You’re quiet, censoring everything you say. It’s like verbal boxing, always on the defense-“

“Kit…“

“And when you had whiskey last night, your defenses came down,” he continued while ignoring me, looking up at the ceiling while he thought about it.

So I decided to try a different handle. “Joe…“

“Oh, don’t tell me I have to get you drunk to open up to me again,” he said with all seriousness, looking at me.

Biting back my aggravation, I said calmly, “Mr. Arenciana, I’ve had a very trying day and my patience is at an all-time low. I want-“

“Yes, what is it you want?” he interrupted pointedly, going for a new angle. He leaned toward me, eyes daring me to reply. “I’ll bet you’ve never been allowed to think about that. That’s your problem. You know exactly what you want, but are trapped and cannot attain it. I – oop.” Kit cut off with an embarrassed grimace as he saw my expression close off. “I crossed a line, yes?”

I stood in one fluid motion, standing over him. “You want to know what I want?!”

“Considering your reaction, not really. But I get the point,” he said hastily, catapulting over the back of the couch and darting to the balcony next to the rope. He bowed to me facetiously. “Until tomorrow, señorita. I shall ponder your garlic-free meal.” He winked. “You’ll miss me.”

Before I could say one more word, he gave the rope a yank and it quickly pulled him up. As I went over to the balcony, I looked up and saw him vanish over the railing above mine. So he was staying above me?

To my surprise, a white rose was then tossed down to my feet. “Adios, chica. Hasta manana.

 As he went inside, I stooped down to pick up the rose. I sniffed it, finding it fragrant unlike all the sterilized roses my father kept in the house. I smiled at the gift, stroking the soft petals.

Looking up as I heard a chuckle from above, I discovered Kit still watching me. I immediately scowled and he laughed, going inside for real this time. The sound of a door shutting confirmed it.

Stepping back and closing my own door, I wiggled my toes against the cold floor. Whether I liked him or not, he certainly did a good job on my feet. The quiet now pervading over my room wasn’t nearly as preferable as I’d thought it would be.

Sighing and confused about how to interpret his ‘affections’, or whatever Kit’s real aims were, I headed to bed.

But first I placed the rose in a cup with water, letting it live for another day.


Copyright 2020 Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

That’s it for this week’s chapter! What’s your take on the budding relationship between Kit and Aiyla? And where has the illustrious Lynx gotten to? Comment any predictions you have ’cause I love to hear from you guys!

If you can’t wait until next week for the next edition, make sure to check out Destiny in the Shadows and Väktare of All Realms series. If you’re enjoying this novel, I’m sure those will be right up your alley as well. All of my published novels are now on Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Nook, Kobo, and all other major online retailers for your reading convenience as of this week! You can check out my whole catalog of science fiction and urban fantasy novels here.

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Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | Part 4: Game Day

Happy Friday everyone! Without further ado, I present part 4 of Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell. If you missed the previous chapters, here’s the directory for you. Otherwise, enjoy!

Part Uno

Part Dos

Part Tres


Chapter Three – Game Day One

Copyright Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel 2020

Hell had found me again.

Sitting in the makeup chair set up on the premises of the backstage area, I harrumphed. They were primping me for the cameras that would broadcast the games. One person was doing my nails; adding fake ones on top of my dry nails, cracked from all the polish. Another was doing my make up while yet one more was putting on my shoes for me.

Overall I felt like a show poodle.

Still, only ten victims instead of eleven. At least I’d saved one man. That was something.

I surfaced from my thoughts as the makeup artist clucked, “Those dark circles are getting worse. Maybe you’re anemic.”

“Considering Elena is forcing sugar free, carb free veganism on me, I don’t doubt it,” I mumbled, allowing her to apply foundation. This morning’s breakfast consisted of five grapes and a teaspoonful of oatmeal; an all-time low. ”And I – yow!”

I glared at the girl lacing my shoes, barely able to feel my toes at this point. “You don’t need to tie them that tight!”

She grimaced apologetically. “I’m not. They’re a size too small.”

Great. First a corset and now my feet were going to be squeezed, too. Beyond bored, I stared at the TV screen in front of me. Elena was having herself done up behind a screen on my other side, so I knew better than to talk to people anymore than necessary. Better to let the sleeping giant stay drowsy lest she cause a scene.

As the stylist walked away for a minute, I snatched her soda off the table beside me and took a few sips. Better to steal some sugar to stave off hypoglycemia than to faint on live TV.

But as something flashed onto the TV screen, I choked on the soda and it came out my nose. I coughed and snatched up a tissue to clean myself, trying to convince myself that what was on the news wasn’t real. No, Kit really was on television being interviewed. I snatched the remote and turned up the volume. “What the hell?!”

“So you’re the eleventh contestant?” the reporter asked, extending a microphone to Kit who was absolutely beaming. “What motivated you to compete?”

“Son of a bitch!” I swore, leaning forward in my chair. He was still competing after all?!

“Truthfully, at first it was the money,” Kit admitted without any shyness. He full on grinned, displaying dimples while flashing a dazzling smile. Unlike the day previous, he was dressed to kill. “But then I met Anna and whew! She knocked mi socks off! So I compete to see her again and steal some more of her time, plus hopefully her heart as well.”

The remote cracked in my grip. I could practically feel my blood pressure rising, if not boiling. I’d been double crossed but good, and had no intention of letting him get away with this.

“Finish what you’re doing,” I seethed to the stylist who’d returned behind me. “I’ve something to attend to…”

She knew better than to mess with me.

Ten minutes later I was striding into the men’s locker area where the competitors were changing their clothes. Storming through with heels killing me already, a few of the contestants looked up as I passed.

“Whoo,” the most obnoxious of them that I’d met yesterday drawled, sitting back on the bench as I passed. “Looks like the lady couldn’t resist seeing her suitors…“

Whatever look I shot him, it must’ve been something close to murderous considering he flat out quailed. I stomped around him and kept looking for my target. Passing another row of lockers, I found my man.

Kit was completely drenched, a towel wrapped around his waist after getting out of the shower.

“You,” I growled loud enough to make him jump and turn with surprise. I charged down the row at him, fists clenched. “What the hell are you doing back here?!”

He flinched, sensing oncoming wrath. Then he recovered, saying warily, “Ah. So you are an early riser. Didn’t think you’d find out until later at the actual event.” He looked down to my toes and then back up to my eyes with some humor. “Then again, it must take a long time to truss you up like that.”

Absolutely incensed that he would joke with me, my eyes narrowed as he chuckled. Not after what happened between us last night. Apparently my reaction only made him more amused. He cocked his head, eyes glinting as he teased, “You know, you’re just as sexy when you’re mad.“

“Why are you here?” I demanded, stepping up to him.

Quite literally nose to nose since he was only an inch taller than me, he didn’t move or break eye contact, staring into mine unflinchingly. “Mi tia is getting her cancer treatment right now.“

“Answer the question, or so help me God!“

“Easy,” he said, putting his hands up in surrender, retreating an inch and rocking back on his heels. “I can see you’re pissed and my response might antagonize you even more, so I’d suggest you sit.”

 Needless to say, I didn’t move. He rolled his eyes and shook his head, looking at the ceiling while he decided what to say.

Ai. Okay, when you revealed yourself to me last night, you made me feel… I couldn’t get you out of my mind and that never happens,” he admitted, leaving me absolutely incredulous. He shrugged. “I remembered what mi madre used to say to me. ‘Joey, if you find love, never let it go’-“

“You’re back because you’re ‘in love’ with me?” I asked with a forbidding edge that almost ended in a hiss.

He had the audacity to smile again. “Not yet. But could be. So I came back to find out.” His grin widened further, seeing my fury only intensify. “See, chica? Out of all the men who’ve said that to you, I’m the only one who meant it.”

So livid that I’d silently begun to shake, I merely growled, “After all I said…”

He waved me off, opening one of the lockers and not listening. “Meh. You think I’m going to die. No, no. You don’t know me, but you will. I ain’t goin’ to die today.”

I stepped up to him, slamming the locker shut again as he tried to open it. “Go home!”

All he did was chuckle, amused with my anger. “No. But pray thee tell how you intend to make me?” he taunted, deliberately pushing more of my buttons. He looked over my body with appreciation. “That get up they have you in is ridiculous, but I know what’s underneath after seeing you last night. You’re a temptation.“

“Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental illness?” I asked quickly. Maybe if he had they’d disqualify him. Mentally unstable people were unable to compete and I could get him thrown out.

“You’re funny,” he said infuriatingly, reopening the locker. He took out a comb and looked down, eyebrows up as he noticed my outlandish lace-up booties. “You don’t believe me yet, but I think you’ll come around.”

My jaw may or may not have clattered to the floor as he dropped his towel, standing proud as a peacock, stark naked in front of me. He smirked, seeing my thunderstruck reaction. “I have to get dressed now, but feel free to stay and chat… and watch. I’m not shy. Stay as long as you like.”

I could certainly believe that. Instead I waved my fist in his face, riled even further with him if that was possible. “You nasty bastard! You got me with the whole sob story.“

“Eh,” he grunted, patting himself dry. “It’s all true! I can call her on the phone if you like.“

Losing my patience entirely, I turned to stomp back out. To my intense misfortune, however, my heel got stuck in the grout between the tiles. I yipped and abruptly lost my balance, teetering on my feet. I recovered as Kit caught me, steadying me from behind.

“Whoa. Steady,” he chided, stepping to the side of me and keeping a hand on my arm to keep me up. “Los zappatos esta feo y estupida!

Ignoring his jibe about my shoes, I snapped, “Let go!”

He did immediately, allowing me to bend down to get free. The heel wouldn’t budge. He rolled his eyes, stooping down to try and loosen my shoe. I gave in and steadied myself by putting one hand on his shoulder and the other on the locker nearest to me.

“Who designs these things?” he asked, working his hand around it to wedge it up. “Deathtrap, blister makers…“

I ground my teeth together as his other hand lingered on my calf, steadying me. Going to shoot him another dirty look, I hastily decided that was a very bad idea considering he was still unclothed. All it did was give me an overhead view of his rear end. And while it was by no means an unpleasant view, I was in absolutely no mood to admit he was in good shape. Very good shape in fact.

Whatever Kit did for a living, he was all muscle. He had a lithe, cat-like runner’s body and not one that was likely acquired in a gym either.

Further adding to my good humor, Tiny came around the corner with her clipboard. She stopped dead in her tracks, obviously preparing to yell at me before seeing all that Kit entailed. “Anna, what are you doing?!”

“Her shoe is stuck,” Kit replied cheerfully, just as unbothered by her arrival as he was with mine. “Un momento, por favor. Almost got it…”

He lifted my foot, the heel to my shoe still intact and undamaged. He stood smoothly as I put my foot down, carefully avoiding the crack. He came up to my level, still grinning with open self-satisfaction. “See? No harm done.”

Oh, did I want to smack him. He knew exactly what I was thinking, too, and enjoyed it on some level, getting a bang out of my aggravation.

“Thank you,” I ground out through my teeth, turning to haughtily storm out with what was left of my dignity.

That sure as hell didn’t happen. As soon as I put weight on the offending shoe, the heel snapped. Getting it out of the floor must’ve weakened it. I started to tip over sideways and Kit caught me again. This time I landed halfway on his chest and in his arms.

“Careful,” he murmured in my ear, laughter in his voice. He straightened me, hands lingering on my waist. He winked. “No need to swoon, señorita. I’ll put my pants on now.”

 It was official. I absolutely hated him. Shooting him one last scathing look, I stomped out of the locker room on the balls of my feet to avoid the broken heel. His laughter followed me out.

 ***

Two hours later, new shoes were the least of my troubles. My nerves were shot.

I stood over the field of the underground maze. It’d been specifically built over the soccer field, a layer over the top so they were enclosed below with cameras throughout. And in that maze was a death trap. It was essentially one giant mouse trap made for men, filled with dangers of all kinds: animals, poisons, and booby traps.

Standing next to my father, we overlooked the field. Elena was on my other side, already drunk. As for me, I was filled with nothing but dread. I’d stood here three times before, and all three were filled with death and gut-wrenching guilt.

I might even have been experiencing a panic attack, perhaps a remnant of PTSD restimulated from the previous games. I knew what was coming. Worse even, I would have to watch without flinching.

As it was, all eleven of the competitors stood before us in a line, clad in the simple rugged clothes that they were given. All looked pensive, though it varied between confidence and a few who appeared outright terrified. The reality star wannabe had planted herself in front of the camera.

The only one to even look directly at me was Kit. He stood at the farthest end of the line, completely unfazed by the proceedings. He rubbed his hands together, leaving them white with some kind of powder. It reminded me of the chalk gymnasts used to get a better grip on their equipment.

He caught my eye and winked, seeing my attention. Then his brow furrowed into concern watching me. I was trying to breathe steadily to not hyperventilate, and I was sure it showed on my face.

Then I saw the crew director signal the proceedings to start. Suddenly feeling sick, I turned sideways and vomited onto the grass. Elena grumbled as I retched a few more times, losing what little I’d eaten.

“Do you need a relaxant to calm down or will you finally get a grip?” she asked, disgusted with me. Father hadn’t even noticed me at all, still totally absorbed with the task at hand.

I straightened, wiping my mouth off with the back of my hand. “No. I need for this insanity to stop-“

She didn’t have time to reply as the ten second count down to going live on the air started. I made the sign of the cross over my chest, praying to the Lord that He wouldn’t hold me accountable for all this.

As Father started speaking to the public who I was sure were all lined up around their TVs resentfully, I stared straight ahead. My eyes didn’t focus on any one thing, attempting to dissociate from everything. But as he came to the final intro, I closed my eyes in pained silence to listen.

“All competitors have chosen one weapon to bring into the tunnels,” he said, his voice perfectly bored with the proceedings. Then he cleared his throat. “Er, no. Actually, one competitor has chosen another method.”

My eyes quickly found Kit. He was the only one with a rope with a spike attached to it and looped around his shoulder like the equipment like a mountain climber’s. Even more irreverent to it all, he’d put gum in his mouth. He stood chewing, ignoring all the cameras as they zoomed in on him. He blew a bubble and popped it, completely unfazed.

“All who emerge from the maze will continue to the next round,” Father announced, reading from the teleprompter. Then he addressed the contestants, warning, “You will have one hour to make it through to the exit of the maze. At that time, the maze will fill with poisonous gas. All still inside will perish.”

Death. Muerte. It circled them all like a vulture, ready to take them. It sickened me.

“Anna, please wish all the competitors good luck,” he instructed me, sounding like someone commanding a dog.

My legs felt like they were going to give out on me they were so weak. I made it to the first of the competitors, the reality TV wannabe and shook her hand. I did the same with each one after that, knowing there was nothing else left for me to do. I’d warned them and they’d all stayed.

Er, no. One had gone and promptly come back. As I got to Kit, I no longer felt anger. I stuck my hand out, treating our interaction as if it were a goodbye. Most likely, it would be.

But as he took my hand to shake on it, he did something different than the rest. He kissed my hand, bringing it to his lips before I could stop him. He looked at me playfully, seeing my surprise. “Breathe, chica. Nice new shoes.”

I pulled my hand away abruptly and he chuckled. Then his eyebrows went up, leaving me mortified as I saw that one of my fake nails had come off in his hand. A few of the competitors snickered, spotting it, too.  

“Relax,” he ordered, offering it back to me. “You’ll sweat the rest off, too, and then your makeup if you don’t calm down.“

“Quiet!” the reality TV wannabe from down on the end hissed. “We’re not supposed to speak!”

Kit merely rolled his eyes as I took off for where I was supposed to stand.

A huge television screen rose behind the contestants, ready to broadcast what transpired in the maze. I could feel my heart in my mouth; my heartbeat pounding loud in my ears. The group of contestants headed toward the mouth of the tunnel, readying for the start and all focused except for one.

My eyebrows rose as Kit blew me a kiss with another roguish wink and sauntered off after them, lagging behind leisurely. Either he had a severe lack of respect for authority, or he was just a ham for the cameras. It could’ve been either or both.

“How undignified,” Elena sniffed under her breath, nose wrinkled at his behavior. “Good thing he’s going to die. I’d hate having a buffoon for a son-in-law.”

Forcing myself not to cringe as my father fired off the starting pistol, I watched as all of the men ran into the tunnel. Again, all except one, Kit rolling up his sleeves and strolling in at a leisurely pace.

“Idiot,” Elena hissed as I gulped, wondering just what Kit’s plan was. Or even better, if he had one.

While Kit came across altogether unmoved by the idea of death, I was pretty sure it was because he had a plan. One that made him unbearably smug every time he thought about it.

Also assuring me of that, I scoured the enormous screen that was televising what transpired underground. All the competitors had headed in different directions. But as I searched the different views, all broadcast simultaneously, I only counted ten competitors.

Where had Kit gone?

Echoing my question, the camera crew director was avidly conferring with his people manning the cameras. They were having the same problem. Kit had seemingly vanished once in the maze. None of the cameras could find him.

Inside the black painted walls of the maze with minimal lighting, I was beginning to notice a pattern. There was absolutely no way for the competitors to know where the traps were. Every wall was painted the same dark color, visible only to us because of the night vision cameras. And as the first victims of the games was claimed by death, I put a hand over my mouth.

None of it was censored by the cameras as the man was impaled by spikes that shot out of the wall. If I hadn’t already hurled, I would’ve right then. The spikes went right through his head. I looked away with a curse, wishing I could block the grotesque sight from my mind.  

“You all right, sweetheart? You look tense,” Father asked, politely concerned about me.

“Who wouldn’t be?” I muttered, seeing once again that none of the people here were at all bothered by the gruesome death.

Father misconstrued my unease, however. He reached over to pat my hand. “Don’t worry. I know the designers of the challenges. None of the contestants will make it through to the last challenge. You won’t have to wed any of them, pumpkin.”

I wanted to scream at him with that last bit. I wasn’t worried about marrying anyone. I was at wits’ end as the carnage continued, four more men dying in succession and quickly, especially as they got to the halfway point in the labyrinth.

Between anxiety and the innards-squeezing corset, I could barely breathe. I didn’t move as the commercial breaks rolled, even as the camera that’d been squarely pointed at me to capture my reactions paused in its broadcast.

I felt like I might faint I was under so much pressure and I was sure it showed. As my makeup person powdered my nose, I could see concern written in her expression. As a champagne was offered to me, I took it eagerly and downed it in one gulp. It was the only way I was going to ever make it through this without a nervous breakdown.

Fifty-five minutes into the competition, Kit was still nowhere to be seen. The broadcast director was throwing an outright fit over it though it was the least of their troubles. For whatever reason, the walls of the maze were shaking and throwing off the cameras covering the competition.

One wall at a time, something was moving succinctly through the maze. It kept rocking the mounted cameras and no one could figure out what was doing it.

“Maybe there’s a cat,” one of the crew suggested from somewhere behind me. “On top of the walls. The stadium has a feral problem.“

“One hell of a big cat to shake it that bad,” another scoffed. “If that’s what’s doing it…”

“Five more minutes,” Father commented, looking at his watch with apparent boredom. He stood, smoothing his suit down. He extended a hand to Elena who grumbled. He sighed. “Come. We must head to the exit in case any of the contestants make it through for the next round of the competition.”

I stood on shaky legs, praying to God and all the saints at least a few would come out alive. After sitting through it all, I couldn’t feel my knees. I followed, trying to not crumple to the ground.

We made it across to the exit just as the first contestant made it out of the tunnel. The reality TV star wannabe had made it through in one piece. Her clothes were singed, but she was otherwise okay. Perhaps her father had somehow told her where the traps would be.

I clapped with everyone else, the elites in the stadium breaking into applause. Nauseating me completely, the wannabe merely grinned and waved back to them all, enjoying their attention.

I kept clapping as two more men came out of the exit, then the fourth. But as a fifth live creature came running out after him, Elena screamed. And I didn’t blame her.

The fourth man was apparently being chased by a lion from inside the maze and it followed him out with a fierce roar, dangerously close to where we were standing. Before I could move, our security team shot it before it could leap onto the man.

Feeling immensely sorry for the creature as it reeled and fell, I looked away as it died. Unlike the eleven morons who had volunteered for this, the lion hadn’t. It was just plainly hungry, ribs showing through its fur.

“One minute,” my father murmured, looking to the entrance with unblinking eyes.

I followed his gaze, saying the Lord’s prayer under my breath as the seconds ticked down. There were only two men left in the maze, one being Kit. While he wasn’t visible, the other was seen springing for the exit. But as I noted where he was, I realized he wasn’t far enough through. And as the clock counted down the last few seconds, I closed my eyes to block out the sight. He was about to be gassed as was Kit, wherever he’d disappeared to.

Three, two, one…

I cringed as the buzzer went off, announcing the end. Bowing my head as the chambers released the toxic gas, the last man choked and fell, succumbing to the toxin.

Kit was dead. He had to be. Nothing was left alive in there. Not even any animals that had been left as traps would’ve been able to breathe.

I put a hand to my mouth, eyes welling up with tears. Seven gone. Even one was too much, but this many was unheard of during the first event.   

“Well done to the four champions,” my father announced over the prevalent clapping; the crowd completely entertained. He stood, facing them. “Your merit has been proven today-“

He stopped, cutting off his well-rehearsed speech. My breath caught in my throat as I heard coughing coming from the inside of the tunnel. Looking up, I saw Kit stagger out of the entrance, a handkerchief over his nose. He waved it around in front of his face, trying to clear the air.

Scarcely believing my eyes, I couldn’t stop myself from rushing forward despite Elena’s outraged call after me. I made it over to him and caught him just as he stumbled, crashing to his knees as he tried to breathe.

“Get some oxygen!” I ordered the medical staff who was on hand (all who looked positively incredulous that he was still alive). “Hurry!”

Ai,” Kit wheezed, rubbing the handkerchief over his eyes to wipe away the toxin that’d been sprayed on him. “Nasty stuff-“

Abandoning my composure altogether and insanely relieved, I pulled my sleeve up over my hand and dabbed it at where he was rubbing. “Here.“

He stopped and blearily opened his eyes, both widening as he saw who was helping him. “Oh. It’s you.”

Ignoring his talking, I looked to the medic who’d come over with an oxygen mask in hand. He extended it to me, opening a bag to prepare treatment on Kit. Before I could get the mask on his face, to my insane disbelief, Kit smirked at me with a cough. “See? I’d told you I’d live-“

He shut up as I shoved the mask over his face. I was no mood to be sassed. “Save your breath.“

“I’m an idiot,” he wheezed out, prompting me to nod along with him in agreement. “I was almost out when I heard that other guy choking on the gas and went back for him. He’d already croaked by the time I got there.“

“Just breathe,” I ordered, checking him over for more injuries. “I-“

I yipped in surprise as I was hauled forcibly backward by my shoulder.

“What are you doing?!” Elena snarled at me, trying to drag me away from Kit. “You’re going to ruin your dress!”

I went to protest but failed completely in my ridiculously tall heels. I looked back at Kit to make sure he was okay and he gave me a weak thumbs up.

“The four other contestants will be offended by your preferential treatment,” Elena hissed, absolutely scandalized by my compassion as she grabbed me by the wrist.

“He was choking,” I exclaimed, trying to get her to let go. In her mad haste to take me back to my seat, she hadn’t noticed that I could barely keep up and couldn’t take big steps because of the limited movement the skirt gave me. I stumbled over the grass and landed hard on my knees due to the absurdly tight pencil skirt.

She kept going, ignoring as I cried out and scraped both of my knees. “Stop, Mother! Ow-“

“Elena, stop,” Father exclaimed, coming to my aid as she continued on without noticing I’d gone down. She kept walking, yanking me behind her as I tried to stand and kept tipping over.

In some part of my mind, I realized that she must’ve taken something. I knew she popped pills but had never seen her like this before. She was completely out of it.

To hell with my clothes. I took my free hand and reached down to rip the skirt. But before I could, a hand grasped my free shoulder from behind and then grabbed my mother’s hand on my other wrist.

“Let go of her!” Kit commanded, using a menacing, authoritative tone that I hadn’t heard from him before. He shook her off, getting me to my feet before standing protectively in front of me. He stayed there, shielding me as Father arrived.

“She’s high,” Kit hissed back to me, sounding appalled.

Seeing her now as she glared back at Kit, her eyes were dilated.

“Oh, dear, Elena,” Father said, steering her away from all the cameras which had followed us. “I do believe you’ve gotten too much sun. Let’s get you inside…“

Kit just looked between the two of them with another wheeze, cursing in Spanish. He looked back at me and I just shook my head, forestalling any questions by jerking my head back at the cameras.

He rolled his eyes, seizing my hands to look at the scrapes on them and grumbling to the EMT who’d arrived, “Get her some bandages and antiseptic. Nasty puta. High as a friggin’ kite!“

I sputtered as a couple of guards came up and nabbed him, hauling him back away from me. Kit didn’t take it very nicely, trying to jerk his body out of their grip. “Eh! Get your paws off me!“

“You!”

I turned warily as Tiny stomped up to me and looking pissed to hell. Her eyebrows were jammed over her eyes, telling me I was in for it. She grabbed me by the back of my jacket, forcing me to turn and then shoved me toward the stair that led back into the inner stadium. But not before growling at me, “This is all your fault, rushing over like that! You looked like a commoner!”

“He was choking,” I protested, trying to peer back and earning myself a sharp prod in the back.

 “Get inside before you screw anything else up!” she hissed after me.

I nearly stumbled again, biting my tongue to stop myself from screaming at her. That or crying. It wasn’t my fault that my mother had gotten herself high again.

Stomping off the field, I made it into the tunnel that led out of the stadium. Once out of public view, I snapped. I took my shoe off and threw it at the wall. I kicked the other one off with equal force and it bounced off the concrete block wall closest to me.

Somewhere between wanting to beat the hell out of someone and the urge to break down and cry, I leaned wearily against the wall. I slid down and sat on the floor. Putting my head in my hands, I bit back tears.

This was no life. I always ended up like this. While the world thought I lived the high life, I was little more than a slave to my parents’ whims. A toy – no – a puppet for them to exploit for the whole world to see.

Hearing approaching footsteps, I wiped my nose. Seeing Mortimer squat in front of me with a grim expression, I forced myself to smile. He sighed and patted my hand. “Come on, tiger. Let’s get my favorite soldier mopped up.”

I nodded, knowing he was absolutely furious just by the set of his eyes. As they scanned the blood covering my knees and hands, a muscle in his jaw twitched. But he knew better than to say a word. If either of us expressed our displeasure in a way that angered the hierarchy, we both knew we’d suffer and the price we’d have to pay.

So letting him help me to my feet, I just wearily leaned into his side as he took me home… if one could call it home, that is.


That wraps up this week’s chapter! Any predictions for the next week? Anyone dare guess what was causing the walls to shake? No guesses on where Aiyla and Kit’s relationship is heading or perhaps the identity of the Lynx? per a few of your requests, I’ve prepared to release the

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Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell | Part 2

If you missed the prologue last week, make sure to read it HERE to catch up before reading chapter one! Otherwise, enjoy this week’s chapter:

Copyright Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel 2019


Chapter One: Anna

Imagine living your life inside a body bag, breathing through a minuscule hole poked in the side to get oxygen. You’re desperate to escape but the zipper is on the outside, out of reach, and the plastic refuses to rip.

That’s how I live my life.

That is my existence.

It’s a wonder I don’t suffocate.

Currently every ounce of my aggravation was being taken out on the aging punching bag in the corner of my suite. Left strike. Right strike. Someone’s head was getting bashed in my mind, namely my mother’s… and I didn’t feel guilty considering what she’d pulled this morning. Obsessing over my diet was one thing. Deciding to starve me was another.

But as my sneaker got stuck on the Velcro edge of the bag, leaving me to wobble unsteadily on my feet, I cursed. “Crappy piece of-“

“Your father would throw a fit if he heard that.”

Unable to turn to Mortimer as he came in and still stuck by one shoe, all I could do was laugh sarcastically as I loosened the shoelaces that’d gotten caught. “He can kiss my ass. There aren’t any TV cameras around; are there?”

There would never be one in this room. Daddy dearest wanted to broadcast to the public that I was a dainty, perfectly primped and competently obedient woman. Showing the fact that I was a fighter and one that could kick most of his security teams’ collective asses wasn’t his idea of a good daughter.

As the presidente of Dejado Atrás, or so the public thought, he was the subject of a federally funded reality television show. Every part of his life was televised to the public on Friday nights. To my condescension, I was also expected to appear weekly. Lucky me.

Finally managing to get unstuck, I smirked. Looking back at Mortimer, his eyebrows were definitely up; his greying buzzcut wet with rain. I smirked, gesturing at the bag. “What? No comments on my error?”

Usually he would. Mortimer had been by my side since I was ten, teaching me how to fight. Considering my father’s position of power, he’d done his best to turn me into an absolute beast in case I ever was captured. His lip quirked. “You already know the critique. I merely came with news…”

I groaned in a manner that I didn’t dare do on camera. “Don’t tell me. I have to meet with another ambassador.” I wiped off the sweat that was dripping down from my brow. “Tell them how honored I am to meet their worthless ass?”

He chuckled, going to sit by the door.  “You’re in a fine fettle.”

I leaned on the punching bag with a weary chuckle. “Heard Dad on the phone with the loser from Espocha City. Wonder if he’ll have the balls to approach me with that moron.”

Mortimer sniggered as I rolled my eyes, pitching my voice down to imitate my father. “Pumpkin, I’ve found you a very special man, one even more corrupt than I am. You’ll make a perfect couple, providing you don’t tell him how morally repugnant you find his business practices…“

He shook his head at my ranting. I could tell he agreed, though he didn’t dare say so for fear it’d get back to his boss. “Aiyla, you’re his daughter. Get over it. Can’t change it. Gotta get used to the bullshit like I did if you want to survive.”

I nodded, glumly tightening my gloves. As the former head of my father’s security and before that an army beret, he knew everything. “I know. Just another day in the life of chica numero uno, the most useless-“

“You’re not useless.”

“Sitting pretty is useless,” I grumbled, looking at him. I knew damn well just what everyone outside of these walls thought of me. I was collectively despised.

“Ah,” he said theatrically, his murky grey eyes solemn as he leaned forward. “I take it your proposal to become spokesperson for the children’s literacy grant was blackballed?”

Bingo. I punched the bag again, this time with renewed vigor. “Of course. I have too much on my plate already.“ I kicked the bag and then sucker punched it, gritting my teeth. “Especially since there’s only so many times I can straighten my lipstick in a day!”

“For once, your father is correct,” Mortimer harrumphed.

That declaration certainly got my attention. I turned to look at him, seeing his amusement gone as he rubbed his hands together. Whatever it was, he was dreading telling me. “Aiyla, they’ve decided to broadcast the Tourney again.”

No. God, no.

I sat down on the floor with a dull plunk, my knees without feeling. They were holding it again. The Tourney was a series of deathly televised games where men would compete, supposedly to win a chance at ten million dollars. Oh, plus my hand in marriage to cement themselves as an elite.

What all the entrants didn’t know was that it was rigged; not to test the contestants but to kill them all right there on the silver screen. Pure entertainment to cater to the bloodlust of masses; the height of reality television. Blood sold just as well as sex and the TV networks knew it.

It was my father’s sick idea of boosting public ‘morale’ with the idea the winner, too, could become one of us if he survived.

But my father didn’t know what the less fortunate public called the Tourney behind his back: Espectáculo de Asesinato. The Murder Show. A real morale booster for sure. And we were considered the murderers.

“He’ll announce it at the press conference tomorrow along with the names of the competitors,” he continued, looking troubled.

Estan loco!” I said, referring both to the show itself and the willing competitors. Father had already managed to dig up contestants; more morons who would die for a worthless competition. I slammed my fist on the floor. “How many lunatics did he get this time?!”

“Ten.” I groaned and flopped back on the mat, letting a few more four-letter words slip past my lips. Mortimer grunted, always a sure sign that he was on the edge of admitting what he really thought but decided against it. “Don’t upset yourself. They’re grown men. It’s their choice.”

“All this is a con,” I groaned, running a hand through my hair and looking at the ceiling. “A trick to make people think there’s a one in a zillion shot that they could win. How can they not see that?!”

My last sentence ended with me shouting. Thirty men had died already, and all in my name. Their deaths were televised across the country, this being the third year in a row.

“Power is a tempting lure; as are you,” Mortimer said simply, lugging himself up to come over to me with arms crossed.

I snorted humorlessly, ready for another round with the punching bag despite having done so for the last hour. “Yeah, because a piece of ass and a wad of cash is really worth dying over.”

Getting up, I met Mortimer’s stare evenly. He was only a bit taller than me, a stocky but strong man. And he knew exactly what I was going to ask. “Your father isn’t here. Don’t waste your breath-“

“I said nothing the last time,” I declared, raring to go confront him. “I know damn well how much money there is to be made off of this! All the elites involved do! They know no one will survive and reel in the advertising money all the same! Now he has ten new victims.”

Mortimer put his hand out to stop me, placing it on my shoulder. He shook his head, still somber. “Nor does he care.”

“I have to try!”

This time he physically stopped me, stepping in front of me. He took my shoulders in his hands, making me stop and face him. “Aiyla,” he said softly, dropping his normally brusque tone. “You can’t stop it. The system is designed so that-“

“No one can fight it,” I whispered, knowing that if he was saying it was futile, it really was. I lowered my eyes to the floor. “Even me.”

Much like the citizens, I was trapped. Father was only a figurehead, controlled by the more powerful shadow state behind the scenes. He was a puppet for them to manipulate, a face for the public to equate as the leader and falsely blame for their troubles.

As his daughter I was held to the same standards. If I displeased those in true control, I’d be killed. I was an unwilling marionette, one that was manipulated every day of my life. A lamb for the slaughter before the golden calf of society. At twenty four years old, there was absolutely nothing in this life that was mine; not even my face.

He tipped my chin up. There was no hint of a smile in his eyes as he muttered, “These men are all volunteers. They’re not your problem.”

I smiled sadly, putting my hand on top of his. “Dangle a diamond in front of a beggar long enough and they’ll do anything for it. But I’m no diamond. I’m a crystal. Looks like a diamond only because it’s been polished for so long.” I shook my head. “Rub off the shine and it’ll crack.”

“Your beauty isn’t a curse.”

“I don’t care what I look like,” I grumbled as he gave me a teensy hug and then stepped back.

No matter how much he obviously wanted to comfort me, Mortimer knew better than to get too chummy with me in this place. Cameras were everywhere and we both knew if Father started to feel threatened as my ‘paternal figure’, he’d fire Mortimer in a heartbeat. I forced myself to smile, keeping my usual sarcasm as a defense. “Everything in my life is superficial except you.”

He cracked a rare smile, the expression fleeting from his features. “You are a diamond, hun. You’re as hard as one, as well as the strongest person I know. Someday you’ll see.”

For the millionth time ever, I wished that Mortimer was my true family. In my heart, he already was. He’d been by my side since forever, teaching me everything he knew. I even stayed at his house a few times when boarding school had holidays and my parents were away. He and Aunty Lola would do their best to care for me.

He went to say something else, but we were interrupted as my personal assistant came trouncing in. For all intents and purposes, I despised the woman but knew better than to tell her that. Tiny thrived on making me miserable and I knew she could turn up her efforts to an even higher notch.  

Her name didn’t fit all two hundred pounds of her as she charged toward me, her black hair pulled into an insanely tight bun. But my stomach bottomed out as I saw that she had another garment bag.

“Aiyla, you have a dinner with the police chief’s son,” she proclaimed, acting more like I was her servant than her boss. Then again, she answered to my mother Elena so any control I had over her was a farce. She tapped her tablet, barely even looking at me and clearly already put out. “You’re supposed to have been ready-“

“Gorgen can handle me like this,” I grunted, unbothered while taking another chug of water. “I used to kick his butt every week in boxing class before Dad decided I was ‘above’ taking public classes.”

She sniffed with impatience. ”You’re so predictable, Anna.“

“My name is Aiyla,” I snapped, officially losing patience. “If you want me to listen to you at all, use my friggin’ name.”

She rolled her eyes. “You know that the statistics of the poll showed that the public prefers a European name. We need to make the citizens more comfortable.“

Comfortable was another word for pliable. “Yes, because giving me a bland, European name in a Latin American dominated culture is really going to make me popular,” I growled, my eyes narrowing and hers mirroring the movement. “Need to keep them passive, right?”

Mortimer choked on a laugh, cackling as he strode off. He hated Tiny just about as much as I did. She knew it, too, thrusting the garment bag at me. ”Get changed.”

“If you don’t like it, then quit,” I challenged, snatching it from her.

She tutted, absolutely scandalized. “When I took the job I was assured you were socially pliable.“

Socially pliable equated with being dragged along like a yap yap dog in her wake. I.e., I’d be her bitch.

“If ya wanna keep your job, give me a little more sugar and drop the spice, sweetheart,” I drawled, bearing down on her. Tiny squared her jaw, looking like she wanted to scream at me. I smiled, letting her know that despite my general tolerance for her orders, I wasn’t going to give in. “Bring the car around…”

She quickly disappeared from my suite, loathing radiating out of her every pore. Looking over at Mortimer, I shrugged as I saw his open amusement. “What little power I’ve got isn’t going to be wasted.”

He just chuckled as I headed for the bathroom to change. “Enjoy your ‘date’. Tell Gorgen that I hope his left hook has improved since the last time you beat the crap out of him.”

All I did was wink, draping the garment bag over my shoulder as I went.

***

Two hours later and I was beyond bored.

Sitting in the upscale, five-star restaurant on an obscenely hard plastic bar chair, I was wishing it’d cone complete with a punching bag like the one I’d left behind with Mortimer. Gorgen had yet to show, leaving me alone, looking like an idiot and trussed up like a Barbie doll.

Done up in a pastel pink suit with a pencil skirt, silk blouse, diamonds on my neck and pointy shoes, I oozed high fashion. What it didn’t scream was ‘me’. I hated everything about it, even down to the body that was currently in it.

Oh no. I liked me right fine. I just hated my bleached, blonde hair and the pale tinge my skin had taken on since mother insisted I needed skin treatments to lighten my ‘commoner’ colored tan skin. Between that and feeling grouchy because of the diet they’d stuck me on, my heels were killing me.

Sipping on sparkling water with lemon, I stared at the bottle of Jack that was behind the bar. Could’ve done with a shot of that right about now but I knew better. The glasses on the table were glinting with the flashes of the paparazzi’s cameras. They were all outside watching me, snapping photos from the outside of the restaurant. The entire wall of this place was glass. Bulletproof glass, but glass all the same.

My pink-dyed fur stole fell on the floor again and this time I just left it there. I hated the damn thing with the fox’s head still attached. It should’ve been alive; not slaughtered for the sake of high fashion.

As a waiter came up, I turned toward him. I noted that he appeared too young to be working here, but he had a kind smile. He even had the same light, cognac-colored skin and dark hair that I once had. His hazel eyes rested shrewdly on me, taking in my continued vigil in front of the window.

“Can I get you anything?” he asked for the fifth time, looking me over. “You look like you could use-“

“Cyanide with a side of arsenic,” I said out of the corner of my mouth, not bothering to hide my aggravation.

He smirked with a wink, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Best I can do is a suicide. Our bartender is a magic maker. Had a sip once and that was enough to knock me for a loop.”

At least he had a sense of humor. “I’ll pass.”

The last thing I needed was to get smashed in front of the cameras. Then again, screw it. I knew another form of preferable suicide. I smiled at him. “You know what? Bring me a hot fudge sundae. Better: two.” I gestured at the empty seat next to me. “It’ll kill my mother when she sees it in the headlines tomorrow. ‘Presidente’s daughter commits diet suicide’.” I sneered. “An absolute tragedy. Put it on Gorgen’s tab.”

He smirked, enjoying my behavior. “Hardly a tragedy, miss. If your date can’t appreciate you, then he’s not worthy of you.” I stirred my drink with my straw, eyebrows up as he added flirtatiously, “I wasn’t kidding when I offered you anything you like.”

I took a sip, drinking him in a little with my eyes. By the looks of him, he was certainly a looker but a little young for me.

“You’re very cute,” I said slowly, enjoying myself but also withdrawing from him. “But take my advice. You may want to bite into an apple, but sometimes even the shiniest red sheen can turn out to be rotten to the core.”

He stared at me for a second, clearly unnerved with my candor before moving off to do as I ordered. I lost my patience and slipped my shoes off, turning my back to the window entirely. I snapped my fingers and the AI drapes lowered over it, shrouding me inside.

I closed my eyes, feeling the tightness of my skin from the makeup and wondering just what it’d take to get it all off. I felt like a wall with peeling paint, my lips dry from the matte lipstick that’d been painted on.

But as I heard footsteps and then something being placed on the bar next to me, I opened my eyes. There were three sundaes in front of me: one with candy, another with cookie crumbs, and the last with sprinkles. And next to them stood someone I knew all too well.

“I didn’t know what toppings you’d like, so I had all three made differently,” Ryan Haynesworth said with some amusement, noting my shoes on the floor along with the stole. His flashing blue eyes were filled with laughter. That and a great deal of lust.

He held out a whipped cream container. “I brought the whipped cream since you drew the curtains. You can eat straight out of the can without fear.” He lowered his voice, sitting next to me with a saucy wink. “Or off of me. Say the word and I’ll have the restaurant cleared for us. You’re worth it.”

I took a spoon and pulled the sundae with the cookie crumbs toward me. “Ah, Ryan. You’re always so… sweetly inappropriate.”

He laughed, taking his jacket uniform off and sitting next to me. Since he and Gorgen were brothers, he had the same striking blonde hair and light features. Despite being of an elite status, he was on the police force as a captain.

I extended a spoon to him. “Take your pick.”

He pulled the candy sundae toward himself, still eyeing me with amusement. “I don’t mind double dipping so help yourself. You can dip into my ice cream anytime.” He wasn’t talking about the sweets either as he took a bite. “You’re trying to spite your mother with calories, eh?”

He licked his spoon suggestively and I rolled my eyes. “Now you’re just trying to get my goat.”

“Now why would I go for your goat when I can have you?” he said with some humor and dug further into his ice cream. “My brother sends his apologies. He was… waylaid. Emphasis on laid.”

“Send my regards to his hookers because that man needs a sure thing,” I retorted, making him chuckle. “So you came instead? My hero…”

“Hero? Well, I could be,” he said, making me snicker again. “Just say the word.”

Oh, dear Lord. I turned to him, sensing he was doing his best to be outrageous. His eyes were glinting with ulterior motives as always. I crossed my legs, leaning back in my chair. “Why are you here?”

“I’m your personal escort until the games are officially over,” he said with no further humor, dropping his teasing. Seeing my revulsion with that announcement his eyes hardened and he chuckled. He took my hand and squeezed it, saying in a teasing tone, “I’ll be as sexually obnoxious as possible to keep you distracted. I promise.”

That I could believe. “Why, thank you,” I said dryly, taking another spoon of vanilla ice cream. As I felt something go up the inside of my calf, I looked down.

Ryan smirked at me. “Complimentary footsie is included in the ‘obnoxious’ package.” I rolled my eyes as he leaned forward deviously. “And believe me, the ‘package’ is fabulous. You should really consider inspecting the goods…”

As he sat back with cat-like smugness, I looked at him and all he entailed. While he was undoubtedly attractive, he knew it and that immediately turned me off. His arrogance was legendary. As his eyebrows went up, I said, “We do this every time we cross paths, Ryan. We both know you don’t want me.”

It was a game just to see how far he could get me to go. There was absolutely no chemistry between us, other than the innuendo banter to see who could outsmart the other party. He rolled his eyes, knowing I was dismissing him. “Oh, I want you; just minus the hideous pink fur stole.”

This time I laughed and he chuckled. That was a load of bunk, the quip made purely to get a reaction out of me. I stood in a fluid motion, bending to pick up the stole and then draping it over his shoulders. I kissed his cheek as I slipped my shoes back on. “See you tomorrow.”

He chuckled, wrinkling his nose at the pink fur around his neck. “I’ll be there cocked, loaded and ready to go.”

“I’m sure,” I said dryly, heading for the exit. His low laughter followed me, his focus probably shifting to bedding one of the waitresses who had been flitting around the restaurant. He was a notorious womanizer, one with immense success at landing himself willing prey.

Eyes followed me as I headed for the back entrance, all from people who were dining in the obscenely expensive restaurant. The waitstaff stayed out of my way, keeping a reverent distance.

The limo was supposed to wait in the back for me, away from the crowds out front. I texted the driver to make sure he was waiting and got an immediate response. Passing the kitchen, I headed out but, to my displeasure, once outside there was no limo. I looked both ways, seeing no cars whatsoever. Adding to my unease, the door snapped shut behind me almost like it’d been closed from within.

Immediately my hand went for my clutch, thinking of the handgun I kept inside it. Now on red alert I drew it, taking the safety off. I slipped my heels off, knowing they’d be nothing more than a hinderance in a fight.

The damp alley was dimly lit so I wasn’t able to see beyond another ten feet from me. Only an orange, overhead light shone, giving it a stark, creepy look. A dumpster was on one side, blocking the view beyond it.

Whirling as I heard a noise from behind it, I aimed and stepped out to keep the area in view. I hastily lowered my gun as I saw my previous waiter yelp and then put his hands up. He’d been behind the dumpster, apparently sneaking in a drink. His glass bottle fell from his hand and smashed on the pavement.

“Whoa!” he sputtered out, hands still up as I studied him with suspicion. “Please don’t shoot me. My family won’t be able to afford the loss of income if I die!“

Clearly he wasn’t the fighting kind. He looked even younger out here than he did inside – maybe on the edge of seventeen – and remained absolutely terrified. I lowered the weapon. He heaved a sigh of relief as I stepped forward. “You seen a town car?”

“No,” he said, looking around bewilderedly. “Usually VIPs go out the front, so I thought you were my boss coming to yell at me.”

I nodded, wondering where my driver had gone to. I studied the alley and rooftops beyond, wondering if I was in for an ambush. It wasn’t the first time nor especially the last. And since Father wanted people to believe we lived in utopia here and didn’t need protection, I had no bodyguards to fall back on either.

Leaving the alley and going on the main street would be dangerous. I was so ill-liked that I’d probably be attacked.

The young waiter ambled up, mournfully looking at his smashed bottle. “And no, I haven’t been drinking. I don’t handle liquor well, so I put root beer in the bottle to stop my co-workers from making fun of me. I’m Alvin-“

Alvin was clearly a friendly talker. I grunted, paying him little attention besides monitoring his movement. He frowned. “Shouldn’t you be out of here by now? VIPs never linger.“

“Driver’s bailed and the door locked before I could get back in,” I grumbled, having stuck my hand in my pocket and pressing the panic button on my alarm system. It’d alert the police and I had a very bad feeling I’d be needing them. The question was where Ryan had gone to.

Alvin’s eyes widened in alarm. “Locked? That shouldn’t be.”

He went to the door, testing it himself. It didn’t budge, confirming to me that we were in for a rough time of it. But as he looked back to say something, his eyes darted past me to widen with dread.

Following his gaze, I spotted men coming from the mouth of the alley. There were seven, all in black with their faces covered with black bandanas. I aimed the gun squarely at the closest’s chest, not taking any chances. Lord knew they were probably looking to abduct not kill, but I wasn’t taking any risks.

Surprising me, however, Alvin put himself in front of me. He squared his shoulders, saying with authority, “This is private property!”

Somehow I doubted very much that the men would be dissuaded by that. They were toting heavy automatic weapons.

My eyes darted around, spotting a fire escape about fifty feet away, but I wasn’t going to make that. They’d likely shoot before I could get to it. Not to mention one side of it was held up by a rusty bolt half hanging out of the brick wall. Any weight on it could bring it crashing down.

“Alvin, run,” I muttered, seeing he wasn’t going to back down. Preparing to defend me, his fists were clenched but he was in no way a threat. He hadn’t grown into his body yet, still more scrawny than muscular.

He stepped forward before I could stop him and was instantly struck down, the man closest punching him out. I edged away from them toward the back of the alley, keeping the gun aimed at the biggest’s head as they stepped around Alvin’s limp form.

“Whatever it is you want, it’s not worth dying over,” I snarled, edging back as they prowled forward. A trigger-happy woman was something nobody ever wanted to deal with, so they would probably try to sway me into giving up.

None of them stopped and, if anything, a few hands were twitching toward their own guns. One snickered at me, clearly not bothered by my threat. “You sure about that, Anna?”

They all laughed together, making my stomach sink. There’d be no ending this peacefully. Their leader gestured at my gun. “Put that down before you hurt yourself.”

“It won’t sting a bit if I shred your brain,” I threatened, still creeping toward the other end of the alley. At worst, I could wedge myself in the narrow to try to avoid them grabbing me. If I kept them talking long enough, I could keep them at bay until the police answered the summons from my panic button.

As one lunged for me, another used the distraction to his advantage, coming at me from the side. Before he could subdue me, I officially decided to stop playing nice.

Firing on the one going to grab me, it hit him square in the chest. But to my disgruntlement, other than staggering back a little, it didn’t stop him. He must’ve been wearing a concealed, bulletproof vest, most likely meaning the rest were, too.

I kept my aim true, hissing out, “Next one goes in the head. Tell me what you want and you might live.”

The back of the alley was getting closer as I paced backward. I refused to be cornered. They didn’t know what I was planning, matching my every step just like I wanted. They would be right under my target ambush zone in a minute.

They moved into a tight, half semi-circle around me, blocking any attempts to run past them. They’d obviously taken me to be an untrained fool. The lead one sneered from behind his mask, “Come quietly. There’s only five bullets left in that pistol now, and seven of us…”

I snickered, making them pause. “Only need one.”

Looking up, I shot the faulty bolt holding up the end of the fire escape. As I broke the bolt, it groaned and crashed down on top of all seven; the men crying out as it landed on them. Darting around it as they struggled to get free, I headed straight for back door of the restaurant.

I shot out the lock on it and attempted to kick it in. I reeled back as it failed to move, somehow barred shut from the inside. Deciding to abandon the idea as I heard movement behind me, I whirled for the open end of the alley. Better to risk running into the street than to remain within firing range. Before I could make it two steps, I was grabbed from behind.

Now down to three bullets, I pitched forward, trying to throw my assailant over my back. He anticipated my move, jerking back and dragging me with him.

Taking my next shot and managing to get one arm out of his grip, I fired at his foot. He screeched and then fell as I pistol whipped him, taking him down.

Whirling to see only two more of the men coming at me, the rest trapped under the fire escape, I decided to make sure they wouldn’t stop me from escaping. I popped one of them in the neck and then aimed directly at the second one’s forehead.

He paused mid-run, skidding to a halt with fear. His eyes widened and then abruptly changed course, booking it for the open end of the alley. I snorted humorlessly. “Yeah, you’d better run, you lousy, mother f-“

Hearing a noise from behind me, I whipped around to aim at a male figure in the shadow of the dumpster. While I couldn’t see him well, I could make out that he put his hands up as my finger twitched on the trigger.

“Whoa,” a heavily vocoded voice said to me, leaving me to see a set of shining eyes widen in the gloom. “I come in peace. Don’t shoot.”

Not altogether assured, I bellowed, “I warn you-“

“You took out all these guys before I could, chica, so chill,” the man said, cutting me off and stepping out further into the light.

Thoroughly bewildered as I saw black attire with what looked like some kind of a mask-helmet with two huge, horn-like things on top, it took me a second to realize they resembled some kind of animal ears. Between them and his black, flapping cape, I was absolutely astounded. What the hell was this supposed to be?

Apparently he could see my incredulity. He grinned, the lower half of his face discernable; only his eyes visible otherwise. “I’ll take credit for scaring the last guy off, but the rest was all you.” He looked over at the fire escape that was still pinning down several of the struggling men. “I came when I heard the scuffle but I was too late. Not to mention unnecessary.” He looked back to me, grin widening. “I’m impressed, chica.”

He was clearly from somewhere in the lower end of the city. While he had a voice changer, he carried the accent of one of the less wealthy ends of town. And one so thick that if it’d been any of my father’s men here, they likely wouldn’t have understood him.

Still unsure what his game was and deciding to cut the crap, I asked in Spanish, “You a cop?”

He laughed, flat out annoying me as he replied in what I was sure was his usual Spanish dialect. “Nah. If I were with the fuzz, you think I’d be talking with you? You look awfully guilty with that pile of bodies behind you.”

He was yanking me around now. I could hear humor in his voice, despite the voice changer in the side of his mask. He leaned against the wall, completely unbothered by the gun I kept aimed at him.

Your driver won’t be coming,” he added further, clearly waiting for me to lower my weapon. I did so slowly, realizing he wasn’t out to harm me. “Those men got to him before they could you.”

So that was where my ride went. As I studied the newcomer further, I couldn’t help but ask in English, “Who are you?”

If anything, he reminded me of a Zorro-wannabe. He only smiled wider, as if he’d been waiting for the question. He reverted back to English as well. “I am the Lynx.”

That didn’t sound right. Had I misheard? “The link?”

His smile faded a little, using his foot to nudge the fellow who I’d pistol whipped. “Uh, no. The Lynx.”

Completely stymied, I gave in and asked, “The link to what?”

He rolled his eyes, starting to look frustrated. “Ai! No, señorita. The Lynx. You know. See the ears? El lince? Meow?”

As he pointed at the enormous ears on the top of his mask, suddenly I understood. “Oh, a ‘lynx’?”

He nodded, satisfied with my recognition. Now remembering what my father had been bitching about a few days previous, the word ‘vigilante’ had been mentioned, as had a mysterious Lynx that’d been interfering with police territories. And here he stood in front of me now.

Knowing that the police absolutely hated him, as did all of the elites, I inclined my head. “Well, ‘Lynxy’, while I thank you for the assistance, you’d better scram. My entourage doesn’t like civilian interference.“

  Hearing my tone change, he cocked his head. “Eh. Watch it. Do I know you? Swear I’ve heard your snotty tone before. Few gatos speak with such authority.”

Now he was just sassing me right back, calling me a ‘cat’ in his disparaging manner. I rolled my eyes and suddenly his eyes zeroed in on me. He pointed at me with one fingerless-gloved hand. “Si! That’s it! Señorita Anna Gobacheva. The Presidente’s daughter.”

    Didn’t sound like he was altogether that fond of me. I inclined my head before turning, deciding that humoring my vigilante tagalong would be bad on a number of levels and mostly for him.

“Wait. Now that I know who you are, we should talk,” he insisted, getting a belligerent tone and following behind me, refusing to give up.

I sighed. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the time-”

“For anyone,” he finished incorrectly for me, cutting me off and thinking I was dismissing him. A gaze of steel met mine. “What I want to know is how it is all you silver spoonfed aristocrats can brush off the people’s suffering! They die by the thousands while you pad tu billeteras-“

Recognizing the word for wallet, I rounded on him. This one talked big, but didn’t know who the hell he was attacking. “You think I like it?! You think I don’t get angry over the same thing?!”

He got up in my face, not altogether much taller than me. It put us on the same level, nose-to-nose while he snarled, “That diamond necklace on your chest could feed an entire slum for a month! That tells me where your intentions lie! If you gave a damn-“

“If I gave a damn I’d be dead,” I growled back, not backing off in the slightest and jabbing him in the chest. “You’ve no idea what you’re talking about! Don’t waste your breath. I’ve wasted mine too many times-“

“All you care about is yourself,” he spat in my face, starting to get riled up. “I can see that now-“

“Oh, can you? Then congratulations on seeing through all their bullshit,” I snapped, making him pause. I shrugged, mocking him. “You’ve obviously figured out that my father’s ‘social preservation’ campaign is a farce. Or is it you’re too short for the armed forces?”

The Lynx turned mottled red below his mask, my jab hitting its mark. If I was five-four, he was barely five-five. The tension between us was fierce, neither of us backing down.

I sighed and shook my head. “Look, we would agree on every point you make. But I can’t help you. I can’t help anybody. It’s not that I won’t. It’s that I can’t.”

“I don’t believe that,” he said with just as much ferocity as before, not softening one bit.

I looked down, unhappy with the way that things had turned out between us. “Believe what you want. Now I’d suggest you go. My security team will be here soon. Then you’d get to see just how much control I’ve got. They’ll shoot you even if I order them not to.”

He just glared at me, completely unmoved by my statement. I looked at the gun in my hands, wishing he’d leave. “Do yourself a favor. If you want justice, keep this up. But don’t expect any help because you won’t get it.“

“Then don’t expect me to help you the next time you’re in trouble,” he snapped, looking me over with hatred. “Because-“

Hearing sirens coming, I turned to the opening of the alley. Realizing I should warn the Lynx, I turned back. But no one was there.

All that was left was the downed fire escape and the bodies of the men who’d been knocked out. Where the hell did he go? It was like he’d evaporated.

Hearing a groan, I stepped back to Alvin. He stirred with a pained grimace, looking up at me groggily with widening eyes as he came to. “Oh, God! Where did-?”

He sat up, seeing the remainders of the men who’d tried to take me. His eyes came back to me with astonishment. “Did you – you’ve must’ve – are they dead?!“

I extended a hand to him as a few cop cars pulled up at the opening of the alley, flooding it with blue and red light. Their doors opened as Alvin took my hand, rubbing his head where he’d been hit.

I sighed as he stood, all the security getting out and thinking he’d been an attacker because of his ethnic features. Alvin let out a frightened squawk and threw his hands up as I shook my head. This was not going to end well; that was for sure.

 “Just let me do the talking…”


And that’s it for chapter one! Sparks certainly flew between Aiyla and the illustrious Lynx. Any predictions for next week’s edition? I’m all ears and so is the Lynx – wink, wink! I know. A bad joke but still.

If you’re enjoying this story, make sure to mark it as ‘currently reading’ on Goodreads HERE and share this blog post with your friends. The more people reading, the more likely I am to release extra chapters at a time.

Thanks for tuning in and much love during the quarantine! We’re all in this together and I want to be there for you, my dear readers. Hugs to you!

– XO Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

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Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell Part 1 | The Prologue

Remember that serial novel I was promising you my dear readers to keep you entertained during the quarantine? Without further ado, I present:

DEL MUERTA: Sanctum of Hell Series
Welcome to Infierno. Directly translated: welcome to Hell…
In the city of Dejado Atrás lurks a dark secret; a paradox that hides behind the veneer of democratic deception. Dictators will fall and vigilantes will rise in this dystopian action novel.

Without further ado, here is the first part of Del Muerta. I hope you love this novel as much as I have loved writing the characters. Each one is dear to my heart, even down the low, rotten scoundrels. And there are plenty of them in this series, believe me. No more spoilers, I’ll let you enjoy the story.

Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel


Prologue

Restless sirens pierced the dark as five silhouettes raced across the rooftops of Dejado Atrás. The wraith-like figures flitted over the lip of the nearest roof, jumping to the fire escape below to scramble into the protective cover of the alley.

One was livid; the other four no different but all a united front as they dove behind the shadows of a forgotten dumpster.

The ghetto of Infierno lay beyond them; the dim streets as black as the hearts of those who governed it. It was their home to protect. Their sanctuary. Yet simultaneously their hell. Hunted like common animals, they were constantly chased within an inch of their lives.

The searchlight of the armored police car roved over their hiding spot, then disappeared as it drove past. In a flash it was gone, still scanning for the vigilantes that dared defy its authority. All breathed a collective sigh of relief, the danger silently ebbing away.

 “This is getting out of hand,” the alias called the Chupacabra muttered, breathing hard as her hazel eyes combed the surroundings. Pulling off her mask, she shook her head. “We can’t even meet without them trying to catch us.“

“Ya think? We need to get inside information about how the Hacienda operates,” another of the five murmured; the Reverend’s eyes glinting with barely concealed fury as he gave the other four a cursory glance. “Otherwise the Forge is going to bury us all.”

Nobody disagreed, thinking of the uprising that regularly attacked the governance of the city. The members of the rebellion didn’t care who they killed in the process, so long as they claimed control. Almost as corrupt as the regime in current control, neither side of the fight cared about the inhabitants of the metropolis. 

Only one of the five dared to reply.

“Already done. I’ve infiltrated Tourney,” the Lynx replied, removing his mask as the others turned to stare at him. The original vigilante of the city, he shook out his hair, damp from the drizzling rain. “I’ll get the information we need-“

“The Tourney?! Are you insane?!” Chupacabra hissed in horror at her foster brother, knowing he was already willing to sacrifice himself to defend them all. “Everyone who enters it winds up six feet under! You’ll die!”

“It’s our only option,” he insisted, his cherry wood eyes as solemn as the grave he would likely wind up in. “Once in, I’ll report back what information I can get. They’re housing the contestants in the manor. I’ll have direct access to the inside.”

“What about fixing that bitch of a daughter the presidente’s got? The ‘prize’ of the whole bloodbath?” Eden snickered, leaning against the brick wall of the alley. His grin was positively sinister, his fingers suggestively tracing the holstered gun at his hip. “Worst comes to worst, you kill her-“

“Or the complete opposite. You seduce her,” the Chupacabra said with an equally fiendish gleam in her eye, relishing the idea. She pulled off her flesh-colored gloves and brushed her raven hair back. “Use her to get the information we want. Then discard her when we’re done.”

The Lynx’s eyes gleamed at the thought of finally exacting revenge on those who had murdered his wife and daughter. Yes, that idea had a certain ring to it. A tempting, cloying edge that he couldn’t resist.

Everyone in the city hated ‘Princess’ Anna of the Hacienda as she sat poised on her royally pompous duff, pampered with riches and spoils while the rest of the world starved. She was no princess by blood; only as a common derogatory nickname amongst the people of the city. Fixing her for good would do everyone a favor beyond measure, even just for morale’s sake.

But the Lynx had a better idea still.

“No. I seduce her to our cause,” he said, seeing the other four brighten as they considered the idea. “What better way to get back at them than to corrupt the one thing they count on to continue their regime?”

All five shared a conspiratorial smile, thinking of all the havoc they could wreak working from the inside out of the deep state of Dejado Atrás. With this move, they could potentially outmaneuver the entire government. Using intel they’d steal, they’d at long last take down the corruption that saturated the streets.

Before they could plan further, however, searchlights flickered back into the alley. Discovering they’d been conned, the police had returned. Four of the five scattered like frightened rabbits, heading in different directions as the light blinded their eyes.

Instead of fleeing with them, the Lynx quickly ascended the fire escape to lead to the roof above. Not caring if he was caught so long as the others escaped, he scrambled over the top of the building as the policemen followed in hot pursuit. The Hacienda couldn’t stop what he’d started; a movement to recover the city from their grip. Vigilantes were sprouting up in every corner to best them; to fight for what was right.

Darting past the billboard video screen atop the roof, he stifled a grim smile. Princess Anna glared out of the billboard advertising the Tourney with bored apathy. She had no idea just what was coming for her.

The Lynx only laughed as a shot rang out, a bullet ricocheting off the billboard screen and missing him entirely as the police fired. Two more bullets zipped past and missed, the yells of the pursuing officers demanding he surrender. To hell with that.

Like the phantom spirit that he was, he disappeared into the night without a trace; without a whisper of a sound. Before the eyes of the disbelieving officers, once over the side of the building, the Lynx was gone.

As they searched through the dawn, the promise of revenge hung in the air like smoke over a smoldering fire. Even if the Lynx had to give up his life, at least freedom would belong to the people of Infierno once more.

Dejado Atrás would be free at any price. Princess Anna was going down.

- Del Muerta: Sanctum of Hell Copyright 2019 

I hope you enjoyed the prologue! Be nice to me and comment your predictions about the story below and I might just release chapter one tomorrow instead of making you wait another week for it!

PS. Make sure to sign up to be alerted every time a new chapter is released. As a thanks for signing up, you’ll receive a free gift just from me.

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Love and hugs,

Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

Missing Your Local Library During the Quarantine? Check Out These Free Online Digital Library Apps

Considering you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re missing your local library. They’ve truly become invaluable social hubs for our communities. All in all, we’re in a situation that nobody ever wanted our world to be in. We need to stick together, especially as readers in this difficult time.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

Still while they’re off limits, I’ve had a few people asking about digital resources to keep reading for free. As per your requests, I’ve collected a few of them for you. If you’re looking for reading for your e-reader, tablet, or computer, here are a few sources where you can check out digital books via your local library:

Overdrive (via Rakuten) – Also known as Libby. You can use this service to check out books via your local library.

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Hoopla Digital – Many libraries use this so you can check out a few e-books or audiobooks a month via your library card.

Sora – An app through Overdrive for student reading.

Or if you’re a more adventurous sort, you can find plenty of free E-books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Scribd, Rakuten, and more on an every day basis. Books go on sale all the time, so keep checking back to see what offerings there are every day.

On a better note, if you still prefer going through your local library, a number of my books are available to check out through Overdrive, Libby, and Hoopla Digital with your library card. If you’d like to see if they’re in your local library, check them out here.

Hope this article helps!

All my love,

Author Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

Thanks for visiting my website! While you’re here, as a thank you for visiting, make sure to claim your free copy of Still Death, a scifi military novella below before you go!

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A Frank Opinion About COVID-19 Coronavirus From A Science Fiction Author

We are not lemmings.

Let me repeat that again. WE ARE NOT LEMMINGS.

I’m sure a few of my readers are looking at this and wondering what the hell what I’m talking about. Remember the myth about the small, furry creatures jumping off a cliff on mass to their deaths, following one after the other in their fear? I think you get my point.

In actuality, when one looks at the documentary that Disney made called White Wilderness in 1958 where this phenomena was documented, one finds a disturbing fact: the filmmakers herded those lemmings toward the jump off point for a dramatic effect. This has become a documented fact. Lemmings don’t usually do it on their own. In actuality, they can be great survivalists and can swim great distances for food.

Either way, the point could be made that while people are deliberately being herded toward panic by their televisions or jumping all on their own to their panic states, things are getting out of hand… and quickly.

As an author who writes dramatic fantasy and science fiction where disasters occur on the regular and dictators rise along with hidden figures who operate the world from behind the scenes, the behavior I’m seeing from people is all too real. It’s exactly as I’ve fictionalized in my novels before, based on research and overall predictive psychology. But this time, it’s no longer just happening in a book. It’s happening now before my very eyes and over much lesser circumstances than I have written about in past.

What people fail to see is that when they allow themselves to fall prey to fear is that it makes their reactions all to predictable. Thinking in fear (or in many cases right now, blatant paranoia) is a sure fire way to make sure nothing gets done. Keeping a calm head and a rational disposition makes all the difference between survival and throwing oneself off the proverbial cliff.

While I am not at all saying that being prepared is bad, I’m seeing stupid decisions being made everywhere. For example, when out in stores over the weekend to get my essentials, everything was ransacked. Aisles were empty. Frozen foods were gone. Bottled water was gone. However, most of the actual essentials were not.

Things like peanut butter and other nut butters that keep for long periods of time were left. Applesauce, which also keeps preserved for long periods, sat untouched. Meanwhile, every food that will spoil within a week or two if it is not refrigerated was gone. Eggs, milk, meats… All hoarded.

The dollar store was likewise ransacked for supplies. They were sold out of toothpaste and hand sanitizer. Meanwhile, things like essential first aid supplies, cheap bags of rice, and of all things, SOAP, were in fine supply. I mean, soap?! The first thing recommended to do is washing your hands to kill this virus! Yet no one is worrying about soap shortages, are they?

There are entirely too many people behaving like this picture…

People are panic buying. Speaking as someone with specific medical needs, food allergies and whatnot, I try to plan ahead. Most all of the things I needed were still on the shelves, despite people scrounging to hoard their buys.

Why? Because I try to think ahead. If I couldn’t get my usual rice foodstuffs since I’m gluten intolerant, I’d see if had some GF oatmeal left. I had a plan (one altogether not really needed since most of the nonperishables I usually buy were still on the shelves).

For goodness sake even, most of the fresh vegetables sat untouched. And despite most people’s concerns, they spoil rather slowly depending on what you buy. An apple can last a week or two, sometimes more. Most folks will blow through a bag of Doritos in an hour. Get my point?

Hoarding items that are not sensible is not going to help anyone. Price gauging has begun in the grocery stores because of it. People who actually need face masks for their medical conditions (such as myself) are unable to get them. I had a man with COPD approached me a week ago to ask where he could get a mask like mine because he couldn’t find any.

All together, all the hype is most likely just that: hype. While there is reason for concern, panic won’t help anyone. In fact, all it does is collectively weaken your immune response which makes you more susceptible to the virus.

My suggestions for you, dear reader? A spirit of fear has descended on our country, if not the whole world, and swiftly. We must not allow it to win out or nothing will be done. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

1) PLAN RATIONALLY. Think of essential needs such as nonperishables if you must and for things such as medications. If you take medicines that will soon run out, think ahead. Toilet paper won’t save you if your heart medications run out.

2) MAKE A FAMILY PLAN. Everyone should already have one of these in case of any emergency perchance the worst occurs, no matter what. Even before this happening, you should have had one years ago. Discuss it STAT.

3) ONCE YOU HAVE IT ALL TOGETHER, CHILL OUT. If you’re at home, stop monitoring the television and internet for every ounce of rhetoric or fact that they drop. Remember that these programs have sponsors who make money off of your viewership. They profit off of your panic. Websites will get affiliate funds for serving you ads for pandemic supplies.

4) DO YOUR BEST TO SUPPORT SMALL BUSINESSES INSTEAD OF BIG BOX STORES. They will be the hardest hit out of all this. Many people forget that big companies like Walmart have huge government contracts. Your Mom and Pops stores won’t have that to keep feeding their families.

5) When you’ve finally calmed down, keep yourself entertained. There are a great deal of fantastic creators out there who could distract you from your problems. If you’re a television lover, perhaps check out some comedy to keep your spirits high.

If you’re a lover of books, there are plenty of fantastic indie authors in every genre who could use some support through this period as well. They, too, have families to feed. If you particularly miss your local library, see if they have a digital book rental service. Many libraries have Hoopla digital or the like to allow you to keep reading without the germaphobe factor.

*There are plenty of digital children’s books as well via Amazon or otherwise, so if you have a child at home away from school, perhaps reading a digital book to them might be a handy way to keep kids busy!

6) And above all else, help others who can’t help themselves. Your local elderly neighbor is probably in a lot more danger than you are, so see if you can do something to help them out during this difficult period. Maybe pick up their groceries for them if they are more inclined to be in danger from the virus and should not go out. Pray for the people in your community who are at the most risk.

This is our opportunity to show the world we are not mere animals. We care about the people in our communities and need to come together to combat the fear pervading our collective minds.

There is nothing to fear than fear itself is a common thing to remember. Just keep in mind that there are plenty of people who profit from such rampant panic. And you, my dear reader, are likely not one of them.

Thank you for listening to me and if you would please share this article, I would be most grateful. For this world, we need to shake everyone up. Rationality needs to prevail as does calm.

Much love and prayers in this difficult time,

Author Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

(For those who need some distraction, I’m offering a free E-Book this week as a gift for you all to keep you calm. Make sure to download it before it’s gone!)

For a more spiritual view of the virus and the response therein, here’s a very good video from a lovely man I know. Thank you, Marcus.

Q&A With Urban Fantasy & Scifi Author Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

If you could choose three people to invite for a dinner party, who would they be and why?

Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel

– Oh, this truly is a difficult question for me! As an inquisitive personality type, limiting to just three is a quite the task. Perhaps the first I’d start out with is God himself. That’d answer a great deal of my questions over the years about humanity! As for the next two, I’d have to say Ronald Reagan and Robert Ludlum. Robert Ludlum because the Bourne Identity was one of my favorite books that inspired me as a writer and Ronald Reagan for a great multitude of reasons about our world as it stands in the now.

How do you think your writing style has changed over the years?

For the better, I hope! Humor aside, I firmly believe that the more a person writes over time, the better they become. You start to see patterns or areas where you need to improve, so you become more proficient at story telling. In particular, I myself noticed that I favored certain words too much and lacked a certain sense of urgency at times when I was in my first two years of writing. When it was pointed out to me, I went to work on it and, in turn, improved a great deal.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?

It takes some time to realize it thereafter, but I feel that my real life makes it into my novels all the time. For example, I realized that one of the scenes in War Machine (science fiction series) was actually a reflection of a serious operation I had. *SPOILER* Sierrenna was strapped to a table, another character preparing to torture her. The descriptions I wrote reflected the way I felt when I myself was going under the knife. But it took me years to realize the connection.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?

I read all my reviews. Everyone can learn something from their critics, even if it is just that the internet is sometimes a dark place where trolls hang out from time to time. From my reviews, I can see what people enjoy and what they do not. Or at worst, I learn that they do not read very well at all. The only one star review I have ever gotten was a complaint because the piece in question was not a full book, even though the buy page itself read that it was just a short story that they were purchasing and stated directly in the title. Sometimes keeping a sense of humor about yourself and your reviewers truly does help!

What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

Remembering that the thought process in many cases can be entirely different than yours is helpful. A man tends to think about his obstacles differently than a woman and vice versa. Remembering that while plotting is very helpful.

What inspired you to start writing? How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing on and off since I was a toddler, but never truly took it seriously until my late teens. So, in a broad sense, I suppose I could say I have been writing my whole life. On a more professional scale, a little over a decade.

Writing can be an emotionally draining and stressful pursuit. Any tips for aspiring writers?

One helpful tip is to remember that your keyboard is not judging you. YOU are judging you. A first draft is most always going to stink, even for professional novelists. “The first draft is to tell yourself the story” is a quote by Terry Pratchett. I agree with it. Every draft thereafter is to tell the story to your reader and to refine the writing itself. There may be many drafts. Or on contrast, there may be a few. The trick is to keep at it, even when your internal critic is being particularly brutal.

How do you feel when people recognize you in public and appreciate your work?

Elated! One of my favorite things to do is discuss their thoughts about the story or character in question. Sometimes they reveal things that I myself missed. One reader insisted that I foreshadowed my own tale in an instance with a particular sentence. After speaking with her, I realized she was indeed right! It did foreshadow another plot point I hadn’t even thought of.

Questions were submitted anonymously by readers. Thanks for reading! If you have a question for me, feel free to comment below.

As a thanks for stopping by, make sure to download your free copy of STILL DEATH before you go! It’s a best seller that usually retails for .99 cents elsewhere, but free here for you and only on my website. Sign up below for your copy to be delivered straight to your inbox!

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