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Godsknife: Revolt: Godsknife, #1

Godsknife: Revolt: Godsknife, #1

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Godsknife: Revolt: Godsknife, #1

Length:
447 pages
6 hours
Released:
Aug 20, 2016
ISBN:
9781622539307
Format:
Book

Description

Caroline intended to visit a college campus, but stands instead at the edge of Hell on Earth.

"A tasty and addictive cocktail of the speculative fiction genre... Godsknife: Revolt is grimdark (oh yeah) and happening. The intro and conclusion are surprising, shocking, and every bit as intriguing as the entire plot." ~ Anindita Choudhury

The cicada invasion has come, and a skin-crawling hum pervades the pitch-black Iowa sky. Cocoons line the streets, spilling forth their murderous offspring. Ancient magic has returned with a vengeance, bringing a threat greater than anything we saw in WW III.

An orphaned girl's visit to Iowa State entangles her with a handsome Order mage, and with a priestess who's triggered an apocalypse worthy of the gods of Earth and the Abyss.

When the impossible becomes reality, what price will Caroline and her new friends pay to survive the insect apocalypse?

EVOLVED PUBLISHING PRESENTS a chilling, horrifying look at a world gone mad. The "Godsknife" series is perfect for fans of Stephen King (The Dark Tower, The Stand), Larry Correa (Monster Hunter), Nick Cole (The Red King, The Wasteland Saga), Ted Dekker (Circle Trilogy) and Tosca Lee (Demon, The Books of Mortals). [DRM-Free]

"It's as if the author took our current society, stripped off a few layers, and added in a few Chinese puzzle boxes. It is believable and very well done. The characters are interesting and well developed. I love that there's a good amount of dialogue that flows well and builds nicely into the story. I can't wait for the next book of the series!" ~ Vicarious Bookworm Reviews

BOOKS BY TIMOTHY C. WARD:

  • Godsknife: Revolt (Book 1)
  • Godsknife: Lineage (Short Story Prequel)
  • Scavenger: Evolution
  • Scavenger: A.I.
  • Ultras

MORE GREAT HORROR FICTION FROM EVOLVED PUBLISHING:

  • The "Enigma of Twilight Falls" Series by Mike Robinson
  • The "Lorestalker" Series by J.P. Barnett
  • The "Big Sky Terror" Series by D.W. Hitz
  • The "Writer's Block" Series by A.K. Kuykendall
  • "Memoirs of a Transferable Soul" by W. Town Andrews

 

Released:
Aug 20, 2016
ISBN:
9781622539307
Format:
Book

About the author

My love for writing started while co-authoring a Ninja Turtles comic in kindergarten. Dragonlance and Stephen King influenced my middle years, and then Orson Scott Card and the Dune Prequels added Science Fiction to my literary palate. After college, insecurity and a lack of community led to a few years off from writing, but then I discovered NaNoWriMo and podcasts. These helped me write and rewrite what became two trunked novels, but also put me firmly in the path of realizing my dream. I self-published my debut novel, Scavenger: Evolution last March. It’s a sand-divers in the apocalypse story of love and terror set in Hugh Howey’s world of Sand (with his permission). The audiobook is nearly complete, and the sequel will come out next summer. My short story credits include “The Bomb in the President’s Bathroom,” an Amish science fiction thriller set in the world of Michael Bunker’s Pennsylvania, and published in the anthology, Tales from Pennsylvania; “Staring Into,” a time-travel love story published in Masters of Time; and “Marigold Bloom,” an as-yet published story in a redshirts-themed anthology, Expendable Assets, which will donate proceeds to The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. My first Evolved Publishing novel is a magical thriller set in the rift between Iowa and the Abyss, inspired by equal parts of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and The Stand. I am also a former Executive Producer for the Hugo-Nominated podcast, Adventures in SciFi Publishing, and have reviewed books for them and SF Signal.


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Godsknife - Timothy C. Ward

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GODSKNIFE: REVOLT

Godsknife – Book 1

Copyright © 2016 Timothy C. Ward

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ISBN (EPUB Version): 1622539303

ISBN-13 (EPUB Version): 978-1-62253-930-7

~~~

Editor: Lane Diamond

Cover/Interior Art by www.designbookcover.pt

Interior Designer: Lane Diamond

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PUBLISHER’S NOTE:

At the end of this novel of approximately 91,801 words, you will find two Special Sneak Previews: 1) JUDITH’S PROPHECY by D.W. Hitz, the first book in the Big Sky Terror series of chilling horror thrillers, and; 2) THE BEAST OF ROSE VALLEY by J.P. Barnett, the multiple award-winning first book in the Lorestalker series of creature feature horror adventures. We think you’ll enjoy these books, too, and provide these previews as a FREE extra service, which you should in no way consider a part of the price you paid for this book. We hope you will both appreciate and enjoy the opportunity. Thank you.

~~~

eBook License Notes:

You may not use, reproduce or transmit in any manner, any part of this book without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations used in critical articles and reviews, or in accordance with federal Fair Use laws. All rights are reserved.

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only; it may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please return to your eBook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

~~~

Disclaimer:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination, or the author has used them fictitiously.

Books by Timothy C. Ward

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GODSKNIFE

Book 1 – Godsknife: Revolt

Book 2 – Godsknife: Abyss

Short Story (Prequel) – Godsknife: Lineage

~~~

SCAVENGER

1- Evolution

2- A.I.

~~~

Author Website:

www.TimothyCWard.com

Publisher Website:

Timothy C. Ward

What Others Are Saying About GODSKNIFE: REVOLT

This book surprised me. It is many things all crammed into one book. It was definitely horrific and you could call it a horror novel. And I also might call it an urban fantasy because it takes place in modern times but has a lot of cool magic. It is paced like a thriller. The story moves very fast. ~ Dan Absalonson

~~~

"A tasty and addictive cocktail of the speculative fiction genre... Godsknife: Revolt is grimdark (oh yeah) and happening. The intro and conclusion are surprising, shocking, and every bit as intriguing as the entire plot." ~ Anindita Choudhury

~~~

I loved the concept of these two sides recruiting, and the fact that since it IS a war—it gets deadly and gritty, and the author doesn't shy away from that. Caroline is a character who can stand on her own, I enjoyed her. This is definitely a book to pick up if you want an apocalyptic read that brings a unique and engrossing perspective. ~ A. Lynnette

~~~

At the beginning of this book, there was a lot of information given in a short period of time so I spent a chapter or two a little bit confused. That information came in handy though because the action and intrigue starts on the first page and doesn't stop until the last! By using various point-of-view characters, the author manages to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the entire novel. ~ Kitty @ Vicarious Bookworm

~~~

It’s as if the author took our current society, stripped off a few layers, and added in a few Chinese puzzle boxes. It is believable and very well done. The characters are interesting and well developed. I love that there's a good amount of dialogue that flows well and builds nicely into the story. I can't wait for the next book of the series! ~ Kitty Maschan

BONUS CONTENT

We’re pleased to offer you not one, but two Special Sneak Previews at the end of this book.

~~~

In the first preview, you’ll enjoy the Prologue and First 2 Chapters of the first book in the Big Sky Terror series of chilling horror thrillers by D.W. Hitz, JUDITH’S PROPHECY.

~~~

~~~

OR GRAB THE FULL EBOOK TODAY!

FIND LINKS TO YOUR FAVORITE RETAILER HERE:

The BIG SKY TERROR Series at Evolved Publishing

In the second preview, you’ll enjoy the First 2 Chapters of THE BEAST OF ROSE VALLEY by J.P. Barnett, the multiple award-winning first book in the Lorestalker series of creature feature horror adventures.

~~~

~~~

Barnett’s plot is clever and irresistible, and his book is a sheer pleasure to read. Horror, thriller and mystery fans alike will find much to their liking in this intriguing story about the unknown. The Beast of Rose Valley: Lorestalker #1 is most highly recommended. ~ Jack Magnus, Readers’ Favorite Book Reviews (5 STARS)

~~~

OR GRAB THE FULL EBOOK TODAY!

FIND LINKS TO YOUR FAVORITE RETAILER HERE:

The LORESTALKER Series at Evolved Publishing

Table of Contents

Copyright

Books by Timothy C. Ward

What Others Are Saying

BONUS CONTENT

Table of Contents

Dedication

GODSKNIFE: REVOLT

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Acknowledgements

About the Author

What’s Next?

More from Evolved Publishing

Special Sneak Preview: JUDITH’S PROPHECY by D.W. Hitz

Special Sneak Preview: THE BEAST OF ROSE VALLEY by J.P. Barnett

Dedication

I love you all. Onward.

In a small, candle-lit cave, Anthon stood at the head of a table where his recruit, Jeremy, prepared to recite the final set of numbers. Anthon remembered fourteen months ago, when the now naked nineteen-year-old was a freshman at Iowa State with his face buried in a campus map—Jeremy had been so thankful for Anthon’s directions to the cafeteria.

Jeremy’s face didn’t show much thankfulness now, as he sweated and gagged on the worm travelling up his windpipe.

You’re almost there, Anthon thought.

Watching a recruit call out the orden-worm was his least favorite part of his duty to Order. Success or failure in Jeremy's naming of the final number was life or death—live, and become an Order mage, and an atom to serve in Shila’s orden-powered circle; or die, and Chaos kills another.

Further motivation to rid the world of its sickness.

Jeremy hacked phlegm and swallowed. Eight.

Good. You can do this.

Shila offered a brief nod from the other side of the table. In spite of her apparent need to evoke respect through her chiseled demeanor, a bit of warmth couldn’t hurt their recruit’s confidence.

It’s just the three of us, Shila. Would it kill you to show him why we rejoice to call you Priestess?

Seventeen thousand.... Jeremy’s voice scratched out through the narrow tunnel of air left between throat and worm. ...Four hundred, sixty— He retched before he could speak the last number. The echo hit the short ceiling and bounced back dimensions between it and every surface before him.

If Jeremy fails—if I fail—his death will toss me into a Chaos spiral for days.

Shila had only given Anthon ten minutes of meditation to build the buzz of Orden before the ceremony. It itched on his gums and tickled through his eyelashes, ready for use in the sight of need.

Jeremy turned onto his side and let a string of yellow-red drool hang into a two inch pool on the pixilated gray and pink stone.

Anthon’s stomach clenched as Shila speared him with her disapproval. No one who struggled this much had risen to her inner circle.

His reason for not having that privilege was different. If she was afraid their past relationship would diminish the merit of earning that position, surely he’d earned it by now. Jeremy passing the test should warrant that conversation soon.

He gently pressed Jeremy’s shoulder back down into the stone. The skin warmed under his touch—a small violation.

Shila’s directed stare warned him not to let that happen again, and he released his touch, issuing a short bow of apology. He wished he could speak for Jeremy, but that power had to come from within. Only then could Jeremy conquer the deadly worm.

The equation had to come from the soul, an understanding of the Order of the Universe, and a mastery over it. Only then would the orden-worm choose the food laced into the atom’s stomach, burying itself in its host, after which the two would survive or die together in symbiotic harmony. If Jeremy did not name the final number, the orden-worm would enter his nose, feed on his brain, and methodically work its way down to his toes... until he was a sagging shell of skin on bones.

Jeremy took a deep breath through his nose, tilted his head back and looked Anthon in the eye—terrified, but resilient.

That’s the recruit I know.

Jeremy nodded, closed his eyes to swallow, and hacked up, Sa-van.

Yes.

The orden-worm squealed a shrill cry as it wiggled up out of Jeremy’s mouth. Its snake-like head poked out from inside the curve of Jeremy's tongue, slid over the tip, and bent up near the atom’s flared nostrils. It clamped its teeth together and hissed, with two white fangs cutting down like a sharp ‘w’ over the single fang on the bottom lip.

Jeremy’s eyes again shot wide as he watched the orden-worm turn to face him.

A gray tongue slithered between the worm’s teeth. Some worms had been tainted somehow and chose to feed on their hosts regardless of the correct number spoken, perhaps because the atom did not truly possess Order.

Jeremy's breaths pumped in and out as the thump of his heart rate climbed back over one-eighty.

Easy now. Creation is ours to order. Grasp your birthright.

Jeremy looked up into Anthon's eyes again.

Anthon could only display the stern look he'd shown all his atoms during the most demanding times of their training. Chaos snaps thin branches.

Be the trunk, he mouthed. He did not look up, not wanting to see Shila’s likely rebuke.

Jeremy’s heart rate dropped below one-eighty. He grinned—as much as possible with a worm between one’s tongue—and directed his stare at his new partner.

The worm rose past his nose, pointed its head at Jeremy's left eye, and hissed. When Jeremy didn’t flinch, the orden-worm tilted toward his other eye, paused, and then curled back around.

Anthon exhaled in time with his atom. Good work, Jeremy.

The orden-worm curled over Jeremy's chin. It stretched long enough to remain in his mouth as it touched down on his sweat-glistened and expanding chest.

The young atom exhaled his heart rate into the one-fifties as the worm aimed for its prize. Jeremy wasn't done yet, but at least the pain to come would have a positive impact.

Pride turned Anthon's observation into a positive one as well, both in himself and in his pupil.

Shila lifted her gaze to Anthon’s. She'd grown so much since they first met as newbies to this hidden world. She’d replaced the dirty pink shirt with dandelion-colored pattern that had covered her prepubescent body, and now wore skin-exposing, tightly tied straps, which displayed the most coveted form in their circle. The way her age distanced him from the girl he knew made Anthon feel worse than any orden high could redeem.

He knew she had to hide that girl in order for her to be a strong leader, but if it meant burying that soul under a mountain of rock, why bother? For Order? Even he wasn’t that faithful.

The orden-worm reached Jeremy's navel, arched its head back, maw gaping to make room for its fangs—

Firm, Jeremy. No fear.

—and plunged into the divot of flesh. The atom clenched and hocked spit.

A few dribbles dotted Shila’s skin; Anthon dared not look her in the eye.

The worm slithered out the rest of the way from Jeremy’s mouth as it burrowed itself in a concentric circle around the atom’s naval. The newly raised scar formed two loops before joining the widest part at the bottom. The worm halted its feeding frenzy as its length shivered under Jeremy’s pale skin.

Jeremy exhaled and rested his head on the stone.

Anthon patted his atom’s shoulder, releasing a dose of orden to calm Jeremy’s nerves. At his touch, the worm pulsed its thank you. Welcome to Order.

Satisfactory. Shila took Jeremy’s hand and helped him off the table. But left room for improvement. I trust you’ll make up for it.

She led him through the black shale wall, their bodies passing through as easily as ships through fog, minus the disturbance of gas. In her bedroom, her tap on their circle’s stored orden would flow into him and bond him to the circle.

Anthon turned the other way and cast his height and dimensions on the wall. Before his hand reached the surface, he clenched his stomach and forced the molecules to part. Darkness and warmth allowed him to share company as he stepped through. Dark passed to light in a hallway lit by window panels, with a picture of a snow-covered mountain horizon, untouched by human interference—a portrait by Citkich, one of Anthon’s favorite Order artists.

He could use the rush of orden Citkich must have felt when he’d finished. Jeremy had passed, and Anthon should be happy.

Evelyn saw him exit the wall, jogged to him, and stopped cold when she saw his face. She waved her hand and stepped back. Her focus caught on his midsection, and her lip quivered.

He traced her stare to the spots of blood on his yellow robe. He’d had thicker stains after Marc’s failed bedding. It’s okay. He passed.

She parted her lips, then turned around, mumbling threats that would get her kicked out of the circle if she wasn’t careful. Her pant legs sashayed between her thin legs. Since she was one of his trainees, he knew her uni size—he hated to say uniform; sounded too stiff to him—and could yank her back from the nine feet four inches between them. He could, but never did. That wasn’t how he treated his trainees.

Evelyn, wait. He increased his pace, replaying the conversations they’d shared, which verged on blasphemy.

The girl had found lesserthan scripture; from where, she wouldn’t say.

If he had to let her go, he would. Better that than let Shila do what he feared she could if she heard a hint of Maker text.

He caught up. Evelyn, please... talk to me.

She stopped. Mortal words can’t rewrite time, nor unbind him from that demon. Her pose faltered and the end of her braid swished over her shoulder. She might have been fighting back tears.

You can’t talk like that in here, he whispered. No one else had joined them in the hall, but listening ears were not always visible, especially in Shila’s mount. I know you liked Jeremy, and— He lifted her chin and waited until she looked him in the eye.

She did so in defiance, red veins within glazed eyes.

He told me what you talked about Saturday.

She ripped her jaw away, and swung her arm up in anticipation of an attack he didn’t make.

Really, Ev? When have I struck you?

Things are different. I see differently. Who knows what you’ll do to keep your priestess safe?

You’ve known me five hundred twenty-two days.

Stop with the numbers. It’s magic as twisted as she is.

I told you to keep your voice down, he whispered. If you want to leave, I will help you.

Better that than see her banished. He wasn’t high enough in Shila’s hierarchy to ask what happened to the lost ones.

Evelyn considered his help, and flashed resistance. I’m not leaving Jeremy.

Her boyfriend was experiencing the most pleasure of his life. He wasn’t going anywhere.

Ev, he’s made his choice, and now he has to stay and be trained. Jeremy had decent self-control, but the intoxication of orden’s first dose was a hazard to all newborns.

Evelyn covered her face as she sobbed.

He continued. The most dangerous thing for him now would be not getting the training that’s to come. With his new power, he’s as much a danger to himself as you, and to anyone else he encounters.

She threw her hands down. Don’t you hear yourself? She armed off a tear from her cheek. Making people dangerous is not a teaching of Order. Even I know that.

Dangerous only if used unwisely. World-changing when used properly.

Evelyn opened her mouth to interrupt—

We sweat and bleed to keep our cistern from depleting. Chaos is up to something, and we need all the newborns we can deliver. What better alternative do you see outside?

"You know well the three powers that make up our existence."

Oh, girl.... He took her arm and led her down the hall. I told—

Is everything all right over here? Mercer appeared around the corner of an adjacent hall, his attention directed at Evelyn with an unpleasant coolness. Has your rod given you advice you are unwilling to heed?

Anthon disapproved of the term for trainers—rod—which made pupils an object to be beaten into submission. It’s not—

I’m not talking to you, Anthon. Mercer sliced a hand between them as his stare bore into Evelyn. Your answer, atom.

I understand his advice, she said, but I find it shortsighted.

Anthon’s heart beat rose. Be careful, Ev.

Mercer almost smiled. Oh? How is his question of a better alternative to Order shortsighted?

She lifted an upturned fist and extended a forefinger. I guess that depends on how high you can count. That’s one. Middle finger. T—

Anthon swung a backhand into Evelyn’s mouth, stopping her from speaking what could get her banished.

She stutter-stepped backward, shocked at his assault.

Anger curled his fist. You think you’re shocked? He had no idea what he’d have to do to overcome the Chaos in that action.

Now wasn’t the time to break character, not if they planned to get rid of Mercer.

Anthon absorbed the dimensions of her uni, orden-slipped his finger into the noose-loop on her collar, and yanked her off her feet. His orden-worm heated his stomach at the use of power. It was the first time he had ever used that piece of their uni.

It felt awful.

He carried her away from Mercer, drowning her curses by counting out loud the distance between points of rock in geometric sequences.

Mercer did not follow them.

That minor success did little to ease the tightness gripping his upper back. Discipline reminded him of the night his father forced him out of the house. He could still feel the tug on his shirt. In the aftermath of that wicked night, their family had split. He’d never seen his brother again, and his parents... he would never forget the way Chaos and clan Fiend had changed them—even his mother, who was just following after the man she’d married.

Anthon led Evelyn down a long series of hallways, keeping his hand up in the orden connection that held control of her uni—for appearances—until he reached a crease in the Order mount. He sent his orden into a crack, which pushed the wall into a crevice tall enough for her to walk through; she was in no condition to walk through stone.

Three acres of cornfields separated their mount from a farmstead’s pond. When they reached it, the sunset’s rays colored its waters purple and red. Beyond it rose a two-story, dark blue house as desperate for maintenance as the grass that sprouted around its sides.

He lowered his hand and released the connection between him and Evelyn.

She whipped her arm into the space between them, narrowly missing connecting a sidepalm to his throat.

Ev, please, forgive me. I had to stop you from forcing Mercer to take you away. You know I would never hurt you. Here is your way out. He lifted a palm to the farm beyond. Josai is a kind man. Tell him I sent you.

Shila would banish him, maybe worse, if she knew what he was doing.

Everything I worked for....

He inhaled through the tight knit of Chaos in his chest. This had to be done. I’ve brought him atoms wanting to defect before. We have an understanding. He doesn’t know what we are, but will take care of you until you can afford to leave on your own. He can craft a story to convince police where you’ve been.

She looked up at him with rage, blood from her cut lip drying dark on her chin.

He wanted to wash her wound clean, but feared snapping whatever restraint kept her from lashing out. Mercer won’t rest until you’re a lost one. Josai’s farm is how you survive tonight.

I won’t leave without Jeremy.

Anthon put a hand up to stop her. Listen, you aren’t getting back there. Mercer knows about you two. It’s no coincidence he showed up. If you go after Jeremy, I won’t be able to defend you.

Now that he thought of it, Mercer had left without much argument. Anthon glanced into the dark hall behind him but didn’t see Mercer.

Evelyn bent her knees into a cushioned, fighting stance.

He started to lift his finger, orden-connecting to her uni noose-loop. Don’t—

She stepped to her left.

Anthon shot his finger into orden’s hold on her noose-loop.

She spun left, pulling him off balance—he hadn’t expected such a quick and powerful reaction. His orden lost its connection as she spun.

She swiped her lead foot across the floor.

He leapt before the stone lost stability, orden-stabbed his finger into her noose-loop, and yanked her into the air. He flicked her around and palm-punched her chest. Orden extended his attack into her ribs without his need for touch. The blow was weakened by his guilt, but not enough to fail.

She hit the ground and bounced.

He landed with his knee beside her. She rose from the waist, and he pressed orden into her chest. Heated vibrations shook his hand as the ground melted under her, parting the molecules enough to swallow her three inches deep.

She threw a punch at his jaw.

He dodged it and let go.

She cried out as the ground pinched all around her, holding her in place.

He carved his mark—a cursive C—on the stone and stood.

The idea for his mark came from his brother, Carl, forming his first initial like an orden-worm scar—Order for Carl—because it was about more than one atom refusing to accept charity. He did this to find his brother, and make the world right for them both.

She wiggled until she knew he’d won, then relaxed, staring up at Anthon with her best plea. Please, I can show you the third.

I’m not interested in a god who left us to clean up after its mistakes.

He hasn’t left.

Ev, listen, we aren’t having this discussion. I’m telling you what your two options are: Josai’s, or death by Mercer’s hand. I know which one Jeremy—

A soft footstep echoed down an unseen, but terribly close, hallway.

I knew it.

If Jeremy wants out, he whispered, I’ll send him to Josai. He eased the ground under her, orden-grabbed her loop, and lifted her to her feet. Now go before you banish us both.

He physically pushed her out of the mountain’s edge, and solidified the crevice into black shale, as she turned to watch the wall form between their worlds.

As it closed him off into darkness, he couldn’t help thinking she may have found the better side. Even if he’d go kicking into the grave for Order, that didn’t mean he wasn’t afraid, or lost.

Anthon turned and walked toward his sculpture gallery. His orden needed training. If Shila decided to reward his newest recruitment with more responsibility, he wanted to be strong and ready.

He felt anything but.

Caroline met the head nurse’s handshake halfway, forcing a smile to quell any more salesmanship.

So great to meet you, Caroline. I think you’ll really like it here. So much to learn and such a great opportunity for you to expand your career.

Thank you, yes. She shifted left toward a path for the door and loosed her grip.

I’m going to keep an eye on your application.

Be sure that you do.

They both half laughed. The woman’s eye contact burned Caroline’s cheek as she refused to entertain her for one more second. The door below the red EXIT sign was two strides away, but felt like ten.

She’s gonna call me when I don’t apply.

What would Caroline tell her? In spite of the courage displayed in visiting the campus, she still feared the leap.

She offered another, Thank you, and shut the door behind her.

In the lobby, a twenty-something guy held up a walking mat and shifted in an apparent effort to align it perfectly between coffee table and chairs.

Caroline shook her head at one aspect of campus life she could do without: weird boys.

He laid it down like a magician setting a cape over a stunt, and brushed off his hands as he admired his handiwork, oblivious to her approach.

She stopped behind his left shoulder. The mat seemed level from her vantage point, but she couldn’t help teasing him. It looks fine from here, but did you think about whether the table is in line with the rest of the room first?

He turned her way without reflecting the humor she’d intended.

Why had she said anything? She could have kept walking, been nearer to her car, and farther from the embarrassing and unlikely pairing that was her and this campus.

He examined the table in question. The slow grin forming on his face released a breath she hadn’t noticed restrained. How very considerate of you to help. His tone mocked her right back.

He leaned over the chair, fixed the table, and righted his balance to stand before her with a handsome grin. May I return the favor?

I’m sorry? She hadn’t expected that, and checked the door behind her. Thankfully, Head Nurse LaGwin wasn’t watching. Don’t mind me. She faced him again. His slightly freckled face offered no threat or pressure, but in that gentleness she felt more confused. I’m a little out of my element here. I don’t know what I’m saying.

You and me both. He extended his hand, his freckled and tan arm smooth and corded with muscle.

She gave in and accepted a strong shake.

Anthon.

Caroline. Her gaze drifted to the rivers of orange in his pulled-back hair. It made him look like a martial artist, and she’d always liked boys with longer hair.

Good to meet you, Caroline.

Thanks. Thanks?

So what is your element?

My... oh. My element? Right. I guess not overly friendly nurses planning to sleep outside my door until I enroll in their program. Nor students who love the alignment of waiting room furniture.

How do you know that’s not my job?

"I don’t know. I suppose I hope it isn’t. Do you have any backup career plans?"

His gentleness extended into what seemed like appreciation of her company. He folded his arms and tightened his smile into a straight face. "Where do you work?"

Dr. Hartwell’s office in... um... Edison.

Is he hiring? I can do other things, like clean bathrooms or protect you from ISU directors.

I don’t know about the bathrooms, but I’ll let you know if I see anyone peeking out from behind the bushes.

Definitely. Take their picture, too, if you can. I’d love to tease them, especially Ms. LaGwin. He lowered his face toward hers and whispered, She may come off as a little strange, but her interest in students is genuine.

He rose back to his full height half a foot above hers. By the end of their four years, most girls give that woman tearful hugs for all she did to help them get through. Nursing is hard, but she makes it bearable and fun.

Huh. Caroline’s imagination stretched toward a day when she’d shed a tear to leave Ms. LaGwin’s company. At that point, she’d have a legitimate job and could go to any city she wanted. That might not be so bad.... Okay. Good to know.

The discomfort of silence led her to spot the doors leading outside. She looked back to Anthon, who continued to watch her, but didn’t know what else to say.

Edison, he said. That’s not far from here.

Yeah, like twenty-three miles. Ugh, you sound like an idiot.

Should she shut up and walk away, hope she never saw him again? She didn’t want to. The thrill of meeting a new person had surprised her. She’d dreaded this day for weeks.

That’s pretty exact. I like that.

She chuckled a little. Okay. Thanks. What? Again? She started to navigate around the chairs.

He went with her. What do you do at Dr. Hartwell’s? Surgery? Heart transplants?

She laughed. Don’t be a ditz. I’m just a receptionist. I mean, I do other things.... She lowered her voice and checked the empty hall behind her. I’m not licensed, but I’m pretty much an RN.

I see, and you’re thinking about making that an official title?

She shrugged. Yeah, maybe.

So what’s stopping you?

Debt. Failure. Change. Failure. I don’t know.

Sure. I get that. You just met me. I’ve been known to get deeper secrets in under a minute. He patted his cargo shorts. Oh, I didn’t bring my stopwatch. He spoke something under his breath.

Is he counting?

A couple

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