The world might not be ready for Mother Earth’s slightly murderous champion. Too bad because she’s about to fertilize gardens the old-fashioned way - with the blood of her enemies.
A long-ago curse left Daphne trapped inside a tree for centuries. When she’s finally freed, she’s eager to resume her duty as Earth’s paladin, the Mother’s champion, a stave against all who commit evil. There are those who have trespassed against nature, and it’s up to Daphne to ensure their rot won’t spread.
Usually she fights alone, but in this new world she requires a guide. Even an unwilling werewolf with a god complex.
Baptiste committed an inexcusable act and the werewolf is adamant he doesn’t deserve kindness or forgiveness. Daphne doesn’t grant him either. The abrasive dryad won’t let him wallow and insists he accompany her as she goes on a quest.
A dangerous one.
Maybe he’ll get the punishment he so rightly deserves so he can resist the intriguing Daphne. He’d rather lick his own balls than admit he cares for her.
When peril strikes, the wolfman will do anything to save her, even if it means his life.
WARNING! This book takes place after the events in the Earth's Nexus Series so if you haven't read it, be aware of spoilers ahead.
Decades before the events that took place in Earth’s Nexus and Earth’s Magic, just outside of town, in a forest that’s been around longer than anyone can remember...
“Annie!” Mindy bellowed for her best friend whose idea it had been to come to the forest at night. A spooky forest replete with creepy noises and moving shadows that made her wish she’d slashed the tire on her bike so she could have bailed and not gone along.
The sudden reply from behind Mindy had her uttering a screech that probably woke every sleeping animal in a several-mile radius. She whirled and glared at Annie. “Don’t scare me!”READ MORE
Her best friend, wearing red overalls and a shirt plastered in yellow rubber ducks, grinned showing off her new braces. “If I was going to scare you, I would have stayed hidden, rattling branches and making the occasional grunting sound.”
“Not funny.” Mindy pouted. “You know I hate being outside after dark.” Blame her vivid imagination.
“Don’t be a pussy,” Annie retorted. “We need to be out here at this hour if we’re going to pick a blooming moonflower.”
“There were some in Mrs. Kilpatrick’s garden.”
“You want us to steal?” Annie slapped a hand to her chest. “I am shocked! Shocked I tell you. And proud.” She grinned mischievously. “I really am a bad influence.”
She was, which was why Mindy had adored her BFF since kindergarten. Who wouldn’t love a girl brave enough to come to school wearing red galoshes, green shorts, and a t-shirt that read, Pie Eating Champ? Annie hadn’t personally earned that title, but not for a lack of trying.
“Wish my mom would let me plant a garden,” Mindy grouched. “But no. The whole yard is a giant patio now, with no plants because of her allergies.” The unfairness of it! As a witch with an affinity towards the earth and all things growing, it was ironic her mother couldn’t handle pollen.
“Sorry the goats mowed down the one at my place.” Annie offered an apology. She lived on a farm and had acres of places for stuff to grow. Alas, she also coexisted with animals who ate all those things.
“How much farther do we need to go?” Mindy asked. The headlamp she wore still shone bright, but she’d been binge-watching horror movies of late. She knew it could go out at any time, and once it did… They’d probably die horribly. Strung up in a tree with their intestines yanked. Dragged into a burrow to feed horrible monster babies. Spun into a cocoon for a spider snack.
“I don’t know exactly how far. When I was here last week looking for Figus—” the horse that decided to go wandering—“I found them growing by the base of this enormous tree!” She held out her arms wide.
“There’s a lot of big trees,” Mindy pointed out. Her Earth based magic connected her to all living foliage, and though she loved them—each and every one—that love didn’t mean they weren’t spooky at night.
“You know, you could try asking your green, leafy friends for directions.”
At the reminder, Mindy could have slapped herself. “Duh. I guess so.” She placed her palm on the nearest trunk and closed her eyes to concentrate. Hello, Ash. It’s Mindy. I don’t suppose you know where I can find some moonflowers? I hear there’s a patch by a really big tree.
The reply came in the rubbing of branches and the creak of bark shifting.
Mindy frowned. “That’s odd.”
“Ash said we shouldn’t go near the flowers because they’re by a certain tree.”
“What’s wrong with the tree?”
“Supposedly it’s bad.” Her nose wrinkled.
“As in evil?” Annie clapped her hands. “Epic.”
“More likely it meant it’s rotted, and Ash is worried it will fall on us.”
Annie snorted. “Fall on us how? There isn’t even a lick of wind tonight. We’ll be fine. Do you know where it is?”
“It didn’t say. But I have an idea.” Mindy crouched and placed her hand to the ground. An old tree would most likely have roots that had spread far and wide. Maybe she could trace one back. Easy in concept, but it turned out this forest had a mess of roots. Too many for her to sort.
She leaned back and blew out a breath. “It’s not working.”
“You barely tried,” Annie remarked.
“Because it’s impossible. Like that time your cat got hold of your mom’s yarn. Remember the tangle?” It zigzagged all around the house.
“Guess we’re pooched.” Annie sighed in dejection.
“Hold on, let me try something else.” Mindy dug her fingers into the soil and did her meditation thing where she breathed in and out, nice and slow. With lots of help from witch forums and books from the library, Mindy had been learning how to access her power and commune with her goddess. Her mind emptied and the soil warmed as she reached out to Mother Earth.
She felt a tingle and murmured, “Hello, goddess.”
Magic flooded into her body, letting her know she’d connected.
“Sorry to bother you, but I’m trying to find an old tree with some moonflowers. Do you know where it is?”
This way, daughter. The Mother spoke inside her head. A startled Mindy fell on her butt.
“Dude!” Annie’s favorite new word. “What in the clumsy is going on?”
“Um, I think my goddess spoke to me.” A first.
“Really? Lucky duck. Wish I had powers,” Annie grumbled.
Mindy popped to her feet to give her a hug. “You do have a power. Super BFF. Always prepared and ready to help when there’s a crisis, whether it be for math homework or a smelly boy.”
“You’d do the same.” Annie scoffed.
“We both know I would have never thought to bring holy water and a stake.” Mindy indicated the backpack Annie carried.
“Always be prepared. I’ve got rope, a knife, and matches too. I’d hate for us to get dropped in a pit with the undead and not have a way out.”
Her forward-thinking awed. Never mind the undead didn’t actually exist. If it ever did happen, Annie would be ready.
“The goddess told me to go that way.” Mindy pointed and without question, Annie struck off, fearless and determined.
Wishing she were home baking cookies, Mindy followed. She didn’t know if her goddess guided them or they simply got lucky, but they entered a clearing with an epically large and gnarly tree. Even from where she stood, she could see it ailed via her headlamp. Many of its branches were barren. Those with leaves showed sick spots.
Annie stood at its base and huffed. “Wow. Look at it. It’s got to be like a thousand years old.”
“Close. More like a few centuries, which is surprising. It doesn’t look healthy.” Mindy’s lips pursed. Something about the tree repulsed. An ache started in her head.
“Moonflowers!” Annie’s attention shifted as she pointed.
Indeed, the lovely blooms had opened and emitted a gentle fragrance. “Let’s grab them and go. I’m craving ice cream.” Mindy wanted out of here. Something about the tree didn’t feel right.
“Ooh, chocolate ice cream and pickles.” Annie smacked her lips.
Mindy didn’t gag. She was used to her friend’s odd food choices.
She crouched and before she trimmed the blooms asked permission from each plant. All but one agreed to let her have the flower. She tucked them in her bag and stood, noticing Annie stood with her ear pressed to the bark.
“What’s up?” Mindy asked as she approached her friend.
“Can you hear that?” Annie murmured.
Mindy cocked her head and listened. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Weirdest thing. I’d swear it came from the tree.” Annie turned round eyes on her. “Do you think it’s a dryad?”
“Dryads don’t live in these parts.” They preferred warmer climates that didn’t put them in hibernation.
“Says you. I think it’s possible. I mean, look at that hole.” She pointed to the dark crevice in the bole of the tree. “Great little hidey hole for a dryad.”
“More like a woodpecker went too hard. A shame because the opening is allowing water to enter which is causing it to rot from the inside out.” Inner decay explained the dead branches. The tree was slowly dying and in pain. If she looked past her revulsion, she could feel its distress. Maybe she could ease its suffering.
Mindy reached out and put her hand on the tree.
The screams in Mindy’s mind had her gasping and reeling.
“What’s wrong?” Annie grabbed hold and steadied her.
“There’s something in that tree,” Mindy exclaimed.
“For real?” Annie’s expression brightened.
The sudden yell widened Mindy’s eyes.
Annie’s too. “Did you…?”
When the branches started swaying and the ground rippled underfoot, they didn’t stick around. They raced out of those woods, hopped on their bikes, and pedaled hard for home.
They never went back to those haunted woods again.
And the tree continued to suffer and rot, until a woman named Ruby came along and finally put it out of its misery.
Woe is me.
Baptiste trudged head down through the forest, shivering in his ragged clothes as the first snowflakes began to fall. Winter had arrived and he had no shelter—which was as it should be. He didn’t deserve even a barebones doghouse. He’d committed a grievous crime and deserved to be punished.
But would his previous friends do him a favor and tie him to a cross for lashings?
Would they stake him to the ground by a fire ant mound, drizzle him with honey, and leave him to scream?
He had terrible friends who kept looking for him and shouting they loved him, cared for him, and wanted to help him.
You should have been an actor because you are nailing the whole mopey Eeyore routine. That comment came from his inner beast, a piece of the wolf god, Garou, that inhabited his body and always had a smart-ass remark for everything.
“Fuck off,” he muttered.
You get better results when you fuck on.
Baptiste tuned out Garou and went back to his lament. What did a man have to do to get some well-deserved discipline? Why would no one put him out of his misery?
Speaking of misery, he shivered with cold.
A fire would be nice, Garou remarked.
He didn’t deserve to be warm.
Then think about me, his beast growled.
“You don’t deserve it either,” he muttered. “We’re both guilty.” Guilty of murder.
How much longer are you going to whine about it?
“Until I die.”
Rather not. And Garou meant it. Garou had been foiling Baptiste’s attempts to take his own life, pushing past his usual control to make sure he didn’t step in front of a train or off the edge of a cliff.
Damned bossy beast.
Gonna get bossier if you don’t do something about the cold. Don’t make me take over again.
The last time Garou had shifted and taken control, Baptiste woke naked in a dumpster, covered in pasta sauce. He got chastised by the goblins living in it because they didn’t want to share.
“Fine. You want fire, I’ll give you a fucking fire.”
Baptiste pulled a lighter from his pocket and headed for the splintered stump of a large tree. The base of it, with its inside hollowed from rot, made a great place to dump the dry branches he snapped from the fallen trunk. Once he had a pile, he lit it. Fire shot up from the stump, the warmth easing the trembling in his limbs. He held out his hands to the blaze and sighed. If only he didn’t feel guilty at enjoying such a simple pleasure. The woman he’d killed would never feel anything ever again.
Here we go on the pity-me merry-go-round.
Once upon a time, Baptiste was a good guy. He worked as the muscle for the Cryptid Authority, assigned to a division known as the Special Monsters Unit—SMU for short. He’d been friends with his coworkers to the point they shared most meals and hung out when the workday was done. A good son, he visited his mom a few times a week. Fuck, how he missed her spicy chickpea, potato, and faux bacon crumble casserole. He missed his mom’s hugs even more. He knew he could show up now, dirty and pathetic, and she’d drag him inside, instantly forgiving.
Like your mom. We should visit.
Even his Pack—werewolves like him—would have taken him back. He was their Garou, a rarity with his kind, ranked higher than an Alpha because he was thought to be imbued with the spirit of their wolf god.
We are blessed.
More like cursed. It had been his wolfman shape that had torn his fiancée apart. He might not have loved Diandra—their marriage had been arranged—but he’d liked her. She didn’t deserve what happened.
She wasn’t the one. Garou had been clear on that from the beginning.
“Neither was Ruby.” The woman Garou had fixated on. A redhead with a power to cancel magic, she’d come to work for SMU. His first meeting with her, he’d thought she was okay. By the second, he was instantly smitten.
Bad magic. Should have never eaten that donut.
Someone had placed an intense love spell on his honey cruller. It made him shirk his obligation, chase after Ruby, and, in the end, it made him snap. Poor Diandra died because of it.
Unlike others, he wouldn’t blame the curse he’d been under. He should have had better control. What was the point of being the avatar of a god if he was susceptible to malicious spells?
Gonna learn to play the violin if you keep whining.
Garou felt no guilt. No remorse. And he was annoying as fuck.
Love you, too, asshole.
Baptiste sat on the ground and rested his back against the fallen trunk of the tree. He missed his big, comfy bed. Missed his apartment. His shower. Food. Foraging in the woods just didn’t satisfy.
Berries and nuts are for prey. I want meat.
His beast side was all carnivore in direct contrast to the man who’d gone vegetarian a while ago. It pissed off his wolf side something fierce.
“I’ll find us something in the morning,” Baptiste promised.
Your liver is looking awfully tasty.
“How many times have I said that isn’t funny?” He should have never watched that movie, Venom. Ever since, Garou had been reciting some of his favorite parts and being a general pain in his ass.
Full moon is soon. Good thing. We’re getting weak.
The reminder brought a grimace. On the full moon, he would shift. He’d have no choice. And if it was like previous times, he’d wake to his belly full of whatever Garou hunted, the blood left on his lips and tongue tasting more delicious than it should.
Meat is life!
“Killing is wrong,” he muttered.
Pussy. Speaking of which, been a while since we munched on any.
“Whoa. Way inappropriate.”
A wolf has needs.
“I’m not in the mood.”
I swear, I will mount a dog next full moon. Maybe that cute mastiff who lives behind that pizza place.
“Don’t you dare hump anything!”
I don’t take orders from you.
“Why me?” Baptiste groaned.
Because you are blessed.
Funny, because it didn’t feel that way, a thought that followed him into a restless sleep.
He woke at dawn, stiff and cold, the fire down to just embers. Time to get moving. With winter coming, food would be getting scarce. Soon a campfire wouldn’t be enough as the deep chill moved in. Then what?
I have a task for you. The feminine voice in his head wasn’t Garou but his inner beast answered, Fuck yeah.
Baptiste shook his head. “Can we not get excited about disembodied voices?” As if he needed more evidence he slowly lost his mind. He rose and glanced around. He saw no one but was reminded of the rumors that this section of the forest was haunted.
As he stomped off, Garou whined. Why must you ruin all my fun?
Because fun was for people who didn’t murder their fiancées.
As the man and beast wandered away, he missed the sharp wind that shifted the embers in the trunk. The ash stirred and rose, clouding the inside of the charred remains of the tree. When it settled, a very large kernel could be seen. The seed, the size of a beanbag chair, rocked, its motions violent enough it cracked. The sides split apart, revealing a bent form that untangled and rose, the shape very womanly. Her hair, long and white. As she stretched and sighed, in a scratchy whisper like that of a branch rubbing a branch she said, “At last. I’m free.”
As Daphne stretched for the first time in more than a century, she heard the Earth Mother’s voice.
Welcome back, my champion.
“About time,” was her grumbled reply. Her limbs and joints popped as she rotated them, trying to work out their stiffness.
There were complications.
“You mean you lacked the right person to break my curse.” A curse that was broken weeks ago, and yet Daphne had to wait until someone came along and finally lit the fire that ripened her seed.
The flakes of falling snow chilled her warm skin. She glared at the sky. Couldn’t she have been reborn in warmer weather? Winter was a time of hibernation and she’d already slept too long.
The dying coals in the trunk beckoned, but that would involve getting close to her prison. She’d already spent too much of her life in that spot. She couldn’t wait to leave this wretched place.
You’ll need to dress yourself if you don’t want to draw notice, the Earth Mother advised.
Daphne cocked her head before speaking aloud, her voice rusty from disuse. “Where can I find clothing?” And a weapon. Not that it had helped her last time. Caught by surprise, she never had a chance to stab anyone.
The Mother sent her directions via the soil touching the soles of her feet. Daphne pivoted to follow, only to pause and frown. “There is a strangeness in the air.” A feeling of power that she was not familiar with.
The Monster King has returned and claimed this land.
“Do you need me to kill him?” Daphne asked. In the past, before her untimely imprisonment, she’d been the Earth Mother’s paladin, tasked with handling threats.
No. I approve of his return. However, given this is his domain, and you are my champion, you will have to relocate if you wish to serve me still. I will understand, though, if you’d like to switch your allegiance. I’m sure the king would find you a position suited to your skills.
“What happened wasn’t your fault.”
The Earth Mother had always been good to her. When a grievous injury had Daphne on death’s door, the Mother placed her into a seed. It was only supposed to last a few weeks while she healed. Alas, the same witch that injured her cast a curse that kept Daphne trapped until now. Pity the witch was long dead. Not all species enjoyed extended lifespans like dryads.
Outfit yourself, then speak to me again. I have a mission for you.
With the Mother’s guidance, Daphne began to walk and quickly discovered she followed tracks in the newly fallen snow. Big footsteps dented the fresh snow and, given the falling flakes hadn’t filled them yet, indicated the wearer of the boots shouldn’t be far ahead. Good, because her hair might be long, but it barely covered her chilly flesh. She’d hate to go into hibernation so soon after her lengthy, forced sleep.
Within minutes, she came in sight of a bulky figure standing on the edge of the woods, staring off into the distance. As she came close, he spoke in a low gruff tone.
“Who are you? Why are you following me?”
“Give me your clothes.”
He chuckled as he turned, and then gaped before blurting, “You’re naked.”
“And you’re not.” She held out her hand. “Give.”
“Is this a trick?” He eyed her with suspicion.
“You talk too much.” She launched herself at him, but he moved fast for a male his size. His sidestep led to her landing hard, hitting the ground, but rolling back to her feet. She partially crouched and planned her next attack.
A mighty frown creased his brow. “Are you insane? You do see I’m like two to three times your size.”
“It’s not about the size but the skill.” She might be a little stiff and out of practice, but he had something she wanted. She pounced again. This time he caught her midair.
“Bad whatever the fuck you are.”
She clapped her hands over his ears, and he bellowed as he dropped her.
“Geezus. You want my coat, take my fucking coat,” he groused.
“Was that so hard?” she replied as he shrugged it off.
He glared. “You’re lucky I’m a nice guy.”
“No, you’re lucky, because I’m not a nice woman, and had you kept refusing, I would have taken it from your cold, lifeless body.”
He blinked in the midst of holding out his coat.
She snatched and had enough manners to say, “Thank you.”
But did he reply with, “You’re welcome?” Nope. He just stared. Apparently, some things never changed, starting with males who couldn’t keep their gazes to themselves.
It took the Mother murmuring, Don’t hurt him, for her to leave his eyes intact.