Echoes of Balance (Cally Ryanne)
$4.99 – $11.99
For Chloe Moraine, fighting wild bears– and the occasional vampire– is a better pastime than the tediousness of keeping the universe in balance. But balancing is the family business. It comes with being one of the last in the ancient line of Naimei.
So when the impending return of the Original Demons threatens global harmony, Chloe is obligated to help. Even when that means the dull-as-dirt task of following a human girl who “might be involved, maybe,” instead of the thrilling hunt she craves.
With their powerful magic and ancient Ways, Chloe’s family is unconcerned, certain they’ll quickly fix the imbalance while she’s preoccupied with human high school. But when the Ways start to fail, the threat becomes more serious, and the only person that seems to know anything is a debonair vampire with an offer to help.
If Chloe chooses to trust him, and the darker side of the supernatural he represents, she’ll betray her family and risk losing them, and herself, in the process. But if he’s right, he may just be their only chance to stop the return of the Originals and save the world.
Maybe high school won’t be so boring after all.
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Read The First Chapter
The forest that bordered the sleepy town of Molten was utterly still. No sounds of small animals scuttling in the underbrush; no soft chirping of birds in the distance.
The silence, she realized with a frown, was unnerving. Absently, she drew her left arm, laden in bandages, closer to her torso. Her right hand itched for the silver gleam at her side. There should never be absolute silence in the forest.
She squinted into the predawn darkness, scanning with a quick, experienced gaze. Somewhere ahead and slightly off to the left, a twig popped.
Another branch snapped.
Her fingertips grazed the smooth hilt of her weapon as the underbrush exploded into the massive, shaggy form of a bear. Caught off guard, she rolled out of the way, barely escaping before the beast stood where she had.
The animal turned a mouthful of teeth toward her and released a guttural snarl. She crouched low to the ground, still wearing the solemn expression she’d had while walking. The bear, formidable and fierce, was a threat, but hardly the one she’d been expecting.
Slowly, she raised the hand holding the knife. Pinning the handle to her palm with her thumb, she waved her fingers vaguely above the hilt. Her lips silently formed the shapes of ancient words.
A glazed look crossed the beast’s eyes. It shook its head experimentally from side to side, sniffing at the air. Then it simply turned, ambling off into the underbrush as mysteriously—though much more contentedly—as it had come.
For a long moment, she didn’t move. Beads of sweat gathered on her previously clean brow as she waited for her breathing to return to normal.
Laughter rang out from the foliage behind her. She closed her eyes and sighed, “Alex.”
“Chloe,” the voice confirmed, followed by the rustle of leaves as a pale, dark-haired young man slid neatly to the ground from one of the lower branches. “It’s good to see you’re still on top of your game, Cousin.”
Chloe rose to her feet, swiping at her besmudged wardrobe. “It’s not necessary to test me every time you make your way back into town, Alex.”
He waved one hand lazily, as if trying to banish her comment. “Of course it is. Mikhail tells me you’re busy playing vampire hunter—who knows what else you’re getting up to?”
“Was,” she grunted. Now that her cousin had revealed himself, it was easy to feel the pulse of his more-than-human aura around her. She had been stupid not to notice it before. But, of course, that’s what she got for so rarely using her abilities.
“Was. Was playing vampire hunter.” Her eyes flickered to her bandaged arm before darting back up.
Alex arched his eyebrow. “Rus fixed you?”
She shrugged. “He put the bone shards back in place. Said it has to set, though.”
“Well, good. You can heal and then get back to activities more becoming of our kind. Like studying the Ways. Maybe then, you would already know why I’m here.”
Her eyes narrowed. “The Naimei have always been fighters.”
Alex let out a bark of laughter. “By necessity and breeding, not by trade! The Ways are our true calling. You know that.”
Chloe rolled her eyes. Oh, the Ways. She remembered them well; they were her most hated childhood lesson. A mixture of science, oracles, and magic, they were the scales and balances that defined the world, pointing the way to harmony or chaos. She had spent years trying to avoid them, but only the Naimei could channel their magic and ensure the balance of the universe was maintained.
She felt something akin to guilt settling in her stomach. Her cousin was right; she should have at least attempted to follow the Ways. Especially now that she had given up her more thrilling sideline.
“Hunting can help right the Ways,” she offered sullenly. “Most of the vampires were about to out themselves to humans.”
Alex snorted. “You might have saved a few humans some trauma, maybe, if that makes you feel better. But somehow, I doubt the lowlifes you were taking out had any vast impact on the universe, Chloe.”
She shrugged again, picking at a few stray threads unraveling from her bandages, careful of the knife still in her hand.
That brought up another issue entirely—the issue that had made her stop hunting—but it wasn’t something she was ready to discuss. Especially with Alex.
As if sensing her tension, Alex’s tone softened. “Do you want to walk and talk? Your house isn’t far, right?”
She nodded in response and slipped the knife back into the slender sheath at her side.
They walked in silence, the soft sounds of the forest slowly returning. Birds chirped as the early morning sun peeked over the horizon. Squirrels darted through the treetops, claws scratching the branches as they chattered to the waking birds. It was calming, and for a while, Chloe was content to simply listen. But after the third minute of nature ambiance, she felt compelled to speak.
“So . . . you’ve seen Mikhail?”
It was not uncommon for a Naimei to move often—imbalances in the world could begin anywhere, after all. But her brother—he was especially restless. Maybe because he was especially driven. Not that he’d always been that way.
He, too, had abhorred the use of the Ways, and if family rumor was anything to go on, his rebellion had been much greater than her own. She imagined he’d amassed the scores of tattoos and snaking scars that wrapped his arms during his Lost Time, but they never talked about it. Especially after their parents Vanished and he’d been put in charge of her.
After that, he’d thrown himself into his studies as thoroughly as he had thrown himself into rebelling from them. Before long, he was moving constantly from one world-saving task to another. Occasionally, he would seek her out. But only occasionally.
The visits came with thrilling tales of his antics: seizing ancient tomes detailing dangerous magic; battling over-ambitious supernaturals; tracking down unsuspecting humans with latent magical abilities.
They also came with him leaving again.
As a child, she’d stood in the doorway of whatever relative was currently housing her, watching as he gathered books and tools and strode toward the door. He would pause, kneel to tap her chin with two knuckles, and then walk right past her tiny frame.
Following the Ways, she supposed.
“Yeah, he stopped by,” Alex responded, breaking Chloe’s reverie. “On his way to Germany, I think. Something has the shifters out there plenty nervous. I’m surprised he didn’t stop by to see you, what with . . . well.” His eyes traveled down to the cast on her arm.
She frowned at him. “I didn’t tell him.”
Alex arched his brow again. An infuriating look, really, with all of its implied judgment.
“He’s just really busy, alright? I didn’t want to bother him.”
“How did you do that to your arm?” Alex asked carefully.
“Lost a fight,” she said.
It was the understatement of the year. She could have won, had she not been . . . surprised.
She’d been in the forested area she always patrolled—the perfect triangle between the heart of the city, the edge of the forest proper, and the beginnings of suburbia. It was an unlikely place to find a dangerous creature, but the proximity of the area to human settlements meant she had to check. All it would take was one rogue vampire, unconcerned with safety or secrecy—and boom. A massacre in minutes.
She had stopped in a clearing just before dawn, pausing for a moment to revel in how quiet the night had been.
And then the girl had stumbled into view.
Disoriented, growling, blood dripping from her mouth; there’d been no question she was a new vampire—the most dangerous kind. If not carefully watched, there was no telling the damage they could do. And this one had definitely done damage.
But it was not the newborn vampire that had shattered her arm; she had been quick, simple work. Though strong, new vampires had yet to learn control over their more powerful bodies, losing all sense of themselves as the change overtook them. Like puppies tripping over their own legs. No, it wasn’t until she was cleaning her knife in the dewy grass that she’d realized the girl wasn’t alone.
The wail that had come from the treeline was unmistakably one of grief. The second vampire darted out of the shadows faster than any human could have moved. Kneeling next to the fallen girl, he’d fixed Chloe with a mournful stare that still burned in her mind.
His anguish had surprised her. The idea that a creature she’d disregarded, hunted, and hated could feel pain like that, could feel compassion and love, had felt foreign and unpleasant in the pit of her stomach.
She’d been trying to wrap her head around that new moral quandary when the vampire attacked. She hadn’t even had time to brace herself before he’d grabbed her, slamming her into a tree, cracking the bark in a way that would have cracked ribs had she been human.
He’d seized her left arm before she could recover, squeezing as he yelled over the loss of his companion. She’d felt each fragment of bone as it drifted painfully out of place.
She’d only managed to get him off her long enough to escape by sheer luck. Thinking herself away, she’d disappeared from that forest clearing and reappeared in the closest safe-place—her cousin’s doorstep. By the time he’d dragged her inside, she could barely see from the pain, much less the exertion of using her powers.
A human doctor would have been at a loss to fix the damage done to her limb. But the healing powers of the Naimei—another tedious art she’d only ever partially committed to—had allowed her cousin to fix her. He’d spent a feverish six hours bent over her mangled appendage, and it had still taken her two days to get past the pain to the point she could go back into the world, to return home.
But thankfully, Alex didn’t press further, simply accepting her lost-fight story at face value in a very uncharacteristic fashion. She assumed he thought she’d given up hunting because of her injury, and, though embarrassing, she was more willing to let him think that than tell him the truth:
She no longer felt comfortable killing beings that could mourn, no matter how rogue or wild they may have become.
“We’re here,” she said, more softly than she meant to.
They pushed through a patch of berry bushes into a small, overgrown yard. Chloe’s tension eased as her boots met the too-tall grass. She was home.
Her modest house, set in the middle of the foliage and crawling with ivy, was situated at the tip of the forest triad, farthest from the wilderness and right on the edge of downtown Molten. Just on the other side of the park were some of her preferred haunts: a few coffee shops, some restaurants, an old and dusty bookstore she felt strangely attached to. Though not a home she’d ever grown up in, she had instantly chosen it as her favorite when Mikhail bequeathed it and several more of their parents’ properties to her after she had stopped aging.
The interior was just as cozy as the vine-wrapped exterior. The walls were painted with soft hues of blue, green, and yellow. The furniture, though well-worn and sun-faded, was overstuffed and inviting.
Bookshelves chock full of old, thick tomes with curious titles, some in languages that were barely recognizable, lined the living room. Strange sculptures, odd knick-knacks, and decorated boxes filled with mysterious instruments nestled among them.
Alex headed for the shelves as soon as they walked in the door. Chloe went for the large, wooden table that straddled the kitchen and living room. It was a thick, knobby thing with chairs to match. She pulled one out and sat down as her cousin blew a fine layer of dust from the lid of a box.
“Honestly, Chloe,” he muttered as he made his way to the table, “you really open it that rarely?”
She kicked at a scuff-mark on the floor, making it worse. “The Ways don’t change that often.”
Alex let out an exasperated sigh. “Did you pay attention at all when you were first learning? The subtle changes are the most important.”
“Good thing people like you devote their time to watching for them, then.”
He rolled his eyes and set the box on the table. It was beautiful, elaborately-carved wood with a single metal clasp in the middle. The second he unlatched it, the lid sprang open, revealing three compartments. Within each was a collection of odd-looking instruments producing a low hum.
With deft, nimble hands, Alex removed the silver components and started assembling.
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