Read a sneak peek: Runemaker by Alex R. Kahler

The end is here.

Tenn thought the spirits wanted him to find his fellow Hunter, Aidan, to win the war against the undead. But with Aidan on the brink of self-destruction and Tenn reeling from his lover’s spite, their fated convergence seems far from promising.

Especially because Aidan no longer appears to be fighting for the living.

With the Dark Lady whispering commands and Tomás guiding his hand, Aidan slips deeper into darkness. And while the world rallies for its final battle against the Dark Lady’s minions, Tenn finds himself torn between saving the boy who’s slipping away and fulfilling a prophecy he can’t understand – one that will require him to harness the most powerful magic the world has ever seen: the Sphere of Maya.

And depending on who unleashes its power, that magic could either save humanity…or erase it.


“If we are to wait
for the gods to answer
we will die with our hands
cupped to our ears.
We must act.
We must speak as gods.
We must make Creation kneel.”

—Elizabeth’s Diary
(no date found)

CHAPTER ONE

TENN

Tenn thought he knew Hell.
He’d seen cities ravaged—men and women and children torn apart or devoured alive while their homes burned around them. He had watched his friends die because of his own mistakes. But as he stood surrounded by the flaming ruins of some unknown city, listening to the manic laughter of the guy he had traveled so far to find, he knew those visions had only been precursors. This was the start of something different. Something worse.
It wasn’t just the breadth of destruction that chilled him. Everything was smoke and charred buildings and melted glass, the sky itself a roiling mass of red clouds as if it, too, had been burned in the attack. No—sheer destruction was something he was used to.
It was the smell.
It settled deep within his nostrils, seeped through his blood. A great deal of magic had been channeled to level the city. More magic than even he had used, or—as the case had often been—had used him. But this wasn’t the same power. This felt tainted. Stained. This magic smelled like decay.
It reminded him of how the necromancer Matthias’s magic had felt: otherworldly in its power, a shadow to Tenn’s light. The same elements as those he himself harnessed, but pulled from a different place. A darker place. One stained with blood and grave dust.
And somehow, this boy, this naked, tattooed, laughing boy, was the one who had wielded it. He couldn’t have been much older than Tenn. Maybe nineteen or twenty, tops. And somehow, he had leveled what might have ben the largest city in Britain.
The spirits had said that the guy before him would help Tenn end the Dark Lady. So why was he wielding a power that seemed to be pulled right from her breast?
Tenn knelt at the boy’s side. He wanted to blush, to look away, but his gaze was snared. He’d seen his face in the visions, in the dreams that had followed, but he was more real, more beautiful, than Tenn had ever let himself imagine. He was naked as day, seemingly every inch of his dark skin covered in tattoos and wounds, and his body was as carved as the incubus Tomás’s. His sleek abs, his chiseled arms, the sharp planes of his hips and fuzzy abdomen… Tenn coughed and looked back to the guy’s face, to the slight scruff, the pierced lip, the sharp eyebrows and Fire-flecked eyes.
He was beautiful in a way that even Tomás and Jarrett could never emulate. Wild. Ferocious. Perhaps it was a gift of Fire—a physique to rouse passion in anyone looking. At least, that’s what Tenn tried to convince himself, what with Jarrett standing only a foot away.
The guy was stunning.
He was also clearly unhinged.
Tenn had already tried asking him who he was, where they were, what had happened here. Every time, he’d gotten a similar response—a laugh, a curse, a shiver. Every time, Tenn doubted the wisdom of the spirits more. They had told him to come here, to find his “other half,” and had given him the tools to do it. So why did it seem like everything had gone off course?
Tenn’s only certainty was that this was most definitely the one he was meant to find, and not because of the magic that had leveled the landscape, and not just because Water seemed to quiver in the guy’s presence, agitated like tides pulled toward another moon.
He knew, because no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t heal the boy with Earth.
Blood smeared his flesh. Blood and hundreds of wounds that made no sense for the scene—small serrations, bruises, brands, abrasions. Burns across his palm. The first digits of his pinkie and ring finger freshly snipped off. As if he had been tortured. Not as if he’d just fought a huge battle.
Tenn’s eyes shifted to the boy’s Hunter’s mark, the tattoo that bonded him to the Spheres, all concentric circles and runes. Another brand—larger and fresh, a crooked pink cross—raised a welt over the tattoo, nearly obscuring it.
For some reason, the brand made Tenn’s gut clench and Water tremble in fear. He couldn’t stare at it for long.
Even though it repulsed him, he placed his hands gently over the mark, trying not to squirm when the boy groaned, his eyes fluttering without seeing. This was clearly the cause of whatever kept Tenn’s magic at bay. Maybe, if he tried healing this…
Tenn opened to the Sphere of Earth, that magical, heavy energy center deep within his pelvis, and spread that power up through his arms, into his fingertips. Into the boy.
And felt nothing.
Normally, there was a snap. A connection as power met flesh, as purpose met need. As wounds closed and bones mended and flesh smoothed.
But this…this was something he’d never experienced before. He could sense the boy’s body under his fingertips. Could sense the wounds with blinding, burning clarity—the boy was in so. Much. Pain. But no matter how much Tenn pressed, no matter how firmly he willed his magic into the wounds, his powers skirted over and around the boy’s cuts like fog on ice.
The boy was here. The boy was here.
Yet he was even farther away than when Tenn had been in America.
“What happened to you?” Tenn whispered.
“We need to get out of here,” Jarrett said. He knelt down at Tenn’s side, examining the boy with a strange look in his eyes. Jealousy? Fear? Tenn couldn’t place it. All he knew was, in the days leading up to this journey, Jarrett had grown distant. Moody. A trait Tenn knew all too well. “If this was a battle, we don’t want to be here when whoever did this returns.”
Tenn’s thoughts were slow.
“I don’t think this was a battle.” Tenn looked at his lover. “I think he was the one who did this.”
“Him?” Dreya said. She was perfectly poised even now, on the other side of the world, on a battlefield that was not a battlefield, by a savior who was not a savior. The Sphere of Air burned pale blue in her throat, keeping the smoke and embers away and—judging by the slight furrow of her eyebrows—scanning the surrounding area. Her twin brother, Devon, stood at her side, dark and unreadable as ever, his chin tilted back as though admiring the fire-rimmed sky.
“That is impossible,” she continued. “The destruction spreads for miles. No one could do that, not even—”
“Not even you.” The boy coughed. Giggled. “I’m more powerful than you, Tenn. Just like she promised.”
Instantly, the group quietened, focusing back on the boy. Tenn’s heart leaped—the boy’s voice lilted with the hint of a Scottish accent, but there was something familiar in it. Something almost comforting.
“You know my name,” Tenn whispered.
“I know everything about you.” His eyes rolled around, unfocused. “Everything. I know you’re here to kill me.”
“We’re not,” Tenn said. Gods, this felt like putting a puzzle together face-side down. He knew what this was supposed to look like, this meeting of the chosen ones, and yet no matter what he tried, he couldn’t make the pieces fit. Doubt seethed in his stomach, roiling with Water’s own depression. “We’re here to help you.” Somehow.
The boy laughed even louder.
At least, he started laughing. Then his laughter broke into a sob. For a brief moment, Tenn thought the guy was going to have a breakdown. Then he clenched his teeth and hissed in a breath.
“You can’t help me. No one can.” He closed his eyes and was lost once more.
Jarrett sighed.
“We aren’t getting anywhere. Come on. We need to get him somewhere safe.”
“How?” Tenn asked, snippier than he meant. He wasn’t angry at Jarrett—he was angry at this.
This didn’t feel right. Not at all. A strange magic hung thick in the air and this nameless guy was barely coherent and this was not how everything was supposed to go.
Then Water simmered in the back of his mind—of course this wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Since when had anything in his life gone right?
“The runes—” Jarrett began, but Tenn cut him off.
“They don’t work like that. Only someone channeling magic through them gets transported.”
The runes that had allowed them to travel might have been more powerful than the world had seen—potentially ever—but that didn’t mean they were perfect. In order to use the runes he’d learned for travel, the traveler had to be attuned to Earth or Air. Judging from the destruction around them, Tenn doubted the boy was anything but a Fire mage.
“So we get him to snap out of it.”
“What do you think I’m trying to do?” Tenn bit.
It was Devon who saved them from further discussion.
He stalked over to the boy’s other side and knelt down. Stared at the chuckling boy with narrowed, pale blue eyes, his expression serious behind the folds of his burgundy scarf. Then, without preamble, he reached across the boy’s body and grabbed the wounded Hunter’s mark. Hard.
Instantly, the boy’s laughter broke into a scream.
“Devon, what the—” Tenn said, but Devon’s eyes cut him off. As did the naked boy’s words.
“Stop! Stop!”
Devon released the boy’s arm and rocked back on his heels.
“Who are you?” he asked, words muffled by his ever-present burgundy scarf. “And where are we?”
“I’m Aidan, you arsehole!” the boy yelled. “And this is London. Was London.” He giggled again. “Was, was…”
“Fixed him,” Devon said. He stood and walked back over to his twin sister, who watched it all with absolutely no expression on her pale face. “Somewhat.”
“What do you mean, London?” Tenn asked.
Aidan. The boy’s name is Aidan. The name rolled through his thoughts, somehow right. Even if everything else seemed so wrong. Tenn looked around at the desolate landscape. This place was nothing like the London he’d imagined. Where was the Thames? The Eye? Parliament? Everything around them was flat and glassy, smoking and charred. “Did you…did you do this?”
Aidan nodded. The smile on his face, streaked with blood, was positively demonic.
“And I’ll burn the whole world down if I have to,” he whispered. “Just you to try to—”
But whatever he was about to say was lost to the violent shudder that tore through his body, his teeth clamping so tight Tenn could hear the snap of bone. Aidan convulsed on the ground, grunting hard in the back of his throat, and his whole back arched up in a rictus.
Tenn reached for Aidan, tried to pulse more power through him. But once more, he couldn’t. The power didn’t connect. The boy continued to spasm under Tenn’s grip.
“Tenn, do something,” Jarrett said. His voice was uneasy. Jarrett was rarely uneasy—Air allowed for nothing less than certainty. The only certainty was this: if this boy had leveled the largest city in Britain, he would have no trouble taking out a few measly Hunters.
“I’m trying!” Tenn said. “I can’t heal him!”
“And you won’t.”
The voice cut through Tenn’s thoughts. At the same moment, the twins and Jarrett snapped to attention. Jarrett drew his sword, and the twins pulled deep through their Spheres—Fire flickered around Devon’s fists, and Air swirled Dreya’s hair into a halo.
But when Tenn looked to the voice, he didn’t see a necromancer or Howl. He didn’t see Tomás.
Instead, the woman walking toward them was no older than himself. Black skin slicked with steaming water. Waterlogged dreadlocks tinted magenta. Torn pink T-shirt and ragged black jeans, enormous boots. A broken steel pipe held in one hand.
She stepped up to Aidan’s side as though there weren’t three Hunters ready to tear her apart. She looked only at him, and her face—chiseled from war and bloodshed—was soft.
Tenn looked to his comrades. He hadn’t felt her approaching, even though Earth should have alerted him to footfalls on the soil. Judging from the expression on Dreya’s face, she hadn’t felt the woman approaching either.
The only other person Tenn knew who could move like that was Tomás.
Was she one of the Kin?
“Who are you?” He didn’t move from Aidan’s side.
She didn’t answer at first. Just stared at Aidan. Reached out. Hovered a hand over his forehead.
“What have they done to you, wee man?” she asked.
She pressed down on Aidan’s skin. Miraculously, he relaxed immediately. He shuddered again, and kept shivering, as though he were freezing even as sweat dripped down Tenn’s skin. She slid off her coat and draped it over Aidan’s naked body. It didn’t help his shivers, but it was more than Tenn or anyone else had ventured to do. Tenn felt like shit for not doing more.
“I’m Kianna,” the stranger said, not looking away from Aidan. Her words were soft, British. “And who the hell are you?”
“He’s Tenn,” Aidan replied. “He’s here to—”
Kianna didn’t wait for him to finish. She slid her hands under Aidan and picked him up, standing in one smooth motion. As though she were just picking up a doll. The movement silenced Aidan, save for a hiss of pain. She held Aidan close to her chest, one arm behind his back and the other under his knees. His head lolled against her shoulder.
“What are you doing?” Tenn asked, standing. It was only then that he realized Kianna towered above him. And he’d always considered himself tall.
“Already told you.” She turned and started walking away. “Your magic can’t help him. So I’m taking him somewhere safe. He needs to rest.”
“You’re not…you’re not taking him anywhere.” Tenn’s voice shook. Being demanding was never his forte. So why was Jarrett not stepping in and taking command like normal?
Kianna looked over her shoulder. The glance she cast was positively condescending.
“Oh? Who’s stopping me?”
Tenn looked back to the others. Devon shrugged.
“You can’t,” Tenn said. Tried to firm his words. “We traveled from America to find him. We need…we need…” But he couldn’t finish his sentence. Because he had no idea why they needed Aidan. No clue what this broken boy could possibly do for them. But he knew he had to find out. He knew everything depended on it.
Clearly, the desperation in his voice worked. She didn’t stop walking away. But she did call out again.
“You can follow if you want,” she said. “But I’m taking him out of this hellhole. And if you get in the way, I promise I will kill you.”

CHAPTER TWO

TENN

There wasn’t much to deliberate.
It didn’t matter if Kianna was a Kin or a necromancer or a friend. It didn’t matter that she had somehow not only managed to survive, but walk through the destruction without being noticed by any of them. It only mattered that she had Aidan, and she was moving, and Aidan actually seemed calmer in her arms.
Even if he did keep giggling.
Tenn and the others jogged to keep up with her. Dreya kept a constant swirl of Air around them, blowing away the heavy smoke, casting aside the worst of the embers, cooling the molten ground before it could burn through the soles of their boots. If she or Devon minded the soot that blackened their white clothing, they didn’t mention it. They walked through the destruction like wraiths. Otherworldly. But then, they were otherworldly all the time.
Jarrett kept pace at Tenn’s side, his fingers light on the sword at his waist and Air a flurry in his throat. Tenn wanted to reach out, to take his hand. He wanted to, but something felt off, something he couldn’t put his finger on, and after the last few weeks of recovering and rebuilding a future together, the fissure was as unexpected as it was cutting.
Tenn’s true focus was the woman walking at his side, stepping over debris and melted pools of glass as though this were a stroll through the park. The only sign of stress was the tightness in her eyes. A knowing. Or, if not a knowing, a concern of what might have been.
“What happened here?” Tenn asked.
Her eyes flicked to him.
Something told him they were never going to be friends.
“You’ll have to ask this one,” she said.
She gave Aidan a little lift. His head rolled to the side, his eyes closed.
“They’re everywhere,” Aidan muttered. “She’s everywhere.”
“Good luck with that,” Kianna said. She didn’t speak for a moment. When she did, she looked to Tenn—it was about the most attention she’d paid him since she arrived. “How do I know you don’t have something to do with this?”
Tenn’s heart flipped over. Wondering what she’d seen. And overlaying it with another scene—him, kneeling over Leanna, his hand crushing her throat as Tomás laughed beside him and the world sparked and howled.
Kianna laughed.
“I’m kidding,” she said. Looked forward again. “You’re too moody for reckless destruction. This has Aidan’s name written all over it.”
But does it?
Tenn looked around at the ruined expanse of London, a sick knot growing in his gut. Not just because this wasn’t how he’d expected this to go. But because, in truth, he hadn’t come here to find Aidan.
He’d come here hunting Tomás.
Ever since he’d burned the tracking runes onto Tomás’s heart, he’d been keeping loose tabs on the Kin. Tenn had felt Tomás getting farther and farther away. And then stopping.
For nearly a week, Tenn had felt Tomás out here, barely moving. Tenn knew in his gut that Tomás had found Aidan. Tenn had wanted to leave immediately. But he had stayed. At Jarrett’s urging. At the insistence that they all needed to rest. That America’s forces needed to be rallied. Back in the Guild in Outer Chicago, back in the safety of his shared room with Jarrett, back in the arms of his lover while the rest of the world burned. Jarrett had said they were needed in Outer Chicago to keep peace and mop up the rest of the necromancers that would be vying for control after the Kin Leanna’s death. Instead, Tenn had barely left the compound, had barely been needed.
Now Tenn wondered if that waiting had caused all of this, wondered how many had died because he had chosen comfort and himself over duty.
The Sphere of Water surged in his gut, dredging up his darkest shadows.
If you had been faster. If you had been stronger…
London had been a Guild, once. A Hunter-controlled haven for civilians to hide away from the monstrous hordes. The last vestige of civilization.
Now, even the bones of those who once lived here were glass.
This is your fault, too. He didn’t need to know exactly how many people had died in this city. He could feel their deaths hanging above him. Specters. Thick and cloying as the smoke that curled outside their shield’s edge, the world beyond a hell he couldn’t place.
Something had happened here. Something involving a great deal of Fire magic. Had Aidan and Tomás fought? Was Tomás…
Tenn brought the tracking runes to mind. And there, distantly, miles away, he could feel the Howl’s heartbeat. Still alive, then.
Tenn wouldn’t be so lucky.
Although a small part of him was relieved that Tomás was alive. If only so he could be the one to kill the incubus that had toyed with him for far too long.
At least, that’s what he tried to convince himself.
A deeper, darker voice wasn’t entirely convinced that Tenn didn’t enjoy being toyed with.
“Where are we going?” Jarrett asked. His words snapped Tenn from his thoughts. Which was definitely for the best. He didn’t need to be thinking about Tomás and his lascivious nature now.
“Not sure,” Kianna replied. She looked to the flames around them. “Away from here. Unless you happen to enjoy inhaling the smoke of the dead?”
Tenn looked at Jarrett, saw the telltale crease of Jarrett’s forehead. Kianna was pushing him too far. And with Air blowing away Jarrett’s softer emotions, that was an easy line to cross.
“Why couldn’t we sense you?” Jarrett asked. Paused. Air flared brighter in his throat. “Why can’t I sense you?”
Kianna gave him a wry smile.
“Your magic is flawed.” She looked back to where she was going. “Or I’m just good at being sneaky.”
Jarrett wasn’t having it.
In a heartbeat, with a pulse of Air, he was in front of her, sword out and pointed at her throat. Another step, and she would have impaled herself. But she paused. Stared down the length of the sword and into Jarrett’s eyes. Looking as indifferent as possible with a blade bared at her throat.
“Jarrett—” Tenn began.
Kianna took a half step forward. Pressed her throat to the tip of the blade. In her arms, Aidan was blissfully unaware—passed out, the sword inches away from his own face.
“I heard once that the samurai only drew their blades if they were prepared to draw blood,” Kianna said calmly. “And yet, I don’t think you’re going to hurt me. I don’t see it in your eyes.”
“You’d be surprised.”
Kianna smiled.
“It would be the last thing you did, wanker. I only injure to kill.”
“So do I,” Jarrett replied. He leaned in, seemed more than ready to slice open her throat.
“Jarrett!” Tenn yelped. He jumped over. Placed his hand on Jarrett’s arm. His lover’s muscles were taut and unyielding, and Tenn didn’t try to force his hand. Not when there was a chance it would make things worse. “That’s enough. We’re on the same side.”
Jarrett looked over at Tenn, and that glare made Tenn’s skin grow cold. Tenn knew Air users could become emotionless, knew Air could sweep aside anything beyond thought and action. But up until now, that was a side Jarrett had never shown. His pale eyes were cold.
“Are we?” he asked.
But he didn’t press it. He stepped back, lowered his sword. He didn’t sheathe it.
“This is ridiculous.” He looked to Tenn, Air still a pale fire in his throat. “We never should have come here. This is what we get for following your damn ‘spirits.’”
The words stung. So did the tears that tried to poke their way up, blurring Tenn’s vision.
“If you are going to be angry,” Dreya said, stepping up beside them, “at least do something useful with it. Fighting amongst ourselves will lead nowhere.”
Jarrett turned his glare to her. Tenn expected him to soften. He didn’t. What the hell was going on with him?
“Fine,” Jarrett said. “If we’re stuck here, I’m going to find a Guild. No use walking around blindly.”
Before any of them could agree or argue, Air swirled bright in Jarrett’s throat and wind billowed his black trench coat out like a raven’s wings. He was airborne before Tenn could open his mouth, shooting up to the horizon like a star. Tenn wanted to call out.
Though what he was going to say—be safe? come back?—was beyond him. All he knew was that this was not how this was supposed to go.
“You two together?” Kianna asked when Jarrett had disappeared from view.
Tenn swallowed hard. Are we? He nodded.
She chuckled.
“Lucky you. He’s a real treat.”
She kept walking.
Tenn didn’t try talking to her again.


Cover image - Runemaker

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Posted on October 22, 2019 by

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