Awen Storm Excerpt + Giveaway
Updated: Jun 3
A Thousand Years Later
Emily Mayhall stared out the window, determined to ignore the letter. Below her, the Pacific Ocean sparkled Caribbean-green in the early afternoon sun. A stiff onshore breeze whipped whitecaps on the waves and hungry pelicans dove for lunch, while the homeless of Venice Beach worked the boardwalk. Or at least, what was left of it.
Most of them lived in the block-long chasm that loomed in the distance; an area once known as Muscle Beach. Her team had been the first on-scene after that chunk of coastline had vanished. Emily shivered. It was one thing to chase disasters for a living. It was another when they happened in your own backyard.
In spite of her intentions, Emily’s gaze drifted to the registered letter that mocked her from its perch amid the clutter on the counter. It had been there all week and at the postal store before that. Sighing, she decided she had suffered long enough. Opening it couldn’t be worse than imagining what misery it might bring.
Rising from the overstuffed armchair, she crossed to the counter and lifted the official-looking envelope in the air. For the umpteenth time, she gazed at it intently, trying to divine the message within.
As usual, Emily divined nothing.
It grated that she’d thrown away precious dollars to develop a sensing ability Shalane had insisted she possessed. That she had listened to the shaman in the first place was part of the rub. Regaining the self-esteem her mother’s tongue had taken from her was difficult enough. Avoiding others with the same agenda was harder still. On the surface, they looked like everyone else.
Emily eyed the letter. If it was a debt that hadn’t been listed in her already-discharged bankruptcy, the creditor was up shits creek. That’s what her Canadian friend would say if Emily were to solicit her advice. Of course, she hadn’t. And couldn’t. Not without giving her new identity away.
Dismissing the guilt, Emily ripped open the envelope and searched the solitary sheet of linen for an unpaid balance due. There were no numbers, just a request to contact the office of Mitchell Albom Wainwright III Esquire, whose address was in Atlanta, Georgia. The letter was dated January 11, 2042, more than a month ago. What did Mitchell Albom Wainwright the Third want?
She folded the paper, stuffed it back in the envelope, and tossed it on the counter. Outside, the surf broke over the jetty, sending spray dancing high against the blue sky.
The wave washed inland and surged back toward the sea, stirring a need in Emily that was palpable. It was a crystal-clear day and she could think of no better cure for the fear that plagued her. She needed to run.
Fishing sunglasses and her lone key from the bottom of her purse, she stopped to hug Ralph. He mewed and blinked sleepy amber eyes, pretending to be annoyed. His purring told her otherwise. She planted a kiss on the spot between his cheek and ear.
“Bye, Ralphy. I’m going for a run.”
He yawned and stretched on the back of the armchair, then set about licking the fur she had mussed. He was OCD like that, a compulsive washer. The two of them made a fine pair.
Scanning the tiny apartment, Emily dug beneath papers to retrieve a worn headband. Only a few boxes dotted the floor of the three rooms. The furniture was gone except for the bed and armchair. The maintenance guy had promised to take those.
“Back soon, Raf-feller!” Emily called as she turned the two bottom locks and the deadbolt.
A damp wind greeted her, lifting curls the color of crimson and gold, and with them, Emily’s spirits. Inhaling deeply, she savored the briny tang of the ocean air.
An aging gull landed on the railing beside her, mewing as if greeting an old friend. Another swooped down and started a ruckus, no doubt sensing a mark in the making. Disappointed when Emily had nothing for them to eat, they raced to the beach screaming challenges at one another before continuing the search for a handout.
Smiling at their antics, she braced her hands on the low stucco wall and leaned against it to rise on tippy-toes, stretching her calves. A long, high whistle shrilled from the nearby Bottle Brush tree. Amid its fluffy red blooms, a parrot mimicked Emily’s movements, yellow head bobbing up and down.
She placed her foot midway up the wall, leaned into a thigh stretch, and squatted before stretching her abdominal muscles. The entire warm-up took only a minute, just long enough for more parrots to join her audience.
“Hello lovelies,” Emily called to the chattering birds. She zipped her jacket and fixed the headband over ears too sensitive to endure the Santa Ana winds.
Fingering the Taser in her jacket pocket, she said a silent prayer she wouldn’t need to use it and dashed down the three flights of stairs to the street. Turning away from the beach, Emily jogged a short block to Pacific Avenue and followed it to the park.
She was sweating by the time she entered the gates, but the cursed letter dogged her, attached to her psyche by a thread of her own weaving. Determined to outrun it, she increased her pace, counting to sync her breath to her stride, “One, two, three, four. Five, six, seven, eight—”
Her toe caught on a lifted corner of sidewalk. Quick reflexes and cat-like agility kept Emily on her feet, but she chomped down hard on her bottom lip, drawing blood. Crying out in pain and frustration that had nothing and everything to do with biting her lip, she ran even faster.
Though buckled and broken by myriad quakes, the neighborhood survived, unrepaired by a government that had run out of money and leadership long ago. Emily spat the blood in the sand beside the trail.
“Budget cuts, my ass.” It was the bullshit reason they’d given for firing her. But it was really because Emily had identified a pattern in the chaos. No sooner had she shared her theory with her boss than she’d been out on her ass with barely a severance package to show for her years of service.
But not before Cyclone Charlotte literally ripped her fiancé from her arms. Emily pressed her tongue against her jagged lip, not wanting to think about Trey. He had saved her life, but it had cost him his.
“Think of the government. Think about Chester. Be mad, goddammit!” Her ex-boss, ex-friend, and one-time lover had sold Emily out. His betrayal wasn’t limited to her dismissal, either. Chester made sure Emily would never work again by having her blacklisted.
She zigged around a barrier and caught a flash of movement. Yanking the Taser from her pocket, Emily dropped to a crouch, heart thudding. It turned out to be her favorite homeless lady, wearing layers of warring colors. Emily relaxed.
The grinning Maude waved and threw her head back in a cackle, revealing gums sporting nary a tooth. Pocketing her weapon, Emily hailed the leather-faced woman and left the erstwhile actress with a crumpled dollar bill.
A fresh gust of wind whipped the flags overhead. They were stacked atop one another and lowered to half-mast. Who had died? Keeping up with politics was a past-time Emily had never pursued. Or politicians, either.
“Actors, now, are a different story,” she muttered to herself, passing the building Caleb MacLaine had reclaimed. She eyed the Einstein posit emblazoned on the side: “Imagination is More Important than Knowledge.”
As a scientist, Emily had no trouble with Einstein’s theories of motion and relativity, or even gravitational waves and wormholes. But she couldn’t fathom how this maxim could possibly be true. Seeking knowledge had been her lifelong pursuit.
At the Muscle Beach Chasm, she detoured through an alley between two mansions. Riotous masses of coastal geraniums and hot-pink bougainvillea spilled over every surface of the patio to her right.
On her left, coastal oaks trailed Spanish moss. One had been given a whimsical face, complete with lips and nose. She waved to the tree-man, grateful Venice Beach had mostly been spared.
Many coastal cities were wiped out completely, leaving gaping sinkholes and putrid pits of ash and rubble and dirty saltwater. Chunks of the California coastline had succumbed to the advancing sea. Nearby Manhattan and Huntington Beaches were both gone, with a million people lost and presumed dead.
Emily had worked those disasters and consulted on others. Pre-Charlotte. Pre-Trey. She had participated in recoveries around the globe, even led a few.
She’d been told she was bossy, but got the job done, working longer and harder than most of her peers. Until six months ago when she’d been handed her walking papers. She snorted with disgust. She’d had her fill of studying disasters anyway.
Which really only meant Emily had lost her nerve.
She cut across an eerily-vacant Bel Air Avenue, fingers gripping the Taser in her pocket. Had more of the locals packed up and left? Many wouldn’t, or couldn’t, in spite of the continued and constant warnings.
Either they’d fooled themselves into thinking the worst was over or prayed it wouldn’t happen to them. Shame stung Emily, knowing she could be counted in their number.
At the precarious shortcut, she slowed to pick her way through the debris to the beach, then jogged a while in the shifting sand. All but the ocean and its wildlife faded. Gulls cavorted in the crashing waves and pelicans dove for an afternoon meal. The salty spray soothed Emily’s soul. The sun coaxed a smile to her lips.
Then the stench of old death assaulted her senses and she stumbled and retched. Unable to not look, Emily bit back a sob for the innocent sea lion rotting on the beach, even as her rapidly-sorting, cataloging brain compared the reek of old death to the shambles of her life at the present.
“Shut up, dammit,” she cried in anguish.
Keeping an eye out for obstacles, she settled into a blistering pace, anxious to escape both life and death. It was something Emily pondered a lot—escape. Change your name, use cash, stay off the grid. With a new identity and tricks her mother had perfected, even a novice could disappear.
So, reeling from Trey’s death and Shalane’s unwanted advances, Emily had assumed a new identity. One taken from the ledger in her mother’s box. She had chosen the first name on a long list of aliases they used over the years, and Ebby Panera became Emily Mayhall.
But she wasn’t her mother and living this way felt wrong. On New Year’s Eve, alone and lonely, Emily had resolved to find her true self and to be it no matter what. So far, she hadn’t a clue what that was.
Unease stirred in the pit of her stomach. She glanced over both shoulders and detoured inland. Unbidden, a puzzle she’d been pondering earlier snicked into place. Her mother’s box, the registered letter, and the recurring dreams were all connected. They had to be.
The day she’d signed for the registered letter, Emily had tossed it on the counter unopened. But a compulsion to retrieve her mother’s wooden box from its hiding place had seized her and wouldn’t let go.
She had fallen asleep leafing through a remarkably-preserved papyrus tome contained within. Delicate hand-drawings of dragons, birds, and animals, along with maps of places that no longer existed filled the pages in a flowing, lacy hand. The language was so cryptic Emily had yet to discover its origins. Not that she had tried very hard.
Upon falling asleep that night, the dreams had come in fits and spurts so urgent Emily woke in a sweat. Each time she had fallen back asleep, the dreams continued.
In every dream, she was a druid priestess in times gone by, fighting to save the life of one man. A royal who would be both her destiny and downfall. An unknowing diverter of disasters.
Clearing the last line of beach cottages, Emily faltered when a curtain of sand pelted her face. Sputtering, she brushed the grit away, along with the haunting dreams, the box, and the letter. She would think about those later.
She pounded the boardwalk, lungs laboring, and avoided the eyes of the few locals who scurried to let her pass. In the distance, her destination bobbed into view. Battered and shorter than its original length, the Venice Pier jutted reassuringly into the agitated sea.
Pumping harder, she ignored the pain that pierced her side and rounded the point. A woman with blond, flyaway hair appeared in her path. Unable to stop or even slow down, Emily plowed into her, ears assaulted by a sharp squeal as they tumbled to the ground. Fire shot up Emily’s forearm as her palms bore the brunt of her fall.
Beneath her groaned a female version of the Pillsbury Dough Boy, eyes clenched tight. Fear turned Emily’s innards to liquid and her adrenaline spiked. Leaping to her feet, she dashed away pulling her hood over her head.
Of all the french-fried luck. The woman she had bowled over was none other than her stalker, Shalane Carpenter. Shaman, sorceress, evangelist, creep.
“Come back, you fucking lunatic!” Shalane screeched after Emily. “Come back here, you—” Wind and distance garbled the rest.
Emily sped for the cover of the decrepit pier, praying Shalane hadn’t seen her face. When the path dumped her on the far side of the jetty, she bent to gulp air, lungs blazing. On legs of rubber, and guts threatening to hurl, she sidled to a bench and doubled over in pain.
“I think I ruptured something,” she gasped.
An unkempt veteran leapt from the bench, accusing eyes frantic beneath black, bushy brows. He backed away quickly, putting several cracked spans of concrete between them.
If Emily could have laughed, she would have. Instead she sucked in air and fought to keep from losing her meager lunch. She collapsed on the seat the homeless man had vacated and tucked chilled hands beneath sweaty armpits. Soon the fuzziness faded from her sight and she no longer felt like puking.
When there was still no sign of Shalane, Emily told herself the run-in was coincidental. The shaman hadn’t known it was her.
Though far from convinced, a satisfied sigh escaped Emily’s lips. The jog might have brought her close to discovery, but it had eased the unbearable tension building in her chest since the dreams began.
Slouching low, Emily stared at the sea. Waves broke angry against the reef a hundred yards out, whipped to a frenzy by yet another storm brewing in the Pacific Ocean. Swells upward of ten feet slapped the underside of the pier before rushing to the beach. Onlookers gathered to watch a pair in wetsuits battle the big surf.
Emily dug a fist into her side and groaned when the letter popped in her head.
“Go away!” she demanded, wishing her brain would obey.
It wasn’t like Emily had any credit left to ruin. Not after losing her job and the resultant bankruptcy. She had a little cash from the sale of her stuff. But come Friday it was official—she would be out on the street with no job, no home, and nowhere to go.
And now, in spite of all her many precautions, Emily’s stalker likely knew her whereabouts. She swiveled to search both ends of the boardwalk. No Shalane.
But her relief was short-lived. The deeper, primitive ache of destitution twisted Emily’s gut. She wrapped her arms around her scuffed knees and buried her face, willing the dam not to break. If it did, the tears might never stop.
“Ahhh-wen.” At the edge of awareness, a musical voice crooned the name from Emily’s dreams.
Her head jerked up, startling a gull that was picking through a metal waste can. On a shriek, it took flight and wheeled toward the sea. Shivers danced along the nape of Emily’s neck. Who else knew about Awen?
The number of surfers and spectators was growing, but no likely culprits there. Maybe it was a snatch of a song on the salt-laced breeze. Or was Emily hearing things, on top of everything else?
“Stay in the moment,” she muttered with a calm she didn’t feel. “Now is all that matters. Those people are okay. That gull is okay. That homeless man is okay. Shalane didn’t see you, so you’re okay, too. Now quit the waterworks and stop freaking.”
In defiance, her mind conjured the aqua clunker Emily had purchased after the bank repossessed her sexy little coupe. Tears blurred her vision and Emily rubbed her face briskly in her hands. The salt-eaten sedan had a large back seat. Which was good, considering her collision put the kibosh on her plan to seek refuge at the Venice Mission.
Replaying the crash in her head, Emily had to grin. It’d felt good to deck that sadistic bitch, even if by accident. Only now she would have to get away from here, money or no money. And as Emily Mayhall, she didn’t know a soul. Not here or anywhere else.
A long-forgotten scent jolted her awareness and was gone before Emily could give it a name.
“Ahhh-wen.” More thought than sound, the druid moniker tickled her inner ear. Baffled, she stood to search the boardwalk, the beach, and the sea.
A new and different foreboding crept upon her, more disturbing than Shalane or homelessness. Like molten metal, it trickled slowly down Emily’s spine and spread through her body, triggering her instinct to run.