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Excerpt for Ambrose by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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AMBROSE


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Copyright © 2018 Hayden Thorne

Cover Art © Rachel Bostwick

https://www.fiverr.com/rachelbostwick


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Smashwords Edition


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This story within is a work of fiction. All events, institutions, themes, persons, characters, and plots are completely fictional inventions of the author. Any resemblance to people living or deceased, actual places, or events is purely coincidental and entirely unintentional.


No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage retrieval system, without the permission in writing from the author. 



Table of Contents


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

Epilogue



Chapter 1


One foot in front of the other, Leander kept telling himself. One foot in front of the other. It was a mile-long walk from the candy shop, where he’d just had a disastrous interview, to his lodgings. He was exhausted and dispirited, his backpack seemingly increasing its weight with every step away from another failed job hunt.

Night had long fallen. The candy shop interview had taken place at a damnably inconvenient time—8:00 p.m., to be precise, when the interview had been originally set for 9:30 a.m.—because the hiring manager had at first thought the interview was supposed to take place in another shop in another city. In brief, it was a two-hour drive in the usual nightmarish non-rush-hour traffic, and that was one way. When Leander arrived with a couple of minutes to spare that morning, none of the staff knew what was going on. A mad scramble to call the errant manager turned into a very awkward conversation between them, with Leander accepting a late interview instead because there were others scheduled throughout the day at the company’s other location.

He could have said no thanks, but he was desperate. Leander was broke, he refused to call his mother for money, and he’d just moved into Dolores with nothing else to his name but a couple of suitcases of clothes. His landlady had been very sweet and accommodating to him when he’d first inquired after available rooms for rent. She’d allowed him a bit of a reprieve, knowing his unemployed status, but even the most patient landlady had her limits. And Leander refused to turn into one of those boarders who wouldn’t think twice about testing those limits with one excuse after another offered on a platter of a sweetly woeful face.

He’d been pounding the pavement for nine days straight since he arrived, searching for help wanted signs on shop windows and doors, copies of his resume ready to be handed out. He’d found three other places seeking help for that day, but two merely accepted his resumes with indifferent promises of calling him if they were interested. The third had decided to interview him on the spot. Leander, not having eaten anything since breakfast, had bungled his interview with vague responses that fell wide of their mark, thanks to a fogged brain and low blood-sugar levels.

He couldn’t wait to tumble into bed. With any luck, Mrs. Kersey would have leftovers waiting for him, and he’d gladly inhale everything the widow would leave out and clean up after himself. But first—he had a mile to cover on foot.

Yew Street seemed to go on forever, he thought, his pace slowing to ease the soreness of his leg muscles. He sighed when his backpack’s weight made itself known to him again. This time, he paused, gathered himself, and adjusted the bag on his shoulders before moving forward. Now and then he’d feel the cold, wet splat of water hitting his hair, a gloomy reminder of the season. He’d huddled under a shop’s awning for a while earlier, waiting for the rain to stop, and he now hoped the reprieve would last till he arrived at his lodgings.

Yew Street’s lights left much to be desired, with only about a third of the lamp posts working, breaking the thickening fog with their dull, yellow glow. Shadows and wet, dingy brick were Leander’s only companions as he paused at a crosswalk, realized how deathly still the neighborhood was, and proceeded forward.

The block following that had no working lamp post anywhere, plunging the street into an almost impenetrable darkness had it not been for a random lit window from an apartment here and there. Fatigue, hunger, and depressed spirits kept Leander going. His senses were dulled and indifferent to his surroundings as his mind wandered back to the recent past and the characteristically stiff goodbye from his mother.

“I still think you’re making a big mistake striking out on your own.”

“Mom, we’ve already been there, done that. I want to do this. You really need to let things go.”

“I suppose it isn’t my right to worry about my only child who’s about to run out into the world with nothing but a Bachelor’s degree in Art History to his name and no proper work experience to offer a new boss.”

“You’re twisting things again, Mom. I really hate it when you do that. Dad…”

“Your dad stuck around, soldiered on, and ended up with a successful career as a classical musician. It took him a long time to get that far—a long time spent in hard study and training and not to mention disappointments and setbacks. That’s what I’m trying to get at.”

“Mom…”

“He was a cellist before we met. He was a cellist after we got married. He was a cellist after you were born and right to the moment he died. But young people nowadays will have their own ideas on how best to survive in this world. On your own head be it, Leander.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Mom, come on. Why can’t you just accept that I’m going to need more time to figure out what I want to do with my life? We can’t all be like Dad. I can’t. It isn’t fair for you to keep holding his success over my head like that.”

“I want you to work hard. That’s my point.”

“I want to work hard, too. But I want to go about things my way, not Dad’s. Not yours. Let me sink or swim on my own terms. Give me that, Mom. I’m not a kid anymore.”

“Fine, fine. Well, these essays won’t grade themselves. I need to get back to them.”

“Okay. Thanks, Mom. I love you. You know that, right? I want to make you proud of me. It’ll just take a little longer than what you probably want.”

“Do what you want, then. At least give your mother a hug before you leave, Leander.”

Leander sighed at the memory.

Somewhere behind him, someone sighed in answer.

Leander slowed his pace. He frowned, shaking off the haze and allowing his senses to open themselves to the feeling of wrongness that suddenly seemed to pervade his environment. His footsteps sounded hollow, echoing in the cracked and stained concrete and the brick walls around him.

He stopped this time, unease seeping into his consciousness even as confusion kept its hold on him. There were footsteps as well—light and tentative, cautious and irregular, the sounds making him think of something skittering in careful bursts. Leander spun around and surveyed the street behind him, his eyes wide and frantically searching. Nothing but sluggishly rolling fog and dim interior lights barely piercing through met his gaze. He saw no movement anywhere, no hints of someone lurking in the shadows.

He gasped and spun around again, this time gaping in another direction. Yes, there was someone else there with him—shrouded from view by the cold fog and the deepening night. The sound of furtive movements sounded wrong for another reason.

They didn’t come from the concrete, indicating a person moving normally on the ground.

No, the sounds seemed to come from the brick walls.

Leander looked up and scanned what he could of the old, rundown buildings flanking the empty street. The fog made it difficult to spot movement anywhere, however, and no matter how many times Leander turned around, his gaze steady and restlessly sweeping over barely visible surfaces, he couldn’t find the source of the sounds.

A rodent? Maybe it was a rodent—even a stray cat or dog playing tricks on his senses.

“Oh, God!” he breathed, stumbling a few steps when he caught sudden movement from the corner of his eye.

Again, he saw nothing. No one stood in the street, watching him and waiting for his next move. Nothing on nearby walls, clinging to grimy surfaces and observing him, though he knew too well just how ridiculous it was, considering the possibility of a large wall-crawler. But he knew what he’d just seen—movement of something light like fabric, the flapping of a coat or a skirt. Movement he’d caught out of the corner of his eye.

Leander felt the hardness of brick against his elbow as he took another stumbling step away from the street. He felt its harshness when he bumped against it—as well as something else.

A touch seemingly coming from the wall he now leaned against—gentle and light, a grazing of cold fingers against his cheek—then a gust of icy breath against his ear as something whispered from the shadows, “Beautiful…”

Another awful thing making itself known in tandem: the putrid smell of decay suddenly blowing around him. It shrouded him in essences he normally associated with moldering crypts.

Leander didn’t bother to look, let alone think. A startled yelp tore out of his throat. He sprinted forward and ran into the fog and darkness, miraculously avoiding anything on the ground that would cause him to trip and fall on his face. And that included garbage on the sidewalk or even a crouching drunk or a homeless man or woman.

The long, unlit block finally gave way to another intersection, and without even slowing to look for incoming vehicles, Leander tore across the street and reached the next corner. His pace didn’t let up despite the reappearance of functioning lamp posts this time around. His pounding footsteps occasionally mixed it up with splashing water as he ran through puddles. It was yet another miracle he didn’t manage to slip on the wet and slimy ground.

Pain up and down his body eventually caught up with him. At least it happened once he reached the final three blocks, and he staggered the rest of the way to his lodgings. Just as he sagged against the front door, panting and wheezing, the rain started again.

Leander frantically gazed around him, eyes wide and searching. He dared not take his eyes off the street and sidewalk as he felt around his pockets for his keys with trembling hands. He eventually found them, and it felt like an agonizing eternity for his clumsy fingers to properly fit the key into the lock and turn it.

He stumbled across the threshold and closed the door behind him and locked it. Leaning against it, he couldn’t help the feeling something waited for him out there. Warm, yellow light softly lit the entry, and Leander found some comfort in the familiar and welcoming sight. He continued to shake both from the cold wetness that ate its way deep in his bones and the terrifying encounter outside.

He swallowed, felt himself calm down a little, and raised a hand to rake his fingers through his wet and tangled hair. He winced at the sudden pain from the brief contact between his fingers and his face—his cheek, to be precise.

“What the hell…”

He gingerly touched the area, frowning as the skin on his cheek stung as though it had been rubbed raw.

“No. No, that’s—it was just my imagination,” he murmured. “I’m sure I hurt myself when I banged against that wall. And that’s it.”

Mrs. Kersey suddenly called out his name from somewhere within the house, easily breaking the shocked spell. Leander quickly moved forward, convinced a proper hot meal, a quick shower, and hours of restful sleep were all he needed to rid himself of an overactive imagination. Then logic would prevail, and all would be normal again.

He met his landlady in the hallway. She was on her way down from the second floor, a pile of dirty rags in her hands.

“Oh, good, you’re finally home,” she said with a big, sweet grin. “Get yourself cleaned up, honey. There’s food waiting for you in the kitchen. I’ve got to dump these things in the wash before I accidentally used unclean brushes on Ambrose. He won’t like that at all, and I won’t be able to get him to smile properly.”

Without another word, she turned and sailed down the hallway in the direction of the basement. With her usual light mood and the familiar, cozy warmth of her great Victorian house, Leander was able to recover enough from his earlier terror to pay heed to his body’s own needs. Food and rest should put his brain to rights. Perhaps those were all he really needed.



Chapter 2


Efrain felt the young man even before he saw him standing outside his shop, peering through the front window. The look of hope and dismay, clearly etched on expressive features, added a melancholy quality to the scene that Efrain found too difficult to ignore. Efrain waited a few more seconds, deciding on a whim to merely watch and observe. An illogical and unprofessional wave of admiration—no, attraction—washed over him.

The young man appeared to hesitate, glancing around him with a self-consciousness that Efrain found rather charming, before deciding to enter the shop. He stood half a head shorter than Efrain, rather on the thin and pale side, an air of tired resignation hanging quite heavily around him. Neatly cut auburn hair softly fell over straight brows and eyes that, for whatever reason, had lost their light. A curiously shaped birthmark marred a smooth cheek, starting from the right temple and following the cheekbone. While plainly and shabbily dressed, and despite his worn-down state, the newcomer nonetheless tried to carry himself with some dignity. He perhaps was calling on what reserves he had left of his pride.

“Hi, how’s it going?” Efrain called from where he’d perched himself on a stool behind the counter.

He set his ledger down and eyed the flowing script that continued to appear and fill line after line of each blank page. With practiced ease, he gently laid the quill pen on the open book, the long, black feather cutting a diagonal line across both pages, and the writing stopped. Coeus’s Oracle was momentarily silenced, and the earlier undercurrent of anxiety and dread that came with the oracle’s activities eased. He glanced up at the visitor, who was now quite distracted by the samples hanging on the shop’s walls.

“Do you need help with anything? Or are you just browsing at the moment?” he prodded.

The young man nodded and approached the counter, meeting Efrain’s gaze for the first time. Efrain’s breath caught in his throat when he stared into the newcomer’s eyes and realized they were violet. He had to blink rapidly to ensure he wasn’t making a mistake, and sure enough, those expressive eyes were still of that hauntingly unusual color. Efrain knew too well what violet eyes meant in the world of Old Magic, or at least what they’d always been rumored to be.

A remarkable and rare ability to see what the rest of the world couldn’t—and without magic help, at that. Did this young man know? Had he had experiences in the past along those lines? Efrain found himself simply itching to bombard the newcomer with all sorts of questions but had to keep himself in check. It wasn’t the right time or even place to consider the matter, let alone how the nervous young man might understand the significance of a genetic accident.

Almost as though seeking the comfort offered by his backpack, the stranger gripped the padded straps, his bony knuckles looking nearly bloodless in the shop’s light. He visibly swallowed and appeared to consider what to say next.

“Are you, uh, hiring right now?” he asked, his voice low and quiet. “I have my resume with me. I can give you a copy if you need one.”

Efrain almost grimaced when he smiled, wishing he weren’t put in a position of bad news. “We aren’t, sorry. We’re a pretty small shop, and—well—what we do is specialized enough to keep foot traffic at a minimum.” That much was true. While there was a great deal more to his vaguely worded description of Dark Carnival, it wouldn’t do to simply share it with a random stranger, no matter how attractive he might be. “I mean…” Efrain paused and laughed wryly, shrugging and waving both hands around him to indicate the shop. “It’s not as if we offer a necessary service like—like selling food or clothes. Custom framing’s really more of a luxury, not a necessity.”

The young man wasn’t deterred. Still gripping his backpack’s straps, he replied, “It’s okay. I’m cool with that. I majored in Art History, and I think I’ll be a good fit in a frame shop and gallery, even if it’s only part-time. I know I can contribute a lot to the business, and I might not have any experience in custom framing, but I’m a fast learner. And—and I can help keep the place clean, you know, and just make it look good for customers when they come in. I don’t care if janitorial work is all I’ll be doing.”

His words tumbled out in an awkward stream, and the more he spoke, the more they melted into each other as though he were desperate to emphasize his non-existent qualifications. And the more he spoke, the more his voice wobbled and his eyes reddened, forcing him to blink rapidly and direct his gaze elsewhere. He eventually pulled himself together, swallowed, and turned his tear-dimmed eyes back to Efrain.

“Please give me a chance,” he said, his voice even quieter than before. The rapid blinking to contain the tears returned, and a tight smile followed. “I swear I’ll work really hard.”

Efrain, startled, couldn’t speak for a second or two—not only because of the extraordinarily unguarded display of emotion he was seeing, but also because he realized the birthmark on the young man’s face was a bruise. A very familiar one, at that.

“What’s your name?” he asked at length.

“Leander Caron.” Leander let out an awkward chuckle and turned head so he could dry his eyes with the heel of his hand. “I’m sorry for getting all emotional on you. I’m just—I just moved here about a month ago, and I’m having the worst time looking for a job. Even a part-time one.” He sniffled and muttered a quiet curse, bowing his head, his pale features now suffused with red. “I’m sorry. I normally don’t get pushy like this. Maybe I should go. I’m sure—I’m sure this isn’t a good idea, anyway.”

“I’m Efrain Thorley.” Efrain offered Leander a bright grin and a hand, which Leander shook after a moment’s embarrassed hesitation. “And, seriously, it’s okay. It’s normal to be frustrated and emotional when nothing’s working out. I’ve kind of been there, myself.” He’d rather not add the fact it had been ages ago, and he was still underage and unqualified for employment. Regular employment, that is, not magic.

He pumped Leander’s hand, his mind whirling a hundred miles a second in the meantime as he tried to figure out how best to glean more information from his companion. He tried not to stare in thoughtful silence at Leander’s bruise, concentrating instead on eyes now bright with another threat of tears. Violet eyes, Efrain reminded himself, his mind now a touch scattered from this extraordinary and serendipitous meeting. Violet eyes that probably worked like windows into a shadowy, invisible world.

“Would you mind hanging around for a moment?” he asked once he’d knocked rational thought back on track. “I need to get my uncle from the back. He might want to talk to you about a job.”

Faint hope brightened poor Leander’s face, and a cautious smile curled his mouth as he nodded. “Yes, that’ll be fine. I don’t mind waiting, thank you. Thank you.”

When Efrain turned away, he lightly rapped his knuckles on the counter—a move subtle enough not to be thought of as anything more than a random and thoughtless habit by anyone outside Efrain’s immediate circle. Then a low cry came from somewhere behind the counter. A large bicolored cat in gray and white materialized and sauntered up to Efrain, sitting down and gazing up at him with round, copper-colored eyes.

“Owwow. Owwow.”

“Hey, you,” Efrain said. “Mind keeping Leander company while I call Uncle Ward, Oliver?”

Oliver let out another low, emphatic “owwow” before standing up and walking over to a startled yet delighted Leander, who laughed and crouched down to pet him.

“Oh—oh, my God,” Leander breathed, “I’ve never seen a cat like this before. Look at how tiny the ears are compared to the head!”

“He’ll keep an eye on the shop while I’m away,” Efrain said, watching Leander’s adoring interaction with the shop’s resident cat with a surge of warmth and satisfaction. Leander appeared not to have heard him at all as he continued his strokes and chin rubs. “I’ll be right back.”

Oliver glanced over his shoulder just as Efrain spoke, their gazes meeting again.

Touched. Marked. Hunted.

“I know, buddy. I know. Keep an eye on him, okay? I won’t take a minute,” Efrain whispered.

Protect. Safe.

“Thanks, bear.”

Oliver immediately turned his attention back to Leander, who didn’t notice the brief exchange between hunter-sorcerer and familiar and continued to lavish attention on the sturdy, stocky British Shorthair. Efrain guiltily took a full moment admiring how Leander’s hair seemed to shimmer softly in the shop’s fluorescent lights. From where he stood, he could actually see Leander’s long lashes casting faint shadows over those strange eyes, tempting Efrain to waste more time pondering their nature.

“Um—what’s his name?” Leander asked all of a sudden, glancing up and grinning. “Sorry, is this cat a ‘he’ or a ‘she’? I think you mentioned it, but I wasn’t paying attention.”

“He. His name’s Oliver.”

“Oliver,” Leander echoed in a near-whisper, his previous mood now fully disintegrating and making way for absolute, innocent pleasure. He looked down and continued to pet the cat, murmuring, “Oliver, you’re so cute. Who’s a big boy, huh? Who is? Is it you? Want some chin rubs? Yeah? Here you go. Wow, look at those paws. I’ve never seen paws this big on a cat before. You’re a real bruiser, aren’t you?”

One of Oliver’s powers was that of comfort and healing, and he was now using it to subtle but great effect. Every touch of Leander’s hand on Oliver’s body roused the cat’s magic, and it quietly wove a soft blanket around Leander. Efrain had always referred to the phenomenon as pet therapy on steroids, much to Oliver’s bemusement.

“I’ve always wanted a pet, but my mom’s not really an animal person,” Leander added with an absent-mindedness hinting at pure delight and awe and a complete disregard of the immediate world around him. “Maybe—maybe I should get one when I can afford my own place. Ooohh, who’s a big boy again? Yeah, that’s right.”

Loud purrs mingled with quiet words of delight, making Efrain wish he could just stand and watch forever. But Leander Caron had been marked by the otherworld, and Efrain and his uncle needed to move quickly before Leander ended up as another statistic, the shadow gallery below stairs adding one more lurid painting to its terrible wall.

He hurried through the shop and eventually reached the closed door leading to the office, knocking and calling out to his uncle. By the time noon rolled around, Leander was shaking hands with both Efrain and his uncle, the look of dazed shock on his features warning Efrain of a possible fainting spell being imminent. But Leander proved himself to be a great deal less like a swooning young heroine in old-fashioned romance novels and more like a naïve and uncertain young man fumbling his way into his first job as an adult.

Things progressed so quickly even to Efrain that he’d clean forgotten about the nature of Leander’s eye color. It didn’t cross his mind again till well after, in fact, when he was closing the shop, and Leander had long gone home.

“Oh, Christ,” he muttered, grimacing and rubbing the back of his neck. “I did it again, didn’t I? Forgot to talk to him about his eyes and his bloodline.” He paused and considered further. “Then again, he might find that sort of thing too intrusive and maybe borderline creepy. I’ll probably sound like a weirdo stalker. So—maybe forgetting about it might be a good thing—uh, for now, anyway.”

Efrain. Absent-minded. Distracted. Oblivious. Funny soliloquys. Rambling soliloquys.

When he looked at Oliver, a brow raised, the cat merely stared back owlishly and said, “Owwow.”



Chapter 3


Leander couldn’t believe it—couldn’t believe he’d been hired, finally. That said, he hoped he wasn’t being treated like a sad little charity case, considering his embarrassing emotional display just yesterday. Efrain didn’t seem to mind, though Leander’s loss of control had clearly startled him. Then it had been nothing but one mortifying moment piling atop another, with Leander seemingly trapped outside his element as he struggled to rein his frustrations in while dredging up whatever little dignity he had left.

A proper night’s sleep had done the deed, anyway, purging Leander’s system of the crippling burden of fatigue and depressed spirits. He’d returned home practically tap-dancing all the way down Yew Street. His landlady had spent the entire day holed up in her library, lost in computer work, before disappearing elsewhere to continue her current painting project and then marching out the door to shop for more art supplies. Leander had given up and gone to bed early and missed her. Amused, he suspected they’d only managed to spend no more than three minutes together in passing conversation throughout the day. Leander had chosen not to bother her with his good news, opting instead to wait for a more convenient time. He certainly couldn’t wait to see her reaction, which would likely be an extremely effusive one.

“For now, you’ll have to shadow us whenever customers are around,” Ward Thorley said with an easy and relaxed smile. He’d been showing Leander around the shop, pointing out the insane variety of ways a simple photograph could be designed for framing. “In between customers, feel free to poke around up here. There are trade magazines you can read behind the counter, and you can get on the computer to study our website and check out all the projects we handled.”

Leander nodded, speechless. Things had happened far too quickly and too suddenly, and now he was being thrown into the deeper end of the pool. Doubt regarding his ability to weather the complex and confusing intricacies of picture framing surfaced, given the intimidating nature of Ward and Efrain’s knowledge and skills.

And speaking of Efrain…

Leander glanced around, trying to look casual and careless as he followed Ward from one corner of the shop to another. “Oh—where’s Efrain?” he asked. He didn’t blush, thankfully, and at least his voice sounded a lot more level than he’d feared.

“He’s sorting through a few things in the office,” Ward replied. “When he comes back, he’ll show you the workshop. That’s where all the actual hard work takes place. He can also get you started on training for basic design work and even mat-cutting.”

Leander nodded again, his mind wandering despite Ward’s loud, deep voice overwhelming the quieter classical music in the background. Ward continued to explain—in layman’s terms, according to him—how the next artwork hanging on the wall was designed. Leander’s thoughts drifted back to the extraordinary moment when Ward appeared behind Efrain earlier to greet him on his first official day. The way his creased, droopy hound dog features were set in a curiously thoughtful frown as he pinned Leander with a hard stare. Ward’s booming pipes only added to Leander’s nervousness, his long, appraising look hinting at something much more than just curiosity. By the time general store policies were laid out, Leander felt himself miserably lacking. Especially since a quick glance at Efrain also revealed an equally intense and thoughtful gaze being leveled at him.


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