Title: Shadow Study
(Soul Finders #1)
Author: Maria V. Snyder
Length: 384 pages
Rating: 4 Stars
When Yelena was a poison taster, her life was simpler. She survived to become a vital part of the balance of power between rival countries Ixia and Sitia.
Now she uses her magic to keep the peace in both lands—and protect her relationship with Valek.
Suddenly, though, dissent is rising. And Valek’s job—and his life—are in danger.
As Yelena tries to uncover her enemies, she faces a new challenge: her magic is blocked.And now she must find a way to keep not only herself but all that she holds dear alive.
SHADOW STUDY Chapter One
Ugh, mud, Kiki said as she splashed through another puddle. The wet muck clung to her copper coat and dripped from her long tail. It packed into her hooves and coated the hair of her fetlocks with each step.
Through our mental connection I sensed her tired discomfort. Stop? I asked, Rest?
No. Images of fresh hay, a clean stall, and being groomed formed in Kiki's mind. Home, soon.
Surprised, I glanced around the forest. Melting piles of snow mixed with black clumps of dead leaves—signs that the cold season was losing its grip. Rain tapped steadily on the bare branches. The light faded, turning the already gray woods leaden. For the past few hours, I'd been huddling under my sopping wet cloak, trying to keep warm. With my thoughts fixed on my rendezvous with Valek, I'd failed to keep track of our location.
I scanned the area with my magic, projecting my awareness out to seek life. A few brave rabbits foraged in the soggy underbrush and a couple of deer stood frozen, listening to the squishy plodding of Kiki's passage. No souls haunted these woods. No humans within miles.
That wasn't a surprise. This remote area in the northern Featherstone lands had been chosen for that very reason. After Owen Moon ambushed us four years ago, Valek and I had decided to move to a less well known location between the Citadel in Sitia and the Commander's castle in Ixia.
I leaned forward in the saddle. We were getting close and my wet cloak no longer pressed so hard on my shoulders. At this pace, we'd reach our cozy cottage within the hour. Valek's involvement with Opal's rescue from the Bloodrose clan and the aftermath had kept him busy for months. Finally we would have a few precious days all to ourselves before he reported back to the Commander. He should already be there waiting for me. Visions of sharing a hot bath, snuggling by a roaring fire and relaxing on the couch once again distracted me.
Kiki snorted in amusement and broke into a gallop. Behind the clouds the sun set, robbing the forest of all color. I trusted Kiki to find the path in the semi-darkness as I kept a light magical connection to the wildlife nearby.
In mid-stride, Kiki jigged to the right. Movement flashed to the left along with the unmistakable twang of a bow. Kiki twisted under me. I grabbed for her mane, but a force slammed into my chest and knocked me from the saddle.
Hitting the ground hard all the air in my lungs whooshed out as pain erupted. Fire burned with each of my desperate gasps. Without thought, I projected again, searching for the...person who had attacked me. Despite the agony, I pushed as far as I could. No one.
Kiki, smells? I asked. She stood over me, protecting me.
Pine. Wet. Mud.
Not good. The person had to be protected by a magical null shield. It was the only way to hide from me. Null shields blocked magic. At least it also prevented the magician from attacking me with his or her magic since it blocked magic from both sides of the shield. But it wouldn't stop another arrow. And perhaps the next one wouldn't miss.
I glanced at the shaft. The arrow had struck two inches above and one inch to the left of my heart, lodging just below my clavicle. Fear banished the pain for a moment. I needed to move. Now.
Rolling on my side, I paused as an icy sensation spread across my chest. The tip had been poisoned! I plopped back in the mud. Closing my eyes, I concentrated on expelling the cold liquid. It flowed from the wound, mixing with the blood already soaked into my shirt.
Instead of disappearing, the poison remained as if being refilled as fast as I ejected it. With pain clouding my thoughts, the reason eluded me.
Kiki, however figured it out. She clamped her teeth on the arrow's shaft. I had a second to realize what she planned before she yanked the arrow from my chest.
I cried as intense pain exploded, blood gushed and metal scraped bone all at once. Stunned, I laid on the ground as black and white spots swirled in my vision. On the verge of losing consciousness, I spotted the hollow barbed tip of the arrow coated with my blood, reminding me of the danger. I remained a target. And I wasn't about to make it easy for my attacker to get another shot.
Fix hole, Kiki said.
I debated. If I healed myself now, then I'd be too weak to defend myself. Not like I was in fighting condition. Although I still had access to my magic, it was useless against arrows, and, as long as the assassin hid behind the null shield, it couldn't touch him or her with my magic either.
Kiki raised her head. Her ears cocked. We go. Find Ghost.
I groaned. How could I forget that Valek was nearby? Smart girl.
With the arrow still clutched in her teeth, Kiki knelt next to me. Grabbing her mane, I pulled myself into the saddle. Pain shot up my arms and vibrated through my rib cage when she stood. She turned her head and I took the arrow. It might give us a clue about the assassin's identity.
I crouched low over Kiki's back as she raced home. Keeping alert for another twang, I focused my awareness on the surrounding wildlife. If the animals sensed an intruder, I'd pick up on their fear. A sound theory, except I'd been in contact with the deer when the arrow struck. I'd be impressed by the assassin's skills if I wasn't in so much pain.
It didn't take long for us to reach our small stable. The main doors had been left open. A warm yellow glow beckoned. Kiki trotted inside. The lanterns had been lit and Onyx, Valek's horse, nickered a greeting from his stall. Kiki stopped next to a pile of straw bales. Relieved to be safe, I slid onto them then lay down.
Kiki nudged my arm. Lavender Lady fix hole.
After Ghost comes. I suspected I would drop into an exhausted sleep once I healed the injury and I knew Valek would have questions.
She swished her muddy tail and stepped away. Ghost.
Valek appeared next to me. His confusion turned to alarm as his gaze swept my blood-soaked shirt. "What happened?"
No energy for a detailed explanation, I filled him on the basics and handed him the arrow.
All animation dropped from Valek's angular face. Fury blazed in his sapphire-blue eyes as he examined the weapon. Clear liquid dripped from the hollow shaft. He sniffed it. "Did you expel all the poison?"
"I think so." Hard to tell for sure, but I wouldn't add more fuel to his anger. Valek's hard expression already promised murder.
He smoothed the hair from my cheek. "How bad is it?"
"Not as bad as it looks. Now go, before the assassin gets away." I shooed.
"I'm not leaving you unprotected."
Kiki huffed and flicked her tail, splattering mud on Valek's black pants. I yanked my switchblade from its holder, triggering the blade. "I'm far from unprotected. Douse the light before you go."
"All right. I'll station Onyx outside the stable. Stay here." Valek opened Onyx's stall and the black horse trotted out. After he extinguished the lantern, Valek disappeared into the blackness.
I lay there listening for any sounds. My shoulder and left arm throbbed. Each inhalation caused a sharp stab of pain in my chest. To ease the discomfort, I pulled a thin thread of magic from the blanket of power that encompassed the world. A mental picture of the injury formed when I focused on the wound. My clavicle had been broken. The arrow had sliced through my muscles on impact, and the metal barbs in the arrow's head had ripped chunks of skin when Kiki had yanked it out. Lovely. I used the ribbon of power to lessen the pain—a temporary measure.
Sending my awareness into the surrounding forest, I kept a light contact with the nocturnal creatures. Too bad my bat was hibernating over the cold season. His unique senses would have helped with finding the assassin in the dark. The wildlife conducted their nightly hunt of food and showed no signs of agitation—not even from Valek. His immunity to magic prevented me from keeping track of him. I hoped he stayed sharp.
As time passed without incident, I wondered who had attacked me. That line of thought didn't go far as all I could deduce at this point was the person was a magician who had the power to form a null shield, who favored a bow and arrow, and may have an affinity with animals. Either that or he/she was really quiet and had masked his/her smell.
Unfortunately, pondering why I was attacked generated a longer list. As the official liaison between the Commander of the Territory of Ixia and the Sitian Council, I've created at least a dozen political and criminal enemies in the last six years. As the heart mate of Valek, the infamous Ixian assassin, for the last eight years I was a target for anyone who hated Valek, which included most of Sitia and probably hundreds of Ixians. As a magician and Soulfinder, I made many people nervous, worrying I'd turn rogue. These people were under the mistaken impression that I could create a soulless army when in fact all I did was find lost souls and guide them to either to an eternity of peace in the sky or an eternity of suffering in the fire world, depending on their deeds while alive.
A slight squish jolted me from my thoughts. Careful of my injury, I sat up and swung my legs over the bales of straw. Then I slid off. Better to stand and fight then be caught lying down. The darkness outside was one hue lighter than inside due to the faint moonlight. It illuminated just enough to see shapes.
I kept alert for any movement, peering through the door. When Kiki stepped between me and the entrance, I startled. Even though she was sixteen and a half hands high she could be really quiet. Her back was taller than me and she blocked my view. Granted I only reached five foot four inches, but she was a big girl like most Sandseed horses.
A few more squishes set my heart to beat in double time. I tightened my grip on my switchblade.
Ghost, Kiki said, moving away.
I sagged against the bales. A Valek-shaped shadow strode into the stable. He lit the lantern. One look at his grim expression and I knew he'd lost the assassin's trail.
"The guy's a pro," he said. "He used magic to erase his footprints. They just stopped. And without leaves on the bushes, it's harder to track him, especially at night. I'll go out again in the daylight."
"He? How do you know?"
"Big boots, deep prints. We can discuss it later. Let's go inside and take care of you."
"Kiki first." And before he could argue, "She saved my life. If she hadn't moved, the arrow would have pierced my heart."
Valek's shoulders dropped. Knowing I wouldn't leave, he worked fast. He removed her saddle and knocked the dried mud off her legs and stomach. After he cleaned out her hooves, she walked into her stall and munched on hay.
"Guess she's happy enough," Valek said, tossing the pick into a bucket. "Now, let's get you warm and dry, love."
I removed my muddy cloak and left it on the bales before I wrapped my right arm around Valek's shoulders. He wanted to carry me, but I worried he might jar the broken bone out of alignment and I wouldn't have enough strength to heal it.
The sharp pain returned by the time we reached the house. I made it as far as the couch. A bright fire burned in the hearth and a bottle of wine sat on the end table with two glasses and a plate of cheese. Valek must have arrived a few hours before me.
Tilting my head at the food, I said, "That's lovely."
"We'll indulge after you're healed and rested. Do you want to change first?"
Just the thought of moving my left arm hurt. "No."
"Then what are you waiting for?"
"A kiss. I haven't seen you in months."
Valek transformed when he smiled. The sharp angles of his face softened and warmth radiated from him. He leaned forward and pressed his lips to mine. Before I could deepen the kiss he pulled back.
"No more until you're better."
"Yelena." His stern tone would have made my mother proud.
"All right." I reclined on the couch and closed my eyes.
Reaching for the power blanket, I gathered a thick thread of magic. I wound this ribbon around my broken clavicle, fusing the two pieces back together. A second thread knitted the muscles and a third replaced skin. The effort exhausted me. Drained dry, I passed out.
By the time I woke, afternoon sunlight flooded the living area. Besides the green plaid couch, a couple of oversized nubby brown armchairs and a matching love seat made a semi-circle in front of the hearth. In the center, a deep pile dark brown rug—soft on the feet and...other body parts.
All that was left of the fire was ashy coals and half-burnt logs. The wine and glasses remained—a promise for later. No sounds emanated from the rest of the cottage, but moving without a sound was second nature for Valek. I called his name just in case. No response.
I opened my mind to Kiki. Is everything okay? I asked.
Quiet. Nap time, she said.
If the horses could sleep, then all should be well. Ghost?
My left shoulder and upper chest ached. The muscles would be sore for a few days. I sat up and examined the wound. Purple bruises surrounded an angry red circle. Another scar to add to my collection. I'd stopped counting three...or was it four injuries ago? Stretching with care, I tested my range of motion. Not bad.
The cold had soaked into my bones. My blanket had fallen to the floor. A hot soak in the tub should cure it in no time.
Stiff with blood and poison, my shirt reeked. All the more reason to bathe. But first a quick check of the rest of the cottage. It wouldn't take long. I palmed my switchblade, but didn't trigger the blade.
The ground floor consisted of a living area, kitchen, and washroom. The living area spanned the left half of the cottage while the kitchen and washroom occupied the right half. The hearth sat in the middle of the building so all the rooms could share its warmth.
I peered into the kitchen. A layer of dust covered the table and chairs, but the wash sink, cold storage box, and water jugs had been cleaned. Nothing appeared out of place.
The washroom's entrance was to the right of the hearth. I smiled. Valek had filled the large water tank near the back wall. Hot coals glowed underneath—one of the benefits of having a stone floor. I tested the water with my finger. Almost perfect.
I climbed the stairs to the single bedroom in the loft. Our cottage was too small for company, another excellent reason to purchase it.
My red-silk robe and clean clothes had been spread out on the king sized bed. Valek had been busy. I resisted the urge to check under the bed as I undressed. I'd have to ask my cousin Nutty to repair yet another shirt. Other than a few mud stains, I could still wear my black wool pants. I donned the robe--a gift from Valek. Running my fingers over the smooth material, I verified all my surprises remained in place. Valek always included weaponry with my gifts.
Which reminded me. I removed the lock picks, releasing my long black hair.
After a quick peek outside to check for signs of intruders, I returned to the washroom. Steam floated from the water's surface. I opened the valve and the warm liquid rushed into the sunken tub—another selling point. Turning off the water, I banked the coals, hung my robe on the hook, and settled in, oohing and ahhing until only my head remained above water.
Wonderful for about five minutes. Then the door squeaked and I lunged for my switchblade.
"Sorry," Valek said. He leaned against the door's frame as if it kept him from falling.
Had he been up all night? "Did you find anything?"
"He's gone. I found nothing except those boot prints. No doubt he's a professional with magical abilities." He rubbed the stubble on his chin. "That will be the key to finding him. Not many people have that combination of skills. He's probably already a person of interest. I'll have to check my sources."
I resisted correcting him. What he called sources were really Ixian spies in Sitia, which as Liaison, I'd been trying to stop. Ixia and Sitia shouldn't be spying on each other. Instead, they needed to form a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.
"Unless he's a new assassin. Some young hot shot."
Valek straightened. "That's a possibility. And if that's the case, then he chose the wrong target if he wishes to grow old."
"After you find out who hired him."
"Of course. Any ideas who..." He shook his head. "We should make a list of who doesn't want to kill you, love. It'd be shorter."
I'd be offended, but it was actually a good idea. "Let's not let it ruin our vacation. Join me."
He hesitated, frowning.
Oh no. Bad news. "Tell me."
"I have to leave in the morning."
"Not because of the attack?"
"No. The Commander ordered me to return earlier than I'd planned. He's been very patient. I've been in Sitia for most of the last year and he says I'm needed for an urgent matter. I'm sorry we have to cut our vacation a few days short."
Even though disappointment pulsed, I understood his loyalty to the Commander. And the Commander has been more than generous with Valek's time. Working with Opal and helping to stop the Bloodrose clan, Valek has done more for Sitia than Ixia.
No sense moping about something I couldn't change. Suppressing my frustration with the time limit, I splashed Valek. "Come on in while the water's hot."
He grinned and peeled off his clothes. Scars crisscrossed his long lean muscles, and a faded C-shaped scar marked the center of his chest. Even after spending seasons in Sitia, his skin remained pale, which contrasted with his shoulder-length black hair.
"Like what you see, love?" Valek stepped into the water.
"You lost weight."
He huffed. "Janco's a lousy cook."
"Did Janco pout when you ditched him to come here?"
"Yes, but it was fake. He's more than ready to return to Ixia." Valek settled next to me. "Do you really want to talk about him right now?" He gaze burned hotter than the water.
"Exactly." He ran his thumb over my wound. "Does it hurt?"
"No." His touch drove the cold away as a fire ignited in my heart.
He closed the distance between us and our lips met. Another perk of stone floors, no worries about water damage.
Morning sunlight and chills woke me late the next morning. Memories of last night replayed and I remained in bed savoring them. We'd gone from the tub to the living area, drank the wine, tested the softness of the rug, and then up to the bedroom. My lips still tingled from Valek's pre-dawn good-bye kiss.
Another chill raced along my skin. Shivering, I pulled the blanket up to my chin. All my bones ached as if encased in ice. Unease swirled. Something was...off. Wrong.
Without warning, a wave of heat slammed into me. I yanked the blankets off and jumped to my feet. Sweat poured, soaking my nightshirt as dizziness threatened to topple me. I sank to the ground. The heat disappeared as fast as it had arrived, but the cold returned, seeping into my skin, freezing the sweat into a layer of ice.
Before I could pull the blanket over me, another hot flash consumed me. Memories of going through the fire to enter the fire world rose unbidden. The searing pain of my flesh burning all too familiar. I batted at my arms even though I knew my skin hadn't been set on fire.
Maybe I hadn't expelled all the poison.
Between gasps of breath, the ice extinguished the heat. My muscles tightened and cramped. My teeth chattered hard enough to cause a headache. I curled into a ball, afraid I'd shatter like an icicle hitting the ground.
When the fire blazed again, I straightened as steam rose from my skin. Then the cold reclaimed me. And it kept going back and forth, hot to cold and hot again. Like I had a super fast fever, which gave me no time to draw power to counter it
I endured the waves. Each flip drained my strength. One of two things was bound to happen. I'd either pass out or the attack would stop. There was a third possibility, but I preferred to stay positive.
After hours...days...weeks...the seizures ceased. At first I laid there bracing for the next cycle. But as time progressed without an attack, I slowly relaxed. With no energy to stand, I groped for the edge of the blanket and pulled it down, covering me. At this point, even the hard floor couldn't stop me from falling asleep.
Darkness greeted me when I woke. Every single muscle ached as if I'd ran here from the Citadel. My dry throat burned and my stomach hurt. I needed water, food, and a bath. But first, I needed to ensure that I didn't have another attack. Had the poison run its course? Or was it still inside me? One way to find out.
I drew a deep breath and reached for the blanket of power. Nothing happened. Trying again, I concentrated on pulling a thread of magic.
Fear pushed up my throat. I swallowed it down determined not to panic.
I opened my mind to Kiki. What's going on?
No response. Not even images.
Dead air surrounded me.
My magic was gone.
From SHADOW STUDY MIRA Books, February 24, 2015
Shadow Study does double duty as both Maria Snyder's fourth release in the critically acclaimed Study series, and the first offering in her Soulfinder series. What this book is, more than anything however, is the biggest case of "hi...ho...the gang's all here" that fans of the Poison character stable could ever want.
We've got Yelena and Valek, together and as close to being married as two people can be without actually tying the knot. Janco and Ari brawling, besting, snooping, and doing what they do best. Commander Ambrose holding the peace as only he can. Fisk operating from the shadows and always managing to have as much information as he does coin. Leif just being Lief.
And...Opal doing her magic thing.
Just when readers thought that things were finally cooling down for Yalena and Valek. Shadow Study puts the two right into the heart of danger in a most deadly way. It appears that in acting as acting liaison to both Sitia and Ixia, Yelena has made her share of very powerful friends and even more vengeful enemies.
One of whom, is out to hurt her in the worst way possible. By taking her magic!
When an unseen arrow full of a mysterious potion finds its target in Yelena's body and manages to do just that. It is up to a very human Yelena and the people she trusts most to find the key to restoring her magic, and find the one responsible. Before it's too late and before her secret is discovered.
"Secrets" seems to be the word of the day plot-wise. As we soon discover that Valek, Ambrose, and even the villain of the read have things about themselves and their motives that they spend the entire read keeping very close to the vest. Alternating POV's also help to keep the suspense alive and well.
It is in fact, the reader's task to follow the proverbial breadcrumbs in this most magical whodunit to a surprisingly memorable conclusion. Highlighting the fact that the action found in this read is far more mental than physical.
Topping the negative column this time around. We have the following. While the character interactions, character development, settings, and pacing are all spot on. The plot seems to have a big deja vu point when we get to Valek and his latest protégée Onora. There is also a large swath of story spent on Yelena chasing her tail. In her quest to find her magic.
If however, you can make it over these bumps in story road. The story, and its cliffhanger ending are well worth the effort.