Countdown to Conquest: 1 Big Preview

Greystone Valley SeriesToday is your last day to preorder Conquest of Greystone Valley and get in on the Great Greystone Valley Giveaway! That means we’re on our last preview, so it’s time for something longer.

When Greystone Valley came out, I posted the first chapter as a final preview. Well, this is the second book, so this time I’m going to post the second chapter. Sarah’s back and joined by her friend Carrie, but she’s also joined by her old friends Kay and Dax – who have somehow stumbled into our world. What are they doing here and why doesn’t Sarah remember them? Check out Conquest of Greystone Valley for the full story!

The nurse gave Sarah a wet cloth to clean the blood from her hand. She was pretty sure it didn’t belong to her.

“I never get into trouble,” Carrie groaned from the seat next to her. “My mom’s going to kill me.”

“Hey, at least yours won’t turn you into a stone statue and leave you like that all weekend.”

Carrie’s face paled. “Has your mom done that to you?”

“No,” Sarah admitted. “But she could.”

The secretary in the reception area just rolled her eyes. Even though the school year was less than a month old, Sarah had already figured out one important fact: she could talk about magic as much as she wanted without anybody taking her seriously. As far as the adults were concerned, she was just a kid with an overactive imagination—and complaints about that were something her mom could deal with during parent-teacher conferences.

Carrie blinked her hazel eyes rapidly. Sarah had come to expect the reaction whenever her best friend had to remind herself that she hung out with a secret enchantress.

“Why’d you throw a punch, anyway? Why not turn that boy’s skin green or something?”

Sarah dabbed at her knuckles with the wet cloth. Definitely not her blood. “I’m already grounded. I don’t need to make it worse. Besides, he wasn’t worth a spell.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I can think of a few I’d enjoy casting on him.”

“Ugh . . . I told you, I don’t know anything about love potions.”

“That’s a shame. I thought he was kind of cute.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “You think every boy is kind of cute.”

“Well, they kind of are.”

Carrie had long blonde hair and a smile that was guaranteed to make her popular with the boys when she got into high school. Sarah was pretty enough too, but boys didn’t usually make her want to do anything more than throw a punch. This had given her a bit of a reputation as a troublemaker, but luckily, high school was on its way. As long as Sarah managed to survive this year, she would go to a new school with new challenges—and leave these trips to the principal’s office behind.

A door opened, but not the door to the principal’s office. Through the entrance that led back to the rest of the school stepped a figure that looked like it belonged in a field scaring away crows. He wore a wrinkled suit that seemed about two sizes too big for him and matched the many gray hairs in his beard. His disheveled hair looked like faded straw that had started to grow mold. Bloodshot eyes and a wrinkled face completed his grim visage.

It was Mr. Daxon, the guidance counselor. Sarah, like most students at her school, recognized him immediately—not because she had ever spoken to him, but because of the wild rumors that flew about when her fellow students tried to guess why he looked so gloomy all the time. Her favorite theory was that a judge had sentenced him to work in the school as some weird sort of community service. Mr. Daxon was still new, but so far, all he had accomplished was to make sure the students got any guidance they needed from someone else.

The dreary old man glanced at Sarah and Carrie, then grunted. He stepped in front of the secretary’s desk and cleared his throat.

“Ms. Walker, one of these students has a meeting with me.” Mr. Daxon’s voice sounded like a violin that was badly out of tune.

The secretary checked her notes, then looked back to the guidance counselor. “Are you sure? I don’t have anything written down—”

“It was a recent arrangement.” The guidance counselor straightened his back, and it made an audible pop. “Oh,” he muttered, “the aches and pains that come with old age.” He scanned the faces of both Sarah and Carrie as if he was trying to figure out which one seemed to be more uncomfortable when he looked in their direction. “That one,” he said, finally pointing at Sarah. “It should only take a few minutes.”

Ms. Walker tapped a pen against her desk. “I don’t know . . .”

“She started the fight, didn’t she? That means she needs guidance.”

“I didn’t start the fight!” Sarah shouted as she jumped out of her chair. “That new kid has been after me ever since he came to this stupid school! He’s been following me everywhere. He got what was coming.”

A moment of silence settled over the room after Sarah’s outburst. Carrie looked sick. Mr. Daxon had grown pale, as though he were negotiating with a large bear.

“Okay,” Ms. Walker said after an awkward moment. “Sarah’s all yours. I’ll inform Mr. Martin.”

*          *          *

“A-herm-herm-harrum.” Mr. Daxon cleared his throat for the third time since he’d brought Sarah into his office. She sat in a comfortable padded chair opposite his desk while he focused his attention on a computer screen in front of him—probably checking her permanent record or something.

“Ahem.” He cleared his throat one last time. Then he gave his keyboard an experimental poke, as though he were poking the body of a dead animal. It didn’t seem to do anything, but he finally turned toward an increasingly impatient Sarah.

“Computers,” he said. “They’ve been around for days, and I still can’t seem to figure them out.”

“Days?”

“Or years. One of the two. Who can keep track? We aren’t here to debate such matters, Sarah. We’re here to talk about you.”

“If this is about the fight between me and that new boy, Kay—”

“Oh, no, no, no. Can’t stand fighting myself. Never got a taste for the sight of blood. Although, just between you and me . . .” He leaned across the desk and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Who won?”

“Um, well, we didn’t really have a winner. I threw a punch, then the teachers pulled us apart.”

“Oh.” He sat back in his chair with a disappointed frown. “Well, I suppose blood sports in the school halls should be discouraged.”

“Um . . . was this supposed to be about guidance, or . . .”

“Ah! Yes! Sarah, I wanted to discuss your future.” Mr. Daxon folded his hands together and nodded as though he had just said something very impressive.

“My future?”

“Yes, your future. Have you, um, thought about what you want to do in college?”

“Why college? I’m only in eighth grade.”

“Well, somebody with your skills could be a great sorcer—er, secretary. A great secretary someday.”

“What did you say?”

They stared awkwardly at each other for a moment that seemed to drag out forever. Did Mr. Daxon know the truth? And if he did, what would her mom say?

As the silence grew more tense, Mr. Daxon moved his hand to cover his mouth as though he were about to clear his throat again.

Doing what she could to stop that annoying noise, Sarah spoke up and revived the conversation. “Why would I need to go to college to become a secretary?”

Mr. Daxon looked crestfallen. “Yes, well . . . ah . . . there are many, er, skills and . . . talents and . . . skills one might . . . hm.” He frowned, folded his hands together, and finally abandoned his awkward explanation. “Moving on.”

“On to what?” Sarah asked, more perplexed than ever before.

“Why don’t you tell me . . . about your father?”

“He’s been dead for almost two years now. I went through a lot of counseling.” Sarah sighed. “I guess I’m just—”

“No, no,” the guidance counselor interrupted. “Let’s change the subject to something less dreary, shall we? Why don’t you tell me what you remember about Kay?”

“What I . . . remember about him?”

“Yes.”

Sarah furrowed her brow. She had that feeling again—something tugging at the back of her brain, like a dream she’d forgotten. Who was Kay? She got an image of a tall, spindly boy not much older than her, holding a wooden staff and a book . . .

No, that was ridiculous. “Kay’s just a boy in my class. And for some reason, he won’t leave me alone.”

Mr. Daxon nodded solemnly, but he seemed a little disappointed by her response. “Well, I wouldn’t worry about him.” He leaned in close again. “He’s not long for this world. None of us are. Really, it’s for the best.”

Sarah swallowed. “Is he dying?”

“What? No. Goodness me, where did you get that idea?” The guidance counselor checked his watch and touched another button on his computer, which seemed to do exactly nothing. “Well, that’s all the time we have for now. Go back to class, don’t pick any more fights, and think about your future. Onward, upward, and so forth.”

Sarah sat still for a moment, but Mr. Daxon seemed intent on not looking at her. Finally, she got up, left the room, and went back to class.

She had to give the guidance counselor one thing: if getting into another fight meant more visits to his office, she wasn’t going to make a fist ever again.

*          *          *

“No, I didn’t tell on you,” Carrie said as they walked to Sarah’s house following the bizarre school day. “But . . .” she shook her head and trailed off.

“But what?” Sarah asked.

“Never mind,” Carrie said, her face folding into a deep frown.

“Come on!” Sarah shouted bitterly. “I’ve had to deal with all sorts of craziness today, from a boy who won’t stop bothering me to a guidance counselor who obviously knows more about me than he’s letting on. I’m sick of people not giving me straight answers.”

“Well, how do you think I feel?” Carrie’s shout carried through the cool autumn air and stopped Sarah in her tracks.

“What do you mean?”

Carrie looked like she was trying to hold words back, but after a moment, they came tumbling out like water through a broken dam. “I didn’t tell on you, but I wanted to. I mean, why shouldn’t I tell the truth? Why should I keep sticking my neck out for someone who doesn’t even respect me?”

“What? Of course I respect you!”

Carrie kicked a rock down the street. It skittered to a stop well before reaching anybody. The closest person on the road, an old man in a black coat, was so far away that Sarah couldn’t see his face clearly from there.

“You don’t really think—” Sarah began.

“No . . . never mind,” Carrie said. “I’m just grouchy. And, well . . . worried.”

“Worried about what?”

“About where we’re going.”

Carrie started walking again. Sarah followed alongside her, but her mind took a brief trip into the past. She and Carrie had met in kindergarten, when Carrie was this poor, unkempt, wild thing whose parents couldn’t afford her new clothes. The other kids teased her, but Sarah, who was a different kind of wild thing, played with her. That first meeting, she supposed, had colored their relationship in Sarah’s mind. Looking at her friend now, Carrie wasn’t that dirty-faced, tangle-haired, shy girl she used to be. She saved her allowance to buy herself outfits now. She did her hair carefully every morning. On some days, she even wore makeup to impress the boys. If she had changed that much, where did that leave them as friends?

“Where are we going?” Sarah asked.

“To your house, I hope.” Carrie’s frown disappeared, and she gave an unconvincing laugh. But whatever was bothering her hadn’t gone away—it was just hidden inside for the time being.

“Don’t worry about me,” she said, smoothing out a wrinkle in the sleeve of her jacket. “I’m just stressed because I thought I was going to get in serious trouble. But as far as Mr. Martin’s concerned, I was just an innocent bystander.”

Sarah shifted her weight, then decided to let her worries slip away for now. “Of course you’re a bystander,” she said. “You couldn’t get into a fight if you tried.”

“Why would I even want to try? Dance recitals are a lot more fun than visits to the principal’s office anyway.”

“That’s all a matter of opinion,” Sarah responded.

“What got you to hit Kay anyway?”

“He’s a creep. I should have done it a long time ago.”

“Maybe, but what specifically set you off?”

“I think he’s been stalking me or something. He keeps staring at me when we’re sitting near each other in math class, and he didn’t even deny it when I told him to knock it off. He said he was still getting used to seeing me without my pajamas on!”

Carrie stopped walking. Her eyes grew large and round. “Whoa . . . you might want to consider, like, reporting that to the police or something.”

Sarah touched her bruised knuckles. “If he doesn’t take the hint, maybe I will. Then again . . . some of the things Mr. Daxon said seemed odd. Well, they all seemed odd, but I think . . . I think maybe they know something about me.”

Carrie grinned, and Sarah caught a glimpse of the wild thing inside. “Do you think they’re witch hunters?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. There’s no such thing as witch hunters.”

“Of course there are,” Carrie retorted. “It’s a matter of history. There were the Salem witch trials—those were the most famous, of course.”

“Yeah, but those were hundreds of years ago!”

“Yeah, but where do you think the witch hunters went after the job was done?” Carrie picked up a stick off the ground and started twirling it idly. “They’re still out there, I bet, maybe even in our school. Maybe instead of being old guys with buckles on their hats, they’re like men in black or something now.” She shifted and pointed the stick at Sarah like it was a wand. “They probably read the news looking for strange phenomena and then track down any girls who wave sticks around and say magic words like aleca leca leera or whatever.”

Carrie was acting like they were telling ghost stories at a sleepover. Sarah wanted to kick her in the shins.

“Come on, knock it off. There’s no such thing as—”

The words choked in Sarah’s throat. A second ago, they were walking home in bright daylight, but in the blink of an eye, the light went dim as though the sun had already set. A shiver ran through her and her body tensed. Then a pair of small men popped up out of nowhere, and Sarah knew she wasn’t the only person in the area who knew about magic.

The two figures looked almost identical. They had chalky skin and pale blue eyes that looked almost ghostly white. They both had greasy black hair and grimy skin. Each had a long, narrow nose that almost resembled a bird’s beak, and their hands had jagged, claw-like nails.

“Carrie, duck!” Sarah didn’t give them a chance to say anything. After everything else she had been through today, the ability to cut loose and blast a clear danger was something she welcomed.

Unfortunately, Carrie wasn’t exactly adept at magical battles. A few real magic words from Sarah brought a hurricane-level gust of wind, but Carrie didn’t get out of the way in time. She fell headlong, colliding with one of the dark-clad men.

The other attacker didn’t stand idly waiting for another magical attack. He pulled a blade out of his jacket that was almost two feet long and had several nicks and scratches along the blade that suggested it had been used recently. Sarah froze as she looked at the cruel weapon. She could certainly think of a spell to help her. If the other man had a similar sword, though, she wasn’t sure she could stop both of them before one of them hurt Carrie.

“Ahem! Ahermhemherrum.”

Sarah jumped not because of the noise, but rather because of the unexpected presence of the person making it. The old man in the distance had caught up to them—and he wasn’t a random stranger like she had thought. Mr. Daxon’s shoulders were hunched and he wore a long black trench coat that was as wrinkled and disheveled as his work suit.

“I hate to interrupt,” the guidance counselor said, “but I can’t let you harass these two young ladies. They’ve had a bad enough day as it is.”

Neither man responded with words, but the one who had been knocked off balance by Carrie’s flying form drew a sword of his own, leaving no doubt as to what he intended.

Mr. Daxon sighed. “What a nuisance.”

The guidance counselor reached inside his coat, and Sarah’s eyes bugged out a moment later. Crazy old Mr. Daxon drew a broadsword that looked like it had been perfectly polished for just this moment.

Everything that happened afterward seemed to be a blur. The man closest to Carrie grabbed her by the arm, but she twisted away, barely getting free before her attacker could get a better grip.  In a split second, Mr. Daxon was upon the silent swordsmen, his own blade moving so quickly that Sarah could barely follow it. He sliced near one attacker’s hands, hitting his wrist with the flat of his blade and causing him to drop his weapon. The other gave up trying to grab Carrie and stabbed at the old man’s unprotected flank, but Mr. Daxon shifted and kicked out, catching the assailant in the stomach with the heel of his boot. The silent man finally made a noise, a loud groan as all the air in his lungs came out at once.

Sarah’s head swam as she tried to figure out what to do next. She had so many different spells to choose from that she couldn’t decide. She had imagined this situation a thousand times, but now that she found herself in it . . .

“Fire!” The call came from Carrie, who dashed away from Sarah so one attacker couldn’t be near both of them at the same time. She waved her stick with a trembling hand as one of the men gave up on Mr. Daxon and went after her with his claws outstretched.

It took Sarah a split second to realize what Carrie was saying. Then her head cleared, and she responded.

Fiera deno partis!

Carrie waved her stick one more time as though she were trying to shoo the man away, but she closed her eyes in fright as she did so. Just as the attacker was about to grab her, Sarah’s spell flared to life. The man’s clothes burst into flame, forcing him to drop onto the ground and try to smother the fire.

The victory was shorter lived that Sarah hoped. Overwhelmed by the skill behind Mr. Daxon’s attacks, the other man dashed backward until he reached Carrie’s trembling form. Sarah’s friend opened her eyes just as a clawed hand dug into her shoulder and a blade pressed against her throat. Carrie, caught in a panic, didn’t react quickly enough to twist away this time.

Mr. Daxon slowly lowered his sword. Sarah, on the other hand, searched her mind and came up with a spell that could turn the tide of the battle in their favor. Just as she was about to shout out the magic words, though, the man holding Carrie waved his free hand, summoning up a smoky black darkness that enveloped all five of them.

Mr. Daxon yelled and lunged forward, swinging wildly and striking not with the flat of the blade as he had done up until now but with the edge. He would have cut anybody to ribbons had there been somebody there. But both of the attackers had disappeared in the darkness—and Carrie had vanished with them.

As full daylight returned to the area, Sarah looked frantically for her missing friend but found nothing. Only she and Mr. Daxon remained.

“What just happened?” she asked the sword-wielding guidance counselor.

Mr. Daxon tucked his sword back into its sheath in his coat. As he did so, all the energy seemed to leave him. His shoulders slumped, the wrinkles on his face became more pronounced, and he looked as if he had just aged ten years in a few seconds.

His eyes scanned about for some hint as to where the kidnappers had vanished, but all he saw was the small blade one of them had dropped. He picked it up, placed it with his own weapon inside his coat, then turned to Sarah.

“I think,” he said wearily, “it may be time for a parent-teacher conference.”

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