by Jennifer Estep
Series: Black Blade #2
Published by: Kensington
Genres: Urban Fantasy
Something Wicked This Way Comes...As a thief, I stick to the shadows as much as possible. But when the head of the Sinclair Family picks me to compete in the Tournament of Blades, there's no escaping the spotlight—or the danger. Even though he's my competition, Devon Sinclair thinks I have the best shot at winning what's supposed to be a friendly contest. But when the competitors start having mysterious "accidents," it looks like someone will do anything to win—no matter who they hurt. As if I didn't have enough to worry about, mobster Victor Draconi is plotting against Devon and the rest of my friends, and someone's going around Cloudburst Falls murdering monsters. One thing's for sure. Sometimes, humans can be more monstrous than anything else..
Dark Heart of Magic is the second novel in Jennifer Estep’s Black Blade trilogy. This young adult fantasy offers spectacular world building and an engaging cast of characters that will have you singing the mantra, “just one more chapter”.
While Dark Heart of Magic got off to a slower start than its predecessor Estep once again impressed. Character growth, ARC development and a murder mystery surrounded by the Tournament of Blades made for an interesting tale. The world Estep has created is filled with mythical creatures and despite the danger, I would gladly pack my bags for a visit.
Cloudburst Falls is preparing for the Tournament of Blades, a competition between the families where they battle it out on the field. Lila Merriweather, thief extraordinaire and bodyguard to Devon Sinclair is settling into her new role and life at the Sinclair castle. The trolls in Cloudburst Falls are acting strange, the woods are too quiet and accidents are occurring during the game. Lila’s spidey scenes are telling her something is off. Estep creates an engaging mystery that quickly hooked me as she continues to flesh out the overall arc of the Black Blade series.
Lila is still plotting to seek her revenge against Victor Draconi for her mother’s murder and has been using her skills to spy on him. This aspect of the tale was suspenseful and Estep created the perfect villain with Victor Draconi. He is someone readers will love to hate and uncovering his evil plot will give you the shivers.
I appreciate seeing growth and development from the characters and was pleased with Lila. We see her being to lay down roots, acknowledge her own feels and grow not only in her magic but emotionally as well. This bacon loving little thief is a heroine you will want to root for.
We spend time with characters we have meet previously including Devon, Deah, Felix, the ever-obnoxious Blake. Mo continues to be hilarious and I enjoy his humor and antics. We spend some time with the leader of the Sinclairs and I am truly beginning to admire this woman. We meet a few new characters that further develop the current mystery and series. Lila learns more about her mother, ancestry and father. Estep reveals some unexpected connections along with a prophecy. She really has a gift for grabbing the reader and pulling them completely into the world she has created.
The current mystery was dark and gruesome. The synopsis is very vague but let me assure you it is intense and dark. Estep slowly revealed the storyline creating suspense and slowly increased the danger. I will tell you there is death and a nail-biting climatic scene you will not want to miss. The villain of this thread may surprise you. Estep did a good job with the red herrings and foreshadowing. The tale still remains young adult but leans towards the older end of this genre.
The romance is still present and we some development. While it remains in the background allowing the current mystery and overall arc to take center stage. I am perfectly happy with this arrangement, but also felt the romance added depth, gave our character’s vulnerability and a second romantic thread gives us a forbidden romance that helped propel Dark Heart of Magic’s storyline.
Dark Heart of Magic delivered a fresh, unique, suspenseful tale with plenty of action and twists to ensnare the reader. Bright Blaze of Magic the exciting conclusion to this series will release in April of 2016.
Read an Excerpt
Working for the mob isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
Oh, sure. It always looks all glitzy and glamorous on TV and in the movies. Folks wearing slick suits, eating in fancy restaurants, and talking about how to best deal with their enemies over coffee and cannolis. And maybe I’d actually done some of those things, during the few weeks that I’d been working for the Sinclair Family. But most of the time, taking care of Family business was a boring, tedious job, just like any other—
“Watch out, Lila!” Devon Sinclair shouted.
I ducked just in time to keep from getting pelted in the face by a blood persimmon. The ripe, apple-size fruit sailed over my head and splattered against the ground. The skin exploded on impact, painting red pulp and seeds all over the gray cobblestones, and filling the summer air with a sweet, sticky scent.
Sadly, the cobblestones weren’t the only things covered in fruit—so was I. Red pulp had soaked into my blue T-shirt and gray cargo pants from where I’d already been hit, while seeds and bits of skin clung to the laces of my gray sneakers.
An angry, high-pitched cheep-cheep-cheep sounded, the noise somewhere between a crow’s cawing and a chipmunk’s chirping. I glared up at the tree where the persimmon had come from. A creature with ash-gray fur and emerald-green eyes jumped up and down on its hind legs on a branch about ten feet above my head. The creature’s jumps were so hard and powerful that more ripe blood persimmons dropped from their branches and hit the ground, bursting open and adding to the oozing mess that already coated the cobblestones. Oh, yeah. The tree troll was definitely upset that it had missed me with its latest fruit bomb.
Tree trolls were among the many monsters that made their home in and around Cloudburst Falls, West Virginia, along with mortals and magicks, like me. I’d always thought of the trolls as sort of a cross between an oversize squirrel and the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. Oh, tree trolls couldn’t actually fly, but the black webbing under their arms helped them catch wind currents as they hopped from one branch and tree to the next, while their long, bushy tails let them dangle upside down. The trolls were only about a foot tall, so they weren’t nearly as dangerous as copper crushers and many of the other monsters that inhabited the town. Most of the time, they were pretty harmless, unless you got them riled up. And this one was certainly riled, since it kept jumping up and down and cheep-cheep-cheeping at us all the while.
Careful of the falling persimmons, Devon Sinclair stepped up beside me and craned his neck back. His black T-shirt and khaki cargo pants were splattered with even more persimmon pulp than mine,, making it look as though he’d been caught in a red rainstorm. Just about the only part of him that wasn’t covered in fruit was the silver cuff that glimmered on his right wrist, one stamped with a distinctive design—a hand holding a sword aloft. The symbol of the Sinclair Family.
“He’s not a very happy fellow, is he?” Devon murmured in his deep, rumbling voice. “No wonder the tourists are complaining about him.”
Cloudburst Falls was known far and wide as “the most magical place in America,” a place where “fairy tales are real,” so tourism was the name of the game around here. People came from all over the country and the world to see the magnificent views from Cloudburst Mountain, the rugged, fog-covered peak that loomed over the city, as well as spend their money in all the shops, casinos, restaurants, hotels, and other attractions that ringed the Midway, the main tourist drag in the center of town.
But monsters were also drawn to the area because of all the bloodiron, a magical metal, that had been mined out of Cloudburst Mountain over the years. At least, that’s what the local legends and tall tales claimed. Tourist rubes might like to ooh and aah at the monsters in the various zoos in the Midway and photograph the creatures in their natural habitats during tours and expeditions up the mountain, but the out-of-towners didn’t appreciate tree trolls throwing persimmons at them as they walked down the sidewalk. And the tourists especially didn’t like to get attacked and eaten by some of the more dangerous monsters that lurked in the dark alleys and shadowy spots in and around town. So it was the job of the Families, or mobs, to make sure that the monsters stayed in their designated areas. Or at least didn’t snack on too many tourists at one time.
This particular troll had taken up residence in a tall blood persimmon tree that sat at the edge of one of the shopping squares off the Midway. Since this particular square was part of the Sinclair Family territory, we were the ones who’d been called in to deal with the creature. For the last three days, the troll had been fruit bombing everyone who dared walk by its tree, causing several tourists to drop and break their expensive phones and cameras. Nothing pissed off a tourist more than losing their fancy new phone. I knew, since I’d spent the last few years swiping phones out of the pockets, purses, and fanny packs of every out-of-towner who looked like an easy mark.
Beside me, Devon shifted on his feet, moving out of the bright, direct sun into a pool of dappled shadows closer to the tree. The warm rays filtered down through the branches and danced across his muscled body, showing off his intense green eyes, rugged features, and the honey highlights in his dark chocolate brown hair. I breathed in, catching a whiff of his crisp pine scent, mixed in with the sticky sweetness of the splattered persimmons. Just standing near Devon made my heart do a funny little pitter-patter in my chest, but I ignored the sensation, just as I’d been doing for weeks now.
“What do you want to do about the troll?” I asked. “Because I don’t think he’s coming down from there without a fight.”
Devon was the bruiser, or second-in-command of the Sinclair Family, responsible for overseeing all the Family guards and dealing with all the monster problems that arose in Sinclair territory. Most of the bruisers for the various Families were arrogant jerks who enjoyed bossing people around and taking advantage of the other perks of their powerful position. But Devon was a genuinely good guy who treated everyone in his Family equally, from the smallest pixie to the toughest guard. Plus, he would do anything to help his friends and the folks he cared about, something he’d proven by putting himself in danger time and time again.
Devon’s inherent goodness and devotion to others were two of the many things that made me like him way more than I should have. His soulful green eyes, teasing grin, and rocking body didn’t hurt matters either.
Me? Good and I weren’t exactly close friends, and the only devotion I had was to myself, and making sure that I had plenty of cash in my pockets and food in my stomach. I was a loner thief who’d spent the last four years living in the shadows until I’d been recruited to be Devon’s bodyguard a few weeks ago. Not that he really needed a guard. Devon was a tough fighter who could take care of himself—and then some.
“Well, I say we pick up all the fruit that’s still in one piece and chuck it right back at the troll,” another voice suggested in a snide tone. “Let him see how it feels to get splattered for a change.”
I looked over at Felix Morales, Devon’s best friend and another member of the Sinclair Family. With his wavy black hair, bronze skin, and dark brown eyes, Felix was even more handsome than Devon, despite the fact that he was also covered in pulp. Not that I would ever tell him that. Felix was already a terrible flirt. We’d been in the square for ten minutes, and he’d spent more time grinning at the tourist girls who wandered by than trying to figure out what to do about the troll.
Felix winked at two girls in tank tops and short-shorts who were sitting on a nearby bench sipping lemonade, then waggled his fingers at them. The girls giggled and waved back.
I rolled my eyes and elbowed him in the side. “Try to pay attention.”
Felix shot me a sour look and rubbed his side.
“What do you normally do about tree trolls who throw things at tourists?” I asked.
Devon shrugged. “Usually, we don’t have to do all that much. Most of the trolls stay in the trees in their designated habitat areas in and around the Midway. Whenever they start making pests of themselves, we send some guards over to tell them to either cut it out or move back up the mountain where they can do whatever they want.”
I nodded. Like most monsters, tree trolls could understand human speech, even if mortals and magicks couldn’t really understand them all that well.
“Usually, that’s the end of it, but this guy doesn’t seem to want to leave,” Devon said. “He’s still here, despite the guards that I sent over yesterday. And he’s not the only one. I’ve heard rumors that all the other Families are having similar problems with trolls right now. Seems like something has them spooked and coming down off the mountain in record numbers.”
As soon as Devon said the word leave, the tree troll started jumping up and down even faster than before, his cheep-cheep-cheeps growing louder and louder. The high-pitched shrieks stabbed into my brain, making me grateful that enhanced hearing wasn’t one of my Talents. The creature was plenty loud enough already without the sound being magically amplified.
All around us, the tourists stopped slurping down their jumbo sodas, noshing on their giants wads of cotton candy, and snapping photos of the bubbling fountain in the middle of the square. They all turned to stare in our direction, curious about the commotion. I dropped my head and slid behind Felix, trying to blend into the background as much as possible. As a thief, I’d never liked being the center of attention. Kind of hard to pick someone’s pocket or snag a watch off her wrist when she was looking straight at you. I might not be here to steal anything, but old habits die hard.
Devon looked at me. “Do you think you can use your soulsight to see what he’s so upset about?”
“Yeah,” Felix chimed in. “Let the great Lila Merriweather do her magic mojo. She is the monster whisperer, after all.”
I reached over and punched him in the shoulder.
“Hey!” Felix said, rubbing his arm. “What was that for?”
“I am not a monster whisperer.”
He rolled his eyes. “Did you or did you not feed three guys to a lochness a few weeks ago?”
I winced. That was exactly what I’d done. I didn’t even feel bad about it, since the guys had been trying to kill Devon and me at the time. But I’d always been secretive about my magic, my Talents, and all the things that my mom had taught me about how to deal with monsters. I’d had to be, since I wanted to keep my magic firmly inside my own body and not have someone rip it out of me to use himself. So I wasn’t used to Felix or anyone else joking about it so openly. Every time he or Devon made a comment about my magic, I always looked around, wondering who might have overhead and what they might to do to me in order to get my Talents.
Devon noticed my worried expression, and he put his hand on my shoulder. The warmth of his fingers soaked through my T-shirt and burned into my skin. That was something else I liked a lot more than I should have. I shrugged out from under his touch, trying not to notice the flash of hurt in his eyes.
“Please, Lila,” Devon said. “Try to talk to the troll.”
I sighed. “Sure. Why not?”
The majority of magic fell into three categories—strength, speed, and senses. So lots of magicks had a Talent for sight, whether it was the ability to see great distances, in microscopic detail, or even in the dark. But I had the more unusual Talent of also being able to see into people and feel their emotions as though they were my own, whether it was love, hate, anger, or something else. Soulsight, it was called. I’d never used it on a monster before, though, but I supposed there was a first time for everything.
So I stepped forward, tipped my head back, and peered up at the creature. Maybe it sensed what I was trying to do because it actually stopped jumping up and down and focused on me as intently as I was staring at it. My eyes locked with the monster’s, and my soulsight kicked in.
The tree troll’s red-hot anger slammed into my chest like a flaming fist, but that emotion was quickly smothered by another, stronger one—stomach-churning fear.
I frowned. What could the troll have to be so worried about? Sure, Devon, Felix, and I were all wearing swords belted to our waists, but so did most everyone in the Families. It wasn’t like we were actually going to hurt the creature. Or maybe that’s what the other mobs did. I wouldn’t put it past the Draconi Family to slaughter the monsters that dared to wander into their territory, either down here in the city or up on Cloudburst Mountain, where the Draconi mansion was located.
But whatever the troll was so worried about, it wasn’t going to leave or even calm down until it had been taken care of. As if it could sense my thoughts, the troll cheeped again, then skittered up a branch, moving higher and higher into the tree, and disappearing into the green cluster of leaves.
“What did you do to it?” Felix asked.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said. “Here. Hold this.”
I unbuckled the black leather belt from around my waist and passed it over to Felix. He clutched the belt and the attached sword and scabbard in his hands.
“What are you doing, Lila?” Devon asked.
“It’s worried about something. I’m going to try to find out what that is.”
I went over and circled around the persimmon tree, my dark blue gaze going from one branch to the next as I mentally calculated how I could best get up to where the troll was.
Felix looked at me, then at the tree. “You’re going to climb up there? With the troll?” He shook his head. “Sometimes, I forget how totally cray-cray you are.”
I scoffed. “The only one here who is cray-cray is you, Romeo.”
Felix’s face scrunched up with worry at my not-so-veiled reference to his love life. On the surface, Felix might seem like a terrible flirt, but it was all an act to hide how crazy he was about Deah Draconi, daughter of Victor Draconi, the most powerful man in town. Naturally, Victor hated all the other Families with a passion, especially the Sinclairs, because that’s how these kinds of doomed love stories always went. My mom and dad were proof of that.
Devon glanced back and forth between Felix and me, but he didn’t say anything. If he knew what I was talking about, he didn’t pipe up and say so.
I shut Devon and Felix out of my mind, stepped forward, and took hold of the tree. The blood persimmon was old and sturdy, with lots of thick branches that would hold my weight. I’d always enjoyed climbing, no matter the surface or what I was scaling, and it was practically a job requirement for a thief, as it was often the most convenient way for me to get into and out of locked, guarded places where I wasn’t supposed to be.
So I shimmied up the trunk, then reached for the first branch. I quickly went up ten, fifteen, twenty feet, smiling all the while and enjoying the earthy smell of the tree and the rough scrape of the bark against my hands. I might be an official member of the Sinclair Family now, with a thin veneer of legitimacy, but I still liked practicing all my old tricks. You never knew when they might come in handy, especially with Victor Draconi plotting something against the other Families.
Finally, when I was about thirty feet up, that distinctive cheep-cheep-cheeping sounded again. I looked up to find the troll perched on a branch off to my left. The creature regarded me with open suspicion, its emerald-green eyes narrowed to slits, another blood persimmon clutched in its long, curved black claws, ready to chuck the fruit at me. Three fresh, jagged scars raked down the right side of the troll’s face, as if it had tangled with a much bigger monster recently—and won. This one was a fighter. Good thing I was too.
I wrapped my legs around the branch, making sure that I wouldn’t fall, then held my hands out to my sides, trying to let the troll know that I wasn’t here to hurt it. The creature kept staring at me, but it didn’t make a move to bean me in the face with the fruit. Finally, some progress.
I dropped my right hand down to my side and unzipped one of the pockets on my cargo pants. The troll cocked its head to the side, its small, gray, triangle-shaped ears twitching at the sound of several quarters jingle-jangling together in my pocket.
I drew out a dark chocolate bar, held it up above my head, and waved it back and forth. The troll’s black nose twitched, and its green eyes brightened in appreciation and anticipation.
Monsters might have more teeth and talons than the rest of us, but it was easy enough to deal with the majority of them. You just had to know what to bribe them with. Most of the time, a drop of blood or a lock of hair was enough to get you safe passage through a monster’s territory. Some monsters, like the lochness that Felix had mentioned, required quarters and other shiny coins, but tree trolls went in for more immediate gratification.
Dark chocolate, and lots of it.
“C’mon,” I crooned. “You know you want it. I’m just paying the toll for climbing your tree and invading your personal space—”
The troll scrambled down, snatched the chocolate bar out of my hand, and returned to its previous branch, its lightning-quick movements almost too fast for me to follow.
Its black claws made quick work of the wrapper, and the troll sank its needle-sharp teeth into the chocolate. More little cheep-cheeps sounded, but this time, they were squeaks of pleasure.
I waited until the troll had downed another bite before starting my spiel, such as it was. “Listen, little furry dude. I’m not here to make trouble. But you know how it is. You start acting out and throwing stuff at tourists, then the Sinclair Family is going to make you move on. You know that. So what’s got you so upset?”
The troll chomped down on another piece of chocolate, staring at me all the while, his green eyes locking with mine. Once again, his anger and worry punched me in the heart, mixed in with a bit of warm happiness brought on by eating the chocolate. Nothing strange there. Chocolate made me happy too.
But the longer I stared at the troll, the brighter and greener its eyes became, until they were practically glowing like stars in its furry face. It almost seemed as if the creature had the same soulsight that I did and was peering into me the same way I was into him. Judging whether or not I was trustworthy. So I focused on remaining calm and trying to look as non-threatening as possible.
Maybe it was a trick of the sunlight streaming down through the leaves, but I swear that I felt something … shift inside me. As if I were somehow calming down the troll just by staring at it and thinking good thoughts. Despite the hot summer day, a chill swept over me, cold enough to raise goosebumps on my arms.
I shivered and blinked, breaking the strange spell. The troll was just a troll again, and everything was normal. No glowing eyes, no odd emotions in my chest, no more cold chills. Weird. Even for me.
The troll cheeped again, then reached up and pushed back a branch beside its head, revealing a large nest.
Twigs, leaves, and grasses had been braided together in a crook of the tree, along with several candy bar wrappers. Looked like this particular troll really loved his chocolate. I scooted up higher on my branch so that my head was level with the nest. A moment later, another tree troll—a female given her dark gray fur—popped her head up out of the nest, along with a much smaller, fuzzier head. A pair of small, innocent green eyes stared back at me. The male tree troll handed the rest of the candy bar to the female, and she and the baby vanished back down into the bottom of the nest, out of my line of sight.
So the monster was watching out for his family, which was the reason for all the fruit bombs. No doubt the creature saw everyone who approached the tree as a potential threat. Well, I couldn’t blame him for that. Not in this town. I might be a thief, but I knew what it was like to try to protect your Family—mob or otherwise.
And to fail miserably.
The old, familiar, soul-crushing grief twisted my chest, but I shoved the emotion down into the bottom of my heart where it belonged.
“All right,” I said. “You can stay here until your baby is big enough to travel. If you’re looking for someplace a little quieter, there are some nice, tall trees over by the lochness bridge. You should scout them out.”
The tree troll cheeped at me again. I hoped that meant he understood me.
I pointed at him. “But no more throwing fruit at the tourists, okay? You leave them alone, and they’ll leave you alone. Capice?”
The troll cheeped at me a final time, which I was going to take for a yes.
I unhooked my legs from around the branch and started climbing down. The troll watched me all the while, jumping from one branch to the next and following me all the way down the tree, but he didn’t throw any more blood persimmons at me. More progress. Maybe I really was a monster whisperer after all. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
When I was about ten feet off the ground, I sat down on a branch, flipped over, and let go. I plummeted through the air, letting out a happy laugh at the rush of the wind through my hair, before landing in a low crouch. I made a gallant flourish with my hand to add to my dramatic descent, then got to my feet.
Felix grinned. “Showoff.”
I grinned back. “I do try.”
Devon craned his neck back, trying to see the troll. “So what did he do?”
“He’s got a family up there, so he’s not going anywhere,” I said. “I told him to stop throwing fruit at the tourists, and he seemed to agree. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Devon nodded. “Thanks, Lila. Good job.”
His face crinkled into a smile. I looked away from his green gaze before my soulsight kicked in, but the warm rush in my heart had nothing to do with my magic. It was just Devon being Devon, and how hopelessly into him I was, despite my need to keep my distance.
Devon sensed the change in my mood, and his grin dropped from his face. I felt like I’d reached up and snuffed out the sun with my bare fingers, and more than a little guilt curled up in my stomach. He really was a good guy, and I kept pushing him away, hurting him without even meaning to.
But I’d been hurt too—horribly so—and I didn’t want my heart to be broken again. Not even for someone as all-around sexy, charming, and wonderful as Devon Sinclair.
Devon waited until Felix had handed over my black leather belt, and I’d buckled my sword around my waist again before jerking his thumb over his shoulder.
“Come on,” Devon said. “Let’s go home and get cleaned up.”
He and Felix turned and headed out of the square. I followed them, but something made me stop and look back over my shoulder. Thanks to my sight, I easily spotted the tree troll staring at me through the leafy branches, his green eyes brighter and more wary than ever before, as if he knew about some lurking danger that I didn’t. Our eyes locked, and once again, the creature’s worry, fear, and dread made my heart sink, my stomach churn, and a cold chill slither down my spine.
I shivered, dropped my gaze from the monster, and hurried after my friends.
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