Melanie Harding-Shaw presents the first chapter of her debut Wellington fantasy romance, City of Souls.
When I started writing City of Souls, my intention was to bring joy back into my writing. I wanted to play and revel in those words. So I took all of my favorite world-building, setting, and characterization elements and brought them together into something that’s a fun, action-packed urban fantasy romance.
There’s a tension between enemies and lovers, a fake relationship, and characters with nice wings and a snark. It has complex world politics, intricate magical systems, and power imbalances. He has sentient strongholds, benevolent necromancy, and found family. And he has a deep love for his Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington setting, even though I’ve sunk the city’s 155+ acres of reclaimed land into the ocean and turned the hive into a ramshackle nest of spiders winged giants. (Sorry).
I dedicated City of Souls to my wingers – to everyone who helped me on my way and to all the readers who love sexy wings as much as I do. I was inspired by all the wonderful fantasy novel writers from Aotearoa New Zealand who are killing it internationally – writers like A.J. Lancaster and Nalini Singh (if you haven’t read them yet, go read Stariel and Guild Hunter right now) – and I was so honored to have my first steps in romance recognized when City of Souls won the Agent’s Choice award as part of the Romance Writers of New Zealand Great Beginnings contest. earlier in the year. You won’t find a more welcoming group of writers anywhere.
CHAPTER ONE: HEL
Hel hesitated in the doorway of the forge she was leaving, weighing her options. The bag of copper handcuffs she had just retrieved hung heavily from her back, and the vibration of her smartwatch reminded her that she was seven minutes away from losing the quick delivery bonus. The unreasonable delay was a goddamn pot because this package was going straight to her boss at the mail headquarters and she knew he wouldn’t be able to deliver them before the shift change anyway. Veer left and take the safer, slower route dwarfed by the buildings and pavements of the city proper? Or cut through the waterfront dead zone and get that bonus? She glanced at her watch and the graph showing her contracted debt flashed, taunting her with the opportunity for another step towards independence.
“You’re fast for a human, but it’s not worth the risk, honey.” Keep that beautiful body safe,” Wayland called behind her.
Hel glanced over her shoulder at the blacksmith, her fingers absentmindedly stroking the cold metal of the concealed-bladed staff strapped to her thigh. Wayland was as attractive as most elementals. The strength it took to hold their large wings clear of the ground and maneuver in flight gave them core muscle definition that wasn’t just remote, and Wayland’s physique was further sculpted by his work at forge. His feathers were a deep gray that looked remarkably like the steel he worked and the same color was reflected in the eyes framed by soft laugh lines. For an elementary, it was bearable. His bulging muscles weren’t doing anything for her, though. She was also stronger than a human, not that he knew that. Big deal. Despite his disinterest, his flirting still sparked a deep pain in her which she quickly suppressed. Even if he hadn’t been an elemental, he wasn’t worth the risk. The loneliness was survivable. Being discovered because she let her guard down and drew attention to herself was not.
Hel smirked at her over her shoulder as she stepped out into the fading sunlight and turned towards the dead zone without bothering to answer.
As she pushed herself in an all-consuming race to catch up with time, her eyes scanned the sky above the nearby shore for threats. The humans had built much of their city on land reclaimed from the sea, and they had paid the price when the Melding struck. The merging of two realities and the resulting earthquakes had returned the shore to where nature intended and left the twisting wreckage of high-rise buildings scattered across the harbor shallows like zombies to half buried ripping off a watery architectural graveyard.
Where it stood, beyond the edge of the city’s safe zone, the rubble had been moved to create a kind of breakwater that also served as a barrier against ocean predators that found refuge in the port. She was careful to stay close to the buildings looming to her left, away from the uneven edge where the cracked asphalt gave way to the sandy beach. Boarded up windows towered above her. Most of those buildings closest to the water were empty, part of a defensive barrier, but at least they had protected foundations that should protect it from any creatures coming through the land below it.
A flicker of shadow above her head brought her closer to the wall. Hel swore to herself as she searched for the cause in her surroundings and couldn’t find it. Pulling her truncheon out of its sheath, she sped up.
Despite the danger, she reveled in the feel of her feet pounding the ground and the sour wind blowing from the harbor ripping her hair out of her face. In those moments of absolute concentration with tense muscles, she could almost forget everything else. All the loneliness, the constant fear of discovery, the drudgery of working day after day to pay off debt. Everything went into the background.
His destination was one of many elemental structures scattered around the city. A building developed from the rock of its foundations, sculpted and reinforced with pure elemental power and nestled in the shadow of the iconic Soul Tower. The tower itself was already visible in the distance ahead of her. Its twenty-nine-story circular soaring facade topped by a crown of nine radiating metal posts was impossible to miss. The humans called it the Majestic Center and it was the tallest building in town, tall enough that it must have succumbed to an air attack long ago. Instead, the elementals had saved it from destruction in the first hours after the meltdown, reinforcing each pane of glass with the impossibly strong and intricate metalwork that only their magic could produce until it looked like a leaded stained glass sculpture. At night, the colored lights tilting these poles made it look like jewels on its crown. If attacked, the entire building would light up like a beacon of death magic.
The thought of the unique necromancy wielded by the elemental lord of the City of Souls did nothing to quell the anxiety the wandering shadow had caused and her discomfiture only grew the closer she approached. the most exposed section of its route. Before the Melding sank so much infrastructure into the sea, five multi-lane roads formed a wide intersection at its location. There was no cover.
A flash of color to her right made her sprint towards the shelter of the abandoned hotel that was still too far ahead. The movement had come across the lapping ocean waters near the looming silhouette of the old museum that formed a sand-colored island a block or two offshore. Hel slowed her momentum to check what she was facing even as every cell in her body screamed at her to run. The light of the setting sun glinted off a burnished golden form suspended under the kind of wingspan necessary to hold a body of this size aloft.
The creature was small for one of the gryphons that nested on Matiu Island in the center of the harbour, probably one of the juveniles. Older gryphons knew how to steer clear of city defenses. She let out a breath and forced her shoulders to relax. She could work with that. She couldn’t even outrun a juvenile, but he wasn’t old enough to have perfected his predatory technique. It wasn’t flying death yet.
The distraction of watching the oncoming predator sent her stumbling down the damaged road and she sprawled forward, twisting her body to avoid damaging the bundle on her back as her knees supported the weight of her weight. She scrambled to her feet, cursing herself for the stupid mistake. The beach and water incursion in this part of town made the uneven road far too dangerous to run looking the other way. There was a reason it was called the Dead Zone, even though attacks were less frequent now that the city’s defenses were so well coordinated.
The young gryphon was closing in as she drove off, his movement triggering her instinct to chase. She ran faster, mentally calculating speed and seconds until she struck as she tightened her grip on her weapon. She wasn’t going to be able to cover herself. The riptide of the gryphon’s wings shook her as she finally turned to confront him, already raising her weapon to strike as she outmaneuvered her attack stance by leaping towards him. She had timed him perfectly, interrupting her lunge before he could use his dive to pin her to the ground with wickedly sharp lion claws. The gryphon’s hooked beak opened wide as he slammed at her, and she used her twisting momentum to bring her whole body behind a strike that shattered her face with her heavy metal truncheon.
Her fingers went numb from the vibrating impact, the crack resounding quickly followed by a piercing scream and a blast of air that threw her to the ground as the poor creature retreated quickly. She winced in sympathy. It wasn’t the gryphon’s fault that Hel looked like prey, and she was pretty sure her beak had split open from the blow. Hope it didn’t burst.
She groaned as she sat up and glanced at her watch. Thirty seconds before the deadline. There was no way she would get away with it. She might as well have gone the long way and saved herself the extra bruising. It took a lot more effort than it should have to force his aching knees to resume a jog.