A COMPANY OF MONSTERS
by Shami Stovall

The year is 1917, and the Russian Empire is on verge of collapse.

Florence Cavell—codename Geist—takes her special forces team of sorcerers into allied territory in an effort to hunt down spies and keep the Russian royals alive. If the Russian Empire falls, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians will turn their full attention to France and Britain. That can\’t be allowed to happen.

Unfortunately for Geist, the enemy has sent the Eyes of the Kaiser, specialists who hunt and destroy sorcerers. And they came prepared to eliminate not only the Russian royalty, but the Ethereal Squadron as well.

Praise for Ethereal Squadron:
\”In tense, precise prose that skillfully conveys detailed descriptions, Stovall delivers this engrossing story of fantasy adventure with utmost precision. The Ethereal Squadron\’s riveting fantasy world will fuel readers\’ imaginations and leave them crave for the next book in the sequel.\” – The Prairies Book Review

EXCERPT
1917

Geist made an art of stealth. She slipped through the moonlight shadows around the Watson Manor House, keeping to the grass to stifle the sounds of her steps. Cloaked in invisibility, she made her way across the vast front yard. Her sorcery—specter sorcery—gave her all the power and versatility of a ghost.

Geist. German for ghost. The magics in her blood had defined her codename.

Once she reached the west wall of the manor, Geist peered in through the nearest window. No lamps. No electric lights. And the crescent moon didn’t help with visibility. Despite those limitations, Geist took in a deep breath and calmed herself. Specter sorcery gave her the portfolio of a ghost, but apex sorcery gave her all the superhuman abilities of a peerless predator. Like any jungle cat, she saw through the dim lighting, her vision perfect and unobscured by darkness.

The Watson Manor House, built in 1837, had all the posh and luxury of a grand palace. The ceilings were carved into twisting, vine-like designs, the marble tiles were arranged to create smoke patterns, and massive paintings adorned every wall. Most notable were the bronze, iron, and steel statues of people long since dead. A statue for every corner of the room.

Although it was midnight, someone should’ve been awake and walking the manor—house staff who tended to the fireplaces or groundskeepers going about their duties while the lord slept.

Instead, the chimneys were cold and the estate as quiet as a graveyard.

With enough focus, Geist stepped through the manor wall, her body, Springfield rifle, and uniform incorporeal until she reached the other side. A shiver ran down her spine as she released the magic. A twisted scar on her wrist burned afterward—a souvenir she had acquired in the German trenches. Unlike a knife or bullet scar, the waxy sheen on her wrist represented damage on a magical level. She pulled her sleeve down to hide it and suppressed the terrible memories associated with the event.

Only fools trip on what’s behind them, Geist thought as she examined the dusty dining table and china cabinets. No one had used either in some time.

Geist snuck across the room and into the nearby hallway.

The Watsons were sorcerers with an unusual sorcery—they could shape metal as if it were malleable clay, and while most Watsons used it for artistry, as evidenced by their many ornate statues, some used the magic for crafting weapons. They had provided specialty equipment for the Allies, outfitting soldier sorcerers in the Ethereal Squadron.

But no one had heard from them in weeks. No letters. No shipments. Not even the nearby town of St. Peter Port had any information. The Watsons allowed their servants to live on their property, and the deliverymen couldn’t get past the gate. Their sudden seclusion baffled everyone.

Which was why Geist had been sent. She needed to investigate their disappearance and report back to the Ethereal Squadron in Verdun.

Please let me find someone here, Geist thought. Anyone.

The wood floor threatened to creak if Geist became careless. She took her time and tiptoed through the dark atmosphere of the Watson Manor House. The shadows of the copper statues created human silhouettes on walls, and while a civilian might feel terror for the unknown, Geist had been through hell and back.

She chuckled to herself. I’m the thing lurking in the darkness that men fear.

After slinking through the foyer and making her way upstairs, Geist slowed and crouched close to the ground, hoping to find signs of a struggle. Sure enough, when she came to the bedrooms, she found the hallway carpets disturbed and upturned at the edges. Instead of opening the doors and potentially alerting someone to her presence, Geist ghosted through the wood, maintaining her invisibility and becoming incorporeal.

A child’s bedroom.

It took Geist a few moments to take in all the details. Stuffed animals. Dolls. Blocks stacked into a house-like shape. She caught her breath when she examined the bed.

Pink sheets and a white comforter were twisted around the pale corpse of an eight year old. Geist walked over, her teeth gritted. Apex sorcery heightened all her senses. When she strained her ears, she couldn’t hear shallow breaths, or even a heartbeat.

Geist touched the skin of the corpse and recoiled. The icy chill of death unnerved her more than the thought of battlefields and combat. The child had died long ago.

She unrolled the body from the sheets. Her hands shook as she pulled back the collar of the child’s dress. Deep puncture wounds over the jugulars told a terrible story of a slow death, and the bruises on the arms screamed struggle and terror. But there wasn’t any blood. None on the dress. None on the sheets.

None left to coagulate in the body.

Geist didn’t look at the corpse’s face. Instead, she covered the body once she had concluded her examination, determined to give the little girl dignity, even if she wasn’t alive to appreciate it.

After a brief moment to steady her breathing, Geist made her way to the next bedroom. A little boy, two years younger than the girl, sat atop his bed in a similar fashion. Cold to the touch and drained of all blood. Nothing but a husk of his former self and shriveled from decay.

The next room was the same. A small child, barely able to walk. The master bedroom, on the other hand, had two corpses, but the room itself had been twisted with bits of metal—even the iron bars over the windows and copper bedframe were warped. Had a fight broken out? Geist took note of the destruction, especially the shattered vase and bullet holes in the wall. One of the corpses held a gun.

With her heart pounding in her chest, Geist made her way back downstairs. War took its toll on everyone, but nothing stung more than seeing defenseless children wrapped up in the violence. She entered the servants’ quarters and gagged on the strong copper scent that wafted out.

Ten men and women lay in the corner of the room, their necks slashed, their clothes and beds black with dried blood. The whole room screamed massacre. If there had been a struggle, Geist couldn’t detect it, which meant fiends had slipped into the sleeping quarters, cut their throats without any of the other servants waking, and then stacked them in the corner.

Sorcerers were far stronger than the average man, and the trained soldiers who fought in the war were far scarier than anything else. The servants never stood a chance, even if they had been awake.

Geist exited the room and searched the rest of the house, her frustration turning to poison in her system without an outlet. Someone should pay for this. A man of honor would never have participated in such a slaughter.

Her findings were what she had feared—every Watson sorcerer had been drained of blood while every civilian in their employ had been murdered.

Geist exited the house, her concentration wavering. With each disturbing thought, her invisibility slipped. She walked down the main road of the house, confident the murderers had left the manor days prior.

Two members of the Ethereal Squadron awaited her at the gates. Even without her apex sorcery to see through the shroud of darkness, Geist knew them by mannerisms alone. One fidgeted with his belt and backpack while the other stood perfectly still, coiled to strike like only trained killers could.

“Geist?” the fidgety one called out. “Thank goodness you came back.”

“What did I tell you?” the other growled. “Of course she would return.”

“She was gone for over ten minutes. That’s longer than her average whenever she goes to investigate.”

“I’m fine,” Geist said with a single chuckle. “You fuss too much, Battery.”

Battery stepped out into the moonlight, his khaki British uniform a sight for sore eyes. He stood the same height as Geist, shorter than most in the Allied forces, but not by much. His youthful facial features and lack of definition hinted at his age. Despite his lack of stature, he stood straight and offered her a smile.

“I’m sorry I doubted,” he said. “But I couldn’t imagine this war without you. Who would lead our team?”

The second soldier scoffed. “She can handle herself. And if anything had gone wrong, I would’ve stepped in to kill it.”

He stepped out to stand next to Battery, a cold glare set on his face as though it were tattoo—permanent and stark. Even if he had an unwelcoming demeanor, Geist still smiled upon seeming him.

Vergess. A German defector to the United States, and one of her most trusted teammates. He wore the drab olive uniform of the American soldiers, complete with a 48-star American flag. While the United States hadn’t officially joined the war efforts, sorcerers weren’t bound by the same restrictions as the average man. Many volunteered for the Ethereal Squadron and were accepted into the ranks after agreeing to follow the instructions of British and French commanders.

“Wie geht es dir?” Vergess asked, his German smooth and natural.

“I’m fine,” Geist replied and with an exhale. “But the Watsons aren’t as lucky.”

Battery shot Vergess a sidelong glance. “I knew it. You were worried about her.” Then he turned back to Geist. “Well, I came prepared. If the Watsons are dead, we should use the camera to record the evidence. It’ll take me a few minutes to set up, but I understand how to use it.”

“Didn’t you set a camera on fire back at the base?” Vergess asked with a chuckle.

“Th-that’s not accurate! Tinker played a trick on me!” Battery straightened the straps of his backpack. “Besides, I read the instruction manual and trained with the cameramen of the 87th regiment. I’m a professional now.”

Battery’s huge backpack carried a giant box made of mahogany wood and steel hinges. He kept the tripod strapped to the outside. The entire getup appeared cumbersome, and the straps of the backpack dug deep into Battery’s shoulders.

Geist didn’t understand cameras. All the reporters said this would be the first war truly captured in detail, yet they never explained how. Their boxes of lights and pictures confused everyone. It wasn’t magic—Geist could understand magic—yet their photographs took still images of reality and made them permanent.

“There are corpses in all the bedrooms,” Geist whispered. “And the servants are dead in their quarters. If you want photographs, make it quick. All the sorcerers were drained of their blood.”

Both Vergess and Battery tensed, their eyes going wide.

“You think Abomination Soldiers targeted them?” Vergess asked.

“Yes.”

They all knew why.

Before the Great War, sorcerers could only develop magic that was in their bloodline. But after the war started—once the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians began fiddling with technologies never thought of—they developed Grave-Maker Gas. It melted flesh together at a baser level, creating deformed monsters of multiple people or animals. They used the gas to melt blood into their bodies in order to steal the magics from other sorcerers.

And now they were collecting rare samples.

Geist’s mouth tasted of cotton.

“Major Reese needs to know about this,” Battery said. He hustled past Geist and headed toward the Watson Manor House. “I’ll be done soon.”

Vergess shook his head. “I can’t believe they’re acting this fast. Especially after we destroyed their stores of gas during the assault on Paris. Do they really have more?”

“Maybe they’re just collecting blood for once they have it,” Geist muttered. “Either way, we need to stay on guard. If they catch any of us, they’ll drain us dry.”

Even muttering the phrase they’ll drain us dry sent a shiver down her spine. She knew the enemy wouldn’t hesitate, considering her father and ex-fiancé were top military officers. They had both tried to kill her in the past, and she didn’t see why they would stop now that they had a way to steal her specter and apex sorcery.

Geist glanced back at Battery. He came from a long line of sorcerers with rare magic. And not just one magic, but untold numbers. Would he be a target? The thought lingered in her mind for a prolonged moment.

“Stay with him,” Geist commanded, “while he takes his photos. I’ll go to the port and make sure our ship is ready to take us back to Le Havre.”

Vergess replied with a curt nod.

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REVIEW
I picked up the first book in this series because I likedStovall’s other work. Historical fantasy isn’t usually something I enjoy, but I found the first, and now second, book in this series captivating and entertaining from beginning to end.

This sequel hits the perfect blend of building on the first book and offering new conflict. All the characters are back, and they have changed accordingly. I loved watching them come face-to-face with bigger threats and greater challenges in this book. Stovall has a real knack for putting her characters in complex situations and then not letting them off easy. There were many nail-biting moments in here, and I enjoyed every one.

This book took me to Russia, where I got to meet Anastasia (yes, that Anastasia). Aside from lots of childhood memories of Meg Ryan saying “send me a sign,” I found Anastasia to be my favorite of the new characters introduced. She is strong and confident even in the face of such terrible circumstances. She doesn’t sacrifice being whimsical or feminine for her strength, which was my favorite thing about her. I look forward to seeing how the events of this book change her in the next installment.

Overall, I have no criticisms. This world and its magic are fascinating. I look forward to reading future books from Stovall, whether this series or others.

ABOUT SHAMI

Shami Stovall grew up in California’s central valley with a single mother and little brother. Despite no one in her family earning a degree higher than a GED, she put herself through college (earning a BA in History), and then continued on to law school where she obtained her Juris Doctorate.

As a child, Stovall’s favorite novel was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. The adventure on a deserted island opened her mind to ideas and realities she had never given thought before—and it was at that moment Stovall realized story telling (specifically fiction) became her passion. Anything that told a story, be it a movie, book, video game or comic, she had to experience. Now, as a professor and author, Stovall wants to add her voice to the myriad of stories in the world and she hopes you enjoy.

You can contact her at the following addresses.

Facebook
Twitter
website

GIVEAWAY

Shami Stovall will be awarding a $25 Amazon or Barnes and Noble GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.

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