After a lifetime of searching, elemental Eloise Hart has found a new home amongst the exiled supernaturals of the remote Australian Outback town of Solace. But just as she begins to settle, trouble begins to brew.
Like Eloise, witch Vera Walsh has a troubled past of her own, and when it comes knocking it awakens not only her guilt, but something far darker than she ever expected. Everything is at risk, including the one thing the Exiles of Solace vowed to protect above all else.
As arcane fire threatens to overwhelm them all, and the heavy hand of the law reaches towards them, the Exiles face the ultimate dilemma...
How far are they prepared go to keep their home from falling into the hands of evil?
Sunburnt Country is the second book in Australian Supernatural, a magical series set in the red heart of Outback Australia where myth and magic live alongside the harsh and unforgiving land.
Release date: April 2, 2021
Print pages: 376
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Nicole R. Taylor
Eloise Hart sat on the step of her motorhome and looked out over Solace.
It was a bright and clear day, the heat of the sun baking the iconic red dirt of the Australian outback, and the sky shone a blue so brilliant, it hurt her eyes.
As she listened to the faint sounds of construction, she could hardly believe it’d been a mere three weeks since her van had broken down on the outskirts of Solace.
Wally, the town mechanic and resident werewolf, had finished replacing the damaged head gasket that morning. Eloise had wasted no time jumping in the cab and driving over to her new plot, keen to get settled. Nestled in a copse of gum trees, she had an elevated view of the town below.
Curling her hands around her cup of tea, her thoughts ran away from her.
Solace was a tiny mining town in outback New South Wales, a few kilometres south of the Queensland border. It was a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ kind of place, with few buildings and even fewer residents. The highway cut straight through the middle, bringing the massive road trains—hulking trucks towing three trailers—to the remote parts of the country they were famous for.
The land was rich in silica, which over millions of years, had transformed into glittering opal. It formed in the dried up ancient coral reef and river systems, which was the prehistoric legacy of the dry centre of this part of Australia. The most precious opal of all was black opal, and it was found right there in Solace.
The problem was, opal was difficult to mine and only the bravest and hardiest remained to hunt for the precious treasure hidden deep in the earth. The people who lived in Solace were some of them. They called themselves the Exiles, supernatural outcasts who’d banded together to create a home where they could be open about who they really were.
The Outpost, aka the general store, was run by Vera, the Irish witch who supplied food and everything but the kitchen sink to all who needed it. Hardy, the vampire, was the local opal buyer, who cut and polished the precious stone in his workshop in the back. Blue owned the pub at the southern end of the strip, and he was the only human amongst the supernaturals. Wally looked after the garage, serving as the mechanic and supplier of precious fuel—the second most important outback lifeline, the first being water. Drew, the dingo shifter, was the last arrival before Eloise, and he worked at the Outpost.
Then there were the fae—a half dozen of them—who lived just outside of town. Finn was their leader and the only one who ventured into Solace. Eloise had never met them, and if she hadn’t seen them from a distance, she would’ve wondered if they existed at all.
Coen was an Indigenous man, mysterious and deeply spiritual. He appeared when he wanted and not a moment before. His best friend was a kangaroo, otherwise known as a marlu in the language of his mob. There was no one way to describe who he was and what he could do. Coen was on a walkabout—a spiritual journey through the Dreaming.
Finally, Kyne Brady was the most special of all. To Eloise, he was more than just a romantic fling and the leader of the Exiles. His talents lay in the earth, mining the rare black opal, aided by his supernatural heritage. He was an elemental, just like her, and it was their shared power that helped him lead her out of her lonely, painful life on the road and into a world where she was accepted for who she was—an elemental who could connect with ether, the element that bound everything and everyone together.
Solace was a beautiful and magical place, and Eloise had quickly fallen for everything and everyone—even Finn and his famously sour attitude.
But Solace had a secret.
Underneath the boab tree at the northern end of town was an entrance to an old mineshaft. Through the twisting tunnels dug by opal miners of old, lay an ancient cave which held a dangerous and unknown magical power. The Exiles called it the seal, and that’s exactly what it was.
What was trapped underneath it was open for interpretation, but Eloise knew it was bad. When she’d met Andante—the old woman who lived amongst the rivers of the Dreaming—she’d told her about the heart of the ocean and what would happen if the seal was ever opened. The word she’d used was ‘calamity’.
Eloise shivered and drank the last of her tea, draining the dregs in her cup. When they’d found out there was a key, that calamity had a real chance of being unleashed, but she’d stopped it. She’d used her elemental powers to make the Dust Dogs—the pack of dingo shifter bikers who wanted to take the seal by force—disappear without a trace.
Shivering again, Eloise dumped her empty cup into the sink and closed the door to her motorhome. The heavy metal ran across the runners with a whizz, then banged shut. The town and seal were both safe for now, but more would come looking for it. And when they did, the Exiles had to be ready.
Walking across the road that led up from Solace, she ventured up the ridge to where Kyne and Drew were busy building.
They were renovating an old dugout that sat on some of Kyne’s land behind Solace. It’d once been a mine that buried back into the ridge, but sometime in the last twenty years someone had turned it into a makeshift home.
Most of the houses in Solace were underground—the coolest place to be in the middle of the blistering outback summer. According to Wally, the highest temperature they’d recorded, since someone decided it was best to write these things down, was fifty-two degrees Celsius. It was hot enough to cook a steak on the highway. Well done, too.
Eloise had arrived on the tail end of the wet season, and now the days were beginning to heat up. She hoped the air conditioner Kyne had ordered for her motorhome would be delivered soon. She didn’t want to cook like that steak.
Materials and tools littered the clearing outside the dugout, and sawdust showered over Drew as he fired up the circular saw and sliced through a length of wood. What they were building was a mystery, but they’d already made short work of the demolition. Junk lay in a heap to one side where Kyne’s ute was parked, a trailer hitched to the tow bar.
“No work on today?” Kyne asked as she lingered in the shade.
“Hardy’s out for today,” she told them. Her elemental powers had made her a natural at cutting and polishing opal, so she’d become Hardy’s new apprentice. “He went to do a sweep of the Dust Dogs camp.”
Drew frowned. He turned back to the workbench and began to measure out another piece of wood so he didn’t have to say anything.
Eloise glanced at Kyne, who shrugged.
“Probably the best thing to do,” the elemental said. “We don’t need any more nasty surprises. At least not right away.”
She looked at the shifter. “You all right, Drew?”
He glanced over his shoulder and nodded, his blond hair falling into his eyes. Then he went back to measuring.
She couldn’t blame him for avoiding the whole thing. The Dust Dogs were responsible for the death of his pack. He was the only survivor but had unknowingly fallen in with the bikers. He’d stolen the key from them when he found out how bad they truly were, but it wasn’t until he’d gone back to stop them from coming to Solace that he’d discovered the truth. Eloise hadn’t made things easier by allowing him to kill the alpha Roth and disappearing the rest. Drew was now the alpha of a pack who may or may not come back one day…providing they were still in the same world.
Time, Eloise thought. It’d take time for him to come to terms with what’d happened.
“Can I help with anything?” she asked. “I know stuff all about building, but I’m an elemental. That counts for something, hey?”
Kyne laughed and shook his head. “It’s not the same thing.”
Drew looked over his shoulder again. “Is she really asking?”
Eloise pouted and crossed her arms over her chest. “Yes, she’s really asking.”
“Because hammering a nail is different than making a nail,” Kyne told her with a chuckle. “Unless you can use ether to put everything where it needs to go.”
Eloise sighed. “That’s inconvenient.”
“Magic has rules, just like everything else.”
“Lame,” she drawled. Drew laughed and she grinned at him. “Can I see the plans?”
The shifter nodded and tossed her a notebook. Catching it, she ran her gaze over the rudimentary drawings, which were messy and made no sense.
“Well,” she declared, turning the book this way and that. “The lack of artistry suggests you need an interior decorator.”
Drew glanced at Kyne. “Is she offering?”
“I think so,” the elemental replied.
“I can draw,” she told them. Looking down the hill into the centre of town, she spotted the rusty windmill and the water tank beside it. “Actually, I’ve got an idea.”
“Here we go,” Drew muttered.
But Eloise wasn’t listening. Setting the plans back on the workbench, she waved at the men. “I’ll see you later.”
“Where is she going?” Drew asked.
“Best not to ask,” Kyne replied.
“I heard that!” Eloise shouted.
“See you at dinner, then?” the elemental called.
“Nah, yeah, see you there!” She placed a hand on the crown of her hat and ran down the hill, her boots kicking up dust as she went.
Man, did she have an idea.
* * *
Hardy stood on the rise above the Dust Dogs abandoned camp, watching and waiting.
The shifter pack had settled on the far outskirts of an outback cattle station—Walawala Station—using the remote property line to their advantage. Some of these places were thousands of hectares of open country and rarely walked by the station hands who tended the livestock, but Hardy didn’t think it was a coincidence. How they could’ve gone unnoticed long enough to build a camp this large was an impossibility.
A dozen buildings made up the bulk of the settlement, all of them a patchwork of wood, corrugated iron, and even two rusted caravans. He spotted several water tanks, a rusted-out car, piles of junk, and what looked like discarded machine parts.
The wind stirred, carrying the scent of rust and human habitation towards him. He curled his nose. This wasn’t going to be pleasant.
Satisfied that no one was lingering, Hardy made his way down the hill and into the camp.
The place was rough, with many of the buildings ramshackle at best. He hadn’t expected a five-star resort, but the Dust Dogs had seemed to have spent more time looking after their motorcycles than their sleeping arrangements. The pristine garage full of tools and equipment was a glaring indicator of the shifters’ pride.
Glancing at a portable generator, he wondered if he could bring some of the gear back to Solace but disregarded the idea. The last thing the Exiles needed was to have any link to this place. Eventually someone would come looking for the pack, and the first place they’d ask questions was Solace.
His boots kicked up red dirt as he moved through the camp, peering through windows and opening doors with a bandana wrapped around his hand. Fingerprints were also another thing not worth leaving behind.
Opening the door to the largest building, Hardy stuck his head inside. It stunk of sweat, dried blood, and stale alcohol. Recoiling, he lingered outside in the fresh air.
Yeah, the Dust Dogs weren’t big believers in basic hygiene.
Edging his way inside, he looked around, narrowing his eyes at the piles of dirty dishes in the sink. With no one around, the food scraps stuck to the plates had begun to turn, and he didn’t dare open the fridge. The power was out, and that made it a recipe for disaster.
His vampire eyes scanned the room, falling on a table in the centre of the kitchen. It was covered in papers and he began to rifle through them.
There were too many questions left unanswered for his liking. How did Roth get his hands on the key? More to the point, how did they know about the seal? They couldn’t live out here without some kind of income, so how were they making money? There weren’t a lot of prospects in this part of the outback, and he couldn’t see them becoming cattle rustlers, even if they were dingo shifters. The expanse of empty land was far too great for it to be profitable.
Picking up an official-looking letter, Hardy’s frown deepened.
Dear Mr. Moody,
Further to our conversation regarding the possible permissions of lease, please find enclosed documents outlining the results of our recent geological survey, as is required by state and federal law.
With your permission, we would like to set up a meeting to discuss possible exploratory drilling on your property.
I look forward to your reply.
General Manager (Land Acquisitions)
EarthBore Mining Co.
A mining company was interested in digging near Solace? EarthBore was a large-scale operation with several multi-million-dollar open cut mines across the outback. They dug iron ore, not opal. What it could mean for the town, Hardy didn’t know, but he knew disturbing the earth so close to the seal couldn’t be good.
He rummaged through the papers, finding maps, geological surveys, and copies of mining licenses…including Kyne’s. Frowning, Hardy scooped up the documents and shoved them into his bag.
Why the Dust Dogs were interested in mining was beyond him. The letter was addressed to Moody, who was the station owner. As far as Hardy knew, the guy knew nothing about the pack. The main buildings, including the residence, were hundreds of kilometres away across the border.
Searching the rest of Roth’s place, Hardy found nothing else of note. The shifters weren’t into keeping files or putting valuables in safes, so anything else they had going on died with the alpha or was sent elsewhere when Eloise teleported the pack.
He wouldn’t find anything else, but at least they knew EarthBore was sniffing around. If the Dust Dogs were working for someone supernatural, or if they were being paid by this McIntyre bloke to edge the Exiles out of Solace ahead of acquisition, they had gone off script when they discovered the seal. Hardy had always wondered if the power emanating from it corrupted the unwary…or the susceptible.
All of this was speculation, of course. They could’ve been up to anything.
Sighing, Hardy headed back to Solace…and planned to take a long, hot, shower.
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