Saturday, September 10, 2016

Love & Faith - Book 2 - Prologue added.

(Rough draft sample chapters from book 2 in this series)

     Ankh witches were given the abilities to rid the world of Falcars. The Falcars were an evil race of vampires that were half demon and half vampire. They wreaked havoc, torment, and bloodshed all over the planet. The Ankh witches fought to rid the world of this vile race of beings. After centuries of battling them, only a few dozen now survived. But the falcars turned the table and came back strong, killing most of the ankh witches.

     Only two Ankh witches were now left. They conceived a set of twins and delivered them in secret. The falcars have tracked them down. And here our story continues…  

     17 years ago…
  Marilyn put a crystal necklace on each girl. Every Ankh witch received the gift at age sixteen. But there was a chance she’d never see her children again, so she gave them their present early. The falcars had found them and the clock was ticking. The Catholic church where they hid was completely surrounded by the vampires. A priest bravely offered to sneak the girls out.
     She touched her precious babies’ chubby, rosy faces. They had dark eyes and hair like their daddy. They were both so adorable, and she may never get the chance to raise them. Her heart sunk. Having her babies ripped from her like this just about killed her. Tears dripped down her face. She couldn’t lose them like this. These were her babies, her life, her world.
     Damn the falcar!
     “Maybe the priest can send a picture of us with them,” Marilyn said.  
     “We can’t have one shred of evidence be traced back to us,” Eric said softly.        “It’s the only way to keep their identity safe.” He touched her hand. “We’ll find the girls soon. Getting them out is only a precaution. The falcars don’t know they exist and we can’t have them finding out.”
     She lifted one of her precious babies to her chest and softly rubbed her back.        “What if we don’t survive this?”
     “Don’t say that!”
    “But what if we don’t? Be realistic. It’s two of us against a small army of Falcars who wish to destroy us, so they can end our bloodline forever.”
His lips pressed into grim lines. They weren’t getting out of this alive. Every single monster lived for the moment they killed the last two ankh witches.  
     “The girls won’t know anything about their true heritage,” she wept. “And their magic arrives on their eighteenth birthday.”
     “The immortal council knows about them. They’ll be able to find them.”
     “And what if they don’t? They’ll grow up not knowing who they are. And if the falcars find out they exist, they’ll have no way to protect themselves. We should have the girls taken to the Immortal Council of Merak.”
     “The priest won’t do it.”
     “Why not?”
     “He thinks there could be a spy there. He wants to check out a few leads. And if everything checks out, then he’ll tell the council where the girls are. He’s a good man and I trust him.”
     “Tell him to take our girls to the council! I don’t care what he thinks. Our children will be well protected there. This is our decision and not his!”
“I will try and reason with him again.”
     “The council can give them supernatural protection. The priest is hiding them in the normal world. If the Falcar found our precious girls…”
     “Don’t worry, my love. The Falcar don’t even know the girls exist. I promise you the council will find them and protect them. And the necklaces will protect each girl, too. We’ll catch up with our little girls in a few months tops.” She gripped his hands as he continued. “When things settle down, we’ll find our girls and go deep into hiding. But right now, the Falcars are surrounding this place. If they see the babies… Well, we can’t take that chance. We have to let Father Williams sneak them out. He can easily get by the Falcars without suspicion or detection.”
     “I can’t do this!”
     He cupped her face. “You know we have to put them into hiding, so the Falcars don’t find out about their existence.”
     “Why can’t he sneak us out too…along with them?” she begged. “Please don’t separate us. We’re a family until the end of time.”
     “The Falcars will detect our magic. The girls don’t have any magic yet. You know this, love.”
     She wept into her hands. “I don’t want to leave them. They’re so vulnerable, they need us.”
     “We can’t fight and protect them at the same time. Once they discover the girls exist, all they need is one opening, and they will slaughter them in seconds.”
     “But I can’t bear leaving them for a few months. And you’re separating them.”
     “We’ll all be united soon.”
     A loud boom echoed throughout the chapel as the walls shook.
     “They’re coming,” Eric said.
     She kissed each baby and tearfully said goodbye.
     “I’ll see you soon, little ones. I love you more than anything. Be brave.”
     The priest placed each baby in a basket and promised he’d keep the babies safe.
     Marilyn let out a long sob as the priest left the room carrying her little bundles of joy. She felt like her soul had been ripped from her.
Everything shook and Marilyn could feel the vibrations in her feet. Cracking echoed in the air and pillars started to crack and wobble.
     Please let the babies get out alive!
     Plaster fell from the ceiling and everything started to crumble around them.           The church creaked and groaned, and even started to sway. It felt like being in the middle of an earthquake as the floor started to shift. She stumbled almost losing her balance.
     Eric started chanting and the noise ceased. “It won’t last long, but it’ll give us a few extra minutes.”
     “It won’t take them that long to break the spell,” she said, taking a steadying breath.
     “I know.”
     Tears welled in her eyes as their gazes locked. “I-I love you.”  
     “I love you, too.” He slowly kissed her lips. “Not even death can take that away from us.”
     She stared into his beautiful eyes and found herself lost in them. They were so beautiful, so passionate, so full of life. She pushed his wet hair out of his face. “I wish it wouldn’t have ended this way.”
     The walls thundered as the vampires fought to break the spell.
     “Keep your eyes on me, baby,” he said.
     She let out a long sob. As she’d always been told might happen at the moment of my death, her life began to flash through her eyes. She was glad to be with Eric, but she wasn’t ready to die. She wanted to brave, but she was crumbling inside. All she knew was that she had led the best life she could, and she would now die next to the man who meant the most to her.
     “Look at me,” he said. “Just look at me, Marilyn.”
     She nodded, focusing on his beautiful face, and his love made her feel better, even in that moment.
     He leaned his forehead gently against mine. “We sure had beautiful little girls.”
     “Yes,” she said, weeping. “I hope our girls get a wonderful life.”
     He hugged her tightly as a tear ran down his face. He wiped her tears, and she wiped his, and they just held one another’s gaze for a long time, trying to ignore the chaos unleashing around them. The back of her throat felt dry, and she swallowed hard.
     “There was never anybody else for me but you,” he said.
     Tears poured from her eyes. “You’ve always had my heart.”
     “I want to die gazing into your beautiful eyes,” he said.
     “You always know what to say,” she whispered. “I’d love to see that beautiful smile of yours I love so much.”
     He smiled for her, and all her fear suddenly melted away. More loud bangs echoed in the air. When she turned to look at the looming death, he softly tilted my chin toward him.
     “Just look at me,” he said calmly.
     He then slowly brushed his lips across hers in a slow, passionate kiss.
     She wrapped her arms around his neck. She then kissed him one more time. He gripped her hands and squeezed them tight. Eric looked over at her, and she knew it would be the last time she’d ever see his sweet face. Her one true love stayed strong, even when faced with death. He was her rock, and she couldn’t possibly regret making him her beautiful husband.
     “I’d marry you all over again,” she said.
     “In a heartbeat.”
     She was happy to see his beautiful smile one last time. In those last bittersweet moments, she couldn’t stop thinking about what could’ve been. She pictured them on the beach, with four little children running around them—all of them happy and smiling and giggling. They could’ve had a beautiful life and raised a fantastic family. More tears fell uncontrollably down her face. Random thoughts just popped into her head. She thought about them watching a sunset, lying on a blanket and looking up at the glittering stars. Could they have conquered the world together? She was sure they could’ve.
     “You only find your true soulmate once in a lifetime,” Marilyn said between gasps. “I’m so glad I found mine.”
     “Being torn away from you like this is unimaginable. It’s unthinkable. It’s—”
     “Shh. Like you said, no fear, no sadness. If I’m gonna die, I want it to be in your arms.”
     And with that, she kissed him and wrapped her arms around him. Even though she should have been scared to death, in that one moment, she felt safe and content in Eric’s embrace. She had never felt so loved, and they continued kissing. They were going out like tragic star-crossed lovers, and she was certain that if things had turned out differently, theirs would have been the greatest love story of all time. 
     In a flash of red light, the demon vampires had broken the spell and teleported in.
     Marilyn created a powerful burst of sheer telekinetic energy. She lifted a pillar that had crashed onto the ground. Lifting it up, she threw it into the line of vampires. The vampires disappeared as the pillar crashed where they stood.
     “Run while you can!” she roared. “You know our kind can kill your kind.”
     Their leader, Vincent, faded into view with a smile. “Leave? When I’m about to make history. Destroying the last ankh witches is a very historical event.” He turned to one of his vampires. “And speaking of that, this should be all very well documented. Make sure you get this all on video.”
     “You’re sick!” she shouted. “We’ve never hunted you.”
     “Not you personally. But your kind has. And I’m here for payback. Every ankh witch must die. Your people took some great friends from me. And I swore I’d kill every single one of you. And here I am, hundreds of years later, keeping that vow.”
     “Our kind only killed you to stop your vicious reign on mankind. You were killing hundreds of humans every single day.”
     “Ah, yes. I remember the good old days before your people slaughtered everyone. Maybe I’ll rebuild, and take over this world. Because humans don’t deserve it!”
     Marilyn and Eric thrust their arms in the air, and light burst from their fingertips, hitting the ground and a few of the vampires in a series of violent explosions. Vamps flew everywhere, in a burst of blue flames.
     Streams of magical energy flew across the room in a glorious display of colors as the last two ankh witches fought with everything they had against the group that wished to destroy them. They hurled countless energy volts that hissed through the air and hit their marks with precision. The demon vampires crashed into the wall as plaster exploded everywhere.
     Vincent threw up his hands as Eric hurtled a fireball toward him. He disappeared as the fire crashed into the wall. When he reappeared, his hands were wrapped around Eric’s neck. Marilyn lit a flame in the palm of her hand, and it wavered as she fought to remain calm. She threw it as another vampire deflected it, making it crash into the ceiling to the left of her.
     A group of vampires jumped on top of Eric as she screamed.
     “No!” she yelled hysterically.  
     In a flash, Vincent’s hands were wrapped around her neck. He laughed as he squeezed tighter and tighter.
     “Good bye, little Ankh witch.”
     He was slowly sucking the life out of her.  Her body trembled and thrashed as she closed her eyes. She felt overwhelmed, frantic, scared, and helpless.
     I can’t breathe!
     “How about a taste?” one of the others asked.
     “No,” Vincent said. “I refuse to drink from a bloodline so tainted.”
     More spots. She could only be thankful that her daughters were whisked out just in time. She knew they were safe, hidden from the Falcar. She could feel it deep inside as she felt her life slip away.
     I love you, sweet girls.
     His fingers loosened and she gasped for air.
     He gazed into her eyes. “There’s only one way to kill you two. Fire. It’s the most fitting way for a witch to die.”
     “No!” Marilyn shouted.
     “Let’s take this outside,” Vincent said. “Shall we?”
     They were tied to a wooden stake. A sharp cry echoed through the cold night air.
 “Marilyn…” Eric turned his head to the side and tried to cough. “Honey, stay with me—”
      “I’m sorry Eric,” another voice cut sharply over the growing hiss of the fire, “but you really shouldn’t give her false hope. “If you really cared about her, you would tell her the same as I will: the quicker you die, the quicker it will all be over. The two of you put on quite a show,” Vincent continued, stepping over the body of one of his lieutenants with little more than passing interest, “much better than I had expected.”
     He came to a stop in front of my father.
     “I’d always heard that ankh witches presented the greatest challenge, but you two have been out of the game for a while now.” He cocked his head curiously to the side. “Too long.”
     He watched with a flicker of interest as a crackling flame began creeping towards John’s leg. It sizzled around the bottom of his shoe, and the vampire’s lips turned up in a smile.
     “Makes me wonder what the two of you were doing all that time…”
     My father spat in his face.
     The rubber on the sole of his boot began melting, filling the air with an acrid smell of burnt plastic. Then the smell of burnt flesh.
     “Eric…” a muffled sob made all three of us turn to where my mother was straining helplessly against the ropes, “…please.”
     John’s face broke with a truly heartbreaking expression, and his hands stretched blindly behind him towards hers. Their fingers interlaced—bound at the wrist with rope—and squeezed with all his might.
     Vincent kicked the burning logs closer towards their legs, irritated that even in this clearly orchestrated moment, the two of them only had eyes for each other—refusing to play his game.
     “I’ve won!” he spat, laughing maniacally as the fire got closer and closer. “I’ve destroyed the ankh race! They are extinct, obliterated from the planet earth. Nobody can ever destroy us, not ever. We’ll be unstoppable now.”
     The two of them were weighted down with rope and chain, trapped in the middle of a quickly growing fire. The logs beneath Marilyn’s feet suddenly split open with a roar. A river of molten ember splashed upon her bare legs, and the night echoed with an ear-splitting scream.
     John was straining with all his might. For a split second, even Vincent glanced warily between them—unwilling to take any chances with a bloodline as powerful as the ankh.
     Her eyes flickered once to the stone walls of the sanctuary, resting for a brief moment on the tallest tower, before she closed them with a sigh. Her fingers squeezed my father’s, and her body tightened as the fire began its deadly climb.
     “I love you,” she murmured, bowing her head in agony as ash and tears streaked down her face.
     “I love you too.”
     He squeezed her back, but shook his head quickly from side to side. Either unwilling or unable to come to terms with the fact that his wife was quickly burning to death behind his back.
     “I love you.” The flames had reached her waist now, and it was almost impossible to talk. “You know I always will. We’ll find each other in the here-after. We all will. We’ll—”
     But there were no more words after that. Her body seemed almost to lift into the air as she was engulfed from head to toe in the roaring fire.
     John held on as tight as he could. Even tighter when the flames spread from her hands to his own. It was over very quickly then. A couple of involuntary screams. A burst of deadly light, and the sound of Vincent’s wicked laughter.

Chapter 1

18 years later...

There was a sudden creak on the floorboards. A subtle shift of weight. The last rays of the setting sun cast the little store in waves of scattered darkness, flickering through the blinds on the windows, glittering off a pair of long, serrated fangs. A long shadow rose slowly out of the darkness, creeping its way towards the front counter.
     For a moment, all was still. The world itself seemed to be holding its breath.
Then, with a blood-curdling cry, the vampire hurled itself out of the shadows…
…for the sixth time.
     “Jimmy,” I looked up from my sketchbook, bored out of my mind, “how many times do I have to say it? The costumes are for paying customers only. Keep parading that thing around and I’m going to charge you for damages.”
     There was a muffled laugh and a little boy pried off the sticky mask, grinning from ear to ear with a six-year-old smile. “You can’t charge me. I don’t have any money.”
     I blew back my recently-acquired bangs with an exasperated sigh, setting down the sketches as I walked out from behind the counter. “Yeah…I kind of figured.”
     Most days of the year, the shop where I worked after school functioned as a basic apothecary. Weaved nets of herbs and ominous looking spices hung from the ceiling, warding away all but a few loyal customers while filling the air with the pleasant scent of sage. It was quiet and sunny—a perfect place to work on my drawings while greedily collecting my minimum wage paycheck every Friday afternoon.
     But every October, tragedy struck. Every October, the store put away its fragrant plants and stocked the shelves with bat wings and witches hats instead, transforming into Hallowood Heights’ only Halloween costume shop. This meant that instead of drawing, I spent the bulk of my time trying to stop Jimmy Alden and his band of miscreant friends from sticking the decorative fangs in their mouths.
     “Now beat it,” I demanded, pushing the increasingly-annoying bangs out of my eyes as I shoved him towards the door, “I’m closing up.”
He dug in his heels, looking longingly at the fake eyeballs. “Just five more minutes?”
     “Nope,” I said firmly, glancing out the windows. “Where’s your mother anyway? If this is her way of trying to get free baby-sitting, you tell Miranda Alden that ship has sailed. No amount of Subway gift cards is worth spending the evening with a monster like you.”
     “I was a vampire!”
     “Vampire, monster. Same thing.”
Jimmy grinned, displaying several holes where his teeth should have been. I remembered the day I turned thirteen, I went out and did what every other young woman in my town of nine hundred people did when they reached such a wise age. I put out little cards with my phone number (my parents’ phone number, really) at the local supermarket, and all the shops on Main Street, advertising my services as a paid guardian of children.
     Jimmy Alden was my first charge. I should have known that something was wrong when I got the call within ten minutes of walking home from my ceremonial trek. All the other girls had already given up on the Aldens. After only a few months, I would too.
     “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He gazed up at me innocently. “You said you liked cheese.”
     I gave him a hard look.
    “No one likes cheese that much. Now get out of here before I boil you alive.”
     He giggled again, cocking his head curiously as he stared at my face. “Did you get a new haircut? You look different.”
     My hand automatically lifted to shove the bangs out of my face. “Yeah…I saw this picture in a magazine. But you know how hair always looks different in a magazine than it actually does when you…” I trailed off suddenly, realizing I’d been duped. “Why on earth are we having this conversation? You’re not staying—get out of here.”
     He pushed out his lower lip and pouted as an elderly woman pushed past him into the store. “Why? She gets to stay.”
     “No she doesn’t,” I muttered, in a sudden hurry to go before any other customers could sneak in past the hour. Without another word, I pulled his hat down over his head, and shoved him towards the door. “Go—I see your mom across the street.”
     He took off running, and I shook my head with a reluctant smile.
     “Look both ways!”
     Why did I even bother? In a town this small everything was so close we didn’t even need cars. Might as well go back to the horse and buggy system.
     Forcing a polite smile, I flipped back my hair and turned to the old woman. She was perusing a display of crystal balls—picking each one up with a rather nostalgic look on her face.
     “You know,” she croaked, “the last time I saw one of these was in a catacomb on Surrey Island. They say the crystal had been forged in a fiery cavern revealed only by the tide.” Her eyes flashed electric blue as she fixed them on my face.     “Where did you get these?”
     Was this for real?
     I considered lying for a moment, before I picked one up and flipped it upside-down.
     “Made in Taiwan.”
     “It’s fake. Like you.”
     I cocked a brow. “Excuse me.”
     “You pretend to fit in with this world, but you stick out like a sore thumb.”
     I wasn’t sure what she meant. “What?”
     “They hid you well. I give them that. We didn’t know you existed until now. Better watch your step. You have many enemies.”
     “I don’t have any enemies. There isn’t one mean bone in my body.”
     “You do. And you will have more as of tomorrow. Your eighteenth birthday is like a beacon in the darkness. All that power and energy flowing through your veins. You’ll attract many, you know.”
     I chuckled. “Who put you up to this? Beth?”
     She studied me. “You don’t know, do you?”
     “Know what? That you’re playing some kind of Halloween prank on me?”
     “They thought by not telling you the truth that you’d be safe…but your naivety will be your downfall.”
     Those blue eyes bore into me again, and I smiled sweetly.
     “Actually ma’am, we were just closing up for the night. I’d be happy to ring you up if you’re ready, otherwise I can put one of these on hold for you.”
     “No, that’s quite alright.” She gathered up her purse with a rather peculiar smile. “I’ve seen everything I need to.”
     She was leaving and I was about to get my wish, but the woman stopped suddenly as she swept towards the door. Her head jerked sharply back towards me, as if someone had called her name, before her eyes landed on my throat. An instinctual shiver crept up my spine, but before I could even take a step away, she was right in front of me—moving impossibly fast for someone so old.
     “That’s a lovely necklace.” Her eyes dilated hungrily as a set of withered fingers stroked the pendant I always wore around my neck. “Where did you get it?”
     I shivered again and wrapped it protectively in my hand. “I don’t know…I’ve always had it,” I mumbled, wondering why she was standing so close. “Must have come from my parents.”
     A high-pitched laugh rang out in the little store, vibrating the windows and chattering my teeth. “Yes. It must have. And it confirms exactly who you are.”
     She was gone without another word. Leaving me blinking and frozen in her wake.
     It wasn’t until the bell chimed above the door—announcing her departure—     that I was able to snap myself out of it. A final shudder trembled through my arms, before I glanced at the clock, snatched up my sketchbook, and swept out the door myself—shaking back my stupid bangs as I headed off into the night.
     Why was October so cold?
*   *   *
     I called a few friends and none had confessed to pranking me. So I figured the lady was crazy. The lady must’ve seen the birthday poster the owner at the shop had put up for me wishing me a happy eighteenth birthday.
     The smell of cheese ravioli hit me hard as I opened the front door to my house, making my mouth water as the steam warmed my chilly skin. I dropped my bags in a heap in the corner and made my way into the kitchen, pouring myself a glass of water as I settled into a chair.
     “Hey, honey,” my mother looked up with a smile from where she was poking at little pastas on the stove, “how was work? All the Halloween crazies coming out to play yet?”
     I lay down my head on the counter with a groan. “I don’t get it. It’s still three weeks away. Do they really need this much of a jump-start?”
     She chuckled and poured in a jar of sauce. “It’s good for you—this kind of suffering. It builds character.” I groaned again and she grinned. “At the very least, it will give you great inspiration for your drawings.” She held up her hands so her fingers were framing an imaginary headline. “A Town Devolving. I can see it now…”
     “That’s right,” I yawned and stretched out my arms in front of me. “I can draw Jimmy Alden jumping out at me dressed as a vampire sixteen hundred times.”
     She laughed again, pulling the pot off the stove and flipping off the burner. “I can’t believe Miranda just lets him run around and—Sophia.” She stopped sharply, staring at me from across the room. “Look at me.”
     For the second time that day—chills. I had been so caught up in all my self-righteous work angst, I had completely forgotten. “Oh, uh…actually, I’m not that hungry. I’ll just—”
     A manicured finger caught me by the chin and tilted up my head. “Did you get bangs?!”
     I felt the color pooling in my cheeks as I avoided her eyes. It wasn’t just that I’d taken it upon myself to get a haircut all on my own. It turned out to be a rather stupid hair cut as well…
     “So?” I foolishly decided to challenge her. “I can style myself all on my own, thanks. I’m turning eighteen tomorrow, after all. By all legal standards, I’m an adult at midnight.”
     She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips like she was trying not to smile.     “And this is your first act of adulthood. This…hair?”
     My shoulders wilted as a rather crestfallen look came over my face.
     “Can we call it the last mistake of childhood instead?”
     Another bout of laughter rang out as she pulled me into her arms. Her fingers fluffed back through my locks in a practiced sort of way, and when we finally pulled back, there was a twinkle in her eye.
     “Tell you what—let’s eat this pasta before it gets cold. And after dinner, you’ll let your mom fix this one up for you. A last motherly intervention—for old time’s sake.”
     A reluctant grin lifted the corners of my lips.
     “I suppose that would be alright.”
     She rolled her eyes and carried the pasta to the table. “Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up, Soph. Trust me…bad haircuts will be the least of your problems.”
     I settled myself down in a chair and dished myself out a steaming plate. “What’s that supposed to mean? I’ll be old enough to get my own place.”
     “Yeah,” she laughed humorlessly, “you’ll be able to move out. And pay bills. And make mortgage payments. And student loans. And all kinds of other fun things that come from entering the world of adulthood.”
     I grinned again. “Well thanks, mother dearest, it sounds like a dream.”
     “If you’re really lucky, you’ll end up with some smart-ass kid who will make you seriously think twice about the merits of birth control—”
     “Okay, you’ve made your point.”
    “Happy early birthday.”
*   *   *
     Despite my mother’s caustic warning, I went to bed excited that night. So excited, I could hardly get to sleep. Eighteen. Eighteen-years-old.
     I could vote. I’d be legal. Fair game. A woman on the prowl.
     A silly grin stretched across my face as I lay back and gazed up at the ceiling. ‘Woman on the prowl.’ Sure. In our town of less than a thousand people—all of whom, I knew their first, middle, and last names. Not a lot of prowling to be done.
     I don’t know when I finally started drifting off. I don’t know when fatigue overcame excitement and sleep began to take me. All I remember is the dream.
It was a dream I could never forget.
     I blinked around in confusion, wondering how exactly I’d gotten outside. I could feel the chilled wind against my bare shoulders—the early morning dew at my feet. It was beautiful out here. A lovely little meadow, untouched by the outside world. There were flower mixed in with the long grass, and the sky above me was tinted with just the faintest traces of pink as the sun came up over the horizon.
     Then I heard the scream.
    The perfect image in front of me shattered into a million pieces, as I slowly rotated around. Untouched by the outside world? Not hardly. It looked like the outside world was using the beautiful meadow to have some kind of a party.
     My eyes swept over the blunt torches with confusion. Why weren’t they using flashlights? And their clothes—those didn’t look like regular jackets. They looked more like something we would sell in our shop. Like some kind of mid-century cloaks. And what was that they were all gathered around. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was an—
     “Please!” the girl screamed again. “Please—don’t hurt me.”
A horrified chill swept up my spine. It was then that I realized what kind of ‘party’ this was. It wasn’t a celebration at all.
     It was a sacrifice.
    The girl was tied to a slab of stone in the middle of the grass—straining against her ropes until her wrists bled with the effort. Tears of pure terror were rolling down her cheeks, and she was gazing up at the people around her like I did—like she didn’t understand who they were, what was going on, or how she had even gotten there.
    The people themselves couldn’t have been less concerned. They ignored her, chanting in a language I didn’t understand, as they formed a silent ring around the stone alter. The tallest one, a man standing in the middle, pulled something out of his pocket and raised it high in the air. The blade flashed silver in the waning moonlight.
    The girl screamed again as she realized what was about to happen. This time, I screamed too. I tried racing towards her, but my feet wouldn’t move. Even though I’d started yelling with all my might, no one even looked my way. Not the girl. Not the people who were about to kill her.
     There was a flash of silver, then all the screaming stopped. The smooth stones trickled down a river of crimson onto the tall grass, and the ring of people bowed their heads.
     “One down…” the man muttered with a smile. “One to go…”
     I jerked awake with a start. My mom and dad were hovering over me—wearing the kind of ridiculous party hats I sold at the store. Their faces were frozen in identical, goofy smiles, and the second I opened my eyes, two ear-splitting kazoos whipped out in celebration.
     “You’re eighteen now!” my dad said.
     My face paled as the scene I’d witnesses faded quickly before my eyes. But while it might have faded, it was in no way forgotten. I could still smell the wet grass. I could still hear the girl’s pleading scream—
     “Well,” my mother threw an arm around my shoulder, jolting me even further out of my midnight reverie and pulling me back to the present, “now that you’re officially awake, I guess it’s time to ask the obvious question: how do you feel, kiddo?”
     My fingers trembled as I stared from one to the other, trying to keep up.
    “S-sorry,” I stammered, “about what?”
     My dad laughed and settled on the other side of me. “About the death of childhood!”
    A shudder ran through my body, as my mother burst out laughing. “About officially being a grownup! Is the world of adulthood as scary as I made it sound last night?”
     I took another second to catch my breath, before forcing my face into a casual smile. “I’ll have to keep you posted. So far, so good.”
     The two of them got to their feet—still chuckling at their cleverness at my first birthday surprise ‘heart-attack-by-kazoos.’
     “I had a bad dream, more like a nightmare,” I said. “I saw this woman sacrificed. And it felt so real, like I was witnessing it.”
     “Honey, it was just a dream,” my dad said. “You’re working at a Halloween shop. And isn’t there a bloody display with a lady being sacrificed?”
     “Working there all day and seeing that would trigger a dream like that. And didn’t you watch a horror movie last night with your mom?”  
     I nodded. “I know. You’re right. It was just weird, that’s all. I never have nightmares like that.”
     They gave me some more words of encouragement, and then in a flash, they were out the door and down the stairs.
     I pondered. I felt like I was actually there. It wasn’t like a normal dream. I tried to make sense of it. But my dad was right. I bet the Halloween season was getting to me.
     “Out of bed, sleepy-head!” my dad called up the stairs. “I bet you’re stalling!       Scared to eat my pancakes?”
     I smiled. My dad had a lot of talents, but cooking was not one of them.     Nonetheless, every year he made (and burned) me a huge stack of pancakes for my birthday breakfast. It was a disgusting tradition, but one that I relished even so.
     “I’m coming, I’m coming!”
     I threw my legs over the side of the bed and pulled myself to my feet—catching my reflection in the mirror on the way to my dresser. It was something that happened every morning, but this time, I couldn’t help but pause.
     I didn’t look any different. I didn’t look any older.
     I turned my face this way and that, examining it for even the most minute change.
     Nope—everything looked pretty much exactly the same. Minus the awesome hair-intervention my mom had given me the night before.
     I smirked as the lovely chestnut bangs swung gracefully back and forth, framing my pale skin and making my wide brown eyes seem even bigger than before.
     “Just like in the magazine…”
     Suddenly the light in my room flickered.
     That’s weird. Maybe a power surge.
     I headed downstairs and sat down as my dad loaded my plate with crispy pancakes.
     “I tried. I really did,” he said. “I only make these once a year on your birthday.”
     I laughed. “Lucky me.”
     My mother poured me a glass or orange juice. Just as I went to thank her, the glass exploded and orange juice flew. I screamed and jumped up.
     “What happened?” my dad asked as he ran over.
     “It just exploded!” I said.
     “Are you sure?”
     “I saw it. It just exploded. That was really strange.”
     My mother came over and cleaned it up. “Don’t worry about it.”
     I felt my hands start to shake. “Something feels different.”
     “You’re another year older,” my mom said.
     “No, it feels like something else. But I have no idea how to explain it. I feel different. I feel on edge. I sense danger.”
     “It’s that nightmare you had,” my dad said.
     “Yeah, that has to be it. It really shook me up.”
    “Don’t dwell on bad dreams. Just try to enjoy your birthday.”
    I smiled and took a calming breath. “You’re right. I think I will.”
   “We’ll rent a movie. And I’m not letting you or your mom rent another horror flick.”
    I laughed.

 Chapter 2
     One terrible thing for kids who were born in October was that, odds are, you had to go to school on your birthday. I was no exception.
     After choking down as much charred batter as I could stand, I slung my book bag over my shoulder and headed off to school, feeling a little sick. Another birthday morning tradition.
     My best friend Beth greeted me the second I set foot on campus. Even if I hadn’t been looking for her, I would have seen her all the same. She was the only person at the school who insisted upon still wearing slutty summer clothing despite the autumn chill. She was also standing beneath possibly the largest gathering of balloons I had ever seen.
     “Happy Birthday!” she shrieked when she saw me. She ran over, the balloons bobbing in a swarm above her head.
     I beamed. “Thank you! You’re the sweetest!”
     Suddenly, a few of the balloons popped and I jumped back.
     “Oh no,” she said. “It’s the thought that counts, right?”
     “Only a few popped.”
     “That’s weird. It’s not even windy or anything.”
     “Weird is my middle name today.”
      “You eat all the pancakes?” she asked.  You feeling sick yet?”
     I laughed. “Yes, and yes. Although I have to say, I’m surprised you didn’t notice—”
     “Oh my GOSH—look at your hair!”
    There it was.
    “I know, right?” I tossed it over my shoulder with a seductive smirk. “What do you think? Very officially-the-age-of-consent?”
She cracked up, having made the same revelation herself not two months earlier.
     “Absolutely! For all the good it will do you around here.”
     The two of us giggled and linked arms, heading up the wide sloping steps as the balloons clumped stubbornly above us. The rest of the students waved cheerfully and parted to make a path, probably not wanting to get caught next to us when we tried to squeeze inside the doors.
     “But seriously,” Beth babbled on, “maybe we should make some kind of road trip into the city this weekend. There’s supposed to be this awesome new club opening, and if Caleb’s older brother will finally come through with those fake IDs, then we can probably—”
     My head spun around as something hard smacked into my shoulder. A whiff of citrus and sandalwood washed over me, as I tilted up my chin and squinted into the sun.
     The hottest guy I had ever seen gazed back at me.
     This couldn’t be real. I couldn’t be seeing this right. No way did someone actually look like this in real life. Let alone, someone in Hallowood Heights.
     The body. The face. Those eyes.
     The faint dimples that appeared as his smile curved up into a smirk.
    It was the smirk that brought me back down to earth, snapping my attention back to the present as Beth chattered on obliviously by my side, completely missing the life-shattering moment that was happening right next to her.
     With an instinct ingrained by years of watching female-empowering television, I jutted up my chin and have him a sarcastic once-over. “Watch where you’re going.” I then shot him a huge smile.
     The dimples grew even more pronounced as his eyes twinkled.
    “My mistake.”
     The next second he was gone, leaving me in a little cloud of that delicious scent. I sucked in a deep breath of it as I tried to gather my wits. Well aware that the only evidence of me actually having met this Adonis was blowing away in the wind. He didn’t go to this school. I wondered who he was.
     “—and that’s when I told him that the only way we were going to be caught dead in that thing, was if we were living somewhere they didn’t sell PopTarts to begin with.”
     There was a beat, then I turned slowly back to Beth.
     “I’m sorry…what?”
     She flipped back her head impatiently. “Caleb. Fake ID’s. Breakfast pastries.       Keep up.”
    “Right,” I shook my head quickly, scanning back over my head for the guy, “sorry. But I got distracted by the cute guy who bumped into me.”
    “He’s gone. He had to be about twenty or so.”
    “You have got to let me know when you spot a hottie!”
    “I will. I promise. It just happened so fast.”
    That handsome face was etched into my mind. I desperately wanted to know who the stranger was.  

Chapter 3
     After school, I went to work at the Halloween shop.
     “That’ll be seventeen-fifty.”
     I slipped the boxes of fake teeth into a bag, protecting them with a layer of decorative orange and black tissue paper. I hadn’t asked why the town banker required what amounted to three pounds of fake molars, and he hadn’t told me. I could only hope it wasn’t some kind of ‘demolish the entire town to steal our money leaving nothing behind but sabotaged dental records’ kind of thing. Then again, my mother always said I had a wild imagination.
     But the banker wasn’t the only weirdo skulking about town. I blamed it on the damn holiday. The closer we got, the more all the crazies I never saw any other time of the year came out to play. Just on the way in here, I could have sworn I walked past a grown man sporting a pair of fangs. Although to be fair, the weirdest person in that encounter was probably me. Instead of being curious, my first instinct was a bizarre burst of territorial rage.
     Where the hell did he get fangs like that? I knew for a fact they hadn’t come from my shop…
     The clock on the wall must have broken down in sheer boredom, because I swear, time had never crawled by so slowly. There was a steady group of customers, so I was never really alone, but still—not exactly what a girl wants to be doing on her birthday.
     By the time seven o’clock rolled around, I was out the door and across the street before anyone could stop me.
     A frigid wind swooped down on me the second I pulled open the door, sending it (and me) flying back on the hinges. I caught it just before it banged against the brick wall, and forced it shut—digging in my boots to anchor it in place while I struggled to lock it.
     The sound of soft laughter drifted across the darkened street, and I whipped my head around to see who had witnessed my humiliation. Turns out, it was the last person in the world I would have wanted to see.
     Oh gosh…
     It was that guy again, the one I’d run into at school. The one who was so beautiful, I finally understood what people meant when they said someone ‘took their breath away.’
     My face turned a million shades of scarlet, and I ducked it quickly down to finish locking up. When I glanced back up through my lashes, he was still standing there—but he was no longer looking at me. His eyes were fixed on something just over my shoulder, something that had wiped the smile clean off his face.
     A little shiver ran up my skin as I stared in fascination. Never before had I seen someone look so beautiful and so angry, all at the same time. But angry didn’t really begin to cover it. I realized, with a start, that I had never seen someone look downright scary. Dangerous.
    Not like this guy did.
    I peeked over my shoulder to see what had him so riled up, but there was nothing there. Only the old lady who had accosted my poor necklace in the store the previous day. A little frown creased my forehead as I glanced back across the street, but the guy was already walking away. He was texting someone on his phone, fingers flying over the keys, not a care in the world.
     Bipolar, much?
    I headed off in the opposite direction, taking a shortcut down an alley as I played it back in my head. Just goes to show, even the pretty ones have a flaw, I thought sagely. Then I mentally complimented myself. See? This adulthood business was making me wiser already.
     “You know, my dear…”
     I whirled around with a shriek to see the old woman standing directly behind me. She’d moved so quietly, I hadn’t even heard her walk up. And although I wasn’t sure if she realized it yet herself, she was standing at such an angle that I couldn’t move past her. In fact, as she took a step forward, I backed myself into a wall.
    “…that really is a lovely necklace.”
    And that…is that moment that my entire world turned upside-down.
     I watched in horror as the woman transformed before my very eyes. Her teeth elongated into horrific fangs. Her blue eyes darkened to the color of blood. Bones snapped as her wrinkled body stretched and hardened into something that looked like walking shadow. There was a sound as soft as a whisper as her floral print dress and handbag fell in a forgotten pile on the wet street.
     “Just a taste,” she murmured, her voice sounded like it was coming up through the ground. “One drink, and then I’ll send you to hell with the rest of your clan.”
     Her knotted hands reached towards me, sharpening into claws as they traced the base of my throat. My heart raced. It all happened so fast. It was like the woman had supernatural speed. I didn’t even have time to turn and run. I could feel sharp fangs across my skin. Panic flooded through me and I wondered if this was my final moment.
     I screamed.  
    At that very moment, a silver blade shot through the center of her chest. Her eyes widened in surprise, just like mine, before she fell without a word to the ground—convulsing and shivering up until there was nothing left but an old dress and a weathered hand bag.
     In her place, stood the hot guy I’d seen before. The bloody knife still in his hands. A manic smile lighting his handsome face. His chest rose and fell with quick, shallow breaths—but he didn’t seem at all afraid. In fact, he seemed almost…excited.
     “Are you okay?” he asked, looking me up and down.
     I blinked. Then blinked again. Then a shaky hand came up to push my quivering hair back out of my eyes. “Sorry…” my voice sounded much higher than usual. “What was that thing?”
     “I’m afraid you’ll know soon enough.”
     “I need to know now!”
    He pulled what looked like a bag of powder out of his jacket pocket.
    “Don’t worry, darlin. You’re not going to remember any of this anyway.”


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