Saturday, September 10, 2016

Love & Faith - Book 2 - Prologue added.

     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…  

Amazon blurb:

Thousands of years ago, Ankh witches were created to destroy Falcar vampires. The ancient group of evil vampires finally triumphed eighteen years ago and wiped out the Ankh bloodline forever and rejoiced in their victory. Little did they know, a baby girl was smuggled out and hidden in the human world. 

When Sophie turns eighteen, she is clueless to her secret heritage. Alone and afraid, Sophie can’t explain the flickering lights and exploding glasses, but she knows something isn’t right. Little does she know that she’s now a beacon to all supernatural creatures and leaves a magical signature wherever she goes. 

When the Falcars learn that Sophie exists, they are determined to end her bloodline once and for all. After an attempt on her life, she joins forces with a gang of supernatural beings and works with them to stop the Falcars from wiping out every immortal on the planet. 

17 years ago…

Have hope! This can’t be the end. Fight with everything you have! Marilyn thought as she placed a crystal necklace around the neck of each of her daughters. Every Ankh witch received that special gift at age sixteen, but she knew there was a strong chance she might never see her children again, so she was keen on giving them their presents early. After all, the Falcars had found them, so the clock was ticking. The Catholic church where they hid was completely surrounded by the bloodsucking demons, but 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 her heart tore asunder as she tried to grasp that she may not have the chance to raise them. Tears dripped down her face as her children, her life, and her world were about to be ripped away from her. Falcars be damned! her head and heart screamed.
“Maybe the priest can send a picture of us with them,” Marilyn said.
“No, that wouldn’t be good.”
“Why not?”
“We can’t risk even 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 again, be reunited with them soon. Getting them out is only a precaution. The Falcars don’t know they exist, and we can never let them find out.”
Marilyn 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!”
“I know you try to look on the positive side, Eric, but we have to be realistic. We are sorely outnumbered. It really comes down to two of us against a small army of Falcars, all of whom wish to destroy us, to end our bloodline forever.”
His lips pressed into a grim line as he realized how right she was. There was little chance of them getting out of the mess alive, because those monsters lived for the moment when they could kill the last two Ankh witches, as they thought them to be. 
“If something happens to us, I’m afraid our girls won’t know anything about their true heritage,” she said, weeping. “Their magic will take effect on their eighteenth birthday, and they’ll have no idea what’s happening to them.”
“The Immortal Council knows about them. They’ll be able to find them, and they’ll tell them all they need to know.”
“But what if they don’t? They’ll grow up with no idea of who they are, and if those evil 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 deliver them there.”
“Why not?”
“He fears there’s a spy lurking in their midst. He wants to check things out to make sure there are no leaks or dangers. Once he settles that, he’ll tell the Council where the girls are.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“He’s a good man, Marilyn, and I trust him.”
“Well, if he’s so good, he’ll understand why our girls must be taken to the Council right away. I don’t care about his personal opinion. These are Ankh matters that he cannot possibly fully understand, and I know our children will be well protected there. This is our decision, not his!”
“I will try to reason with him again, but—”
“There are no buts about it! Only the Council can give them supernatural protection. The priest is hiding them in the normal world. If the Falcars find our precious babies…” She trailed off, unable to even fathom it.
“Don’t worry, my love. The Falcars have no idea our children exist. I promise you the Council will find and protect them when the time is right. The necklaces will also help, and I’m sure we’ll reunite with them in a few months or less.”
She gripped his hands and looked at him sincerely, her eyes full of hope and pain all at once.
“When things settle down, we’ll find our daughters and take them into deep hiding. Right now, though, this place is surrounded by our enemy. If the Falcars catch sight of our children, even a whiff or have any suspicion of their existence… 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 know it seems like we have no other options, but I-I don’t think I can do this,” she said, kissing one of her daughters on her soft little forehead.
He cupped her face. “You know we have to, luv.”
“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, my darling. Your emotions are causing you to lose sight of reason. I know it is hard, but you mustn’t let your feelings get in the way of what we must do for our children.”
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 the Falcars discover that our babies were born, they will only need the slightest opening, and they will slaughter them in seconds.”
“But I can’t bear leaving them, not even for a few minutes.”
“We’ll all be united soon.”
Eric’s eyes grew wide at the terrifying ruckus that echoed throughout the chapel as the walls shook. “They’re coming!” he exclaimed. “We must hurry.”
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 took the infants from Marilyn’s trembling arms, and promised he would keep them safe.
Marilyn let out a long sob as the priest left the room via a hidden door in the wall, carrying her little bundles of joy. She felt like her soul had been ripped from her. As if the tremors in her heart and soul were not bad enough, she also felt vibrations in her feet. Cracks echoed around her, and pillars began to break and wobble. She stumbled, almost losing her balance. Please let the babies get out alive!
Plaster fell from the ceiling in chunks as the church began to fall. The old building creaked and groaned and even started to sway, the whole floor shifting as if they were in the middle of an earthquake.
Eric started chanting, and the noise immediately ceased.
“It won’t take them that long to break the spell,” she said, taking a steadying breath.
“I know, but we have a few minutes.”
Tears welled in her eyes as their gazes locked. “I-I love you, Eric.”
“I love you, too.” He slowly kissed her lips. “Not even death can take that away from us.”
She stared into his gorgeous eyes and found herself lost in them. They were so beautiful, so passionate, so full of life, and somehow, in the midst of all that heartbreak and chaos, Marilyn found a calm solace in his gaze. She pushed his wet hair out of his face. “I wish it didn’t have to end this way, so soon.”
The walls thundered as the vampires fought to break the spell.
“Just keep your eyes on me, baby,” he said.
She let out a long sob. Then, as she’d always been told might happen at the moment of her death, her life began to flash before her eyes. She was glad to be with Eric, but she wasn’t ready to die. She wanted to be brave, but she was crumbling inside, as quickly as the walls and pillars around her. She had led the best life she could, and she refused to die in that moment, even if she was 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 as the end taunted her.
He leaned his forehead gently against hers. “Think of our beautiful little girls, the perfection we created together,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, weeping. “I hope they have a wonderful life.”
He hugged her tightly as a tear ran down his face. He wiped her salty rivers from her cheeks, and she used her thumb to brush his away. Then, the two of them just held one another’s gaze for a long time, trying to ignore the chaos unleashing around them.
“Eric, I…” 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.”
“If I must die, let it be while I gaze into your beautiful eyes,” he said.
“You always know what to say,” she whispered, somehow mustering a sheepish smile. “Give me that grin of yours, Eric. I want to remember that.”
He smiled for her, and all her fear suddenly melted away.
Bang! Bang!
When Marilyn turned to look at the looming death, he softly tilted her chin toward him. “Keep your eyes on me, no matter what,” he said calmly. He then slowly brushed his lips across hers in a slow, passionate kiss.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him one more time. He gripped her hands and squeezed them tightly. As he looked over at her, 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 husband. “I’d marry you all over again,” she said.
He kissed her lips. “And you I’d do the same.”
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 happy, smiling, and giggling. We could’ve had a beautiful life, raised a fantastic family. More tears fell uncontrollably down her face as random thoughts, dreams that would never come true, filtered through her mind. She thought about them watching a sunset, lying on a blanket and looking up at the glittering stars. Could we have conquered the world together? “Yes,” she muttered to herself, certain they could have if not for the cruel fate heaped upon them by the Falcars. “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, unthinkable. It’s—”
“Shh. Like you said, no fear, no sadness. If I’m gonna die, I want it to be in your arms, with both of us smiling at each other.”
And with that, she kissed him and wrapped her arms around him. Even though she should have been scared to death, in that pivotal moment, she felt safe and content in Eric’s embrace. In fact, she had never felt so loved. They continued kissing, ready to go out like star-crossed lovers in a Greek tragedy, and Marilyn was certain that if things had turned out differently, theirs would have been the greatest love story of all time. Romeo and Juliet be damned, she mused. 
Suddenly, in a flash of red light, the demon vampires broke the spell and teleported in.
Marilyn created a powerful burst of sheer telekinetic energy and used all her magic might to lift a pillar that had crashed onto the ground, then threw it into the oncoming line of vampires; they 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. “Run?” he asked and laughed snidely. “Why would I do such a cowardly thing when I’m about to make history. Destroying the last Ankh witches will put me in the annals of history as a hero among our people.” He turned to one of his vampires. “Speaking of that, be sure this is all well documented on video.”
“You’re sick!” she shouted. “We’ve never hunted you.”
“Perhaps not you personally, but your kind has. It is time for payback, and every last Ankh witch must die. Your kind has killed many of my friends and loved ones, and your blood shall be the recompense. I am here now, hundreds of years later, to keep that vow I made to wipe you from the face of the Earth.”
“Our kind only killed you to stop your vicious reign on mankind. You were killing hundreds of humans every 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 vampires in a series of violent explosions. Bodies flew everywhere, in a burst of blue flames.
Streams of magical energy hurled 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 flung countless energy volts about 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, but it wavered as she fought to remain calm. When she pitched it, another vampire deflected it, and it crashed into the ceiling to her left and sizzled away.
Another group of vampires jumped on top of Eric, and Marilyn let out a shrill scream. “No!” she yelled hysterically.
In a flash, Vincent’s hands were wrapped around her neck. He laughed as he squeezed, tighter and tighter. “Goodbye, little Ankh witch,” he said, slowly sucking the life out of her.
Marilyn’s body trembled and thrashed as she closed her eyes. She felt overwhelmed, frantic, scared, and helpless as her lungs burned, begging for air.
“How about a taste?” one of the others asked.
“No,” Vincent said. “I refuse to drink from a bloodline so tainted.”
As psychedelic spots invaded her vision and everything blurred around her, Marilyn felt a tinge of gratitude that her daughters had been whisked away, just in the nick of time. Her only relief was to know that they were safe, hidden from the Falcars. She could feel it deep inside as she felt her life slip away. I love you, sweet girls.
His fingers loosened, and he allowed her a gasp for air as 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?”
As 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 care about her, you will tell her the truth. The quicker you die, the quicker it will all be over. The two of you have put on an admirable show, but your time is up,” Vincent continued, stepping over the body of one of his lieutenants, with little more than passing interest. “It was…much better than I expected. I’ve always heard that Ankh witches present a great challenge, but you two have been out of the game for a while now,” he said, cocking his head curiously to one side as he stared at Eric. “Too long, I suppose.”
He watched with a flicker of interest as a crackling flame began creeping toward Eric’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.”
Eric spat in his face, even as the rubber on the sole of his boot began to melt, filling the air with an acrid stench. That horrible stink was followed by the even more ominous smell of burnt flesh.
A muffled sob drew everyone’s attention to Marilyn, who was helplessly straining against the ropes that bound her.
Eric’s face broke with a truly heartbreaking expression, and his hands stretched blindly behind him, toward hers. Their fingers interlaced, all four tied at the wrists, and he squeezed with all his might.
Vincent kicked the burning logs closer, toward their legs, irritated that even in that clearly orchestrated moment, the two of them only had eyes for each other, refusing to play his game. “I’ve already won!” he spat, laughing maniacally as the flames drew closer and closer. “I’ve destroyed the Ankh race, rendered them extinct, obliterated from Planet Earth. Now we, the Falcars, shall be unstoppable!”
The two of them were weighted down with rope and chain, trapped in the middle of a quickly growing inferno. The logs beneath Marilyn’s feet suddenly split open with a roar, and a river of molten ember splashed upon her bare legs.
The night echoed with an ear-splitting scream: “Marilyn!” Eric strained with all his might, but he was unable to help her.
For a split second, even Vincent glanced warily between them, unwilling to take any chances with a bloodline as powerful as that of the Ankh.
Her eyes flickered once to the stone walls of the sanctuary and rested for a brief moment on the tallest tower, before she closed them and let out a sigh. Her fingers squeezed those of her lover’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 will always love you,” she said as the flames licked up to her waist, the smoke stealing her oxygen and making it almost impossible for her to speak. “We’ll find each other in the hereafter. We all will. We’ll…” Not another word was uttered from her dry, chapped, burnt lips. Her body seemed to almost lift into the air as she was engulfed from head to toe in the roaring fire.
Eric held on for as long as he could, even tighter when the flames spread from her hands to his own. It was over very quickly then. After a couple involuntary screams, a burst of deadly light, and the sound of Vincent’s wicked laughter, the fire silenced of all voices except its own crackling as their bodies disintegrated into ash.

Chapter 1

18 years later...

     A sudden creaking noise came from the floorboards, indicating a subtle shift of weight. The last rays of the setting sun moved about, casting waves of darkness over the little store here and there, bursts of light flickering through the blinds on the windows, glittering off a pair of long, serrated fangs. A tall 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 bloodcurdling 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 around in that thing, and I’m gonna have 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 his six-year-old smile. “But I don’t even got any money. C’mon, Sophie.”
I blew back my recently acquired bangs with an exasperated sigh, set the sketches down, and walked out from behind the counter. “Yeah, I kinda figured that.”
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 were draped 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.
Every October, though, tragedy struck. In that most macabre month of the year, the store put away its fragrant plants and stocked the shelves with bat wings and witch hats instead, transforming into the only Halloween costume shop in Hallowood Heights. Then, instead of drawing as much as I wanted to, 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 hair out of my eyes as I shoved him toward 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 Miranda’s way of trying to get free babysitting, tell her that ship has sailed. No amount of Subway gift cards is worth spending the evening with a monster like you.”
“I was a vampire, not a monster!”
“Same thing,” I said with a snicker.
Jimmy grinned, displaying several holes where his teeth should have been, looking quite like a jack-o-lantern himself. As I looked at the child, I recalled myself as a young girl. On the day I turned thirteen, when I thought I was grown up enough to run a business of my own, I went out and did what I was sure every other young woman in my town of 900 people did at that wise old age: I made little cards with my parents’ phone number on them and left them 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 babysat until I got this job here. And let me tell you, this job paid way more than babysitting. I had made a savings account to save for college and was proud how much money I had saved so far.
“I’m not going, Sophie!” he said.
I tickled him. “Oh, yeah? You better hurry. 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 and thought… Well, things always look better in the magazines than real life,” I admitted, then suddenly realized I’d been duped. “Wait. Why on Earth are we having this conversation? You’re not staying! Get out of here.”
The boy pushed out his lower lip and pouted as an elderly woman pushed past him, making her way into the store. “Why? She gets to stay,” he complained.
“No, she doesn’t,” I muttered, in a sudden hurry to go before any other customers could sneak in after hours. Without another word, I pulled his hat down over his head and playfully shoved him toward the door. “Go on now. I see your mom across the street.”
He sighed, then nodded and took off running.
“Bye, Sophie!”
I shook my head with a smile. “Look both ways!” I called out.
Once I saw that Jimmy made it safely to Miranda’s side, I forced a polite smile onto my face, flipped back my hair, and turned to the old woman, who was perusing a display of crystal balls, picking each one up with a rather nostalgic look on her face.
“You know,” she croaked, “last time I saw one of these was in a catacomb on Surrey Island. They said the crystal was 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?”
Is she for real? Irritated and bemused at the same time, I considered lying for a moment, before I picked one up and flipped it upside-down. “Made in Taiwan,” I read with a smirk.
“My dear, can’t you see? It’s as fake as you.”
I cocked a brow. “Excuse me.”
“It’s not an insult, dear, just a…fact. You pretend to fit in with this world, but you stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.”
I wanted to be offended, but I was also intrigued by what she meant. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“They hid you well. I must give them that. We were not even aware of your existence till now. You must watch your step, though, honey. You have many enemies, most of them unseen.”
“Huh? I don’t have any enemies. There isn’t one mean bone in my body, and—”
“Oh, but you do, and you will have more as of tomorrow. Your eighteenth birthday is like a beacon in the darkness. With all that power and energy flowing through your veins, you’ll attract many.”
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?”
“Hmm. Well, I suppose they thought it would be too risky to tell you. Do not let your naiveté be your downfall, dear girl.”
“My downfall?”
“Don’t worry, luv. I’m not here to destroy you, not yet anyway. I was sent to observe the situation.”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but if you were only sent as a spy, why say anything?”
“To gage the situation, to see if you are aware of who you really are. Clearly, that secret has been well kept, even from you.”
“With all due respect,” I said, avoiding the urge to roll my eyes at her, “I’m well beyond that juvenile point of finding myself. I know exactly who I am, and I know what I want in life.”
Those blue eyes bore into me again. “Do you now?” she asked, arching her brow at me.
I smiled sweetly and calmly stated, “Actually, ma’am, we were just closing up for the night. I’m happy to ring you up if you’re ready. Otherwise, I can put one of these on hold for you.”
“No, that’s quite all right.” She gathered up her purse, wearing a rather peculiar smile that verged on disturbing. “I’ve seen everything I need to see.”
Good, I thought as she finally made her way toward the door.
Unfortunately, she stopped suddenly and jerked her wrinkled face around to look at me again, as if someone had called her name. Her eyes landed on my throat, and an instinctual shiver crept up my spine. Then, before I could even take a step away, she was right in front of me; she moved impossibly quickly for someone so old. “That’s a lovely necklace,” she said, 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 was unnerved by her odd behavior. I was good at customer service, but this one was definitely too close for comfort. “I’ve just…always had it,” I mumbled, wondering why she insisted on invading my personal space. “It came from my parents.”
A high-pitched laugh rang out in the little store. “Yes, it must have, but it is yet more confirmation of exactly who you are.” Then, in a flourish, she was gone.
I stood there in her wake, blinking and frozen in place. It wasn’t until the bell chimed above the door, announcing her departure, that I was able to snap out of the shock and awe of the uncanny encounter with the elderly, toothy stranger. I’ve been working here too long, I thought as I realized the fangs had to be part of my imagination or a very well-orchestrated part of the plot to scare me, probably a costume piece bought from the shelves in the very store where I worked, like the fake ones Jimmy was always trying out.
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 is October so cold?” I muttered to myself, wrapping my arms around me as I went.

Chapter 2

I called a few friends, and none confessed to pranking me, so my only option was to settle on the fact that the lady was crazy. She did know how old I was, but I dismissed that rather easily; the shop owner had put up a poster to wish me a happy eighteenth birthday, so my age was no big secret.
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, then poured myself a glass of water and settled into a chair.
“Hey, honey.” My mother looked up with a smile from where she was poking at the pasta on the stove. “How was work? The Halloween crazies coming out to play yet?”
I laid my head down on the counter and let out an exasperated groan. “I don’t get it. It’s still three weeks away. Do they really need this much of a jumpstart?”
She chuckled and poured in a jar of sauce. “It’s good for you, you know. This kind of suffering builds character.”
I groaned again.
“At the very least, it will give you great inspiration for your drawings,” she said, grinning. She held up her hands so her fingers framed an imaginary headline. “I can see it now: A Town Devolving…”
“I guess.” I yawned and stretched my arms out in front of me. “I can draw Jimmy Alden jumping out at me, dressed as a vampire. He’s done it 1,600 times, so I’ve got a lot to go on.”
She laughed again, pulled the pot off the stove, and turned off the burner. “I can’t believe Miranda just lets him run around, and Sophia…” She stopped sharply and stared at me from across the room. “Look at me.”
For the second time that day, chills tingled through me. I’d been so caught up in all my self-centered work angst that 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. “Bangs! When did you do that?”
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 on my own; it turned out to be a rather stupid haircut as well. “It’s no big deal, Mom,” I challenged. “I can style myself all on my own, thanks. I’m turning eighteen tomorrow, a legal adult by midnight. If I can vote for president and sign contracts, surely I’m allowed to wear my hair however I want.”
She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips as if she was trying to stifle a grin. “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 through my locks in a practiced sort of way, and when we finally pulled apart, there was a twinkle in her eye. “I’ll tell you what. Let’s eat this pasta before it gets cold, and after dinner, I’ll fix this little issue for you—just one last motherly intervention, for old time’s sake.”
A reluctant smile lifted the corners of my lips. “I suppose that would be all right.”
She rolled her eyes and carried the ravioli 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 deeper down in the chair and dished out a steaming portion onto my plate. “What’s that supposed to mean? I’ll be old enough to get my own place, and I’m sure I can handle it.”
“Yeah,” she said, then laughed humorlessly, “you can move out, but that comes with bills, mortgage payments, student loans, and all kinds of other fun things that come from entering the world of adulthood.”
I grinned again. “Wow. Thanks, Mommy dearest. You make it sound like an absolute 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, okay, you’ve made your point.”
“Happy early birthday.”


Despite my mother’s caustic warning, I went to bed that night feeling quite excited, so excited I could hardly sleep. Eighteen? I’ll be eighteen! Legal and 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 this Podunk town of less than 1,000, all of whom I know by first, last, and middle name. There wasn’t a lot of prowling to be done, no matter how legal I was. The place was so tiny that those Taiwan stickers on the back of the cheap crystal balls made them seem exotic.
With my belly full of ravioli and my thoughts exhausted from Jimmy and the weird old woman at the store, I finally began to drift off. Sleep took me, but I was quickly cast into a dream, one I would never, ever forget…
*   *   *
I blinked and looked around in confusion, wondering how I’d gotten outside. I could feel the chilly wind assaulting my bare shoulders and the moisture of the early-morning dew on my feet. In spite of the balmy temperature, it was beautiful out there in that strange place, a lovely little meadow seemingly untouched by the outside world. Flowers of all colors danced among the tall grass, and the sky above me was tinted with just the faintest trace of pink hues as the sun greeted the day over the horizon. Then I heard it, a scream, and in that instant, the perfect image in front of me shattered into a million pieces.
I slowly rotated around and realized that the meadow was obviously not as secluded as it first appeared. Instead, it was more of a clearing, surrounded by horrible mayhem, as if the entire outside world was just using that gorgeous patch of land as a place for some kind of  raucous, terrifying party.
My eyes swept over the blunt torches, and my mind swarmed with confusion. Why aren’t they using flashlights? And their clothes? Those didn’t look like regular jackets. In fact, their attire resembled the costumes we sold in our shop, mid-century cloaks of some sort. I noticed that they were all gathered around something, though I had trouble discerning what had their attention. I squinted for a better look, and a terrible thought crossed my mind. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that’s an—
“Please!” the girl screamed again. “Please don’t hurt me.”
A horrified chill swept up my spine as I realized it wasn’t a celebration at all. It was, in fact, some sort of sacrifice, and the centerpiece for that sadistic ceremony was a girl tied to a slab in the middle of the meadow, straining against her ropes until her wrists bled with the effort. Tears of pure terror rolled down her cheeks as she gazed up at her captors with the same confusion in her eyes that mine held. She didn’t understand, any better than I did, 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 couldn’t interpret as they formed a silent ring around the stone altar. 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, and my scream mirrored hers. I tried to race toward her, to help her in some way, but my feet refused to obey my wishes and would not move. All I could do was yell with all my might, at the top of my lungs, but even that was not enough to garner their attention, and the people who aimed to kill her didn’t even turn their heads to look at me.
After another flash of silver, all the screaming stopped. A river of crimson trickled down the smooth stones, into the tall grass, and the entranced, cloaked people all bowed their heads.
“One down,” the murderer muttered with a sickening smile on his face, “and only one to go.”

“Happy birthday, honey!”
I jerked awake with a start, only to see my mom and dad hovering over me, wearing the kind of ridiculous party hats we 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 horrific scene I’d witnessed in my dream slowly faded from my eyes. It still lingered in my memory, though, and I could still almost smell the wet grass and hear that girl’s pleading cry.
“Well?” My mother threw an arm around my shoulder, jolting me even further out of my midnight madness 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. “How do I feel about what?”
My dad laughed and settled on the other side of me. “About the death of childhood, of course.”
A shudder ran through my body, even as my mother burst out laughing.
“About officially being a grownup,” Mom clarified. “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.”
“You seem a bit distracted, dear. Are you okay?” my mother asked. “I hope we didn’t give you a case of heart attack by kazoo. We only wanted to surprise you, not scare you to death.”
“No, it wasn’t you. It’s just… I had a bad dream, more like a nightmare,” I confessed. “It was a sacrifice of some sort, some poor woman. Gosh, it felt so real, like I was witnessing it with my own eyes but couldn’t do anything to stop it.”
“Honey, it was just a dream,” my dad assured me with a dismissive wave of his hand. “You work at a Halloween shop. Isn’t there a bloody display there, some sort of sacrificial altar or something? I know your boss goes all out with those store displays.”
“Yeah, but—”
“Honey, working there all day, with that thing in your face, would easily trigger bad dreams for anyone. I know it would for me. Not only that, but you and your mother are always watching those horror movies. A girl can only see so many Freddies in hockey masks before she has a nightmare.”
“It’s Jason, Dad.”
“Jason Voorhees wears the hockey mask. Freddy’s got the claws.”
He chuckled. “See? Someone who is such an expert on slashers will certainly have a bad dream now and then again, don’t you think?”
“I guess you have a point,” I said, nodding slowly. “It was just weird, that’s all. It’s never happened before.”
They gave me a few more words of encouragement, being the great parents they were, but in a flash, they were out the door and down the stairs, leaving me to my thoughts.
I pondered the whole thing and felt again like I was actually there. It was nothing like a normal dream. I struggled to make sense of it, but in the end, I was sure my daddy really did know best. “Stupid Halloween,” I muttered, furious that the season was getting to me like it never had before.
“Out of bed, sleepyhead!” Dad called up the stairs a few minutes later. “What are you stalling for? Scared to eat my pancakes?”
“Now that might give me nightmares!” I yelled down with a smile. My dad was a man of many talents, but cooking was not one of them. Nevertheless, on my birthday every year, he insisted on burning a huge stack of pancakes for me. It was a tradition but one I cherished and looked forward to, no matter how much syrup it took to cover up the ashes.
I threw my legs over the side of the bed and pulled myself to my feet. As I walked over to my dresser, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror. That was a small thing that happened every morning, but this time, I couldn’t help but pause. I was surprised to find that I didn’t look any different, certainly not any older.
For all intents and purposes, I was really the same little girl I was the day before. I turned my face this way and that, examining it for even the most minute change, but everything looked pretty much exactly the same, except for the awesome hair intervention my mom had given me the night before. I smirked as the lovely chestnut bangs that 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. Mom’s a genius.”
Suddenly, the light in my room flickered.
That’s weird, I thought but quickly dismissed it as a power surge.
I headed downstairs and sat down as my dad loaded my plate with overly crispy pancakes.
“I tried. I really did,” he said. “I don’t have much practice, since your mother only lets me near the stove once a year.”
I laughed. “Lucky me.”
My mom poured me a glass or orange juice, but just as I went to thank her, the glass exploded in a burst of glass shards and Tropicana stickiness.
“Ah!” I screamed and jumped up, to avoid being drenched.
“What the…? What happened?” my dad asked, running over with the spatula still in his hand.
“I don’t know. It just exploded!” I said.
“That was odd, but don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it,” my mom said, rushing to dampen a towel.
In spite of her inappropriate calmness, my hands began to tremble. “Something’s wrong. I just feel…different.”
My mom stooped to pick up the broken glass. “You’re another year older.
“No, it’s not that. It’s something else, but I’ve got no idea what. I just…sense danger or something.”
“I’m sure that nightmare just has you on edge, honey,” 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,” my dad said, “and none with psycho killers in it!”
“G-rated it is,” I said with a nervous laugh, “even if I am officially old enough for those R-rated ones now. Bring on the Toy Story or Mary Poppins.”
“Yeah, definitely no Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” my mother said as she washed the orange juice off her hands.

 Chapter 3

The sad part about having an October birthday was that I had no chance of being off school on my special day. After choking down as much charred batter as I could stand, I slung my book bag over my shoulder and headed off to school, 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, as she was the only person in school who insisted on wearing skimpy summer clothing far after Labor Day, despite the autumn chill. She was also standing beneath what was possibly the largest gathering of balloons I’d ever seen.
“Happy birthday!” Beth shrieked as soon as she spotted me. She ran over, with so many helium-filled orbs above her head that I feared they might carry her away to Oz.
“Thanks, bestie,” I said, beaming and blushing at the same time. “You’re the sweetest!”
Pop! Pop!
As a few balloons burst, I jumped back, struggling to catch my breath.
“Oh no,” Beth said, jutting her lip out in a pout. “That’s weird though. It’s not even windy or anything.”
“Weird seems to be my middle name today.”
“What’s going on?”
“I can’t explain it.”
How did I possibly tell her that lights flickered and glasses exploded around me?
She pondered. “Hmm. Maybe it’s your dad’s burnt pancakes. Did you eat the whole stack?”
I laughed. “Yes, of course. I have to. It’s tradition, right?”
“Yeah, and you always, always stick to the routine.”
“Not always,” I argued, rolling my eyes upward, trying to give her a clue.
“Girl, you’re so predictable the weathermen wouldn’t even have to try.”
“Not always,” I repeated, then lifted a finger to point to my head. “I’m surprised you didn’t notice—”
“Oh my gosh! Look at your hair!”
“I know, right?” I tossed my mane over my shoulder and gave her a seductive smirk. “What do you think?”
“It’s very...age of consent,” she said, then cracked up laughing.
“Ya think?”
“Absolutely, not that you’ll find much to consent to around here,” she said, having reached that same point herself two months earlier.
The two of us giggled and linked arms, then headed up the wide, sloping steps with the balloons clumping stubbornly above us. Our classmates waved cheerfully and parted like the Red Sea for us, not wanting to get tangled in the mess of strings and ribbons.
“Seriously,” Beth babbled, “maybe we oughtta plan some kind of road trip into the city for this weekend. This awesome new club is opening, and if Caleb’s older brother finally comes through with those fake IDs, I’m sure we can—”
“Ow!” I cried out of the blue, spinning around to see what had smacked me so hard in the shoulder. A whiff of citrus and sandalwood washed over me as I tilted up my chin and squinted into the sun. In front of that glowing star stood the hottest guy I’d ever seen, gazing back at me. I was sure he, too, had to be a figment of my recently crazed imagination. No way could someone that good-looking and perfect exist in real life, let alone in Hallowood Heights. That body, that face, those eyes… His faint dimples appeared as his smile curved up into a smirk, an expression that reeled me back down to Earth and snapped my attention back to the present.
Beth, seemingly oblivious to the glorious stranger, dug through her book bag as she walked, chattering on, 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 gave him a sarcastic once-over. “Watch where you’re going, why don’t you?” I said, then shot him a huge, disarming smile.
The dimples were even more pronounced as he deepened his grin, and his eyes twinkled brighter than the sun behind him. “My mistake.”
Then, in 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 actually having met that glorious Adonis was blowing away in the wind. I had no idea who he was, and I was one hundred percent certain he didn’t go to our school, so I wondered why he was there in the first place.
“So, anyway, I told him we won’t be caught dead in that thing, unless we were living somewhere where they don’t sell Pop Tarts to begin with.”
There was a beat before I turned slowly back to Beth. “I’m sorry, Pop Tarts? Huh?” I stuttered.
She flipped her head back impatiently. “Caleb, fake ID, breakfast pastries… Geesh, Soph, try to keep up, would ya? You sure your dad didn’t lace those pancakes with something?”
“Right.” I shook my head quickly, scanning the area for any sign of the guy, but there was no one that even remotely resembled his unforgettable hotness. “Sorry. I guess that cute guy distracted me.”
“A cute guy? Here? Where?”
“You didn’t see him?”
“Nope,” she said, shaking her head.
“Well, I guess you were too busy talking and digging in your book bag. He had to be about twenty or so, bumped right into me.”
“C’mon, girl! You’ve gotta let me know when you have collisions with hotties. They’re a rare commodity around here, slim pickin’s.”
“I will. I promise I will next time. It just happened so fast,” I said, still confused about his disappearing act. Already, that handsome face was etched into my mind, and I desperately wanted to know who the stranger was, even if I did conjure him up in my own fantastic imagination, a little birthday present to myself.  

Chapter 4

After school, I stood behind the counter at the Halloween shop, feeling a bit more witchy than festive. “That’ll be $17.50,” I said, stifling a yawn. As the customer pulled out his debit card to pay, I slipped the boxes of fake teeth into a bag and protected them with a layer of decorative orange and black tissue paper. I didn’t bother asking why the town banker required what amounted to three pounds of fake molars, and he didn’t volunteer that information. I only hoped it wasn’t something to do with embezzling the town fortune and leaving nothing behind but some fake dental records. My mother always said I had a wild imagination, and it was certainly in overdrive on my birthday, for some odd reason or another.
The banker wasn’t the only weirdo skulking about town though. I blamed it on the stupid holiday. The closer the calendar moved to that pagan party, the more insane everyone acted. On the way into work, I walked right past a grown man sporting a pair of fake fangs beneath his seventies porn star-looking mustache. To be fair, though, the weirdest person in that encounter was probably me; instead of being curious, my first instinct was a bizarre burst of territorial rage. His fangs looked far better than any of the costume accessories we sold in our store, and I was almost envious, wondering where he got fangs that looked so realistic. It was at that point that I realized I had officially joined the asylum that was my hometown.
The clock on the wall must have broken down from sheer boredom, because I could have sworn time had never ticked by so slowly. There was a steady flow of customers, so I wasn’t totally bored or alone, but it still wasn’t exactly what a girl would want to do on her birthday. As soon as the clock struck seven, I was out from behind the counter and practically running to the door, before anyone could stop me.
A frigid wind swooped down on me the second I pulled the door open, so strong it smacked the door right back into me, squealing on its hinges and knocking me backward so hard I nearly tumbled into that window that boasted the horrible sacrifice display. I caught it just before it banged against the brick wall and forced it shut again, 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 humiliating near-topple. Unfortunately, it was the last person in the world I wanted to see right at that moment. Oh gosh, I thought, blushing as I spotted the young man I’d run into at school, the beautiful bearer of the dimples. Seeing him again, I finally understood what people meant when they said someone took their breath away, because standing there staring at him, I felt as if I might hyperventilate. My face turned a million shades of scarlet, and I ducked my head down quickly down to finish locking up. When I glanced back up through my lashes, he was still standing there, but at least he was no longer looking at me; instead, 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 adorable and so angry at the same time. He was a living, breathing paradox, a mystery I wanted to solve. Then again, I had never seen anyone look so furious and scary, so downright dangerous.
I peeked over my shoulder to see what had him so riled up, but there was nothing there, other than the weird 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, only to see the guy walking away. He was texting someone on his phone, his nimble fingers flying over the keys, as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
Hmm. Bipolar much?
I headed off in the opposite direction and took my regular shortcut down the alley as I played the whole strange scene back in my head. Just goes to show that every rose really does have its thorns, I thought sagely, mentally complimenting myself for the proper use of such a brilliant cliché. See? This adulthood business is making you wiser already, Sophia.
“My dear…”
I whirled around and let out a shriek that would have rivaled that of any alley cat when I saw the old woman standing directly behind me. She moved so stealthily, quickly, and quietly that I didn’t even hear her walk up. Not only that, but she was standing at such an angle that I couldn’t move past her. In fact, as she took a step forward, I had to back into a wall to avoid my second awkward collision of the day.
“That really is a lovely necklace.”
“Um, thanks.”
“I do hope you don’t mind if I hijack it.”
I scrunched up my brow and positioned myself into a fighting stance. I wasn’t one to get into violent altercations with senior citizens, but I wasn’t about to let her mug me for my jewelry either. I looked around her, to her left, and saw that I could probably just make a run for it. All things considered, I thought that a much better option, as I was sure that she was not exactly mentally stable. That decision, however, was one that turned my entire world upside-down, and in hindsight, I came to wish I’d just punched her square in the wrinkly-prune face.
Before I could convince my feet to move, I watched in horror as the woman transformed before my very eyes. Her teeth elongated into horrific fangs, not at all part of a prank or a costume. Her blue eyes darkened to violet at first, then morphed to the deep crimson of blood. Bones snapped and cracked as her wrinkled body stretched and hardened into something resembling a walking shadow. Then came a sound as soft as a whisper as her floral print dress and handbag fell in a forgotten pile on the wet pavement.
“Just a taste?” she murmured, her voice distant, as if it was seeping up through the asphalt beneath her. “Just one drink, my dear, and then I’ll take you to a special meadow on a special altar before I send you to hell, along with the rest of your vile clan!”
When her knotted hands reached out for my throat, her brittle nails sharpening into claws, my heart began to race. She moved with supernatural speed, and I didn’t even have time to turn and run before I felt sharp fangs graze my skin. Panic flooded through me, and I let out what I was sure would be my final scream.  
At that very moment, like some crazy scene out of a comic book movie, a heroic silver blade shot through the center of her chest. Her eyes widened in surprise, as wide as mine, and she fell to the ground without so much as a grunt, convulsing and shriveling up till there was nothing left but an old dress and a weathered handbag.
In her place stood the hot guy I’d seen before, still clutching the bloody weapon, with a manic slime lighting his handsome face. His chest rose and fell in quick, shallow breaths, yet he didn’t seem the least bit afraid or even fazed; it was as if he had stabbed a hundred old ladies in a hundred dark alleys, and it didn’t bother him one bit.
“You killed her?” I asked.
“It,” he corrected. “I killed it, you could say, though I technically didn’t. These things can only be killed by a rare breed of witch.”
“Well, she’s gone. It sure as hell looks like you killed her…er, uh…it!”
“It’s half-demon. I just sent it somewhere else, on a little vacation, but rest assured it’ll be back. They always come back if they’re not banished properly by an Ankh witch.”
“A what?” I said, but before he could answer me, I looked down at my shaking hands and let out a gasp through my labored breath. My legs had gone to jelly during the assault, and I almost collapsed into a puddle on the pavement myself. 
 “Are you okay?” he asked, looking me up and down.
I blinked, then blinked again.
A shaky hand came up to push my quivering hair out of my eyes.
“Sorry,” I said, my voice coming out at a much higher pitch than usual. “You said that thing was some kind of demon?”
“Is. Not dead yet, remember?”
“Oh yeah.”
“It is a vampire demon.”
I struggled to process his words, wondering if it was all just another bad dream or some sort of elaborate hoax, some crazy Halloween prank or a birthday joke. Did Beth put me on one of those prank TV shows? I considered, looking around for cameras. I knew what I saw couldn’t have really happened, but I really couldn’t vouch for reality anymore. If there was such a thing as a vampire demon, all sense of reality had been shattered for me, and I worried that I was actually experiencing hallucinations. Maybe I fainted and this really is another nightmare, I thought hopefully, fumbling for answers and wishing someone would wake me up.
“I-I don’t understand,” I said, my voice trembling.
“You will soon enough.”
“But I need to know now!” I demanded, beginning to panic.
“You’re too upset,” he said softly. “This is too big of a shock for you.” He then pulled what looked like a bag of powder out of his jacket pocket.
“What are you, some kind of drug dealer?” I asked. “I’m not looking for any chemical help here, buddy. I can relax just fine on my own.”
He laughed. “I beg to differ.”
“Did you drug me before this? Am I on some kind of high, tripping or whatever they call it? Is that what’s happening here?”
“Don’t worry, darling. You won’t remember any of this, at least not for a while,” he said, then blew some white powder into my face from his hand.

I coughed and tried to protest, but I couldn’t even get one syllable out before darkness consumed me.