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Nightmare City: Nightmare City, #1

Nightmare City: Nightmare City, #1

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Nightmare City: Nightmare City, #1

Length:
434 pages
6 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Nov 20, 2020
ISBN:
9781698565439
Format:
Book

Description

When dreams really do come true - what about the nightmares?

Ever since a shift in reality twenty years ago, people's dreams and nightmares come alive, spreading chaos and destruction. Monsters ravage cities, bottomless chasms split roads, and gold rains from the sky - the possibilities are limitless, unpredictable, and often deadly.

Eden Maybrey is a hunter of these "shades". When a friend tasks her with tracking down and eliminating an evil shade, the hunt threatens to expose Eden's deepest, darkest secret. To find her prey, she is forced to team up with Vaughn Taylor, a hunter who hates shades with a passion - and who won't hesitate to put a bullet in Eden's head should he figure out the truth.

Book 1 in an urban fantasy series with a twist: no vamps or weres - instead, dreams and nightmares coming alive.

Would you really want your dreams to come true?

Publisher:
Released:
Nov 20, 2020
ISBN:
9781698565439
Format:
Book

About the author


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Nightmare City - P.S. Newman

Nightmare City

by P.S. Newman
Book 1 of The Nightmare City Series

Copyright

Copyright © 2019 by P.S. Newman

ISBN: 9781698565439

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

Cover Art by germancreative

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, locales or events is entirely coincidental.

For more information, visit

https://psnewman.com/

sign up for P.S. Newman’s newsletter

https://tinyurl.com/y2do8zgk

or email

newman.pia@gmail.com

Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

Bella’s Dream-Study Journal Case Report # 11

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

My Dream-Study Journal Case Report # 12

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

My Dream-Study Journal Case Report # 13

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

My Dream-Study Journal Case Report # 13 - Addendum

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

CHAPTER FORTY

My Dream-Study Journal Case Report # 14 - Just Thoughts

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

EPILOGUE

Acknowledgments

More from P.S. Newman

For my parents, Mark & Gaby, who always made me feel like I could make my own dreams come true – and who support me in all my crazy endeavors.

CHAPTER ONE

––––––––

The nightmare in the back of my van wouldn't stop purring.

I took my eyes off the empty road and glanced in the rear-view mirror. Large golden eyes gazed back at me from behind the two-inch-thick bars of the cage bolted to the metal floor. Soft paws stretched out between the bars, kneading the air.

You’re not fooling anyone, you know. Thirty minutes ago, this soft, gentle kitten had almost swallowed a five-year-old boy whole. I kept waiting for it to break out of the cage and try its jaw-unhinging act on me. Talking to it at least seemed to be keeping it in a friendly mood. Though I suspected that had more to do with the fact that a grown woman who wore full-body dura-tex armor and carried a talking sword wasn’t part of its meal plan.

The sword in question laughed, the sound only audible in my head. This one is exceptionally deceptive, isn’t it?

I glanced down to where my sheathed katana lay across the passenger seat. The elegant weapon sported a blood-red hilt, a frequent lust for blood, and a literal mind of her own.

"Almost as exceptionally deceptive as you," I agreed, thinking at her. As an inanimate object, Aunt Vy could only communicate mentally with me. Which was a good thing or, chatterbox that she was, everyone would know that my sword was a shade – someone’s night-time dream manifested in reality.

No shade is either as exceptional or as deceptive as I am, my sword stated, imperious. But I do like this kitten shade’s spirit.

A spirit I’d have to crush. My mood shifted. Silence filled the van.

"No use dwelling on it, child." She never called me Eden. Then again, I never called her by her full name, Violet, either. She was ‘Aunt Vy’ to the handful of people who knew that my sword was more than just a sharp blade. "It’s your job, your purpose, to eliminate all shades. Even the cute, cuddly ones."

I threw her a look. What about the edgy, snarky ones?

She huffed in disdain. There is an exception to every rule.

I drove down an exit ramp of the freeway, zipping around a right turn. There were no other cars around. The curfew wouldn’t be lifted for more than an hour. Only law enforcement, hospital staff, emergency services and shade hunters like me were officially out and about during the night. Us and our nightmare prey.

Almost home, I told the kitten.

Purr purr.

It was oblivious to what would happen once we got home and I hoped to keep it that way. Some shades didn't react well to the realization that I was about to end their manifested life. The kitten may understand the difference between a boy and a grown-up, but it hadn’t displayed any signs of advanced intelligence beyond that of a normal kitten. No matter how many rows of teeth it had.

That didn’t mean it would like being eliminated. Most shades’ survival instincts were as strong as any other living being’s. I looked at the kitten in the mirror. Promise I’ll be gentle.

I was looking forward to afterward, when I could take a shower and wash off the night’s grime - assuming no more clients called. Technically, I was still on shift, even if this one had already been a monstrous one, pun intended. The shade in the cage behind me was the most harmless I’d been called to eliminate all night. I’d had to kill others on scene.

My smartphone rang and I suppressed a groan. So much for that shower. But my pulse spiked when I checked the caller-ID: Cecelia. There was only ever one reason for my best friend to call me at three-thirty in the morning.

Hi Lia, I answered over the hands-free unit. What did Bella manifest this time?

A dog. Cecelia’s voice was wry but far more awake than it should be at this hour. A collie, to be exact.

A Lassie shade?

Yep.

What was it with the pet shades tonight? Then again, manifesting animals was Bella’s MO. The way she saw it, an animal’s loyalty ran deeper than that of most humans. I’ll be right there.

"Gracias, Eden." Cecelia’s relief was palpable through her Spanish inflection. She was more than capable of eliminating the monsters her little sister’s vivid imagination set free in this world, but talking Bella into giving up the benevolent ones was a debate Cecelia liked to leave to me. I took them on because it was one of the few things I could do to help Cecelia raise her sister. As a junior in high school, Bella’s rebellious phase was in full swing.

Another Lassie? Aunt Vy asked when I’d hung up, having heard my side of the conversation. "The dear needs to work on her imagination. Go for a Terminator for a change. Now that would be able to protect her from almost anything."

No need to put ideas in her head, I told her. At least the Lassies are inconspicuous. Let’s not add rampaging robots to her nightmares.

Swords couldn’t look guilty, but Aunt Vy’s silence spoke for itself.

Tell me you haven’t already.

I haven’t! Had she been human, she would have looked indignant. "I didn’t say anything about rampaging robots. Or cyborgs, to be precise."

Then what did you say? I pressed.

I only suggested she broaden her repertoire a bit. If she’s going to keep creating shades five times a week, may as well try for some variation.

I groaned. "Trying is exactly what Bella shouldn’t be doing. It’s too dangerous."

"So you keep saying."

I suddenly felt tired. Let’s not have this discussion again.

Always ends the same anyway.

We arrived at my house five minutes after Cecelia’s call. The sand-colored, two-story building with the faux Roman pillars was a welcome sight through the twelve-foot steel fence that surrounded the property. A press of a button on the steering wheel sent the gate sliding to the side and the garage door up. I drove the van into the garage, killed the engine and looked at my little passenger.

Purr purr?

You’re getting a reprieve, I told the kitten, grabbing Aunt Vy from the seat beside me. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Purrrrrr.

I took it as an affirmative.

The cage would hold two tons of pressure, but I still locked the van, let down the garage door and closed the gate at the end of my short driveway behind me. I wanted to leave the shade as little chance to get out and terrorize the neighborhood as possible. Little boys might not be the only trigger for its hunger.

I walked the twenty feet to the house bordering mine on the left. Cecelia spotted me from the kitchen window and hit the buzzer. It killed the eight thousand volts of electricity that hummed through their fifteen-foot fence, a state-of-the-art, shade-repelling barricade that cost five times what mine did. As a shade hunter living alone, I’d decided I didn’t need to invest the extra cost to include electricity.

The gate swung open on silent hinges and I stepped through. It closed behind me and immediately thrummed back to life, closing the hole in a long line of electric fences all down the road, ready once more to keep the monsters at bay. Of course, this only worked if they manifested outside of the fence.

Cecelia ushered me into the house. Her wavy brown hair was a mess, framing large brown eyes and a full mouth. She wore a silk nightgown that flowed around her slender form, accentuating Salma-Hayek curves.

"If her cop colleagues could see her like this, her reputation as one of the toughest homicide detectives in the city would be ruined," Aunt Vy quipped.

Thankfully, Cecelia didn’t share a mind link with my sword. If she wanted to speak to Aunt Vy, or Vy to her, I had to stand in as Vy’s voice. I chose to not translate my sword’s remark and focused on my friend.

Why can't she just listen? Cecelia asked, rubbing her temples. Just once. Make it easier on herself.

Then she wouldn't be Bella. Where is she?

She’s locked herself in the room with the Lassie shade and refuses to give it up. David’s with her.

In her room?

No, she’s locked us out. He’s trying to talk some sense into her through the door.

Cecelia’s billionaire boyfriend could sell a freezer to a penguin during a blizzard, but I doubted he’d get Bella to give up her Lassie. She liked David a lot and didn’t mind that he spent most nights at their house. But when it came to her shades, there were only two people who could talk some sense into her. And even Cecelia and I had to tag-team her at times. 

Cecelia saw the doubt in my face and grimaced. At least this shade can differentiate between things to bite and things to lick. One of Bella’s typical loyal guardians.

It made sense, in a twisted sort of way. Ever since Bella’s and Cecelia’s mother died at the claws of a shade, Bella had been yearning for the perfect protector. She’d dreamed up and manifested a lot of them over the years. Trouble was, her protectors rarely manifested alone. What about the monster?

Back yard. Cecelia motioned for me to follow with the gun that suddenly appeared in her hand. I blinked. Where in her nightgown had she been hiding that?

"Silks and Sigs," Aunt Vy said with appreciation. Great combo.

I hid a grin and didn’t translate that, either. Not the right time.

Cecelia led the way through the living room. The usually tidy space was a mess. The coffee table lay on its side. A vase of flowers had shattered on the ground and a lamp lay upended across the couch.

Looks like it put up a fight.

Cecelia pressed her lips together and jerked her chin at a smashed picture frame lying on the sofa - the one thing Cecelia had picked up out of the mess. I’m just glad Bella hasn’t seen that, yet.

A pretty woman with olive skin and frizzy black hair smiled through the cracks in the broken glass. It had been taken a few months before Helena Perez’s death four years ago. I’d never met the woman, but her absence was felt by her two daughters every day. Even if neither of them ever talked about it.

Cecelia crossed to the back door and switched on the light, illuminating the front part of the small back yard. The unmoving body of something green and scaly lay at the edge of the light.

You shot it?

No, she said, though she kept her gun ready. Just because a shade looked dead, didn't mean it was. The Lassie shade took it down. She saved Bella's life.

Fudge. That would make taking her away from Bella that much harder.

Yep.

I drew Aunt Vy out of her scabbard and opened the door, stepping into the yard to kneel beside Bella's shade. Up close it looked like a giant lizard, with fangs the length of my little finger jutting from behind immobile lips. The shade lay quiet, its throat torn out by sharp canine teeth. But its head was still attached to the body and one could never be sure. It wasn't necessarily oxygen or blood that kept shades alive. 

I reached out to touch it. The scaly hide was cool beneath my fingers. My shade sense flared to life and I could feel the nightmare lizard in ways that had nothing to do with touch. Shades manifested out of people’s primal and subconscious emotions, creating a shade’s essence. My shade sense allowed me to perceive that essence, which gave a shade life and a purpose. I felt fear and obstinate anger fizzing through this reptile like an electric current. Bella’s subconscious had wrestled these emotions to the surface while she slept, to be dealt with in her dreams. 

I now had two options. One was the usual way any other shade hunter got rid of dead shades. They would cut off the reptile’s head, which in ninety-nine out of a hundred times meant it would stay dead. Then they would call the next shade extermination facility to come pick it up and dispose of it. But these facilities kept minute records of the shades brought to them because they were always looking to improve their methods of shade extermination. They would record that I’d brought it in and that Bella had manifested it, which would alert the Somni Order. The country’s official shade policing agency took its job extremely seriously and kept a close eye on all prime dreamers and their shades.

Being a prime meant that Bella manifested shades at least four times per week on average. The Order analyzed and recorded those shades in minute detail; both to understand shades better in general but also to try to predict if a prime’s shades were developing into something more dangerous.

I looked at Cecelia. This is Bella’s fourth shade in as many nights.

She nodded, jaw tight. She’s been manifesting shades above average this past month.

And now we have a repeat Lassie. I rubbed my face, suddenly tired. If the Order finds out about this...

They’ll bring her in for questioning.

They’d done it once before, about a month after Bella got badly hurt and her mother killed by a monster shade. All Bella’s dreams after that had been nightmares and a lot of them had manifested. The Order had marked her as a prime dreamer and interviewed her. They’d been nice enough about it; thirteen-year-old girls recovering from trauma and stuck with a limp for the rest of their life were bound to manifest more and darker shades than before. Yet the interview had traumatized Bella even more. If possible, both Cecelia and I wanted to spare Bella that experience again.

By law, a shade hunter was responsible for a shade’s remains ending up at an extermination facility. These facilities ensured that a shade was completely broken down into its smallest particles and wouldn’t rise again, as shades sometimes did. But I could make sure it wouldn’t come back to life without calling anyone to take it away. That was option number two; an option only I had.

I glanced around. The shade-repelling fences turned into high walls between the adjacent properties, but two of the neighboring houses were tall enough that you could see into the Perez’s back yard from their second stories.

Cecelia was also scanning the neighbors’ windows. All dark, she said. You're good to go. I'll keep an eye out.

I focused on the shade and reached for Bella's essence in the nightmare reptile. I couldn’t just feel shade essences - I also had the power to undo them. A short burst of that power disconnected the iguana shade’s essence from its corporeal form. The empty carcass disappeared beneath my hands, ‘phazing’ out of existence.

Thanks, Cecelia said when the monster was gone. Only an impression of where its weight had pressed into the grass remained.

I stood and sheathed Aunt Vy. Shall we go see Bella?

We went back inside and headed up the stairs to Bella's bedroom. A handsome man with coffee-and-cream skin and short black hair stood in front of her door, leaning against the frame. He had his muscular arms crossed and an exasperated expression on his face.

Come on, Bells, he was saying as we reached the top landing. You know this has to be done.

I won't let you eliminate her, came Bella's answer through the closed and likely locked door. She's only protecting me. She won't hurt me.

David sighed. You know this resistance is futile.

Aunt Vy chuckled to herself. When did he join the Borg Collective?

I managed to turn my chuckle into a cough. David turned at the sound and his expression brightened when he caught sight of me. Eden, thank God.

Hi David. I see negotiations aren't going so well. Must be a low blow for Mr. Big Cheese to be unable to persuade one teenage girl into opening a door. David and his older brother Sean were the founders and CEOs of PharmaZeusics, the most ethical and successful pharmaceutical company in the country.

Give me power-hungry board members and arrogant executives any day. He stepped away from the door. She's all yours.

Cecelia hooked an arm around his waist and leaned against him. "Sorry, caro. In this house, you're just like any uncool adult trying to take away her toys."

Uncool? David exclaimed in false indignation. "I guess she hasn't been reading her American Scientist."

Guys, I've got this, I said. It would be easier if it were just Bella, Aunt Vy, and me. Go back to bed.

That's the best idea anyone's had all night. David grabbed Cecelia around her waist and hoisted her over his shoulder.

Cecelia slapped his back. Put me down, caveman!

Ah, role-play. He patted her backside with his free hand. Great idea.

He carried her into the bedroom on the other side of the hall and dropped her onto the bed.

At least roll a boulder in front of your cave, I called after them.

David returned to the door and winked. Don't worry, I'll keep Lia distracted while you tame the wild beasty.

Even though she didn’t have eyes, I could feel Aunt Vy giving him The Look. "We'll need more than thirty seconds."

But there was no point in me translating that. David had already closed the door, giving me privacy to talk with Bella and hopefully doing his best to distract Cecelia from worrying about her little sister too much.

Longing gripped me, short and vicious. I was happy for both of them, especially Cecelia, who deserved the love and support she and David shared. But sometimes, seeing their affection for each other felt like a punch to the gut. A reminder of something I’d never have, feeding a yearning for something that would never be. Greyson...

I took a deep breath and shook off the dark thoughts. I had a job to do - the one job I could actually support Cecelia with in raising her little sister.

I lifted my hand to knock on Bella's door - and my phone rang.

Call back later, Aunt Vy commanded.

The imperiousness in her tone irked me.

"Could be a client," I reasoned, pulling the phone out of my back pocket. The caller-ID read Baptiste, Sean.

Ha! Aunt Vy said.

Which, of course, made me answer the call, even though I’d been on the verge of letting it go to voicemail. I didn’t relish the prospect of speaking to Sean, but I also wasn’t going to give Aunt Vy the satisfaction of bossing me around.

Hello Sean, I answered. How can I help you? At almost four-thirty in the morning. Sean prided himself on needing only four hours of sleep at night, but this hour was extreme to be calling, even for him. On the other hand, he knew this was one of the best times to reach me, since I worked night shifts and I’d feel obligated to at least call back in case it was shade related. God, I hoped it was shade related.

A deep laugh reached my ears. So formal, Eden? Don't worry, I'm not calling to ask you out. I heard you when you said it wasn't working for you.

Okay. Just... I guess... I couldn't believe I was stammering. I should have just let it go to voicemail, Aunt Vy and her dictatorial tendencies be damned. I'm sorry if I hurt you. I don't think I ever told you that. And I know it's a cliché-thing to say, but it had nothing to do with you.

"Except it did because I'm not him. He knew about Greyson. But I get that it's nothing personal and I appreciate your apology."

I'm glad. The five weeks in which we hadn't spoken must have given him some perspective. He hadn't been so cool about my rejection at the end of our last date, when I told him there wouldn't be another. Just because Cecelia and his brother were going strong after a year, didn’t automatically make Sean and me a great couple.

I'd been worried our friendship would suffer, but I wasn't going to lead him on. He would never be The One for me. Nobody would. Not while I was in love with someone else.

I want to hire you to track something down, Sean said, pulling me out of my musings.

A shade?

Yes. I'll explain later. He sounded hesitant, as if calling me about this had been a tough decision. When will you be done?

I checked the clock on my phone's display. If no other client calls anything in, around five.

I'll come by your place then.

Why don't you come to breakfast at Cecelia's at seven?

No. I don't want anyone else involved. This one is... delicate.

The line clicked and I was listening to the disconnect signal. He hadn't even said goodbye.

Delicate? Aunt Vy repeated. Sounded like ‘dangerous’. Maybe he’s more interesting than I give him credit for.

I grunted and put the phone away, unwilling to admit that I was just as intrigued. For Sean to call me five weeks after our breakup-fiasco meant it had to be something more than a gargoyle come to life. But I had a more immediate problem to focus on. This time my knuckles made it all the way to the closed door.

Bella?

No. The door between us muffled her voice but did nothing to dull the determination in it.

Tell us about the dream, dear. Aunt Vy’s voice was gentle. It was always gentle around Bella, who was the only other person besides me who could tune in and talk to Aunt Vy.

Silence stretched through the door, but neither my sword nor I pushed her. Bella would only dig her heels in deeper and make me leave.

The whole class went to the zoo on a field trip last week, she finally said. She never could resist spilling her heart out to me.

I remember. She'd been excited because she hadn't been to the zoo in a couple of years.

Grace and I watched the iguanas. One of the big ones chased the little ones around when they got too close.

That would trigger something deep and primal within her. Bella was scared to death of being chased by something bigger and meaner than her.

So you dreamed of the big iguana chasing you through the house tonight, I surmised. We saw it. Even though 'big' was an understatement - it had been huge. Adapted to Bella's own size in that warped way of dreams.

What about Lassie? Aunt Vy asked.

Bella’s subconscious had sent the loyal Lassie to rescue her from the big bad iguana. A classic Bella-dream with a villain and sometimes, when she was lucky, a hero to protect her. Those were the nights she woke up crying instead of screaming because she knew that her hero would have to be put down, just like the villain. She lived a tragedy every damn night.

Cecelia had allowed her one exception two years ago. Bella kept hoping we could make one more exception, just this once. But once had already happened. If we gave in, once would turn into twice, three, ten, fifty times, until she hid a menagerie of shades in her room. Bella knew that would be dangerous, not to mention illegal. That didn't make it any easier for her to part with her guardians.

"I watched the Lassie movie with Lia last night, she said, since it's one of the few I'm allowed to watch. Even though I’m old enough."

Resentment colored her voice. After the Surge twenty years ago, the age restrictions on entertainment had been tightened considerably to prevent the stimulation of nightmares that would manifest potentially deadly things. When Bella started having regular nightmares after the shade attack four years ago, Cecelia had tightened even those restrictions. At seventeen, Bella was officially allowed to watch more movies or read more books than we permitted. We only allowed her stories for fifteen years of age or younger; wholesome family books and movies that induced warm and fuzzy feelings. And yet...

I made a mental note to talk to Cecelia about letting Bella watch more age-appropriate movies. They may instill more nightmares in her than children's fare, but festering resentment was a recipe for even bigger shade disaster.

Is the iguana gone? Bella asked, interrupting my thoughts.

I took care of it. It was dead when I phazed it.

"Your Lassie did well," Aunt Vy told her.

I know.

Then you know she has served her purpose. My voice was as gentle as my sword’s.

The lock clicked and the door opened a crack. Bella's big honey-gold eyes peeked around it, wells of sadness in a face too young for such depth. It still sucks.

I know. I opened my arms. Come here.

After a few more heartbeats of hesitation, she limped through the door and wound skinny arms around me, holding tight. I pulled her close, laid my cheek on the top of her head. Behind her, a dog trotted into view, tongue lolling and tail wagging.

"She’s beautiful," Aunt Vy said. I had to agree. Long fur rippled around Lassie’s body like silk. Dainty paws danced over the carpet.

I'm tired of being scared, Bella whispered. Of feeling out of control of my own dreams.

I know, hon, I said, watching the collie. Deep brown eyes regarded us with interest, begging to be trusted.

Bella drew out of the hug to look at me. I want to be in control.

The urgency in her voice surprised me. Does that mean you'll take your therapy and meditation more seriously from now on?

Bella shook her head, her eyes distant. I’m not talking about working through the trauma or controlling my mind. That isn't the crux of the problem. If I create them, shouldn't I be able to command them?

Not where I’d seen this going. Her choice of words made me wary. Maybe she’d demand I move back in, to live with them again. I steeled myself for the inevitable argument, one I would lose without Cecelia backing me up. I glanced towards her bedroom door.

Bella noticed my look, and her face went blank. Never mind. No need to call in the cavalry. It was just an idea.

Dang it. I’d lost her.

Bella looked at the collie and patted her thigh. Here girl.

Lassie came. I crouched down beside her. Tail wagging, she stuck her cold nose into my hand. I laid my hands on her head and connected with my shade sense. Where the iguana had carried all of Bella's fear and anger, in Lassie I felt peace, hope, and determination. I enveloped that positive essence with my phazing power and disconnected it from Lassie’s physical form. She disappeared with a last whisper of fur against my fingertips.

I caught Bella blinking away tears and pulled her in for a hug. It twisted my insides to see her so dejected.

Hey, I said. You know I'm never far away. When you need me, I'll be there.

She remained rigid for two more heartbeats before melting into my arms. Promise?

Promise. I’m the only protector you need. After all, that’s what you manifested me for.

CHAPTER TWO

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By the time I returned to my house, it was almost five in the morning. I'd convinced Bella to go back to bed and try to sleep for another hour. I planned to phaze the boy-devouring kitten, take a long shower, then return to Cecelia and Bella’s house to have breakfast with everyone before getting some shut-eye.

Loverboy is here, Aunt Vy said with no little mirth as soon as we stepped out onto the pavement.

I groaned inwardly at the red Ferrari parked on the curb in front of my house. I'd forgotten about my appointment with Sean. So much for that hot shower.

Aunt Vy laughed. She found the entire Sean-situation comical, since she’d advised me against it from the very beginning. I’d never really wanted to go out with him in the first place and had thus gotten into this awkward position all by myself. But her telling me that I shouldn’t date him when he asked me out had made me agree to it. A woman couldn’t let her sword rule her romantic life.

Sean unfolded from the driver seat. Like David, Sean was tall and dark-haired, with dark skin. But the similarities ended there. Sean always looked skinny next to his younger brother’s muscular frame. His nose was wider, his lips thinner, his jaw softer. Though they were tailored, he tended to fidget in his suits as if he weren’t comfortable in them. The public often mistook him for David’s little brother, although Sean was the elder. Compared to David, Sean just always seemed a little... smaller, somehow. Then again, most people appeared small compared to "David is Goliath", as Forbes had once named him. And the public compared the two brothers a lot, portraying Sean as the nice but somewhat awkward mathlete and David as the business-savvy, charismatic media tycoon.

For the most part, Sean didn’t mind. It meant he could live his life in more peace than David did, while sharing their company’s success. Seeing how hard David worked to keep Cecelia out of the spotlight, I figured Sean got the better deal.

We met on the sidewalk. I stuck out my hand for a shake as he leaned close to embrace. We did a weird sort of half-hug, half-shake dance, complete with awkward smiles.

In the back of my mind, I heard Aunt Vy chuckling away. 

They say it gets easier, Sean said.

That made me laugh. I hope it does. Come with me. I entered the pin on the keypad next to the smaller pedestrian gate. It opened and we walked through, heading towards the garage. There was no need to waste time standing around talking when I could be cleaning up for the night while doing so. Plus, if I was handling the shade, I wouldn’t have to look at Sean too much.

I entered another pin into the pad on the side of the garage and the door rose to let us in. It lowered itself again at the push of an inside button. I hung Aunt Vy on a hook by the door leading into the house and waited to open the back of the van until the garage door was closed. People walking by on the sidewalk didn’t need to catch a glimpse of what was about to happen inside. 

I climbed into the back of the van. Sean peered in after me.That’s a shade?

Yep. The kitten had started purring again as soon as we entered the garage, its eyes large and innocent.

It looks real.

I frowned at him. Shades are real.

The tips of his ears reddened. You know what I mean. It looks like a kitten. No obvious aberrations. Why did you bring it here?

"Because I didn’t want to slaughter it in front of a seven-year-old

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