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Heir of Ashes
Heir of Ashes
Heir of Ashes
Ebook487 pages7 hours

Heir of Ashes

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At the age of twelve, Roxanne Fosch had a perfectly normal life. By the time she was twenty-two, she was being hunted.

After being trapped for years in the clutches of the Paranormal Scientists Society, Roxanne escapes and sets on a dangerous quest for the truth. 

Hunted by scientists keen to exploit her extraordinary abilities, and dangerous factions whose plans she cannot fathom, Roxanne discovers a shocking secret about her past. But is everything she's ever known a lie?

PublisherNext Chapter
Release dateJan 25, 2022
Heir of Ashes
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    Heir of Ashes - Jina S. Bazzar


    When I first started this book, I had no expectations beyond writing. I just wanted to tell the story clouding my mind. As the first draft was done, I realized I wanted to do more than just write. I wanted to be published.

    My journey was long and sweaty, but worth every moment.

    No one who achieves success does so without acknowledging the help of others.- Alfred North Whitehead.

    This book is dedicated to:

    My parents, because I wouldn't be who I am today without you.

    To my kids, you are the reason I didn't give up.

    Many thanks also go to:

    To the beta readers, Shalini G., Aman Aronee, Paula James and Steven Davidson—your valued feedback made all the difference.

    My editor, Elle W. Silver, for giving that glowing sheen to the story.

    To Charlotte Lauren and Heather Tasker, because I'd have never gotten through that publishing door without your final push.

    When I was young I believed one couldn't ask anything better from life. I had everything. I was pretty, smart, I ran with the popular crowd, I had a crush on the cutest boy in class and the nicest best friend ever. In other words, I was a total showoff. Then came the Paranormal Scientists Society (PSS), like the Big Bad Wolf with a big metal baseball bat and shattered my world. That was about ten years ago. Now all I want is to be left alone to live my life peacefully, to be the girl next door.

    Things happen, and they have happened to me. You never believe them, or you believe things will only happen to the next person while you watch, maybe even sympathize; though you continue living your life to the fullest. But, like I said, they happened to me. My life shattered and many pieces were just lost. I was no longer a showoff. I was still pretty and smart, though they were no longer mere traits, but necessary tools for my survival. I had no friends, no home, no one I could talk to, no life. Things that centered my world when I was younger are so far down my list of priorities that I can scarcely see myself as that girl again. If a guy looks twice at me now-a-days, all I care about is the possibility that he may or may not be a danger to me. I know how sad that is, and I'd be willing to change a little, if I didn't have to run for my life every time I turned a corner.

    If I were younger, I'd pray for a miracle. Today, I just hope for the best.

    –Roxanne Whitmore Fosch

    Chapter One

    I had just finished chopping onions for Paul when the sky broke.

    It wasn't really a kaboom, but more like giant rocks tumbling down a hill. Like a giant avalanche.

    On its heel followed the torrential downpour I'd been hearing about for the past few days. A sense of foreboding kept nagging at me, a feeling that I was missing something that I should know. Or see.

    Do you need anything else before I go? I asked Paul as I hung my apron on a peg and tried to shake the sensation away. I could hear some of the crowd outside dispersing, going home to celebrate another weekend with family, friends, or just be alone after a fulfilling meal; and the booming laughter of those who lingered for a drink and latest gossip in the diner.

    That'll be all, he said, sending me a distracted smile over his shoulder.

    I went inside Paul's office and grabbed my purse, a huge monstrosity my friend Michelle had desperately tried to destroy, but inside were things I couldn't leave behind if I had to make a hasty exit. Dr. Maxwell's journal was also inside. It had helped me sort a lot of things since I escaped, even if it hadn't been the one I wanted, and I never went anywhere without it.

    I slung the purse on my left shoulder and let it dangle on my right side, the easier if I needed to run, then let myself out from the back door of the diner. The downpour was like a water sheet in front of me, blocking anything farther than a few feet from view.

    Already water was gathering on the street, herding the brown leaves that had gathered at the edges toward the drainage system.

    It was unbelievably cold for October, but I'd only been there for three months so I wasn't sure if this was the norm for early autumn.

    I shivered involuntarily and tucked my gloveless hands inside my pockets. I loved autumn, when trees turned into that burnish gold color and animals scurried to gather supplies for the winter, but it seemed like here, in this small town, winter had already arrived.

    Another flash of light appeared, just a few yards to my left, followed immediately by a loud kaboom! And the bucket of giant rocks down the mountain.

    That sense of foreboding returned, and I glanced around, found nothing out of place.

    Paul's Diner was only two blocks away from Marian's bed and breakfast and, on a clear day, the lack of tall buildings in between would have given me a clear view of both. I hurried to the small B & B where I rented a small room on the second floor, wondering if Rudolph (AKA Rudy), the local troublemaker, would be waiting for me by the door like he did most days despite of the downpour. I believe the only reason his bullying didn't extend to outright harassment was because I refused all other offers from other men. That, and the fact that most of the townsfolk had become a little overprotective, believing I was hiding from an abusive husband.

    As my long legs ate the small distance, I thought about calling Michelle and asking her over so we could do something fun. I had missed the excitement of going out with my friends during my teen years, locked up in a bedroom in the PSS headquarters instead. I had permission to watch the world from a TV and read about it from books whenever I wasn't down in the lab. Sometimes I was sent to the small library where I received a rudimentary education, but it was nothing near what I'd have learned had I gone to school.

    Marian wasn't behind her desk in the foyer, but the low sound of a talk show and reflective TV lights came through the slightly closed office door. I'd stop by in the morning and pay my rent then; I knew how much she hated being interrupted from her shows. Plus, I was soaked to the bones and my appearance would only prompt her to pour one of those awful teas down my throat. I took the back stairs on the corner and headed up to my room, the last one in the corridor, telling myself I'd grab some dry clothes, then backtrack and dry off the water trail I left behind.

    The moment I unlocked the door and reached for the switch on the wall to my right, I knew that someone was inside, even before I spotted the silhouette sitting on my bed. Not a friendly someone, considering his scary, inhuman aura. Panic reared its head so fast, so furious, it had me paralyzed in an instant. I forgot all the carefully-laid plans I had so meticulously drilled into myself over and over, even before I escaped the PSS's HQ, for moments like this one. My mind… disconnected.

    For a long moment, my fear paralyzed me. I felt its icy grip around my heart, spreading down to the pit of my stomach and up around my neck. Then, he moved. But he didn't attack, instead he—flipped a page?

    The casual way he sat on my bed, flipping through Michelle's latest fashion magazine as if he'd yet to notice me, broke through my terrified mind and expelled the paralyzing grip panic wove around my limbs. My first instinct was to run.

    But, as fast as I was, I wasn't sure I could outrun a vampire.

    Think, Roxanne, think. Identify the threat.

    I eyed his red and purplish, almost-black aura and struggled through the terrified haze to remember what I read on Dr. Maxwell's journal. Red for a vampire who lived on blood, and only a made vampire lived solely on blood. I deduced the purple part indicated how long he'd been a vampire, assuming he'd once been human with a simple blue aura.

    One thing was clear from his aura; he was old. Very old.

    Shit. Shit.

    This was such overkill. It was like firing a cannon ball at a mosquito.

    If I ran, he'd only chase me. Made vampires—especially old ones—shed their humanity once they transition from alive to undead. Anyone I passed while fleeing only meant he'd get more prey to play with.

    Especially sweet, over-protective old Marian.

    Straightening, I tried hiding the fact that I was scared shitless and entered the room, turned on the light, and closed the door behind me. I think I saw a flicker of something—respect?—in his eyes, but who knew, it might have been annoyance that he didn't get to chase me around town. Then again, he didn't know I knew what he was, seeing that aura reading wasn't a normal trait, even among the preternaturals. Maybe I had an advantage after all.

    I just had to figure out how to use it.

    In a valiant attempt at bravery, I threw the key down on the dresser to my right, crossed my arms over my chest – no way near impressive with the way my hands shook – and leaned back on the door in a gesture that mimicked `I'm such a bad ass', but was really so I wouldn't melt into a quivering pool of fearful goo.

    A mocking, condescending smirk formed on his lips. For the first time, I noticed his unnatural features.

    Corpse-like, he was thin, so thin he looked on the verge of emaciation. Or like a very well fed skeleton. I'd been so focused on the twisted, double-colored aura that I hadn't even paid any attention to his strange features.

    His bones—cheek, skull, arms, and ribs—were so pronounced that he looked more like a skeleton dressed in skin than anything else.

    And then he changed. Right in front of my eyes.

    Dark, lean, handsome.

    His hair was long, curling lazily at his shoulders. Green eyes, a thin nose that had been broken at some point during his human life, nice full lips. His body, which a few seconds ago had been all bones, now looked also extremely nice. He was dressed all in black. From the tips of his shining boots to the V-shape of his knit shirt, everything was black.

    I gave myself a mental shake, and for a moment, the handsome GQ vampire image stuck. For a second, both images superimposed. There was a stabbing pain above my eyes and there sat the emaciated dude again.

    Are you lost? I asked, proud my voice didn't crack or shake.

    His eyes glittered coldly, sending a chill through my body. And then… he laughed.

    A deep, coming-from-the-belly sexy laugh.

    Oh shit, I was amusing him. I was prey, entertaining the predator. I had to get away from him, put plenty of distance between us.

    But first, I had to distract him. Somehow, I had to disable him, to keep him from finding me again. Maybe strike him hard enough to render him unconscious while I fled? I just needed to get closer. In retrospect, I could tell how foolish and naïve that idea was.

    He tilted his head to the side in an unnatural gesture that caused my heart to skip beats.

    He was so far from human, a tiny, frightened voice squealed inside my head.

    He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, an expression of bliss crossing his face.

    Smart enough to be afraid. He watched me for a moment, his eyes moving slowly over my body. It was like being bitten by fire ants. Yet, you are still standing. He tilted his head to the other side, puzzling over me, a reptilian movement.

    My heart skipped another beat, then kick-started into an accelerated drum.

    If I bolt, you'll only think I'm game—which I assure you I am not. I shrugged, a jerky move that belied my tone. Then I added in a shakier tone, I'm already amusing you and I'm just standing here.

    He gave that mocking, condescending smirk again. I like you. Very brave, very courageous, he said, and I noticed his voice carried a British accent. Of course it did. I bet he was turned at a time when Indians were the only human life in the Americas.

    Yeah? Unfortunately, I'm not interested at the moment. Perhaps you should try again in a month or two. I pushed away from the door and took two steps, close enough, with only two more steps to go. Who knows? I shrugged again, Maybe then I'd be interested. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to be alone. I pointed a thumb behind me, my hand jerking when a vicious kaboom! blasted the air.

    You know why I am here, little one? he asked, serious now. I was glad he deemed me neither worthy nor dangerous enough to get up from the bed. He remained calm, relaxed even.

    I shrugged, took one more tiny step, and stopped cold when his eyes narrowed into thin slits. He didn't look like an emaciated dude anymore. He looked dangerous, his eyes gleaming with inhuman intelligence and awareness.

    Scratch plan A. If I couldn't get close enough to strike him unaware, I needed to come up with an alternative. Time for plan B. Now, I just needed to figure out what plan B was.

    I'm here to take you back. Enough playing the damsel in distress. If you wish to bring anything you've acquired, then go ahead and bring it. You have five minutes.

    What makes you think I'll go back? I asked, my mind whirling for something I could do.

    He showed me his teeth. Straight, nice, white teeth. It wasn't a smile or a sneer, just… teeth.

    I have some papers for you to sign before we leave, he said, returning his attention to the magazine as if my accompanying him was a foregone conclusion. A disclaimer that entitles the scientist's full rights for the next ten years … He flipped another page. Hmmmm. Nice shoes. Flip. During this ten-year period, if you give them your full cooperation —

    I lunged for him, talons out. Straight for his throat. I didn't know if a stake through the heart was the right method to kill a vampire, but decapitation was a sure way to kill anything living—or nonliving—or animated, or whatever it was they called a made vampire.

    I hit something hard and for the fraction of a second thought I hit the mark. Just the time it took for my brain to process his bony fingers around my wrist, exactly where the fur and padded paw ended and my human wrist began.

    I didn't even see him move.

    Without any pause or hesitation, I tried again with my free left talons. When I found both my wrists imprisoned by his bony fingers, I kicked his shin with my right cowboy boot, while simultaneously wrenching both my hands back with as much force as I could muster, slicing his hands in the process.

    He howled, letting go of me and getting up, fangs out. I stumbled back a step and without losing momentum, kept going for the closet where I kept the broom I used to clean up my room so old Marian wouldn't need to. As weapons went it was pretty lame and harmless, but it was all I could think of at the moment.

    Despite the head start and the fact I was fast, I'd taken only two steps before he tackled me from behind. I fell with a loud oomph, almost banging my nose against the hard wood. I struggled, trying to free my legs, but his strength was tremendous, and I only managed to gain a few inches. Nevertheless, I kicked—more a hard shove—with the spare inches I had and heard the satisfying grunt of pain. Not waiting for him to recover, I put all my strength in my upper body and pulled myself—and him along—a few inches to the closet door and held on to the frame. Again, I struggled to free my legs and continued kicking/shoving every time I gained an inch or two.

    Stop it, he snarled, voice guttural, arms tightening around my legs.

    Inch by inch, I moved, hope filling my heart when the tips of my fingers brushed the handle of the broom.

    Then something sharp pierced through the fabric of my pants, into the back muscles of my right shin. I stiffened when the vampire began sucking, paralyzed with fear. That was how vampires controlled their prey and made them slaves. By drinking their blood.

    With a cry of despair and outrage, I pulled myself again with renewed determination, the frame of the closet creaking with indignation, the vampire's fangs tearing through my muscles like scissors on thin paper. My hand brushed the handle of the broom again, but it slipped away. Finally my left foot came free and I stomped on his head once, twice, the muscles of my shin tearing with every kick. My leg slid, though his fangs still sucked, caught on a frenzied feeding, now embedded in the tendrils of my ankle. The pain was so overwhelming, it almost outdid reason. I pulled myself again, crying out with the agony of tearing flesh. I reached and grabbed the broom, and with a herculean effort of will, flipped my upper body and began thwacking the vampire on the side of the head until the handle broke and I had a makeshift stake.

    I quickly stabbed him in the shoulder, and, as if he had just now realized I was fighting him, he let go of my leg and shot straight up and away.

    I picked the other side of the broom, the one with the bristles—considerably shorter—and got up slowly, almost sinking back down when I put some weight on my right foot.

    The vampire reached back and unhooked the handle of the broom from his shoulder, his malnourished face contorting with anger. There was an alien redness in his eyes, his fanged, opened mouth dripping with my blood.

    I took a step back, careful to put as little pressure as possible on my right side. Regardless, I almost passed out when the pain zinged through the entire leg. My vision dimmed once, and I had to swallow bile twice. If I passed out, I would be waking up inside a cage. That is, if I ever woke up again.

    Then all of a sudden, there was no more weight on the mangled leg. My relief lasted for less than a millisecond, the moment it took for me to realize I was dangling by the throat, the vampire's bloody lips about two inches away.

    It took my brain precious moments to shift gear and process the fact there was no longer any distance between us.

    Shit, he was fast. There hadn't been even a blur.

    When someone dangles you by the throat, it hurts. It hurts a lot. I felt like my body was trying to detach itself from my head. Gravity pulled me down while his hand kept me upright. I grabbed his bony wrists, trying to diffuse some of the pressure, and was about to kick him again when I made the mistake of looking straight into his eyes.

    Aside from the reddish alien sclera, the pupils had a red thin line surrounding it. It might have been there before, but I couldn't remember. Even as my inner alarm went off telling me to break contact, I was wondering why I wanted to. I stopped struggling, let my hands fall to my sides and felt my face slacken. I was suffocating but couldn't give a damn about it. I knew my leg throbbed like a motherfucker, but the pain didn't register. My receptors malfunctioned.

    The vampire put me back on my feet, and it wobbled with the weight, but he wanted me to stand, and for him I could endure anything.

    Mind control wasn't what I had expected it to be. I was totally there and aware, I knew it was wrong, I just didn't care. The vampire's pupils dilated for a moment, engulfing every part of his irises before contracting again, this time becoming a barely-perceptible pinprick. Trapping me inside. I was mesmerized. The warning in the back of my mind became a hardly audible alarm.

    Then something happened—the feel of his control changed. I could feel him perusing inside my mind—a tickling-prickling sensation—as he leafed through my thoughts and memories as if I were an open book, just as casually as he had been leafing, only moments ago, through the magazine. I felt, rather than saw, him laughing at the comparison inside my head, and heard my inner voice screaming at me, Do something! But I was helpless, aware of his invasion, cringing from the violation of my most private thoughts and memories. I was like a ghost, following someone through a haunted mansion while he checked this room and that, ignoring the phantom completely.

    He saw me as a child, on the yellow swing in front of the house, laughing at a beautiful blonde woman dressed in a dark green business suit with eyes as black as mine. Mother had just come from work and was telling me she'd gotten me a gift. I jumped out of the swing and ran to her, hugging her with gratitude and that innocent unconditional love only a child could give so freely. Now I was holding a big teddy bear and mother was telling me a bedtime story about fairy princesses.

    Images of my childhood flashed by faster, jigsaw pieces of a life long tucked away, kept apart from all the torment and pain that followed and practically destroyed me. Mother taking me the first day to school, the bus that picked me up the very next day; my first-grade teacher; Tommy, the boy I used to have a crush on; my best friend Vicky, the troubles we got into together; me falling off a tree I climbed on a dare from Vicky. Faster and faster my memories moved as I grew, and the vampire absorbed everything, every detail, enjoying my helplessness.

    The day the Paranormal Scientists Society came and took me away screaming, while my mother watched helplessly, framed by the front porch while it rained; the first time they threw me in a cell with a rabid wolf. Dr. Maxwell's angry face the day I spat the concoction he wanted me to ingest back in his face; Dr. Maxwell injecting a concoction through an IV, monitors connected through small plugs all over my chest, as I lay shackled to the cold stainless examination table. Professor Anderson, my tutor in the years I spent in the PSS.

    Fear began slowly transforming inside me, growing from a quivering puke green color… into yellow… into orange… into red. And it wanted to be let go.

    My rage grew as the vampire explored every detail of my life—every private moment.

    Reaching inside myself for that growing anger, I tried to take hold of it—and I couldn't.

    I tried again, but it remained unreachable, yet just a hair's width away. For all the PSS's claims of me being a super predator, there I was, unable to shield my mind, or move my limp arm and punch him… no nothing, not even an impotent twitch.

    My anger, the thing I had learned to fear for the past ten years, that destructive otherness I kept suppressed inside in chains and strong will at all times… had become nothing but a useless emotion.

    I was helpless to stop the vamp as he navigated through my memories. The memorable and the detestable.

    And when he was done, instead of just pulling away, he began building suggestions in my mind. Making me want things. And oh, but I wanted it. Craved it, in fact. I'd just suffocate if I didn't do as he said.

    I wanted to go with him.

    But not to the PSS.

    No, we were going to be a team. He was going to teach me all sorts of things.

    I was going to obey him. Everything he commanded, I would obey.

    Chapter Two

    Master, whispered a voice in my head.

    Master. My lips moved, forming the word.

    Then an image of him feeding from my neck, my eyes blank as he took his fill filled my mind. As if it were a reminder, my leg gave a painful throb.

    No. Nooooooooooo! Screamed that tiny voice. Louder and louder it screamed. Until—until…

    My rage peaked, ready to explode like an active volcano. For the tiniest fraction of a second his control wavered with surprise.

    It was all I needed.

    I embraced that raging otherness inside me.

    And I let the explosion take over.

    I started slowly gaining on him, and once I got going, I didn't stop. I gained speed and momentum like a free-falling object. Once I reached the limit—once I had pushed him all the way out of my head—instead of impacting and bouncing, I wanted to keep going. So I followed him and pushed into his mind, through the mud-like molasses trying to impede my forward progress. I roared with rage and triumph to the other side, to the maze of hundreds and thousands and millions of cobwebbed lights—the network of thoughts and memories.

    My rage had the control seat. For a timeless moment, I moved neither forward nor backward.

    The mind was a beautiful thing. A sea of lights, contrasting everywhere with shadows and colors, some like a dot on a map—barely significant, others shining as brilliant as the sun.

    I didn't go for his memories, his thoughts, his knowledge. I ignored the lights, the darkness, the shadows and colors. As I traversed through, I caught glimpses of the memories I came closest, of a beautiful brunette with blue eyes the color of a summer day sky, dressed in a midnight blue gown with bell sleeves. Of a man with green eyes and long dark hair, dressed in another era's clothes. I felt the love he felt for her—Angelina Hawthorn of Bond Street, daughter to a diplomat—then the horror, the pain and fear when Angelina turned into a nightmare with fangs and struck, such a delicate thing, sharper than a rapier. I watched as the woman struck, needle-sharp fangs pierced the delicate part of his throat like hot knife on butter; as his green eyes widened in shock, as his life force began to drain away. Regardless of how much I wanted to stay and pry—intrude into his private moments—my raging otherness didn't. I moved straight to the end, to what the roaring otherness sought, to the middle back where there was a strange glowing red point with a brilliant net surrounding it, keeping it apart from all the others. The vamp's will pushed at me, trying to get me out of his mind. He was strong, with centuries of accumulated knowledge and power, learnt and built throughout the years. It was like being scraped from inside with forked claws.

    I screamed, either literally or mentally, I didn't know, but he heard me and responded with a roar of his own. I believe it was his arrogance and sense of superiority, combined with my fear of being recaptured and sent back to the dungeons—or of losing my freewill to a vampire who had god-knew-what in mind—along with the raging otherness inside of me that gave me the strength I needed to keep pushing and gaining ground.

    The net looked thick—cable-like and pulsing with a dark substance that seemed to emit its own throbbing hum, which I could hear even above the roaring. It gave even my raging otherness pause. But not for long. It coiled to spring like a snake, and then slammed into it.

    This time when I screamed, it was from the agonizing pain searing inside my head. It went on and on. Like being electrocuted from inside out.

    Then… silence. Nothing.

    The roaring was gone. The screaming was gone. The humming was gone. The cobweb of light was gone. The thick, cable-like net was gone. Nothing but a blob-like red ball that no longer glowed like a beacon.

    I reached for it.

    And began squeezing, squishing, compressing it from all sides as if I had encased it inside a diminishing box of metal sheets.

    Some part of me was horrified with what I was doing, the part that understood what this meant, but was quickly shut down by the otherness inside.

    It was either him or me. My freedom or his life.

    An excruciating pain began building between my eyes, but it didn't stop or diminish the hold that otherness had of me. I was aware of the warm trickle of blood running down my nose, my eyes. Concern that I wouldn't be able to wrestle control back from that otherness began to make a presence.

    The blob decreased in size, giving way to nothing, until … there was no more.

    There was an explosive pressure inside my head that terrified me, before everything became black.

    When I awoke, dawn was already approaching. I had the mother of all headaches. My right leg was on fire. The dim light coming from the edge of the drapes was like acid in my eyes. The murmur of early birds like knives inside my head. I closed my eyes again and I remembered at once what had happened.

    I needed to get the hell out of there. I took a deep, aching breath and opened my eyes again.

    When I was able to focus my watering eyes, the first thing I saw was the mummified figure beside me.

    The faint smell of rotten meat permeated the air, along with the metallic scent of blood. I got up slowly, mindful of the mangled leg, and supported myself with a hand on the dresser. The pain I felt was unbelievable, and I did sway once when the room tilted, but a couple of deep breaths had the world, and my nervous stomach, settling again. And just like that, I packed all my belongings into my duffle bag and limped out of there. I was locking the door when I remembered my rent. I still had the envelope with the week's paycheck inside my coat pocket. It would cover the rent, plus whatever troubles and cleaning expenses would be needed to scrape the blood and mummified corpse. I took the check out, placed it on the dresser along with the room key, and limped my way outside to the back of the building where Thunder—the ancient truck a guy had sold me over a year ago—was parked. I took the I-84 to head south, hoping and praying the PSS would give up on me.

    Chapter Three

    I stayed on the run for two weeks, stopping for nothing, making do with energy bars and gas station bathroom breaks whenever I could. But I caught no tails, saw no familiar SUVs, no familiar faces or uniforms.

    The rain hadn't let up for more than a few hours at a time, and a lot of towns I had passed by were talking about floods, inundation and higher grounds. I was still in Idaho, moving from one small town to the next, because PSS facilities were found in bigger cities, metropolitan areas with military bases. During the year and a half since I escaped, I'd been found only three times, counting the vampire two weeks ago.

    I spotted a road—a waterlogged trail with tire marks and patches of dry weeds in the middle—and decided to follow it, knowing those usually took me to very small towns and villages. I needed a respite, a bed, a substantial meal to eat… a cup of coffee. My stomach growled like an engine, and I popped open my last warm soft drink and guzzled it down, knowing I'd need a bathroom break soon. The sky was beginning to darken, even if sunset was still a few hours away.

    It took me a while and a little backtracking, but finally I found the town's B & B, just a rundown, two-story brick building that had seen better days—probably before the revolution. I glanced at the rearview mirror, winced at my reflection, the dark pockets under my eyes, my greasy hair, not to mention the obnoxious stink wafting off me.

    * * *

    I awoke to the incessant sound of my grumbling stomach and the pounding rain, and took a fast, hot shower. Then I drove to the laundromat I'd spotted last night when I'd been searching for an inn, paid the required coins and filled the machine with my stinky clothes. To give my legs some much-needed stretching, I ran the three blocks to the town's only mall under the rain.

    I had just taken a bite of my turkey sandwich when there was that horrible sound of a booming crash of expanding air.

    Kaboom! Like the sound of a whip lashing, followed by the rumble of the giant rocks. Then a second one, closer, louder. It was like the world was breaking apart. A glance up at the rafters showed they were fine, the metal sheets hadn't come down, yet. I have never been afraid of thunder, but this one had my veins filling with icy dread.

    Bad omen. I sipped from the coffee, but the uneasiness didn't wash down. I shifted in my seat and wondered what other surprises fate had under her sleeve for me. Almost as soon as the thought crossed my mind I shoved it away, afraid to tempt fate.

    Ah, fickle fate, who would rather throw me into an endless abyss.

    And on the next deafening kaboom, I noticed a man coming towards me… focused on me. A chill went down my spine, and my heart skipped a beat before I could think reasonably. This was a public place, there was no need for alarm or anxiety. I was too stressed out. I took a sip of my coffee, and the caffeine calmed me down—and had ire coursing through my veins. Couldn't I finish my breakfast in peace, without attracting any attention?

    I watched him approach, doing nothing to hide my annoyance. Maybe he'd get the hint.

    Yeah, right.

    I resumed eating, watching as the guy kept coming in my direction.

    When he was fifteen feet away, his aura flickered into existence. The food in my mouth suddenly gained a cardboard quality, and I took a sip of the coffee to help ease it down. A nervous chill fluttered in my gut. Outwardly, nothing showed. My heart picked up a wild beat and blood roared in my ears.

    Because, oh shit, the man approaching me was not an ordinary human. The tall man dressed in the olive green wool coat approaching me was a preternatural… a mix between born vampire and wolf?

    According to Dr. Maxwell's journal, a born vampire had a yellowish aura, a thin line that contoured around the body; the were-animal had a dark green one. The man now approaching had some kind of twisted double line, like a DNA helix. Not long ago, I'd have assumed he was something else, but I learned to interpret people's aura as a necessity for my survival. It's funny how people manage lots of things when properly motivated.

    Ever since I escaped the headquarters, preternaturals were the people I absolutely had to avoid, since most were mercenaries for hire and the PSS had no qualms hiring one or three after me. I couldn't tell friend from foe, so I cut myself from the preternatural community – and any helpful guidance, something I desperately needed.

    I took a bite from my turkey sandwich and washed it down with the coffee. I tasted neither. My stomach, already uneasy, roiled and threatened to return the few bites I had taken. I scanned my surrounding with a casual sweep. Although the food court was almost empty, there were people, innocent people nearby, and it bothered me. Did he think if he approached with witnesses nearby I'd accompany him, rather than make a scene?

    Oh, but he was sorely wrong.

    I cared nothing if the world discovered about us preternaturals. And yet, I'd heard it was bad business for hired mercs to get caught by ordinary humans performing any kind of abnormal activity. Or was he considering using them as leverage in exchange for my cooperation? I glanced around, taking a sip of my coffee to cover the motion and took count. Four people. Two women chatting excitedly about someone's wedding and someone named Josh Jr. who was the total douche canoe. Another girl, who looked young enough to be ditching school, texted furiously on her cell, and the fourth was a middle-aged woman eating some pastries, a reproachful look aimed at the ditcher, a cart full of groceries parked beside her. They were seated on the opposite side of the food court—not far enough, but it had given me the illusion of solace when I'd

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