C. L. Schneider
Nite Fire Sneak Peeks & Excerpts
The Nite Fire Series features shapeshifters, dragons, supernatural creatures, parallel worlds, spontaneous combustion, psychic abilities, genetic experiments, reincarnation, and the usual magic and mayhem.
*Sneak Peeks are not final copy*
Book 1 Excerpt
Book 1 Excerpt
Fire dripped like rain from my scaled fingers. Gliding past my jean-covered thighs, then boots, the flaming beads breached the puddle beside me with a hiss. A last stubborn burst of light flared bright, illuminating the red pool for a breath before it sputtered out.
The pattern repeated: drip, flare, hiss, sputter, drip, flare, hiss, sputter, as I stood in the abandoned train depot; counting the circles of blood that overran the pockmarks on the fractured concrete floor. Each bloody puddle corresponded to a body hanging upside down from the rafters above my head.
Thick ropes bound their ankles. Their flaccid arms dangled toward me, as if reaching down in hopeless supplication. But their death throe pleas were illusion. The six had died long before they were dragged in, stripped of their clothing and skin, and hung like a side of beef in a slaughterhouse. If they’d died here, I would have felt an imprint of their trauma on the room. Instead, all I sensed was their ripe stench drifting with the breeze as it blew in through the rotted holes in the ceiling.
“Looks like a full hunt,” I said, glancing up with a frown as moisture landed on my head. The color got lost in the red of my hair as the blood slid down into the curls. “And you’re fresh. Dammit…” I muttered, stepping to the left to avoid another drop escaping the corpse above me. I waited then, to see if it would be enough, if one little bead would trigger a flood inside me; ambushing me with the images and emotions of the victim’s last moments.
Not now, I thought. The last thing I needed was an unsolicited, untimely death-glimpse. Experiencing the terror of being skinned alive would definitely lower my guard.
Trying to stave it off, I busied my mind. I studied the dilapidated building, the architecture, and the faded peeling murals that graced the wide walls. I thought back to when it had all looked fresh and new. Opening day, the ticket counters had been bustling, handing out adventure and opportunity with every ticket. So many lives had passed through the front door. All that came through now were the rats.
And the monsters.
Sensing no extraneous rush of emotions, I went back to rooting out my prey. “Guess that means you’re ready to pack up and head home.” I raised my voice higher. “Except you can’t yet, can you? You’re stuck for now. You’re ineffective. Vulnerable.”
Just the way I like it.
Moving farther into the vacant building, swarms of buzzing flies scattered at my intrusion. My low-heeled boots clicked softly on the wooden planks covering a broken section of floor. My steps were leisurely. It was a nice change, not having to run. The creature was in no shape for such dexterous moves. It wouldn’t be for hours. Hiding was another matter. Sentinel City’s original depot had been vacated long ago in favor of a bright, shiny new building on the other end of the train yard. Here, amid the debris of a forgotten time, were cracks and crevices, and lots of shadows.
“You can’t leave this world until you digest,” I said, keeping my voice loud. “Until your pathetically slow stomach consumes all that delicious human skin you’ve been gorging on.”
Getting no response, I pushed the crimson scales out over more of my body. They ran like water beneath my black halter, affording extra protection to my upper half. As they reached my face, I shifted my eyes. Sockets enlarged. Pupils widened and elongated. Their reddish hazel-brown color deepened to warm amber, and my vision amplified. Sweeping the room, I peered into nooks and crannies, studying the fallen beams, broken signs, piles of busted chairs and rows of dusty benches; fallen light fixtures and detached stair railings barely hanging on by a thread.
“You should’ve added some brains to your diet,” I said, scanning for movement as I walked. “Maybe they would have made you smarter. Because I’ve already warned you once—this isn’t a buffet,” I said with force. “There are no free refills here. No all you can eat. The human world is off limits to the del-yun. It’s off limits to everyone.”
His voice came out of the dark. “You have no right,” he blustered, scratchy and dry like sandpaper on a chalkboard. “No authority to enforce the elders’ rules. You no longer hold position in the dragon ranks, pretty shifter. The Guild tossed you out so very, very long ago.”
“Ninety-seven years, two months, and three days. But who’s counting?” Bristling, I tossed back my hair. “And they didn’t fire me. I quit.”
“You ran…like those cowardly small ones with the perfect skin…so soft and supple.”
Understanding him, I frowned. “Children?”
“Yes, you fled like a child.” His laugh was stilted and wobbly. “And now you’re a maid.”
“I prefer the term ‘contract cleaner’. Scrubbing away those stubborn off-world assholes is my specialty.” I lifted a hand. Fire dribbled down the side. “How about I give you a free demo?”
Belligerent, he spat, “You can’t blame me. This world is so beautifully curious, so dangerous. It’s why all the other worlds are drawn here. It’s why we watch. Why we learn to speak their sounds.”
“Why you eat them?”
“No. We eat them because they’re tasty. And their skin comes in so many varieties. It’s not our fault they can’t live without it. It’s a…structural flaw.”
“You’re not a del-yun,” I scoffed, keeping him talking. “You’re a pig. A fat, greedy, gluttonous pig who doesn’t know when to quit.”
“Oh, pretty shifter,” he cooed. “So noble. So brave. So…insulting. I’ve never tasted the skin of a lyrriken before. I imagine it would be tough.”
“I hear it tastes like chicken. Not that you’ll have a chance to know.”
“You assume I can’t kill you,” he chuckled, low and gravely. I followed the sound as his threats continued. “You think I won’t feast on your scales and sell your parts? Everyone wants the dragon pieces, the power they gather. Everyone wants a taste.”
“I’m only part dragon, del-yun. Your buyers might notice the difference.”
“Half…full…you all have worth. And,” the delight in his voice was unmistakable, “smaller bones make such a wonderful snap. You’ll see. I’ll show you soon. Nothing compares to the exquisite sound of peeling flesh from a shattered bone.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
My fire was the only light. It danced on the tip of my finger, a flickering yellow-orange tongue that licked the dark, chasing it back, stabbing the veil of gloom. It was barely a spark of color through the heavy forest branches. Yet my tiny fire flared loud like a promise: if I’m here, you’ll be dead soon.
But he already knows, I thought. He’s been waiting for me.
Standing in his dark house, peering from behind the half-closed curtain, through the dirty panes of an upstairs window; whatever the human had done to earn the ire of the dragon elders had been warning enough.
In a flash, his body was gone. He was on the run, and so was I.
Dropping to all fours, my ears tracked his panicked breath as I crossed the open yard. Traces of colored heat passed swiftly by the window glass. The soles of his shoes slapped against the floor, then the stairs, as he descended.
His steps were hasty, desperate, as he struggled to find a hiding place.
There was none.
Yet the echo of his foolish endeavor was more than it should be.
He wasn’t alone.
I recalled my orders, knowing Naalish had been clear. She was never one to hesitate in her words, never one to be wrong. So when the Queen told me of the human who had consorted with one of my kind—a renegade partial plotting against the Guild—I’d given her my full attention.
Her massive body had loomed above me, scale-wrapped and strong. Her feminine voice had whispered unequivocally in my mind. “Humans serve a purpose. They have been allowed a place in our world. But in that place they must stay. History has shown us what happens when the balance is tipped. We must all do our part to prevent it from ever tipping again.”
I’d posed only one question. “And if he is not alone?”
Her long neck straightened. “You are an executioner, Dahlia. Kill them all.”
I stepped forward now to fulfill her command and sound drifted in from the woods behind me. Pausing, listening, to the sudden heavy gait of bodies bursting through the forest; steel and lyrriken scales winked through the leaf-covered shadows. High above in the distance, great wings flapped against the silhouette of the double moons. Long, muscular bodies hung like encroaching black clouds in the sultry air.
The dragons were coming.
That’s not possible.
That’s not how it happened.
Why are they here?
Elders never left their lair for something as lowly as the execution of a human.
Their shapes closed in and the night darkened. Sheets of blinding fire engulfed the sky. Embers fell to ignite the treetops. A blaze of orange tore down the moss-coated trunks. Fire illuminated the shadows, revealing hundreds of nageun as they crawled from the undergrowth.
I spun as more of the vile creatures emptied from the house, jumping out windows and crashing through the door. Pelted by glass and wood, misty streaks of shifting dark bodies surrounded me. My fire-heated claws scored their flesh as they attacked. But there were too many. A flurry of teeth bit into me from all sides.
My screams were lost beneath a great rumble of the land as the dragons descended. Their massive clawed feet sunk inches into the soil. I couldn’t fathom how so many fit into the tiny clearing as representatives arrived from all tribes. Taking measure of their surroundings, their graceful elongated heads danced. Forked tongues flicked in annoyance.
A female approached. Two stories tall, red-blue scales glinting; she smacked the swarming nageun aside, clearing them off me like the sturdy beasts carried no weight.
What is this? I thought.
It didn't happen this way. This isn't my ghost.
The female looked down at me lying before her, shaking and blood soaked; wrapped in pain. Judgment gleamed in her eyes as her thick, plated tail swung round to rise above me. It descended swiftly toward my chest. The barbed end hovered.
“Do it,” I dared her. “Take my heart. Burn it. Kill me. But it won’t erase the past. It won’t change what I’ve done.” Overcome, I cried out, “Do you think this is what I wanted?”
A breath of disappointment fled the dragon’s snout. “None of us wanted this.”
Book 2 --Sneak Peek
Book 2 - Sneak Peek
Cold air blew over my human skin. I couldn’t tell its origin. The small room was solid and empty, but for an old, rusty fixture dangling from the ceiling. The loose housing creaked as it swayed, providing a glimmer of shifting light that swept back and forth, illuminating the bare concrete walls and the door in front of me. The two wooden slabs were fastened shut by a heavy chain and an old-fashioned, almost medieval looking, padlock. Rust lightened the reinforcing belts of iron. Rot peppered the wood. Time had left it smelling of dust and decay. For its obvious age, the door was strong. Recently, though, something had changed. It was weakening.
Somehow, I knew that, yet I shouldn’t. Just as I knew there was more here, something I couldn’t see—something beyond the door. I sensed it, skulking on the other side of the warped wood and corroded bolts. Its presence mocked me, beckoned me.
I stepped forward, and a blast of frigid air swept in under the door. Sighing and whistling as it caressed the wood, each gust seemed to whisper: closer.
The gale heaved with the icy signature of a winter wind, yet it brushed against me with a prickle of pain not made by Mother Nature. Unless she’d branched out into the preternatural, a ghost or scar was on the other side. Still, I’d never known one to manifest so strongly that its wave-like movements stirred the air.
With a rattle of wood, the ghost-wind blew harder, and the already uncomfortable temperature in the room took a nosedive. The concrete burned like a glacier under my bare feet, cradling them in pain. I couldn’t stand still. The air hurt. Every breath, every shiver, was like the slow scrape of a knife over exposed skin.
That’s most of me, I thought, looking down at my tank-top and underwear.
Where the hell are my clothes?
I didn’t remember taking them off, or even how I got here. There was nothing but the cold, and my popsicle-brain couldn’t think past it.
Hoping to lessen the fog and the pain both, I let scales replace my human skin. I raised fire in my hands and heated my body from the inside. It still wasn’t enough. Each breath was sharper than the last.
Reaching my limit, I scanned the room again. The walls were smooth, without a single pockmark or scratch to suggest a weak point. There was only one way out.
I turned to face the door.
The wind whipped with a ghostly howl, and my stomach tightened. Heart thumping, I reached out. My fingers touched the chain, and the links fell apart. As the pieces hit the floor, the padlock dropped onto the concrete. The thunderous clank echoed through the room, striking the walls with a finality that begged me to back away.
I couldn’t. Frost was forming on my scales. And a dark curiosity had slithered over my sense of reason. It drew my arm forward, and I mindlessly placed a hand flat against the wood.
My slight pressure seemed to unbalance something. Bits of the old, pliable knots crumbled off. Pinholes formed. Cracks widened, and the ghost on the other side began slipping through. It pushed against my hand, then retreated, then pushed again, with a steady ebb and flow—as if the wood itself was drawing breath.
I’d never known any trauma to give off such a clear impression of sentience.
What the hell are you?
I had the urge to pose the question aloud, but I was too afraid of the answer. Foreboding was already choking the arctic air in my throat. It screamed in my head that leaving the room wasn’t the simple act it appeared. Opening the door would be a tap of the first domino. With each step after, another would fall. Then another, and another, and another, until the pieces of my life were toppled on the floor; inside out, broken, and unrecognizable.
If I do this, there’s no turning back.
Murky, black tendrils of pain slithered up my ankle. They wrapped around my legs, anxious and cold and begging to be felt. The ghost they spawned from was an old one. Shed in the last moments before death, the tattered remnant of human trauma had been drifting here for years. It was forever a part of this place now, forgotten and abandoned like the building it was trapped in.
Regret, I thought, processing the emotion’s distinctive touch. It was sad, but it wasn’t the trauma I was looking for. I shook my leg, dislodging the shadow, and moved on.
My quick dismissal wasn’t as callous as it appeared. As an empath, I understood: no matter the species, the age, or the cause, every hurt was significant to the soul that owned it.
This one wasn’t significant enough, not tonight. Not for what I needed.
Shivering, I yanked the zipper up on my hoodie. It was late. The building was drafty. But my sudden chill wasn’t sparked by cold. If it was, exchanging my human skin for scales was far more efficient. Being a half-dragon shapeshifter had its perks. Generating heat was one of them. But it was the end of August. There was plenty of heat to go around. It was disgust that had me trembling.
I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m terrible, I thought.
At least, I would be if I continued on my current slippery slope. It was a figurative decline. The crumbling concrete floor of the derelict apartment building I was trespassing in was as flat and unwavering as it should be. My morals, however, were careening steadily downward. If ‘shifter-hell’ was a place, it was a sure bet I had a standing reservation carved in stone.
Of course, the name Dahlia Nite had been on that list for a while now. A former executioner for the dragon-queen, Naalish, there was no way my elevator had ever been going up. Not even the last ninety-seven years I’d spent performing (mostly) good deeds in the human realm could change my eternal destination. But this… Trolling the slums, looking to loot the trauma from whatever poor souls I could find and use it for target practice—this was going to plummet me straight to the bottom.
But I had to do something. My empathic abilities had been a mystery from day one. Over the years, they’d grown to become an important part of my life. The clues my empathic glimpses provided were mostly reliable, even if the results were inconsistent. Since moving back to Sentinel City three months ago, that inconsistency had flown off the freaking chart.
I’d tried not using my empathy, but I didn’t like being limited. I solved crimes and hunted monsters for a living. I needed every edge I could get. Unfortunately, this edge had become too unpredictable to be trusted. Hurting an enemy with an involuntary psychic attack was one thing. Sending an innocent man into cardiac arrest was a near-fatal mistake. I wanted it to be my last. If absorbing and reassigning pain was something I could do now, I needed to get a handle on it.
Yet, the last four weeks, I’d been dragging my feet. Because there was only one way to train my sixth sense. I needed pain. I needed to feel it and play with it, and doing so, for the sake of my own gain, made me feel no better than the creatures I hunted.
Ignoring the issue, though, was dangerous, which was why I was spending my Monday night touring one of the city’s most notorious buildings in the old waterfront district.
The Fletcher had been condemned for years. Rumors of spirits and ghouls fed into the city’s love of legends, but the only activity in the ramshackle structure was the unseemly kind. There was no electricity. Most of the rooms were missing doors. Grime coated the few remaining broken window panes. Termites and humans had riddled the interior walls with holes. Fire had scorched the rest. Graffiti bubbles colored nearly every surface. A few surviving furnishings were coated in layers of filth. Just looking at them warranted a shower.
The kids who snuck in to party mostly stuck to the lower levels. The junkies who stumbled in to forget their lives for a few hours or days favored the solitude of the higher floors. Runaways and vagrants, however, made use of the entire six stories. Most would crash for a while, then get smart and move on. Some graduated into permanent residency. Now and then, the city came in and cleaned the place out, rounding up the runaways, busting the dealers and the junkies.
They came right back.
Curling up in dark corners and old closets, hiding from the world, shooting up and fading away; their decaying souls shed trauma like autumn leaves in a perpetual windstorm.
There were certain places empaths preferred to avoid. Hospitals, nursing homes, cemeteries, prisons, the sites of ancient battles, all made the top ten. I wasn’t sure where drug den fell on the list, but I couldn’t walk five feet without someone’s suffering reaching out to me. It was everywhere: darkening the fissured concrete, drifting over the decomposing garbage and mold-infested blankets—clinging to the hunched human forms that had moved past unfortunate to wretched a damn long time ago.
Book 3 - Sneak Peek
Book 4 - Sneak Peek!
Smoke & Mirrors
There’s no such thing as monsters.
There’s no such thing as monsters.
With each silent affirmation, William Buntly ran faster.
There’s no such thing as monsters.
Mom said. She promised, he thought, every night when he was little. And he believed her. For twelve years, he believed her. Until they moved here. Here, in Sentinel City, monsters were everywhere. They skulked in the alleys and the school hallways, waiting to trip you. They lurked in the locker room to hide your clothes, waited in the cafeteria to steal your lunch. Sometimes, they lingered outside the library to slash the tires on your bike.
William tried not to look back. He didn’t want to see their red eyes behind him, glowing in the fading light. Halloween was still a week away. They were only wearing the masks to scare him. More than anything, William wished it wasn’t working.
Daring a glance, his eyes widened. The monsters were closing in, riding down the center of the dark street. He couldn’t outrun them on foot. And they wouldn’t give up. The four had set their sights on William his first day, calling him names, knocking his books off his desk.
He hated it here; his stupid new school, his mom’s stupid new job, his new home with the creaky old floors—two blocks from the Murder House. She said give it time, but it had been three weeks, and every day it got worse.
“Billy! Billy!” one of the boys hollered. “Where ya goin’, Billy Buttly?”
Recognizing Gary’s voice behind one of the masks, William glanced back again, shouting, “It’s William, asshole! William Buntly!”
“What did you call me?” Gary thundered.
Another boy chimed in, laughing. “Hey, guys, little Billy knows a curse word! Where’d you learn that Buttly? Babies don’t know curse words!”
Exhausted, his legs trembling, William couldn’t run any faster. He needed to get off the street, somewhere their bikes couldn’t follow. He needed a place to hide.
Jumping a hedge, he pushed through dripping bushes, crossed a shadowy back yard, and ran through another. Sliding on wet leaves, sinking in puddles up to his ankles, by the time William wound his way back out to the street, he was soaked. Everything was soaked. Storms had pounded the city for days. This afternoon, when the rain finally died into a fine mist, William had grabbed his bike and headed to the library. Many of the streets were still flooded. Limbs and power lines were down. He had to ride four blocks out of his way. But the library was the only sanctuary he’d found in this horrible place. It was worth getting wet for.
William turned a corner into the cul de sac. Ahead, behind a white fence, was the house all the kids talked about. Legend said, over the summer, a cult of devil worshippers killed the family that lived there, nailing their bodies to the floor in the shape of a pentagram. Sometimes, on a quiet night, you could hear them screaming.
Everyone was afraid of the Murder House.
But William’s biggest fear was behind him, not in front.
Even if the windows did stare back at him like wide, dark eyes.
Out of breath, his stomach aching as he coughed on the chilly evening air, he eyed the house again. Chloe Tompkins said the killers were still there, hiding in the basement, with the demon they summoned the night the Chandler family died. Noah Baily claimed his older brother knew someone, who knew someone, who broke in to see if it was true—and never came home. Lucia, who sat behind him in math, insisted the place was haunted by the little girl who’d lived there.
The Murder House was just one of the crazy stories William had heard. One kid, in gym, had a picture he claimed was of a mutant trashing his neighbor’s car. Even his history teacher said the urban legends here were more than legends. William wasn’t sure he believed it, but he did know one thing. No one would look for him in the Murder House. Not even Gary.
William pushed open the gate. It swung closed behind him, and he started up the walk. Halfway to the porch, he stopped, sucking in a gulp of air. “No way…”
The front door was ajar.
William stared at it, heart pounding. He looked back at the street. It was quiet. There was no sign of Gary and his friends. Maybe they were still looking. Maybe they were trying to beat him home. Either way, he didn’t have to go in. But if he did, if he survived the Murder House, it would change everything. No one would tease him anymore.
Bolting up the walkway, he took the steps two at a time, and slipped inside.
The dark was thick and quiet. The air was freezing, colder
even than outside. It smelled. “Eww…” William threw a hand up to his nose, covering the sour stench.
Is this what murder smells like? he wondered.
Wanting light, he reached for his cellphone, but his pockets were empty. Panic swept a chill up his arms as William remembered where it was. Like always, he’d turned his phone off and put it away when he got to the library. The boys had been hiding across the street, waiting for him to come out and see his busted tires. When they started throwing rocks, he ran the other way—leaving his backpack on the ground beside his bike.
He didn’t like the dark, but William was more worried about proving he was here. If he couldn’t take a picture, he’d have to take something else; a toy, a family photo.
Putting a hand on the wall, he felt his way through the empty house. William knew there wasn’t a cult or a demon in the basement. It was far too quiet for that. But ghosts… William knew those were real. His mom hated when he said so, but he felt things. He always had. Like when his grandmother came to visit. She passed away when he was two, but every now and then, her spirit came back to the house where she died. William never saw her, but he knew when she was there. The room felt happy, like hugs and chocolate chip cookies.
He’d felt other things in other places. But this house was different.
Whatever was here, it wasn’t hugs.
There were so many shadows. So many shapes he couldn’t identify.
A hint of light caught his eye. Hurrying toward it, William’s gait slowed as he reached the threshold of the living room. The odor was worse here, like something was rotting.
This is where they died.
He found the light. Street lamps were coming on outside, and their glow was leaking in through the blinds in the picture window. It was only a bit of light, but it softened the pinch in his stomach. Another light came on. Another glow. Better, he thought.
If only he wasn’t so wet and cold.
Teeth chattering, barely able to work the zipper, William took off his coat to let it dry. His waterlogged shoes and socks came off next. As he dropped them to the floor, he noticed a shape in the center of the room. It was misshapen, like a small pile of blankets. The hope of warmth coaxing him in, he wavered again at the pattern of dark splotches on the carpet.
William had never seen blood stains before.
Staring at the spots—one for the mother, one for the boy, and one for the little girl—William followed the curves. Imagining them as dried puddles of spilled juice on the pale rug, his throat clogged. The house wasn’t just scary. It was sad.
There were other, blacker stains, on the floor and creeping up the walls. Noah said the bodies were burned, but William had seen scorch marks last year, when a house caught fire in his neighborhood. They had no depth. These did. Uneven, thick and jagged, they were shaped more like the molds and fungus they studied in science class.
Still shivering, he eyed the lump in the center.
It didn’t look like blankets anymore.
William glanced back into the hall. He wanted to leave. Screw Gary and his stupid friends. The room felt like winter and smelled of month-old garbage.
But if it wasn’t blankets, what was it?
Curiosity pulled him closer. The floor creaked beneath his bare feet. Boards groaned, like a tired old man, as William stepped around the wide patches of mold. There was more than he realized. Probably, more than he could see, with the heavy shadows still in the room. He jumped to a clean area. Landing, the carpet dipped under his weight, as if the boards were soggy underneath. William teetered as he squatted beside his find.
“Gross,” he whispered.
It was a dead animal. Half of one, at least. The body, lying on its side, was the right size for a fox or a medium-sized dog. But it wasn’t. The long front legs were decayed down to bone. The chest and stomach were open and empty, with nothing inside but thick layers of the same black that was on the carpet. There was no hide or fur on the head, just a wide skull with thin, slit-like eye sockets, a slender snout and curled tusks. William had never seen anything like it.
“Awesome,” he muttered. Then, with more worry, “What are you?”
Black pieces of something were spinning over the back half. They shimmered a bit, like glass, dousing the animal’s hind legs in complete darkness. It was like they weren’t even there. Like they’d disappeared. Like they were… Invisible? It can’t be.
William had read about things like the Jersey Devil and Chupacabra. If the legends in Sentinel City were true, maybe he’d found something like that. But he didn’t remember reading about them turning invisible.
Extending a trembling hand over the body, as he reached the dark, spinning objects, his hand passed through a breath of frigid air—and vanished. William jerked back with an excited, “Woah!” Enthralled, the pulse pounding in his ears, he thrust his hand in a second time. Extending it further, he felt around. His fingers brushed the animal’s boney, back legs. There was something under it,
something that didn’t feel like carpet.
A sharp, icy tingle nipped at his hand. William pulled his arm back, and the breath dried in his throat. Even in the faint light, he could see the black on his fingers. The same moldy stuff that was on the carpet, and the creature’s body, was on him now.
He tried to shake it off, but it was burning. Crawling. Spreading.
Pain wormed in under his skin. Crying out, scrambling back, William lost balance and tumbled over into the coffee table. His head struck the edge. A crushing wave of hot pain rippled out, dulling the cold as he fell.
Lying in the black, vision graying, his hand burning, the echo of a little girl’s laughter zipped past William’s ear. The rotting stench in the room waned, replaced by the sweet aroma of bubble gum. He breathed it in gratefully as he closed his eyes, cradled in the warmth of his own blood as it puddled out to join the stains on the carpet.
*Unedited from the draft.
I had two options: let the superior engine between my legs do its thing and hope to lose them in the maze of streets—in which case they would simply return to strike again another day—or give the assholes the confrontation they wanted.
The mood I was in, it wasn’t really a choice.
Conjuring a city map in my head, I picked a place: the 8th Street Viaduct.
Easing off the break, I leaned into a quick, right turn and opened the throttle. Winter wind pressed against me. Exhaust mingled with the fusion of kitchen smells wafting out the back doors of restaurants, as I sped down the alley. Cumin, curry, cinnamon, and cloves gave way to short blast of sour rot, as I dodged dumpsters and cardboard boxes; toppled over and disintegrating. At the end, I glanced back. The lyrriken were entering the other side. Abandoning all pretense now, they accelerated.
Their sleek sport car making fast work of the tight fit between buildings, they turned into traffic—then turned again, following me down the next alley. Lights blurred. Images and sounds overlapped. Slush sprayed as I weaved through traffic, relying on my heavy-treaded tires and my lyrriken reflexes to keep me upright. Squeezing between lanes, giving the impression I was trying to get away, I kept my pursuer in my rearview with each curve.
I turned down 8th Street. The traffic thinned. The buildings lost their sparkle. Windows were dark, some were missing. Warehouses and city maintenance lots flanked the street.
When the train tracks running beneath the viaduct came into view, I slowed, as the rarely used access road became a washboard of broken asphalt and half-ass repair jobs. With the overpass, the area was still a little too open for my taste, but it was secluded and dark. One streetlight flickered high above on a rusted pole, its base encircled by melting piles of dirty, brown snow pushed onto the shoulder. The gate was up, the crossing deserted.
It was as close to perfect as I was going to get.
The vehicle grew larger in my mirror. I glanced at the train tracks, twenty feet ahead. Intending to cross and make my stand on the other side, I braked and idled forward over the bumps. I was halfway when the night erupted with a burst of blinding headlights on the track. An engine roared behind the glare. I tried to back up, but there wasn't time. A dark shape filled my vision—exploding it into sparks as a vehicle clipped my front wheel. Collision, noise, and pain overlapped, propelling my bike along the rails, then off onto the street. Wheels lost contact and tipped.
I hit the kill switch a second before I hit the pavement.
Metal scraped and screamed, as momentum pushed me over the cold, broken asphalt, trapped beneath the weight of my bike. I scaled my right leg and arm against the friction, but not before the rough road grated fabric and skin. Slowing, the glint of sparks died, as I slid onto the snowy shoulder and came to a stop. Breath ragged, skin bleeding and burning, I ripped off my cracked helmet and threw it. Lifting my bike, I pulled my injured leg out from under the fender and scooted clear.
Road rash colored my entire right side. Pebbles and bits of broken pavement were stuck to my raw, gooey flesh. It was painful, but it would heal. The uniform I planned on using for a second trip to XXXX (spoiler!) was trashed.
Pissed, I ripped off my jacket (also ruined), peeling it away from my torn skin with a clenched-mouthed groan. I glared up at the SUV that hit me, then at the sports car that was tailing me, as it rolled up to the crash site. There was only one way the retrievers deduced my destination quick enough to circle around and get ahead of me. They put a tracker on my bike. Bastards.
The SUV’s engine shut off. The headlights dimmed. Two females and one male exited the vehicle dressed in Guild uniforms, their bodies scaled in a rainbow of blue, green, and gray. Two more males left the sports car and joined the party; both in human form and human clothes. They scaled face and hands only, resting the latter on the pistols at their hips.
“Great, the gangs all here,” I groaned. Everything hurt as I pushed to my feet. I tested my right leg, wincing as I put weight on it. “You guys have shitty timing, you know that?”
One of them grunted. “Should we come back in the morning?”
Hands at my sides, I gathered heat beneath my torn gloves. “Would you mind?”
“About as much as you would mind surrendering,” he replied.
“Aren’t you a polite one?” Fabric burned away from my smoldering palms. “Sorry, I can’t return the favor.” Twin streams of fire fled my hands in a low, wide arc as I turned, sweeping it across their legs. Flames clung as they scattered, badly scorching the ones from the SUV before they could stamp them out. The other two barely got a scalding. I wasn’t surprised. They were all spaced too far apart for a kill shot. But death wasn’t my goal. I needed only to inflict enough pain to heighten their emotions and release their—
Ah, there you are, I thought, as the ghosts burst out from the bodies of three most injured. As they groaned and winced, evaluating their ugly wounds, I threw my empathy out and latched on. Their trauma surfaced faster at my interest, and I wrenched the black clouds to me with an insistent, powerful heave. Disoriented by my violent psychic tug, the retrievers stumbled. Their pain rushed toward me, churning and swaying like an angry sea on a dark night.
Book 5 Deleted Scene
*3rd Person prologue deleted during revisions.
“This plot sucks.” Dropping down on the couch to sit beside his sister, Ryan James reached across, stealing her open bag of chips. He stared at the screen, more interested in the cute reporter than the chaos happening behind her.
People were running and screaming, shoving each other out of the way. It was dark, but with enough light to make out something resembling a cross between a werewolf and that swamp monster his cousin swore he saw last summer was chasing them down the sidewalk. Cars crashed into each other, spinning out of control and bursting into flames. The camera shook as its operator jumped out of the way.
“I hate these found footage films,” Ryan groaned. “What else is on?” He reached again, this time going for the remote.
Dawn whisked it away before he could get a grip. “Nothing. It’s the same thing on every station. And I told you—twice,” her older brother’s dismissal was grating on her nerves, “it’s not a movie. They’re reporting live from Omaha. Look,” she pointed with the remote at the screen, “there’s a sign for the zoo. You went there on a field trip. Remember?”
“Yeah, and it sucked as much as this movie. Look at those crappy special effects.”
“That’s not CGI. Those things,” she pointed again, more emphatically this time, “they’re like…escaped experiments from some top secret government lab or something.”
“No way that is shit real.”
“Oh, this shit is one hundred percent real.”
A woman’s voice called out from the kitchen. “Language, Dawnie!”
“Mom, stop calling me that,” she shouted back. “I’m sixteen, not six! And he started it!” Lowering her voice, Dawn turned on her brother. “It’s not a movie, dickhead, it’s the news. If you shut up and listen for five seconds….” She raised the volume on the TV. Wide eyes glued; she twirled her dark hair as the reporter spoke again.
“It’s madness. I have no other words to describe what’s happening out here, Bob. What we’re seeing on the ground and—and in the air,” the young, ponytailed reporter glanced up with a gasp, ducking as if something were flying in the night sky overhead.
Trying to reign in her fearful gaze, she looked back at the camera.
“There’s panic in the streets. Nearly the entire city is out of power. Planes have been grounded. Evacuations have stalled. As you can see,” she gestured, “the roads are impassable. 911 is overwhelmed. The police are doing the best they can but these things, these…beasts, are everywhere. No one knows where they’ve come from or
why they’re here. They—” A series of honking horns drowning her words, she paused until the noise died. “They seem to want only one thing, Bob.” Pausing, blue eyes glistening with fear, she choked out a whisper. “To kill.”
The show cut to Bob, sitting alone in an empty newsroom. The lighting was dim, as if the building was on emergency power. His tie loose and jacket wrinkled, the older man glanced off camera, as if he were struggling with his response.
“Katy,” he started slow, “we’re getting similar reports from nearly every corner of the globe. Major cities seem to have been hit the hardest with mass explosions. Sentinel City, out east, has suffered terrible losses. The images coming from there are reminiscent of a war zone. As if the city is under siege—as if this is all some kind of coordinated attack. You’re there, on the ground in Omaha, seeing this firsthand. What do you think is happening?
And how can we stop it?”
“Well, Bob,” Katy took a breath, “in this reporter’s humble opinion…. Hell’s gates have opened to let its demons walk among us. I’m not sure there’s much we can do but pray.”
“Demons?” Bob forced a chuckle.
“This is so fucked up,” Dawn whispered. Then louder,
“Mom! You have to see this!”
“Can’t,” she replied. “Not until this meatloaf is in the oven.”
Ryan leaned in. “Her meatloaf is ten times scarier than your movie.”
Dawn raised a fist to punch him, and the TV signal cut out. The screen went black as the power cut out, plunging the entire house into darkness.
Their mom’s muttered curse followed. “I told your father to pay that damn bill.” Candles flickered on as she lit them in the kitchen. A faint glow filtered over the half wall separating the two rooms.
Ryan took out his phone as he stood, turning on the light. “I’ll check the fuse box.” He stepped away from the couch.
“Ooooh,” Dawn squealed, “if you electrocute yourself, can I have your car?”
He grunted, his voice moving away. “In your dreams.”
Laughing, Dawn got up to join her mother, and the picture window burst in with a shatter of glass. Shards hurled across the living room. One grazed her arm, and she screamed; harder, as hulking shadows jumped in through the open window frame. Round heads lifted. Slender, tapered noses sniffed the air. There was an odd, strangled sound mixed among their ragged breaths.
Trying to make out the hunch-backed, two-legged forms in the near dark, it took her a second to realize Ryan’s light was on the floor. Dawn scrambled to pick it up, to see what was in the house and tripped—falling over her brother’s body. “Ryan? Ryan!”
The carpet was wet, sticky.
Trembling, she lifted the phone and aimed the light. Glass protruded from his chest and neck. Blood was pumping out to wet his clothes, but his body was still. His eyes were open, fixed and unresponsive to the light. She reached out, shaking, afraid yet compelled to touch him—needing to know for sure if he was dead.
Movement froze Dawn in mid-reach, as the creatures stepped away from the window, crunching glass and shaking the floor with their heavy weight. Guttural, inhuman snarls filled the room. The wet, eager sound of smacking lips chilled her to the bone.
Except… The noises weren’t from the creatures in front of her. They were coming from the other room.
“Mom?” Dawn scrambled up and ran for the kitchen.
The back door was open. A body was lying in the threshold, half in, half out. Blood dotted the floor and surrounding walls, as her mom’s legs (still in the kitchen) twitched on the linoleum. Her head and shoulders were outside on the porch, but there wasn’t enough light to see her face. All that was visible were the yellow eyes looming above her mother’s sprawled body.
Dawn’s stare darted, struggling to think past the panic; frantically searching for a weapon in the candle’s pale glow.
There had to be something on the counter.
Heart hammering, she wiped her blurry, tear-filled eyes and took stock.
Bowls. Spices. Spoon. Hand mixer. Potatoes.
Mom was going to mash them.
The potatoes haven’t been cut yet. There must be a knife.
Dawn lunged for the counter, and her mom vanished from the doorway—sucked into the dark night as the creature yanked her away.
Clamping a hand over her mouth, cutting off her own scream, she stared in shock at the heavy streak of blood on the empty floor. Mom…
A wet snarl blew past her ear.
Shaking, Dawn stretched across the counter. Her hand touched something. Please be the knife. Please be the knife. She tightened her grip.
It wasn’t the knife.
Spinning around, Dawn belted the thing behind her with the mixer. Over and over, she slammed the beaters into the creature’s elongated face, smacking and smashing, gouging its large eyes. Hitting whatever she could reach.
Finally, its head snapped to the side with a yip of pain.
She hit it twice more before claws shot out and smacked the appliance from her hand.
Slowly, the creature turned back around. Gray blood streaked its monstrous features and ran from one swollen eye. I hurt it.
Her moment of hope shattered as the wounds began to close.
She whimpered, as its body tipped closer. Round, black jaws peeled back, exposing jagged tusk-like teeth. Clawed fingers gripped hold, tentatively tapping the side of her face. They trailed down her neck, shoulder, chest, sliding….
Plastered against the counter with nowhere to go, Dawn reached blindly behind her, scattering spices. The bowl tipped and smashed on the floor. Potatoes rolled off the edge.
The creature pressed tighter against her, sniffing.
Groping faster, she sobbed in relief as her fingertips brushed the knife handle. Dawn struggled to pull it toward her, losing her grip and gaining it again. With a desperate thrust, she shoved the knife triumphantly into the creature’s chest—in the same moment as razor-sharp claws slid deep into hers.