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Heartblaze: First 13

 

HEARTBLAZE[
**]First 13

First Thirteen Chapters From Book One of the Heartblaze Series

Full Novel Available for Free at: 
http://shayroberts.com/freeheartblaze1

By Shay Roberts

Snowfire Press

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

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its author.

Copyright © 2017 by Shay Roberts

http://shayroberts.com/freeheartblaze1

1st Edition

To receive the full novel for free, go to:

http://shayroberts.com/freeheartblaze1

Please email [email protected] if you discover an error or experience any readability issues with this book.

Dedicated to the intelligent, strong, and nurturing women in my life.

Ebony Snakes
EMMA RUE

Author’s Note:

The following novel is told from the point of view of several characters, each with their own unique perspectives on the evolving plot. If you are unaccustomed to this style of storytelling, it can be a little challenging at first, but read on and the separate threads will all come together in a rewarding way.

Today is the best day of my whole pathetic life. Growing up in the foster care system, I never thought I’d get this far. But look at me now, first day of college, sitting in the front row, waiting for class to begin. I love starting over in a new place. Nobody here knows about my … special ability. No one is scared of me. No one hates me. Yet.

The professor, I think his name is Leeks, is late, and the students are grumbling. I hear he’s a jerk, but he’s the only one teaching Europe to 1600 and I’m really excited about this material.

There’s a preppy girl in a pink cashmere cardigan sitting next to me. She’s smirking at my thrift store combat boots. She’s wearing a gallon of vanilla perfume. What a subtle scent. She better not go near any open flames.

Some of us can’t afford cashmere. Most days I wear a pair of black leggings and an oversized sweater. Preppy girl’s pink leather shoe-boots probably cost more than my entire wardrobe.

Shouldn’t snark. Today is a good day. Not just my first day of college, it’s also my nineteenth birthday. I haven’t told anyone, not even Melita, my mentor and best friend. I love her, but I’d really like to celebrate alone with a good book and some wine. I got a bottle from my apartment manager for babysitting a pair of polydactyl cats that vomited all weekend. Good times.

Still no sign of Professor Leeks. How long should we wait before giving up? I feel a jolt of anticipation as I remember that I’m meeting Micah after class. This will be my second self-defense lesson with him. Micah was worried when he found out I live in a bad neighborhood in East Providence. Before college, he was a soldier. He knows everything about fighting but doesn’t brag about it. I have to pry everything out of him. He’s ten years older than me, but I’ve thought about asking him out. He’s incredibly good-looking, with dark hair and those sad blue eyes. But he’s more than that; he’s … enigmatic. Ooh, I love that word.

Micah is special. Maybe too special. Men like him notice things. I need a man who won’t notice things, who won’t try to figure out my secret. But I can’t stay away from Micah. I want him to run his fingers through my hair. I want him to whisper in my ear as he…

Professor Leeks suddenly enters the room, a whirlwind of tweed pretension. I immediately look past his face and into his soul, an ability I’ve had since childhood. Something is wrong. Very wrong. I stiffen in my seat.

I’ve seen his soul somewhere before. It looks like twisting ebony snakes. He’s a bad man, an evil man, but I can’t remember where I’ve seen that terrible soul.

As he approaches me with an armful of handouts, the back of my neck feels so cold that it burns. I’m overwhelmed with terror. I feel like he wants to kill me.

I leap from my seat and stumble over my backpack on the floor. He reaches toward me, and I use a fighting move that Micah taught me in our last session, a front kick. As my foot flies toward him, I know my life will never be the same again.

My boot smashes into his crotch. Leeks grunts and drops like a sack of rocks, handouts drifting down like snow. Only then do I realize that he wasn’t reaching for me, he was reaching for my fallen backpack. Was he trying to help me?

Preppy girl shrieks. The whole class stares at me in stunned disbelief. They look like bystanders at a mugging; no one wants to be the first to intervene.

Professor Leeks sucks air like an emphysema patient as he struggles to his feet.

I don’t understand what’s happening, but I know I have to get out of here. I have to get somewhere safe. I grab my pack and flee the room like a criminal, followed by the gasps and whispers of the students.

What have I done? I’ve ruined my beautiful dream. Today is the worst day of my whole pathetic life. I wonder if I’ll make it off campus before security gets the order to shoot the girl in the cheap combat boots.

Nesting Doll
STEFAN HILDEBRAND

Warriors don’t think like civilians. We don’t have time to worry about stupid crap like what color of socks to wear today. I don’t let my mind wander. Every second of the day is spent on threat assessment. I’m doing it now as I sit in this busy coffee shop, waiting for Emma Rue.

People come and go through the shop’s squeaky glass door, most of them oblivious to their environment. If sidewalks ended in cliffs, half of Providence would be dead by tomorrow, their faces in their phones as they poured over the edge like lemmings. You need to look for the people who are actually paying attention. Watch the watchers, they told me in training, because some of them are paranormals. So I don’t look into my drink as I sip it; I keep my eyes up, watching for the watchers.

I finish my coffee milk and push away the glass. They use actual glass here, not plastic. Coffee milk—cold milk blended with coffee syrup—must be a Rhode Island thing because there’s nothing like it in my region of Vermont. It hurts to think about home. I gotta stop that. Maybe I’ll have another coffee milk.

A blonde across the room looks over at me, a tilt to her head and a shy smile on her glossy lips. I get that a lot. Mom says I have my dad’s devilish looks. Mom. I’m thinking of home again. Shit.

Where’s Emma? We were going to walk over to the park so I could show her a technique. I can’t believe she lives alone in such a bad neighborhood. I hope she’s okay. I’d call, but she doesn’t carry a phone. She’s weird like that, but in a good way.

I was ordered to get close to Emma as part of my surveillance mission. She seems slow to trust people, and she should be. She thinks my name is Micah. I’m supposed to be a sophomore in some of her classes, but I’m almost ten years older. I told her I was in the army, coming late to college. But I didn’t come for college, I came for her, and I’m not in any army she has ever heard of. The army I fight for is everywhere and nowhere, an army as old as the Roman Empire.

All this undercover work is wearing me down. I think of myself as one of those wooden dolls from Russia—you open it and there’s another doll nesting inside, and then another. Where’s the real me? I just keep getting smaller and smaller.

A thin dude with a sharp face steps into the coffee shop, his right hand stuffed into a pocket of his leather jacket. His hidden hand clutches something. I glance at the table, real wood tattooed by a decade of coffee rings. Would it stop a bullet? I could use it as a shield while I rush him. His scrawny hand emerges, holding his wallet. Another threat averted. But I don’t relax. Someday, some other dude will be coming for me. It’s a miracle it hasn’t happened already.

I can’t wait around for Emma; I’ll be late for the execution at Fort Adams. I was the junior member of the capture team. They’ll be pissed if I miss it. They’re using a soul cage. Never seen one in action. Never wanted to. My gut cramps at the thought of it.

As I rise from the table, I pluck an antacid from a roll in my shirt pocket. Wintergreen flavor. It takes a roll of these to get my stomach through the day.

Emma rushes through the door, looking upset, and hurries over to my table. “Micah, I’m so sorry. I had a problem at school.”

I really have to go. But I find myself wanting to know about her problem. I gesture to the seat across from me. “I only have a minute.”

We sit, and she twists her auburn hair around one finger. “I think we should stop the self-defense lessons. But I hope we can still study together.”

Something bad has happened. I see her hand trembling. “Why stop?”

She pauses, peering into my face like she’s looking right through me. “Have you ever been tempted to … misuse … your fighting skills?”

“How do you mean?”

“I just used that move you taught me last time. On Professor Leeks.”

“He attacked you?”

“No. That’s the problem. He just got too close to me and I kicked him.”

Wow. She doesn’t seem like the kind of girl to freak out like that. It sounds like PTSD. Has she been assaulted in the past? What do I say to her? This kind of stuff is above my pay grade. “Sorry to hear that. Sounds like you could use someone to talk to. Maybe an expert?”

Tears glint in her violet eyes. “A counselor, a shrink?”

I’m making her cry. And that’s bothering me. Not good. Where’s my professional detachment? She’s a surveillance target. This is just another job. I reach across the table and squeeze her hand. It feels warm, alive, charged with electricity. “I wish I could hang out but I have a thing.”

Her pale face turns as hard as marble. “Go. I’m fine.”

For some reason it’s hard to let go of her hand. She isn’t “fine” and neither am I. You know it’s a shitty day when you have to abandon a crying girl to attend an execution. Part of me wants to stay, but there’s nothing for it. As my dad likes to say, hurry to act, worry distracts. So I rise from the table. “Sorry, Emma. Let’s talk more later.”

She nods a goodbye as I leave the table, shoving another antacid into my mouth as I go. I’ll need two rolls today.

Blue Dog
YOUNG EMMA RUE

THIRTEEN YEARS EARLIER

Today I am six years old. I want a cake, but they won’t give me one because of the bad thing that happened last time.

Mr. Lindquist is digging in his shiny black briefcase where he keeps his secrets. Ms. Katy let him in her office to meet me again. I have to sit in the tall chair that makes my legs hurt. Last time I put gum under it when no one was looking.

I don’t like Mr. Lindquist. He has small eyes and big glasses and his forehead sweats. He smiles, but when I look inside him I can see he is mad. He comes here every month and this month he wants to talk to me again. Maybe he will talk about my birthday.

He looks up from his secrets and sees me through his big glasses. “Hello, Maggie, where were we last?”

He doesn’t know who I am! “I’m Emma Rue.”

“Oh, yes, yes.” He digs around in his briefcase. “Emma, yes, of course, I see.”

“I’m six today.” There are six petals on Ms. Katy’s desk flower and six spots on the wall behind Mr. Lindquist. I’m a good counter.

“Katy Sydow wanted me to speak with you about these things you’ve been seeing.”

“Ms. Katy said I wouldn’t get in trouble for telling.”

I lean forward and reach for a book in his briefcase but he pulls it back. I like books. You can make them stop when you want. I wish I could make people stop. His book is purple and green. I bet it’s a good book.

“You’re not in trouble, Emma, but some of the things you’ve said have upset the other children in your group home. I need to understand why you said them.” He is smiling but inside he is trying to trick me.

I shouldn’t talk now. Shut up Emma. I reach under the chair. The gum is hard now. It was peppermint and I liked it.

“You told Ms. Sydow that you can see what people are feeling inside. What did you mean by that?”

Shut up Emma. Shut up Emma. He moves in his chair and it sounds like a fart. I know it’s bad to laugh now but I can’t help it. He frowns and I stop laughing.

“Emma, it’s important that you talk to me. We can clear this up and you can go play. But if you don’t talk to me, you’ll have to stay here while I bring in other people. Wouldn’t you rather go play?”

I nod. I can hear the other kids playing outside, all of us kids who can’t get foster parents. None of them talks to me because I always know when they try to trick me. But I still want to go out on the slide. I’m the only one who’s not afraid to go backward.

“Emma, what did you mean when you said you can see what people are feeling inside?”

I will tell him a little and he will let me go. “I look at your face. Then I look harder and I can see inside. There are lots of colors and they jump around.”

“And these colors tell you what I am feeling?”

I nod. “I can see if you are happy or sad, if you are mean or nice.”

He looks scared inside. I think I said the wrong answer.

Ms. Katy and Mr. Lindquist said I wouldn’t get in trouble. Liars! They always say not to lie, but they lie more than us kids. Now I sit on my hard bed in the white jail, hugging Blue Dog. He is my best friend. My mother left him with me when she went away. I cried too much and his blue fur is all wet now.

The orderly is coming. I hear him stomping in the hall. I hate him. He has a mean face and he is even meaner inside.

I crawl under the hard bed and tell Blue Dog to be very quiet. There is a dust bunny under the bed. I see it move when the orderly opens the door. The bunny wants to run but there is no place to go.

I see the orderly’s feet. He has black sneakers with black laces. They look like evil feet.

His voice always sounds like he has a cold. “Emma, get out here right now!”

He knows I’m hiding! He will be mad if I stay here. I try to move but I can’t. I’m shaking and my legs won’t go.

The orderly reaches under the bed and grabs my foot. He pulls me out into the light like a monster who is eating me. I want to scream, but it makes him madder when I scream.

He takes Blue Dog away and leans close to whisper to me. “I’m getting tired of this, you little bitch.”

I try not to cry but I can’t help it. Blue Dog is my only friend. “Please give him back!”

“Here’s the deal—you get him back when you stop causing trouble for me.” He grabs Blue Dog’s neck. “But any more shit like this, and I’ll twist off his head. You understand me?” He turns Blue Dog’s head around and I hear a tearing sound.

“Don’t twist him! I’ll be good.”

“That’s right you will!”

The orderly hurts my arm as he pulls me up and drags me out into the hall. It’s hard to talk because I’m crying so much. “Where are you taking me?”

Through my blurry tears I see his mouth move. “You’ll see.”

Red Memories
EMMA RUE

THE PRESENT

It rolls across my palm, an inch-long capsule, half black and half white. My shrink wants me to swallow this skunk pill. He’s hiding in his office while I sit in his tiny waiting room. I should have taken it five minutes ago, but something is stopping me. I keep thinking about that sadistic orderly in the pediatric psych ward who tormented me as a girl. After he filled me with needles, he would stuff a giant horse pill in my mouth and force it down with warm water. Ever since then I’ve had a hard time with pills.

A guppy in a nearby aquarium turns to face me, its mouth pulsing wide as if to say “take the pill.” The tank smells like a wet dog, and the gurgling water makes me want to pee. I feel a tug on my scalp and realize I’m doing it again, wrapping my hair around my finger. We all have our odd habits, but mine are especially odd or they wouldn’t be feeding me crazy pills.

It seems that kicking your professor in the balls is frowned upon. I’ve been temporarily suspended and they sent me to this shrink downtown. I still have no idea why I did it. Part of me desperately wants to know and part of me is afraid to know.

I’ve seen a hundred counselors, psychologists, and shrinks over the years, but this is the first one who wants to do a drug-induced hypnotic regression. He wants me to remember details about my childhood. Such lovely times! My mother abandoned me as an infant and everything went downhill from there.

These are not things I want to remember, and I don’t know if I can trust this doctor. I remember his face when he tilted the paper cup and the skunk pill landed heavy in my hand. Beneath his smile, there was something complex, a strange kaleidoscope of guilt, shame, and excitement. I suspect this is an experimental regression drug and I am his lab rat.

I jump as the air conditioning kicks in with a rattle. Why did that startle me? The air is frigid but I realize I’m covered with sweat. This pill scares me. My instincts whisper run. But if I don’t finish this therapy, the college will kick me out for good. I love studying history, and I don’t want to lose my chance for an education.

My shrink’s little voice drifts out of his office. He is not a little man but he has a little voice. “Emma, how’s it going out there?” He’s eager to begin his experiment.

Oh, what the hell. Even if there’s only a small chance that hypnosis will help me understand myself, it’s worth the risk. I shove the pill in my mouth and follow it with a gulp of water. I can feel it burrowing its way down to my stomach.

The shrink tells me to imagine I’m in a ‘happy place’. Wow, I have sooo many to choose from! I’ve decided it’s the history section of the Athenaeum, where I work part-time in the evenings. When I was in high school, I took AS220 classes on papermaking and book arts. Digital books are great, but paper books are living history, especially the rare books. I love to check the publication dates. Sometimes, if I stare long and hard at an old book, I see faint swirls of color, as if I am looking into the soul of a person. Old books are alive, in their own way.

I’m lying on my shrink’s sofa, trying to cooperate with the regression, but he’s not making it easy. Two ginger mints bounce around in his mouth like a pair of bones in a bag. He needs four mints to hide that breath. I will tell him anything about my childhood if he stops breathing in my direction.

The pill suddenly has me feeling warm and tingly, as if I could dream without being asleep. Maybe I’m wrong about this drug. It feels fantastic. Something like this would make sex with Micah wicked fun. Micah? We’ve never had sex. Have we? No. Other boys, but not Micah. Maybe we’ll go back to his place after my self-defense lesson.

My mind begins to drift and I feel Micah standing behind me, his hands on my hips. He’s been saying something about my center of gravity but I haven’t been listening. How can he act so casual when he’s touching me? Doesn’t he know how it makes me feel? Every girl in the park can see it on my face. Even smart boys can be stupid sometimes.

Micah whispers into my ear, “Lift your knee first, then kick. Strike with the ball of your foot.”

I kick awkwardly, purposely losing my balance and falling into his arms.

His voice grows more businesslike. “Emma, you are now resting comfortably in a peaceful state of relaxation. You are safe and secure here. Nothing you remember can hurt you.”

I’m confused. I thought we were at the park, but now Micah is sitting beside me with a schoolbook under one arm. Oh, that’s right, I canceled our lessons. That’s okay. Micah was a soldier. He’ll protect me. I am safe with him.

Is he mad at me for bailing on him? “Micah, I’m sorry I canceled. Learning moah about fighting … dammit, more.” Despite my best efforts to lose my Rhode Island accent, I still sometimes drop the “r” on certain words, especially when I’m tired or drunk.

Micah puts his hand on the back of mine. Somehow it doesn’t feel right. “Emma, we’re here to remember. I want you to think back to when you were ten years old. Do you remember being ten?”

I nod, or I think I do. I can’t feel my head.

“Who was your favorite person when you were ten?”

I remember Will’s salt-and-pepper beard. “He brings me cheese sandwiches from home.”

“Who brings you sandwiches, Emma?”

“Will, the janitor at Saint Mary’s.”

“Good, Emma. You are doing great. You are at peace, safe and secure.”

“I’m hungry.”

“You can eat soon, but first I’d like you to go back further, to when you were five. Do you remember being five?”

Yes. There are five candles on my cake with white frosting.

“Emma?”

“Five candles.”

“Who was your favorite person when you were five?”

Ms. Hampton is talking on the phone in the other room. She talks and talks for hours, but never to me. I hold my finger over a candle until my skin turns red. I want to scream from the pain, but Ms. Hampton will come back, and I want to be alone with Blue Dog and my cake.

“Emma, who is your favorite person?”

“Blue Dog. He barks a sound that only dogs can hear. I’m saving a piece of cake for him.” I set Blue Dog next to the cake. He wants to lick the frosting, but he has no tongue. He is muddy from when I took him outside. “I’m hungry. Don’t get mud on my cake!”

“Emma, you are at peace, safe and secure. Now I want you to go even further back. To a time before you were a baby, before you were Emma.”

Before? What was before? I sense there is something from before. But it scares me. “There’s nothing from before.”

“Now Emma, it’s very important that you concentrate. These are only memories. They can’t hurt you.”

They will hurt me. I know this. “There’s nothing.”

Micah’s voice hardens. “Emma, you’re an adult now, and adults sometimes have to do difficult things. So answer my question. Do you remember a time before you were a baby, a time from a past life?”

A memory creeps toward me like a demon in the dark.

Low fog shrouds a harbor dimly lit by a crescent moon. The limp sail of a corsair hovers above the white blanket like a decapitated head. I smell rum and body odor. Through the mist I see the twisting colors of a sailor’s vile soul. He lies passed out drunk on a damp wooden dock. How convenient.

“Emma? Are you remembering?”

“I’m hungry.” I glide to the sailor in silence and crouch like a lioness over her prey. My blonde hair sweeps his face as I sniff his neck. His blood smells like vinegar, but I am famished. I feel my thorns extend against my will. Perhaps just a taste.

I pin him to the dock with my white-gloved hands and nuzzle his neck. I tingle with anticipation as his blood finds my tongue. He tastes like worm-riddled hardtack soaked in urine. I withdraw quickly, clumsily, tearing his flesh. His eyes flutter open as twin streams of blood spurt from his neck. The foul liquid finds the gap in my black woolen cape and stains my periwinkle bodice.

“Emma, who is your favorite person in this memory?”

Julian is my favorite person. The love of my life. I wore this dress for Julian. And now it’s ruined. The sailor sees his blood and screams. I grab his hair and knock his head against the dock. Too hard. His skull makes a wet thump against the rough wood. Oh dear, it seems I’ve killed him.

“No!” I hear myself crying as I clamber to my feet. I’m back in the office now.

Micah stares at me calmly, but on the inside he’s as scared as me. “Emma, tell me what you remember.”

“Bad dream. Blood.” I fall into his arms. “I was killing someone.”

My tears drip onto Micah’s shoulder. I am so weak, so stupid. Tears are for little girls. Maybe it’s the pill he gave me. It’s messing with my brain. I shouldn’t have taken that pill from him. Him. Him. My shrink! I thought my shrink was Micah! A wave of nausea hits me as I push him away. Up close, I can see the red vessels in the whites of his narrow eyes. “What was in that pill?”

“I told you, Emma, it’s a memory enhancer. It’s designed to facilitate the regression.”

I look into his face. Calm on the outside but excited underneath. “We were supposed to talk about my childhood, not what came before.”

“We were supposed to find the trauma that has been contributing to your poor decision-making, and we’re making amazing progress!” He grins.

I want to punch him in his stupid smiling face. But instead, I head for the office door.

“Emma, I’m afraid you need to stay.”

His odd tone gives me goose bumps. I pause at the door.

“You have a special sort of problem that requires a special sort of treatment. We need to get you the proper help.”

Run, says a voice inside me. Still wobbly from the drug, I stumble out of the office and into the waiting room. I feel his hands on me and jerk away. Suddenly, I’m falling. I reach out and grab the aquarium. It slides behind the table at an angle, sloshing water on me. As I sit up on the floor, the guppy flops in my lap, mouth pulsing wide in silent screams. I scoop it up and return it to what’s left of the water.

My shrink is on the phone, speaking fast and low. “I’ve confirmed your suspicions.”

Who is he talking to? Not the police. I grab my pack and rush for the exit. Why isn’t he blocking the way? A sudden fear stabs me. What if the door is locked?

Witch Tree
CYNTHIA GREENE

Being a ghost has its perks. Bill’s pathetic wife has no idea that I am in her head, seeing through her eyes. Bill lies stretched out on Egyptian cotton sheets in a beautiful hotel room, glistening in the afterglow. He’s lost none of his manly charms.

It’s been nearly two decades since we were engaged. Two decades since he left me heartbroken after his malicious family convinced him that “poor Cynthia” was insane.

It should be me sharing his bed, not this heifer he calls a wife. She rolls her nude and sweaty body away from him, and now I’m stuck staring at the ceiling. Bessie, be a good cow and roll back over where I can enjoy the view. She obviously needs some encouragement, so I fill her eyes with the image of a spider on the ceiling. She hates spiders.

I can’t read her mind, but I can sense her fear. It feels exhilarating. She clutches at Bill, looking for comfort in his soft brown eyes, sprinkled with flecks of gold. There was a time when he could not tear those eyes from my face. I would weep for those days if only I had eyes to weep. At least I can watch these weekly motel matinees, Bill’s futile attempt to sustain his sex life away from a house with young twins.

Far from here, I sense someone approaching my final resting place. The groundskeeper? I should investigate. Sadly, it seems that my special time with Bill is over.

A group of drug-addled teens crowds around my modest grave at Highland Memorial in Johnston. I’m now seeing through the eyes of some counterculture girl. Bite marks chip her black fingernails. She takes a long puff from a marijuana cigarette. That’s bad for your ovaries, you ignorant child. You’ll never have babies that way. Kids today don’t take care of their bodies. I blame the parents. The judge asked why I killed the mothers of those neglected children. This is why. Bad parents are worse than no parents. They create little monsters.

An unkempt boy sidles up to my headstone. He draws down the zipper of his sagging pants and they all bray like donkeys as he urinates on my headstone. Where is that worthless groundskeeper? I’m so angry I could scratch out this delinquent’s eyes!

My mind leaps across the space from the smoking girl to the peeing boy. During the jump, I see nothing but darkness. A woman needs eyes to see. I had eyes once, as gray as polished steel. But I lost them when I hanged myself to escape that horrible prison. I expected to reach heaven. But instead, I found myself on earth, living as a ghost. I would have preferred to go to hell.

As the urinating boy begins to zip up, I enter his head. He looks down and I make him see a writhing black snake with yellow eyes jutting from his pants. He yelps and scrambles backward, falling hard on his backside. He swats at his groin, trying to brush the snake away, and screams at the self-inflicted pain. The donkeys bray. If this goes well, he will tear off his own genitals. I’m so very pleased with my little trick!

Suddenly, darkness falls and I’m spiraling toward the witch tree. Even without eyes, I can see Rowan’s magic sigil, with its spider-leg branches and serpentine roots. She summons me, her ghostly servant, no doubt to torment one of her enemies. I feel a jolt of fear. Facing this ancient witch, perhaps the most powerful being in this world and the next, always unnerves me. What will happen if I fail this frightening woman, a creature whose cruelty knows no limits?

With no body of my own to inhabit, Rowan lends me hers. I see through her eyes as she sits before a candlelit mirror with a gilded frame, but I can’t make out the details of the shadowy room behind her.

I’ve never seen Rowan’s face. She always wears a mask of twisted leaves that makes her look like some sort of goblin. Her emerald eyes pierce the mask, cold and hard, watching me watching her.

“I have a task for you, Cynthia Greene.” Her singsong voice has an Irish accent.

She always addresses me by my full name. I’ve no idea why. I wish she would send me back so I could conclude my business with the urinating boy. But I dare not ask. I use her body to speak; her mask moves ever so slightly as her mouth forms my words. “Yes, Mistress, I’m eager to perform your task.”

“Well and good then. I’m sending you on a hunt. If you succeed, a wondrous reward will be yours. But fail me, and you’ll find yourself lost in the metaverge, drifting in an eternity of darkness.” Her final sentence echoes like rolling thunder but does little to dampen my sudden hope.

What reward? Dare I ask? I must. “A body, Mistress? Will that be my reward?”

Rowan’s goblin mask tilts in a shallow nod.

Finally, a body, after a whole year without one! Let it be a young and beautiful body! I could return to a career at Child Protective Services. I could seduce Bill away from his wife. I could at long last have children. I shall be an excellent mother! I speak quickly through Rowan’s lips. “I will do whatever you ask, Mistress.”

Rowan leans toward the mirror, close enough for her breath to cloud it. Candlelight dances on the silver threads of her forest-green gown. Her voice drops to a whisper. I have never heard her whisper. “Your quarry is a girl named Emma Rue.”

Boxing Day
STEFAN HILDEBRAND

Traffic was bad. From my meeting with Emma, it took an hour to get to Fort Adams. I’ll probably miss the execution. I’m fine with that. Killing someone in combat is one thing, but watching a civilian scream as they box him up is not my idea of a good time.

I park my car in the lot outside the fort and watch the sun set over Newport Harbor. A warm spring wind pushes a dozen sailboats across Narragansett Bay. I like the smell of saltwater. It clears my head and helps me focus.

The fort is managed by a trust. But few people know the trust is controlled by the Knights of Rome. Publicly, the trust is all about preserving our national heritage, but its real purpose is to preserve our human heritage. KoR hunts and kills the paranormals that most people think are just stories and myths. They have been doing it, and doing it well, since the reign of Roman emperor Constantine the Great. KoR recruited me as a teenager, after I won a regional Taekwondo tournament. All they saw was a promising martial artist, someone they could mold. They were blind to the real me.

I pass through security at the north gate. It’s a busy day. Fifty or sixty tourists roam the parade grounds. Fort Adams is one of Newport’s historic attractions. The Knights of Rome hide in plain sight.

I step into a concave gun emplacement lined with stone. It’s empty now, but at the time of the Civil War, a Rodman cannon perched here. It could fire a 300-pound projectile over three miles. This fort had the reach to control the entire bay area.

I pass by the gun emplacement’s rusty iron mounting rod. It’s actually a sensor that identifies me. Then I walk under a crumbling brick arch, through a debris-filled corridor, and down hidden stone stairs leading to a secret door disguised as a dead end. At this moment, the door will open to my touch and no other.

I’ve used this entrance a lot. But today it looks somehow … threatening. I become aware that my fingers are “talking” again, a type of nervous, random sign language. Shit, I’m a wreck. I chew another antacid and head through the door.

Under the fort are a series of sleek floors, each a different color. Stony-eyed guards with silverweave body armor and assault rifles monitor everyone. I go through security at Level Blue and take the elevator down to Level Red.

I walk slowly, in no hurry to see an execution that is probably already over. I don’t really need to, but I turn to pass through the ludus to check on the intermediate dagger class. The smell of sweat and adrenaline hits me before I get there. It’s not as good as saltwater, but almost.

Marco is teaching tonight. As usual, his black sweats are dry and seemingly starched.

The class catches sight of me and stops, nodding their respect. It still feels weird. Half of them are older than me; most have been knighted. Yet I’m the one being groomed for Artufex. Marco bows but his eyes never leave me. I taught him that.

The execution chamber sits at the end of the longest hall on Level Red, a long walk for the condemned. I step into the tiny chamber. There’s barely room for four people on the safe side of the unbreakable glass barrier.

The observers are here. Damn, the execution hasn’t happened yet. Fortunata Golde, a bitch forged in iron and quenched in piss, flashes me a sour look. Getting knighted didn’t mellow her, it just made her angrier. I’m her inferior, unknighted, still in training, yet somehow squired to Henry Cobo, the greatest Artufex who ever lived; I may even take his place. And Fortunata’s not okay with that.

She can fight better than me but her surly attitude doesn’t work with the students. Marco may be dead inside but at least he wants to see you improve. Fortunata wants to see you fail. That isn’t the KoR way, so now she’s heading up a field ops unit, the unit that failed to catch the vampire they’re boxing today. It was my training unit that brought him in. Fortunata’s probably gonna kill me one day. I hope they don’t believe the suicide note.

My stomach’s aching but I won’t pop antacids in front of the observation group. Beyond this dimly lit room, on the other side of the window, rests a soul cage on a low stone table. Open and empty, the chrome coffin reflects the light of the small candles around the table. But it’s not really chrome, of course; it’s a composite metal called plaga.

In the old days, paranormals were burned, but that wasn’t very smart. Sometimes they came back in a future life to wreak havoc. So the Knights of Rome developed plaga, a special metal that prevents the soul from escaping. When the prisoner dies inside the plaga coffin, their soul remains trapped inside with their body. Then the coffin is lowered into a deep underground vault used for radioactive waste so strong it will fry anyone who approaches.

A technician in a black hood checks the lethal gas canisters inside this shiny new coffin. Any moment they’ll bring out the prisoner, a chunky boy in his late teens who thought it would be fun to be a real vampire. Right now he’s probably puking up his guts. They have a special bucket for that. I’ve seen it.

Light floods the observation room as one of the office runners, a guy with the complexion of a minefield, rushes in and whispers to me in a girlish voice. “They want you on Level Black. The Hall of Regents.” His eyes shine with awe.

My stomach does a flip. Somehow I’d rather watch the execution than go to the Hall of Regents.

I’ve been to Level Black only once before. They took me to the Hall of Records to take my vows. I can still remember those simple words…

I pledge my loyalty to the Knights of Rome. I pledge to fight the enemies of mankind with all my strength and valor. I pledge to put faith before fear and group before glory. If I should break these vows, I shall forfeit my eternal soul. So swear I, Stefan Hildebrand.

I step off the elevator and enter the eerily dark halls of Level Black. On the wall across from the elevator hangs the Knights of Rome emblem, a gold laurel wreath on a crimson background. The wreath curves like the wings of a predatory bird.

There are no guards here. None of them has the clearance. I doubt they need guards anyway. I’m sure if I set foot in here without permission I’d somehow explode on the spot.

An old, grim-faced man approaches. I’ve got no idea who he is. He grabs my shoulder without a word and leads me through a labyrinth of hallways that all look alike. Most people couldn’t make it back without help. I think he’s circling to confuse me.

We finally stop, and the grim man’s bony hand turns me toward a pair of bronze-clad doors that show a relief of a Roman battle. He speaks in a whisper. “Hall of Regents. Don’t knock—they’ll open it when they’re ready.”

The black halls swallow the man as he retreats. I stand alone before the bronze doors.

What do the Regents want? From the stories I’ve heard, only epic events happen here, most of them bad.

Suddenly, I know why I’m here. They’ve discovered my secret, what I’ve been hiding for years. I’ve been careful not to make any close friends here, anyone who could rat me out. But I slipped up somehow. I guess it was only a matter of time.

A mechanism grinds and the doors crack open.

I stumble back. The hallway spins. My fingers cramp as they dance about in their insane sign language. When I’m really stressed, they have a mind of their own.

The heavy doors swing wide open, inviting me to my doom. I can smell something sweet.

Blahblahtine
EMMA RUE

As I approach my apartment building, I expect men in white coats to pounce on me and drag me back to the shrink I escaped, but no one is here. My eyes flit nervously across a lovely “yard” made of dirt and litter and past the building’s front door, hanging on one hinge. Maybe someone’s waiting for me inside.

I walk carefully into the lobby and retrieve my mail from a row of graffiti-covered boxes. The paint is still wet on a new, unreadable missive.

Once inside my apartment I begin to relax a little. My living room is small and cluttered, just how I like it. I’ve been told that’s a symptom of depression, along with my social isolation. Maybe so, but I’ve never seen this place as a home, just a place to sleep. In this neighborhood, the rental applications are short and no one cares if you’ve had an eviction. I’ve had some problems in the past. No one ever taught me how to manage money.

I toss my mail and my keys down next to a beige sofa that I salvaged from the curb. The fabric is stained but it was free so I make do. Some nights I fall asleep there with a book in my hand.

The musky smell of drying paper reminds me to check on my project in the kitchen. At Saint Mary’s they made me keep a therapy journal. Over 200 handwritten pages. I’m recycling it to make new paper, mixing shredded purple petals into the pulp. I’ve liked violets ever since Billy Morton told me they were the same color as my eyes, just before he put his hand under my dress. He pulled back a nub.

I check my mobile phone for messages. Instead of keeping it on me, I always leave it in my apartment. Gadgets break if I’m near them for too long. People say it’s just bad luck, but it’s something more. I know this. I discover that my shrink has left a message apologizing for the “reaction” I had to the medication. He wants to schedule a follow-up appointment. Why yes, I’d love another opportunity to achieve personal enlightenment in your chamber of horrors. Thank you for asking!

I return to the living room. It’s really more of a book room. I have no computer or television. The walls are covered with bookshelves I’ve made from planks and cinder blocks scavenged from my disintegrating neighborhood. Used books are nearly free if you know where to find them; I currently own 1,347. Most of them are history books. I especially like biographies: John Adams, Mary Wollstonecraft, George III, and Thomas Jefferson. The figures of the late eighteenth century seem especially real to me.

I plop down on my street sofa and look at the mail. There’s a flyer for pizza I can’t afford, even with the coupon. And carpet cleaning? I think not. There are creatures in my carpet that date back to the Cretaceous period. Disturb them at your own risk.

At the bottom of the mail pile is a letter from the school.

I’ve been expelled! Months ago, I put some “creative information” on my scholarship application. It was the only way I had a prayer of getting in. Now they’ve found out and I’m busted. I should have realized the bastards would give me a closer look after I kicked Leeks. What irony, I won the scholarship but now I don’t need it.

What am I going to do? I love school. I was going to get my doctorate and teach at a university while I wrote books. The first one was going to be about George III. I’m convinced that he wasn’t insane but was actually poisoned, and I want to go to England to find the source material to make my case.

Now I’ll have to find another college. Will they make me start over? Will they even accept me after what I’ve done?

I suddenly realize there’s another repercussion. Some of that scholarship money is paying my rent! My work at the Athenaeum is only part-time, so I’ve got to find a second job, and right now, or I’ll be homeless. I have no relatives I can live with. There’s only Melita, the closest thing I have to a mom. Melita looks out for me. She was my mentor in the Big Sisters program. She works in circulation at the Athenaeum and got me a job there, which would have been impossible without her help. Melita is raising two kids in a small apartment so there’s really no room for me at her place. She can’t know about this; she would want to give me her bed while she slept on the floor.

Tears fill my eyes and I reach for…

What the hell was that? For a moment, I was reaching for someone, looking for comfort. I’m alone here, yet I have the strangest feeling that I live here with someone.

Julian?

No, I live alone. Julian is the man I was dreaming about in the shrink’s office. Or was it just a dream? What if it was a real memory from a past life? Or maybe the shrink used the drug to put these ideas in my head. What if he’s trying to brainwash me somehow? Maybe, but I doubt it. I’ve always been weird in the head. And I’m physically different as well, making gadgets break around me. Melita says I have a magnetic personality.

If this was an actual past life memory, then I was some sort of terrible creature. A vampire, perhaps? And Julian was my … lover? Husband? Or something more?

I remember how I felt about him. I’m feeling it now. Sweet, aching, giddy. Like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’m terrified by the power he wields over me. I want to possess him, to live inside his skin.

I can’t remember what he looked like, just the way he made me feel. The way he makes me feel.

I want to feel this way forever.

A dam bursts inside me as I sob into a sofa cushion. I’ve been alone my whole, sad life. Suddenly, I can’t do it anymore. I want a man like Julian. And if I can’t find one, I’ll wither inside, little by little, a death of a thousand lonely moments.

A sobering fear grips me and the tears stop. What is happening? Yesterday I was fine—more or less—and now I’m a wreck, alternating wildly between love and despair. It has to be the drug. It’s playing with my mind, making me lose control.

Before I can accept these feelings, I need to find out if Julian is real. I need to remember something about him that I can actually investigate and confirm. I leap from the sofa and pace, willing myself to remember. The minutes pass and nothing comes.

I need those pills, those black-and-white skunk pills that helped me remember, but I won’t let that quack near me again. I’ll have to steal the pills. I grab my keys and my backpack but stop at the door.

Wait, what’s going on here? This is all happening so fast. I was just reading my mail and now I’m planning a break-in! Why am I acting so impulsively? Maybe it’s the drug, but it feels like something else, something deeper.

I know the smart move is to stay at home, but to hell with that. I’m going to trust my instincts.

I’m still wearing the belted shirtdress and flats from my appointment with the shrink. Everything else I have is dirty. I decide to throw on my black beanie and jean jacket. Not exactly break-in attire.

It’s past dark by the time the bus drops me off at Kennedy Plaza. High above, I see a shadow flit past the Superman building. Probably one of the peregrine falcons living up there. I hear they can hunt at night.

I’m relieved to find my shrink’s building still open. Some of the businesses here have late hours, but not my shrink. I find his third-floor office closed and locked. I’m disappointed. I guess I was hoping for a note that read, “Emma, I’ve left the door unlocked. Your pills are on the counter.”

The door has a keypad entry. After examining the pad, I see that three of the numbers are worn. How many combinations of those three buttons could there be? Screw it. I was never any good at math. I punch those three buttons in random combinations. To my surprise, the door unlocks almost immediately. Excellent security, Dr. Jekyll, but it was no match for my skilled burgling. If I’m not busy later, perhaps I should rob a bank.

As I open the door, I look down the carpeted hall and see the cleaning lady watching me. She is smiling, but inside she is nervous and suspicious. I offer her a lame explanation. “Left my purse in there. He said I could get it.” I don’t carry one, of course, but she doesn’t know that.

She nods, eyeing my pack. Inside, she is getting angry. She sees this as her building.

I push inside the office.

There are a shocking number of pills in his small office. Pills for every neurosis and every orifice. There’s really a suppository for bed-wetting? Lovely.

I’ve opened every bottle in his office. He’s apparently running his own pharmacy here. Dozens of bottles now litter his teak desk, but not a single damn skunk pill to be found.

Out in the waiting room, I hear the door rattle open. A male voice calls out. “Hello?” It’s security.

I spin, eyes wildly searching the office for some undiscovered cabinet. But I’ve looted them all. I hope the security guard will use his gun on me. It will be simpler than explaining this. Desperate, I notice Dr. Jekyll’s hideous plaid sport coat hanging on a coat rack. I rush over and check the pockets.

Shit, the pills were here all along. The label on the bottle is unpronounceable, blahblahtine something.

Security Man pokes his nose into the office. Damn, he does have a gun. I’m relieved to see that his finger isn’t on the trigger. “Miss, are you all right?” He looks young, with a drawn face and eyes dark from lack of sleep. Inside, he is worried for me. I guess chivalry isn’t dead.

He will take these pills from me and I will lose my only way to remember more about Julian. Sure, I could swallow one before he got to me, but what would that accomplish? My previous memory didn’t reveal much about Julian. I might have to take these pills for weeks to get the information I need.

The nice security man holds out his hand for the pills.

Julian, are you real or just a fantasy? Let’s find out. I pop off the lid and gulp down the entire contents of the bottle. Tiny white sparks dance around me as I choke. I feel myself plunging down the rabbit hole.

Knight’s Quest
STEFAN HILDEBRAND

Fear chews into my gut as I step through the bronze doors. I’ve never seen the Hall of Regents. I’m expecting the devil to jump out and snatch my soul.

But what I see is heaven: a Roman-style atrium with gushing fountains and floor mosaics. Gardens line the edges of the long, rectangular room. I don’t recognize the flowers, mostly yellow and white. They smell like honey.

An artificial sun, created by a vast cluster of full-spectrum lights, keeps the gardens alive. At the far end of the atrium sits a stone portico supported by marble columns. A few people stand in its shadow, talking among themselves.

I keep my eyes unfocused as I enter, using my peripheral vision to check both sides of the door for potential attackers. Somehow, there’s a breeze in here. I feel the fountain mist on my face. This is a room fit for an emperor.

As I cross the atrium, I study the mosaics on the floor. They look very old. I recognize several faces unknown to history, but well known to KoR: Quintilius, the Knight who killed the satyr pope, John XII; Costica Marica, who led the infamous vampire, Vlad Tepes, into a Turkish trap; and Warian, who killed the fierce Were king, Penda of Mercia. No doubt every famous Knight of Rome is immortalized in this atrium, a place where their faces are walked on as a lesson in humility.

My face will never be immortalized on this floor, but my blood soon might.

A neon-green hummingbird zips past as I approach the portico. Three people turn to observe me: my master, Henry Cobo, his white-bearded face solemn and unreadable; Preceptor Ericka Stockhausen, our Base Commander, wearing a black uniform that makes her blue eyes glow eerily; and a scowling, dwarfish man who could only be the National Commander, Albert Amedeo. What the hell is he doing here?

The Preceptor speaks with a forced smile. “Squire Hildebrand, today is a big day for you.”

I have no idea what she’s talking about. Best to keep my mouth shut.

She takes a step toward me, her voice lightening. “Your training is over.”

Nine hard years of work have come to an end. I was expecting this. I should feel happy. So why do I feel this sense of impending doom?

The Preceptor isn’t getting the reaction she expected. She lightens her tone even more. “We have a quest for you.”

I nod my thanks. The quest is the final test. If I succeed, I’ll be knighted.

Amedeo jumps in, impatient with the Preceptor’s cheery tone. “It’s a solo mission. No safety net. Tell no one, not even our own people. Report only to us.”

I nod. That’s odd. Some kind of black op?

Amedeo narrows his eyes at me. He’s a foot shorter, pushing seventy, and looks like he could eat me for breakfast. “Your surveillance of Emma Rue is over. Bring her in for boxing.”

My stomach burns. I bite back my urge to question the order. Emma isn’t a paranormal. Why does she deserve deincarnation?

Master Cobo, as if reading my mind, speaks softly, his voice nearly swallowed by the burbling fountains. “Emma’s mother was on our radar, so we’ve been keeping an eye on Emma as well. We’ve called you here because Emma has attacked a KoR operative working as a professor. We think she recognized him with soulsight. He’s likely an enemy from one of her past lives.”

Soulsight. That means Emma had once been a vampire. If soulsight becomes strong enough, the ability imprints itself on future incarnations. It only happens with the most powerful vampires, nobles in the Black Rose Society. Maybe Emma is one of them, and her vampire soul has started reasserting itself. Maybe that’s why KoR has decided she must pay with her life, and all her future lives. But is that justice?

The Preceptor speaks, her voice formal now. “Squire Hildebrand, do you accept the quest?”

You don’t say no to these people. “Yes, Preceptor.”

Amedeo waves me away with a sharp gesture of his meaty hand.

I realize something as I walk back toward the bronze doors. Emma is a human girl with no allies. Capturing her will be the easiest Knight’s Quest ever assigned. They must have given me the job because they don’t want me taking any real risks in the field. My future is in the ludus. I’ll be teaching Ars Duellica until my hair turns white, like Master Cobo. I guess that’s good. People who work inside the walls of KoR get promoted. People who work outside them die.

Fate is a fickle bitch. I’m on the fast track to KoR leadership when I should already be dead. A mole in KoR is unheard of, much less a mole with a commission. This is my chance to become the highest-placed spy to ever infiltrate KoR, but only if I take out Emma. Could I do that to a girl I really like?

Síndóm
CASSANDRA CROSS
1814

EMMA’S PAST LIFE

Julian has made secret plans for our anniversary. My attempts to coax them from him have met with failure. We have been bloodmates for thirty-eight marvelous years and yet he remains a lovely enigma, ever able to surprise and delight. He nurtures an aura of mystery, not because he doesn’t trust me, but because he loves me and knows how easily I grow bored. He is always in my thoughts, in my heart, his soul embracing mine.

I sit in my room before my lovely Adam-style mahogany vanity. Candlelight dances on the polished wood while Ida’s dark fingers play a familiar melody on the silk strings of my pale stays. I feel a pinch from an ambitious tug (a rare misstep). She whispers in response, knowing the strength of my hearing. “Sorry, Mistress Cross.”

I wave my hand. “C’est rien.” Ida has been good to me over the decades. The lines of time have furrowed her face while my skin has remained unmarked, and never once has she raised a complaint or made an inquiry. She loves me and accepts me for who I am. One day soon I will free her from the bondage of slavery.

In the giltwood mirror, I see my blonde hair wrapped in coils around my finger. One day I must rid myself of this girlish habit.

I await Julian in the Great Hall. Long red curtains made of Chinese silk frame the tall, moonlit windows. Ten yards above my head the great dome rises, with a moon and stars twinkling in a gilded paint.

When we first built this home in Newport, Julian insisted that I name it. I called it Refuge d’Amoureux. Our love grew stronger over the decades but our refuge began to age, so Julian brought over Mr. John Nash from London to rebuild it. The architect cost a bloody fortune but his services were well worth the coin.

The hall’s boldest feature is a painting by Julian. He painted all of the pieces that hang in our manse, but this is my favorite. To the mortal eye it appears as nothing more than a blur of colorful clouds. But Julian’s palette includes blaze paints, created from ground blazestone, visible only to Transcendent eyes. It is a painting of my soul, and if you watch for long enough, it appears to move. If Julian St. Fleur were mortal, his work would hang in the world’s greatest museums. But the risk of exposure is too great for his paintings to be seen beyond these walls.

I fuss with my dress, fluttered layers of white silk. It feels odd to have the bodice so close to the bust, but all the fashionable ladies now prefer this high-waisted style. I do enjoy the bare arms. Scandalous!

A few of our Irish servants hover about, cleaning and whatnot. Irish are quite popular now, especially among the abolitionists. They part to make way for Julian as he descends the stairs. Their eyes follow him with admiration and envy. He is, and will always remain, the most beautiful man I have ever seen, both in body and soul.

His rose-gold eyes, in a perpetual sunset, gaze at me from across the room. I can see that he approves of my dress. I feel his invisible third hand on the fabric, touching me here, and there, and in places best left for later. I whisper to him. “We mustn’t be late.”

He nods as he adjusts his pale lavender cravat, the silk radiant against his midnight-blue waistcoat. I’m pleased to see he hasn’t brought his hat. I love to see every lock of his long, caramel hair. It has a way of swimming in the breeze.

We join our third hands and he leads me to him. He places a gentle kiss on my cheek, taking care not to disturb my paints and powders. A pale look is fashionable but I still need a bit of color.

He puts his hand around my waist and we walk into the foyer. I smile at the pair of mahogany chairs I’ve just acquired. Lion’s-paw feet, with cushions upholstered in a silk-and-wool fabric embossed with subtle leopard spots. Positively savage!

An Irish girl with long black hair casts her eyes to the floor as she opens the front doors. A month ago, her friend, one of our cooks, had the audacity to touch Julian’s hand in passing. Now that friend is gone, and the Irish are keeping their hands and eyes to themselves. I won’t share my beloved with anyone.

Julian and I pass through the sturdy pair of cypress doors with beveled glass windows framed in iron. I smell the spicy scent of their wood as we enter the night’s embrace.

Once outside, Julian draws me out of the silver-blue moonlight and into a pool of shadow behind a marble column.

Again, he has surprised me. “No carriage?”

He shakes his head. “Our destination is much too far for a carriage. We’ll be meeting one of my … associates … in Washington. He’ll be joining us for dinner at the White House.”

It takes me a moment to understand. He means the home of President Madison! This will mean a shadow walk, and I fear my yellow court shoes are too delicate for the journey. Julian knows my thoughts.

“It’s only an hour’s run, my love. I’ll carry your shoes if you like.”

I hadn’t realized he was planning such an adventure. Dinner with the President. How on earth had he managed that? I show him a smile. “Thank you, but I can manage my shoes.”

He bows and extends his hand. I take it and we slip into Velox, disappearing from the mortal world.

Julian and I stand on a hill overlooking Washington. The war has taken a turn for the worse. Under the half-moon we can see Redcoats sacking the city. They look like angry sparks, drifting from building to building, setting fire to everything in their path.

Dinner was unmemorable. We met with Hunfrid Gurker, a somewhat disreputable art dealer Julian has done business with in the past. Julian was supposed to introduce him to the President, remuneration for some previous deal they had made. But the introduction had been a brief, hurried affair along the road while the President and his wife Dolley were escaping town.

President Madison is a wisp of a man with an odd nose and no conversational skills. But his soul is pure, and I like his wife, Dolley. Her carriage was brimming with antiques she was saving from the British.

After the rushed meeting, the dealer slipped Julian a small package, now under his waistcoat. I know it’s a gift for me. And Julian knows that I know. After making me wait, he finally smiles and produces the present. “I have a confession. We really didn’t come to meet the President. We came to acquire this from Hunfrid.” He presses it into my hands, a long, slim box.

I gasp in delight as I see faint colors swirling inside. Whatever it is, it has a soul! I open the box and discover a thin dagger forged of some dark green metal rippled with blazestone inlay. Emeralds sparkle in the handle. The blade glints wickedly in the moonlight, promising death, or something worse than death.

Julian wraps an arm around my shoulders. “It’s very old, pre-classical, likely forged by elves in the Age of Dragons. And it has a name. Síndóm.”

I draw Síndóm from the box. I know it is a “she.” Her handle is warm in my hand. She seems to purr. I see strange runes inscribed on her blade…

“What do these symbols mean?”

Julian’s voice grows serious. “I’ve no idea, my love. But take care. The weapon has some exotic power that no one can fathom.”

Tears flood my eyes. This is a gift beyond value, heavy with the ancient history of the Fae Folk. And it is alive. My voice wavers as I whisper, “Je t’aime.” I lean up to kiss him. As our lips touch, a shot rings out in the night, and then another—musket fire.

As we look to the city, we see fires everywhere. Suddenly, a half-dozen mounted dragoons swarm around the empty White House (only a half-mile away), thrusting burning torches through the shattered windows.

Julian and I remain calm. I am a general’s daughter, and we have both seen the worst war has to offer. Besides, this is a rare opportunity to watch history in the making. Will this mean the collapse of the fragile union?

Carefully, I return the formidable dagger to its box. The weapon radiates power and mystery, but I must explore it another time. “Those dragoons are headed this way.”

Julian peers toward the burning White House. “I believe you’re correct. Shall we fend them off together?”

Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell when he’s joking.

Gigglemeister
EMMA RUE

THE PRESENT

I open my eyes and find myself in a hospital room. I close them again, trying to cling to the dream of being Cassandra and having Julian at my side in Washington. It was magnificent. This world cannot compare. If it was a dream, it was the most remarkable dream of my life, a romantic fantasy beyond compare. But if it wasn’t just a dream, if it was real, it shatters my understanding of the world. So I have to know the truth about Julian and Refuge d’Amoureux.

I open my eyes again and focus on the hospital bed. Memories of my arrival here flood back. I overdosed on those regression pills. My right nostril hurts where they ran the tube to send charcoal into my stomach. I kept gagging when they tried to put it in through my mouth. But the tube does nothing to hide the hospital’s antiseptic smell; it’s thick enough to taste.

I’m in Rhode Island Hospital. Probably their loony ward. My door is open. I hear a monitor beeping in the room next door and a half-dozen voices in the hall. An old man walks by pushing an IV stand on wheels. His hospital gown is open in the back and he isn’t wearing underwear. What a wonderful place; charcoal up the nose and a free show.

My shrink came by earlier. I was kind of hazy at the time, but I remember that he won’t be pressing charges for the break-in. I don’t think he wants to explain his illicit pharmacy to the police.

I’m under observation and a social worker is coming soon. I know the drill. They’re worried I’m acting out, that taking the pills was a suicidal gesture. At least that’s something they understand. If I told them the real reason I took those pills they would put me in a straitjacket.

Melita is just down the hall. I hear her youngest daughter, Kaya, singing one of her made-up songs. “You got warts in your shorts, warts in your shorts. Warts and shorts, warts and shorts.”

Kaya has a habit of creating odd and embarrassing songs. That’s part of why I love her. The other reason is that she is like me, cast aside by her real mother. Melita’s younger sister was a drug addict who abandoned Kaya. Thankfully, Melita was there to save the precocious girl. Kaya thinks of Melita as her mom now.

I hear the concern in Melita’s voice as she talks to the doctor. She is the only person in my life who worries about me. But she’s also got worries of her own, so I hate to upset her.

Melita enters my hospital room alone. Melita’s older daughter, Seble, must be watching Kaya. Melita wants to make sure I’m not a raving lunatic before she brings the kids in to see me. I push aside the foul-smelling pudding they’ve left for me and do my best to smile.

Poor Melita looks squeezed into her blue pantsuit. I want to take her clothes shopping, but neither of us can afford it. On the surface, she is all smiles, but beneath that I see the colors of fear. I need to reassure her. “I’m fine, Melita. It was just a memory drug, not crack.”

She hugs me and touches me on the nose, her signature way of saying I love you. She still hasn’t spoken. She sits beside the bed and takes my hand. Her palm is warm and soft, her fingers strong. A mother’s hand. Not that I would know.

She has a way of getting me to talk first. “I’m sorry to worry you.”

“I’m fine, just fine, you just focus on getting better. I’m dropping the kids with Nana so I can cover your shift tonight.”

“Thank you.” Melita thinks that I will be in the hospital for a while. But I’m not sticking around to talk to that social worker. I have a plan. And if Melita catches wind of it, she’ll make them cuff me to the bed.

She has some of her purple lipstick on her front teeth. I rub my own teeth to alert her and she wipes it off and speaks without missing a beat. “Why a memory drug? What were you trying to remember?”

I need to tell someone. At least a little of it. “Do you believe in past lives?”

Her eyebrows rise. “I once read a book about it at the library.”

“When I took the pills, I dreamed I was wearing gorgeous dresses, living in a mansion.” She doesn’t need to know the vampire part of the story.

Melita sizes me up. “These pills, what was in them?”

“I don’t know. But the dream was vivid, like an actual memory.”

Worry clouds her face. “There’s a thin line between dreams and memory.”

“You never answered my question. Past lives. True, or just what we want to believe?”

She thinks it over. “The book said that souls kind of orbit around each other, so you’re constantly interacting with people from your past lives. That’s why we sometimes really like or really hate people we just met, because we’re remembering a past life connection. That part makes a certain amount of sense.”

Hmm, I liked Melita from the moment I met her. Her soul looks familiar and comforting. Perhaps Cassandra knew one of Melita’s past incarnations. And perhaps Cassandra had met Professor Leeks in one of his past lives. “Have you ever felt like you’ve known someone before?”

Melita slowly nods. “There was another interesting thing. The book said that odd habits you have in this life are caused by things that happened in your past life. Like people who refuse to drive because they once died in a car accident.”

I’ve always been afraid of big dogs. Was I once attacked by one?

Suddenly, Kaya charges into the room. Last month she lost one of her baby teeth, and she smiles in a way that shows off the gap. She crouches at the foot of my bed, peeks over the rail, and squeaks a question. “Who am I?” She never tires of this game.

“You’re Betsy Ross.”

Kaya giggles and shakes her head, sending her beaded braids flying around her face.

“You’re Martha Washington.”

She laughs and shakes her head again.

“You’re Kaya Gigglemeister, Queen of Asa Messer Elementary School.”

“Yes!” She grabs my feet through the sheets and gleefully shakes them.

Melita flashes her a stern expression. “Play nice.”

I love Kaya. She’s always so happy. I want to know her secret.

Seble enters the room, wearing black sunglasses and a haggard look no teenager should have. “Sorry, she slipped out while we were in the bathroom.”

Seble gathers up her squirming cousin without looking at me. Kaya is fine, but seeing me in a hospital bed is scaring Seble, who is hiding behind those sunglasses. I want to say something to her, but I don’t know what. She checks the time on her phone. “Mom, we’re late for Nana’s.”

Melita nods. “Go on out to the car. I’ll catch up.”

Seble hurries out with Kaya, who waves goodbye to me.

Melita’s eyes lock onto mine, her expression intense. “What if something bad happened in your past life, something that drove you into this hospital bed? Is that really a memory you want to dredge up?”

I have no answer for her.

Melita touches me on the nose again. “I’ll come by after work.”

“I might be released before then.”

“You need money for the bus home?”

“I’m good, Melita, thanks.”

She nods and reluctantly turns away. After a long look back, she’s finally out the door.

Alone now, I slip from the bed. I’m wearing a hospital gown, and (thankfully) underwear. I dig around the room and find my flats, shirtdress, and jean jacket. The beanie is missing in action.

I need to make my escape from this place. Melita is probably right; I should let it go. But I can’t. I have to know if Cassandra and Julian are real.

Trickster
STEFAN HILDEBRAND

After receiving my assignment to capture Emma, I drove four straight hours, speeding most of the way, to reach this lonely stretch of Vermont forest. Lucky I didn’t get a ticket. Pinecones crunch underfoot as I step out of my car and disappear into the trees, following trails no untrained eye can see. This is the back way into Corby, a longer route that gives me a chance to reconnect with the forest. I’m excited by the sharp smell of spruce trees, mixed with a few pines and hemlocks. I feel like a kid again. It makes me remember a simpler life, growing up in these woods before it all went to shit.

It’s been a year since I last invoked. That’s a long time for an Ulfhedinn. My spirit wolf, whose name cannot be pronounced by the human tongue, is pissed because I’ve ignored Him for so long. So I don’t know if He will come. This wolf is strong and proud. Like all of the wolves our people channel, He is a vargr, a horse-sized wolf descended from Fenrir, a giant beast that defied the Norse gods.

The Ulfhednar all have a special tattoo, made in part from the blood of a wolf. Mine is on my scalp, hidden by my hair. KoR hasn’t found it, which is why I’m still alive. It’s a growling wolf with red eyes. The tattoo tingles as I reach out to Him. I’m sorry it’s been so long.

After my blót, the ceremony that bonded my wolf to me, my father said something weird. He said that my wolf had taken a while to come to me. He didn’t say why and I didn’t ask. I was a frightened thirteen-year-old feeling the power of the Were for the first time. It was overwhelming. A lot of kids piss themselves. But ever since my dad said that, I’ve wondered if my wolf had been hesitant to bond with me. Maybe I don’t measure up.

He is coming, but He’s taking his time. He wants to make a point. If it was life or death, He would already be here. I hope so anyway.

It’s been five years since I last made contact with my people, Clan Corby. Our kind are descended from Northmen, the Ulfhednar, who channel the wolf in battle. Farther north of here lies another town, one in the hands of the Berserkir, who invoke the bear. What makes us Were is the ability to bond with animal spirits. The power is passed along family lines.

I reel as the hundreds of forest scents suddenly overwhelm me. He is here. His spirit coexisting inside me. I must be careful to stay out of sight. Anyone stumbling upon me would see my menacing frost-blue eyes, my gray pointed ears, my huge, bone-white canine teeth, and the long pale claws on my left hand. My wolf leaves human fingers on my right hand so I can use a gun.

I haven’t changed size or transformed as most people would think. There was no painful shifting of my body and I’m still wearing my clothes. It’s as if He stepped inside me. But people who know me would still recognize me. It’s not like I’m down on all fours and covered with fur.

I wince as everything gets louder. Chirping birds sound like sirens. I hear the scurry of every rabbit and mouse. And finally, the shadows disappear as my eyes become more sensitive to light. The shafts of sunlight that separate the trees burn like bolts of lightning.

He wants to run. So I run. The ground blurs at my feet as I shoot through the trees. As always, I’m filled with anger. No one knows why that happens, but every Ulfhedinn learns to control it when they invoke. I also feel a sense of awe as I fly through the forest without even breathing hard. Whatever happens to my body—exhaustion, pain, injury—is absorbed by Him.

I uninvoke my wolf as I near Corby. The anger subsides. I don’t feel any physical change, but my body instantly returns to normal as He leaves me.

Ahead I spot the “claw,” its giant steel pincers hanging high in the late afternoon sun. The massive claw picks up a bundle of raw logs from a truck and swings them onto the stacks. From there, the logs will be processed by Corby’s hungry lumber mill, staffed by three shifts working twenty-four hours a day.

I was never a great logger because my mind was always on school. My father, our clan leader, didn’t mind that I was crap with a chainsaw. He wanted me to see the big picture. He wanted me to run this town. That was, until KoR recruited me.

As I pass the old wooden schoolhouse, I can’t resist looking in through the window. I see that Ms. Lystad is still teaching, wearing her trademark bun. I had a thing for her as a kid. Damn, she’s getting old. Guess I am too.

Ms. Lystad spots me and waves me in as if she had been expecting me all along. Nothing ever rattled her, and I remember trying. When we put a rat snake in her desk drawer, she took it out and spent the rest of the day lecturing us on ophiology. There was a test afterward and I got the top score. Ms. Lystad wanted me to go on to college but KoR had other plans.

Ms. Lystad motions me to the front of the room. “Welcome, Mr. Hildebrand. You can join us for a lesson on Futhorc.”

I survey the kids and see them drawing Anglo-Saxon runes on paper. They didn’t teach that when I was here, but there was talk about it. Some of the folks in town wanted to turn this into a Scandinavian immersion school.

Ms. Lystad takes my arm as if I’m still a kid. “Class, this is Stefan Hildebrand, a former student. Who can spell Stefan using the runes?”

A pale kid raises his hand.

Ms. Lystad smiles encouragement. “Good, Erik, write it on the board.”

With the forests disappearing and loggable trees getting harder to come by, Corby is a poor town. They don’t have a lot of computers and such. Any of the KoR agents would burst out laughing if they saw Erik pick up that dusty stub of chalk. We would seem like rednecks to them.

Erik carefully draws out my name in the runes…

My dyslexia makes the characters swim. For one strange moment, they seem to spell traitor.

My mom rushes out of our modest house as I approach. She hugs me hard enough to hurt. I see that her chestnut hair now has streaks of gray. I feel like some sort of time traveler, thrown forward into my own future. “Hi, Mom.”

She doesn’t answer. She goes silent when she’s really happy or really sad. As she pulls me inside the house, I realize they’ve painted the aluminum siding a lighter shade of green.

I barely recognize my family home. Strange how it seems so small now. My dad’s lumberjack trophies have disappeared from the mantel, replaced by Mom’s butterfly collection, mostly swallowtails and brushfoots. I never liked that hobby. Once they die, they’re not pretty anymore. “Where’s Dad?”

“Already on his way.” She sounds nervous. Something is wrong. I take a closer look at the place. None of my dad’s stuff is around. Did they get a divorce? Why would they do that?

My father enters the house. He looks thinner than I remember but hasn’t grayed much. He shakes my hand and I feel the calluses of a working man. We don’t hug. We’ve never been huggers, except for the one time I fell in the river as a kid. He hugged me when they pulled me out. Whenever I doubt his love for me, I remember that one and only hug.

His tone seems guarded. “Good to see you. Everything okay?”

Mom pops her head in from the kitchen. “You two have a seat. I’m making dinner.”

Definitely a divorce. She’s telling him to sit in what used to be his own house. Shit, I don’t have time to deal with this now. I catch my dad’s wary eye. “We need to talk, and then I have to run.”

He nods and we sit. I choose a spot by the fireplace, a low stool carved from a maple stump. Suddenly, I’m not sure how to proceed. “Um, you see, there’s this girl.”

And suddenly Mom pops her head in again. “What’s her name?”

“Emma Rue.”

Dad’s pale eyes narrow. “She’s Osterkligr?” Osterkligr means weak. It’s a derogatory term for all those who are not Were.

“Yes. She was a vampire in her past life and KoR has ordered me to bring her in for boxing. If I do, they’ll make me a Knight.”

Mom’s face turns hard.

Dad sighs and his shoulders drop. His way of showing annoyance. “How much does she know about you?”

“Nothing. She thinks my name is Micah, that I’m an ex-soldier attending college.”

Mom speaks quietly. “You like this girl.”

It isn’t a question. Maybe she’s worried I want to mate with Emma. By law, Were only mate with Were. I need to be direct now. “I want out of KoR. I want to come home. And I want Corby to help Emma find another life, somewhere safe.”

Dad says nothing. Mom, worry lines creasing her face, heads back into the kitchen. But I know she’s still listening.

My fingernails pick at the maple stool. I decide to fill the growing silence. “I’m sorry—I’m just not built to shed innocent blood. You didn’t raise me that way.”

My dad stares out the window, seeming to count the spruce trees in the forest beyond. He does that when he’s thinking. After a long time, his fiery eyes turn back to me. “We live like animals, Stefan, hiding out in the woods because the Knights of Rome want to kill every last one of us. Women, minorities, gay people, they’re all winning their right to exist as equals in our society. But where are our rights, Stefan? Why can’t we live in the open? I want a better world for us, but that won’t happen until KoR is destroyed. You’re our best chance of making that happen. The future of our people is on your shoulders. So do whatever it takes to become a Knight.”

Suddenly, I feel the weight of my clan, pressing me into the earth, smothering my existence. Somehow I thought my dad would side with his own son. I should have known better. It wasn’t my idea to join KoR in the first place; I just wanted to go to college. But when KoR unknowingly tried to recruit one of their sworn enemies, Corby couldn’t pass up the opportunity to let them, so my life changed forever.

I nearly invoke as someone suddenly pounds on the front door.

Dad frowns and gets up to answer it. He throws open the door, revealing Neil Torp, the Summoner. He looks like he’s gained about a hundred pounds of crazy since officiating my blót. His gray hair is spiky. His green eyes look too big for his face and half his mouth is hanging limp. When he speaks, he slurs so badly I can’t understand him. He used to be so wise and full of life. What the hell happened?

Mom re-enters the room and whispers in my ear. “Stroke. And now dementia.”

Poor bastard. I extend my hand to him. “Hello, Mr. Torp, good to see you again, sir.”

He throws his arms around me as if falling. He smells like cheap cologne and even cheaper liquor. He slurs something I can’t understand and immediately goes into convulsions.

Dad gets on the phone and calls Corby’s volunteer fire department. There’s always an EMT on duty. In a logging town, they get a lot of work.

As I ease Mr. Torp to the ground, his twitching body suddenly goes limp. Somehow, I know he is dead.

My mother looks down at him with a mixture of pity and confusion.

Maybe she understood his final, slurred words. “What did he say?”

She shakes her head. “I’m not sure. Something about a trickster.

Kiss Behind the Bakery
CASSANDRA CROSS
1775

EMMA’S PAST LIFE

My father, recently promoted to a general in the Continental Army, looks as hale and hearty as I have ever seen him. Sweat gleams from his grinning face as his ax flies, chopping wood for the hearth. Of course we have slaves for that, but he enjoys the work.

He catches my eye as I cross our proper English lawn, kept in check by a menagerie of grazing goats and sheep. A carriage, drawn by a pair of fine black Friesians, awaits me at the stable for my weekly trip into town. But something in Father’s face tells me the trip will be postponed. “Cassie! Walk with me!”

He hugs me as I approach and touches me on the nose, a gesture of affection that has persisted since my childhood.

We walk to a swing bench he built when I was a girl. It hangs from two iron chains connected to a massive oak branch. We sit and he kicks his feet, causing the bench to swing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so happy. For some reason, it worries me. “You’re in a fine mood, Father.”

“Indeed I am. Do you remember my dear friend Captain Thomas Tulley?”

I do. But I can hardly tell my father why. Last year Tom and I kissed behind the Sharpson Bakery in Newport. “I have a vague recollection of him.”

“You may not be aware, but he’s quite taken with you.”

Oh no. Please do not continue down this path.

His eyes look far away and his face grows suddenly grave. “Tom is the bravest man I’ve ever known. There are things in war, my dear, terrible things that men don’t speak of with their womenfolk.”

“I’m not a delicate flower, Father. You know you can tell me anything.” Why did I say that? Something tells me I don’t want to hear what’s coming.

He mulls over my words, watching a bee circle a burgundy spire of hollyhocks brought over from England. In his eyes, I am like that delicate flower. Is Tom to be my bee?

Just when I think he’ll remain silent, Father begins to speak, his eyes avoiding mine. “When the British began their third assault, we ran out of ammunition and I called the retreat to Cambridge. We lost significant numbers traveling over Bunker Hill. The 63rd Foot was pressing when my horse was shot out from under me. I rolled into a ravine. By the time I crawled out, I was behind their line, and the British were killing our wounded. Many of their officers were dead and their soldiers had fallen into a rage. As I watched good men, men who could have recovered, die at their hands, I thought of…”

As he stutters to a stop, I see tears rolling down his cheeks. I am stunned and frightened. I have never seen my father cry. I reach out and take his hand, and after a moment, he continues.

“I thought of you, the light of my life. I thought of missing your wedding, of never being a grandfather to your children. I thought of all the fatherly promises I would never keep. And then I saw Tom, who had refused to abandon me in the field. The British fired at him a dozen times as he crossed that bloody ground to save me. And by God’s grace, he survived unscathed, leading me into a creek bed where we made our escape. Thanks to Tom, I will be able to keep those promises I made to you.”

I know where this is going. I don’t love Tom. But how can I say that to my weeping father? His tears have become my own.

“Tom has asked for your hand, and I’ve given him my blessing. You won’t find a better man in all of New England.”

This has played out exactly as I feared. I find my tongue paralyzed and the silence grows between us.

The sweet smell of spiced cider and pumpkin casserole drifts across the crowded garden. The Reverend John Graves, the rector of King’s Church in Providence, directs the final preparations like a fussy field marshal. He is Tom’s minister and I’m told that it’s a great honor to have him presiding. Reverend Graves is not pleased that I’ve chosen to have the wedding at our home, but was mollified when we published our banns at his church as well as my own. A part of me hoped that these public declarations of our intent to marry would attract an objection, but after a month, we heard nothing, and the marriage was approved.

As I stand at the edge of the garden, Amity Claridge, my best friend from childhood, adjusts the collar on my blue wool gown. “Please Cassie, just a small hint.”

“I’m not telling you where Mother hid that piece of nutmeg!” I didn’t mean to snap at her. I feel very ill at ease.

Amity grins. “Fine, I’ll simply eat your entire wedding cake to find it. It’s either that or die an old maid.”

She thinks I’m nervous and seeks to put me at ease. But I’m closer to horrified than nervous. How did it come to this? A dozen times I tried to tell Father no, and a dozen times I failed. Tom is a wonderful man, tall and handsome, fiercely brave. Every girl in Newport has pictured herself with him, and he has chosen me. So why am I not drawn to him?

I think back to our kiss behind the bakery. He pressed me against the wall, wanting more, but I had nothing to give him. I was flattered by his attention but in my heart I knew he would never be my one true love. That man remains undiscovered.

Across the garden I hear Tom’s soldier friends, already drunk, joking that he’s only getting married to avoid the bachelor’s tax. But they all know it isn’t true. Tom is in love. And I feel the weight of his love pressing down on me, making it impossible to breathe.

A violin begins to play. This is all happening so fast. Amity says something but I can’t hear her. I realize that Father has taken my arm and is walking me down the brick garden path that leads to Tom and Reverend Graves. I can smell the lavender that mother grows in the garden. She dries it and tucks it into our clothes when she puts them away.

Suddenly, I feel so light that I look down to make certain my feet are still on the ground. All of the sounds and smells and colors of the wedding overwhelm me. I see the world through two tiny pinpricks of light. Only Father’s steady arm is keeping me on my feet. He says something, I have no idea what, but I do my best to smile and nod, moving ever forward.

In a few moments, my life will change forever. Perhaps for the better, but I think not. All I need to do is collapse in Father’s arms, and it will be over. They will stop the ceremony. If I am to do that, I must do it now.

Rusted Key
EMMA RUE

THE PRESENT

I wake up on a crowded Route 60 RIPTA bus. I fell asleep in my seat and we’re already in Newport. I hope the answers I’m looking for are here.

Cassandra’s life, real or imagined, is a little confusing. The dreams aren’t coming in chronological order. Fortunately, my knowledge of history is helping me make sense of them. Tom must be a man that Cassandra met before Julian. Had poor Cassandra gone through with the wedding? How did she end up meeting Julian? So many unanswered questions, including the biggest one: Is all this even real?

I step off the bus and into Newport, smelling the salt air. Providence has its charms—I love going to Waterfire—but Newport is a journey into the past. As a little girl I imagined that I’d live here one day.

I head south from the bus station and pass by Bannister’s Wharf. I catch a whiff of freshly steamed cherrystone clams. My stomach rumbles and I’m tempted to stop, but I have to save my money for the mansion tours. So instead, I head down Thames Street and cut over to the shipyard to see if I can spot any yachts. I’m disappointed to find the docks mostly empty.

When I was younger, St. Mary’s brought us to Newport on a field trip. I remember there being a nice bookshop not far from here, Spring Street Bookstore, but I know better than to go there. I’ll get sucked in, and I’m on a mission. I need to find Refuge d’Amoureux, Cassandra’s beautiful mansion from my dream.

I’ve spent some of my dwindling cash on a self-guided audio tour of The Breakers, the most opulent of the Gilded Age mansions. Constructed by the Vanderbilt family in the late nineteenth century, the sprawling house has seventy rooms. They called it a summer “cottage”! Such humble people. Salt of the earth.

I walk through the vast mansion and enter the library, gasping in delight. In my headphones, the tour guide mentions the dolphin painted on the ceiling. I hadn’t noticed that on my trip through here with Saint Mary’s. My eyes must have been glued to the walnut bookshelves and their gold-leaf trim. They’ve got the area roped off, so I can’t get close enough to read the titles. Pity. I have a fetish for leather-bound books.

I think of my bookshelves made of cinder blocks and wooden planks. My entire apartment could fit into this one beautiful library room. If Cassandra could see my apartment, she would think it a prison cell. What was it like, living in a mansion, surrounding by all this luxury? Did it spoil her? How could it not?

I realize that I’m thinking about Cassandra as if she were a real person. I pray that she was, because if she wasn’t, I may be losing my mind.

A group passes by in the middle of a guided tour. I abandon my headphones and slip into the back of the crowd, trying to look like I belong. Another fifteen minutes into the tour and I see an opening for my question. The guide, a snow-haired woman with painted-on eyebrows, is talking about other mansions in the area. I raise my hand and speak. “I’ve heard of another mansion, Refuge d’Amoureux. What can you tell us about it?”

Eyebrow lady frowns. She knows very well that I’m not part of her tour. “Young lady, I’m afraid there’s no such property.”

“Early nineteenth century, rebuilt by John Nash?”

She laughs haughtily. “If a Nash was in Newport, it would likely be on the circuit. Where did you get your information?” She’s angry now. I’ve challenged her expertise. In a moment she’ll ask to see my tour receipt. Or else she’ll pluck out my eyes with her spindly fingers.

“Must have read it somewhere. Sorry to interrupt.” I wave an apology and head for the exit.

By sunset, my flats are killing me and hunger pinches my stomach. I’ve trudged along the length of the breezy Cliff Walk, trying to think of where else to look. I’ve seen the outside of every mansion on the tour circuit. It’s almost dark and I’ve encountered nothing that matches my memory of Refuge d’Amoureux.

Maybe this is all for nothing. Maybe Cassandra and Julian are a drug-induced hallucination. Damn those skunk pills. Are they affecting my judgment? Have I gone crazy?

I struggle to think. Maybe Cassandra’s mansion was torn down. Or maybe just renovated beyond recognition. Another thought suddenly gives me hope. All of the mansions in the circuit were taken over by the Preservation Society of Newport County when they became too expensive for their owners to maintain. But any homes still in private possession would not be on the tour. But how would I find them? I’d have to check the city property records, and of course their office would be closed by now. If I carried a phone I could check online. Then again, if I carried a phone it would be broken by now.

Depression overwhelms me as I sit on the Forty Steps leading down to the water. A red-gold sun sets behind me, casting long shadows over Easton Bay. I remember these steps from my first visit here. This is where the Irish servants used to party after they finished a long day of working in these huge mansions. I imagine a lot of drinking was involved.

I see a city worker with filthy leather gloves pulling garbage from a public rubbish bin. I want to enjoy the water, but I can’t take my eyes off this man. I have an idea. “Excuse me, may I ask you a question?”

He looks up, shocked that his invisibility has been broken. His mouth forms an “O” between his mustache and scraggly beard.

“Sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for a mansion that may be off the circuit.”

The sanitation worker, Carlson, turned out to be a sweetie. He gave me a bottle of water that I consumed in one long drink. He hadn’t heard of Refuge d’Amoureux, but he got on his radio and talked to his supervisor. There wasn’t any mansion with that name, but there was a run-down property with a big house that somewhat matched my description. Carlson dropped me off at the edge of the property, where I now stand, because he isn’t allowed to drive on private roads.

The sun has disappeared and it’s nearly dark. I stand alone at the end of a broken road that snakes under a canopy of drooping trees. I don’t see any mansion. To find it, I will have to walk down this road and into the gloomy tunnel formed by the overhanging trees. I’m picturing the headline: “Expelled Student Found Dead in Secluded Area.”

As I enter the tree tunnel, it grows so dark that I can barely see my feet. Something smells sour. Tree branches touch my shoulders as if reaching to strangle me.

After what seems like an eternity, I emerge from the trees and see the dim outline of a ramshackle mansion. My heart sinks. This is not the place. It has the wrong kind of doors, three levels instead of two, and there’s nothing but dead grass where the stone carriageway should be.

In the stillness I hear the chirp of crickets. Not a single light shines from the mansion. It lies before me in the night like a decomposed body. I should leave now. But it’s dark, getting cold, and I have no phone and not enough money for the bus. Perhaps I can find a blanket inside, or some canned food.

I creep toward the broken mansion as if it were a big dog, ready to bite. As I step past the entry columns, I see something wedged in the crack between the double doors. A paper of some sort. I pluck it out, stepping to the side of the porch to catch a ray of blue moonlight. It’s a notice from the city, nearly five months old. Something about property taxes. It’s addressed to “Richard Sinclair.”

I’m convinced the place is empty, but I decide to knock, just to be sure. The steel knocker hangs askew from one screw, but it gets the job done. The knock goes unanswered, so I try the door handle. It’s locked, of course. I try the handle again, hoping for a different result. Stupid. It doesn’t open.

I pull my jean jacket tight around me. I’m shivering from the cold and my stomach aches from hunger. There’s got to be a way inside. Perhaps a key is hidden somewhere. I check under the mat and find a brittle envelope. I carry it into the moonlight and peer at the front. The envelope has probably been out here for years, and at some point has gotten soaked. There’s a single word on the front of the envelope, hard to make out…

Cassandra

I feel my heart stop. I’m at the right house, and Cassandra is real!

Relief overwhelms me as I realize I haven’t gone mad. My fingers tremble as I open the envelope. The paper inside is molded and the ink has run together. Whatever message was in here is now unreadable. My heart sinks.

Then I find something else inside the envelope. A rusted key!

I hurry to push the key into the lock of the front door. It doesn’t fit! I’m on an emotional rollercoaster. I just want to get off. I sit on the edge of the porch, hugging myself against the cold. I’m getting lightheaded from hunger.

Think, Emma, think. This key obviously opens something.

A different door?

I get to my feet and walk around the side of the menacing mansion. Bushes and brambles have claimed the property. I feel briers scratching my ankles.

Behind the house squats some sort of Gothic tomb, its door guarded by two stone angels, their faces veiled by vines. The tomb door has no handle, no keyhole. I feel oddly drawn to this crypt, but there is no obvious way inside.

I turn to the back of the house. Trees block the moonlight, so I trace my hand along the wall to find my way. I discover a narrow door made of rusted iron. A servant’s entrance?

The door is locked. I try the key. It fits but it won’t turn. Shit! I can’t take any more of this. I try the key again, wiggling it a bit and praying for a different result. And this time it turns the lock! My heart races as I pull open the creaking door. A pungent scent of decay washes over me and bile rises in my throat. If there was food in here, it’s gone bad.

My shivering grows more violent. I’m not sure it’s from the cold. I realize my finger has curled deep into my hair. At this moment, I would trade every lock of it for a flashlight. Part of me says it would be madness to step inside. Better to take my chances in the cold and try to make it back to civilization. But another part of me realizes that the mystery of my past, the mystery of Julian, lies inside these decaying walls.

I hear my heart thumping wicked hard as I step across the threshold, feeling my way into utter darkness.

- END OF THE SAMPLE -

Full Novel Available for Free at: http://shayroberts.com/freeheartblaze1

Bonus

Respected Reader,

This is your author, Shay Roberts. You have reached the end of this excerpt. If you are enjoying the story, I invite you to download the full novel for FREE at: http://shayroberts.com/freeheartblaze1

Happiness is a good book!

Your personal scribe,

~ Shay ~

Acknowledgments

This book would not have been possible without these great people. Thank you one and all.

Bob Angell, Duncan Barclay, Ripley Barnes, Allan Batchelder, Emily Bradford, Kyle Boyce, Dr. Ray Cui, Julie Gantz, Sage Kahalnick, Ozgur Kavcar, Séverine Trannoy McAllen, Kathy Knuckles, Leila Roberts, Lyla Roberts, Joy Sillesen, Allison Tarr, G. Wells Taylor, Candice Todd, Katherine Tomlinson, Jenna Tramonti, Kevin Tung, Eleanor Uyyek.


Heartblaze: First 13

THIS FREE SAMPLER CONTAINS THE FIRST 13 CHAPTERS OF HEARTBLAZE 1: VAMPIRE SOUL "The heart of Twilight and the soul of Outlander" "An amazing time travel/paranormal romance!" – Beauty and the Books ★★★★★ "Brilliantly crafted characters with an intricate and compelling storyline." – Charlie57 ★★★★★ "The ending blew me away!" – Reading in Wonderland ★★★★★ Heartblaze is the groundbreaking new paranormal series that leaves you breathless and eager for more. Buckle up and launch yourself into this elaborate, mind-blowing paranormal world. Experience a thrilling supernatural adventure, perfect for fans of Twilight, A Shade of Vampire, and Outlander. Grab this page-turner now and move it to the top of your reading list! Meet your heroine… My name is Emma. Today I got some shocking news. I was a vampire in my past life! And not just any vampire, I was a famous vampire with a lot of enemies. Turns out those enemies are still alive, still pissed off, and hunting me down as I speak. Meet your hero… My name is Stefan. I’m undercover in a group called The Knights of Rome, a ruthless army that tracks and kills paranormals. The Knights have no idea that I’m a werewolf. If I want to maintain my cover, I have to follow orders, and they've just ordered me to eliminate Emma. The problem is, I really like her. "One of the most unique books I have ever read." – David D ★★★★★ "Written in a briskly cinematic style." – Kattomic Book Blog ★★★★★ "This emotionally engaging page-turner was devoured." – Dreamer J ★★★★★ "The writing and plot are intense and you keep wanting more." – Bloggin' & Writing ★★★★★ "Loved the twists, drama and action." – DiannP ★★★★★ "Captivating and intriguing, moving and entertaining: both a paranormal fantasy and historical mystery." – Damian ★★★★★ "A High-Speed Paranormal Roller-Coaster Ride." – Midge ★★★★★ AUTHOR Q&A How would you describe this series? The books are fast-paced paranormal thrillers with both action and romance. When I began writing this series, I set out to create something that would challenge readers. I believe most readers are smart people who enjoy a thought-provoking book. Heartblaze is told from the point of view of multiple characters and takes place in the present-day as well as the past (much like Outlander.) These books are not for people looking for light and fluffy reading, nor for readers completely unfamiliar with the paranormal genre. Is this book appropriate for all ages? No. They are not appropriate for children. The series is written for adults, young adults, and mature teens. How is the first book structured? What is the point of view? What kind of ending does it have? The first book has over 60,000 words. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a main character. The point of view is first person (inside the character’s head) and in present tense (as it is happening). The chapters are relatively short and the book moves quickly. None of the books in the series have sad endings. What types of creatures are in the novel? Quite a number: vampires, werewolves, werebears, ghosts, witches, and fae. All of them are portrayed in new ways. For example, the werewolves are shifters who channel animal spirits from the distant past. The fae have their own unique language that plays a role in some of the books. It’s a functional language that I spent a year developing!

  • ISBN: 9780996726122
  • Author: Shay Roberts
  • Published: 2017-04-01 07:20:12
  • Words: 17973
Heartblaze: First 13 Heartblaze: First 13