Authors: S.G. Schvercraft
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Series Hero, LLC
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form. A Series Hero Production.
Cover art by
Jeremy Aaron Moore
First Series Hero Printing, July 2015
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The Hunting Grounds
“Weird being in
a bar without a drink,” the college guy said, raising his voice to be heard over the crowd and music.
I batted my lashes, gave him a smile. “Are you offering?”
“Not yet, though the Southern accent makes it tempting,” he said between sips of his beer.
“That’s all right. Would you believe me if I said I wasn’t really thirsty?” I said, which was a lie.
He was handsome, and knew it, so he had no problem taking a petite thing like me in stride. “I don’t believe you’re old enough to be in here legally. How’d you get past the bouncer?”
“My eyes,” I said, which was true.
A sideways glance from him. “Sure.”
“I suppose it could have been my body, though. What do you think?” I leaned into him. At six three, he towered over me. My breasts were probably pushing into his belly button. He didn’t seem to mind.
I didn’t either. He was thick and muscular, the way only juniors and seniors seem to manage. Less boy-like than underclassmen. His warmth I could feel even through my leather jacket, like the memory of a setting autumn sun.
I loved anything warm. It was why I came to bars like the Grogg. Cramped with a fire hazard’s worth of people, it was practically a sauna.
He gave me a gentle push. “What, are you fishing for compliments?”
Oh, he was good at this. “I could get that from others if I’m making you uncomfortable. Your friends maybe,” I said.
He turned and looked at some guys by the bar. I’d seen him detach from the four of them as he’d approached me. They were built as well, most sporting varsity wrestling T-shirts or sweatshirts. They were staring at us, laughing, waiting to see if their friend crashed and burned or left here with me.
“You look really young, but you don’t seem clueless as a high school kid or freshman.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, definitely fishing for compliments this time.
“The way you’re talking to me. The way you carry yourself, even though you’re here alone. You seem older. So tell me, are you a Ramsgate undergrad or what?”
“Any woman that’s worthwhile ought to be a mystery.” It was something my mother once told me.
“Yeah, well, some girls that are mysterious about their age can get a guy arrested.”
“Poor thing. Would you be more confident if I told you I was at least eighteen?”
“Nah. I think you’re lying,” he said.
“I’ll show you my license.” I handed it to him.
“You look pale in your photo. Tanning much these days?”
“More iron in my diet.”
Still scanning the license, he rolled his eyes. “It’s a learner’s permit.”
“Check the DOB.”
He did. “So you’re telling me the truth. But that thing expired a year ago. Your parents give you a lift, or did you take a school bus?” he said, handing the license back.
I didn’t ruin our playful banter by mentioning that my parents were dead. “There’s no school bus on Saturdays, silly.”
“I’m Dave, by the way.”
I hadn’t wanted to know his name, but smiled anyway. “Nice to meet you.”
He killed his beer. “So. Should I get another, or is there something at your place?”
“My place,” I said. “I’m kind of over this crowd.”
Dave placed his arm around me, all protective-like, and we were walking out when I saw him.
From the corner of my eye, a man in a black overcoat. His baseball cap was black as well, pulled low over his eyes,
stitched in gold on it. But I knew he wasn’t any ROTC.
He stood looking at me. I saw him as he must have seen me: a black, empty space against the backdrop of life surrounding us.
Dave noticed my gaze. “Someone you know?” he asked.
“Come on,” I said, grabbing Dave’s arm tighter as we left the bar.
Echo Valley was
a small town of non-chain restaurants, hipster secondhand clothing stores, and Victorian mansions converted to apartments. The town surrounded Ramsgate College, and ringing it all like ramparts were squat Pennsylvanian mountains. Covered in snow, they stood out like God’s smudged fingerprints against the moonless night.
We exited the Grogg onto Dominion Street. There were girls and guys walking fast from one bar to the next, dressed for where they were going rather than for the dead calm January cold.
Dave was dressed that way too, just jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. Hands in pockets, he shivered as we walked. “Your place far?” His words came out in plumes of white frost.
“We’ll take a shortcut.”
We cut down an alley, dark except for the occasional dim side-door light. He was hiding it well, but I could hear his teeth chattering.
“You never said what year you were,” he said.
“I’m not actually enrolled. I just kind of audit classes. A bandit education,” I said.
“That’s one way to avoid student loans. I guess no one would notice in the big, general courses.”
“They wouldn’t, but they mostly offer those auditorium courses during the day. I can only sit in at night. Makes it a little more difficult.”
“Work during the day?”
“Mostly sleep in,” I said.
“Must be nice living on your parents’ dime.”
“Actually, most of what I have I just take from others.”
He stopped as we approached a door light. I’d overplayed it, but I couldn’t help myself. I liked having fun with them. The little hints I left, and seeing how long it’d take them to piece it together. I sometimes marvel at how stupid people can be. It’s like they’re all secondary characters in a teen horror movie.
But it hadn’t been anything I’d said that made him pause. “There’s no frost when you talk,” he said, as his own breath fogged in the frigid air. His eyes were squinting, as if bringing the world into tighter focus would wring unpleasant truths from it. “You’re not breathing.”
Not how I’d expected the Big Reveal to go. It chipped my mystique. When that veneer of Southern perfection got scuffed, I tended to ramble, to revert to the science nerd I’d been before becoming Nightfallen.
“No, I’m breathing, if you mean drawing air into my lungs. It’s an involuntary reflex from our former lives, but it’s certainly adaptive, because it means we can exhale air over our vocal cords and, therefore, you know, speak. There’s no frost when I’m talking because the air I exhale is as cold as when I take it in. Side effect of being room temperature all the time. It might be more accurate to say I’m not respiring, since I don’t need oxygen extracted from air to live. Or rather, exist.”
Wow, that was terrible. All those years of Advanced Placement Biology making an unexpected appearance. He looked at me like I was crazy, and I couldn’t blame him. I would definitely skip this part when I got back and told Nathan and my sisters.
He backed away from me.
“Too scientific for you?” I asked, trying to regain my creature-of-the-night cool. “Well, there’s no scientific explanation for this.”
I grinned and, no longer willing them to remain retracted, extended my canine teeth to fangs.
I turned on my headlights—that’s what we call our eyes when they go all
mesmerizing—but he’d already started running.
So much for a clean kill.
I sprinted after him, faster than any Olympic record holder, if only by a little bit. Nathan had said that more speed and strength would come with age. But even at a thousand, we’d never be as fast as some other Nightfallen races on their first day. For that matter, we would
never be able to turn into mist like the King class or bats like the Stoker class.
But I had more than enough to chase down Dave, who was built for the weight room more than for the track.
Undistracted by labored breath or pounding heart, I could notice the speed at which the narrow alley walls blurred past. In my former life, drills in high school field hockey had been a special kind of hell. There was still effort now, but it was entirely mental, remaining focused so my body would move elegantly through space, as opposed to dropping to the pavement like the corpse it actually was.
Helping this focus was my vision. Not only did I see visual light, I perceived heat like a thermograph, like looking through a SEAL’s night-vision goggles. Motion existed before my eyes in multicolored waves, painting not only where something was but where it had been seconds before. And I could see life itself, how it blinked wanly in the lowest insect, how it coursed like white-lava rivers through the veins of a man fighting for his life.
I could see, perceive, know all these layers, make sense of them, patterns that would probably drive a living person insane.
Now, my eyes were focused on Dave. He was a throbbing knot of light. Like a moth to a flame, I couldn’t have stopped myself from chasing him even if I’d wanted to.
I collided with his back, the speed with which I hit him compensating for my lack of mass. We fell to the pavement, and as I went for his throat, his elbow slammed into the side of my face.
I was strong, but just like my speed, it was on the low end of superhuman. I usually relied on surprise, often taking my victims post-coitus in bed. Or failing that, they were usually so terrified at the sight of fangs that they just froze.
This was different. Even though Dave wasn’t wearing anything that bragged about being a wrestler like his friends, it was clear that he was on the team. That elbow might have fractured a living girl’s skull. For me, its unexpected force had been enough to throw me slightly off balance.
He took advantage of the situation. He managed to push me off his back, and I fell to the ground. Instead of running, though, he was suddenly on top of me, pinning me from behind. One of his meaty forearms was crushing my neck, the other looping beneath my leg, his weight pressing down on me.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the terror on his face as he held on to me. His calls for help echoed down the brick-walled alley.
He had leverage on me, making it hard to push off the ground. His forearm was close now, shining brilliantly to me, like light catching a diamond.
I wrenched my neck down and bit.
He screamed. Like a tick, I forced my mouth deeper into the wound. His taste made me shudder, and I groaned more deeply than if he’d gone down on me.