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I count the stars. Each resplendent constellation represents a moment in time. All the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years that have led to this moment … one of my last on this earth, if the legend is true.

Having often wondered what it would feel like to reach this night, I considered many options. None included the excruciating onslaught of memories that now plague me. One in particular causes blood to pummel against my temples. Me – the innocent girl I used to be – kneeling on the plain, brown sofa in my parents’ living room watching through the drafty window as kids my age walked down the street. Laughing and chatting, they would form a line before climbing into the large, yellow bus with the rattling muffler that would take them to school. I can still picture the vapor, billowing behind the bus into the cold morning air, mapping its route in a trail I was never allowed to follow.

Each morning, jealousy coiled within my abdomen until it morphed into anger. Anger towards the kids who complained that it was too early or that class was boring. Anger towards my parents who didn’t allow me to be a normal child. That was when the resentment first settled, building beneath the surface.

Why not me?

The answer used to make me tremble. Not any longer. Instead, my adrenaline spikes in anticipation.

Once the autumn moon hangs high above the tallest pine tree to the north, midnight will awaken the curse that haunts me.

I will be a witch.

I will be hunted.

Tonight, on the eve of my eighteenth birthday, I will channel my ever-present rage in the hopes of saving myself. Like countless witches who were born in Massa, odds are that I will either die or disappear.

Which is worse? I wonder, perched atop the rough shingles that line the roof of what used to be my family’s hunting cabin. It’s mine now. The cabin, the curse, the burden. All of it belongs to me and the weight is paralyzing as I sit, watching the glowing orb of the full moon taunt me as it ascends higher, as my heartbeat escalates, and my throat tightens.

Though I chose this spot because it is secluded and remote, I question my decision. Maybe I should have tried to run, no matter how futile that would have been.

No! Cowards run and I refuse to die a coward.

Besides, no one escapes the curse. My parents may not have shared much with me, but on this my dad was adamant. So, while most seventeen going on eighteen-year-olds would be excited about cake and presents, I wait alone in an eerie darkness prepared to battle some unknown monster.

Because I want to live.

My thirst for survival is insatiable, my throat dry as ash while I remain vigilant, fully prepared to fight. This locale is my best chance for survival. At least that’s what I have convinced myself, and I cling to the notion, spinning my dad’s dagger in my palms as I study the trees silhouetted in an opaque hue. I repeat the process, scanning the landscape below me – searching for the unknown person or creature who will destroy me.

Will it be one or many? Though my mind races with unanswered questions, I remain certain of one thing: not another soul alive knows this forest like I do, having explored the terrain since I was a child. The familiar scent mingled with damp dirt assails me. It is different tonight. It reminds me of a grave.

My grave.

I almost gag on the stench, swallowing my own bile in an attempt to stay calm and silent. Tracing the sharp-edged blade with my forefinger, I concentrate on the familiar sounds of crickets chirping within the thickets of undergrowth, the hooting of owls, the rustling of leaves as branches sway in the breeze, and the whistle of the wind through the tall pines. The usual noises, those that lulled me to sleep as a child, now set my every nerve on end. Like raw energy, they cause the hairs on my neck to prickle, cause my spine to tingle.

Evil is coming.

The vibration emanating from my jacket pocket causes me to jump. Some warrior I am. Glancing at my screen, I steel myself for another uncomfortable conversation, another lie, another secret to protect the one living person I care about. This last call is one I can’t ignore.

“How are you?” I whisper into the phone.

The elderly voice that greets me is kind and concerned. “I’m fine, sweetie. Just checking in. How is the drive?”

“It’s going well.” It hurts me to lie to Mrs. Crowley, the kind, gray-haired woman who reeks of mothballs, drives a 1990 Lumina, and is slightly senile. She opened her home to me after my parents died less than a year apart, the person my mom and dad appointed as my legal guardian in their wills. Yep, my strict parents left me in the care of an absentminded old lady I barely knew.

I sometimes wonder if she was aware of the undertaking they expected of her.

Her voice is calm. “I’m so proud of you, Tessa. First you graduate college early and now you get a job in the city. I know you’ll be busy. Just know that I will be thinking of you. Call me when you can.”

“Remember your doctor’s appointment on Wednesday.” I fear for her. What will she do without me? How will she react when she learns that I’m—no, I can’t go there. Not now. “I’ve asked Mr. Phelps across the street to drive you.”

“For heaven’s sake, I don’t need his help.” Mrs. Crowley’s once gentle tone drips with impatience.

My rational mind warns that I need to cut this conversation short. Still, I can’t release Mrs. C just yet, despite my dire circumstances. “Let him take you to the doctor. It’s the least you can do for a man who has been pining over you for years.”

“Fine,” Mrs. Crowley sighs. “I’ll hitch a ride with him.”

Relief washes over me. Mr. Phelps promised to protect my only living friend, my family though not by blood. I feel more at peace knowing she has someone.

It’s one less thing to fear on this night, when terror of the unknown seizes my chest, robbing my lungs of air.

“I—” My rising panic drowns my next words. It gives me time to think of what to say. How do I voice what I’m feeling?

Thank you for caring about me when not a soul alive did? Thank you for accepting this misfit into your life? Thank you for never judging me? Nothing seems to express the extent of my feelings. Besides, I’ve never been good at communicating. Being an outcast does that to you, I guess.

My voice is shaky as I manage, “Thank you for everything, Mrs. Crowley.”

Way to go, Tessa! Take the easy route.

Mrs. C’s voice begins to crack. “Stay strong, my brave girl.”

The call disconnects as suspicion swirls in my overactive brain. Could Mrs. Crowley know something? That’s impossible. Isn’t it? My fate is a secret. Something I was never supposed to discuss.

Staring at the screen illuminated with apps I may never use again, I concentrate on the background picture of my mom and dad. Both smiling, they appear to be the epitome of happiness and unabashed love.

What a joke.

The dazzling photo is a constant reminder of my rage. It keeps me strong, keeps me tough, and I seize that fury because it is all I have left. My parents abandoned me with this curse, with this terror of the unknown, with no answers. I wasn’t ready. They knew it.

The resentment I feel angers me as much as my curse, because I love my parents, yet hate this life I was born into, hate that they left me to fend for myself.  Well, one left me. The other had no choice.

Still, I resent them both equally.

Because I wasn’t enough to keep my father with me after my mother’s death. I have never been good enough. That’s why they kept me sheltered and alone. Always alone. Always an outcast. I grasp hard and fast to my rage and frustration because, no matter how much I abhor these feelings, they are all I have.

Well, I have the nightmares, too.

Those I choose to ignore. They’re far too frightening, far too disturbing to relive. Instead, I prepare myself for something much more dangerous … reality.

Since no one else will be calling and I don’t need the distraction, I shut the phone off and slide it into my jeans pocket, returning my attention to the landscape below.

No signs of towns or streetlights. I am surrounded by tall trees and shadows. This is what I chose, yet loneliness washes over me. The sheltered little girl who grew up isolated will die the same way.

A cool breeze wafts through the crisp air causing my wavy, layered hair to sway.

He is with me. After all this time. He’s back.

Why return now? When I need to focus.

“Hi, Dad.” It takes effort to keep my tone steady, to act normal. As if my dead father’s form sitting beside me on the night I’m about to die is just an average day in the life of a teenage girl.

For me, this is normal. My normal.

My dad has been nothing more than a translucent vapor since I was eleven years old. When he died. When the loss and agony was so strong that I wanted to scream. When I felt more alone than ever. When his apparition announced that one day evil would hunt me as it had so many before me. Because I could see my dad when no one else could. Because that ability made me a witch, or it would when I turned eighteen. Lucky me. Then he vanished, forcing me to face this on my own.

“You chose the roof?” my dad’s tone is laced with apprehension.

I nod. “It’s the best vantage point. I’ll see it, or them, approaching. You never were specific about what is coming for me.”

“You’ve done as I asked.”

It was a statement, not a question. I clench my jaw with the realization that even now, as I face impending death by an unknown entity or possibly plural entities, my dad still refuses to provide answers.

Don’t I deserve them?

Haven’t I earned them?

“I followed your instructions,” I attempt to hide my sarcasm, hoping that I don’t appear as hostile as I feel.

Yes, I did everything he told me to and it was far from easy. Training both physically and mentally. Graduating both high school and college early. My dad had my young life mapped out, even my majors – history from our local college and double major of mythology and occultism from an online university.

I wasn’t offered a choice.

Maybe that’s the real reason I’m fighting tonight? Because if nothing else, this is my choice. Because I want to control my own destiny. Because I want my life to matter. No, I need to believe it matters, that I matter.

“My decision to come here tonight was deliberate. No one else will be hurt. I will fight for my survival.” Words no one, no matter what age, should ever have to utter. Those same words I too well familiar with.

The sooner I accepted the inevitable, the more time it left me to practice my defensive skills as numerous neighbors were either murdered or abducted in the middle of the night on their eighteenth birthdays.

The news never reported the truth. They wouldn’t have believed it anyway. There are no such things as witches, right?

Except in the small Pacific Northwest town of Massa, where every witch who is born here suffers the same fate, on the same birthday.

Eighteen.

What is so special about that number? Why not sweet sixteen? Why not seventeen? Nope, only eighteen holds such an honor. It signifies the age that our craft awakens. It represents the end of countless young lives.

“Why eighteen? Is it because the eight is like an infinity symbol? Is my magic infinite if I survive?” I predict my dad’s silence long before he sighs.

“You know I can’t tell you—”

“No, you won’t tell me. There’s a difference.” My resentment is blinding me, blurring my vision. “Just like you won’t tell me if anyone ever survives. If I’ve done as you instructed for nothing. If I’ll never have a life … a real life. You sheltered me, kept me hidden, kept me a secret. You were ashamed of me. If this is my last night alive, can’t I finally find peace?”

My father grimaces as his apparition flickers. The wind has picked up, blowing strands of hair into my eyes. I’m about to lose him. I sense it as I inhale a deep breath. Once calm, I plaster a grin on my face.

“Don’t worry, Dad. I did what you instructed and I’ll put up one heck of a fight. I’m not giving up. Besides, I don’t believe in destiny.” My statement is meant more for myself than my father. It fortifies my resolve.

Damn destiny.

What has destiny ever done for me?

Other than leading my parents to Massa before I was born? Destiny dictates that I’ll die here. Tonight. It is my birthright, which still makes no sense because my parents refused to provide me the answers I was desperate for.

This is the last time I will be able to ask the questions that he has always evaded. “Why am I a witch? Were you one? Was Mom? What’s coming for me? For once, answer me. Please.”

“I’m sorry, Tessa. I can’t. What I can promise is that I love you.” My dad raises his hand to my cheek, though I feel nothing. The emptiness reminds me how much I miss him and my mom. How much my dad hurt me when he chose to desert me without saying goodbye. “Trust your instincts. Follow them. I’ve said too much. It is up to you now.”

With that, his apparition fades, leaving me cloaked in shadow on a desolate rooftop. I run my fingertips across the cool circular silver charm that hangs from a bracelet on my right wrist. “Bye, Dad.”

Then I notice it. The hush that has befallen me. No insects. No serene sounds of leaves rustling or branches swaying. Nothing but a thick, sinister silence.

I thrust the engraved dagger in my boot as my attention is drawn again to the skyscape. The moon now hovers over the tallest pine and my veins feel like they’re pumping pure ice.

Placing the binoculars to my eyes, I study my surroundings. My skin prickling, my senses alert, I feel someone watching me, yet see nothing, hear nothing. Until a branch snaps along the tree line.

It is here.

It is coming for me.

It … they. I still don’t know how many I will face.

Grabbing the shotgun to my right, I perch on the roof. I see the shadow of something glimmering below. Tall with … what are they? The creature is reflective, the moonlight illuminating its skin and … horns.

The thing has horns!

A knot of panic twists in my abdomen. Since no one has explained what my predator will look like, I thought I had prepared myself for the worst by envisioning monsters from movies and television shows. Nothing prepared me for this. Swallowing hard against my fear, I let my adrenaline guide me instead of cripple me.

My father’s old shotgun is already cocked. I aim and pull the trigger, the force of the kickback sending my slender frame backwards. Even though I never quite mastered the shotgun, it can kill large animals. What better way to kill a creature who is hunting me?

The demon’s high-pitched, bloodcurdling scream sets my every nerve on end as I crawl forward, peering over the edge of the roof. Though I hit it in the chest, the beast is unaffected, lunging forward, toward my cabin.

What is it?

Can it be killed?

I toss the shotgun and shimmy from the roof, through the attic window where I’ve already laid out the rest of my father’s hunting equipment.

Since a dagger and hunting knife are in each of my boots, I thrust another knife into the back pocket of my jeans before shoving the handgun in my waistband.

If the shotgun wasn’t of use, what good is a handgun? Perhaps if I aim at the thing’s head, I contemplate as I sling the carrier filled with broadhead blades over my shoulder and grab the large crossbow fully prepared to aim and shoot.

Crossbow raised, I exit the house and am greeted by a ferocious growl to my right. Though shrouded in darkness, the creature is close enough for me to see it more clearly.

Tall and muscular with talons, the beast’s horns are sharp, its face reptilian with glowing yellow eyes deep-set in dark hollows. Its growling intensifies until the sound rattles the porch like thunder. Struggling to keep my balance, I stand with my legs apart just like my dad told me.

It’s all about balance.

Balance, aim, shoot. Balance, aim, shoot. Balance

It hisses and I release my arrow, watching it soar through the air and pierce it in the shoulder.

Without blinking, those glowing eyes stare into my soul with a bright orange and red flicker that reminds me of flames. My jaw drops as my enemy pulls the arrow out of its shimmering, rough flesh like it was nothing more than a pinprick and throws it onto the planks below. A slick liquid the color of forged steel pools where the beast was struck then the wound heals, the liquid evaporating in an instant.

The beast’s blood isn’t red …

The beast’s blood isn’t red!

 “Oh, hell!” Wait! Seriously? Are my last words going to be ‘Oh, hell?’

“You think you can kill me?” Its murderous baritone echoes through the surrounding forest as the ground begins to tremble.

It speaks. The monster can talk!

Though the creature’s voice is warped, it sounds somewhat human. With a nails-against-a-chalkboard quality that sends shivers down my spine.

“The crossbow worked in the movies.” The words escape my mouth before I can stop them.

The demon glares at me then tilts its head to the side. His eyes intensify, the orange and red flames molten like lava. Has no one ever talked back?

The beast roars, then lunges at me. I recoil just in time, dropping the crossbow onto the porch as I run as fast as I can into the dense trees, hoping to outrun him, hoping I can hide.

My jacket snags on a protruding tree limb and I struggle to break free. When it doesn’t budge, I shrug out of the garment then run deeper into the forest, leaping over fallen branches and thick roots.

Where is it?

Shouldn’t it have caught up to me by now?

I break out in perspiration. It is toying with me. I’m its prey. My body begins to shake. I can feel it hunting me. It knows where I am. It knows where I’ll go. There is no hiding.

There is no escape.

The thing leaps over me, wrestling me to the cold, hard ground. We both grunt as I land on my back. At least it can feel pain. That must be something I can use to my advantage. I grab the handgun from my waistband then wait, allowing the creature to come closer, to wrap its talons around my neck, its foul breath nauseating me.

Since the chest didn’t work, I aim at its temple, turning away as I pull the trigger. From the corner of my eye, I watch the bullet ricochet off its reflective skin, the rough texture resembling an alligator’s.

Lifting me by my shoulders, the creature slams me against the ground once more. I bite my tongue and the metallic taste of my own blood almost chokes me.

The monster laughs. “You will not kill me. Be a good little girl and die, witch. It is your destiny.”

Little does this thing know that I refuse to allow fate to dictate my demise.

Though panic and a surge of helplessness wind me, I manage to relax my muscles for a brief moment in an attempt to disarm my predator. It is no simple feat as I am trembling from head to toe.

Not certain of the creature’s anatomy, I rationalize that it walks on two legs and speaks in a low voice so perhaps it is a male? I knee the beast between what would be a man’s thighs. It winces in pain. That one moment is all I need to take his reptilian face between my palms, squeezing it with all my might.

I now think of this monster as a man. A person. It makes my task seem less daunting as I grab what I think are his ears and I fan my fingers until my thumbs gouge his closed lids. He may kill me but maybe, just maybe, I can wound him. Perhaps I can blind him.

“Can a ‘little girl’ do this?” I hiss, thrusting harder until he howls.

The wind whips around us, thrashing pine needles and rocks as the burst of spinning air increases speed with each rotation.

“I won’t die quietly.” I tighten my grip even more, until the beast wails, a woeful sound that progresses into a high-pitched, earsplitting screech. I think of the sirens I once studied in mythology. That is what his agonizing refrain reminds me of. Though I long to cover my ears, I refuse to release him.

The wind is so strong that I shut my eyes. I am pelted by pebbles, pine needles, and dirt while the unearthly wails intensify. The creature struggles to writhe free, and I claw at him, my nails digging into its rough exterior. Losing my grip, I peer through narrowed eyes in time to see him rise and stumble backwards, pressing his hands against his ears before dropping to his knees.

“Stop!” he howls as a flying rock chips one of his horns, making a large indentation.

I will not die. You will not kill me. The words replay in my mind, becoming a silent chant. The wind churns, its gusts intensifying as the forceful zephyr lashes my hair against my face. I refuse to break eye contact with it.

Die, I think. Die so I can live. I want to live. For me to live, you must die.

The beast holds his head, shrieking as it falls to the ground in a fetal position. It lays still, mouth agape baring sharp, fang-like teeth. Eyes open, the golden glow slowly extinguishes, leaving nothing but an onyx abyss in its wake.

Gasping for breath, my pulse pounds like a jackhammer. Is it still alive? I stare at the demon waiting for it to awaken.

It doesn’t. I’ve killed it but I can’t catch my breath. I struggle to inhale.

Why can’t I breathe?

Because I killed something, someone. Before I can process what I’ve done, the presence of somebody new resounds in my ears with the rustling of brush and leaves beneath the intruder’s feet. Grabbing the dagger from my boot, I stand and round with force on a muscular male holding a broadsword.

In the bluish hue of the moonlight, his hair looks dark, his profile angular. He appears to be my age, though it’s hard to tell.

“Are you seriously threatening me with that puny thing?” he scoffs while glancing from my dagger to his sword. “I think I have you beat.”

I cock my head towards the supernatural being who just tried to murder me. “That’s what this thing thought, too.”

The stranger studies the monster then thrusts his free hand through his short hair. “You accomplished that. By yourself?”

“Yep,” I arch my brow. “Don’t think I’m opposed to doing the same to you.”

His head snaps towards me. As a cloud drifts from the moon, I see him more clearly. The moonlight reflects upon his heavy-lidded eyes. My dad told me to trust my instincts and they were correct. This guy isn’t much older than I am.

I grip the dagger, my nails digging into my palm. It gives me something to concentrate on other than the surge of panic that is rising like high tide during a full moon.

Who is this guy and what do I do now?

I’m so far out of my league right now that all I want to do is cry. But kids cry and I am no longer a child. Instead, I straighten my shoulders, standing upright as I attempt to intimidate someone at least four inches taller than I am.

“What do you want? To kill me? Are you another one of the creatures? Who are you? What are you?” Like my tone, my expression is lethal. I make sure of it.

My companion stands in silent defiance, his eyes locked with mine. Seconds pass, maybe a minute. He won’t budge. Neither will I. I won’t trust him until I get an answer. Maybe not then, either. Depends on his response.

Our staring match is interrupted by low growls and grunts originating from the trees surrounding us. Eyes. I’m surrounded by beasts with eyes that glow like a campfire, illuminating the night. There are too many. All watching me. Why haven’t they attacked?

Like a cat with a mouse, these creatures are playing with their prey.

“More are advancing,” the stranger mutters. “Stay behind me and don’t—”

The deafening roars reach a crescendo as several from the pack lunge at us. My companion wields his sword with strength and grace, slicing one then two beasts before rounding on a third. It was hard enough for me to kill one.

More pounce as the stranger tosses me a sword, much smaller than his. I drop my dagger, straining to catch the heavy object.

“I don’t know how to use this.” I hold the metal in a defensive posture, as if that alone will fend off the supernatural beings, all clones of the one I killed earlier.

Brandishing his sword and thrusting it into the swarm of beasts, the guy yells over his shoulder, “Learn fast.”

Okay. Learn fast. I imagine I’m holding a baseball bat and swing. Though clumsy, I slice the scale-like skin on one monster. That beast is followed by another, then another. With each that lunges at me, my adrenaline escalates. With each blow, my strength and aim improve.

In the midst of battle, I bump into a solid mass and turn, sword in hand, prepared to strike.

“Watch it!” my companion orders, “Them. Not me. I’m trying to get you out of here alive.”

Why would he save me?

Shouts and snarls echo through the breeze, intermingling with the sounds of metal slicing monsters’ rough skin. My companion and I continue to stab and carve the onslaught of creatures until silence engulfs us, pools of what resemble oil slicks permeate the ground.

“Who are you?” I demand of my uninvited companion, noting each of the numerous carcasses strewn about the ground. Their eyes are extinguished, their life forces drained. Just like the first that attacked me.

The engraved handle rests in the palm of my hand and I run my thumb across the many symbols embossed in it. It feels old, heavy, and oddly comforting.

How can a sword feel comforting?

Does anything in my life make sense anymore?

Mr. Mysterious scrutinizes me, doubt clouding his eyes. “What happened to your hair?”

Reaching for my dagger, I shove it back in my boot, sword in my other hand. No answer, no trust. Just snark. “Is this the right time to point out that I’m having a bad hair day? I dare anyone not to have a bad hair day after—”

The side of my face is the first to slam against the hard ground, pain searing my cheek and ear, as the rest of my body follows. The more I strain to stand, the more weighted down my body feels. I’m confused and disoriented until I feel the beasts’ razor sharp talons slicing my flesh, their cold, coarse bodies slithering up my legs, then higher onto my back.

Their numbers have grown and they advanced in silence this time, as if they are adapting. The more I struggle against the new swarm, the more the piercing pain intensifies until tears sting my eyes. I moan as I hear the furtive guy’s sword make contact with some of my attackers but, no sooner does one beast fall than another claws at me.

I dig my fingernails into the earth, attempting to crawl to safety though the weight of the beasts has me pinned. Unable to move my legs, I grab another fistful of dirt and pine needles in each hand, then drag my heavy body forward, feeling my flesh rip open, feeling my warm blood trickle down my back.

I scream because I am trapped. Because I am helpless. Because I don’t want to die.

The wind accelerates again, this cycle more intense than the last. I continue to shout as the creatures clutch me tighter, digging their talons deeper into my sensitive flesh. My temples throb and I will my panic to abate, will my rage to replace my fear, will the agony of my wounds to disappear so I can fight for my life.

My eyes blur, a heady vapor having formed in my line of vision. I place my head against the ground, still clutching the dirt as rocks pelt my face and pine needles prickle my flesh. I must fight to live. I finally understand. I’m not just fighting for myself. I’m fighting for my parents who prepared me for this, for Mrs. Crowley who needs me, for whoever this guy is who has tried to save me because these monsters will murder him next.

A crack of lightning splits the ground near me. The earth begins to quake with the electrifying jolt, followed by a deafening rumble that drowns out the high-pitched ringing in my ears as the earth splits open. The gap is wide and I grab a sturdy root so I don’t tumble into its recesses.

With a whoosh, the wind abates and the weight of the beasts on my back ebbs. As the fog lifts, my eyes begin to focus. First on a large pine tree then, as I roll onto my back, to the clear night sky dotted with stars twinkling from above.

Pain pierces my flesh as I lean on my elbows. There are at least a dozen monsters, maybe more, lying on the ground. Their glowing eyes extinguished, just like the first, just like the other swarm.

“They’re all dead,” the mystery guy with the sword assures me, holding his weapon as if still prepared to strike. “More will come. We have to leave now!” He emphasizes his last word, though there was something about his cadence. It is both forceful, yet spiked with trepidation.

I manage to rise to a kneeling position. Struggling to catch my breath, I ask, “You killed them?”

The sword-wielding stranger staggers several steps away from me, his chest heaving from exertion while his eyes mirror fear, confusion, mistrust.

Warning bells clang in my ears.

What am I missing?

“I didn’t kill them.” He points his sword at me. “You did.”

chapter-2

 

My clothes cling to me with a combination of blood and perspiration. I can’t imagine the damage the hunters have caused. The pain has dissipated with the exception of my temples, which throb like I have a massive migraine. My vision blurs every now and then, causing me to lose my balance, though I keep this information to myself.

As I follow the guy with the sword, I try to wrap my head around what he told me – I am the harbinger of death. Okay, maybe not, but could I truly have killed two swarms of supernatural beings and fail to remember anything?

Mr. Nameless hasn’t told me squat since we left the carcasses behind with one exception: the things that tried to kill me are called hunters. Great information to have, but I would prefer that the guy who came out of nowhere would tell me his name, who he is, what he is. No such luck.

Instead, a deep-seated fury has been brimming beneath the surface, visible by his flaring nostrils and a vein that pulsates in his neck at certain intervals. Namely, each time he mutters something under his breath. That is when the rhythm of the pulsating vein becomes more pronounced.

“At least tell me your name,” I whisper. Each step I take hurts more than the last. I grit my teeth to hide my pain, my vulnerability.

He rounds on me and I bump square into his chest. He’s hard and all muscle. Broad frame, tall build, and rather handsome bathed in moonlight if you ignore the dark, brooding, and menacing glare he is giving me.

“No talking until we’re in the car. No exceptions.” Mr. No weaves between trees and shrubs before exhaling a protracted breath, “Alec.”

At last! Alec. Not much, but it will suffice.

For now.

Alec has yet to reveal anything about himself short of his first name, which may or may not be real, so I remain skeptical. Stranger danger and all, I choose vigilance. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Brooding Alec may be another version of a hunter. Stranger things have happened. On this very night, in fact.

We approach a black SUV with tinted windows and Alec opens the hatch, tugging what appears to be a change of clothes from a black bag. He tosses them to me as he surveys the surrounding clearing.

I pause, rubbing the denim self-consciously between my fingers. “Here?” My apprehension makes it clear that I’ve never undressed in front of anyone.

“Yes, here,” his words drip with sarcasm. “Your clothes are soaked in blood and that’s how hunters will track you now. This is no time to be a prude.”

Alec turns, tapping his fingers against his sword as I peel my ripped clothes from my aching limbs. I expect to see cuts from the monsters’ talons, instead all that remain are dried crimson discolorations. No wounds. No abrasions. Not so much as a bruise.

How is it possible that I have healed?

Dizziness pummels me as I slip gingerly into the shirt, jeans and worn leather jacket Alec provided. Their warmth brings attention to the chills that wrack my body.

Who is this guy and why is he helping me?

Why am I’m still being hunted by those beasts?

Will I ever be free?

My thoughts are churning, round and round, making me nauseous. Can I trust Alec? I remember my dad’s advice – trust your instincts. Right now my instincts are blaring louder than a PA system that the hunters are far more dangerous than Alec and that I’m too weak to battle another beast tonight.

Trust my instincts? Okay. I’ll follow Alec’s instructions, but I’ll remain on alert. This is my first decision since I survived tonight’s attacks. I hope I don’t regret it as he tosses my shirt into the brush. Managing to grab my jeans before he can reach them, I remove my cell, then hide it in my right pocket then conceal what I’ve done by wrapping the bloodied denim in a ball and throwing it into the tree line.

No answers, no trust.

Yep, that’s my new motto as I plop onto the passenger seat. My dagger is still in my boot and I plan how to reach for it without my companion noticing as Alec turns the key and revs the engine. He then peels out onto the dirt road, loose stones crackling beneath the spinning tires.

“You’re not wearing your seatbelt,” I blurt out, instantly regretting my remark. The guy cruises around in a Secret Service style SUV carrying a sword. I doubt seatbelt safety is high on his list of priorities.

True to form, Alec the man of mystery ignores my comment. My muscles are sore, my limbs stiffening, yet I’m able to reach my dagger with my fingertips, but can’t grab a hold of it. It’s still there. I’ll take comfort in that for the time being.

The speedometer indicates we’re cruising at a speed of seventy miles an hour when I ask, “Why did you save me tonight? Who are you, Alec?”

“Who am I?” Alec laughs, swerving to avoid a large limb in the middle of our lane. “Who am I?”

Nerves tingling, body quivering, his laughter grates. “What is it you find so amusing – my confusion or the fact that I’m terrified you’re another hunter who wants me dead?”

He slams on the brakes, the tires squealing as the SUV lurches and I am pinned against the seatbelt. It prevents me from slamming into the dash. “I was sent to protect you. Who am I? Your guardian. How about you tell me who you are?”

I clutch the latch to my seatbelt, ready to bolt. “My name is Tessa Egan—”

“I know that. Let’s try again,” his fingers are drumming the steering wheel, emphasizing each word. “When did you know that you were a witch?”

“When I was eleven—”

“Son of a—” The remainder of his diatribe is inaudible due to his fist pounding against the steering wheel. “You’ve been practicing witchcraft since you were eleven!”

“What? No! I knew I was a witch when my dad died. I was eleven and I could see him after he died. I’ve never practiced witchcraft.” My fingers trace the button that unlocks the seatbelt. I keep talking, hoping my words will drown out the click. “I don’t know how to practice witchcraft.”

“You killed close to two dozen hunters without lifting a finger and you want me to believe that you’ve never performed a spell?” he yanks my wrist. “Don’t even think about leaving this car. More are coming for you. A witch this powerful must be stopped and they will send legions after you.”

“I don’t know how to be a witch. Hell, I barely know how to be a teenager.” I struggle to break free of his grasp.

Plain, outcast Tessa Egan. Powerful? This guy must be delusional or overselling my abilities. I don’t do magic. If I did, I would know, right? I think of the hunters, their carcasses, the glow of their eyes extinguished.

Did I really kill two dozen?

Alec’s fingers dig into my flesh as he clamps my wrist with more intensity. “How were you able to kill them? Not to mention the fact that you wielded my sword like it was nothing more than a baseball bat. Oh! Let’s not forget the hunter you killed before I arrived. How are you that strong?”

Which question do I tackle first? They’re being lobbed at me in record time and I’m struggling to keep up. “I told you I didn’t know how to use a sword, so I swung it like I was playing baseball. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s how I process things.”

What else did he ask?

“What about the hunters?” his grip tightens and my hand begins to go numb. “What about your craft?”

“My dad didn’t tell me much but he warned me to prepare by training – physically training, I mean.” Though my head is pounding and my thoughts are muddled, I try to be clear. “I also went to school. I went to college and learned about the occult, about legends, beasts, witchcraft. But I’ve never practiced a spell.”

The number of curse words Alec utters is in the range of fifty to a hundred.

Has this guy ever heard of anger management? Maybe he’s insane. “I trained to fight, to prepare myself physically and mentally for whatever was coming. I never practiced witchcraft. Why don’t you believe me?”

“Tell me what happened to the hunters,” he demands.

My pulse is now drumming against my temples like a heavy metal beat and my vision blurs again. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

He leans forward. “How do you not remember? You annihilated them. I remember. Why can’t you?”

His questions are relentless, as is the pain searing into my skull. “I don’t know. Stop yelling at me. I don’t know!” The pain throbs harder, hammering my battered body and mind. My panic rises until I can’t take it anymore.

I just want it to stop! I want him to stop!

“Leave me alone!” I scream as the windows of the SUV shatter.

Alec springs towards me, yanking me flat against the center console, covering my body with his. Is he shielding me from the flying shards? This guy confuses me. He yells at me one moment, protects me the next. I feel weak, my thoughts swirling, my head … I can’t concentrate from the excruciating pain.

“Calm down. You’re safe,” Alec’s tone is gentle as he pats my hair like I’m a terrier.

Safe? This is safe?

Glass rains within the interior of the SUV, the sound reminding me of tinkling bells. When the debris is no longer a threat, Alec sits upright to survey the damage.

Sharp shards are everywhere. He opens the driver’s door, shrugs out of his jacket and uses it to clear the glass from his seat. I follow his lead, swaying as I stand on the shoulder of pavement. My head is still splitting with a sharp, stabbing pain, as I brush the debris from my seat.

After shaking my jacket free of the tiny pieces, I lean against the door frame. My boots crunch atop the remnants of the windows.

Did I do this?

I must have. That’s the only answer, right? That I’m using magic? That I don’t know how to conjure a spell, yet I’m killing demons and destroying SUVs in the blink of an eye.

How am I doing this?

Turning towards Alec, I notice that his attention is drawn again to my hair. Are we in beauty school? What is his obsession with my hair?

Motioning to the interior, he slides behind the steering wheel while I sit in the passenger seat. The door makes a hollow thud as I close it. Alec pays no attention. Instead, he pulls my visor down and switches the interior light on.

“Calmly, I need you to look at yourself and tell me what’s different.” A deep line of concern is etched in his forehead.

My breath catches in my throat as I raise the mirror cover with its small rectangular light illuminating my reflection. It isn’t my pale complexion that causes me to gasp. It isn’t the deep purplish hue under my eyes. No, what makes me shudder is the streak of deep sapphire, about an inch wide to the left of my face, highlighting my unruly black hair. My hands tremble as I reach for it. The texture is thick and brittle but it is also a part of me, my scalp, growing from me.

“What is happening to me?” I ask, my voice quivering as I twirl the sapphire streak between my fingers. “Am I s-sick?”

Sick? Like there’s an illness called blue-hair disease? I’m entering an irrational state, but can’t stop myself.

Alec inhales a deep breath, as if he’s preparing to impart bad news. He doesn’t react as if my question was ridiculous, which worries me because my question was utterly ludicrous.

“I think your magic is connected to your emotions. The more you use, the bluer your hair gets. When I first found you, it was a small streak,” he pauses, narrowing his eyes like I’m a science experiment. “When you killed the hunters, it became larger. Now, after the window incident, it is even bigger.”

“Oh, my God. I’m turning blue. I’m – I’m turning into a Smurf?” I begin to hyperventilate. My chest is heaving as I struggle to inhale.

Alec cocks his head to the side. “Technically, your hair is turning blue, not your flesh.”

“I’m a freaking Halloween costume. A witch with blue hair. What comes next? A broom? Warts? A black cat?” I begin to laugh and shake. I can’t control the shaking.

What have I become?

“Am I a monster?” I wait for my companion to reassure me. Instead he doesn’t say a word. My teeth chatter as I stare at my reflection in the small mirror.

“I am a m-monster.”

“You’re going into shock,” Alec turns the knobs for the heat and places his jacket over me. “Look at me.”

It’s like a wreck in the middle of a highway. I can’t look away from the awful sapphire streak, no matter how much I want to or how hard I try.

 “Look at me, Tessa,” he places his thumb on my chin and jerks my profile to face him. “I’ve never lost a witch yet and I don’t plan on breaking my winning streak tonight.”

I manage to nod.

“Calm down while I get us to safety, okay?”

I nod again. Why am I mute? All I can do is shake and nod. Nod and shake. Well, at least I am able to multi-task. My inner sarcasm assures me that my mind remains somewhat intact.

“Talk to me,” Alec touches the streak of blue, lifting it, tugging at it, studying it. “Tell me you trust me.”

Easier said than done when he’s making me feel like an alien in some old sci-fi flick. I expect tents and hazmat suits at any moment. Quarantine prospects aside, my companion is mesmerized by my hair. As if in a trance.

“How can I trust you when you are obsessed with my hair?” He snaps to attention, dropping the strand of blue as if it scorched his flesh. “What aren’t you telling me?”

He meets my eyes for the first time in what feels like forever. “I’m not hiding anything. I’ve just never seen anything like it. We’ll figure this out, though. As long as you trust me.”

“I trust you,” my tone is no more than a raspy murmur, devoid of any real certainty. I clear my throat. “I trust you.” This time my timbre is strong.

Why not? I survived three rounds with hunters and I wielded a sword. I can’t give in now, blue hair or not.

Alec seems to sense the direction of my thoughts. “That’s right. You’re strong and we are a team. You can survive.”

Something I once read comes to mind. “Have you ever wanted to believe someone so much that you would have believed anything they told you, no matter how absurd?” I am certain that is what I am doing as Alec shifts the SUV into drive.

I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know Alec’s last name. Yet, I believe he will help keep me safe. Because my head is pounding, because my every nerve is on edge, and because tall, dark, and brooding Alec is easier to trust than the reptilian creatures with horns who shredded my flesh and almost killed me.

Closing my eyes, I wonder if this is why my dad was always so vague. Did he think reality would be too much for me? Regardless, I should’ve known what to expect.

Why didn’t my dad tell me?

Why did he desert me?

I’m heading into unchartered territory and the one thing I know for certain is that I don’t know anything. No matter how many books I’ve read, no matter how much television or how many movies I watched, no matter how much I memorized and prepared. Despite the years of training and schooling, I’m at a severe disadvantage.

I thought my task was to survive this night.

Now, my task is … what? To fight every day of my life? Am I strong enough for such an epic endeavor?

Why was so much kept hidden?

Why was I never allowed to talk to anyone?

The memory of those kids walking to school flashes before me. I wanted to be like them. I wanted so much to be normal. Instead, I was plagued with why me syndrome. Why wasn’t I allowed to be normal? Why was I sheltered? Why was I singled out? Why me?

All those questions wasted. Now, after all this time, I realize that the question was never why me? The question should have been what happens next? What happens after my eighteenth birthday?

It took the death of my dad to realize that I was cursed, like so many who boarded that bus. Why didn’t my questions change then, once I knew what awaited me? I may not have known precise details, but I knew I’d be hunted.

What did I expect? That I could survive and live happily ever after? Did I believe in that myth? Or did I not plan ahead?

Yes, that’s it. I concentrated on surviving. I never dared consider what would happen to me if I lived.

I bite my upper lip to stop the tears that are forming. I won’t cry. Instead I think of the little girl sitting on that sofa every morning. How pitiful I must have looked from the outside. What a joke I must have been to those kids who took that bus.

Years have passed. I’m alive but I’m still that same outcast, still in danger, still clueless. No matter how hard I press my hands against my eyes, the tears still form. My shoulders shake, but I fight the tears. How naïve was I? How stupid? How could I ever think a future would be less dangerous or lonely than the past?

Because I hoped it would. I hoped the fairy tale existed. Now that I know it doesn’t, at least not for me, I can’t stop mourning for that little girl on the sofa.

So much for being smart. I failed to see things logically. Hope … all this time I had hope. It was foolish and illogical. I should’ve known better. With what little my dad did tell me, how could I not expect that it would end like this?

I was always cursed.

Just like my hometown of Massa.

Like so many before me. Being on that bus or not made no difference. Some of those kids died. Some of them disappeared. We would all share the same fate, at least those who were born here.

I blamed the wrong people. I blamed my parents for not answering my questions. Now, I blame myself for asking the wrong questions.

Alec pats my thigh with his palm. He’s trying to be nice, but his touch is awkward. Like I’m a stray and he isn’t sure if I’ve had my rabies shot.

“I’m okay,” I mutter, swiping my eyes with my fingertips before turning towards the broken passenger window, allowing the wind to dry my tears.

This is my life. Sticking my head in front of a car window like a puppy, being petted like a mongrel, being pitied and feared by a complete stranger. Eighteen changes nothing. I am alive, but I’m still not living. I’m still hiding. I’m still scared. I’m also running for my life.

I watch the landscape whiz past us. This is how I will face my future now. Eyes open, all hope locked away where it can’t make promises of a future that will never be.

Yep, that hopeful little girl is gone.

In her place is the cynical teen on the cusp of adulthood who no longer makes wishes. They don’t come true. Not for me.

Never for me.

Alec said that legions will come after me.

“Legions of what?” I ask, the wind whipping my hair, my new blue streak blowing just within my line of sight.

“Too many,” Alec answers

And the hits keep coming.

I glance at him and he tightens his grip around the steering wheel before shifting his weight as if uncomfortable. I almost feel sorry for him. He said he’s never lost a witch.

There’s always a first time.

Tucking my new blue tuft of hair behind my ear, my eyes still wide open, I return to the window. Though the questions race through my mind, I sit and concentrate on the wind. The echo of my past becoming more distant with each passing mile.

My name is Tessa Egan.

I’m a witch.

I’m being hunted.

I’ll fight until I die.

That’s me, the real me, the only me.

Tessa Egan. Fighter. Until I die …

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