You know what time it is? First chapter time. I present chapter 1 of Wardbreaker, the new Lillim Callina prequel.
I shut my eyes as I tried to remember exactly what Professor Smathers had taught me about Earth currencies. It wasn’t that it was particularly complicated, it was more that I wasn’t quite sure what they used in America. Was it euros? Dollars? Pounds?
With a surge of confidence, I opened my eyes and shoved the handful of wadded up dollar bills I’d pulled from my pocket across the counter.
The dull-eyed convenience store clerk stared down at my money and heaved a huge sigh out of his lungs that shook his entire body. Oh no, had I chosen wrong? Damn… it was euros they used here. My cheeks burned as I reached into my pouch, wondering if I’d thought to take any. I hadn’t exactly been picky when I’d grabbed the stash from my mother’s purse. For all I knew, none of the money I had would work…
“That’s not enough,” he said, voice half-bored, half-annoyed as he thumbed through the bills. “You’ll need to pay for the stuff in your pockets as well.”
I froze, my body going as still as a rabbit when it smells a predator. I swallowed, my hands clenching and unclenching as I glanced down at the pocket on my sweatshirt. I’d stuffed things in there while I shopped, had I forgotten something? Did he think I was trying to steal?
Slowly, I snaked one hand down to the pocket and reached in, but feeling nothing, I looked up at him, confused.
“I… um… don’t have anything else.” I pointed to the counter where a small carton of chocolate milk, an apple, and a single string cheese sat there like a depressed trio. I’d picked them because out of all the stuff in here, I sort of recognized them as food. Where I came from, we didn’t have brightly colored things in plastic pouches, but we did have cheese, milk, and fruit…
“Look, I saw you put the candy bar in your back pocket. Just take it out and pay for it, or leave it here. I don’t really care what you do, but you can’t have it for free.” The clerk leaned forward, lips in a tight line. His face was pockmarked with acne and his flame-red hair stuck out at impossible angles.
Had I inadvertently taken some candy? My heart started racing as the realization struck me. Had I been so hungry I’d stuck something in my pocket and forgotten? Surely not… Surely I wouldn’t have done something so stupid…
I reached down, rummaging through the pockets of my jeans but came up with only dryer lint and a piece of black string. Finding nothing else, I pulled the pockets inside out so they hung there like pathetic handles. They were so long that if someone wanted, they could grab onto them and steer me around. It didn’t help that the jeans were a size too big. I’d gotten them from a thrift store down the block, and they didn’t fit as well as they could have. Still, anything was better than the skintight leather jumpsuit I’d been wearing when I escaped to Earth. I’d ditched the uniform the first chance I’d gotten.
“I don’t have any candy,” I said, my stomach making that horrible squealing sound that came with hunger. It’d been a while since I’d last eaten. The stuff on the counter would comprise the first meal I’d have in about three days, and I was starting to go a little wiggy. “Can I just please pay for my stuff and leave?”
“No! I saw you take something,” the clerk boomed. His voice was loud enough to make people turn and look at us.
“Then charge me for the candy and let me have my stuff,” I replied, getting annoyed now. Was he trying to fleece me? Over a candy bar?
“It doesn’t work that way, I have to ring something up.” He pointed to the register beside him as though that made everything make sense.
“Is there a problem here?” The voice behind me was so low it made goosebumps rise on my flesh and my stomach drop into my toes. Great, I’d attracted attention. That was the last thing I wanted to do. I eyed the stuff I’d placed on the counter. Could I swipe them and make a run for it? Maybe I should just leave it behind…
Before I could do anything, the clerk glanced behind me, and his eyes got as big as dinner plates. He swallowed hard enough to make his adam’s apple bob up and down beneath the milk-pale flesh of his throat. He slowly put his hands flat on the counter. They were shaking.
“Um… no, sir,” the clerk said, taking my money in one grubby paw and putting it into the register. He scooped up some coins and practically threw them across the counter at me. “Here you go, miss.”
“Good,” the voice behind me said as I snatched up my groceries and my change and shoved them into the pocket of my sweatshirt. “I’d hate to hear you’re back to picking on young girls again.”
I took a deep breath, not sure what to expect behind me and whirled around to thank the person. Admittedly, part of me wanted to run out of the store as quickly as I could, but that was rude, and if there was one thing my mother had beaten into me, it was good manners.
A guy who looked like he was in his mid-twenties stood there, staring past me at the pimple-faced teen. He was at least six feet tall with a shaved head and skin the color of polished obsidian. Beneath his bomber jacket, he was wearing a long-sleeved, black dress shirt half-tucked into a pair of blue jeans. I could tell it was long-sleeved because as he moved one arm, the sleeve of his jacket slipped down, revealing the cuff of his shirt.
His lips were pulled into a half-snarl that vanished into a sort of part-smile as he glanced from the clerk to me. He raised one enormous hand to his stubble-covered chin and rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger as he appraised at me. It was strange because I could see recognition behind his eyes. Did he know what I was? No, that was impossible…
“Thank you,” I whispered, my voice so quiet, I wasn’t sure he actually heard me say anything. Not waiting for him to respond, I tried to make my way past him toward the doors of the convenience store, but found myself blocked by his linebacker-sized form as he shuffled in front of me. I took a deep breath, trying to stop myself from freaking out. Surely every person on Earth couldn’t be a crazy person who would accost me given the chance? Surely my mother couldn’t be right about that too? On a long enough timeframe she had to be wrong eventually, right?
“Miss, when is the last time you ate something?” he asked as the customer immediately behind him stepped around him and placed her purchases on the counter. She didn’t even so much as look in our direction as the man placed one large hand on my shoulder and ushered me toward the door.
I wasn’t quite sure how he managed it because I was confident I could have stopped him, but the next thing I knew, we were standing outside the Ye Olde Kwik E Mart and staring at the attached gas station. I shot one last, apprehensive look inside the store as the glass doors shut with a whoosh that made me jump.
The man laughed, a low throaty sound that reminded me of a cartoon bullfrog with a top hat. I took a hesitant step away from him, and as I did so, he watched my feet move. The urge to flee rose up inside me, so strong I could barely think past it. Still, he was just some guy. I could handle him. He wouldn’t make me run away…
“Go away!” I said, trying to make my voice sound as tough as I possibly could. “Just because I look like a teenage girl doesn’t mean I won’t knock your block off.”
He raised his hands, face melting into a laugh that made me want to punch him in his stupid bulbous nose. “There, there, miss. I mean no harm. You just look like someone I used to know a long time ago. She’d visit me from time to time, and whenever she came to town, I always took her out for fish tacos.” He stared far off past me as if remembering something and tears tugged at the corners of his eyes. “She hasn’t been by in a while. I heard she died.”
“Is that so?” I growled, suddenly angry though I didn’t know why. Something about the way he spoke tugged at the very far corners of my memory, but when I tried to pull the fragment in for closer examination, it evaporated.
“Yeah, um sorry,” he replied sheepishly. “I guess I got carried away with myself.” He held out his hand to me. “I’m Jean-Luc, but most people call me Luc. I sort of like that. It makes me feel less French.”
“You’re French?” I asked, taking his hand very carefully, and as I did so, a little nip of magic zipped across his skin like a static shock. What the hell was he? Something preternatural for sure, but whatever it was, I’d never felt it, and that was saying something since I’d been trained to fight Earth’s supernatural monsters from birth.
I jerked my hand away and stepped back into a fighting stance, my hands clenched into fists. I called upon my power. It welled up inside me at once, filling my muscles with strength and setting my cells ablaze. If he tried anything, I’d blast him into a smudge on the ground and worry about the consequences afterward.
“I’m not French. I’m named after a starship captain,” he replied, looking at his shoes like they were the most interesting thing in the world. It was strange because his entire confident demeanor seemed to have vanished. “My parents were idiots.” He looked up at me and his smile died on his face. “Um… what are you doing?”
“You’re some kind of magic user. Whatever you’re trying to do, don’t.” I took a deep breath, and as I exhaled, I held one palm out in front of me, calling upon my magic to make a tiny flame dance on it. The fire was small enough that I wasn’t worried about it showing up on the sensors back home, at least not without someone looking very closely. Thankfully, that was pretty unlikely. It was why I’d chosen this town as my hideout. “Just don’t. Just turn around and walk the hell away from me. This doesn’t have to end with you as a chalk outline on the ground.”
“Miss, I have no idea…” he trailed off as the flame in my hand grew bigger.
“It will take exactly zero effort to toss this fireball at you,” I lied because it would take a lot of energy, especially if I didn’t use any magic words, and since I hadn’t eaten in a few days, the exertion might make me faint, which would be bad. Still, I was betting he didn’t know that. It wasn’t the world’s best bet, per se, but what was that saying about dogs being more scared of you than you are of them? Only I wasn’t sure which of us was the dog in this scenario.
“Okay, look,” he said, holding his hands out palms up. “I know what you are. I know you’re a member of the Dioscuri. Your job is to fight monsters and keep us humans safe, right? Well, I need your help with some vampires before things get out of control. It’s why I followed you from the thrift shop into the gas station convenience store.”
His words shook me to the core. He knew what I was? Impossible… and how the hell had he followed me inside? I’d made sure to look out for anyone. Hell, I’d even woven a tiny spell about myself to warn me of supernatural baddies. The only way it wouldn’t have alerted me to his presence was if he had no magic… but then what had I felt? Was it something residual? Had he just handled a magical object recently… that had been known to happen.
“Lies,” I said, taking a step back from him and willing the fire in my hand to vanish before it could attract attention. Maybe I could run away before he’d catch me and force me to blow up this gas station. Then again, there was always the possibility he could, I don’t know, shape shift into a giant flaming bear and gobble me up. Maybe I should play dead? That works on bears, right?
“I’m a monster hunter,” he said, reaching into his bomber jacket and slowly pulling out a piece of parchment that looked like it had been written a million years ago… and I totally recognized it. What he had in his hand was a writ, and it basically meant he was licensed by my people to hunt down monsters. So he hadn’t been lying about knowing who I was, the jerk. “And I need your help. Please.”
“How’d you get that?” I asked, deciding I needed to run away and find a new town to hold up in. I’d only been on Earth a few days, but if this guy had already identified me, how long could it possibly take for my people to find me? That was something I didn’t want, since they probably wouldn’t be happy I ran away… again. It was too bad because I liked the weather in Orange County, California. Not too hot, not too cold… It was like the Goldilocks of hideaways.
“I applied for it after some vampires killed my friend’s dad. You wouldn’t think you’d need a license to kill the undead, but there you go.” The words came out of his mouth strangely brusque and disconnected, like he hadn’t actually expected to say them out loud. Then again, I doubted monster hunting came up in casual conversation since talking about it with people ‘not in the know’ was pretty much forbidden.
“Uh huh,” I muttered, glancing from the writ to him and back again. Something about this guy was off, I just had no idea what it was, and honestly, I didn’t really want to know. Whatever he was involved in would be trouble, and I’d had enough trouble in my short life to last a couple lifetimes.
Besides, if I helped him, I’d have to use my magic… if I did that, I was sure my people would find me since every time I drew on my power, there’d be a blip on the systems they used back home to track monster activity. If enough blips showed up where there hadn’t previously been any, well, someone would come snooping around. That, I did not want.
“It’s true,” he replied, shoving the writ in his pocket with one hand. “How else would I have gotten it?”
This was an excellent point because writs were magically bound to the owner. If someone else tried to use it, the writ would disintegrate into ash. Damn.
“Who sponsored it?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at him as I glanced around. There was no one else here. I could make a break for it and be halfway down the street before he took even two steps. So why hadn’t I run? Why was I even having this conversation?
“Dirge Meilan,” Luc replied, and everything inside me went sort of cold and empty. Of all the Dioscuri he could have known, why did it have to be her? I swallowed as panic crept down my spine like an icy spider. Was that how he’d recognized me? Was it because I looked so much like Dirge had? No… it had to be something else. Surely, it was something else… but even as I had the thought, I knew it was a lie.
“No…” I muttered, and before I could stop myself, I was sprinting across the parking lot of the gas station as fast as I could. I made it about three feet before a loud honk filled my ears. I glanced toward it in time to see an old brown station wagon plow into me at ten miles an hour. It smacked into my ribs so hard I was reminded of the time I’d been punched in the side by a yeti. My breath exploded from my lips as I flopped sideways onto the concrete. The sound of people shouting filled my ears. The vehicle lurched to a stop as I lay there, struggling to breathe.
It’d hurt less than I’d expected, but then again, when you’re used to getting thrown twenty feet through the air by werewolves, well, what was a car? I tried to move, tried to crawl to my feet but everything was sort of hazy and far off. I shut my eyes, pulling in a deep breath, but when I opened them again, everything was still shaky. That wasn’t good. Maybe I’d been hurt worse than I’d thought.
An old woman with hair the color of fresh snow and glasses that made her eyes appear huge and bug-like hobbled over to me, yammering in some language I didn’t understand. Only… only I couldn’t even hear her voice very well. Her lips were moving… how come I couldn’t hear her?
I was about to ask when hands gripped me under my arms and hauled me to my feet like I weighed nothing, which wasn’t exactly true. I might have only been five feet tall, but I was almost a hundred and twenty pounds of muscle. I tried to kick and fight, but before I could land even a single blow, Luc leaned in close and whispered into my ear.
“Let’s get out of here before the police come,” Luc said, and his voice was warm on my neck. “Something tells me that won’t go well for you.”
He smiled at me as he tucked one arm around my shoulder and began hustling me away from the lady. I wasn’t sure where I was going exactly, but it didn’t matter. He was right. I did not want the police finding me. If they did, they’d want all sorts of thing I wouldn’t be able to give them, like identification and my parents’ phone numbers.