An unexpected attack on Shanna Hunt and her new friends prompts the team of monster hunters to venture to Greece, where they encounter an abandoned city, ancient ruins, and a haunting mystery. Something has caused a mass evacuation of the city, something sinister that will stop at nothing to get what it wants. And if the powerful force lurking in the wings isn't enough to tear the team apart, perhaps the secrets they are keeping from each other are.
And a sample after the jump...
"So, why isn’t he answering the door?" Krystal asked, twirling a strand of long dark hair around her pinky and watching as Hunter gazed through a narrow window beside the door. "You said he knew we were coming, right?"
Hunter looked back at her. "Yes. Quite right. He should have been waiting for us. I don’t know why…" He rapped on the door again. "Mr. Voight? Mr. Voight, can you hear me? We spoke on the phone just yesterday, if you recall."
"You’re always so formal and stuffy," Krystal complained under her breath.
"Nothing, nothing. Maybe he just realized he needed to pick something up?"
Hunter looked past Krystal to see their other companion, Saul, saunter up to them from their van. "Saul, something may be wrong here. You may want to keep the van running."
Saul smiled easily. "If something’s the matter, then you and Krystal here aren’t going to be much help to him, are you?"
Hunter considered for a moment. "Yes. Yes, Krystal, would you mind waiting in the van? Things could get a little hairy here."
"No, I will not wait in the van," Krystal folded her arms before her. "I’m quite capable."
Saul smirked. "I don’t think she’s budging, Mate. She’s got quite the mind of her own, this one does."
"Hmph," Hunter glared at Krystal and shrugged. "Very well. But do as I say."
"Who is this guy again?" Krystal asked as Hunter resumed his previous post at the window. "A hunter?"
"Yes, a hunter. One that’s been identified. We have been instructed to transport him to Lime Bay, New York where the other hunters are stationed, on our way to the boat."
"To take me to Greece."
"To take you to Greece."
"Why can’t I just…you know, hang out in New York with the others?"
"Because there’s not enough security in New York. And you’re not a hunter."
"I could be."
Hunter sighed. "That’s quite enough, Krystal. You’re far too valuable to us to throw you in with the others at this point. And you have no training. Perhaps if you renew your vigor for your studies..."
Krystal scowled. "All right, all right. Let’s just get this guy and hit the road already."
Saul laughed and clapped his hand on Hunter’s back. "Moving on… There are lights on inside. Someone’s home. Would you like me to break down the door, Mate?"
Hunter pushed his glasses up his nose and nodded. "Please do. Quiet, like."
"Quietly break down the door?" Saul laughed again and pulled a gun out from the back of his trousers, quickly twisting on a silencer.
"Thank god it’s dark out," Krystal murmured, hugging herself and looking around the suburban neighborhood as a muted shot rang out behind her.
"Thank you, Saul," Hunter said. "But I insist that you bring Krystal to the van at this point."
"If you do, I’m not going a step further on this journey with you guys," Krystal threatened, squeezing past him and into the yellow light of the hallway inside. She took in the sparse furniture of the front room and bristled. "Bachelors."
Saul closed the door behind them and his eyes darted around the room briefly.
Hunter turned to him. "Can you-"
Krystal gasped suddenly, doubling over.
"What is it?" Hunter reached out to her. "Krystal, are you-"
"I’m fine," Krystal said, straightening and smiling feebly. "I believe you’ll find him at the back of the house."
Hunter and Saul exchanged looks before taking off together at a determined pace.
Krystal followed them slowly, dreading what they would find. She let her eyes wander to a photograph on the wall, that of an athletic blonde man in his early twenties. Probably Mr. Voight. Too bad. He was really cute. Pretty eyes.
"He’s been dead for awhile," Hunter announced, looking up at Saul. "I’d say a good half-day at least."
Krystal peeked into the room, where she could see the back of the hunter’s head, her companions flitting about in front of him, examining the scene. Unnoticed, she moved a little closer.
"Curious," Hunter mumbled to himself, leaning over a book, open on the table before Mr. Voight.
"He didn’t even put up a fight," Saul observed. "Whatever happened here happened quickly."
Stepping behind Hunter, Krystal’s mouth dropped open in an "o" of surprise as she saw sand slowly pouring out of the corpse’s open mouth and ears. As she looked on, his head fell forward and a steady stream of sand drizzled out through his nose and empty eye sockets, where those beautiful eyes used to rest, gathering in piles on his shirt and pants, and even spilling onto the sofa and floor around him. More sand than seemed possible emptied from his head.
"That is so gross," Krystal announced, swallowing hard to offset the bile that was rising in her throat. "Maybe I don’t want to be a hunter."
Saul smiled at Hunter.
Hunter shook his head with a grin and pointed to the last line in the journal before him. "Listen to his final passage."
"I’m not sure I want to," Krystal admitted.
Ignoring her comment, Hunter read the line anyway. "It took an entire month for whatever the witch did to me to take effect, but now I know it’s out there, waiting to make its move. I’ve been marked and I’m as good as dead. It won’t stop coming. No one can save me now."
"Shanna! Shanna! You’re having a nightmare!"
Shanna bolted upright, her heart thumping furiously in her chest, sweat soaking the t-shirt she’d worn to bed. She looked up into a concerned face, mildly disoriented. "Kelly? My parents…where are…?" Shaking her head, she turned away and looked about the living room of her small apartment, the empty frozen yogurt cartons littering her coffee table, the smell of burned popcorn thick in the air. They were in sleeping bags, the remote control and a pile of DVDs nearby. Another marathon of movies, a girls’ night. What had it been this time? "Subspecies." Yes, she recalled the evening now. Halloween night. Or, more likely, the day after by now. Shanna glanced up at the wall clock, able to discern the muffled tick even beyond the sound of her heartbeat, confirming her suspicion. Three o’clock. She must have fallen asleep during the last movie. God, had they gotten through four of them?
"I…yeah, a nightmare," Shanna mumbled, a hand at her head. She was shaking. Had it been that bad?
"You scared the crap out of me," Kelly laughed lightly. "You were screaming, then singing in gibberish. It was weird. Capital W."
"Sorry, sorry. I just…sometimes I get these little night terrors. Nothing to worry about."
Kelly nodded, looking passed her at the blackened TV.
"Yeah, must have been the movies," Shanna smoothed things over, lying back onto her pillow and pulling her sleeping bag taut over her body, as if ready to fall asleep again, although her heart had hardly slowed in the past minute.
"Maybe," Kelly agreed slowly. "Or…your parents? You asked about your parents when you woke up. Did you dream about them? Do you…do that sometimes?"
Shanna looked away. Her parents were dead. They’d been killed before her eyes by demons when she was younger. Since then, Shanna had researched demons, trained to fight them, and had ultimately destroyed her parents’ murderers. But she wasn’t done with demons yet. She continued to seek them out, determined, as if something compelled her into action. As if this were her calling, to be a hunter of darkness. But to dream of that night…the strange orange demons in flowing blue robes with their foreign tongues and sprinkling sand and…and daggers. Shanna shuddered. She didn’t think that she ever had such dreams. But perhaps she just didn’t recall. She couldn’t recall anything of her nightmare presently, despite her body’s refusal to calm down in its wake. It was like her body remembered, even though her mind would forget so easily.
"Don’t want to talk about it?" Kelly asked softly, watching her.
Shanna met her gaze with a smile. "Sorry, but…I honestly don’t remember."
* * *
Nine months later…
"This is it," Cameron announced, bringing a nondescript black van to a stop at a deserted corner where Styrofoam cups and deserted magazine pages danced in the air over the sidewalk. The streetlamps buzzed softly amid the darkness, joining the eerie chorus sung by insects hidden deep in cement cracks and high on dirty warehouse ledges. The artificial orange light only served to heighten the feeling of desertion that seemed to blanket the warehouse district of Lime Bay, New York.
"There’s no moon tonight," Jade murmured, staring out of the windows at the building before them. She reached back and patted her ponytail subconsciously as she observed the night and the paper mill that was their destination. Turning to the others, she couldn’t help but let a wide smile crack her stoic expression. "Let’s make some noise, huh? Light the place up."
Cameron grinned back at her sheepishly beneath his head of unruly brown curls, tossing her a pack complete with a microphone extension and straps to thread her arms through. Jade had used this device before. A magick detector. It had once detected radiation, a Geiger counter, but had been converted to help them pick up magick residue, as it was more useful in the art of monster hunting. A gauge on the back of the device went from a soft green to a blazing red to indicate the level of magick in the area of the extension.
"So, I’ll watch from the van for any surprises," Cameron confirmed, turning to the third and last member of the party present. "And if I see anything fishy, I’ll honk. Incessantly."
Shanna Hunt nodded to her new boyfriend as she withdrew a dagger from its sheath on her leg and swept her eyes over the shape of the cross that it resembled. Running a finger lightly over its sharpened edge, she assumed a brave air and returned the weapon to its residence, sweeping her blonde hair back dramatically and picking up a tranquilizer gun. She turned to Jade expectantly. "Okay. Let’s do this."
Slipping out of the van as shadows, the two girls avoided the light and skulked stealthily over to the paper mill, creeping down a narrow alleyway that ran alongside it to the loading dock in back. Without a word between them, Jade flicked on the power to the magick detector and began running it over the blank brick walls slowly, searching for an entrance hidden by way of glamour.
Keeping alert to the noises around them, Shanna kept an eye on the half-dozen entry points to the dock alternately while Jade worked.
The past month had been a time of leisure for the hunters, in wake of the first mission they’d been thrust into so soon after they’d met. The Agency had gathered them all for a single cause: to destroy the threat that was rapidly picking hunters off the whole world over. And they had. They’d infiltrated a party headed by The Crimson Rope, a faction bent on controlling the monster world, and had literally burned them to the ground. Since then, the assignments they’d received had been few and far between. The scholars that worked behind the scenes for The Agency, named Visum et Repertum, fed them information via Valor, the woman who was their charge. She briefed them on assignments and they went and killed things, or collected them, as the assignment demanded. In return, the hunters lived comfortably in a sprawling three-story mansion on Marvel Hill where they’d all settled into ridiculously large rooms, all expenses paid with a hefty salary and company cars on the way. It was all very posh. It was what they deserved for facing the odds against them and protecting the world from that which lived in shadow and fed upon it in secret.
"I think…it’s here," Jade murmured, powering off the magick detector and fumbling in her leather coat pockets.
Shanna glanced up toward the way they’d come. Although she couldn’t see the van from where they were stationed, she could all but feel Cameron watching nervously. The past month had seen their relationship grow dramatically. They’d gone on several dates and had spent enough time together to have a real affection toward one other. She had, in fact, grown to appreciate everyone in the house in different ways. But the bond that was being forged between her and Cameron was like nothing she’d ever felt before. She’d had a boyfriend once upon a time, but this feeling was new. She didn’t have to hide part of who she was from him. He got to know every facet of her life and he wasn’t afraid. He, in fact, participated in it. But still, Shanna was a little worried about getting increasingly more intimate with him, and whether he was ready for that step yet. They’d only kissed a handful of times, and it seemed each time that the kiss was ended too soon for her tastes. She’d reach her hands up to cradle his face or run her hands through his hair, and she’d find he’d caught her hands halfway there, and drawn back, completely closed off again. She didn’t quite understand. Did he just want to take things slow with her? Was he afraid to move to the next level with her? Or perhaps…he wasn’t as invested on his end of the relationship as she was. As much as she loved having a boyfriend, she was thoroughly confused about it. But…the romantic, tender moments seemed to make it all worthwhile in the end.
"Jesus," Jade looked up at Shanna with a shake of the head. "I finally found it. Deep pockets." She opened a small velvet pouch and sprinkled the powdery contents over the area in the bricks the detector had indicated. The air around the bricks shimmered like a mirage before taking on a shape: a door appeared among the bricks, a wooden door about four feet tall with a large iron handle in the very center. "Well, that looks fairly medieval. And…small." She shrugged and pulled on the door handle. It opened without making even the tiniest of sounds.
The two hunters looked at each other for a moment before Shanna gestured to the yawning passageway with her head and muttered "After you."
"You’re such a bitch," Jade smirked, ducking into the door.
Shanna followed, a grin stretching out over her face.
While they’d attended The Crimson Rope’s party the previous month, they’d taken advantage of the situation and had sifted through laptops, bugged cell phones and clothing - anything that could help them in the future. Through snatches of conversation and scribbled notes, the past few hunts had been commissioned. Presently, they were searching for harpy eggs that had been smuggled into America by an unknown agent. They were to be picked up the proceeding night, so Shanna, Jade and Cameron had been charged to get to them sooner, carrying them back to the laboratory on Marvel Hill to be studied by scholars, and destroying whoever was responsible for their presence on American soil. It seemed very straight-forward, provided the "unknown agent" wasn’t a creature of immense power. Usually The Agency would utilize Felicia Wales, a "retired" hunter who served as a scout and consultant, to check out the area before moving in. Unfortunately, time was of the essence and Felicia had been sent on another task overseas. In light of these events, they were going in blind. But if Shanna had learned anything over the past month, it was that she had some very powerful allies.
"It’s so dark," Shanna muttered, awkwardly making her way along the passage and suddenly gasping involuntarily as her hand landed in a particularly thick mesh of spider web.
Jade suppressed a laugh and squinted down at a sheet in her hand. "Okay, Miss Tough-as-Nails, it says here that past the hidden doorway, there’s going to be an open chamber, at the back of which the eggs are stored for pick-up, behind an altar of sorts."
"And Valor said they’d have to be kept cool, like in a refrigerator or something," Shanna recalled squinting up ahead at a doorway where flickering light threw sporadic shadows over its frame.
Jade put a finger up to her lips for silence and crouched down as she proceeded along toward the doorway, as if making herself as small as possible would also make her quieter.
Following diligently, Shanna cast nervous glances into the corners around her. Jade wasn’t exactly stealth girl, for the most part. She appreciated a good fight and that had a tendency to make Shanna nervous. Cameron had related to her how, on a particular mission a week prior, she had simply burst into a room, guns blazing. "She’s kind of…reckless," he’d said with a shrug. "But smart. Damn smart." And she was smart. She’d been the one to create the magick detector. She tinkered with plenty of weapons to help them in the field, as well as poured over books about monsters daily, searching for answers to some of her burning questions like why vampires feared crosses, or why only silver could harm a werewolf. But it seemed to Shanna that the girl needed to focus some of that enthusiasm for knowledge on how to be more cautious.
Catching up to Jade at the doorway, Shanna paused to look over the room ahead of them. Torches burned in sconces along the walls, leaving no shadows with which to work with. Stepping into that room meant instant exposure if anyone should be watching for intruders. Across the room was the altar mentioned by the scholars. Behind that should be their prize. The harpy eggs.
"Ready?" Jade asked, tensing visibly, jaw set.
"Ready? For what?" Shanna demanded. "We haven’t discussed…" She let her words die on the air as the other hunter stepped out into the room carelessly, eyes sweeping over the area ahead as she proceeded.
A low sigh escaped Shanna as she moved to follow, also casting her eyes about for anything out of the ordinary. It seemed too easy. Shouldn’t they have some sort of guard watching the eggs? A little shiver crept up her spine as she tried to convince herself that no one was supposed to be able to find this room in the first place. It was hidden by a glamour in an obscure area.
Then why is it in Lime Bay, the same city where The Agency is based? A voice hissed in her head.
Shanna tried to shake off her unease, but found herself almost convinced that this was a trap.
"What’s with the torches?" Jade hissed over her shoulder. "Shouldn’t they be more careful being beneath a paper mill and all?"
"Ah, and here we have the curious hunters at last," a voice proclaimed loudly from behind them.
"I knew it," Shanna murmured to Jade as they both turned and looked up over the doorway from which they had just entered the room, where a loft overlooked the altar. A woman stood there in a blue cloak, gazing down at them with satisfaction. She was bald with prominent cheekbones and long unpainted nails on both hands. Small tattoos oozed out from behind her ears to spill onto her cheeks, dancing eerily in time to the flicker of the room’s flames.
"Where are the eggs?" Jade demanded. "Give up their location and we let you live."
"But that’s not your assignment, now is it, Dear?" the woman asked. "Your assignment specifies to destroy the person responsible for the eggs’ presence here." She wore a maniacal grin as she said this, a grin that broadened as she saw the confusion in their anxious looks.
Jade glanced at Shanna uncertainly. "Is this a…test?"
The woman in the cloak suddenly roared, her eyes becoming black. "These are not the same girls, Lupe. I wanted revenge for the theft of my identity."
"You’ll get your revenge soon enough, Rocquele," a voice answered sweetly from behind the hunters.
Shanna turned, startled to see a very pretty blonde girl had stepped in front of the altar. She looked as if she belonged in a beauty pageant. Her eyes were highlighted with soft blue eye shadow, her lips were painted a delicious pink, and she wore a yellow top that left her tanned shoulders exposed. She leaned casually back against the altar as she looked them over.
"Lupe," Shanna echoed, the name familiar to her ears. Then she looked up sharply and pronounced the name with clarity. "Lupe."
Jade looked at her sideways, but Shanna was staring fixedly on the figure before her. The woman had been at The Crimson Rope’s ball the previous month. She was the one who’d beaten fellow hunter Brett up so badly that his face had just started looking normal again.
"My reputation precedes me," Lupe purred, stepping up to the hunters as if they were old friends who’d bumped into each other at the mall. She paused and the smile left her lips when she got a good look at Shanna. "You. I wasn’t really expecting you."
"I was expecting that bitch Natalia," Rocquele screamed.
"Hush," Lupe snapped. "You’ll get your revenge. On her and the others. For now, we have two little mice to play with. And a message for them to deliver to the others."