Crimson

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Chapter 3

“Mal, it’s time to get up.”

Scout opened one cloud colored eye and located the source of her mother’s voice. Her mother was standing in the doorway to her bedroom.

“Yeah, yeah,” Scout replied.

The instant her mother was gone from view, she rolled over. She wasn’t as sore as yesterday, but she always woke up feeling exhausted. She felt like she had only been asleep for a few hours. Would she ever feel properly rested?

“I mean it Mallory,” Mom’s voice floated into the room from down the hall.

Scout groaned and slid off the bed, onto the floor. With tired eyes, she fumbled through her half-unpacked belongings for suitable clothes. Once dressed, she raced down the stairs, swiped some fruit from off the counter and burst out the front door—just as the bus thundered past on the main road.

Scout failed to withhold a groan of frustration. It was her first day at yet another school and she’d just missed her bus. She was off to a fantastic start. “Mom!” She yelled back at the house, “ I’m taking the bike!”

“Don’t forget your helmet!” Mom shouted from somewhere inside.

“Yeah, yeah,” Scout muttered as she cleared a path to the bicycle they’d brought with them and pulled it clear of the barn. She really didn’t know where her helmet was. She couldn’t remember packing it. Had it even been packed?

As Scout straddled the bike, she tried to think: when was the last time she had used her bike? Probably not since—had it really been Louisiana? If so, she definitely didn’t have it anymore. She lost a lot of things that year, Scout recalled as she raced off to school.

Having committed a chunk of the town map to memory in the municipal buildings yesterday served Scout well as she tried to get her bearings on the streets.

The school was down a side road, aptly labelled School Street, making life easy. A sprawling white building in a colonial style was labelled as the elementary school. A few pumps further brought Scout alongside a skinny two-story brick building from the mid 1800s. The middle school. The third building had Scout bringing her feet to the road. A stone facade complete with pillars and teal accents awaited her. The high school must have been built when art deco was all the rage. Wrinkling her nose, Scout placed her feet back on the pedals and made for the building, noting the bike rack near the front doors.

Only one other bike stood in the rack as Scout hurried to lock hers and get to the office. She definitely wasn’t early. That much was evident as she got hip-checked upon entering the building. Scout clenched her teeth and her fists. It wasn’t happening already was it?

The troublemaker took the form of a slender brunette with dark eyes and a menacing look on her face. She looked familiar.

She was one of the Hunters from last night.

“I don’t like you,” the brunette growled as the girls stared each other down.

“Oh, really? Here I thought I was getting mixed signals. Thanks for the clarification,” Scout replied in even tones. She hitched up her bag and started for the office. She had enough trouble with the supernatural. Some human girl with an attitude problem was the least of her worries.

A sour-faced woman in the office was leafing through an accordion folder when Scout showed up. After introducing herself and informing the woman that her mother had sent over her paperwork, Scout watched the woman’s eyes drag back down to the open file. Yep, that looked to be about the right size as hers. The woman brusquely equipped Scout with a map and schedule, and then, eyeing Scout and her file, produced a petite, dark-haired girl from a back room and offered her up as a tour guide.

Scout rolled her eyes as she followed the small girl out into the hall. Not even one day in and her status could be viewed as tenuous, at best.

“I’m Luca,” the girl said pleasantly, her dark eyes smiling.

“Scout.”

The raven haired girl nodded politely, then stopped, “Wait—are you that girl Tom and them ran into last night?”

“Um—what?” Scout was preparing for a bullshit reply when the actual question filtered through.

“Tom,” the girl repeated, and then proceeded to describe the gangly, dark-haired, light-eyed leader from last night.

Scout was paying attention now. What that boy and his cohorts said about her would determine how long she lasted socially, and otherwise, in this town. “Leader of what?” Scout wanted to know.

“Everything,” the girl shrugged. “He’s the president of the senior class, valedictorian, a 3-season Varsity athlete, and the current leader of the Hunters.”

“Wow,” Scout scolded herself for saying it out loud. This town was weird. It was small, and yet, had a sizable squad of Vampire Hunters, the leader of whom was some sort of social elite. That never happened. Hunters were typically kids who dropped out or got kicked out of school and were living on the streets. Somewhere between gangland and homeless, they were territorial as crap, and they were never friendly. The ones still in school were social outcasts: goths, geeks, and metalheads. They were kind of douchebags too. Scout hadn’t melded with any of them.

Scout surveyed her tour guide more thoroughly. Despite the girl’s small stature there was something powerful about her. A closer examination revealed that Luca looked remarkably similar to the dark-haired girl from this morning and last night. The one whose only facial expression was a scowl. Luca seemed more pleasant to deal with.

Hunters ran in bloodlines, so if the mean girl was a Hunter, it stood to reason that Luca was too.

Despite Scout’s extensive experience with vampires, they weren’t recognized by the world at large and Hunters were typically just as underground, staying on the fringes of society as the outcasts. This town was an anomaly if the most popular boy in school was also a Hunter. She should probably find out what it all meant.

Luca watched Scout work everything out. “Let me give you the rundown of this place and then we’ll find a quiet place to talk some more,” she offered.

Scout agreed, because that sinking feeling she’d had since arriving yesterday wasn’t going away. She needed to find out what she would be going up against in this town. If the Hunters were willing to educate her and be friendly, Scout had no problems taking advantage of that.

After a tour of the facilities, Luca led Scout to an unused room in the science wing. “So—” Scout wasn’t sure what to say or where to start, as she surveyed the room and Luca closed the door.

“So,” Luca echoed, taking a seat at a nearby lab bench and indicating Scout do the same, “did you really take on three of them last night?”

“Um, yeah?” Scout felt herself bristling. The reactions of the Hunters were still fresh in her mind. Scout hadn’t liked the way they’d behaved. So far, Luca was proving to be unlike any Hunter Scout had ever met, and she liked it.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you,” the girl was quick to apologize. “We just—” she made a face as she tried to find the right words, “we rarely meet people who know what’s out there. Even more rare are the folks who know how to handle themselves after dark.”

“I’ve been doing it for awhile,” Scout replied with a shrug. It was not impressive to her. Maybe it was because she got around.

“That’s what Tom said you’d said. How long?”

“Since I was fourteen,” Scout replied hotly. “Look, can we hold off on the inquisition and let me know a little more about your lot?”

“What do you want to know?”

“How many of you are there? How many of them are in this town? Does everyone know about them? Does everyone know about me?” Scout didn’t like using the word “vampire” in a public setting. It didn’t feel right.

Luca nodded like these questions were expected. “We’re a normal town. A boring school.”

“No,” Scout’s response was too loud. “The head of the social hierarchy isn’t normally the same guy in charge of the local group of Hunters. To believe in the supernatural is committing social suicide.” She didn’t know why pointing that out was so important, but it was.

Luca sighed, “Okay, you’ve got me there. I guess starting at the beginning would be ideal.”

“I’ll say.”

“You claim to have been fighting vampires for what, four years? Do you know anything about their history?”

“I know enough to stay alive. That’s it,” Scout retorted.

“So you don’t know anything about Crimson, Pennsylvania?”

“Nope. Is there a reason I should?”

Luca sighed again, “Oh dear.”

“Well I already know they exist. That’s normally half the battle isn’t it?”

“Yes,” the brunette relented, “but the history and prophecy regarding Crimson normally gets people a little worked up.”

“Try me,” Scout challenged, mentally bracing herself. She didn’t like the word “prophecy”. She thought it seemed a bit dated, not to mention the age old argument about fate and free will. Just thinking about it got her blood up.

“Crimson was founded by vampires.”

“Yeah, and?” The statement was supposed to sound profound, but Scout was not impressed. Not after all she’d been through.

“It’s the only one in the US. The only one anywhere,” Luca added.

“And its significance?” Scout wanted to know.

“A town matching that description is where the apocalypse will happen.”

This statement was met with Scout’s blank stare.

“The end of the world,” Luca clarified.

Scout made a face. Was this girl serious? Ten kinds of crazy? It was hard to say for sure—they’d only just met. Luca seemed to firmly believe in the crap she was selling.

“It is said that in this town, someone will emerge who will bring into motion the beginning of the end.”

“Like some sort of anti-Christ?” Scout asked, skeptical. It may have been that she didn’t believe in God. Or prophecies. Not to mention apocalypse-type theories.

“You could say that.”

“And why is that a big deal?”

“The end of the world?” Luca asked, baffled by the blonde’s question. Wasn’t it obvious?

Scout did know a little about the bible thanks to her year in New Orleans. Revelations involved some sort of Anti-Christ, or false god who brought about the end of the world, but he had Horsemen. How did vampires fit into the picture? She voiced her confusion to Luca.

It was something the girl could work with. “Vampires live in the shadows. The world doesn’t know about them, or rather, accept that they exist. He’ll change that. It’ll be like their coming out party. They’ll make themselves known and it will be impossible to go back to how we live now. Whoever this guy is, he’ll empower them in some way that they’ll lose their fear of Hunters. Daytime killings will be the norm. The stuff of nightmares. Hell on earth.”

“That doesn’t sound any different from my average day,” Scout remarked. “Hell is in any dark alley if your timing’s right.”

Luca didn’t seem to understand Scout’s non reaction. “He’ll unite them,” Luca said a little more urgently.

Maybe it was because this was a small town, Scout decided. They must not have much experience with gangs—vampires who teamed up to hunt, not unlike a wolf pack, to make their kills easier. Sometimes it was just a handful who met up and could stand each other’s company. Other times, it was a brood of vampires who all had the same maker.

Coming from Lexington, her encounters with the Lewis Brothers gang and Val’s people still visible on her body...Scout wasn’t entirely sure how this evil villain would change her world. She mustered up a “huh”. She probably shouldn’t let on that she thought the brunette was crazy. “And when is this supposed to happen?”

Luca shrugged and sighed, “That’s the tricky part. No one knows. A lot of people thought the world was supposed to end around the millennium.”

“That was more than a few years ago,” Scout pointed out.

“Yes, but time is different now. The worrying part is that they still have faith. We’ve seen a huge influx in numbers. Especially in 2000. And, as a result, more deaths.”

Scout was tempted to ask when the prophecy was made, but that would be buying into this whole nonsense, which she did not. She didn’t even know that vampires believed in anything. She felt like she should have known this, that she might have overheard it mentioned once, but when someone drops the word “apocalypse” or “prophecy”, you remember that.

Insane though it was, Scout found herself wanting a second opinion. A level-head she could trust. Someone who knew about vampires.

She pushed the thought from her head.

She wasn’t supposed to think about him. Calling him was one hundred percent out of the question. She’d have to explain the charge on her cell phone to her mom for one, which was reason enough not to do it. The hell she’d catch from the other end of the line wasn’t worth it. Or was it? If the right person answered.

Scout realized Luca was watching her. Waiting for a response. “If the end of the world hasn’t happened yet, it probably won’t” was not going to go over well Scout decided. “Is that how the Hunters got started here?” She found herself asking instead.

“Hunters have been in this town since the beginning—because of who founded it—but before 2000, there were never this many,” Luca admitted. “Our demographics have changed over time, but it’s thanks to Tom that we’re as big as we are now. There have always been a few who have been unable to turn a blind eye to the high murder rate in town. They found people who could do something about it. That’s how we got Tom on our side. They aren’t all Hunters by blood, but they know what happens when the sun goes down. ”

“How many of you are there?”

“In working condition?” Luca had to think for a second. “Maybe fifteen or so?”

It certainly wasn’t the largest outfit Scout had run across, but then again, given the size of this town…

It was really uncommon for mortals—average humans with no Hunter lineage—to pick up a stake and do battle. If you were well-trained you could come out on top. And if you were prepared to take a beating. Mortals never fought alongside full-blooded Hunters. They were considered inferior. Mostly because they had a much higher mortality rate.

Scout spent the rest of the period wondering at her luck. How did Mom choose these towns? It seemed like the local color got more deadly every move. She didn’t want to find out who awaited her in this town.

On the plus side, she’d met a novel group of Hunters. Hunters who worked with mortals. Hopefully, that meant she wouldn’t stand out as much. She just had to not do anything stupid.

When the bell rang, Luca escorted Scout to her next class.

Scout spent most of the day ruminating on the vampire population in Crimson. The bit about the end of the world she decided to ignore. Despite the lapse of crazy that led to Luca divulging it, the girl seemed pretty straight edge. She was one of the quiet types who only answers questions when the teacher picks you randomly out of the lineup.

Scout had a decent first day of school, despite what she learned from Luca. She didn’t get in trouble with any teachers, and she didn’t get roped into any fights. It may have been a personal best. Until you took into account the general hostility of the female student body (with the exception of Luca).

“What’s their problem?” Scout asked as she unlocked her bike. She’d never made any friends on the first day, but she’d also never had this much unprovoked dislike before.

She was questioning Luca, who happened to be the other bike owner.

“I don’t know. I mean, Mirela doesn’t like anybody.” At Scout’s questioning glance, Luca described the dark-haired Hunter with the willowy frame who’d hip-checked her this morning. “I mean, they can’t be jealous that you’re blonde.” Another quizzical gaze. “Blondes don’t last long,” Luca explained. “They stick out. Attract attention.”

“Oh. Well, that might explain my life,” Scout chuckled as she mounted her bike. She said her goodbyes to Luca, who had the potential to be her first friend in a good long while.

As she rode away, Scout glanced back at the school. She could feel someone watching her.

Tom was standing in a group of guys in front of the school. Most of them were chattering to him, though Scout couldn’t hear the words. She didn’t try. She didn’t need to. He wasn’t listening. His sharp blue eyes were locked on her.

When they made eye contact, he flashed a smile that was straight from a toothpaste commercial. Scout didn’t reciprocate. She pedalled away as fast as she could.

She had a sneaking feeling he was the reason the local girls weren’t keen on her. He was the popular guy. The boy everyone was in love with because he was charismatic, or pretty, or whatever the reason.

Scout didn’t like that she had caught his attention. It wasn’t normal. Boys passed her by because she was too much trouble. Either because of her scowl or because of her bruises, she didn’t care. She liked that they didn’t bother her.

Like most teen girls, Scout didn’t think she was pretty. Sure she had bright blonde hair and storm grey eyes, but she was too tall, too sturdy, too scarred to be of interest. Her nose had been broken too many times. When compared to Mirela who was all sharp features and dangerous beauty, Scout wasn’t even worth looking at.

Maybe it was because she was a new face, Scout tried to reason with herself. Maybe it was because she knew how to handle vampires.

It didn’t matter. Scout shook her head, trying to clear it of boys. The crux was that she wasn’t interested. It was too soon. And he wasn’t her type—a hang around Hunter was nothing but bad news.

She cursed her luck, if he was anyone else, he would never have the guts to approach her. The devastation he’d seen should be a put-off. But he hung out with Hunters. He wasn’t going to be intimidated.

She didn’t want him to talk to her. She didn’t know what she would say. She didn’t want to have to think of something to say.

Don’t think about it.

Scout pushed the distracting thoughts from her mind and pedaled faster. Maybe she could tell something to Luca to stop him in his tracks. That she was mourning her dead lover? It wasn’t exactly a lie, though it certainly wasn’t one hundred percent truth.

Scout was headed in the opposite direction as Luca—home, by way of the library. Scout was determined to hit up the local history today. Even more so now, because of her talk with Luca. She refused to let herself get distracted (it’s easy to do when you find yourself in a building dedicated to the written word). She wanted to do her own thorough research the town. Not because she didn’t believe Luca’s theories—no, that was exactly the reason she was here.

Scout wanted a second opinion. Was Luca accusing Ana Morrigan, the founder, of being a vampire? Though rare, there were vampires who tried to live like humans. Scout didn’t have a problem with those ones. They weren’t the ones that tried to kill her. Scout only disliked those that were after her neck.

The sun was setting when the librarian came round to inform Scout the building was closing. The girl raced the dark home, her backpack heavy with history books. She was at the stop sign on the corner of the cemetery, eyeing the color of the sky, when she got the feeling she was being watched again. Always the cemetery. With a sigh, she looked it over. When saw nothing she returned her eyes to the road.

Nine vampires stood in a single line, spanning the width of the road. All were dressed in black and leather.

Crap.

Not expecting to be caught out this late, Scout had neglected to stock up. After today’s conversation with Luca, Scout would never be without at least five stakes ever again.

As the girl surveyed her opposition, she sighed. Nine to one were not good odds. She could hope to run for it. If she could get to what remained of the picket fence…

Ifs weren’t going to help her. She might was well write herself--wait. Writing was done with pencils. Pencils were made of wood. A plan was already forming.

“Can I help you?” Scout asked politely, planting both feet firmly on the ground, trying to slide her backpack onto one shoulder so she could get into it.

“Yeah. Step away from the bike,” the speaker was burly guy with a bald head, wearing a ragged t-shirt advertising a heavy metal band.

“Okay,” Scout replied, putting the bike between her and her opponents. She slipped a hand into her bag and searched with her fingers along the bottom for any and all pencils, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth as she came up with six. She always had trouble keeping a writing utensil for longer than a day. Before now, it had always been a curse. “I’m not gonna lie,” she began as she slung her bag on again and pocketed the pencils, “it’s not the greatest bike. But, you can have it if you want it.”

She threw her bicycle into the thick of them. She took out four, including the speaker.

Two of them jumped her. She staked one mid-lunge. The other turned wary, and waited for back-up. She engaged him, but he was not on the offensive. She dispatched him in short order.

Scout was making her way to the leader when a redheaded figure appeared out of nowhere and bowled him over. Two bodies went sprawling.

“She’s mine,” the newcomer growled as the pair got to their feet. Scout wasn’t the only one who could feel the tension. The remaining six vampires watched this new development. Scout contemplated sneaking off.

“I got her first,” the leader said.

“She’s on my territory, Hawk.”

“This is my territory,” the two men circled each other.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” the new guy stated. “You’ve got everything on that side of the road.”

With a growl, one of the pack caught Scout unawares, tackling her into the gully on the far side of the road. Presumably into Hawk’s territory. With a menacing sound of her own, Scout stabbed her attacker.

“I’ll fight you for her,” the newcomer challenged. His eyes avoided Scout’s, but she knew by the way his eyes flitted back to Hawk that he had looked to make sure she was okay.

“You that desperate?” Hawk ridiculed.

“You afraid?”

The answer was a snarl, and Hawk launched himself on the stranger. Scout was torn between running away (she was outnumbered) and watching this fight (it looked like it could be a good one). Only Hunters and very experienced fighters could match the speed of vampires—handle the supernatural force behind their blows-- and inflict any damage. This was an interesting match up: the stocky biker dude versus the tall, lean, ginger stranger. It had the potential to be a good fight. The new guy was matching Hawk blow for blow. He was experienced. He could handle himself.

Scout tore her eyes away from their brawl to look for an easy exit. All other eyes were trained on the dueling duo.

This was it.

Scout bolted.

She got as far as the cemetery when she heard someone growl: “Stop her!”

Someone landed solidly on Scout’s back. The weight threw the girl to the ground. She wiggled into a more useful position and staked her oppressor as he tried to pin her down. As she struggled out from underneath him, the remaining four circled her.

“Disarm her!” The command caught Scout as she attempted to stand, fending off the remaining four with her last two pencils.

“Hey!” The stranger shouted.

Scout looked over and saw the guy with an open palm extended in her direction. She tossed her remaining pencils over the heads of her captors. She never saw if he caught them because her feet were swept out from underneath her. Scout curled into a ball as the vampires circling her rained down kick after painful kick. It was at that moment, as she was attempting to protect her head with her hands, she realized what would come in handy right now. Her missing helmet!

Scout was so focused on ignoring the pain, she didn’t realize the moment it stopped. She did notice when the ground gave way beneath her, causing her to flail and open her eyes. She could not lose consciousness. Not now. Not so close to home.

The stranger was trying to set her on her feet. So—she wasn’t losing consciousness. That was good.

She stopped flailing.

Scout murmured a quick thanks and pulled out of his grasp. While she was grateful for his help, she really had to be getting home. She couldn’t remember if her mom was going to be home tonight or not and her mother would not look favorably on arriving home late two days in a row. Scout set a brisk pace for her bike some distance off, doing her best not to limp. She hated showing weakness in general, but especially around strangers.

“Are you alright?” The guy asked, following soundlessly behind her.

“Fine,” she managed through gritted teeth.

“Here’s your, uh, pencil?” He offered out a trusty Ticonderoga as she reached down to pick up her bike. Scout pocketed the yellow writing utensil and went again for the bike. “I got it,” the guy said, stooping to assist her.

Scout knew she shouldn’t glower. He had helped her out of a tight spot. Speaking of…she surveyed the carnage, “Where’s that Hawk guy?” She asked, abandoning the bike to collect bodies instead.

“I, uh, dealt with him.”

Now she could glower.

“Look, I’ll deal with this later. Do you need me to walk you home?” He sounded concerned.

“Don’t even,” interrupted a new, and yet, familiar voice.

Both of their heads whipped around. Scout snorted as she saw a squad of Hunters standing in the road, led by Tom. A day late, a dollar short. Did these guys actually do anything?

“Rhys, step away from the girl.”

“Jealous that you couldn’t be the knight in shining armor for this one?” The stranger sneered, “Unfortunately for you, this one can take care of herself.”

Scout eyed Tom and the redheaded stranger evenly. While this Rhys character had saved her life, Tom didn’t seem to like him. His tone gave no indication of backing down. In fact, with every passing moment, the air was becoming more charged. Scout appraised Rhys again. Her knowledge of him so far began running through her head. He’d come out of nowhere. He’d known his opponent—who was a vampire. He moved as fast as them. He didn’t manage to kill Hawk despite the fact that he had bested him in their fight. If she wasn’t concussed, this probably would have come together quicker in her brain.

“You guys can sort this out without me,” she told the group and hobbled back towards her bike.

She couldn’t hear Rhys following her, but she heard Tom tell him not to move, and then heard a series of crossbows fire. Scout turned to see what had happened.

Rhys was gone.

Tom issued some orders to clean up her mess. Scout was negotiating with her body how best to pick up her bike when she heard the approach of someone. Her stormy grey eyes met with pale blue.

Tom.

“Hey, are you alright?” He asked.

No. “Yeah,” she lied, sucking it up and grabbing for the handlebars.

“Are you sure?” He badgered.

“Look. I’ve got to get home. My mom is going to kill me.”

“And Rhys wasn’t?” He questioned.

“Hard to say, he didn’t lunge after my neck the way the rest of them did,” Scout growled, a mixture of pain and annoyance as she coaxed the bike and her body into moving.

“And just how many of them are there?” He wanted to know.

“Four. I think. Make sure to check the ditch.”

“Hey, is she leaving us on cleanup again?” A female voice whined. That would be Mirela.

“How long have I been in town?” Scout shouted around Tom, “Two days. I’ve racked up a body count of six. Way I see it, I’m doing you a favor. Cleanup’s the easy part. You could at least be a little bit grateful.” She glared at the brunette, and then at Tom.

He started to say something, but she turned away from him and marched home.

There it was, that feeling again. Hair raised up on the back of her neck meant she was being watched, and not by Hunters.

When Scout rounded the bend, her house came into view. Out of sight of the Hunters, Rhys reappeared.

Just because he’d helped her in a tight spot didn’t mean she trusted this guy in any capacity. Trust was earned. Not given. If this guy Rhys could keep his attention off her neck then she might consider letting him stick around.

If this guy was good, he’d save the day and disappear into the night. Scout had thanked him already, so if he was back that meant he wanted something in return (people hardly do something for nothing nowadays). It would be best to find out what he was after so she could just go home.

Scout felt the vampire size her up and she felt dread settle into the pit of her stomach. It wasn’t quite like he was eyeing his dinner, nor did he seem to be assessing her threat level (he had, after all, seen her take care of more than her fair share of baddies). It felt more personal than both of those things. It felt much more dangerous.

Scout made a face but didn’t know what to say. She hoped that in a few moments he would remember himself and speak his piece.

He did not use his time wisely. The girl resumed marching, hating every step.

Scout liked the country because she hated the noise and hubbub of the city. There was nothing to do after dark in the country. Everything was closed up by nightfall. It kept people safe. What the city offered that the country could not, however, was anonymity. Scout hadn’t decided if Rhys was friend or foe yet and he was going to know where she lived. There was nothing she could do about it.

Taking a breath, Scout decided it would be best to get to the source of this problem so he didn’t follow her to the front steps where Mom might see him and ask questions. “Thank you for your assistance,” she told the vampire. “I have to go home now,” she tried to imply that he couldn’t follow her.

He didn’t seem to pick up on it. “Have to?” Rhys, instead, seemed amused by her word choice.

Scout’s gaze immediately narrowed. Any other day, she might appreciate his attitude, at the very least his attention to detail. Not today though, “Have to, need to, ought to, whatever. The point is I should be home by now.”

Rhys judged this statement with a nod, “I find it hard to believe that you obey anyone’s orders.”

“I listen to those I trust,” Scout responded coolly. “Those people are far and few between.” She left unsaid that he wasn’t one of the chosen few that fell into that category.

She don’t know why she didn’t say it. He hadn’t picked up on any of her nonverbal cues so far, and he didn’t acknowledge this one.

“Goodnight,” Scout said with finality, and a weak hope that he would stop following her.

He did not.

“If you don’t stop, I’ll yell,” she threatened.

“I know this town better than you. No one will hear you,” he replied carefully.

“The Hunters will,” she retorted.

“You’d be dead by the time they got here.”

She wanted to say, “wanna bet?” but she honestly didn’t know if she was up for it. The first four vampires of the night had been easy marks. This guy had some experience on him. She’d seen him fight. She knew starting a brawl in her present condition wouldn’t end well, but he didn’t know that and she had a knack for getting in over her head. Scout stopped walking and made her challenge: “You sure about that?”

Rhys stopped and he looked puzzled at the direction things had gone. That was good. Maybe he wouldn’t see this coming.

Scout plunged the remaining pencil into his chest.

When he didn’t drop immediately, Scout worried that she hadn’t gone deep enough. That was not the case. Had she missed his heart? Scout didn’t waste time dwelling on it. Missing his heart wasn’t going to be a lethal blow, but it would hurt. A lot. Much the way a scorpion sting or rattlesnake bite does. Vampires are the ones who actually coined the phrase: “It’s a long way from your heart.” Not many people forgive such an injury.

It might have something to do with age—how old he was, or how new the pencil was. Wood is only poisonous to vampires depending on the age of the timber.

He groaned as he stared at his chest. “Mallory,” he reached out for her.

“That’s not my name,” she told him, pulling away.

His dark eyes begged the question of who she was.

“Your kind call me Scout.”

His eyes widened in recognition and Scout inwardly groaned. He’d heard of her before. After all their moving and

leapfrogging over the countryside, in this podunk town, she’d still been recognized.

If staking him wasn’t enough to incite revenge, he’d certainly come after her now if only to be the vampire to finish off the girl named Scout.

Scout didn’t want to be around for that. She summoned up the last of her remaining energy, tossed the bike at Rhys as he started for her, and sprinted home.

Once at home, Scout checked that all the doors and windows were locked. She hadn’t been listening when the rules about vampires and private property were explained to her back when she first started fighting back. She’d been young and stupid, thinking anonymity and life in New Orleans were forever. Now, she couldn’t be sure if she was remembering lore from fiction or wisdom from one of her mentors in the Crescent City. Could vampires enter a house without an express invitation? Scout didn’t know. She was pretty sure the answer was no, or else deadly home invasions would be in the news more often. Better safe than sorry, Scout thought to herself. If Rhys did try to break in, she wouldn’t make it easy for him. He’d have to break something, and she’d hear it and know how best to plan her assault.

As Scout limped up to her room for a weapon, she was thankful her mom wasn’t home. There were ups and downs to her mom being a nurse. It meant she could get a job anywhere and worked odd hours. It was helpful because Mom could patch her up without a run to the hospital and Mom didn’t panic when she did get beat up. On the other hand, it also meant she couldn’t bullshit her mom when she did get injured. She never would have gotten inside without her mom finding out she was beat all to hell.

Scout waited in her room, a sword at her side, for an attack or her adrenaline to abate. When the adrenaline left her feeling exhausted, Scout toted the weapon to the bathroom (just in case) and cleaned herself up as best she could before tumbling into bed.

One thing she had learned in her years of killing vampires was that after being put through the wringer, a solid night’s rest could heal her up surprisingly well. She’d heard it was a latent trait among Hunters. Only, Scout wasn’t a Hunter. There were people who grew into the position as a result of extensive experience. But healing came from DNA, not practice.

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