The Alpha stage is over for the front quarter of the book, and on to Beta… Let me know what you think!

Silvery light from a full moon filtered through a scattering of clouds, illuminating the stone markers of the dead as pinpricks of reflected light that stretched out ahead of her, disappearing into the contours of the tall hills.

Really?

The cliché wasn’t lost on her, her inner-voice’s sarcasm adding some much needed levity to her state of mind. She even managed a smile through her grimace of pain.

Letting out a loud exhalation, she squared her shoulders, clutching her arm more tightly to her as she readied to move forward. Blood dripped from her in a steady splash a part of her brain recognized as dangerous, but managed to stay a periphery thought as she focused on what lay ahead.

What does lay ahead?

Again, the sarcastic voice in her head managed to pierce the veil of surrealism that had settled over her, drowning out the terror that managed to poke randomized spikes of adrenaline at her as she’d chased the thing that had attacked her on the quiet streets of her home town.

She had no name for it. It was reminiscent of the thing that had attacked her a year ago, in a place she’d been hiding, trying to figure out what had happened that had left her friends dead. The thing that had forced her home when she had no where else to go.

She wasn’t positive it was the same thing.

How many creatures of the night do you think are out here?

She ignored the question, understanding the absurdity in thinking there was more than one kind of scary, yet on the same train of logic, thinking if there was one, why couldn’t there be many?

And they keep finding you? They all want you dead?

Washed suddenly in the heat of fire, her eyes no longer saw the cemetery stretching before her, instead witnessing the inferno that had taken the house in the woods she had no memory of going to, only a memory of leaving, knowing she’d somehow escaped the death that had taken the three friends she’d spent the two previous years with.

Movement ahead startled her back to the present, the pain in her arm washing over her as the fiery heat of her memory faded. Staring ahead, she tried to remember the reason she thought this chase was a good idea. This thing could kill her, and she had no skill to ensure it didn’t succeed.

You survived it’s ambush. You can take it.

Shocked by the motivating words from the voice that typically added only sarcastic flippancy to her world, she took a tentative step forward, then another, eyes frantically searching the darkness. Each step instilled more confidence as that blanket of surrealism returned, pushing thoughts of pain and death to darkness, allowing the strength of what she’d become take a turn at manipulating reality.

But, haughtiness was psychological, and without training, didn’t translate to physical prowess, a point that was hammered home when she found the air expelled from her body in a painful rush as she was, again, surprised, the creature tackling her from the side, hissing growls sending panicked chills through her nervous system even as she fought to get her arms free from it’s iron-like bear hug.

Hmm. Maybe not such a good idea.

Frustrated rage burst out of her in a yell, and she was suddenly free, adrenaline surge again overriding the pain of her many injuries. She felt something wet running down her face, shutting off the part of her brain that wondered if the creature had managed to take a bite out of it for after she survived.

Rolling to it’s feet in a display of agility that left her jealous, the two squared off, both panting heavily as they stared each other down.

It was in the eyes, and something just off about the facial structure, that defined this thing as not human. It’s ratty jeans, and fraying t-shirt suggested it’s beginnings as human, but those days were long gone if that were true. A layer of dirt and grime covered it so she wasn’t sure what the color of skin was, adding another layer of creepiness to the already other-worldly experience.

Narrowing her eyes, she studied the thing in front of her, attempting to bring up a picture of her attacker from the city she’d hid in after the fire. Too many months of purposeful repression wouldn’t let a picture of that one come through, so she couldn’t be sure they were of the same ilk. Even so, she felt confident they were.

As if it mattered.

The creature rushed her, and she sped forward to meet it, coming together in a clash of bodies that jarred her insides, pushing the air she’d finally regained back out of her torso. They were evenly matched, pushing against each other in a test of wills, Dee straining her head away from fangs that forced themselves forward.

It was enough of a disadvantage for Dee that she lost her forward momentum, suddenly finding herself tripped to the ground, forearms crossed against it’s chest as she kept it from making a meal of her face.

This seems familiar.

It was exactly what had happened in the initial attack. Her relaxing jog around town her only activity with the world. Loping along, ear buds playing her favorite songs directly to her brain, she’d suddenly found herself airborne, before rolling through the brush and trees that lined the road.

Instinctively warding off what was happening had probably saved her life, though not her arm. The creature found her foreman, not hesitating to clamp down on the part she had offered up to it, worrying it like a dog would a bone, before she’d managed to get her legs between them and vault the thing off of her.

If it had come back at her, she’d still be laying there in the trees for some random stranger to find. How long would it have taken for the news to get to Mike that she was gone?

At least he might leave this crap town then. You’re the only reason he’s never left.

Mentally shaking her head, she focused on the shit she was in now, not the shit that had rained on her a few miles back. Hoping the move that had saved her earlier would still work, she leveraged her legs beneath her, managing only to get one in a position to kick out at the thing snapping in her face, arms burning with the effort to keep it’s mouth from clamping down on her.

Throwing all her will behind the one-legged kick, she managed only to get loose enough to roll-over and scramble away, not making it far, but managing to curl her hand around a piece of shattered epitaph that worked nicely as a weapon when she was forcefully dragged back towards the snarling vestige of a human that was intent on ending her life.

You are so going to die.

She felt the bone of it’s head cave, the snapping sound echoing in her stomach as her senses battled against each other, willing herself not to throw-up as the creature, dazed, still gripped her tightly even as she swung her makeshift weapon for a second blow.

Another snap, this time from a facial crack, and she was free, scrambling on hands and knees until she could get to her feet, tripping on steps that were propelling her faster than her balance could maintain. Falling to battered knees, she caught herself against a section of decorative wrought iron fencing that were scattered throughout the grounds, feeling in the back of her skull the creature that was already making another lunge towards her.

As if choreographed, the two met, becoming one as the metal fencing pierced through the creatures body, face shrieking in surprised defeat, fangs clamping open and closed mere inches from her face. Letting go, she kicked the creature away as it fell, dropping to her knees in exhaustion, even as the fear that had been kept at bay flooded over her, forcing silent tears down her face as she heaved her stomach lining into the damp grass.

He’d had no trouble finding her, and even less tailing her for the last few days. She never left the huge house her father had left her. Tucked away into the wooded landscape of the northern town, there was no worry anyone would catch him, especially the girl he watched. Whoever she was, she was clueless that anyone had any interest in her. No extra security besides a lock on her door. No awareness to her surroundings as she left each night to trek her jogging path through town.

He laughed. Easily the most ridiculous assignment he’d ever been given, he still couldn’t figure out what it was that had Zi personally invested in this one. Possibly the most boring person he’d ever seen, he couldn’t understand where she’d be of interest to anyone.

Setting up cameras along her route gave him live-feed of her progress. The only thing intesting about her was her incredible endurance. He hadn’t been able to keep her pace on the first night, and took a shot that she trekked the same path each evening. He’d been right on that, helping him shake off the hurt his ego had received at her obvious better fitness than his.

Leaning back in his truck, parked in the darkness between the few street lamps that lined the two blocks of actual town, a mile from her driveway, he watched, settling in when she came into view.

What habitual creatures they all were.

Lids heavy with boredom, he almost missed the blur of movement. At the far end of one of the camera feeds, his attention had turned to where the next would pick her up. Jolting forward, he manipulated the video so he could rewatch what had happened. Then again. Then in slow-motion.

She’d just been attacked!

Completely unprepared, another hit to his ego, he leapt from the vehicle, sprinting, shotgun in hand, to where his mark was most assuredly dead.

He’d never hear the end of this.

She was sure she’d heard a voice curse, felt fingers on her neck, but when she finally managed to open her eyes, there was no one. Only the shriveled face that had been her attacker staring at the sky, metal fence post sticking from its chest.

Heaving herself to all fours, she let her head hang as she gathered her will, body fighting her desire to stand. Pushing to her knees, she gasped, remembering the arm that had been nothing but organic material hanging together with shreds of skin. The bleeding had stopped sometime while she’d passed out, though a fresh current was now leaking out of her, spawned by her movements.

Before she could make any observations about how much she’d healed in the time she’d been unconscious, she was throwing up, the reality of her staring at her own shattered bone through her own shredded skin finally slamming into her from behind the veil of surrealism that had been sheltering her brain from the craziness that had been this night.

Around her dry heaving, she remembered the light touch that had brought her back to consciousness, focusing on the sensation to better determine the reality of it. Someone checking her pulse? Had that same someone cursed, thinking they’d found a dead body in the cemetery? Who would even be out at this time of night, and where had they gone?

Fairly confident she was finished expelling everything inside her, she leaned back, cradling her arm as she slowly panned her surroundings with her eyes.

He’d followed her trail of blood easily, arriving too late to be of any use. How had they gotten here so fast? He knew the speed of the thing that had attacked her, but still wasn’t wrapping his brain around the idea that she had met it’s pace, despite every clue pointing to that fact.

Laughing as he passed into the cemetery, looking around to see if someone was setting him up in some elaborate joke, he managed to spot the girl fall into the short fence that segregated plot sections from others, startled when she pulled a shaft of it from it’s place among the rest, turning in time to impale the creatures final attempt at taking her life.

What the hell was going on? Who was this girl?

At least now he had a vague idea of why he’d been sent to watch her.

Gather intel, that was his only mission. Lost in boredom over the last few days, he was suddenly excited.

That excitement was quickly tempered when the girl fell to her knees, throwing up violently, before pushing herself to her feet, then falling in an unconscious heap.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Fuck.” The words were his mantra as he sprinted the fifty yards to her body, ignoring the Revenant that would clearly not be getting up. It’s skin was already shrinking in on itself, leaving the husk behind that always reminded him of the mummy he’d seen in a museum when he’d been a boy. With his observational skills, he recognized the head wounds that told the story of their fight, impressed she’d bludgeoned the thing as she had. Not near the power of the ones he worked for, these Revenants were still nothing to laugh at. He wasn’t sure he could have wounded one in such a manner, and he definitely wouldn’t have survived an ambush.

This was all processed in a scan of eyes just before he slid to a crouch next to the one he couldn’t lose like this. What would his reputation be if the girl he was sent to watch died before he’d ever gotten any information on her? Not that anyone had eluded to the idea that this situation might even come up.

Fingers searched for a pulse at her neck as his eyes scanned the damage done to her body.

She was something up close. None of the pictures in her file had captured her essence, a word he’d never used until now. Athletic muscularity was easily recognized through her running clothes, though most of those were torn, blood seeping at knees, a few tears in her thigh, ribs, and most especially, her arm that he worried would never be used again.

He winced, another mark to his ego as his eyes lingered on the torn limb, oddly situated between a clean upper arm and hand that had missed all trauma. It made the injury seem more traumatic with her hand laying there, almost as if detached from the rest of her.

Returning his attention to her face, he let out a breath as her heart-rate regained it’s strength even in the seconds he was there. She would be alright, assuming she made it home before someone saw her and charged her with murder.

She moaned, eyes fluttering as she fought for consciousness, shocking him again that she would find consciousness already. Few others would.

Who was this girl?

She’d found her phone laying in the grass, stepping on it as she’d paced around the creature, wondering what she should do with the body. She couldn’t just leave it here, could she? Would someone be able to trace it to her if they did? And what would they find if they ran tests on it?

Did she even care?

I’m pretty sure you’d be a lab rat if anyone ever figured out anything about you. Don’t leave this body here.

Stepping on her phone distracted this question from her as she focused on another problem. How was she going to make it home? Her head hurt, pounding from blood loss, chilled to the bone, and sure she was using the last of her energy reserves to concentrate on the strangest of problems. Her arm was still trickling blood, and the hand of that arm was numb in a way that even staring at it brought no sense to her brain that it was a part of her.

Fighting hysteria, she focused on the husk of a corpse she’d tripped over when she’d finally found her feet. Knowing it was there, she’d still forgotten it in the confusion that was her brain. Struggling to keep more than one thought active, her focus on using her damaged body had shoved all other thoughts away.

Now, it was the husk that had exclusivity on her thoughts, forgotten for a moment by the phone in her hand, that was already forgotten as they returned to deciding what should be done with the impossible creature in front of her.

Dazed, her eyes unfocused as her thoughts drifted to that moment last year when she’d been attacked by a similar thing. Had she even gotten a glimpse of it? It had come from behind, and now, finally allowing the memory to come unchecked, she wasn’t sure how she’d gotten away. There was the flash of shock followed by a sort-of blackness where she had the vague notion of movement, then she was back in the seedy motel she’d been sleeping in.

What had happened in those moments? Had she fought the creature off, or had someone saved her from it?

Her eyes glanced up again, thoughts now on the lingering touch that fluttered over her neck, searching for the someone she was now sure had been here. Had that same someone been there, then?

No one saved you from this thing. You killed it all by yourself.

That was true, but it didn’t mean no one had helped her before. Or been here tonight.

Like a guardian angel, or something?

She felt the voice inside her roll it’s eyes.

The moon continued to shine, illuminating the night so she was sure she’d be able to see if anyone was out here with her, yet panning the horizon brought no results.

Returning her attention to the thing in front of her, she made a decision.

Concerned she might see him, watching her eyes penetrate the darkness, he slid more securely into the shadows. Was her eyesight heightened as well as her strength? He could see because of the night vision goggle’s he wore, the blue-white tinged world forming a halo around her. The moon was bright, messing with the clarity, but he couldn’t help but feel that she could see without help as well as he did with the boost from technology.

Continuing to watch, carefully following, he stalked her when she bent to grab a leg of the husk, dragging it to the far side of the grounds where a steep hill dropped twenty-feet, easily tugging it over the edge with her one good arm. She watched it fall, staring expressionlessly for minutes so he wasn’t sure if he should be concerned. The fact that she was conscious said much about her mental fortitude. She’d lost a lot of blood, and he couldn’t figure how she wasn’t dead. The ulner artery in her wrist was severed in multiple places, and her entire blood volume should have been lost by now. That she had lost herself in a dazed stare seemed natural for someone who should be dead.

He almost laughed out loud. Who was this girl?

Breathing relief when she lifted her phone from a pocket, he was curious who she would call so late. Was there someone who knew about her strangeness? Someone she could go to now who would help patch her up?

The only person he knew of in her life was an old friend of the families, Mike Nurlen, who continued to live in town despite a successful career in Strategy Consulting that rarely had him staying at home. It was obvious he’d only stayed for the girl, despite her disappearing for three years.

He couldn’t hear her conversation from where he was, but continued to watch, thankful her homebound gait was easily followable, despite him being impressed she’d been unwilling to walk. Staggering a step here and there, she made it back to the only place he knew she could go, still surprising him that Mike was in on her secret. A secret not even Zi had been sure about when he’d sent him to watch her. It was information he would have gotten ahead of time if it had been something they’d known.

Who was this girl?

This better be good.”

His voice cracked, and his words slurred. She almost laughed, but a lack of energy stopped the expression from forming, “I got a little banged up.”

She heard him come fully awake, sitting upright in bed, “A little banged up?”

His tone was accusatory, and she almost flinched. Again, she might have if her body had the energy to contract muscles.

Yea. I just need a little help,” her tone was apologetic, forcing a sigh from him. She knew he was nodding, so she continued as if he’d said yes out loud, “I’ll meet you in back in ten minutes.”

She wasn’t sure if he spoke after that. She’d hung up, not trying to be rude, simply forgetting, in her dazed state, that she should wait to see if he had anything to add. Slipping from the cemetery, she headed towards Mike’s, forcing her pace beyond that of a walk, ready for her bed in a way she’d never known.

Her senses barely functioning had given him the opportunity to follow more closely. Anticipating her destination to Mike’s along the way, he’d moved ahead so he might watch from a place he could also hear.

Still surprised the vanilla man knew she was more than she seemed, he waited, watching closely through the blue-white tinged night as she finally stumbled through the tree-line, exhaustion showing in her every move.

He watched Mike step outside, his concerned annoyance slip away as true concern melted his features when he saw Desiree. He moved quickly down the few steps of the raised deck to meet her in the grass, wrapping the thick towel he’d brought around her as he drew her in close, “Dee, what the hell. You said ‘a little banged up.’”

He smiled, laughing to himself that she would explain why she was coming to him with these words. He’d watched her side of the conversation, her expressionless mask never giving away this is who she’d called, or that she had been asking for help.

She leaned into him, allowing a second of connection before moving towards the house, “Guess I’m not crazy.”

What did that mean?

From Mike’s expression, he knew the words’ recipient understood their meaning.

Then they were in the house, cutting him off from what information they might give.

Guess I’m not crazy.

The words hit him like a slap to the face, their explanation of what she was coming from obvious as his memories tumbled backwards to the night just over a year ago, when she’d found her way back here. Bloody and beaten, he’d found her curled up against the front door as he was leaving for work one morning.

Focusing on her current condition, forcing the memories away, he left all questions, and comments, for later. Right now, she needed a hospital.

No doctors.”

This demand did get Mike’s vocal cords working, “No doctors? I don’t know how you haven’t bled out already! I’m taking you to the hospital!”

Exactly, I haven’t bled out. I’m fine. Doctor’s will only ask questions I can’t answer.”

Mike’s face creased as his mind raced to find a retort that might contradict this, as well as contradict the, now impossible-to-ignore, traits his friend had once tried to explain to him that he’d pushed aside as some odd PTSD symptom.

Unable to come up with anything, he gently guided her into the kitchen, pulling out a chair for her before he collected towels and hot water, antiseptic cream and bandages he knew were far from adequate for her wounds, but they were all he had, and he needed to feel like he was helping.

Making his way back to the kitchen with his collection of meager first aid tools, his breath caught with concern at Desiree’s barely conscious form perched against the chair, head hanging backwards seeming the only anchor to the chair. He was sure she was breaking some basic law of physics that she hadn’t slipped to the floor. An observation that only highlighted her points about her unnatural new talents.

Quickening his pace, he was relieved when her eyes opened to focus easily on him, and his supplies.

Noting the concern in his face, she smiled, “Relax. I really am fine. Super exhausted, but fine.” A yawn slipped out, before a glance at her arms hanging loosely in her lap brought attention back to the obvious, “Considering.”

Considering it looks like you were mauled by a pack of wolves.”

Yes, considering that,” she sat straighter in the chair, as Mike went to work on her.

Always with the jokes. Even like this. Never listen to anybody-”

Desiree let him have his muttering, closing her eyes to lay her head against the back of the chair again, breathing deeply to maintain control over the sharp pains exploding through her as her friend attempted to clean her up. Neither of them had any knowledge in first aid, or even basic mom skills, that could enlighten them to what to do with cuts and bruises, let-alone wounds that would make a trauma surgeon cringe. Knowing what her body was capable of, Desiree wasn’t worried about her wounds, and understood Mike’s need to help that allowed her to sit through the extra torture. What she really needed was uninterrupted sleep. She would have that once her friend was finished poking at her.

He wouldn’t fight her on the doctor issue. As much as he denied her outlandish claims, a part of him had seen enough to know there was truth to them. The first time she’d come to him battered and bloody, she’d allowed him to convince her she’d simply been the victim of a mugging, not the victim of an attack from a creature that only existed in fiction.

Vampire. That’s what she had called it then, and it’s what she was calling the thing she’d seen tonight, though, thinking about it again, she wasn’t sure if this was accurate. Had it tried to drink her blood?

Was it going for your neck when you put your arm in it’s mouth?

Maybe.

Hamal lay back against the pillows, television running re-runs of a sitcom he’d never heard of. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t paying attention. His thoughts were running over what he’d seen in the cemetery.

Not even he could guarantee coming out alive against the creature she’d run down. There were so may layers to what the encounter suggested, yet he focused on the surface of it, for now, re-playing the image of her pushing the creature away from her after impaling it on her makeshift weapon. No mere girl could have taken the force of it’s attack, let alone impaled it by pulling a piece of wrought iron fencing from it’s home.

The Revenants were accounted for, as far as he knew, allowed to live out of a sort of pity he never understood. One living so close to humans was unheard of. He’d never heard of one being used as an assassin, but how else could he explain the coincidence of these two creatures coming together under his watch?

Details filed away for later thought.

Maybe not assassin. Maybe a test? A creature of supernatural strength without skill was the perfect probe to see just what surprises lay under the surface of the supposed normal, boring girl, but that meant someone knew, or had some reason to think, she was more than she seemed. That someone wasn’t Zi. He wouldn’t have been sent if they thought she was as strong as she was.

So who knew she was here?

He’d have to be more careful. If someone else was watching her, they’d see his interference, and he was easily linked to Zi, though his humanity kept him separate enough from them that they couldn’t officially use him as a link. It was what made him such an asset. The mystery of why he’d been sent to watch her was solved.

He conceded that luck had played a lot with her success, but despite trying, he couldn’t deny what her success meant. The excitement he’d felt building once seeing her do something interesting continued to build, and he moved to his feet, pacing across the small space of the motel room, wanting to call in what he’d seen, but knowing to break his order of no communication wouldn’t be tolerated.

His contempt for all things female had washed away when she was brought to this new level of existence in his mind. Strong willed enough to chase down the thing that had ambushed her, she was obviously a natural fighter, even if she needed a lot of training to bring her to competency. Courage to use her strength was not something one could teach.

Then the conversation he’d overheard at Mike’s. No doctor’s? That had been clearly stated. Doctor’s will only ask questions I can’t answer.

Questions she can’t answer. She didn’t know what she was either. Interesting.

Curiosity rose in him in an impatient urge to know, now, what she was. He couldn’t go to her now. She was surely still at Mike’s sleeping off her injuries. Injuries that should have killed her that she already knew would heal on their own.

Who was this girl?

Ignoring the nag in his conscious that suggested he was overstepping his role for personal reasons, he made a decision about his next steps.

Dreams of fire. Why were her dreams always of fire, beckoning her closer, even as the flames licked heated pain throughout her.

Gasping, Dee sat up fast, grimacing as her bruised body screamed in protest at the quick movement, quickly washing the dream images from her mind.

She could feel the oppressive rays of the sun basking the outside in it’s life giving heat, thankful for the thick black-out curtains that kept it from impeding the bedroom. It wasn’t that the sun was offensive to her, she simply was more a night person, glad the summer humidity was finally giving way to fall.

Remembrance of the last nights events washed over her with the throbbing pain of her arm, now wrapped in clean, white gauze. Closing her eyes, she traced back through the night’s events, focusing on details she’d lost in the too-quick moments as they were happening.

She’d been lucky. More than lucky, she’d been actively protected by her guardian angel.

The thought made her shiver.

I should be dead.

You should be dead.

She didn’t like that her inner voice agreed with her.

Ignoring this inner devil, she continued to rehash her encounter with the creature.

Vampire.

I don’t think vampire really explains what that was.

Great, now she was having full blown conversations with herself.

She sighed, cozying into the blankets to help her concentration.

Were there more those – whatever they were – near-by? Should she go after them? Protect the town?

You think chasing after them is a good idea?

The tone was laced thick with derision, but she couldn’t ignore the point. Yet, could she continue to ignore the truth? If someone got hurt, it would be her fault. Did she want that sitting on her conscious?

It’s not your responsibility.

Unless I make it so.

Slowly moving around so she could lower her feet to the floor, Dee took a deep breath, gathering her energy to stand. She was still so tired.

A note from Mike was on the bedside table, explaining he was at work but would bring lunch.

Lunch? How early was it?

Grabbing her phone, she checked the time, shocked to see two days had passed.

Two days? How was Mike not freaking out?

Forgetting about her mission to get out of bed, Dee furiously unwound the bandage from her arm. Flinging the tangled material away, she stared at the smooth, clean scars that zigged and zagged, intersecting around the skin from elbow to wrist. The scars were all that remained of the injury that should have crippled her. Two days for her body to repair shattered bone, torn muscle, and build new skin.

Clenching and unclenching her hand to loosen the tight skin she knew should be much worse, then rotating her arm to probe how the muscles reacted she was ecstatic, and frightened, by her recovery.

Closing her eyes, she took in a shaking breath.

Let’s not get overdramatic. This is a good thing.

Sure, this was a good thing. Too good. What the hell was she?

Who cares. You’re like a super-hero.

She’d known about her superior strength, which equated to super speed and agility, but her self-testing had never involved severe injury recovery. She knew she’d heal on her own. She’d gotten other scrapes and sprains before, but never had she thought two days would knit bone, muscle, and skin back to almost new.

A spike of adrenaline surged through her so she forgot her exhaustion, sprinting downstairs so she almost flew to the first floor, ripping open the door, only to stop short on the porch. Where was she going? There was no one to tell. No one to ask about what was going on. No where to run.

Lifting her face, eyes closed, she allowed the humid rays of the sun to bask her in their illusion of nurturing, forcing her mind to remain calm, even as it teetered to fall over the brink of insanity.

Thankfully, the voice in her head allowed her the peaceful moment.

Picking up her pace, Dee ignored the nagging voice in her head that suggested this wasn’t a good idea. She’d been running the darkened, vacant streets of town almost every night for the past year, and only once had there been a problem. It seemed overly paranoid that something would happen again.

Yet, it was exactly why she hadn’t stayed in, despite her head nodding throughout the lecture she’d received from Mike. If there were more of those things out here, she wanted to know; to stop them before any innocents got hurt. This was not a point she mentioned to Mike, figuring he’d chain her up so she wouldn’t go out risking her neck to fight to save the town.

All day, she’d sat around, this single thing on her mind. She kept coming back to the same conclusion: that the guilt of it would be more then she could bear if someone did get hurt, even at the risk to herself.

Skin tingling, she slowed her pace, concentrating on the familiar feeling she couldn’t quite place. The feeling eluded her like a word on the tip of her tongue. Had she felt this the other night just before she’d been attacked? Did she have some spider-sense for when these creatures were near?

Her inner-voice chuckled with sarcastic humor, but Dee ignored it, concentrating on her surroundings, as the tingling seemed to settle in the back of her head.

There!

There.

She crouched just in time for the attacking creature to sail over her. Stunned that she really did have a spidey-sense, she stared stupidly as the creature refocused on it’s mark, launching itself back at her. Bracing herself, Dee managed to use it’s own momentum against it, throwing it past her into the woods that surrounded the country road.

Not sure what to do, Dee followed it’s flight path, peering into the night-dark brush to see what she might find. A hissing sound pinpointed where the creature had landed, it’s crouched form staring hatefully at Dee, who stopped, riddled with fear as the thing spoke, “They will keep coming. Kill me, and they will send others.”

Shocked by the words, too surprised to hear their meaning, Dee stood transfixed as the creature launched another effort to fulfill it’s mission.

Quietly, as if locked in some backroom in her mind, Dee was aware of a voice suggesting she pay attention to what was coming, but her brain was suddenly processing everything in slow-motion, even as the rest of the world continued at it’s break-neck speed.

A sound of crunching footsteps from the road filtered through her mind, and as she turned to understand it, a loud blast shocked her out of her haze, snapping her head around to the creature rushing her. The blast had stopped it’s forward rush, pushing it to the side by the force of the shot Dee now saw had come from some guy’s shotgun.

What the hell?

The man turned quickly as Dee’s attention fell from him to the creature dropping out of the trees behind him, another loud blast echoing through the woods as the creature found it’s head scattered to pieces among the leaves.

Her instinct to throw-up was distracted when the first creature, angered by the new threat, rushed for the newcomer, whose attention was still on the body of the headless one that’s jumped from the tree.

Dee lunged, tackling the creature before it could reach him, rolling in the earthy bramble to find herself straddled by the thing that had once been a woman, long, thinning hair a strangle of wispy threads that only laid emphasis to the minor changes in her face that created a scary picture of violence. Snapping teeth, resembling a canine predator, pushed towards her.

Was this your plan?

Struggling to keep the snarling mouth away, Dee agreed with her nagging inner-voice that this seemed all too familiar. Maybe she had no business being out here with these things. Sure, she was as strong as them, but strength had nothing to do with fighting skill. Her last encounter had said much about her luck, not her ability to battle, and it seemed her luck had been used up.

Don’t move.” The words were unnecessary. She couldn’t move, locked in perfect balance with the strength of the creature whose snarling face pushed down to her, fangs suggesting that maybe it had never been human; that maybe vampires were real.

Another boom from the shotgun, bursting eardrums to deafness, blasted these thoughts from her, forcing eyes closed against first, the sound, then the warm wetness of pieces of the creature’s face raining down on her.

Hysterically, Dee crab-walked away from what was left of the body, head virtually disintegrated into the trees beyond, body twitching with remaining nerve impulses.

Rolling to her hands and knees, Dee retched an empty stomach into the bramble of the forest floor, hoping the man with the shotgun wasn’t there for her as well. There was nothing she could do until all the bile had been released from her stomach.

Exhausted and teary eyed, she was finally able to look up at the man who waited patiently for her to regain control of herself. She hadn’t noticed his calm acceptance of her reaction to having brains and bone rain down on her, or his quick check of the bodies to make sure they wouldn’t rise again, despite their lack of brain matter.

Satisfied she was finished, he put a hand out to help her up. She ignored it, slowly rising to her feet of her own accord, moving a few body lengths away from him.

Kill this guy!

The thought was passed over quickly, despite it’s complete seriousness that made her consider the command, and look at the man more carefully that it would incite such a heated response from a part of her.

Interesting choice.”

Dee raised her eyebrows in question as she used the edge of her shirt to wipe her face of it’s gore as best she could, holding her breath against the smell, refusing to throw up again. Using the dark to trick her eye, she repeated to herself that it was mud. It was only mud.

The man was pointing to the wooden stake Dee had shoved into the pocket of her sweatshirt to have in case a situation like this came up. She’d forgotten about it, and it now lay on the ground, having fallen out somewhere along the way. Telling herself it fell out before she could have used it helped her ability to meet the strangers humored gaze with a frown, “Yeah. Guess I figured blasting the whole state into alert with a shotgun seemed overkill.”

His eyes swept over the two bodies that would have been gnawing at Dee’s body right then if not for his interference, “Still think it’s overkill?”

She shrugged, a wave of exhaustion washing over her, pulling her energy for witty banter. She just wanted to get home.

Kill him. Take his weapons. He can’t know about you.

What could he possibly know? And why was her Jiminy Cricket so intent on killing this guy? She hadn’t done anything to peak his curiosity except get her ass kicked.

I think the fact that you’re out here at all is curious.

That might be true, but he was out here too.

If you kill him, there will be no worrying.

I’m not killing him.

He continued to wait patiently as she sorted through her thoughts. Amused by the attitude she was throwing at him, he was also glad for it, reading in it a toughness she would need to survive what, he was beginning to glean, was going on.

Taking a deep breath, Dee stopped attempting to wipe her face clean, blocking the thought of what is was by resting her attention on the man who’d, she hated to admit, saved her. Finally allowing a real look at him, she realized he’d been studying her closely while her mind had whirled. Standing straighter, she refused to feel self-conscious under his gaze.

The moon, no longer full, was plenty bright enough for her to make out the details of the man’s face. A deep scar wrapping from his right temple across his cheek bone to slope downwards, barely missing his mouth, hid the overall attractiveness of his face behind a menacing toughness, while dark eyes watched her from a head taller then her own, glint of arrogant amusement hiding a flash of worry.

The concern surprised her. Was it for her, or himself? Or something else?

What the hell is the difference? Kill him!

What are these things?” She still couldn’t look directly at them, afraid she might throw up her actual stomach if she let her brain focus on them. A small tremor had started in her hands, and she needed something to focus on that wasn’t the image of brains splattered over the forest floor, some of which was drying to her face.

Is this the first time you’ve seen these things?”

She let him ignore her question, wondering how she should answer his. Did it matter if she told him about her? Maybe she should. Maybe, it would be a good idea to let someone know. Someone who obviously knew more then she did about these things.

No no no!

She closed her eyes against the raging in her head, allowing the paranoia to grip her so she wouldn’t start blabbing her life story to this guy. The exhaustion setting it’s claws into her wasn’t helping her sense. Trusting her inner voice to stay quiet, knowing she wasn’t in her best mind, she shrugged, opting for a non-answer.

He smiled, seeming to understand her hesitation.

Turning from her to take a few steps towards one of the bodies, purposefully bringing his attention away from her so she might relax, he kicked its leg, “They’re called Revenants. I’ve never heard of them being so close to human populations.” He shrugged, mumbling mostly to himself, “First time for everything, I guess.”

He looked up to see her eyes had taken on an excited edge, much of her distrust vanishing quickly as he gave her information she was thirsty for.

Smiling to himself, easily latching on to this opening, he continued, “Guess you were just lucky enough to run into them.”

I saw one the other night.”

Yeah? Where?” There was the perfect amount of shock in his voice, mixed with curiosity to bring Dee a step closer, “Four nights, or so, ago. Tackled me out on the road near here.”

It had been three nights ago, specifics that ran through his mind without interrupting his exterior conversation, “Really? It’s hard to imagine. What happened to that one?”

He’d almost forgotten to ask, still holding the image of her foot pushing away the impaled creature from her in his mind clearly.

Dee looked down, an almost cute combination of embarrassment, shyness, and that thing when you want to lie but get caught in the idea that the truth might serve you better.

He hid his smile.

It’s dead.”

Smart girl. Not admitting to her role, yet giving him enough that he might continue feeding her information without asking her too much.

A different smile came over him now. Was it already time to push further in? He tempered his excitement, thinking he might scare her if he seemed too eager. Instead, he replied to her vague comment with one of his own, “I see. As are these two. You think there are more around?”

Careful. Don’t start trusting this guy cause he knows a little about these things. Why would he know? He’s going to be a problem. And why is he here now? Seems a neat coincidence. Neither had been here until both of them were here…

The voice in her head was pushed to the back of her mind while she watched the man, not blind to the athletic body pressing against his black t-shirt. He obviously knew how to handle himself. A part of her wanted to invite him home to pick his brain, while another part agreed with the voices suggestion that she kill him to resolve any possible future problems. Yet, she sort of owed him her life.

She shuddered.

You’re lucky. Not many come in their reach and live to tell about it,” he’d noticed her shudder, turning back to face her to better read her.

You seem to be alright,” she was distracted, turning her body partially, as if deciding whether or not to leave.

He smiled, a true reaction to her words, “My life is not like most.”

These words brought her attention back to his face, her smile matching his, “Either is mine.”

That’s obvious.”

The two studied each other again, each reassessing the other as new information continued to come in.

Do you actively – hunt – these things?” She wasn’t sure the word to use, gesturing with her hands as she searched for vocabulary. If she’d thought chasing some creature from a bad horror movie through a cemetery was surreal, having this conversation in the woods with some mysterious stranger needed it’s own adjective.

Not so much. Would you believe there’re worse things out there?”

It was too much. He knew it as soon as the words left his mouth. For a second, he’d forgotten her newness to all this, responding to what she could be, rather than to the what she might be.

Her guard was back up, and she took a step backwards to emphasize it. He’d definitely lost his window, but knew there would be others. He repressed his excited anxiousness, pressing patience forward instead, making sure his voice was even when he spoke to keep her there, “There’s not so many of these things to warrant actively hunting. I’ve never even heard of them being this close to where they might hurt anyone.”

She nodded, eyes distrustful, no longer looking directly at him as she scanned the darkness. He knew she was a moment from fleeing.

He was glad when she responded to his comments, “You said that.”

Pause. He wouldn’t say anything.

Why are you here then?”

Masterfully, he held his expression, glad she was remaining, fighting her urge to leave, even as he cursed himself for being too loose. He’d assumed she’d never ask what he was doing out here when the same could be asked of her. She wasn’t simply some girl who’d stumbled into this by chance. She was being targeted. He’d even surmised as much, yet he’d still responded to her as a dumb civilian. The fact that she was out here in the dark with these things should have reminded him of that.

I’m not sure you’d believe me.”

She frowned, “Try me.”

He shrugged, apologetically, “I don’t know you well enough for such secrets to be told.”

Her eyebrows rose in disbelief, and he knew he’d played it correctly.

Fine.”

She turned, walking away from him into the woods, away from where he knew she needed to go. He knew it was so she wouldn’t have to walk by him, and again, he realized she wasn’t as stupid as he’d thought. She didn’t know him, and getting near enough to him that he might pull something would have been stupid. Not that he would, but she didn’t know that.

What’s your name?” he called after her. Whether she answered, or not, he’d now be able to approach her on a seeming random encounter out and about. Whatever his next move would be, he’d be in a position to set it in motion.

She stopped, head tilted as if thinking whether or not to answer. He smiled that she had stopped, and it reached his eyes when she answered, though she hadn’t turned around to notice, “Dee.”

Dee, glad I was here to save your ass. I’m Hamal.”

That made her turn, eyes flashing anger, which simmered to annoyed humor when she saw the smile on his face, “Hamal? I think we’re even.”

She started walking away again, and he called after her, voice laughing, “How do you figure?”

She waved a hand in a gesture that could have meant anything, not stopping this time to answer. Quickly she was swallowed in the darkness of the trees, and Hamal listened for several minutes for her to circle around back the way he knew she had to go.

Surprised when no sound ever came, he finally ignited the bodies, watching that they didn’t light the surrounding trees on fire, before returning to his truck, then back to the crap motel.

He was already making a call to the number he’d gotten from a local girl the previous night, knowing he’d never get his mind to relax until he’d had some bedroom exercise. Surprised at the excitement Dee had ignited in him, he knew he needed a distraction.

Dee was still awake, thoughts going back and forth from the idea of tracking this guy down and killing him, to wishing she’d invited him back to her place. Even if he wasn’t good for information, it’d been a long time since she’d spent the night with anyone.

Really? The guy blows two bodies to pieces in front of you, and you want to get naked with him?

She admitted it was absurd, even if it was only hormones taking control of her thoughts, but who better to intertwine her life with then someone who was already aware of the creepy-scarys wandering the night?

Or maybe who better to murder then those who could bring trouble to your world?

She sighed, throwing herself back on her bed, hair still wet from the shower she’d just come from.

Holding her arm up for her to study, she ran fingers down the scars that were the only sign she’d been hurt only a few days ago. Opening and closing her fist a few times to marvel at the miracle of it, she let it fall back to the bed, thinking back on all the things she’d found she was able to do.

Skimming through memory, her thoughts focused on this earliest event, and the creature whose words suggested they’d come specifically for her, despite what this Hamal implied about them not coming near human populations. The fact that they were here was proof that he didn’t know everything about them.

Maybe he doesn’t know anything, or maybe he brought them here.

He brought them here? She couldn’t ignore the point that they’d both shown up at the same time.

She closed her eyes. If he was here on some mission of harm for her, what should she do? Should she leave town? Where would she go? How long before he found her again?

And why would he have saved her from her most recent encounter with the strange and unreal?

You should have killed him.

At least Mike would be safe if she skipped town.

A thrust of panic shot through her stomach at the idea that this newcomer might use Mike to get to her. Would leaving help Mike, or simply force Hamal to go to him when he might have otherwise left him alone?

Her head was aching, spinning with too many questions she couldn’t possibly answer. As risky as it was, maybe her best play was to find this Hamal again to see what information he had about what was going on. sure it wouldn’t really matter.

She hadn’t realized she’d fallen asleep until she woke up, chilled and uncomfortable. She’d fallen asleep at the edge of the bed, feet on the floor, naked form bare to the room, wet hair forcing cold to seep into her bones.

Riddled with goosebumps, she crawled up the bed, digging under the covers until warmth stole over her, sleep licking at her, even as the sun attempted reaching around the thick curtains layered against the evils of the light. Enjoying the pull of unconsciousness, something kept her from falling over the edge, finally pulling her from the blackness of thought slumber would bring.

Focusing on her senses, she scanned to see what it might be keeping her awake. There were no sounds. Not now, but had it been a sound that had woken her?

Then it hit her. She was smelling coffee. Coffee, and the sweetness of French Toast. With her sense of smell activated, sounds of someone moving in the kitchen came to her.

She rolled over, searching for the time.

Ten A.M.

She groaned. What day was it? Was it a weekend? If so, that would be Mike downstairs, making her breakfast in an attempt to get her to connect with the real world.

Real world?

Her inner-voice scoffed at the idea, and she agreed, but it made Mike feel better to think she was trying to make something normal of herself, whatever that might mean.

Rolling out from beneath the warmth she’d just found, she stumbled, eyes still closed, across the room to her closest, where she pulled on yoga pants, sports bra, and a tank top.

Morning ‘Case!”

She managed a laugh from behind her foggy-brained stupor. He hadn’t called her that in a long time. Headcase, or just ‘Case, had been his nickname for her back during her teenage years when she’d been stupid enough to think she knew everything, arguing her opinion on every topic that came up. So heated would she get during these conversations, swearing she wasn’t mad, though her every gesture and volume suggested otherwise, had spawned the name.

He handed over a mug of black coffee as she walked by, heading for the table set in the large bay window now bathed in morning sunshine. As much as the light hurt her eyes, the rays bathed her skin in blessed life.

Late night?” His voice was light, but she knew he was fishing to see if she’d been behaving herself.

Not so late.”

She was glad she’d gotten rid of the clothes she’d had on last night, covered in blood and brains and vomit, rather then leave them in the garage where she’d dropped them on her way inside. Mike probably hadn’t come in that way, but she wouldn’t have to worry that he had seen this proof of her nightly activities.

Glad to hear it. I was thinking we could go out today.”

He turned, holding two plates piled high with delicious breakfast carbs. She stood to grab the real maple syrup from the fridge, wishing it had been warmed, but not wanting to let the toast cool down in order to make it so.

Go out where?”

He shrugged, sitting in front of his plate, diving right in without pouring syrup over the toast, “Just out.” His mouth was full, but she understood him just fine.

She poured syrup over one side of the stack in front of her, setting it down slowly as she analyzed how she felt versus Mike’s suggestion of leaving the house. There wasn’t much to do in their small town, and she was curious what he had in mind, if he even had anything in mind, or was simply fishing to see how she was doing.

What’s the weather doing today? We could go for a hike.”

Her obsession with the outdoors was new, and Mike didn’t exactly share in her enthusiasm for long excursions of physical activity. Especially now that her endurance so outmatched his. The only time they’d tried it, it’d simply been a task of him yelling for her to wait up, while she tried not to be annoyed at his slow progress.

We could,” he was smiling, knowing they both knew they weren’t going on a hike.

Ultimately, they decided to drive the hour and half into the city to see what they could find to do, Dee appreciative of how much Mike was worried about her that he would take one of his rare days off to shuttle her around in an attempt to entertain her.

When she’d returned home after being away for a few years, she’d taken all the steps necessary to get back to school, but never quite pulled the trigger, currently missing the second semester she should have been attending classes. It was a good idea, something that might open doors for her to figure out where her life should go, but something in her just couldn’t follow through. Part of her thought it was a waste to go when she did’t know what it was for, another part continuing to stall on re-starting her life, as she fumbled through her days, avoiding reality as long as she was allowed.

They had a fantastic day. Dee actually forgot about the strangeness of Hamal, and her near-death encounters, distracted with laughing and joking with her old friend as if it were years ago, and they hadn’t dealt with her father dying, or her running away. For half her life, Mike had been like a brother to her, and it was nice to reconnect with him, rather than have him simply worrying over her.

Thinking of this, a pang of guilt ran up her spine. Maybe she should have stayed away and let him live his life, rather than force him to stay and watch over her. If she’d never returned here, would he have eventually moved on?

So, I haven’t seen any girls around lately.”

There’d been a girl when he was in college, then another he’d been with when her father had died. She didn’t know what happened to that one. It had never come up, and she never felt right asking.

Mike looked at her with an expression she couldn’t decipher, before smiling, “Nothing serious. Not a whole lot of eligible bachelorettes matriculating to no-wheres-ville.”

She laughed. It had been one of the things her and her father had planned for. That she go away to a bigger city where people, and opportunities, were vast was a given. Staying here was never in the cards, yet here they both were, trapped by the memory of the very man who’d wanted more for both of them.

You’re traveling a lot though.”

He shrugged, “Sure. Busy schedule. Not much time to take a breath, and look at the sights.”

She nodded, feeling worse.

Maybe it’s time we relocate,” she was staring out the window of the car as she said it, not sure what her face would betray, not sure how she even felt about the suggestion that popped out of her mouth. Could she leave her father’s house? She wouldn’t necessarily need to sell it. She had enough money to keep it, and buy something else in a place she might be able to start an actual life.

You think you’re ready for that?” His voice was quiet, tone proving he had stayed only for her.

Her eyes closed, a tear falling despite trying to hold them back. She shrugged, “I can’t wallow here forever.”

Where should we go?” Mike’s voice was more cheerful, less guarded than his initial question. She tasted the excitement in his words, and her stomach dropped further.

She shrugged, taking a deep breath to wash the sadness from her voice, forcing a smile to reach her eyes as she turned to him, “Dad always pushed for New York, or San Fransisco.”

Eyes on the road, Mike nodded, seriously considering both options, “You were planning on going to NYU, yes?”

Dee shrugged, “Yeah, California is so far.”

Mike nodded, remembering the conversations from their past that he’d been involved with. Her father had been pointed in guiding Dee towards her future, knowing the small town she’d grown up in was great for a quiet, protected childhood, but not so great when looking at a competitive job market. Dee had been a rare case in absorbing her father’s every suggestion, never seeming to mind his guiding hand; never rebelling to do her own thing.

Mike saw the problem of it after he’d passed, when Dee couldn’t find her own way. She’d held on for a few months, finally giving in to the chaos that swarmed her, running off to tour the country with her newest friend, checking in often enough that Mike knew she wasn’t doing anything too dangerous, but it’d been hard for him to sit back and watch her be guided by avoidance.

Then, she’d simply dropped off the face of the Earth. He’d been resigned to the idea that she was probably dead, body unfound in a ring of crime his imagination had gone wild with creating.

The not knowing had kept him in that small town, a decision he’d found to be the correct one when she’d dragged herself across his front porch one night, broken and bloody, raving lunacy he still hadn’t entirely pieced together.

He closed his eyes against this vision of her, bringing his attention back to making plans for the future, “Maybe California is the right answer this time around.”

Dee nodded, looking back out the window, thinking of Hamal, and whether he would find her on the opposite side of the country.

Of course he will. Or those who sent him will.

Those who sent him. She hadn’t really thought about there being others behind his actions, shuddering at what this might mean.

Pushing her fear of things unknown aside, she forced herself to remain engaged in the conversation, “Let’s schedule a house hunting trip.”

He nodded, smile filling his face as he turned down the long driveway that would bring them to her front door.

Hamal’d watched the house all day, worried she’d fled. He hadn’t read that in her, but she’d never been gone for such an extended period. She’d barely ever left the house, aside from her midnight jogs.

When the pair pulled into the driveway, he was hit with just how worried he’d been, sparking a secondary worry over why his concern would be so great. An inconvenience, it would have been, but nothing to be worried about.

Pushing this nonsense away, he continued to watch the house, moving more into shadow as Dee’s head perked around, eyes scanning the darkness he wasn’t as sure she couldn’t see into as he’d been a moment before. Her eyes moved over where he hid, and his heart skipped a beat. Had she seen him? What had brought her attention this way as she’d left the car?

Still having heard nothing from home base about what he should do with her, he was sticking to his own plans. He was sure the presence of Revenants as assassins were proof enough that one of the other Houses was after her as well. How Zibanitu and Porrima weren’t all over this, he couldn’t know, but knew enough about their protocols to know that if they hadn’t reached out, it was for good reason.

He hoped they’d both survive long enough to figure out exactly what was going on, and who she was, the idea exciting him, rather then bringing fear.

It was another two days before Hamal’s opening came, and not surprising, it was another late jog that brought it on.

He wasn’t sure if she had a death wish, or was convincing herself there couldn’t be anymore after her. Or was she hoping there would be?

Not believing the girl was dense, he hadn’t picked up on that from their brief meetings, he gave her credit. The girl had courage, regardless of what her motivation was. Anyone else would have barred themselves inside to ensure the monsters could’t break through the door to find them hiding under their bed.

It was another reason he was excited to engage her, not only to succeed in his mission, but to figure out what made her tick. She was definitely a unique personality he might not ever run into again.

His SUV sat in it’s spot, giving him the perfect vantage to watch her come around the corner on the first leg of her route, before his cameras picked her up. Instead of run by him, she turned to run into the trees, picking up her speed to a sprint that defied what a mere normal person should be capable of.

Starting, surprised by this new development, he scrambled out out of his truck, grabbing his pack before hiking off into the brush, hoping he’d be able to track her even as he knew he’d never be able to keep up with her. How had she moved so quickly through the dark?

New information pushed a tiny flare of nervousness through him as he realized she really might have seen him watching her from her wooded front yard the other day. If she could see where she was going in this environment, especially well enough to be sprinting through an area he’d be hard-pressed to sprint through in the daytime, she would have easily seen him lurking in the shadows of her front yard.

He caught his breath. Did she knew he was watching her tonight? Was she leading him into the woods?

Until a few minutes ago, he wouldn’t have thought twice about his ability to beat her in a fight, even if she had the element of surprise over him. Now, despite her clearly not being skilled in fighting, he wasn’t sure that her strength and speed wouldn’t be enough to put all the power in her corner.

He’d put his night vision on, but still creeped along, trying not to snap every branch and leaf underfoot.

Eyes not seeing anything, his ears picked up sounds off to his left. There weren’t many night creatures he needed to worry about in this part of the country, so he wasn’t worried it was some terrifying predator out for it’s nightly kill, though if other Revenants were about, he might have a worse problem. Refusing to think about that, he listened intently, moving at a quicker pace towards what he was sure was who he was looking for.

If he hadn’t been sure, the question was answered when the trees near him erupted in loud thrashings as something darted by, something else closely following. He caught the sight of two bodies moving quickly, still farther off then he’d thought.

Increasing his speed, he followed the sounds that, thankfully, came back his way, giving him the chance to catch up to the action before it was over. He was afraid what he might find if he didn’t reach Dee’s side in time. She’d survived her first attack without his direct intervention, but she wouldn’t have survived the next if he hadn’t been there, shotgun at the ready.

She’d moved into the trees like slipping through a portal to a stranger world where she had purpose. It was a new feeling, brought on, she might have thought had she reflected on it, by the previous nights battle, adrenaline highs tricking her memory to view the event as an exciting adventure, rather than a terrifying near-death miss.

The details of the terrain shocked her as she ran, realizing what should have been obvious months ago. Her eyesight was astonishing. She hadn’t been clued in to it until meeting Hamal. Even on the brightest of nights, inky blackness settled under the trees, the canopies of leaves holding back the silvery light of the moon and stars, yet, she’d seen him as if standing under the full moon. Then, when she’d seen him hovering in the trees in front of her house, crouched in shadows she shouldn’t have been able to penetrate with her eyes. That he stood as he had, confident there was no way for him to be seen, brought the idea fully to light in her mind.

Sprinting through the trees at full tilt, the fact lost any doubt, excitement at this reality pumping her legs harder beneath her so the snapping of the leaves on her face was a steady discomfort worth dealing with for the exhilaration of her run.

Then, that strange tingling that began at the base of her skull. Stopping short, she studied the feeling, wondering at it’s cause. Was it the same feeling she’d had the other night? So subtle was it she wasn’t confident in it’s similarity.

A warning was shouting it’s way to her conscious from her inner voice: The creatures! You can sense when they’re near!

She turned, this time catching on in time to see this one before it launched itself at her. Ruining it’s surprise attack stopped it short, it’s feral eyes gauging what she might do, other senses tasting her threat level to anticipate how she might react.

Fortunately for the creature, she didn’t know what to do, staring back at the thing stupidly. Not forced to react to it’s rush, she had no plan.

So much for their not being many of them.

Maybe this was all of them. Three- no four- that wasn’t a lot, was it?

In your previous lifetime you’ve seen one. I’d say this is a lot.

They continued to stare each other down.

What will you do, strange creature?” The hissing voice was low, almost whispered, voice pushed quietly through the trees separating the pair.

Dee gaped, wondering how something she’d interpreted as feral might command enough intelligence to speak.

You’re the strange creature?

The creature sensed her hesitancy, the drop in confidence it’s voice caused, springing at her with no sense of movement to give away it’s plan.

Even distracted, there was enough distance between them for Dee to react, though she was clueless enough to allow it’s claws to wrack destruction across her shirt and skin.

She gritted her teeth, more against the annoyance of her ineptitude than the pain that was slowly climbing as the creature rolled away, coming to it’s feet in one motion, un-phased by her clumsy movements.

You still have full function of your limbs. That’s an improvement.

She might have noticed the first positive thing her inner voice suggested if not for the continued speech of the creature whose eyes still trained on her intensely, “You are untrained, even if you are strong. You will not beat me. I am more prepared than my cousins were.”

Cousins?

It didn’t give her time to contemplate it’s words. She was forced to backpedal from the creature’s next attack. Unable to move as quickly in this direction, she flung herself to the side, barely out of reach of claws threatening to cause more damage.

This wasn’t at all what she’d expected when anticipating another fight. This was more than the snarling, reactionary beasts she’d been able to defend herself into winning against. This was a cognitive fighter, and Dee was in over her head.

I think this time you really might die.

It was a strange sensation, this feeling of panic that was more calming then frantic. Such absolute truth was the idea that she was facing her death, this panicked state was transformed into an euphoric experience that brought clarity. Clarity brought stillness that allowed her to see, a seeing that granted her knowledge to a path of action so she was suddenly in motion, bringing her body up and around until she was taking the advancing creature by it’s arm, tugging and swinging so it was spinning over itself, slamming into the earth with a grunt of expelled air.

Nicely done. See what focus will get you.

Time resumed it’s breathtaking speed, as Dee released a breath she felt she’d been holding since the creature first came into view. The creature, as stunned by it’s meeting with the ground as it was by Dee’s ability to survive, stared upwards, eyes wide in shock even as it’s expression moved towards spitting rage.

It was a move Dee’d learned years ago during a self-defense class she’d taken with a friend. She’d barely been able to make it work then, with a motionless partner helping her through the motions. They’d laughed at the idea of ever using it, especially for self-defense, but the move lay in her memory where her superior-self latched on to it, using it on the creature who thought it’d already won.

The creature’s underestimation of her was the only reason it had worked, and Dee knew it.

How underappreciated luck is. I wonder when yours will run out?

With continued inhuman motion, the creature flipped itself to hands and knees, staring Dee down, before deciding against another attack, instead darting off into the dark.

Dee chased it, reminded of a night not too long ago, when she’d found herself unconscious in the cemetery.

Maybe this will go better for us?

Dee agreed, but wasn’t sure how that might be. She hadn’t even brought a stake with her tonight.

She sensed the eye roll in her mind, and might have laughed at herself, but the creature had spun around to come back at her.

Sidestepping around a tree, she moved out of it’s path, keeping the tree between her and it while watching to figure out what it was doing. Almost as if it hadn’t noticed her leave it’s path, it continued running, Dee following it farther into the woods, grateful she wouldn’t be forced to explain what was going on to any random bystander. Not that it was likely anyone would be up at this hour, but it was one less thing to worry about.

Not that it’s likely you’ll survive this night, anyway.

She didn’t argue, though she didn’t believe the pessimism enough to stop her chase. If she just let it go, she was sure it would be back after her the following night. Heaven forbid it figure out where she lived.

It should be against the rules for assassins to break into your house. Ones house should be sacred space.

She doubted these creatures had any understanding of sacred space.

Slamming through the trees broke off a medium sized branch that left it’s mark on her skin, but gave her a weapon too obvious not make her feel stupid for not grabbing one before now. The one she’d killed in the cemetery hadn’t needed it’s head blown apart. She sent Hamal a telepathic scowl, part of her glad he hadn’t shown up so she could pretend he wasn’t some creep with an unknown agenda. She could pretend his arrival had nothing to do with these creatures who’d suddenly shown up in her town.

Pretty slim argument.

Hand clenched tightly around her new weapon, she picked up a burst of speed, pouncing on the creature running full out in front of her.

He came through the trees, frantically scanning the darkness for some visual that would bring him closer to his mark. The sounds that had been easily followed had suddenly gone quiet, and he’d been forcing his mind from the idea that he was too late to save Dee from whatever had found her.

Stumbling through a thick patch of trees, he almost tripped over a pair of legs stretched out in front of him. The body of the legs was hidden behind Dee, who straddled the form, back to him.

Quickly, he moved around so he could see her face, and access what was going on.

The legs belonged to another Revenant. Inwardly, he breathed a sigh of relief that she’d managed to deal with this one one her own. He’d have been too late if the fight had gone differently, and he felt an odd sense of pride that she had managed to take this one on her own.

The Revenant wasn’t moving, though Dee seemed prepared for it to start struggling at any moment, arms taunt as they pushed down into the body that was turning to husk even as he stepped closer. He could see her arms shaking with the effort to keep pressure on the branch she’d managed to stick through it’s chest. He was sure she’d impaled the creature to the Earth with the amount of force she was using to press downward.

Dee didn’t look up, but she knew it was him, “Seems to be more of these things around then you let on.”

He nodded in agreement, though more to himself then in response to her comment. He wished someone would contact him so he could find out what the hell was going on. He’d never in a million years have said a Revenant would be seen in a populated area, let alone used to attack someone. This was the fourth one. He would have bet the house that was an impossibility.

This one was way smarter then the others. It had a full-on conversation with me.”

Hamal was shocked by this, enough that it shown on his face as he processed what this could mean. If Zi knew Revenants were being used in this way, he wouldn’t have sent Hamal. That no one had contacted him yet meant they still didn’t know. There was a lot they didn’t appear to know. Hamal hadn’t realized Zi could not know things.

He stared at the husk, wishing he’d been here just a little earlier so he could have seen the creature. Knowing exactly what stage of transition it had been in might have told him more about what was going on. He knew a couple of the Master’s who used the ones that maintained their conscious minds, despite not being fully transitioned into the soldiers the process was meant to create. Hamal had never been told what the transition rate was, but he imagined it could’t be that great since there wasn’t a problem of too many soldiers bring created. The question of him being turned had only come up once, Zi’s answer being simply that he wouldn’t risk Hamal.

Through his time among them, Hamal’d gleaned, through conversation he was never supposed to have heard, that only three of the Master’s had the ability to create soldiers from the humans, Zi being one of them. He knew it wasn’t Zi sending these things after her.

This one isn’t getting up again, is it?”

Hamal took out his shotgun, pointing it at the creatures head.

Dee threw herself off the creature, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Can I please get out of this without brains splattered all over me?”

Hamal smiled despite himself, giving her an extra second to move away before firing the weapon into the creature’s face. It would not be getting up now.

He turned his attention to the girl who was brushing at her legs, unsuccessfully attempting to dislodge the dirt and grime she’d picked up from her tussle. Leaves stuck to her like Velcro, pointing out of her hair like some badly designed crown of thorns.

He chuckled, and her gaze turned sharply to him, head still angled down so her eyes peered up from beneath lashes heavily shadowing her face even with the vision of his goggles, so her eyes were simply pools of black. Any normal person might have felt the hand of terror slide down their spine, but he’d seen too many scarier things. His laugh did catch in his throat though, for another reason. Here was the girl they were looking for.

C’mon. I’ll give you a ride home.”

I’m telling you you should kill this guy. What the hell is he doing out here, anyway? Only crazy people wander around in the woods at night.

Dee frowned at the commentary in her head. Hamal, thinking the frown was in response to his idea, stepped forward, smile again covering his face, “I know you have questions. So do I.”

Dee’s eyes had dropped to his feet, caught by their movement forward as her brain whirled with decision making problems.

Don’t do it. This guy will only complicate our problem.

Hamal, watching her struggle, stopped after two steps, so her eyes returned to his face, “I bet I can even show you a few moves so you won’t get your ass kicked next time one of these things shows up.”

Dee was instantly defensive, but her words against his comment stuck on her tongue as her inner argument battled for attention.

What are you doing!? Don’t engage this guy. Get out of here! Kill this guy!

She was rooted, eyes moving over the man who’d offered to help her. The man who had shown up, again, suspiciously, as she was about to die.

He felt it, rather than actually witnessed the change come over her, but he knew she’d decided not to trust him.

Sorry, Hamal. I -” She didn’t finish her thought. He could read them on her face, so it didn’t matter. She wasn’t sure she could trust him, which made her smart, even if it did annoy him that he’d have to wait longer, and that the longer they waited, the more likely it was for something really mean to come after her. Yet, it wasn’t something he could force, so there was nothing he could say.

He smiled, “Don’t apologize to me. I’ll show you you can trust me, and then we’ll get to showing you how to defend yourself.”

She knew he was watching her. She’d seen him on her property when Mike had dropped her off.

Then, tonight. The SUV she’d seen around town had to be his. It was parked on the road where she’d turned off into the woods. How else could he have found her so deeply in the woods if he hadn’t known where to look?

Then he saw your burst of speed. You need to kill him.

Dee frowned. She wasn’t killing anyone. And, despite not having an actual reason for thinking he wasn’t directly responsible for the Revenants, she believed he wasn’t involved with sending them after her.

Except he knew all about them.

The set-up for him to have sent these things to her, simply to show up as her white knight just didn’t sit right with her, as viable as a story as it might be.

So we’re trusting coincidence now?

She frowned. There was that. But him being here at the same time didn’t have to mean coincidence, or evil plot. Maybe he was here to save her from them, or rather, as he’d put it, to teach her to save herself, a much better way to think of it.

Illogical that you should show any form of trust towards him.

She couldn’t disagree with that, but that’s where here brain had settled, never-the-less. There was no way around the fact that she needed help, and this was the only person on her radar who might fill that roll, even if he was setting up a trap of some kind.

Was she strong enough to allow him in without stepping into his noose?

Arrogant to think so. Just kill him.

She sighed. Killing him would put her right back to zero. She was tired of not knowing, and more importantly, of avoiding the whole thing. Maybe it was a good thing these things had shown up to kick her ass into reality, even if that reality was hard to wrap her head around.

Used to being up at strange hours, fatigue was easily staved off, but dealing with the boredom was another matter. This girl really didn’t do anything. How had she ever managed to caught up in this, he was curious to find out. In order for that to happen, he’d need to be able to have a conversation with her.

He considered just walking up to the door, forcing himself in, and explaining the little he did know. He was sure he wasn’t supposed to do any such thing. The Rishi’s held information so tightly to their chest he was amazed any communication ever happened, but he was committed to the new task he’d set for himself, which was to see her survive. For that to happen, she’d need to trust him enough to let him in.

He’d been watching her through the living room window of Mike’s place, where he’d found her after making his way out of the woods and to his truck. He’d known she wouldn’t go home, needing a safer place to contemplate her next course of action.

The dim glow of the single lamp was plenty of light to highlight her through the window. She’d barely touched the mug of coffee she held between both hands that rested on knees pulled up to her chest as she leaned against the arm of the couch.

If she’d only just pace around, or fidget, or anything, it wouldn’t be so hard for him to just sit here. He knew she’d come around. He knew he’d be tuning her into a weapon that would have no problem protecting herself against the Revenants that, he was sure, would continue coming after her.

Knowing it would happen only made his impatience stronger.

He distracted himself by bringing up the scene in the forest a couple hours back. Her looking up at him, pools of blackness where her eyes should be. A trick of the light, he knew, but it was all there. Her potential. The potential he would mold.

But first, she needed to move off that couch.

The sun was rising, Mike was stumbling down the stairs, and she was still sitting on the couch, cold coffee clutched between her hands.

Hey, ‘Case. What are you doing up?”

She followed him into the kitchen, grabbing coffee beans from the fridge to press a new carafe of coffee, “Couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d say hi before you went off to work.”

He forced a smile, noting the tightness around her eyes, the slash in her shirt, the leaves in her hair. Whatever she’d been doing last night, he knew it hadn’t been staying inside.

Rather then mention his observations, he turned to put bread down in the toaster, “It’s a great morning to see me off. I’ll be out of town for a few days.”

Dee nodded, remembering he’d told her about this trip last week, but it had slipped her mind. She forced a smile, refusing to be caught up by how upset his leaving made her. It’s not like he could do anything to help her with any of this.

What? You don’t want to tell him you think seom fantastical creatures are trying to kill you, and some random stranger has mentioned he can train you how to fight them?

She pinched the bridge of her nose, wondering if maybe this all wasn’t some crazy dream. Maybe she was still asleep after her fight in the cemetery. Better yet, maybe she’d been killed in the fire and this was her personal hell.

If either of those scenarios were true, it wouldn’t matter if she took Hamal up on his offer.

Don’t you think about it!

She sighed, returning her attention to Mike, who was scrapping butter across toast. As he finished, Dee grabbed it from his hand, taking a bite that replaced a third of it with empty air, before handing it back.

He shot daggers with his eyes at her, but laughed when she shrugged back, as if to say, what did you expect? She handed over a mug of coffee, which made everything better.

After his panic over her two day sleep session, and the encounter that put her there, an encounter he still hadn’t heard the details of, it was nice to see a semblance of her old self sitting there with him. Quick to laughter, and always smiling, that girl seemed to have vanished with her father.

Why not come with me?”

Dee’s eyebrows rose from behind the coffee mug she was sipping.

You can get out of here for a few days. I can know that you’re not out dying -”

He cut his words off. That’s not what he’d meant to say. Moving his gaze to see how she reacted to his words, he was surprised to see her shoulders shaking in silent chuckling.

His brow furrowed, “Glad this is all so funny to you.”

Mike, it’s really not funny. But, I mean, it’s so ridiculous!”

It was ridiculous. He just wasn’t sure where the humor in that was.

Looking at his watch, he sighed. He needed to get a move on if he wasn’t going to be late. Today was not a day to be late, “Think about it. I can have you meet me on a later flight.”

Dee nodded, both knowing she wasn’t going to be meeting him, but allowing the illusion of it to help Mike’s conscious deal with leaving her.

She did decide to take him to the airport, which got her out of town for a few hours.

Seriously, you can’t stay in for one night?

She’d promised Mike she wouldn’t go galavanting all over town, not sure gallivanting was something that could even be done in a town this small, but now, staring out the giant sliding doors of her kitchen, she wasn’t sure she could stay in.

Rather then focus on her strange desire, she focused on why she had it. She wasn’t sure what it was that forced her feet out so late. Before the fire, she’d never even worked out, let alone pounded miles and miles of asphalt in marathon running sessions. The habit had started shortly after she’d returned home, and, before now, she’d never questioned it, even when Mike had forbidden her to go out so late, and she’d repeatedly ignored her promise to him.

She’d tried to keep her promise, going out during the day, or earlier in the evening. It was never the same. She felt intruded upon by all those still awake, as if the consciousness of the world intruded upon her solitude at these times. It made no logical sense, but it wasn’t something she’d been able to re-program. Even on those days she’d run till she thought her legs would collapse beneath her, she’d still been compelled back outside once the sun had long set, and the rest of humanity slept.

Sighing against her inability to say no to the night, she pressed her hands into the glass, distracting her thoughts with another hard-to-decipher topic: the question of these creatures that had shown up just for her.

Vampires?

She cringed at the word, as if the term made it crazier. The things were real, all of this was really happening, regardless of what they were called. Revenants. That’s what Hamal had called them, but her mind continued to think of them as the more fictionalized term.

A rose by any other name…

Whatever their name was, their existence threw a wrench in her attempts at ignoring her past. They had to be here because of what she’d become, and what she’d become wasn’t a story she could tell.

Would that point help her, or more quickly facilitate her death?

She shuddered, hands suddenly shaking with the stress of knowing someone, or something was trying to kill her.

Struggling to breath, she leaned her forehead into the glass, using it to ensure her legs maintained their roots on the floor. Was this what a panic attack felt like?

You went out to fight them of your own volition last night, but tonight the thought of them is giving you a panic attack?

Last night it hadn’t been so rooted in her head that they were trying to kill her. Last night there was only the idea that they existed, and she was trying to protect innocents from them.

This line of thinking calmed her mind. If there were more of them around, even if they were after her, could she live with herself if they found someone else to attack?

No one’s out this late. If you were worried about the safety of the town, you’d already be out there.

The statement wiped her mind to blankness, not able to face her own hypocrisy, though it did push away the panic that had almost taken her ability to stay upright.

Was she really worried about the safety of others, or was it an argument she knew would supercede her promise to Mike without the need to feel guilty?

They’re here to kill you.

The echoing words was something different than the inner-voice whose sarcasm had become a normal commentary in her head. This was something else. This was the edge of clinical madness.

Suddenly exhausted, she sat at the nearest chair at the large kitchen table.

Panic. And some feeling in her chest that was similar to having ones feelings hurt. How couldn’t it be taken personally that someone wanted to kill you, but at the same time, was that energy worth expending? Feeling badly because someone didn’t like you?

Her head hurt. She was emotionally exhausted.

But you’re still inside.

So many thoughts had shit her body down. She’d have to remember to tell Mike she’d found the secret to keeping her inside.

Then the ride her train-of-thought took her on. If they were targeting her now, had they been targeting her then? Was it her fault her fiends were dead? Was it her they’d come after when the house had caught fire? Had the house been set on fire to kill her, but somehow she’d gotten out?

Over a year ago that had happened. She wasn’t exactly sure how long she’d hid out in that motel before she’d come back here. It’d been a substantial amount of time, but not a year. A few months? She just couldn’t remember that time very well.

Thinking farther back, she had no recollection of the house her memory witnessed in flames. She couldn’t remember arriving there. She’d never seen it before it was on fire. She didn’t have any memories of the inside, or meeting her friends there. Rays beat up truck, the only transportation the friends shared, in the driveway had told her they were all inside. That, and their apparent disappearance. The only explanation was that they’d died in the fire, though she had’t stuck around to see what the police or fire department discovered. Had anyone ever even found the house? Had anyone known about the house in the woods besides whoever had took her there?

Her breathes were heavy, tears streaming down her face. They were memories she never allowed herself. No answers, and no way to find them, she’d repressed this part of her life for sanities sake.

When she’d finally left the smoldering pile, it was to move blindly through trees and fields. Her memory of that time was hazy. It wanted to tell her she’d walked for days, after sitting for days, watching the house. No sleep. No food. But that had to be impossible, so she passed this detail off as a side-effect of the shock she’d witnessed.

She blinked quickly, bringing herself back to the kitchen of her father’s house, a place she’d never thought to come back to. Yet, here she was.

Moving to the front of the house, she opened the door, stepping to the corner of the wrap-around porch, eyes searching the treeline. He was there now, she knew it. She just had to find him.

There was fifty yards between her and the treeline, a cloudy sky hiding any light the moon might give her, but she could see well enough, despite the blackness of shadows beneath the trees. Lightly hopping the banister to the ground, she moved into the yard, confidence born from being on her own property wrapped around her.

Don’t be stupid.

She easily ignored the voice in her head.

Hamal? I think it’s time we talked.”

He stepped out from the trees, smile covering his face as he looked her up and down, “Thank god. The mosquitos in this place are thick.”

He waved a hand in front of his face to emphasize his point.

You can teach me to fight?”

I think it was my purpose in life to teach you how to fight.”

She nodded, looking over his shoulder to the darkness beyond, ignoring the strange humor in his comment, distracted by too many conflicting thoughts, “We can start tomorrow?”

This time he kept his smile to himself, allowing her to retain her sense of confidence, though the question in her voice suggested self-assuredness was only a facade. That was okay. It was his mission to teach her, to bring that out of her and banish the scared little girl that continued to battle for supremacy of her form.

Tomorrow. Early.”

Her eyes met his, “Not too early.”

He stepped forward, all trace of joviality gone, “Let’s be clear. I will train you, but this will not be some random extracurricular activity. This will be your life. You don’t have time to treat this like a hobby. We will start early.”

Surprised at the sudden change in his demeanor, Dee forced herself to hold her ground, even as her confidence dropped like the cheap cloak it was. She really had no idea what she was getting into, and that scared her, but she was already scared of all the things she didn’t know. At least this fear would help guide her through the others.

Or it will kill you by surprise.

What do you mean, I don’t have time?”

He stared into her face, wondering if maybe she wasn’t as smart as he’d thought. No, it was there, she was playing for information, and he smiled, “You know. You know they’ll keep coming. And they’ll keep getting stronger.”

She dropped her chin in the slightest reference of a nod. Hamal nodded back, looking over her shoulder to the grand house behind her, “You know, if I stay here, we’ll have more time to train. I’ll be able to keep an eye on things.”

Dee was unable to keep the panic off her face. Even as she’d had the same idea, hearing it from him made it seem like a monumentally bad idea.

You think?

His eyes had come back to study her face, curious if she would really agree to letting him stay. It really would make things easier. He really could keep a better eye on things, including finding out more about her, but any sane person would see the risk. She shouldn’t trust him enough, yet, to let him stay.

He flashed one of his winning smiles, “You think about it. I’ll be back in the morning.”

Moving to walk away, he stopped short, “You stay in tonight. You stay in every night that I’m not with you.”

She nodded, the tone in his voice allowing no room for negotiating.

When he’d disappeared from sight, her inner-voice chastised her, You let him tell you what to do?

She frowned. She really had, and agreed without thought.

Sighing, she made her way back into the house, wondering what she was supposed to do now that she couldn’t run.

He was excited. In his head, he skipped all the way back to his truck, calling the girl he’d met a few days ago. He didn’t like using the same girl twice, but there wasn’t much to be done about it. He knew he’d soon be staying at Dee’s, and there’d be even less time to satisfy his love of women.

The morning came quickly, and he was back at the large country house, spirits soaring. He couldn’t wait to see what this girl was capable of.

When no one came to the door, his excitement turned to annoyance. No way was she going to change her mind and stand him up.

Easily bypassing the locks on the door, he was through the house, and up the stairs, barely looking around on his way. He knew her bedroom was at the far end of the hall, taking up almost the entire east wing of the upstairs.

Surprised by the locked door of her bedroom, he was deterred for only a second before slamming through it.

Staring up at the ceiling, he laughed. Obviously she’d heard him racing upstairs. She wasn’t just some stupid girl, as his head continued to forget.

Christ, Hamal! I almost killed you.”

He rolled his head to look at her, “I doubt it. But nice job taking my feet. I never saw it coming.”

An oversized t-shirt was all that covered her from him, telling him she slept naked. Unable to peel his eyes from her, he continued to stare, taking in the line of her leg that ran to where the edge of the shirt barely covered what lay –

Alright! Get out! Let me get dressed!”

He rolled away, tearing his eyes from her, forcing his thoughts to other things, “Be out front in two minutes! I can’t believe you made me wake you up!”

I haven’t been up this early – well, ever!” She was babbling, embarrassed that he’d been staring at her barely covered form.

He laughed, allowing his eyes to travel back in the room, to follow her as she moved away towards the closet, not ashamed to follow her movements as she pulled panties on, then leggings, stripping the shirt off to reveal flawless skin against a femininely-muscular back.

Next time, I’ll be more specific about what early means.”

Good idea,” she mumbled, thinking him moving off down the hallway. When she turned, shirt barely over her head, she gasped, jumping back, “Gah! Hamal! You are trying to give me a heart-attack! You always such a creeper? Now I know I was right not letting you stay here last night.”

Creeper, huh?”

Yeah, creeper.” She’d stopped walking forward, afraid to close the distance between them. He wasn’t sure what she was reading in his face, despite him consciously being careful about what he showed her. Seeing her like this was not a good way to start their working relationship. He did not need to think of her as a piece of ass. Unfortunately, his imagination had been fed, and he’d need more then a few nights away to forget.

Apologies,” he turned, “Next time I won’t break into your room. You should have warned me you slept without clothes on.”

He heard her steps behind him, “I should have warned -”

He laughed as she cut off her argument. See, not a stupid girl.

Two hours later, he was reassessing that. She was doing everything in her power to hide her gifts, and he was pissed. He wasn’t here to train some girl random self-defense. He was here to train some fantastic anomaly how to survive the coming onslaught. There wasn’t enough time for them to dance around her secrets.

You know I’ve been watching you. Why do you think I don’t know you’re stronger than me. Faster. Quicker. Stop dicking around.”

She stopped, staring at the man she was sure she hated more than anyone could ever loath another human being. The great idea of him teaching her to save herself was not working out how she expected.

What did you expect. You should have killed him. You still can…

That he was mad at her for hiding secrets he shouldn’t know she was keeping wasn’t sitting well with her. Especially given the fact that she wasn’t even sure what the extent of her skills are, and she wasn’t afraid to admit a part of her was worried she wouldn’t know her own strength and might hurt him.

Really? You’re worried about hurting the stranger who may be here to hurt you?

Partly from the voice in her head, mostly from the voice in her face, she balled her fists at her sides, battling the rage inside her she wasn’t familiar with dealing with.

He watched it boil in her, and smiled an expression far from jovial, “There it is. That’s good. That’s what I need to see. Be mad! Don’t be willing to accept what’s being thrown at you.”

Not letting her stew in her hate, he rushed her with a flurry of punches she managed to dodge, not knowing enough after a couple of hours to turn on an offensive.

There she is,” she wasn’t sure if he meant to be patronizing, but she interpreted it that way all the same. She continued to seethe after he called a halt to the round.

She frowned. He’d played her, pulling out of her what she’d been skirting, hiding even from herself the extent of her ability.

Look, I’m here to help you, and that includes helping you from yourself. I get why you hide what you can do, but that time is over. These things that are coming after you can kill you. If you don’t practice with all your skills now, you’ll be off-balance in a real fight.”

She continued to study his face, trying to hold onto her hate, even as she was led to trust him.

If I was you, I wouldn’t trust me either, but we don’t have time for that. I need you to take a leap here.”

A startled laugh burst from her mouth.

The corner of his mouth turned up in a smile that explained how much he understood her reaction.

There might be soldiers after you right now. I can not help you against them. They will put me down with a flick of their finger. You we might be able to get trained up to survive their appearance, though.”

Dee was startled by his blasé attitude of the possible future. Why would he help her if his involvement could get him killed? It didn’t make sense that he would risk so much for her.

Who are you?”

He cocked his head, not sure what she was asking.

Why would you risk so much for me?”

I was sent to watch you. You’re interesting. I think there’s still time to save you.”

She stared into face, waiting for further explanation.

None came.

She frowned.

Why were you sent to watch me?”

He smiled, a bitterness to it she hadn’t seen before, “Honestly, I’m not sure, though after seeing you in action I have a theory.”

Again, she waited for more that never came. She sighed in frustration, pulling another sardonic smile from her teacher, “Any chance you might share your theory with me?”

He simply moved to a fighting position, obviously expecting her to do the same.

She paused, thinking to wait him out, but the look in his eye told her she wasn’t stubborn enough to beat him that way.

They resumed their training. She quickly forgot the details she didn’t know as she listened, watched, and mimicked all Hamal had to show her. The long day seemed to fly by.

She lay in the grass, relishing the breeze that licked along her skin. She was so tired, muscles worked like they’d never been, but she felt so good. Strong.

Hamal had gotten a call, and she’d been too tired to attempt to listen in, curious if she could hear him from this distance. An experiment for another time.

She was still laying there when he made his way back from where he’d wandered to the back of the house. He looked down at her, knowing she knew he was there even as she continued to lay with eyes closed. Yeah, this one was going to be dangerous, and not just because of how quickly she’d caught on to what he was teaching her.

There were going to be a few fights over whose House this one stayed in. She was too powerful, too sexy, too new for the old ones not to want her on every level.

He shook his head. He wouldn’t want her. That path was messy, and only ended with his death.

She opened her eyes, meeting his gaze so he knew she’d known he was there. Here words surprised him, “I’m not really sure what I can do.”

He raised an eyebrow.

Her gaze moved past him to stare at the clear sky, “I’m fast, and strong, and quick, but my only context is my late-night jogs. I’ve never learned to fight. I’d never been in a fight until the other night.”

Lies!

She shrugged the thought away. She couldn’t remember that night over a year ago enough to say that was here first fight.

You killed a couple of those Revenants by yourself.”

She studied his face. A couple?

You were there in the cemetery.”

He shrugged admission.

You were worried I’d died,” her voice dropped, remembering the feeling of touch on her neck, the exclamation of worry she’d heard.

He laughed, “Let’s not get all mushy. It was the first night I’d been actively tracking you. If I’d lost you then, my reputation would be shit.”

She dropped her chin in a nod, startled by how his words affected her, yet glad for the lesson. Throwing up a wall, she realigned her thoughts, “Right. Yeah, I did kill a couple, but I would say that had more to do with luck than anything.”

Oh sure, now you agree.

He laughed again, this time a friendlier sound, “Well said, but not everything can be given to luck’s meddling hands. There’s something in you that refused to be bested. That’s what I saw, and that’s why I’m doing this.”

Was that a compliment?

He stepped away, “Alright, I think it’s time to eat.”

She jumped to her feet, youthful energy flowing from her in a manner he couldn’t help but find endearing. Such a curious creature, he didn’t think endearing was a word that could explain anything in his life. Something had released from her while they’d trained. It’d been a unique experience for him to witness the hate that manifested in those first moments to the joy that had been released when he’d convinced her to stop hiding. That joy she’d found was something he was almost jealous of. The girl who needed to feign arrogance to pretend confidence hadn’t surfaced since that moment.

Still, it was only the first day. Only time would tell if this was something that would stick. It was good she enjoyed training, but he knew the realities of why they were training was still separate from the training. That would be the hardest thing to sell, and it was the point he was most afraid he wouldn’t have time for.

We’ll order in.”

Her face fell, but she agreed, moving to the house. Ordering in out here meant pizza, and there was only one place that would make the trek outside town for her. She tipped too good for the driver to say no. Not that she ordered pizza that often. Just looking at pizza made her gain five pounds, but after the workout she’d just had, that had taken most of the day, she wasn’t afraid to eat a whole pie on her own.

Hamal followed behind, curious that she was disappointed to be staying in, knowing after watching her for the past week, she rarely left the house. Why would she think they’d be leaving the house now?

You want to shower?”

He looked up from the menu she’d passed across the counter to him, “That would be great.”

She showed him the giant bathroom on the first floor after grabbing some clothes that looked like they would fit him. He grinned at her when she handed the pile to him, “Lots of guys leaving things behind?”

Don’t you wish I’d talk to you about my sex life.”

He laughed, a full throated sound that surprised her. It was the first time he’d dropped the under-handed mockery that laced everything he said, “I know you don’t have a sex life, but thanks for handing me the visual.”

He looked her up and down as he stepped by her into the bathroom. She scowled, turning away to call in their dinner order, remembering the loathing she’d felt for him earlier that day.

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