With the release of The Shadow Aspect coming on the 15th, I wanted to take a moment just to say thank you to everyone who has shared this ride with me. Many of you have been waiting patiently for this book for quite awhile now, and I hope it holds up to your expectations. If y'all could just expect it to really suck so then you're super suprised and pleased when it doesn't, that would be a HUGE burden off me... just sayin'...and just kidding :) Expect some BIG twists and turns, greater insight into the other-world creatures roaming around, and, of course, zombies. Thank you so much for coming along on this ride with me.
As a thanks, how about a sneak peek of Chapter 1? It's kinda EPIC. :)
Just a warning...the are some MAJOR events in Chapter 1. I won't spoil anything else from the book, but Chapter 1 sets the stage for the entire novel. Just sayin' :)
I don’t like roller coasters. One summer, Ian convinced me to join Jaime and some girlfriend of his at the time on a road trip to “the best coaster park in the world.” It was one of those days that lives on in memory as a collage of color, laughter, and sketchy detail. What I do remember is that Ian wasted nearly twenty dollars trying to win me an over-sized teddy bear. He never won it. I also remember Jaime and his girlfriend making out in the backseat the entire ride home. We could hear the wet sounds of their kisses over the Nazareth tunes Ian had cranking on the radio.
The old wooden coasters weren’t as bad. They rattled you hard, but you never felt like you were out of control. Ian, however, coerced me into riding a sleek, modern coaster that pulled 3Gs. Of course, he didn’t tell me that before I got on the ride. I remember opening my eyes and seeing my feet and the sky all at once. The next moment, I was staring face down at the ground while my stomach lunged toward my throat. When we got off, my hands and legs shook. Ian teased me. Jaime wandered off only to return with a five-dollar bottle of Sprite for me. I’d hated feeling like I’d momentarily allowed someone else to dictate if I lived or died.
When I took the final step into the labyrinth, I felt that same massive tug, a throttling feeling like I was out of control, and an enormous heave forward. A kaleidoscope of color thundered past my eyes and a booming sound rattled in my ears. But somewhere in the middle of all that color and light, things stopped for a brief moment, and I found myself standing in a misty forest. The trees there, pink dogwoods, were in full bloom. As I inhaled, the blossoms got larger. As I exhaled, the blossoms got smaller. It was if the whole world was expanding and contracting on the command of my breath.
“Layla?” a woman’s voice called.
I paused and looked around. Thick, white vapor had enveloped nearly everything.
“Layla?” she called again. This time, I saw a tall figure moving toward me. I recognized Peryn.
“Peryn? Here! I’m here.”
The mists around us began to clear. I saw Peryn clearly. The look on her face startled me. She looked horrified. “Oh, Layla,” she called, trying to reach for me, wading through the mists as if they were pushing heavily against her, “you must not trust—” she began, but her words were drowned out by screams.
I turned toward the shouting to see figures moving toward me. It was strange. It was like I was seeing people walking around inside smoke. I was near them, but they remained hidden in shadow. Thin places. I was in one of the thin places that Grandma Petrovich had always spoken of. I could see my world, but I was not present in it. My world was like a shadow layer over the other world, the world of the spirit, where I now resided. I squinted hard. I thought I could see trees…and I could see Jaime’s silhouette. There were others around him—Summer, Ethel, Will. Their voices sounded muffled. Dark shadows ambled toward them.
“Layla,” Peryn called, her voice barely audible.
I turned to see fog engulf Peryn. She was gone. In her place, the mists began to clear. I could smell the forest. The scents of pine and the decay of earth assailed my nose. I felt that same pull again, and I was thrust forward, pitching out of the thin place with a heave. Dumped unceremoniously back into my world, I found myself lying facedown on the leaf-covered ground. The deep, loamy smell of soil filled my nose. It was dark. My head was spinning, but one thing was certain, I could hear screams.
Kiki’s face appeared above me as she tried to pull me off the ground. Everything was distorted and fuzzy. She was shouting at me, but I couldn’t make out her words. My mind was a rattled confusion of sound. Kiki’s eyes darted around wildly. She was yelling and pulling my arms, lifting me off the ground. In the dim moonlight, I saw the flash of gunfire. It was then that I realized that I heard a lot of gunfire. I looked around, trying to make out what I was seeing, but everything was in a haze. Larry, who was standing over us, fired his shotgun. In the light of the discharge, I saw one of the undead coming up on him.
“Layla, get up! Now!” Kiki’s voice finally broke through.
The undead man lunged at me. Larry cracked him on the side of the head with the butt of his rifle but two more appeared out of nowhere. In the dim light, I watched in horror as they pulled Larry to the ground. His feet thrashed wildly as they ripped him apart. He screamed a blood-curdling howl. Gunfire blasted all around me.
“Larry!” I heard Ethel wail.
“Larry?” I croaked.
A gunshot blasted. Larry’s feet went still.
Kiki pulled me up and began dragging me away. As we moved through the darkness, I could see several of the undead feasting on what was left of Dusty. His eyes were frozen open wide as the undead tore into his stomach.
“Kiki, Layla, come on,” Will screamed. The others had collected away from the scene and were retreating into the woods. The woods? Where were we?
“Layla,” I heard Jaime call weakly.
The undead were everywhere. And we were nowhere. I took in the scene. We were in the middle of the forest but not on the island and not in Hamletville. Tall trees silhouetted the nights’ sky. Dim moonlight provided the only light to be had. We had emerged in the depths of a thick glen. The undead were all over the place. Everywhere I looked people I knew were being pulled to the ground, being ripped limb from limb, consumed by the hungry mouths of the undead.
Mrs. Finch went under with an inhuman wail as they took massive bites out of her neck and head. Buddie, Will, and a barely-alert Jaime circled around Frenchie, the girls, Ethel, and Summer. They shot at the undead as they backed away from the horde, moving into the dark woods. Moments later, I couldn’t even see them anymore. But I could see the undead, and they were everywhere. The sharp scent of their rotting flesh, a smell like body odor and rotted meat, assailed my nose. My head pounded. I felt like someone was blaring heavy metal music while I was in the middle of open heart surgery.
I pulled myself together. I had to or Kiki and I, separated from the rest of the group, were going to die. For a moment, the terror of it felt very real. My heart slammed in my chest.
“I’m okay,” I lied. “I’m okay. Let’s go,” I told her. In a state of shock, I gripped my shashka, and we started to fight through the crowd. What the hell had happened? The fox woman said the gateway would take us off the island. Clearly, it had, but why hadn’t it taken us somewhere safe? It was at that moment, as the undead moved toward Kiki and me, that I realized a terrible truth. We had been lied to, manipulated. The fox woman had tricked us. I had led my people into an ambush. What had I expected, that we would pass through the labyrinth and find ourselves back in Hamletville or in some sort of paradise? Did I really think we’d find ourselves somewhere safe? Why? Just because she wasn’t human, because she had seemed kind? The reality was before me now. Nothing was further from the truth. We had emerged at the gates of hell, and it was no accident.
“Layla,” Jaime called from the darkness.
“They’re everywhere.” Kiki swore as she shot at a group of undead.
Almost on instinct, my shashka swung, stabbing a slobbering undead man in tattered rags who grabbed at me. Kiki and I moved deeper into the forest following the others. In the dim light, I saw the undead fighting over the remains of the hotel survivors and Hamletville citizens. My heart broke. This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were supposed to end up somewhere safe.
Getting some distance between us and the undead feasting on corpses, Kiki and I cut and ran. We sprinted and soon joined the others, dodging the undead milling about between us and the rest of the group. There were less than a dozen of us. Was that it? Were we the only ones who survived?
“We need to get out of here,” Kiki said as she reloaded her gun.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” Summer exclaimed, her face pale from fright. Blood was streaked across her cheek.
“This way,” Buddie said with certainty as he quickly scanned the horizon.
The group bolted behind him. Tom grabbed Kira, and Will took Susan from Frenchie’s arms. Everyone sprinted into the darkness behind Buddie. The undead had already started to advance on us once more.
For just a moment, I looked back. We really were in the middle of nowhere. The woods was very thick, the trees old and massive. In the distance, I noticed a cave in the side of a mountain. This is where we had emerged. It was the gateway. The stones around the cave gave off an unnatural blue glow, just as the labyrinth stones had done. In the pale blue light surrounding the cave entrance, for just a moment, I saw the shadowed silhouette of a fox.
I took a step toward her.
“Layla, come on,” Jaime called.
We hustled through the woods, but the undead were everywhere. One jumped at Ethel. She screamed. In a flash, Summer stabbed the undead woman through the eye with my hunting knife. The walking corpse toppled to the ground.
“Layla, your guns?” Will called.
I pulled the guns out. Water dripped from them. I shook them out and prayed they would fire. I passed off my handguns to the others. The automatic barely had twenty rounds left.
We huddled together and made our way through the darkness. Gunshots blasted as we spent the last of the ammo. We pushed forward, but soon we could see the shadows of another horde coming toward us. Behind us, we could hear the lumbering sounds as the massive group of undead pursued us. Everywhere I looked, hordes of the undead narrowed in on us. Stunned, we all simply stood. No one knew what to do.
“Mommy,” Kira cried, her scared little voice piercing our terrified silence.
My heart broke. This was my fault. This was all my fault. I had trusted too blindly.
I turned to look at Frenchie. In the dim twilight, I saw tears streaming from her eyes.
I reached out for Jaime.
Then, through the darkness, I heard a strange sound. At first I was not sure what it was. A moment later, however, I made out the soft purr of an engine coming from somewhere ahead of us.
“What is that?” Kiki asked.
I listened. The sound of the engine grew louder. Then, I saw headlights. “There,” I yelled, pointing. Dodging the oncoming horde, we raced toward the approaching vehicle. Afraid we would miss it, Will, the fastest of us, handed Susan to Tom and took off toward the vehicle.
A dozen or so of the undead reached the back of the group. The others shot; out of ammo, I swung. The undead pushed against us as we retreated toward the headlights. Kira screamed as one of the undead caught her by the arm. Fred Johnson hit the undead man with a baseball bat. It let go of Kira, but lunged at Fred, biting him on the head. He went down with a scream.
“Fred,” I called and reached out for him.
The tips of his fingers just brushed against mine, but the undead were faster. They swarmed in on him. He was lost.
Jaime, blood dripping down his forehead, came from behind and pulled me away. “Come on!”
We ran forward. Soon we could make out the edge of a road. The headlights rolled toward us. Will ran out onto the road and waved his arms. In the glow of the headlights, the shape of the truck grew clearer.
“That’s a military transport,” Jaime said.
We ran toward the road. Moments later, we heard the rattle of machine gun fire. Someone in the truck was shooting. The undead closing in on us fell to the ground.
Frantic, breathless, and in shock, what was left of my group emerged at the side of the road.
The driver slowed the truck. “Y’all better shake a leg if you wanna live,” a young, blonde-haired woman called from the driver’s seat. In the back, a young man with long dreadlocks shot at the horde.
Quickly, we all loaded into the back of the truck. Kira and Susan settled in beside Frenchie. Ethel, out of breath and clinging to Summer, nearly collapsed onto the flatbed. The machine gun rattled. When the last of us were loaded in, the driver gunned the engine. We sped into the darkness. Ahead, the path was clear. Everyone sat looking at the road behind us. In the moonlight, we could see the horde of undead lumber onto the road, but their shadows receded as we drove away.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I looked up at Jaime. We were alive. We had been through hell, someone had seen to that, but we were alive. We had been deceived. No, I had been deceived, but we were alive. Jaime put his hands on my cheeks and kissed me hard. We were alive.
When he let go, I turned and looked at the others. Everyone was in a state of shock. Ethel was weeping on Summer’s shoulder. Kiki sat in the back of the truck, her knees pulled tight to her chest, her head buried in her arms. Will, Buddie, and Tom stared blankly into the darkness.
I took a deep breath, rose, and made my way to the front of the truck. The window in the back had been broken out.
“Thank you so much,” I told the driver. “We would have died out there.”
“Gotta save the living,” the girl said then stuck her hand over her shoulder toward me. “I’m Cricket. That’s Chase.”
Chase nodded to me, his sharp eyes never venturing far from the woods around us.
“Layla,” I replied.
“So, just what are you doin’ in the middle of the woods, Layla?” she asked.
“With kids,” Chase added.
“It’s a long story,” I replied, unsure what to say. “How did you find us?”
“It’s a long story,” Cricket replied with a laugh.
“Doesn’t matter either way. Get settled in. Assumin’ no more zombies try to eat us tonight, we’ll be home soon,” Cricket said.
“This is a military transport, isn’t it? Is there military where you are?”
Cricket laughed loudly. “No. There is no military anymore. Hang in there. You’ll be safe soon.”
I sat back down beside Jaime and rested my head on his shoulder. I then said a silent prayer to whomever would listen. I had been wrong. People were dead. People I was obligated to protect had been eaten alive because I had trusted…a shapeshifter? A fox woman? Regardless, I had trusted the wrong person. I felt like I was walking blind. Whatever I thought I had learned to see was not enough. I couldn’t see anything, and now so many of us were gone.
Guilt washed over me. I’d been so blind. My arrogance had gotten in the way. Just because I hadn’t been fooled by Rumor’s people didn’t mean I was special. All it meant was that vampire glamour had no effect on me. When it came down to it, I was a fool. I’d believed that the enemy of my enemy was my friend. All my life, I’d never learned who to trust. I always put my faith in people’s words, assuming they meant what they said, just like I did. Wasn’t everyone else just like me, good on the inside? Over and over again, I had believed lies: my mother’s, Ian’s, and so many in between. I had danced with the devil all the while wondering why I was still in hell. And this time, I had paid for my misguided trust with blood.
My grandmother, who could always see the other world, told me I had to truly see. I saw through the vampires, but didn’t see through the bigger trap. The truth was, mankind was now at the bottom of the food chain. Vampires were not the only ones after us. If I was going to keep those I loved safe, I could never trust again.