A sharp needle pierced her neck. She ripped the tipped dart from her skin but knew it was too late. The poison was rushing through her bloodstream – she had seconds left.
Abby Sorrensten was losing control with each passing second. Anger burned within. It had been with her all these years, buried deep, growing stronger day by day, beat by beat. She tried to push it down but the treatment these men inflicted on her for the past thirteen years had taken its toll, weakened her to the point she could no longer contain it.
Since she was four she had been covered with gashes and bruises, stitched skin, smashed knuckles. Her so-called training had given her endless concussions, broken bones, continuous loss of blood. Not once did the men who trained her, the members of the Order, offer sympathy or remorse.
So why should she?
She glared at the man leaning over the balcony, still aiming the tranquilizer mechanism her way. Her green eyes had transformed when the anger took over. Her cold, black eyes were sharper, clearer – fewer colors offered less distraction.
She growled as the man pulled the cord of the crossbow towards him, preparing to fire again. A sudden burst of energy shot to her right hand and radiated an intense glow. Without fear or hesitation, she thrust her arm in his direction.
A burst of fire escaped her hand and engulfed him. The screams were excruciating. He flailed about, lighting up the wooden floor beneath him.
He was still moving when Abby began to wobble back and forth, but just barely. The poison cast a heavy daze upon her. The anger within released its hold. Her hand faded back to a pale ivory and color returned to her vision. Abby dropped slowly to the slick, red floor.
Guilt flooded her as she lay in the warm blood, looking at the contorted man next to her with the splintered pole pierced through.
But then she reminded herself of what they had done to her for the last thirteen years. Not once did they offer sympathy or remorse.
So why should she?
She wasn’t thinking about the match at hand, about the twenty-three year old masked man lunging before her, thrusting his blade towards her midsection. She had been thrown back into this hellhole of a school a month ago and still had yet to be told why.
Mentally and physically exhausted, Emily Davis was growing more aggravated by the day. It was one endless training session after another followed by an unnecessary competition amongst her peers. Had she known how long this ordeal would last, she never would have come. Or she would have at least thrown the first match, feigning exhaustion. Right now she could be one of the eight hunters sitting lazily in the audience looking bored.
A lot of things around here didn’t make much sense. Out of the ten current hunters, only two were male. Thousands of years ago they were all male, but natural selection now leaned in favor of female hunters, or huntresses. Soon after birth all of her companions were taken from their family. Some were even sold. For those parents who weren’t lured by money or talks of grandeur involving the destiny of their blessed children, they were stolen – but most were willing to take the money. Those that released their children willingly to the Order’s care were given visiting rights, though it didn’t seem to matter. As Emily and the others grew in age and abilities, their parents became frightened and lessened their visits to extinction. Few parents were in contact with their children by the time adolescence was reached. Emily last saw her parents on her twelfth birthday.
Though bitter from abandonment, Emily understood why parents were destined to absolve their parental rights. Besides the fact she could hurt the average adult by the time she was eight, the school in which she was housed was incredibly intimidating to the outsider. High on a cliff in Austrian mountains, the aged manor was adorned with old and blackened brimstone, gargoyles and uninviting gates. Inside the horrific exterior the air was musty and dank. The rooms and halls were lit with dim lamps spaced too far apart. Space heaters offered minimal warmth and the cold, bare floors were made of concrete that had cracked through the ages. Weapons hung on every space possible. Not at all intimidating, thought Emily. Who wouldn’t want to spend their yearly vacation at this fine retreat? And retreat was what most parents did. Emily often wondered if the Order had chosen not to update the manor for this very purpose. Certainly they didn’t like living in the eighteenth century.
But here Emily lived all her childhood and teenage years. Under the guidance of her advisor, Ethan, she spent almost every day of her life training. Two training sessions per day, teaching her everything a huntress would need to know – weapons making and training, surveillance, gymnastics for flexibility and agility, etc. It wasn’t difficult to learn; hunters were born to do this, after all. And should they doubt that, they had the birthmark of the hunter to remind them on a daily basis.
To the normal man, the mark was nothing more than a reddish blur. To the trained eye of the Order, it depicted a long crucifix with the bottom shaved into the pointed formation of a stake, the two items most commonly found on a hunter. Every hunter could find this cursed symbol somewhere on their body. Emily was lucky. Her monstrosity was hidden on her backside. Her fellow huntress Callie was not so lucky. Hers was shining bright on the right side of her neck.
Allowed to go out on her own at eighteen, Emily never thought she would have to come back. No hunter had ever returned. At the time she didn’t realize why - or at least pretended not to. She knew the life expectancy of a hunter was grim, but she never knew the reason. At least not until the night of her twenty-fifth birthday – the night she met Abby.
Several men looked down on the match from the conference room balcony, openly critiquing the two hunters in battle. Christoph was losing to Emily - embarrassingly so. Although Emily was probably the best the Order had to offer, Jayden hadn’t been impressed by any hunter he’d seen since they’d returned to school. They just don’t make them like they used to.
His attention was attracted to a woman entering the balcony opposite of him. She rested her chin in her hands and stared down nonchalantly at the fight. Valerie was the only hunter of age that was non-active and living permanently at the school.
Jayden yearned to get inside her head. Her mind held secrets. But she was extremely guarded, never letting anyone close enough to even reach out and touch her.
A gleam of light blinded him. Looking to the arena floor, the silvery metal mask covering Emily’s face reflected the sunlight streaming down from the skylights. Emily forcefully whirled her pair of tridents around Christoph’s, sending his left one flying. His feet were swept out from under him, his second trident lost in the fall.
Emily thrust her trident towards his jugular, stopping shy of puncturing it. Applause broke out from the hunters in the audience – the younger ones, that was. The elder hunters seemed as bored with the match as Jayden and most remained seated. Daniel, the eldest male, slumped further down in the bleachers in both annoyance and embarrassment for Christoph.
Jayden followed the advisors into the conference room and joined the rest of the Order conversing around a long, heavy wooden table. He leaned against the wall with his arms crossed and listened as the advisors quietly discussed whose hunter was best suited for the problem at hand.
“Daniel’s the strongest in the group,” Lincoln reminded them.
Jonesy shook his head in disagreement. “It’s going to be Emily. The last hunter was female, even in a time when hunters were mostly male. Why would that change now that they’ve become the dominating sex?”
“Which is why you can’t count Daniel out. He too is the minority and the strongest in the bunch.”
The segregated groups turned abruptly as the doors opened, dropping their conversations mid-sentence. Their questions and guestimates were about to be answered.
Chancellor Moore flipped though a manuscript as he proceeded toward the head of the table. He was ancient in years with slick silvery hair and perfect posture.
“Chancellor Moore,” Jayden said kindly as he pulled the chair.
“Thank you, Jayden,” he answered, sitting down and laying the manuscript on the table before him.
“Well?” asked Jonesy impatiently, drumming his fingers on the table.
He scanned their pleading and worrisome eyes. Dismally, he informed them, “None of the hunters have developed the mark.”
The advisors sank lower in their seats. This is not what they were expecting. But Jayden was. I knew none of these were good enough. It was difficult, but he withheld the urge to curl his lips.
“That’s impossible. One of them must have the mark,” Roger whined, one small shift from completely falling out of his chair.
“No. I’m afraid this leaves only one answer.”
“She’s already dead,” answered Lincoln miserably.
“Which means we must deviate to our contingency plan. Emily and Daniel are both undefeated in competition. I suggest we choose one of them to fill the void.”
Lincoln huffed. “Won’t matter which one you choose. There’s not a hunter here that won’t be butchered to death within seconds of meeting Morphus. They don’t possess the necessary skills.”
So true, thought Jayden.
The tunnel was long and dark, lit occasionally by the smallest torch. Emily headed toward the end of the dirt-covered tunnel, toward the pulsating light. She passed from darkness into light into darkness again, her sword drawn. Shadows crept along the rocky walls, growing larger as she neared the mouth of the tunnel. Fiery torches lit the cavern throughout, giving the atmosphere a soft glow. Water trickled down the cavern walls, each drop echoing as it hit the ground. Emily silently moved toward the center, seeking. She seemed alone but couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.
A soft grumble widened her eyes. Before she could even spin around there was a painful rush to her right side. Her body was thrust across the room and slammed into the water-soaked wall. She screamed, cutting herself more as she slipped roughly down the rocks. Blood seeped from a hole in her right side, painting the crystal clear droplets pink.
Fear engulfed her face as the brooding monster neared, his shadow suffocating her with darkness. She was frozen, couldn’t move. She yelled internally at herself to get up, to run, but her body remained still. The brooding monster was upon her now. She released a blood-curdling scream.
Darby jumped from her bed in panic as Emily shot up and gasped for air.
As she caught her breath, Emily lifted her shirt up with a shaking hand. A jagged scar lined the skin where she was pierced. Frustrated, she threw the sticky covers off her sweat-soaked body.
“That’s it. I am so outta here.” Emily jumped out of bed, changed into fresh clothes and began stuffing her possessions into her bag.
Darby slipped back in bed. The two had been roommates for as long as Emily could remember. Best friends, they had kept close through the years and contacted each other weekly to confirm the other had not fallen. Darby was one of only two playmates that Emily worried about losing. Mira was the other, located in a room down the hall.
“Changing locations won’t make the nightmares go away,” Darby preached as she tucked herself tightly in the blankets to squeeze out the cold air.
“No kidding. But this place makes me feel like I’m a sitting duck waiting to be shot.”
“This manor is one of the most protective establishments from evil in all the world. Where you gonna go?”
Emily grabbed her bag. “Sometimes it’s not where you are but who you’re with.”
“So you leave the place containing all the active hunters? You know of something better?” Darby mocked.
“Actually, I do,” Emily said. As she left the room she added, “I’ll call you later Darbs.”
The nightmare had plagued Emily every night since returning to the school. Darby was right though. Leaving wouldn’t make the nightmare go away. Nothing would. In fact, she expected it this time of the year. It was unfortunate the anniversary fell at the same time the Order requested her to return here.
The Order. Just the thought irritated her. They were the true cause of her nightmare. Sure the demon that haunted her was the horrific subject painstakingly seared into her memory, but the Order was the reason she stumbled upon that monster in the first place.
Two years ago she was stationed outside Portland, Oregon. After coming across a vampire nest in the woods, death scattered. She was chasing one through the forest when it ran into the tunnel leading to that god-awful cavern. She should have trusted her instincts. The vampire may have run into that lair but it seemed a little archaic even for his needs. Vampires had become accustomed to the twenty-first century too. Electricity usually topped everyone’s list of must-haves. Well, almost everyone…
The most desired luxury for Eraticus was the aura of a hunter. Particularly one that just turned twenty-five. The exact age a hunter’s aura reached its greatest strength. And the more powerful the aura he devoured, the longer he could go without needing the strength from the next. Eraticus was drawn to it and there was no outrunning him. For five hundred years he never failed to find the one celebrating that cursed birthday, whether he needed the nourishment or not. And no hunter was ever known to survive his vicious attack - until Emily.
She had been celebrated by the Order for her outstanding achievement. But learning they knew of the monster infuriated her. To leave her blindsided and unprepared was unforgivable. This made her own dishonesty that much sweeter, for only she knew what truly happened that night. Sure, Eraticus died, but Emily had nothing to do with it. And the true conqueror of the evening was one that the Order feared even more than Eraticus – a true evil in their eyes.
Emily smiled. The time had finally come. And she would get to make the introductions.