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by Jane Toombs
Category: Science Fiction/Horror
Description: The battle between Shifters and Stalkers has been going on for Ages, but as Nick, a Stalker is hunting Shifters, he finds Dara, a mere innocent that carries Shifter blood within her. Can he save her or will he also have to kill her the same way he has been driven to kill shifters for years?
eBook Publisher: DiskUs Publishing,
eBookwise Release Date: October 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [84 KB]
Reading time: 48-67 min.
Dara Castaneda stared through the windshield down the twisting curves of the Grapevine where the Golden State Freeway dropped into the San Joaquin Valley. The pavement undulated, not a road at all but a giant snake, she could feel the gray SUV being lifted in its coils, in a moment they'd be crushed
She screamed, clutching at Jo-Jo.
The SUV swerved; he cursed. "Damn near hit a truck. Get her out of the front."
Dara struggled with a red-bearded man, a stranger, who reached from the back and hauled her over the seat. "Take it easy," he drawled. "Nothing's after you."
His voice calmed her a little and she let him put her down next to Cindy. He sat on her other side. "Eric the Red," she said. "Who are you?"
"My name's Nick Owens. Been with you since Castaic."
"Yeah," Cindy put in. "Don't you remember saying we needed thirteen? That's when Jo-Jo spotted this biker at the gas stop. His hog's on the trailer back there."
Dara didn't remember.
"Jo-Jo said redheads were the devil's own and he'd bring us luck," Cindy added.
Dara took a deep breath. She'd forgotten. On purpose. Because of where they were going. Her fault. She never should have mentioned Wolf House to Jo-Jo, who was into Satanism and who knew what else. The ruins were too bloody close to where she'd grown up. Now the twelve of them--no, thirteen with Nick--were crammed into this SUV and there was no way in hell she'd be able to convince Jo-Jo to change his mind about camping out in the ruins of Wolf house and doing his thing. Ritual, he called it. All too soon they'd be passing Vida's grave. Dara shuddered.
Take another upper? She started to reach for her jacket, on the floor in a pile with other clothes. Cindy's black cat, Dido, sleeping atop the pile, opened green eyes and gave her an enigmatic look.
A yes or a no look? Dara caught sight of herself in the long narrow mirror affixed to the side of the vehicle. Dark-circled hazel eyes, long, tangled dark hair, high cheekbones. She looked wasted, reminding herself of Vida and grimaced. Her dead twin was the last thing in the world she wanted to think about, but her thoughts clustered around Vida like blowflies. Her twin, identical except for her twisted body and mind, had died at thirteen. Dara wondered if that's why she'd told Jo-Jo they needed to be thirteen.
Those thirteen years had been long and horrible. Vida had destroyed her family as surely as the 1954 earthquake had leveled Wolf House, something her grandmother remembered and often recounted.
"That's when they all left, the Voleks, those that weren't killed, and good riddance 'twas. We always suspected they were tainted. Specially their twins."
Tainted could mean anything. Like Vida. Dara had left this area when she was eighteen. Because in her dreams her twin mind-called to her from the grave. While alive, Vida had never learned to speak, but dead she whispered to Dara at night. After Dara woke up one night and found herself in the cemetery with no idea how she'd gotten there, she packed up and left. For good. So what was she doing back here only two years later?
She could feel her heart still speeding from the last upper, her brain still revved up. She didn't want giant snakes to loom up in front of her again. Maybe lay off taking another pill. Out the side window she could see the Sierra peaks to her right. To the east. When she lived in the Valley, most of the kids she knew went to summer camp in the mountains. Not her. If she was gone for more than a day Vida began her high-pitched screaming that would echo in Dara's head, calling her home.
Those snow-tipped peaks had always looked impossibly serene to Dara, a never-never land she was shut away from as she'd been shut away from the kinds of lives her schoolmates led. Because of Vida. Because no one could quiet her twin except Dara.
Stop remembering. Vida was dead. Buried. Eaten by worms.
"You won't get me!" she cried.
"Come off it," Jo-Jo called from the front. "You're supposed to be looking for the Porterville road so you can tell me where to turn."
"Where's this place we're going to?" Nick asked.
"Ask Dara," Jo-Jo advised.
"Just some old ruins," she managed to say.
"Haunted," Jo-Jo added.
Nick leaned closer, looking directly into Dara's eyes. His were as green as the cat's, she saw. "By a ghost?"
"By something, my grandmother believed." Damn those probing green eyes. She hadn't meant to reveal that. "Why do you care?"
His smiled at her, but not with his eyes. "Hey, I'm number thirteen, remember?"
"The ruins are supposed to be a place they called Wolf House," Cindy put in.
Dara had never seen it standing, but her grandmother had a picture of a big, beautiful old house with a tower.
"Anything left of the place?" Nick asked.
"No," she snapped.
"You told me there were wolf posts where the gate had been," Jo-Jo called back from the front seat.
"Yeah, a couple years ago," she admitted. "Who knows now?"
"They'll still be there," Jo-Jo insisted. "I got this feeling. The wolf is the principle of evil, of the dark forces. Best of all, tonight's a full moon. The proper time to open Midnight's Door."
Jo-Jo called himself a warlock. Whether he was or not, Dara had no notion. She wasn't sure she even believed in warlocks. No question he was into some weird shit, though.
"Midnight's Door?" Nick echoed.
"Yeah," Jo-Jo said. "That's why we need thirteen. Otherwise the incantations won't work. Thirteen, like in a coven. And a sacrifice."
"Sacrifice?" Dara felt goose bumps on her arms. She didn't care for even the sound of the word. "Like what?"
"I'll think of something."
Aware Jo-Jo wasn't going to tell her, Dara stared out the side window, spotting familiar landmarks. "Next ramp. Then turn right at the first cross road."
Jo-Jo swerved the car onto the ramp off the freeway. Soon they passed oil wells with only a few bobbing slowly. The SUV wound between barren hills, heading east toward the promise of the Sierras, miles away. The groves began, peach and nectarine and citrus. When they reached the older groves, closer to Porterville, wind machines rose tall above trees whose branches bore ripening oranges.
"Sometimes you wake up early on a cold morning," Dara said dreamily, "and you hear a humming like millions of bees, like all the bees in the world are coming, but it's only the wind machines blowing away the frost."
"So you're from around here," Nick said.
She scowled. "Not any more."
Nothing good had ever happened to her here. Apprehension trickled along her spine, warning her it wasn't about to change now. Each time she directed Jo-Jo's turns, she grew tenser.
The gray SUV topped one hill after another, made the last turn, past the cemetery. In the light of the setting sun, Dara saw the small valley below, the green of pines, and the remnants of old groves and orchards. Jo-Jo swung onto the overgrown drive, stopped at the gateposts to examine what remained of the marble wolves.
"Perfect." She didn't like his smile. "The vibes feel right and it's near Halloween when the balance of the world tips toward the dark side. Tonight the door will open, I know it will."
He drove between the posts, the SUV jouncing along the weed-choked drive until encountering a stand of oak saplings it couldn't drive around. "Everybody out," he called. "We trek in from here."
With the sun going down, gloom crept under the huge old valley oaks whose branches met overhead. Dara moistened dry lips and wished she'd taken another upper. She lagged behind, finally realizing Nick wasn't with the group ahead of her. She stopped and looked back to see him wrestling his Harley from the trailer. He stashed it, along with his rucksack, behind one of the big oaks.
When he saw her watching him, he grinned and loped up to where she stood.
"Waiting for me?"
"Why'd you hide your bike?"
"Never know when you might need to make a getaway, Like a gambler's ace in the hole."
She nodded, sort of understanding. After all, he wasn't really one of the group. "Are you a gambler?"
"Depends. What's this Midnight Door Jo-Jo's figuring on opening?"
She shrugged. "He's into dark stuff."
"Does it ever work?"
Dara thought about it. "I think maybe once. But I was pretty phased out at the time."
"Any idea who used to live at Wolf House?"
He sure asked a lot of questions. "A family named Volek."
Why did he sound so satisfied? "You know them?"
"Name's familiar, that's all."
They reached a tangle of bushes and rubble that marked the site where Wolf House had once stood. Just past there, Jo-Jo had stopped and was ordering everybody around.
"We won't bother with the tents tonight. Better to have nothing between us and the moon. Once we get the fire started, we'll eat." He strode off, heading for the SUV.
Cindy, who had mothering tendencies, took Dara in tow. "You should've brought your jacket," Cindy scolded. "It's going to get cold tonight."
Later, she tried to get Dara to eat, but Dara wasn't hungry. Trying to shake the feeling something really bad was going to happen, she wandered a ways from the others toward an orchard. One of the trees bore a few apples, ripe and red. Because she was thirsty, she picked one and bit into it. The juice was sweet, but when she took the apple away from her lips she saw a worm-hole in the white flesh of the apple.
"Ugh!" Spitting out what she hadn't swallowed, Dara threw the apple as far from her as she could, imagining the worm alive in her stomach. A hungry worm who'd eat its way through her until it reached her heart.
She crouched and vomited onto the grass.
The sun slid behind the hills to the west and the sky rapidly darkened. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, Dara convinced herself that even if she'd swallowed the worm, it was gone now. Not wanting to be alone with night coming on, she turned and made her way back toward the others.
Everyone was gathered around Jo-Jo, forming a circle around the small fire he'd had them build, some sitting on their sleeping bags. Cindy, sitting on her jacket, beckoned to her and Dara slipped in between Cindy and Nick.
"Sit still and listen," Jo-Jo ordered. He remained standing, pacing around the perimeter of the fire. Despite the mild evening and the warmth of the fire, Dara shivered. Jo-Jo didn't frighten her, but being in this place did. Hadn't the worm been a warning?
"Satan is everywhere." Jo-Jo's voice became solemn and deep. "In the smoke and the wind, in fire and water and darkness. Tonight, when I call him, because of this place and this time, because we are thirteen, Midnight's Door will open. Who knows what creature of darkness will manifest itself?"
Dara clutched the wooden amulet she wore on a thong around her neck, always under her clothes to keep it from sight. Little use for protection when it hadn't ever protected her before, but holding its familiar shape through the cloth of her T-shirt gave her some comfort. It belonged to her, handed down from her grandmother, not to her mother nor to Vida, but to her alone.
"It's supposed to go to the one who needs its protection," Grandma had said. "In my dream that was you, child. The rune was handed down from my mother to me."
Rune. That was the mark burnt into the polished wood of the amulet. Dara had researched runes and found they came from ancient times. Druids had used them and each symbol had a meaning. She didn't know what hers meant.
"My mother told me her mother said that the man named Quincy fashioned the amulet to protect my grandmother and made her wear it as long as he was with her--three days and nights. Long enough to leave her with child. He never came back. Arrived naked and left naked, for he didn't take along the clothes she'd given him. Like as not he never knew she bore him twins. My mother was the girl and grandmother named the boy Quincy, after his father. He didn't live past babyhood."
Quincy. The name echoed in Dara's mind. Her great-grandfather had left naked, as he'd arrived. How odd.
Dara's attention jerked back to Jo-Jo, now crouched over a sack directly in front of her. He chanted meaningless words, ones she somehow didn't want to hear. She retreated into herself, starting to close her eyes. But the moon, rising full and yellow above the pine grove at the edge of the grass and weed-choked clearing, distracted her.
"Aglom, Tetragram, Vaycheon, Stimulamathon," Jo-Jo intoned. "I call, you, I call you, I call you."
He reached into a pocket and flung a powdery substance into the fire. Pungent smoke arose, spicy, aromatic. Then he opened the sack and pulled something out. A dark cloth? No, it had a tail. Paws. Green eyes glazed in death. Dido! Dara grimaced, horrified. Jo-Jo had killed the poor innocent cat for the sacrifice.
From beside her Cindy moaned in protest, but Jo-Jo paid no attention.
"Blood and death," he chanted. "I give you the sacrifice."
From beyond the fire, faint and far away, something howled. Dara bit back a gasp. A coyote, that's all, she tried to tell herself. But it hadn't sounded like one.
Jo-Jo tossed the cat's body into the fire. A horrible stench arose, making her gag. An insidious worm of thought circled in her mind. Not Dido, but Dara was meant to be the real sacrifice. There was no place to run to, no place to hide. She was doomed...
She heard her twin laughing from somewhere underground, a laugh that turned into a full-blown howl. No, not Vida. Something else howled. Something evil. Coming closer. The monster from hell Jo-Jo had called up.
One of the girls screamed. A man cursed. Suddenly everyone was in motion, scrambling to their feet. Dara saw Jo-Jo bolt from the fire, heading toward the SUV. She started to get up. Someone's boot hit her head, half-stunning her, knocking her sideways.
She struggled to her feet, hand fumbling for the amulet, freeing it from under her shirt. Protection, she needed protection. All the others were ahead of her, racing for the SUV. She hurried after them. Something howled, so close that she whirled to look, staring, hair rising on her nape.
Leaping toward her from the direction of the pine grove was a huge dark beast, an abomination unlike any animal she'd ever seen. She knew it was coming to kill her.
Though all but frozen with fear, Dara forced herself into frantic motion only to trip on a hidden root and fall headlong, knocking the breath from her. By the time she turned herself over, trying to sit up, the beast loomed over her. It stared down at her with feral yellow eyes. Not at her face. At what? The amulet! She closed her eyes, bracing herself as best she could for the attack.
Moments later, when nothing happened, her eyes popped open and she saw the beast loping back toward the pines. Nick stood over her. Was that a gun in his hand? As he hauled her to her feet, she lost every shred of sanity she possessed, sobbing and shaking, Vida's voice echoing in her mind, calling to her, luring her.
She was only vaguely aware of someone putting a jacket over her shoulders, then holding her wrist, tugging her along, finally halting.
"Dara," a man's voice said so sharply she blinked, looking to see who he was. Red hair. Red beard. Eric. No, no, his name was Nick. His green eyes probed hers.
"Listen up. Everyone's gone. Took off in the SUV. I've got my bike, but you'll have to ride in back hanging onto me. Let go and you fall off and die. Understand?"
There'd been a beast. "Is it gone?" she quavered, terror threatening to swamp her.
"We've got to get out of here. You heard what I said about the bike?"
She managed to nod. "Hang onto you."
"No matter what. Don't forget."
He made her don the jacket he'd put over her shoulders, helped her onto the Harley, then seated himself. Hold on, she warned herself, and gripped him around the waist as he fired up the bike. They jounced over the uneven ground until at last the ride smoothed. As they traveled onward in the dark, she laid her cheek against the back of Nick's leather jacket, clinging to him, inexplicably feeling safer than she had in a long time. Who cared where they were going as long as it was away from the ruins, away from Vida's grave.
Dara had only a dim recollection of the bike finally stopping, of being hauled off and stuffed into a sleeping bag. Was there a tiny fire? She lapsed into sleep without being sure.