Excerpt for Touch of Darkness: An Urban Fantasy Short Story (Scythe of Darkness, #0.5) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords







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Copyright © 2017 by Dawn Husted
Edited by Kelly Hopkins: http://khopkinswriter.wordpress.com

Cover Credit: BetiBup33


All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in any form by any means electronic or mechanical unless expressed in written permission of the author, except in brief quotes in an article by a reviewer.


This book is a work of fiction. Business, locations, and organizations while real are used in a way that is purely fictional.
The names, places, and events herein are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons or events or locales, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


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EBook Version
Touch of Darkness—1
st Electronic Edition


Summary: A short-story prequel to Scythe of Darkness.
ISBN: 978-1-9757-4706-0 (pbk)
1. Grim Reapers—Fiction. 2. Supernatural—Fiction. 3. High schools—Fiction.
4. Greek Mythology—Fiction. 5. Horror stories.



Printed in the United States of America









Acknowledgments

Thank you to my wonderful editor, Kelly Hopkins. I’m lucky to have such an amazing person who challenges me and brings my stories to life.

I huge thanks to my critique partners: Julie Ferguson, Rusty Markham, and Charly Stagg. Also, my proofreaders: April Boyle, Natalia Goldberg, and Chauma Smith Guss. You were essential to the revision process. I’m beyond grateful.














“Most people take taxis,” Molly says as I open the passenger door.

I had parked a couple of blocks away from Bamboo Sushi. Parking closer wasn’t a choice, the spots either filled with cars or signs warning against parking.

Times Square is only three blocks away.

“You don’t like taxis,” I murmur, realizing I know more about my new friend than I thought. I’d only known her for three weeks.

Her eighteen-year-old body is frail, arms too skinny and legs lacking muscle. The breeze whips through her spiky red hair as she steps out of my Impala.

“And neither do you, Thanatos.”

“No, I just like my car better.” Fleeing home, I bought it with cash when I reached New York and had the horrid exterior re-painted.

Molly’s legs lack definition but they don’t wobble as she stands. Dozens of people traipse up and down the sidewalk. The city noise bounces off skyscrapers, trapped between stone buildings blanketed with windows. There’s more air-flow from exhaust fumes than actual oxygen.

I lock my doors.

Thick clouds loom overhead, threatening to burst any moment, but neither of us brought an umbrella. Who cares about a little rain?

A group of girls jogs down the sidewalk, and a shoulder brushes against my back. I flinch, eyeing one who’s wearing short shorts, smiling at me. My shoulders relax. I smile back casually, because that’s what people are supposed to do.

“Oh, bugger off.” Molly rolls her eyes at no girl in particular. “Gawd, it’s like you’re Clark Kent without glasses.”

I shake my head. “What’s your fascination with Superman?” When I first met Molly, she’d mentioned him then, plus every day since in one way or another. I’ve never watched Superman movies—don’t much like movies in general.

Molly reaches for my hand, and I quickly avert her attempt. When people touch my palms, bad things happen. And I know she wasn’t doing it out of fondness. She and I are only friends.

She punches my arm and laughs. “Your germ thing is annoying. Until you get over that, I won’t get over Kent. Now, let’s get on with my last night in the city—last night in the country for that matter. Let me celebrate like a normal teenager.”

“Going to the Central Park Zoo isn’t celebrating like a ‘normal teenager.’”

“How would you know, Mr. Weirdo?”

I shrug. She finds joy in so many things. I’m not used to that. I come from a serious family and am an unfortunate recipient of an insidious personality trait passed down from my father, limiting my social options. I hadn’t hung with many fun people prior to meeting Molly.

She points into the open street. “The restaurant is that way.”

I’m good with directions and know where to go, but I don’t protest as I follow her. Crossing between parked cars, she peers left, meandering forward into the street.

At the last possible second, a silver Honda wrenches from the curb, gunning in our direction—heading straight toward her.



ϡϡϡ



3 Weeks Before

Making my rounds on the fourth floor of the hospital was different than I thought it would be. I wasn’t the janitorial type, but it was the only job available. For whatever reason, call it fate, working in a place where patients fought for life gave me a sense of belonging. Fighting for survival was the most primal part of being human—black and white, easy to relate to.

I shucked off the uniform from over my clothes and dumped the latex gloves in the trash.

“That’s not where the brooms go,” a European accent sounded from behind me. I spun around, spotting a girl that didn’t look much older than me. Eighteen, maybe?

“Who are you?” Her auburn hair was just starting to grow back in places, like a fuzzy fox with mange. I hadn’t seen her around before. But I was also new.

“Molly,” she answered, crossing her arms.

“And why do you care where I put my broom?” The word broom felt foreign on my lips. The job would take some time getting used to.

“I don’t.” Her eyes floated over the wall and the perfectly aligned bottles on the shelves.

I stepped to the side, blocking her view of the chemicals, wondering why the interest. “Then why are you here?”

“I need a ride.”

“And?”

“I’ve been watching you. You have a car.”

I squinted. “How do you know—” I began.

“I’m an observant person, and your pocket has a bulge.” Her eyes lowered to my pants.

My pocket has a bulge? I slapped my hand over my pocket. The bulge was the keys.

“Get over yourself, Blondie … and get your mind out of the gutter,” she whispered, glancing side to side down the brightly lit hallway, as she leaned forward. “You’re not my type.”

I stared at her and ran a hand through my loose hair.

The white hospital gown hung off her shoulder and matched the socks that covered her jittery toes. “You can’t go anywhere in that.” I motioned up and down at her outfit.

“I don’t care what I’m wearing, clothes are meaningless. Wherever I go when I die, I bet I won’t be wearing anything.”

I found myself stumbling over words, caught off-guard. Very out of character.

I looked over her shoulder for anyone that may be witnessing my peculiar exchange with the peculiar girl. She held out her hand for an offering. Was she expecting me to give her something?

She flipped her eyes downward at my jeans.

My keys? I thought, covering my pocket again. Nobody drives my car but me.

She glanced to the left and stepped further inside the small supply closet. I moved back, adding breathing space between us. The rubber heels of my work shoes rested on the edge of the shelf, and the plastic bottles jostled.

“Are you hiding from someone?” I asked more loudly.

She coughed and shushed me with her hands. “Why do you care?”

“I don’t.”

She crossed her arms. “Well, Kent, are you gonna swoop in to save the day or not?”

“Kent?” Who’s Kent?

She rolled her eyes and didn’t answer.

I pulled my keys from my pocket slowly, still trying to read the situation. Her fingers swiped forward, but I avoided her attempt to grab them before she could touch me. Faded puncture marks speckled the inside of her right arm. Was that the work of the doctors and nurses, or had she done this to herself?

I clenched my hand around my keys. “These are mine. Not yours.” My words were sharp. She flinched, shuffling back across the floor that I had just swept. Had I scared her? That was probably a good thing.

I didn’t come here for friends. I wasn’t much good with friends.

“Give me five minutes,” I muttered. I couldn’t say no to the brittle, pasty girl, knocking on death’s door.

She smiled. “What’s your name?”

“Thanatos.”



ϡϡϡ



I grab Molly’s shoulders just in time, yanking her backward. The car’s windows are dark, and I can’t see who’s driving. Not like it’d make a difference if I did.

Molly snatches her leg back as she jumps.

The tip of her orange shoe is bent inward like a dented can. The effing car nearly plowed into her.

“You okay?” I yell.

Flicking her middle finger in the air, she cusses out the driver that’s already gone around a corner. “I survive cancer, but some arsehole tries to run me over. You saved the day, Kent.”

“Thanatos,” I correct her.

“Kent. Thanatos. What’s the difference?” She snorts.

I chuckle too at the fact that she could laugh after nearly dying. Our darker senses of humor had jived from day one. Molly survived death, and my family took life from whomever they wanted.

“It’s nice to see you smile, Thanatos.”

Ten minutes later, I open the door into Bamboo Sushi and ask, “Want to watch a movie after we eat?” Anything but the zoo.

“No movie,” Molly replies. “I’m starving, let’s order.”

Molly had become like a sister to me, sort of. Fortunately, she’s nothing like my real sisters.

I place my order to the guy across the counter. A crash of plates sounds in the distance in the kitchen.

The line doesn’t take long to get through, but we wait five minutes for a spot to open.

Molly kicks my knee beneath the table, and I give her a fake glare. “How old are you really?” she asks. “You don’t look twenty.”

I narrow my eyes, contemplate telling her the truth and decide against it. “Do you really care?” She’s right, I’m only seventeen.

“Course I care,” she says. “Why lie about your age? Only arseholes and old women lie about their age.”

I laugh. “Guess I’m an asshole.” One that’s keeping her safe by not revealing who I really am.

“We know.” She palms the green jewel that resembles kryptonite around her neck, a fact that I had to Google before ordering it. It rests on the collar of the Superman t-shirt I’d also given her. “I don’t need jewelry from you. It’s strange. You don’t give jewelry to friends. If you haven’t noticed, sparkly things aren’t my thing”—she pauses, and her voice lowers—“and what I got you isn’t quite as … extravagant.”

I wait to answer until she stops hiding her eyes. “You’re the one going away, not me. People don’t buy gifts when they’re the ones leaving. So technically, you shouldn’t give me anything.”

She rolls her eyes and picks at her vegan sushi. “Touché. Seems like someone is getting used to this friendship thing.”

She’s right. Having someone to talk to has grown on me, which is scary.

The flimsy package is wrapped in sparkly blue, and I peel the corner.

“Ya, that’s the only paper my mom had at the moment. But wait, don’t open it!”

I halt with a torn piece of blue in my grasp.

She swipes it from my hands, leaving a void between my fingers. “Let’s make this night last. Open it later,” she says, shoving it in her purse. “Wait until after I’m gone, will you? Besides, I have something I need to confess.”



ϡϡϡ



2 Weeks Before

“Where are we headed this time, Red?” I asked Molly as we exit the spinning hospital doors. The sun lingered midway through the sky, and I slipped on my sunglasses.

“Anywhere but here. Just need some air.”

I could tell something was on her mind. I didn’t need to know her well to know that.

“Where’s the gown?” I asked.

“Don’t need it anymore. Except for one more check-up—and a celebratory party that Mom insists on having—I’m done with this place. No more chemo, no more nothing.”

“And your parents? Won’t they stop you from leaving?” I glanced over my shoulder, expecting somebody to run after Molly. They normally watched her every move as if she was ten.

“Not here today. Their helicoptering is needed elsewhere for my older brother who’s in loads of trouble.”

“And where is home? Where are you from?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know, Blondie?”

I reached for my keys.

“Not today. I just want to walk,” she said, crossing her arms.

Not saying a word, we passed Tony’s Di Napoli on the corner of 3rd Avenue.

I didn’t know what was bothering her, but tension floated from her every move. She crossed her arms, uncrossed them, and then rolled her neck. Molly was being unnaturally quiet.

Finally, she asked, “Are you afraid of anything?”

An alley off 63rd was filled with dozens of tents and homeless. We moved past, heading toward the busier street.

Molly’s pace slowed, and I took smaller steps to stay alongside her. Car horns punctuated my concentration, not helping me think.

“Maybe,” I finally replied.

“That’s not an answer.” She crossed her arms again and scratched her shoulder.

“What do you want me to say?” I felt like she was seeking a specific response, one that I didn’t know.

“What scares you?” she asked again.

One thing scared me the most, but I didn’t wish to share. I could lie. I was good at that. I had to be good at it. Death followed wherever my family went. They killed people. And I hated how I got sucked into the business one messed up way after another. I felt like a prisoner in my own family, escaping only three times before. But this time was different. I’d been gone for more than six weeks without my father finding me, dragging me back.

“What scares me is going home,” she muttered.

That makes two of us, I thought. We were a lot alike on some levels, and on other levels very very different. “Molly, the girl who doesn’t fear anything, is anxious about home?”

She nodded, looking straight ahead as we rounded the corner, heading back toward Memorial Sloan.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because after all of this”—she motioned with her hands at the general space around us—“I’m still alive. I was supposed to die. I sort of even wanted to die.” She turned to face me. “It was easier when it was out of my control. But now I’m supposed to go back to my same old life, where all my friends will expect me to be the same. I don’t want to go.”

She faced away, pushing through two guys having a heated conversation.

The weather felt warm, but not uncomfortable. Beside me, Molly closed her eyes, not watching where she placed her next steps.

“What if I walk into the street right now?” She turned slowly at the sound of honking vehicles, eyes closed, arms spread out. “Nobody would pay any attention to two random strangers in a city of chaos. No one would care.”

My throat constricted as soon as her foot rose from the curb, hovering in the air between her and the busy street.

Her body teetered, threatening to lean forward.

Would she really do it?

Four heartbeats later, I guess she changed her mind because she lowered her foot.

Opening her eyes, she took a deep breath. Relief sank into my lungs.

“Take a picture with me,” she said.

I shook my head. “I don’t do pictures.”

“Humor me, Kent.”

“No.” This was a strict rule. Online pictures could trace back to my location. I wasn’t about to break my number one rule.

She placed three fingers in the air. “Promise not to post it anywhere. Cross my heart, hope to die.”

I squinted. “I just don’t like my picture taken.”

“Righttt.” Her word was drawn out as if questioning my response.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Thanatos, I know you’re hiding from something. I just don’t know what it is. Eventually, we all have to face our fears.”

That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.



ϡϡϡ



Molly points at the small, rectangular package containing red logograms and the words Bamboo Sushi printed beneath. “Toss me those chopsticks.”

I fling it in the air like it’s a game, but she catches them, nearly striking a random stranger passing our table.

“Anyone could’ve caught that.”

“Only someone with mad softball skills.” Her accent is fun. I can’t quite place where she’s from, and she won’t tell me until I guess correctly.

Before we finish eating, she unclasps the necklace and hands it to me. “I can’t accept this.” She pauses. “Feels wrong.”

I shake my head with my mouth semi-full of California Roll. I swallow. “Not taking it back.”

“Look, I barely know you—”

I raise my hand in the air, stopping her from persisting. “Please, do me a favor, keep it.” I have nobody else to give it to.

She presses her lips together and clasps the necklace back on.

After we finish eating, we head for Central Park.

“You still haven’t confessed,” I say as we cross 1st Avenue in a line of people.

Her eyes shoot over to mine. She licks her lips and grabs lip balm out of her purse. “Promise that if I tell you, you won’t freak.”

A red-and-yellow pedicab pedals down the sidewalk, exiting the park. Molly puts her arm up, waving him over.

We climb inside the carriage before she spits out the words, fast. “I took a picture of you without you knowing … and found out who you are.”

“You what?” I snap. “Molly, you have no idea what you’ve done.” Our bodies sway as the pedicab starts moving. My breathing quickens, and the blood in my veins boils.

“Thanatos, your parents have been looking for you for weeks,” she says quickly in defense.

“Tell me you didn’t call them.”

She shakes her head. “Of course not. I’m not dumb.”

Well that’s still in question.”

“Arsehole.”

I could smell the zoo before seeing it—the odor of elephant poop—or maybe that’s just my unexpected, crappy circumstances. With a clenched jaw, I contemplate the situation.

Are we being followed?

Are they already here?

Old feelings of being back in my parents’ home, on alert, analyzing every move every day, rush back with horrid velocity. “Did you post my picture online?”

“Kind of, but not really.” She pauses. “It was an app, but I deleted it immediately.”

“Is there anything else I should know?”

“No.”

My teeth hurt as I release the tension in my jaw. “Look, let’s not talk about it. Not now. Not tonight. In fact, let’s leave and I’ll drop you off. Tonight is pointless, you’re leaving, and you can’t prevent that. You’re only drawing out the inevitable.”

The color drains from her cheeks. “Well, if that’s the way you think of tonight. I thought we were friends—having fun. If it’s pointless.…” Her voice trails away along with a wavering smile.

What am I to say? Part of me feels bad, but my instincts tell me to run. If I leave now, there may still be time to get away. How long would it be before they found me again?

“I’m sorry. It all just caught me off guard,” I pause. “So the zoo?” I don’t want to be nice, but I am anyway. “You’ve seen one zoo, you’ve seen them all,” I counter. I don’t like zoos. Observing the confined animals makes me feel claustrophobic.

She crosses her arms and shakes her head. “You promised you wouldn’t back out. It'll be awesome. Thanatos, you have to experience all of New York, even lame destinations, but the zoo isn’t lame. It’s fun.”

If she knew what she’d really done by uploading my picture, she’d beg me to take her home. Wish she’d never met me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell her the truth? I liked having a friend.

Molly flicks her hand in the air as if shooing my words away. “We’re going.”

A trace of rage—maybe fear—still hovers beneath my skin.

I had to change the subject, otherwise I would explode. “Romania,” I blurt, guessing where she’s from.

Molly smiles, not seeming to mind the change of topic.

“Ireland.”

“Nope.” She laughs.

Slowly, as long as I don’t focus on it, my anger dissipates.

“Russia.” I know she’s probably not from Russia, her accent isn’t harsh enough, and I’d already guessed it once before. The carriage rolls over bumps. Our backs jostle up and down.

When I was much younger, I had been around the world, traveling different places. Places my father had lived in time-to-time, history as he called it. But I wasn’t interested in his history. I wanted as far away from him as possible. That’s how I ended up in New York. If I want a chance at blending in, this is the place to do it—until I chose to be friends with Molly, against my better judgment.

“Sweden,” I say.

She swipes her invisible long hair over her shoulder. “You’re terrible at this.”

I wonder what she looked like before she had cancer. Would we have gotten along?

As the cyclist takes a sharp left toward the entrance of the zoo, I stop guessing.

I have an eerie feeling we’re being watched, one I’d had numerous times when I’d skipped town. I squeeze my fists, scanning the park from the confines of the carriage.

“Is something wrong?” Molly asks.

I release my grip. “Stay here.” With vigilant eyes, I climb out.

ϡϡϡ



1 Week Before

Colorful balloons and confetti scattered across the counter. Nurses gave Molly hugs while her mom sliced into the rainbow colored cake that was over two feet long.

Molly smiled and said, “Thank you for keeping me alive.”

Sniffles rose in volume, making me uncomfortable.

A brass bell hung from a sturdy pole in the floor. Molly shook the clapper one time. The ring echoed throughout the halls and everyone quieted until the noise faded into small heroic nothings.

As the nurses munched on cake, I spied the clock. It was nearly time.

Slipping away, I headed to a room that I’d been wanting to visit. A room that housed a criminal who was currently on his deathbed.

Three guards took rotations. This time, Leon was on post, and he adhered to breaks like I adhered to changing the oil in my car—routinely and with precision. I guess he wasn’t too worried about the old man escaping.

Peeking around the corner, I waited for Leon to disappear through a set of doors.

With one thought in mind, I walked fast. Without wasting time, I pushed open the heavy door.

Inside the room, it was cold and dark. The blinds had been drawn shut, casting shadows over the bed where the criminal slept. A long beard covered his neck, more hair than what was on his head.

He was sleeping, or at least I thought he was. Halfway to him, his eyes opened.

I grabbed his chart from the foot of the bed and scanned his medical history. He had Laryngeal Cancer.

“What do you want?” he mumbled, his voice rough.

I placed the chart back in its slot, eyeing him.

“I want to know what you did.” I motioned toward his handcuffs hooked by a large chain to the edge of the bed.

He studied my janitorial outfit. “I’ve seen you before.”

I already knew the crime he committed. I’d overheard a few workers talking when they wheeled him in days earlier. He kidnapped his ex-girlfriend and stabbed her ninety-three times.

The bearded man didn’t deserve to live. He didn’t deserve his cushy existence in a hospital bed with fluffy pillows to prop his head. I’d cleaned his room a couple times, but I’d never been allowed alone with him. My palms throbbed.

He laughed painfully with an evil grin, exposing gaps between yellow teeth. His matted beard was stained, and his eyes jaundiced.

I gradually approached him, not with fear, but with a predator’s pace. Removing my latex gloves, I stuffed them in my pocket.

“Was she the only one you killed?” I asked.

I lessened the distance between us and placed my hand on the bump in the white quilt where his leg lay. Locking eyes with him, I cocked my head to the side. I didn’t place my hands on many people, knowing the pain it caused them. But as time lingered, if I didn’t touch anyone, my hands itched for connection. I’d been this way since birth, and had twice contemplated chopping them off.

His dingy grin melted away with his imperious demeanor.

Placing my palms on him would only take a second, but I wouldn’t kill him. Death would be coming soon for him anyway.

Without time to spare, I slapped one hand over his mouth. At the same time, I grasped his left arm with my other hand. Muffled, wet screams attempted to escape beneath my palm.

I bent closer, coldly staring into his eyes, inches from his face.

A euphoric wave rushed through my fingertips and up my wrists.

I held on tighter, not wanting to let go.

His eyes rolled into the back of his head.

Tremors overtook his arms, flinging his right hand out to the side, yanking the long chain. A clanging sound caught my attention; a cup had fallen from the table next to me. The sound snapped me back to reality. What am I doing?

I looked down at the cup and back up at him.

Unsure if he could hear me, I uttered, “You will die. Soon. But not today.” I wanted so badly to leave my hands on him—to kill him—but the other half of me thirsted differently. I wasn’t a murderer. I wouldn’t be, not for this. Not for him.

I released my clammy hands.

The bearded man panted for oxygen. His heart monitor raced and I unplugged it before he passed out or anyone noticed. His chest rose up and down. I swiftly exited, realizing how close I had come to being exactly like my family.



ϡϡϡ



Scanning nearby trees and faces of people, nothing appears out of the ordinary. Am I being paranoid?

If they hadn’t shown up yet, a few more hours wouldn’t make a difference. After all, maybe Molly’s search hadn’t alerted anyone, and I’m worrying for nothing.

Large letters edge the top of the Central Park Zoo, and a ginormous grayish-orange clock towers in the distance.

Beneath the entrance, I open and close my mouth to protest.

“C’mon Thanatos.” Molly grabs my arm, and I let her yank me forward. “You’re gonna love it.”

“Sure I will.”

Inside, the zoo smells like caged animals and mucky water. Hundreds of people mill about. Kids sit along a waist-high wall, bordering flowerbeds filled with Korean mums.

In the center, a crowd has gathered around a large octagonal tank with clear sides. The source of the filthy water, I think.

Above the tank, a flag with a picture of sea lions whips in the wind.

Why hasn’t it rained yet? The clouds are still thick in the sky, but they thin in the distance. I’m banking on the rain more than ever, giving Molly a legitimate reason to leave.

Observing the confines, I can’t help but notice all the signs with animal outlines. Animals that shouldn’t be here, caged for the rest of their lives. To my left is a café, and on my right, a gift shop lined with red brick.

Molly unfolds the shiny map and points to the left. “The Temperate Territory, let’s go!” She smiles.

I roll my neck and follow her. She’s like a kid, all giddy and not as tired as she seemed hours before.

How can anyone like this place? “What is the Temperate Territory?” I murmur.

“You’ll just have to suffer from anticipation,” she says over her shoulder. “Now catch-up.”

As I pick up speed, a visceral feeling slithers down my spine and I quickly spin around. Running my eyes over every face, I skim the dense area.

In my peripheral, something moves, and I fling my hand outward to stop the danger. But the danger is a kid, and my arm bumps off his chest. He had jumped out from the bushes to scare his friend. Seeing my face, the two of them scurry off.

“Thanatos! Come on,” Molly hollers, motioning for me to hurry.

Goosebumps prickle my neck. On alert, I catch up quickly so she doesn’t yell my name again. For once, I wish she’d call me Kent, something that wouldn’t draw attention from anyone that may be following us.

A pergola lines the pathway to the entrance with two brick pillars on either side. A green flag waves from a pole: Temperate Territory. The exhibit doesn’t sound so bad.

“Ready for some pandas?”

“Pandas?”

The moment I enter the pathway, the humidity is thick and smells of wet earth.

Barriers and giant cages spring off one long, curvy path.

One enclosure holds a snow leopard, pacing across the edge of a pond.

I step closer, pressing my palms to the glass as I stare at him. His muscles ripple beneath his spotted fur, and he exits beneath a small opening into a tunnel.

“Probably feeding time,” Molly whispers next to me.

Another leopard appears from behind a leafy plant, heading to the tunnel too, but the door slides shut before he reaches it.

Swallowing, I say, “Let’s keep moving.”

As we exit the Territory, Molly pulls me toward the Tropic Zone, a separate building. A sign filled with bats, birds, and snakes sticks out of the ground next to the entrance.

“Someone’s likin’ the zoo, huh?” she asks, nudging my side as I open the door rather hurriedly. A wall of cold air floats over my arms.

My need to enter had nothing to do with enjoying the zoo. I want this over with, and to leave here as quickly as possible.

The door slowly closes behind us.

I pause mid-step when I hear the kind of scream that I’d heard numerous times before. The kind of scream that sent bone-shivering chills up people’s arms.

Molly grabs my shoulder, her nails dig into my shirt. “What was that?” The scream is muffled since we’re inside a building, but as soon as one yell resonates, more join in. Like a rippling effect filled with wails and screeches, it becomes louder and louder, amplified by the glass walls and concrete floors.

The glass doors of the Tropic Zone swing open. Hordes of people trample inside. Why are they running?

I square my shoulders, ready for whatever is about to happen. If my family is here, I won’t go without a fight. But the doors close, and nobody attacks me.

“I’ll be right back,” I say flatly, tearing from Molly and moving toward the door. “Stay here!”

Shoving through the crowd, I force my way outside. Running down the pergola path, I spot the problem.



ϡϡϡ



2 Days Before

I wrapped the Superman shirt and necklace in a paper-sack, fastening it with tape. I’d never bought a gift for anyone before. I barely knew Molly, but in three weeks, she was the only unexpected friend I had. And it felt right to buy her something with her leaving soon.

Putting the tape back in the drawer, I noticed my pen missing. Now, to most people, this may come across as nothing, a misplacement of items. But for me, I kept everything I owned in a specific place. I wasn’t OCD, I was just attentive to detail.

I owned two pens; one that the landlord had given me upon renting the place and the other from the mechanic that painted my Impala. I kept one in the kitchen, and one in this drawer.

Rubbing the back of my neck, I closed the wooden drawer slowly.

Straightening my legs, I walked into the kitchen and opened each cabinet. Was anything else out of place? I checked underneath the sink, in the pantry, and then went to my room.

The covers on my bed were perfectly straight, no disturbance in the top blanket.

In my closet, each plaid shirt hung in place above my extra pair of boots. I didn’t have much, but what I did have was where it was supposed to be.

Ripping open the bathroom door, a faint smell of perfume lingered. Such a small amount, I hadn’t even noticed it at first. But whose would it be? No one else had been in here except for me.

My bathroom was small, and the black shower curtain wide. Staring at the empty tub, I ran my hands along the walls, as if there might be a secret entrance.

No one was in my apartment.

I hadn’t slept well the night before. Was my tired mind playing tricks on me?

Entering the living room, I bent down to grab the wrapped package and spotted the black pen beneath the legs of the side table.

Maybe I had dropped it earlier when I removed the tape?



ϡϡϡ



Padding down the center of the main walkway is a leopard—free. No zookeeper. No restraints. Where are the guards?

Not far is an overturned stroller. A mother is trying to unlock her baby, but she appears to be having an issue with the belt. Beside her are two boys—the same two boys that had jumped from the bushes.

The leopard turns in their direction. His legs flex, and his upper body hunches lower to the ground with each thick step.

Without waiting, I take off in a full sprint. My feet barely touch the ground.

With one swoop, I skid in front of the family, scraping my palms across the stone floor as I come to a stop. The mom’s eyes widen as they meet mine, and she frantically yanks the stroller straps.

I turn to face the leopard, bending my knees in effort to lower to his level. I want him to see me, not them. The tips of my fingers brush a cold bench to my side, and the legs wobble. It isn’t adhered to the ground.

A wet snarl escapes his mouth. Teeth flash.

I reach for the bench. In that same moment, the leopard leaps for me.

With all my strength, I fling the bench between me and the leopard. Its nails dig into the back of my hand, and I shout with pain. “Get off!”

Managing to untangle from his weight, I whack him across the face, but he seems unfazed. With my palm, I smack him again. He yelps, jumps off, and runs into the bushes.

The mom and her kids run safely inside a concession stand.

Molly.

Pushing with my shoulders through the mass of people hiding in the Tropic Zone, I hear her yell, “Thanatos!”

I get closer.

“Your hand!” She reaches for my hand, but I pull away before she touches me.

“I’m fine. Really. It’s just a scratch.”

“You’re bleeding.”

I take my shirt off and wrap it around the wound. “I’m good now. No blood.”

“What happened?”

“A leopard is loose.”

With an incredulous stare, her voice stutters. “Th-that’s w-what people are saying. But I thought they were just idiots. Oh my Gawd, are you okay? What did you do?”

She reaches into her purse. “I’ve got some antibacterial gel … doesn’t get infected.” Her words fade as she digs around in her small purse.

It’s merely a scratch. I’m fine, but trying to convince her of that appears out of the question. “Guess I should’ve given this to you earlier.” She tosses my blue gift to me and keeps searching. “It’s so dark in here. I need a light.”

“Now?” I say, referring to my present.

“Open it.” Using the light from her phone, she digs back in her purse; her attention divided between me and whatever it is she’s looking for.

My hand aches, but it isn’t bad. I rip open the corner of the gift. The package is flimsy, and the layer of paper comes off in one swoop.

“You got me gloves?” Black leather gloves.

She smiles, chuckling. “You like?”

The speakers chime on. “Ladies and gentleman, the situation has been resolved. Please make your way to the exits. The zoo is closed for the rest of the day.”

Gasps float from the packed people—some standing, others sitting, and a few pacing.

I laugh. “A fun day at the zoo.”

Molly rolls her eyes. “Ouch!” she yelps, yanking her hand from her purse. “Something poked me!” She reaches back inside.

Movement over her shoulder catches my eye. Movement from something—someone. Someone with long blonde hair and fair skin … “I’ll be right back.”

“Ah!” Molly flings a snake out of her purse. “What is that?” Her voice shakes as she falls back with a look of confusion and horror.

People scatter around us, rushing to the exit. An elbow knocks my head, but I don’t budge. The blonde girl turns around, coming closer. I was right. It’s Kir—my sister.

The moment I see her, she skips forward. My eyes dance around, checking for the rest of my family.

She’s alone. The tightening in my chest loosens a bit.

Kir closes the distance between us fast. I watch her every move.

Her long lean, vulturous hands pick up a snake. “This Taipan was hard to find,” she says. Her dark nails match the color of the thin, wiggly body in her grasp. She pinches the tiny head behind its jaw. The belly of the snake is lighter in color, and it’s a baby. Its tail flings downward before instinctively wrapping around her arm.

“Daddy wants you back.”

“How did you find me?” My sister’s rancid perfume is overwhelming, and is the same smell that lingered in my bathroom the week before. “Trying a new fragrance?” I ask with sarcasm.

“Your friend is pretty.”

I stepped to the side, not taking my eyes off of her, blocking her view of Molly.

She grunts. “I’ve been watching you for days. Molly Lace Patrinelli—I know who she is. I know all about her.” She grins, and I know what that grin means. It’s a grin I’d seen over and over again growing up, right before she kills someone.

I motion at the corners of the ceiling. “Smile. You’re on camera.”

“Think that’s ever stopped me?”

Kir had a one-track mind.

“What do you want?” I ask.

“Dad wants you home.”

“He always wants me home. What is it this time?”

“You know the answer to that. He wants you to be a part of the family. A family that you can’t get rid of by running away.” She pauses. “And your 18th birthday is approaching. You know what that means.”

Bile inches up my throat at the thought of returning home. “Of course I know what that means. That’s why I won’t be leaving with you.”

With those words, Kir shoves me aside, but not before I grab hold of her free arm. “It’s not going to be that easy,” she hisses.

I thrust my elbow at her face, attempting to knock her in the nose. She turns before I make contact, and I trip backward, tumbling to the ground like a brittle weakling.

With the heel of her boot, she presses the tip to my throat. I toss her leg off me and kick her other from beneath her. She slams to the ground, hip first.

Maybe I could distract Kir long enough for Molly to escape?

Her red lips part and a deep-throated chuckle escapes, the olive snake still coiled around her arm. “You can’t hurt me, Thanatos. You’ve tried before, it never ends well. Besides, I think you should worry more about Miss Molly.” Kir’s gaze turns to Molly, whose body sags and nearly falls over.

Molly coughs up blood. “I—can’t—breathe.” Spurts of blood dribble down her chin. “What’s happe—ning?”

Kir unwraps the snake from her arm and places it in a dark red purse, cinching the top closed.

“You did this?” I ask, suddenly realizing that Kir was responsible. “How did you get that in here?”

“Her organs are shutting down,” Kir replies, smiling.

I scramble to Molly. Her hands droop by her sides. With a stiff neck and weak eyes, she focuses on me. “Help.”

“I have the antivenom,” Kir suggests.

“Give it to me!” I say.

“Molly’s body is becoming paralyzed. She’ll die an agonizing death. Even with the antivenom, she may not live.”

“Give. It. To. Me.” My words are sharp. I thrust my arms out for Kir, grabbing one hand around her neck, and then the other.

Kir doesn’t fight back.

I braid my fingers.

“On one condition,” she mouths.

My eyes narrow. “What?” I spat, nose to nose, eye to eye.

“Come back with me.”

I shake my head and squeeze her tighter.

She grins. “Then your friend dies.” Kir’s face turns purple, but she doesn’t scuffle.

I don’t want to go home.

But what about Molly?

She’s only one person, one death … Is she worth returning to the one place I hated most?

With one look at Molly, I know I can’t let her die. I release my fingers.

She doesn’t have long. “Fine. I’ll go. Now, hand it over!” I say.

The purple recedes, and Kir removes a pouch from her boot. She unzips it, handing me an icy syringe. “It has to stay cold or it’s no good.”

For Molly’s protection, I put on the leather gloves she gave me and pop off the cap to the needle. Carefully, holding Molly’s limp arm, I insert the antivenom.

“You will be okay. I promise.”

But I can’t promise, I can only hope.

“If she dies, deal’s off,” I spit, not looking away.

Molly was right; I have to face my fear. I have to face my Reaper family. I should’ve told Molly no the first day she approached me at the hospital.

Now, staring at her fragile body and chest quivering, I have to go home—if she lives.

Molly’s eyes close.

I grab her hand, something I’d never done before. The seconds tick by slowly. My shirt clings to my back from sweat trickling down my neck.

“Molly?” She doesn’t budge.

“How long before it takes effect?” I ask Kir.

“It doesn’t reverse the damage, only prevents symptoms from advancing. She was weak, probably won’t do any good,” she replies, casually retying her hair behind her head.

Shock rolls up my arms, and my stomach tightens. I focus on Molly’s chest, searching for any sign of life, but it doesn’t tremble or gradually rise. When did she stop moving?

“Molly?” I remove my gloves in a last attempt to bring her back, to jostle a reaction from her lifeless body.

Placing my fingers over her wrist, I hunt for a pulse. Skin to skin contact, and she still doesn’t move.

There’s no pulse.

“We better get out of here,” Kir says.

I lower my hands from her skin. My body feels cold despite the sweat streaming down my nose.

Battling the urge to rip Kir’s face off by her dainty little nose, I stand. My fists shake, gripping the gloves that Molly had given me. More than ever, I have to figure out a way to end this battle of alliance. Through clenched teeth, I say, “Let’s go home.”



Book One

Scythe of Darkness

Dawn Husted

***********

"This book fits snugly into the pre-existing genre of girl meets mysterious boy, and yet manages to impressively stand on its own." - Amanda, Read It & Weep Blog

"OMG I will not lie to you, this was some of the first true romance fiction I've ever read ... and I was not disappointed." Elle, Anything Novel Society

Bold, irresistible, and beautifully written, Scythe of Darkness explores a star-crossed destiny in a whole new way.

www.DawnHusted.com



























One





The compulsion to find him made me slightly crazy.

My knees shook, vibrating my full-size bed; my headboard tapped the wall like Morse code. Restlessness overtook my feet. I wished my parents would leave already.

The same moment I tossed another knife, a knock jolted the door. “Mia, we’re going. Sure you don’t want to come? Fresh air,” my mom urged in her counselor voice, an unfortunate result from all the years as an adviser at my little brother’s school.

I flung my third knife, whipping it next to the others. Knife throwing calmed my nerves, and mine were buzzing like phones during study hall. Adding to my angst, the anniversary of my kidnapping loomed around the corner.

I slid off the bed and breathed in a steady breath before opening the door. She flashed a toothy grin, trying to hide the meaning behind her inquiry. I knew what she wasn’t saying: not accompanying them to the county fair was out of character. “Are you feeling okay? Is this about Trip?”

Trip and I broke up last week, but I wasn’t thinking about him in the slightest.

“Mom, really. I’ve a ton of homework … a chemistry test, never mind the essay.” Only eight months left of my junior year. I’d filled out Berkeley’s mandatory questionnaire last week, but the essay portion remained unfinished.

I avoided her eyes. She was good at telling when I was lying. I needed to move, not look her in the face. I stepped from view and plucked the scarlet handles out of the bullseye, one by one. I didn’t want her to think I was up to something. My unusual talent had left a few painted-over scars in the door.

Mom slipped her face further around the side and squinted as if trying to read my thoughts. Thick dark-brown strands of hair slid over her bronze shoulder. My hair was cursed with no thickness whatsoever but had instead acquired my dad’s double cowlick. “All right. Love you, Mia,” she replied, then gave me a kiss on the forehead, probably hoping I would change my mind, and left.

I heaved a sigh of relief.

If I went with my family to the fair and ran into him again, my mom would surely be watching over my shoulder, making the interaction doubly weird. She had this uncanny ability to wiggle herself into my measly social life whenever possible.

A little voice in the back of my head—not an actual voice, but something—like a mental itch I couldn’t scratch—compelled me to find Eye Guy. And what better place than at the fair, the same place I first ran into him two days ago? The day I’d smashed a basket of nachos all over his shirt by accident. Did I know him somehow?

Eye Guy wasn’t from my school; I would’ve seen him in the halls. Who was he? He had two different-colored eyes—heterochromia iridium—which was why I dubbed him, Eye Guy.

I snatched my backpack off the round chair in the corner of my room, stuffed my chem book inside, plus the binoculars and the camera Uncle Shawn had given me.

My eyes slid shut and I listened for the sound of the front door closing.

Wham.

Scurrying over to my window, I watched the three of them walk toward the street. My eight-year-old brother, Bennie, yanked back-and-forth on my parents’ hands toward a waiting car. They were catching a ride with neighbors.

With a lightness in my chest, my pulse raced. It was now or never.

I rushed down the stairs two at a time. The aroma of popcorn wafted past my nose, as I swung off the mahogany banister and darted into the kitchen for a little to-go snack, and then out into the garage to grab my bike.

Old boxes of memories lined the edges of the bay, allowing just enough space for our only vehicle. I inched in between the hood of the old van, squishing a box with my butt, me popping out the other end. The bike was important; I needed a faster mode of transportation so I could hustle home before my parents returned.

I glided down Ponderosa, the uneven pavement vibrating from my seat all the way up to my neck, and turned left onto Birmingham—a roundabout way to bypass my parents. Beneath an old bridge, homeless huddled in the dark corners; a few stragglers glared at the lights and sounds singing in the distance, blocks away.

The top of the water tower dotted the sky, beyond the overgrown trees and shingled roofs. The sun clung to life in the clouds, streams of lavender highlighting the horizon.

I peddled faster.

Ten minutes later, I arrived at the water tower. A white sign with red letters warned KEEP OUT along the fence. I looped my fingers through the chain-links and whipped my head side-to-side. People weren’t allowed on government property. But being that I was only seventeen, obtaining a mark on my record for breaking and entering wasn’t as big of a deal.

The weight of my bike became heavier the higher I lifted; the aluminum frame fumbled from my grasp, slamming the wheels to the ground on the other side.

Now it was my turn.

Plop.

I stood at the bottom, gazing up. A shoulder-width ladder looped from the concrete to a narrow balcony that rounded the center of the bulbous top. The water tower looked like an upside-down ear syringe. The red bold letters painted around the tank had begun to fade, but I could still make out the city name: Gaige, Texas.

I halted mid-step. The feeling of a hundred butterflies fluttering down my chest gathered in the pit of my stomach. I lurched forward, gripping the metal ladder for support. The butterflies metamorphosed into thundering dragonflies, their wings beating against my insides.

I squeezed the ladder, my nails digging into my palms. Why had the sudden pain erupted? I wanted it to stop!

The little voice in the back of my head told me to climb. Logically, it didn’t make sense, but somehow, I knew Eye Guy couldn’t be too far away. The right side of my brain advised me of the odds of spotting some random stranger in the chaotic mass of the fair. But I had to try.

I climbed through the pain, finding it hard to breathe.

At the top, I fell over onto the balcony.

The dragonflies in my stomach fluttered away. What was happening?

Breathing in, I shucked off my backpack and grabbed the binoculars. Immediately, I began searching the enormous, far-off crowd. Drums thundered from the streets filled with thousands, and voices clamored into the distance. Triangular tangelo flags waved. Flashes of blue lights glimmered sporadically above the sea of heads. A band’s music boomed from the stage, and the whine of guitars faded in the background.

I reached for the popcorn, remaining fixated on the hordes of people. I stuffed a handful in my mouth without looking away.

A magnetic-like pull, stronger than before, honed my focus to the outer edge of the fair.

Ten heartbeats later, I spotted him; for the first time luck was on my side.

Near the outside, behind the Pig Race tent and in front of the Mirror of Mazes, Eye Guy walked slowly through a group of girls sporting short shorts and spaghetti strap shirts. I watched him in reverence as he squeezed through. He wore a long-sleeve plaid shirt and black gloves, just like two days ago.

Why would he dress so warmly? It was September.

But, I had to admit, he pulled it off. My eyes locked on his back as he meandered through the mass. I tossed another handful of popcorn into my mouth then dropped the binoculars and snapped a few photos. My hands shook, making it hard for the camera to focus. Calm down, Mia.

I grabbed the binoculars again and zeroed in. The range of vision was as if I was standing right next to him.

He halted mid-step to chat with a tall blond in a red leathery outfit, a girl as unique and pretty as him but with a body much curvier than mine. Her heels matched her flashy wardrobe, and the dark eyeliner that mapped the outside of her eyes resembled that of a rabid raccoon. My toes wiggled against my rubbery flip-flops.

It was apparent Eye Guy and she knew one another by the way they stood inches apart—he with his arms crossed. I narrowed my eyes. The girl’s hand remained poised on her hip as she scanned the crowd; her serious expression left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Then his eyes narrowed in midst of their conversation. He unfolded his arms as a group of scrawny kids my brother’s age bounced into a trashcan, toppling it over, spilling rotten contents out next to his boots.

His attention turned back to the girl. Her lips moved too fast for me to make a measly attempt at trying to read them—especially since I lacked skills in that department. But the manner in which his lips pressed together as his square chin jutted downward, one word stood out: Mia.

Unless he said ‘me’ and not ‘Mia.’

The binoculars thudded against my chest, and I froze. Had I seen that correctly? Did he really say my name?

“Of course not.” Many words could appear to look like my name: many, milli, mile, melon if the -lon was left off. Maybe they were simply discussing dinner plans, or whatever other hundred things that I hadn’t thought about. I bet he didn’t have a clue who I was. How would he?

I raised the binoculars back up slowly.

The second I found him again, his face snapped upward—up into the shadows where I was hiding; I jerked back, my hands lost grip and the binoculars slipped from my grasp, whacking the railing.

Was I seeing things?

I grabbed the binoculars and looked again, but he was gone. The girl too. I swam over every head, every face, but he was gone.

And just like that, the magnetic pull faded.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dawn Husted is the author of young-adult books. She graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in Human Resources. Two years later, her passion for writing grew. When not writing, she’s either camping or dreaming about camping. She lives in southern Texas with her husband and two kids. Find out more at dawnhusted.com.


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