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It isn’t the sound of the front door slamming that wakes me. Or even the sound of Father as he drunkenly stomps through the house toward his room to finally collapse, face down, onto his bed just before dawn. I grew accustomed to those noises long ago. Instead, it’s the sharp pain of hunger that pulls me from a deep sleep.
I lift my book from my chest and close it. The leather is worn smooth from use over the years. It’s the only one I have left from before life went to hell. I brush my hand over the cover, wrap it up in an old cloth, and place it under my pillow.
I fell asleep reading again. Father would have my head if he knew I used one of our few remaining candles.
Sliding my legs over the edge of the bed, I tiptoe across the floor, the wooden slats cold beneath my feet. I move silently to avoid waking Kathrine. She stretches out as soon as I’m gone, pulling the blankets closer toward her, and lets out a soft sigh. I pause, not moving, barely even daring to breathe as I wait to make sure she’s still fast asleep.
Kathrine stirs and rolls to her side.
“Clara?” she mumbles, still mostly asleep.
“It’s early, go back to sleep,” I shush her gently. When she doesn’t make a noise or movement of protest, I quickly slip into my worn, deerskin trousers and shrug into a thick shirt, not bothering to tie the laces at the hollow of my throat.
I pick up my boots from behind the door and slip out of the room, closing it slowly behind me while trying to keep the old hinges from screeching.
I turn to face the small room that serves as our main living area, kitchen, and dining room in one. A far cry from the luxury we used to have. The room reeks of spilled spirits. Several dirty cups and a mess of gambling tokens lay scattered across our table. I wonder how much of our meager stash of money Father gambled away last night.
I shake away the thoughts and my blooming anger—it doesn’t matter. It never matters. There’s nothing I can do to change it.
Plopping down on the bench beside the fireplace and the dying embers that barely give off any heat, I tug my boots on. They conform to the shape of my legs perfectly, even if the leather is worn around the seams. If I can make them last through the coming summer, then I should be able to stash away enough coin to buy a used pair and not have Father or Kathrine notice.
My guilt over such things has long since vanished, especially since it had somehow fallen on my shoulders to supply all our food and needs and bring home enough money for Father to lose in his near-nightly games.
I don’t even try to be quiet now as I stand, flinging my cloak over my shoulders. I head for the door, pausing to snatch up a small piece of stale bread left out on the counter. I pull my knife from my pocket and slice off the slightly molded bit then shove it into my mouth as I open the door with one hand. I snatch up my arrows and close the door behind me.
It’s chilly in the watery light of morning, but it is enough to keep the demons that haunt the forest at bay—but just barely. While it’s still early in autumn, the mornings have already begun to cool.
I walk along the dirt road, avoiding the muddy patches as much as possible. It is mostly deserted this time of day, with only an occasional cart or rider. Nevertheless, I skirt around the town to avoid being seen and turn into the grassy field that separates our small village of Littlemire from the Shade forest.
I crouch low, hurrying through the field, trying to keep from being noticed. Going into the forest is forbidden. That territory doesn’t belong to us. Though the butcher and the clothier know I go there almost daily, they keep that to themselves because I bring them meat and fur far cheaper than anyone else.
Father doesn’t care what I spend my days doing, so long as I keep bringing home money and food. I think Kitty would like to think I have some sort of honorable job in town that provides for us.
Once I hit the trees, I stand to full height and jog until I’m certain no one can see me. I pull an arrow from my quiver and knock it into my bow as I walk with near-silent steps, eyes scanning for birds or rabbits, or some other woodland creature that might make a decent meal, as well as the wild beasts, said to roam the forests hunting anyone who dares stray too far into the woods.
But those are old wives’ tales, stories told to children to keep them from wandering too far from home. They are no more real than the stories about princes rescuing girls who have suffered lives no one should have to endure. No more real than tales of unicorns and fairy godmothers, poor servant girls who are found out to be long lost princesses, or even colorful worlds, where the grasses are bright green instead of a dried yellowish hue, of flowers that blanket the countryside, or skies so blue they are the color of gems.
In those tales, the monsters are always defeated.
No, those things aren’t real. What is real is a perpetually gray sky that always has the feeling of being on the brink of a downpour. What is real is a world that was not only born of demons and monsters, but is ruled by them.
A mile in, and I’ve seen nothing so far. I roll my shoulders, then my neck, letting the tension in my muscles ease a bit. A little further, and I set a few small traps, then climb a tree and wait for something to cross my path. I’m not good with an arrow by any means, but sometimes I get lucky.
I’m already tired, and my stomach still aches. Thankfully, the small scrap of bread I ate is enough to keep it from grumbling and scaring off the prey.
Slinging my bow over my shoulder, I shove my gloves into my pockets and climb a tree with thick, sturdy branches.
My fingers are already stiff from the chill, but morning dew sticks to the bark, making it soft and impossible to climb with gloves. At any rate, I’ll need the accuracy of unburdened fingers once I reach my perch.
It takes me only a few minutes to find a branch sturdy enough to support my weight, yet high enough to avoid easy detection.
I settle in, ready my bow, and knock an arrow.
Hours pass, and weariness sets in. I debate on giving up and going into town to see if I can find a little something no one will miss, when a rustle of leaves brings me to attention.
A fat, white rabbit pops its head out from beneath the brush.
In a painfully slow movement, to avoid creating even the slightest creak from my bow, I pull my arrow back, ready to let it fly, and stop when the distant sound of someone humming a lullaby reaches me. Easing the pull I have on the arrow, I glance around, doing my best to avoid moving too much.
My eyelids grow heavy, and I find myself wanting to drift off. I jolt, sucking in a breath, and hold it.
Damn it. That was too close. My heart pounds and it’s all I can do to remain calm.
I look back to where I saw the rabbit to find a young woman sitting there. She’s humming. Her shoulders move with ever so slight movements as if she’s weaving a crown of flowers or some other harmless thing.
But she is no innocent.
She is a nightmare come to life. She is everything that is wrong with this world.
I watch her for a long moment, unsure what my next move will be. If I jump down and run, she will spot me. But my leg is beginning to cramp, and if I don’t leave soon, I’m sure my stomach will start to growl.
There’s only one thing I can do. A cold sweat breaks out across my forehead at the thought of following through.
Slowly, I lift my bow. The fletching of my arrow grazes my cheek as I pull it back. The bowstring groans, halting my movements and my breath. I wait several heartbeats making sure the monster in my sights doesn’t notice my presence before it’s too late.
My original purpose for coming into the woods today has already been forgotten.
Long, golden hair flows down her back in waves, almost as pale as her skin. A stark contrast to her dark red dress—so dark it’s almost black, like a thick pool of fresh blood.
To most eyes, she would appear to be nothing more than a young woman.
But I know better. Her impossibly graceful movements and her perfect stillness give her away for what she is.
She is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, only something far more dangerous and deadly—beautiful on the outside, but grotesque and twisted inside. From where I sit perched in my tree, she could be reading as she sits in the grass. Though I know better. She is sucking the life out of some poor, defenseless animal, watching the life leave its eyes as it can do nothing but gaze back at her in terror.
She continues to hum as she feeds, a tune so familiar and haunting. It makes my head pound. It steals whatever hesitation I might still possess.
I pull my arrow back a fraction more, my muscles straining. Then I let go.
The second I do, she stills and starts to turn her head toward me. Demons of the Otherworld help me—if she moves before it reaches her—I am dead.
The arrow sails through the air, and I hold my breath. It hits the mark, just to the left of her spine, piercing her heart. She hovers for a moment before falling face-first into the ground with a soft thud. Her hair fans out around her in a gold nimbus.
I brush the back of my hand across my forehead, wiping away the sweat that beaded.
I’ve got to go before others come for her. Before anyone finds out what I’ve done and finds me here.
I leap down from the tree and sling my bow around my shoulders. I turn to run, but some morbid curiosity holds me back. I need to make sure she’s truly dead and not faking it. Years of waiting to seek revenge on my mother’s killer, and it’s over with the flick of my wrist. It’s almost too easy to believe.
Of course, there’s no way to know for sure that she is the vampire responsible… but aren’t they all? They are all equally as terrible… all guilty of the same crimes.
I make my way toward it, as slow as I can manage, trying not to make any noise. I reach her and look down. Her flaxen hair is splayed all around her. Red slowly leeches its way in and through the strands, darkening them as it spreads.
With the toe of my boot, I tap her side, ready to bolt. I scrutinize the arrow sticking out from her back. If I leave it here, then it can be traced back to me. I have to take it even though I can’t use it again—the blood from this abomination would taint any game I used it on.
I roll her over. Her face, partially obscured by hair, is serene. She looks like she’s sleeping, but her lips are stained red with blood. The dead rabbit in her hand stares, unseeing. Her fingers are all but crushing it. The sight makes me want to retch.
I reach for the arrow, grabbing it low on the shaft and wrench it from the monstrosity. It makes a sickening slurping sound as it comes free. I shove it into my quiver.
Some of the beast’s blood is on my hands. I crouch and wipe it off the best I can on the frozen blades of grass.
Then I turn and run. I run and don’t stop until I reach the edge of town.
My breath comes heavy and I earn a few strange looks from the townsfolk, but I keep moving, wending my way through them, determined to lose myself in the crowd.
My hands shake, but I’m smiling, is probably too wide, but I can’t help it. The mixture of nerves, of fear, of vindication, is strong. For two years, I’ve been going out into those woods every chance I got to hunt. There was always a small hope I would come across one of the monsters... waiting for the one who killed Mother to return, so I could repay that life debt.
I refuse to be a food source for them. I refuse to be shoved down to the bottom of the food chain because evolution dealt vampires a winning hand long ago. I refuse to allow them to be the only ones able to seek out justice for crimes.
I make it to an alley where there are always boxes, and garbage piled up, and toss in my bow and arrows into the rubbish. I hesitate, but only for a second. It’s a waste of money, but I can’t risk having them traced back to me. It would spell death, not only for me but for my family as well. I quickly remove my jacket and the outer layer of clothes to mask my scent alongside the bow.
My own clothes are wrinkled and smell of sweat. I smooth them down as best I can, then head back out into the throng of people milling about in the square. This time, making sure I am seen by as many people who know me as possible. I even go so far as to greet some I don’t know.
I am tired and hungry and am in desperate need of a bath, but it is still many hours before I can make my way home.
Though I move slowly from vendor to vendor, my heart still pounds wildly from what I did.
Today, I have made my own justice.
Today, I have done what others in this town have only ever talked about but are never brave enough to do.
Today, I have signed my own death warrant.
I’ve just killed a vampire.