I lounged on top of my mother’s grave, staring up at the graying sky. The dew from the grass clung to my hoodie and jeans, one hand resting on my bow. Its metal length felt like the comfort of a blanket, draped across my stomach and ribs. I twirled an arrow between my fingers, contemplating my pending demise, and crossed my legs at the ankles, one foot shaking lazily. My toe tap-tap-tapped against her headstone.
“Winter’s almost over,” I told her, watching the clouds pass by overhead. “My birthday’s next month…the big one-eight.”
Well, I’m already eighteen, but time travel just has that effect on a girl. I heaved a sigh. It’s amazing I’ve lasted this long.
I stopped tapping my foot to stare at the headstone.
Sarah Samantha Anders
“I know, I know,” I murmured, settling back onto the grass. “Your little girl grew up so fast these last ten years. You probably wouldn’t recognize me now. Although, dad says I’m the spitting image of you.” I smiled, moving my hand from my bow to finger the feathers braided into my hair. “You know him—always with the flattery.”
“Getta loada this,” a man drawled from atop the tall angel tombstone nearby. “She at it again.”
“Even in death, we can’t git no peace,” the other ghost, a woman this time, muttered. “Goin’ t’ talk t’ herself ’til my ears’re bleedin’.”
“Yer ears can’t bleed, Doreen. Yer dead!”
“Hush-up, Earl! Nobody ask ya.”
Ignoring the magnificently whiny duo, I forged on. “Dad’s fine. Still working hard and all that. I know he worries about me, but I’m okay. I haven’t told him how easily they’ve been tracking me down lately. I don’t want him to worry, y’know? I can handle myself.”
“I pity the poor chil’,” Earl said. “Her mom ain’t listenin’.”
“I’m listenin’—not that I damn want ta. Dronin’ on an’ on ’bout nonsense again an’ again—ridiculous!”
My jaw clenched. I was careful to stare vacantly through the two unwanted onlookers when their heads appeared above mine, obscuring my view of the late afternoon sky. It would be more of a hassle if they knew I could see and hear them; I’d learned that one the hard way. Not all ghosts were friendly. Even if they were, a lot of them were drama queens. I should know—I live with one.
I wasn’t sure how long ago Doreen and Earl died, but their southern drawls and old-era clothing told me they weren’t native to contemporary Seattle. Why ghosts traveled the globe, I’d never know. I knew why my resident ghost had, but I’d avoided speaking to others after that one time…I shuddered at the memory.
“She chatty as ever,” the dead man said. “At least she not ramblin’ about magic ’n mages.”
“Yet, ya mean,” Doreen scoffed. “As if such thins exist!”
Norms, I thought cynically. Only a non-magical being wouldn’t believe magic existed, even as she was a damn ghost floating on the astral plane.
I heaved a sigh, sitting up and getting to my feet. Daylight was burning. If I didn’t want to miss the bus back into the city, I needed to get moving.
Or, something devilish inside of me piped up, you could use your magic.
I frowned at myself.
No, I told it. The mages will find me if I do that.
Ignoring the two squabbling ghosts, I slung my quiver over my shoulder and touched my fingers to my lips before placing them against the top of my mom’s tombstone.
“Daughter, mother, wife,” I read aloud in the familiar Cherokee. Mom excelled at all three roles and so much more. “I love you,” I murmured, smiling sadly.
I weaved through the headstones, moving toward the gate that would lead to the road. Few people bothered to visit the graveyard this time of day; they were either at work or bustling home for dinner. City life was busy and the dead easily forgotten. Just not for me.
When I was halfway through the graveyard, my step faltered. Every hair on the back of my neck rose and every nerve prickled. A menacing tingle slithered up my arms, feeling the presence of five—no, six—mages nearby.
Really? Do we have to do this today?
I gripped my bow, fingers hovering over and brushing the feathers of my arrows. Their soft tickle helped ground me, even as my heart raced in my chest. I lengthened my strides toward the exit, hoping to get some distance from the latest batch of executioners sent to find me. Eyes darting left and right, I scanned the grounds for threats. My eyes landed on the black-cloaked man staring at me from across the cemetery. The overlapping sun and moon insignia on his chest told me he was a mage of the Bronze Eclipse guild.
I began to jog, picking up speed, but before I could slow my momentum, I collided into a large, hulking man when he stepped out from behind one of the tall crypts. His magical energy stung my arms on impact.
“Watch where you’re walking!” I snapped.
The hulk wasn’t amused. Faster than my eye could track, he grabbed me by the throat and slammed me against the tomb. I wheezed.
Ugh! Why do they always go for the throat?
He was too close to shoot, so I settled for a lovely knee to the groin. Once the mage doubled over, cupping himself, I put an elbow into the back of his neck. He slumped to the ground, and I nocked an arrow, pulled back, and let it fly. As my bow string thunked and vibrated, I winced at the carnage I’d wrought. Blood sprayed as the arrow unwound his calf muscle, mangling it with its power.
Running again, I sensed the other pursuers.
Dammit! I didn’t even use magic today! So much for that tactic.
I accessed the power coiling in my core, the vast center of magical energy raging inside of me like a volcanic inferno. It shivered through me, and I reached for the metaphysical plane between this world and the void, ready to get the hell out of here. Before I could flee, someone crashed into me, disrupting my concentration and my connection to my magic. My back hit the ground, knocking the air from my lungs. The weight of my bow smacked my hand painfully against the earth, but I squeezed it tighter, unwilling to lose my only means of defense.
A fireball shot past my head, the heat enough to make my skin tighten uncomfortably as the moisture was sucked from the air. I wheezed under the mage’s crushing weight as he pushed himself up. Intentional or not, this new assailant had managed to land on top of me right as his friend had tried to go for the crispy-Samantha approach.
That would’ve been a horrible way to die.
I muttered, “Thanks, buddy,” to the man now straddling me.
With him hovering above me, it was all too easy to bring up my knee, fast and hard. When the air hissed from his lungs, I shoved him off me, rolled over, and drew another arrow while he writhed in agony, holding himself. Adding insult to injury, I pulled the string back, and thwack! I popped an arrow into yet another victim’s leg.
“Catch ya later!” I waved cheerily, smiling as I sprinted away. “Sucker.”
Two down, four to go.
Panting, I wove in and out of gravestones, dodging fireballs until I had no choice but to duck behind someone’s headstone. I winced, knowing there would be scorch marks marring the stone. The second I could leave the safety it provided, I leapt into a sprint, weaving through the graveyard. My lungs burned, my throat throbbed, and my legs protested as I dodged more fire, blinking sweat out of my eyes.
I clamped my jaw shut until it hurt and tightened my fist around my bow. He’s going to destroy my sanctuary!
Even from a distance, I felt the heat on my back, almost roasting my neck and drying the feathers in my hair. The coolness of the wet, winter air stung my face but couldn’t chase the heat away. I yelped when one of the fire elemental’s flames flew a little too close for comfort.
The smell of singed hair had me glaring over my shoulder. Mother. Trucker. My hair was frizzy enough in the humidity as it was; I didn’t need Flame-On making it worse. I whirled, only stopping long enough to return fire. He incinerated my arrow with a well-aimed fireball before it could reach him, the smell of burning plastic permeating the air between us.
If it wasn’t such bad news for me, I would’ve been impressed.
I pivoted toward the tree line, hoping Flame-On would be wary of causing a large city fire. There were waist-high shrubs just a few feet from me. I jumped the hedge—more like dove—ducking into a crouch and rolling. I grunted, my spine grinding into my quiver, tree roots, and fallen branches.
I sprang to my feet and sprinted deeper into the brush. Crisp leaves crunched under my heavy footsteps, and twigs snapped as my feet pounded the uneven ground. A root hidden underneath the foliage tripped me up, and I barely managed to stay on my feet as the pull of gravity gave me momentary vertigo. Rocks, dew-slick leaves, and other nuisances hindered my escape.
I pumped my arms and ran harder, my shallow pants puffing in the cold air. My nose and fingers were going numb, and snot dribbled down my lip. I wiped my sleeve across my face, licking my lips and tasting salt from the sweat permeating my skin.
One thought filled my mind like a driving force. Run, run, run, run!
I’d lost sight of my assailants, but they’d also lost sight of me. I weaved around greenery, being sure to stay hidden as I left the mages in the dust. Climbing a sturdy tree near me, I perched, bow at the ready.
Flame-On sauntered into the woods, his remaining three friends flanking him. He wasn’t close enough for me to line up my shot, so I waited, breath lodged in my throat as he got closer. I noticed—now that I was looking—just how young he was. He and his companions couldn’t have been any older than me. In fact, Flame-On looked like the youngest of the group, and it made my disgust with the guilds that much greater.
At the same time, it was their young age and inexperience that had kept me alive so far. Maybe they were a new squad. Maybe they didn’t work well together. Whatever the case, it had worked in my favor. If they’d been a squad from the Crimson Sun guild, I would’ve been dead ten times over by now.
They came into range, so I took aim and let loose, catching Flame-On in the thigh. I tried to feel bad about hitting my mark, but I didn’t. He’d destroyed something precious to me, had taken away the last thing I held dear. After this, I’d never be able to come back here again. Rumors of this battle would reach the ears of those in the Magical Community, and the graveyard would be yet another haunt I couldn’t visit.
I’d never be able to speak to my mother’s grave ever again.
These guys should be glad I wasn’t taking kill shots. Unlike the Hunters chasing me, I wasn’t a murderer. I planned to keep it that way, but it didn’t mean I would let them return to their guild, boasting like I was some sort of coward. If they were stupid enough to take on the “dangerous”—who decided that nonsense, anyway?—Sibyl, then they would just have to return to their guild, tails between their legs. A little street cred never hurt a girl anyway.
I snorted because street cred actually was my problem.
I hopped from tree branch to tree branch, numb fingers slipping and catching pitch with each grab of my free hand. My boots thudded against the branches, the sound of the bark cracking under my feet making my heart lurch in my chest. I was making too much noise but staying put after my last shot was too dangerous. They’d locate me soon.
I bit back a curse, teeth grinding when I slipped on a branch that had had the bark peeled back by some forest critter. My boot glided over the surface, and my torso crashed into the trunk, the metal of my bow clanking against it. I wheezed, fingers digging painfully into the bark while my heart raced. Squeezing my eyes shut, I slowly uncurled my death-grip from the Evergreen.
Trying to get a different angle, I squatted on the branch before the other three Hunters could find me. I could sense that two of the remaining mages were fairly weak, but I wouldn’t count myself victorious yet. The third was packing some serious magical energy. They clustered just close enough together that I couldn’t tell if the strongest energy was coming from the guy in the middle of the two flanking him.
Come on, show me your power, I silently pleaded.
If I knew who the threat was, then I could take him down, shoot the other two without much struggle, and be home before “curfew.” Considering I worked later tonight, it was less of a curfew and more like, “If you’re not home before dark, so help me, Samantha Anders, I’ll haunt you in your afterlife!” I pursed my lips, knowing Phoenix was going to rip me a new one because the sun was setting already.
Russian roulette it is, I decided and took aim.
Something curled and snaked around my ankle, magic tingling along my skin on contact.
Take the shot!
My arrow hit just as I was pulled airborne. Crap! It was an earth elemental, and whichever mage he was, it wasn’t the guy I’d just knocked on his ass. I dangled upside-down from my ankle, feeling the branch twining up my calf.
You got this, Sam; only two left, I told myself.
Psh! With your luck, you’ll manage to get yourself killed.
If Phoenix could hear my mind-babble right now, he’d kill me.
At least we’d be dead together.
I briefly wondered if I would chill on this plane like Phoenix or move to the next—if there even was a next plane. I couldn’t be sure; he sure as hell hadn’t moved on or whatever.
I plucked an arrow from my bow. Thank the goddess for clip-on quivers. I was down to back up arrows now that my large quiver’s contents lay scattered on the ground. Three arrows. Two Hunters.
More than enough.
I scanned the brush, looking for Mr. Mother-Nature and Mr. Unknown-Entity. Leaves rustled to my left and I whipped my bow into position, took aim, and fired.
Feeling particularly cocky, I smirked, taunting, “Come out, come out, wherever you are, Mr. Mother-Nature. It’s just you and me now.”
“Wow,” a man’s voice came from my right, his tone dry. “So original.”
I shrugged, feeling the twining branches crawl along my hip and up my waist. “What am I supposed to call you when you haven’t introduced yourself?”
“Right, like I’m going to stop to greet my enemy? ‘Hi, my name’s Lucas; what’s yours?’” He mocked in falsetto.
“Captain Shoot-Your-Ass, at your service.” I gave a firm, two-finger salute, paired with a wink and a click of my tongue.
“Clearly.” Flat. Deadpan. Mr. Mother-Nature wasn’t impressed.
“Well, this has been fun, Mr. Mother-Nature”—I got a sick thrill out of watching his aura flare with irritation—“but I think I’m about overdue for my curfew. I’m gonna have hell to pay when I get home. Thanks for that.”
I let loose an arrow, but the jerk had the audacity to dodge it. I mean, how rude! Grabbing my last arrow, I sent a prayer to Hecate. My arrow sailed toward my target, burying deep into his shoulder. I immediately regretted my decision. After knocking out newly dubbed Mr. Fainty-McFainterson, his control over the earth magic dissipated.
Frickin’ figures, I thought to myself, careening toward the Earth. At the last moment, I wrapped my magic around me and shifted into Chaos, the void swallowing me whole.