Authors: Nicole Hamlett
Written by Nicole Hamlett
Cover Art by Gina Van Meurs
©Copyright 2011 Nicole Hamlett
For SJ who believed in me enough to not nag and who helped me through my wobbly sentence structure. There wouldn’t be a book without her encouragement. Always for Alex. He's the best kid ever.
Better weather would have been nice. Storm clouds swirled black and grey above my head as the wind whipped my hair into a frenzied tangle. The battle so far had wrecked any semblance I'd had of a ponytail. A scream pierced through the howling of the wind and my voice responded with rage. As if the heavens above were waiting for my call, a deluge of hail and rain pounded against us with a fury of its own, washing away the blood on my upturned face.
What felt like only moments ago my skin had started tingling, and not in a good way. When Rift Jumpers crossed over onto our plane, Hunters got metaphorically beeped. Cue the tingly skin and upset stomach. Lucky for me, this one had been near to home so I'd responded. Ignoring the tingling and sudden stomach upset is bad news. The pain just gets worse, especially if the Jumper is malevolent.
So, I’d shown up and been faced with a creature people only thought existed in Mythology 101. The (unfortunately naked) leonine body was graced with the tail of a scorpion and horns of a bull protruding from a very human-shaped skull. Sharp, jagged teeth filled its mouth and deadly claws extended at least six inches from his fingertips.
Back to the battle: First thing everyone should know about Manticores - when they scream, they do it to intimidate and frighten their opponents. You can expect this to happen with increasing frequency as they tire. It’s their way of trying to bluff themselves into a win. The best thing to do is scream back. Calling them on it and letting them know that you're going to kick their un-holy lovin' asses is never a bad choice. Well unless you can’t kick their ass. Then you’re in trouble.
For all intents and purposes, I was going to kick some Manticore ass today. It didn’t help that the hail felt like a sandblaster against my freezing skin. After ducking another swipe and getting hit with a piece of hail the size of a marble, I swore that nothing on this Earth could stop me from finishing this up so I could get home to a nice hot bath.
He charged me and those sharp talons lashed out, grazing the tender skin of my stomach, pulling me out of my internal monologue. My limbs ached with a bone-numbing weariness. What had felt like moments had really been at least 45 minutes of non-stop combat. In the Middle Ages and beyond, soldiers would battle for hours - fighting on until the battle was won. You know what? Twenty-first century women just weren’t built with that kind of stamina. I was getting tired and my reflexes were suffering.
My kukri sliced outward - more from reflex than an innate fighting knowledge. My opponent dodged backward, his tongue lolling out of his mouth in amusement. He was mocking me? Oh, that just pissed me off. It wasn't like I woke up this morning saying "You know what? I'm gonna duke it out with a monster today!" I'd just had one of the most relaxing mani/pedis of my life and didn't expect to be ruining it with Mr. Hung-Long-Whoah, here. Most definitely didn't expect to be doing it in the middle of a muddy field. Not that he knew or cared, but he could have cut me some slack.
I dodged the next swing by throwing myself down and rolling forward. My fist shot upward, scoring a solid hit to his dangling parts. Mental note: Regardless of race, a hit to the jewels always hurts. He bent over, trying to cradle his injured appendage. Taking advantage of his vulnerability, I slashed upward with my kukri. The wound opened with the skin parting like a Ziploc bag, allowing his entrails to tumble out into the open air… and onto me.
Aww super, the contents of his belly filled my nose, mouth and eyes. I obviously hadn’t thought that one through. The Manticore screeched with surprise and rage, slashing and spitting - trying to take me out with it.
The ichor stung my eyes, blurring my vision. The muddied ground made finding traction nearly impossible. I slid and fell as I scrambled out of its reach, kicking out with my foot, trying to shove its bulk away before it collapsed on top of me. My foot scored a solid hit and he teetered backward but caught my arm on the way down leaving a six inch gouge.
“How ‘bout a little cooperation here?” I called out, exasperated, to no-one in particular. At least I was pretty certain that there was nobody around controlling this cluster of a storm.
Bellowing, he fell, his body jerking. I’d have to put this one in the guidebook, file under: “Screamers.”
Shakily, I ran my bloodied hand through my hair and felt something squish between my fingertips. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying not to gag. I rose slowly to my feet, knowing that I had to check to make sure he was really dead, but not particularly wanting to. My pocket began to buzz. Wait, what? I have service here? I reached in to check the screen. Glancing over at the corpse and praying that it wouldn't pull one of those horror movie "rise from the dead" clichés, I answered the call.
“Yeah Bubby, what’s up?” Some calls you always took. Granted, I didn’t think that I’d have answered if I’d been in the middle of getting my ass kicked, but if anyone is interrupt worthy, it’s your kid.
“Mom, we’re out of milk and don’t forget you promised to pick up the new Lego game on your way home. Hey… where are you? It sounds loud.”
“Yep, got it. Milk and Lego. Oh, you know. I’m out pursuing hobbies. I’ve taken up mudding.”
“Mudding? Is that code for your ‘other’ job?”
“It could be code,” I caged. “But isn’t mudding what it’s called when you like to play in the mud?”
“Mom, that’s so random,” he laughed. “Have I told you how weird you are?”
“Yep.” I watched a blood red eye pop open. “Look, Mom’s gotta go. Some mud just came up. Love you and I’ll see you when I get home.”
“Don’t forget the milk!”
“I won’t forget the milk.” I snapped the phone shut, and dove forward spearing that eye with the tip of my kukri. The body shuddered and bucked in its final death throes and I fell back into the mud and gunk, sighing deeply.
Being a single mom and trying to save the world was exhausting.
I pulled a flask from my bloodied cargo pants (the third pair I’d have to throw away this week) and poured thick fluid over the carcass. Its limp form glistened under the Greek fire that I carried with me to dispose of my messes. Sickly green flames engulfed the newly deceased with a flick of the match, and I stood back to watch it burn. Did it qualify me as a pyromaniac if I thought this was the best part of the job? I really hope not. I had enough neurosis going on without adding that to it as well.
Dirt and mud finally flowed over the charred remains, pulling it deep into the Earth. With a huff and a stretch, I pulled together my gear and headed back down the hill. Hey, only a slight limp this time, bonus! I was sustaining fewer injuries each time I had to do this.
Was that tarp still in the back of the SUV? I'd just had it cleaned after the last bit of nonsense. Getting Manticore goop all over my freshly cleaned seats would definitely not qualify for inclusion on the List of Things that Make Grace Happy.
I threw an annoyed grimace over my shoulder where the Jumper was now (hopefully) decomposing. I was a romance writer for the god’s sake. How did I end up fighting unimaginable nasties and then going pyromaniac?
It started with a divorce and went downhill from there when my ‘real’ family decided to join the party. What is that saying? “The family - that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our innermost hearts, ever quite wish to.”
There were times, when I truly believed that the ‘tentacle’ was literally going to be the death of me…
Does every little girl just want her life to be normal, or was that just me? Was it so wrong to want a boring old life with no shocks or surprises?
I was a living oxymoron - a girl who survived on Mystery, Fantasy and SciFi that just wanted something normal and boring. I'd hole up in my bedroom, gorging myself on the latest novel that the school's librarian had thrust upon me - but dreams of a ‘normal’ life were what got me through my days. I chalk it up to being adopted. Homecoming? Prom? Dates? Nope. My books were my sanctuary when life got a little too ‘real.’
I had few friends since I spent most of my time grounded. Grounded was, well let's just say that grounded was considered normal. It was easier for my adopted parents to keep me out of sight and out of mind. Easier...and safer. They'd brought me in as a small child, desperate because they weren't able to have any of their own.
Who knew it would be so difficult to remain devoted after they suddenly got pregnant and found themselves stuck with a kid who woke up screaming every night from the nightmares. Huge surprise, right?
Weird things started happening as I grew older, which coincidentally didn't endear me any further. I once found a lost little boy buried under the tool shed in our neighbor's backyard, his little hands wrapped around one last piece of bubblegum. Or the time that a freak storm ripped a portion of the roof off of our small house the night my adopted father - fed up with my "bullshit" - decided to beat me within an inch of my life.
After that, they stopped hurting me and just started grounding me. In their estimation, the less they saw of me, the better off they were. I can't say they were wrong.
So...yeah. Back to normal life. I wanted one. I spent so much time craving desperately the dream of the white picket fence. That's probably why I married Brandon. He was a stable computer guy for a Fortune 500 company. He seemed like everything I thought I would ever want. Handsome, stable, responsible and (let's face it) completely boring.
Unfortunately, I wasn't everything that
had ever wanted. What started off as a novelty for him had turned into Certain Hell for both of us. Looking back, I feel kind of sorry for him. He never really had a chance. You can't take a girl like me and turn her into Susie Home-Maker.
That was what brought me to this table. I stared malevolently at the divorce papers lying in front of me. They appeared so innocent and unassuming. Didn't they know they were destroying The Dream?! I was caught between bitterness and relief. Fantasies of the picket fence? Out the window. If there was an upside here, I couldn't see it. I guess I
say that I was finally free to figure out who Grace Murphy really was, but I didn't have a clue where to start. But, hey...I was free to, right? Right.
The pen shook slightly in my hand as I read over the details a second time. The words
jumped off the page and I felt my jaw tighten in anger. Calling Brandon Dylan's father was stretching it, but my kid wouldn't thank me for permanently separating him from the only father he'd ever known. It was close to impossible, but I shoved that white hot anger into that deep place inside. It would wait there, seething, until I could get to a safe, quiet place to rage it out.
I signed the papers and immediately thought "I'm free! Hurray?" I slid them across the table to my lawyer, Tom - thanked him quietly and left the office, only crying a little. Eleven years of my life - gone like a wisp of smoke. It felt like it had been too easy to sever that connection and I felt disoriented as I made my way out of the building.