A deep, hollow grief filled her, so strong that it nearly overpowered the lightning bolt of pain that streaked through her chest. Cold crept insidiously through her veins, a sickening contrast to the burning pain. Every breath that she struggled to drag into her lungs felt like she’d plunged in the dagger all over again.
The moans of the dying filtered weakly through the walls of the house in which she lay, creeping through the thatch of the roof and wrapping around her brain, her soul, and sucking the life from her all the faster. Her warriors lay dying outside in the mud and blood of war.
The sounds of her failure to protect her people, her daughters, reverberated through her mind and soul like thunder.
She gasped as a streak of pain tore through her chest. Why did it take so long to die? Perhaps because she didn’t really want to die, and hadn’t plunged the blade to its greatest effect. But it was only right. Her death would ensure the end of the war, and she’d rather it be at her own hands than those of her enemy.
“Why?” the man holding her rasped. “Why do this?” His pain was palpable, but the only thing she felt was rage at his betrayal.
Diana Laughton’s fingers stopped on her computer’s keyboard and she stared at the words she’d just written. What the hell? She was a historian, damn it. She wrote historical analysis, not historical fiction.
But it was happening again.
Only...different. Worse. She rubbed a sore spot on the back of her wrist and inhaled deeply of the brisk October air that blew through the open window. It smelled of leaves and carried the heavy, wet scent of impending rain.
She scrubbed at her eyes, which were gritty with exhaustion. The dreams that had haunted her on and off since childhood were coming more often, taking over her mind whether she was asleep or not. She felt what the dying woman felt, smelled what she smelled, and saw what she saw.
And wondered if she was finally going crazy.
A knock sounded on the door. Diana jumped. A statuesque woman, her striking face topped with wild dark hair, popped her head into Diana’s small office.
“Hey, Diana,” Vivienne said. “I’ve a break between classes. Do you want to go grab a coff— Oh, hey, are you all right? You don’t look so good.”
Diana looked up at her friend. The Egyptology textbooks in her fellow professor’s hands, combined with her flowing, colorful scarves, presented an image of worldly and adventurous scholarship that Diana never failed to appreciate. For what felt like the thousandth time, Diana admired the casual bohemian elegance of her closest friend.
Whereas Vivienne spent much of her time traveling through Egypt’s deserts in search of ancient sites, Diana had spent the last few years preparing her latest manuscript. That meant research and libraries, not world travel and exotic sites. She’d been content, mostly, to stay back and work on the research that had obsessed her for years. But sometimes...
“Ugh, it has been a day,” Diana said. “I could definitely use a break. I was about to head out anyway to meet the postman.”
She mashed her finger against the delete button and almost sighed as the muscles in her shoulders began to relax.
“Is it that dream again?” Vivienne asked.
“Yeah. It’s been getting worse.”
“Did the dream still feel familiar?”
It sounded crazy when Vi said it like that. Hell, it was crazy. Vi was her closest friend, and the only person she’d ever told about the dreams besides her dad, who had reacted…badly.
“Yeah, but I’m a freaking history professor. I should be familiar with battles and the theoretical consequences of war. What I shouldn’t be able to do is feel the dying woman’s last emotions.” Such miserable emotions.
Diana stood to put on her coat and barely resisted straightening the mussed pile of papers at the corner of her desk. They were fine the way they were. She no longer had to make sure everything was neat as a pin. That necessity had died with her father. Her hand squeezed into a fist. It might have been a dozen years since she’d experienced the repercussions of not following his rules, but such things were hard for the subconscious to forget.
“Let’s go.” Diana turned quickly from the pile of papers.
They walked down the barren hall, Vivienne’s stilettos clacking at a higher pitch than Diana’s comfortable beige kitten heels.
Fortunately, the coffee shop was close to their department. With her erratic sleeping patterns, coffee was the only thing that had kept her going during the last month.
Outside, they crossed the historic street that ran down the center of the university town of Clayton, barely dodging a child racing down the sidewalk on a bicycle. A gust of wind blew russet leaves off nearby trees. Halloween was coming and jack-o-lanterns grinned eerily from shop stoops. Normally, this was her favorite season. But this year, with the dreams coming more frequently and the unsettled feeling haunting her waking hours, she hadn’t been able to appreciate it at all.
“Was there anything new in the dream?” Vi asked.
“No, basically the same, but this time the man spoke. I couldn’t make out his face, but I think I loved him.” Diana shook her head. “I mean, the dying woman loved him. At least she had loved him. But she felt betrayed.”
Honestly, it was creepy and she didn’t want to think about it anymore. She rubbed the back of her wrist, which had begun to tingle again as the cuff of her jacket rubbed against the sensitive skin. Yet another mystery to be filed away for later.
“Very cool.” Vivienne paused when Diana shot her a look. “But sad. I wonder who she was?”
They slipped inside the coffee shop and out of the brisk air. The wind slammed the door at their backs, but the warmth and inviting décor, punctuated with local art and plush furniture, welcomed them.
“How about a figment of my crazy imagination? Maybe all my research is getting to me.”
“Or, your memories are getting to your research.”
“No, the dreams have nothing to do with my book.” Liar.
Hadn’t she always been drawn to the more gruesome parts of ancient history? The warriors, battles, death? Ever since she was little, she’d been the girl who wanted to play with wooden swords and watch Xena, Warrior Princess. Combined with her love of books, it had led her to a career as a history professor with a specialty in the warrior women of the Bronze and Iron Ages. She had almost finished converting her dissertation into a book for the university press.
“The manuscript is almost done, by the way,” Diana said. “And with it, my application for assistant professor will be all but in the bag.”
She hoped. She really needed that promotion. Currently, as a lecturer, she had no control over what she taught, how or when she taught it, and no certainty that she’d even have a job next semester. She wanted that certainty and that control, desperately. The tenure-track job as assistant professor would get her one blissful step closer.
The line went quickly as they chatted. Their turn to order came and Diana thrust her card at the barista, nudging Vivienne’s out of the way. “Both, please.”
“Diana, you don’t have to.” Vivienne nudged her own card at the barista.
The girl glanced at Diana, then shook her head at Vivienne, no doubt deciding that Diana was the scarier one.
“I know. But you’ve spent so much time listening to me complain about my nightmares that the least I can do is get you a coffee.”
“Thanks. And it’s not a problem. I think they’re interesting, though I’m sorry they cause so much trouble.”
Black coffee in Diana’s hand, a frothy latte in Vivienne’s, they headed toward the door.
“All right, Vi, I’ve got to run. FedEx is delivering an old treatise to my house today. They usually show up around three and I don’t want them to leave it out on the stoop, what with this weather.” She nodded up at the gray clouds. “I’ll see you later.”
Later that evening, Diana jiggled the key in the lock of the front door of her townhouse. Rain pounded on her head, and the groceries she’d run out for after receiving her package made opening the door a pain in the butt. Damn. She needed to get the stupid lock fixed, but there just never seemed to be time between writing and classes.
Snick. Finally. The door swung open and she stepped out of rain that wasn’t nearly as charming as it was when she was snuggled up cozily at her desk.
Letting the door swing shut, she kicked off her shoes and hauled her grocery bags down the hall to the kitchen. Fresh veggies, tofu, and red wine—it wasn’t exciting, but they were the healthiest things she could find at the small shop down the street. That had to count for something when it felt like any control she had over her life was disappearing with every terrifying new dream or hallucination. Not to mention her manuscript deadline and her upcoming—please, God—promotion.
A sudden clap of thunder rocked the house, making her jump. She fumbled to find the kitchen light, but her hand stilled when she heard the front door creak open.
Damned wind. She must have forgotten to lock the door. She never used to forget things.
Footsteps thudded down the hall and her stomach dropped to the floor. Who is that?
The footsteps thudded slowly but inexorably closer. She heard the intruder turn into the small library at the front of the house, but he’d be in the kitchen next. No time to call the police.
She clamped a hand over her mouth and her eyes darted around the kitchen in search of a weapon. Dim light from the porch lamp streamed through the window, its faint yellow glow illuminating the neatly modern space.
Damn, nothing on the counter, not even a stray knife. Why did she have to be so organized?
The back door. Maybe it was unlocked.
She tripped in her haste to reach the door to the porch, a crash of thunder seeming to propel her forward. The handle was slick beneath her sweaty palms. The door wouldn’t budge. Swollen from the rain, damn it.
Turning around, she pressed herself against the panes, her skin cold and the hair on the back of her neck standing upright. There had to be a weapon in here. A knife, a meat hammer—anything was better than nothing.
She spied her enormous skillet sitting by the sink and snatched it, wincing as the heavy cast iron dragged her arms down. God, this thing is heavy.
She cursed herself for not taking self-defense classes. With research and teaching, it was another thing she had no time for. And now, she really wished she’d made time. Thank God for skillet corn bread, she thought, as her fear bubbled into panicked hysteria.
An enormous figure stepped into the kitchen and she bit her lip to stifle a gasp. Over six feet tall, its freakishly slender form was draped in a long coat that looked to be made of raw leather. Long black hair streamed from its head. When she finally caught sight of the face, a scream was strangled in her throat. It couldn’t be human. The dim light glinted off dark, burnished crimson skin and eerily feminine features. Beady eyes, a nose that was almost beaklike, and thin lips all gave the appearance of a bird.
She was not a she, she was an it.
Monsters aren’t real. They aren’t real!
But this was no Halloween costume. It was far too realistic.
Diana cringed back against the wall. No, no, no. This couldn’t be happening to her. She shook her head, but it didn’t disappear. Her heart thudded in her chest, beating in a painfully frantic rhythm against her ribs while her breath was strangled in her lungs.
“You’re Diana,” it said, as if expecting her to confirm.
She heard a squeak of fear and realized it had come from her own throat.
It nodded, clearly taking her squeak as confirmation. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Two heavy steps and it was almost upon her. Her feet were glued to the floor. She couldn’t even move, not even to curl up into a ball like her brain screamed at her to do. She tasted something metallic in her mouth. She’d bitten straight through her lip.
A claw-tipped hand reached for her. Fear clogged her lungs and she jerked the skillet out from behind her back and swung haphazardly at its head. Luck alone landed the wild blow.
Its roar of rage drowned out the sickening sound of the iron connecting with its skull. The impact made her arms vibrate and she nearly dropped the pan.
Eyes on fire and mouth gaping, the beast shook itself, then backhanded her across the cheek. Pain exploded in her head as she whirled from the force of the blow. As agony seared her skull, a rage like she’d never known engulfed her, so strong it felt like a living thing. Gasping, and as terrified of the unfamiliar anger as she was of her attacker, she felt it wash over her.
The rational part of her mind faded to the background as instinct and something otherworldly took over her body. The pain in her head forgotten, Diana lithely jumped to her feet.
Hurt it. Kill it. She turned on her attacker and leapt on it, throwing its spindly form to the ground with her weight. She raised the skillet. Its weight felt natural in her palm, as though she was meant to do some damage with it. Somehow she knew exactly how to kill this creature, but she wanted to hurt it first. How dare it try to beat her? No one did that to her. Never again.
Through her rage, she barely recognized the thoughts. She’d never been beaten before, and she rarely got angry, but now she was inflamed. She swung the frying pan hard at its head, beating it as if to drive her own demons away. The thud of the metal against its skull was a joy to hear and fueled the raging beast within her.
Though an otherworldly power sang through her veins, the creature was stronger. With a great heave, it threw her off and the pan flew from her hand. She was on her feet in seconds.
“Come on,” she said, beckoning it to her. She barely recognized her voice. She should be running, but some part of her wanted it to try something. So she could kill it.
The creature obliged, coming toward her with murder in its eyes. Snarling, she ran at it, ducking beneath its outstretched arms with a grace that felt entirely unfamiliar. She spotted a knife strapped to its calf and nimbly plucked it from its sheath. With deadly precision, she sank it into its back, punching through the skin and then sinking into the muscle. She twisted right where its heart should be and was rewarded with its howl. The creature clawed at its back, attempting to reach the knife, but within seconds its strength had leached away and it tumbled to the floor. It shuddered, then lay still.
With the threat gone, the fog of rage that had overtaken Diana’s mind evaporated. She stumbled away from the woman—the creature—the thing—sprawled on her kitchen floor. Tripping over her own feet, she collapsed in the corner, a sob rising in her throat. The floor was hard beneath her as she started to rock back and forth, weak with exhaustion and fear.
What did I just do?
She hadn’t recognized herself, not even a little bit. Where had those instincts come from? She was losing her mind. She was losing herself. The self that she didn’t even know.
Panicked, remembering the body in her house, she looked up. It was still lying there, with the knife protruding grotesquely from its back. Diana tried to take deep, calming breaths, but the air had gone thick and worthless, heavy with the coppery and sinister scent of blood.
The back of her wrist began to burn again, as if fire ants were crawling over her skin in a pattern. She rubbed it and looked down, temporarily distracted from the corpse in her kitchen.
Her mouth fell open when her wrist began to turn red in a thinly lined pattern. Fine black lines replaced the red, as if she were being tattooed from the inside.
This could not be happening.
She squinted at it, scrubbing panicked tears from her face as she tried to make out the design. It looked like...a mountain range? No, not a mountain range, but close. Scrawled across her wrist where it met the back of her hand was a beautifully embellished depiction of a craggy hill.
She rubbed it more fiercely, desperate to make the image disappear. To make all of this just go away. All she wanted was to go back to her normal life and continue on her nice, safe, sane path.
A sizzling sound distracted her from her assault on her wrist and she looked up at the creature lying on her floor, its black blood creeping across her lovely limestone tiles. Strike that—it had been lying on her floor.
Its skin had begun to steam with heat and its extremities were disappearing. She shook her head. No way. There was no way that creature was sublimating in the middle of her kitchen.
But before she could blink the rest of the tears out of her eyes, the last of the arms and legs vanished. The torso began to steam and shimmer out of existence as well. Within moments, the creature’s knife clattered to the floor when the torso it had been buried in disappeared. A black substance—it must have been blood, though it looked more like tar—coated the wickedly serrated blade.
She scrambled to her feet, shock and terror thick in her throat. This couldn’t be happening. Now she couldn’t even tell herself that the awful beast had been some kind of criminal with weird red tattoos. And how could she explain her own tattoo? She’d think she was going crazy if she didn’t have proof on her wrist. Scratch that. Just because she had proof that something really weird and really wrong was happening didn’t mean that she wasn’t also going crazy. Diana laughed, sounding insane even to herself. She had to get this thing off her.
She leapt to her feet and ran to the foyer to wedge a chair beneath the handle of the front door to make up for the broken lock. Within moments she was scrubbing her hands beneath scalding water in the downstairs bathroom, but the heat didn’t stop the pervasive cold streaking through her veins. She frantically rubbed the lavender soap against the back of her wrist, feeling the thin raised lines underneath the black ink. She had to get it off.
Look at it, a dark part of her whispered.
No. She wouldn’t look at it until she couldn’t feel the raised lines anymore. She scrubbed harder.
Look at it.
Willpower, Diana. But her gaze was drawn down to the tattoo. Still there. Terrifying and beautiful.
Wait a second—she had seen that before. Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh? The famous landmass, an extinct volcano jutting from the center of the Scottish capital, had a well-known profile. One that she was familiar with from the treatise that FedEx had delivered earlier. She’d looked at the first couple of pages before running out to the grocery store. There had been a frontispiece. She’d been drawn to the small illustration, captivated by the delicate curves and jagged lines that told the story of the mountain’s past.
Get it together, Diana. There was no way the tattoo was going to wash off. And she’d actually just killed a monster with some new strength and bravery she couldn’t define. Bravery that was long gone now and she was all alone. Though she normally didn’t mind being alone, her small townhouse now seemed cavernous and dark outside of the bathroom.
She had to get out of here. Diana turned off the water with a trembling hand and grabbed a towel. After scrubbing her hands dry, she ran to the library to grab the book and went out the back door. It took her a few minutes of yanking on the stuck door, but she managed to get it open. It was worth the effort. Anyone could see her if she went out the front. But the back led to a miniscule fenced-in plot protected from prying eyes.
Rain pounded her as she ran across the tiny yard to the little gate she’d added at the side. It swung open easily into an identical tiny and private yard and she ran across and up the back steps of the neighboring townhouse. She cradled the book to her chest, protecting it from the rain, and pounded on Vivienne’s door until it swung open.
“Di, what’s wrong?” Vivienne beckoned her inside.
Diana bolted out of the rain. A small rush of warmth flooded her when she entered her friend’s cheery kitchen, but not enough to banish the cold that had gripped her heart with icicle claws.
Vivienne was the only person she knew who wouldn’t immediately call for a straitjacket, and she was so damned grateful they were neighbors.
Vivienne rubbed Diana’s shaking arms and said, “Come on, let’s go to the living room. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Vi dragged her into the brightly colored room. Such a contrast to her own, and so welcoming that Diana almost wept. They sat on the couch.
“Tell me what’s up.” Her friend’s face was creased with worry.
“Oh my God. I don’t even know. Um, a monster broke into my house.” With a trembling voice that bubbled just under hysteria, she described the attack.
“What?” Vivienne’s voice was incredulous.
“Look.” Diana thrust out her arm. “This appeared.”
“Holy crap.” Vi ran tentative fingers over the black lines.
“Yeah. And it looks like the frontispiece illustration in this treatise. The one that I ordered.” Diana flipped open the book and showed Vivienne. Diana watched her inspect the two, waiting for Vi to speak, her breath caught uncomfortably in her throat.
“Well...huh…” the normally eloquent Vivienne said. Silence.
“This is crazy. I mean, I believe you. But it’s insane.”
“The worst part was...it knew my name, Vi. The monster said that they were waiting.”
“Who are they? More monster things? Are you sure it wasn’t some kind of freaky gang?”
“Lord, I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. But it really wasn’t human. That body disappeared. I need answers.” Her wrist burned again, screaming at her. Was it a sign? She laughed bitterly. Of course it was. But of what?
“They know where you live. You have to get out of there. Stay with me.”
“No. I snuck through the backyards, so no one saw me come here. But I can’t be seen staying here. What if they send more after me? What if they find me here? Then you’re dead, too.”
“We’ll figure something out.” Vivienne frowned, no doubt trying to figure a way to smuggle Diana in and out of her townhouse. Their little backyards were great for privacy because of the fences. But there was no way to get out of them. The only other option was the front door. “You can’t just wait around there for the next monster to come through your door.”
“Or worse,” Diana said. “They could appear at the university and threaten everything I’ve worked for.” She’d sacrificed too much for her position to lose it like this. It was all she had.
“You need to get your priorities in order,” Vivienne said. “Come stay with me. It’ll be okay.”
“No, Vi, I can’t. Everything has just been getting worse. My dreams have been winding me up until I’m about to break. Before, they just happened at night. Now it’s night and day. All this shit is happening to me. I can’t just sit around and wait for it all to explode. I’ve got to do something, because no one else is going to do it for me.”
“Di, you never talk like this.”
“Nothing’s ever been this bad before.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to Edinburgh.” The idea came to her in an instant. “I have to get out of town, and the only thing I know about this whole miserable business is that my tattoo is of a landmark in Edinburgh.”
Edinburgh could have monsters, but there might also be answers. There were definitely monsters here, and likely no answers. So, leaving: one point. Staying: zero. And maybe she’d figure out what the damn dreams meant and find some peace.
“That’s a good idea,” Vi said. “You can’t exactly go to the police with mystery tattoos and stories about your dreams and say that you killed a monster. And if you stay on the move, then they can’t find you.”
Diana’s stomach clenched at the idea of staying on the move, not to mention flying so far from home. That’s what people did in thriller movies and adventure novels.
No, no, no.
There was no time to freak out. She had far bigger issues to deal with than a little transcontinental flight to Scotland. Like the disappearing dead monster. Or the mystery tattoo. Or the split personality. Something terrible was happening to her, and she had to figure out what it was.
“God, you’re right, Vi.” She felt sick even as she said it, knowing that she was about to make a decision that could possibly kill her. But staying here would definitely kill her. “Will you watch my classes for me? If I’m only gone a week, it shouldn’t be a problem with the department.”
“Of course. Just call me when you get there. Do you even know where you’ll stay?”
“No, I’ll figure it out on the way. The sooner I leave, the better.”
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