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Dark Sun Rising, The Continuous War: Book 1, By K.M. Martinez–August 27, 2019

Melanie Mendez of Clan Kale isn’t sure if she believes in angels, but she’s pretty sure she’s not a descendant of one.

Her grandmother, the Elder of Clan Kale, would beg to differ. And her brothers, Victor and Gabe, would tell her to shut up about it and just do what she is supposed to do: fight. Specifically, they want her to follow The Ways by participating in the Agora – the annual gathering where the seven clans compete for honor.

But Mel has never been one for competition, and the other clans have started to take notice. So when she narrowly avoids being killed by a mysterious man the night before the Agora, she can’t help but wonder if the other clans have judged her according to The Ways: as a traitor.

One way or another, this Agora is about to turn deadly.

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Excerpt from Dark Sun Rising

Chapter One

The party room in Neto’s Mexican Restaurant was spilling over with customers. Waiters and waitresses bustled in the hurried, controlled manner those in the serving industry were known for. The sounds ebbed and flowed, voices competing with the Top Forty radio station that played over the speakers.

In the center of the room, at a table crowded with people, Melanie Mendez sat uncomfortably scrunched between her brothers, trying not to let the annoyance she felt seep onto her face. She wasn’t in the best of moods, having just finished a twelve-hour shift at the hospital before rushing to meet her brothers at the gym as Victor had requested. It’s my birthday, my choice, he’d said, so Mel had done as he’d asked, despite her exhaustion. It didn’t help that her brothers kept taking her leg space. Really, Victor? she thought as her older brother bumped knees with her again.

Victor and Gabe weren’t small men. Both were six feet tall, and Victor was wide, taking up the space of almost two men. Victor had a bald head, tanned face, and shifty brown eyes that never stayed in one place for long. Gabe was thin and wiry, with wild, short brown hair and a fresh young face with thick eyebrows over laughing brown eyes.

Those eyes smiled down on her now, noticing her irritation. The youngest Mendez often took it as a challenge to annoy her, as only younger brothers can do. He bumped her leg again—on purpose this time—and Mel shot him a look. Gabe responded with his impervious smile.

Mel had intended to sit at the end of the table by her uncle, Tío Jorge, a slight man of short stature with gray hair, brown eyes, and a wrinkled face creased with a smile. She looked at him now, talking serenely to a close family friend. He looked so comfortable. So relaxed. She thought about how she could be snacking on the full bowl of chips and salsa in front of him instead of pulling crumbs out of the bowl in front of Victor. Those chips had lasted all of five seconds before her brothers devoured them, and it felt like she’d finished her tacos hours ago, they’d been sitting at the table so long.

“What’s up, buttercup?” said Gabe.

“Don’t call me buttercup,” Mel replied.

“What’s up, lady bug?”

“Shut up, Gabe,” Mel whispered angrily.

Laughter bubbled from Gabe’s throat, rising over the hubbub. His eyes sparkled like brown topaz and his mouth curved in a knowing grin. “You always get so wound up this time of year. You know we got your back. Screw the other clans.”

“What are y’all talking about?” asked Victor, turning toward them.

“The Agora,” Gabe replied. “And how Mel’s stressing about being around the other clans.”

Mel made a hissing noise at Gabe, but he continued grinning.

“It’s the blowback from not competing,” Victor said to Mel. “You know that.”

“I know.” It was Mel’s choice not to compete in the Agora, but still, she shouldn’t have to put up with descendants from other clans looking down on her because of it. Having to deal with Victor’s you get what you get attitude didn’t help.

“I’m just saying—”

“I hear you. I know what you’re saying. I understand.”

“Then why complain about it?” said Victor, and Mel had to count to ten to curb the desire to throw something at his head.

“She wasn’t complaining about it,” Gabe said. “She didn’t even bring it up. I was just telling her not to worry about it because the clan is behind her.” Gabe sounded sorry for even bringing it up.

The table had quieted down a bit, and some were looking at the three of them. Thankfully their grandmother was busy chatting with a clanswoman.

“Like we have a choice,” Victor said.

“You know what, Victor?” Mel’s voice was calm, but her insides were on fire. “I know you’re pissed because your wife and kids aren’t here, but don’t take it out on me.”

That was a soft spot, Mel knew. She’d noticed her brother looking at the three empty chairs at the table that spoke to the absence of his little family. His mood had grown darker and darker as the night wore on. Mel felt bad for pushing her older brother’s buttons, but it did shut him up. He gave her and Gabe one last, hard look, then turned back to another conversation.

Mel looked accusingly at her younger brother. For once he seemed to sense he was on the verge of crossing a line with her. He laid an arm across the back of her shoulders and pulled her toward him in a half hug. Mel thought about giving him a nice shot in the jaw in front of everyone in the entire restaurant, and the thought must have shown on her face, because his touch was gone as quickly as it came.

That was usually how it was with the three of them. Two of them at each other’s throats and the third trying to play peacekeeper. But their arguments were always short-lived, and were never taken too personally. Mel knew her brothers would support her, and not just because they were obligated to.

“Mel.”

She turned her attention to the grizzled man sitting kitty-corner to her. Thomas. His gray hair was mixed with brown, and his eyes were a sparkling blue.

“That’s a nice bruise you have there,” he said. “Trained a little before dinner, did you?”

Mel put a hand to her nose. It didn’t hurt as much as it had a few hours ago.

“The birthday boy wanted to spar,” she replied with a smile that was all teeth. “Who are we to deny him his birthday wishes? Right, Gabe?”

“We do what we must,” Gabe said with a laugh, pointing at his eyebrow, where a fresh cut had crusted over.

“And we should do it again,” Mel said with a look at her older brother. “Real soon.”

“Oooh, brotha!” yelled Gabe. “Bet you wish she was sitting in front of you. At least then you could see her coming!”

“It doesn’t matter where she comes at me—or how,” Victor replied. Then with a smirk to Mel, he added, “You ain’t shit, little sister.”

“Whatever,” Mel said. “I had you on the ropes today. I would’ve finished you off if Tío Jorge hadn’t stepped in.”

Victor sputtered, but it was their uncle who replied. “Y’all were going to tear up the Kale banner!” he shouted down the table. “I wasn’t going to let you two knuckleheads destroy it.”

“That banner has survived generations,” Mel said. “It would’ve survived Victor’s meaty head. If you’d given me five more seconds, I’d’ve had him.”

“You didn’t have anything, little girl,” Victor said.

“You keep thinking that, chump,” Mel retorted.

“You all quiet down over there,” Grandma Mari called from the other side of the table. “You’re causing too much attention.”

Victor looked like a kid who’d been scolded. Mel had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. Gabe was laughing enough for the both of them.

“Don’t talk about training in public,” Grandma Mari continued.

“Grandma, we’re in a—” Gabe started, but Grandma Mari cut him off.

“Don’t tell me that we’re in a Kale friendly restaurant. Not everyone here is a clansman. Watch what you say.”

Gabe sighed and nodded.

“Okay, Grandma,” Victor said. “We’ll behave.”

He gave Mel a look like it was all her fault, but Mel just smirked, some of her good humor restored. She glanced at her grandmother, who gave them all one more disapproving look before turning away.

“You hear that, boys?” Mel said. “She wants you to zip it.”

“You too, Mel!” Gabe said.

Mel covered her mouth to keep from laughing too loud at his outrage. She really didn’t want to attract the attention of her grandmother. Even at the age of twenty-six, Mel could still be told what to do with one look from Grandma Mari. That was the power of her grandmother, Sapienti of Clan Kale, who as Elder of the clan had decades of experience bending people to her will, family above all. And isn’t that what Sapientis are known to do? Mel thought as she picked a crumb from the desolate bowl of chips.

Grandma Mari’s body was small, but she was thin and agile, and even at the age of eighty-three she could keep up with most of them. Her tanned, weathered face harbored knowing eyes—too knowing, Mel felt—under gray hair tied back neatly with a clip.

Victor was back to laughing with Thomas and a group of older men—older Kales, with stories as long as a hot summer day. Mel knew Victor was trying hard to enjoy himself despite his wife and kids being nowhere to be seen. She knew it was why he’d been so salty toward her, and she tried to keep that in mind.

She was just popping another tiny chip into her mouth, wondering when they were going to leave, when a fresh bowl was put in front of her.

“Just for you,” said the waitress with a wink and a lingering look.

“Thank you,” Mel said with surprise. She could feel herself smile—that silly smile she always managed to pull when a pretty girl gave her some attention. Although she didn’t think she was God’s gift to women, she didn’t believe she was unattractive. With dark wavy hair, bright brown eyes, bronze skin touched by the sun, and a body toned from training, she was able to grab an eye or two every now and then. But she hadn’t expected it tonight, not with her bruised face.

“Do you need anything else?” the waitress asked. She put her hand on Mel’s shoulder, and Mel couldn’t help but smile until her eyes crinkled.

Gabe snorted softly, and Mel tore her eyes away from the cute waitress. Couldn’t she even enjoy the attentions of a pretty woman without one of her brothers sticking their nose in?

“Where are my chips?” Gabe asked. He leaned back in his chair, his smile bright.

“You can share,” the waitress said.

“I don’t like to share,” said Gabe. “Especially with my sister.”

“You’re gross,” Mel said, not failing to pick up on his double entendre. She turned back to the waitress. “Don’t mind him. He doesn’t know how to act.”

“Hey!” Gabe exclaimed.

“It’s the truth,” Mel said. “You know it, I know it, everyone knows it.” To the waitress again: “He’s trouble.”

“Oh, I can see that,” said the waitress, grabbing the empty bowl. She looked down at Mel. “That’s a beautiful necklace. Look how the sun glows!”

Mel always wore a small, dainty gold chain with a pendant of a gold sun. She’d had it ever since she was a child, though usually she kept it hidden, as it always attracted attention. Now it had fallen out of her shirt, and sparkled brightly on her chest.

The waitress lifted the small gold sun in her fingertips, and just as quickly let it go. “That’s hot,” she said.

“You bet she is!” said Gabe, and Mel smacked her brother on the arm.

“Sorry,” Mel said, putting the necklace back under her shirt. “It runs a little hot because it’s always touching the skin.”

But the waitress was staring at Mel with wide eyes. “Are you o—”

“Excuse me!” Grandma Mari called. “Can I get the check please?” Her voice brooked no argument, and the waitress left to do as she’d been told.

When the check had been paid, everyone said their goodbyes and made their way out the door. All except for Mel and her brothers. Gabe had announced that they needed to have a drink to commemorate Victor’s birthday.

But as she moved to join her brothers at the bar, her grandmother caught her arm.

“Walk me out,” the older woman said.

With a nod, Mel led her grandmother out the door and down the sidewalk toward Grandma Mari’s car, where Tío Jorge was already waiting inside with the engine running.

The full warmth of the summer night touched Mel’s skin, and the smells of freshly watered grass and flowers hung in the air. Laughter came from the restaurant behind her. A part of her yearned to go back in, to try to find some of that laughter for herself.

“I didn’t really get a chance to speak to you inside,” her grandmother said. “I wanted to see how you’re doing.”

Mel smiled. “I’m okay. No need to worry.”

“Really? This year has been difficult on you, and the next few weeks will be even more so.”

“The year has been difficult for both of us,” Mel said. “And we got through it. We’ll get through the next few weeks too.”

Grandma Mari nodded. Eyes that were the same color as Mel’s own roamed the younger woman’s face, taking Mel in with one long look. The bruise on her nose from the sparring, the weariness in her eyes—a result of the stress of the last few months—the slight annoyance that Mel was trying to hide… Mel knew her grandmother saw everything.

“That tic in your eye is back,” Grandma Mari said. “It’s been tick, ticking all night long.”

“I just need to get some sleep.” What I really need is for it to be two weeks from now, and the Agora over, she thought.

“Uh-huh.” Her grandmother sounded skeptical. “Isis tells me you’ve been working too many shifts at the hospital.”

“Ahhh.” Mel smiled. “I’m going to have a talk with Isis.”

“And tell her what? To be derelict in her duties? I think she’d take offense to that.”

Isis was a doctor at the hospital Mel worked at, but was also considered First Healer of Clan Kale. She was cut from the same cloth as her grandmother, and did not suffer fools. Mel would be considered the fool in this scenario.

“Mel,” Grandma Mari continued, “I met with the Council of Elders today. They’ve heard about your leave of absence from the clan. Does that make the tic in your eye more pronounced?”

Mel’s eyes hardened. “I don’t care what the Council of Elders thinks of me, or my leave from Clan Kale.”

Grandma Mari’s eyes flashed. “Good. I don’t give a damn either. But Sapienti Kelser of Clan Moors was especially dismayed.”

Sapienti Kelser from Clan Moors can go fuck himself, Mel thought savagely.

“It was just for three months,” she said. She heard the weariness in her voice. “It’s not like I was gone several years.”

“I know,” said Grandma Mari, “but word has spread among the clans, and you need to be prepared for what you’re walking into tomorrow. You know how clanspeople judge you for not competing. Now there is talk about you not believing in The Ways.

“I believe in The Ways,” Mel said. She felt like she’d been having this argument with her grandmother all her life.

“You believe in Supervivere,” her grandmother replied, “because even you can’t argue with the value of knowing how to survive a deadly situation. But you don’t believe in Hae. You don’t believe in our histories.”

Our legends, you mean. But Mel wasn’t going to bring up old arguments. Hae—the histories of the clans—was something Mel and her grandmother would never see eye to eye on. It was the main reason why Mel had taken a leave in the first place. But if the other clans had now heard about her break from her clan and The Ways… some of them would be insufferable.

Mel could be insufferable right back.

“One wonders how our clan business reaches other clan ears,” Mel said innocently, trying to tweak her grandmother.

“Are you implying that I said something?” Grandma Mari’s gaze hardened.

“You do have a… close relationship with Sapienti Li.” said Mel with amusement. The short man from China had always been a friend of her grandmother’s. His cool, calm personality was a nice balance to her grandmother’s raging temper.

“Clan Kale and Clan Tam have always had good working relations,” her grandmother said stiffly. “But if you think I would spread clan business, then you don’t know me.”

Mel laughed. “I’m just kidding, Grandma. I know how quickly rumors can spread, and it’s not like I’ve ever hidden who I am, or what I think about The Ways. There will always be clanspeople who judge. All they see is you being the Sapienti of Clan Kale, and me being your granddaughter. And there I go again doing what I do. Disappointing you.”

“You don’t disappoint me,” Grandma Mari said firmly.

I know I don’t,” Mel said with a smile. “But they don’t know that.” She grabbed her grandmother’s hand. “They don’t know anything.”

****

After seeing her grandmother off—and being told, once again, what time to pick her and Tío Jorge up in the morning—Mel pulled out her phone. It was a quarter until ten, and the last reminder for the Agora was in her email inbox.

To: DescendantsNorthAmerica; DescendantsCentralSouthAmerica; DescendantsEurope; DescendantsMiddleEast; DescendantsFarEast; DescendantsAfrica; DescendantsIslands

From: Agora Planning Committee

Subject: Agora 2019

Time: 7:46 PM

Greetings, Descendants!

This email is sent as a reminder that tomorrow, July 20, is the start of the Agora!

When you arrive at the venue (address below) please make sure to park on the field to the left of the property. At the rear of the property is where descendants will sign in and receive their clan package. Boarding, food/beverage, and games information will be available at the sign-in area. If you are sponsoring a guest, all Non-Disclosure Agreements must be submitted in the sign-in area before non-descendant parties can be admitted…

Mel skimmed the rest of the email, wondering how many first-timers there would be at this year’s Agora, and which of the seven clans had grown the most. Hopefully not Clan Moors.

She pocketed her phone and walked back into the restaurant. Gabe was already chatting up a woman who appeared to be taken in by his smile and charm. The woman’s date… not so much.

Mel grabbed her brother by his arm and hauled him away. “Can’t you see she’s with someone?”

“I can see you’re a cock blocker,” Gabe said.

“Whatever! Last thing we need is another incident like last week.”

She referred, of course, to what happened at the bar she and her siblings visited the previous week. They hadn’t been there five minutes when Gabe disappeared, only to be found thirty minutes later rolling on the floor with a giant of a man who had taken exception to Gabe talking to his girlfriend. Gabe was constantly getting into fights. He had done so during their childhood, and even now at twenty-four little had changed. The incident ended with Mel and her brothers narrowly escaping a night in jail by running full-tilt through the streets of downtown, chased by cops. It was hardly their finest moment.

Gabe rolled his eyes, but let Mel lead him toward Victor. “You’re just mad cause I have more game than you.”

Victor had taken a seat at a smaller table, and had already ordered drinks for the three of them. Mel’s was a margarita, and she knew it was meant as a peace offering of sorts. She accepted it with a smile.

“I don’t care about how much game you have,” Mel said to Gabe.

“Aw, come on. You’re not still mad about that girl, are you?” asked Gabe. “It was last month!”

“Shut up, Gabe.”

“She was fake gay. I saved you from heartache!”

Victor laughed. “Brotha, weren’t you on a date at the time?”

“Yes! I sacrificed my own date to save my sister.”

Mel laughed and shook her head. “Oh yeah, you’re the best brother ever.” She raised her hand to get the waitress’s attention. It had been ages since they’d eaten, and she needed more food.

Ten minutes later, they were still on their first drink and waiting patiently for their tacos. Mel was trying to appeal to Victor’s practical side and get him to leave after the second drink. The last thing any of them needed was to head into the Agora inebriated or hung over. Gabe, on the other hand, hounded them to drink more quickly. He could drink like a fish. He stared pointedly at Mel’s half-empty margarita.

In response, she picked up her glass with exaggerated slowness, sipped her drink, then put it down just as slowly. Gabe scoffed, grabbed her glass, and took a sip himself. Mel was sure her margarita beat his beer, but Gabe liked to pretend he was a beer man.

Mel finally asked Victor about his wife and kids, but he ignored the question, chugged his beer, then got up to get another.

“Probably had another fight about teaching Sophia and Victor Junior The Ways,” said Mel quietly.

“It’s bullshit,” said Gabe. “Liz is being a bi—”

“Watch it, Gabe. She’s his wife. We have to respect that.”

“She used to be so cool with it. But now…”

“Now it’s different,” Mel agreed. “Now it would be her son and daughter being taught to fight and kill. Having your kids beaten, cut up, stabbed… it ain’t the same as watching the man you love, a Journeyman, compete.”

Journeymen had years of training under their belt. They were polished stones, smoothed out over time. They were good at what they did, though it took a lot of wear and tear to get to that point. Mel wouldn’t wish the way she was brought up on anybody, especially her niece and nephew.

She also knew Gabe didn’t agree. She expected him to argue, but instead he said, “If you had to do it all over again, you wouldn’t be a Kale, would you?”

Mel wondered how long he had been wanting to ask that question. “Honestly, Gabe, I don’t know how things would’ve been if I wasn’t born into this. But I did try to quit the clan before. And I’m not talking about the leave of absence I took this past year—that was just to save my relationship with Grandma.”

“You quit? When was this?”

“It didn’t last long.” Mel laughed. “Only Grandma knew. It was the year before I completed the trials for the first time. I didn’t think I wanted to ascend to Journeyman. If I did, then that would be it. There was no going back.”

Mel paused, remembering those days. Days spent without purpose. Then one morning she decided to go out for a hike to burn off the excess energy that needed an outlet. And that beautiful day turned into a nightmare that only her skills in Supervivere allowed her to survive. And later, in the middle of the night, when she arrived at her grandmother’s house, Grandma Mari opened the door, took one look at Mel, and brought her back into the fold with open arms.

“But I’m a Kale,” she said simply.

“Damn right you are!” agreed Gabe, and clinked her glass.

The end of a University of Texas football game was playing on the TV overhead, and the conversation turned to complaining about the state of the team. When Victor returned with a fresh round, he joined in without missing a beat. They talked about everything but Victor’s family.

The food finally arrived, and Mel’s brothers scarfed their tacos down with mouths open and smacking lips. As gross as it was to watch, Mel was thankful for the bad manners, as long as it meant they ate quickly. It was getting late, and they needed to get decent sleep for the morning.

Mel was just thinking about rounding her brothers up like ducks when a throat cleared behind her and a voice spoke quietly.

Traitor.”

Mel spun around and met the eyes of a tall, fair-skinned man wearing an ostentatious ring with a red stone and a lion. A descendant of Clan Moors. He was with four other men, all of whom were all standing far too close to her.

“You got a problem?” Gabe said.

The man looked at Gabe and Victor, his blue eyes full of disdain. “I was just wondering,” he said, his voice melodic and cultured, “why it’s taking so long to deal with this coward among your clan.” He looked down at Mel. “Is it not well known how you Kales cull the weak from your ranks?”

Mel was surprised at the open hostility at a public place, but at the same time the ridiculousness of this whole situation amused her. She didn’t even recognize this Moors, and if he was someone of worth among his clan, she would know. Which meant this Moors was a nobodyand yet here he stood harassing her.

Her brothers, on the other hand, were furious.

“What the fuck business is it of yours?” Gabe said. “You think Clan Kale gives a shit what other clans think of my sister?”

“So goes the girl, so goes the clan,” the Moors said. “And the girl lacks honor.”

“You should watch your fucking mouth,” said Gabe.

Mel could tell her younger brother was spoiling for a fight. And Victor too. He had a bored look on his face, but the tell was in his eyes. There was a coldness there that was disquieting.

“You should mind yours,” said the Moors, “before you say something you regret. Unlike Clan Kale, Clan Moors takes our honor seriously, and we will defend it with our lives.”

“Would you really?” Mel asked.

She knew there was no defusing this situation. Her brothers were too close to losing control. Their tempers had only three levels: cool, not so cool, and fuck you, I’ll fucking kill you. But a fight in a public place was not good for the clan. Which meant she had to scare the Moors off.

“Excuse me?” the Moors said.

“Would you really defend your honor with your life?” Mel asked, looking from the Moors to his friends. “Or are those just empty words, because you feel you have the odds?” She stared right into the tall descendant’s hostile blue eyes. “Because what Kales are also known to do, unlike you Moors, is to stay close to home.”

The Moors frowned as he realized how quiet the restaurant had gotten. His gaze roamed from table to table, noting the many people—the many Kales—who were eyeing him and his companions with hostility. When at last he looked back to Mel, his expression was not nearly as bold as it had been before.

“You should go,” Mel said quietly. “Before you find yourself more trouble than you can handle.”

The Moors and his companions turned to leave.

“Run along, little lions!” Gabe yelled after them. “I’ll see you in the pit, bitches!”

Victor snorted and took a drink of his beer.

Mel let out a breath. Crisis averted. “I doubt you will, Gabe,” she said. “I didn’t recognize any of them, so they don’t get Chosen.”

“Don’t burst my bubble,” said Gabe. “A man can dream.”

“And I dreamed of you two showing restraint. And you did. Grandma would be so proud.”

“Oh, fuck that,” said Gabe. “I was ready to roll. But there are kids here.”

It was close to eleven, and there were no kids. But instead of pointing that out, Mel smiled and took a sip of her margarita, surrounded by her clansmen, and listened as her brothers argued over who would buy the next round.

****

“You know, Mel,” Gabe said. He was six beers in and on his way to being sloppy drunk. Mel shoved his water toward him. She was pulling the plug. “Once, just once, I wish you would consider competing in Decerto. I’d love it if you’d put Cori O’Shea on her ass. Can you imagine, brotha?” He looked toward Victor. “All of Clan Ferus would go to bed weeping into their pillows.”

Mel rolled her eyes. There might’ve been a time when she and Cori O’Shea could’ve been friends—maybe even more than friends—but now they were at odds. Or rather, Cori was at odds with Mel for refusing to compete in the games.

“I’m sure Cori would love for me to compete,” she said, “but it’ll be a cold day in hell before I do anything for her benefit.”

“She insults you all the time,” Gabe said. “Don’t you want to shut her face?”

“Nope,” Mel said. But she did. She really did.

“You should just kiss her already,” said Victor. “It’ll cut the tension.”

Mel turned her whole body toward her older brother. Unlike Gabe, he had stopped drinking awhile back, and was sucking water out of a straw. “Shut up and drink your water,” she said angrily. “And mind your business.”

Her brothers snorted and laughed. They sounded like donkeys.

When they finally piled into Victor’s new truck—a birthday present he’d bought for himself—it was after midnight. They quickly decided they would sleep at Mel’s. Victor said he had his luggage in the back of the truck with everything he needed for the next two weeks, which pretty much confirmed to Mel that he and his wife had a major fight. Mel and Gabe again exchanged a look, but they refrained from asking questions.

The ride home was quiet. Gabe passed out in the back seat, and Mel and Victor felt no need to speak. Mel leaned back on the headrest, letting the drive lull her into a light doze. Before she knew it, Victor was pulling into her driveway.

Mel’s house was a simple three-bedroom on the west side, just outside of town. The neighborhood was quiet and dark; no one kept their porch light on.

But as soon as Mel opened the front door, she knew something was off. It was too dark, too quiet, like when the electricity cuts off at night. She felt, rather than heard, movement from behind the door, and she threw herself on the ground. There was yelling, and a scuffle.

“Someone get the goddamn lights!” Gabe yelled.

Mel jumped to her feet and slapped her hand on the switch.

Gabe had a man subdued against the wall; Victor was standing in front of the two of them. A dagger with an intricate handle lay at their feet, and Victor knelt beside it.

Mel felt heat explode through her body with a rush that had her sucking for air. Adrenaline, but mostly white rage, coursed through her. It pushed up against the thin wall of her control, pumping with each heartbeat. Not again.

The familiar heat spread through her chest and into her limbs, all the way to her fingertips and toes. For one terrible second, she felt like she was going to tear into the man and rip his skin clear off his bones.

She tried to tamp it down. Come on, get a grip. She placed her hand to her chest, feeling her pendant dig into her skin, and took a few calming breaths. Breathe.

She had recovered enough to reach for her phone to call the police, when she felt an uncomfortable wetness on her neck. She reached back, brought her hand to her face, and saw blood. Just like that, her insides were burning again.

When Victor saw the blood on her fingers, his eyes turned to brown stone. He leapt to his feet. “You picked the wrong house tonight, bitch,” he said, jerking the man from the wall.

Then all Mel could hear was the savage crunch of Victor’s fist on cartilage.

She wished she had been the one to cause it.

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