Authors: Stephanie Archer
Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Coming of Age, #Paranormal & Urban, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian, #Fairy Tales & Folklore, #Action & Adventure
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(c) 2015 Stephanie Archer
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system—except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review—without permission in writing from the author.
y name is Bianka
, and I live in a world a lot like yours. Or at least, I used to.
Then I got harvested.
Taken into eerie darkness underneath the surface of my world, I’ve learned that cities like mine—Hidden Oaks—are just places that the vampires keep humans until it’s time to drink their blood.
Now it’s my turn. They’re harvesting me.
But I’m fighting hard, and the vampires have noticed. A sponsor is buying me. A handsome, mysterious vampire with piercing eyes, who wants me to fight other humans in The Vampire Games. If I lose, I’ll be harvested. If I win, I’ll join my sponsor, Phillip, as one of them.
I’ll be turned into a vampire.
All I must do to spend an eternity with Phillip is sell my soul.
The scary part? I’d do a lot worse for him than that.
f I had realized
that my whole life would change when the men showed up at school, I would have run as fast I could. I never would have stopped.
Not that it would have mattered. There was no such thing as running fast enough or far enough to escape from destiny, and it was definitely destiny’s cold bite that I felt that day.
But I would have tried. Maybe that would be one fewer regret for me to suffer on the dark nights that followed.
It was a beautiful June day. The sun was getting hotter with the advent of afternoon, and my fellow graduating seniors were sitting on the lawn eating lunch.
I don’t remember now what we were talking about, but I bet the conversations had been filled with pleasant end-of-year kinds of things. What our graduation parties were going to be like. What we were planning to wear. How glad we were that our tests were finished. How done we were with school. College stuff. Those blissfully mundane subjects that seem so important when your world is tiny.
That’s my best guess, anyway. Like I said, I don’t really remember what we talked about.
What I do remember was this: The sun was so hot on my shoulders that I feared sunburn, so I moved under the shade of a tree beside Marc. He was my best friend, a guy so gorgeous that he looked like he’d been designed by the Greek gods. He had no idea what the sight of him did to the girls at school, but I knew. It was impossible not to notice their constant giggling and blushing.
Somehow, product-of-the-gods Marc liked to hang out with me. Me, of all people, all boring and brown-haired and ordinary. He saw me coming and he smiled.
I sat beside Marc. When the shadows slid over me, the heat’s stinging kiss subsided.
More than anything else, I wish I’d appreciated that blazing heat.
Marc brushed his hand over my shoulder. “You’re getting freckles, Bianka.”
I remember those words clearly because they had made me blush furiously. My freckles were an embarrassment. One of my biggest sources of self-consciousness, at the time. As long as I wasn’t looking in a mirror, and as long as my best friend wasn’t remarking on them, I could pretend that they were invisible.
The conversation after that is hazier. A lot of the time I spent with Marc was blissfully inane. We used to get in trouble for flicking potato chips at each other in class, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we’d done some of that.
Mostly we sat, we talked, and it was boring.
That was probably one of the last boring moments of my life.
A group of men emerged from a black car. None of the other students seemed to notice them, even though the newcomers were all dressed in suits and sunglasses—hardly normal attire for a public school like ours where even the teachers wore jeans.
The men didn’t look at me when they were passing by even though I stared. It was as though they lived in a totally different plane of existence. They seemed to glide inches above the surface of the pavement and were left untouched by the gazes of the other students—invisible, despite the fact that they almost glowed in the sunlight.
They went inside and turned straight into the dean’s office.
I was curious to know where they had come from. I’d been reading a lot of books lately, so I halfway expected them to have emerged from some kind of creepy black helicopter.
There was no helicopter in the parking lot.
There was that black car, though. And now someone was looking at me from the back seat.
Someone with intense blue eyes I would be able to remember the rest of my life.
He was seated in the back seat of the black car that the other men had come in. I couldn’t see the rest of him because his windows were tinted, but the intensity of his gaze filled me with a strange sensation.
When I think about it now, I wonder if I was feeling the shift of destiny.
“Bianka,” Marc said. “What are you looking at?”
I shook myself free of the mysterious man’s gaze and tried to focus on my friends again.
But I could still feel his eyes on me, even after he left.
one more class after lunch. Somehow I managed to keep from falling asleep during chemistry, despite the sluggishness that came from a post-lunch carb fest.
The bell rang at two o’clock as it had on every single day leading up to that one.
Boring, predictable life.
Then I went home.
I lived in a cul-de-sac near West Street. The homeowners’ association took care of our front yards, and they did it well; all of the houses had uniform green lawns like big square emeralds in front of our doorsteps. The hedges were trimmed into tidy cubes. The trees didn’t have a single twig out of place.
Going to my house after school, you’d expect to find a fifties housewife cooking dinner—and you wouldn’t be that far off from reality, to be honest. My mom was kinda like that. She wore the pearl necklace and everything. A classic beauty. She took good care of her hair, her dress. She always greeted Father with a kiss and never cried where we could see her.
Except for that one time.
Just that once.
When I headed up the steps after school that day, I realized that the curtains in my living room were open. I could see men talking to my parents inside.
Men wearing black suits and sunglasses.
Men who were so graceful that they almost seemed to float an inch off the carpet.
The sight of them should have triggered me to run, but I was distracted by the memory of the blue-eyed guy I’d seen at lunchtime. The memory of his gaze clung to me like fog on Halloween.
The sight of those strangers in my living room didn’t make me run. It only made my heart jitter, skipping a beat.
I hoped the blue-eyed stranger would be with them.
That was why I walked straight inside like a moth to the flame.
The blue-eyed man wasn’t there. It was just the guys in the black suits, my mom with her dress and pearl necklace, my dad with the newspaper folded on one thigh.
They didn’t even say hello to me.
“You have to go with them,” Mom said right off the bat. She sounded weird. Like she had been crying.
Until that moment, I’d never seen her cry before.
Not that I’d spent a lot of time thinking about what my last words might be, but if I had, I like to think I’d have said something cleverer than, “What?” But that was what I said to my mom.
That was it.
The last word she would hear from me: “What?”
The haze was wearing off, and I was starting to get scared in the absence of the blue-eyed boy.
I really should have run.
Too late, Bianka.
The men led me outside to a car. Their hands weren’t rough, but they were firm. They guided me in a way that brooked no room for struggle.
The blue-eyed man wasn’t in the car, either.
It didn’t occur to me that I should fight.
As I slid into the back seat, it felt like my story was ending before it could begin, and all my hopes and dreams were left behind with the closing door.
didn’t start panicking
until the car doors shut and one of the men moved toward me with handcuffs.
I mean, actual handcuffs. Not the kind of plastic stage props we had used in drama class, but metal handcuffs like the police use on criminals. I wasn’t merely being taken on a car ride. I was being arrested.
Or something worse than that.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked, desperate as I tried to avoid their grasp. They ignored my attempts. They were graceful and strong; I was clumsy and weak, and there was nowhere for me to run. “What’s going on?”
The black-clad men cuffed my hands and feet, chaining them together so that they were connected. It limited my mobility in a big way. I couldn’t even lift my hands above my head unless I lifted my feet too. I wouldn’t be able to fight back or run. Not that I would have stood much of a chance against so many adult men at that time—those skills would come later.
“What are you doing to me?” I asked.
Once locked into place, the people who had arrested me didn’t look my way, much less speak.
Frustrated and scared, I looked out of the window and tried to breathe.
I couldn’t make an escape plan if I didn’t keep breathing.
Watching the outside world did nothing to calm me down. We drove into an unfamiliar industrial complex nestled against the mountains. I’d never had reason to go to that part of town before. It looked so much scarier because it was so foreign to me, and going into a tunnel in the mountains—with armed guards blocking the entrance—brought my fear to a peak.
Our vehicle paused at the black mouth of the tunnel. The driver exchanged words with the guards outside.
I was on the verge of tears. “Did I do something wrong?” No, that wasn’t right. I knew I had done nothing, committed no crime. I might not be able to resist the urge to cry, but I wasn’t going to whine. I wouldn’t beg. And I wouldn’t be ignored. “Tell me what you’re doing!”
They looked at me blandly when I tried to stand within the vehicle.
One of the men shoved me back against the seat.
He was so strong. I’d never felt anyone that strong before.
But still, they didn’t respond.
The vehicle lurched forward. We slid out of sunlight into shadow blacker than night.
And we kept going.
The tunnel angled downward, drawing us deeper into the earth underneath the mountain. It was a one-lane road with no other traffic on it. We were the only people in the oppressive, breathless shadows underneath the mountain. Even if people had tried to escape in the other direction, they wouldn’t have been able to pass us.
One way in, no way out.
“Where does this go?” I asked, louder than before, demanding to be heard.
At that point, I was mostly asking to hear the sound of my voice, not because I thought they would respond. In the near-silence of the rumbling engine, it felt more and more like I was in a coffin rather than a car.
Was I still breathing?
I couldn’t tell anymore.
The road took a tight turn to the left. I thought we were spiraling deeper still, like the tunnel had become a corkscrew into the earth.
Flexing my hands into fists, dizzy with adrenaline, I looked between the men and their unremarkable faces. They were each probably in their thirties—an exceptionally well-preserved thirty, I thought, but with jaws too heavy to be any younger.
If all of them were as strong as that one man who had pushed me, there was no way I’d be able to escape with a physical confrontation.
“What did my parents do?” I asked. Because that was the only option, wasn’t it? My parents were the ones who had turned me over. They had said I needed to go with these men. And I hadn’t done anything to warrant this treatment.
One of the men whispered to the other.
None of them looked at me.
Just get through to the end,
I told myself.
It’ll be better once we leave the tunnel.
Of course, we didn’t end up leaving the tunnel; it just widened into two lanes, and then four lanes. It seemed to be an industrial setting, much like the place we had driven before the tunnel, but it was dark enough that it was hard to tell. The lines painted on the floor reminded me of a launch pad, or a missile silo. Somewhere that we might go before hopping a rocket to the moon.
The walls vanished completely. We drove along a concrete pad with no visible surroundings.
Shadows engulfed the car.
I leaned closer to the tinted windows, trying to catch some hint of what was outside. “Is this a cave?” My breath fogged the inside of the glass.
The headlights caught a nearby wall.
They illuminated my worst nightmare. Something far worse than I ever could have imagined finding at the bottom of that horrible tunnel.
There were people hanging from the walls.
Humans were tied up in rows, dangling within individual indentations that reminded me of statues in front of churches. They were strapped into place. Everyone’s eyes were shut, like they were sleeping. But it wasn’t natural to sleep like that, hanging from walls as they waited.
Waited for what?
I couldn’t imagine at the time.
But it confirmed every horrible fear that had slithered through my skull until that moment.
These men—these powerful, anonymous men—didn’t intend for me to ever go to college.
It would have made sense if I’d screamed or cried or…or
at that point.
That would have been the sane reaction.
But as soon as I saw those sleeping bodies, I think my sanity was gone.
I couldn’t scream.
My hands were balled into fists so tight my knuckles had turned white. All I could hear was the rushing white noise of blood flowing through my head.
Keep calm. Get out of the car. Find a way to escape.
The car stopped alongside a platform, which no longer reminded me of a launch pad. Now that I had seen all those people hanging from the walls, that platform made me think of a gallows.
There was a mechanical lift on the platform. It was clearly a way to slot people into those cubbies on the walls. To lift them up to the rows where they would hang, asleep and waiting.
Hopefully they were asleep.
The men grabbed my arms. I was still numb as they dragged me out of the car. Without the tinted windows, I could see far better—and I wished that I couldn’t. The people hanging had actual faces that I could make out. I thought I recognized some of those faces, but I wasn’t sure.
It stood to reason that I would imagine familiar faces. It had to be my imagination, didn’t it? I was living a waking nightmare.
There was no way I had gone from boring, ordinary senior year of high school to…whatever this was.
I heard my name called quietly, hoarsely.
Like I said, I thought I’d gone insane. I didn’t react to my name the first time because I assumed that I had to be imagining it.
The men walked me toward the platform.
This time, I looked up.
Another black-suited man was standing on the scissor lift positioned atop the platform. It looked like he had just finished strapping a new person into one of those wall cubbies, up in the third row, about forty feet off of the cement floor.
And then I did cry out because I noticed Marc hanging limply from the wall.
Beautiful, golden Marc, who had eaten lunch with me just that day.
Marc, who had remarked on my freckles, making my face burn with embarrassment.
Marc, beloved by every girl our age, and a few of the boys too.
My best friend was in this nightmare with me.
His pleading eyes were locked on to me as the black-suit men dragged me forward. There was an empty indentation in the wall. Straps were waiting to embrace a new person.
Those straps were waiting for
“Marc!” I tried to break free of the men holding me, but it was hopeless. “What have they done to you?” He couldn’t move. He looked too tired.
? “Marc! Please!”
His eyes drooped closed.
Marc was unconscious, like everyone else.
It was my turn next.
When we reached the bottom of the stairs, I stiffened. I dug my heels in.
I wouldn’t walk up those stairs.
Back in my freshman year of high school, I had been encouraged to pick up an extracurricular to make my college applications look better. Since I used to be in gymnastics as a kid, I had decided to pick up wrestling as a way to hone my fitness.
I was never that good at wrestling. At least, not as good as I had been on the parallel bars.
The coach had said I lacked the fire to win. Like I wasn’t adequately motivated to fight my classmates.
It turns out that fear is a great motivator.
The men tried to force me up the stairs and I reacted with my eight semesters of wrestling experience. Eight semesters where I hadn’t been able to pin anyone my size or bigger. Eight semesters of competing for ribbons.
Now I was competing for my life—and Marc’s.
I lifted my knees, threw my weight forward, shoved hard.
One of the men went rolling over my shoulder. I flung him to the ground.
I twisted to run, but my ankles were still cuffed, with only a few inches of space to shuffle. I didn’t get far before they grabbed me.
They weren’t as gentle with me as they were before.
Fingertips bit into my biceps. They wrenched me back. My spine bowed, and tears leaped to my eyes.
“No!” I cried.
Suddenly, the man on the scissor lift crumpled.
It was impossible to see all of what happened next.
Someone shoved me to the concrete.
Above me, fists thumped against flesh. Men grunted. They rained to the ground around me.
I rolled onto my side to see that a new guy had arrived.
He wasn’t wearing a black suit like the others were, nor was he like the sleeping people strapped to the walls. He was pale-fleshed and fast. His hair was dark brown. It swept over his eyes, shadowing his gaze in the cavernous darkness. As deep as the shadows were in the space under the mountains, the shadows within this boy’s soul were so much deeper, and I felt lost by merely glancing into them.
He was fighting my captors.
When one of the black-suited men hauled me to my feet again, the new arrival jumped between us.
I had never seen anyone move so fast in my life. It was like he wasn’t even human.
This new arrival jumped between the men holding me. The grips on my arms tightened so severely I knew I would bruise.
Another hand grabbed me, but when I flailed against it, a voice said, “Bianka, I’m not with them. I’m getting you out of here.”
I looked up and met the eyes I’d seen in my school’s parking lot.
Shocking blue eyes.
They almost seemed to glow.
And then, as I struggled one last time to catch my breath, the world went dark around me.