Until the Stars Grow Cold by Terence West

EXTRACT FOR
Until the Stars Grow Cold

(Terence West)


Chapter One

Hell found him.
Skittering across the floorboards with bare feet, Thomas hit his knees and rolled toward his bed. He pushed his diminutive frame into the space almost too tiny for him and quickly pulled down the covers to hide his location. Kicking old toys, books, and discarded hobbies out of the way, he pressed up against the wall and pulled his knees up to his chest. This was it. He had fled into a literal corner with no means of escape. If they came now, there would be nowhere to go. This was his punishment. He knew why. Silent tears rolled down his cheeks while he did his best to stifle the sobs that so desperately wanted free. He had watched them die and did nothing.
After all, Thomas was only twelve years old.
Taking a long, deep breath, he held it and became very quiet. The house was silent. It had transformed from a loving home to a tomb. He couldn’t hear them, but that didn’t mean they weren’t close. Peering between two clear Tupperware containers that held his multicolored Legos and Tinker Toys, he stared intently at the open door across from his bed. It was dark in the house, except for the nightlight his mother had installed in the hallway for him. The tiny light cast long shadows across his doorway from the grandfather clock that stood outside his room. It had never worked in his lifetime, but his mom always referred to it as an heirloom—she would have it repaired someday. It seemed like a moot point now. He heard the scuffle of shoes on the stairs outside. His heart thumped and jumped in his chest. He feared it was loud enough for them to hear it. Crossing his hands over his chest, he tried to muffle the sound pounding in his ears. He watched the door intently.
“Where are you, little one?”
The voice was light and playful as if this were some horrible game. And Thomas knew it was, to them.
“Why don’t you come out? It wasn’t nice to run away like that.”
He pushed himself further into the corner, the darkness enveloping him. He had seen his mother, father, and sisters die tonight at the monsters’ hands. He would not willingly suffer the same fate. He had been assured—many times—that monsters didn’t exist and yet here he was, hiding from his nightmares become reality. Anger began to well up deep within his heart. Those who had hurt his family would be made to suffer…he would see to it. His tiny, innocent heart was suddenly engulfed in flame as it became a furnace of hatred. Holding his hand in front of his face, he balled his fingers and squeezed until the fragile, still developing tendons and muscles popped and cracked in protest. His tears, no longer salty and distressed, were now drops of raw venom rolling down his face.
You can kill them all.
In his anger, he heard a voice whispering to him from the blackness that surrounded him. It was as familiar as an old friend. It was deep and gravely, as if a normal, human voice had been dropped several octaves and scarred with the coarsest sandpaper. He shut his eyes tightly and gritted his teeth. He had heard this voice many, many times in his life, and only through an act of sheer willpower was he able to ignore it. Each time it reappeared, it somehow became more persuasive.
Use your gifts. You can make them pay.
Yet this time, he didn’t want to ignore it. The voice was right. He could seek his revenge on those horrible creatures, and every act of evil they wrought on his family would be returned in kind. He lowered his hand to the floor and started to pull himself toward the edge—
Yes…the fire that burns in you now, use it to make them suffer for what they have done to you. Unleash your true potential!
He stopped. Biting his lower lip, he withdrew his hand and scooted back into the corner. His heart grew cold once again as the flames were snuffed by guilt and promises made—promises now growing cold in the family room below. He would not betray the memory of his mother and father this way. He had long ago assured them that he would not unleash his gifts in anger. He owed that much to them. There was another way.
The sound of scuffing against the hard wood silenced his internal struggle. Glancing out between the semi-clear containers that surrounded him, he saw a pair of dirty, black boots appear outside his bedroom door. The nearest one had a dark discoloration on the toe. He knew instantly what it was. Several streaks ran down from the blotch to the thick rubber sole. It was his family’s blood. The sight both sickened and infuriated him. He felt nausea hit his stomach like a clenched fist and a spark ignite in his heart again.
They should be made to pay. You have the power. Use it!
He watched the boots turn to face his position. Closing his eyes for a moment, he took a slow breath to calm his nerves. This wasn’t the way, he reminded himself. Only his self-restraint could save him now. This was, after all, his fault. He had tempted the fates after his parents warned him not to and called down the very wrath of Hell to his doorstep. He was to blame. He would not attain salvation this way. But without his parent’s guidance…he frowned.
Perhaps there was no salvation at all.
The boots took a step into his room and paused. Another step. Then another. They were practically on top of him now. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest again. His eyes were wide and unblinking staring at the silver eyelets on the shoes before him. The thick, black laces fell down over the sides and pooled around the soles. Just above the tongue, he could see the hem of the black leather pants stuffed messily inside. His eyes wandered to the glistening spot on the toe of the boot. He tried to avert his eyes but couldn’t. It was all he could see.
That is your family’s life spilled so recklessly on that shoe.
He clapped his hands over his ears. He would not listen to the voice. It was the voice’s fault he was here—that they were here. He should not have listened. Not ever.
They enjoyed killing your mother, hearing her scream. And your sisters…
He clenched his eyes closed and doubled over into a fetal position.
They will kill you, too, if you don’t act… You can make them suffer!
The voice was overwhelming in his head as if it were screaming at him. His stomach was in knots as he tried to ignore it, bile crept up his esophagus and washed like waves burning the back of his throat. His fists were balls of rage digging into his temples as his body shuddered. It was too much. He couldn’t—
KILL THEM! NOW!
Throwing his hands forward, a burst of unseen energy grabbed everything around him and flung it immediately toward his attacker. Before he could comprehend the first motion, he was already on his feet and moving forward. The small flame in his heart blossomed into a full-blown nuclear furnace. The heat shot out from his heart along the pathways of his veins and arteries to every centimeter of his body. The creature that had killed his family was digging itself out from beneath the rubble he had just created. He stared at the monster’s golden eyes and took a step forward. Lifting his right hand palm up, energy stretched out from his body and lifted the vampire into the air. It shrieked in protest and struggled to break free of the invisible grip, but to no avail. Anger and hatred smoldered in the eyes of the young boy. Lifting his free hand, he sent out another wave of energy that started to choke the vampire. As he slowly closed his hand, he could see the creature’s pale flesh compressing and collapsing in.
The twelve year old boy was gone, leaving only raw rage in its place. Releasing his invisible grip on the vampire’s throat, he stared into the monster’s golden eyes. “Why?” he hissed.
Not expecting an answer, the boy lowered his hand and dug an invisible tendril into the vampire’s chest. Clenching his hand into a fist, he concentrated the tendril into a solid ball around the vampire’s heart. With a smirk on his face, he stared at his family’s killer.
Do it.
Opening his hand in one fluid motion, the ball of energy he had created instantly expanded inside the vampire’s chest cavity. The creature’s eyes widened, but only for a moment. His chest exploded open, completely eviscerating him. Arms, legs, and body parts were thrown haphazardly around the room. A red haze of blood began to slowly settle around him as it fell.
The second vampire appeared in the room, drawn by his companion’s screams of agony. He charged inside faster than the human eye could follow. But the boy snapped his head around and stared right at the vampire as if he were running in slow motion. Lifting his hands again, he snatched the creature and flung him hard into the ceiling. The vampire careened into the drywall with a crunch of bone and wood. Before he could recover, Thomas pulled the creature back and began to jackhammer him into the wall. As the studs gave beneath the repeated assaults, he slung the vampire against the floor instead.
Pinning him down, Thomas spotted the implement of the creature’s destruction. The boy ripped a six inch piece of wood from the wall and floated it in midair above the shrieking vampire. Rolling the creature onto its back, he brought the makeshift stake up to eye level so the vampire could see it.
“We were just doing what we were told,” the vampire pleaded. “We weren’t supposed to hurt you—”
Kill him now!
There was no mercy to be found here tonight, only swift retribution. Moving the stake down the vampire’s chest, he sent it straight into the creature’s heart. Releasing his grip, he watched as blue flames erupted from the newly created wound. As the fire quickly spread across the vampire’s body, he shrieked and screamed in agony as he was reduced to ash.
Good, very good. You are powerful.
Amidst the red mist and glowing embers, Thomas fell back to the hard floorboards; his body completely exhausted. Every ounce of energy he had in his young frame had been expelled in that one moment. He had nothing left. His eyes slowly rolled back into his head as he lost consciousness.
A dark figure stood in his doorway. This wasn’t one of the killers, but another who had arrived moments too late. Snapping his scythe shut, he slid it into the pocket of his faded brown trench coat. Moving tentatively into the small room, he knelt down next to the boy and cautiously pressed his fingertips to the child’s throat. Detecting a pulse, he slid his hands under the twelve year old and lifted the boy from the floor. Turning, he headed toward the stairs at the end of the hall, but didn’t stop. There was nothing left here but death. He didn’t know what this boy’s future held, but it wasn’t to be found here.
He folded the boy into his coat, left the house behind and vanished into the night.

***

She was in Heaven.
She leaned back in her office chair and rested her head against it. Her blonde hair spilled around her shoulders as she felt a smile grow wide across her slender face. Taking a deep breath into her lungs, she felt like screaming. Her first instinct was to jump up from her desk and charge through the halls yelling to anyone and everyone, but she was more restrained than that. She was a professional now. To do so would be unbefitting her stature. Lifting her hands from the armrests, she balled up her fists and held her arms up like an Olympian finishing a flawless routine.
Grabbing her mouse, she quickly hit the print command on her browser to capture the moment. Carefully watching the screen to make sure it didn’t change—and to make sure she wasn’t imagining it—she heard her printer sputter and whir to life behind her. She spun in her seat and watched the white sheet of paper slowly being churned out by the old ink jet. Inch by inch, it completed the image captured from her screen. She snatched the page and held it in her hands, careful not to bend or crinkle it. This was for framing. She wanted to remember this moment forever.
She was no longer an executive assistant—she was now a best-selling author.
Carefully tracing her finger around the rectangular cover image of her book on the page, she looked at the blue emblazoned number next to it: one. This was the New York Times Best Seller’s List, the most prestigious list in all of noveldom, and her book was sitting at the very top. She had no doubt the Today Show or Oprah’s people would be knocking on her door for an interview in no time. Leno and Letterman would certainly not be too far behind. Why stop there? she thought with a smile, a book tour, the talk show circuit…they were all in her grasp now.
She wanted to rush into her boss’ office and shove the paper in his face. He told her that she had been wasting her time. He felt she should focus on a more realistic goal. How she had enjoyed showing him the large advance check that Penguin Putnam had given her for the novel. How she had loved taking time off to travel to New York with her agent to meet with her new publisher. How she had relished telling him stories of five-star restaurants, limousines, and nights spent in the Jacuzzi in her private hotel suite sipping champagne. This would be the icing on the cake—one final nail in his coffin.
She had come back to the company out of some misguided sense of loyalty. In a time when she should have been thinking about her next project—both her agent and publisher were pressuring her for a sequel—she still came into work every morning, made coffee, answered the phone and took messages. She had been here for nearly ten years after all. Maybe it was more a sense of fear that kept her here than loyalty. This was only the second job in her life, and now on the verge of twenty-nine years old, she was becoming complacent, comfortable.
A smirk appeared on her face. That was all about to change.
She was quitting today.
Her new profession as an author stretched out in front of her. Her first novel—her first attempt to even write a full-length book—had been sold to a major publishing house and was now sitting at the top of the best seller’s list. The future was bright for her. Her mind spun with possibilities.
Carefully minimizing the browser window, she opened up her word processor. Clicking the “file” button at the top of the screen, she scrolled down to the open command and clicked once. This day had been a long time coming. She had spent many hours thinking about it…dreaming about it. It wasn’t that she was unhappy here—it just wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. Bringing a man who claimed to be her “superior” coffee every morning wasn’t her idea of a life—she merely existed. She would not just exist. She had too much to offer, too much to experience. Scrolling through the files in her documents folder, she came to the one she was looking for. Highlighting the file, she clicked the open button beneath it.
As she waited for the file to load, she lifted the paper from her desk and stared at her cover again. She already knew every detail of it, yet she couldn’t take her eyes away. The cover, designed by one of the publisher’s top artists, had been sent to her as a gift. It hung in a beautiful frame on the wall of her home office, just above her computer. It was less of a display piece and more of a reminder to her that she had done it. She had set goals and worked hard to achieve them. It was better than any trophy or medal. It was hers.
Her requested document appeared on the screen. She scanned over it one more time but she knew exactly what it said. She had spent almost as much time crafting this two paragraph letter than she did the entire first draft of her novel. She had poured over every sentence, every word, to ensure it was exactly what she wanted to convey. She wanted her feelings to be abundantly clear and her thoughts concise. She wanted to turn in this letter so often, but the time hadn’t been right. Her conditions hadn’t yet been met. She looked at the printed page one final time and took a slow breath. Everything was in order.
She had made a promise to herself almost four years ago: she would quit her day job and become a full-time writer if a) her novel was purchased by a major publisher (check), b) it was released in both hard cover and paperback formats (check), and c) she made the New York Times Best Seller’s List (check). Of course, when she made this promise, she had been setting partially unrealistic goals. She was afraid to throw away this steady paycheck that paid for her apartment and food in favor of a much more unreliable career. But here she was.
She printed the letter.
Grabbing a small box from beneath her desk, she started to place her meager possessions inside. She didn’t need to answer phones anymore, or tolerate the smell of burnt coffee at two in the afternoon. She had her next novel to work on. Pulling the letter free of the printer, she placed it on her desk and retrieved a pen from her drawer. Holding the tip just above the page, she hesitated. Her hand was shaking. Lowering the tip of the pen to the paper, she took another quick breath to steady herself. Her hand started to move and suddenly, her flowery signature was finished. There was no turning back now.
Lifting the resignation from her desk, along with her personal belongings, she walked out from behind it and headed toward the hallway that connected the rest of the office to the lobby. A lone light was on in the back of the building. It was her employer working late—a rare occurrence. Usually he already had in a full round of golf by now and was drinking with his friends in the clubhouse. Many times, she had picked him up and driven him home while he was three-sheets-to-the-wind. And more than a few times, she had brushed off his awkward, clumsy, inebriated advances.
She knocked gently on his open office door. “Mr. Sullivan? George?”
George Sullivan looked up from his desk through tired eyes. His dark suit jacket was slung over the back of his chair while his tie was hanging undone from his collar. He was a middle-aged man with a well-trimmed beard and blue eyes that burned with the intensity of someone who had gone from the bottom and clawed his way to the top. He wasn’t necessarily a bad man, she just wanted more than this. “What is it, Katherine?” he asked softly.
Katherine Sharp wasn’t sure what to say. Her first instinct was to laugh out loud, stuff the best seller’s list in his face, then climb on his fancy black desk and dance gleefully. She assumed that wouldn’t be proper. She took a step into his office. “I’m resigning.” She handed him her letter.
Accepting the letter, he leaned back in his chair and started to read it. He motioned for her to sit down in one of the two chairs in front of his massive desk.
She remained standing.
He looked up from the letter. “You’re not even going to give me two weeks’ notice to find a replacement?”
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, “no.”
He placed the letter on his desk and rubbed his chin. “Okay. Can I ask what brought this on?”
The urge to show him the list reappeared. She stuffed it down into her chest. “A new opportunity has arisen.”
Sullivan nodded. “I understand.” He stood and walked around his desk. “You’ve been a valuable employee for the past nine years and you’ll be missed. I’m sad to see you go, Kat.”
“Thank you,” she said slowly—a twinge of guilt in her voice. She took a step back and started to turn toward the door.
“Wait,” Sullivan said quickly and turned back to his desk. Opening the top drawer, he produced a copy of her novel and a pen. “Can you sign my copy?”
Kat’s eyes grew wide. “You read it?”
Sullivan nodded. “It’s good.”
She accepted the paperback and pen and stood looking at the man before her. This was the same person who scoffed at her dream of becoming a novelist—the same man who told her that she had no chance of getting published. She understood in that moment. He knew she was talented…he just didn’t want to lose her. He had come to depend on her not only in business, but in life as well. She was probably as close to being a wife as Sullivan would ever get.
Opening the cover, she looked at the crease lines along the spine and the ragged, dog-eared corners. He had indeed read the book, and it looked as if he had spent some time pouring over it. Flipping to the title page, she signed her name below the byline. Closing the book, she passed it back to its owner. “Thank you.”
Sullivan smiled as he accepted the book. “I think that’s my line.”
Kat laughed out loud. Setting her box on the mammoth desk, she rushed forward and wrapped her arms around Sullivan’s chest and hugged him tightly. “I’ll miss you, boss.” It was a term of affection more than of submissiveness.
As he returned the embrace, Sullivan smiled. “Me, too. I wish you the best of luck in your new career.”
“Thank you,” she said into his shoulder.
Pulling free, Kat brushed her blonde hair over her shoulders, lifted her cardboard box, and turned away. Walking back into the darkened office, she felt a weight lifted from her shoulders. She was no longer a receptionist and executive assistant, she was now a professional author. It felt good to say it. She was free to live her dreams now. Stopping in the lobby, she looked at her desk one final time. With a smirk, she snatched a stack of post it notes and deposited them in her box. Sullivan could afford more.
Pushing through the double glass doors, she felt the cool night air touch her alabaster skin. She looked up at the full moon in the sky above her and the stars glittering around it. They were shining for her tonight. The fog was starting to roll in, but she wouldn’t let that get her down. Everything in the world was perfect.
Turning, she headed down the empty sidewalk. She almost felt like skipping. Her apartment was only three blocks from here. She liked to walk in the mornings and at night. It gave her time to clear her head and imagine all the wonderful and gruesome things she would do to her characters when she arrived home and sat down in front of her computer. She wondered for a moment if the book truly warranted a sequel, or if she should start a completely new manuscript. She smiled. Didn’t matter right now.
She was in Heaven, but the feeling was fleeting.
A flash of intense pain knocked Kat to the ground. Her box and personal items spilled to the concrete around her as a gasp escaped her lungs. Grabbing the back of her head, she tried to stop the throbbing pain. She winced in pain as her fingers slid through a wet, sticky patch of hair.
She was bleeding.
A pair of vicelike hands wrapped around her upper arms and ripped her from the ground. She was spun in midair and slammed against the side of a nearby building. She wanted to scream out, cry for help, but everything was moving too fast. Before her eyes could focus on her attacker—or attackers, she couldn’t tell—she felt another shock of intense, searing pain radiate out from the left side of her neck. She tried to struggle and fight, but it felt like a truck was holding her in place.
Quickly, the pain receded leaving only the pressure on her body. She began to feel very tired as her vision blurred. Turning her eyes skyward, she watched the stars and moon slowly fade away leaving only darkness. She could feel her heartbeat and breathing slowing as well, yet she wasn’t concerned about it—she was just so tired. Closing her powder blue eyes, she felt the pressure on her arms and chest release and her body become limp. As her knees buckled, she slid down the wall. Hitting the concrete, Kat fell over and crumbled into a heap. She felt her heart struggle to beat and then fail.
It stopped.
Exhaling her final breath, she died.

***

Four figures stood around an exposed pit of churning, bubbling lava. The molten rock cast an evil red glow over the three as they went about their Machiavellian plans. Heat waves from the lava distorted the air around them as they worked. None were in danger of burning as the ancientness of their bodies could withstand the extreme temperatures.
This place, this exact time, was everything they needed. The center figure stepped forward and glared into the lava, its red hue casting an evil glare across his mental projection. His golden eyes burned intently behind two slender eye slits as a smile crept across his hidden lips.
It begins.

Until the Stars Grow Cold by Terence West

EXTRACT FOR
Until the Stars Grow Cold

(Terence West)


Chapter One

Hell found him.
Skittering across the floorboards with bare feet, Thomas hit his knees and rolled toward his bed. He pushed his diminutive frame into the space almost too tiny for him and quickly pulled down the covers to hide his location. Kicking old toys, books, and discarded hobbies out of the way, he pressed up against the wall and pulled his knees up to his chest. This was it. He had fled into a literal corner with no means of escape. If they came now, there would be nowhere to go. This was his punishment. He knew why. Silent tears rolled down his cheeks while he did his best to stifle the sobs that so desperately wanted free. He had watched them die and did nothing.
After all, Thomas was only twelve years old.
Taking a long, deep breath, he held it and became very quiet. The house was silent. It had transformed from a loving home to a tomb. He couldn’t hear them, but that didn’t mean they weren’t close. Peering between two clear Tupperware containers that held his multicolored Legos and Tinker Toys, he stared intently at the open door across from his bed. It was dark in the house, except for the nightlight his mother had installed in the hallway for him. The tiny light cast long shadows across his doorway from the grandfather clock that stood outside his room. It had never worked in his lifetime, but his mom always referred to it as an heirloom—she would have it repaired someday. It seemed like a moot point now. He heard the scuffle of shoes on the stairs outside. His heart thumped and jumped in his chest. He feared it was loud enough for them to hear it. Crossing his hands over his chest, he tried to muffle the sound pounding in his ears. He watched the door intently.
“Where are you, little one?”
The voice was light and playful as if this were some horrible game. And Thomas knew it was, to them.
“Why don’t you come out? It wasn’t nice to run away like that.”
He pushed himself further into the corner, the darkness enveloping him. He had seen his mother, father, and sisters die tonight at the monsters’ hands. He would not willingly suffer the same fate. He had been assured—many times—that monsters didn’t exist and yet here he was, hiding from his nightmares become reality. Anger began to well up deep within his heart. Those who had hurt his family would be made to suffer…he would see to it. His tiny, innocent heart was suddenly engulfed in flame as it became a furnace of hatred. Holding his hand in front of his face, he balled his fingers and squeezed until the fragile, still developing tendons and muscles popped and cracked in protest. His tears, no longer salty and distressed, were now drops of raw venom rolling down his face.
You can kill them all.
In his anger, he heard a voice whispering to him from the blackness that surrounded him. It was as familiar as an old friend. It was deep and gravely, as if a normal, human voice had been dropped several octaves and scarred with the coarsest sandpaper. He shut his eyes tightly and gritted his teeth. He had heard this voice many, many times in his life, and only through an act of sheer willpower was he able to ignore it. Each time it reappeared, it somehow became more persuasive.
Use your gifts. You can make them pay.
Yet this time, he didn’t want to ignore it. The voice was right. He could seek his revenge on those horrible creatures, and every act of evil they wrought on his family would be returned in kind. He lowered his hand to the floor and started to pull himself toward the edge—
Yes…the fire that burns in you now, use it to make them suffer for what they have done to you. Unleash your true potential!
He stopped. Biting his lower lip, he withdrew his hand and scooted back into the corner. His heart grew cold once again as the flames were snuffed by guilt and promises made—promises now growing cold in the family room below. He would not betray the memory of his mother and father this way. He had long ago assured them that he would not unleash his gifts in anger. He owed that much to them. There was another way.
The sound of scuffing against the hard wood silenced his internal struggle. Glancing out between the semi-clear containers that surrounded him, he saw a pair of dirty, black boots appear outside his bedroom door. The nearest one had a dark discoloration on the toe. He knew instantly what it was. Several streaks ran down from the blotch to the thick rubber sole. It was his family’s blood. The sight both sickened and infuriated him. He felt nausea hit his stomach like a clenched fist and a spark ignite in his heart again.
They should be made to pay. You have the power. Use it!
He watched the boots turn to face his position. Closing his eyes for a moment, he took a slow breath to calm his nerves. This wasn’t the way, he reminded himself. Only his self-restraint could save him now. This was, after all, his fault. He had tempted the fates after his parents warned him not to and called down the very wrath of Hell to his doorstep. He was to blame. He would not attain salvation this way. But without his parent’s guidance…he frowned.
Perhaps there was no salvation at all.
The boots took a step into his room and paused. Another step. Then another. They were practically on top of him now. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest again. His eyes were wide and unblinking staring at the silver eyelets on the shoes before him. The thick, black laces fell down over the sides and pooled around the soles. Just above the tongue, he could see the hem of the black leather pants stuffed messily inside. His eyes wandered to the glistening spot on the toe of the boot. He tried to avert his eyes but couldn’t. It was all he could see.
That is your family’s life spilled so recklessly on that shoe.
He clapped his hands over his ears. He would not listen to the voice. It was the voice’s fault he was here—that they were here. He should not have listened. Not ever.
They enjoyed killing your mother, hearing her scream. And your sisters…
He clenched his eyes closed and doubled over into a fetal position.
They will kill you, too, if you don’t act… You can make them suffer!
The voice was overwhelming in his head as if it were screaming at him. His stomach was in knots as he tried to ignore it, bile crept up his esophagus and washed like waves burning the back of his throat. His fists were balls of rage digging into his temples as his body shuddered. It was too much. He couldn’t—
KILL THEM! NOW!
Throwing his hands forward, a burst of unseen energy grabbed everything around him and flung it immediately toward his attacker. Before he could comprehend the first motion, he was already on his feet and moving forward. The small flame in his heart blossomed into a full-blown nuclear furnace. The heat shot out from his heart along the pathways of his veins and arteries to every centimeter of his body. The creature that had killed his family was digging itself out from beneath the rubble he had just created. He stared at the monster’s golden eyes and took a step forward. Lifting his right hand palm up, energy stretched out from his body and lifted the vampire into the air. It shrieked in protest and struggled to break free of the invisible grip, but to no avail. Anger and hatred smoldered in the eyes of the young boy. Lifting his free hand, he sent out another wave of energy that started to choke the vampire. As he slowly closed his hand, he could see the creature’s pale flesh compressing and collapsing in.
The twelve year old boy was gone, leaving only raw rage in its place. Releasing his invisible grip on the vampire’s throat, he stared into the monster’s golden eyes. “Why?” he hissed.
Not expecting an answer, the boy lowered his hand and dug an invisible tendril into the vampire’s chest. Clenching his hand into a fist, he concentrated the tendril into a solid ball around the vampire’s heart. With a smirk on his face, he stared at his family’s killer.
Do it.
Opening his hand in one fluid motion, the ball of energy he had created instantly expanded inside the vampire’s chest cavity. The creature’s eyes widened, but only for a moment. His chest exploded open, completely eviscerating him. Arms, legs, and body parts were thrown haphazardly around the room. A red haze of blood began to slowly settle around him as it fell.
The second vampire appeared in the room, drawn by his companion’s screams of agony. He charged inside faster than the human eye could follow. But the boy snapped his head around and stared right at the vampire as if he were running in slow motion. Lifting his hands again, he snatched the creature and flung him hard into the ceiling. The vampire careened into the drywall with a crunch of bone and wood. Before he could recover, Thomas pulled the creature back and began to jackhammer him into the wall. As the studs gave beneath the repeated assaults, he slung the vampire against the floor instead.
Pinning him down, Thomas spotted the implement of the creature’s destruction. The boy ripped a six inch piece of wood from the wall and floated it in midair above the shrieking vampire. Rolling the creature onto its back, he brought the makeshift stake up to eye level so the vampire could see it.
“We were just doing what we were told,” the vampire pleaded. “We weren’t supposed to hurt you—”
Kill him now!
There was no mercy to be found here tonight, only swift retribution. Moving the stake down the vampire’s chest, he sent it straight into the creature’s heart. Releasing his grip, he watched as blue flames erupted from the newly created wound. As the fire quickly spread across the vampire’s body, he shrieked and screamed in agony as he was reduced to ash.
Good, very good. You are powerful.
Amidst the red mist and glowing embers, Thomas fell back to the hard floorboards; his body completely exhausted. Every ounce of energy he had in his young frame had been expelled in that one moment. He had nothing left. His eyes slowly rolled back into his head as he lost consciousness.
A dark figure stood in his doorway. This wasn’t one of the killers, but another who had arrived moments too late. Snapping his scythe shut, he slid it into the pocket of his faded brown trench coat. Moving tentatively into the small room, he knelt down next to the boy and cautiously pressed his fingertips to the child’s throat. Detecting a pulse, he slid his hands under the twelve year old and lifted the boy from the floor. Turning, he headed toward the stairs at the end of the hall, but didn’t stop. There was nothing left here but death. He didn’t know what this boy’s future held, but it wasn’t to be found here.
He folded the boy into his coat, left the house behind and vanished into the night.

***

She was in Heaven.
She leaned back in her office chair and rested her head against it. Her blonde hair spilled around her shoulders as she felt a smile grow wide across her slender face. Taking a deep breath into her lungs, she felt like screaming. Her first instinct was to jump up from her desk and charge through the halls yelling to anyone and everyone, but she was more restrained than that. She was a professional now. To do so would be unbefitting her stature. Lifting her hands from the armrests, she balled up her fists and held her arms up like an Olympian finishing a flawless routine.
Grabbing her mouse, she quickly hit the print command on her browser to capture the moment. Carefully watching the screen to make sure it didn’t change—and to make sure she wasn’t imagining it—she heard her printer sputter and whir to life behind her. She spun in her seat and watched the white sheet of paper slowly being churned out by the old ink jet. Inch by inch, it completed the image captured from her screen. She snatched the page and held it in her hands, careful not to bend or crinkle it. This was for framing. She wanted to remember this moment forever.
She was no longer an executive assistant—she was now a best-selling author.
Carefully tracing her finger around the rectangular cover image of her book on the page, she looked at the blue emblazoned number next to it: one. This was the New York Times Best Seller’s List, the most prestigious list in all of noveldom, and her book was sitting at the very top. She had no doubt the Today Show or Oprah’s people would be knocking on her door for an interview in no time. Leno and Letterman would certainly not be too far behind. Why stop there? she thought with a smile, a book tour, the talk show circuit…they were all in her grasp now.
She wanted to rush into her boss’ office and shove the paper in his face. He told her that she had been wasting her time. He felt she should focus on a more realistic goal. How she had enjoyed showing him the large advance check that Penguin Putnam had given her for the novel. How she had loved taking time off to travel to New York with her agent to meet with her new publisher. How she had relished telling him stories of five-star restaurants, limousines, and nights spent in the Jacuzzi in her private hotel suite sipping champagne. This would be the icing on the cake—one final nail in his coffin.
She had come back to the company out of some misguided sense of loyalty. In a time when she should have been thinking about her next project—both her agent and publisher were pressuring her for a sequel—she still came into work every morning, made coffee, answered the phone and took messages. She had been here for nearly ten years after all. Maybe it was more a sense of fear that kept her here than loyalty. This was only the second job in her life, and now on the verge of twenty-nine years old, she was becoming complacent, comfortable.
A smirk appeared on her face. That was all about to change.
She was quitting today.
Her new profession as an author stretched out in front of her. Her first novel—her first attempt to even write a full-length book—had been sold to a major publishing house and was now sitting at the top of the best seller’s list. The future was bright for her. Her mind spun with possibilities.
Carefully minimizing the browser window, she opened up her word processor. Clicking the “file” button at the top of the screen, she scrolled down to the open command and clicked once. This day had been a long time coming. She had spent many hours thinking about it…dreaming about it. It wasn’t that she was unhappy here—it just wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. Bringing a man who claimed to be her “superior” coffee every morning wasn’t her idea of a life—she merely existed. She would not just exist. She had too much to offer, too much to experience. Scrolling through the files in her documents folder, she came to the one she was looking for. Highlighting the file, she clicked the open button beneath it.
As she waited for the file to load, she lifted the paper from her desk and stared at her cover again. She already knew every detail of it, yet she couldn’t take her eyes away. The cover, designed by one of the publisher’s top artists, had been sent to her as a gift. It hung in a beautiful frame on the wall of her home office, just above her computer. It was less of a display piece and more of a reminder to her that she had done it. She had set goals and worked hard to achieve them. It was better than any trophy or medal. It was hers.
Her requested document appeared on the screen. She scanned over it one more time but she knew exactly what it said. She had spent almost as much time crafting this two paragraph letter than she did the entire first draft of her novel. She had poured over every sentence, every word, to ensure it was exactly what she wanted to convey. She wanted her feelings to be abundantly clear and her thoughts concise. She wanted to turn in this letter so often, but the time hadn’t been right. Her conditions hadn’t yet been met. She looked at the printed page one final time and took a slow breath. Everything was in order.
She had made a promise to herself almost four years ago: she would quit her day job and become a full-time writer if a) her novel was purchased by a major publisher (check), b) it was released in both hard cover and paperback formats (check), and c) she made the New York Times Best Seller’s List (check). Of course, when she made this promise, she had been setting partially unrealistic goals. She was afraid to throw away this steady paycheck that paid for her apartment and food in favor of a much more unreliable career. But here she was.
She printed the letter.
Grabbing a small box from beneath her desk, she started to place her meager possessions inside. She didn’t need to answer phones anymore, or tolerate the smell of burnt coffee at two in the afternoon. She had her next novel to work on. Pulling the letter free of the printer, she placed it on her desk and retrieved a pen from her drawer. Holding the tip just above the page, she hesitated. Her hand was shaking. Lowering the tip of the pen to the paper, she took another quick breath to steady herself. Her hand started to move and suddenly, her flowery signature was finished. There was no turning back now.
Lifting the resignation from her desk, along with her personal belongings, she walked out from behind it and headed toward the hallway that connected the rest of the office to the lobby. A lone light was on in the back of the building. It was her employer working late—a rare occurrence. Usually he already had in a full round of golf by now and was drinking with his friends in the clubhouse. Many times, she had picked him up and driven him home while he was three-sheets-to-the-wind. And more than a few times, she had brushed off his awkward, clumsy, inebriated advances.
She knocked gently on his open office door. “Mr. Sullivan? George?”
George Sullivan looked up from his desk through tired eyes. His dark suit jacket was slung over the back of his chair while his tie was hanging undone from his collar. He was a middle-aged man with a well-trimmed beard and blue eyes that burned with the intensity of someone who had gone from the bottom and clawed his way to the top. He wasn’t necessarily a bad man, she just wanted more than this. “What is it, Katherine?” he asked softly.
Katherine Sharp wasn’t sure what to say. Her first instinct was to laugh out loud, stuff the best seller’s list in his face, then climb on his fancy black desk and dance gleefully. She assumed that wouldn’t be proper. She took a step into his office. “I’m resigning.” She handed him her letter.
Accepting the letter, he leaned back in his chair and started to read it. He motioned for her to sit down in one of the two chairs in front of his massive desk.
She remained standing.
He looked up from the letter. “You’re not even going to give me two weeks’ notice to find a replacement?”
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, “no.”
He placed the letter on his desk and rubbed his chin. “Okay. Can I ask what brought this on?”
The urge to show him the list reappeared. She stuffed it down into her chest. “A new opportunity has arisen.”
Sullivan nodded. “I understand.” He stood and walked around his desk. “You’ve been a valuable employee for the past nine years and you’ll be missed. I’m sad to see you go, Kat.”
“Thank you,” she said slowly—a twinge of guilt in her voice. She took a step back and started to turn toward the door.
“Wait,” Sullivan said quickly and turned back to his desk. Opening the top drawer, he produced a copy of her novel and a pen. “Can you sign my copy?”
Kat’s eyes grew wide. “You read it?”
Sullivan nodded. “It’s good.”
She accepted the paperback and pen and stood looking at the man before her. This was the same person who scoffed at her dream of becoming a novelist—the same man who told her that she had no chance of getting published. She understood in that moment. He knew she was talented…he just didn’t want to lose her. He had come to depend on her not only in business, but in life as well. She was probably as close to being a wife as Sullivan would ever get.
Opening the cover, she looked at the crease lines along the spine and the ragged, dog-eared corners. He had indeed read the book, and it looked as if he had spent some time pouring over it. Flipping to the title page, she signed her name below the byline. Closing the book, she passed it back to its owner. “Thank you.”
Sullivan smiled as he accepted the book. “I think that’s my line.”
Kat laughed out loud. Setting her box on the mammoth desk, she rushed forward and wrapped her arms around Sullivan’s chest and hugged him tightly. “I’ll miss you, boss.” It was a term of affection more than of submissiveness.
As he returned the embrace, Sullivan smiled. “Me, too. I wish you the best of luck in your new career.”
“Thank you,” she said into his shoulder.
Pulling free, Kat brushed her blonde hair over her shoulders, lifted her cardboard box, and turned away. Walking back into the darkened office, she felt a weight lifted from her shoulders. She was no longer a receptionist and executive assistant, she was now a professional author. It felt good to say it. She was free to live her dreams now. Stopping in the lobby, she looked at her desk one final time. With a smirk, she snatched a stack of post it notes and deposited them in her box. Sullivan could afford more.
Pushing through the double glass doors, she felt the cool night air touch her alabaster skin. She looked up at the full moon in the sky above her and the stars glittering around it. They were shining for her tonight. The fog was starting to roll in, but she wouldn’t let that get her down. Everything in the world was perfect.
Turning, she headed down the empty sidewalk. She almost felt like skipping. Her apartment was only three blocks from here. She liked to walk in the mornings and at night. It gave her time to clear her head and imagine all the wonderful and gruesome things she would do to her characters when she arrived home and sat down in front of her computer. She wondered for a moment if the book truly warranted a sequel, or if she should start a completely new manuscript. She smiled. Didn’t matter right now.
She was in Heaven, but the feeling was fleeting.
A flash of intense pain knocked Kat to the ground. Her box and personal items spilled to the concrete around her as a gasp escaped her lungs. Grabbing the back of her head, she tried to stop the throbbing pain. She winced in pain as her fingers slid through a wet, sticky patch of hair.
She was bleeding.
A pair of vicelike hands wrapped around her upper arms and ripped her from the ground. She was spun in midair and slammed against the side of a nearby building. She wanted to scream out, cry for help, but everything was moving too fast. Before her eyes could focus on her attacker—or attackers, she couldn’t tell—she felt another shock of intense, searing pain radiate out from the left side of her neck. She tried to struggle and fight, but it felt like a truck was holding her in place.
Quickly, the pain receded leaving only the pressure on her body. She began to feel very tired as her vision blurred. Turning her eyes skyward, she watched the stars and moon slowly fade away leaving only darkness. She could feel her heartbeat and breathing slowing as well, yet she wasn’t concerned about it—she was just so tired. Closing her powder blue eyes, she felt the pressure on her arms and chest release and her body become limp. As her knees buckled, she slid down the wall. Hitting the concrete, Kat fell over and crumbled into a heap. She felt her heart struggle to beat and then fail.
It stopped.
Exhaling her final breath, she died.

***

Four figures stood around an exposed pit of churning, bubbling lava. The molten rock cast an evil red glow over the three as they went about their Machiavellian plans. Heat waves from the lava distorted the air around them as they worked. None were in danger of burning as the ancientness of their bodies could withstand the extreme temperatures.
This place, this exact time, was everything they needed. The center figure stepped forward and glared into the lava, its red hue casting an evil glare across his mental projection. His golden eyes burned intently behind two slender eye slits as a smile crept across his hidden lips.
It begins.

EXTRACT FOR
Until the Stars Grow Cold

(Terence West)


Chapter One

Hell found him.
Skittering across the floorboards with bare feet, Thomas hit his knees and rolled toward his bed. He pushed his diminutive frame into the space almost too tiny for him and quickly pulled down the covers to hide his location. Kicking old toys, books, and discarded hobbies out of the way, he pressed up against the wall and pulled his knees up to his chest. This was it. He had fled into a literal corner with no means of escape. If they came now, there would be nowhere to go. This was his punishment. He knew why. Silent tears rolled down his cheeks while he did his best to stifle the sobs that so desperately wanted free. He had watched them die and did nothing.
After all, Thomas was only twelve years old.
Taking a long, deep breath, he held it and became very quiet. The house was silent. It had transformed from a loving home to a tomb. He couldn’t hear them, but that didn’t mean they weren’t close. Peering between two clear Tupperware containers that held his multicolored Legos and Tinker Toys, he stared intently at the open door across from his bed. It was dark in the house, except for the nightlight his mother had installed in the hallway for him. The tiny light cast long shadows across his doorway from the grandfather clock that stood outside his room. It had never worked in his lifetime, but his mom always referred to it as an heirloom—she would have it repaired someday. It seemed like a moot point now. He heard the scuffle of shoes on the stairs outside. His heart thumped and jumped in his chest. He feared it was loud enough for them to hear it. Crossing his hands over his chest, he tried to muffle the sound pounding in his ears. He watched the door intently.
“Where are you, little one?”
The voice was light and playful as if this were some horrible game. And Thomas knew it was, to them.
“Why don’t you come out? It wasn’t nice to run away like that.”
He pushed himself further into the corner, the darkness enveloping him. He had seen his mother, father, and sisters die tonight at the monsters’ hands. He would not willingly suffer the same fate. He had been assured—many times—that monsters didn’t exist and yet here he was, hiding from his nightmares become reality. Anger began to well up deep within his heart. Those who had hurt his family would be made to suffer…he would see to it. His tiny, innocent heart was suddenly engulfed in flame as it became a furnace of hatred. Holding his hand in front of his face, he balled his fingers and squeezed until the fragile, still developing tendons and muscles popped and cracked in protest. His tears, no longer salty and distressed, were now drops of raw venom rolling down his face.
You can kill them all.
In his anger, he heard a voice whispering to him from the blackness that surrounded him. It was as familiar as an old friend. It was deep and gravely, as if a normal, human voice had been dropped several octaves and scarred with the coarsest sandpaper. He shut his eyes tightly and gritted his teeth. He had heard this voice many, many times in his life, and only through an act of sheer willpower was he able to ignore it. Each time it reappeared, it somehow became more persuasive.
Use your gifts. You can make them pay.
Yet this time, he didn’t want to ignore it. The voice was right. He could seek his revenge on those horrible creatures, and every act of evil they wrought on his family would be returned in kind. He lowered his hand to the floor and started to pull himself toward the edge—
Yes…the fire that burns in you now, use it to make them suffer for what they have done to you. Unleash your true potential!
He stopped. Biting his lower lip, he withdrew his hand and scooted back into the corner. His heart grew cold once again as the flames were snuffed by guilt and promises made—promises now growing cold in the family room below. He would not betray the memory of his mother and father this way. He had long ago assured them that he would not unleash his gifts in anger. He owed that much to them. There was another way.
The sound of scuffing against the hard wood silenced his internal struggle. Glancing out between the semi-clear containers that surrounded him, he saw a pair of dirty, black boots appear outside his bedroom door. The nearest one had a dark discoloration on the toe. He knew instantly what it was. Several streaks ran down from the blotch to the thick rubber sole. It was his family’s blood. The sight both sickened and infuriated him. He felt nausea hit his stomach like a clenched fist and a spark ignite in his heart again.
They should be made to pay. You have the power. Use it!
He watched the boots turn to face his position. Closing his eyes for a moment, he took a slow breath to calm his nerves. This wasn’t the way, he reminded himself. Only his self-restraint could save him now. This was, after all, his fault. He had tempted the fates after his parents warned him not to and called down the very wrath of Hell to his doorstep. He was to blame. He would not attain salvation this way. But without his parent’s guidance…he frowned.
Perhaps there was no salvation at all.
The boots took a step into his room and paused. Another step. Then another. They were practically on top of him now. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest again. His eyes were wide and unblinking staring at the silver eyelets on the shoes before him. The thick, black laces fell down over the sides and pooled around the soles. Just above the tongue, he could see the hem of the black leather pants stuffed messily inside. His eyes wandered to the glistening spot on the toe of the boot. He tried to avert his eyes but couldn’t. It was all he could see.
That is your family’s life spilled so recklessly on that shoe.
He clapped his hands over his ears. He would not listen to the voice. It was the voice’s fault he was here—that they were here. He should not have listened. Not ever.
They enjoyed killing your mother, hearing her scream. And your sisters…
He clenched his eyes closed and doubled over into a fetal position.
They will kill you, too, if you don’t act… You can make them suffer!
The voice was overwhelming in his head as if it were screaming at him. His stomach was in knots as he tried to ignore it, bile crept up his esophagus and washed like waves burning the back of his throat. His fists were balls of rage digging into his temples as his body shuddered. It was too much. He couldn’t—
KILL THEM! NOW!
Throwing his hands forward, a burst of unseen energy grabbed everything around him and flung it immediately toward his attacker. Before he could comprehend the first motion, he was already on his feet and moving forward. The small flame in his heart blossomed into a full-blown nuclear furnace. The heat shot out from his heart along the pathways of his veins and arteries to every centimeter of his body. The creature that had killed his family was digging itself out from beneath the rubble he had just created. He stared at the monster’s golden eyes and took a step forward. Lifting his right hand palm up, energy stretched out from his body and lifted the vampire into the air. It shrieked in protest and struggled to break free of the invisible grip, but to no avail. Anger and hatred smoldered in the eyes of the young boy. Lifting his free hand, he sent out another wave of energy that started to choke the vampire. As he slowly closed his hand, he could see the creature’s pale flesh compressing and collapsing in.
The twelve year old boy was gone, leaving only raw rage in its place. Releasing his invisible grip on the vampire’s throat, he stared into the monster’s golden eyes. “Why?” he hissed.
Not expecting an answer, the boy lowered his hand and dug an invisible tendril into the vampire’s chest. Clenching his hand into a fist, he concentrated the tendril into a solid ball around the vampire’s heart. With a smirk on his face, he stared at his family’s killer.
Do it.
Opening his hand in one fluid motion, the ball of energy he had created instantly expanded inside the vampire’s chest cavity. The creature’s eyes widened, but only for a moment. His chest exploded open, completely eviscerating him. Arms, legs, and body parts were thrown haphazardly around the room. A red haze of blood began to slowly settle around him as it fell.
The second vampire appeared in the room, drawn by his companion’s screams of agony. He charged inside faster than the human eye could follow. But the boy snapped his head around and stared right at the vampire as if he were running in slow motion. Lifting his hands again, he snatched the creature and flung him hard into the ceiling. The vampire careened into the drywall with a crunch of bone and wood. Before he could recover, Thomas pulled the creature back and began to jackhammer him into the wall. As the studs gave beneath the repeated assaults, he slung the vampire against the floor instead.
Pinning him down, Thomas spotted the implement of the creature’s destruction. The boy ripped a six inch piece of wood from the wall and floated it in midair above the shrieking vampire. Rolling the creature onto its back, he brought the makeshift stake up to eye level so the vampire could see it.
“We were just doing what we were told,” the vampire pleaded. “We weren’t supposed to hurt you—”
Kill him now!
There was no mercy to be found here tonight, only swift retribution. Moving the stake down the vampire’s chest, he sent it straight into the creature’s heart. Releasing his grip, he watched as blue flames erupted from the newly created wound. As the fire quickly spread across the vampire’s body, he shrieked and screamed in agony as he was reduced to ash.
Good, very good. You are powerful.
Amidst the red mist and glowing embers, Thomas fell back to the hard floorboards; his body completely exhausted. Every ounce of energy he had in his young frame had been expelled in that one moment. He had nothing left. His eyes slowly rolled back into his head as he lost consciousness.
A dark figure stood in his doorway. This wasn’t one of the killers, but another who had arrived moments too late. Snapping his scythe shut, he slid it into the pocket of his faded brown trench coat. Moving tentatively into the small room, he knelt down next to the boy and cautiously pressed his fingertips to the child’s throat. Detecting a pulse, he slid his hands under the twelve year old and lifted the boy from the floor. Turning, he headed toward the stairs at the end of the hall, but didn’t stop. There was nothing left here but death. He didn’t know what this boy’s future held, but it wasn’t to be found here.
He folded the boy into his coat, left the house behind and vanished into the night.

***

She was in Heaven.
She leaned back in her office chair and rested her head against it. Her blonde hair spilled around her shoulders as she felt a smile grow wide across her slender face. Taking a deep breath into her lungs, she felt like screaming. Her first instinct was to jump up from her desk and charge through the halls yelling to anyone and everyone, but she was more restrained than that. She was a professional now. To do so would be unbefitting her stature. Lifting her hands from the armrests, she balled up her fists and held her arms up like an Olympian finishing a flawless routine.
Grabbing her mouse, she quickly hit the print command on her browser to capture the moment. Carefully watching the screen to make sure it didn’t change—and to make sure she wasn’t imagining it—she heard her printer sputter and whir to life behind her. She spun in her seat and watched the white sheet of paper slowly being churned out by the old ink jet. Inch by inch, it completed the image captured from her screen. She snatched the page and held it in her hands, careful not to bend or crinkle it. This was for framing. She wanted to remember this moment forever.
She was no longer an executive assistant—she was now a best-selling author.
Carefully tracing her finger around the rectangular cover image of her book on the page, she looked at the blue emblazoned number next to it: one. This was the New York Times Best Seller’s List, the most prestigious list in all of noveldom, and her book was sitting at the very top. She had no doubt the Today Show or Oprah’s people would be knocking on her door for an interview in no time. Leno and Letterman would certainly not be too far behind. Why stop there? she thought with a smile, a book tour, the talk show circuit…they were all in her grasp now.
She wanted to rush into her boss’ office and shove the paper in his face. He told her that she had been wasting her time. He felt she should focus on a more realistic goal. How she had enjoyed showing him the large advance check that Penguin Putnam had given her for the novel. How she had loved taking time off to travel to New York with her agent to meet with her new publisher. How she had relished telling him stories of five-star restaurants, limousines, and nights spent in the Jacuzzi in her private hotel suite sipping champagne. This would be the icing on the cake—one final nail in his coffin.
She had come back to the company out of some misguided sense of loyalty. In a time when she should have been thinking about her next project—both her agent and publisher were pressuring her for a sequel—she still came into work every morning, made coffee, answered the phone and took messages. She had been here for nearly ten years after all. Maybe it was more a sense of fear that kept her here than loyalty. This was only the second job in her life, and now on the verge of twenty-nine years old, she was becoming complacent, comfortable.
A smirk appeared on her face. That was all about to change.
She was quitting today.
Her new profession as an author stretched out in front of her. Her first novel—her first attempt to even write a full-length book—had been sold to a major publishing house and was now sitting at the top of the best seller’s list. The future was bright for her. Her mind spun with possibilities.
Carefully minimizing the browser window, she opened up her word processor. Clicking the “file” button at the top of the screen, she scrolled down to the open command and clicked once. This day had been a long time coming. She had spent many hours thinking about it…dreaming about it. It wasn’t that she was unhappy here—it just wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. Bringing a man who claimed to be her “superior” coffee every morning wasn’t her idea of a life—she merely existed. She would not just exist. She had too much to offer, too much to experience. Scrolling through the files in her documents folder, she came to the one she was looking for. Highlighting the file, she clicked the open button beneath it.
As she waited for the file to load, she lifted the paper from her desk and stared at her cover again. She already knew every detail of it, yet she couldn’t take her eyes away. The cover, designed by one of the publisher’s top artists, had been sent to her as a gift. It hung in a beautiful frame on the wall of her home office, just above her computer. It was less of a display piece and more of a reminder to her that she had done it. She had set goals and worked hard to achieve them. It was better than any trophy or medal. It was hers.
Her requested document appeared on the screen. She scanned over it one more time but she knew exactly what it said. She had spent almost as much time crafting this two paragraph letter than she did the entire first draft of her novel. She had poured over every sentence, every word, to ensure it was exactly what she wanted to convey. She wanted her feelings to be abundantly clear and her thoughts concise. She wanted to turn in this letter so often, but the time hadn’t been right. Her conditions hadn’t yet been met. She looked at the printed page one final time and took a slow breath. Everything was in order.
She had made a promise to herself almost four years ago: she would quit her day job and become a full-time writer if a) her novel was purchased by a major publisher (check), b) it was released in both hard cover and paperback formats (check), and c) she made the New York Times Best Seller’s List (check). Of course, when she made this promise, she had been setting partially unrealistic goals. She was afraid to throw away this steady paycheck that paid for her apartment and food in favor of a much more unreliable career. But here she was.
She printed the letter.
Grabbing a small box from beneath her desk, she started to place her meager possessions inside. She didn’t need to answer phones anymore, or tolerate the smell of burnt coffee at two in the afternoon. She had her next novel to work on. Pulling the letter free of the printer, she placed it on her desk and retrieved a pen from her drawer. Holding the tip just above the page, she hesitated. Her hand was shaking. Lowering the tip of the pen to the paper, she took another quick breath to steady herself. Her hand started to move and suddenly, her flowery signature was finished. There was no turning back now.
Lifting the resignation from her desk, along with her personal belongings, she walked out from behind it and headed toward the hallway that connected the rest of the office to the lobby. A lone light was on in the back of the building. It was her employer working late—a rare occurrence. Usually he already had in a full round of golf by now and was drinking with his friends in the clubhouse. Many times, she had picked him up and driven him home while he was three-sheets-to-the-wind. And more than a few times, she had brushed off his awkward, clumsy, inebriated advances.
She knocked gently on his open office door. “Mr. Sullivan? George?”
George Sullivan looked up from his desk through tired eyes. His dark suit jacket was slung over the back of his chair while his tie was hanging undone from his collar. He was a middle-aged man with a well-trimmed beard and blue eyes that burned with the intensity of someone who had gone from the bottom and clawed his way to the top. He wasn’t necessarily a bad man, she just wanted more than this. “What is it, Katherine?” he asked softly.
Katherine Sharp wasn’t sure what to say. Her first instinct was to laugh out loud, stuff the best seller’s list in his face, then climb on his fancy black desk and dance gleefully. She assumed that wouldn’t be proper. She took a step into his office. “I’m resigning.” She handed him her letter.
Accepting the letter, he leaned back in his chair and started to read it. He motioned for her to sit down in one of the two chairs in front of his massive desk.
She remained standing.
He looked up from the letter. “You’re not even going to give me two weeks’ notice to find a replacement?”
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, “no.”
He placed the letter on his desk and rubbed his chin. “Okay. Can I ask what brought this on?”
The urge to show him the list reappeared. She stuffed it down into her chest. “A new opportunity has arisen.”
Sullivan nodded. “I understand.” He stood and walked around his desk. “You’ve been a valuable employee for the past nine years and you’ll be missed. I’m sad to see you go, Kat.”
“Thank you,” she said slowly—a twinge of guilt in her voice. She took a step back and started to turn toward the door.
“Wait,” Sullivan said quickly and turned back to his desk. Opening the top drawer, he produced a copy of her novel and a pen. “Can you sign my copy?”
Kat’s eyes grew wide. “You read it?”
Sullivan nodded. “It’s good.”
She accepted the paperback and pen and stood looking at the man before her. This was the same person who scoffed at her dream of becoming a novelist—the same man who told her that she had no chance of getting published. She understood in that moment. He knew she was talented…he just didn’t want to lose her. He had come to depend on her not only in business, but in life as well. She was probably as close to being a wife as Sullivan would ever get.
Opening the cover, she looked at the crease lines along the spine and the ragged, dog-eared corners. He had indeed read the book, and it looked as if he had spent some time pouring over it. Flipping to the title page, she signed her name below the byline. Closing the book, she passed it back to its owner. “Thank you.”
Sullivan smiled as he accepted the book. “I think that’s my line.”
Kat laughed out loud. Setting her box on the mammoth desk, she rushed forward and wrapped her arms around Sullivan’s chest and hugged him tightly. “I’ll miss you, boss.” It was a term of affection more than of submissiveness.
As he returned the embrace, Sullivan smiled. “Me, too. I wish you the best of luck in your new career.”
“Thank you,” she said into his shoulder.
Pulling free, Kat brushed her blonde hair over her shoulders, lifted her cardboard box, and turned away. Walking back into the darkened office, she felt a weight lifted from her shoulders. She was no longer a receptionist and executive assistant, she was now a professional author. It felt good to say it. She was free to live her dreams now. Stopping in the lobby, she looked at her desk one final time. With a smirk, she snatched a stack of post it notes and deposited them in her box. Sullivan could afford more.
Pushing through the double glass doors, she felt the cool night air touch her alabaster skin. She looked up at the full moon in the sky above her and the stars glittering around it. They were shining for her tonight. The fog was starting to roll in, but she wouldn’t let that get her down. Everything in the world was perfect.
Turning, she headed down the empty sidewalk. She almost felt like skipping. Her apartment was only three blocks from here. She liked to walk in the mornings and at night. It gave her time to clear her head and imagine all the wonderful and gruesome things she would do to her characters when she arrived home and sat down in front of her computer. She wondered for a moment if the book truly warranted a sequel, or if she should start a completely new manuscript. She smiled. Didn’t matter right now.
She was in Heaven, but the feeling was fleeting.
A flash of intense pain knocked Kat to the ground. Her box and personal items spilled to the concrete around her as a gasp escaped her lungs. Grabbing the back of her head, she tried to stop the throbbing pain. She winced in pain as her fingers slid through a wet, sticky patch of hair.
She was bleeding.
A pair of vicelike hands wrapped around her upper arms and ripped her from the ground. She was spun in midair and slammed against the side of a nearby building. She wanted to scream out, cry for help, but everything was moving too fast. Before her eyes could focus on her attacker—or attackers, she couldn’t tell—she felt another shock of intense, searing pain radiate out from the left side of her neck. She tried to struggle and fight, but it felt like a truck was holding her in place.
Quickly, the pain receded leaving only the pressure on her body. She began to feel very tired as her vision blurred. Turning her eyes skyward, she watched the stars and moon slowly fade away leaving only darkness. She could feel her heartbeat and breathing slowing as well, yet she wasn’t concerned about it—she was just so tired. Closing her powder blue eyes, she felt the pressure on her arms and chest release and her body become limp. As her knees buckled, she slid down the wall. Hitting the concrete, Kat fell over and crumbled into a heap. She felt her heart struggle to beat and then fail.
It stopped.
Exhaling her final breath, she died.

***

Four figures stood around an exposed pit of churning, bubbling lava. The molten rock cast an evil red glow over the three as they went about their Machiavellian plans. Heat waves from the lava distorted the air around them as they worked. None were in danger of burning as the ancientness of their bodies could withstand the extreme temperatures.
This place, this exact time, was everything they needed. The center figure stepped forward and glared into the lava, its red hue casting an evil glare across his mental projection. His golden eyes burned intently behind two slender eye slits as a smile crept across his hidden lips.
It begins.