Book One: Bounty
I push through the forest to the notice of warning. I don’t know how I got here in the dead of night or why I am running, but my instincts tell me to keep moving. Something bad is about to happen. I feel it in the pit of my stomach.
As I dodge broken tree limbs and debris from the passing storm, my bare feet sink into the mud. It feels like quicksand, pulling me down deeper into the earth, but I can’t stop now. I have to keep moving. I fear I am being hunted.
The sound of my heartbeat pounds in my head. I feel a rising uneasiness and confusion. I stop, only for a moment and close my eyes. I feel the rush of adrenaline as I’m yanked out of my train of thought and in another.
My mind feels diluted in water. A raging current. My breathing slows. Heat consumes me. Brilliant lights blind me for a moment before tiny shadows dance upon my eyelids and twirl into an image in the back of my mind.
Four men are loading equipment into a boat across the river. They are close. Armed, and ready for an attack.
I know who they are coming for. But why?
Earpieces in each of their ears confirm as I hear the commands.
“Bring her in dead or alive.”
“Kill anyone else on sight that may be trying to hide her.”
“Copy that, Sir.”
“I want her, and I want her now!”
“Loud and clear.”
“Let’s move!” A tight, firm voice yells and the boat engine comes to life.
I feel a release from my body and I’m back in the middle of the woods, hidden from physical view and separated by distance. But all I can think about is my mother.
My fear is pure adrenaline. Anxiety sends my legs running. The fear of what will happen explodes in the back of my mind. I can’t lose her. She’s all I got.
I close my eyes to the memory of her.
Footsteps get louder. Closer. Heartbeats faster. Stronger. More steps against the earth.
Sir gives orders to search the entire area and then bomb the house. It’s only a matter of time now. But how do I fix this? How can I make them go away?
As though I am looking in the kitchen from the window, I see her standing next to the sink drinking coffee.
Tears gather in my eyes. I can’t let them take her. I won’t.
The sound of knives slashing through the brush brings me back to the here and now. Weapons being loaded and cocked with the flick of a wrist kick starts my heart into overdrive.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Chills run down my arms and the back of my neck.
The four men stand off to the side of the cabin, huddling in a circle as though they were a football team going over a play. More armed men search the area a couple of hundred feet in front of me. Bad men. Men that want me dead.
Footsteps pound against the earth. Heartbeats are closer. I can feel them as though I am laying on their chest. I don’t know what’s happening to me, but I have to get out of here. I have to get to do something. Quick.
I close my eyes tight and kneel behind the brush of bushes and trees. I’m so deep in a trance that the men’s voices are nearly a whisper. My eyes sting. Heat flashes over me. The lights come back and fade away. I feel a change in the air. Silence. I open my eyes to the darkness. Silence. No one is around.
I’m not sure what happened to the armed men, but I don’t take any more time and I crawl into the open where I can make a run for the front door. I am on high alert.
My feet move ninety to nothing- and I trip. I fall and my head hits hard against a rock. Pain.
Severe pain. Blood. I can feel it running down my face. My shoulder hurts and oddly feels disconnected from the rest of my body. When I sit up, I grab the pain as though it will help. It doesn’t.
Fear settles over me like a rough blanket as I see what I tripped over. Surrounding me are the four men, but they are dead; bodies charred and disfigured. I freeze up.
“What in the hell just happened?” I ask, gathering myself up and going in for a better look.
The closest man to me is lying on his back, his legs spread in a weird position and arms stretched out. I lean in. The kitchen light gives me just enough to see his burnt skin sizzling off his body with the smoke. What facial hair left on his body is singed with the rest of him, the police suit ripped and burnt, exposing the ragged skin underneath. I jerk away. My eyes tear up.
Did I do that? No, no time for tears. Get to the kitchen. Save her. I push forward.
I blink, concluding that I no longer have control over my own reality and something much stronger is telling my story now. Wiping my eyes, I lift myself by the tips of my fingers and peer in through the window.
Practice really paid off. I never imagined I could have this much body strength.
Mom is walking into the living room. As I look around, nothing seems out of place. There are no men inside. No one standing before her holding her at gunpoint or a knife to the throat. I bang on the window, but she doesn’t hear me.
I still try to warn her. To help her. To tell her. Maybe, just maybe, she will have the answer to what has been going on.
Dropping back down from the window, I start for the door. A hard blow to the head knocks me on my knees. Agonizing pain floods my system. Vomit rushes to the back of my throat. My heart pounds. Tiny dots of light dance around my eyesight, making everything a blur.
Darkness takes over.
I feel the surrounding energy. Black energy. Hate. Something yanks my head back then hits is me in the face. Heat. Bruises. I try to fight back, but I am useless.
Dark masses of shadows surround me. Vomit rises to the back of my throat, and I spew all over my gown. I struggle to stand, crying out for help, but only gasps escape my throat.
A violent shove to the back and I am tripping over my feet to stay up. A punch in the chest and I’m on the ground, gasping for air. A hard kick in the face and lights out.
When I wake, it is pitch black and I can’t see. I force myself to stand against the pain.
A cold hand wraps violently around the nape of my neck and two cold hands on each of my ankle. The smell of rotting flesh sweeps across my face. I am being poked me with a sharp object. I slap it away, but it squeezes harder and cuts into my flesh. It pulls me down to my knees. I scream. Fear runs my entire body as I have never felt before.
The light of a streetlight blinks on in front of me and a man standing under it has his arms folded in front of his chest. I can make out his muscular build and broad shoulders. The length and color of his hair. The brisk beard and mustache along the side of his mouth and chin. White light in his eyes makes me think of a cat caught in a flashlight.
The man’s shoulder-length hair flutters backward in the wind. He wears a suit jacket under jeans and a partly opened dress shirt.
I’m scared to death and yet, drawn to his warm glow at the same time.
“Who are you?” My lips tremble. “What do you want?”
The feeling of death overwhelms me. He was the one searing for me. His voice in the earpieces. I’ve been caught, and I fear I’m going to die.
“You did well following the plans I set for you.” He gives a bitter laugh. His voice is so cold, dominant, and vicious.
This man is dangerous. I feel it. Why can’t I move? Breathe?
My muscles clench like I’m waiting for another blow to the face. Anything at this point to get me away from this man. From this vision. From this reality.
“I asked you a question.” I gather up the courage.
He sneered from the corner of his mouth and looked at me through lowered brows.
“You don’t talk to Sir like that!” A cold hand tightens against my shoulder and weight bares down.
I turn my head and lookup. Two men are standing beside me wearing dark clothing and hoods like a cult of some sort. Except their faces are different. Unhuman. Blank. Their eyes were glazed over as they stared at Sir. A stitched look from each corner of their mouth reminded me of a puppet. And as I noticed the jaw being detached from the lower half of their skulls and held together with twine, I knew I had to be in a nightmare.
“Say you're sorry!” One of them yelled and slapped me in the back of the head. “Now.”
I start to panic. My anxiety goes full strength and I’m struggling to breathe let alone say anything at all.
“Do you realize how long I’d been searching for you?” Sir says. “You’re quite the little mistaken identity, you are. But it doesn’t matter now. Your time has come.”
He knows something I don’t.
He laughs. “Of course, I do.”
He just read my thoughts.
“Impatient, I see. Being away from civilization for sixteen years, I can only imagine you are used to getting everything. Being the only child, of course. Confused. Powerless. Afraid.”
“I’m not afraid of you.”
He lowers his hands from his chest and gives me a questionable look. “Are you sure?”
“What do you want?”
“I want you of course. So many centuries of searching. So many lives taken. The good. The bad. The wicked.”
It was my turn to give him a questionable look.
“Oh, she didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
Sir laughs. “Well, this is going to be a little awkward then.”
I am terrified. I am confused. Unsure. Can I trust him? Should I?
He turns around and cocks his head to the side and nods to the puppets. “Let’s go.”
“Go? Go where?” Panic creeps into my voice with his silence.
The two men pick me up by the arm and walk me forward. I’m so scared. I close my eyes tight, but nothing happens. I concentrate on my mother, but I can’t remember her face. It’s like everything I ever knew didn’t exist in that moment.
I struggle, kicking back and forth and side to side, but my efforts go unnoticed. I can’t hurt them. I can’t save myself.
A bright light floods my eyes and I feel my skin begin to scorch. My body weakens and goes numb. My head is heavy. My limbs dangle. I have no energy left.
I hear the faint sound of a large crowd yelling with enthusiasm nearby, but I am blinded. My face flashes with heat. I close my eyes tighter.
What is this? What is happening?
As I’m being walked closer to the sound, my eyes adjust to the cloudiness of the sky and the first thing I see is a large stage made of wood in the middle of an open field.
White fold-up chairs scattered around the stage. A wooden box about a foot high was placed in the center of the stage and a noose hung from the board directly above it.
One of the men stops me abruptly and turns me to face him with a quick snap. “If you can grasp the concept of being a witch, this shouldn’t be anything new for you.”
“But you're making a mistake. I’m not a witch!” I plea.
“Yeah, that’s what your mother said too.”
I am taken closer to the platform stage. It looks familiar. Oddly familiar. Wooden stairs appear.
“Shut up!” The man snaps back.
The crowd separates and takes their seats, others stand watching me as I am carried forward. I count heads. Some are quiet, and others are cheering, but all eyes are on me.
The puppet men force me to my feet as I near the wooden platform and I am told to walk up a few steps at the side. They do not loosen the grip under my arms until I am at the center of the stage. They turn me around. I am facing the audience.
The dark man is speaking but his voice is distorted as my mind studies my surroundings. This place looks so familiar, but I cannot place why or how.
In the distance, I see houses and huts, some are made of wood, others of stone or brick and have chimneys. Others did not. Casement windows were open with hinges, allowing the breeze to enter their homes. Others have a two-section window that slides up and down.
Off to the side and left on a dirt road are carriers with carts. Gardens are kept and growing. Hedge mazes outline most of the land and have sculptures of nothing I have ever seen before.
Somehow, they have taken me back in time. I try to make sense of things. It was a portal. I am in another time.
A cold slap across the face pulls me back. My eyes water. My face flushes with heat.
“I said step up!” the dark man demands and points to the wooden step in front of me.
I do as I am told and without a fight. My stomach turns. Tears pour out of my eyes. I step up on the box. Splintered wood attacks my bare feet. Pain. Coldness. Fear.
My wrists are being bound behind my back. I hyperventilate.
“There is a reason for everything, and everything has a solution.” My mother’s words come back to my mind.
I look out to the crowd. They are all wearing practically the same thing. There is a man wearing a black suit with a white collar and a tall black hat. He is holding a torch up in the air, the flames flicker, fighting the wind to stay alive. The woman next to him holds on to his free arm. She is wearing a long-sleeved black dress and a white cap.
It comes to me like a bullet to the head. The witch trials!
A heavy-set man stands in front of me. He is breathing heavily as he reaches up and pulls the noose around my neck, pulling it against the trachea of my throat. My heart pounds. I feel I am about to vomit. I feel like I am about to pass out.
From the corner of my eyes, I see sir smiling, and his two puppet men are gone.
The heavy man stares at me, wicked like. He is a tanned man with dark facial features. He lowers himself and stands to the side to the side of me.
“Keep your eyes forward.”
He unfolds a piece of paper and begins to read from it.
“Carolyn Rayne, you are hereby convicted of witchcraft and are to be hung and burned until you are dead.”
My heart jumps into my throat.
“My name is not. . .” I panic.
“You will not speak!” he slaps me hard in the face. I cry out. The crowds seem excited.
I blink through the tears that stream down my face. A man nears me and throws liquid at my chest. It burns my nostrils and skin as it travels down and soaks my feet. He pours the liquid around the foundation of the platform.
The smell is vile, bitterly pungent. It irritates my senses, yet- it is intoxicating at the same time.
“Burn the witch!” someone yells from the crowd.
Before I can react, the box is kicked out from under my feet and I am dangling in the air. My throat hurts. Pain. So much pain.
I gasp and try to untie my hands from behind my back, but I cannot. I am so scared. Tiny dots dance upon my eyelids. I cannot keep them open. My lungs scream for air.
A torch of wood and fabric lands at my feet and I feel flames. The intense heat. I am burning. It hurts so badly, but I cannot do anything. I cannot save myself.
My head starts to spin out of control. I feel like I am riding on a ring-a-round and it is going so fast that I cannot get a grip to hold. I’m slipping, burning, strangling. Dying.
“Jae!” Someone says my name. Her voice calls me over and over, each time it gets louder and louder. I’m being pushed and lifted, but all I can see is fire. Pain.
“Jae, wake up!”
The voice is so loud and urgent. I feel the shaking again.
“Jae. Wake up already!?”
My eyes flash open. I cannot stop screaming or fighting the air. I am terrified. My lungs ache for air. My arms flop, panicking, every which way to try and get the flames off me. Heat flares up my body regardless. Pain. So much pain.
It takes me a minute to realize that I’m not burning anymore and that my hands are free. My Mom grabs my shoulders, shaking me back into reality.
I rub my eyes. Sweat smudges on the back of my hand.
She sits on the edge of my bed, holding a round cake on a platter. My name was written at the bottom followed by ‘happy birthday’ in red icing.
I glance up at her with a fake smile. I cannot alert her. I will not. Even though I have no idea why I feel this intense surge of energy running through my veins.
Turning around, I look out the window behind me. Darkness. I fake a smile, unable to shake off the dream, and look at the cake. It is so brightly colored with red and yellow. Fifteen candles are lit, the flames dance widely from the wind of my ceiling fan. And then the nightmare of being chased and feeling the need to save her seems to leave my mind completely.
“Mom, what are you doing?” I said, sitting up.
A smile lights up her aged face. “It’s your birthday silly. I’d sing the song but we both know that’s not a good idea.” She giggles, “now blow out the candles.”
She stares back at me with a sunken smile. Gray eyebrows and eyelashes. Her blue eyes were mesmerizing. A woman of many years. Knowledge. Wisdom. I really looked up to this woman. Wrinkles covered her eyes and crows’ feet developed under them. Her gray hair was tied in a bun on the top of her head and tiny strands of thin hair fell loosely around her heart-shaped, pale face.
I laugh at her comment. My body is relaxed and fearless. She always had a way of making me feel safe.
“Make a wish. This plate is getting hot.” She held the cake up to my face.
I close my eyes, take a deep breath and exhale.
I wish I understood what is happening to me. I wish I knew what I am.
When I open my eyes, tiny smoke from the candles lingers in the air. The nightmare of being carried back in time rears its ugly head and I see the platform, the men holding me down, and the heat against my body. The name I had been called.
“Mom, can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, dear.” She sits the platter down on the nightstand beside my bed and cups her hand around mine.
“The combat training, the homeschooling, Joga classes, the plans… it wasn’t just for relaxation and amusement was it?
She lowers her head and closes her eyes. Her smile went into a thinly stretched lip on a closed mouth. She rubbed the nape pf her neck and her face scrunches up.
“Mom. What is it?”
“I’m not sure you will understand what I’m about to tell you, but it’s time regardless. I can’t keep it from you anymore. You’re a smart young woman. And I’m sure you’ve been experiencing things that you are not sure is real.”
She nipped it right in the butt. I knew something weird was going on. Why I feel the way I do. How I can do things.
“Yeah, I have.” I listen intently.
I am now fully awake. She stops for a moment and takes in a deep breath as though she is deciding where to start.
“Well, I’m sure you’ve been experiencing some things that no humans are able to do…”
I stop her. “Yes. Wait. Humans?”
“Yes. It’s time you know.” She grabs my hand tightly, her lips parched, “You see, fifteen years ago, your mother programmed me to care for you. To teach you. Protect you and keep you safe.”
“Wait. My mother?”
“Yes. Let me ask you a question.”
“k.” I said. Deep down, however, I knew what she was about to tell me. She was about to tell me exactly what I had been fearing since I was hung and burned at the stake.
“How far back in your life can you remember.”
“And what about the amulet around your neck. Do you remember where it came from?
I look down at the tear-shaped necklace hanging from a long silver chain. “You gave it to me when I was four.”
“Samantha, I have never lied to you. Never. And...”
“Samantha?” My eyes widen. I recall the forest and Sir.
“Let me finish please.” She waves her hand, “and I won’t. The reason I have kept what you are is that I’m programmed to do so. Until your birthday, today. Your fifteenth birthday, when the energy you feel inside yourself becomes increasingly stronger and the premonitions more vivid.
Confusion set in. I’m not sure what I’m hearing.
“Your real mother, Carolyn Rayne, brought you to me when you were newborn.”
It feels like an explosion went off inside my head. I jump. “What. What? Did you just say, Carolyn Rayne?”
The platform and the accusations come back. Do not speak!
“She was convicted of being a witch and sentenced to hanging and being burned to death?”
“You’ve seen that in your visions?” Mom asked.
“I lived it,” I mumble. My eyes tear. “It was like I took her place. It was me.”
“How did you go back in time?”
“I was taken by Sir and his puppets.”
“Sir?” My mom cocked her eyebrows.
“He told me he had been searching for me for centuries. That I wasn’t fifteen, I was sixteen and that I wasn’t told everything.”
“Oh dear.” That was all my mother was able to say. Two words. Her face scrunched to a frown and she lowered her eyes.
How does that help?
“I was also told that if I can grasp the concept of being a witch, burning at the stake wouldn’t be anything for me.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that. I am sure that is not what she wants. But for you to understand, it might have been necessary.”
I shake my head. “This is bad. I got people out there looking to kill me and you’re not telling me what I need to hear. You’re not helping me at all. Who are you? Who is Sir?
“I don’t know who Sir is. My knowledge is only limited to what your mother had programmed into my mind when she handed you to me on midnight. She knew her fate was coming to an end. The only way to keep you safe was to make them believe she was dead. And the baby to. But just in case, she programmed me to teach you. To prepare you. Help you. Keep you away from civilization. Keep you safe.”
“Okay. I’m a witch. Seriously. How? Are you even real?” I touch the side of her clammy face.
“No. I died years ago. You see, Samantha. In the instance that I opened the front door to her face, your mother was able to break free from her own spirit and use my body as her own entity, so you’d be safely taken care of.”
“So, she killed you?”
“No. I was already dying. She gave me life. Immortality until you reached the age to be on your own. To take the knowledge and training that you’ve been taught and fight back.”
“You mean fight to stay alive?”
“No honey. Fight for your kind because you are the only one left.”
“And what, I’m supposed to procreate to make more of us.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
I shook my head. A lump appeared in the back of my throat. My anxiety creeped up behind me and I’m short of breath. I must be missing something. There’s gotta be something else. Maybe, just maybe this is all a dream. A nightmare? A torture chamber perhaps. Either way, I’m freaking out. I am seriously freaking out.
My breathing becomes a panic attack and I hold my chest because if I don’t, my heart will somersault out. She continues to talk as I walk back and forth across my dimly lit room.
“But why did she leave me with you? She could have just run away.”
“They knew she had had the baby. They will never stop looking for you. The shadow walker. He knows your alive.”
“Now there’s a shadow walker? As if a witch and a programmed dead mother weren’t enough to ice the cake now, there’s another supernatural being in the mist.”
“These aren’t lies.” She stands up and spins around. Her voice, calm and soothing. “Your real mother changed your hair and eye color with a spell. It should wear off when your powers are at their highest and you can use them without even thinking. You see, I have homeschooled you, took care of you, and taught you to combat that a navy seal would be proud of. I have loved you like my own. You are mine, Samantha. In here.” She touches her chest.
“I don’t…how…” I shake my head with confusion.
Her hands are warm against my shoulders. “Look, someone has to keep them from knowing you exist and that someone is me. But after tonight, you will no longer need me. I will no longer exist.”
“What will happen?”
“After you’ve reached your peak I am no longer needed. I will no longer exist.”
“But if my mother is so powerful why didn’t she do something? Why didn’t she keep me? Why would she choose to die?”
“I can’t answer those questions.”
“And I suppose I’m going to have to be the one to ask her. Considering.” I say, sarcastically, and shrug my shoulders.
I can hear her voice but cannot make out the words she is saying. My head is spinning and my body shakes. I gasp to another vision behind my eyelids.
Outside the cabin, six armed men are at the front door. The vision changes suddenly, and two men are standing in the kitchen with loaded weapons, looking around. At the back door, four men are waiting. Heat swells up my body. My heart races. I feel a hot and cold sensation run down my spine.
“What is it?” Her voice brings me back.
“More men outside. In the kitchen. Back door.” I warn her.
She nods. “It’s time now child.” She grabs my hand.
“At the backdoor. Basement. Fire. Box. Sir.” I mumble.
“Okay. We’ve got to go.” She yanks me forward, stopping in the doorway of the bedroom that had a clear view of the kitchen. I’m bolted forward again, by-passing the furniture like a maze. She stops mid-way into the living room. My face bumps into her at the sudden stop. A violent bang on the door makes her jump.
“Dear Lord, they’re breaking the door down,” she says as she turns quickly and leads me into the kitchen and into a secret room that leads down into the basement where I did my training.
It is hard to keep up with her as we nearly tumble down the steps, hand in hand. My eyes look through the darkness, remembering the setup, the training, and the homeschooling.
She stops at the bottom of the staircase and walks me into the center of the brick room. The basement floor was frigid against the bottom of my feet. Tears fill my eyes. More violent slams. Hard slams. Yelling. I have no idea what’s about to happen, but I feel it deep in the pit of my stomach. Something bad is about to happen.
“I'm scared." I lean in and hug her.
“Don’t be scared. You're more powerful than you realize. You’re going to get out of here.”
It is my turn to give her a questioning look. “You’re coming with me, too, right?”
She bends down where her eyes are level with mine, and puts her hands on both of my shoulders.
I don’t even let her talk. I fear what she is about to tell me.
“But I can’t do it alone. I don’t know-how. I don’t understand.” I stare at her with tears running down my face.
“But you will, Samantha. At the right time you will know exactly what to do.”
I feel a cold draft sweep throughout the basement. A dark presence enters the room. I shiver by its touch. My heart pounds. I look away for only a moment and when I look back my programmed mother is frozen in mid-movement. Her mouth is still open, and her hands are cold on my bare shoulders. Her eyes. Her empty, emotionless eyes.
I jump a little and close my eyes, begging her not to leave me. I touch her face. So cold… So pale. Memories flood back and I feel lost. Scared to death. What if I fail? What if I can’t. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.
“No, you can’t Samantha. You’ll need my help.” Sir’s cocky voice shatters my insides. “Find the picture. Come to me.”
“Shut up!” I scream, cupping my hands over both of my ears.
A violent slam echoes through the house and it is so loud and unexpected that I jump backward. I feel a release. My programmed mother’s frozen arms disconnected from the jar of movement and fall into ashes on the concrete floor. I cover my mouth, holding in the screams that so desperately wanted to escape.
I look for a place to hide, but I can’t leave her exposed like this. I wrapped my hands around her waist, but she is too heavy. I touch her gray long hair. Frozen.
“Stupid young girl. She’s not even your mother.”
Within a second, my remorse for her disappears and is replaced with anger for my programmed mother. Why hadn’t she told me sooner? Why wait fifteen years? Why now? I could have been better prepared for this.
The pounding is getting closer. Footsteps pound against the floor above. The men are getting closer. Nearer. They know where I am.
It is only a matter of time now. I stare into her eyes wondering what else she hasn’t told me.
What else was there? I am an orphan with magical powers. But what am I supposed to do with them? Kill? Is that what I am? A killer? A monster?
I feel a weight bare down on my shoulders. Fear renders me paralyzed. A light flashes across mom’s face and I look down for the source. The amulet around my neck is glowing with a green and blue tint.
I am mesmerized by its beauty and taken in by its warmth. It never glows before. I touch it, feeling its warmth in the palm of my hand even though it starts to burn my skin. I cannot let go. It calms me.
I hear the familiar. Her tone is soft, comforting, and rhythmic as she sings a song that as I listen, becomes all too familiar and I catch myself singing along in my head.
“Hush now, my child, you will be fine. This river will take you to a time much different than mine. The amulet around your neck will keep your powers real and you will see it glow when I am near. My dear, I must leave you now, I have a death wish I am sure to pass. But you, Samantha, will be strong enough, all in good time.”
Her song ends. The amulet gets cold. I look up at my programmed mother still frozen.