The Monster Ball : A Paranormal Romance Anthology by Heather Hildenbrand




Chapter One





In the ancient woods of Brightwhisk Forest, a silence as thick as mist settled beneath the trees.

I’d awoken before the birds. Before the deer. In that mystical time when nocturnal creatures seemed to disappear and daytime critters had yet to rouse. Hours before my father and sisters would stir.

Morning dew seeped into the hem of my gown from where I crouched in the underbrush swathed in my tattered green cloak.

A light pattering rustled the leaves above my head. A drop of rain splashed across my nose, and I resisted the urge to wipe it away, keeping still, blending into the forest. Rain cascaded from the clouds, drumming around my pointed ears and removing my earlier advantage. Any stirrings I would have picked up within the brush were now muffled by the rain. It splattered over my cloak, soaking through, dampening my thin white gown. Cold seeped into my bones and I allowed myself a slight shiver—no more than the rustling leaves overhead as the rain battered their delicate membranes.

I should get up and return home before I got soaked all the way through. A dry gown and hot mug of elderberry tea sounded divine, but they were comforts that wouldn’t last long if I came home empty-handed.

Our neighbors were already suspicious after catching Melarue plucking roses from their groomed flower gardens. Father had smoothed it over, but now, on top of everything else, we all had to keep a close eye on Mel—which mostly meant me. Hopefully Mel would sleep in and stay out of trouble before I returned home.

A soft rustle caught my elfin ears. It wasn’t the swish of leaves pelted by rain, but an indication of something larger moving my way.

Ever so slowly, I lifted my bow and arrow, pulling back on the string with numb fingers.

I could feel the deer’s presence before I saw him. He took shape in my mind and moved toward me like mist. As soon as he stepped into view, I aimed a quarter of the way up his tan shoulder and released the arrow.

He fell onto the saturated earth—dead in his tracks.

It was a beautiful shot, one I took no pride in. My only comfort was he hadn’t suffered and that his meat and hide would support my family for another week or two. My heart squeezed inside my chest as I stood and walked over to my kill.

Wide, glassy eyes stared into the forest.

“Thank you, revered creature of Brightwhisk Forest, for laying down your life to aid me and my family. Your sacrifice shall not be forgotten. I release you to the Sky Mother and wish you well in your ascension into the sky realm.”

Send-off complete, I wasted no more time slinging my bow and quiver over the back of my sodden cloak and hefted the animal into my arms. The deer weighed heavy in my slender limbs, but I’d built up strength during the past seven months.

Father and Shalendra wanted to pretend everything was still the same. It wasn’t.

My long blonde hair stuck to my cheeks. The rain let up as I half carried/half dragged the deer’s carcass to the edge of Brightwhisk Forest. I had to set the animal down several times to rest. With no place dry to sit, I stood shivering, placing a hand to my throat. My fingers pressed against bare, clammy skin. Before picking the deer back up, I swiped my hair off my face, not caring that my hands were muddy.

Welcoming smoke billowed from cottages on the outskirts of Pinemist. I tried to hurry and stumbled over a tree root. The deer slipped out of my shivering arms and landed with a thud onto the ground.

“Sorry,” I said with a wince.

I attempted to shake some warmth into my fingers before picking the animal back up.

Once I reached Devdan’s cottage, I set the deer down gently on the ground and knocked on the wood door. It opened a foot before a set of light brown eyes, framed by messy matching brown hair, blinked at me.

“Aerith?”

“I made a kill,” I said, bowing my head.

Devdan opened the door wider. He wore a thin short-sleeved tunic and had long, slender, muscular arms. We were both in our nineteenth years and fighting to survive. But Devdan had been born into this life whereas I was still learning how to adapt. Luckily, I’d always been a good shot, and Devdan was more than willing to clean up my kills and sell what we didn’t keep—for a cut of the profit.

As much as my father wanted to keep any good fortune to come our way—every last bit of it—he still didn’t want anyone to see me selling at market or through back channels.

For now, this arrangement with Devdan worked, but in another couple months I might be forced to operate alone. We’d sold off the last of mother’s art, jewelry, and antiques. My sisters and I were supposed to keep one small pendant each, but even those had to go last week. I pressed my palm against my throat, feeling not only naked, but hollow, carved out like a jack-o’-lantern on All Hallows’ Eve.