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Deucalion Academy: Pawn Of The Gods

Series: 
Release Date: June 20, 2024

Brand New, Rewritten Story! Same Characters, New Tale…

Fresh from the psych ward, eighteen-year-old Aella still can’t get anyone to listen to her tale of the three-headed dogs and vicious snake women who kidnapped her mother that fateful night.

She’d all but given up hope that she’d ever get her mom back when a dangerously gorgeous, smirking demigod with impossible power whisks her away to a land of gods, monsters, and Deucalion Academy.

Alexander is strong, powerful, and leader of the ruling class, the Titans. Everyone does what he says. All bow before him. Everyone wants to be him.

But he wants Aella.

Ranking at the very bottom of the very worst and loser class, Aella isn’t allowed to talk to him, let alone burn with every stolen touch, kiss, and hidden hook-up in the broom closet.

She’s falling for him hard and fast… and the guilt is unbearable.

Aella didn’t come to Deucalion Academy for friends, power, or love. She came because the spellbinding, whispering voice in her ear told her if she ever wanted to see her mother alive again, she’d betray Alexander and the beautiful new world he showed her, and burn it all to the ground.

Pawn Of The Gods is the first in a paranormal M/F romance series. Buckle up for wickedly handsome demigods, ancient plots, the worst monsters of legend, and the one girl in the middle of it all.

Click Here to read a Pawn of the Gods Excerpt!

Chapter One

“Strippers?”

“Pretty sure that’s illegal. And creepy.”

“Coke and ecstasy?”

“Definitely illegal.”

“New car?”

“Ooh, love it,” I gushed.

Horns blared. We jumped back as a bike messenger jumped the curb, flashing his middle finger and raining fuck-yous on the traffic he zipped through—cutting six drivers off.

“What was that?” Kylie shouted over the honking and cursing.

“I said I’d love it, but…” I followed the sweeping iron towers to the sky. “We live in New York. Who needs a car?”

“Still kill for one,” said Dina. “It’s the ultimate symbol of freedom. Second I get a car, I’m loading you bitches in the back and we’re going to the coast. Ultimate best friends’ weekend of beaches, boys, and beer.”

“Now that’s a sweet sixteen,” Kylie said, slapping palms with Dina.

I shook my head at the both of them. “Guys, be serious. My mom said she had a surprise for my birthday, but it’s damn sure not going to be drugs, alcohol, or naked men.”

Kylie laughed. “Fair enough, but your mom does give the best gifts ever. We guess all year and never see her surprises coming, so we’ve got to go big.”

Dina hummed. “Last year, for your fifteenth, she surprised you with tickets for all of us—all of us!—to go to Paris for spring break. The year before that, we did a scavenger hunt around the city that ended with a private concert in the park by the Blind Mice.” She tossed her head. “I swear, I love your birthday more than mine.”

“That’s just how Mom is,” I said. “She says I brightened the world and blessed humanity the day I was born, so it’s only right that my birthday be celebrated in style with all the fanfare, red carpets, riches, and gold.” I shook my head, rolling my eyes. “It’s so embarrassing.”

“Yeah, but you love it,” Kylie cried, tickling my sides.

I twisted away, squealing laughing.

Her amber curls bounced around her cheeks while she chased me. I escaped her only for Dina to come after me too—the three of us shrieking and carrying on as we chased each other down the busy sidewalk, book bags pounding our backs and bystanders shouting more abuse than the curses at the bike messenger.

“Admit it!” Kylie practically tackled me. “Admit you love all this birthday fuss, Blessing to the World.”

“Okay, okay. Yeah, I love it.” Grinning, I threw my arms around my best friends since forever. Forever and ever. We’ve been tight since they put us in the same sandbox in preschool. “This year is going to be even better because you, Kylie, won’t get sick and have to back out of any international trips. And you, Dina, have a later curfew and won’t get dragged out of any private concerts by your mom.”

Dina flushed. “Ugh, that was humiliating. My favorite band in the world heard my mom ranting about how not getting a good night’s sleep gives me the runs. Why didn’t she just kill me right there and get it over with?”

We busted up. Two years ago, we were sympathetic. Two years after, it was hilarious remembering Dina melting into a puddle of mortified goo while three of the most famous guys on the planet snickered behind their mics.

Slowing down, we joined the crowd of Haris Day School students mingling at the traffic light. A sea of brown on plaid on red on brown. For one of the best private schools in New York City, we had the worst uniforms. Hideous brown skirts, pants, and blazers to go with clashing red-plaid neckties. You could see us coming from a mile away—which is why our rivals from Victoria Day School always had the paint balloons and water guns ready before we rounded a corner.

“They better not try anything today.” Kylie’s umbrella sliced the air. “Because I’m ready for them.”

“Nice, Ky. You gonna give them another black eye to complete the beating they got from our boys Friday night?” I karate-chopped the air. “Our team destroyed them in the match.”

“Fuck yeah we did.” A blond head turned our way, sending me and my flailing limbs scurrying back behind Kylie.

Justin Lewis grinned wide—flashing those perfect teeth, full lips, and cute little dimple in his right cheek only seen by those blessed enough to see him smile. “Absolutely crushed them, but you know I never could’ve kicked that winning field goal if it wasn’t for beautiful ladies like you cheering me on in the stands.”

I blushed down to my toes.

Kylie, with her glossy curls, pouty lips, and big green Bambi eyes, standing next to Dina and her long raven hair; dusky lips; and tawny unblemished skin—they were the beautiful ladies he was talking to. Not the scrawny, knobby-kneed, blushing mess with stringy hair and a nose too big for my face.

Still, it was fun to pretend the cutest, most popular sophomore in Haris Day was talking to me too.

“Then you owe your win to Aella,” Dina said, tugging me out from behind my shield. “She’s your biggest fan. No one was cheering louder for you than her.”

“Oh yeah?” he said.

I flashed big eyes at her smirk. “I’m going to kill you!” I mouthed.

“Guess I do owe you, Aella.”

My jaw dropped when he took my hand and kissed my knuckles.

He said my name and kissed me. He kissed me and said my name. Justin Lewis knows my name and he kissed me. I was kissed by Justin Lewis.

My mind spun out—fritzing and sputtering until it died. There was nothing for me to do but gape at him with my hand hanging in the air.

Kylie helpfully put it back down at my side.

“Big deal for a sophomore to join the varsity team. Everyone expected me to fall on my face after Coach finally let me get off the bench. Glad to know someone was rooting for me. How can I thank you, my biggest fan?” Justin stuck his hands in his pockets, grinning even while he shrugged and ducked his head. “Name it.”

“I—I—I was just—”

“It’s Aella’s birthday today,” Kylie sliced in, hip-bumping me. “Last thing she needs is a paint balloon to the face. If you want to thank her, you’ll protect her.”

“Done.”

Before I knew what was happening, Justin’s arm was around my waist and Kylie’s umbrella was over our heads. He held me close as the light changed and we crossed—not caring in the slightest that we looked like a pair of loons walking around with an umbrella on a cloudless day.

I sank into his heady smell of textbooks, cedar body spray, and boy. The scent clouded my mind, the only explanation for why I didn’t come to until we were standing in front of the flower shop and Justin was taking my hand again, kissing my fingertips.

“See you tomorrow, Aella.”

“B-bye,” I croaked.

Winking, he took off and caught a cab at the top of the street. I didn’t start breathing again until it whisked him away.

“Did that… just happen?” I spun on my friends. “Oh my gosh, did Justin freaking Lewis just walk me home!?”

“He didn’t just walk you home, girl,” Dina replied. “He snuggled you up good and tight. Couldn’t fit a rice grain between you two.”

“Ahh!”

We jumped up and down, holding hands, screaming, and making half the pedestrians give us a wide berth.

“Did you see the way he was looking at you?” Kylie asked. “He’s so into you.”

My cheeks flamed. “He is not. He just learned my name twenty minutes ago.”

“So? You have been obsessed with him since freshman orientation,” Kylie said. “I’m telling you, don’t do your usual thing of hiding your face behind a book whenever a cute guy looks your way. You don’t want him to think you’re not interested when you definitely, definitely, definitely are.”

“That was too many definitelys.”

“She’s right,” Dina said. “Tomorrow, you’re going straight up to him at lunch, plopping down next to him, and saying, ‘I’ve got your dessert right here, baby.’ Even if you’ve got to shove someone to the floor.”

“That is definitely, definitely, definitely not happening.”

Dina laughed. “Either way, we all know this just became your favorite day ever. Nothing your mom has in there is going to top it.”

“Give her a chance. She might’ve made her famous crème brûlée cheesecake again.”

The three of us fell through the doors, giggling and gushing about Justin. One foot inside, the concrete jungle disappeared, and the sweet-scented oasis claimed us.

Irida’s Garden hung in big, bold neon letters above the shop—aptly named for Irida meant rainbow. That’s what it was like crossing the threshold, walking into the living, breathing wonder of a rainbow jungle.

Marigolds, zinnias, roses, forget-me-nots, daffodils, tulips, lavender, and all the climbing ivies and tickling bushes in between. If it blooms, flowers, or sprouts, it can be found in Irida’s Garden.

“Ah, I love this place.” Kylie stuck her nose in a rose. “The only thing special about my dad’s office is the vindictive little flying rat that poops on my book bag every time I visit.”

“We told you not to throw your egg roll at that pigeon,” Dina said. “They hold grudges.”

“I was trying to feed him!”

“Exactly,” I returned. “He held a grudge because you only gave him half.”

“Who’s that I hear?”

We turned as the banana tree leaves parted and a pretty, lined face stuck out.

“Oooh, I was right. I knew I heard the smartest, most beautiful, most talented sixteen-year-old goddess there ever was.” She threw her arms open. “Come on, don’t fight it. Birthday sugar, then birthday cake.”

Laughing, I ran over and accepted my sixteen big, smacking smooches all over my face.

“Are you sticking around for cake and presents, Di? Ky?”

They ripped open their bags and plucked out their presents. That was a yes.

Weaving around the plants and indoor fountains, the four of us burst into our attached apartment—no less filled with flowers and greenery.

Our tiny two-bed, one-bath wasn’t much compared to the penthouses every other student in Haris Day lived in. Mom, Irida herself, did extremely well with her business. She was the go-to florist for every high-society wedding in Manhattan. Her waiting list stretched into next year.

All the same, we were never moving. This was the tiny little hole-in-the-wall attached to the back of a shop that she bought with my dad when they had nothing but each other and a dream. This was the living room where she gave birth to me when baby Aella decided she had enough and wasn’t waiting for my folks to get to the hospital.

All of her happiest memories were here, and so were mine.

Soon, the four of us were kicking back on the couch with slices of crème brûlée cheesecake and a pile of presents and upturned gift bags.

“—then he kissed her hand again before he left, Mama Rida,” Kylie said. “Isn’t that a good sign? Doesn’t that mean he’s into her?”

“Absolutely,” Mom replied.

Both my friends called her Mama Rida. She said that made her sound like a toothless circus fortuneteller who hides empty wine bottles in her shawl.

That’s why she loved it.

“Sixteen-year-old boys don’t go out of their way for anything less than what they really want. Getting up to help their screaming mother crumpled at the foot of the stairs when their video games are right in from of them? Easy choice.” She winked. “Walking you all the way home is basically a marriage proposal.”

“Mom,” I cried. “You’re supposed to be the calm, wise adult who stops us from spinning out on wild fantasies.”

“Eh, fuck that.”

We busted up. This is what I loved on my birthday. Laughing and hanging out with my favorite people in the world.

“Your dad was the same way,” Mom continued, sobering. The green eyes she gave me crinkled at the edges even as they shone with unshed tears. Happy and sad. I didn’t understand how memories could be both. “He lived miles and miles away back then, and still he was on time every day after work to take me to the botanical gardens. Never missed a day. And was never a minute late.”

“Wow,” Dina whispered. “The last guy I went out with left me standing outside the theater for two hours because his boys came over and he forgot about me. Then he got mad at me for making a big deal about it.”

“Nathan was an ass.” Kylie flopped back, sighing. “But Mr. Vanda sounds like Prince Charming. Pretty sure they don’t make guys like that anymore.”

“They absolutely do, because you three deserve no less.” Mom squeezed my knee getting up. “And now that I mentioned Daddy, it’s time for your surprise.”

The three of us bolted upright.

I couldn’t begin to guess what Mom had waiting for me. It was true I guessed all year, and she always came out bigger and better than anything I imagined.

Mom returned to the room carrying a small wooden box that she placed on my lap. A closer look gifted me an intricate rose design carved into the lid. I traced the petals, fingertips gliding over the sanded wood and prickly thorns.

“What is it?”

“Open it.”

I did. Nestled on a satin bed was a small dagger with a slim, curved hilt. Etched into the pommel was another rose.

“Your dad left this for you before he…” She trailed off, but she didn’t need to say the rest. Before he was deployed to the battlefield where he was killed, leaving behind his wife and two-year-old daughter. “He told me that if anything ever happened to him, I was to give this to you on your sixteenth birthday.”

Kylie and Dina huddled around me. I barely heard their oohs, aahs, and whispering as I removed the scabbard.

My eyes reflected in the blade, capturing my wonder at the curved body and honed tip. Had it really sat in a box for fourteen years? It looked brand new, ready and waiting.

“This was Dad’s?” I asked softly. “But I didn’t think they issued daggers to soldiers in the military?”

Mom laughed. “And you are correct. This was your great-great-grandmother’s—the very first Aella Vanda. You know that Aella means warrior.” Her eyes shone as she took my hand in hers. “Your ancestor was a warrior. She fought against a tyrant ruling over her village, and she won. That’s the blood in your veins, baby,” she said to my wide eyes. “You come from a long line of fighters who never quit, never surrendered, and never stood by while innocent people suffered.”

I swallowed hard. “Like my dad.”

“Yes, Aella.” She pressed a soft kiss to my forehead. “Just like Daddy.”

Replacing the scabbard, I crushed the dagger to my chest. “Thanks, Mom, and…” I turned my head to the potted chrysanthemums on the living room table. Mom always kept them in the house. Chrysanthemums for Crisanto. “Thanks, Dad.”

“So, uh,” Dina broke in. “Is that it? That’s the surprise?”

“Di,” Kylie hissed—although she looked disappointed too.

“Sorry to let you down, ladies,” Mom replied, giving them knowing looks. “How about my homemade lavender honey ice cream to make up for it?”

“Ooh, I’ll take some.”

We hung out, messed around, and gorged on cake and ice cream for the rest of the afternoon. Soon, I was waving my friends out the door and locking up the flower shop. I headed back into the apartment to find Mom on the couch, staring at the dagger. I flicked down to her hands. She was rubbing them together so hard her knuckles were turning white.

“Mom, you okay?”

She jumped. “Huh, what? Oh, yes, baby. I’m fine.” She got up and busied herself with clearing away the plates and cleaning up. “It’s just… Uh…”

“It’s just what?” I blinked at the whirlwind sweeping around the room and into the kitchen. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m perfect, Aella. How could anything be wrong on the best day of the year?”

I peeked my head around the corner into our galley kitchen. Mom turned her back to me, but I saw her chewed-lip frown clear as day in the stove hood.

Definitely not fine. She must’ve dealt with another bride or groomzilla that day who screamed at her because the marigolds weren’t yellow enough.

In that case, I knew what would cheer her up.

“Mom, will you tell me the story again?”

She turned, frown already melting away. “Really? You’re not tired of hearing it yet?”

“Never.”

“Oh, well, then buckle up because you’re old enough to hear the R-rated version now.”

I walked away. “You know what? You’re right. I have heard it enough.”

“Too late!” Thunderous footfalls chased me out of the kitchen.

I didn’t have a chance to run before she grabbed me, shrieking, around the waist and dropped us both howling on the couch.

“One day, they’re going to make this story into a movie,” Mom said, settling us both properly. “A tale of fate. How Crisanto and Irida met.” My mom smiled at the chrysanthemums like she always did. It was like they were telling the story together.

“I was at a coffee shop that morning,” she began. “After I graduated, my parents gave me a month—thirty days—to find a job, or they’d kick me out of the apartment they put me up in through school.”

“Those thirty days were really a deadline to force you to accept a job at Grandma’s company,” I filled in, resting my head on her shoulder.

“As bold and blatant as blackmail can be. Take a marketing job at Princess Press, or be cut off. Can you imagine that? Me? The face of turtles strangled by six-pack rings?”

I snorted. “No way.”

“That’s what I said. They left me no choice, so I hustled, worked, interviewed, and walked all up and down the city in terrible, pinchy shoes that blistered my blisters,” she said. “That morning was day thirty, my last day, and I had an interview at my dream company. Everything I worked for at my fingertips. I just needed to walk outside and turn right.”

“But you turned left.”

“I turned left,” she whispered, eyes shining. “Seconds after I stepped outside, I got a call from my best friend. My favorite band was doing a surprise concert in Central Park. It was only ten minutes away, and I had plenty of time to see them, freak out, then run back to the interview.”

“I have plenty of time,” I repeated, “said everyone who’s ever been late or never showed up.”

Mom laughed. “Exactly. Crisanto came out of nowhere. One minute, I’m booking it across the grass, and another, I’m colliding into a cute, buff guy playing gladiator in the park. I hit my head hard on his armor, and then next thing I knew, I was on the ground, vision spinning, and my head in the lap of the cutest stranger I ever laid eyes on.”

She rubbed my arm, resting her chin on my head. “He helped me up, dusted me off, apologized profusely, then gave me a flower.” I didn’t have to see her to know she was smiling. “Middlemist’s Red. The rarest flower in the world.

“I still had time,” she said. “I could’ve waved him off and ran back to the interview, but I found myself asking where he got the Middlemist and why he was walking around the park in the middle of the day with a suit of metal and rare flowers?

“He said he couldn’t tell me. It was a secret and I wouldn’t understand, then he walked off.”

I chuckled. “So you chased after him.”

“Of course I chased after him. He was the most fascinating thing I’d ever seen. Right up to and including the minute he drew his sword on a cyclist who rode up on him and stabbed his wheel through the spokes. Sent the poor man flying into a lake,” she said over my laugh. “To add insult to injury, he went wild on the poor thing. Hacked his bike into metal bits. People were already on their phones, calling the cops.”

“And then they came.”

A gusty sigh whooshed through my hair. “A whole pack of cyclists came at him, and he took his stance, wielding his sword, ready to attack. I had to haul his weird ass away for everyone’s safety. My interviewer would’ve heard my tale of heroics if the world hadn’t spun.”

I bounced in my seat. I loved this part.

“The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back with a sword tip pressed to my throat. People started running around and screaming while Crisanto demanded to know who I was, who sent me, and why I was interfering in his mission.”

I giggled, picturing Mom blinking up at him from the dirt. “I know you’ve got to be committed to the role, but are all actors as dedicated as Dad was?”

“Oh, a— No,” she said, voice faltering. “But Daddy was different. Special. And about that, Aella, there’s something I need to tell you—”

“After, Mom, you have to finish the story.”

“But I—” She sighed, smiling down at me. “Of course, baby. Where was I?”

“Dad was about to skewer you in the middle of the park.”

“Maybe he thought he was, but your mom doesn’t mess around. I disarmed him, flung the sword into the lake, and blew up on him. He sat there with his brows up his head while I ranted about crazy, medieval-loving lunatics begging for a good kick up the ass. And you know what he does?”

“He laughs.”

“He laughs! The guy starts cracking up like my panic attack is the funniest thing he’s ever seen. Then, out of nowhere, he pulls out a Jeremiah rose. The most beautiful, most expensive rose on the planet, and he’s holding one in his rough, calloused, strong hand and offering it to me like it’s nothing. Then he said—”

“No mission is so important that it excuses upsetting a beautiful, fearsome creature such as yourself. Take this rose as apology and delight that its magnificence pales in comparison to yours.”

“Word for word,” she cried. “Twenty-two years of life, no guy had ever spoken to me like that. No guy had ever spoken to any woman like that.”

“You were hooked on him from that minute.”

She sniffed. “I was certainly very curious about the lost-in-time flower thief that I had to know more about him and where he nicked a million-dollar rose. I had to drag him out of there and away from the police, but when we found a safe spot, we got to talking and never stopped. I was so caught up with him that it wasn’t until the sun set that I realized I never made it to my interview, and I couldn’t care less. I already had what I’d been waiting all those years for.”

My lids grew heavy, gazing at the dagger nestled in its bed. “I wish I got to know him.”

“I wish that too, my little warrior. Every day.” She squeezed me tight. “There were so many things he wanted to share with you. So much he wanted to teach. It was important to him that you knew where you came from. It’s important to me too, of course, but all this time, I didn’t know how to explain. Not in a way that made any sense.”

Frowning, I pulled back. “Mom, what are you talking about?”

Sighing, she got to her feet. “Aella, there’s something I need to tell you about your dad and where he’s from.”

“About Greece? What about it?”

“Okay, first, he’s not from Greece— Well, I mean, he kind of is.” She paced the area beside the coffee table, rubbing her temples. “He was raised in Grecian culture, but his home isn’t technically geographically located in Greece. Do you understand?” she asked, spinning on me.

“Uh… no.”

“It’s like Greece, but it’s not Greece. You could call it New Greece, or maybe Old Greece would make more sense,” she said, tossing her head. “But it’s not called Old Greece. It’s called Olympia.”

I stared at her.

“Ugh, what I’m trying to say is that your father is from Olympia.”

“Okay,” I drew out. “My dad’s from Olympia. What about it?”

“That it is what everything’s about.” Bending down, she took my hand in hers. “When I was pregnant with you, your dad and I didn’t know if you’d be like me or like him, but from the second you were born, we knew you were your father’s daughter in every way. I always thought he’d be here to explain everything to you…” She dropped her head on our hands.

“How do I even begin to make this make sense for you when it barely made sense to me when he first told me? I mean, he had undeniable proof and I still freaked out. I thought I was losing my mind or imagining things. I ran away from him!”

She was babbling now. I could barely keep up. “Mom,” I cried, grasping her shoulders. “Just slow down and start from the beginning. Whatever it is, I promise I won’t freak out and run away.”

I thought the joke would lighten the mood, but Mom just looked at me like she was going to cry.

“I’m so sorry, Aella. I should’ve told you this sooner, but when’s a good day to turn someone’s life upside down? To tell them everything they think they know of the world is wrong?”

My smile dimmed. “Are you about to tell me I’m adopted or dying or something?”

“No,” she cried. “Nothing like that. You are one hundred percent mine and completely healthy. This isn’t scary news, Aella, it’s just… life-changing.”

“Mom, please, stop dragging this out and tell me. What I’m starting to imagine can’t be worse than the truth. I’m ready,” I said firmly. “What is it about Dad that I don’t know?”

Taking a deep breath, she let it out slow. “Aella, Olympia is not like other places, and your dad wasn’t like anyone you’ve ever known. He was a—”

Thud.

Mom twisted as I did—both of us flicking to the door leading into the shop.

“A flowerpot must’ve fallen over,” I said. “Go on, Mom. What were you saying?”

“Uh… right.” She shook her head, turning back to me. “Your father was very special, baby. All these flowers and plants that have brightened our days and given us a livelihood? They all came from him. They were his gift. His pow—”

Thud.

The noise sounded again, and that time much closer to the door.

Mom shot up. “That’s not a flowerpot. Aella, quick! Into your room and call the police.”

I didn’t waste a second arguing with her. This wasn’t the first time desperate smackheads broke in, thinking a pretty little flower shop would have a full till and little security.

I ran for the hallway. Mom wasn’t behind me.

“Mom, come with me!”

“Right behind you, baby.” Mom shot across the living room. She reached for Dad’s chrysanthemums.

The door blew off its hinges. I dove for the ground, crying out as the flying wood scraped across my back and crashed into the wall behind me.

“Aella!”

I pushed up on shaking hands as they came into the room.

I screamed.

What is it? What is it!

My mind rebelled—spinning out into a dark, small corner of my soul to hide.

A snake.

There was no other way to describe the shining green scales and slithering, legless body than that of a snake’s, but it was attached to the wrong head.

My jaw cracked, throat choking on a silent scream as the woman’s head sniffed the air.

She was naked on top. Her only claim to cover was long, dirty, tangled braids that swayed before her chest and tickled the floor. A strange collection of ancient Greek letters tattooed up and down her arms—ending where lethal claws began. She snarled and a row of impossibly sharp and jagged teeth reflected my pale face.

She would’ve been pretty if there wasn’t half a snake where her legs should be.

“W-wh-wh-what is it?” I rasped.

“—la, run! Run now!”

Mom’s scream pierced my fog. Scrambling to my feet, I spun for the hall leading to my room. My phone was in there, sitting on my bed. We needed help. The police. The National Guard. Anyone. Everyone!

If I could just get to my room—

“Arf!”

I threw myself back so hard, I wrenched off my feet and crashed on my back.

The dog forced itself where it did not fit—bowing and bending the walls as it shoved from the back door and into the hallway.

Fetid, hot breath leaked through sharp teeth, standing my hairs on end. Its head scuttled me into a corner by nearness alone, while the other snarled at Mom, and the other barked at the snake woman.

“Three heads— It has three heads— Three heads— Three— Three—”

“He, not it.”

Roars trumpeted in my head. For a moment I couldn’t place where the strange voice had come from, then the snake woman’s mouth moved again.

“Rude little thing, aren’t you? Ssstupid too.” She spat on the floor. “Impossible to believe you’re going to amount to anything. I could kill you right now, and I bet all you’d do to protect yourself is wet your drawersss.”

“No! Stay away from her!”

Mom threw Dad’s flowers at the creature’s head. The pot cracked her on the nose, spurting a disgusting, foul-smelling black liquid from her face.

Mom ran to me and the three-headed him swung its left-sided maw and knocked her across the room. My mother shattered the coffee table, crumpling in a heap of glass and splintered wood.

She didn’t get up.

“Mom,” I screamed.

Tears soaked my face. Hot, running, and choking. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real! Only hours ago, I was walking through the city under the arm of my crush. I was laughing on the couch with Mom and remembering Dad.

“This isn’t real.” Clapping my hands over my ears, I squeezed my eyes shut. “This isn’t real. Th-this is a nightmare. Wake up,” I hissed. “Wake up!”

“Sssstupid girl.”

A noise made me rip my eyes open. Mom groaned faintly as the snake woman lifted her up, tossing her on the dog beast’s back like she weighed nothing at all.

“Crying and cowering won’t do you any good.” Black blood wept freely from her face and burned the hardwood like acid where it dropped. “They sssay you’re to be a champion. A heroine. Let’sss ssseee it, then… Fight.”

It looked down, and so did I. Inches from my fingertips was my dad’s dagger.

“Go ahead. Fight ussss. Kill usss,” she hissed. “Carve your fate with our blood.”

Fight? With nothing but an old knife against two fearsome, impossible beings? Would the blade even pierce their skin? Did they have normal skin?

“Go on…” She laughed. “Won’t you even try?”

Shaking fingers gripped the blade. I shoved onto my feet, sliding up the wall to hold me. Clenching my chattering teeth, I gripped the dagger with both hands and thrust it in front of me.

“L-let my mom go,” I shrieked. “Get out of here. Leave us alone!”

More laughter. The three-headed beast also made a noise in its throats—a strange gruffing sound that mimicked a laugh.

“Oooh no,” the snake woman mocked. “Whimpering and whining don’t seem to be working. Better try something else.”

I gritted my teeth, nostrils flaring. Flicking away, I fixed on Mom. Blood wept from a wound on her forehead. If she’d woken up before, she was unconscious now.

“Go on,” it whispered. “Use the weapon. Attack. Kill.”

I couldn’t move. My feet glued to the floor, holding up a body shaking so hard, the dagger slipped through my spasming grip.

The snake woman laughed so hard, tears burned my eyes.

Do something. Mom needs you. Help her. Move!

“Let her go!” I screamed.

Its paw ripped through the living room wall, exploding wood and plaster across my face. My screams echoed through the city as it struck, sending me flying into the television.

Darkness bled around the edges, sucking me down under a slithering whisper of its laugh.

“If you want your pressscious mommy back, you know where to find us. Sssee you ssssoon, little hero.”

Chapter Two

Two Years Later

A crack spiderwebbed through the pavement, spreading to the end of the sidewalk and continuing through the street. I glued to that crack, letting the honking horns, rumbling tires, street chatter, and city noise wash over me.

Blue loafers blew past my vision, surrounding me in seconds.

“Oh, look. It’s a Harry girl. Shame about that tragic, shit-brown uniform.”

“How about we brighten it up for you?”

I raised my head.

Their paint balloons hit the sidewalks in successive splats, decorating their shoes.

“Fuck, not her!”

“Get away from her!”

“Run!”

The Victoria Day kids scattered in every direction like they thought I was going to chase after them.

Picking up my feet, I continued on to school.

Four stories of red brick, white columns, and large double-paned windows loomed ahead. Students streamed in from everywhere. Running up the steps, climbing the fence, reclining on the steps, breezing through the double doors and breezing out—Haris Day was a sea of brown.

I stopped at the foot of the steps, throat tightening. I could turn around now. Walk away and say fuck you to my senior year. Mom paid the full four-year tuition in advance. Administration had been happy to keep their tight fists around the money for the two years I didn’t attend. They shouldn’t care if I was absent for the third.

Or so I tried to argue.

Principal Jeager claimed she wouldn’t accept virtual school credit anymore. If I wanted to graduate, I had to put on my hideous uniform and attend classes with everyone else. I no longer had an excuse not to.

Do I want to graduate? My grip tightened on my backpack straps. What’s it even matter if I do?

Mom wanted me to, a small voice whispered. She gushed on and on about the amazing graduation present she had planned for me. I can’t let her down again.

Letting out a long breath, I climbed the stairs, hanging my head low. I just needed to get through the double doors and into homeroom. Then I’ll be just another quiet student in the back who only speaks when called on.

I made it to the top of the stairs. Only ten more feet to go.

“What the fuck’s this? Are you kidding me?”

My head snapped up. Wide eyes beheld the group of four girls and three guys that surrounded me—coming up so fast I had no chance to get away.

“Jeager can’t be serious.” Dina sneered. “What the fuck is she thinking letting a murderer back into our school?”

“This has got to be a joke,” Kylie said. “The killer bitch must be here for one of those assemblies when they have the criminal trash lecture us on going down the right path so we don’t end up like them.”

“No chance of that,” Dina replied. “Because we won’t go psycho, kill our own mothers, and then blame it on three-headed dogs and mermaids.”

My expression was as blank as my soul staring at my two best friends in the world. The last couple years had been good to them. Dina grew out her hair and dyed the ends silver, something she’d always wanted to do, but her mother wouldn’t allow. Turning eighteen gave her the freedom to do that, pierce her nose, and stamp a butterfly tattoo on her ankle. She looked more mature and beautiful than she ever had.

And the same had to be said for Kylie. She filled out in all the right places. Her shoes were Louboutin. Her makeup enhanced her full lips and brought more attention to her jewel-tone eyes, and the guy on her arm was just the right amount of popular, handsome, and adoring.

Justin Lewis nibbled on her neck and smirked at me while he did it.

“Let me through,” I said flatly. “I don’t want any trouble.”

“Then you shouldn’t have come here, Lizzie B,” one of the girls taunted.

“Lizzie B?”

“Lizzie Borden,” Dina helpfully clarified. “Trouble is all a murderous bitch like you is going to get.”

I tried sidestepping and going around, but they snapped in tighter around me, boxing me in.

“You’re not even going to deny it?” Kylie scoffed. “I told you. I said it was her. She was pissed because she’d been bragging all day about the amazing, expensive gift her mom was going to give her, then she opens the box, and it’s just a rusty old knife.”

I balled my fist so tight my nails pierced my palms, coating the tips a deeper red than Kylie’s nail polish.

“You should’ve seen her face,” Kylie went on. “She looked like she was going to stab her right then, but she was smart enough to wait until we left. Well, not smart. Couldn’t come up with a story for why she was holding a bloody dagger in the middle of a horror scene, except that monsters kidnapped her mother.”

“She obviously went Lizzie B on the cheap hag and hid her pieces in the fertilizer. I overheard her that day, you know.” Justin was grinning pretty big for someone recounting a tragedy. “She was threatening to attack the Victoria kids if they paint-ballooned her. Said something about destroying them.”

They all gasped like this was shocking, damning information.

“Please move.”

“Admit it.” Dina shoved me. “Irida was the coolest, sweetest person ever, and you lost it and did something terrible to her. It was so bad, your mind snapped just like your crazy daddy. We all heard the story of the gladiator wannabe battling bicycles in the park.”

My teeth gritted. “Get out of the way.”

“Oooh, look out,” Justin cried, throwing his hands up. “She’s getting mad. Careful, everyone, or she’ll chop us up into pieces too.”

“Is that why you’re ganging up on me seven on one?” I asked. “Because you’re afraid of me? Well, you got nothing to worry about. I’m just here to go to class, finish my credits, and graduate. I’ll stay out of your way if you stay out of mine. You won’t even know I’m here.”

I tried again to get past. Dina shoved me back again. Harder that time.

“Why won’t you admit what you’ve done? We know. The cops know. All of America knows the truth,” Dina said. “You think you got away with it? You spouted all that crazy crap about three-headed dogs and only got two years in the loony bin. Now you’re free and clear.”

“Think again,” Kylie hissed. “If the law won’t make you pay, we will. Every day here will be hell for you. No body, no crime, my ass. No way is a murderer sitting next to me in English like nothing happened. We’ll beat you out of here and into the back-alley dumpster you belong in.”

I swallowed hard. Tears prickled behind my eyes, and it was all the strength in me not to let them fall. “Why are you doing this?” I rasped. “We used to be best friends. What happened to you?”

Her eyes flashed. “What happened to me? Any one of us would’ve traded our moms for yours in a heartbeat, and you got rid of her because you didn’t like your birthday present. You’re the evil bitch, Aella. Not me.”

“It wasn’t about the birthday present!” I screamed, blowing all seven of them back. One guy put his fists up like I was going to attack. “I loved the present. It was from my dad. And I love my mom no matter what she gives me for my birthday. I wouldn’t have cared if she gave me a steaming bag of dog shit!”

“Liar,” Dina screamed back. “I saw the look on your face when you opened the box. You hated that dagger, so you plunged it in her chest.”

“Exactly,” Kylie chimed in. “I thought you were going to smack her right then. I’ve never seen you so angry.”

The others bobbed their heads along—humming and uh-huhing. Brainless fools weren’t even there.

“I’m not doing this with you guys anymore,” I replied. “I said all I had to say two years ago, and you didn’t believe me. Instead, you twisted everything, spreading lies and gossip that ruined my life—as if it wasn’t enough of a shithole disaster.

“Is that how you two became so popular? I saw all your news interviews in the weeks after my mom was taken. Apartment destroyed, blood everywhere, Irida Vanda vanished, and the only witness was clutching a dagger and crying about monsters.

“Everyone wanted to know all about the sixteen-year-old suspected murderer and how she went bad, and you two were only too happy to spout all the lying garbage the reporters asked of you. I’m sure they paid well.” I flicked to Kylie’s eighteen-hundred-dollar shoes.

“You milked all that attention right to the top of the social ladder. Meanwhile, my mom is still out there—in trouble and waiting for me to save her. But because of you, the whole world thinks she’s dead! Because of you, everyone believes I lost it over a birthday present and went nuts! Because of you, I’ve been locked in a psychiatric hospital for two years when I should’ve been searching for my mother! Because of you, I’ve lost everything,” I screeched, blowing her eyes wide. “So no, Kylie, the evil bitch is still you!”

Pain exploded in my left cheek. My head wrenched around, spinning me off my heels and into two of their lackeys. They threw me back and I caught Dina’s next punch on the nose.

“Don’t talk to my friend like that, schizo cunt! You don’t scare us anymore.”

Blood poured from my nose, running along my lips and down my chin. It wasn’t the first time I’d taken a hit. I’d gotten my fair share of bruises from my roommate at Sunny Breeze Psychiatric. Katelyn kept mistaking me for her stepmother, and she really, really hated the woman.

All the same, her punches never packed the same power. Looked like Dina picked up weight lifting within the last two years.

I clapped my hands over my face, screaming into my palm. My nose was broken. No question.

“Good hit, Di.”

“She deserved it. Going psycho on Kylie because she told the truth.”

Shove.

“Killer bitch doesn’t belong in our school.”

Shove. Shove.

Their hits were coming from everywhere. Shoving my shoulder. Slamming their book bags into my back. Kicking my shins. It was getting out of hand fast, and by the growing crowd of watchers, no one was coming to my rescue.

I bolted to the right—diving through the gap between Justin and one of his teammates. Moving fast, they snapped their shoulders together and I bounced off their hard chests—flying back in their grips.

“Admit what you did!”

“Where’s the body!”

“Get out of our school.”

They were shoving, shouting, and kicking all at once. I couldn’t get free. I couldn’t steady the spinning bodies and buildings to see where freedom was.

A hard shove struck my back, and I went flying.

“Ahh!”

I cracked my shoulder on the concrete step and kept falling.

“Oh, shit!”

“What did you do!”

“It wasn’t me!”

Down the steps I tumbled, hitting every body part on the unforgiving steps on the way down.

Black flooded my vision—swallowing me and the world whole. I fell through the empty space—pain crumpling my forehead and drawing my eyes nearly shut. Through the slits, strange golden squiggles floated in the gloom.

Squiggles? No. No, that looks like—

I reached out—desperate to grab on to something and stop myself falling.

My hand closed on the thread.

“Oh, look. It’s a Harry girl. Shame about that tragic, shit-brown uniform.”

“How about we brighten it up for you?”

I looked around, blinking.

Paint balloons splattered the sidewalks.

“Fuck, not her!”

“Get away from her!”

“Run!”

The Victoria Day kids took off running—again.

What the hell? What happened? I looked around. Where were Kylie, Dina, and Justin? Was I knocked out falling down the stairs, and someone carried me all the way out here, dumping me on the sidewalk like trash?

No.

I trailed a hand up my shoulder. Eyes widening, I lifted it up and down. I felt it—heard it—as I fell. Something popped in my shoulder when I hit the step. Even more things broke.

That thought made me grab my nose. Nothing.

Seconds ago it was bleeding and broken.

“What’s going on?” I backed away, head whipping around. “How did I get here?”

How would I explain it? Any more wild stories about teleporting and magically healed wounds… and they’d send me right back to Sunny Breeze.

“No!”

Turning my back on Haris Day, I ran.

***

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