The Dragon’s Horde was as crowded as a Walmart on Black Friday.
By a sheer stroke of luck, I’d managed to claim the last square inch of standing room left in the place. Wedged between a metal rack of colorful anime novels and a life-size cardboard cutout of Captain America, I used my SAT prep book as a barrier between me and the throng of cosplayers and super-nerds swarming the comic book store.
It was Superhero Saturday, and the tiny shop was packed with every die-hard fan within a fifty-mile radius. A hazard of living in a small town, I guess. With so little to do in Lothbrook, Georgia, the Horde’s monthly meet-up event was as big a deal as the San Diego Comic Con.
“Pandemonium,” I muttered as two brightly-colored, spandex-wearing individuals began a heated debate over which was better—Marvel or DC. “Noun. Wild and noisy disorder; uproar.”
I rolled my eyes and tried to tune out the noise. I needed to have fifty new vocabulary words memorized by the end of the night, and the chaos around me was making it difficult to concentrate.
I cannot believe I let Maggie talk me into this. I groaned, burying my face deeper into the prep book. That girl owes me so big—like “name her first born after me” kind of big.
I eyed my best friend standing a few feet away, talking animatedly to a boy with sandy brown hair and glasses. He was wearing a black Star Wars t-shirt and a newsy hat and looked exactly like the Pokémon-loving type of guy she usually gravitated toward.
Maggie was grinning and twisting a loose thread from her worn Batman t-shirt around her finger. Her thick black curls bounced around her shoulders—almost in response to her enthusiasm—and her light brown cheeks were tinged with pink. She practically glowed.
“Aww,” I said, turning to the cutout of Captain America. “Look! Nerd flirting at its best!” I chuckled at my own joke before turning my attention back to the list of words.
“Superfluous. Adjective. Means additional or unnecess—Argh!” I squealed as a large, burly-looking dude dressed like the Hulk bumped into me, sending my SAT book flying and knocking me right into Captain America.
The guy gave me a rather authentic grunt as I struggled to keep myself and the Captain in the upright position.
“Sorry,” he gruffed, handing me back my prep book.
“No worries,” I said, with a wave of my hand.
He grunted again and then ambled toward his friends, a group of guys all wearing various forms of tights and Avengers gear. I took it as my cue to get a little fresh air.
Weaving in and out of the crowd, I paid little attention to the people around me. My goal, the wide double doors, was only a few steps away.
“Now where are ye going, yon pretty lady?” A guy dressed as Thor—complete with thunder hammer and winged helmet—blocked my path. His phony accent was as ridiculous as the rest of his costume. “Ye should stay a while. I can show thou how I work my hammer.” He gave me a wide, toothy grin and jerked his head so that rounded arc of his hair flipped back into place.
I rolled my eyes. “Save it, Thunder God. I don’t date guys who are more hair obsessed than I am. Maybe next time.”
I moved to sidestep him.
“Don’t be like that,” Thor stepped in front of me again, dropping the accent this time. “I’m just looking for my own Jane Foster, darlin’ and I think she might be you.” He winked at me.
If that’s supposed to be a panty-dropper, then this guy is more clueless than I thought. I rolled my eyes and tried again to step around him, but he was quick, holding out his hammer to block my path. This time he waggled his eyebrows at me.
I sighed. Clearly, Thor wasn’t taking the hint. I looked past him, hoping to see Maggie or some other form of escape.
I spotted it standing a few feet away.
A tall guy in a dark gray t-shirt leaned against the wall with his arms crossed. He wasn’t talking to anyone, and he looked about as thrilled as I was to be stuck in this circus of spandex. It was worth a shot.
“Babe!” I called over Thor’s shoulder. “There you are!” I pushed past Thor and walked over to the guy. His eyes narrowed in confusion, and I gave him what I hoped was a pleading look. “I’ve been looking for you!” I pulled him off the wall and linked my arm through his. Then I turned back to Thor and smiled widely.
Thor narrowed his eyes in suspicion, and my heart flickered with panic as the boy pulled his arm from mine. But then he snaked it around my shoulders and pulled me close.
“Sorry, babe,” he said, his voice deeper than I expected. “I got a little distracted by all the hair tossing.” He looked pointedly at Thor, and then stared down at me, a crooked smile on his lips. This time my heart flip-flopped for a different reason.
I turned back to Thor, a triumphant smirk on my face.
He swung his hammer from one hand to the other, glared at me, and then stalked off.
I quickly stepped out of the stranger’s arms. “Sorry about all that.” I shrugged. “Who knew Thor was such an arrogant asshole in real life?”
The boy in gray stared at me, his blue eyes bright with amusement. There was a faint streak of purple on his pale cheek, a bruise I hadn’t noticed initially. I wanted to ask about it, and there was a strange urge flowing through my fingers to reach out and brush his cheek, but I stopped myself on both accounts. What the hell, Styles! Get a grip!
“It must be all the hairspray affecting his brain,” he said, his smile widening.
My cheeks grew warm. “So . . . you a big comic book fan?”
“I appreciate them, but big crowds like this? Not really my scene. A friend of mine paid me twenty bucks to drive him here tonight.”
“Yeah, not really my scene either. I’m more of a small group kind of gal.”
He chuckled and pointed to my prep book. “Doing a little light reading?”
“You can never be too prepared,” I said, my cheeks blazing hotter. “The test is in two days. I’m graduating early and I have to get at least a 2200 to get into my top schools. The science programs are pretty competitive.” Oh my God. Could you sound like a bigger nerd?
He nodded politely. “That’s pretty impressive.”
“I’ve moved around a lot,” I said with a shrug. “Tons of sleepy little towns where nothing ever happens. I want get out and see the world, ya know? So many things to see and discover. I figured why wait?” Stop. Just stop. I wanted to smack myself. Of all my quirks, nervous word-vomiting was definitely my least favorite.
“I think that’s really cool,” he said, and then we stood there staring awkwardly at each other for a moment as if neither of us knew what to say next.
“So . . . thank you,” I finally blurted out, much louder than I meant to.
“Happy to help.” He smiled, and that strange sensation washed over me again. It was like the cool underside of the pillow after a long day or the way hot cocoa warms you from the inside out after being in the cold for too long.
There was something oddly familiar about him, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was. “I’m sorry, but have we met before?” I asked.
His smile faltered and his eyes seemed to cloud over. “No, I don’t think so.” He looked down at his feet, scuffing the tile with his shoe. When he looked back up again, however, his smile had returned.
“Right,” I said. “Well, I really appreciate your help. My name’s Lainey, by the way.” I held out my hand.
“Nice to meet you, Lainey.” He took my hand in his. “I’m Ty.”
I jumped as Maggie ran over and grabbed me by the arm, spinning me around in a circle. “Guess what?” she squealed. “That guy I was talking to just asked me to go grab a coffee with him!”
“That’s great, Mags,” I said, pulling myself from her grip with a laugh. I turned back to where Ty had been standing, but the patch of wall he’d occupied was empty. I scanned the crowd, but there wasn’t a single stitch of gray in the sea of color. He was gone.
I sighed and turned back to Maggie, who proceeded to tell me every single detail of her conversation with Heath, the boy in the newsy hat.
“I told him I’d have to take a rain check of course, but it was so nice to be asked!”
I frowned. “Wait, why didn’t you say yes?”
“I promised I’d quiz you on your words if you came with me,” Maggie said with a shrug. “What kind of best friend would I be if I bailed on you like that?”
“And what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t let you off the hook.” I smiled at her. “You should go.”
Maggie narrowed her eyes at me. “Are you sure? Because you, Lainey Styles, are the true love of my life, and you come first.”
I grinned. “I’m totally sure. I need to be home early tonight anyway. Go have fun.”
“It’s just so rare to find someone who actually understands that Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker’s one true love. Everyone is always Team Mary Jane.”
“See? You have to go.”
Maggie squealed again and threw her arms around me, hugging me tightly. “You’re the best!”
“Have fun—and text me when you get home.”
“Will do, Styles. Love you!” Maggie yelled over her shoulder as she scampered off.
“Well,” I said, hugging my SAT prep book to my chest. “Guess it’s just you and me then.” I sighed again and made my way toward the door.
Outside, the night air was crisp with a slight chill. Coats were usually unnecessary until the dead of winter—a “perk” of living in the Deep South—but October had brought with it some unseasonably cool temperatures. I wasn’t complaining; it was nice to be able to walk outside for ten minutes and not need a shower afterward.
The parking lot was less chaotic than inside the shop, but there were still dozens of people milling about. I dodged around a lightsaber fight and a very serious-looking game of Magic: The Gathering and made my way toward the sidewalk. My beat-up red Ford Escort was parked around the corner a few blocks down the street.
I jumped at the sound of my name and turned around. There was a family with two small children standing a few paces away and a group of middle-school-aged boys, but no one I recognized.
I looked around, shrugged, and kept walking.
This time the melodic, yet pleading voice was so close, it was as if someone were whispering in my ear. I shrieked a little and whirled around. “Maggie?”
There was no sign of her. A massive case of the heebie-jeebies pricked at my spine, but I shook it off, squeezing my SAT prep book a little tighter to my chest. There was a round of loud shouting as the lightsaber duel intensified, and more people were pouring out into the parking lot.
I shook my head. Maybe all the studying was starting to have an adverse effect on my brain. “Adverse,” I muttered, turning back toward the street. “Preventing success or development; harmful; unfavorable.”
A tall figure emerged from the shadows of the building. She stood apart from the crowd, her long skirt rustling around her legs like a bell in the breeze.
I stared at her. Her costume wasn’t one I’d seen before. She looked like she stepped off the page of a history book instead of a comic. There was something about her that held my attention; it was as if an invisible tether was linking us together. I couldn’t look away.
As she stepped forward into a pool of light from one of the parking lot streetlights, all the blood drained from my face.
She looked older than me, but only by a few years, with long dark hair and hollow, sunken eyes, but it wasn’t her face that sent my heart into my feet. Her dress and long green overcoat were stained crimson with blood.
She stood there staring at me with sad eyes, blood pouring through her fingers from a wound in her stomach.
I gasped, and stumbled backward, dropping my SAT book on my foot in the process.
“Are you okay?” The mother of the small children was staring at me, her eyebrows knitted together.
“That woman over there,” I said, nearly choking on the words. “She’s hurt!” I turned and pointed toward the shadows. “I saw—” I broke off.
There was no one there.
“Sweetheart, are you sure you’re okay?” The mother’s wide eyes searched my face. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
My eyes darted around the parking lot. But there was no blood, no body, no indication I had seen anything at all.
“Sorry,” I managed to squeak. “I thought I saw something.”
I didn’t bother with further explanation. I ducked my head and made a beeline for the sidewalk. My knees wobbled as I half ran to my car. Blood pounded in my ears, and a thick layer of goose bumps covered my skin.
Just think of something else. Anything else.
My brain was muddled but immediately began supplying me with the words I had been cramming into my head for weeks.
“Consternation. Noun. A feeling of anxiety or disbelief over something unexpected. Trepidation. Noun. A feeling of—”
The scream roared to life in my ears, and I took off running. I jammed my hand into my pocket for my keys and collided with the driver’s side door. I fumbled for the right key, my hands shaking so badly I could barely hold on to them.
I forced the key into the lock. My hand wrapped around the door handle, pulling it open, but then I stopped. The dim light from the streetlamp was casting just enough glow to see hazy reflections in the window. The outline of my head and shoulders was familiar enough, but something was moving behind me.
I squeezed my eyes shut. It’s not real. Just a really good costume. An early Halloween prank, even. You’re exhausted and your brain is playing tricks on you. It’s not real.
I turned around and opened my eyes. The bloody woman was standing right in front of me. Her deep green eyes, the same color as the ornate, pulsating stone that hung from her neck, burned into mine. Something inside me crumpled, like a wall that I’d never known was standing. Every cell in my body pulled me toward the woman. The magnetism between us crackled through my veins.
I opened my mouth, but before I had the chance to scream, her icy hand shot out and gripped my arm above the elbow.
The moment our skin touched, a wave of electric energy shot up my arm and surged through my body. I cried out as a blistering light exploded before my eyes. My limbs quaked and the heat intensified, engulfing me in a fire that threatened to incinerate me from the inside out. I fell to the asphalt, collapsing against the inferno raging beneath my skin. The wave of electricity intensified with each beat of my heart. I cried out again.
Then, as quickly as it began, the pain disappeared. The world faded away, and everything went black.