Shanti’s book, Forever Night, will be out in ebook form next month. Those who subscribe to my newsletter have been reading it an installment at a time, but several have mentioned that they’d love to read the whole thing at once, and I figured those who want to know more about Shanti might enjoy reading more of her story. I initially created her as a sidekick, and in the main Hiidden storyline, she very much is. But she has her own life too, and I thought it would be fun to show what her life is like from her point of view. I had a blast writing Forever Night, and I hope you have just as much fun reading it.
I think Forever Night (and the other upcoming novellas in the Hidden series) lean more toward paranormal romance than pure urban fantasy. The love story developing in Forever Night is central to the storyline, and has a huge impact on Shanti’s evolving character. I will say that Shanti is a much lighter, happier character to write than Molly is. She’s younger, and, until she first appears in Hidden, anyway, had a nice, normal upbringing. I think I love her even more after writing Forever Night.
Here’s a little sneak peek at the first chapter of Forever Night. Enjoy! And I hope you have a lovely weekend and a happy Easter if you celebrate.
Forever Night: Chapter One
The nightmare started the same way it always did. Shanti stood in the abandoned car plant, flanked by Levitt and Stone, Ada on Stone’s other side. Shifter packs, the Detroit police chief, Molly’s imps arrayed, waiting to destroy anything that came through the gateway.
The reappearance of Brennan had done it. No one knew he was missing, and then there was Eunomia, dragging him into the loft, both of them beaten, bloody.
Everyone had moved fast after that. Brennan had managed to give them an idea of what was coming before he’d passed out, and there was no doubt in Shanti’s mind that she’d join the team, that she’d do what Molly would have done; that she would stand against whatever came through.
So there everyone was: ready to defend their own realm from nightmares. Likely, about to die. They’d go out fighting. The plant was silent, eerie, as they stared at what looked like nothing at all, waiting for the world to end.
And then Molly came through the gateway, followed by a man Shanti had only ever seen in photographs; a man who should have been a ghost, but wasn’t. And behind them, a couple dozen huge demons, in their true forms. It had almost come to blows, but Molly jumped between the two groups, stopped the chaos with a word.
In Shanti’s recurring nightmare, in her memories, she watched as the Fates talked to Molly, as Molly and Nain argued, asked questions. And she saw something she’d never seen on her hero’s face, no matter how bad things had gotten: fear.
And that was when Shanti had realized that whatever was coming through was worse than any nightmare she could have imagined.
Molly shouted, told everyone to leave. Everyone. Shanti stared back at the woman who had saved her life, not once, but twice, not wanting to leave, not wanting her to face whatever was coming alone. The look on Molly’s face had said everything: she was scared to death, but this was something she was determined to do.
They’d all gone outside; demons, shifters, vampires. And they’d waited. Shanti could still feel, even in her dreams, the insane amount of power surging from within the plant, making the hair on the back of her neck stand on end, making her teeth clench and her ears pop. And then it broke, and the largest of the demons, the demon who had been bonded to Molly, let out the worst, most inhuman, most tortured sound Shanti had ever heard, and then he started running and Shanti was on his heels.
And when they got there, her hero was gone, nothing remaining but a patch of dust, and even that was blowing away in the breeze that blew through the broken-out windows of the factory. The demon fell to his knees, let loose another inhuman wail, and that was when Shanti started praying.
Shanti jerked awake, felt her heart give two quick thumps in response to her fear, the terror of that night. She rubbed her hands over her face, trying to calm her nerves. Nearly two years of the same nightmare, several times a week. She felt like she should be used to it by now, but there was no way to get used to seeing the one permanent thing in your life taken away. There was no way to remember Nain’s tortured howl, and be okay with it.
She sat up, glanced at the clock on the bedside table. Just after ten. She picked up her phone, glanced at it. There was already a text waiting. Levitt.
Text me when ur up. Lead from imps. Vamps this time.
She texted him, and he responded immediately. He’d meet her in the lot across the street.
She got up out of bed, tossing the covers to the side. Then she quickly made the bed, prayed her thanks for another night and asked for strength to save the innocent. Then she stepped into the shower, quickly washed, dressed in jeans and a gray sweater. She sheathed the silver dagger Levitt had bought her to her thigh, then pulled her curly hair up, pinning it haphazardly at the back of her head. No sense in giving whoever they faced something easy to grab.
She left the room she lived in at the loft, the one on the second floor, center of the building. The rooms on each end had huge windows looking out over the city and Cultural Center. Hers was generally known as the “vampire room.” Whenever there had been a vampire on the team, they’d lived in that room. It was windowless, had a door that could only be opened from the inside unless Molly (or, now, Nain) let themselves in with the key. As she walked down the stairs, she could easily hear what was going on with her team mates. Nain was in his office, ripping someone a new one. Brennan was staring listlessly out the living room windows. Stone was probably out on patrol with the Chief, and she could smell the herbal, exotic scent that told her Ada was likely working on a potion in her room. She called a hello to Brennan, who answered distractedly, then she grabbed some blood from the fridge, heated it up, and poured it into a travel mug.
No one ever made the mistake of borrowing Shanti’s mug, she’d noticed. They argued over people using each other’s stuff all the time, but she’d managed to avoid that problem. One of the advantages of being a vampire.
She got out of the elevator, walked up the driveway that led into the underground parking garage, then across the street where she could already see Levitt waiting for her, sitting on the crumbling brick wall that had once surrounded the lot. Like all demons, the cool night air didn’t bother him at all, and he stood there, all dark and brooding, in a black t-shirt and jeans. His human skin was pleasing; skin a shade or two darker than her own, shaved head, clean-shaven face. Dark brown eyes. His demon form, she knew from experience, was no less impressive, even if it did kind of freak her out. Her grandmother would probably have a heart attack, even thinking of her good Christian granddaughter hanging out with a demon.
She took another gulp of blood. She might yet feed again that night, depending on what they found when they got there. She made a face. Vampire blood was unsatisfying. Even less so than the bagged stuff she usually drank.
Now demon blood… demon blood was the best thing she’d ever had, she thought with a pang when she looked at Levitt. Demon blood, and demon sex.
Yeah. Losing her virginity to a ninety-year-old demon (still young, for a demon, but still) probably hadn’t been the best idea. She had a sneaking suspicion that nothing else would ever come close. Too bad all of the hot sex and delectable blood came with a heavy dose of possessiveness and general pissiness.
She sighed, a habit she hadn’t yet broken, and walked into the lot. At least they’d ended their relationship on a friendly note.
“Took you long enough,” Levitt said in greeting.
“Hello, Levitt. And how are you tonight? Did you sleep well? Anything you’d like to get off your chest?” She reached him, stood in front of him and took another drink, the bagged blood now even more unsatisfying now that she could smell Levitt, the slightly spicy, rich scent that was just him.
He just watched her, the only sign of his irritation the way he bit the inside of his mouth. “Hi,” he finally said, and Shanti knew it was as close as he’d come to exchanging pleasantries.
Okay. So it hadn’t ended on as friendly a note as she would have liked.
“That’s an improvement, anyway. Are we driving?” Shanti asked, and he nodded. They climbed into the black SUV Nain had bought for the team to share when they needed to go out on patrol, rather than letting them drive Molly’s car. Not that any of them would have even considered it. If Shanti had had her way, the car would have been sealed behind glass or something, a shrine until Molly got back. But Stone and Brennan had insisted that it should be driven so it would stay in running condition, and since Brennan was Molly’s boyfriend or whatever he was, he was the one that drove it.
It still seemed wrong to Shanti, somehow.
Levitt drove (he always drove. Always.) toward East English Village. The car was silent, the radio off because they wanted to be able to hear if there was trouble as they drove around. The smell of him next to her, the sound of his heart beating made her throat burn with hunger. Shanti rolled her window down a little, just to get some relief.
“You’re getting fangy again. Drink more,” Levitt said.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” Shanti said, looking out her window.
“Ready to admit your mistake yet?” he asked, resting his elbow on the car door as he drove.
“If I’d made a mistake, I would admit it,” Shanti said, rolling her eyes. “Thanks for reminding me on a daily basis that I made the right choice the day I walked away from you.”
He didn’t answer for a while. Then: “We should stop working together. This is stupid.”
Shanti crossed her arms over her chest. “Yeah. You want to be the one to tell Nain he needs to take time from everything else he has going on to figure out a whole new patrol schedule because your pride is wounded?”
“He’d probably understand, considering.”
“I kind of doubt it. Don’t be such a baby, Levitt. Unbelievable.”
“I’m seventy years older than you, vamp.”
“Then maybe you should start acting like it. We tried, we didn’t work. The end. Get the hell over it.”
They drove the rest of the way in silence, and when they reached the neighborhood, Levitt slammed the SUV into “park” with more force than was strictly necessary. They got out, and he started walking down the street.
“It’s a couple of blocks this way,” he said over his shoulder, and Shanti followed, thinking that having a new patrol partner would be an absolute dream come true. As they got closer to the house, they shifted into familiar roles easily, comfortably, like pulling on a favorite sweater. Shanti took the lead, able to hear better and move faster than the burly demon. He brought up the rear, watching her back, ready to spring should something surprise her. In two years of patrolling together, it hadn’t happened yet, but it never hurt to be prepared.
Shanti stood still, listened. She could smell the human, hear her breathing, quiet, shallow, as if she was sleeping. She smelled ripe; the vampire had had her for a few days and apparently wasn’t picky about her prey. Shanti sniffed the air again; she couldn’t hope to detect the vamp that way, but it would let her know if there were any other humans around. After a few seconds, she felt sure; the only bleeders she could smell were Levitt and the human woman.
She crept down the hall, holding her hand down, low, signaling to Levitt to keep the noise down, to walk softly. It was likely, unless the vamp was totally clueless, that she’d detected them already. Never hurt to be careful anyway.
They reached the room at the end of a long hallway, and Shanti could smell the human just inside. She opened the door slowly, looked around. It was a plain bedroom, windows boarded over, white walls, nothing but a mattress on the hardwood floor. On the mattress was the woman Chief Jones had given her and Levitt the task of tracking down: Aimee Wendsley, nineteen, from Indian Village. Rich parents, nice private school education. She’d gone out to dinner with her boyfriend and hadn’t returned a little over a week ago. At first, the boyfriend had been the suspect, an obvious one. But after a couple of days, Jones had gotten one of his signature hunches and called Nain’s team in for the assist. Without a second of hesitation, the big demon had given the job to Shanti and Levitt. He seemed to understand what it meant to her, and she appreciated it.
Shanti turned to Levitt after looking Aimee over. She was asleep. Exhausted, mostly due to loss of blood. Pale. She didn’t look as if she’d been treated roughly, which was a relief, Shanti thought. She’d already seen way more beat up, abused people than she could stomach.
“So now what?” Levitt asked. “Want to wait for her to make an appearance?”
Shanti nodded. “Take her. She’s out. I can smell something in her blood, kind of sweet. Off. Maybe the vamp drugs her to keep her asleep.”
“I’m not leaving you here,” he began to argue, and she held a hand up, sharply, stopping him from going on.
“Yes, you are. She needs to go. And I can handle one of my own kind. Go.”
Levitt glared at her, then went and picked up the young woman. Shanti escorted them back to the SUV, making sure they got away safely, then she jogged, vampire-speed (so, not really jogging, but it felt like it) back to the vamp’s house. She let herself in, stood in the bedroom the woman had been sleeping in, and waited.
As she waited, her mind wandered a little. She thought, as she often did, about Molly, sent a silent prayer that her friend was well. Brennan had been acting strangely, and she’d heard a murmured conversation between him and Nain, something about Brennan losing his connection to Molly for a while. She hadn’t liked the way it sounded.
It wasn’t long before she heard the front door open, and she silently went, stood next to the bedroom door. She readied her silver dagger, holding it up, at heart level, ready to strike.
She’d been queasy about this type of thing at first. About ambushing her prey. It felt like cheating. And Molly, then Brennan, had each explained that this wasn’t honorable battle, that it was hunting, that it was kill or be killed, and that losing was not an option, because more innocents would suffer.
So when the vampire opened the door and stepped into the room, likely looking forward to a snack, Shanti sprung forward and stabbed the silver dagger into the older vamp’s heart, watched her prey’s blue eyes as realization hit her, felt the vampire’s body convulse as it went into its death throes. Shanti watched, emotionless. “Amen,” Shanti said softly as the vampire died, each death she caused, each life she saved, her own kind of prayer.
The final task was to drag the vampire’s body outside, so it would turn to dust when sunlight hit it the next morning. The yard was surrounded by a tall privacy fence, with tall hedges in front of that. Easy. She rested the body near the shrubs and behind a large planter.
She left, locking the front door behind her, wiping her fingerprints from any surface she’d touched. “Should have worn my gloves,” she muttered as she wiped down the front doorknob. And then she walked, casually, down Iroquois Street, until she got to an open stretch of Jefferson, deserted this late at night, and she let herself run, and, for a little while, she felt alive.
* * *
She decided to check out her old neighborhood on the Southwest side. She liked to make sure it was clear of danger. Her aunts and little brother still lived there, and the idea of some vampire draining or turning Manny was unacceptable. She’d caught one or two around, but word seemed to have spread that the Southwest side was a really bad place for vampires. She walked, even walking down her aunts’ street. The house was the same as it always had been; Virgin Mary statue in the front garden, wide front porch looking like visitors were welcome at any time. She walked quickly past. That part of her life was over. Her family believed her dead, and that was for the best. How to explain to them what she was now? She couldn’t, and she didn’t want to. It was better for them to stay ignorant of the nightmares that walked among them, and she was just one more nightmare, now.
She was getting ready to head back toward the loft, another nice, long run, when she heard what sounded like a struggle in a nearby alley. She looked around. There was a small pizza place, a secondhand shop, and a martial arts studio. That was new; it definitely hadn’t been there when she’d lived in the neighborhood. The sounds were coming from the alley behind it.
Shanti ran to the building, then slowed down, slunk along the cinder block wall, listening. She could smell a human, hear his raspy breath, his heart thumping.
It was entirely possible she’d be walking in on something else happening in the alleyway. The first time she’d burst in on a couple messing around in their car, she’d nearly died of mortification.
But that wasn’t the sight that met her eyes when she turned into the alley. A vampire (obvious, from her pale skin and lack of a heartbeat) was holding a man up against the back wall of the martial arts studio, pinning him there. He was struggling, but he was also clearly losing his energy as the vamp sucked the life from him. Draining him.
“Hey!” she shouted, readying her knife again. The vamp turned, blood dribbling from the side of her mouth, and she hissed at Shanti.
Young. She was immature. Not past the blood lust phase. That’s when many vampires are at their most dangerous. They can’t control themselves. Shanti herself had killed a man at that phase of her second life.
Luckily, young vampires also tend to be stupid. Not terribly comfortable in their newer, stronger bodies. The vamp lunged at Shanti, and Shanti stepped to the side, struck out with a quick punch and sent the vamp flying into a nearby dumpster. The vamp tried springing at Shanti again, but Shanti was too fast; she saw her opportunity and took it, stabbing up with the dagger as the vamp tried to tackle her.
Once she was sure the vamp was dead, Shanti hefted the dead body into the dumpster, leaving it open so the body would fade away come morning. She shook her head, then turned to the man, who was still slumped against the back of the building, but was conscious, staring at her with a mix of fear and awe. He was still bleeding from the neck; the vamp had pulled her fangs out of the man’s artery without sealing the wounds.
Shanti approached the man slowly, trying to calm him. Even as she was trying to be business-like, she couldn’t help noticing that he was drop-dead freaking gorgeous. He looked like he was something Middle Eastern, maybe, warm complexion, light brown eyes, and the longest, blackest lashes she’d ever seen. His black hair was cut close to his head, and a neat goatee completed the picture.
The scent of his blood was making her throat burn, her fangs descend. She tried to keep them hidden from the man.
“It’s okay now,” she said softly, holding her hands out, letting him see her. “I’m here to help you.”
“You killed that thing,” he said, his voice low, smooth. A good voice.
“Yes. I did. Your neck is still bleeding. I can close the wounds, if you’ll let me.”
Shanti hesitated. This was clearly a Normal, and one who had no clue what kind of mess he’d really gotten into. “It’s probably better if I show you. I swear I will not hurt you. Can you trust me?”
He stared at her. She held her dagger out to him. The other vamps’ blood, both the one from earlier and the one she’d just killed, still stained the blade. “You can hold this if it’ll make you feel better.”
He shook his head, still staring at her.
“This will only take a second. We need to make it stop.”
He nodded, then, and she approached him slowly. She angled his head, gently, trying to get access to his wound, and he stiffened.
“It’s okay,” she said softly. “I am not like that one. I will not hurt you.”
He didn’t relax, but at least he wasn’t trying to run away. He’d lost a lot of blood, and she was worried about him blacking out. Shanti leaned in, and gently licked at his wound, using her saliva to seal it, to heal it as if it had never been there at all.
She forced herself not to react visibly to the taste of his blood. Holy hell. Rich, sweet, warm perfection. She closed her eyes for a moment, savored the flavor of him coating her mouth. She took a breath she didn’t need, mostly to settle herself down, and she stepped back.
His gaze was on her, tracking every move she made. The man put a hand to his neck, then looked at his hand. When he saw no blood, his gaze shot back up to her.
“What are you?” he asked.
She regretted what had to come next. She didn’t like this part in general, and she felt even more of a pang over having to do it now. “I am the same thing she was,” she said softly, meeting his eyes, making it very clear that she wasn’t messing around. “If you breathe a word of what you saw, what you experienced tonight, I will find you. And you won’t make it out alive if that happens. Do you understand?”
God, she felt like a first-rate asshole doing that.
He nodded, slowly, eyes still glued to hers. “Thank you,” he said. “I don’t even know what I’d tell anyone. They’d think I was nuts.”
She smiled a little. “You’re handling it really well, considering.”
“I’m going to go drink myself into a stupor now, I think,” he said, and it made her grin.
“Not a bad idea. I wasn’t kidding. Not a word.”
He nodded. “What’s your name, anyway?”
She looked around. “My name’s Shanti. And you never saw me.”
And with that, she took off, at vampire speed. It wasn’t until she was nearly home that she detected another vampire, shadowing her every move.
* * *
Zero stared into the night after the woman who had rescued him. One second, she was there, and the next there was no sign of her.
“My name is Shanti, and you never saw me.”
Her words echoed in his mind, etched into his memory. Zero looked down the alley for a while longer, then started heading up the metal stairs that led to the apartment above the martial arts studio he owned with a buddy of his, and let himself in. His apartment was sparsely furnished; a twin bed, a television, and a nightstand. A shelf with a few books and mementos from places he’d been. There was a small bathroom off to the side. The entire apartment was ridiculously small and the wallpaper had yellowed with age. But it was his, and that was enough.
He sat on the edge of the bed, looked down at his hands. They were still shaking, and he clasped them together, trying to force them to stop. He brought one hand up to his neck.
The second that first thing had grabbed him, all of his training had kicked in. He’d seen red, started punching and kicking out mercilessly. He was a more than competent fighter.
Against the thing in the alley, taken by surprise, it hadn’t meant a damn thing. He was overpowered within seconds.
And then he’d felt the thing’s teeth rip into his neck. At first, he had been in too much shock and fear to feel anything. And then he did, and it reminded him of that night, of shrapnel tearing into his body.
It reminded him, yet again, that an attack can come at anytime. Twice in his life now he’d nearly been snuffed out, with no warning.
Zero got up and went into the tiny bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror over the sink. His T-shirt was caked in his blood; the thing had been really messy. And at first, he’d thought it was just ripping him apart, until he realized that it was sucking hungrily at his neck.
His stomach turned. He pulled his ruined shirt off and tossed it into the bathroom garbage can. He inspected his neck in the mirror. That was the even crazier part. There wasn’t a sign that the thing had ever attacked him at all. And that was all due to the one who had saved him.
He recalled the way she’d moved, the quick, efficient way she’d disposed of the thing that had attacked him. Watching her had been like watching a perfectly choreographed dance of death. He’d never seen anyone move like that, and even as he watched, even as he watched her approach him, he knew she wasn’t human.
And then there had been her sweet, soft voice.
The feel of her tongue on his flesh. Healing. Taking the pain away. Soothing.
He closed his eyes.
“I will not hurt you.”
Offering him her knife, trying to make him feel better.
Like the thing that had attacked him.
Zero tried to shake himself out of it. He turned the water on in the tiny shower, stepped under the searing heat. He scrubbed his blood off of his body, let the water work some of the kinks out of his neck and shoulders.
He couldn’t get those dark brown eyes out of his mind. That voice.
It wasn’t the fact that there were non-humans walking around that really rocked his world. That was crazy, but that wasn’t the craziest thing that had happened to him that night.
The craziest thing was that someone had bothered to care for him. That was something that just did not happen. Not ever. His quiet, sheltered ways, the way he glared at everybody, the way he was always on edge, waiting for, expecting, an attack, kept everyone away. And he wanted it that way.
He didn’t pray. He didn’t believe there was something bigger out there watching out for him. He didn’t believe in heaven, hell, gods or devils. But he knew that the fact that he was going to live to see another day was thanks to the gorgeous, graceful, deadly being who’d appeared at just the right time.
Zero got out of the shower, pulled on a pair of sweats, and went back into his room, checking the door and window locks before settling onto the squeaky mattress.
“My name is Shanti. And you never saw me.”
* * *