Whenever my company, Thinklings Books, LLC, publishes a book, we'll have the author provide the first chapter (with possibly a prologue or other intro, if there is one) FREE to read on their website or blog.
So, here's mine: the prologue and first chapter of Hunter's Moon! :) Click the Read More button to see it!
August 17, Full Moon (second night)
His breath came in great ragged gasps as he half-ran, half-stumbled through the forest, desperate to get to the cave in time. He cursed the underbrush that grabbed at his feet, tripping him. I’m getting too old for this.
He was almost out of time; the sun had already set. He was late tonight. A series of trivial annoyances had delayed him, and he’d been unable to escape to the national forest until the sun was brushing the tree-lined Pennsylvania horizon.
Where is that blasted cave? he thought frantically, eyes darting every which way, searching for the large outcropping of rocks. He should have reached the spot by now.
His aching sides and heaving chest felt about to collapse, and not only from running: The first small, tingling waves of pain had begun. The all-too-familiar sensation spurred him to even greater speed, practically blinding him with panic.
If he couldn’t reach the cave in time, at least he could lose himself deep within this forest, as far away from human beings and their cozy little campsites as he could manage.
Although maybe they’d have the decency to shoot me, he thought bitterly. It would be just payment—fair recompense for what I owe.
He pressed on through the woods, past countless blurs of trees. How much farther could he run?
There—up ahead! The rock formation. He crashed through the final yards of underbrush and into inky blackness.
Water dripped from stalactites, echoing eerily around him. Loose pebbles rolled under his feet. Every twenty yards or so, a shaft of dim light filtered down from a hole in the roof, allowing him to see shelf mushrooms and the vague forms of naturally carved stone.
His legs buckled, and he pitched forward onto hard, damp stone. Was he far enough? Would the monster be able to find its way out of the cavern?
Tump, tump. His head jerked up, and his muscles tensed at the distant footsteps.
Tump, tump, tump, the footfalls continued, louder and louder, nearer and nearer. No! he cried inside his mind, even as pain seized him in its iron grip. Stop! Stay away!
But he knew, deep down, that it was already too late.
1. Pine Groves
One month later, September 17, Full Moon (third night)
Somewhere beyond the dense tangle of treetops, the sun was sinking—soon it would crouch behind the Appalachian foothills. Although full darkness hadn’t yet descended, the forest gloom was deceptive. It wasn’t quite seven o’clock.
For the moment, Pam’s cheerful chatter kept Mel’s nervousness at bay. “Hey, did you hear that a bunch of guys from Van Zeelen Hall are here this weekend too?” Her gray eyes brightened, and a touch of excitement curved her lips.
“No.” Frowning, Melanie Caldwell tried to recall which of their classmates lived in that dorm.
“Seriously, Mel? You work for the school paper. You’re supposed to know about everything that goes on at good ol’ Wellsboro U. What happened to those English-major psychic powers you were talking about the other day?”
Melanie smirked. “Doesn’t mean I read the entire paper.”
“Oh yeah, you prefer those Agatha Christie novels.”
Mel hoped she didn’t find any Christie-style bodies out in these woods. That’d make it a memorable camping trip. She sneaked a glance around but saw only foliage.
The cool scent of pine rode the breeze, and the crickets’ chorus was in full swing. Occasionally, an owl hooted high above. The narrow trail the girls followed wound between towering oaks, copses of younger birches, and scattered evergreens. The pathway branched off in many places, leading who knew where. Mel and Pam had no clue where the main trail was headed, either, but at every crossroads they made sure to score a deep arrow mark in the dirt.
“Which floor?” Mel asked suddenly.
“Of Van Zeelen. Is it guys from a certain hallway?”
“I heard second floor, south wing.” Pam Grazziano’s smile faded, then returned. “But maybe some from first floor too?”
Raising an eyebrow, Mel said innocently, “Perhaps a certain Mr. Aaron Gates?”
Pam’s blush was barely noticeable in the darkness. “Hey, what about Luis Vargas?” she countered—and heat crept into Mel’s own cheeks. “He seems to have a thing for you.”
“We just work together.”
“Yeah, sure . . . ‘tutoring.’” Pam made air quotes with her free hand and winked. “I envy you—getting paid to flirt.”
Mel slapped her playfully on the arm, and Pam broke into a fit of giggles. At the glint in Mel’s eye, though, she raised her hands in surrender. “All right, all right, don’t shoot.”
Mel grinned up at the taller girl. “You sure gave up quickly. I must be quite intimidating.”
“A terror to behold.”
Their laughter echoed between the trees, but conversation dwindled as they ventured deeper into the forest’s gnarled heart. Silence pressed thickly around them, almost a palpable presence.
The darkness was complete now, outside the flashlight beams. Every so often a bush beside the girls rustled, and one or both of them jumped. “It’s only the wind,” Mel said, trying to keep her voice steady.
“Yep. Wind,” Pam echoed with a weak smile.
Don’t let your imagination take over, Melanie warned herself. No bears, wolves, or bobcats are going to jump out at you. If she gave in to it, she knew that she would find herself running back down the trail.
Why’d we dare ourselves to do this again? We should’ve stayed in camp and roasted marshmallows.
The breeze was picking up; soon, strong gusts howled around the girls. The trees shivered and dropped dead leaves that crunched under their feet. Mel thought she felt a drop of rain. Thick gray clouds had converged, covering the sky, and the low rumble of distant thunder rushed over the forest.
“There wasn’t a storm in the forecast,” Mel said.
“We’d better get back to camp.” Pam looked skyward. “Please don’t rain till we’re in the tent.” Reflexively, she ran a hand through her short light-brown hair.
Mel hid a grin. She was still surprised that stylish, sophisticated Pam had wanted to come here to Pine Groves. Neither of the pair was very outdoorsy, and Pam usually spent even weekend days in the music building, practicing.
As the girls hurried along, their ears picked up another sound: the opening strains of Vivaldi’s Spring, the gloriously tinny version serving as Pam’s ringtone.
Pam slowed down and scrambled to pull the phone out of her pocket. “Hello?” she said breathlessly, giving Mel an apologetic look.
Melanie stifled a sigh and matched her friend’s slower pace while Pam chatted away. Finally, Pam informed her caller that she was out camping with a friend but, “You can call back tomorrow night if you want. Uh-huh. Okay, that sounds great. Talk to you then. ’Bye.”
“Important business?” asked Mel as Pam stashed her phone.
Pam shrugged. “Nah, it was just some guy I went to high school with. Sorry about that. Gosh, I haven’t talked to Bryce in ages.”
“Ah,” said Melanie with a nod. She was used to it by now, since she’d roomed with Pam since sophomore year, but at first she’d been astonished at how many phone calls like that her friend received. Pam’s social network reminded Mel of the kudzu vines rapidly taking over the Southern United States.
The call also reminded her that she’d brought her own cell phone along, just because it felt weird not to have it. Mel couldn’t imagine anyone calling her this weekend, but she decided to check for messages anyway.
She felt for it in her jacket pocket. Then her other jacket pocket. Then the back pockets of her shorts. Then the front pockets. Then the jacket pockets again, just in case she’d missed it the first time.
“Crap,” she said, halting in her tracks. “My phone’s gone.”
“What? Are you sure you brought it?”
“Yes, I’m positive. I remember sticking it in my jacket after lunch. I must have dropped it somewhere out here. . . . Wait, do you think I could’ve dropped it in the cave?” Their afternoon spelunking excursion had been mostly fun, except for one snafu. Mel’s knees still smarted from when she’d skinned them.
“I guess so.” Pam shook her head. “Man, we are not having good luck on this trip.”
“And it’s about to rain. What if I dropped it outside, somewhere on the trail? I can’t leave it out here overnight. It’ll get totally ruined—soaked, stepped on, or stolen.”
Pam bit her lip. “We’ll have to look for it.”
“I’m sorry, Pam,” Mel said ruefully. “It’s getting late, and we need to get back, but I don’t want to leave my phone out here.”
“I understand; I’d be worried sick about mine. Okay, I’ll keep calling your phone. You listen for your ring.”
Melanie followed her roommate back the way they’d come; they weren’t far from the cave. Pam kept dialing Mel’s number, and they listened and listened.
An electric tingle filled the air, heralding the coming storm. The atmosphere set Melanie’s nerves on edge and addled her brain. Mugginess clung to her skin, and she longed to be somewhere warm, dry, safe, and familiar.
They had almost reached the entrance to the cave when they heard something, but it wasn’t a phone ringing. Footsteps crunched toward them.
Who else was out here this late? The girls shone their flashlights in the direction of the sound.
Soon a figure appeared—a short and stocky figure that looked more and more familiar as it came closer. Oh, dear God, no!
Their classmate Timmy Simmons stood there, blinking at them like a possum caught in headlights and pushing his glasses farther up his pimply pug nose.
“What are you doing here?” Pam said in a suspicious tone.
Groaning inwardly, Mel thought, Of all the people. All the guys from Van Zeelen it could have been. It had to be him.
“Nice to see you, too, Pat, and Melody.” Sarcasm and sweat oozed from Timmy’s pores.
“It’s Pam and Melanie,” retorted the tall girl, bristling.
Timmy waved a hand dismissively, and the haughty look remained as he said, “Yeah, whatever. And why shouldn’t I be here? What are you two doing here?”
“We happen to be camping, obviously,” Pam shot back. “And I realize that’s what you’re doing too, but why aren’t you with the rest of the guys? Playing hide-and-go-seek?”
“No.” He sniffed. “That game’s for kids. We’re playing our own version of The Hunger Games.”
Which, if I recall, was also played by kids. Biting back the comment, Mel said, “Sounds like fun. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a lost phone to hunt down.”
But as she and Pam made to move around Timmy, he followed.
“Is there something else you wanted to say?” snapped Pam.
He shifted his feet and ran a hand through his mousy-brown mullet, but somehow he managed to keep the arrogance on his face as he said, “I thought you might need some, uh, help with finding your phone. I’m very good at finding things.”
Melanie forcibly restrained herself from snorting in disbelief. The only things he’s good at finding are the best ways to tick me off. Like hovering over her shoulder when she was proofreading articles and “correcting” her incorrectly. “I think we can manage by ourselves, thanks. Pam’s been calling it so we can listen for the ringtone.”
“Yeah, and I’ll try again now,” her roommate said, making a show for Timmy of speed-dialing Mel’s number for the umpteenth time.
Timmy ignored his cue. Instead, he gestured toward the cave mouth. “Do you think it could be in there? Did you go exploring?”
“As a matter of fact, we did,” Mel said, “but as you can see, that sign says the cave is off limits after dark.” She pointed her flashlight beam at it.
“So what? No one’s going to know if you go in there now—I don’t see any guards standing around. . . . Oh, wait, I get it: You’re just scared because it’s a dark, spooky cave, aren’t you?” Timmy laughed. “Typical girls.”
“Hey, if you want to get in trouble, be my guest,” Melanie shot back. Her temper was slowly heating up; if she’d had hackles and fangs, they would have been raised and bared by now.
Since she did not, Timmy pressed on, clueless, boasting that he wouldn’t be afraid to go into the cave at night. “If I had a flashlight. It’d be plain stupid to go in without one, of course, ’cause you’d get lost. Although I’m sure that if I somehow managed to find myself in that situation, I could find my way out pretty easily, since I’ve got such an excellent sense of direction.”
“Then why don’t you find your way back to your own group and leave us alone?” Pam said through gritted teeth.
Timmy fidgeted and glanced around in several directions. “I—I was going to,” he said, “but I thought it would be fun to, uh, let them worry about me for a little longer. Play a bit of a joke on them. Ha, ha. . . .”
He’s definitely lost out here, Mel thought with a sigh. No flashlight, abandoned by his friends (or so-called “friends”), and he’s got to be scared, even if he won’t admit it. We can’t leave him here like this. She didn’t want to have to bring him back to her campsite, but if he wasn’t sure how to get back to his, then what else could she do? She had no idea where the guys were staying.
“Look, Timmy,” she said, “I know that you’re lost, and you might as well admit it. You need us to help you get out of here, and we will. We have a map back at our site, and if you remember the number of the site you’re staying at, I can drive you there.”
Before Timmy could reply, another rumble of thunder split the air, louder this time, and raindrops splattered down. The trees were growing more and more agitated by the wind; the older ones creaked and moaned.
“Weather’s starting to get bad,” said Pam, shivering. She zipped up the front of her hoodie.
“All right, all right, so I am a little . . . disoriented,” Timmy admitted. “The guys must have swiped my flashlight as a prank or something. If I just had that—”
“Yeah, sure, whatever.” I’ve heard enough of your lame excuses, thought Mel. Glancing up at the sky again, she frowned at the thick cloud cover and was rewarded with a fat raindrop splattering into her eye. “Ow!” she said, rubbing it.
“It’s going to start pouring at any moment,” Pam said. “And I, for one, would prefer not to have to hike back to our tent in the rain. Why don’t we duck inside the cave for a while and see if the storm passes? We can stay in the entrance.”
Melanie frowned again. She wasn’t too fond of the prospect, but neither was she keen on trudging a very long way through cold rain and mud. “Okay,” she said as more droplets splashed onto her head. She led the way into the cave.
Copyright © 2020 by Sarah M. Awa.
Hunter's Moon is available as an e-book (DRM unlocked!) or paperback on Amazon now!