What happens when your childhood nightmares of being bitten by strange creatures in a dark wood aren’t just dreams?
Sixteen-year-old Arden St. John’s life takes a strange turn when she finds an unusual animal injured near her new house on the south east coast of Australia. When she takes it to the local vet, a terrible truth is inadvertently exposed to her.
She discovers a secret underworld, where witches are commonplace and trolls masquerade as queen bees, terrorising the other students with impunity. A world where vampires traffic in the lives of children, draining their bodies once they reach maturity. Where adults auction their own children to extend their lives.
Arden finds out she’s one of those kids, her life traded by the mother she never knew. Now she’s caught up in this ancient and corrupt economy operating just below the surface of modern society. She’s a hot commodity, and it’s only a matter of time before the vampire who bought her comes to claim his prize.
But Arden’s not going down without a fight.
“I need to find out what’s going to happen, with the …um, vampire. Who can I ask?” she blurted out. Sophie’s eyes searched hers, concern wrinkling her forehead. Just when Arden thought she wasn’t going to answer, she finally responded, reluctantly.
“There’s another boy here who has been sold to the vampires. If you’re sure this is what you want, he might talk to you.”
“I’m sure. Who is he?”
“His name is Winter. He hangs out with the dope heads around the back of the science labs. His vampire started coming for him last year. I think I saw him at school this morning.”
Arden tried to swallow past the lump in her throat but it remained stuck, so she just nodded, suddenly not sure at all.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Sophie asked.
“No,” Arden shook her head. She didn’t know why, but for some reason she needed to do this on her own. If she freaked out, the fewer people to witness it the better.
Arden left her friends, who watched her walk away with worried expressions. She headed towards the science labs, then skirted the building to go around to the back. Trailing one hand along the sun-warmed bricks, she wondered how this would change things. Would these be the last moments of peace, not knowing what was ahead of her? Stalling as she rounded the corner, she looked towards the stairwell that was located in the middle of the building. A group of long-haired, scruffy looking teens noticed her approach and eyed her warily.
“Hi! I’m looking for Winter?” she asked.
A slight dark blond-haired boy broke away from the group hanging under the concrete stairs. He was thin to the point of emaciation and wore smudged black makeup around his bloodshot eyes. His shoulders were slumped, as if weighted forwards. He caught her gaze and raised an eyebrow. She followed him to an alcove further along the building.
“Winter?” she asked, even though she was sure.
“What do you want?” he rasped with a smoker’s voice.
“Sophie said you might be able to give me some information,” Arden glanced away evasively. It still seemed strange to her to talk about such weird stuff openly.
“What sort of information?”
Arden removed her watch, holding up her left hand to show him. “Sophie said you could tell what more about what might happen to me.” He swallowed visibly as his eyes locked on her wrist then flicked upwards to meet hers.
“Really? You want to know?” The naked fear in his eyes blindsided her, making her uncertain.
“Yes,” she whispered finally. “I’m sick of being in the dark. It’s better that I know what to expect.”
“No, I don’t think it is.” He shook his head, letting lank shards of hair cover his tired looking eyes.
“Why would you think that? I’m sick of all this cryptic shit!” Arden threw her arms up in frustration.
“Because it’s bad. They took you to the clearing in the woods, right?” Her gaze skimmed to his wrist and her breath caught when she saw the markings. On his left wrist some of the freckles had changed and had become red dots like blood blisters.
She shuddered. “Yes. I still have nightmares.”
He softened slightly. “Me too,” he admitted. “I’m surprised they haven’t started in on you yet.” He grabbed her wrist and inspected it, turning it over to see the underside.
“Started what?” she asked, tugging her wrist from his grasp.
“Snacking.” He grimaced.
“You’ve been marked by them. I’m surprised your owner hasn’t come to claim you yet. You’re prime steak at the moment, tender young thing that you are.” He sounded bitter and in pain.
“Why do they want our blood? How does it work?” she asked, trying to keep the shivers of dread running up her spine from taking over her whole body.
“Okay, well starting from the beginning: one of your parents sold you to a vampire when you were born, maybe even before. I know, it sucks. Literally. My dad did it, then took off. My mum tried to get me out of it, but no dice. Now she just cries and tries to keep me from dying after mine nearly drains me. All those books and movies are wrong. They’re not beautiful or misunderstood. Vampires are hideous and it hurts.”
“What does? When they bite you? It stung a little but—“
“It’s not like the first time,” he said derisively. “They latch onto your neck and suck. You can feel your cells dying as they draw the life right out of you. It’s as painless as a Tabasco enema.” It took her a second before she choked on the gasp of shock. She coughed for a few seconds, which drew a reluctant smirk from him.
When she’d recovered enough to speak, she asked, “Can you buy yourself back?”
“Only if they’re willing to sell and you pretty much have to give them your own child in exchange. It’s not money they trade in, its life. My dad sold me for a measly thirty years, the bastard.”
“It’s the life economy. The vampires are like brokers – they buy and sell life. They buy you from your parents for a certain amount of years, assuming that you will live an average lifespan. They give your parent however many years they’ve bargained for, usually forty or fifty years of life. Once you’ve grown enough that the first feeding won’t kill you, they suck it out of you in several goes to maximise the amount harvested. Unless you have an underlying genetic condition, or something like that, they win. They either keep the extra to prolong their own lives or on-sell it to someone else for money.”
“Yes. My dad was one of those bastards who gets women pregnant, feeding them lies, whatever necessary to get them to have a child with him. He then sells us and runs off. Supposedly I have half brothers and sisters all over the place, all of them in the same position. With his extra life, he just keeps finding new women to con.”
It was hard to believe such evil people existed, but Arden had no reason to doubt Winter was telling the truth. Her stomach felt like it was about to revolt.
“How can I find out which vampire bought me and who sold me and for how much?” she asked desperately.
“No!” he almost shouted, before looking around to make sure there was no one listening before lowering his voice. “Don’t go asking questions. Wait until they come for you. The last thing you want if they have left you alone is to bring yourself to their attention. Live your life as best you can while you still have all your strength.” He tried to hide it but hopelessness lurked in the darkness of his eyes.
“How long do you live once they start?” Arden whispered, searching his eyes for the awful truth.
“Not long, maybe a year or two if you’re lucky. With my mum to look after me and pump me full of vitamins, I might get lucky. If you’re still alive after seven feedings they make you one of them.” The red dots on his arm took on a greater significance. She looked down – there were only three yet his eyes were bloodshot and he was sickly looking, as if he had a terminal disease. She realised the chance of surviving seven feedings wasn’t great. Arden gnawed on her lip in distress. This too would be my fate, she thought, though with no one to look after me, I doubt I would have any chance of lasting even this far.
“I’m so sorry. Can you go to a doctor and see if they can do anything?”
“They just take more blood for their tests, which is the last thing I need. Even blood transfusions don’t help because what they’re taking is your life essence.” Winter stared off into the distance, seemingly lost in his own bleak thoughts. Arden swallowed, trying to get some moisture into her dry throat. Winter turned back to her. “I’m sorry you will have to go through it too. No one deserves this,” he finished bitterly.
“What if you killed the vampire? Would you be free?”
“How?” he laughed mirthlessly. “They’re stronger and faster and nothing penetrates their skin – knives, guns. Rocket launchers might, but try to get them to stay still. If by some fluke you managed to kill one of them, you’d just get passed on to another one anyway. Plus, if they know it was you, they’d get their revenge. There’s no way out except to survive, but then you’re one of them. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re screwed.” With that, he turned and started to walk away.
Suddenly he stopped and turned back. He lowered his voice. “Oh, umm, speaking of screwed… if you’re still carrying your v-card, you might want to get rid of it as soon as you can.’
Almost too afraid to ask, Arden swallowed quickly. “Um, why?” she choked out.
“Because that blood is like an intoxicant, and they have been known to lose their shit and tear females apart. You don’t want it to be your first time, and if it is, it might be your last as well.’ The compassion in his eyes was too much. Arden blinked continuously to hold back the liquid in her eyes from equal parts fear and self-pity. Out of her peripheral vision she watched Winter leave, slinking off to join his friends who were sprawled on the grass.
Not able to face any more school, Arden grabbed the old bike she’d ridden to school and headed home. She flopped down on her bed, unable to comprehend how her luck had gone from bad to worse in the space of one conversation. Her spinning thoughts centred on what people were telling her was her imminent and unavoidable death. It was terrifying, but deep down she still couldn’t quite believe it was real. It was so deeply unfair, surely adults weren’t just letting this happen? People were basically good, right? She no longer knew how she believed that question was answered. Because lurking in the background was the horrific thought that maybe they weren’t. She wallowed, sinking deeper into her own personal hell.
The slamming of a door jarred her out of her thoughts. What was Dad doing home during the day? She rose, going in search of her elusive father. She hadn’t seen him all week. She followed the sound of footsteps, which seemed to be in the front lounge room.
“Dad?” she called out, as she walked into the empty room. Searching, she went room to room not finding him. She listened, but couldn’t hear any more sounds. Confused, she stood in the kitchen. All the doors were shut. There was no one in the house. Feeling odd about being alone, she returned to her room and hurried into her wetsuit and left for the beach.
Standing on the sand, she thought about her future. There had to be a way out. She couldn’t just wait for them to come for her. Someone had to know something that would help, she just had to find it and not give up. She sat down and wrapped her arms around her bent legs. Resting her chin on her raised knees, she watched the endless waves rolling in, her thoughts settling into nothingness as the hours passed.
“Hey!” A warm body plopped down in the sand next to her. Turning her head slightly, Arden peered out through her hair. Nick.
“Hi,” she mumbled.
“Are you okay?”
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked kindly.
Arden almost laughed. “No, it’s okay. Thanks though.”
“Here.” He held something out to her. Pushing her hair back off her face, Arden looked down at his hand. It was a chocolate bar.
“Is that for me?”
“Yeah. I hope you’re not allergic or anything. You looked like you needed something. Girls like chocolate, so here.” He thrust it forward again.
“Um, thanks.” Arden took it from him.
“You’ll have to share it with me though, because I only have the one and I really like chocolate.”
“Sure.” Arden unwrapped the bar and broke it in half. They sat eating and staring at the waves.
“It will get better you know,” he said finally. Looking into his happy crinkly eyes smiling at her, Arden could see that he genuinely believed that.