The Scarlet Dagger (The Red Sector Chronicles, #1)

Chapter 1

 

 

The bus driver eyed me up and down, confusion sweeping across his weathered face. “You lost or somethin’, doll?”

 

I shifted my weight, but kept my chin up and my gaze firmly fixed on his. “I guess not, since I haven’t been waiting here just to ask you for directions.”

 

His hard gaze narrowed in scrutiny. I pictured myself through his eyes, foreign and out-of-place against the graffiti-covered buildings and littered sidewalks. My long, curly black hair smelled of shampoo and conditioner, and my black blouse and matching skirt had been freshly pressed. The few places that exposed my skin revealed it to be a light, creamy caramel. Black leggings hugged my legs, disappearing into a brand new pair of black leather boots. Light makeup coated my face, making me appear younger than seventeen, and a light black coat was draped over one arm, concealing the dagger tucked into my belt.

 

I cleared my throat. “If it’s all the same to you, I have somewhere I need to be.”

 

The driver spit into a dirty Styrofoam cup and pulled a tin of tobacco chew from his pocket. He stuffed another wad in his cheek, lips curling over his dingy teeth in a predatory grin. “It ain’t gonna be cheap, cupcake. My rent’s overdue, and you look like you ain’t hurtin’.”

 

I stepped on board, jaw clenched. “You’ll get what the fare is worth. And maybe a decent tip if you don’t ask questions.”

 

The driver’s brows rose, and though his grin widened, he made no objections or crude comments as I half-expected. After plugging the appropriate change into the meter, I eased past him. His hungry eyes followed my rear and I cringed as he licked his lips. I tried to move as quickly as I could away from him, praying he couldn’t hear the jangling of all the guns and knives hidden beneath my clothing.

 

My deep brown eyes furtively scanned the bus, which was deserted, save for myself and the driver. Inside, my nerves slightly unwound. So far, everything had fired off without a hitch, and I refused to let myself think about the very real possibility that I could be dead by the end of the night.

 

The aisles were so coated in dirt and grime that they appeared filmy, and I slipped as the bus lurched away from the curb. My nose wrinkled as I sat down on a cracked seat, its stuffing poking out through the loose stitching. The bus had probably been nicer back in the day, before the Eclipse made civilization go all medieval. It definitely wasn’t standard public transportation; my guess was it had been used for long distance commercial travel once upon a time, back when Halloween meant scores of children dressed in costumes and not the night when America lost a third of its population to ravenous monsters.

 

At the front of the bus, just above the driver, was a small TV. Its scratched screen showed live coverage of the downtown Pittsburgh White Sector, where the remaining citizens of Pennsylvania were now gathered in Market Square to commemorate the tragedy that had struck three years ago tonight, on All Hallow’s Eve. Hundreds of people – all dressed in black and cupping tiny red candles – stood before the stage, where a podium with a microphone was set up. An enormous black clock stood sentinel next to the podium, a reminder of how things used to be in the square, long ago.

 

It still blew my mind how fast everything had changed. Market Square had been one of my favorite parts of the city, alive with bustling shops and restaurants. When he was alive, my dad would take my brother and me to Winghart’s Burger and Whiskey Bar as a rare, special treat. The square was also home to one of my single favorite events of the year, Zombie Fest, where thousands (all dressed as the famous undead) would gather for a food drive to feed the city’s less fortunate. My friends and I went every year, that is, up until the Eclipse, when the event kind of fell apart. It had promptly been disbanded by our Sector’s Sovereign (or elected leader).

 

I glanced at the bus clock. The digital, scrolling marquee read 7:55 PM, exactly five minutes from when the ceremony was scheduled to commence.

 

Somehow, sitting here on this bus – the first leg of the long journey ahead – made the situation and my mission startling real in my mind. My heart picked up speed and my palms slicked with sweat. I suddenly felt grossly unprepared for what I intended to do, despite nearly a year’s worth of carefully laid plans.

 

Squeezing my eyes shut, I focused on my breathing. When I opened them, I immediately scowled. On the back of the seat in front of me, someone had carved ONLY GOD, DIAMONDS, AND VAMPIRES LAST FOREVER.

 

Not forever
.
Not if I can help it.

 

My fingertips idly traced the inside of my right wrist, where a tiny tattoo of a black cross lay etched into my skin, marking me as a vampire hunter.

 

The mention of vampires conjured an image in my mind, a memory of a boy with light brown skin and short black curls much like my own.

 

Orion. My twin.

 

My mind always picked the same image. It was my last good memory of him, of his proud, bright smile as he waved the acceptance letter in his hand, declaring him a student of the prestigious Pittsburgh private school, Winchester Thurston. His smile grew even bigger when he read the part that he’d been awarded a full-ride, something that rarely happened at Winchester. When he showed our mother, it was the first time I could ever recall her looking genuinely pleased.

 


He’s the best of us all,” she had said.

 

My brilliant, ambitious brother, too smart for his own good. Someday, he wanted to run for president, and there was just something about him – that “destined-for-greatness-sparkle” - that made me believe he could succeed.

 

Staring at him in my mind, my face grew hot with shame.

 

I’m so sorry, Orion.

 

Applause from the TV interrupted my brooding, and I glanced up as a strong, proud woman – Sovereign McAllister, leader of the Pennsylvania White Sector – strode on stage, coming to stand before the microphone. Her smile was warm and sympathetic as she thanked her audience, but I knew her blue eyes were cold as ice.

 

My eyes shrank to slits.

 

Mother.

 

I knew it would be a while before she discovered me missing, and I hoped I would be far away from here before she sent her Scarlet Guard to retrieve me. All the same, I tensed as the driver turned up the volume and the first threads of her speech drifted through the bus right before my phone chirped in my coat pocket.

 

I jumped, my heart rate spiking in my chest, as I fished for my cell phone. I flipped it open, not bothering to check the Caller ID.

 


Where are you?” Leo growled into my ear.

 

I almost smiled at the familiar ferocity in his voice. It had never changed since the day we first met, back in the third grade when he had fended off some bullies from hurting me on the playground. We’d been inseparable ever since.

 


I’m downtown, at the memorial service,” I said calmly. “I really don’t have time to talk right now. If my mother caught me on the phone –”

 


Don’t lie to me, Sloane,” Leo said, voice low and dangerous. “You’re not downtown. And I know you took my dagger.”

 

My thumb stroked the hilt of the sheathed blade. “Don’t be ridiculous.” My voice warbled on the end and I silently swore. I was never good at keeping secrets from Leo.

 


I knew it!” He sighed hard, and I imagined him running his hands through his spiky black hair in classic Leo fashion. “That weapon’s state-of-the-art, one of like ten in existence right now. If my father finds out –”

 


Then I guess you better not tell him.” I had hoped Leo wouldn’t realize it had ever been moved, thinking he would be downtown, but he must have decided to train tonight.

 

Zealous overachiever
, I thought wryly.

 


Look,” I said, “I’m just going to borrow it for a few hours, then I’ll give it back. Promise.”

 

Leo’s voice was tight. “You know my father put an enormous amount of trust in letting me practice with it. For you to do this to me, Sloane…”

 

I bit my lip, feeling the slightest bit guilty for betraying Leo’s confidence. His father worked for the government as a weapon’s engineer, and was one of the developers of Scarlet Steel, a metal as strong as steel but with the corrosive properties of acid (which gave it its red coloring). It was top secret, but Leo had managed to find out it could decompose a vampire – skin and bone – within seconds if the blade penetrated deep enough.

 

I prayed it would work if I actually had to use it tonight. “I’m sorry, Leo. But you never let me train with anything more exciting than regular knives and swords.”

 


Tch. You don’t need Scarlet Steel to be deadly. You’re the fastest close-in fighter I’ve ever taught.”

 

My chest swelled with pride. “Well, I had a good teacher. But I promise I won’t get a scratch on your baby.”

 


It’s not the dagger I’m worried about,” he said softly.

 

My heart fluttered, and an unexpected blush crept to my cheeks. “I’ll be fine, trust me. I’m just going to practice with it solo tonight at home, and then I’ll give it back to you before your father ever realizes it’s missing.”

 

The bus must have been wired with an automatic speaker system, because right then a woman said loudly, “Next stop, Cherry Hills Mall.”

 

I froze, holding my breath.
Please let Leo not have heard that!

 

There was a large pause on the other end. “Wait… did she just say Cherry Hills?”

 

My lips pressed together. This was Leo, my best friend for over eight years. Should I just tell him I had flat-out lied to him? Could I somehow convince him he’d misheard, and hope he would drop the subject?

 

Who am I kidding? This is Leo. He’d never let it go.
I was so tense with indecision that my shoulders were painfully scrunched up around my neck.

 

There was another pause on the other end. I heard Leo draw a sharp breath as he pieced the puzzle pieces together. “There’s a gate in that district,” he murmured. “You’re planning on going into the Red Sector to look for Orion, aren’t you?”

 

Busted.
“No,” I whispered weakly.

 

Leo swore. “Don’t do this, Sloane. No one blames you for what happened. You couldn’t have known…”

 


I know,” I said, forcing my voice to remain steady as the image of my brother swam before my eyes, accompanied by a heavy wave of guilt. “But you heard what the Scarlet Guard said.
Thinking
he’s dead isn’t the same thing as
knowing
. I have to at least try. I owe him that much.”

 


Not your life! The Red Sectors are forbidden for a reason, Sloane, because they’re dangerous, vampire-infested hell holes. Look, just because the media’s telling us they’ve been secured, that they’re abandoned and supposedly ‘safe’ now, doesn’t make it so. They’re anything but that. If you go in there alone, you’ll be ripped apart.”

 

I blanched, swallowing against the tide of vomit rising in my throat. “I know the dangers. And I’m prepared to take the risk.”

 


It’s been three years, Sloane,” Leo said. “The chances of him surviving are slim to none.”

 

That comment stabbed straight into my heart, which should have been completely calloused over from the emotional beating it had endured these past three years. Somewhere along the way, I had simply refused to stop listening every time someone told me Orion was dead.

 

We don’t know that for sure
, I wanted to tell them.
He could be alive, waiting for someone to rescue him.

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