Robin is a YouTube celebrity gone-viral with her intensely-realistic witch hunter series. But even her millions of followers don’t know the truth: her series isn’t fiction.
Her ultimate goal is to seek revenge against the coven of witches who wronged her mother long ago. Returning home to the rural town of Blackfield, Robin meets friends new and old on her quest for justice. But then, a mysterious threat known as the Red Lord interferes with her plans…
S. A. Hunt’s Burn the Dark, first in the Malus Domestica horror action-adventure series, is available January 14th from Tor Books. Read an excerpt below!
She was drifting off to sleep when light began to press against her eyelids, pulling her back to the surface.
It’s dawn already? she thought, stirring. I feel like I haven’t slept at all. She checked her phone and discovered it had only been an hour and a half. Robin looked up, blinking in confusion at the shelves and the backs of the front seats. The inside of the van was traced in lime-green light, as if there were a traffic signal right outside the back window, shining through the glass.
The glow faded as she clambered up onto her hands and knees to look outside. “The hell was that?” she muttered, forehead to the rear window.
Nothing out there but the side of Miguel’s Pizza and the parking lot. A security light shone through one of the massive oaks next to the building, showering silver coins across the gravel. Beyond was the stygian darkness of the Georgia night, drilled by the constant noise of the cricket serenade. She paused there on her knees, eyes and body motionless, watching for movement.
Only the restless swishing of the oak’s leaves. Light gathered in the trees across the highway and a car passed, pushing its high beams down the road and out of sight.
Reaching into a storage tub, she pulled out a combat knife and sighed. “Of course I’d have to go piss. Beer always makes me piss. Thank you oh so much for giving me time to get into my sleeping bag and get comfortable.”
She climbed out of the van, clutching the knife in one hand so the cold flat of the blade lay against her wrist, and wriggled into her combat boots, tucking the untied laces in alongside her feet. Gravel crunched softly under her soles, almost inaudible under the night-sounds as she made her way toward the cinder-block building out back. She shined her cell phone back and forth, the blue-white light sweeping over gray bushes, gray trees, gray picnic tables, everything traced with the kind of creepy, desolate somebody’s-watching-me loneliness that is solely the domain of dark country roads, places where you expect to see things nobody should ever have to see.
Wish I hadn’t been the only one to camp out here tonight, she thought, as a moth battered itself against her cell phone. Could definitely have used a little company. Her breath coiled white in the beam. Still resplendent with graffiti, the simple structure towered over her. In the dark, illuminated by a flashlight, the words and doodles had a sinister quality, less like an autograph from the past and more like the scrawlings on the walls of a prison cell.
“Crap.” The restroom door was locked. She tried the men’s room and found it locked as well.
Maybe I could cop a squat out there in the weeds.
She stared out at the dark forest. Nah. If something comes out of there after me, I don’t want to be standing there with my jeans around my knees and my bare ass hanging out.
While she thought about it, she paced back and forth on the sidewalk, listening to the crickets. Noise came out of the night in a constant assault, like an eternal tide of bugs, swelling and ebbing, swelling and ebbing. She put her hands in her pockets and found what she’d thought was a balled-up receipt, but turned out to be a pack of cigarettes. She tugged them out and flattened the box. Marlboro Lights. Sigh. Two left. She pulled one out and held it up to the security light. Bent, mashed, but still in one piece. Her other hand plucked her lighter from her pocket and she flicked the Zippo open, the same Zippo she’d burned Neva Chandler with back in ol’ Ally-Bammy, and she lit the cigarette with it.
Pay dirt. She sipped at the filter, pinching it as if she were about to throw a dart, and gave a productive cough. Blue smoke clung to her face and smelled terrible. She spat on the ground and growled, “Keep sayin’ you gonna quit, and one of these days you’ll believe it.”
The restroom door unlocked. K’tunk.
She froze there in the gloom, the Marlboro perched between her lips.
“Don’t do this to me,” she said from the corner of her mouth, squinting. The knife came up, shining and sharp, and she settled into a fighting stance. “Not tonight, please.”
No one came out. She pushed the door open and found darkness.
“Hello?” Taking one last drag on the cigarette with the knife-hand, she flicked it into the dark, where it extinguished with a hiss in a puddle of water. “If someone is hiding in here, you better sing Happy Birthday or I’m gonna stab your ass. In the neck. Yeah, your ass-neck.”
Before she could find the light switch by the door, the fluorescents flickered to life with a soft blink-ink! and hummed down at her.
With a soft hiss, the door eased shut on its hydraulic arm, and the block walls muffled the night-song outside into a subtle whisper. The gently raunchy smell of a public ladies’ room ambushed her: dirty mop-water, ammonia, the hot iron smell of old musk.
Could a motion detector unlock a door? She studied the lock and found only a key-operated deadbolt.
Maybe the mechanism was inside the door where she couldn’t see it.
Best not to overthink it. Robin padded toward the back of the room with the combat knife clutched face-level in one hand, every footfall and rustle of clothing magnified by the bricks, and began a thorough search of the room. Four shower stalls, curtains pulled across three of them. Five toilet stalls, all the doors closed. She made her way down the line, nudging the curtains open with the blade of the knife. She pushed the toilet doors open one at a time. At each stop, she froze, waiting to be attacked, and moved on to the next.
On the third toilet, she kicked it open and charged in like a madwoman, yelling at the top of her lungs, brandishing the knife. “AAAAH!”
She looked down, shining the cell phone into a disgusting toilet. “Eww.”
To her relief, the endmost toilet stall was relatively clean. Resting the knife on top of the tampon disposal box, she pulled down her jeans and underwear and sat down on the huge horseshoe toilet seat. Someone had Sharpied a rhyme onto the wall near her face. Tinkle, tinkle, if you sprinkle, please be neat and wipe the seat.
Light gleamed on the blade of her knife. Gurgle, gurgle, if you burgle, please be kind and stay outside.
She had finished, and was about to tear off a few squares to wipe with, when the lights went out, blinding her “Ah, dammit.”
The darkness was absolute, as solid as black water against her face.
A moment passed. “Hello?” she called again, feeling stupid at talking to the motion detector. She pushed the stall door open, trying to trigger it again. A few seconds later the bolt clacked against the frame as the door swung shut. She pushed it again. Thunk. She pushed it again. Thunk. She pushed it again. “Come on, man. Come on.”
Robin peered blindly into the dark, overwhelmed by the feeling someone was looking down at her.
Something was holding the door open.
Reaching toward the jeans pooled around her ankles, Robin dug in her pocket and pulled out her cell phone, activating the flashlight. As she did, the knife fell off the tampon box and clattered out into the larger part of the room. “Crap, no!”
What she could see: the stall she sat in, a half-square of torn toilet paper lying in the far corner, and the door standing open, half-way between the wall and the stall frame. She must have pushed it far enough to get it stuck on some rust in the hinge or something. While the floor was bare gray cement, the walls were painted an institutional white. Four feet away from her boots lay the knife.
What she could hear: the distant, tuneless shree-ew shree-ew of insects. Her own breathing. The soft ticking of the wind blowing early autumn leaves against the side of the building.
“Shit,” she grunted, leaning forward to reach for the knife.
Much too far away. “Turn the lights back on, please.” She stuck the phone out and waved the light around. Shadows leapt and capered across the wall. “Yoo-hoo.” Still holding out the phone, Robin reached through her thighs with the wad of toilet paper and started to clean up. “I can’t see. I need to—”
SCREEEEEEEEEEEEE! A shrill, skin-crawling sound like ten thousand knives being scraped across a blackboard shrieked through the restroom. Blood and adrenaline thrummed through her body as she hunched over in pain, shielding her ears from the metallic screaming.
Admittedly, the shock and surprise actually squeezed out a little bit more urine. She dabbed at herself again, dropped the paper into the water, and flushed the toilet, half-rising to her feet. The bowl was still refilling as the lights came on.
In the middle of pulling up her jeans, Robin squinted up at the door and realized it was trembling, like an arm held out too long. Trying not to freak out, Robin stood and finished dressing. By then the lights were flashing madly on and off, turning the restroom into a Daft Punk concert.
Look, the witches were one thing—she’d been fighting monster-faced hags for a couple of years at this point, gnarled old witches and chubby-cheeked bohemians that could Force-throw furniture like Carrie, fill your car with snakes, and turn themselves into raving gorgons. She was used to that crap. But this was different. There was no witch in here, there was nothing physical to focus on.
Whatever was giving her grief here in this creepy restroom in the middle of nowhere, it wasn’t a witch, and she couldn’t see it.
“Ghost?” she asked out loud. “You a ghost?”
For a wild second, she actually expected to hear an answer.
She’d never dealt with a ghost before. Wasn’t even sure they existed. But after the last few years, anything could be possible. Maybe he was bullshitting her, but Heinrich had told her of even wilder things than witches out there in the shadows, creatures like the draugr, the horrifying vampire ghouls of Icelandic legend, and the tiyanak, a man-sized fetus that climbed trees, luring people with the cries of a baby until they were close enough to drag up into the branches and devour.
He’d never mentioned ghosts, but how much more far-fetched is a man-eating tree baby?
Her pulse began to even out, her nerve returning. “No such thing as vampires, no such thing as giant man-eating babies, and no such thing as ghosts.” Robin grabbed her phone. “Go get it, go get it, come on, you a bad bitch,” and she stepped out of the stall into the flashing madness, shining the phone’s light toward the middle of the room.
With one final POP!, the seizure-inducing fluorescent lights extinguished themselves, bathing her once again in shadow.
She ducked. “Jesus!”
The cell phone glinted on chrome fixtures, porcelain sinks. Right, said her inner voice as she knelt to retrieve the combat knife. No such thing. But half a decade ago, you used to think there was no such thing as witches either, did you?
Blink-ink! The motion detector tripped and the lights came back on, snaggletoothed by two dark tubes.
“Aight, I’m done playing this game. Cram your lights up your ass, Zuul, I ain’t your Keymaster.” She washed her hands (briefly, barely a wetting) and went for a paper towel, but there was only a hot-air dryer. Not in the mood to have hot shit-air blown all over her hands, Robin flung the door open and stepped outside.
Cold bug-song covered her in a dazzling blanket of noise. In the restroom, the automatic light clicked off.
She wiped her hands on her clothes and marched back across the parking lot, phone in one hand and knife in the other, light from the tree-obscured security lamp pouring kaleidoscope shadows across her face. “Rusty fuckin’ door hinges, that’s what it was,” she said as she went. “Malfunctioning backwater automatic lights. But I’m sure as hell awake now, that’s for sure. Gonna take me forever to get to sleep! So thanks a lot for that, you beat-ass electronic piece of shit!”
Behind her, the automatic light clicked on again, bathing her feet in stark white and unfurling her shadow out in front of her so she was stepping on her own heels. Robin turned and walked backward, expecting to see the hydraulic door easing shut and tripping its own sensor, but what she saw turned her blood vessels into rivers of Arctic ice water. Her hands went numb.
The Red Lord was inside the women’s restroom.
Through the door behind him, Robin saw the automatic light go out, and the monstrous silhouette became a blind rectangle of black.
Bright green lamps appeared in the doorway as his eyes opened, two milky railroad signals in the dark. His shaggy bulk filled the doorframe from side to side and he bent to step underneath the lintel, unfolding to his full height. And he was huge, a stretched-out scarecrow, all hair and sinew and bone.
The two of them stood there in the parking lot of Miguel’s Pizza, facing each other.
“You ain’t real,” she told him.
Those green lamplight eyes gazed listlessly at her from the doorway.
“I know what you are.” An anxious sort of confidence wound its way into her voice. “You’re some kind of lingerin’ hallucination the King of Alabama put on me. I never got to see exactly what her Gift was. It must have been Illusion. That’s what’s going on here.” She scoffed. “Don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner. I mean, come on, that’s the deal, right? Maybe Neva reached into my head while I was standing in her living room, found my memories of the night terrors and nightmares I had when I was a kid, and she used them to hex me with some kind of worst-fear bullshit before she died.”
The creature stared, blinking slowly.
Calming, relaxing, she gave a snide little shrug, and continued walking backward. “All I got to do is find somebody, maybe a houngan, that can do a little hoodoo, nix this Illusion hex on me, and we’re golden. Au revoir, weirdo. It was nice knowing—”
Leaning forward, eyes still locked on her, the hallucination let out a deep growl, a low, wet, ragged rumble, a drowned engine.
As soon as she took off, she slid out of one of her untied boots, leaving it behind. The gravel bit into the sole of her foot as she ran for the Conlin Plumbing van. She flung the door open, jumped into the back with the sleeping bag and tubs of junk, and slammed it. “Hallucinations don’t make noise,” Robin breathed, fogging up the back window as she locked the door. “Do they?” Her voice shook. “I don’t know what the hell that thing is, but it’s not Illusion magic.”
Kneeling in the back of the van, clutching the Glock, loaded with a full mag of hollow-points. Eyes on the back window. Watching for movement.
Staring. Waiting. “Where’d you go, fucker?”
Steeling her nerve, she crossed herself with the Glock—mammaries, ovaries, wallet, and watch—and pushed the back door open. Night air rushed in. She pointed the gun, sweeping the parking lot, finger slipping into the trigger well.
Nothing out there. It was gone.
Excerpted from Burn the Dark, copyright © 2020 by S.A. Hunt