Chapter One

It was supposed to be an easy job. Capture the vampire. Pick up the money. Pay the overdue bills. Maybe treat herself to something other than Poptarts and Top Ramen for the first time in over a month. Simple and easy. Or so Tara initially thought.

Complications weren’t exactly her forte. She avoided them like the plague and stuck to what she knew. What could possibly go wrong with a pixie bounty hunter taking down a rogue vampire? Anything, everything, but this wasn’t Tara’s first rodeo. She’d caught bigger bounties than Armando Belmonte, enough so that she had a pretty good system that worked more often than it failed.

The first step, tracking down the vampire, had gone smoothly and without a hitch. A little birdie -or to be more precise, the red-shouldered hawk Tara had recruited to help her – had informed her that he had spotted a truck matching the picture she had shown him in the parking lot of a seedy motel on the outskirts of town. Concealed and properly armed for a surprise meeting with a dangerous vampire, Tara made herself comfortable in a row of bushes across the street from the motel’s parking lot.

Double checking just to confirm that the make, model, color, and license plate number of the vampire’s pickup truck matched what was scribbled down on the scrap of paper in her hand, Tara nodded to herself, paying no mind to the bush’s leaves that were eerily yet gently caressing her face. Nature was attracted to her inherent pixie ability to make flora thrive and it sometimes had the spontaneous side effect of causing nature to behave oddly and of its own accord. Most of the time, nature interacting with her was beneficial in some way although occasionally it was more annoying than helpful.

Tara was pretty sure that Armando, vampire-on-the-run and her current bounty, was in a room on the second floor since it offered him the best vantage point. Even though it gave him the advantage of the high ground, it somewhat worked out in her favor. Having a backup escape plan was always a good idea and since she could shrink and fly away faster than a vampire could plummet two stories, pick himself up, and chase after her, the added obstacle was very reassuring.

Knowing that the night wasn’t getting any younger nor her stomach getting any fuller, Tara plucked a wayward leaf out of her ear, watching the motel’s second floor with hungry eyes and hoping that the vampire wouldn’t make her have to go knocking door to door like some kind of solicitor. Vampires were weak when the sun was out but not quite helpless.

It was common practice for them to set up traps and wards that were active during the daytime hours. Tara wasn’t in the mood to gamble with some magic ward designed to liquefy her bones or whatever fun goodies the vampire most likely had secured his room with. Luckily, Armando made his move half an hour later. As soon as she caught a glimpse of someone peering through the blinds of one of the second floor rooms, Tara extracted herself from the overly friendly foliage.

She remained crouched low to the ground, using an effective combination of camouflaging glamour and the night’s shadowy embrace to keep herself out of sight, just in case. Convinced that this was the real deal, Tara allowed the glamour masking her wings to melt away. Instinctively, she kept them tucked tight and close to her back lest their twitching gave her away as she hyped herself up by imagining her fridge and pantry overflowing with highly processed, store-bought delicacies in the near future.

When the vampire finally poked his head out the door, Tara’s superhuman vision allowed her to immediately recognized him from the picture of him posted online even though it was dark outside and he was a good distance away. Armando lifted his nose in the air for a cautious sniff which would tell him far more than his eyesight could. Luckily, Tara was downwind of the motel. If glamouring her own scent was possible, it wasn’t something the school of hard knocks had taught her yet in order to add it to her repertoire of convenient pixie tricks. Mistakenly deeming the area to be safe, the vampire carefully slid outside the room and onto the balcony, shutting the door behind him. He managed to take three rapid steps towards the stairs before Tara struck.

Being a pixie, Tara was so far from the top of the supernatural food chain that there were imaginary creatures higher up than her. She permanently resided near the bottom rungs, teetering precariously somewhere just above humans. Vampires were dangerous predators who had no qualms ripping the limbs off her kind for kicks and giggles but Tara had two advantages that evened out the playing field a little. One, she was hungry and hunger was a powerful motivator. And two, she was very, very fast. Vampires were fast too but pixies made them look like sloths strapped to turtles stuck in molasses.

Tara blinked once and she had already made it across the parking lot. She blinked again and she was on the motel’s second floor. Before she could blink a third time, Tara was within poking distance from the vampire. Rubbing her iridescent wings together, she released a trail of sparkling dust in her wake as she dashed across Armando’s path.

She spun around in time to catch the confused vampire involuntarily succumb to a sputtering fit of coughing, waving his hands near his face in an attempt to escape the dust cloud. His eyes were ruby-red embers glowing with the fury of Hell’s wrath as they focused on Tara just seconds before his face went slack in surprise and he crumpled to the ground like a broken marionette.

Fortunately for him, Armando collapsed backwards instead of forwards and he slumped against the motel wall without any semblance of grace or dignity. Wasting no time, Tara gripped the stake she held in her right hand tighter, reassured by the tingling echo of the ash tree’s life force in the wood that had been used to carve the weapon.

She knelt down in front of Armando, purposefully avoiding looking directly into his rage-filled eyes. Then, with far more composure than someone should normally have with a snarling vampire brandishing his fangs in all their horrific glory two inches away from their face, Tara reared back and shoved the stake into Armando’s chest with all her might.

Unfortunately, supernatural strength was not one of her gifts and the stake stopped just short of stabbing through the vampire’s heart, becoming lodged in his ribcage. Cursing under her breath, Tara stood and gave the protruding piece of wood a few good, hard kicks with her tennis shoe. Eventually, the stake broke through the vampire’s ribs and pierced its intended target, much to Tara’s relief.

She took a step back, wiped the blood on her hands off on her jeans, and admired her handiwork. The stake wouldn’t kill Armando but it would keep him weak long after the paralyzing pixie dust wore off. Most importantly, it would keep him in check long enough for Tara to haul him off and collect her money.

“What. The. Hell?” wheezed the vampire in a thick Spanish accent that rolled beautifully off his tongue despite the fact that he could barely move his lips. He suddenly sneezed, which caused him to flop over onto his side in a way that was comically pathetic.

Growling in frustration at Tara’s shoes since he was unable to look anywhere else, Armando demanded, sharply, “Who are you? What did you do to me?”

Tara didn’t respond immediately, preoccupied with uncoiling the rope she had been holding in the hand that hadn’t been carrying the stake.

“I’m just your friendly, neighborhood bounty hunter,” she replied as she pushed the vampire back up into a sitting position. “It’s a shame you blinked and missed all the action. I took you down singlehandedly with a sprinkle of magical glitter and then curb-stomped a stake through your heart. It was even more bad ass than it sounds.”

The vampire stared at her a moment, the gears in his head grinding to an abrupt halt.

“You’re not a vampire,” he drawled as the thought dawned on him, sounding more surprised than angry. “You’re a fairy.”

His took in a long, deep breath through his mouth, tasting Tara’s scent on his tongue.

“No, wait. You’re… a pixie?”

Armando didn’t give her any time to answer before he started laughing, chuckling quietly in amused disbelief.

“Could you at least act a little more impressed,” Tara griped as she started tying his wrists behind his back. “That maneuver wasn’t as easy as it looked, you know, even for a pixie. One slipup with the timing and next thing I know, you could have been fangs deep in my jugular.”

“I can’t believe this,” the vampire said with a serpentine grin. “I would have expected anything, literally anything other than a pixie. I’m pretty sure I hit one of your kind with my truck the other day. Splat! All across my windshield.”

His grin widened, flashing his elongated fangs threateningly.

“I bet you’d make a lovely stain on my truck’s windshield too.”

Unfazed, Tara finished restraining his hands and moved on to wrapping the rest of the rope around his arms and midsection.

“That’d be a lot more intimidating if you weren’t as harmless as a baked potato right now, so you can spare me the Dracula act.”

Armando had a few choice, vulgar words to say about that, which Tara chose to ignore by humming pleasantly as she completed her task. When she was done, she stood up and glanced at the stairs that led to the ground floor with a reluctant expression. Now came the hard part. Grasping the vampire securely under the arms from behind, Tara began to drag him towards the flight of stairs.

“You’re going to get me killed,” the vampire stated impatiently after they made it down the first couple of steps successfully. “And you’re going to die as well, although I’m far less concerned about that part.”

“First of all, I’d just like to point out that technically, you’re pretty much dead,” Tara huffed, beginning to warm up to the idea of tossing Armando down the rest of the way, face first.

“And second of all, there’s nothing to worry about. I’m a professional. I have business cards and everything. I’ve never brought in any of my bounties dead unless, like you, they were already dead to begin with.”

Armando made an exasperated sound that was halfway between a snort and hocking a loogie.

“Okay, we’re running out of time here so I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “You undo whatever pixie trick you did to me, remove the stake, and I won’t kill you… as horrifically as I originally planned. It’ll be quick and relatively painless.”

When Tara’s only response was her grunting in exertion, Armando added, “And if it makes you feel any better, I promise to shred your wings into party confetti to make your death feel more festive. Confetti makes everything better. Even dying. Trust me, I’m the expert.”

“As tempting as that sounds, I’m going to have to pass,” said Tara as they finally reached the bottom of the stairs. “Obviously you don’t understand how this whole thing works. There are no negotiations. You have a bounty on your head and that means you’re my meal ticket, buddy.”

She paused to catch her breath in front of the stairway, leaning wearily against the railing.

“And this is also not a ‘bring him in dead or alive’ type deal. It’s a ‘bring him in alive or you don’t get paid’ kind of situation, so you can stop worrying your pretty little fangs about doing the whole death thing a second time around, okay?”

“Who put a bounty on me?”

Although Tara couldn’t see his expression, she thought that Armando sounded like he genuinely had no idea, despite the absurdity of the notion.

“Your bounty was posted on the official Department of Nonhuman Services website, so it’s legit. The post said that you’re wanted for feeding on and terminating several vampires from the local Hive. I’d also like to add that it takes some brass beanbags and two extra large scoops of stupid to take on a Hive all by yourself.”

“I didn’t do any of that,” was the vampire’s hissing reply. “I was framed.”

“Of course you were,” Tara agreed, mockingly. “You’re clearly president of the vampire boy scouts. Weren’t you just threatening to make confetti out of my wings not even two minutes ago? Somehow that makes me less likely to believe you and more likely to stake you right where the sun will never shine. Interpret that how you will.”

Armando fell silent a moment before conceding, “Okay, fine. So maybe I did do some of it. Sort of. But I had a very good reason.”

“Oh really? Can’t wait to hear it.”

Catching her second wind, Tara lifted Armando once more and began to drag him down the sidewalk.

“We have a decent ride ahead of us so you can bore me all about it along the way.”

“Listen, Sparkles,” the vampire ground out, his jaw set tight, “I don’t have time to explain and pretty soon, it wouldn’t even matter if I did. If you release me right now, I won’t harm you. You have my word. If you do it now, there’s still a chance we both might be able to esc-”

Tara heard him stop mid-sentence to breathe deeply several times in rapid succession. Without slowing their sluggish trudge towards the parking lot, Tara peered down at him. Armando’s eyes were wide and alert, darting about as if he were searching for something he couldn’t see.

“Dammit, I swear I’m not lying to you,” he said in a rushed whisper, his words practically colliding into each other as he spoke. “Undo your magic and remove the stake.”

Before continuing, he made the same obnoxious, impatient noise he had earlier.

“Please. Before it’s too late. They’re almost here.”

Tara was stunned that the vampire had actually said ‘please’ but what ultimately caused her to slow to a stop was what she heard in his voice. The anger and frustration had tried to cover it, but Tara was absolutely certain that there had been an inkling of real fear embedded in his words.

And it was only then that she realized that the ‘they’ he was talking about wasn’t the authorities, as she had first assumed. It appeared that he truly hadn’t been aware at all that there was a bounty on his head, so he couldn’t be expecting any bounty hunters coming after him either. Disturbed but unwilling to admit it, Tara started pulling Armando towards the truck once again, this time a little quicker.

“Who?” she couldn’t stop herself from asking. “Who’s almost here? Who exactly are you running from?”

A soft breeze wafted through the mild night air and suddenly, Tara smelled fire. It was faint but the breeze carried the distinctive scent of something burning, like heat waves on an extremely hot day. Except that it was evening and no one was grilling and Tara was pretty sure that no one would be burning compose at a motel.

“Who am I running from?” Armando echoed, voice quiet and bitter in defeat. “The fire. The sun. And the rain. That’s who.”

Tara parted her lips to ask what combination of drugs the vampire was clearly high on, but unfortunately, she never found out because she tripped backwards over the tree root that had thought it would be funny to unexpectedly jut up from between a crack in the sidewalk. She fell back, landing hard on her butt just as a grapefruit sized fireball torpedoed over her head and struck the ground with an explosive impact. Armando was sprawled across her legs, neck craned back at a painful angle. He stared up at her with a smirk that managed to be both spiteful and smug.

“You know what would have made this moment even better? Confetti.”