Chapter Two

Scrambling to her feet, Tara roughly grabbed the vampire and, using some rapid fluttering from her wings for added momentum, practically launched the both of them into the space between two parked cars.

“What was that?! Where is it?!” Tara whispered in rising panic, flattening herself against one of the cars as much as physically possible.

Ignoring the pixie’s growing hysterics, Armando pointed out, tensely, “Now would be a great time to release me, Sparkles. If this is how I go out, I want to go out fighting. Grant me that much, at least.”

Tara resisted the urge to cover the vampire’s mouth with her hand, remembering why that wouldn’t be such a good idea just before making a very painful, possibly fatal mistake. Instead, she asked, “Where are the keys to your truck?”

Tara kept her eyes above them, half expecting the sky to rain down a fiery precipitation of death.

“This is why pixies are only good at being appetizers,” the vampire snapped back, his fury rumbling deep in his throat. “I’d say that I’ll try not to enjoy watching you burn alive too much, but I’d be lying.”

Tara peeled herself off the car and started digging through Armando’s pockets, grumbling, “You know, you could try to be more helpful here. I don’t know what the hell is going on and I don’t want to die just as much as you do. But you’re too big of a catch and there is no way I’m risking losing my cushy payout just because some psycho is lobbing fireballs at us.”

Snagging the keys from his jacket pocket, she continued, saying, “Either I die here or starve to death later. Since it makes no difference to you, I think I’ll take my chances with the fireballs.”

Tara heard the flapping of wings and, startled, jerked her head toward the sound. Swooping down directly towards them was a creature she had never seen before. She almost mistook it for a small dragon except for that, after looking more closely, she noticed that it didn’t have any limbs and its wings were more bird-like than bat-like. Its body was scaly but it had brightly colored wings, almost like a terrible mix between a very large snake and a parrot.

The creature opened its wickedly sharp beak but Tara didn’t wait around to see what would happen next. She quickly backpedaled out from between the two cars with Armando in tow, cringing as a sphere of fire cannonballed through the window of a car and promptly set the car’s interior on fire. The winged serpent screeched angrily, turning sharply and wheeling back into the sky. Mind racing, Tara quickly steered Armando and herself towards a row of poorly landscaped bushes and dumped the vampire onto the ground without second thought. She shoved Armando into the dirt and as close to the bushes as she could get him.

“Don’t move,” she told him, quite proud of herself for being able to make such a bad joke in her less-than humorous-situation.

Placing the truck keys on Armando’s chest, Tara ran her hands gently over the leafy bushes, requesting softly, “Keep him as concealed as possible, please, if you can.”

The bushes shivered in response, roots entwining around Armando and pulling him closer and branches stretching to cover more of his body. Hearing both the distant shriek of the flying fire-snake and people starting to exit their motel rooms to see what all the commotion was about, Tara dropped all of her glamour as if shedding a layer of clothing. For a brief moment, she stood exposed in her natural appearance.

The pigment of her skin changed from sand-colored to grass-green, her curly, brown bob sprouting into a dark, forest green mane. She gained an extra inch to each ear as they elongated into pointed tips and her emerald-hued eyes increased in size, curving into a distinctive almond shape.

Her fingernails hardened into claws and her top canine teeth lengthened slightly into fangs, although nowhere near as intimating as the vampire’s. A long tail protruded from the base of her spine, swaying in a manner similar to a cat but thicker and tapered at the end like an otter’s.

Despite their fragile appearance, her forewings and hindwings were sturdy enough to allow Tara to briefly hover and could give her an added burst of speed while in her human guise. But she was absolutely positive that it would take more than simply dropping her glamour to deal with the fire hurling menace that seemed determined to keep her from collecting her bounty.

In the span of time between one moment and the next, Tara shrunk down to the size of a hummingbird. Quickly adjusting to the change in mass, she shot off into the air as a tiny streak of white light. She heard the winged serpent let out an outraged screech as it realized that its prey was now in its domain. It altered trajectories and darted after the pixie like a heat seeking missile.

Tara had assumed that attempting to incapacitate the creature was the smarter option since she didn’t think that trying to outrun the fireball spitting sky-worm in a truck would work out so well. However, she didn’t anticipate on the creature being as fast as it was agile. Tara was faster than the winged fire-snake but only just. Its flexible, aerodynamic body allowed it to glide through the air with little resistance, compensating for Tara’s speed advantage.

They raced through the sky at dizzying speeds, with the serpentine creature pursuing Tara close enough for her to smell the flames on its breath. Just when she was starting to think that presenting herself as a tantalizing snack to a creature she knew nothing about was perhaps not as brilliant as it had sounded in her head, something large with viciously curved claws dropped out of the air from above her and collided into the fire-snake.

With her pursuer preoccupied, Tara flittered a safe distance away before turning to face her winged savior. She wasn’t sure where the barred owl had come from but she was glad for the assistance. Her ability to communicate with flora and fauna came in handy more often than not, although animals were definitely the trickier of the two, especially when it came to predators. Smaller animals tended to be more willing to interact with her in a friendly manner while larger ones were more inclined to try and eat her.

Birds were generally the exception and seemed more welcoming of her, even the larger birds of prey. So it didn’t surprise her that the owl had seen her plight and decided to lend a claw to help her out. Not wasting the owl’s perfectly timed assistance, Tara sped back over to the two clashing combatants. The winged snake managed to wiggle free of the owl’s grip and recover in mid-air with several difficult, strenuous wing strokes. It was in that instant that Tara hovered just above its head, rubbed her wings together in a motion that was so fast it barely looked like she had moved at all, and scattered pixie dust over the creature’s face.

The winged serpent completely disregarded the sparkling dust, climbing higher into the air and spiraling sharply to begin a rapid dive aimed at Tara. Its gracefully controlled descent was short lived, however, as the pixie dust took effect. The creature’s wings suddenly stalled and it plummeted to the ground like a sack of rocks. Tara remained safely in the air until she determined that the thing was alive but wouldn’t be trying to charbroil her extra well-done anytime soon.

Her helpful owl friend had flown off into the night when the winged serpent had fallen from the sky. Tara was a little saddened that she hadn’t been able to thank the owl but figured that it probably had better things to do than saving the pixie from flying, fire spitting snakes and then wait around to be thanked for it. Allowing herself a deep breath of relief, she scanned the ground, looking for where she left Armando with the intention of making a hasty retreat from the motel.

The second winged serpent that slammed into her caught Tara entirely by surprise. She saw the movement from the corner of her eye at the last second, only instinctively moving just enough to narrowly avoid having a wing torn off. The creature clamped down on her left arm with its beak instead, plucking her from the air and snatching her along for the ride.

Tara wanted to believe that what she did next was a result of her quick thinking but in reality, it was purely out of survival instincts and anger at her own carelessness. Before the winged snake decided to crush the bones in her arm, Tara reached up with one tiny, clawed hand and scratched the beady eye closest to her. Her claws were hardly enough to do any serious damage but they did the trick.

The creature squawked in pain, releasing Tara in the process. There was no time for her to access the damage to her bleeding arm as Tara righted herself and was off in a flash. Despite the injury to its eye, the winged serpent was hot on her trail, chasing her through the air with even more dogged persistence than its fallen partner.

Tara had no idea if another owl would come to her rescue although this time, she’d be of little help even if one did. The thin layer of iridescent, scale-like chitin on her wings that was the source of her paralyzing dust only produced enough for two uses a day. Her wings would make more overnight but for the time being, she was down one extremely useful pixie trick. About as harmless as a kitten with wings, Tara zig-zagged through the sky at breakneck speed until she spotted a tree close to where she had hidden in the bushes earlier that night.

She headed straight for the tree, unable to reduce her speed even if she had wanted to with the winged snake right on her tail. Tara crashed into the tree’s foliage, twigs and branches scratching her face and body. Her relentless pursuer flew directly into the dense confusion of leaves as well, snapping and breaking anything in its path with its serpentine body.

One of Tara’s wings clipped a branch, knocking her off course and slowing her down momentarily. The slipup was just enough for the serpent to close the distance between them and maneuver itself within striking range. Tara glanced over her shoulder, her doom staring back at her in the creature’s wide, open beak.

The winged serpent suddenly paused mid-attack, stopping short of Tara by mere inches. Several of the tree’s strong boughs and branches had wrapped around the creature’s writhing body, ensnaring it in place. Trembling from the near-death scare, Tara took the nearest leaf in her hands and kissed it lightly, expressing her gratitude for the tree’s generous assistance.

Fluttering out of the tree without daring to look back, Tara made a beeline back to her captive vampire. She shifted back to human-size the moment her feet touched the ground. Softly uttering a thank you to the helpful bushes, she extracted a dirt covered, sour-faced Armando from the greenery. Tara wasn’t sure if he was merely unhappy to see her or just not happy to see her alive. It was a toss-up, even though she was pretty sure there had a twinge of begrudged respect in his initial surprise at her return.

“See? I told you I was a professional,” Tara murmured, doing her best to ignore the electric jolts of nauseating pain traveling down the length of her left arm. “Nobody dies on my watch. Especially not me.”

The vampire started to say something but wound up spitting out a soggy wad of leaves instead. Not about to ask what exactly had transpired between him and his leafy guardians, Tara took that as her cue to grab the keys to his truck and lift him up from under the armpits. It was even more difficult to move him this time because of her various injuries and the fact that she was flat out exhausted from two back-to-back, mid-air scuffles. But two flying, fire-snakes with a taste for pixie flesh couldn’t stop her, no matter how close a call that had been, and she was getting that vampire into his truck one way or another.

Luckily, the motel patrons seemed more interested in putting out the car fire and snapping pictures of the immobile, winged snakes to pay any attention to the pixie covered in blood dragging the staked vampire across the parking lot. Once Tara finally reached the truck, she unlocked the passenger side door and stuffed Armando into the vehicle with more force than finesse.

Then, shutting the door softly, she made her way to the driver’s side, glamoured herself in her human guise which conveniently hid her wings, and collapsed inside the truck. Her butt barely hit the seat before she turned the car on and started to back up out of the parking spot. Wondering why the vampire was being so quiet, she stole a quick glance at him. His eyes were hot and hungry, a silent snarl frozen on his face with nostrils flared and fangs fully extended.

Tara had almost forgotten that she was bleeding in an enclosed space with an irate vampire that wouldn’t be paralyzed for much longer as the effects of the pixie dust wore off. She put the car in drive but before peeling out of the motel parking lot, Tara slowly reached across Armando, admittedly creeped out by his unchanging expression as his crimson gaze tracked her every movement. Tara buckled his seatbelt, placing the strap securely across the stake in his chest in hopes that if he moved suddenly, the seatbelt would keep the stake pressed in place.

Chiding herself for being frightened of a vampire that couldn’t harm her (at least, not at the moment), Tara gave his fangs an assessing look.

“I’ve seen bigger.”

That said, she put her foot on the gas and hastily drove out the parking lot. The furious hiss and the colorful string of expletives that spilled out of the vampire was proof enough to Tara that he was indeed well aware that fairies couldn’t lie.

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