It’s that time again, you guys! Here is the title reveal, release date, AND the entire first chapter from the third book in my best-selling Fear University series!
Book 3 in the Fear University Series
Release Date: July 25th
Cover Reveal: July 18th
(ARCs out on July 18th)
Fear University will start going FREE at ALL retailers on July 13th
The Killing Season (Book 2) will be priced at $1.99 during the release week
Monster Mine will go live with a preorder on July 21st for $2.99
Chapter One from Monster Mine
(Chapter preview not final version. Copyright Meg Collett 2016.)
A cough rattled out from the backseat of the Four Runner and I tried not to cringe. It sounded thick. Sick. Like something reaching up from Luke’s insides and trying to tear him inside out.
Almost instantly after the cough came the tap-tap of a finger against the syringe. Luke let out a breath of relief as he injected himself.
In the front seat, Hatter and I both tensed. Luke had been injecting himself with straight aswang saliva since leaving the cabin and the burnt body. For nearly a week since, we’d been chasing Ollie’s ghost. Luke fueled himself on rage and adrenaline, on the special fury created by his reaction to ’swang saliva. He said sometimes, right after shooting up, he could almost feel her. Sense her. Taste her.
She’s dead, Luke, I wanted to scream.
But my best friend’s lover hadn’t given up on her and neither could I. So when Luke said south, we went south. Hatter had flown us from Barrow, Alaska to Anaktuvuk Pass to Hughes. When Luke felt east, we went east, over to Fairbanks. When he said Max would take her back to a place he knew, to the lower forty-eight, we flew into Seattle and picked up a car. We followed Luke’s growing madness like a compass.
“Maybe we should stop for the night,” Hatter suggested.
I was already nodding before he finished. “I am pretty tired, actually. What do you say, Luke? Call it a night?”
“Keep going.” He snapped open the break-action of his shotgun, checked the rounds, and clapped it closed with a jerk of his wrist.
Hatter’s grip tightened on the wheel, his eyes never leaving the unlit Oregon road we’d been traveling since leaving Washington that morning. He hated it when Luke took the saliva around me, but Hatter had lost that argument. Luke hadn’t been in a compromising mood lately.
“Sunny said she’s tired. We’re stopping.”
I sensed Luke’s attention—dark and crawling, like a cobra through tall weeds—shift to me. I pretended not to notice, but I knew what he was thinking: Sunny doesn’t care enough. Sunny isn’t looking hard enough. Sunny thinks she’s dead.
He thought this even though I was the one who’d convinced Hatter to go with him. We would all be safer together, I’d said. We needed to protect Luke. He was too sick. I’d hoped he’d let me treat him on the road. I didn’t know he’d already grabbed a stash of saliva from the Barrow base.
Sunny thinks she’s dead.
He thought this even though my heart was broken and I still heard her whispering in my ear when things got real quiet, real still.
Sunny, she’d say, if people know what I am, they’ll kill me.
And I would say back: They’ll have to get through me first.
Then her eyes, in my mind, would get all shiny with tears as she asked, How can you say that, knowing what I am?
“Fine,” Luke said, his voice frightening me. “Let’s stop.”
“Thank you.” I murmured the words to the window. Maybe he hadn’t even heard me.
“You’re welcome,” he said to the darkness beyond the car, the trees blurring by and the moon shining down from high in the night sky.
* * *
The motel had a flickering “vacancy” sign out front, though only a few letters still lit up. One blue Ford sat parked in front of the office, which was dark with only the glow of a television inside. The doors to each room were painted in a chipped orange, and the exterior’s siding was pale and faded.
I bit my lip. “Looks . . . homey.”
The Four Runner crunched over the pot-holed parking lot and came to a stop next to the office. Hatter didn’t look over at me and didn’t glance back at Luke. I’d caused that too, this tension between them, between two best friends.
“It’ll have to do for tonight,” he said before stiffly unfolding himself from the driver’s seat. He walked over to the office door, shoulders tired and hunched.
I didn’t relish being alone in the car with Luke, especially after he’d shot up a vial of saliva, but his pneumonia seemed to lessen the saliva’s powerful effects on him; it was the only reason Hatter had allowed us to keep going.
“Do you think she’s still alive?”
I’d known he was going to ask before he opened his mouth. His question permeated the air between us in an Ollie-shaped breeze.
Question or accusation, I couldn’t tell. I’d never been able to read Luke like Ollie had. She’d always managed to understand him somehow and see the softer, better parts of him. I wondered if he would have any of those parts left after this.
“There was a burned body in the cabin.” My evidence.
“It could have been anyone.”
“She’d been with Max for weeks.” My probability.
“He might not have wanted her dead.”
“We haven’t heard from Thad.” My weakest defense. Even I knew he wouldn’t contact us.
“He’s part . . . part . . .” He still couldn’t say the word. “He would’ve tracked her. He said he could do that.”
“He said he might be able to. That was a bad storm, Luke.”
“You’re saying she’s dead, then.”
Swiveling around in the passenger seat, I forced myself to look at him. The saliva had helped him fill out a bit in the last couple days, but his shirt still crumpled into the hollowed-out cavity below his ribs. His pneumonia counterbalanced the saliva’s effects in a way that evened him out, leaving him in some limbo between extreme illness and aggression. He sat in the back, staring blankly out the window with Ollie’s puffy black jacket lay carefully folded in the seat beside him.
“I think if anyone could have survived, it’s Ollie. But I also know we found a dead body in there. I know that storm was impossible. I know we think Ollie is invincible, but she’s just—” I stopped myself. We both knew what I’d almost said. Ollie wasn’t just human. She was a halfling, and her father was the most powerful aswang who had ever lived.
“She survived.” His fingers found the hem of Ollie’s jacket and held on.
“Luke . . .” I started, my voice trailing off as it always did when I tried to broach this particular subject, but I forced myself to continue. “If she is alive—”
“I would’ve felt it. If she died, I would know.”
A shadow shifted outside. My first thought was aswang, but then I realized Luke’s hand had remained on Ollie’s jacket, not his gun, and his eyes were calm; he’d already noticed Hatter walking back from the office moments before I had. Reason number one million and two why I would make a horrible hunter.
Hatter had crossed almost halfway back to the car, so I hurried on. “If we find her . . .” I scowled and readjusted my train of thought. “She’s been through hell. It wouldn’t be fair to add anything more to her plate. If you have any issues with what she is, you need to figure that out now, you know?”
Hatter opened the car door and Luke fell back into silence.
“Lucky us,” Hatter said. “We got the penthouse suite.”
My hope soared. Maybe I wouldn’t need my sanitation kit. “Really?”
The corner of his mouth twitched—the scarred corner, where the long, jagged black scar cut down the side of his face, over his right, discolored eye, to the edge of his mouth, mangling it. “No, not really, sunshine. Get your kit and let’s go.”
Dreams of clean sheets and a warm shower dashed, my shoulders slumped.
The guys unloaded the SUV’s stash of weapons—guns, knives, Hatter’s sniper rifle, and a crossbow Luke tended to stroke—from the back and tucked them into a large duffel bag, like precious toddlers ready for sleepy time.
I waited for them at the back of the SUV, my eyes scanning the dark parking lot.
“Here,” Hatter said and tossed the hotel keys over his shoulder.
I fumbled them. The metal clattered at my feet. Another reason I’d never make a good hunter: lack of quick reflexes.
Together, Hatter and Luke each took a handle of the duffel bag and started toward the room we would call home for the next few hours—or until Luke got too twitchy. I went first and unlocked the door, which stuck as I tried shouldering it open. From behind me, Hatter gave the door a push with his free hand. It popped free and I stumbled inside, hitting a wall of warm, stale air that smelled like a trucker’s hairy, sweaty pits. I gagged.
Hatter took a long whiff as he and Luke deposited the bag in the corner of the room. “Smells like my apartment back at the university. Luke, remember when that rat got loose in the back of the van and I put it in my coat pocket? Left it there for a month or so. This smell reminds me of that.”
Luke unzipped the bag and pulled out a few guns without answering.
“Right. Well, I’m going to take a shower,” Hatter said into the silence.
As he passed by, I swung my leopard-print backpack off my shoulders. “Do you need some shower flip-flops?”
“I’ll risk it. Thanks though.”
The door closed. Behind me, I heard the snick of a safety releasing before Luke left too, slamming the room’s door with a bang.
“Good talk, you guys.” I tugged my yellow, elbow-length gloves free and started cleaning.
When Hatter emerged from the shower ten minutes later, I’d wrapped the mattress in a plastic bed bug covering, replaced the sheets with a fresh set from my pack, and plugged in a few air fresheners. The “Peachy Plum” scented trucker sweat made my eyes water, but I felt better about what I was touching.
I pulled off my rubber gloves with a snap and tossed them in the trash. When I turned around, Hatter was leaning against the bathroom doorjamb, watching me. A too-small towel wrapped around his narrow waist stopped a solid six inches above his knees. Scars, all black, lined his body like a checkerboard. It was a game Hatter wasn’t winning, and it reminded me all too well of what Luke had told me back in Barrow.
Eventually, the saliva from the ’swang bites would drive Hatter’s temporary bouts of mania to such a state where they would become permanent. Luke had promised to kill him if it came to that.
“He took a gun,” I said, zipping up my pack and quickly noting my remaining supplies. Enough for one more room. Maybe two if they weren’t too dirty. Not that I was getting my hopes up.
“That isn’t reassuring.”
“I figured. Do you think he’s okay?”
“Okay?” Hatter laughed, the sound nothing like his normal, crazed, happy one. He hadn’t smiled much lately. “He’s a freaking mess.”
I averted my eyes when he shoved a hand through his wet, red hair, causing the muscles in his stomach to ripple, and said, “Yeah, well, he’s our mess now since Ollie isn’t here.”
“How you doing, huh?” He padded away from the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bed, barely a foot away from me. With his elbows on his knees, he leaned forward, the tiny towel stretching to its limits.
I swallowed. “I’m fine.”
“The truth, sunshine. Give it to me.”
The truth? Truth was, I felt grimy and ugly in my rumpled jeans and unwashed white cotton shirt buttoned up the front—all the way to my throat—with yellow smiley faces all over it. Truth was, I thought my best friend had burned to death after being tortured for weeks. Truth was, I wasn’t fine at all. Not even close.
I looked up from the well-trodden floor and met his eyes, my own filling with tears.
“Ah, no,” Hatter said. “None of that.” His long fingers closed around my wrist, and he tugged me toward him. He eased me onto his lap, folding me up under his chin and enclosing me in his arms.
He was wet. And warm. And Hatter. I nuzzled the side of my face against his bare skin and breathed in deeply.
His hand ran up and down my arm, the other secure around my waist. Bending his head down, he placed a chaste kiss against the top of my head. “I’m sorry, sunshine.”
I nodded, too choked up. But the motion shook my tears free, and suddenly, I was crying.
“I think she’s dead.” The horrible truth, those awful words, tore from my mouth, along with a sob. I swiped my hand beneath my nose, smearing mucus.
“Maybe,” Hatter said, holding me tighter.
“Luke knows I’ve given up on her.”
“Hey.” His hand went to my hair, fingering through the frizzy brown waves that had taken to Oregon’s air like a hairdryer to water. But the soft lift and pull soothed me, his tiny touches sending a shudder down my spine. “Don’t think like that. He’s just a hard guy, okay?”
“Do you think he would know if she’s gone? Like, would he feel it?”
Hatter stayed silent for so long I leaned back to look at him. He loosened his hold and watched me watching him.
Quietly, tenderly, he said, “I like to think so.”
I knew he wasn’t talking about Luke and Ollie. He meant himself. Meant me. Us. My heart squeezed. Maybe it was the exhaustion from being on the road with Luke, or maybe it was the fumes from the cleaning chemicals I’d sprayed too much of, but I leaned forward. My hands settled on his shoulders, my fingers brushing up his neck. I felt him shiver. My lips came within an inch of his. His exhaled breath washed over me, rustling the tiny hairs around my temples.
I closed my eyes. I needed this, to forget for one tiny moment—for him to make me forget her.
I jerked back, eyes wide open. “What’s wrong?”
He stood, hands on my waist to lift me up. My feet gently touched the floor, and Hatter turned away, tightening the towel around his waist. Heat swept across my cheeks. Suddenly, everything rushed into the forefront of my mind. My dirty clothes. My sweaty hair. The pimple on my chin. My flat chest. The cellulite on my thighs. The un-Ollie-ness of me.
“I’m gonna take a shower and, um, yeah. A shower.”
Hatter didn’t stop me. Facing away from me, fists pressed against his eyes, head bowed as if he were in pain, he didn’t move. I hovered at the bathroom door, watching, waiting. Nothing. I slipped inside, closed the door, and locked it.
A fine mist hung in the air from his shower. His scent filled the tiny space, overwhelmingly sweet from his strawberry shampoo, which he said made his hair soft, and the rich, deeper spice that could only be Hatter. I breathed it in with deep, sucking gulps. Outside, I heard him changing. Thoughts of his naked body wrecked my brain, so I hurriedly tore open the molded shower curtain and turned the water on, the pipes screaming in the wall.
As the water ran, guaranteeing I would be taking an icy shower, I sank onto the toilet’s lid.
Minutes later, footsteps crossed to the bathroom door. A shadow hovered on the floor just outside. I sensed Hatter out there thinking about knocking. About shouldering the door open and breaking the lock and sweeping in and saying he was stupid and pulling me into a kiss and carrying me into the shower and letting his towel fall away and peeling off my wet clothes and making my sadness go away, if only for a few moments.
But the room’s front door opened and Luke’s muffled voice distracted Hatter. The shadow moved away. They talked, their words lost in the sounds of my forgotten shower.
Standing up, I started taking off my clothes. When I stepped into the shower, the water stabbed into me like projectile icicles. I forced myself under the spray, instantly shivering, eyes screwed closed and mouth clenched against a gasp. Only when I was numb did I pick up Hatter’s shampoo and work its strawberry scent into my hair. When I bent down to clean between my toes, I realized I hadn’t worn my shower flip-flops.
I straightened, shampoo bottle falling from my fingers, and turned my face into the spray that felt neither hot nor cold. I imagined the germs seeping into my body, working into my blood and into my bones, coursing through me, overcoming me, and taking me down. I pictured dying in the snow, shriveling up in a fire, my body’s husk softly smoking.
“Ollie?” I whispered into the water, drops streaming into my mouth. “Are you there?”
I felt only the very real ache in my chest. Nothing else. Would I know if she was gone? Like Luke, did I have that power?
“I miss you.”
“You should come back.”
Hatter knocked on the bathroom door. “Sunny?” he called.
I didn’t answer.
“We have to go. There’s been a ’swang sighting.”