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Prelude to the End by Carla

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Folks call me a maverick
Guess I ain't too diplomatic
I just never been the kind to go along
Just avoidin' confrontation
For the sake of conformation
And I'll admit I tend to sing a different song

But sometimes you just can't be afraid
To wear a different hat
If Columbus had complied
This old world might still be flat
Nothin' ventured, nothin' gained
Sometimes you've got to go against the grain

Well, I have been accused
Of makin' my own rules
There must be rebel blood
Just a-runnin' through my veins
But I ain't no hypocrite
What you see is what you get
And that's the only way I know
To play the game

"Against the Grain" –Garth Brooks

Sprite settled on the front steps of the apartment building she had moved in to less than two months ago. The concrete was rough against her hands when she planted them on either side of her hips, but she ignored the slight discomfort.

Fog twisted through the darkness, a fog that had been growing more pronounced each night that she'd been out it in. A week ago Marko had commented on the thickness, and he'd mentioned something about talking to David because of it, but he'd said nothing else to her and she didn't know if he'd ever done anything about it.

"Guess it doesn't matter," she whispered, shaking her head to brush away the thick strands of damp air. The fog caressed her face as if it were long fingers, bone thin appendages that would tear at her skin until it peeled away in bloody strands of white.

Nights were her time for melancholy; during the brightness of day she left her room only long enough to venture into the ocean for a swim, only for the salt water would she risk the wrath of the glowing sun. Early evening, when the sky was orange and darkness teased the corners of every building, was for her errands, what few she had now that she was away from her family.

But night…ah, night when black skies only lit up by tiny stars and cool breezes thick with sea-scent would drive away the oppressive heat of day.

Sprite stretched, hearing the bones along her spine crack as they settled back into place. She couldn't remember a time when she had preferred day to night; nor did she know if she'd been born with an affinity for darkness or if her father had taught her that as he taught her to hunt the animals…animals that she had become a part of.

"Of course he's bloody late." She ran her hands down her arms, trying to drive away the chill that settled over her. Usually the Boardwalk offered enough distraction that Sprite could ignore her wayward thoughts, but tonight Marko hadn't yet appeared from the white clouds drifting around her building and she had far too much time on her hands.

She glanced from one side of the street to the other, where golden streetlights struggled in vain to pierce the black night. A flash of movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention and she whirled, almost tumbling off of the steps in her attempt to catch whatever was trying to sneak up on her.

Nothing met her unsteady gaze, but she could have sworn the fog was swirling as if something had gone through it only a heartbeat before. She stretched her advanced senses, both hearing and smell, but could find nothing that might have set her off.

Though she knew she was safe, Sprite couldn't stop her over-active imagination from running away with her mind. She pressed her eyelids closed, but couldn't banish the image of animals creeping through the fog toward her unknowing body. It didn't matter that she would feel any preternatural creature before it got close enough to harm her.

The images of werewolves and werelions faded into her father's angry face. She'd only seen him turn that expression on her once, when she'd been forced to tell him that she was a wereleopard.

The damn creature she was hunting had led her on a wild chase through the woods. She shouldn't have followed it, but it had attacked her pet dog right under her nose, and her blood was up. Her father, had he been there, wouldn't have let her track the animal into its own lair, but she'd been too angry to consider that it might be a trap.

It had been, and the creature had attacked without the slightest sound giving away its movements. She'd fired, striking it twice with the silver bullets she kept within her gun, but it was to no avail.

The cat had mauled her, sinking its claws into her body and ripping downward, tearing her skin away in slick strips of flesh and blood. Her screams had echoed through the woods, drawing out the hunters who had been following her trail, though she hadn't known it.

They'd killed the beast, and against their better judgment, taken her to the hospital. She knew that at least one had wanted to shoot her right there; with all the scratches and teeth marks she bore, they had to have known that she'd be turning into a cat at the next full moon.

She was, however, the daughter of their leader, and if anything could save her, they had to try.

The doctors had been surprised that she survived the attack; when the marks were almost healed by the time she'd made it past the waiting room, everyone knew what was going on.

The southwestern part of the United States wasn't known for its acceptance of lycanthropes; still isn't, for that matter. The doctors had refused to touch her, no matter that that went against their Hippocratic oath.

They had allowed her to be the one to tell her father. As much as she didn't want to face him, she knew it would be better for her to tell him than some unhappy, overworked doctor.

At least she hoped so.

"I got scratched," she had muttered, hoping that things would go better if she put it in the simplest terms possible. "I'm going to shift at the next full moon." She'd waited, glancing up at her father through her eyelashes.

He'd looked away, his eyes pressed closed to ward off the tears. Not once had he considered the fact that she might one day be infected as she hunted; he had assumed that she was better than that.

"Put a bullet into your head before then," he turned back to her at last, his eyes empty of emotion. "Or I will, the first time you change. You're a monster now, and I can't let you live." He pressed one hand to her shoulder, the last time he'd touch her. "I'm sorry."

Sprite had waited until he left and ran far and wide, terrified that one day he would find her again. That fear had lasted up until the night she'd met Marko; since then the nightmares that had kept her awake every night for so long had been nonexistent.

She blinked away the tears that threatened to fall and surged to her feet. In the distance, the thrum of Marko's bike rode the wind to her. She'd recognize it anywhere. The fog continued to swirl around her, taunting her with her memories, but now that he was on his way, she could ignore it.

Sprite knew she shouldn't have fallen so hard for a vampire, should have, in fact, been disgusted with the how she felt. She should have blamed his vampiric powers for her emotions.

She thanked God every night for bringing her to him.


Oh God, it's raining
But I'm not complaining
It's filling me up
With new life

The stars in the sky
Bring tears to my eyes
They're lighting my way

And I haven't felt so alive
In years

"But Not Tonight" –Depeche Mode

"I'll see you later!" Marko lifted his voice to ensure that he was heard by the others farther back in the tunnels of the cave, then bounded up the slick stairs, taking them two and even three at a time.

He was late.

Sprite was waiting, and he knew it, but hadn't been able to get away until now. Even Anna hadn't left the cave as she had every night for the past week. David put his foot down, and when their leader spoke, his word was law, no matter what other, more pressing items, filled their agenda.

But now that the Pack bonding session was over and David's unspoken fears had been alleviated, he could escape into the night. For half an instant Marko considered taking to the sky; he would reach Sprite's apartment in only a few short heartbeats.

She hadn't expressed a desire to fly with him, and until he was sure she would be comfortable with it, he wasn't going to make that their only option. Taking the bike would make the trip longer, but it was worth it to see Sprite.

Besides, it wouldn't be that much longer. He knew the paths and roads well enough to find a shortcut and to push the machine to its highest limits. The bike creaked when he leapt onto it and twisted the key with a jerk of his wrist. He kicked at the starter and it roared to life.

He was off, tearing along the forest path, kicking up a thick spray of mud and branches. His motorcycle, smaller than the others, but with an engine that was almost as powerful, shuddered when he twisted the gas, trying to milk another level of speed from the straining turbines.

David had been stressing Pack bonding and time spent together over the past few weeks. At first Marko had been thrilled, because that meant his family was healing and might actually survive the darkness in their past, but now that it was eating into his time with Sprite, he wasn't so fond of the sessions.

It didn't matter; at last he was on the path to Sprite's house and soon enough he would be reunited with his lycanthrope love…he shook his head to knock that thought away. She'd said nothing of the sort and he wasn't about to be the first one to mention it, not when the Pack had such a history.

He was beginning to think that they were cursed; no one was allowed a moment of happiness without pain and suffering being inflicted upon them threefold. It was bad enough to know that they had been meant to die, but what was life worth if no one could ever be happy.

It wasn't that he wanted to die; far from that, in fact. However, he didn't think he wanted anything too much. The only dreams he had were for his family to be strong, for them to be happy, for their love to never fade…and for his relationship with Sprite to survive without the horror so many others were inflicted with.

So far so good.

Marko twisted the handle again, squeezing the last drop of speed from the bike. His lips twitched up, his anticipation too much to keep off of his face. In only a few moments he would see her, get to hug her, get to spend time in her lovely presence.

And maybe tonight he'd get up the nerve to kiss her.


Old Noah took much ridicule
For building his great ark
But after forty days and forty nights
He was lookin' pretty smart
Sometimes it's best to brave the wind and rain
By havin' strength to go against the grain

Well, there's more folks than a few
Who share my point of view
But they're worried
If they're gonna sink or swim
They'd like to buck the system
But the deck is stacked against 'em
And they're a little scared
To go out on a limb

But if you're gonna leave your mark
You can't follow like a bunch of sheep
You got to listen to your heart
Go bustin' in like old John Wayne
Sometimes you got to go against the grain

Nothin' ventured, nothin' gained
Sometimes you've got to go against the grain

"Against the Grain" –Garth Brooks

Sprite brushed her fingers over her shirt, smoothing the nonexistent wrinkles from the smooth fabric. Marko was almost to her, she knew that much, and all the frustration at his lateness had faded in the burst of warmth.

She didn't know why she felt the way she did; he hadn't even made a move to kiss her. When he'd left in such a rush because of Dwayne's mistake with Anna, she hadn't really expected to see him again. But he'd come back to her only two nights later and had shared the entire story with her, which was an even bigger surprise.

No smoochies though, and that was what she'd been waiting for.

Marko pulled up and Sprite bounced forward, her short hair glittering in the pale moonlight. The moon was barely half-full, much to her happiness, because had it been a glowing orb, she wouldn't have been here, would have been rushing through the woods, hunting what few wild animals remained near town.

"Hey you," Marko's lips were already lifted in a smile when she approached, and Sprite could feel her own arching to match the expression. He held out one hand to help her climb onto the bike and she scrambled to sit behind him. "Sorry I'm late; David is still being `the Perfect Leader.'"

She laughed, the sound light as it danced in the air around them, and leaned forward to wrap her arms around his waist. He took off without another word passing between them, but that was ok too, because she had forgiven him and he knew that.

What's more, he knew where she wanted to go, even without her having to voice her desires. Sprite hadn't yet decided if that was a vampire trick, or purely a Marko trick, but one day she'd have to ask him.

Maybe today.

But for now she settled against him, the wind lifting her spiked hair even higher. How Anna could handle having long hair and riding the bike was something Sprite didn't understand, but she hadn't even officially met the vampire, only seen her from a distance, and such non-meetings did not lay the groundwork for girl talk.

However, Marko kept promising to introduce her to his friends, so perhaps she'd get to meet the infamous Anna and the even more infamous Dwayne sometime soon. He spoke more of those two than any other, though Dwayne stories were the more frequent of the two, and she wanted more than anything to meet his friends, to see what insights they could give her into his rapidly changing mind.

More than almost anything. If the price was her privacy with him, then there was no contest. She'd discover his secrets on her own, without the help of his best friend, no matter how long the older vampire had known him.


Just for a day
On a day like today
I'll get away from this
Constant debauchery

The wind in my hair
Makes me so aware
How good it is to live

And I haven't felt so alive
In years

The moon
Is shining in the sky
Reminding me
Of so many other nights
But they're not like tonight

Oh God, it's raining
And I'm not containing
My pleasure at being
So wet

Here on my own
All on my own
How good it feels to be alone

And I haven't felt so alive
In years

The moon
Is shining in the sky
Reminding me
Of so many other nights
When my eyes have been so red
I've been mistaken for dead
But not tonight

"But Not Tonight" –Depeche Mode

Pizza is what Sprite wanted to eat, thick and greasy and dripping with toppings. Marko was still not sure how he knew that, but he didn't bother to question his instincts when it came to the wereleopard, not any more at least. He was just grateful that he did know her so well, even after they'd known each other for only a few fleeting weeks.

Besides, there was a great pizza place on the strip; not the Boardwalk or the Wharf, the strip was closer to the highway and about as far from the ocean as you could get in the seaside town.

"Pepperoni and extra cheese," Sprite told the teenage boy at the counter. He nodded, wiping greasy hands on his apron before he tapped the order into the computer, then took the money Marko shoved across the glass counter. She grabbed their drinks and followed the vampire to the table in the back corner, next to the jukebox. It was the only spot in the room that didn't reflect in the heavy mirrors attached to the walls, and was therefore the perfect place for a vampire and his consort.

"So how was the meeting with the others?" Sprite lifted her glass of soda and guzzled down half of the diet drink in one gulp. He shook his head at her strange tastes, and then leaned forward, resting both his hands flat on the table as he answered.

"They're getting better," he told her, comfortable enough to share his darkest secrets, good or bad, and this was far from a secret. "Everyone is finally relaxing; it's been long enough, I guess. Of course when Laddie spotted Shauna leaving a bar a few weeks ago, our fear was sparked, but no one has seen hide nor hair of her since…"

"And you assume she's gone for good this time," Sprite finished. She tapped the nails of her left hand on the Formica table, staring down at the blue flecks for a moment. Her right hand loosely encircled her glass, though she didn't drink from it. "I hope you're right, Marko."

"Me too," he admitted. Silence fell around them and he took advantage of the moment to gulp down part of his beer, his throat working to swallow the thick liquid. Sprite tossed a pack of cigarettes his way, followed by the lighter, and he caught them with relief.

The pizza place was one of the last restaurants—or any establishment in the city for that matter—that allowed customers to smoke inside its walls. Marko took advantage of that fact rarely, but tonight was a good night to drag the smoke into his mouth. He could almost feel it sitting in his lungs, curling through the long-dead cells.

Sprite smoked too, and at first he worried that she would destroy her body. He didn't have anything to worry about; the ability to smoke and drink without fear was only the beginning of the benefits to being a wereleopard.

He'd been learning more and more about lycanthropes, and his brain was packed full of so much information he almost didn't believe it was possible to remember it all.

Adam and Victoria had proved to be more than helpful. Not once had they questioned him as to his sudden interest in shifters. Instead they merely supplied him with what they knew, and if there was something they didn't, because it pertained only to cats, they'd take off during the day and hit the library to try to figure it out.

He had been relieved to learn that Sprite couldn't give herself cancer of the lungs or the liver, or anything else for that matter. She had healing almost as advanced as his was, and it had been that more than anything that made him give in to the ease he felt around her.

She wasn't going to up and die on him, no matter how dark his world was. For once he allowed himself to consider the fact that he just might have found someone who could not only survive in the life he and his led, but also thrive in it.

It was about damn time.


If you need some transportation
From a world of tribulation
Tell me your destination
I'll be - I'll be your ride
If you're out of inspiration
All you feel is desperation
Consider this an invitation
I'll be

I'll be you ride
We'll get a running start and we'll take to the sky baby
Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the prize
And ride

"Ride" –Amanda Marshall

"Did you make plans for us?" Sprite wiped her mouth haphazardly, the faint grease left in the corners of her lips marking the white napkin. Marko laughed and leaned over to brush away a final drop of pizza sauce.

"Not a one," he assured her. "Did you want to do something in particular?" Sprite nodded, blushing faintly, the red color just teasing over her cheeks. To this day it came when she asked him for something, and she couldn't control it, no more than she could control her other reactions to his nearness.

"Can we go for a ride?" She'd contemplated making him choose their next activity, but the idea of taking his bike out for a ride—and not just the quick jaunts through town that occurred every night, but an all-out, full-fledged, no-holds-barred ride—was more than she could resist. "Out into the woods?"

"I think I can handle that," Marko laughed and stood, tossing his crumpled napkin down onto the table. Sprite scooted her chair back, wincing when metal scraped against tile. When she glanced down, she noted that the back legs of her chair had lost their rubber bottom and had left long, shallow scratches along the floor in front of the table.

She turned her head until she could check on the youth behind the counter, but he hadn't noticed her destruction of the restaurant's property. She pressed one hand to her mouth to hide her giggle, then grabbed Marko's arm and almost dragged him from the building before she lost control of her mirth.

Sprite doubled over, both hands pressed to her stomach as she gasped for air; it was quite difficult to draw oxygen into her body when she was laughing so hard she could barely stand. Marko took a step back, his head cocked to one side as he regarded her with an expression of amusement and more than a little confusion on his face. He didn't seem to understand what she found so funny.

Not that she blamed him; she didn't know what was so damn funny either.

"Sprite?" Marko leaned toward her, his chin just brushing her shoulder as he twisted around to look into her face. "Are you going to be ok, or do we need to sit down again? Let you rest or something?"

"No…no, Mar…Marko. I'll be f…f…fine," Sprite stammered, then sank down onto the bike, sitting sideways on it as she struggled to calm. "I just need…need a moment to…"

"Uh huh," Marko murmured, stepping backward until he could connect with the wall to the pizza place. He let his gaze travel along the street, unconsciously picking out a number of meals though he wasn't hungry, weighing whether or not each individual would be an easy kill by instinct alone.

"You look like a wolf," Sprite murmured after she managed to catch her breath and end the laughing fit. He focused his brown eyes on her and she found it hard to breathe again; meeting his gaze was like diving into a pool of deep water only to find that it was really chocolate, sweet, sticky, and thick enough to devour your body. "I've seen that same expression on pictures of wolves right before the hunt; anticipation beyond anything."

"I'm not a wolf," Marko told her, then took one slow step forward, letting a slow smirk lift his lips. The expression was far more fitting for David or Dwayne or even Paul, even with his laughing ways, but it felt right, here and now. "Unless, of course, you're Little Red Riding Hood. Then I think I can be…persuaded to be the Big Bad Wolf."

Sprite felt the rush of warmth flood her cheeks and knew her face was standing out in high relief, the red visible under the faint streetlights. "Big and Bad?" she heard herself tease him; she was amazed at her mask of calm under such duress. "I don't know about that…"

Marko chuckled and slid onto the bike, waiting until she had shifted her weight—and, consequently, her legs—around and sat properly behind him, her hands resting on his waist. "Hang on, Little Red," he called back to her. "And I'll show you just how Big and Bad this Wolf can be."

Sprite grinned, glad that he couldn't see her expression. She was suddenly looking forward to this ride more than any she'd ever taken…because in her mind, and she hoped in his, Big and Bad equaled kissing.

At the very least.


And when the world that you've created
Has got you feeling tired and jaded
Get your spirits elevated
Dig down - way deep inside
And when you're feeling scorned and hated
Under appreciated
And your guiding light has faded
I'll be

I'll be you ride
We'll get a running start and we'll take to the sky baby
Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the prize
And ride

And when you call but they don't remember
When your mail says return to sender
Keep the faith baby don't surrender
I'm on your side
I'll be your - I'll be your
I'll be

I'll be you ride
We'll get a running start and we'll take to the sky baby
Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the prize
And ride

"Ride" – Amanda Marshall

The trees beyond Santa Carla were thick, tall redwoods, rising up into the night as if they would pierce the star-studded sky and spill the silver flakes down to Earth. Sprite twisted her head back, letting the wind caress her throat as she focused on the sheet of blue silk above their bodies, watching as heavy branches whipped by overhead.

Their bike rides usually took them to the ocean where salt forced its way into her skin, in her mouth, into her very blood until the crash and pound of the waves was matched only by the swish of redness through her veins.

"Having fun?" Marko's voice drifted back to her, filling Sprite's ears with even those few words. She nodded emphatically, her hair jostled about her face by both her movements and by the wind, knowing he could feel the movement, if not see it.

"It's grand out here," she called back to him, tightening her arms around his waist as she leaned forward, dropping her head to rest against his back. Her eyes drifted shut as she breathed in, drawing the smell of Marko—a mix of sea air, blood, and earth—into her body.

"I thought you'd like it." He eased off the gas and let the bike drift to the edge of the faint path, then cut the engine. Silence descended around them like a carpet of fur, but he made no move to break it.

Sprite drew back just enough to check their surroundings; in the space of the moment it took her to glance from one side to the other, Marko shifted his body around until he faced her, his hands resting on her thighs.

When she glanced at him, the light shining in his eyes was almost too much; she ducked her head, hating the heat she could feel in her cheeks, because she knew it was accompanied by a wash of red.

Marko lifted one hand from her leg and pressed his fingers to her cheek. The words he'd struggled for a week to come up with were lost under the beauty of her face; he couldn't remember a single thing he'd planned on telling her.

It didn't matter though; here, beneath the age-old pines, words weren't necessary. Instead he stroked her cheek again, watching with amazement as the faint moonlight that trickled down through the branches caressed her skin, throwing this bit into highlight and that into shadow.

Light or dark, it mattered not; she was the loveliest creature he'd ever seen, from the tips of her dark hair to the earrings shining as they meandered down her ears to the dark boots covering her feet. She was, in a word, perfect.

Sprite held her breath; no, that wasn't quite right, for that implied control. Her throat constricted and refused to let oxygen pass either into or out of her body. Her hands fell to Marko's waist to hide the trembling that shook her fingers. The tension humming between them was both exhilarating and frightening at once.

At last he leaned forward, his head to one side just enough that she realized what he was about to do. She arched her body toward him, letting her head drift to the other side. The half-moon caught her eyes, tumbling down unrestricted through the tiniest gap in the trees, just as her heart lurched, unrestricted, up into her throat.

As his lips met hers, melding against her with the lightest touch, then again, deeper, harder, longer, one thought filled her head, overwhelming all but her reaction to his presence.

This…this was worth all the time she'd spent waiting for it. And then, as his arms crept around her and she snuggled to him, not breaking the kiss, his strength and power surrounding her—she let hers flare up to meet him, warmth to match the cool ripples of his—Sprite realized this was a beginning, and what a beginning.

A chill ricocheted down her spine as the words began to blur within her head and a new thought drifted up through the murky colors that all reality was swirling in to…this was the beginning of the end.

The End
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