THE SHELBY CHRONICLES
BOOK 1: ASHES TO ASHES
By Shane Lutz
The sun broke over the horizon as the teenaged girl slowly trotted up the ancient hill. Shelby Sparks had just fought for her life – and the lives of infinite others – but she wasn't even breathing hard. It had become her everyday lifestyle. She didn't know anything else.
There was another woman standing at the top of the hill that the girl was patiently ascending. There was an otherworldly sense about the woman; something bizarre. Shelby knew that this powerful being wasn't even remotely human, despite her appearance: She was something older, more arcane.
The woman wore the battered armor of an ancient Greek soldier, even though it was the 21st century. Shelby felt bland in her faded blue jeans and plain green shirt. The woman also held a giant golden shield with the screaming face of a snake-haired she-monster, and a lengthy spear that gleamed in the morning sun. Her black-plumed helmet rested on her forehead, not covering her face. Brownish-red hair gently flowed behind her, caught in the warm, placid breeze. Her stomach was exposed, bordered by a bronze breastplate that did not pass her shoulders and a battle-skirt of strips of studded leather. But what was so distinct, surprisingly, were her dark gray eyes, like a tempest-crossed ocean, fueled with raw energy. She looked like a terrifying Athenian warrior, and, in a sense, she was.
Shelby stood by her teacher's side, staring out at the sunrise alongside her. They didn't face each other, or even make eye contact. The two figures stood in silence for a few more moments before the commanding warrior-woman heaved a sigh.
"They want me to send you on another mission," she said quietly, her voice surprisingly soft for someone so hardened and tough. Shelby remained silent at this statement. "The elders see your potential and wish to use it to their full extent."
"Well," Shelby said, keeping her voice emotionless, "that is what I was raised to do. It's really no surprise, actually. And who am I to object to the orders of the elders?" Her words were strangely mature for someone who was barely fifteen.
The woman sighed again. "Is that what this has come to?" She demanded. "Have you let them brainwash you into believing that you are their little puppet? For the love of the gods, do you even know where you are, child?" The woman herself looked like she was in her early-twenties, but spoke to Shelby as if she were far her superior.
"The Tribunal has instructed me to go where they wish," she replied flatly. "What they wish benefits all of mankind. I am fighting for a better tomorrow, and hopefully the restrained yesterday."
"Spoken like a true warrior…and someone far beyond her years," she replied monotonously. "But it burdens me greatly to see my brightest – and, admittedly – favorite student risk her life for a cause that she will not live to see the outcome of…if it is even ever accomplished."
"Athena," Shelby said, a crooked smile beginning at the corner of her lips, addressing the woman by her ancient title as goddess. "If I don't like for something, I'll fall for anything." The immortal grunted in proud annoyance as her student quoted her. "Now," Shelby glanced at the empty green field stretching on for eternity around them, "how about you get us out of Salisbury Plain and back home, OK?"
Athena smiled, turning her head slightly to glance at her. "You know, I was once worshipped here." She sighed. "But that was millennia ago, when this world still believed the myths it so willingly shuns today." She clicked her tongue in dismay and a hint of sadness. "It is unfortunate what man so quickly regards as legend and fairytale. Especially since it seems like just yesterday that they believed…" She trailed off, her voice growing even quieter in the heavy mist that lay over the field.
"Some still believe," Shelby replied, turning back to look at the horizon and all its burning beauty. "And that's all that matters."
And then, as abruptly as it came, Athena's soft expression hardened, become stern and fierce. "The sky is red," she said uneasily.
"So?" Her student inquired, mentally sifting through her knowledge of ancient lore and superstitions for any clue about what the goddess was suggesting.
"It means a time of blood is coming."
Shelby stood in front of the large bronze doors that led to the Tribunal room. She had been called by the elders – the Tribunal – to be briefed upon the mission she hadn't yet accepted. There were risks, of course. But she hadn't really paid attention to them her entire life, which could be the reason why she was still alive.
She was a hunter; a warrior.
Part of a secret society, she was among the elite. She had been trained by one of the myriad immortals in the society, Athena: one of the very best combatants in history. She was respectively a goddess, worshipped – along with many others – throughout the world in ancient times, known by different names by still the same immortal. There were others in the war branch who were some of the best of the best: Scathach, the Shadow; Mars Ultor, the Avenger; and over a dozen long-lived heroes from Arthur to Jason. They were all experts in the art of war and combat: physical, mental, and psychological.
But Shelby had always regarded Athena as the absolute highest in this area of expertise. She was not only profound at fighting – she was yet to be defeated in the arena by any opponent, mortal and god alike – by was also intelligent. She didn't just fight, she strategized. She was wise and clever, cunning and, when necessary, manipulative. But she only did what was good for all, never her own selfish ambitions.
"Enter," a voice boomed from behind the giant doors.
Shelby took a deep breath, calming herself. These were gods she was about to come face-to-face with. They were extremely powerful, although not invincible. But that didn't calm her nerves. And then, after saying a silent prayer to anyone who was listening, took a step forward, the gate opening by itself.
Surrounding her, in a crescant, were immortals, sitting on elevated platform. They each sat on beautiful thrones behind one continuous wooden podium that stretched in front of all of them. Their expressions were all the same: calm and emotionless; almost bored.
"Shelby Sparks," Mars Ultor, the male leader of the military branch of the Brotherhood of the Snake – the secret society which Shelby had been raised in – boomed, his voice terrifying. There were many divisions of the Brotherhood, each with a different set of immortal leaders, Elders, and Tribunal. Beside the Avenger, Athena sat, holding the role of female leader. She was dressed the same as when Shelby had seen her earlier, her spear in hand, shield at her side, and her silver owl, Metis, on her shoulder. Many other immortals sat on either side of them, paneling the walls around the room, staring down at her.
"We are honored by your presence," Athena said, rising from her seat, her action copied by the myriad other Tribunal members, save for Mars, who simply glared at his half-sister and her peculiar reverence to a loathsome mortal.
"I suspect you have been briefed on your mission?" The Avenger said abruptly, cutting to the chase. His eyes glowed blood red, a bright luminescence in the dark room. His attire was something caught between a Roman Legionnaire's, and a Spartan soldier's. He also held a spear like Athena's and a shield, although his was blood-stained with a chipped painting of a boar on it.
"No, my lord," Shelby replied respectively. She knew these immortals – especially Mars – were very big on respect, and she wasn't interested in getting turned into some grotesque animal anytime soon. "I haven't been told anything."
The Avenger glanced at the straight-faced Athena, whose gaze remained calmly on Shelby. "I must say, sister, that I thought you would've told her." The Goddess of Wisdom just grunted in reply, refusing to play his game. "Or were you afraid she'd say no?" He smirked, the expression monstrous and brutal on the infamous warrior's mug.
Shelby stood in silence, waiting for them to brief her. She let no emotion betray her by casting even a shadow across her face. If there was anything she had learned throughout her lifelong training, it had been how to control your emotions.
While she was expecting Mars to go on, Athena was the one to continue "Child, I am sorry to say that, like every other mission, you must accept it before you are given any exact details."
Shelby bit her lip. Who was she kidding? They all knew she was going to accept. Killing and fighting was what she did best, especially when it had to do with the targets of the Brotherhood of the Snake, which was nothing even remotely human.
Mars grinned deceitfully while Athena's face seemed strangely paler. There were mixed emotions of relief, pain, regret, sadness, anger, and others from the rest of the Tribunal. Shelby furrowed her brow. This wasn't the reaction she was expecting from them.
"So bet it," Pallas Athena – one of her epithets – said, impassive and cold. She looked to the winged woman beside her, Nike, the goddess of victory, who rose and alighted down beside Shelby. She placed her tanned arm against the small of her back and began to lead her out of the Tribunal room.
"I will brief you on the details," she told her. "Don't worry, you'll be fine," she added quickly as she saw the pale look on Shelby's face, smiling encouragingly.
But it wasn't exactly the briefing she was worried about. Right as they walked out of the doors, Shelby heard the snarling laugh of Mars Ultor and his barely audible words that turned her blood to ice as he whispered them to his sister.
"You have condemned that girl to a fate worst than death."
It hadn't been a long passage from New York City, where the Brotherhood's headquarters were located. Shelby had known she was going west, but didn't know where exactly. The missions were always so vague. Her briefing had been, well, brief. She had been told the issue, but not necessarily what it was exactly. At times she thought that the Tribunal wanted their warriors to fail.
Shelby tapped her leg impatiently. She was in a small, private jet. It would fly her from a secure location just outside of NYC and would then travel directly to their veiled destination. She was always anxious before a mission. Every time, she performed with excellence, but that didn't help her nerves. She was practically shaking. Two very strange things kept ringing in her ears.
Why had the Tribunal been so dark and foreboding about this mission?
And what had Mars' last words mean exactly?
"We'll be flying over the drop-zone shortly, ma'am." Shelby was knocked out of her reverie by the voice of the pilot, scratchy and distorted through the intercom.
She pressed the button. "Thank you, I'll get ready to jump."
Her mind wandered while she was suiting up. She was so out of it, that it took her a while to realize she had put the parachute on backwards. She shook her head, attempting – and failing – to clear it. There was so much on her mind, but she had to ignore it. She could not fail.
Shelby Spears was a hunter.
The Brotherhood of the Snake was no ordinary society. It was a place where myth, magic, and history blurred into one. Gods, who had, millennia ago, been worshipped in the most ancient lands, walked the arcane halls of the myriad locations across the globe. It was absolutely top-secret.
And that is where Shelby came in.
She hunted down the most vile and vulgar monsters from the darkest age of mythology and slew them. She had hounded myriad Were-creatures, a variety of vampires, a menagerie of primordial beasts, and even a handful of gods. The Brotherhood's aim was to keep the world of myth and legend concealed to the human world. It would certainly destroy modern society if they knew. And so, to keep the world's sanity, many people were sent into places of power across the globe, covering up mistakes from mythical creatures, monsters, and immortals long enough for others to permanently take care of the problem.
Shelby glanced up at the light above the door located at the back of the place. It turned green, and her heart began to thump in her chest. This is it, she thought. And then, taking a deep breath, she jumped.
She was expecting worse.
The building was immense, true. Jet black, it was stark against the cloudy-white of the fading Californian sky. It was probably twenty-some stories high with a huge floor plan. The windows were tinted to keep out light and no cars were visible. The structure was on private property: not a soul was in sight.
But it was utterly destroyed.
Shelby bit her lip as she glanced up and down the building. It had obviously been struck by a terrifying fire. The top-left corner of the building – three whole stories – was missing; windows were shattered; crows perched on exposed beams; small gaps stuck out across the outer walls. She could only imagine the destroyed and dilapidated inside of the place. So far, this mission was not going well.
A little over a half an hour before, Shelby had crawled out of the San Francisco Bay, soaking wet. She had unlatched her parachute in the water to make swimming to shore easier. It didn't take her long to realize she was in San Francisco, especially from where she landed. It wasn't the Golden Gate Bridge that gave it away; it was Alcatraz. The ex-prison housed the most ghosts in the world, and it was home to myriad monsters and beasts in its subterranean cages that were off limits to tourists. The Brotherhood had bought the place and had intended to close it and use it as a facility to hold the creatures that they would not – or could not – kill. But when complaints about the historical landmark came from all across the world, it was opened to the general public, although the most interesting parts were still, according to the Brotherhood, "nonexistent."
From the polluted beach, she used the trigger she had been given to find the site of her mission. Triggers were interesting objects: they were tattoos created entirely by a simple construct of magic. The trigger, when needed, could come alive and lead the way to a destination. They usually took the form of flying animals, such as birds or winged-insects. Shelby always used butterflies. They were adopted by the Brotherhood as a simple way to show the way of hunters who didn't know the exact coordinates of their mission.
After activating the trigger, Shelby had been led by the fiery butterfly to this abandoned building. She checked her watch. It was 5:27pm. She hadn't meant to arrive so late. Even though the sun was still up, and her targets would be asleep, it was still risky. It was almost twilight, and while the creatures wouldn't be at the top of their game, the sun wouldn't be able to protect her.
Shelby took a deep breath and pushed open the rusted iron-gate. It was at least seven feet high but jerkily slid open from age and disrepair. As she walked through the opening, she checked her weapons. She had two large knives in her boots, a curved shamshir sword strapped to her back, several vials of salt in her pockets, two thunderstones – a rock inscribed with ancient runes that will erupt in light when thrown – and, ironically, a flashlight. Along with this large assortment of deadly tools, she also had her signature weapons: two sais. They were short swords, with about two-foot long blades with a curved base and a thin handle. The blades were engraved with arcane symbols that predated mankind, and the entire dagger was made of a blue-gray stonelike substance that was poison to immortal creatures, especially mythological beasts. Strangely, the material the sais were made from are the same as the mysterious rocks of Stonehenge, which have the same lethal effects.
Shelby moved swiftly and stealthily across the courtyard of the giant building. Now that she approached, it looked more like a black mansion rather than an office building, like she had first thought it was. Her hands loosely grasped the hilts of the sais, the blades laying on the underside of her bare arms. Her breathing was slow and quiet, her heart trained to beat slowly. The things inside the construction could hear a heartbeat from miles away and smell blood from even father. If they weren't already awake, she would have to move quickly to keep the element of surprise.
She ascended the steps that led to the door quickly, hearing a soft creaking as she hit each decrepit stair. There was a large whole in the black door, and Shelby realized that the door had actually been white but the sable coloring came from thick ash that seemed to coat everything, black or otherwise colored.
The double-doors slid open shakily, their creaks sounding like a thousand screams in the still, silent air. Nothing moved inside the house, and all Shelby could see was darkness. Even the windows that were still intact were pitch black, painted clumsily. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the midnight in the afternoon. When she could make out even the vaguest of shapes, she cautiously closed the door behind her, feeling her heart skip a beat when she heard the soft yet audible click. She could feel the adrenaline boiling inside her. She had gone through moments much worse than this before, and the rush was always the same. A nervous anxiety intertwined with a fanatical joy. This was the hunt.
After scanning the bottom floor and finding none present, she flicked her flashlight on, keeping a firm grasp on the sai in her left hand. If she was attacked, she could easily draw the other blade while still holding the flashlight, but she didn't want to be crept up on. So, with a wary step, she covertly climbed the spiral staircase.
She passed the second and third floor without a second glance: there was a gaping hole in the side of the wall on the fourth floor, letting the veiled light flood into the room. She thought she heard movement on the fifth floor, and was immediately suspicious when the sound of fluttering wings sputtered across the room. But whatever it was had disappeared, and she vigilantly continued up.
The sixth floor was where all the action was. It was absolutely dark there. Not a single shard of light filtered into the large, open room. It seemed like all the room dividers and walls that had separated the spaces had been destroyed. It was like a giant loft, with ancient, dusty and cobwebbed Victorian furniture that dotted the room. Shelby heard a light clicking sound, and she flicked up her flashlight instinctively, preparing for whatever awaited her.
Shelby's heart thrummed in her chest at the sight of them. Hanging upside down from the ceiling were about a dozen and a half creatures. Talons that were a cross between human feet and birds' claws bit deep into the soft plaster, while leathery bats' wings that were connected to their arms wrapped around skeletal, gray human bodies. The upside-down heads were beautiful, with the faces of young men and women not yet in their teens.
They were vampires that had originated in the Indian subcontinent. While not all vampires did so, this clan drank blood and ate flesh. They were feral; driven by primal instincts and guided by above-human intelligence. Like all vampires, they were photosensitive – which would explain the blacked-out windows – but the sun wouldn't kill them, they just avoided it as much as they could. It was like a nasty sunburn, but they could last long enough to finish her off if she ran.
Shelby mouthed the word silently. They were powerful, ancient beings. They were one clan of the few that actually posed a threat to humanity. But they guarded tribes and – occasionally – a family from generation to generation. So what were they doing here, in San Francisco? And, more importantly, how had they gotten there?
Shelby had finally begun to realize just how much danger she was in.