Excerpt – The Last Rite

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This Will All Be Yours. . .

What could be more enticing—or more terrifying— to a lonely thirteen-year-old than to be offered both companionship and limitless power?
Kidnapped, imprisoned in an underground labyrinth, Maggie Stuart must decide if the ancient being known to her only as “The Burnt Man” is friend or foe, if this is a new home or a deadly trap, and whether or not she can overcome her greatest fear—of what she herself is becoming. . .
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from THE LAST RITE

Blood & Magic ✪ Book One

by Jen Frankel

 

It seemed very quiet in the school with everyone else down at the other end of the wing in the auditorium with the doors closed. I couldn’t even hear the tick of clocks or the buzz of fluorescent lights. I listened harder, trying to pick out sounds. Holding my breath, I heard the faint whoosh of the jet noise again, but decided that must come from somewhere beyond the school.

Lying still with my head supported only by the thin pillow, I began to feel nauseated again and swung my legs off the cot. Maybe I should go to the bathroom. My head was still swimming. Moving in a haze, I went to the door and, pulling it ajar, stood perfectly still.

My balance was off, and I steadied myself on the door frame. I had opened the door of the nurse’s office onto a dark hallway, and I wondered immediately if I’d somehow mistaken the time on the clock above the sink. Maybe it was set wrong. Only if school was already over would it explain why everything was so quiet.

Injecting itself into my thoughts came a groaning sound from far off down the hall toward the gymnasium, too faint to identify. What the heck? Something in my stomach started to gurgle uncomfortably.

The sensation that some impending event hung over the school, and more particularly me, pressed down on me. I looked at my own watch, a simple thing with a silver face and black band Jan had given me for my last birthday. Two-fifteen. Right in line with the nurse’s clock. So school wasn’t over, and the assembly was still in progress if the closed doors, dimly visible at the end of the hallway, were any indication.

Aware suddenly that a patch of my skin was crawling, I put a finger to the back of my neck just below the hairline. It came away wet with a single drop of red blood. I rubbed the sore spot until the bleeding stopped. Fainting, and now what? I must have hit something – but no, Mr. Hunt said he’d caught me. I flashed back to the glinting object in Hunt’s hand as I awoke. I fixated on there being a connection, but its meaning was impossible to imagine.

Turning away from the gym, I started down the hallway back toward Mr. Hunt’s room and paused outside the door to the girls’ washroom. Maybe that’s all I needed, to relieve the pain in my stomach and splash some cold water on my face. If Mr. Hunt came looking, he would surely guess where I’d gone, and besides, I wouldn’t be long.

Once inside the washroom, all the tension in my bladder ceased. Seized again by the notion that something odd was happening, I walked down the whole row of stalls, pushing each open, before I settled on the one farthest from the door.

I’d barely entered the stall when I heard the washroom door brush open on its hydraulic arm. Gripped by sudden panic, for no reason I could explain, I pulled myself silently onto the toilet seat, drawing my feet up. Footsteps, the squeal of rubber on floor, and then a hiss, no more than a breath – my name.

“Maaaggggie. . .”

I filled my lungs and held on to the air, not daring to move. There was silence, then, “Anyone in here?” still in the same low hiss.

I heard the door fall shut against the pressured resistance, and waited. Only after I discerned the faint echo of footsteps moving quickly down the hall toward Mr. Hunt’s classroom was I convinced he was gone.

And then came the hard part, as I lowered my feet to the floor again and went to splash water over my super-heated temples. Why had I not let him know I was there? Why, with the offer of a ride home, and being pretty much told to leave school early, an unprecedented treat, had I not stayed put as Mr. Hunt had told me, and why, when he’d come looking for me, had I pretended not to be there?

But that voice, which had been unmistakably Mr. Hunt’s, had, if I was honest with myself, raised in me a panic unlike anything I had ever known, except perhaps in the moment of terror following in the wake of a nightmare.

I opened the washroom door slowly, even though I was sure he was long gone from the hallway. He was; the school again looked deserted, and the silence now took on an even more sinister aspect.

Unable to help myself, I padded slowly up the corridor toward the auditorium. My heart was tight in my chest. Somewhere above the school, I imagined storm clouds heavy and black, threatening a storm to end all storms.

As I walked, my fingers twitched on the band of my watch. Before I knew what I was doing, the strap was loose and the watch dropped to my feet. But I was unable, or unwilling, to stop my steady, mechanical progress up the hall toward the closed doors. The watch remained where it had fallen, and I continued on.

And then I became aware of sounds, finally, like a station tuned in all along on a distant radio and only now close enough to hear. There was the jet noise, coming in long erratic pulses, and the strange, heart-sick groan moving through it like a whale through deep water. And floating above, with a pin-point delicacy enough to bring the promise of tears to the corner of my eyes, was the sweet, beautiful sound of a boy, singing.

I have been entranced, I told myself, and it felt true. I was no longer under my own control. The power of decision had been taken from me. I felt as if a drug was moving through my system, and perhaps it was.

That would explain some of Mr. Hunt’s odd behavior, if he had purposely thrown chalk dust in my face and then offered me a cup of water spiked with some knock-out drug. It wouldn’t explain why he had done it, of course, or why he had been in the washroom, or why he had been so explicit about keeping me isolated, or taking me out of the school.

And it probably wouldn’t explain why I was being drawn to the auditorium as if the boy’s song was the call of a siren and not to be refused.

But before I could reach the doors, before I could cross the foyer at the juncture of the school’s wings even, the doors exploded out toward me. Jason Lawson came running at me, full tilt, all long legs and panic. Through the opening behind him, I glimpsed candles, and a sheen of red shining on the walls, and students sitting unmoving on the floor in precise rows of exactly the sort never seen in any public school assembly in this world.

Near the door, I saw Jason’s best friend, Scott Saunders, his curly hair matted with shadows, his legs crossed awkwardly under him. Beside him was Aaron Scribner, a boy who I knew only as one of the smartest boys in school, but his blank eyes and fixed gaze had no intelligence at all. There was no sense to the scene, or only an ancient and wild meaning I had no desire to grasp.

“Run, Maggie!” Jason screamed, passing me and fleeing down the hallway.

I turned slowly, unable at first to pull my eyes away from the half-grasped images beyond the doors as they fell shut again. The drug in my bloodstream was making me sluggish again, and I was only dimly aware of a bulky figure pushing me roughly aside to follow Jason down the hall.

It was enough to completely unbalance me, and I crumpled in a tangle of my own limbs, unable for the moment to stand or to do anything beyond watch Jason and his pursuer.

Jason had almost reached the doors at the end of the wing when something winked in the air above the larger figure’s head. As if in slow motion, I watched Jason topple. My breath came faster and faster, the cold floor pounding against my chest and the knowledge of what I had seen in the auditorium, or what I thought I had seen, scorching my back like the flame of an open fire. My heavy hands curved into claws and I dug at the cold tile, pulling myself along and away from the glistening red, which could only be blood, and the silent students, who could only be entranced like I myself had been.

Rising above the pulsing blood in my own ears was that ironic and strangely calming music, the boy soprano singing so sweetly. A new sound began, as the door to the auditorium opened again, a flapping which made me think of the beat of crows’ wings. Above the school, from those storm clouds of my weighty premonitions: it had to be a helicopter.

It was the only explanation I could conceive to match the profile of the noise. A helicopter. Through the glass at the junction of the wings I watched its shadow cover the walls, the beating of its rotor stirring the faded sunlight into bands of light and dark.

Down the hallway, I saw Jason coming nearer, his feet in the grip of his big captor and his head and arms dragging on the floor behind him. His ankles were bound, with some kind of rope. I looked again, and knew what I was seeing. A bolo, rope weighted on both ends. They had brought Jason down like a hunted animal.

And then a figure descended on me as well, a huge hand filling my vision. My head was wrenched around as something cut off all the air into my lungs. I tasted something sweet, and realized with barely resonating shock that the man with his hand clamped over my mouth was my – was my French teacher, Mr. Sterling.

The walls began to swim, and my eyes blinked heavier and heavier. I was only half aware of the voice of the young man from the car on the street, saying something to Jason. I caught the ironic tone, but none of the words.

Then, for the second time that day, I, Maggie Stuart, new crown princess of the really bad day at school, lost consciousness.

$25
412 pages, trade paperback
featuring illustrations by the author