CHAPTER ONE

Diana


It all started when those chickens went missing.

The townspeople had a meeting the very next day, right there in the village square. Everyone was in attendance, prepared to place blame on their neighbors’ Rottweiler or rogue teenagers. Accusations were thrown around. Denials were made. A lot of people went home angry.

Then a cow turned up dead in the middle of Old Mister Ackerman’s field, mauled and bloody. And then another. Another. Dozens. In a farming town like Piccadily, livestock puts food on the table. Dead animals turning up was not just a cause for concern, it was catastrophic.

A second meeting was held and this time, the villagers were mostly subdued. I’d stood beside my father near the front of the crowd, fanning his red face and reminding him to stay calm, so he wouldn’t rile his ulcer.

“It’s the beast!”

I can still remember the elderly man who’d stood up and wobbled his way to the front of the gathering, his cane tapping on the cracked concrete. Mister Ackerman’s great-great grandfather had founded Piccadily and when he spoke, everyone listened—and that day was no exception. I’d held my breath while waiting for him to continue. A beast? Surely I’d misheard him.

“I’m telling you all, it’s that damn beast again.” He’d rapped his cane on the ground. “He’s roamed the hills of this town since I was a boy. I’ve seen this kind of destruction before. Long before any of you were born.”

“A beast?” cried a female voice in the crowd. “What kind of beast?”

“A predator the likes of which you’ve never seen.” His audience, now rapt, crowded closer. “Taller than two men stacked on top of one another. Fierce. Violent. Hungry. There hasn’t been a sighting since I was a boy. Since my grandfather found a way to appease the beast. To make him leave Piccadily alone!”

“How did he do it?” My father wanted to know. “What does he want from us? I don’t know about everyone else, but if I lose any more cattle, I won’t be able to put a roof over our heads come the winter.”

“Yes,” another eager voice had chimed in. “What does the beast want to leave us alone? We’ll do anything.”

Mister Ackerman was silent for moment. “A sacrifice.” His cheeks deepened to red beneath his white whiskers. “A sacrifice of flesh.”

Alarmed by the ominous sound of that, I’d tugged on my father’s sleeve. “What does that mean?”

“We tried to fight the beast, but the men we sent up into the hills never returned,” Ackerman had continued, sounding weary. “My grandfather was the one who decided to…deliver the young girl. To the beast.”

A gasp had gone up, followed by silence.

My heartbeat was like the beating wings of a dove in my ears.

Sacrifice.

Young girl.

Beast.

These words used together were totally foreign. All of this had seemed like nothing but an outlandishly bad nightmare at the time.

I’d been so wrong.

A woman had stepped forward, holding a newborn in her arms. “Surely we can’t just give one of our own to a monster!”

Ackerman shrugged. “It kept him away eighty years the first time. We can wait to see if the beast kills more of our precious livestock. Or we can act. We can employ the only tried and true method we know.”

“But…who?”

I didn’t miss the way Ackerman’s eyes slid over me. “She’ll need to be a, uh…” A cough rattled out of him. “A virgin. Pleasing to look at.”

I’d buried my face in my father’s arm at that point, because every head in the crowd had turned to face me, to rake me with unsubtle scrutiny. I was used to being stared at. Seemed like it had been going on since I was in middle school and started looking just like my mother. She’d been beloved in Piccadily, but died giving birth to me. Not a day passes that someone doesn’t remind me I could be her twin, both of us blonde and fair with silver eyes.

Ackerman had pointed a bony finger at me. “It’ll have to be that one.”

And so. I’m currently being dragged through the forest in the middle of the night wearing a wedding dress, all trussed up to be sacrificed to a beast. So if this whole situation is indeed a nightmare, I would really appreciate someone waking me up about now. My own father marches me forward, his fingers twisted in the bindings that keep my wrists imprisoned. It’s a scene out of high school history books, though we live in the twenty-first century. I knew my small town was behind the times, but this is taking things to another level of old school. Case in point, I’m flanked on all sides by villagers carrying torches instead of flashlights, their eyes shifting nervously.

“What do you all have to be nervous about?” Lord but I sound pitiful, my voice a tearful wail. “I’m the one that’s about to be the bride of Bigfoot.”

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