November 28, 2013

A Holiday Present from Mari Mancusi

One of the first BEA 2013 books I read was SCORCHED by Mari Mancusi. I freaking loved this book about dragons and time travel and twin hotties. You can check out my review here.

As a special holiday present to you, Mari Mancusi is offering the chance to read the never-before-seen first two chapters of Scorched from an earlier version. These tantalizing chapters feature a scene of Caleb and Connor as kids with their parents on the Surface Lands, as well as a scene of Connor arriving in Trinity’s world earlier and watching her in the school cafeteria. If that wasn’t exciting enough, readers will finally get to meet Caitlin, the friend Trinity always talks about in the novel, and also see what Trinity’s life was like pre-dragon egg!

But, first, a guest post from Mari Mancusi...

Discovering your story’s true beginning…

Sometimes the most difficult part about writing a book is figuring out where to begin. And sometimes authors like myself end up with several false starts before finally discovering the true first page of their book. In the original version of Scorched I started the story with Connor and Caleb at age ten, on the day their father was killed and their destinies changed forever.

But while it’s certainly a dramatic, important scene with tons of dragon action, it doesn’t drop the reader right into the real crux of the current conflict—the dragon egg arriving at the museum and the soldiers trying to steal it. Ultimately, I ended up using a shorter version of this as a flashback later on in the final book. But I do still have some affection for this extended peak into the boys’ family life, before it was torn apart by dragons.
The second deleted chapter shows exactly how much a story’s backdrop can change over the course of editing. In the original version, Trinity goes to an Upper East Side boarding school in New York City, not Texas. And she has a history of hearing voices in her head, rather than hearing the first voice in the museum just before the break-in. And lastly, Connor is already there—watching her, readying to make his move, instead of arriving four months late. In this version you get to meet Trinity’s best friend Caitlin, who is mentioned a lot in the final version of Scorched, but never made a real appearance on the page. 

It’s fun to look back at the story as it might have been. And I hope you enjoy the sneak peek into a writer’s head. Oh and by the way? At this stage the working title of the book was “Scales of Time.” (Which no one seemed to like but me! Sigh.)

Year 100, Post-Scorch

    Ten-year-old Caleb Johnson leapt from the pile of twisted iron wreckage he’d been hiding behind, arms outstretched and fingers curled into claws. “I am the dreaded ruby dragon, Epsilon!” he declared, a fierce expression on his sunburned, freckled face. “Beware or I will unleash my mighty flames upon you!” He roared again for emphasis.
    His identical twin brother, Connor, squealed into a mixture of delight and surprise as he expertly dodged his brother’s charge and took off running through the Pre-Flag building—down a rubble-filled corridor, beneath a blackened archway, leaping over crumbling cinderblocks and ducking rusty steel pipes, his brother hot on his heels. From above, orange rays of light from the setting sun leaked through cracks in the battered tin roof, effectively illuminating his path.
    "You cannot get away!" Caleb cried from behind him. "No one can escape a dragon! RAWR!"
    Connor dead-ended in a long, chamber, filled with rotting wooden benches that faced some kind of elevated stage and dusty altar. The roof had held here, allowing him a better glimpse into what the room must have looked like, once upon a time. A church, his mother had told them when they’d taken shelter here earlier that day.
    Caleb burst into the room, his crooked teeth bared in a ferocious snarl. Connor laughed, running down the aisle and grabbing a metal scepter that lay abandoned on the ground near the altar. Turning on his brother, he wielded the metal object as if it were a mighty gun-blade.
    “I don’t need to escape,” he proclaimed bravely. “I am a Hunter. And I will take you down!” He leapt forward, ready to destroy the mighty dragon once and for--
    "Caleb? Connor? Get back here where I can see you."
    Connor lowered his gun-blade. "Awh, Mom."
    "We're just having fun," Caleb added.
    Their mother poked her head into the chamber. “Well, dinner’s almost ready," she informed them. "You do want to eat, don't you?"
    It wasn’t really a question. Dropping his makeshift weapon, Conner scrambled after his mother and brother down the rubble-filled hall and into the stifling heat of a smaller entry room with four good walls, ceiling and door. His mother had swept out all the ashes when they'd first arrived and set up a makeshift camp—complete with cinderblock fire, on which she had set her large cast-iron pot. She looked over at her boys and smiled.
    "And how are my brave little Dragon Hunters?" she asked, a teasing look in her eyes.
    "Starving," Connor replied, peering into the cauldron where the soup bubbled and boiled. The smoke stung his eyes, but the smell more than made up for it.
    "Well, you're in luck. My snares caught a couple of rats today. So there's real meat in the soup." She grabbed two cracked ceramic bowls from one of the worn knapsacks she’d piled in a corner, ladling the cauldron's contents into them and handing them to her sons. Mom was an expert at making what Dad jokingly called "stone soup" with the scarce ingredients she could scavenge while camping out on the surface lands.
    The boys settled down on their sleeping mats and Connor brought the bowl to his mouth, burning his tongue on the steaming liquid. It was a bit bland--they'd run out of salt earlier that week--but it would fill his rumbling stomach and that was all that mattered in the end.
    A sudden noise outside made Mom leap to her feet, grabbing the knife from her belt and gripping it tightly in her hand. "Who's there?" she demanded, her voice almost fierce enough to disguise her fear. "We're armed and will not hesitate to defend ourselves."
    "Will you now, my love?" asked the tall, burly man sauntering through the door. The boys squealed in delight as they dropped their bowls to great their father. Mom set down her knife, letting out a sigh of relief, as Caleb and Connor fought to hug Dad first. He dropped down to their eye level and ruffled their matching brown heads of hair.
    "My boys!" he cried, kissing each of them on the cheek. "Have you been good? Keeping your mother safe for me?"
    "Yes, Sir," Connor assured him with a small salute. "She's all right. And there's rat in the soup tonight."
    Dad flashed a smile at Mom. "Rat in the soup," he repeated. "Well, this is a good night indeed then." He rose to his feet and walked over to his wife, wrapping his arms around her and squeezing her close.
    "Any luck today?" Connor heard her ask in a low voice.
    Dad released her from his embrace and walked over to the corner to pull off his dusty jacket and boots. "No," he replied. "But he's out there. I can smell his smoke in the air. And his shadow crossed the sun at least twice today. It's as if he's searching for something."
    Mom handed him a bowl of soup. "Forget him, then," she urged. "We've been out here thirty days now and he's not come down. We're out of food and it's not good for the boys to be out here so long." 
    "Is it really any better down below?" Dad asked her pointedly. "With no dragon heart, we have no money and no means to buy bread or meat. We'll end up living in Shanty Town. At least up here, we're free."
    "Free to get eaten by a dragon or murdered by wandering bandits."
    "But thirty pieces of silver, love! I slay this dragon and we'll live like kings and queens!"
    "Please. I'd rather have you alive and well than be any kind of stuffy royalty."
    Dad chuckled at her grumpy face. "Oh, wife," he teased. "What did I do to deserve you?" He planted a kiss on her sunburned nose. "Okay, you win," he said. "Tomorrow when the sun rises, we'll head straight to the C Gate. Go underground and regroup. Maybe send the boys to school for a bit." He sat down on his mat and started sipping his soup.
    Connor and Caleb looked at one another with distaste. The last thing they wanted was to go below again. Where it was cramped and dirty and crowded with other people. They preferred it up here--a surface land filled with undiscovered treasures from the old world. Even if they did have to worry about--
    An inhuman howl pierced through the evening air.
    Dad was on his feet instantly. "It's him," he announced, looking over at Mom with an excited gleam in his eyes. "My last call must have reached him. He's coming in at last."
    Mom swallowed hard, turning to the boys. "Go to the innermost chamber," she instructed, her voice thick with fear. "The one with the best roof. And wait there until you hear from us." She doused the fire and started grabbing their things, stuffing them into bags.
    “But Mom!” Connor protested. He didn't want to miss out on the action.
    “No backtalk. Do it now!” Her voice left no room for argument.
    The boys reluctantly turned and headed down the rubble-filled corridor, toward the large chamber. When they were out of sight of their parents, Caleb turned to Connor, his eyes shining with excitement. I know a place we can watch from, he told him, using their silent twin speak that no one else could hear. I found it earlier today. Mom will never know.
    Connor grinned. Major. Lead the way.
    He followed his brother through a now darkened corridor, through a caved-in wall and up a pile of rubble until they reached a broken glass window that led out onto the roof. Caleb squeezed his skinny body through and then turned, motioning for his brother to follow him.
    Connor looked reluctantly at the window. I don’t know… he hedged.
    Dad’s going to slay a dragon, Connor. You want to miss it?
    Connor shook his head. “No, of course not,” he said aloud, making up his mind and climbing through the window, careful not to cut himself on the glass. Without proper medicine, the smallest cut out here could be deadly. He followed his brother up the metal roof, slick from a recent rain, until they could peek over to the other side of the building, where Dad was readying for his fight.
    They looked at each other and grinned, then turned back to the scene. Dad had pulled his mighty gun-bade from its holster and readied his shield, the shiny metal gleaming in the dusky eve. As the boys watched, he scanned the darkened sky, eyes locking onto his target, far above. Connor followed his gaze. A Sapphire, he realized. Only half grown by the look of it. Should be an easy fight for an experienced Dragon Hunter like their father.
    "It's so beautiful," Caleb said with a dreamy sigh. "It's almost a shame Dad has to kill it."
    Connor shuddered, seeing nothing beautiful about the hard-scaled creature with razor sharp teeth and vacant eyes. The dragon seemed to dance through the sky, flittering about, toying with their father. Dad shrugged the gun-blade onto his shoulder and readied his first shot. Sucked in his breath, lining up his target. Then he pulled the trigger.
    The dragon let out an angry screech as the bullet bounced harmlessly off its sapphire plated scales. He'd missed the sweet spot. The one soft scale under the left wing. Dad liked to brag about one-shot kills. But today evidently wasn't his day.
    The creature released a stream of fire--scorching the ground mere feet from where their father had stood--Dad leaping backwards, just in time. Connor scooted further up on the roof, to get a better look, his heart feeling as if it would crack his ribs it was beating so hard.
Come on, Dad! he urged his father silently. Kill it!
    Suddenly the dragon whipped its head around, stony eyes locking straight onto Connor as if it had heard his silent cry. Shock caused him to lose his balance on the slippery roof and a moment later he found himself tumbling down the other side, as the dragon's screech reverberated in his ears. He slammed onto the desert floor, a sharp pain shooting up his leg as his ankle crumpled and cracked.
    "Connor!" Dad cried in a horrified voice. He started toward his son. But the dragon was too quick, coming down for a fast landing. Panicked, Connor tried to scramble away, but his foot dragged uselessly--his ankle likely broken.
    He looked up and found himself face to face with the dragon, now standing only a few feet away, studying him with cold eyes. The creature pulled back its head, smoke billowing from its nostrils. Connor swallowed hard. One more moment and the fire would come. And it would be over forever. He squared his scrawny shoulders instead, ready to face death like a man and--
Suddenly Connor found himself being grabbed and thrown--like a sack full of hot potatoes. He hit the ground a few yards away with a hard thump, the pain shooting up his leg all over again. But it scarcely registered as he watched the dragon let loose a stream of fire--striking his father--who had dropped his shield and gun-blade to save his son--full force in the chest. For a moment, his dad's body just stood there, as if frozen in place while being engulfed in a sea of flames. Then he fell to the ground, screaming with agony.
    "No!" Connor cried. In a fit of adrenaline-pumped rage, he dove at the discarded gun-blade. Gripping it in his hands, he turned to the creature, and, before the dragon could conjure up another blast, charged full force. Stabbing the gun-blade straight into the creature's soft spot, just as his father had taught him to do.
    The dragon bellowed in agony, collapsing to the ground and writhing in pain as the blade pierced its unprotected heart. Connor met the creature's eyes with his own, staring it down with defiant rage. He yanked out the blood-soaked blade and stabbed the now helpless creature again. And again. And--
    “Connor, stop! He’s dead. The dragon’s dead!” He felt his mother’s arms grab him from behind and drag him away. He collapsed onto the ground, once again aware of the pain in his ankle. His mother dropped to her knees, searching his face with her own tear-stained one.
    "Dad?" he managed to say, even though he already knew in his heart what her answer would be.
    Mom shook her head. “I’m sorry Connor,” she said, tears streaming down her own cheeks. He buried his face in her chest, letting the grief take him. She held him close, rocking him gently, soothing him in soft whispers.
    "I can't believe he's gone," he sobbed against her.
    "I know sweetie," she murmured. "But he died a hero. Always remember that. And you're a hero, too. The way you killed that dragon..." He could feel the shake of her head. "You must have inherited your father's skills as a Dragon Hunter."
    He shrugged, pulling away from her embrace and limping over to the dead dragon. He spit on the corpse, wishing there was some way to inflict even more pain and suffering on the creature who had taken his father away from them.
    "I'll have my revenge on the rest of your kind," he whispered to the dragon. "I won't rest until dragons have been wiped out for good."

Chapter Two
New York City, Present Day

    "Hey, don't look now, but that vampire over there is staring at you again."
    Sixteen-year-old Trinity Brown set down her sandwich and spun in the direction her best friend, Caitlin Curry was gazing, across the high school cafeteria. Caitlin swatted her arm.
    "I said don't look. Jeez!"
    But it was too late and beyond the trays of mystery meat and half-eaten slices of pizza, Trin found herself locking eyes with the "vampire" in question, who was lounging a few tables away and indeed staring at her intently--not even having the decency to look away when caught in the act. With tousled brown hair, pale white skin and eyes rimmed in black kohl, she had to admit, he did kind of resemble a creature of the night and his dark gaze sent shivers down her spine. Flushed, she hurriedly dropped her eyes and turned back to her friend.
    "That's not a vampire," she replied, disguising her sudden unease with a loud, barking laugh. "There’s not a single sparkle on him.”
    They erupted into giggles, breaking the spell and Caitlin, seemingly satisfied, dug into her cafeteria special--Salisbury steak. It was hard to fathom how the skinny girl wasn't three-hundred pounds, the way she wolfed down her food. Trin reached for her own tofu and cheese sandwich that her grandfather had bagged her that morning and took a bite.
    But today, her favorite sandwich tasted more like cardboard, and she was unable to shake feeling of the boy's stare, scorching her backside with the intensity of a thousand suns. Annoyed, she tossed the sandwich back on the table.
    "What?" Caitlin asked, her mouth full of mashed potato. It was always a surprise to her when people turned down food. Even if it was only tofu.
    Trin frowned. "He's still staring." She wasn't sure how she could tell, sitting with her back to him and all, but somehow she knew it to be true.
    "He's been staring at you all week, girl," Caitlin reminded her. She strained her neck to get another peek. "Don't worry--he looks harmless. Cute, even, if only he got rid of that eyeliner and made friends with a tanning bed. Looks to me like Mr. Goth hasn't seen the sun in the last sixteen years."
    "So who is he again?" Trin asked. Caitlin was a walking Wikipedia when it came to the student body. Especially when it came to boys.
    "New kid. Name's...Connor Johnson, I believe. Came here a week ago. From Seattle or something. They grow 'em scrawny out there. Bi-product of nineties grunge-era parents and too much organic at an impressionable age."
    Trin processed the information. Then she shrugged. "Well, wherever he's from, I don't appreciate him staring at me like that," she replied with a scowl. "It's freaking me out." She squirmed in her seat, weirded out, but not quite knowing why.
    "Don't worry. I'll take care of it," Caitlin assured her. And before Trin could stop her, her friend was on her feet. "Hey dude!" she cried, in a voice loud enough to attract half the cafeteria. "Lay off with the stalker thing, won't you? Girl's not interested!”
    The cafeteria erupted in laughter and conversation as everyone turned to check out the scene. Trin watched as the boy--Connor--rolled his eyes and rose from his seat with a fluid elegance that surprised her. He grabbed his long, black coat and military style backpack, then strolled leisurely out of the cafeteria without another look back.
     "There." Caitlin said, plopping back down on her own stool, a triumphant look on her freckled face. She pushed her glasses up her nose. "Edward Cullen won’t be bothering you again."
    Trin pushed her sandwich away, no longer hungry. "Yeah," she said, her voice sounding more disappointed than she'd meant it to. "Probably not."
    Situation seemingly satisfied, Caitlin launched into a lament about the obscene amount of homework Mr. Murphy had given her A period and how there was no way she'd possibly be able to do it all, especially when she had a date with Todd tonight. Trin tried her best to provide the expected murmurs of sympathy to fill the pauses in her best friend's monologue, but found herself repeatedly stealing glances at the doorway in which Conner had disappeared.
    But the strange transfer student didn't make a reappearance, which was, most likely, for the best. After all, Trin didn't need any more unwanted attention, that was for sure. And even if the guy did have some kind of new-kid crush on her, he'd learn soon enough from the other students why that was a very bad idea.
    Still, there was just something about him. The way he stared at her, with those strange, haunted eyes of his. As if he were desperate to tell her something...
    She shook her head. Don't even go there, Trin. Remember what happened the last time.
    Speaking of eyes, she suddenly realized that by managing to shake off one boy's attentions, she'd managed to gain half of East Side Academy's. Hunching in her seat, she could sense their laughing mouths and bated breath, as if begging her to do something crazy for their lunchtime amusement. It was a small school, after all, and they all knew her history.
    She rose from her seat. "I'm out," she said, grabbing her brown bag and shoving her sandwich into it.
    "But lunch isn't over," Caitlin protested.
    "I've got to hit the nurse's."
    Her friend nodded understandingly and gave her a mock salute. "Love you girl."
    "Love you, too."
    Trin stuffed her ear buds into her ears, turning up her iPod full blast, as she maneuvered her way through the rows of tables, avoiding eye contact with anyone she passed. The deep, soulful crooning of her favorite Goth singer filled her ears--a particularly effective mix for drowning out her fellow student body. Unfortunately, she didn't need her ears to know exactly what they were saying about her as she passed. They even had a chant, made up by Amber Madden during a particularly boring seventh grade recess, which had stuck ever since.
Trin Brown is insane
Something wrong with her brain
Hearing voices in her head
Seeing people who are dead
    For the record, Trin had never, at least knowingly, seen anyone dead. And the voices? The doctors had finally come up with a way to silence those permanently. Unfortunately that wasn't until after the long-ago Sixth Grade Incident of Crazy that no one at East Side Academy seemed willing to forget.
    If only she'd been able to attend a different high school. One on the West Side, maybe, where no one knew about her and her broken brain. But East Side Academy was the only one willing to give her a full boat scholarship with her dubious medical record and her grandfather's dwindling bank account had guilted her into taking it.
    Can't let a few bullies ruin a world-class education, she reminded herself, uttering one of grandfather’s favorite platitudes. Though sometimes she wasn't sure it was worth it.
    Trin turned the corner and headed down the empty, florescent-lit hallway, lined with red lockers, toward the school infirmary. Pushing open the door, she greeted old Nurse Darien, who was sitting at her desk, as always, lost in a romance novel. The nurse gestured vaguely to a table full of prescriptions and Trin grabbed her own, dry swallowing two tablets and setting the bottle back down on the counter. It was a ritual they went through every day.
    Might as well hit the library before class, she decided, having no desire to go back to the jeering faces in the cafeteria.
    Trudging down the hallway, staring down at her black converse, music still blaring in her ears, Trin turned the corner, assuming the next corridor would be as empty as the last. Instead, she found herself slamming into something solid. Make that someone solid. Very solid, in fact.
    "Sorry, she muttered, pulling the ear buds from her ears. "I wasn't looking where..." She trailed off, her eyes widening as she realized just who she'd slammed into.
    None other than Mr. Vampire himself.

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