*This is the first chapter of my second novel, Vestal Phases.*

From somewhere off between the naked trees, Lawrence Padd heard singing.

Your love’s got me looking so crazy right now

Your love’s got me looking so crazy right now

Repeated over and over, a capella, slowly and carefully, the tempo a silky river. The voice was young, high, candy-sweet.

Padd lifted his hand and spoke into his open palm.

“Crazy in Love, by Beyonce, may her voice live on.”

Padd looked down at his white suit. It matched the snow and the bone-white birches that stretched all around him for miles. Their branches knocked and creaked in the light breeze.

A small satchel appeared on Padd’s belt, fat with treasure. It faded in like a ghost, secured around his belt loop with a small length of golden rope.

The path before him was narrow. Birch trunks pressed in from all sides, their knotholes like eyes.

Padd could see the top of the Altarstone up ahead, black and pointed, extending above the trees.

He strode forward, hand on his sword’s pommel. His immaculate white shoes left shallow footprints. The snow felt like cotton, and the air was a pleasant cold — the friendly chill of a late September evening, not the brutal gnaw of January.

The clearing was about fifty feet in diameter; a perfect circle in the birches. At its center stood the Altarstone. The Altarstone was large, obsidian, blade-like. At its base was a throne.

And there, lounging on the throne, was the Anodyne.

She was cream-skinned, raven-haired, and stark naked. There was a tattoo snaking up her left leg, a vine of ivy with three-lobed leaves. It started at her ankle, twirled up and around her calf past her kneecap, navigated her thigh and ran along the side of her belly before coming to an end just below her small left breast.

Love’s got me feeling so crazy right now, she sang, looping the line over and over. Every now and then she would punctuate the loop with a fluttery little breakdown — So crazy in love, so crazy in love — before starting over.

Her voice was soft as a feather, yet taut as a tripwire. She lit on each note like a butterfly on a finger.

The path yawned outward as Padd approached the clearing. He took two steps into the circle, his eyes on the Anodyne. The birches dripped around him with snowmelt. The sky was pure blue, completely clear. There was no sun, the daylight coming from everywhere and nowhere.

The Anodyne turned her head, saw him, and smiled widely. Her eyes were a deep and lustrous green.

“Hi!”

She chirped the greeting, and her eyes began to change.

Padd was suddenly frozen in place, nearly every muscle in his body turned to stone.

The Anodyne’s irises spiraled outward and inward, overtaking the white of her corneas and the black of her pupils until both her eyes were glorious green kaleidoscopes, turning and whirling like galaxies.

Padd’s heart thudded. His hand was still on his sword. It was as if she’d sent a mild electrical current through his entire nervous system. He tried moving, but his muscles only flexed.

He proceeded, reciting the lines. His vocal chords were the only thing he could move.

“Princess, Temptress, Sorceress, I beseech thee. I come bearing gifts, will you receive me?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said the Anodyne, waving her hand dismissively.

She reclined languidly across the throne, her eyes revolving deep emerald, rooting him to the spot. Her body was small and sprightly, her nipples pink, and there was a soft tuft of black hair between her daintily crossed legs.

She looked away, her eyes losing their luminescence, and Padd felt the spell break off.

He detached the satchel that hung at his waist, tugging at the rope and letting the weight of it fall into his palm. He held it out to her, his other hand still on the pommel of his sword.

The Anodyne sat up, her milky skin contrasting with the paper-white of the snow and the oil-black of the Altarstone. Her leafy tattoo shifted with her as she moved.

She held a finger to the hollow at the base of her throat, and the standard Anodyne uniform appeared on her.

It was a corset — overbust, the same green of her eyes — with a fat emerald jewel gleaming where she’d held her finger, sealed in the center of a golden collar. She wore green panties with dark green leggings, and no shoes.

Next, she conjured a large, steel revolver with nickel finish, waving her hand in the air and curling her fingers around the PVC grip as it appeared.

She stood up and walked toward him, brandishing it.

Her irises spiraled out and Padd felt his body stiffen up again. He stood like a statue, holding the pouch of offered riches out in front of him.

“God, you’re vestal as hell,” said the Anodyne.

As she got closer, Padd could see that she was exceptionally short, her eyeline level with his lower chest.

Upon reaching him, she took the satchel of treasure from his outstretched hand and made it disappear by clenching her fist around it.

She took hold of his right ear, yanked him downward.

Her eyes were pale lanterns shooting a million little pins of paralysis through him. Her heart-shaped face was framed by hair black as night, streaked with emerald and shimmering silver. Up close, Padd saw that she had a bit of a chipmunk-face; her cheeks were a little puffy, her eyes a little beady, her front teeth a little bucky.

“You’ve never respawned before, have you, babe?”

“Not like this,” said Padd through clenched teeth.

He felt the muzzle of the pistol, a cool kiss, sink into the soft flesh under his jaw. His eyelids wouldn’t close.

“Are you scared?”

“No,” he said.

“Good. First one’s always rough.”

She cocked the pistol. Padd braced himself.

“Make a wish,” said the Anodyne.

She pulled the trigger.

Padd stood at the beginning of the path again. A moment passed. He blinked, looked around, turned his head, moved his arms, flexed his fingers. He could hear the same singing from before. He could see the peak of the Altarstone above the birches.

Your love’s got me looking so crazy right now

He had expected a flash of black, a glimpse of oblivion, some split-second form of blank consciousness that preceded the respawn, but there was nothing. No break in time. One second he was in the clearing with the gun firing under his jaw and the next he was back here where he’d started.

Seconds later he was in the clearing again. His footprints from before were gone, the snow freshly fallen, as if he’d never been there. Complete reset.

The Anodyne was sitting on the throne again, still wearing her corset, waiting with her legs crossed.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“Princess, Sorceress, Temptress, I be — “

The Anodyne held up a hand, cutting him off.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” she said, shaking her hand like a queen dismissing a servant. “You don’t have to say it every time. Yes. Approach is granted.”

Padd started ahead, unsheathing his sword as he went, but the Anodyne held up a hand and stopped him again.

“Hold it,” she said. “I still have to pick a song.”

She held up her hands — her nails were long, the same green as her eyes and corset — and clapped twice.

From the edges of the clearing came a motley pack of forest animals. There were all kinds — deer, rabbits, mice, birds, a great horned owl, squirrels, raccoons, a skunk, and a large black bear.

They promptly all lined up off to the side of the Altarstone like a bizarre cheerleading squad.

The Anodyne snapped her fingers, pointed at them.

On cue, the animals all reached behind themselves, as if into a back pocket, and produced proportionally- sized instruments. The black bear obtained an upright bass, the deer had drums, the squirrels and rabbits had trumpets, and the raccoons held little guitars. The owl clutched a flute with its talons while flapping its wings.

“Give me something frisky, something old school,” the Anodyne said, gazing side-eyed across the clearing at Padd. “Something he’ll never forget.”

Right away, the bear counted off in a grunting, raspy voice — “And a-one, and a-two, and a-three, and a-four, and a-,” — before plucking out a descending bassline. The deer rattled the hi-hats with their hooves and thumped the bass drums. The raccoons strummed the guitars.

Padd recognized the tune but was too focused to pay tribute to its name and original performer.

The Anodyne beamed at her furry minstrel’s choice of song.

“PURRR-FECT,” she exclaimed.

She turned to Padd and bowed to him.

He bowed to her.

“All right,” she said.

Padd drew his sword and started forward.

The drums ramped up and the Anodyne began to sing.

You keep saying you got something for me

Something you call love but confess

You’ve been messin’ where you shouldn’t’ve been messin’

And now someone else is getting all your best

As she sang, Padd slashed at her. She danced all around him, lighting from one part of the Altarstone to the next.

He’d learned swordplay at Orientation, and could wield a blade well. But the Anodyne was whip-fast, and she easily stayed out of reach.

These boots were made for walkin

And that’s just what they’ll do

One of these days these boots are gonna

Walk all over you

At the end of the verse, on the word “you”, she whirled about and planted a well-placed heel kick to Padd’s face.

Then he was at the beginning of the path again, his sword back in its white leather sheath.

While the gunshot had produced no sensation whatsoever, he’d felt his nose and jaw crunch upon impact with the Anodyne’s foot. The sound it made was like cereal being chewed.

When Padd got back to the clearing his footprints were gone again, but the animal band played on, all of them staring in an unsettling manner as they picked and blew into their instruments. They were repeating the intro to the verse, looping it like the Anodyne had the Approach song.

The Anodyne was sitting on her throne again.

She held up a finger.

“That’s one,” she mouthed, breaking into a smile so gorgeous it could resurrect the dead.

Padd drew his sword again.

She sprang to her feet and continued the song.

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin’

And you keep losin’ when you oughta not bet

You keep samin’ when you oughta be changin’

Now what’s right is right, but you ain’t been right yet

Again, Padd attacked, and again, she evaded him effortlessly. She dodged and dashed, making a show of it, teasing him. He swiped and slashed empty air again and again.

She sprang from one place to the next, allowing him to get just close enough to think she was trapped. But then, rabbit-like, she was up or under or around him, a green and white blur. He chased her all over the clearing as she bounced from one place to the next like a drunken fairy, all her movements in perfect sync with the beat of the song.

These boots are made for walkin’

And that’s just what they’ll do

One of these days these boots are gonna

Walk all over you

Then, once again, on the final word of the refrain — “…walk all over you” — she leaped ten feet in the air, did an Olympian triple flip, and landed with both feet on his shoulders. With a flick of her ankles, she snapped his neck. He felt his vertebrae grind apart, his arteries and sinews twist and tear, everything in his body go numb.

Then he was back at the beginning of the path again.

This time when he reached the clearing, the Anodyne was standing out in front of the Altarstone. Her hands were on her hips, bobbing to the music.

“You’re kind of boring, bro,” she said, bobbing away, showing him how her hips could move.

“It’s my first time,” he said.

“It shows.”

She cracked her knuckles.

“Hope you don’t mind if I spice things up a bit. We’re already on the third verse here.”

Padd drew his sword a third time. It was getting heavy.

On this verse, he respawned to the end of the path where it yawned into the clearing. The Anodyne didn’t wait, continuing to sing and dispatching him at the end of every line.

You keep playing where you shouldn’t be playin’

She gouged out his eyes with her thumbs…

And you keep thinkin’ that you’ll never get burned

…tore his throat out with her bare, elegant fingers…

I just found me a brand new box of matches, yeah

…crushed his ribcage with a juggernaut fist to the solar plexus…

And what he knows you ain’t had time to learn

…and snapped his legs in two at the knees with one powerful, sweeping kick. And then, just to show off, she ripped away his lower jaw as he toppled over. He felt a sickening, cold, gaping sensation in his lower face in the split second before the respawn took him.

It all happened so fast and with such precision that after the fourth respawn Padd could only stand and stare as she rose into the air in front of him, singing.

These boots are made for walkin’

And that’s just what they’ll do

One of these days these boots are gonna

Walk all over you

On the “you,” electricity crackled at her fingers. She shot a bolt of emerald lightning, pointing her finger at Padd in an accusatory gesture while he gaped like a frog.

The bolt struck its target — the left of his chest, his heart — and he felt it stop cold as he crumpled and the beginning of the path faded in.

One thing was for sure — the sword was not working.

Padd checked for his Cheat Sack. Fortunately, it had appeared, hanging off his belt.

When he came upon the clearing again, he would have only seconds before the song ended.

In the moment, he remembered the name of the song she was performing.

He spoke into his palm.

“These Boots Are Made for Walking, by Nancy Sinatra, may her voice live on.”

Another pouch grew on his belt next to the Cheat Sack, clinking with coins. He clutched it and held it, and felt it dissolve in his fingers.

Padd opened the unassuming Cheat Sack, which was the size of a coin purse, made of leather and drawn shut with a cord.

Inside were four seemingly worthless objects: a small pink flower wrapped in silk, a balled-up wad of sticky cobweb, a little leather pouch of orange seeds, and a powdery moth’s wing.

Seconds later, he emerged in the clearing for the final time, his sword drawn and ready.

The animals were pounding and plucking their instruments with a ferocious intensity. The black bear was snarling at him, the deer staring as they struck the drums with their hooves, the raccoons and squirrels and rabbits bearing their chompers.

The Anodyne sat on her throne again, her chin resting on her propped-up hand. She looked like a high school senior right before the final bell.

“All right, babe,” she said. “Let’s finish this off. Someone else can have a chance with you.”

She spread her arms and rose off the throne into the air. Electricity flowed around her entire body, sparking, coursing and thrumming.

She yelled the final lines of the song…

Are you ready, boots?

Start walkin’

…and dove downward at breakneck speed, aiming for a finisher.

The animals blasted out the final bars, thumping and picking and blowing on their instruments, the fury of the finishing move surging through every note.

At the last moment, Padd threw away his sword, yanked the cobweb from inside his jacket pocket, shook it out to the size of a small sheet, and stepped to the side holding it like a matador’s cape.

She zoomed right into it, holding her arms up in a futile attempt at deceleration.

Padd was so surprised the move had worked that the Anodyne nearly got away, but he bear- hugged the web and wrestled her to the ground. Weakened by the cobweb, she went limp.

The animal band dropped their instruments in the snow where they dissolved into nothing. Every one of them scattered back into the birch forest, tails flitting behind them.

Padd took two corners of the web in his hands, struggling to his feet.

The Anodyne flopped like a fish as Padd stretched the web and hung it up between the birches, hooking two sticky coils onto the ends of a few sturdy branches. They sagged downward but held.

Padd stood, panting. He looked at his conquered opponent.

The Anodyne hung there between the trees, arms stretched out in a crucifix position, stuck to the web with her limbs turned to jelly.

“Nice,” she said. “Very nice.”

Padd reached forward, his fingers trembling slightly. He plucked the gleaming green jewel off her throat, and put it in his pocket.

The corset and leggings disappeared off her body and she was naked before him once again. The golden collar disappeared off her neck.

Her body had the curve of a blade as she hung in the web. Her breasts were small like cupcakes, her belly flat like a cutting board, her legs smooth as soap and her feet as delicate as a doll’s. Her tattoo was so detailed it looked like someone had glued an actual vine of ivy around her leg and midsection.

She looked up at him with luxurious green eyes and batted her eyelashes.

“Ivy Snow, for your consideration.”

Everything is a work in progress.