Gallifrey, of course, was the one to wake me. It wasn't his usual bark, the one that let me know of someone approaching the house, but a subtly different one. Only years of hearing his varied sounds attuned me enough to tell the difference. Now his bark carried a strained tone, equal parts growling and whining. If I had to equate it to something, it would be that he was telling me something wasn't right.
His nose pointed out my window, the same one that blew a stiff breeze over my body while I slept. The same one that overlooked the back lawn and had a direct line of sight to the studio. The gooseflesh that broke out on my arms and legs told me Gallifrey wasn't the only one in the room that could sense the danger. Something was wrong in my barn.
"Gallifrey, aufenthalt.” I used my best German accent to tell him to stay, approximating the best I could of Blake’s stern tone. I hoped it held no doubt as to what exactly I was expecting him to do. The nightgown stayed on, but I threw a long sweater over top and quickly pulled on my boots.
My hair was a mess, matted in the back to the point that the left side seemed to be defying gravity. I threw Amos's baseball cap over it again, just as I did nearly every morning.
My dog tilted his head at me, interested eyes searching my face.
"I mean it, Frey. I'll go check it out. It's probably just another kid, or some hunter yahoo who couldn’t find his camp come nightfall. But I can't risk you coming, and I can't risk you leaving the main house unprotected. So stay. You know I can protect myself just fine." Gallifrey, in response, whined long and loud before finally sitting and turning his face once again towards the open window.
"Alright, I'm going," I placated him. With a quick reach under the bed, and then into my nightstand, I was ready to go.
The walk, which usually took under a minute, seemed to drag on this time. Perhaps it was the sense of foreboding that had taken over my body, or maybe it was the weight of the gun in my hands.
When I practiced shooting, a pastime for nights when I didn’t feel like painting, it never felt this heavy. It was a strange sensation, as if the gun itself knew the situation we were in was vastly different than practice.
As soon as the barn doors came into view, I knew the earlier feeling I’d had was right. Both doors, now closed instead of open, flashed their warning at me. At this time of year, with the heat we were experiencing, there was no sane reason to keep them closed. On top of that, I had instructed Blake to keep them open. And he didn't seem the type to ignore reason.
My body dropped into a crouch, and I made my way slowly towards the back side door that I hardly used. It had been a fire code stipulation when I’d made updates to the barn, and it was a minor miracle that I’d heeded Clay's warnings and had it installed. Even more amazing was that I was too lazy to go through the trouble of fitting it with a lock.
Most of the town here kept their distance from me, and after a few choice rumors had begun circulating after Amos disappeared, it was rare that anyone messed with me. They all thought I’d killed my young husband, or something to that extent. Outside of the occasional drunk teenager, I hardly ever felt the need to lock up my studio or my home. And that was all outside of the threat of Gallifrey, who looked as close to a hellhound from myth and legend as I had ever encountered.
After rounding the back of the barn, a few sounds of a scuffle became evident. While I treasured my art, it wasn’t the sound of it breaking that panicked me. Something very wrong was happening inside.
I was close enough to discern raised voices inside. I had repurposed an old door from the main house to replace back here, and the windows were nearly as old as the house. As such, it acted as a terrible insulator. Not that I needed the extra help; my enhanced hearing could pick it all up just fine.
"Stopping here like this was a mistake, Alec," a man's voice mused from behind the wall. It sounded mocking, and I pictured a smug smirk on the intruder’s face.
"Fuck you, Michael, I could go my entire existence without hearing you speak and it would be a day too soon," said Blake—or Alec, as the man referred to him. He said it so fast there was hardly a breath between their two sentences.
Did Blake give me a fake name?
"The least you could have done was to have hidden that ostentatious piece of German engineering that you left like roadkill back there. Might as well have projected your location into the sky," argued the man I assumed was named Michael. "If I didn't know you so well, I would think that you wanted me to find you."
Multiple footsteps echoed through the door, and I closed my eyes, imagining them circling one another like a pair of wolves. I leaned into the door frame, letting go of every distraction in order to get a better picture of what was going on.
"You have a very peculiar fascination with me. Doesn’t anyone in your clan have better things to do outside of chasing me and my friends down?" Michael hissed.
Clan. The word rang like a death bell in my head. There was nothing decidedly Scottish about the man I knew as Blake, who I now wasn't sure what to call, and that left me with only one other option of what they were talking about now. The weight of the truth hit me with a force that I had never imagined possible. I was never wrong on reading people. Never.
A flash of Amos' face interrupted my meditation of the events inside, like the flash of a camera. Even with closed eyes, it was as visceral as any image right in front of me, bringing a cacophony of emotions that ripped into my stomach.
There was a protocol for times such as these, ingrained in my mind like muscle memory. It had happened off and on since Amos left, these accidental run-ins with those I knew from long ago.
Most of the vagrants that came calling, often incoherent and bloody, could at the very least call for Amos, signaling me to their intentions. They asked for help or for information, but Blake did none of those things. He acted like any other human. What the fuck was going on?
Even Gallifrey took to Blake, and I employed my dog frequently as means of sniffing out the dangers in others. It perked my interest too much—far too much for it to be healthy.
"Now, Alec, the blame for our constant violence falls directly on your shoulders. You can't get out of it now, of course, not now that you have your new position," Michael said, punctuating the last word with an astonishing amount of contempt.
"Our constant violence, as you so poetically put it, can only be attributed to your irrational fear and hatred for me,” Blake/Alec said, “combined fatally with an irrational desire to kill everything in your path. That's not a singularly odd trait for your brethren, so why is it that you and your family take such exception to our laws?"
"Because you killed my father, you self-righteous asshole!" Michael screamed out.
Blake—I just decided to stick with the original name for now—barked out in a harsh-sounding laughter.
"Your father took out most of the town before we could restrain him, and then he massacred half of the guard staff that was sent to see him traveled safely. Putting him down was a mercy, Michael. He could have turned on your family next. All those sisters…" Blake chided with a low whistle, insinuating much about Michael’s father’s state of mind.
"You could at least pretend to have a heavy conscious, Alec. You are responsible for so many deaths. One would think your hands would falter or slip, what with all the blood on them." Michael somehow managed to snarl his words out with a particular kind of feral rage. The mystery of what he was unraveled by the second. And that knowledge gave me ammunition and a better idea of when to intervene. Too late, and my actions would be useless; too soon, and I would end up the one needing help.
"I am not responsible for the acts that put them in the line of my sword, but the deed of using my weapon does feel heavy in my hands. It makes no difference, though, Michael. The heads roll off the blade regardless of how I feel." While Blake had a dark tone, there was an underlying sorrow that I could feel through the barrier of the door.
"I would very much like to see your head hit the dirt, Alec. And tonight, I hope I have a chance to see it. Right, boys?"
The front barn doors slid open, whining and squeaking as they usually did. In the time it took them to fully open the front of the barn, I kicked my foot hard on the side door and barged in with a firm hand on my raised gun.
"Stop where you are, all of you," I shouted with my barrel pointed strategically at the man named Michael. His harsh words left me anticipating a greasy, lumpy looking man, but I was met with surprising beauty.
He had lighter blonde hair, cut close to his head with military precision. A thin, almost bird like nose ran down the center of his face, and the rest of him appeared well manicured and maintained. Clearly he lifted weights, there was more muscle mass on his frame that I thought physically possible. Glittering, whiskey colored eyes trained themselves on me, shock evident in his expression.
There was pride in my inappropriate smile, both for catching him off guard and for not flinching at what I saw. They had ripped most of my studio apart; fragments of pottery crunched under my feet, and tattered strips of canvas littered the floor.
Blake stared at me with eyes as wide as the bright as a full moon. He quickly schooled it into a scowl, and I could see him bite back words. I didn’t mean to undermine his capabilities by helping, but men like him never took kindly to intervention, especially from a girl. Alpha men from the supernatural community fared even worse.
"Tell the gentlemen you came with to stop giving one another eyes,” I told Michael. “I am a superb shot. One more motion over there and I'll paint my next canvas with your brains.”
The two men in question, oddly both blonde and similar appearing to Michael, stalled their bodies. They were too far away to discern details, but I had the feeling they were related in some way.
Michael laughed. It was a stifled chuckle, choked off with a bitter snarl. His hands were shaking so fast and so violently that my eyes were glued to them. Keeping an eye on both Michael and the group at the back was becoming maddening. His human state—and by proxy the state of the others—was in a delicate position.
"Fuck off," Michael growled.
"Anytime you wish to step in here and use some reason on this idiot, it would be appreciated," I said through gritted teeth to Blake, who seemed immensely unconcerned by the real danger in the room and far more interested in me than I was comfortable with. My words seemed to snap him out of whatever trance he’d been in, though, and his gaze swept over the intruders once more.
"Well, Michael, I think the lady doesn't quite like you on her land," Blake said with a vicious smile as he sauntered forward. "I will allow you to leave if you disappear quickly, with a promise to leave the country. A year or two visiting your kin in Russia would suffice. Perhaps Oleg can talk some sense into you, yeah?" He suggested the last bit with an interesting head tilt in Michael's direction, as if he was capable of detecting deception if only he looked hard enough. And depending on his species, it was entirely possible.
"Who is she, I wonder?" Michael asked, mimicking Blake's head and indicating with his hand towards me.
"You can look at me, Michael, and not at her," Blake snapped out suddenly. "She seems a bit twitchy on that pretty gun in her hands. I'd hate to benefit so nicely from her nerves. Crossing your name off my kill list is something I look forward to."
Michael's face began taking on a dark, red color, and the shaking in his hands seemed to spread up his arms and into his chest. I wasn't sure exactly what he was, and I was keen on knowing just how to defend myself.
With a deep breath to steel myself, I said, "You are on my land. I invoke my right to know your species of origin.”
The mood in the room, which had wavered between tense and amusing before, turned hostile. Tendrils of anger, disbelief, and violence snaked their way through the room and its inhabitants. Their assumption of my ignorance evaporated.
"Is she yours, then, Alec?" Michael asked. His deep yellow eyes—the color of neon daffodils—almost looked like they were glowing. Where there had been interest before, there was now a sickening look of fascination, as if I were a rare delicacy to be tasted and savored.
"I am my own, you bastard," I blurted out, enraged. "And be that as it may, I am also vastly smarter than you. I will ask you again, and you will answer me, for you have to. You cannot contain your beast or your demon much longer, not while denying me my right to invocation. So, Michael, what is your species?"
His scarlet face had turned an almost eggplant color and his ability to hold out scared me shitless. I had never met a supernatural creature who could refrain from a direct command of identification. It was coded in their DNA, as crippling as a vampire’s shyness from sun and a werewolf’s curse of the moon. Amos had ingrained it within me from the moment we’d become entwined, and unfortunately, this was not the first time I’d used his knowledge to harm another super.
"Halfling,” Michael spat out. “Demon and shifter." His face, before quite purple, was now flickering in between bright red and dark brown. It made my stomach lurch.
"Bear?" I asked out loud, but directed it in particular towards Blake, who I sought for clarification. I sure as hell wanted to know what animal I was facing. When I finally looked at him, I found him staring right back at me with an intensity that I wasn't expecting.
"Wolf, a dark wolf," Blake responded back to me. He was yet to break eye contact.
"Then, wolf, you know that this gun, with my aim, can sever your spinal cord to the very brink of death. And while that will not kill you, I am very sure that the man next to you will finish what I have started. So get the fuck out of my studio while you still can."
Michael smiled and hissed at my words, causing Blake to face him and snarl in return. And that was all the opportunity the man behind me needed to club me blind. The ground came at me fast, but the swallowing darkness shielded me from feeling the landing.
Whichever thug hit me hadn’t put much into it, and I woke up a few minutes later loosely bound and blindfolded, propped up against one of my shipping crates near the back door. Michael must have thought me a small and weak human, because he didn't even bother having his men check me for other weapons once he’d taken away the gun. Idiot. He had no idea what I held.
"Michael, quit looking at that girl like that," a man boomed from in front of me.
There was no way for me to tell for sure, but I had a feeling that it was the same one that had snuck up on me. It felt as if he was the one truly in charge. His timbered voice shook me through, his words infused with the power and authority of an alpha. I had never been in the presence of one before, but I could hear Amos' lectures on the particulars as clear as the birdsong out the window.
"I think I want her, Julian," he responded back. "If not for the fact that Alec could watch something of his taken, then for the fact that she would make an interesting pet. A human with such knowledge and an almost complete lack of fear, it touches me."
A heated hand grazed the length of my collarbone, leaving a chill in its wake. There was another noise, a low growl that emanated from in front of me. Blake, I realized quickly, and he seemed to be in the center of the room, judging by the sound.
I let go of all my senses, shaking off the slimy sensation that lingered in the wake of Michael’s touch. The air smelled and tasted of fresh-cut wood, and there was a faint trace of lighter fluid in the air. With his position most likely in the center of the room, and the smells, I guessed that they had Blake tied up, most likely to a wood post in preparation for a gruesome live funeral pyre.
The only other noises I could discern seemed to come from Michael and Julian. He sounded very close to where Blake was, versus Michael, who was pacing around the room. The two others, I assumed serving as the primary backup, I couldn't detect anywhere.
It didn’t take much effort to wriggle my one hand free of the loose bindings, and I reached down for the small blade I kept concealed in my boot. Then, I returned my hands back behind me, as if nothing had happened at all. No one noticed me.
"She is not the right fit for you, Michael. Humans never make good guests, or pets," said Julian in his deep voice. I heard a cellphone make noises, and then Julian’s fading voice as he took the call.
In the lull of tense silence that descended after his comment, there was a faint scraping sound and the smell of fresh, delicious-smelling blood. My guess was that Blake was trying to break free.
"I don't think I want her as a pet, I want her as a toy. Perhaps a wife," Michael added at the last second, and I didn’t need to use my eyes to tell he directed the snide remark toward Blake. "What do you think, Alec?"
His footsteps grew fainter as he walked away from me and toward the man destined to burn.
"How long have you been sneaking off here, Alec? What if the DPD knew about your extracurriculars? They wouldn't be too happy about their newest prodigy romping off with human women. Or that dominating woman you call ‘master’? Even with your charm, it’d be a hard sell to explain why you ruined the future generation with human DNA. But you're in luck, buddy, because I'm going to take care of this problem for you. She's coming with me." This time, the smell of blood was accompanied by an audible yanking of restraints, and that was enough to propel me into action.
As I stood, my left hand pulled back my blindfold while my right threw the knife I’d palmed from my boot. It sailed through the air, embedding itself in the back of Michael’s head with an impressive degree of accuracy. He dropped limply at Blake's feet, drawing the attention of Julian, who was on his phone near the front barn doors. He glared at me through narrowed eyes, his gaze sending a wave of cold fear straight through me before he turned his attention.
"Behind you!" I called out to Blake.
Throwing my knife brought the total number of weapons I had down to zero, but I wasn't without my own talents. Still, we wouldn't hold up for long against an alpha of unknown origin. The few times in life that my strength and skills have truly been tested, Amos had always been there as well. Blake didn't appear to be a threat to me, for now, but neither could I call him a certain ally.
Julian abandoned his phone call and stalked his way towards Blake, who was vigorously trying to free himself of his bindings. Somehow, it didn't seem like he made any progress, no matter how hard he worked at it. Someone in the party had to have some magical knowledge, or Blake would have shredded those ropes during this struggle. He was a monster of a man, with muscles so large and well-formed that some statues would be jealous.
Time slowed during Julian's prowl, as seemed the case with most pivotal moments in life. Amos' voice in my head was spurring me on to run—to duck through the back door, head into the safety of the house, and prepare myself with the weapons there. But I couldn't do that with my pride intact, and I wouldn't do that to Blake, that much I already knew. I could have slipped out by now, but instead I remained in my spot, stuck staring at what was going on with the wide eyes of someone overwhelmed with an intangible fear. Where that fear originated, I was still unsure, but it gripped me tight.
"No," Blake hissed, seeing that I was about to act.
After a quick study, the area around me didn't yield any viable options in terms of a weapon, and the only one anywhere near me was lodged in Michael. There was, of course, another option for me to consider, but that was an unstable bomb that promised more devastation than sure victory. Better safe than sorry, I thought, and I went for the knife.
The thrown blade hadn’t killed Michael; his inner energy would heal the wound by morning, but he was neutralized for now. My feet carried me with surprising speed, and I slid feet-first into Michael's body with all the excited fervor of a professional baseball player in search of home plate.
I jerked the knife out of Michael's neck, and in one swift but calculated movement, I sliced through the bindings around Blake's feet. I just managed to reach and free one of Blake’s hands before Julian slammed into me from the side. We flew several feet, his body on mine, until we skidded to a stop by a pile of pottery shards.
They cut into the back of my shoulders, leaving a hot trail of fresh blood and pain behind them. The back of my head took a good shot, and my ears were ringing so loudly I almost couldn't hear his words.
"Aren't you just full of surprises," Julian hissed out. There wasn't a part of his body that wasn't touching my own, and he made no move to put any space between us.
"Get off of her. She isn't the one you came for, and you can hardly blame her reaction to your mates,” Blake said. “Even a human can smell the stink of inbreeding and malicious intent. That's without the mention that a girl managed to subdue Michael and almost release me."
If misdirection was his aim, the blow struck true. Julian turned his body, so he was half on me, half sitting up to face Blake. It freed up my arms just enough that if I wanted to make a move, I could.
"Michael has always had peculiar tastes. His fascination with this little girl was easily explainable as part of his derangement, but now that you seem to have taken such an interest in this human, I am considering that there may be more to her. As you say," Julian continued, looking at me again, "she has more ability than most of her species."
"Yes, I do," I agreed as I sliced a pottery shard across his throat.