She looked out the front screen door, breath catching in her throat as a man clad in all black rode into view. Behind him, poor Winston followed. Hollis’ eyes wet with more tears, thinking she’d never again see her family’s horse. A tingling of premonition crept over her, like busy ants hustling to and from their hill. She sensed the change in the woods. They’d never crawled with so many newcomers before, but now her once-safe haven was ruined. She felt something more ominous was happening, but she wasn’t sure just what, yet.
She ducked into the kitchen as the man dismounted, his face tanned more than a leather hide, his eyes pale as a river stone.
“Hallo!” he called, voice higher than Oberon’s. Her instincts wanted to send her flying back into his arms, for she’d seen the brutality he was capable of. No foe would ever best him, and Oberon seemed rather fixated on her. He mounted the steps, peeking into her home, a congenial smile plastered to his face. Behind him, Winston walked himself to the paddock in search of hay.
He removed his black, wide-brimmed hat, holding it to his chest, everything about him calm and gentle. Had Oberon lied to her?
“I didna’ mean to frighten ye, miss,” he said, flashing her a grin. She gripped the edge of the counter, heartbeat thundering in her ears.
“I was just passin’ through,” he turned his torso, nodding to his massive ebony draft horse, before he continued. “And I am in some desperate need of food and drink. Damn horse spooked and threw my rations.”
Hollis’ mouth opened and closed like a shutter on a stormy night. Invite him in, she remembered.
“Oh, umm, come in, sir,” she rambled, feeling the tremors of dread wracking her body. He gave a small, patronizing smile, nodding to the door.
“Seems I’m locked out, miss.”
“Oh,” she jumped, spurred into frantic action, trying hard to keep a cool demeanor. The wind played in the trees above, the air refreshing and tickling her nose the closer she got. Reaching up, she plucked the small chain from its spot, pushing the door toward him and open. She didn’t realize her fatal mistake.
Leaning out as she was, he reached in and grabbed her, yanking her down the porch and into the open, his arms hard and thin and bony. She kicked, gasping, at an utter loss for words or pleas. He stunk, like dirt and sweat, and despair gripped her tighter than he.
Wrapping his bony fingers into her hair, he gave a sharp yank, forcing her gaze to her front porch and the darkened doorway, continuing to walk them backwards toward his horse.
“Call out to him, make him come to me and I’ll be easy on you, sweetheart,” he breathed, breath hot and putrid on her face and neck. She whimpered, wishing she could call out to her savior, but her fear making any other noise impossible. He gave her a hearty shake.
“He’s all I’m after, but if you don’t make this easy…” he warned, using his free hand to produce a shiny revolver from his waist belt. He flashed it in front of her, wielding the weapon as though it were a stick instead of a gun. Hollis had never seen one in real life before, but she knew the damage it could inflict.
The front porch screen hummed, and her heart leapt into her throat. Oberon stood on the top step, golden eyes seeming to blaze, igniting the distance between them. He crossed his thick arms over his chest, glaring at the man.
“There ye are, freak!” the man laughed, shuddering behind Hollis in sickening pleasure. She whimpered again as his hold on her scalp tightened in his palpable excitement. He pressed the cold metal barrel to her temple.
“Come quietly, and I will let her go, yer a wanted freak,” he spat the word again, Hollis’ eyes pleading with him. He did not seem to notice her distress as he rolled his eyes, stepping closer. The man holding her tensed.
“You think I care about a human? I can have any female I desire,” Oberon growled, taking another threatening step closer. The revolver was whisked away from her temple, instead pointed at his chest. Oberon smirked, unfurling his long arms and opening them wide. Everything from that moment on happened in a span of a few seconds, but to Hollis it all felt very clear and concise.
A shot rang out, creating a buzzing in her right ear. Oberon fell back, struck in the chest, the shot true. The man’s draft horse reared, pawing at the air and catching his owner in the back, sending them both flying forward. The revolver skidded through the dust and dirt, sliding out of her captor’s grasp, and into a tanned hand. She felt his long, strong fingers wrap about her bicep, yanking her to him, shoving her behind his giant frame. Another shot rang out, and after this one, the forest was still.
Hollis sat up, eyes widening as they fell upon the still form of the man, a pool of crimson puddling beneath his shattered skull. Her hand flew to her mouth, nauseated, before she remember the first shot, remembered Oberon falling. He sat on the steps, revolver tossed aside in the dirt, and she went cautiously to the front of him, kneeling down, mind reeling at the bullet hole in his shirt and the pink, raised flesh. No blood. No death. The shot should have hit his heart…
His darkened gaze caught hers, and she tensed, seeing something malicious lurking just under the surface.
“You’re…you’re alive,” she breathed, shaking her head, incredulous. He glanced at his chest, seeming unperturbed by the sight of the shiny, round scar. It had hurt, an intense and searing flash of pain, but no earthly device could kill him. His gaze lingered on her face, the worry etched between her brows, her sapphire eyes wide with concern. He swallowed hard, his temperature rising. He did not mean the words he’d said on the steps. In time, Hollis would learn that. But right now, she needed to get away.
“Leave me,” he said, voice husky and strained. The line between her brows deepened. If she didn’t go soon, he would have her bent over the front porch steps in a matter of moments. Killing brought his sinister side to the very surface. Shudders ran through him, and he pinched his eyes shut, breathing in slow and labored through his nostrils.
“You…you’ve been shot,” she said, her voice wispy and melodic to his ancient ears. The worry she had for him only worsened his condition. She cared for him, despite his misgivings and her uneasiness around him. It made sense, though, for her to latch onto the only thing that had been able to keep her safe, the only thing that had shown her some small kindnesses in such an abhorrent world.
“Please, find solitude. I will come for you when it is safe to be near me,” he said, eyes slipping open. She leaned back, away from him, confusion and fear sweeping through her.
“Why, what’s wrong…are you… are you going to die?” she said, voice rising in pitch. He growled, palms tingling.
“I will take you on these steps this instant if you do not go, tiny Hollis,” he said, voice level and calm. He watched as her stunned silence sparked between them, and she stood, brushing her knees, fleeing into the safety of her room. His dark side bristled as the bolt to her door slid into place, caging him in once more. He drew a shuddering breath, gazing at the form of the dead man with a sneer.
So, his creator was sending out mercenaries to hunt him down. In truth, Oberon had expected this, but was thankful Res didn’t seem to know the extent of his capabilities. He stood, bare feet tasting the energy of the ground as he stalked forward. Both horses had found happiness in the paddock, and he latched the gate, meaning to rid them of their saddles and bridles when he was in a more fit state of calmness. He would burn the body when they left, likely tomorrow at dawn. The gunshots would have been a beacon for anyone nearby, but the woods still felt quiet and devoid of any other human life at the moment.
He rubbed his chest, the puckered skin, mind reeling at such a deadly contraption. If that had hit Hollis…
He felt the sneer on his face, felt the possessive nature surge forward. She was fragile, in every sense of the word, and he would need to be more cautious with her.
He dragged the body to a suitable spot, covering his tracks and the blood spattered ground as best he could. It would not rain for a few more days. As he stomped back to the front of the cottage, a small sound caught his attention, issuing forth from Hollis’ window. He paused, ears tuning in to her muffled sniffles and cries. He frowned, angered at himself, sensing he’d frightened her even more. Forgetting about the horses, he pushed his way inside, knocking on her door in a display of manners. If he’d had it his way, he would have thrown the damn door open on his own.
“Go away,” came her suppressed reply. He growled in annoyance, having calmed himself enough to be in her presence.
“I wish to speak with you.”
“Where did you put them?” she cried on the other side, voice hollow. He knew of whom she spoke. He tilted his face to the ceiling.
“I buried them. Next to the male and young female.”
There was a pause before he heard her mouse-like footsteps. The bolt slid open, and she peeked up at him from the slit in the door, eyes rimmed once again in red and puffy. She set her eyes on him with a stubborn, steely gaze.
“I was supposed to bury them.”
“You were not fit for the task, and it needed to be done,” he answered, glaring back. He could feel her sorrow, her helplessness and the depression looming in the distance like a storm cloud. The humans of this age had much more leisure time, it seemed, and could therefore wallow in emotions that Oberon barely knew. Instead of fretting constantly about each meal, clean water, dying during childbirth or from a simple fever, these humans were much more resilient. He wondered, then, how cunning these diseases now had to be to kill them off.
Her glare deepened as he studied her, a fire growing in her eyes.
“Am I safe to be near you now?”
Oberon didn’t miss the biting edge to her sweet voice. His lip curled into a dark smirk.
She crossed her arms.
“Well, I don’t want you near me.”
He studied her, quirking his head to the side.
“Careful with such errant words. You will want me near when danger arises.”
“You are the danger,” she hissed, pinning him to his spot like a bug to a scientist’s board.
“You’ve killed like, ten people and you were shot and didn’t die and—”
“Hollis,” he said, a note of warning in his tone. His reprimand made her words stick in her throat. He could still rule her by fear for the time being. She twisted her lips into a frustrated pout, and he sensed she was about to burst.
“You can’t treat me like this! I don’t even know you, I’m not yours, I’m not your property, and this is my life and my family was murdered—” tears began to flow over her pink cheeks, but he waited. She was a feisty woman, and it intrigued him.
“And…and I just want you to leave,” she hissed through her beautiful white teeth.
“No,” he answered simply, praying it would cut off her arguing. His chest still ached from the bullet, and now his head ached from lack of food and rest, and God all he wanted to do was shut her up and tear her clothes off so his other aches would go away. She was about to spew forth again, but he held up his hand.
“I will leave you alone until nightfall. But you must prepare to leave by dawn. Other’s will come, and they will not show you the same kindness I have.”
“I am not leaving my home.”
He fixed her with his own glare, watching as she winced in fear.
“The man I killed today was a hunter, searching for me, but he was a perverse creature. If you knew the things he had in store for you—”
“It’s all the same!” she yelled, throwing her hands up. He took a menacing step forward, invading her sacred space.
“He didn’t want to bury himself in you,” he said, reaching out, stroking his fingers along her wet cheek. The gesture was more chilling than intimate—a warning touch. Hollis’ toes curled in terror as she gazed up at the creature.
“He wanted to cut you open, to watch your heart beat, to see how much pain his vivisection would cause you before you gave up and died. He was an evil man, and more will follow.”
She shook her head, scattering his words in her brain as her heart ran rampant. He’d been correct about everything thus far, he had an uncanny ability to know things—thoughts, feelings. Her heart lurched toward Oberon, clinging to the only thing she now had, and even he had a sinister side, one he’d chosen not to act upon yet. Her chest rose and fell, more rapid with each passing moment as his fingers traced up her cheek, past her ear and into her hair, soothing her aching scalp.
“He hurt you,” he conceded, voice holding dark fury within it. She cast her eyes down, away from his burning gaze, studying his sturdy chest, the hole in his black shirt and the fresh, pink scar.
“No one else will hurt you, Hollis. I will enjoy killing them all.”