Authors: S. B. Roozenboom
There, sauntering through a patch of moonlight below, I saw her.
t wasn’t the sound of sneakers in the woods that told me I was being followed; it was his scent.
I had been deep in thought, taking the woods like a leisurely stroll through the park. Well, technically the woods
my park. They always have been. I had been relieved when I showed up here in this small town—what was it called, Loralin?—and saw forests surrounding it. They were narrow and pathetic, not like my home in Canada’s great outdoors, but better than nothing.
I stopped just outside a stretch of moonlight between two ivy-covered pines. My nose twitched, drawing in the scent of skin and testosterone. There was something damp and salty, too. Sea nymph?
That explains it
, I scoffed. Nymphs always draw in young men. Only I didn’t smell any open flesh, which always accompanies the odor of those who’ve had an encounter. Seaborne fey have a carnivorous diet, an ever-present appetite. It was incredibly rare for them to let prey slip by unharmed.
Maybe he wasn’t a human.
A growl rumbled in my chest.
. The thought of some creature nearby, watching me, sent a chill up my spine. Now was not the time to burst out of my dress and turn into a wad of fur and fangs. I already had one unpleasant task on hand: I still had to meet Thagen. Plus, you shouldn’t show up clothes-less at a club unless you’re for sale—or at least that’s what Mom said. I didn’t really get what that meant.
Maybe he’ll go away
. I started walking again, testing the theory.
He was a quiet mover. His feet rarely made contact with noisy debris, always staying on or close to the trail above the gully, always in alignment with me. I tried to keep calm. He seemed to be keeping his distance. For the moment.
The trees began to thin. I could just make out club lights in the distance when another scent caught my nose. I stopped, inhaling deeply. Cologne. No, wait—laundry detergent. Air freshener.
There went my guesses as to what he was. Fey and elves were the abnormals of these woods, far as I knew. My follower was neither, because he smelled of toxic chemicals. Chemicals only humans can stand.
This was too weird.
Picking up the pace, I speed-walked to the edge of the woods. Dark fur poked out of my spine, brushing the inside of my dress. Although I preferred not to get into a fight, I was ready for one. I was
ready for one. Just in case.
He didn’t attack. I made it out of the woods untouched, flats now tapping along the pavement of Whirlwind’s parking lot. My fur receded.
Lights flashed across the club’s sign. The building was an old, pink blob off the main road, its trim painted metallic silver. Not something you’d expect to find this far out of town. It was like an ancient Vegas casino had been abducted by aliens and spit out in the middle of nowhere. It was more than just a little tacky—not the kind of place I pictured meeting Thagen at all.
I smoothed my dress down, taking a deep breath.
. I tried to think of calm ocean waves, of a warm napping spot in the sun, of hunting in the woods. Oh, how I didn’t want to be here.
A young, bald kid stamped wrists at the door. I approached casually, joining the line of darkly-dressed teens. A boy with black hair and an ugly, silver ball in his lip kept looking at me. His buddy, this zit-faced kid with a Mohawk, smiled. I tried to ignore them. Boys. Whether human or not, they always stared. Girls, like the skinny-minis that were holding hands with the pair, tended to sneer.
, I thought. They should be happy, grateful for what they have—freedom, their lives in their own hands. Instead they stand here obsessing over the fact that their boyfriends—who they probably won’t be with a year from now—are eyeing the pretty girl who’s not interested.
“Whoa, whoa, where you think you’re going?” Baldy grinned, holding an arm out as I tried to enter without a stamp. “Everybody’s got to pay the entry fee, babe. Five bucks or no stamp.”
We’ll see about that
. “I’m here to see Thagen,” I replied.
Baldy’s grin dissolved. He had a nice tan going on, or at least he did until I said that. The color drained right out of his cheeks. He withdrew his arm. “Back corner. By the bar,” he whispered.
I nodded, not bothering to give a thank you.
was too nice a thing to say to someone who might just have given me directions to hell.
Neon lights spun from the ceiling, shooting stars and odd shapes around the dance floor. Band members stood onstage, thrashing about like newly-caught salmon, while screaming unintelligible lyrics into their mikes. I pawed my ears as I went past. And I thought coyotes made weird noises.
Whirlwind’s crowd intrigued me. I’d seen a few movies concerning clubs and their attendees, always with a lot of skin showing, high heels, and dark makeup. Apparently this crowd didn’t follow tradition. Girls ran around in fluffy skirts, wearing big glasses without lenses. They had curly wigs and mismatched socks, fishnets with shorts, and bras over tank tops. The boys wore torn jeans, caps with the bills bent or broken, and ugly faux gems in their ears.
My stomach twisted as I picked up on Thagen’s scent. Rusty. Doggish with hints of fresh rabbit and deer, his favorite meals.
Here we go
. I squared my shoulders, keeping my chin lifted. No fear.
He sat alone, just outside the bar. The lights had burnt out in the back corner, creating the perfect dark hole for him to lounge in. He was just as I remembered: wild, dust-colored hair brushing his shoulders, eyes dark and brooding. Jagged scars decorated his left cheek, some trailing into the collar of his t-shirt.
Two large animals lay at his feet. To mortal eyes, they were Great Danes with some off coloring, but not to me. I could see through the illusion that Thagen had put on them—probably a spell from a local witch. They were his bodyguards, two of his many wolves.
“Ilume,” he greeted without looking at me. His eyes were elsewhere, on a pair of scantily-dressed girls at the bar.
“Thagen.” I took a seat across from him on a torn, leather sofa.
An uncomfortable silence passed between us. Thagen whipped out a cigarette from his jeans pocket, ignoring the no-smoking sign nailed behind the bar. The bartender smelled the smoke just seconds after Thagen lit up. He gave Thagen the evil eye, but didn’t come over and comment or motion for him to put it out. I didn’t blame him. It took guts to deal with someone like Thagen.
After exhaling a puff of grey smoke, he said, “I know why you’re here.”
I swallowed. “Do you?”
“Rex has a lot of nerve, sending you alone. Did you run or travel by human?”
I hesitated. By
, he meant did I come by some form of mortal transportation, like train or plane. “I bought a train ticket in the nearest town.”
Thagen chuckled, shaking his head. “You’re too gutsy for your own good, Lume. Being so close to all those humans by yourself. It’s dangerous. I’m surprised that Rex let you go without protection.”
I growled at him. “I don’t need protection.” Rex knew I wasn’t some pretty show mutt. Letting me travel by train had been
idea. Being among the humans was actually a smart move. The enemy avoided crowds of mortals more than we did, and I had yet to cross them in this town.
A gleam passed through Thagen’s eyes. “But you need numbers, don’t you?”
I sighed. Now to the core of the conversation. “Thagen, we need the pack to reunite. With your wolves and ours together again, we could easily stand up against the Jackals—”
“Ilume, let me put it this way for you,” he interrupted. He straightened out of his slouch, voice low as he leaned toward me. “Canada is home to some of the most dangerous abnormals known to Earth. The faeries’ Winter Court takes up a third of the woods alone. The Jackals’ territory is thin but surrounds quite a bit of yours. I told you that Rex was keeping you Rooks in a death zone—”
“We belong there,” I snapped back. I hated how he kept saying
woods, and quite a bit of
. Had he forgotten where he came from? “I was born there and so were you, like most of the members of the Rooks! The Jackals are trying to steal our land and our prey because you split our numbers.”
“Lume.” Thagen held up a hand, a warning in his voice. “Don’t. You know why the pack split in half. It was smarts over brawns, damn it! I had the brains to lead them out. Even all together, our pack wasn’t the size of the Jackal pack. Theirs was growing and still is to this day. As more and more pups are born into their pack, they need room, and Rex is never going to share territory. It’s only a matter of time before they attack full force, with or without us all together.”
I glared at him, shaking a little from the mix of nerves and rage I felt. He wasn’t going to help us—that’s basically what he said. I had been dumb enough to hope otherwise.
“That wasn’t the only reason why you split the pack,” I mumbled.
Thagen’s gaze filled with ice. He leaned away from me, nearly flashing his fangs. “Don’t bring that up. I gave you the chance to be with me and you didn’t want it,” he rumbled. “You could’ve left Rex and his stupidity behind. You would’ve been happy.”
His words tore at my heart. “I would’ve been a traitor.” That was true in more ways than one. Not only would I have betrayed my pack and my homeland like the others he led, but I would’ve betrayed my sister. “How is Leslie, anyway?”
“Fine.” Thagen shrugged, totally brushing the subject off.
Another uneasy silence. Finally, Thagen stood up, pulling his leather jacket on. “I can’t help you, Ilume,” he declared. “The Rooks need to leave Canada behind. You either find another home to settle into, or you die in the spar it will create. You know Rex doesn’t negotiate. He only fights.”
“No.” I stood up. Thagen turned to motion to the wolves, and I took my chance to get in his face. A growl rumbled in his throat, our bodies inches apart. “You
help me. There’s a difference.”
He scoffed. His warm breath hit my neck as he looked away, a faint line of blush on his cheeks.
My heart gave a painful thud. “If you love me,” I added, “you will help me protect the Rooks, protect my pack, should the Jackals come.”
He shook his head. “I don’t love you anymore.”
It shouldn’t have hurt. His words shouldn’t have pierced my heart so deeply. The wolves came to his feet, wiggling between us. My hands curled, nails cutting into my palms as I stepped away. It wasn’t often I had to suppress tears.
“I’ll give your regards to Leslie when I get home,” Thagen said over his shoulder. “Goodbye, Ilume.”
Curse you, curse you, curse you
. I watched him head toward the front doors. He slipped out casually, head held high, like he hadn’t just condemned dozens of lives.
I remained in the dark corner of the club, feeling old wounds reopen. Before tonight, I had questioned whether my hatred for Thagen was totally reasonable. After all, he had a right to take a different mate. I had gotten over his leaving, at least I thought so. We had gone our separate ways because of our political views and because of my sister. I thought I’d been okay with that.
I wasn’t. Now I had a new reason to hate him. He intended to let my pack, his original family, suffer. He would let the Winter Court or the Jackals pick us off one by one. We meant nothing to him.
meant nothing to him.
. I fought the pain. Moving to the bar, I decided to try and fool the bartender, or maybe seduce him into giving me a drink. I was seventeen, but damn did I need something right then. Anything to fog the memories of this dreadful evening. I didn’t want to remember tonight.
I took a stool near the counter’s end, away from the humans watching the flat screen as it played some sorrowful music video. I tugged my dress down, cleavage popping, but just as I was about to address the skinny guy with multiple tattoos . . .
I smelled nymph and laundry detergent.
No freaking way
. I stiffened, peering around the club. If that little shit followed me in here, whoever or whatever he was, I would tear him to pieces.
Bad time to piss me off, punk
. Really, I should’ve been outside—my temper was so close to breaking the surface. If I transitioned in here, it would be all over the local news.
His scent grew pungent. Among the hundreds of odors in the air, I knew he was coming closer, approaching at last. I folded my hands under my chin, closing my eyes.
Deep breaths, Ilume
. Patience and a calm mind was the key. After all, I could always take him once he walked out of the club, where there would be no witnesses.
A stool squeaked a few feet away. I opened my eyes.
He leaned against the counter. Disdain lingered in his blue eyes as he watched me, but there was something else, too. Curiosity? Dark bangs brushed to the side, his hair fell in shaggy layers around his neck. His jeans and flannel shirt were the source of the nymph smell.
I stared back, something I don’t usually do. He was an attractive young man, I guessed somewhere around my age. I felt antsy all of a sudden and shifted in my seat. Something about him unsettled me. He looked human, but was he?
Before I could peel my eyes away, he said, “Hi there.”
I startled. Oh, crap, now look what I did. What to say?
“Hi,” I replied.
I shrugged. He must have watched the scene between me and Thagen.
The boy nodded. “Yeah. I’ve been there.” He shifted, moving a seat closer. Holding out his hand, he said, “I’m Jared.”
My nose twitched. I couldn’t help it. I sniffed at the scent coming off his arm. “I’m . . . Mya.” Humans and faeries—those were the two species you should never give your first name to. Give them a middle name, but never your first.
“Mya.” The name rolled off his tongue. The way he said it sounded like I was going into his long term memory. He withdrew his hand, seeing I didn’t shake it. “Nice to meet you, Mya.”
I forced a smile, unable to say the same. “Well, um, I’ve got to get going.”
“You’re not going to stay for a while?”
“Nah. Not my scene.” I stood up.
Unfortunately, he did, too. “Oh. Yeah, same here. I was just leaving, actually.”
“Oh. Well.” I started backing away. Jeez, was he trying to make this awkward? “Goodnight.”
He bobbed his head. “Night.”