They put me in a cage.
After that, they loaded it into the back of a van. I tilted with the container and slammed hard onto my elbow, but I didn’t give them the satisfaction of crying out. The doors closed, leaving me in darkness. I sat there and shook with rage as the engine rumbled to life. I could hear my captors talking and laughing. One made a lewd joke.
I didn’t bother demanding to know our destination; they had been talking about the market for the three days I’d been in their grasp. More often than not, it was a place Fallen went to die.
Fallen. I hadn’t had to use that term in ages. Every species—faeries, werewolves, shapeshifters, nymphs—were descended from angels. No one knew whether it was mutation or evolution that had separated us.
My captors thought I was a werewolf or a faerie, both of which would fetch a high price. Some buyers would pay even more if they intended to kill the creature and sell its parts. It was well-known that the muscles of a werewolf gave you unparalleled strength. The hands of a faerie lent you their magic. The lungs of a nymph brought the ability to breathe underwater.
The heart of my kind would eliminate all the eater’s fears.
I didn’t allow myself to wonder what would happen if I caught the attention of a buyer; I’d find a way to escape before then.
It was still hard to believe this was happening. I kept replaying the kidnapping in my head, cursing my own recklessness. A few nights ago, I’d been in the woods. During my exploration of those hills, a splash of color had caught my notice. A flower, nestled in the grass, beneath the sky’s luminous glow. As I’d knelt to admire it, something struck me from behind.
And here I was.
Hours later, my muscles were screaming. Just when I thought I would finally open my mouth and give the pain a voice, the van lurched to a halt. The engine died again. My captors got out, still talking, and the doors opened. Brightness poured inside. I squinted, so disoriented that I forgot to curse at them as they took hold of the cage.
The selling hadn’t begun yet. It was mid-morning and everything was awash in soft, yellow light. Dew still clung to the grass. Every time someone spoke, white puffs of air accompanied the words. The men—although I suspected they were goblins, based on the greed that shone from their dark eyes—carried me along a row of stalls, platforms, and cages. Vendors and merchants unpacked their wares or lined up their prisoners. Chains clinked, undoubtedly dipped in holy water. The stories of iron or silver holding us had been fabricated for humans.
The holy water also made it difficult to maintain any glamour—a powerful but subtle magic that disguised a Fallen’s true form. In passing, I caught a glimpse of wings. Those were worth a fortune, as well.
As my captors found a place for their prize, I couldn’t resist looking at the rest of those for sale. A boy stared back at me with his watery blue gaze. He stood on a small, wooden platform, a sign around his neck that displayed his species and price. Vampire. They could be out in the sun, of course; they simply preferred the night. He looked like a boy of twelve or thirteen. If he was lucky, he’d be sold to a family that wanted someone in their kitchen. If he was unlucky, he’d be sold for his incisors—their teeth were useful for witch spells and poisons. But a vampire without his fangs would soon die of starvation.
Within seconds, we were out of each other’s line of sight. My captors had found an open spot toward the end of the row, and as they set the cage down, it brought me within reach of them. But even if my powers weren’t dormant in the daylight, my bound hands prevented me from touching anyone through the bars. I leaned back to wait for another opportunity. With every second that passed, one thought screamed louder than the rest. Torturing me, taunting me.
Is this what happened to Damon?
“I smell coffee,” one of the men said, rubbing his hands together for warmth. “Want to find it?”
The other nodded, and they walked away, leaving me there. The cage was so small that I could only stand bent over or remain seated. I chose the latter. A lovely smell teased my senses, and I saw that an old woman selling herbs and flowers had set up nearby. She noticed me and bared pointed, yellow teeth. I quickly looked away.
While the market filled, I took stock of what I had in possession for the umpteenth time. Jeans, a plaid button-up, and hiking boots. The men had taken the laces, though, and the rest of my gear. They’d also found Dad’s pocket knife after I’d been knocked unconscious.
I began searching the ground for a rock, but my skin prickled in that way it did when someone was watching. Tensing, I lifted my head. There was a man standing in front of me.
“Hello there,” he said the moment our eyes met.
His hair rested against the back of his neck in soft, brown curls. His cheekbones were sharp and his jawline defined. His irises were gray, or hazel, I couldn’t tell from a distance. He wore a gray, wool coat to ward off the chill in the air. He appeared human, but that was the work of a glamour—power rolled off him like perfume. I studied his ears, his eyes, his fingers. Nothing gave him away. He was appealing, yet not so much that he attracted attention.
“What is your name?” the stranger asked. I realized I’d been staring. His voice was crisp and unhurried, like a dead leaf falling from a tree.
“Fuck,” I answered, hiding my embarrassment. “Would you like to guess my last name? I’ll give you a hint. It rhymes with ‘shoe’.”
To my surprise, a faint smile curved his lips. “How refreshing. A slave with spirit left in her.”
Though there was no point in engaging with him, the word made my stomach churn with fury. I longed to be free of the rusty bars. “I’m not a slave,” I hissed.
He tilted his head. “You’re in a cage. You can be purchased. Isn’t this the definition of a slave?”
“I’ll show you the definition,” I purred. “Find the key and let me out.”
“Something tells me it’s in my best interest to leave you there,” the stranger remarked. His tone was dry but his eyes twinkled merrily.
Just I started to respond, my captors returned, cups of coffee in hand. The stranger slipped away soundlessly. I watched him go, noting that he walked as though his feet didn’t quite touch the ground. Faerie, I thought darkly. Of course, there was any number of things he could be, but my gut told me I was right.
So far, I had yet to meet a faerie I could trust. Once, one came into the bar where I worked and stole tips from my apron while I wasn’t looking. Another tried to sexually assault me in the street after a closing shift.
And then there had been Sorcha. Vivacious, lovely, intriguing Sorcha. We’d sensed each other at the movie theatre one night, during my freshman year of high school. Our friendship had been immediate and all-consuming. For me, someone who didn’t make friends easily, it had been everything. Then Sorcha seemed to fall off the face of the earth. She stopped texting, stopped coming by, stopped showing up at the local haunts. My theories had ranged from her being killed by a faerie hunter to a spell gone wrong.
Weeks later, though, I saw her again at a pool party.
The image was still vivid in my mind. Her laying there on that lounge chair, wearing a neon orange bikini. My stricken face reflecting in the darkness of her sunglasses. When I asked her why she hadn’t called me back, she said in a bored tone, “Oh, you didn’t know? I’m done with you now.”
It had been years since that conversation, but the effect of it hadn’t faded.
“…so beautiful. But what is it?” a woman was asking. I tore my focus away from the faerie’s retreating back. A couple now stood before the cage. It seemed my captors had found some prospective buyers. The woman studied me like I was a side of meat or a charmed necklace. Insults and taunts rose to my lips.
“Not entirely sure,” one of the men replied, giving me a warning glare. His fingers idly brushed against the cattle prod at his hip. I ground my teeth together and stayed silent. “We found it on a mountain, kneeling in some moonlight. It has a lot of power, though. Makes my hair stand on end.”
I had never bothered telling these morons the truth; I’d been on the mountain for a purpose, yes, but not to change form or draw power from the moon.
That night, I’d been looking for my brother.
There was still some small, unconquerable part of me that couldn’t accept he was gone. Really, though, going into the woods had been more for myself than Damon. Two years had passed since I’d come home from work and found his note on the kitchen table. Went out to check the garden, it said in my brother’s nearly illegible handwriting. It wasn’t out of the usual for him to go out in the middle of the night; I felt the restlessness, too, when the moon was bright and high. His vegetable patch was in the backyard, visible through the kitchen window, but I’d been so tired from a shift at Bea’s that I didn’t even look out the glass before heading to bed.
When I woke up the next morning, his room was still empty.
The sheriff department went through all the motions. Search parties, missing posters, phone calls to hospitals. Eventually, everyone reached the same conclusion.
Damon Sworn was dead.
The night my captors found me was the anniversary of his disappearance.
Unsurprisingly, the two of them had trouble selling something they couldn’t advertise. Guess that hadn’t occurred to them in all the excitement of discovering me. The couple moved on, and farther along the row, a young shapeshifter caught their interest. She was so frightened that she couldn’t keep hold of one skin, switching from girl to cougar to bird between one breath and the next. She was in a glass box so she couldn’t fly away. Anyone who bought her would have to know a spell or possess a bespelled item to keep her from escaping. I watched the couple negotiate with a black-haired woman standing beside the box, but couldn’t stomach seeing how it ended. I leaned my temple against the bars and closed my eyes.
More time went by. Mist retreated and sunlight crept forward. The fools trying to sell me grew bored. They got lawn chairs out of the van and started playing a game of cards. Somewhere in the market, an auction began, and the auctioneer was louder than the crowds. I’d barely slept in three days, and I began to drift off, his bellowing voice a bizarre lullaby. “Ten thousand dollar bid! Do I hear fifteen thousand? Now fifteen thousand, will you give me twenty thousand?”
Suddenly there was a clinking sound near my head. I jerked upright so quickly, I nearly collided with the bars. Something glittered on the metal floor, and the breath caught in my throat when I saw what it was.
I snatched them up, terrified that my captors had noticed. But they’d started drinking hours earlier, and they saw nothing but their bottles and cards. I looked around for whoever had left this unexpected gift. There were only merchants, buyers, and slaves. No one looked in my direction.
I’d asked only one person for a key—the faerie. Why would he help me? What did he stand to gain from my escape?
Questions that I would ask myself later. I tucked the keys into my pocket and waited. Everything inside of me longed to take action, but sunlight still touched the market, keeping my abilities dormant. Any escape attempt would fail.
Night was slow in coming. Though I continually started to tap and fidget, I forced myself to be still again. Eventually the sky darkened and part of the moon turned its face toward us. Feeling its effects, some of the other captives began to whine and pull at their chains. Fortunately for the slavers, it wasn’t a full moon. While werewolves weren’t forced to change, as the humans believed, they were stronger then. We all were.
My captors had been careful to avoid physical contact these past three days. It was the only intelligence they’d displayed. At their cabin, they’d kept me tied up in a storage room, with just a bucket for company. I’d had to eat food from a bowl like a dog. When they decided to switch to the cage, they’d used tranquilizer darts. Several, in fact, since they weren’t certain what I was. And if I happened to be allergic or have a bad reaction to the drugs, well, too bad.
I remembered all of this as dusk faded, and the fire crackling within me climbed higher and hotter. Starlight shone serenely upon the market. My captors put away their chairs, talking about possibilities for tomorrow. The small-eyed one suggested using torture to find out what I was. The other mentioned displaying me naked. Every word only stoked the flames.
Luck was finally on my side. Slavers and vendors were so preoccupied packing up their wares, no one saw me use the key and slip out of the cage. Well, no one but the shapeshifter, whose eyes met mine for a brief moment before she fixed hers pointedly on her feet. She’d been sold earlier, so I had no idea why she was still here. Maybe her new owners had gone to get another vehicle. Couldn’t have a dirty slave on their sleek leather upholstery, now, could they?
Like the rest of my kind, I moved silently, creeping upon the kidnappers like a dream. My heart pounded harder as I edged around the van. I would only have one chance to do this right; goblins possessed enhanced speed, strength, and healing abilities. The men were lifting the empty cooler inside when my time came. Quickly, giving them no chance to react, I opened the door on the other side. They were just lifting their heads when I reached across and grasped their wrists—no easy task with my own hands tied. That was all it took. I had hold of their minds now, and before they could seize me or shout an alarm, I disappeared in burst of black smoke. To them, anyway. Anyone else would still see me, standing there, smiling like a cat with its paw in a bowl of dead mice.
I allowed my voice to slither around them, echo a thousand times, as though I were a legion instead of one. “You will regret the night you took me. You will repent for these last three days.”
“What are you?” the small-eyed goblin whimpered. For goblins they were. A single touch had told me so much.
It wasn’t enough to answer. Instead, I circled the van—Nightmares don’t sit on our victims’ chests as they sleep, like it describes on Wikipedia or in books; once I touch my victims, there’s no need to maintain physical contact—so I was right behind them. I leaned close and pressed the side of my chin against the trembling goblin’s temple. I stroked the back of his head with my still-bound hands. He probably would’ve bolted right then, but I’d made them believe they couldn’t move. “I am the last of my kind,” I whispered. “Does that mean anything to you?”
His breathing was ragged. There were only a few deadly possibilities, and everyone paid attention to endangered species. Especially slavers. Better selling value, of course. The thought made my nails dig into his scalp. The goblin made another sound, deep in his throat. Now that I had finally touched them, I could taste his terror. Everyone’s had a unique flavor, not all of them pleasant. This one had the tang of chicken fat, and it coated my tongue.
I hardly noticed, however, as images flickered across my closed eyelids; I’d found his fears. Not all of them, not the ones that kept him awake at night. But the phobias that hovered just beneath his skin, ready to come out at a moment’s notice, those were mine. The small-eyed goblin had typical ones. Spiders, heights, death. His companion was a bit more interesting. Above all, he dreaded being alone.
Now that’s exactly what he was.
All the goblin saw was whiteness. There was no ground and no sky, no walls and no surroundings. He wrapped his arms around his knobby knees—no glamour, because this was his own mind, after all—and began to rock back and forth. His pointed teeth flashed as he sang a song his mother had taught him. Meanwhile, the other was slapping at his own arms and legs, believing himself to be covered in spiders. Cliché, maybe, but there was no time for ingenuity. I held out my wrists, making the goblin believe they were his. He couldn’t very well slap at any spiders if his hands were tied, so he desperately yanked Dad’s knife out of his boot and hacked at the ropes. I tried to jerk back, but he was too fast. The blade nicked my arm. I hissed at the pain. But the ropes fell away, and I ended the illusion before the goblin could cut my entire hand off. He returned to slapping at the spiders, dropping Dad’s knife, and I bent to retrieve it. It was a welcome weight in my hand. He’d loved this thing. The blade was Damascus steel, made by a hand-forged process of folding and refolding layers of hot high-carbon steel and iron. There were beautiful swirls and contours along its length. The handle was made of dyed wood, which I rubbed affectionately with my thumb before tucking the knife away.
Despite an ever-increasing sense of urgency, I lingered to observe my handiwork. The other goblin was already soaked in his own urine. Satisfaction curled around my heart. Smirking, I climbed into the van to reclaim my belongings. Everything was scattered, presumably from when they’d dug through everything on the day of my capture. They must have gotten rid of my phone—no doubt it was back at the cabin. I didn’t know where that was, and not even an expensive iPhone could tempt me to find the place again. Seething, I slung my bag on and got out of the van. I planned on driving it back home, but I couldn’t leave. Not yet.
Outside, the goblins were both crying now. I still put more power into their visions. More spiders, more echoes. They wouldn’t be free of me until dawn, if the terror didn’t kill them before then.
I hurried into the aisle of crushed grass and straggling buyers. Using my power after so long—I hadn’t touched it even before the goblins took me, so it had been a few weeks since the last time, probably—made the blood in my veins feel like champagne. My head felt fuzzy, too. It was better than any drink or drug. Striding through the market, I cracked my neck in an effort to stay alert. At the same time, I noticed someone standing a few yards away. My steps slowed.
The faerie stood in a slant of moonlight, and in that moment, he truly looked like the angels we were all descended from. The corners of his mouth tilted up in a half-smile. I scowled in return, still distrustful, regardless of the fact that he’d aided my escape. Was he coming to collect a debt? Did he want me for his own?
Apparently not, because once again, he turned and walked away.
I suspected it wasn’t the last I’d see him. Shaking myself, I continued on through the market. My progress didn’t go unnoticed; Nightmares always drew stares. Whenever someone looked at me, they saw whatever face they believed the most beautiful. Like the nightmares that came at night, we were meant to be seductive. We were designed to lure our victims in. Then, when it was too late to draw back, we struck.
I couldn’t find the keys for each and every cage. I also couldn’t take on all the slavers here. But there was one thing I could do.
The woman who had sold the shapeshifter was preoccupied with a game on her phone. It was impressive she even got a signal up here. I knelt in front of her. “Hello.”
“What do you want?” she asked without looking up. She looked entirely human and there was no trace of glamour. Her hair was gray at the roots. The rest was an unnatural, black dye.
I wrapped my fingers around her ankle, the closest patch of bare skin within reach. The woman’s head snapped up, but it was too late. She was afraid of small spaces, shrinking walls, being locked in the dark. With another wicked grin, I made her believe she was the one in a glass box. The woman jumped up, gasping, and fumbled with a chain hanging around her neck. A key appeared at the end of it. She fit it into the lock, and the door swung open. The shapeshifter scrambled out so quickly that she tripped on her skirt. She took a few steps, paused, and faced me again.
“Thank you,” she whispered. Hair hung over her eyes, hiding them from view, but there was gratitude in her voice.
Before I could reply, she transformed into an owl and flew away.