I WASN’T thinking when I ran out the cabin toward the scream, my father’s rifle and the biggest flashlight I owned in my hands.
The snow was deep, up to my knees, but it was February in Washington, and as I trudged through it and around trees, ferns, and thick brush, I tried not to think of every horror movie about the woods I’d ever seen in my thirty-two years. Not that I was scared—I was a former Marine—but then I heard another shriek and increased my pace. I had to get there faster.
Unfortunately, it had rained on top of the snow and then the temperature dropped to freezing, so moving was like chiseling through shaved ice with my legs. I took a step and sank, took another and sank—getting anywhere quickly wasn’t going to happen. The cold was trying to claw its way under my skin, so I zipped up my shearling-lined barn coat to try to keep it at bay.
What was going on, on the grounds of the estate owned by Mr. and Mrs. Rothschild? Ever since I’d arrived, I’d had questions.
The Rothschilds had contacted the company I worked for, Wild Wood Carpentry, after seeing pictures of previous work I’d done on the website. They were impressed and asked if I could come to their home and rebuild some built-in bookcases damaged in a fire. Money was no object, and they didn’t need an estimate.
I left Bellingham in the north Cascade Mountains, near the Mount Baker Area in Whatcom County, and drove toward a town called Glacier. I was on a lonely stretch of 542 for a while and then turned off in the direction of Church Lake. It got a bit desolate after that, nothing in front of me or behind as far as I could see but snow and trees. When I finally saw the driveway appear out of nowhere, it was a bit of a relief.
The long, winding two-lane road led to a ten-foot-high wrought iron gate. The high-tech cameras and security system were a surprise, and I had to get out and stand in front of video monitor while someone confirmed my identity. As I waited, I wondered why all of it was necessary. Why all the hoops to jump through out in the middle of nowhere?
It was another ten minutes of driving before thick woods thinned and then cleared. Their house—if you could call it that—looked more like a fortress than a home.
What appeared to be a medieval stronghold from the outside gave off the same austere, museum like quality once I crossed the threshold. It was as massive inside as it was out and just as frigid, if not more so: marble everywhere, ancient polished wood, enormous fireplaces in every room I walked through, and lots of gilded everything. I felt underdressed and looked down upon by everyone who had the seeming misfortune of conversing with me. From the first day, it felt like they didn’t really want me there. And there were a lot of damn people walking around, pretending not to notice my presence: maids and other servants, a cook and his staff, but also a ton of other beautiful people sitting and standing around, not doing much of anything but artful lounging. But again, lots of movement too. It was like a small bustling village inside the thick walls. I wanted to ask what the deal was with the castle—were they fixing it up for a visit or something—but I was there to do a job, not ask questions. So even though I was curious about the inhabitants of the house, I kept my mouth shut.
The lady of the house, Mrs. Rothschild, put me in a small cabin on their property a mile away from their front door. I was fed two meals a day in the kitchen, in a nook close to the oven where it was warm, and then dinner was packed up for me every night before I left. No one talked to me during the day except to bring me bottled water.
At the end of the fourth day, Mrs. Rothschild came to check on me, nodded, gave me a shadow of a smile and told me to continue.
“You’re not at all what I thought you would be, Mr. Thorpe,” she said. “You haven’t been a bother in the least, and you don’t smell at all like others of your kind.”
I suspected the “others of my kind” comment referred to workmen she’d had in her home previously. Maybe those guys hadn’t been that concerned about their body odor—more about getting in and out. It was a weird place, so I understood what might have driven them.
“I doubt my neighbors even know that you’re at the cabin, as unobtrusive as you are.”
That last comment had me thinking as I churned through the snow toward the scream that got me up off the couch, dressed quickly, and out into the night. No one knew I was out here. No one knew I was staying in the cabin except the Rothschilds, and if I didn’t show up for work tomorrow, would they even check on me? Or would they just call someone to clean up the guest house?
It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to turn back. I was going to find the source of the noise. I just really hoped I wasn’t on my way to getting lost in the woods and ending up very dead. When I saw the light, I wasn’t dodging trees anymore because they’d been cleared… and then I saw the bonfire.
It was huge, like the beach fires I’d attended during summers with friends, but instead of crackling away on wet sand, this one blazed upon cleared frozen ground. It was a touch strange and a touch surprising out there in the dark, but no more than everything about this place was.
“Holy shit,” I rasped, my voice going out, my breath heavy all of a sudden, like a weight on my chest.
The second thing I noticed was all the people. A lot of fucking people. I kept getting surprised about the sheer numbers of bodies I’d seen on this trip. It was like, where were they keeping themselves, and why? Then the crowd parted, and none of that mattered anymore because I saw a boy, maybe seventeen, eighteen at the most, chained to what looked like a St. Andrew’s Cross. He was bleeding from practically everywhere. His neck, chest, both wrists, both ankles, both thighs… and Mr. Rothschild, whom I had only ever seen in passing, was leaning down, moving in slow motion like it was a show—a grotesque spectacle—over the kid’s groin, mouth open, a second away from biting down on the young man’s penis. He could easily bite it off.
Only years of training kept me from vomiting right there.
The worst part was that everyone around the inner circle with Mr. Rothschild was so involved in torturing the poor kid, they hadn’t even noticed I was there. Even the twittering alarm of the folks actually looking at me didn’t alert him.
In seconds I lifted my rifle, fired into the air, and then instantly braced against my shoulder, ready to wing somebody if they didn’t respond to my one and only demand.
“Everybody back the hell away from the boy!”
No response at all.
The only good thing that did happen was that Mr. Rothschild turned to face me instead of biting the kid’s dick off.
“Did you fuckin’ hear me?”
A chill crept up my back then on spider legs—someone was coming up behind me. I did what I’d done for years in the Corps: I ducked and turned and put the muzzle of the rifle to the underside of the jaw of a man who clearly thought I was some yokel out there in the woods at two in the morning. He was good, I’d give him that. I hadn’t heard him at all; his boots had not made the same sounds as they crunched through the snow as mine had earlier. But I’d been a Marine for years, fourteen to be exact, and those reflexes never went away.
I wasn’t prepared for the slow, cocky grin, but my relief was instant. No one who smiled like that was about to kill me.
When he spoke, it sounded like Italian and maybe German mixed up with some Scottish or Irish, definitely some kind of Gaelic there. Since Spanish was the language I’d studied in the Corps, I just shook my head.
“Did the prince conscript more guards? Are you one of them?” he asked.
An odd question that made no sense. “No, I—I just need to save the kid.”
He slapped a hand over his heart. “This is my sacred duty as well.”
That was very good news.
My breath rushed out and I returned his smile. “Thank God,” I said, turning back to the crowd, putting the gun to my shoulder again. Normally I would never have trusted anyone this quickly, but considering the insane situation I found myself in, I had to put my faith somewhere and a man who also cared about the boy seemed a safe bet. “Move the fuck back!” I thundered to the crowd.
“You have no idea what you’re doing!” Mr. Rothschild railed. Something was wrong with him. He was not in control of himself, his pupils were blown, his mouth was smeared in blood, and he was panting. He was very clearly having some sort of seizure and needed help.
“Release the boy,” I demanded, because whatever was wrong with the man paying me to fix the bookshelves in his upstairs library—he was not my foremost concern. The boy losing blood was.
“You don’t understand!”
Oh, I was pretty damn sure I did. They had dressed the kid up in what looked like a gold silk karate gi and then had opened his top to bare his chest and pulled down his pants. They were bleeding him dry for whatever freaky cult ritual bullshit they were doing, and I had a only a moment to wonder how long they’d had him. Had he been in the house when I was? I felt a remorse over the thought that I’d missed something. He already looked worse for wear, his lips blue, and his skin gray, all of which I could easily see from my vantage point.
I took a step and people surged forward until I put a bullet in the ground in front of them. “I’m ordering you to let him go!”
“You don’t belong here!” A woman shrieked, and when I searched for the face the voice belonged to, I found Mrs. Rothschild. “Just leave now, Mr. Thorpe… this is not your fight.”
“You’re killing him,” I rasped as the guy beside me snarled.
I didn’t want to turn and look at him because you never, ever, took your eyes off the threat, but just a quick sideways glance told me that he had armed himself with more than one knife.
“This boy is not human,” Mrs. Rothschild yelled before gesturing at the man standing with me. “None of us are.”
Whatever the fuck that meant.
“Mr. Thorpe,” Mr. Rothschild pleaded, “things aren’t at all what they appear to be.”
What they appeared to be was something out of a history book on medieval torture.
“I think it is exactly what it looks like,” the man on my right growled, his voice garbled, guttural, almost more animal than human before he added, “I have others approaching. They will be here shortly. We shall part ways, but they will find me. We simply need to delay them.”
His words were meant to soothe me, but really, the situation was far more dire. From the blood on everyone, it appeared that they’d had a taste of the kid already, so I was guessing that I needed to get him in my truck and to the hospital for a transfusion as fast as I could.
“Give me room,” I roared, giving my command to the crowd, using the gun to gesture at them to move.
They weren’t scared of me at all. They weren’t, and that made no sense because the gun I was pointing at them was a serious threat.
As I advanced on them, ready to shoot, I knew I was dead if they attacked me. There were just too many. I hoped none of them had a death wish. I’d take out the first ones that lunged at me.
“Rothschild, move your people back!” I bellowed in the voice I’d used to project over gunfire in Afghanistan.
“You will bring down a plague on us if you persist with this delusion and alert him to our whereabouts.”
Alert him to their whereabouts.
I had to wonder if maybe they didn’t want whoever he was to know where they were because perhaps torturing kids was something he wouldn’t approve of.
“If this creature doesn’t die, it will be the end of us!”
But there was no creature, only a sweet-looking young man they were trying to kill—and still might manage to if I couldn’t get things moving along with the negotiations. Even worse, Mr. Rothschild and his wife and all their people were between me and the boy, and short of shooting them, I had no idea what I was going to do.
If I got out of this, I was moving to New Orleans. Yes, the universe was trying to tell me something. Who was I not to listen?
I was saved from having to act by everyone starting to scream before they turned and ran.
Three guys blew by me—it was impressive how fast they moved in the snow, or over the snow, if I was seeing it right, which clearly I wasn’t—but the point was, they looked badass and that was what I wanted in reinforcements. I turned to my new friend standing there, hands behind his back, studying me.
“Do you belong to Varic?”
Weird question, even weirder timing, but then again, this whole night had become surreal. “I don’t—” I lowered my gun and forgot about him, racing over to the boy, concerned only with him. But that didn’t stop me from being startled when I looked up and the guy was right there with me, like he’d somehow kept pace even though I didn’t hear him move.
“Answer,” he persisted. “Do you belong to Varic?”
I took a breath so I didn’t yell at him. Who the fuck cared about anything but the kid? “I don’t know who that is, yeah?” I said, concentrating on keeping my voice flat, without judgment. “Will you help me with him?”
He shook his head. “He would gut me if I paused to show either concern or compassion instead of punishing those who dared lay hands upon him.”
“If you simply stay here, I will loosen the chains when I return.”
That made no sense. “I think I’ll just get him off that thing now, all right?”
He graced me with that appealing smile of his again, a quirk of his mouth both wicked and warm. “You are human. I can smell the sweet scent of your blood from here. But you carry yourself like one of us… but also something different. What is your name?”
“Jason Thorpe,” I told him as I looked over the several feet of chain wrapped around the boy’s legs, and each arm. It was like they thought he was the Incredible Hulk or something instead of the ballet dancer he resembled. “Who’re you?”
He gave a bigger smile this time, and I could have sworn I saw… but it was late and I was tired and my adrenaline had spiked and was rapidly leaving me.
“I am Hadrian.”
I waited a moment until his left eyebrow lifted. “That’s it? Just one name?”
“Like Cher and Madonna?”
“Yes,” he said with a throaty chuckle. “Exactly like that.”
I would have said something else, but my worry for the kid overrode my curiosity and I got serious about the task of getting him loose.
“You should use both hands to free him,” he suggested, “as no one will return to offer you peril.”
“Thanks.” I slung the rifle over my shoulder, glad I’d never taken the thick strap off my father’s rifle, before going to work on getting the boy untangled.
“Name your clan,” Hadrian continued.
Strangest conversation ever. “I don’t know what you’re—”
“What about the clan of your mate?”
“Are you mated?”
He was so odd. “I—no, but we gotta get this kid outta here.”
“I thought perhaps it was the scent or your mate I peceived, but… no. ’Tis just you.”
“Okay,” I drew out, because it was rude not to acknowledge the nice man who’d helped me even though, sadly, he was nuts. “So I’m gonna get him some help.”
I got a quick nod. “I suspect he will revive before you even have time to complete whatever it is you have planned, but I will leave him in your care until the time for me to collect him arrives, as I know you mean him no harm.”
“Well, no, of course not, I wanna save him.”
“But you did that already,” he told me. “I did not know where to seek him. I was some distance away, up at the house, and then we traversed north toward the mountains but he… he…. I was starting to turn just a bit mad—” He took a nervous breath that told me he’d been more than just a “bit” of anything. “—but then I felt… almost a… pulse, like a wave through the air that drew me back, and then I saw the fire and heard your yell, and I was rewarded with the sight of my precious quarry safe and sound.”
“He’s really not safe,” I insisted, concerned for the boy and for the sanity of the nice man standing in front of me because his mind was all over the place.
“Care for him well. Forgive me, but I must take my leave of you. I must needs gather the heads of this clan to take to my prince as they have broken his law by attacking his vassal.”
That, at least, made sense. They were in trouble, the Rothschilds and the others who’d participated, and Hadrian was going to round them up so they could see the prince and answer for their crimes. Heads would roll. “Sure,” I agreed, starting on my task of unwinding the silver chains from the boy. When I glanced up a few moments later, Hadrian was gone. I pulled up the boy’s pants and closed both sides of the gi, covering him as best I could. When his eyes slowly drifted open, I smiled wide.
“Hey there,” I greeted him gently.
“Tell me you are not going to ask me how I am feeling?” he asked, much more sarcastic than I was anticipating, given his current circumstances.
“No,” I assured him, hand on the side of his neck to check his pulse.
“You show such care, and I am nothing more than a stranger,” he murmured. “Thank you for your kindness and worry.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said gruffly, scared for him but also touched that he was thanking me. “What’s your name?”
He looked like an angel with his blond hair and enormous sky-blue eyes and was, without a doubt, the prettiest, most delicate man I’d ever seen. “Well, Tiago, you’re gonna be all right. I’m gonna make sure.”
“I would be well regardless of you interceding on my behalf.”
I didn’t want to argue with him because I needed him calm.
“But they have the right of it, you know,” he whispered as I lifted him gently off the cross and into my arms, the princess carry the gentlest way I knew to move him. “This situation is beyond your understanding.”
“Then someone should have given me an itinerary of the activities that were going to occur while I was visiting,” I replied softly, feeling how cold he was, terrified he was going to get hypothermia. “Because no one gets to hurt kids on my watch.”
He sighed deeply. “I am not a child, I promise you.”
“Barely legal, then,” I amended, crushing him to my chest, trying to give him as much of my body heat as I could as I turned to head back to the cabin.
“This decision to help me may haunt you for the rest of your life.”
“I’ll worry about that once you’re hooked up to an IV at the hospital.”
He lifted himself, wrapping his arms around my neck, holding on tight.
“I’m sorry if I’m hurting you,” I apologized as I trudged through the snow as quickly as I could. “I’m really trying to be—”
“No,” he breathed, then swallowed hard. “You are much like a furnace… I forget sometimes how warm humans are.”
If he forgot something about humans, then that made him… what? Though the question skittered through my mind, I couldn’t hold on to it. At the moment, it didn’t matter. The only important thing was to get him to my cabin.
I finally saw the lights up ahead but heard growling at the same time. Glancing to my right, I saw several men sprinting toward me. The running didn’t scare me, but the speed did. They were in the same snow I was, but it didn’t seem to be slowing them down in the least just as it hadn’t caused Hadrian or his men any extra effort.
“Shit,” I croaked out, moving as fast as I could toward the back door. “I thought he said no one was coming back.”
But really, how could Hadrian have known how many people were out there?
Tiago purred in my arms. “You can put me down now, Jason Thorpe. I assure you I can stand against the others now.”
“Not hardly,” I admonished, reaching the door, jostling him to open it with my right hand, rushing through before kicking it shut behind me. Darting to the couch, I put him down, pivoted, and then ran back to the door to lock it before taking several steps back, while yanking the gun off my shoulder to raise it and point at the door.
“What is your plan here, Jason?” Tiago asked. He sounded amused.
“I’m gonna protect you until they clear out and I can get us to my truck.”
I heard him get up off the couch and walk toward me.
“No,” I said, sparing him a glance before turning back to cover the door. “Don’t. You have to be careful you don’t bleed out.”
He moved around in front of me, but I was scared of the people outside and of him dying, and I forgot to be gentle when I tried to push him back behind me. I gasped. Even though I had easily a hundred pounds of muscle on him, he didn’t budge. “How’re you doing—”
“I am hardly the curiosity here,” he said, squinting, putting his hands on my face. “I should have been in need of some of your blood to be at full strength. I never expected those peasants to attack a member of the court, but somehow just being close to you… in your presence… Jason, who are you?”
“Me?” I rasped, seeing the people collect around the back of the cabin. Why they weren’t rushing the door, or the window, for that matter, I had no idea.
“Why do they hesitate? Why delay their entrance?” he questioned, sounding perplexed and fascinated at the same time, just as confused as I was.
Scared, I turned back to the boy with some difficulty. He was still staring, studying me like I was some kind of alien creature.
“Why do these people fear you?” he asked, leaning closer. His nostrils flared like he was trying to catch some kind of scent off me.
“They don’t,” I answered, moving around him to stand beside the couch and look out at the tree line where more people appeared. “They don’t have any reason to.”
“No,” he agreed, “they do not, and yet, they press not for entry.”
What he found interesting, I found a blessing. And… he talked funny. Rather like Hadrian, now that I thought about it. I wanted to ask if he knew what a contraction was, but maybe that was rude. It hit me then, how long I’d actually been off active duty. Back on the line in Nangarhar province, on the ground with my unit, fighting alongside Afghan troops, any thoughts other than being alert and taking care of the guys around me were inconsequential. I wouldn’t have even entertained something as inane as how someone spoke. But back in the world as I’d been for a few years now, as honed as I once was, there were chinks in my armor now, which meant things could be missed. Suddenly I was even more scared—if my training had slipped and only muscle memory remained, such as in the case of knowing Hadrian was there earlier—it meant that someone could get the drop on me.
We had to get to my truck. Away from everyone was the only way I’d be sure that Tiago was safe.
“Tell me who you are, Jason Thorpe.”
“You’ve been using my name, but I don’t remember telling—”
His smile was sweet, and he flushed, a soft pinkening to his cheeks that was lovely. “I heard you say such to Hadrian.”
I nodded as I pulled out my cell phone.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m gonna call the police.”
He snatched the phone from my hand. “We cannot have that.”
“Just—you cannot call the authorities.”
“And why is that?”
Crossing his arms, he tipped his head sideways as he regarded me. “There would be complications we simply cannot abide.”
“Again with the we?”
He sighed. “Tell me, Jason, have you ever been to Malta?”
“No, I—who can’t have complications?”
He took a quick breath. “Jason, for the last time, to whom do you belong?”
I shook my head. We didn’t have time for this. “I don’t belong to—”
“What is your clan name?”
“Thorpe,” I told him, rushing around, grabbing the few things I had left out, plus the toiletries from the bathroom, and throwing them into the military duffel I still used while I traveled. “So since you seem to be standing up okay, do you think you can walk?”
“Of course,” he said, as though that was obvious.
“Great,” I rushed out, thankful for his mobility as it would make our exodus toward my truck parked out front that much easier.
Zipping up the duffel, I threw it over my shoulder with the rifle and darted back over to the kid. Before he could say another word, I grabbed his arm and herded him toward the front door. I stopped him before opening it, getting the gun ready before I stepped through onto the porch. Checking around, even walking out a few steps to scan the overhang of the roof, I saw nothing and so then gestured for Tiago.
“Jason?” he said softly, and I could have sworn I heard a hint of laughter. “I think perhaps your concern is currently misplaced.”
“Well I think you might be in shock,” I informed him, thrilled that it looked like we were the only ones walking across the front yard. Even though he wasn’t bleeding anymore, I was really scared that he could still die. We reached my truck, and I unlocked the door and put him in the passenger seat as carefully as I could. Once I got the belt secured around him, I tossed the duffel in the bed and ran around to the driver’s side, shoved the rifle onto the gun rack behind my seat, and got in. Locking the doors, even though I still saw no sign of anyone else, even Hadrian, I took my phone from him, started the truck, and sent up snow and mud as I gunned the engine hard to get to the road. I was going eighty by the time we were on the two-lane highway. I cranked the heater up as high as it would go and headed for the closest town I knew of. I wanted to get him to an ER as soon as possible.
“You know, I perhaps might have underestimated the volume of blood they apprehended.”
When I turned my chin to check on Tiago, he had either passed out or fallen asleep beside me. I checked for a pulse, found it beating strong and steady, and was finally able to breathe.