Writing Prompt ~~ The Devil is in the Details

Music: release (A Tale of Outer Suburbia) by Hands Like Houses

I scowled at the small, plain wooden box sitting so innocently on the cheap, round kitchen table. Though plain might be a bit of a misnomer, maybe unadorned was better. It had only a bronze hook latch to keep the lid closed, and the wood appeared as though someone had fanned orange-red flames across unfinished wood and then froze them in place with varnish. I’d been told it was made from elder wood, but I hadn’t been concerned with the box. It’s what was in the box that drew my ire.

“That was not part of our agreement,” I said, the distaste in my words as heavy in the air as an impending storm. I then turned the same narrowed eyes to the ‘man’ across from me, and the corners of my mouth turned down in a sneer.

He wasn’t anything remarkable. In fact, he had a face and demeanor that the average passerby would gloss over and forget about almost the same instant they saw him. As though their eyes simply slid over him. Nothing stuck out as memorable, which had raised my suspicions all the more when I first caught sight of him almost nine years ago in the bookstore where I worked.

Everyone had something that caught a person’s eye to catalogue them: scars, birthmarks, mannerisms, body types, markings, smell, and so on. But this man was almost so bland he was invisible. It would have raised my hackles if I’d had them. I guess being half-Fae meant I was lucky I hadn’t been born with hackles. Human and Fae genetics could do some terribly interesting things at times.

He tilted his head, considering me, and his eyes that were some shade in-between brown and hazel searched my face for what I guessed was some small crack in my façade. I held my silence. One of the first things I’d learned when living with my ‘father’ was that it was far more difficult to find yourself in trouble if you held your tongue. It was a lesson I needed to be taught only once, and the scars that littered my back were a daily reminder for caution and quiet observation.

So, we both sat there in cumbersome silence waiting for the other to break. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have the endless patience that celestial and immortal beings were capable of, and after my clock ticked to ten minutes of nothing I broke.

“Why exactly are you trying to give me my soul back?” I asked and smoothed my features into a bored, indifferent mask. I did it not only to stave off my headache before it could become a migraine, but also because it never paid to show a veritable god that you were curious. Maybe satisfaction brought a curious cat back, but I’d never been tempted to test the limits of just how much ‘immortality’ I’d inherited from dear ol’ dad.

“Do you not want it back?” he asked, curious.

My scowl was back quicker than someone could snap their fingers. I was fortunate he wasn’t from my pantheon, or else the reaction would leave me as nothing more than a splotch of gore in my unfortunately decorated kitchen. The 70s were not kind in regards to such things, and no, calling it retro didn’t make it any less regrettable. But cheap was cheap, and this was what I could afford.

Of course, his position outside my kind’s usual avenue of worship was why I’d wound up in this delicate situation in the first place.

“I think my continued existence in the world of the living is enough of a reason to never want it back, actually,” I replied scathingly.

“But you’d have your magic back,” he offered calmly, and not responding to my irritation. He was still watching me for something, some reaction.

I scoffed, leaned back in my chair, and took a sip of my rapidly cooling tea. My mind was tumbling through precisely why that was the first reason he thought I’d want it back. I’d lived just fine for nearly a decade without it.

“Magic isn’t everything,” I said, finally deciding on a nonchalant response, and shrugged my shoulders to support the words.

“Maybe, but you would have been able to help your friend,” he said.

The words weren’t cruel, per say, but they had the same impact as a car wreck. It knocked all the wind from me and brought my thoughts to a screeching halt. My chest ached with the weight of grief, and the responsibility of a ruined life hung heavy on my conscience.

I closed my eyes against the sharp pain that stabbed through my heart when her face floated into view. There’d been so much blood, and though I’d learned long ago to not let such a thing bother me, it was the fact that it was her blood. Half-Fae were tougher than humans by a large stretch, but we could still be injured a hell of a lot easier than full-blooded Fae. It took immense torture, a twisted purpose and will, and/or a weapon enchanted with the express purpose to kill their kind to have an effect on them. I’d watched one Fae who was hit fully by a semi-truck on a highway walk away with nothing more than a bad temper at the ‘inconvenience’.

So when Seirian showed up on my doorstep out of the blue utterly mangled, her usually kind smile gone beneath a mask of gore, I’d rushed her to the closest approximation of a healer I knew. Unfortunately, not all magics are compatible, and the hardiness of the Fae meant she healed faster than Aubert could fix things. As a result, with her Fae magic fighting his shamanic power, the best he could accomplish was the minimize the scarring. Seirian was now the only Fae I knew confined to a wheelchair.

Of course, if I’d had my healing powers I could have healed her far more effectively, and likely almost back to perfect. On the flip side of that, using my powers would have drawn the Hunters I’d been avoiding for nearing two decades right to my location. They thought I’d been merely suppressing my powers, and not that I’d managed to finagle a deal with a Devil. Not necessarily the Devil, though I wasn’t sure I’d know the difference unless he told me. Devil was just a broad classification of upper-level demons, the same way Fae covered a lot of ground in terms of beings originating from the British Isles.

At any rate, since magic is tied so closely with the soul my power disappeared into the box along with it. That ‘plain’ box was the only thing standing between me and a faction of supremely cheesed off beings that wanted nothing more than to see me flayed alive. At best.

I opened my eyes to meet his gaze once more. As though someone had pulled the plug on my emotions everything drained away, leaving me with an emptiness I hadn’t experienced since we’d removed my soul.

“Wishes and what-ifs are as substantial as pixie farts, Karroth. Risking my neck now won’t heal Seirian and would only result in ushering in my demise. So, I ask again: why are you trying to give me my soul back?” I asked, my voice hoarse from unshed tears.

Something rippled beneath Karroth’s skin, and his eyes flashed with the catastrophic hellfire that pervaded his realm. It was a sobering reminder that, while I may not be a being of his pantheon, he was more than capable of killing me with the barest of thoughts with or without my powers to defend myself. It would be like a gnat picking a fight with a dragon.

“We need your assistance in getting through a ward to retrieve something that was stolen from us, Gwyneira Nic Trahaearn, lesser daughter of the Tylwyth Teg, and we would have your cooperation in exchange for sanctuary,” Karroth said formally and with Power behind the words, capital ‘P’ and all.

And when he said my name, despite the fact that all of my essence was set behind the highest wards the Devils possessed, it still rung my very being like clapper of large bell. It made every cell in my body hum, and for a moment it disrupted the bindings that held my glamour together.

There is power in knowing the Name of a thing, and though my human blood could disrupt some of said power, it did not cancel it out completely. As a sentient being, my Name didn’t lend someone control over me, but it made it impossible to not reveal my true self if they put their own Power behind Naming me. There are a few ways to see the true form of a Fae, and this was one.

Karroth’s eyes widened for a moment, as he’d never taken liberty with my Name or pushed my glamour aside. Therefore, he’d never seen what I truly looked like. Of course, it wasn’t every day that Devils and Fae crossed paths.

My glamour skills were a sight better than some of the snootier, higher-level Fae, because they reveled in flaunting their forms. I, however, was trying to not attract attention. The image I presented to the world with my magic was a woman with average looks, bordering plain, butterscotch blond hair that fell in waves to my mid-back, pale skin that was more suited to a redhead, and cornflower blue eyes.

What I truly looked like, though, wasn’t too terribly far off from the glamour, and I had the famed and fancied pale coloring of my people. Glamour works best when you don’t deviate too far from the original, though. The one thing that was always the most difficult to adjust was my hair, which was white as the driven snow, but the same length. Not being higher nobility meant I was already pushing the limits with how long my hair was now. Of course, I wasn’t exactly waltzing through the courts, so the danger level wasn’t too high. If they caught me, the length of my hair would be the least of my transgressions.

My eyes were normally a liquid cobalt blue that shimmered iridescent in the light, and my skin was so pale it was almost translucent at times. High cheekbones and delicate bone structure belied the innate strength that came with being Fae. Unfortunately, the glamour couldn’t help me with keeping said strength in check. I’d learned to be cautious after freaking out a co-worker when I’d overestimated lifting a large box of books and launched it across the room.

The real issue came with the glowing. My father’s people tended to glow with their power and emotions like wicked deadly lightbulbs. It wasn’t an all the time thing, but when strong emotions took us over or we were using our powers it tended to happen. I hadn’t had to worry about that since the removal of my soul, but I was glowing now. It likely had to do with Karroth using my Name, and how it may have tapped into some level of power in my very cells that went beyond what was in my soul.

I pushed my shoulders back and tilted my chin up to look down my nose at the Devil.

“You sure know how to flatter a lady by mentioning her lowly position with her people. Have you divested yourself of your kind’s famed silver tongue? Or am I simply lucky enough to be in the presence of the one Devil with less tact than a human?” I asked caustically.

I wasn’t the most devious of my kind; I couldn’t think a thousand moves ahead and I had no head for politics or sensing out ulterior motives. I was, however, enough in my right mind to try and buy time by playing on etiquette. He’d insulted me, and until such a thing was redressed I had time to think of a few questions and settle myself.

His eyes flashed with that inner fire again, my renowned peevish behavior finally scratching the surface of his calm façade. His apology was stilted, and only marginally genuine, but I inclined my head in acceptance. I didn’t have enough magical or political clout to do anything but accede anyway.

My glamour had finally settled back down and flowed back over my person like water filling an allotted space, smoothing over the surface. I let out a sigh at the familiar, almost imperceptible weight of it. To be exposed in such a way was disconcerting, to say the least, as though I suddenly found myself naked in front of him. That particular thought sent blood rushing to my face, and unfortunately the glamour didn’t conceal that.

Karroth raised an inquiring eyebrow, but I ignored him and cleared my throat.

“This sounds less like a favor and more like subtle demand. Why do you need me to get beyond this ward? You far outstrip me where power is concerned,” I noted, and watched his expression flash through varying emotions before settling into a rueful grin. Why such a sight had alarm bells clamoring in my brain and my instincts screaming like a banshee, I couldn’t say. The smile was pleasant enough, but there was something lurking beneath the surface that didn’t sit well with me on some level I couldn’t identify.

“I told them you wouldn’t just blindly want your soul back. They aren’t used to people who give up their souls for reasons other than greed and power,” Karroth said. Though his grin faded, amusement still danced in his eyes, like the flickering flame of a candle.

I snorted in disbelief and shook my head. “Cowardice isn’t a much better reason,” I pointed out.

“Is it truly cowardice to recognize when you are outmatched and take appropriate steps to ensure your survival?” he asked, continuing the vein of her observations. It was almost like he didn’t want to talk about why he was there, either. Or at least not directly.

“Some have pointed out I could have simply rolled over and faced my death like the nobility in my blood demanded.”

It was Karroth’s turn to snort. “As though any of them would sacrifice their own self-preservation to do the same.”

I tilted my head in assent. “You’re not wrong.” I paused, and took a moment to consider his words, ‘and we would have your cooperation.’ Pretty words with a very strong suggestion toward giving them what they wanted. Yes, he’d offered me sanctuary with the Devils, but, in a way, I was already halfway there by not being in possession of my soul. Was taking that step worth the risk of putting myself out in the open? Not to mention sanctuary and protection were two different animals. It was like the difference between a nice fence and a pack of guard dogs. Or a prison.

I grimaced in my thoughts only. There’s no telling what sanctuary meant to them. It could mean setting up wards on my house, person, place of work, and so on. Or it could mean they’d take me to one of their dimensions and I’d be trapped there. Forever. There wasn’t enough benefit to me to take the chance.

“Your offer is a most gracious one, Karroth, but regretfully I must decline at this time,” I said, using my ‘court polite,’ voice.

Karroth’s face remained calm, but his eyes gave the barest of twitches at my change in tone and answer. I wanted to point out he was the one to get all formal first, but I refrained. He was not pleased.

“We believed the offer of sanctuary to be a generous one,” he said, leaving the question hanging in the air. What about the offer was not satisfactory?

I wanted to sigh. “As I said, most gracious. However, I find myself wondering about a fair few things in regards to this agreement,” I said, tone only mildly curious, and leaving my own question on the air. May I ask questions?

The smallest spark lit his eyes, like an ember swirling from a campfire; the smallest flare and then gone. He nodded.

“First: what does sanctuary mean in my particular case in relation to the Devils?” I asked, trying to cover as much ground as possible while also being specific. If I had only asked, ‘What does sanctuary mean?’, he could rightly give me a quote out of the dictionary which might not cover what they considered sanctuary, and what it mean for me.

This time it was the corner of his mouth that tugged upward just a hair. “We would welcome you to our court,” he said, voice almost purring, as though the idea intrigued him in some way.

For me, though, it froze my insides and a stab of shock went straight through my heart. My eyes widened involuntarily, and my breath hitched. “While I would be most honored,” I said, my voice on the edge of stuttering, “such an accommodation would not be compatible with how I would like to live at this current time.”

For a moment he said nothing, and then his smile pulled a little higher. “That is unfortunate,” he said, mournfully, despite his unperturbed expression. “Our counter-offer is to place wards on your home.”

“That wouldn’t do me any good once I left,” I pointed out.

He shrugged. “It is a compromise. You have been offered full sanctuary on our terms, or partial on yours,” he said dispassionately.

I bit my lip, but knew he wasn’t going to budge on that. “What about an offer of protection for when I’m outside my home?”

He tilted his head in consideration. “What form of protection would you consider adequate?”

“Considering we’d be dealing with the higher Fae, like my father,” I said slowly, trying to think of what rank of demon wouldn’t be considered too high, or too low. “I’d wager nothing short of a Knight or sentinel, or two, would be sufficient.”

His eyebrows rose slowly. “You must think rather highly of yourself.”

I laughed, but it was a humorless sound, and brittle as thin ice. “I am no catch, Karroth. However, I have flouted not only a court full of easily pissed off Fae nobility, but also a Queen when I killed the first Hunter she sent after me. It is not for me that I ask for such power in protection. It’s for the poor, soulless demon, so that they’ll be of a sufficient power to protect us both, or at the very least themselves.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, the phantom pains from my encounter racing along my nerves like ghosts of agony past. “Anything less would be asking for a slaughter,” I finished, my voice hoarse.

After a few moments of silence, I looked up at Karroth, and he was watching me thoughtfully. “As you say.”

It was neither an agreement or a denial. Guess I’d just have to wait and see, though I was still not considering taking it back. They still weren’t offering me anything to sway my decision.

“Even if both provisions were met—wards and a guard—I still don’t see what’s in it for me,” I said, watching Karroth as I spoke. I didn’t trust the Devil for anything beyond our original deal: him keeping and using the power in my soul as he saw fit, and his discretion on keeping our arrangement and my current whereabouts to himself. The thought of what he might be using my soul for made something in my gut curl and twist, but there was nothing for it. There had been no other way.

“Don’t you want to know what it is you’re going to help us get before I…sweeten the pot, so to speak?” he asked.

He paused just before saying the last, and I narrowed my eyes at the hesitation. I wasn’t sure what his offer was, but it didn’t sound like something I’d actually like. It made the whole situation more suspicious than it already was.

“Fine,” I conceded, going with his suggestion. “What is it you and the Devils are trying to get back?”

“Cerridwen’s Cauldron, or rather, the Cauldron all leaders of the Underworld had a right to, until She took it for herself,” Karroth said, the latter half of his statement an aloud musing.

The world itself seemingly drew in a deep, shocked breath and froze at the former half of his words, and when it released everything shattered.

“What?!” I screeched, standing so suddenly that my chair toppled backward. “Are you insane?” I hissed, all polite pretense pulled away like ripping off a band aid.

“I suppose that depends on your point of view, but for the purpose of this discussion, no, I am not insane,” he replied, still calm.

Well, now his earlier reticence about telling me anything made sense. I wanted to shake him, maybe scratch his eyeballs out, just something violent to break the tranquility of his demeanor. Instead, because I valued having my lungs remain in my chest instead of being ripped out because I attacked the Devil, I settled for clenching my fists uselessly at my sides.

Of all the things I expected him to say, that particular one wasn’t even in the same universe as any of the others that had rattled around in my mind.

The Cauldron held the power of knowledge, inspiration, and rebirth, and Cerridwen was a Dark Goddess of many who called the British Isles home. And I meant Goddess with an upper-case ‘G’. There were little gods, goddesses, and demi-gods running around, but Cerridwen was a Power. As far as I knew she was the rightful owner of the Cauldron. I’d never even heard speculation it wasn’t hers, even among those outside her pantheon and worshippers. If I thought I was in a bad place with the courts of Fae, the wrath of a Goddess was nothing in comparison. It was pure, unadulterated suicide.

“You’re joking, right? Pulling one over on me?” I asked, breathless and foolishly hopeful. Karroth wasn’t a prankster, and he rarely ever joked in such a manner. He might tease me to make me uncomfortable, but this was well beyond that.

“I cannot say that I am. She has long kept the Cauldron to herself, thinking it could buoy her powers as her following in this world waned. The Cauldron was never meant to remain in the power of one Power of the Underworld for so long. It is one of the anchors in our realm, and it was high time it was returned to Cynosium, before the damage is irreparable,” he said, his voice going low and determined.

Cynosium was the middle realm of the Underworld, like the center of a starburst design with the various Underworlds as the points at the end of the beams radiating outward. Outside of that I didn’t know much about it, as I’d never had cause to. I made it my life’s mission, quite literally, to not visit or involve myself in the matters of the Beyond and Below.

“I don’t know how I can help with that…” I started weakly, and then my mind snapped to one of my father’s rants after I’d failed spectacularly at ingratiating myself to his Queen during one of her balls.

You are nothing more than an aberration on our vaunted family tree. How one such as you could be descended from our Dark Mother, I will never know. I thought it would be enough to cleanse your vile human taint, but apparently I miscalculated,’ he’d sneered.

It was that night, when the coldness of his gaze let me know I’d outlived any potential usefulness he’d planned for me, that I made my escape. I took nothing from my room, just found what I considered my most normal-looking clothing, dressed, and slipped out of the faery mound. I’d been a reverse changeling; instead of a Fae leaving a Faery child with humans, I was a half-Fae left at the entrance of the mound after my father’s unfortunate tumble with a human. Which was a story I’d been beaten within an inch of my life for asking about. I still didn’t know the circumstances.

As for the rest of what he said…Cerridwen was also known as the Dark Mother among the Fae, and I sucked in a breath at the realization.

“You need something from me, but not me,” I said, my knees going weak. I kept a tight grip on the table to hold myself up.

Karroth nodded, and for the first time I saw something stir in his expression that lent credence to the stories of Devils. Their utterly devious and cruel nature. A slow smile crept over his face, and it was not nice in any way, shape, or form. It was very much what I imagined a goblin looked like when it came across an unsuspecting fairy and had it for a snack. Predatory.

“Those of Cerridwen’s line aren’t plentiful, and almost never leave the mounds. Even when they do, it’s only every few hundred years, if that, and never alone. They would never allow themselves to be captured, and we needed someone alive to get what we needed.” He paused here, and his gaze sharpened on me. “And then along came a half-Fae, Hunters on her heels, and desperate for a normal life. Someone with the blood of Cerridwen in her veins. Though it is weakened by your human side and seeming to get more so each day you are without your soul, it is still there. A spark of that power is what we need to get past her wards.”

As he’d continued talking, he’d leaned forward until maybe half a foot separated us, his eyes looking up into mine where I still stood. I was not an incredibly tall person, so his face wasn’t all that far from mine. I swallowed hard but couldn’t move.

“I still don’t see what’s in it for me,” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper.

His smile went sharp and rueful again. “I had hoped you would simply go along, maybe in some gesture of defiance to your father’s people, but I should have known your fear ran far too deep.” He snapped his fingers, the sound cracking on the air almost like a whip. “Remember: this was not how I wished to go about this, but I have no choice,” he said, his voice low, but not really sounding very sorry at all.

“Everything before a ‘but’ statement is a lie,” I said, offhand.

“Perhaps,” he mused, and the sound of the front door opening and closing set my nerves on edge.

“Who…?”

Then she was there, moving her wheelchair into the kitchen, and I couldn’t breathe.

“Hello, Gwynnie,” she said, her voice soft and alluring, the accent lilting and rolling the words from her mouth like a tumbling stream.

I finally sucked in a breath past the tightness of my throat. “Hello, Seirian,” I said, barely choking the words out.

There was an air of resigned melancholy about her, like a haze diminishing her old, exuberant nature. Her usual emerald green eyes that sparkled like dew on fresh spring leaves, were instead dull. Her smile was small and sad, her skin an unhealthy pallor instead of shining white like moonlight. Her hair, which was more a shimmering platinum than white like mine, was pulled back in a ponytail. She’d told me after she healed, it made it easier to hide some of the scars on her scalp. Because, oh yes, scars littered her body like a battlefield strewn with dead soldiers.

Yet, she didn’t hate me for what happened, even though it was our friendship that had the Queen and my father destroying her life. Terrible did not even begin to describe what I felt over it. I wanted to crawl under a rock, curl into a ball, and die the slow death I deserved.

“Wh-what are you doing here?” I asked, though the part of my mind that wasn’t riddled by guilt had already started working through that.

“The Cauldron, Gwynnie, it can heal me,” she said simply, and made a small gesture to the Devil. “Karroth approached me about persuading you go along with this. However, I would never ask you to do something to put yourself at risk. I’m just glad I got to see you again, since you’ve been avoiding me. And I know that you would never let something silly like guilt get between our friendship,” she said wryly.

I saw her smile widen a fraction just before I cast my eyes down to the floor in shame. I didn’t think it possible, but her words made me feel even worse.

“You should be furious at me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“I could never be angry at my one and only friend,” Seirian said.

I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears I’d promised her I wouldn’t cry anymore. Seirian wasn’t a noble, in fact she’d been my servant at court, but I counted her as a friend and treated her as an equal. Which only made my father even more furious at me. That list was a long one.

“I-“

“I swear to the gods, if you say you’re sorry one more time I’ll learn to walk again just to beat the snot out of you,” she said cheerfully.

My head snapped up to look at her, and despite her tone it didn’t reach her eyes. She may not be mad at me as I thought she should be, but she wasn’t happy. Seirian was a being of cheer and light. She deserved to be dancing in the dappled sun of a forest floor in a piece of forest unseen by human eyes. Instead, she was here, in a city, dying the slow death of a Fae kept too long among humans and their modern technology and pollution.

I took a small, faltering step forward and reached out for her hand. When she reached forward and took mine in hers, her gasp was sharp in contrast to my slow, rattling exhale. Fae were touchy-feely creatures, and to have gone so long without touching one of our own, even a simple touch like this one, was a painful reminder of what we were lacking.

Our natural magics danced over each other’s skin, though mine much more muted than hers.

“Oh, Gwynnie, you feel like you’re on death’s doorstep,” she said in a choked whisper, voice bordering on horror. “Why would you do this to yourself?”

My small huff of a laugh was self-deprecating and bitter like the dandelions little Fae loved to eat.

“Like death, eh? What was the better choice, then? A slow, painless death over the centuries of torture they likely have planned for me?” I asked. Not meaning to sound as harsh as I had, but it was still there.

Some part of me had known being separated from my soul had the potential to kill me eventually. The changes over the last nine years or so had been gradual, creeping things. Until, one day, I realized everything around me had become muted: colors were subdued, food was ash, smells muted, music flat, and there was no feeling anything through the haze. I could still experience the range of emotions, but it was all on the surface—nothing pierced too deep. Except fear, it seemed.

Seirian’s hand gave mine a little squeeze. “We can do this Gwynnie. We have to, for the both of us,” she said, her eyes searching mine.

“At worst, maybe if we try this our deaths will be quick,” I joked.

Seirian raised a single eyebrow, letting me know she did not appreciate my dark humor.

“So, will I be able to report a favorable outcome to my masters?” Karroth asked.

He’d been quiet during the entire exchange, and I turned my gaze to him. His posture, words, and expression were the very definition of neutral, but there was that fire behind his eyes again.

My options were not fantastic. I could choose a slow death from lack of a soul, slowly fading out of existence, and keeping my friend crippled. I could do this, and then they’d slaughter us sooner or later. Maybe Seirian would survive, but she had a bad habit of trying to defend me, so she’d likely die, too. Of course, we might succeed, and that was the rub. Hope was as deadly, or more so, than despair.

I had no doubts that, given my blood and access to the Cauldron, they might have a decent chance at wresting it from Cerridwen. I just wasn’t optimistic on my chances as collateral damage. Because, if the Devils pulled this off, they would surely know I was involved. As Karroth pointed out, coming across this opportunity was rare, and rare circumstances were easy to pinpoint.

I sighed. “Fine.”

Seirian’s grin was the biggest I’d seen it since before her maiming, and even Karroth seemed to be genuinely excited about my answer.

“So, just how are we going about this convoluted form of suicide?” I asked, trying for humorous.

Seirian, buoyed by the light at the end of the tunnel of her injuries, took her hand from mine and wagged a scolding finger at me. Telling me to stop being so fatalistic.

Karroth, on the other hand, simply cleared his throat once she was done and started detailing the plan, because that’s where one of the Devils’ deadliest power lay: in the details.

Writing Prompt ~~ Late Bloomer

She believed in me in a way no one else ever had and no one else ever will, and I betrayed her. The worst part is she doesn’t know. She still thinks I’m her best friend, keeper of her secrets, and most of all human. The human part might be negligible, and betrayed might be a bit strong of a word. You never know how someone will react to you being Other, and I only told him every detail of her life to protect her. That had to count for something, right?

I internally cringed away from her bright smile as she approached the table, but outwardly I planted a warm, welcoming smile across my face.

“Erik! I thought you said you wouldn’t be able to make the study session today?” Dani—Danielle—asked, and sat down at the table.

I pushed her favorite drink, an iced cinnamon dolce latte, across the table to her. It was my job to remember the nuances about her, is what I told myself, but after she sat down and moaned in pleasure at the first sip my mouth went dry.

“Change of plans,” I said, and shuffled my books across the table to make room for her.

I was the youngest pack member, a mere pup at thirty, but thanks to the curse I didn’t look a day over eighteen. I fit right in on the college campus, but even that would not have gotten me this particular honor if I hadn’t proven myself beforehand. Countless scars and battles over the years meant I was decently high up in the pack structure, and a life-debt meant I’d sooner cut my own throat than betray the pack leader. That combination had earned me this assignment.

Dani leaned back in her seat, eyes closed, and sipping on the sickly sweet drink that left her smelling of espresso and cinnamon for hours after she finished it. My keen sense of smell was usually a disadvantage in places such as this, but I gripped the edges of my chair to keep me from leaning forward and inhaling her scent as deep as my lungs would allow. It was only when the wood groaned in protest did I release it.

“You okay? You seem a little tense,” Dani said, and quirked an eyebrow. Her luxurious, brown sugar curls framed her slender face and shoulders in the same carefree manner as her personality. She looked more like her mother, Shannon, with her rich caramel skin and plump lips, but her storm gray eyes were all her father’s, Arthur. Werewolf genetics were funny that way.

“Just nervous about the finals, I guess,” I said, prying my eyes away from her long legs, and shrugged.

She scoffed. “You have a 4.0,” she said, incredulous.

“Even the mighty fall,” I said.

She rolled her eyes at that, and I couldn’t help the half-smile that broke across my face.

“I told you not to take that drama class. It’s turned you positively angsty,” she said, and wrinkled her nose.

A full-blown grin broke across my face.

“Much better. Now, should we study for our dreaded finals?”

I cracked open a book to our Biological Physics class and sighed. “Well, if you insist.”

She just laughed and opened her laptop.

My eyes scanned the page, but my heart wasn’t in it. Dani had no idea she was the pack leader’s daughter, which was something her mom and dad had agreed on in the divorce. The 90s hadn’t been a good time for supernaturals, or Others. Some Senator’s kid was killed, mangled, and partially eaten by a ghoul, and there was a lot of angry shouting about putting us on lists, making us register. It even got bad enough that at one point there was serious consideration about putting us on a hunting list. Open season on all Others, anytime, anywhere.

It never passed, but when you’re a human married to the werewolf pack leader of a big chunk of your state and you’ve got a toddler, it puts things in perspective. Arthur only asked that Shannon keep Dani with the pack until she was three. If, during her third year, she hadn’t exhibited any supernatural abilities they could go on their way. The time passed, Dani was as normal a toddler as one could hope for, and Arthur signed the divorce papers and gave Shannon full custody.

It tore him apart. However, when I took the assignment, the one thing Arthur was adamant about was not asking Dani if she knew her father.

I snuck a quick glance at her. She had her head in her hand, tangling her fingers in her hair, and her eyebrows were furrowed in concentration. It was a bitch of a class we were taking, but the sight sent tendrils of warmth through me.

“You could help instead of stare, you know?” she teased.

“How are you supposed to learn if I gave you all the answers?” I asked. I turned a page, even though I hadn’t really read it.

She let out a disgusted scoff, dropped her notes, and crossed her arms over her chest. “You sound just like my mom.”

“Oh, no, not the parent comparison. I’m wounded,” I said, monotone, and then flipped another page.

She crumpled up an errant paper and threw it at me. It hit my head, and I looked up at her, mouth hanging slightly open. “Ouch.”

She smirked. “You’ll live.” Then she turned her gaze to my notes, eyebrows lifting slightly. “But I won’t if you don’t share your notes,” she said.

I sighed, and the smirk grew to a wide grin. “You only want me for my brains,” I lamented, and slid them across the table to her.

“That’s not true,” she protested, and took the notes from me like a hungry child taking a cookie. “You buy me coffee, too.”

“Pardon me.” I laughed, but the noise caught in my throat as though I would choke on it. I caught a scent that didn’t belong: wolf. My fists clenched beneath the table on reflex. I slipped my hand into my right pocket and grabbed my phone. I’d practiced the movements countless times to make sure I could do this without looking, but my hand shook as it moved over the touch screen, and I could only hope it worked.

Dani’s eyes flicked up to me and stayed, perhaps sensing some tension, and her brows drew down in a frown as she tilted her head.

“Wha—“

“Look, I know this is going to sound weird,” I said, my voice low. I scanned the crowd as I spoke, my eyes flicking over far too many faces in such a small space. “But I need you to walk over to the end of the counter, and when it starts, hide beneath it.” My eyes locked with a male’s not far inside the door.

His eyes were a glowing amber, and tension sang through him like an over-tightened guitar string ready to snap. He was a beast, and I wasn’t just noting his Were nature. His shoulders were wide, arms gorilla-like, and legs so thick they could kick a hole through my soul. Since introductions weren’t likely, I’d decided to call him Behemoth.

“You’re right, that does sound weird,” she said. She laughed, but when I didn’t respond it died on her lips. “You’re serious,” she said, and this time she clenched her jaw when she frowned.

“I need you to move. Slowly. Please,” I said, adding a hint of pleading to the request.

She looked at me for a moment before shaking her head. “I must be crazy,” she said under her breath, and likely to herself, but my hearing was beyond that of a human’s.

I stood when she did, and being a head taller than her allowed me to keep Behemoth in my sights. She started to gather her things.

“Leave it. It’s not worth your life,” I said, my voice already deepening with an edge of a growl.

Her spine went rigid. “What the fu—” She stopped midsentence when I turned my eyes to hers, breaking eye contact with Behemoth to bring my point home.

Her eyes widened as mine bled from their usual cornflower blue to the yellow of molten gold.

“Move,” I growled.

As she moved, her body trembling, Behemoth moved, too. We frequented the café enough that Dani and I knew everyone here, so when she made it to the counter she said something to the girl. Just as I went around the table to confront the male, the barista pulled the fire alarm. The jarring scream made me flinch, and that was when Behemoth attacked, leaping over the heads of everyone as they fled the café.

I used his momentum to carry him past me, dropping low and pushing him with my hands. Chairs and tables snapped beneath Behemoth’s weight, and people screamed as he crashed through them like a bowling ball through pins. I growled against the pop of pain in my jaw as it elongated to compensate for the larger, sharper teeth. My fingers broke and reformed in a smooth, agonizing transition, and my nail beds burned as claws pushed the human nails out of the way. Even having one of the most effortless and best partial transformations didn’t save me from the pain.

Behemoth was breathing hard as he stood up, but it didn’t keep him from growling at me. His hair was an indeterminate color, since it was shaved so close to his head, but it made it easy to spot a few cuts already knitting themselves back together. Behemoth had to outweigh my lean frame by at least thirty pounds of muscle, probably more, which meant I had to go with a brain over brawn strategy. Of course, that wasn’t anything new for me. Most of the pack outweighed me.

This time when he charged he kept his feet firmly on the ground. When he was close enough, he tried to throw a punch, but I slipped into his guard, and used my shoulder to redirect his movement, again.

“Leave. Now.” I said as he stumbled.

Behemoth let out a barking laugh and recovered easily. “Not a chance, boy. I’m here for the girl. Leader’s orders.”

My insides froze. The whole reason I’d been assigned to Dani was because Shannon said she’d received threats against her life and Dani’s. One of the female pack members who didn’t hate Shannon had been assigned to her. Even though people were skeptical about the situation at first, when the formal challenge for pack leadership came to Arthur it was far more plausible. Shockingly, werewolves weren’t always honorable in how they take over a pack. Arthur’s territory was substantial enough that he’d had a fair few challengers over the years, but this was the first time they’d targeted his family. Why have a physical fight, when you can bring someone to their knees by capturing their family?

It was about this time that the remaining people scrambled for the exits. The staff who hadn’t thought to run for the door, tripped over each-other in their rush to the employee area.

In a few moments, only Behemoth, Dani, and I remained in the building.

He planted his foot behind him and lunged to close the distance between us. Unlike before, he was expecting a redirection of energy, and as we connected, he slammed his fist into my ribs.

I pushed his head towards the floor, hoping to unbalance him at worst, or slam him at best. I achieved neither as he ducked, dug his newly forming claws into my waist, and slung me back towards the counter.

Thankfully, throwing a person’s body against the wall behind a bar, like in action movies, is hardly the deadly affair they make it out to be.  Messy? Sure. Deadly? Not so much. It has even less effect on a Were, considering most of the items were coffee-making paraphernalia. I could feel some broken mugs crunching underneath me, but I was otherwise okay. Except for an odd burning sensation on my hand.

He was stomping closer from the other side, obviously intending to finish what he started before making off with Dani. I started to rise, and that’s when I noticed it—I had put my hand on some schmuck’s hidden flask that hit the floor during the scuffle. Some snobby trust-fund college kid was about to lose his heirloom.

Behemoth peeked over the bar and smiled menacingly. “There you are.”

I did the only thing I could think of as he lunged at my neck for the kill. I slammed the flask as far down his newly-formed muzzle as I could, my own arm be damned. His eyes went wide as the burning silver of the flask took full effect, and I realized my hand was stuck in his mouth. In a panic, I dug my other hand under the bar and upended it from the mounts, shoving it towards his body in an effort to dislodge us. As he swung wildly and gagged, frothing and smoking at the mouth, one of his claws managed to snag the neck of my shirt, and he dragged us onto the main floor, stumbling over the broken bits of bar.

Behemoth must have decided this wasn’t his day and he needed to heal and regroup, because he made for the exit with me in tow like a wolf on a mission. I grabbed for anything with my other arm, desperate for something solid to use as a weapon against him. He gripped my shirt tighter and began shaking his head back and forth, slinging me like a ragdoll. When he finally made it to the exit, my hand closed on something solid and heavy near the door. I then proceeded to smash him over the head with a wild swing from a fire extinguisher.

He let out a muffled yelp and stumbled, as smoke billowed out of his mouth like a demented dragon. Then he started to bleed from his new head wound, and my inner nature took over. I generally function okay in front of blood and violence when I’m not in a life or death struggle with another Were and in my human form, but it’s quite different once the animal side takes over. A short time later I came back to myself, deformed extinguisher in hand. Behemoth lay in the doorway, smoldering skull now a flattened mess just inside the door. His jaw must have relaxed and released my hand at some point, because I had reacquired ownership of it—or what was left of it.

“I guess sometimes alcohol is the answer,” I wheezed, trying not to think about my hand. Of course, my eyes strayed down to it, and I quickly looked away and swallowed. Silver worked on us like acid but worse. If I didn’t take care of this soon, losing my hand would be the least of my worries. I could die from silver poisoning form too much contact with the flask. My options weren’t looking too fantastic.

“Erik!”

My head snapped up, and I met Dani’s wide eyes. I’d seen the look before. It was usually a combo platter of fear, loathing, and a primal urge to murder the Other before it ate you. I tried to walk away, but my traitorous body was having none of it, and I stumbled and fell to my knees.

There was a gentle touch at my shoulder, and instinct made me jerk in surprise and try to get away, but I was too weak. The hand gripped my shoulder tighter to help keep me from falling completely over, but it also trapped me. In this much pain, so close to my full form, the beast inside me howled and snarled in fear and anger. It came out as a low growl that should never come from a human throat.

Then nails were digging painfully into my shoulder. “Erik!” The voice was familiar, but there was a thread of command in it like a pack leader. All pack leaders had a mantle of power that came with the stations. It allowed them to exert almost complete and total control over the members of their pack. But all alphas had this magic quality to them that compelled subordinates and betas to obey. Not all alphas were pack leaders, but all pack leaders were alphas.

“We have to get you to my dad,” the voice said.

My brain wasn’t keeping up very well, but I did manage to look up at whoever was speaking and give one long, slow blink. It looked a lot like Dani, but it couldn’t be Dani.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Shit. The silver’s eating your brain, or something. It’s me: Dani,” the voice said.

“You can’t be Dani.”

“Why?” she asked, incredulous.

“Because Dani doesn’t know her dad, or know I know her dad.”

If she rolled her eyes any harder they would have fallen out the back of her head. “Oh, please. My mother told me about him eons ago. Hard not to, really,” she muttered.

Then, for the first moment in the last few moments, I noticed something different about her.

“Your eyes!” I said.

“Caught on, have you?” she asked. “It wasn’t easy, you know, keeping all this from you. Mom thought they’d just send some brooding, stalker-looking guy to watch me from the bushes, but no, they sent you. It was so hard to keep my real scent masked. It’s been a pain and a half. Looks like I don’t have to do that anymore, though,” she said, and smiled.

Dare I say it was almost wolfish? I could only gape.

She sighed. “That big brain of yours can grasp so many things, but a late bloomer werewolf is what confounds you? Weak, dude.” Then she hauled me up and threw me over her shoulder.

This was the closest I’d ever been to her, and despite my injuries I couldn’t resist. I inhaled deeply and for the first time I was able to truly smell her, and it. That unmistakable scent of werewolf.

“Satisfied?” she asked, and huffed in amusement.

I blushed, and was thankful that she couldn’t smell the blood rushing to my face any more than it already was.

I grunted, and then hissed as a fresh wave of hellish pain pulsed from my hand. We made it to her car and she set me down on my feet to lean on it while she opened the door. Sirens were wailing in the distance, and my heartrate picked up. I’d never be able to show my face here again, and then my heart squeezed as I realized the same went for Dani.

“Don’t worry about it,” she whispered, “I’ll figure something out.” Despite her brave words, I could smell regret washing off her in waves.

She got me in and buckled, and pulled out of the lot slowly just ahead of the emergency vehicles. A tightness in my chest eased, and I finally relaxed back into the seat. Well, as best I could given the state of my hand.

“Looks like it’s finally time to meet dear, old Dad. Won’t this be fun?” she joked.

I could only groan in response. Fun wasn’t what I’d call it, but with Dani, who knew? One thing was for certain, everything was going to change. But as I was being dragged under by the darkness eating at my consciousness, I couldn’t say that was a bad thing. I just hoped my text got to Arthur, otherwise this was all going to be one hell of a surprise.