A slim young woman walked down the street, her head down, her feet scuffing along the pavement. Headphones over her ears insulated her from the world, a heavy beat and rough lyrics providing an appropriate accompaniment to her surroundings.
It was a rough neighborhood and she had developed a rough facade to deal with it. Her long dark hair fell like a shield over her face, choppy bangs in her eyes as she skulked along, looking much shorter than she really was. She wore a short denim skirt with black leggings under it. Heavy boots protected her feet, giving her something of a duck-like appearance, all foot and skinny legs. She wore a skimpy tank top, covered with a heavy leather jacket so that hardly any of her wan skin could be seen.
She was utterly unaware of her surroundings, focused on the tips of her boots as she walked. The booming of the music blocked out the obnoxious rumble of the V8 engine approaching her from behind far faster than the speed limit. It also stopped her from hearing the squeal as tired brakes were applied.
The first she knew of the presence of her tormenters was when a half-full milkshake flew from the moving vehicle and caught her dead center. It exploded over her, coating her from head to toe in the pink gunk.
Mocking laughter followed the arc of the sticky missile, which left her standing on the sidewalk, not so much shocked as resigned. She turned around and started the two-mile walk back to the apartment she shared with several roommates.
She dripped the whole way back, strawberry dots on the pavement, up the stairs, along the gross carpet tile that covered the hall and then into the lounge, where the curtains were pulled even though it was midafternoon, shafts of light fighting their way through a perpetual curling haze.
“What happened to you?”
“Assholes,” Brianna ground out between her teeth.
“That sucks,” Danny sympathized through a cloud of weed smoke. “You should have kicked their asses.”
She ignored him, preferring to rush to the bathroom to get the milkshake off the leather. The jacket was the only nice thing she owned, and as she wiped it with a cloth, she felt her anger rising. Danny was right. She should have kicked their asses. She wished she could have. But she was no match for a group of old jocks who still acted like they were back in high school.
Brianna was used to being bullied and dumped on. She’d learned it was better not to fight back. Giving bullies any kind of reaction was a ticket to hell. That lesson had been learned a hundred times over growing up in foster care. That alone had made her stand out. And then, on top of that, she was awkward. She didn’t look like the other kids for starters. Her bright red hair had earned her so much teasing that she dyed it heavy black and wore eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick of the same color.
At least then when they called her a freak, they did it because they thought she was a Goth. At least she shared her freakishness with a bunch of other outcasts.
They’d said it got better when you grew up. She’d held onto that. But at nineteen, she was still being pelted with dairy products.
“When the hell is it going to get better?” She growled the question into the mirror. She saw the face so many people seemed to hate looking back at her. Her swamp-green eyes were too big. Her mouth was too wide. Her nose was too sharp. Her chin was too pointy. Her brows were too thin here and too thick there. And the freckles. Little dots that belied her true hair color, dashed over her nose and cheeks like a thousand little traitors.
Brianna pulled her shirt off over her head and looked at her body critically. She wasn’t wearing a bra. Too small-chested to need one, and too poor to buy one even if she’d wanted to. Again, she found a hundred little imperfections. The left breast was slightly smaller than the right one and somehow sat a fraction of an inch lower. The freckles were there too, like dull glitter tossed across her skin.
She sighed and slipped into her room to find another shirt. She was going to be late for work.
Two men were about to walk into a bar.
The streets outside were cold and dark, lit intermittently with weak fluorescent streetlights that illuminated the faces of those passing under it with a cold hue that made even the most pedestrian person look somehow supernatural. The effect was not lost on the two men. In their case it was not so much the physiology of their undeniably handsome faces as much as the pure predation in their gazes that made them remarkable. Their eyes were fixed on the entrance to the bar in the way a tiger’s gaze might be fixed on the back of an unsuspecting monkey. They were focused, their bodies moving in a muscular prowling motion that spoke to agility and power combined. And they were alert, especially as they passed over the threshold and found a new world.
From the dark street to the interior of the bar, it was as though night had turned to a very strange day. Inside, there was smoke and shouting and laughing and the throb of popular music. Valkimer and Chak exchanged glances as they slid past the disinterested bouncer and entered their hunting ground.
Humanity wrapped itself around them, shouted in their ears.
Blue Jeans Bar, the partially illuminated sign just barely hanging on outside read. The only bar in this little gathering of humanity named Ironsands. The hunters had picked the location specifically for its population and location. It was a small town several hours from a major city. It wasn’t particularly rich in wealth and its inhabitants were mostly what humans called blue collar, working in the local mines.
It was perfect for their purpose, the search for female flesh.
The bar was smoky and small, packed with humans. Like a lone watering hole in a desert, being the only bar for miles around meant it drew tender prey in droves. Young people and old, pushing into one another’s nooks and crevices in a mating ritual Valkimer found distasteful. His lip curled in a slight sneer that he was not inclined to even try to hide.
Chak was less disturbed. His golden brown eyes lit up as they walked through the crowds, seeing all manner of degeneracy unfolding before them. He was tall with hair the color of coal and eyes that were a close match. Of course, the natural shade of his orbs was hidden behind a pair of contact lenses that made them look chocolate milk brown. The left side of his forehead was marked with three distinct lines slashing toward his temple, the mark of his clan. The tattoo was mirrored on the other side of his head, where three thick slashes marked his jaw. He was powerfully built with an almost brutish appearance, ameliorated only by his easy smile.
Valkimer was from a distant royal line. He was the second cousin twice removed of King Casimer, and shared many of the royal lineage’s key features. His hair was ice white, his eyes an arctic blue. He had a haughty appearance at times and was far more formal and proper than Chak. In their formal life he had led their squadron and had been known for feats of flying that had earned him accolades on more than one occasion.
They were an unlikely pair in some respects, but war bonded strangers from distant places like nothing else. Chak had not come from noble lines, but had distinguished himself through many acts of valor—including having saved Valkimer’s life on several occasions. They were brothers in blood, united in all things. Though they looked no older than thirty, they had served in the king’s legion for one hundred years, and now that they had earned their retirement at the ripe old age of three hundred, they were keen to turn the small fortune accorded to those who pleased Casimer to a much greater one.
“What about that one?”
Chak pointed to a girl leaning back against the wall, one foot raised, a cigarette hanging out the corner of her lips. Unlike the other young women displaying themselves on the dance floor, she was half-hidden in the shadows. She was skinny, but not in the way the others were. Most of them were slim in an exercise and diet sort of way. This one was just hungry skinny. He felt pity for her, but she was also precisely what they were looking for. An attractive young woman who wouldn’t be missed if she disappeared.
“Hi guys,” a couple of pretty blondes giggled on their way past. “Buy us a drink?”
Valkimer ignored them.
“Maybe later,” Chak replied, not wanting to create a scene, no matter how small. Keeping a low profile was part of their mission, though they knew they stood out. Even with the contact lenses concealing the appearance of their natural eyes, they were still far taller and broader than most of the men in the bar.
They had decided to wear motorcycle leathers. The clothing looked good and offered some protection as well. Human males were prone to sometimes inexplicable acts of violence, and though neither of them wanted to have to blow their cover by fighting, they would if they had to.
The unsuitable girls moved on with sneers and a snide remark about Chak’s sexuality. Ordinarily he would have responded quite fiercely to such disrespect, but he knew he was in the human realm now. Respect did not come easily to humans, especially their young women who seemed to be the most immune from all forms of consequence.
His eyes returned to the slim form holding herself separate from the crowd. The human males didn’t seem to appreciate her as much as they appreciated some of the others. Perhaps it was the aura she had about her. There was something hard and yet vulnerable about her. She wasn’t grinning and being inviting. She scowled around herself when she wasn’t pointedly ignoring everyone. She didn’t seem to be there to mate as the others were, gyrating their hips and displaying their breasts to best opportunity. Though she was doing her very best to blend in, she stood out in Chak’s eyes like a rose in a field of weeds.
She had character. Even at a distance he could see that. Her eyes were narrowed with what seemed to be annoyance at the entirety of existence. Her face was diamondesque, with high cheekbones and a cute turned-up nose and lips that had quite a pronounced and pretty bow to them and pouted when she pulled the cigarette from her mouth and exhaled a plume of smoke. She had a pointed little chin too, angular like the rest of her and yet still feminine.
Chak couldn’t take his eyes off her. He could sense that there was a story behind that oversized jacket, which he was sure hid a frame that was not nearly as large as she was trying to make it appear. Most of the women in the bar were dressed to emphasize their little waists and slim legs. This one was almost trying to hide, and yet not hiding at all.
“Not that one,” Valkimer said. “We want an eager pet. She looks sullen.”
Chak glanced at him and saw that Valkimer’s eyes were locked on the same young woman.
“She looks as if she doesn’t have a lot of people to worry about her when she disappears,” Chak replied. “And she’s more than beautiful enough.”
She exuded so much reluctant vulnerability. He could tell she wanted to be strong, but she was young and slim and female and she was isolated. She was all alone.
Brianna liked being at work. In the shadows of the bar she had some kind of power that didn’t exist anywhere outside this little realm in these little hours. In a short skirt and a cropped top, no man cared if she had been unpopular in high school. Most of them liked to fantasize that she was still in high school, though she was nineteen and long past her school days. For a while it had been fun to come and simply be treated as if she were desirable, something other than a freak.
The older men paid her the most attention. Guys in their forties buying her drinks, sometimes offering to pay her for more. She’d never accepted one of their offers, but then she’d started to get hungry. The welfare checks had stopped for some bureaucratic reason and the rent had been due.
The solution had been obvious: get a job. But getting a job was harder than it sounded. She had a reputation in the little town. Everyone knew her as the weird girl. They wouldn’t even let her bag groceries at the Buy n’ Bag, or the Bag n’ Slag as she called it.
But she’d found a way to earn some money without the need for a boss, and with relatively little risk. Little paper tabs soaked in liquid capable of transporting the user to worlds far away from the crumbling one they inhabited. She sold a little weed on the side when she could get her hands on it as well. Business was slow at the moment. Weed and Lucy were both playing second fiddle to the harder stuff that was far more popular. The slow reflection of marijuana or the psychedelic insight of LSD were nothing compared to the pure euphoria of what was being sold other places around the town.
Still, there were some people who didn’t feel the need to blast off to Mars every time they went out, and she sold to them. Older people mostly, the ones who had come to maturity in the sixties and seventies, when her wares were about as hard as it got.
Movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. There were a couple of guys approaching. Very hot. Way hotter than the jocks who had thrown the milkshake at her earlier. She expected them to walk past her and turn toward the bar like ninety-nine percent of people did. When they turned toward her and caught her eye, she pushed back against the wall, the solid stone providing her with some kind of cover. She was instantly suspicious. Guys like these ones didn’t talk to her. They talked to the girls with the big breasts giggling at the bar, the ones with the wide open smiles.
Brianna put on her best ‘fuck off’ scowl. “You guys want something?”
They looked at one another, then back at her. “Hi,” the dark-haired one said. “My name is Chak, this is my friend Val.”
“Okay, so you want paper or hemp?”
The confusion in their eyes told her that they weren’t customers.
“I’m not interested, guys,” she said. “I’m busy.”
“You don’t look busy,” Chak said, an easy smile spreading over his handsome features.
Were they cops? There was something about them that suggested serious orderliness. Their clothes were a little too shiny and a little too new. No. Not cops. The guy talking to her had a serious accent, European of some kind, maybe.
“Are you guys military?”
They exchanged looks with one another. Smirks, really, as if she’d said something stupid that amused them. Assholes.
“You could say that,” Chak said.
She tried to stop her nose wrinkling. Military guys were hot, but in her experience, they were also often assholes. A lot of the worst bullies from high school had gone into the military. A couple of them had even made it through basic training.
“Yeah, well, I don’t like military guys,” she said. She would have said she didn’t like them no matter what they’d said they were. She was capable of hating men of every kind, from archivists to underwater welders.
“We’re retired,” the blonder one said, flashing the kind of smile that would make any girl’s knees quiver. He had something aristocratic about him. She could tell that he had a certain discomfort with the dirty bar he found himself in. She could see his annoyance every time groups of giggling girls and shouting guys brushed past.
The darker haired one had a warm, but masculine and dominant bearing. She was kind of curious about them, but they were too hot to be in this bar at all, much less talking to her. If it had been a city like New York, some sophisticated dive that pretended to be seedy, maybe they would have fit there. They didn’t fit here. She didn’t trust this at all. Maybe there was a dare or something. She’d seen that look passing between them before. It meant they had a secret. A plan of some kind. She didn’t like that at all.
“Okay, well, I’m not interested.”
“Not interested in what?” The darker haired man cocked his head to the side.
For a brief moment, Brianna wished that she was pretty and flirty and popular. She wished that guys like this really were interested in her. If she was one of the girls up at the bar, she would be flattered. She’d probably go back to one of these guy’s houses. Maybe she’d go back with both of them.
But she wasn’t that kind of girl. She wasn’t the kind of girl who went to guy’s houses. There were other easier, obvious targets for that. So she was left with her suspicion and nothing else.
“Whatever you’re into,” she said. “I’m not interested.”
They exchanged another look that she didn’t like, nodded and moved on. She didn’t see where they went, exactly. The bar had once been a house, so it had a few different areas—poker machines around the corner, a pool table further in—and the crowd soon filled in the spaces where they’d been. Brianna brushed the encounter off and got back to selling her wares to the regulars who came by in a slow trickle, giving her just about enough money to make rent, not quite enough to eat.
It was a slow night so she hung around until closing, hoping to sell the rest of her inventory. She even waited outside the bar in the parking lot as the last stragglers cleared out and stumbled on their way. When it became apparent that she wasn’t going to shift her stock, she started on her way home. The choice was a short trip through an alley, or a longer walk through the streets. Neither way was exactly safe, so she chose the short trip. She knew most of the homeless guys around the place anyway. None of them seemed particularly dangerous to her.
She was about halfway down the alley when two figures emerged from the shadows behind her. She heard their footsteps and quickened her own. The footsteps behind her sped up as well. She broke into a full run, but far too late.
Four hands descended on her, pulling her off her feet and wrapping around her mouth. She couldn’t scream, she couldn’t shout, but she could bite and kick and she did both. She managed to catch one of her assailant’s fingers in her mouth and bit down as hard as she could.
The act produced no result at all. There was a grunt and then an accented voice growled in her ear.
Settling down was the last thing she planned to do. The bite had made him move his finger, which gave her a chance to shout.
“Fuck, get off me!”
“Easy, girl,” the dark-haired man from the bar rumbled. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
“Fuck off!” Her scream hit a desperate pitch as she lashed out with a kick that didn’t connect with anything. Her senses were screaming, but before her mouth could do the same, she felt a prick in her upper left arm and then everything got real slow and real warm and…