Fastening the short silk cape at her throat, Lillith admired the way it spilled over her shoulders like blood-soaked butterfly wings. Tightening her corset as she slipped into tall black leather boots, she applied matching red lipstick before scratching the ears of her three-headed hound and opening the front door.
She rode the elevator down from her apartment, greeted the doorman as she left the building, and breathed in the stench of concrete jungle. Long ago she’d had to work hard for her prey as she prowled homesteads and miniscule tumbleweed towns. But humans—ever resourceful—had created a world in which she could thrive.
Lillith was sure someone had created modern cities with her in mind. Disturbingly loud and covered in a constant cloud of aroma, they made it easy for her to do her work as tech zombies wandered the streets, oblivious to everything around them. Poured together in a giant melting pot with a generous sprinkling of population explosion, it created a killer recipe for easy pickings.
Brushing a stray hair off her black leggings, she stalked purposefully down the street into ever seedier areas. She pulled the crimson silk hood over her head, its shine, color, and implied innocence a powerful beacon for what she sought under the streetlamps.
It wasn’t long before she heard catcalls as she walked past men sitting together on stoops, drinking and smoking the night away. There were whistles from passing cars, and someone in a second-floor apartment had the gall to howl at her.
Disgusting, she thought. Do they really think anyone wants to feel like prey? If only someone would teach them a lesson…
Lillith smiled a little to herself just as she noticed the prickling heat of someone following her—felt her body urging her legs to walk faster. She forced them to remain steady.
Ducking into a dark alleyway, she heard the scuff of a footstep following her. Her heart fluttered wildly against her ribs as she heard, “Hey, sweetie. Where do you think you’re going?”
She turned to face him, brimming with wide-eyed innocence. “Sorry, I don’t talk to strangers.”
She swallowed a snarl as the man snickered. “Well, you just did, so I guess we’re not strangers. Why don’t you come over here and maybe we can become good friends?”
Shaking her head, voice sharpening, she urged, “Stay away! I’m warning you!” She knew just what he wanted.
He prowled closer, closer, until she could practically taste the reek of his sour breath. He pressed her to the brick wall at her back—the heat of him making her skin crawl—and ran a filthy thumb over her lips.
“There now, see? I’m not so bad. In fact, I think we’re going to be very close, you and I.” She turned her head away from his wandering digits as he attempted to lift her chin and his other hand slid to her backside.
“Don’t be afraid, honey. I’ve been waiting all night for you, and I’m going to make sure we both enjoy this.”
Raising her eyes to his, she allowed the mask to slip. Inky blackness swallowed the whites of her eyes as her teeth lengthened into venom-soaked fangs.
She had warned him to stay away.
As he tried to pull back, her claws bit into his shoulder and spun him around, pressing him into the wall she had been pinned to. She unleashed her best Cheshire grin, her face coming unzipped to expose bladed jaws.
Her mouth widened like a snake. She extended a long, purple-black tongue and licked the side of his face. Brushing against him, she whispered, “Oh, I’m not afraid, honey. But you should be, because I’ve been waiting all night for you, too.”
Soundless puffs of air escaped as he tried to form a scream, his body convulsing in fear against her. She grinned at him, fangs glinting in the low light, and laughed as he wet himself.
“Good. Now you know how all the people you’ve preyed on felt.” She took a deep whiff of him.
He stuttered nonsense and Lillith hissed, “You’re a predator, a bigot, and a waste of valuable oxygen. Luckily for me, you’re exactly my type.”
Just as he was about to find his voice, her jaws yawned open. She savored the feel of his flesh giving way between her switchblade teeth. A muffled scream echoed inside her head and down her throat as she devoured his face. But no one would hear him. Not here. And no one would care that he was gone.
Least of all, her.
She tore off his clothes and consumed his flesh as he had done to so many girls before. She could taste their fear and pain still clinging to him—an unpleasant note she had grown accustomed to.
Lillith chided herself, “One of these days, I really must start lower. These fools should suffer at least a little for what they’ve done.” She sighed and crunched on his ankle, the joint’s cartilage squishing in her teeth.
As the last of his toes slid down her throat, she picked up his piss-soaked clothes and threw them in the dumpster along with his stomach, intestines, favorite tool, and assorted unsavory bits.
Wiping blood from her chin and shifting her bait face back into place, Lillith set off to find another human parasite.
I’d been Catherine’s neighbor for six months now and remained just as captivated by her beauty as everyone else. Equally delicious was the mystery that swirled about her, almost visible to the naked eye.
She liked to keep to herself, and hence lived at the very edge of town. There were houses to one side of hers, but with enough distance between her and them to act as a cushion. She kept a big, beautiful garden where birds and beasts from the surrounding forest seemed at home despite the nearness of the other houses, including mine, which lay across the dirt road.
I had even seen a cougar there once, sitting in the yard and watching the moon. It must have sensed my presence because it turned toward me, the weight of its gaze heavy in the darkness. It seemed more curious than threatening, so I held my ground and watched back. With a flick of its long tail, it licked its chops and turned to prowl back into the forest.
My hands shook with the speed of my galloping heart. If nothing else, living near her home afforded me these bits of excitement.
I could understand why Catherine liked her space since I’d seen men fawning all over her in the past, practically drooling on her hand or arm as they kissed it “in greeting.” Fools. It was obvious they just wanted to taste her.
She always shooed them away quickly and with grace, but in a way that left them looking confused as they shuffled dejectedly away.
I also liked to keep to myself and would never tell her how I felt about her. Nor would I stoop to the swine-like levels most of the men around here did just to touch her. I worked in my garden, hoping to catch a glimpse of her or one of the many fascinating creatures that visited her yard. I never expected her to notice me back.
But then she did. She came bearing a basket of mushrooms called “Hen of the Woods,” along with some homemade bread and a few wild ramps.
She smiled and I had to frantically grasp for the edges of me that wanted to unfurl under her emerald gaze. Silken waves of raven hair cascaded around her shoulders, and her skirt billowed around her ankles. She had bare feet, and even they were dainty and beautiful.
I almost laughed. Feet normally repulsed me.
I gave myself a mental slap and stuck out a hand to her. She took it without hesitation and I gave it a firm, but gentle shake, then released her. My fingers tingled where her cool skin had touched mine.
She handed the basket off to me. Our fingers brushed again and the electricity of it shivered up my spine.
She spoke, and though I’d heard her at a distance, the musical quality of her voice in such close proximity almost knocked me off my feet. “I’m your neighbor, Catherine. I wanted to give these to you as an incentive because I’m hoping you’ll help me with something.”
Curious. “I know who you are!” That came out a little more excited than I’d wanted. I cleared my throat and tried again. “I’m Victoria. What can I help you with?”
She bit her lip. “I believe it is time to settle down…find someone to spend my life with, you know?” I nodded half-heartedly and she sighed. “Since many of the men here seem to have such piggish intentions, I’ve decided to give them a challenge in the hopes that the right person will prevail.”
She pursed her lips, then continued.
“The challenge is this: I have placed a key to my home around my cat’s neck. The one who is able to obtain the key may enter my home and claim me for their own. But, I do not want my cat hurt. If you see anyone after her, would you watch over her?”
“Of course I will. With my life.”
She smiled, stretching her full rosy lips over moon-white teeth. The green in her eyes glittered in the sunlight. I could not help but feel I’d struck some sort of deal.
“Thank you, Victoria. I hope you live up to your name.”
Of course I would. If any of them tried to hurt the cat, I would make sure they regretted it.
As she walked away, something occurred to me. I called, “Catherine! What’s your cat’s name?”
She shrugged. “I just call her Cat.”
I grinned. “Easy enough. Thank you! And thanks for the food!”
I ate a sumptuous dinner that night with what she had given me. It was a true treat because though I loved wild mushrooms, I knew precious little about foraging. I had a small garden and could hunt, but that was the extent of it.
I watched Catherine’s house as the sun set, and sure enough, a sleek black cat prowled across the low stone wall out front, its back silvered by moonlight. I wondered how I had never noticed her over there before when a sparkling flash at its throat alerted me to the key’s presence.
It had also alerted someone else.
A man crept up on the cat with a net and she appeared not to notice. I jumped up and raced out of my little cottage, slamming the door hard behind me as I bulled my way into the yard.
“Hey, you! What are you doing there?”
The cat raced off and the man cursed at me. He took three threatening steps in my direction, then hesitated and turned away in search of the cat. I felt a bump against my leg a moment later and smiled at the dainty feline twining around my legs. I bent to scratch her ears.
“Good girl.” I winked at her. “Keep away from those men, okay? They’re nothing but trouble and your momma deserves better.” Her green eyes sparkled and I swore she winked back.
The next evening, just before dusk, I saw a man setting a trap. He baited it with a small bit of meat. If she took it, Cat would be snared and possibly injured. As soon as he was out of sight,, I stormed over and dismantled it. Cat came bounding up to me from out of nowhere.
“And where did you come from, pretty girl?” She sniffed the trap. I stroked down her back and she leaned into me, purring happily. “That was for you, but you’re safe now.” I gave her the scrap of meat and she ate it quickly, then jumped down and raced off into the night.
I debated knocking on Catherine’s door, but thought better of it. Night was ruffling its dark feathers and settling heavily over the world. Time to go home. I’d keep my eyes open as long as I could.
This went on for weeks. Each time I saw anyone after Cat, I sabotaged them. One morning, I awoke to find my garden destroyed, likely by an angry man—or maybe several men—I’d intercepted.
My heart sank when I saw it. That would have been food for winter and now I’d have to get everything at market. I wasn’t sure I could afford that. I salvaged what I could for immediate use and removed the rest to the forest to feed the wild animals.
That evening, Cat was frightened by a club-wielding man who leapt out of the bushes. I grabbed the rake I’d been using in the garden and stormed over there. He did not notice me as he scrabbled after her, trying to clobber her over the head. He was desperate, but so was I.
I lifted the rake above and behind me and swung it into his gut as he raced by. He tumbled to the ground with a rough expulsion of air and when he tried to stand, I hit him over the back. “Stay down, you pig! How dare you try to hurt that poor cat?” I waved an arm toward Catherine’s house. “Do you really think she’d want you if you hurt her pet?” I hit him hard on the legs, the dull ring of the rake a sympathetic echo of his pained howls.
“Get out of here! Tell all the other swine in town that the challenge is over!”
The man crawled away, pulling himself clumsily to his feet at the stone wall and limping back into town screaming that I was crazy.
Maybe I am. And proud of it.
Cat ran over and bumped my legs in her customary fashion, winding her way between my feet. I bent to scoop her into my arms and pulled her to my chest.
“You’re safe now, little one. I’m going to tell your momma that she’s got to call off the challenge. I can’t stand to see you hurt. You’re a sweet little thing and it would hurt your mom if something happened to you. Not to mention my garden has been destroyed now, and I’m worried what else these spurned men might do.”
I sighed and slid the ribbon holding the key up and over Cat’s head. “Let’s go tell your momma.” Cat purred and nuzzled against my neck.
I knocked, then put the key into the lock of her front door.
“Catherine? It’s me, Victoria. I’m coming in! I hope you don’t mind, but I need to talk to you.”
I opened the door and found a lantern burning on her wooden table, its light suffusing the room with warmth. Her home smelled of earth and herbs–a different sort of warmth.
“Catherine? Are you here?” No answer. I looked at Cat. “Where is she, girl?”
Cat meowed and licked a paw, then held my gaze as her fur fell off in a pile of black fluff around her feet. I reached for her.
“Cat! What’s wrong?”
She chirped and her limbs began to stretch, shifting positions on her body. Her face reformed into something vaguely human as her ears rounded and slid down to the side of her head. I watched in horrified fascination, fumbling for the doorknob behind me until I noticed the raven waves rolling down the newly formed shoulders and the face that softened into the beautiful Catherine.
She grinned at me, pulling a nearby blanket around her naked form.
My breath came in ragged gasps.
She smiled, bright and beautiful, and I felt my defenses melting as she stood. The words left my mouth before I could stop them.
“Gods, you are so beautiful.”
She paced her way to me and wrapped her fingers around the hand holding the key.
“Congratulations, Victoria. You lived up to your name, after all.”
My skin heated at her nearness.
“What do you mean?” My heart hammered against my ribcage. It wanted to be hers.
She leaned forward, her chest pressing against mine, to whisper in my ear, “I’m yours if you want me.” I knew she could feel the traitorous pounding of my heart against her skin.
My throat felt swollen. I licked my lips, afraid words would fail me, but managed to find a few.
“It’s not right.”
She brushed her lips against mine and I was sure I would melt from the heat that flooded me.
“Of course it is. You’re the one I wanted to win all along.” She ran her fingers through my hair. “Say yes, Victoria. Say you’ll be mine.”
I swallowed, hard, as her lips drifted back to gently brush over mine.
She grinned, small fangs just visible in the warm light. She purred, “Good girl,” and crushed her lips against mine.
The party buzzed around them. Monsters of all shapes and sizes writhed on the dance floor in a haze of pheromones and musk. No one heard the occasional squeal of the few victimized by another’s temptation over the swell of music and conversation.
Jadon bobbed to the music, arms crossed over his broad chest as he leaned against the wall. He soaked in the energy, absorbing it like a drug. It made him feel alive. Watching the revelers make fools of themselves was even better.
A subtle shift at his side reminded him of the presence of his mate. He stroked her hair—an obsidian waterfall down her black-clad back. He lazily looped his arm around her waist, pulling her in for a kiss.
“How’re you doing, babe?”
She huffed a breath. “Awful. They stink. And do they even see how ridiculous they look?” She gestured roughly toward the dance floor.
He chuckled low in his throat and bit her neck gently. “Relax. Have fun. You know how to have fun, right?”
She tapped a long fingernail against his white-furred shoulder, then traced a black stripe that ran down his chest.
“Sure I do. But this isn’t it.”
He shivered, always hungry for her. She looked so innocent with her pale skin, violet eyes, and silky flow of raven locks. Her curves…delicious. And he wasn’t the only one who wanted to taste them. In fact, it looked like confrontation coming now.
Jadon kissed his love—his Salem. He whispered against her lips, “Are you hungry, love?” She bit his lip in return.
The approaching male swaggered in, flashing fangs as he scented the air. His voice was low and raspy as he wedged himself between the two lovers, brusquely introducing himself as Leo.
He grasped Salem’s hand and pulled it to his lips for a kiss. “Well, don’t you smell succulent?”
She smiled at him, but only Jadon knew to watch for the glistening sheen of venom on her diminutive fangs. He smirked and looked on.
Salem tried to pull Jadon into the conversation once, but the new male, a lion shifter, brushed him away. And though Jadon would normally rip apart such an insolent fool, sometimes Salem needed to play too.
The lion shifter herded Salem backward until she was pressed into the wall. He gently raked a single claw down her curvy side before leaning forward to catch Salem’s pillowy lips against his. His tongue slipped between them and Jadon chuckled. Foolish lion.
The lion pushed away from Salem and turned on Jadon.
“You got a problem?”
Jadon shook his head. “No. But I think you might.”
The lion’s shaggy brown hair shook as he laughed. “What…you? I’m not scared of tigers.”
Jadon sighed. “If only you were so lucky. But no.” He pointed over the lion’s shoulder just in time for him to see Salem floating above him on eight massive chitinous legs. She crept forward knowing her venom was working as the lion’s body turned to jelly. He hit the floor with a sickening thud.
He slurred, “No…please.”
Salem caressed his shaggy head. “Shh…let’s hope you’re as succulent as you thought I would be.”
Jadon stood guard as she quietly feasted in their corner. He would kill for her should the need arise and had a proven track record to back it up. But for now, it was her turn to play.
“All children of the earth are welcome here. Come, walk the mossy path; shelter beneath my canopy. But remember, I’m watching you.”
This human treads gently upon the earth, reveling in the sights and sounds. She bends to speak softly to a mushroom, which seems to glimmer with her compliments.
A fox shrieks and her face lights with joy. She whispers, “I hear you, little one. Stay safe and blessed,” as she stoops to remove an old bottle from my floor. She places it gently in a bag looped over her shoulder.
I can relax. This is one of the good ones. As I let down my guard, I feel the old spirits drawing closer, seeking to study her with me. She feels them, hesitant and unsure as their energy surrounds her. She wonders if she has offended or overstepped, but they gift her the discovery of a blood-red trillium and she knows she is welcome. She photographs the flower, leaving it unmolested, and places a gift of seeds and nuts on the earth for the creatures of the wood.
Soon enough, someone breaks through my barriers, unaware of the pulsing wall of energy they’ve passed through. They stomp through the undergrowth, crushing small plants and animals alike. A mushroom is kicked over, a beetle crushed as it rushes for the shelter of its rocky home. A can thrown, clattering, against the trunk of an oak.
My fangs sharpen and my claws slip from their sheaths. I howl. The forest spirits race through the canopy, whispering through the leaves. I call one to me—a bear totem—and send it to remove the destroyer. After all, nature is an endless cycle of life feeding life, and removing this destroyer will benefit all.
I recline into the mossy cradle of an old tree—my dear friend—and relish in the fleshy sounds.
“Just stop pretending, will you?” My voice falls to the floor, not quite projecting the way I had intended. Blue doe-eyes study me, seeing pieces no one ever has before.
“Pretending?” Her voice always surprises me. Her looks say lilting and ethereal, but her voice is raspy like reeds on a tree trunk, backlit by birdsong and a summer sunrise.
I pat my faded blue couch and she perches delicately at my side.
“You can’t just pretend to be normal.” I chew my hair—a nasty habit from childhood—then catch myself as gram’s voice comes unbidden to my mind to chastise me for it.
She brushes a swathe of mauve hair over the elegant lines of her shoulder. I glance at myself in the mirror across the room and see what looks like a Mack truck next to a unicorn staring back. I curse and roughly pull my hair into a loose bun.
Her hand finds mine, long fingers managing to warm my heart despite their coolness.
“But I am normal.”
I squeeze her hand, but not too hard. I always worry I will crush her delicate bones. And yet I have seen the greatest strength in her. She is a prime example of looks being deceiving.
“Althea…you’re not like other people. You’re delicate, but stronger than steel. You speak with plants and animals more fluently than people. You have enough knowledge of herbal medicine to rival the internet, and I swear your heart beats in time with the earth. And your looks…so beautiful it’s almost painful. And it is, isn’t it?”
A small, tight smile stretches her lips. “Most of the time, yes. But not with the earth and animals. Being with them restores me. That is what is normal to me. I may not be what most consider normal, but I refuse to be anything but true to myself. I will not hide or change for the comfort of others.”
My throat constricts around a lump of emotion. “So you’ll stay?”
Her laugh fills the room like smoke. “Of course, silly. What would you do without me?”