The worst part about being the only non-shifter of three siblings was that he'd spent his whole life being looked after. Sure, maybe there was benefit to it from time to time. Stewart wasn't a kid anymore, though, and his older brother and sister tended to overlook that fact. They thought he needed protecting from everything in the world. Every time he sneezed, it seemed like they were there, hovering with a box of tissues and advice to drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest.
Stewart loved his siblings. After their parents were brutally murdered by vampires, they were all he had. But that didn’t mean he needed to be watched after every second of the day!
He could remember the anticipation he’d felt when he was young and watched them shift into their wolf forms. It wasn’t always the case that a child would turn into the same sort of animal as their parents, but in the case of Roxy and Andy, they had. He’d been so excited to join them… the excitement turned to worry as years passed and still nothing, and eventually anger, then the reluctant acceptance of what he was.
“That’ll be five sixty-eight,” he told the customer at his till.
The little old lady shelled out the cash for the present for her grandson and, thanking him profusely, tottered off. Stewart sighed as he moved out from behind the counter to resume sweeping up the little second-hand shop he ran. It wasn’t protecting people from the threat of vampires, but it was better than nothing. He could at least use the storefront as a way for the Savage Brotherhood, a motorcycle club full of shifters, of which Andy was a member, to move some of their cash assets around. He wasn’t allowed to be a full-on member, as humans were far too weak to participate in the dangers of the gang, but it was something, at least.
He’d almost given up on his dream to one day be a shifter. There was a method to turn humans into shifters, including a ritual and a full-on shifter biting the human. The last time he’d tried it, though, he’d been badly injured and not a single strand of fur had appeared.
Since then, Andy had refused to try again. It’s too dangerous, he said. It’s better you live as a human than die as a shifter.
Stewart grunted as he kicked aside a pile of cloth that a previous customer had left on the floor, then bent to fold it up. Are you going to be saying that when I’m on my human deathbed? Shifters live longer than humans.
At least, they did naturally. They also healed faster, were stronger, had finer-turned senses. All in all, being a shifter was heads-and-shoulders above being a human. Roxy and Andy didn’t understand what it was like, to be so weak and helpless all the time… they’d never gotten so much as a cold in their lives!
His cellphone buzzed in his pocket. Stewart set the broom aside and fished the phone from his pocket. His dour mood lifted when he saw who it was calling.
He answered it with a grin on his face. “Polaris. Fancy hearing from you.”
“Don’t be a smartass,” Frieda’s cheerful voice came over the line. “It’s getting to be time for you to close up shop, right?”
“Yup.” He glanced at the clock. “Fifteen more minutes.”
“Good. I’m in the neighborhood. I’ll stop by and help you clean up. Then I thought we could go grab a movie or something. It’s been awfully boring lately… the cops keep sticking their noses where they don’t belong, so Typhoon has called for laying low for a bit. No jobs, no missions, not even going after vamps! I’m going stir-crazy with nothing to do.”
Stewart smiled wryly. Oh, if only she knew what true boredom was. She at least had the luxury of impatiently waiting for the next mission, the next vampire attack. But Frieda was his best friend. They’d known each other for years now, ever since she’d joined Andy’s crew. These days, she’d been promoted to leading her own crew, many of whom used to run with Andy before he married Guinevere, a vampire queen, and became an official ambassador.
It had taken some getting used to, having a vampire sister-in-law. Guinevere was good people, though, not like the vampires who killed wantonly. They’d even figured out the secret to having vampire-shifter hybrid children. Stewart wasn’t sure if they were going to have more children, but they already had a boy, Daniel.
“Yo, Stewie. You there?” Frieda barked over the phone.
“Yeah, I’m here.” Stewart shook off his thoughts. “Movie sounds great. There’s a new horror out, right?”
“Yup. That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
Stewart smiled. “See you soon, then.”
When he hung up, he glanced around the shop. It had been a pretty dead day, and there wasn’t much left to do. If he worked quickly and was blessed with no more customers, then it was a fair bet that he’d be ready to go by the time Frieda arrived. He might even be able to wheedle some information out of her about what the gang was up to.
The thought of spending time with her brightened his day considerably. His stomach actually started to twist into knots. Perhaps this would be the day when he told her. They’d been best friends for years, and he wanted more than friendship between them. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that there had been nights, when he was kept awake by thoughts of his humanity, where he imagined her in his bed. Those were always his favorite fantasies.
But he knew it wasn’t going to happen. Frieda had said on more than one occasion that shifter-human relationships didn’t work out. Humans were too frail. He didn’t know if she sensed his feelings for her and was trying to gently discourage them or they were just off-the-cuff remarks, but the effect was the same.
Besides, it would be super weird for Andy. Him and Frieda were like siblings, and for Stewart and Frieda to become a couple? Stewart shook his head, chuckling at the mental image of Andy’s face should that come to light.
The bell over the door jangled. Stewart scowled as he turned, though he quickly put on the Customer Service Smile (patent pending). “Hi, we’re actually closing early to…”
Stewart’s voice died away when the man who entered pointed a gun at him. The man was tall, thin, with sunken eyes. He wore a dirty coat, ragged pants and looked quite rough overall. There was an angry gleam in his eye, though, one that Stewart had never seen in the random people who had tried to rob him in the past. Slowly, he lifted his hands into the air.
“Easy, there,” he started, keeping his voice low and soothing. “Cash register is already open, go ahead and take what you want.”
“Oh, I will.” The man stalked forward and aimed the gun at Stewart’s forehead. “I am going to take exactly what I want. Your life.”
Even before the man finished speaking, Stewart had kicked the broomstick up. He caught it in his hands while dodging to one side. The gun went off, the crack and whistle ringing in his ears. He twisted, swinging the broom out; it hit the man in the face, and Stewart brought it down on the man’s hand with a crack. The gun went off again, the bullet narrowly missing Stewart’s foot. He dodge in closer, punching the man in the face while he grabbed the gun and twisted it out of his hand, the way Andy had taught him.
The man staggered back, hissing. Stewart’s eyes widened as a set of long, white fangs slipped into view. A vampire? Attacking him? Not only in the heart of Ivywood, but in broad daylight as well? He brought the gun up and pressed it to the vampire’s chest, emptying the clip rapidly.
The vampire dropped. He grunted, drops of blackened blood dripping from the wounds on his chest while one hand grabbed a nearby shelf, trying to keep himself upright. Stewart didn’t take any chances; lifting the broom again, he gave the vampire a mighty whack over the head. This time, he collapsed to the floor and stayed down.
Stewart stared at him for a moment, his heart pounding. He glanced around, then strode over to the metal bat that he’d recently purchased. Downed or not, vampires were too dangerous to let alone. Frieda would be here soon, and he had to make sure this vampire wasn’t going to be causing trouble for him before then.
As he turned back to smash the vampire’s head in, though, he came face-to-face with another man. A wide grin on this man’s face already showed the pearly-white fangs. Stewart let out a strangled shout as the vampire punched him hard in the stomach. He bent double, the air rushing from his lungs. The vampire lifted him bodily and tossed him across the room, several shelves’ worth of valuables collapsing over him as Stewart fell to the floor.
Dazed, Stewart tried to push himself to his feet. His head spun, and he fell back to one knee.
“What do you want?” Stewart spat out, trying to buy himself some time. Pain lanced up his spine, making him feel shaky. He gripped the metal bat tightly in one hand, even though he was fairly certain what these vampires were after.
And sure enough, when the vampire spoke, his suspicions were confirmed. “To make the queen’s filthy mate understand what it means to interfere in vampire business.”
“You realize I had nothing to do with my brother marrying Guinevere, right?”
The vampire didn’t respond. He only lunged for Stewart. Stewart grunted, rolling out of the way of the vampire’s long claws. He whipped the bat around, hitting the vampire square in the face. The vampire’s head was knocked back, a satisfying crunch indicating that his nose was broken. As he clutched his face, Stewart took the opportunity to get to his feet. He swung the bat hard. This time the vampire was too quick.
“Fight all you want,” the vampire seethed as he bounced to his feet. “I enjoy the challenge! It would be too easy otherwise. I am going to rend you limb from limb. I will take you apart and suck you dry of blood. Then I will send your severed head to your brother. What do you say to that?”
Stewart grunted as he swung the bat again. It smacked into the vampire’s shoulder, but the vampire grabbed it with his free hand. He yanked hard, dragging Stewart towards him. Stewart dropped, kicking the vampire’s legs apart. The vampire didn’t seem to mind, though; he dropped over Stewart, grabbing his wrists and pinned him to the floor.
His fangs flashed as the vampire bent his head toward Stewart’s neck…
And in the next second, the vampire had been ripped away. Stewart gasped in relief as Frieda’s familiar grey wolf dragged the vampire back from him. She threw him over her shoulder. As the vampire twisted in mid-air and landed in a crouched position on the floor, Frieda was already going after him again.
It didn’t last long. Frieda methodically ripped the vampire apart, until it was a bloody mess on the floor. Stewart quickly moved to the windows and drew the shades, even though in this neighborhood it was unlikely that many people cared about what was going on in his store. The place was a freaking mess, though… it was going to take days to clean it up!
Frieda shifted back to her human form, and Stewart silently yanked a sheet from a nearby stack of bedding to hand to her. Not that he minded the brief glimpses of her body that he was graced with, but, given the situation, the last thing on his mind was ogling his friend.
“You alright?” Frieda asked, cocking a brow at him.
His left leg was trembling with effort to keep himself upright and his whole body was pained, but Stewart nodded. It was nothing he couldn’t handle. “There’s another vampire over there. I got him with the gun, and since they have to be partly human to go out in sunlight…”
Freida nodded. She put an arm around him and helped him to a chair, which he sank gratefully into, before she went to check on the first vampire. He was a little more beat up than he first thought. His spine ached and his chest hurt when he breathed in. His left leg was bleeding pretty good, too, and there were numerous small cuts on his arms and face that he hadn’t realized were there until he had the chance to sit.
“Well, he’s dead,” Frieda called. She wended her way through the aisles to return to him. “Your first vampire kill. Impressive, if I do say so myself.”
Stewart grunted in annoyance. “Impressive for a human, you mean.”
“If I was a shifter, I could have handled both of them.” He scowled at the floor, then yanked his cellphone from his pocket. He pressed it into Freida’s hand. “Call Typhoon. It’s time for this to be over. There have been plenty of threats on my life directly since Andy and Guinevere got together. Unless he wants to waste resources protecting me or just let me die, something’s got to change.”
Frieda glanced at the phone warily. “You know the rules. We’re not allowed to call him directly unless we’re using a phone belonging to the Brotherhood.”
“I might as well be a member,” Stewart snapped. “I have been involved in Brotherhood business for as long as I can remember. Just because I don’t have the tattoo doesn’t mean I’m immune to it all. So you call him. Tell him what happened today, and let him know that I’m fed up with all this. If I’m going to be threatened by vampires and dealing with the cops sniffing around and all that, I am not going to be left on the outside anymore.”
Frieda studied him for a moment. Her brow furrowed in worry, but she nodded slowly and took the phone. “If killing a vampire doesn’t show him that you’re strong enough to go through the ritual, I don’t know what will be.”
Stewart nodded his agreement, although the reminder of the ritual made his stomach twist. All previous attempts to turn him into a shifter had failed. What if it just wasn’t in his DNA? What if they went through all the proper channels and had professionals help and it still wouldn’t take? What if he was doomed to be human for the rest of his life?
He shifted his position and grimaced as pain shot through him. No. He couldn’t think about what might happen if it didn’t take—it had to take. The problem in the past was it was just him and Andy, without knowing all the proper steps. Once Typhoon and the Brotherhood were involved, it was going to work out. They’d complete the ritual, and he would be a shifter.
He had to be.
During all this, Frieda had been speaking quietly on the phone. She nodded once and hung up before turning to Stewart. “Typhoon wants to see you. He’ll be sending people here to clean up for you.”
“Good,” Stewart grunted. “Let’s go.”