Some day, I’ll have to release a novel with a variation that’s like a director’s cut. In the process of completing a manuscript, there are so many scenes that get recast or wholly removed. This is one such scene — another altercation, because I love writing fight scenes. At this point, the root work it’s drawn from has changed so much, it’s nearly impossible to tell where it came from.
I still like it, though.
Playing by the Rules
“Um, you can let go of me,” I said. I pulled away slightly.
He dropped his hands without comment.
Lucid hazel eyes bored into me. No eerie light was required to add to their intensity. In that quiet tone that nevertheless invested each individual syllable with tremendous weight, he asked, “What do you want from me?”
“Uh,” I faltered.
Suspecting that someone might actually be an inhuman monster was a whole lot different than actually confronting them about it. My mouth went dry, and all of my reasonable-sounding conclusions about what Khalid was and how he might have known my mother nearly eighty years ago suddenly seemed anything but reasonable.
He pressed his sculpted lips into a thin, unhappy line, saying, “Please, stop feigning ignorance. It’s insulting to the both of us, don’t you think?”
I fought to recover the confidence I’d had just moments before. Heart in my throat, I mumbled, “That depends on what I’m being ignorant about.”
Khalid rolled his eyes. “I know it was you the other night. I could feel your observation. For someone who can hide their nature so completely in person, at a distance you are regrettably clumsy.”
I blushed to my hairline. So I really saw him doing those things, and he caught me watching him. I ducked my head guiltily, letting my hair swing forward to hide how red I was. Nervous laughter escaped my throat. I tried to talk, to utter anything intelligent, but my mouth and my brain were at war – and they weren’t including me in the negotiations.
Khalid studied me with his piercing eyes, mistaking my flush of embarrassment for one of anger. “Thalia, I don’t have to be your enemy. Truly, I don’t want to be.”
Finally, in a rush, I managed, “Was that what you said to my mother?”
I expected to see some reaction of shock or incredulity. Raised eyebrows. Something. But he simply shook his head, his frown deepening. “I don’t know what Elondra told you before she passed, but I assure you, she misjudged me.”
“So you did know her,” I gasped. My legs went all watery. I started teetering, dimly aware that I was nearing shock.
Khalid reached out again to steady me. I jerked away, nearly tumbling backwards. I dug the heels of my boots into the damp grass of his front lawn just to stay standing. He kept his hands extended, still trying to catch me as I swayed drunkenly.
“Please don’t touch me!” I cried.
He took a step backward, nodding his head politely. “As you wish,” he murmured. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his trench. Casting a worried glance over my shoulder, he murmured, “But I’m not so certain we should have this discussion out here. Others are gathering.”
My eyes flew to the oak tree – or at least, to where I knew the oak tree should be. It was too dark to see anything save for a hint of the gnarled branches looming next to the massive old Victorian. A little late, I realized I hadn’t left any of the lights on in the house. Not so much as a porch lamp.
“You can see them?” I breathed. My heart’s frantic rhythm echoed in the tremor of my voice.
“The crows?” he asked. “Yes. And I can sense the others. Can’t you?”
“N-no,” I managed, shaking my head. “Er … I’m not sure.”
His finely arched brows drew together and he tilted his head slightly as he regarded me. “What kind of game are you playing?” he wondered.
I didn’t have an answer.
“Thalia, please,” he begged. “I’m only looking to take back what your mother stole from me. Is that really so unreasonable?”
“Do you mean the painting?” I asked. I forced myself to focus on the details. Details, not fear. I needed to let go of the fear.
Behind us, something raised a ululant cry. We both jumped. It was definitely not the crows.
Eyes fixed on something in the distance, Khalid asked, “Are you sure you will not reconsider taking this inside?”
“What, so you can attack me behind closed doors?” I demanded.
“You know I can’t hurt you,” he snapped. A little of that cold light leapt behind his eyes. “Your mother made certain of that. But even if the choice remained to me, I would prefer to resolve this without violence. Why can’t you people understand this?”
By the end of it, he was nearly shouting, so I shouted right back. Anger was always my best refuge from fear.
“What people? What choice? I don’t even know what you’re talking about!”
He regarded me narrowly. “Either you are even better than your mother at hiding the true nature of things or you are not lying,” he murmured. Then his head snapped up, his eyes widening as he stared at something behind me. “Thalia, look out!”
Before I had time to react, Khalid shoved me roughly to the ground. I dropped everything as I went down, car keys and cell phone flying in opposite directions. I started yelling about it, but I was interrupted by a familiar, bone-chilling hiss.
The creature was back.
I scrambled backwards in a panic. In front of me, Khalid shrugged out of his trench, tossing it aside. Under the coat, he wore slim black jeans and a long sleeved shirt of deep amethyst silk. For reasons I could not fathom, he began unbuttoning the shirt as he stepped to meet the creature lurching into his yard. The hideous thing was swift but ungainly, still clad in the torn and soiled clothes from the previous night. Nictating membranes flicking, the intruder narrowed its eyes at my neighbor.
“I have no quarrel with you, brother,” it slurred, ashen lips barely able to close around its mouthful of teeth.
“I am most certainly not your brother,” Khalid answered stiffly. “And you will have a quarrel with me if you don’t get off my property.”
The creature hissed and skittered suddenly on his wrongly-jointed legs, circling to the left in an attempt to dart around the other man. But as fast as the monster was, Khalid matched it speed for speed. The gray-faced creature loosed an irritated snarl.
“There is no need for me to fight you,” it complained. For a big, nasty monster, it sounded bizarrely petulant.
“You are giving me a reason,” Khalid replied. He finished unbuttoning his shirt and tossed it to the grass in the direction of the coat. Wiry muscles rippled beneath the brown skin of his slim and hairless chest.
The creature looked as puzzled about Khalid’s stripper act as I was. But I wasted no time trying to figure it out. As those two were posturing in the yard, I scrambled to my feet and headed for Khalid’s porch. I desperately hoped his front door was unlocked.
“What is she to you?” the creature demanded. It danced back and forth, testing Khalid’s reactions. “If you want her also, we want her for the same reason. She has something that belongs to my sister. Let us both take her then, and make her surrender what was stolen.”
“We may want the same thing,” Khalid acknowledged coolly. “But I somehow doubt that we share the same method.”
With an aggravated snarl, the creature leapt. It sailed through the air, heading straight for me. Khalid moved faster than my eyes could track. He placed himself squarely in the creature’s path. I thought he would attack, but he only blocked the impact, bringing up his arms and thrusting the aggressor back.
Looking slightly dazed, it angled its head querulously like a dog, studying Khalid. “If you want me gone, then attack,” it hissed.
“I would prefer you simply leave.”
Its second set of eyelids flickering, the monster lunged – but didn’t carry through. Instead, it watched as Khalid prepared to meet the blow, but lowered his hands as soon as his attacker drew up short. A strange, staccato hissing emanated from the creature. I realized it was laughing. It was a hideous, chilling sound.
“You are one of the bound ones!” it cackled, pointing with a bony finger. “How much did they take from you? Can you even hunt for yourself? My sister cannot.”
Through gritted teeth, Khalid replied, “I may not be whole, but I assure you, I am quite capable. Come at me,” he taunted. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
“Why not strike me now, leech?”
Khalid’s nostrils flared at the insult, but he simply stood his ground. I tried the door at my back. It was locked. Of course. I started looking around the porch for anything I might use as a weapon. Unless I wanted to assault Khalid’s attacker with one of the previous resident’s garden gnomes, I was out of luck.
Without warning, Khalid ran at the creature, his usually melodious voice raised in a primal yell. I only saw him from behind, but his expression must have been terrifying, because even the monster was taken aback. It lashed out as soon Khalid was within range, its long, ragged nails laying open the other man’s chest. Khalid had to see it coming, but he didn’t try to dodge or even defend against the blow. He just left himself open. With an ugly cackle, the creature pressed the advantage, grappling with Khalid and driving its claws into his bare stomach. The deep, bloody gouges looked almost black against Khalid’s dark, muscled flesh.
“You cannot fight back!” the monster cackled. “I will tear the flesh from your bones, and you cannot fight back.”
“I can now,” the wounded man responded. His voice was quiet, but carried deadly threat.
Eyes flaring gold, Khalid snarled fiercely. As his blood flowed, he stopped merely defending and instead matched the aggressor blow for blow, tearing gobbets from the creature’s cadaverous flesh. The pinkish goo that served the monster for blood flowed sluggishly, but soon it covered Khalid’s face and hands. The fight was vicious, but half the time they were both moving so quickly, I could barely keep track of who was doing what. I just saw flashes of Khalid’s dark limbs, gleaming like the polished wood of some living statue where they weren’t covered in blood.
Unlike the previous night, once the monster started losing, it didn’t simply dissipate into a skirl of shadow. Khalid drove it back to the edge of the yard, finally pinning it to the ground. Battered and bleeding, the creature thrashed weakly, trying to drag Khalid’s hand from its throat.
“Traitor!” the creature spat.
Through gritted teeth, Khalid responded, “If that’s the way you want to see it. Now go. Unless it’s your aim to kill me?”
Khalid sounded almost hopeful.
The creature loosed a vicious, gurgling hiss. “If you do not end me, I will end you.”
“Is that a promise?” Khalid asked, swiping a long strand of black hair back from his face. He was smiling.
“For this insult? Yes,” the monster spat. “I will come back night after night and face you until one of us falls.”
“Perfect,” Khalid answered, and his eyes were twin lanterns in the dark. “You have just threatened my life.”
With that, he snapped the creature’s neck.