THE grass was soft and dewy so close to sunrise. The old gray wolf trotted slowly through the woods, tail hanging low and eyes half-closed. It was a female, and as she hadn’t managed to catch the hare—again—her spirits were dampened and her stomach empty.
The wolf was hungry and tired, but then she always was nowadays. Too old to catch her prey; too slow to survive much longer.
This world was too cold for her. Snow covered large parts of it, and at night, an icy wind ruffled her fur, making it brilliantly clear she would freeze to death sooner rather than later. Coming here had seemed like a good idea; now she wasn’t so sure.
Dying wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen to her. Death lost its terror when one grew old and rusty. She had lived a long life. She had survived her only child, she had done too many stupid things, and she yearned for a nice, long, dreamless sleep.
Years had passed since she’d thought of her cub. With sudden clarity, she had his smell in her nose: sweet and slightly fruity, like freshly plucked oranges. Until a moment ago, she hadn’t even known she still could remember the smell of oranges.
The sun would be up soon. Hopefully, it would warm her.
With aching bones, the wolf curled up on a mossy patch underneath a tree. She had slept here before. No one had discovered her hiding place so far, and she closed her eyes, trying to ignore her growling, empty stomach.
A lone bird began to chirp right above her head. As a human, she’d always loved this time of day and the sound of birds singing before her window.
But when she’d been human, she hadn’t been able to withstand the calling. It had driven her crazy, being called by a soundless, silent voice, and so she had turned into a wolf underneath the full moon one night and had refused to change back ever since. The voice had dimmed to a mere whisper. And to make sure it would stay that way, she had fled her world and her home, had run from world to world, from portal to portal whenever she’d found one that was open. Slipping through behind others, risking being seen but without another choice. She would have run to the end of the universe to escape the calling.
It hadn’t worked. Not for good. The voice was there again, calling her, tormenting her already tormented soul.
Had she heard it before she’d come to this world? Was the voice the real reason why she had come to this ferociously cold place?
Whatever. She could hear the voice, but she was able to ignore it. Wolves were mostly immune to the wishes of others; the calling was annoying, but nothing she needed to obey.
She was sure of it.
She liked being a wolf. A wolf’s life was easy—at least it had been when she was young. On the other hand, as a wolf she couldn’t look after her grandson anymore.
Not yet asleep but not fully awake either, the wolf thought she heard a sound above the wind, which was rustling the few leaves still fighting winter. A soft sound, harmless and unobtrusive. Nothing she needed to worry about.
Her ears twitched. Sound was more prominent to a wolf, and she’d learned long ago to separate good sounds from bad. A fleeing hare was good, and the crunch the bones made when she cracked them. Blood dropping to the ground was a good sound, and her paws trotting over grass and earth.
Hooves were bad, as hooves often meant centaurs. Wings were sometimes bad, especially when belonging to eagles or harpies. Not that she’d met many harpies, and not that they tended to chase old wolves. But nevertheless, wings that size made her run or even hide underground if necessary.
This world seemed to be safe aside from the cold weather. No creature making sounds that soft would be a threat to her.
Opening one eye, the wolf found she’d slept for a while, but not long enough for the sun to come up. How she longed for the warmth to dry her fur; maybe, once she was warm, she could even forget her body’s aching bones for a while.
Darkness was all around her, and the wind turned from merely cold to icy. The wolf shivered, her empty stomach growling for food.
So that sound she’d heard: had it really been harmless? Or had she dreamed it?
The one who called her was dangerous. She’d met the creature only once, and for years she’d believed it had caused her only child’s death. Nowadays, she wasn’t sure anymore. Staying in a wolf’s body for nearly two decades wasn’t good for thinking straight.
She got up on stiff legs, shook the leaves out of her fur, and sniffed the wind for game. Being a wolf had its advantages. Fresh meat was one of them. If she managed to catch the prey.
No. Too early. And she was too tired. A bit more sleep before she went hunting again.
With a growl, she turned herself around once and slumped back onto the patch of moss. It was still warm from her body’s heat.
As a human, she had been too mad to stay in the human world. As a wolf, she had had to leave her grandson behind despite his young age and despite the love she felt for him. Had she stayed, she might have killed him, in either shape. Had she stayed, the creature might have found him and done him harm.
She didn’t have a choice. Madness, in combination with walking on four legs, strange as it was, offered safety. The one who called her didn’t know how to deal with madness, couldn’t sense her in her wolf form, and thus had lost track of her many years ago.
Or so she believed.
Her grandson would be an adult man by now, if he’d survived his childhood.
Sadness claimed the wolf, a lonely, longing feeling, ripping her heart to pieces. Her boy; her sunshine. Unlike his father, he’d never suffered from depression. He had been a charming, bright child, and keeping him out of his drug addict mother’s reach had been one of her main goals.
He’d been a beautiful child, wild and free and clinging to her once it became clear his mother was incapable of keeping her hands off the drugs. He’d loved his grandmother, and she’d loved him.
She’d loved him enough to leave him behind once it became necessary. She’d loved him enough to have a rune tattooed on his neck, one that would hide his existence, one that would make him as invisible as possible. The creature would have loved to get her claws into her grandson, tearing him apart, devouring him. The rune would make it a lot harder for the banshee to do so. She was certain of it. Or at least she had been, once.
The wolf’s paws twitched in her dreams. She’d fallen back asleep, an easy thing for a wolf no matter how cold it was. Her human part, the small part still not entirely drowned by her wolf-self, regretted what she’d done to her boy. The tattoo on his neck would keep him safe and hidden, but it would also make it very hard, if not impossible, for him to make friends or find a partner. He very likely would have to go through life alone, and she grieved for him.
But if she hadn’t done it, he would be dead already, slaughtered by the creature that called her.
In her dreams, the wolf saw the boy’s face, freckled and lovely. Red hair and strange, beautiful eyes, long, slender legs, a quick, cheeky smile, and a handsome face. And he had been a good child, neither cruel nor stupid. Her grandson had reflected the best parts of his heritage. He had surely grown into a beautiful, intelligent man.
Last time she had seen him, Gabriel had been about eight years old.
The wolf’s legs restlessly chased dream bunnies or, maybe, ran from nameless fears. A low whine emerged from her throat; in the tree above, it disturbed a squirrel, which had been trying to find one of last year’s buried nuts.
She was safe in this world. It was too cold for anyone but wolves and the occasional prey.
She was safe here.
THROUGH the woods, a creature slithered, its scaly tail leaving snakelike tracks on the snowy ground. Where its eyes should have been, only holes could be seen, had anyone been there to look. Where its mouth should have been, there was only a gap, toothless and round, slashing the air it sucked in greedily.
It was too warm down here. Had it not been necessary, she would never have left her mountains. It was safe up there, secluded and cold. Cold was important. Cold was the elixir of life, and without it, she couldn’t think properly.
But it had been necessary to come down onto the plains. The wolf was here, now, this very moment.
The banshee had waited so very long for this, had called her for years, only to get nothing but disobedience in response. Staying in the mountains now the wolf had arrived was not an option. The moment she had crawled through the portal, the banshee had been aware of her presence. Finally, the wolf had followed her call. It had taken long enough to lure her here; now was the time to face her, even if it meant missing the coldness she craved.
If only the wretched thing hadn’t resisted her call for so long. The banshee was old herself now, and the warmth down here made her feel even older.
And she had to protect her cave.
On the other hand, her cave was hard to reach, and it was protected by barriers. This wouldn’t take long, and the banshee was not yet too old to end a wolf’s life.
There she was, hidden under a tree.
The banshee’s cold claw touched the wolf’s fur, dug deep into her flesh. The wolf had been fast asleep, exhausted, half-starved. Otherwise, she might have sensed the danger in time. Now it was too late.
The wolf yelped, struggled, still half-asleep. But the banshee didn’t let go of her. Shaking the wolf, the creature just waited, silently, for her to wake up fully, and ignored the wolf’s increasing howls.
The wolf changed. The paws became hands; the limbs stretched into arms and legs. The graying snout was replaced by the nose, mouth, and sunken cheeks of an old woman.
No more fur. Just long, tangled hair, matted and dirty.
No more howls. The screams of a human echoed through the quiet woods, scaring the last remaining animals away into the darkness.
The banshee dropped her prey, knowing the old woman couldn’t run away from her. Even in wolf form, she wouldn’t have stood a chance, but to be certain, she’d waited for her to change back into human. It was one of the banshee’s few magical skills—in her presence, no one could stay in another form for long.
If only the wolf-woman weren’t a shapeshifter. If only she’d listened to her call sooner.
Well, she wasn’t a wolf now. She could answer questions.
When the banshee let go of her, the woman dropped to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Where the banshee had touched her, her white, fragile skin was red and marred, like freshly burned flesh. She whimpered, her hands clutched to her face.
You came to me.
There was no voice, just an echo in the woman’s mind. She jerked as if struck; she didn’t look up.
I called and you came. But it is too late. I found him. He is mine now.
The frail old woman gasped in shock. “You’re lying,” she whispered hoarsely. “He’s safe from your eyes. I hid him. You won’t ever be able to put your filthy claws on him.”
The banshee would have laughed were she actually able to laugh. As it was, the sound she made resembled an animal’s death cry more than anything else. He went through a portal. I saw him. I watch him. He cannot hide anymore.
Now the woman looked up. Her eyes were bloodshot, her lips blue with cold. She wouldn’t live much longer even if the banshee should decide not to kill her. “A portal? My Gabriel? No! Never taught him runes.”
Awkwardly, the banshee bent and put her claws around the old woman’s throat. He found a mate, she hissed. The rune you put on him was useless. A fae fell in love with him. The fae showed him how to use runes. He learned. He knows. Portals are friendly to him. Sooner or later, he will hear my call and follow it into this world. Where I will await him. Where his destiny awaits him.
Gentle pressure to the woman’s main veins caused her to struggle and scratch at the banshee’s gray, stone-like skin.
You lost your way, did you not? the banshee asked and allowed the woman to take another breath. You are old and weak. You could not resist my call any longer, not even in your wolf disguise. But it is too late. I do not need you anymore.
Limp as freshly killed prey, the old woman hung in the banshee’s claws. Tears ran down her cheeks and froze before they could drop to the ground. “Gabriel,” she murmured. “I tried to protect you. I’m so sorry.”
Her near death didn’t seem to be of any concern to her.
With the last bit of dignity she could muster, the old woman got to her feet, stood as straight as the banshee’s claws around her throat would allow. “My Gabriel hasn’t been born for any destiny,” she said proudly. “You might have fiddled with my genes, and he might be part of you somehow, but he doesn’t belong to you. He’ll fight you, and he’ll win.” Wiping a strand of gray hair out of her eyes, she refused to look away.
The dead gray sockets showed neither concern nor mercy. So many tries; so many failures. The banshee sighed, faint like the wind. You are one of them. Your son was one of them. You were all weak or useless, or both. But you were necessary to create my child. This boy who once was yours, he is different. He’s strong. He will do what is expected of him.
And as an afterthought, she added, His love won’t last.
Gradually, the banshee increased the pressure around the old woman’s neck.
The old woman struggled. Once, she had raised her grandson because her son was dead and her daughter-in-law a drug addict. Once, she had realized how different the boy was and in what danger, and had taken the baby to a wise man who’d tattooed the rune onto his neck, shielding him from curious eyes. Gabriel had cried bitterly, complaining about the pain and the strong grip she’d used to hold him still.
Once, she’d been human. Her name had been Bellatrice, and she’d lived in the human world, raising a mostly human child.
Then, when the calls and the madness had become unbearable, she’d turned into a wolf, hoping the calling would end.
Now she realized she hadn’t been able to ignore it at all. The creature had called her to this world, and although it had taken some time, she had finally followed. And now she was lost.
Knowing Gabriel was lost as well broke her heart.
“I hate you,” she said with as much self-assurance as she could muster.
Your hate is of no concern to me, the banshee whispered, strengthening her grip, and she watched as the old woman suffocated. Bellatrice’s legs kicked out, and she gurgled, her lungs screaming for breath.
In vain. There was no escape once a banshee got that close.
When the old woman was dead, the banshee dropped the body into the snow and sniffed the corpse. It was not good to eat. Too old; too desperate.
Still, she didn’t turn to leave. Not yet. The mountains could wait, and her egg could wait.
This was more important.
Gabriel, the old woman had said.
The banshee hadn’t known the boy’s name. She’d found him, and she’d watched him, and she had tried to call him. Useless. He would not hear her. He was like her, but only partly. His ears were deaf to her calls due to what else he was.
But now she knew his name. Names were powerful, and now she had all the power over him she needed.
She briefly considered the consequences of the calling. She could call animals; she could call her kin. She could even call a wolf that was sometimes a human, like the now-dead woman lying in a crumpled heap at her feet.
But Gabriel was different. He was so much more than just banshee. Calling him might upset the balance of the worlds, might harm the portals, might bring discord into the gentle harmonies of power.
She shrugged her shoulders. She had no mind anymore for the dead woman. Snow fell; the body would be covered by noon and rot to bones in a few months.
The banshee hurried to get back to her cave. The discord, the failing balance—she didn’t care if the worlds sank into chaos or the portals erupted and killed anyone near them. She wanted revenge more than anything else.
Only her wishes counted. Her wishes, her needs, and maybe her egg, awaiting her return.
There shall be discord, she thought. There shall be chaos and death, if only the boy follows my call.
Cold ice greeted the banshee when she entered her cave. It coated the walls and floor; it made the banshee shiver with relief. She was home. A hole in the ground was where the banshee slept, if she slept, which happened rarely. It also held her egg, small and fragile. Briefly, she checked on it. Yes. All was well.
Now she was hungry. A snow fox would be good, or a young polar bear.
They’d follow her call. They all did.
Gabriel would as well. Now that she knew his name, he would be here before the year was over.
I’M GOING to die.
The thought emerged from the deep recesses of his three-quarters sleeping brain. Crystal clear, it felt much more real than, for example, the dream that was already fleeing his mind or the bed he was lying in.
I’m going to die. Soon.
It was late on a nice, sunny October afternoon. Exhausted after a long night, Gabriel hadn’t managed to keep his eyes open after lunch, so Aleksei had sent him to bed for a nap.
But he hadn’t slept well. He’d been dreaming of nameless fears and a voice calling him. Again.
Motionless, Gabriel lay on his back, partly covered by the blanket he’d pulled over himself some hours before. Sunlight painted patterns on the bed and floor, rearranged constantly by the gently moving branches outside the window.
Staring at the ceiling, Gabriel tried to remember the words from his dream but failed.
He took a shaky breath and sat up. “Damn naps. I always feel worse afterwards instead of refreshed.”
It was hard to keep his eyes open. He was still sleepy; the bed was calling, the dream, too, in a weird, scary kind of way, and what would be the harm of going back to sleep for another half an hour? He was home, wasn’t he? He could take a nap if he wanted to, even a long one lasting until dinner. Today, he didn’t have much else to do. And maybe Aleksei would join him. Maybe a bit of sex would chase those strange dreams from his mind for good.
Lately, there was always a but. A but standing in the way of sex, in fact. But it was too late. But he was too tired. But he had to work. So sorry, love, I won’t make it home before morning. Another time, surely.
Another month, more likely.
Anger welled up. He should feel great, not worse than ever. He should be fully awake, and he shouldn’t be trying to find yet another reason not to have sex with Aleksei!
A quick glance at the clock confirmed he’d slept for about two hours. Aleksei was somewhere in the house, waiting for him to get up. They’d make plans for the evening. One of them would think of something for dinner. Nothing special. Normal life happening.
So why did he feel so out of sorts?
“Easy answer to that one. I’m feeling out of sorts because something is wrong. If only I knew what.”
With a sigh, he got up and pulled on his jeans. Lately, he felt uncomfortable walking around the house naked, as if someone was watching him.
“Should take a shower,” he murmured, already pulling on a shirt. “But I won’t.”
Aleksei had often joined him in the shower. Until recently, Gabriel had craved it. The fae was a skillful lover, always aware of Gabriel’s moods and wishes.
But not anymore, and not because Aleksei didn’t try. It was because Gabriel didn’t want him to.
Why don’t I want him near me?
With shaking legs, Gabriel sat back down on the bed. To keep his hands occupied, he fished for the leather string in the front pocket of his jeans, braided his long hair, and bound it with the string. “I love him,” he said.
He didn’t sound as if he believed it.
“It’s Aleksei! I love him, for fuck’s sake!”
Nope, still didn’t sound right. Just desperate.
His heart pounded. He felt pale, weak, and for a moment, he believed his thoughts and fears were the result of an empty stomach and maybe the sort of strange, half-forgotten nightmares an afternoon nap sometimes brought. He had been having more nightmares recently, hadn’t he? Occasionally, he would wake up bathed in sweat, his eyes wide open, his mouth dry with fear. He never remembered any of the dreams, but surely they could trigger some false emotions?
He almost had himself convinced. But then his gaze fell onto his hands and he blushed.
He loved Aleksei and had never betrayed him. Well, not really. Not completely.
Gritting his teeth, Gabriel faced the memories flaring up in his mind. It had been a week ago. He’d visited Gray Oak’s world, and he’d run into one of the tree nymphs guarding Sweet Rain’s sleeping soul. Nothing special, really. He’d seen tree nymphs before, had talked to them, and once had found one of their lost children. Never had he felt even remotely attracted to one of them. They were wiry people, dark-skinned and with long, tangled hair. Their clothes were made of grass, and often, butterflies or small birds followed their every movement.
This guy, though….
In the safety of his bedroom, Gabriel hugged himself in despair. He loved Aleksei! From the moment he’d set eyes on the fae, there had been a mutual attraction neither of them had been able to deny. They’d been drawn to each other and eventually landed in bed together.
“Three years,” Gabriel muttered. “I am risking his love and a three-year relationship for a quick fuck with a damn tree nymph.”
Okay, he hadn’t fucked the guy. Not really. But he had kissed him. And he had allowed him to undress him. They’d landed in the grass together, and the reason Gabriel was staring at his hand with a mixture of hate and confusion was because he so clearly remembered the contrast of his white hand on the man’s dark ass.
A cold shiver ran through him upon thinking about the tree nymph. He’d been so hot! Young and direct and greedy and so very different from any human he knew, and equally different from Aleksei. His kiss had been demanding, his tongue eager, his cock impressive.
Gabriel tried to convince himself he hadn’t stood a chance against the man, but he failed. He had wanted the kiss. He had wanted more.
When the tree nymph had opened his shirt, Gabriel had kissed his throat. When he’d dropped his loincloth, Gabriel had swallowed dryly, leaned in for another kiss, and cupped his balls.
The tree nymph’s skin had smelled of earth and leaves. His hands, long and strong, had wrapped around Gabriel’s cock, stroking him slowly into hardness. All the time, the tree nymph had smiled, and when Gabriel had slipped two fingers into his tight hole, he’d pushed against him repeatedly until he’d spilled before leaning over, taking Gabriel’s length between his sharp little teeth, and sucking him off.
Gabriel absently wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He’d felt ashamed the moment he came and had dressed without a word. He’d never even asked the tree nymph’s name.
“But I love him,” he said helplessly to his hands, which were resting like dead little animals on his knees. “I love Aleksei. I am nothing without him, I don’t want to lose him, and why the hell have I been so stupid?”
Two days ago, he’d kissed Conchita.
The thought alone made him shudder. Conchita was generous with the charms of her large-breasted, big-hipped body, and before he’d met Aleksei, they’d shared a bed every now and then. He liked her, always had and always would.
He’d never kissed her, though; he would have sworn an oath he never would.
And yet, two days ago he had kissed her. And it had been disgusting, not because of her or anything she’d done or said, but because he didn’t want to be with her. He knew it would be awful the moment she’d smiled at him, but he had still kissed her.
Throat tight with fear, Gabriel wondered if he was going mad. Maybe he’d gone through the portals a few times too often—after all, he’d never really been trained to do so, and Aleksei still didn’t understand how he did it. Going through the portals, crossing the bridge into another world, was fatal for anyone who didn’t know how to do it properly. But Gabriel had done it instinctively from the first moment on. So it was unlikely the portals had caused his condition.
“I just need some rest,” Gabriel muttered. “Yeah. Been a long week. And I’m hungry. Everything will be okay once I’ve eaten.”
Determined, he got up, straightened the bedcovers, and went to find Aleksei.
Of course he knew he was fooling himself. He didn’t need rest. The past weeks and months had been relatively quiet, with few crossings to other worlds. There’d been enough sleep, enough to eat, and definitely enough leisure time to recharge his energy tanks. He had no reason to betray his lover. He had no reason to feel so lost and restless, as if somewhere else a better life awaited him.
“My life is here.”
Strangely enough, saying it aloud seemed to help. The feeling of being pulled away ceased, and the first smile of the afternoon appeared on his face.
“Aleksei?” Gabriel called. “Where are you? I’m starving here!”
There was no answer. The house was silent, which was unusual. When Aleksei was home, there was usually some sort of music in the background, small noises from the kitchen when he felt like cooking, or at least the soft steps of bare feet on the light wooden planks. Gabriel’s ears could pick up even the smallest sound—one of the positive side effects of having shapeshifter blood running through his veins.
The living room was empty. Only the small scarred cat that had moved in with them a while back lay curled up on the sofa. He opened one alert eye when Gabriel walked in; when he saw there was no danger, he went back to sleep.
Aleksei wasn’t in the kitchen. A lone cup of tea sat on the table, already cool.
Which meant his lover could only be in his workroom.
A deeper smile spread over Gabriel’s face, chasing away his fears and guilt as well as the strange thoughts concerning his imminent death.
Not worrying felt good. Thinking about Aleksei… well. It might feel a bit awkward, but it definitely felt good too.
He was too fed up with riddles to ponder his problems right now. Later, maybe. Or never.
“Aleksei? What are you up to this time?” Pushing open the door to the workroom, Gabriel experienced a sudden rush of heat at the sight of his lover. Aleksei sat bent over his microscope, black hair curled wetly on his neck. He must have had a shower not too long ago.
Alone. Without waking him, and without waiting for him.
Gabriel sighed. Only some minutes ago he’d worried Aleksei would join him in the shower. Now that he’d found out his partner had showered without him, he wasn’t happy, either.
This was not good.
Think about it later.
Gabriel closed his eyes for a moment and breathed in the faint scent of Aleksei’s freshly scrubbed skin. To a human—one without werewolf ancestors, anyway—the scent would have been imperceptible. To Gabriel, it was but another facet of Aleksei’s complex and complicated nature.
His uneasiness lessened with every step he took, until he completely forgot about it.
“Hey, love.” Gabriel was already next to the fae when Aleksei finally looked up.
“I’ve been calling for five minutes now. Thought you’d gone out or something.”
Aleksei raised an eyebrow, a small gesture that still made Gabriel’s heart flip. It was such an insignificant habit; for Gabriel, it summoned up the fae’s nature perfectly. Slightly arrogant and dominant without needing words; curious, judging, and exceptionally sexy.
His encounter with the tree nymph was pushed into a dark corner of his mind. The kiss he’d shared with Conchita vanished completely.
“Love you,” Gabriel said, meaning it with all his heart and mind.
Aleksei smiled. “Good to know. Did you enjoy your nap?” He picked up a pen, peeked through the ocular of the microscope, and quickly scribbled something onto a scrap of paper in that cryptic handwriting Gabriel had never managed to decipher properly.
“Must’ve been tired. Can’t imagine why.” Gabriel moved closer to Aleksei and placed a light kiss on his exposed neck. “What are you doing there, Doc? Not trying to unravel the mystery of my ancestors again, are you?”
Aleksei absently reached out and patted Gabriel’s hip, simply because it came into range of his hand first. “I decided that since I cannot figure out where the strange stripe in your genes