Hearth and Home

[excerpt from The Blood of Cha’Vlad]

Lendorin Manor burned brightly in the encroaching night.

Benjamin watched, the sting of angry tears blurring his vision. His ancestral home smoked and crackled, sending billowing, black clouds into the evening sky as it crumbled all around him.

He should’ve known this was coming. The town’s people had been growing more and more uneasy in his presence, giving him sideways glances of distrust whenever he ventured into their community. They hated it that he accepted the Li’Khan, and were even more displeased that he loved one of them. They thought he’d been touched by something… unnatural. Their feelings had been building to a head for months, but Benjamin had pushed any thoughts of impending disaster to the back of his mind, preferring instead to believe in the goodness of people.

He now knew there wasn’t a kind heart among them.

“We will burn this evil from our lands!” shouted Garon, brandishing a torch in Benjamin’s general direction.

Garon was, of course, the ringleader of this mean-spirited circus. He’d never gotten over what he thought of as Benjamin’s betrayal of his own kind. He’d made up stories in which Benjamin gathered innocent villagers and led them into the forest to be cursed for eternity. He brought in animals from the woods – animals which he, himself, had eviscerated – and used them to make the people believe that manlike beasts were roaming the land at night in search of human flesh. He told of vile creatures in the guise of beautiful angels, sent to lure fair maidens from the safety of their homes so that their pure souls could be devoured, and their virginal bodies ravaged.

The people believed him. In fact, so fervent was their belief that they’d appointed Garon to the station of peacekeeper and protector. Garon had been at it for so long that he was beginning to believe his own lies.

And so, it had come down to this: Violence begetting violence.

Benjamin could feel his skin tightening with the heat. How they’d managed to trap him within his own home was a mystery. He had been on the second floor of the large house, packing his belongings in preparation for his meeting with Benai, when he’d heard breaking glass. A minute or so later, he’d heard the crackling of fire, and the acrid scent of smoke had crept its way to his nose. Apparently, the mob disabled the people who normally kept watch at the Manor, probably even killed them.

Ben was devastated. He’d hoped to one day share his home with Benai, but soon, he would have no home to share. He would have nothing. And if he couldn’t manage to somehow find a way out of the inferno, he would most likely lose his life as well.

He looked around desperately, searching for a path to safety. The crowd in his yard hooted and taunted, watching through the windows, feverish with fanatical, self-righteous glee as Benjamin’s hope was slowly crushed. Ben was finding it more and more difficult to breathe. His eyes were red and watery from the billowing, black smoke, making it nearly impossible to see. He cursed aloud, glaring wildly at the mob outside. The futility of his situation only provoked them, their mockery increasing in volume as they waited for his body to be consumed by the flames.

Benjamin shut his eyes tightly against the burning smoke. He fixed a picture of Benai’s smiling face in his mind, allowing his love for her to calm him. He thought of a life with her, the children they would rear, the years of happiness they were destined to spend together. He could see it all. In his mind, the future unfolded with uncanny clarity. It gave him the strength he needed to keep his hopes and dreams alive.

When he opened his eyes, he clearly saw his path to escape. “You’ll not take me this day,” he whispered, glaring at the cheering mob. He turned, running with steps true and certain. Pumping his arms, he leaped over and around the roaring flames that threatened to become his funeral pyre. With one final burst of speed, he threw himself headfirst through one of the rear windows, wincing as broken glass tore through his flesh, reducing his skin to tatters in places. Ben fought through the pain, pushing back the impending darkness of unconsciousness, his tumbling body finally rolling to a halt. He staggered to his feet, shaking and bleeding, and ran like a man possessed to the cover of the nearby trees. He could hear the angry calls of the masses as they scrambled to retrieve their victim, but their resolve to destroy him only made him that much more determined to live.

The solid mass of the forest soon drowned out the cries of the rabble, but Benjamin knew they wouldn’t give up that easily. He kept running, his breathing coming in racking gasps, his vision blurred by pain. The direction of his escape from the house meant he had to go out of his way and double back to reach his destination. He hoped that once he reached Benai and her people they would grant him asylum, or at the very least, tend his wounds before turning him away. He knew the full moon was almost upon them, and was worried that they might not be as accepting of him as they normally would be when the change was not upon them.

But he had to try. They were his only hope. He kept running, blindly following his tracking instincts, hoping they would lead him to safety.

***

The scent of fresh blood was thick on the air. Fahad Nar’Khan sniffed eagerly, his heightened sense of smell allowing him to discern that the scent was heading in his direction. Enhanced vision allowed him to spot his prey long before it entered the nearby clearing. It was one of the humans. Fahad could hear the man’s ragged breathing as if it were right in front of him. When the human fell in a wounded heap to the ground, Fahad decided it was time to eat. As a rule, he never hunted humans, but the change had been forced upon him early by Miera’s cruelty, and he found that he didn’t really care at this point what he ate as long as he could fill his belly with fresh meat.

He crept from the large tree behind which he had been hiding, and cautiously approached the human man. Fahad knew that many of the humans were full of trickery, and didn’t want to make himself vulnerable if this one had brought others with him in an attempt at capture. He didn’t think they could mask their sweaty stench from his sensitive nose, but it was always better not to rush into a potentially dangerous situation.

As Fahad’s changing form slunk closer to his prey, his hunger increased. His eyes grew more luminous, his teeth more deadly, and a light covering of fur coated his skin to better hide him from any lurking enemies. The human was face down on the grass, and appeared to be at the end of his life. Fahad was somewhat disappointed. He usually enjoyed it when his prey fought back. This man was in no shape to provide such a distraction.

But he was still hungry. And the human would be an easy meal.

He turned the man over, his expression becoming a bit confused as familiar features sprung to light. His snarling mouth, a moment ago prepared to feast on warm flesh, now closed in doubt as he blinked down at the bleeding man in his arms. Fahad knew this man. He wasn’t sure how, but he did indeed recognize the human. Should he feed on someone with whom he was acquainted? Would his actions later haunt him?

He shrugged his muscled shoulders, growling as he pushed his uncertainty away. It didn’t matter. He had to eat. He bent his head to lick and nibble at the man’s wounds, a pleased rumble escaping his lupine throat as the taste of blood and flesh burst with hot flavor into his mouth. The man came to when he felt Fahad’s teeth and cried out for help, his voice barely a hoarse whisper. Now that the human’s eyes were opened, Fahad’s doubts returned. The fear in the man’s gaze caused the beast within to lose some of its hold, and Fahad found his body slipping slightly from the change. For some reason, Fahad couldn’t force himself to devour this helpless creature.

The man grasped Fahad’s arms, trying to speak, and at the same time, a piercing shriek broke the relative silence of the night. A moment later, Fahad found himself sprawled several feet from the human, a new figure now blocking him from his former meal.

“Stay away from him, Fahad!” commanded an angry voice. Fahad recognized the voice as his sister’s.

“Benai?” croaked the wounded human, reaching out with renewed strength as the woman bent to gather him into her arms.

“Oh, Benjamin,” Benai sobbed. “What has he done to you?” She glared at her brother, her eyes filled with animosity.

“Fahad didn’t do this to me,” Benjamin rasped. Benai looked at Ben in confusion.

“Then, who? Who would do such a thing?”

Benjamin tried to answer, but darkness took him and he finally succumbed to the unconsciousness that had been chasing him through the night

Benai was heartsick, but her expression was neutral compared to Fahad’s stricken appearance. His sister looked at him expectantly, silently asking for an explanation.

“Gods,” Fahad whispered. “I might not have been the one who struck him down, Benai, but he’ll forever be tainted now. I bit him,” Fahad admitted with a groan of despair. “He’ll change now. He can never go home.”

Benai looked strangely calm as she absorbed her brother’s words.

“Benai? Did you hear what I said?” asked Fahad. “I know this was the last thing you wanted. I’m so sorry. I wish more than anything that I could take back my actions.” Fahad’s eyes filled with tears. His sister was so gentle and loving. The fact that he might’ve caused her such heartache was killing him.

“It’s okay, Fahad.”

“What?” He didn’t think he’d heard her correctly.

“I said it’s okay. I don’t blame you.” Her voice was calm and reassuring.

“What do you mean? I thought the last thing you ever wanted was for Benjamin to be like us.”

Benai nodded. “Yes, you’re right. But things have changed.”

“What’s happened, Benai? What’s made you change your mind?”

“I’m with child.” 

Benai bent her head to place a kiss on Benjamin’s forehead, gently rocking him in her arms.

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