ALTERNATE UNIVERSE: The Strays, a Magnificent Seven-Supernatural AU
MAIN CHARACTERS: Seven
Editors' Note: The Neon Gang includes Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 8-9-2010. Art by Shiloh (email@example.com). This is an open AU. If you'd like to come play, e-mail us for a copy of the Strays AU Fact Sheet.
Josiah looked up from the newspaper he was reading when the kitchen door of the sprawling Victorian era mansion opened and three dirty, tired-looking men stumbled through. Laying the paper on the kitchen table, Josiah stood, his expression one of worry.
"You're late," he said, keeping his tone light as his gaze swept over the one man he didn't recognize – a boy, really, in his mid- to late-teens, and obviously still in a state of shock.
The handsome blond who dropped his duffle bag onto the terracotta tile floor nodded once. "More of 'em than we expected," was all he said.
"JD, this is Dr. Josiah Sanchez," the brunet introduced, heading straight for the coffeemaker. "Josiah, this here is JD Dunne."
The teen met Josiah's eyes, and it was easy for the older man to see the terror and sadness that still filled their depths. "Vampires," JD said softly. "There are real vampires. My mom—" His voice caught on the word.
"I'm sorry, son," Josiah said, moving around the table to guide the teen to one of the eight chairs that were spaced around the large oval table. "Sit." He looked back at the other two men and asked, "Anybody hurt?"
"Just the vamps," Buck replied with a cocky grin, moving out of the way so Chris could pour himself a cup of coffee.
"Well, that's a first," stated a voice from the hallway entrance into the spacious kitchen.
JD nearly jumped out of his skin, and it was only Josiah's hand on his shoulder that kept him in his seat.
"Boy's a mite rattled," Buck added, grinning at the newcomer.
"JD Dunne, Nathan Jackson," Josiah said. "Nate's going to look you over, make sure you're not injured."
"I'm— I'm fine," JD stuttered. "They killed my mom."
Nathan crossed the kitchen and squatted down in front of JD. "I'm real sorry to hear that, JD. All of us have lost somebody to the monsters out there. It sucks, every time. You're not alone."
"Monsters?" JD echoed. "You mean things besides vampires?"
Nathan nodded. "Can you come with me for a few minutes, let me check you over?"
JD glanced over his shoulder, looking at Buck and Chris.
"Go on, kid," Buck encouraged. "We'll be here. This is home base. You're safe here."
JD nodded, then stood and followed after the Black man.
Josiah watched them leave, then asked the two hunters, "How big was the nest?"
"Almost twenty," Chris replied, helping himself to an apple after Buck had done the same. "We think a couple might have gotten away."
"His mother?" Josiah asked.
Buck shook his head. "Hadn't brought her over, just bled her to death for the buffet. Think they were gonna bring the kid over, though; had him tucked up nice and safe in a cage in the back."
"He get bit?" Josiah asked, concerned.
"Think we interrupted," Chris replied, a slightly feral grin curling his lips. "We checked, but didn't see any obvious bites."
"Lucky boy," Josiah stated.
"Not gonna get rid of him, Josiah," Buck said. "He saw too much. I know that look," he added, shooting Chris a sideways glance.
The older man sighed quietly, his fingers brushing over the short goatee he wore. "Figured that might be the case when you brought him here."
"She was all he had," Buck added. He knew exactly how the kid felt. He'd been raised by a single mother as well, right up until the time she'd been killed by all too human evil.
Seeing the look on his best friend's face, Chris reached over and gave Buck's shoulder a squeeze. "He'll make his peace with it, we all do… eventually."
Buck nodded and grinned a little sadly. He wasn't sure Chris had really made peace with his loss, but then they hadn't found the creature responsible, or the one who had summoned it.
Josiah nodded. It was, unfortunately, a more common story than he liked to think. "How old is he?"
"Eighteen," Buck supplied. "Him and his mom were on their way to Denver. He's supposed to start school at DU in September – some kind of computer science geek."
Josiah nodded thoughtfully. It was an area they were weak in. "Well, we'll see if we can't keep him in school."
Chris shook his head, a slight grin on his lips. "There you go again, pickin' up another stray."
Josiah grinned back in reply. "What I do best, Chris, you know that."
The blond nodded. He and Buck were strays as well, having met Josiah three years earlier when they had been on the trail of the demon that had killed Chris' wife and son. Luckily for them, Josiah had taken then in and began training them to be hunters.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
JD sat on an examination table in a large room that obviously served as an infirmary. He was stripped down to his underwear while Nathan looked him over. Since they were alone in the room the Black man hadn't bothered to pull over the privacy screen.
"What is this place?" he asked, looking around the basement facility. "It said this was a bed and breakfast on the sign out front of the gate."
"Buck and Chris tell you what they are?" Nathan asked instead of answering directly.
"Hunters," the teen replied.
Nathan nodded. "We're all hunters. Josiah, he runs this place now, calls it a bed and breakfast, but it's really our home base, and a way station for hunters who are on the move, going to a hunt, or coming back from one. Oh, there's a real B-and-B, too, the front half of the big house is open to the public. Mrs. Potter's the manager, does most of the cooking for us, too. The back half of the house, the old servants' quarters, and the carriage house, that's for us."
"You mean there's other hunters, like Buck and Chris?"
"Yep. Not sure how many, really, but a good number. Word gets around, they find their way here when they need to rest and heal up. Josiah's a wiz when it comes to research, too, so sometimes they come just to ask him questions about the things they're hunting."
"So Buck and Chris don't really live here?"
Nathan nodded. "Yeah, they do. Upstairs on the second floor, actually. Like I said, this is their home base – them and Josiah and me."
"You and Josiah are hunters, too?"
"Yep," Nathan said, starting to clean up the abrasions on the boy's chest and arms.
"Stings!" JD yelped.
"Sorry," Nathan apologized. "I have some holy water mixed in to get rid of any supernatural taint."
"Did they—? Did—?" JD stopped, unsure what to ask.
Nathan could guess what the boy was trying to ask. "My daddy was a hunter. I grew up in it. Water baby killed my mama when I was younger than you. Josiah's daddy and mine, they were partners back then. When Josiah lost his father, Daddy took him in."
"So… you're family," JD stated flatly.
Nathan nodded. "Brothers, I guess you'd say."
"I don't have any family," JD said quietly. "Not anymore."
"You're wrong, son," Nathan told him, finishing with his work. "I saw the way Buck was hovering."
That brought a small smile to JD's lips. "Buck's…"
"Buck," Nathan finished for him. "Get used to it, kid. And you do have family," he added. "Think of us like four older brothers."
"And a big sister."
JD looked up, his face flushing a deep red as a pretty Black woman walked up to join them. She held out some clothes for him.
"JD Dunne, this is Rain Levi Jackson, my wife," Nathan said, then leaned over and gave the woman a quick kiss.
"Your wife?" JD asked, gathering the clothes into his lap to hide his underwear. "Are you a hunter, too?" he asked the woman.
"When I have to be," Rain replied with a quick smile.
"Wow," JD said.
"She's also a nurse," Nathan added, hoping that might ease some of the kid's embarrassment.
"Josiah wanted me to tell you that Mrs. Potter has breakfast on the table. You ready for something to eat?" she asked JD.
JD shook his head. "Not hungry."
"You need to eat," Nathan told him. "Now, get dressed and let's go see what's for breakfast. I promise you, Mrs. Potter never disappoints."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
JD dressed quickly and followed Nathan and Rain back to the kitchen in the main house. The duffle bags were gone, and Chris and Buck had both showered and changed. They and Josiah were seated at the large kitchen table, helping themselves to eggs, bacon, pancakes, and fresh fruit.
The three sat down, Nathan and Rain immediately joining in. JD hesitated for a moment.
"Don't just sit there, kid, dig in," Buck encouraged. "You need to keep your strength up."
JD didn't feel at all hungry, but his stomach was growling so he took a little of everything and did the best he could.
"He all right?" Josiah asked, his question directed to Nathan.
The Black man nodded. "Just some bruises and abrasions. He'll be fine in a day or so."
"Uh, I'm also sitting right here," JD said, a little annoyed to be talked about like that, although he had a strong hunch he'd better get used to it.
"Buck tells me you were on your way to college," Josiah said, changing the topic.
JD nodded. "I was going to start in September, but I don't want to go now. I want to be a hunter."
Josiah chuckled softly. "Son, we've all been where you are right now in one fashion or another. Trust me, you need to go to school."
"But I want to hunt. I want to stop those… things from killing other people," JD argued.
Josiah nodded. "We all do, son, but there are all kinds of weapons you can use to fight monsters."
"Computers?" JD challenged.
Josiah nodded. "I have a hunch computers are going to make hunting both a lot easier and a lot harder in the long run."
"Best you stay out of it for as long as you can," Chris told the boy.
"Listen to the man, kid," Buck interrupted. "Besides, there's a lot you need to learn, college is just a small part of it. When you're ready, you can hunt, I promise you that."
JD's forehead wrinkled. "You mean… you're going to help me?"
"If you're asking if we're going to make you a hunter," Josiah said, "the answer is… maybe. We'll have to see if you have the skills and aptitude for it. If you do, then you'll be a hunter, just like the rest of us. But part of your training is going to be a college education."
"Listen to the man," Nathan said, grinning slightly at Josiah. "That doctor title of his means Ph.D. He knows more about the monsters that are out there than most anybody else I've met."
"I just want to kill them," JD said, his voice hard.
"You'll get your chance to do plenty of that if you hang around here," Chris replied dryly.
JD met the blond's green eyes. He didn't know how, but he sensed Chris had lost everything he'd had, too. He nodded. Whatever it took, he'd do it, he decided, as long as he could be a hunter.
"Well, looks like we officially got us another stray," Buck announced, and they all lifted their coffee cups in a mock toast.
JD wasn't sure what to make of the appellation, but he knew he trusted the people sitting around the large oval table. He wasn't alone. He had a family. Clearing his throat, he asked, "How—? How'd you all get to be hunters?"
"Well, son, that usually isn't a good question to ask a hunter, but, seeing as you're joining the family, I suppose you have a right to know who you're working with," Josiah said. "As for me, my father and Nathan's father were both in World War II, and they saw some things in Europe that let them know there were real monsters out there, and not all of them wore Nazi uniforms.
"I never met the man they learned the trade from, they just called him 'Chief.' It's a dangerous life," Josiah added, his voice touched with sadness. "My mother… well, she wasn't comfortable with the work my father did. They separated when I made it clear I planned to follow in my father's footsteps. The next year she and my father were killed. I would have been as well, but I was off on my first solo hunt… I was seventeen. Nathan's father, my father's partner, he took me in, kept up my training."
"I was eleven when Josiah came to live with us," Nathan said, picking up the story. "My father trained me, too. But everything he saw, dealt with… well, he had a bad stroke when he was just fifty-eight, lingered for nearly a year before he died."
"I was Mr. Jackson's home care nurse," Rain added. "That's how Nathan and I met. We married a few weeks after Mr. Jackson passed." Sitting next to JD, she reached out and rubbed his back for a moment, saying, "Wish you could have met Obadiah Jackson, JD, he was a good man, and a great hunter."
"So Nathan and Josiah taught you to be a hunter?" JD guessed.
Rain shook her head. "My grandfather did that. Vampire killed my daddy when I was just a baby. He raised me – he and his best friend, another hunter. I knew what was out there, but I didn't go on hunts that often. I have a healing gift, so I patched hunters up. My grandfather knew Obadiah. When he had his stroke, he sent me to help him, but there was just too much damage."
JD nodded, his gaze sliding to Buck.
The ladies' man cleared his throat, then took a sip of coffee before he said, "My ma… well, she was a bit of a wild child back in the late 60s." He grinned. "All that free love… but when she found herself 'in the family way' as they used to say, she settled down, got herself a job, but it just wasn't enough to pay the bills. She… She was a saint," he said, his voice thick with emotion. "I never went to bed hungry, never went without the things a boy needed… But, one night, one of her clients… well, he tripped out on something, cut her throat."
"Client?" JD asked, confused.
"She was a working girl," Josiah explained, and when JD still looked blank, clarified, "A prostitute."
JD's eyes rounded with surprise.
"She was a saint," Buck repeated.
"Amen, brother," Josiah agreed.
"So it wasn't… a monster?" JD asked.
Buck shook his head. "Never knew anything about monsters until…" He glanced at Chris, to see if the blond planned to pick up the story. It was clear he wasn't. "Chris and me, we met in the service, back in '89. Chris was already married… She was a beauty, too, that Sarah; kept this jackass in line."
The others at the table chuckled softly, even Chris, but there was a mist of deep sadness in his hazel-green eyes.
"I was there when Adam was born. Chris here, well, he was in the field. Guess you could say I was the proudest God-daddy there ever was…" Buck paused, a smile on his face, but he wiped a tear from his eye before he continued. "We got out in '93, went to work for DPD… Then, in '95 Sarah and Adam… well, they were killed. We didn't know it at the time, but it was a demon that did it – red-eyed son of a bitch."
"Demon?" JD squeaked.
"They're all real, son," Josiah said. "Demons, vampires, werewolves, all the old legends and myths."
JD swallowed hard. "What did you do?" he asked, gaze shifting between Buck and Chris.
"We went after it," Buck said. "But we had no idea what we were dealing with… Bumped into Josiah, and he figured out what it was…"
"You trained them?" JD asked the older man.
Josiah nodded. "Still am training them."
"And you'll train me, too?"
"We all will, kid," Buck agreed.
JD nodded. One way or another, he was going to be a hunter.
Ezra P. Standish parked in the brick horseshoe drive and climbed out of his car. He looked up at the sprawling Victorian era mansion and shook his head. It wasn't at all what he'd expected. The sign outside the main gate he'd been buzzed through read: The Strays, Bed and Breakfast, established 1876, Mrs. Gloria Potter, manager, Dr. Josiah Sanchez, owner. He'd been anticipating a private medical facility, or maybe even a small, discrete sanitarium, certainly not a bread and breakfast.
Interesting name for a bed and breakfast, too, but considering that the mansion sat at the corner of Stray Avenue, he reckoned it was appropriate enough.
And it was the owner he was here to see. Yet another doctor his mother had found to send him to. He was twenty-five years old, more than mature enough to take care of himself, but she insisted on meddling, and he just wasn't capable of denying her.
Well, he wasn't all that far from Central City and Blackhawk, maybe he could stop by a couple of the casinos when this was over.
He huffed out a breath and walked up a long brick pathway leading to the rear of the old stone mansion. He guessed that there were three floors to the structure, plus an attic, which included plenty of Gothic revival elements as well as a pair of Queen Ann turrets at either end of the front of the house. The front of the place had also been decorated with a one-story veranda that ran from turret to turret.
At the end of the mansion he found another stone fence that encircled the backyard of the property. Beyond the fence he could see the tops of two other buildings which he guessed would include servants' quarters and perhaps an old coach house. There was an ornate wrought iron gate that was closed and locked and he peered through it, admiring the landscaping in the backyard, especially the fountain.
He reached out and pressed a call button that had been set into the stone wall above a security pad that would allow those who knew the code to enter without having to be buzzed in. A moment later a female voice asked, "Who is it?"
"Ezra Standish. I'm here to see Dr. Sanchez."
"Come right in, Mr. Standish, Josiah is expecting you."
There was a soft buzz and, a moment later, the gate released, swinging open. Ezra stepped onto a brick pathway that took him through the grounds to the rear of the mansion. An attractive Black woman in her early thirties was standing outside a pair of French doors, waiting for him. "Hi, I'm Rain Jackson," she said, shaking his hand. "Won't you come in?"
Ezra nodded, following her as she opened the doors and led him into what looked like the mansion's library. A large, nearly silver-haired man was seated behind an old oak desk. He stood as Ezra entered and walked over to meet him.
"Mr. Standish, I'm Josiah Sanchez. Your mother and I talked." He extended his hand, and Ezra took it. Sanchez's grip confirmed Ezra's suspicion that, while the good doctor might be in his mid-forties, he was still quite muscular and fit.
Rain slipped out of the room as Josiah gestured and said, "Please, sit wherever you'd like."
Ezra chose a comfortable leather chair near the cold fireplace as he glanced around the room. The furniture was all circa the mid- to late-1800s, the art were all originals, and he recognized a Russell and a Remington among them. The bric-a-brac was at a minimum, but there were books crammed into all of the available shelf space, which ran floor to ceiling on almost every wall. All in all he found it tasteful without being overwhelming.
"So, your mother said that you were having… visions," Josiah said as he settled in a straight-back chair close by.
Ezra nodded his discomfort over having to talk about the annoying hallucinations rising. "I hope you won't find me rude," he said, his soft southern accent making the words slightly clipped, "but exactly what kind of doctor are you?"
Josiah chuckled. "Ph.D., not M.D. if that's what you mean."
"Ah," Ezra replied, nodding slowly. So, after sending him off to neurologists and psychiatrists it seemed that Mother had opted for a psychologist this time. "Psychology," he stated, just to be sure.
"No, Classical Studies," Josiah replied, then asked, "Would you like something to drink?"
"Uh, coffee would be fine," he murmured, thrown off guard by that piece of information. Classical Studies? Whatever was Mother thinking?
"Cream and sugar?" Josiah asked.
"Uh, no, black," Ezra responded, his mind still racing. Why on earth would his mother send him to a professor of Classical Studies?
"I'll be right back," Josiah said, standing and leaving Ezra alone in the room.
Standing himself, Ezra walked around the room, his gaze sweeping over the titles of the books, many of which were in Latin or Greek, which he supposed was in keeping with a degree in Classical Studies. He stopped when he reached the old desk. An odd brass paperweight caught his attention and he reached out and picked it up to get a better look. As soon as his fingers closed on the object the vision struck.
…two men, running through dense foliage… the sounds of something pursuing… their breaths, coming hard and fast… the smell of fear… something leaped in the darkness… a scream…
"Here, let me take that," Josiah said quietly, his hand cupping Ezra's fist as Standish squeezed the paperweight in a death grip.
Josiah's fingers curling around his own caused Ezra's fingers to spring open. The paperweight was taken away.
"Come, sit down," Josiah instructed, leading Ezra to the nearest seat, a button-tuffed Chaise Settee.
The younger man sank down, leaning against one of the flared arms, his body still shaking from the jolt of adrenaline coursing through his system. He looked up at Sanchez. "What was that… creature?" he gasped.
"Are you referring to the paperweight… or what you saw in your vision?"
"The latter," Ezra clarified.
"Hell Hound," Josiah explained, then handed Ezra his coffee.
Ezra took a sip, his racing heart beginning to slow.
"Now, why don't you tell me about the visions you've been having – before this one," Josiah suggested as he picked up the straight-back chair and moved it closer to the settee. He sat down, waiting for Ezra to collect himself.
"They began earlier this year," Ezra said. "For the most part it seems that I'm viewing segments of four larger, specific events, although I don't see them in their entirety. Occasionally, when I pick up an object that I'm unfamiliar with, it triggers another kind of vision, like what just happened with that accursed paperweight, but these four are… different, somehow."
Josiah nodded. "Tell me about the four visions; how much of each event have you sorted out?"
Ezra took another sip of the coffee, then drew a deep breath and held it for a moment. He had talked at length about the visions with the psychiatrist Maude had sent him to, but the man had been unable to pull out what it all meant. He didn't relish going over the same ground a second time. The visions were… unsettling.
"Please," Josiah added.
"Very well… Now, mind you that any chronological sequence is complete guess work on my part. The fragments are hard to stitch together into a cohesive narrative, but I'm sure that these are all part of some larger story, that they are related."
"I understand," Josiah said, reaching over to pull a pad of paper off his desk. He pulled the pen that was clipped to the first few pages free and clicked it. "Go ahead, son."
"One of the visions is of a man, at least, I think he's a man, but his eyes glow…" He waited for a reaction.
Josiah simply looked up and asked, "What color?"
"Red, sometimes, although they are usually yellow – gold, I suppose. I'm not sure if it's the same man, or if it's two different men. Everything is very dark… I know this might sound… strange… but this… man with the glowing red or yellow eyes is often standing in what looks like a nursery, or maybe a young child's room."
"Yours?" Josiah asked.
"I don't believe so, although I would have to see pictures of my own to be certain… When the man's eyes glow yellow, there is usually an infant."
"Boy or girl?"
"I have no earthly clue how you tell at that age."
Josiah smiled. "Are the babies wearing the same kinds of clothing, do any of them have bows or trucks, kittens or ships on them?"
Ezra frowned for a moment as he tried to recall. "I can't be sure. As I said, it's very dark… It's more like I see, or perhaps sense, a baby lying in a crib, but it's not a clear picture."
"The man reaches into the crib… He does something to the baby…"
"I can't tell. He touches his wrist, and then touches the baby."
Ezra frowned again and shivered, shadowy images from the visions flitting through his mind. "I believe he sticks the tip of his finger into the baby's mouth…" His body shook again and he blinked rapidly, trying to clear the picture from his mind. He took several sips of coffee before he continued, saying, "That's one of the visions."
"So that's all you see?"
"On that vision, yes."
"But if the man has glowing red eyes?"
"It's much the same, but then I sense that the child is older… but still very young…"
"And does this man do the same thing?"
Ezra frowned. "I… I don't think so. But he is standing over the child in the same way."
Josiah nodded. "Tell me about the second vision."
"I'm in a room that's on fire. The flames are everywhere, but I don't feel any heat. However, I do feel trapped. I can't move. I can't run away from the flames. Sometimes I see what I think is a woman trapped in the flames, other times it's a man. The woman changes, but it's always the same man. I don't recognize any of them."
"Old, young, Black, White?"
"Mostly White, although not always. Younger… not children, they're all adults, but they're young – in their twenties or thirties I'd say."
"Is that all there is to this vision?"
"I think so. It's almost more a feeling of being trapped, rather than the visual impact of the first vision. Does that make sense?"
"It does," Josiah replied, giving the younger man a sympathetic smile. "And there are two more?"
"Yes, two," Ezra agreed. "In the third I'm standing outside, watching a small house that is engulfed in flames. There are two men, one is holding the other one back, keeping him from running headlong into the flames. But they never hold my attention. I… sense something else watching, and I turn. There's a large tree on a hill that overlooks the house. The wind is blowing, and the branches are… undulating, more like snakes than tree branches. In them I can see the face of a man. He's laughing…"
"What?" Ezra asked.
"Are they glowing?" Josiah questioned.
"No. No, they are not," he replied, surprised that he hadn't noticed that before.
"Do you recognize the laughing man?"
"Do you recognize the other two men?" Josiah asked, still looking down at his notes as he wrote them out. The sound of Ezra's coffee cup striking the hardwood floor, shattering, caused his head to snap up. Ezra bloodless face was frozen in a mask of shock. "Ezra," Josiah called, glancing over to what the younger man was looking at.
Chris and Buck were crossing the backyard, heading toward the servants' quarters.
"I— I hadn't recognized those two men… until now," Ezra managed to say. "Them," he added, pointing at the pair as they disappeared from sight. He looked back at Josiah. "Who the hell are you, sir?"
Josiah settled back against the chair with a long sigh. "Tell me about the last vision, then we'll talk."
Ezra looked down at the broken cup, and the liquid that was splattered across the floor.
"It can wait," Josiah said.
Ezra nodded and took a deep breath as he began again. "In the last of the recurring visions I'm in large building, a warehouse, I believe. It is run down, filthy. There are… things skittering in the shadows. Terrible things…
"A man enters the building. He repels down from a hole in the roof. He lands in the center of the floor and then draws some kind of elaborate design on the floor using what I think is chalk. It's obvious he's done this many times. It only takes him seconds to finish the intricate design."
"Could you draw any of it?"
Ezra blinked, surprised by the question, but he thought for a moment and said, "Some… maybe… most, perhaps…"
"All right," Josiah said, "go on."
"There's something about the man… it's as if he… glows somehow. Not his eyes, not like the other men, but… his whole person. It's as if he were a being of light that had been trapped inside a human body. I'm… drawn to him, but I'm afraid. The things in the darkness are closing in. Whatever they are… they…"
"Scare the shit out of you," Josiah offered helpfully.
"Precisely," Ezra agreed, grateful for the man's bluntness. "They race toward the man, but when they hit the perimeter of the chalk circle they… disintegrate, like pieces of paper that have been eaten by fire."
"Do you ever see this man's face?"
Ezra shook his head. "No. But, in the vision, I feel that I must find him, that, somehow, my life depends upon it."
Josiah finished his notes, then slid the pad onto the desk and stood. He glanced outside where the sun still shone brightly. "Let's take a walk," Josiah suggested. "There are some things you need to know."
Ezra stood on legs that were decidedly weak. Somehow he knew that, once he had heard what Sanchez had to tell him, his life would be forever changed – for good or ill, he had no way of knowing. And that scared him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
After his talk with Ezra, Josiah introduced him to the others, then left him with Chris and Buck so he could make a call.
Rather than the library, Josiah headed for his private office, closing the door behind him. He settled behind his desk and picked up the phone. Then, flipping open the file he had lying on his desk, he found Maude's number.
She picked up on the third ring. "Good afternoon, Josiah."
"So, what do you make of my darlin' boy's… visions?"
"I have a question for you," he countered. "Is there anything you'd like to tell me about Ezra's birth, or perhaps something that happened in the first year of his life?" He waited to see if she would be forthcoming.
"No, nothing," she replied.
"Are you sure? If you want me to help him…" He let the thought trail off.
There was a long pause, then the soft but distinct huff of an irritated sigh. "I can't imagine how anything from that time could be causing—"
"Maude," he interrupted, "tell me what happened."
She made him wait for nearly a minute, but then she said, "When Ezra was almost a year old… There was a fire. His father… died."
"I… I don't know. Honestly. I was out, at an opening, and when I returned home I saw the flames in the nursery window. I ran up the stairs and into the room. I could have sworn there was a man standing at the crib, but that's impossible. The flames were everywhere.
"I grabbed Ezra and I ran. It was only the next day that I learned that Ezra's father had died in the nursery the night before.
"Perhaps it was him I saw, perhaps he'd been trying to rescue Ezra and the smoke overcame him and he fell…" She stopped and Josiah heard the hiccup of tears, then a soft sniffle. A minute later Maude had collected herself. "I didn't see anyone lying there. I just grabbed Ezra and ran. I had to get him out of there."
"Of course," Josiah said. "No one would think otherwise. You saved his life."
"I've never told him about that night. Please, I would prefer it if he didn't know."
"Even if two of his visions seem to be related to it?"
"They are?" she asked.
There was another long pause before Maude said, "Tell him if you feel you must. If he's suffering from repressed memories—"
"You know as well as I do that this has nothing to do with repressed memories."
"I have no idea what might be the cause," she replied coldly. "That is why I sent him to you."
"Now that he's here, he might not be able to escape this life."
"I knew the risk when I sent him to you. But, Josiah, you have to promise me… Promise me that you'll take care of my baby boy."
"I'll do everything I can to keep him safe, Maude, you know that."
"Yes, I know," she replied sadly, but she already knew it was too late.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Later, the six of them sat around the kitchen table, a pale-faced Ezra Standish still trying to digest everything Josiah had told him about the monsters that were real, and the men and women who hunted them.
He had spent the last hour going over his third vision – of the night Chris Larabee's wife and son had been killed… by a demon no less! Why he should be plagued with images from that horrible night, he had no idea. But Larabee had been very interested in hearing every detail of the laughing man's face.
JD had promised to try some kind of computer magic to reconstruct the man's face from Ezra's description, but, right now, he was seriously considering running screaming from the mansion, never to return. But he knew it was already too late for that. For some reason, known only to God, or Fate, his life had been harnessed to those of these men. He had no choice but to see this through.
Buck looked across at Ezra and said with a grin, "Looks like Josiah's found himself another stray."
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra demanded. He was no cur to be picked up like a lost dog along the side of the road.
JD laughed. "Chill, Ezra, we're all strays here. Don't worry, you'll fit right in."
That is what I am afraid of, he replied silently.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
He could feel their presence, knew that they were watching him – stalking him, really – as he walked along between the two abandoned warehouses. They skittered from shadow to shadow, trailing him. The wind cut between the buildings, picking up speed. It was damp, cold, carrying the promise of snow before morning.
He turned up the collar of his faded black leather jacket and pulled a scarf from the pocket, wrapping it around his neck to cut the cold bite of the wind on the back of his neck. His head was bowed slightly, the baseball cap he wore trapping most of his hair and keeping it out of his eyes. His hands were thrust into his jacket pockets, the fingerless black leather gloves keeping his hands warm while his fingers played with the large pieces of white chalk that rested in the depths of his pockets. The black leather backpack he wore creaked slightly in the cold as he hurried along.
When he reached the far end of the buildings, he glanced over, spotting the metal fire-escape at the rear of the building to his right. He turned and made straight for the cold metal rungs. The climb to the roof took seconds.
He felt their hesitation, and their annoyance. The Claw People didn't care for heights, or for open spaces, like the cold surface of the roof. He walked across the roof, looking for skylights. He found one, just off the center of the building, large enough he could fit through it.
He slipped off the backpack and opened it, pulling out a coil of nylon rope. He found a sturdy anchor and tied off one end of the rope, then used the chalk to draw symbols on the knot itself, as well as around the point there it was tied off. When he was done he walked back to the skylight and, using the heel of his hiking boot, broke in the frosted glass, watching it fall and shatter on the cement floor below.
He used the long handle of his flashlight, carried in the backpack, to knock the rest of the glass free, then tossed the rope through the opening, noting that a good ten to twelve feet landed on the floor below.
Returning to the backpack, he removed a rappel harness and stepped into it. Once the harness was secure, he attached a rappel device to the rope and then to his harness. Seconds later he was descending into the warehouse.
As soon as he reached the floor of the warehouse he disconnected from the rope and reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out one of the thick pieces of chalk and went to work drawing a circle around him, then reinforcing it with a series of symbols. He worked quickly and efficiently. All the while he could feel them, massing for their attack.
Slipping the chalk back into his pocket, he reached around to his back pocket and removed an object wrapped in a blue and white bandanna. He opened the cloth and took out a dagger carved from what looked to be some kind of ivory. He used the sharp point to prick his finger, smearing the drop of blood over the pointed tip.
A high-pitched keening began, and he knew they were readying for the attack. He leaned over, touching the bloody tip of the dagger to the chalk circle. A flash of blue-white energy surged around the circle in the blink of an eye – bait for the entities who watched, and their destruction.
As the flare of light faded he saw them, six men in the shadows not far away. A blond was at the front, and he caught the man's eyes. He felt a jolt of recognition race through his body, but he knew with absolute certainty that he'd never seen the blond before. There was no time to think about what it meant, though.
They were coming.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris led the way through the maze of old boxes and discarded machinery that littered the inside of the warehouse. They hadn't gotten too far before he heard a quiet, "Chris, hold up," from Buck.
Larabee turned, looking back at his longtime friend, who was standing beside Ezra, one arm around the younger man's shoulders. Ezra looked like he'd seen a ghost. He moved back to rejoin the two men as Nathan and Josiah joined them, JD keeping a careful watch on their six.
"What's wrong?" Chris asked quietly.
"This… This is the warehouse – in my fourth vision – I'm sure of it."
Chris remembered that Ezra's forth vision had to do with a man in a warehouse, one that was full of things the man managed to kill. Before or after those things killed them as well, he had no idea, and no intention of finding out.
They had been investigating a series of deaths among mostly the homeless and the poor in several large western cities. The bodies were all ripped apart, the hearts and livers missing. Recent killings in Denver had brought them to that city. It was too close for comfort. The mansion was only an hour or so away to the northwest.
"Let's see if we can find the guy," Buck said.
"He glows," Ezra reminded them, "how hard can it be?"
Chris snorted and started off again. Then they heard it – a high-pitched cry, almost a keening sound. They hurried forward, stopping in shadows when they spotted a single man standing in the pale light afforded by a broken skylight.
"He's not glowing," JD whispered.
"Is that the man from your vision?" Josiah asked Ezra.
Standish shrugged. "I don't know. JD's right, I expected him to be glowing."
They watched as the man pricked his finger with a white dagger, then leaned over and touched the bloody tip of the dagger to the white chalk circle. They all took an involuntary step back when a piercing blue-white light shot around the circle like a bolt of lightning.
In that light Chris somehow caught the man's eyes and they stared at one another for a long moment. Something Chris couldn't explain passed between them, then the man glanced away, his knees bending as he dropped into a fighting stance. Larabee heard clearly in his head two words: "Stay there."
The high-pitched keening grew louder, and then they saw them – small, maybe three feet tall, black and leathery, they flew toward the man in the circle like sharks drawn to blood. Their red eyes glowed with hunger and the raised their hands, spindly fingers tipped with long, sharp claws. As one they assaulted the circle.
The moment they touched it, destruction struck.
It was as if all of the creatures burned from the inside out in the space of a heartbeat. Wisps of blackness edged with the red-orange glow of combustion hung in the air and gently floated to the cement floor. A terrible stench filled the air, but the threat was obviously neutralized.
Chris led the way out of the shadows, walking across the open space to where the man still stood inside his circle. He watched them approach, a small smile on his lips.
"Howdy, boys," the man greeted them.
"Pretty impressive," Chris said, looking down at the last bits of black – skin? – as they burned away into nothingness.
"It stinks!" JD complained loudly, fanning his hand in front of his face.
Ezra just stared at the stranger, trying to glimpse something of the glow he'd seen in his vision, but there was simply nothing there to be seen. But he definitely felt that the man had saved his life, saved all of their lives.
"What were those things?" Nathan asked.
"Claw People," the man replied with his soft Texas accent.
"Never heard of 'em," Buck said, frowning and turning to look at Josiah.
"A kind of minor Native American demon, more like a fiend, I suppose," the older man supplied. "Although I would have thought that they needed to be corralled inside your trap to kill them."
The man nodded. "When they attack like that they have a kind of… group mind, I guess y'd say, so when they hit the perimeter of the trap, it's like they're all inside at the exact same time. If it wasn't fer that, I'd have to lure them into the trap individually, and close it, to kill 'em.
Josiah nodded. "As Chris said, impressive."
The stranger smiled. "Ain't sure how they got off the res, but I've been trackin' 'em for a while."
JD was studying the symbols drawn on the floor. "What are all these?"
"Trade secret, sorry, kid."
Josiah nodded at the ivory dagger. "That's quite an unusual piece. Mind my asking where you got it?"
The younger man cocked his head to the right slightly and Josiah guessed that he couldn't be more than a year older than JD, if that. "Don't mind y' askin'," he replied.
Josiah grinned slightly. "Mind answering?"
That put a smile on the young man's face. "Reckon not. The name Chief mean anything to ya?"
Josiah nodded. "He was a good friend of my father, Nathan's here, too."
The young man nodded. "Friend 'a mine, too. He gave it t' me."
Nathan frowned. "That's not possible. Chief would have to be—"
"Old," the stranger said. "Yep, he was old when he passed this on… shortly before he died." He pulled his bandana from his pocket and wrapped the dagger, then slipped it into his jacket pocket.
"Natural death?" Josiah asked.
The stranger nodded. "Passed on in his sleep. I took care 'a his corpse – he ain't comin' back, if that's what you're worried about."
"You're a hunter?" JD asked.
The stranger nodded, his gaze sweeping over the others. "Y'all as well?"
Josiah nodded. "Josiah Sanchez," he said, extending his hand.
The stranger looked at it for a moment, then nodded and stepped out of the circle. He shook Josiah's hand, the older man gesturing to the others and giving their names as they shook.
"Pardon me, boys," he said at the end of the introductions, "I need t' take care 'a this trap…"
He walked over to where a fire extinguisher hung from a support pillar and pulled it free. Walking back to the circle he sprayed it with the contents of the extinguisher. When the clouds of firefighting agent and carbon dioxide cleared the circle and the symbols were gone.
He set the fire extinguisher on the floor and looked at the men. "Anyplace 'round here got a decent cup 'a coffee?"
"Think that can be arranged," Chris said, meeting the man's eyes and feeling the tug of… something. "Do I know you?" he asked.
The stranger shook his head. "But that looks like it's about t' change."
"Come on," Buck said, giving the younger man a slap on the back, "let's go get that coffee."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A little over an hour later the seven men were seated around the kitchen table in the mansion, working on cups of coffee and slices of a lemon cream cake Mrs. Potter had left for them.
"I've heard 'a this place," the young man said, glancing around.
Josiah nodded. "Surprised we haven't seen you before."
"I'm not," Buck said. "This pup's barely weaned; just like JD."
That brought a laugh to the stranger's lips. "Hell, Bucklin, I been huntin' since I's a little feller."
Buck guffawed. "Son, you can't be more than, what, twenty-three, twenty-four, at most."
"Twenty-five," he replied.
JD sighed. "Damn, and here I was hoping I wasn't going to be the youngest anymore."
"Ya look younger 'n JD," Buck argued.
Ezra had remained silent, having said nothing since the warehouse, but he spoke now, quietly, but they all heard him, "Young in years, old in soul, I believe is what I heard my grandmother say."
It earned him a slight nod from the young man.
"You haven't told us your name," Chris said. He'd been watching the man closely, trying to decipher the connection he felt with him.
A small smile lifted the corner of the man's mouth. "Tanner. Vin Tanner," he replied.
"Well, Vin Tanner, you're welcome to stay, rest up, if you'd like," Josiah said. "Or… you're welcome to just plain stay."
Buck looked up, a little surprised. "He another stray, Josiah?"
Chris nodded, beginning to grin. "Oh, yeah, he's one of us."
Vin cocked his head to the side slightly and regarded the blond. "Used t' huntin' alone," he said, but Chris knew it was just for show.
Larabee nodded. "Figured as much. Don't change the facts, though."
Vin finished his coffee and set his cup on the table. "Coffee always this good?"
"Always," JD assured him.
"Yep," Buck added, grinning.
"Plenty of space, too," Nathan added.
"And work," Josiah tossed in.
Vin nodded, looking like he was weighing all their words.
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Ezra grumbled, "just capitulate and let's be done with it. I, for one, am ready for a long soak in the tub and a good night's sleep."
"Y'all got tubs here?" Vin asked.
Josiah chuckled. "Tubs and showers, whichever you prefer."
Vin whistled and shook his head. "How'd a bunch a sorry hunters like you end up in a place like this?"
Nathan smiled. "Well, legend has it ol' Chief, or more likely Chief's grand-dad or father, caught himself a leprechaun and ended up with his bottomless pot of gold. Had this place built back in the late 1800s, but it's just a legend." He looked to Josiah. "Right?"
Josiah shrugged. "That's what I was told when I inherited the place. But Chief had to have been an old man when he taught my father the trade, so it must have been some other hunter, maybe whoever trained Chief, or his father or grandfather."
Vin nodded. "Well, nothin' wrong with a good legend."
"There's plenty of room here," Chris said, adding, "and I have a small ranch not far from here – outside Golden – when you need a break from these guys."
"Ranch? Y' mean y' got a bunch a cows?"
"Hell no," Larabee snorted. "Have a dozen horses…" he said, his expression turning serious. "It was my parents' place. Sarah, my wife and I, we were going to move out there when they passed, so Adam could grow up like I did…"
"Demon killed her and the boy," Josiah told Vin.
Tanner nodded. "Sorry t' hear that, Cowboy."
Larabee shot the man a hot look. "You call me a cowboy?"
"Got room for a horse?" Vin asked, ignoring the question and the glare.
Chris nodded. "Got room for a couple."
"Just got one," Vin replied. "He's enough trouble for two, though… maybe three."
"Give the owner, I'm not surprised," Larabee growled, but he was grinning.
"So you're gonna stay?" JD asked, not sure why he felt so excited about that, but he did.
Vin nodded, glancing around at the six men. "Fer now, anyway."
"Welcome to The Strays, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, "the most unusual bed and breakfast this side of the Mississippi."
"Kind 'a like the ring of it," Vin replied.
"This is so cool," JD said. "Want me to give you the full tour?"
Vin laughed. "Maybe t'morrow, JD," he said. "Want 'a see about that date with a tub."
"Well, we have an extra room in the old servants' quarters," Buck said. "But you'll have to share a bathroom with Chris here."
Tanner looked at Larabee and grinned. "Flip y' fer the tub."
Continues in Truth Unfurling