Chapter 1

     Rose had never believed being in a gang of half-elves would lead to so much trouble. Of course, most seventeen-going-on-eighteen year old girls would never believe such a thing was possible in the first place. At the time, Rose had considered herself lucky. At the time, it had been the highlight of her otherwise dark life.
     It was Sunday evening, late autumn. She was relaxing, sketching in her journal about a reoccurring dream she’d had the other night.
     Her pen flowed across the page, stark black on the white field. An outline developed of a hunched over figure, bound in something that might have been a straight-jacket. Harsh lines defined it. Dark shadows filled in long hair, hiding the face. Was it a man? A woman? The lines jumbled together in pain and confusion, covering the figure in scars, evidence of the tortures they’ve suffered. They were trapped. A prisoner.
     Rose moved away, lost in the flow and expanding it to cover the background. It was a small cell. The prisoner has little idea about how they came to be there. But one corner darkened, the thick black concealing, then parting to show two other figures. One in a white coat, but not the welcoming presence of a doctor. He wore a cold smile. The other wore black and a helmet over his head, a faceless monster aiming his tranquilizer gun at the prisoner. They always came, out of the shadows, and injected the prisoner, and then the prisoner’s world became black.
     Why? Why did they do this? What did they want? The lines were lost now, scattered and running in every direction. The prisoner didn’t know.
     Taking a breath, Rose pulled back to survey her work.
     She didn’t know either. Why did this dream haunt her? It had been years now. They didn’t come every night, but they always came.
     “It’ll be okay,” she said to the image, as if it could hear her, “You can do this. You’ve made it through before, you can make it through again. I’m right here with you. Hold on.” A silent feeling, that might have been a prayer if she had led a different life, went out to the image along with her words.
     Turning the page of her journal, she was met with brighter, happier images of a young girl floating in the air holding the hand of an elf, a burning figure with a wide grin, and an elderly man with a long, wispy beard, drinking tea. Images of another world. One she’d been to once before. One she’d give anything to return to.
     Truth be told, the dreams had started occurring after her all too brief visit. Trapped in a cage, with only herself for comfort.
     Maybe it wasn’t someone else she was talking to, and maybe it wasn’t someone else who needed the encouragement…
     “Yo, Rose.”
     Hearing her name, Rose paused in her musing to glance up.
     Jerome was standing in the doorway of the breakroom. He looked about her age, though his true age she didn’t know. He was wearing a black beanie pulled over his pointed ears, his bright red-orange hair peeking out from beneath. He wore a shirt with the word Korn in a bleeding font -she was more of a Bob Marley fan- and pants that were one or two sizes too big, anchored to his slim waist by a studded belt. He had a smooth, baby-faced visage, and a warm ivory skin tone with not a freckle to be seen. Lucky him.
     He looked normal enough, unless one got a good look at his eyes: a vivid cherry wood brown with almond shaped pupils.
     “You ready to go?” he asked, bouncing slightly, excitement in his voice.
     “I thought the show didn’t start until eight.” She double checked her watch. It was six pm according to the positioning of the hands.
     “I wanna get there early before all the merch sells out.” A whine crept into his voice. “You can doodle in your book later. Macklass already has the car ready.”
     Rose rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. “Fine, fine. Give me five minutes.”
     “I’ll give you three.” He held up three fingers for emphasis. Then he backed out of the room.
     So impatient. Rose wondered where Jerome got his boundless reserves of energy. She wouldn’t mind tapping into it on occasion. Although, where Jerome thrived on attention, Rose much preferred to fly under peoples’ radars. Things were easier that way.
     Rose was already dressed to go for the most part; cargo pants, sneakers, a simple shirt, and a dark hoodie. She tucked the small journal away in the right leg pocket of her pants, along with her tin of pens and pencils, and her drawing glove. Rose pulled her hood up, making sure the curls of her strawberry blonde hair were carefully and safely tucked away before heading to the door.
     Without warning, one of the room’s chairs fell into her path and she tripped. Thankfully, she was able to catch herself before she face-planted onto the floor. Her momentary surprise quickly flashed into mild annoyance.
     Speaking of those who thrive on attention… “Kyan,” she grumbled.
     Rose picked up the chair and put it back in place before continuing to the door. As she reached it, the door slammed shut of its own accord, and she jumped back. Irritation mounting, she grabbed the door handle and pulled, but she was fighting against an unseen force. She planted her foot on the wall and gave a hard tug. There was zero resistance, her momentum flinging the door open and sending her stumbling backwards, landing hard on her butt.
     “Ha-ha, real funny,” she muttered, getting up and rubbing her sore posterior.
     Kyan was a poltergeist. Her poltergeist, or so she called him. Really he was a guardian, of sorts, but when he wasn’t protecting her, he acted like an obnoxious brother who enjoyed pranking her.
     After a short walk down a dimly lit hallway, she entered the main garage area of the building. It used to be a car body shop. Now Jenkto -the leader of this ragtag, small-time gang- and her brothers used it as their headquarters.
     Two cars were currently parked in the garage. One was a purple Cadillac with tinted windows, Jenkto’s ride of choice. However, tonight they were riding in the much more discrete black Mustang. Leaning against the car was her boyfriend, Macklass.
     He was dressed in a long black coat, the hood lined with a darkened silver faux fur. It was currently pulled up, hiding his ears, which was a shame because it also covered his dark hair that had the occasional wisps of silvery white. A small sign of his bloodsin, or so he’d told her. Looking close enough, one could tell something was off about him. Like the almond shape of his pupils, or the exotic structure of his face that was both flawless and not quite placable.
     When Rose entered the room and her gaze met his, there was a hint of a smile in his features. A soft quirk of his thin lips, breaking the otherwise cool and tempered expression, and a crinkle in the corners of his dark blue eyes. It was enough to bring a smile to Rose’s face and make her wonder, not for the first time, how she got so lucky.
     “Yeah, real cute, guys,” Jerome called out, poised at the garage door and impatiently hanging onto the pull chain with one hand. “Can we go now?”
     Rose flushed, ducking her head in embarrassment. She heard Macklass click his tongue in annoyance but he said nothing. Wasting no more time, she scurried to the other side of the car and got into the passenger seat, buckling in. Macklass slid into the driver’s seat and started the car. Jerome began yanking the chain, hand over hand, and the large garage door rattled open. Once Macklass pulled the car out, Jerome lowered the garage door back down. Then there was the process of opening the outer gates. 
     Once finished, Jerome all but propelled himself inside the backseat. “All right, Macklass, let’s get going.”
     “I don’t see you wearing your seat belt,” Macklass replied smoothly.
     “Oh, come on!”
     Rose repressed a soft giggle as the two went back and forth for about a minute until Jerome at last, with a very audible huff, buckled himself in. Satisfied with the minor victory over his younger sibling, Macklass put the car in drive, passing his phone to Rose.
     “Navigator.” He said the word like he was addressing her by title.
     Rose accepted the phone with a restrained smile and pulled open the navigation app. After asking Jerome for the address, she pulled up the route and let the electronic voice do the talking from there.
     “Did you like your gift?” Macklass asked quietly, confining the conversation to just the two of them.
     Rose leaned in closer to him, lowering her voice to match his soft volume. “I did, thank you.” She’d been needing a new journal, and he’d gotten her a very nice one. Custom made, leather bound and hand stitched.
     As Macklass eased onto the main highway, Rose glanced over her shoulder to see Jerome with his earbuds in, probably getting hyped for the concert. She returned her focus to Macklass. “So, this concert… Are you going to be okay? I know you’re not exactly a fan of big crowds.” Or loud noises.
     Macklass inhaled audibly through his nose before exhaling. His fingers wrung the steering wheel as though it caused him personal offense. “I’ll manage. I still have the earplugs you gave me.”
     Rose regretted bringing down the mood, but it was a valid concern. Concerts were loud and crowded, and Macklass hated both those things. His hearing, in particular, was extremely sensitive. More so than his siblings, since he was the only full-blooded elf amongst them. Jerome must have hounded him quite thoroughly to take him to this concert. Or perhaps Jenkto ended up twisting his arm. Jerome had invited Rose because A) she was Macklass’s girlfriend, and B) she could use her talents while they were there enjoying themselves. No speculation necessary on her part, Jerome flat out told her this.
     “You could always wait in the car,” she suggested.
     “Someone has to keep him under control.” He subtly gestured towards the back seat with his head.
     “I could…” Probably… Possibly… Maybe?
     “I’d rather you not have to.”
     “So what’s the plan then? Are we just slumming it for a few hours while Jerome is thrashing around in the mosh pit?”
     Macklass snorted softly. “Hardly. Jenkto wants us to bring back revenue.”
     “Of course.”
     Rose’s hands twisted together in her lap as she tried to bury the nugget of guilt she was starting to feel. She’d gotten really good at stealing over the years, but she’d never quite managed to shake off the feeling of wrongness each time she did it. Well, unless the target was a complete A-hole. That made things easier on the old conscience. It also helped when she told herself it was necessary, that she and her friends needed it more. It wasn’t like they could get jobs, and Rose needed some way to prove her worth.
     He gave her a sidelong glance. “Yes?”
     “Once we find your older brother, and you guys return home… you’ll take me with you, right?”
     “I… would like that, yes.” His tone was honest, yet also hesitant.
     Rose didn’t miss the choice of words. ‘He would like that.’ The real question was, would his sister allow it? Once, big sis might have allowed it, but lately she and Rose had grown distant.
     They arrived at the venue, an older auditorium at the far end of a strip mall which received little use, except to host performances for the more obscure metal bands. Popular enough to garner a decent sized audience and get a near full house, not quite known enough to be heard on the local radio stations. After showing their tickets and fake IDs, and getting checked for weapons, they were each stamped on the hand and ushered inside.
     It was a very large and open room, with a stage on one end, and a series of booths and tables on the other. To one side stood a bar where people were already getting drinks. On the other side were a series of tables where merchandise was being sold at exorbitant prices. Events like these were prime spots for scoring pocket money: most of the vendors took cash only. Jerome and Macklass were wearing sunglasses, a precaution for whenever they went out in public.
     “I’m gonna grab drinks,” Jerome said and hightailed it to the bar.
     Rose glanced to Macklass who was trying and failing to keep a minimum five foot distance from anyone passing by. “Let’s get a booth.”
     The two worked their way over to the tables where there was still plenty of seating to choose from. After all, the majority of people there would be up front as close to the stage as possible, head banging and moshing the night away.
     Macklass released a heavy sigh and Rose placed a tentative hand on his. His skin was fair and smooth beneath her tanned, freckled fingers. He gave her a soft smile, letting her know he was grateful for the solace of her presence, then slipped his arm free so he could put his ear plugs in.
     Macklass had always been the quieter, more aloof one of the bunch. When she had first joined the gang, Rose, being human and familiar with the city, was often sent on errands for anything the crew wanted or needed. To get around quickly, Jenkto sent Macklass with Rose to drive her. It was a simple arrangement. Macklass acted as transport, Rose went in, got the goods, and got out.
     At first, Macklass barely spoke to her. He didn’t waste time with pleasantries, and he used the bare minimum of words if he did need to talk. This didn’t bother Rose, and she was more than happy to do the talking and direct him where he needed to go.
     She wasn’t entirely sure when the shift began. Maybe it was when he started calling her ‘navigator’. Or maybe it was when he started asking questions about the books she read, or the school she attended. Or when he invited her to ask questions about himself. He even started showing off his magic to her, and of course she was an eager spectator, something he seemed to very much enjoy. She learned he didn’t like attention overall, but he liked it when someone admired his talents. With each drive, the two of them grew steadily more and more comfortable with each other.
     One night, it must’ve been past midnight on a weekend, when Jerome insisted they needed to do a convenience store run. And once Jerome got an idea in his head, it was very hard to get him to let it go. Macklass didn’t mind, since he actually preferred staying up late, and Rose was having issues sleeping anyway. So she tagged along with Macklass.
     The two were driving and Rose was subtly nodding her head to Simon and Garfunkel on the radio. 
     “It’s strange,” he said softly, like he was talking to himself. But he always spoke that way. His calm, quiet nature was something Rose appreciated.
     Rose glanced over at him. “What is?”
     “If given the choice, I’ve always preferred to be alone.” His long fingers gently drummed on the steering wheel. “Being around people is… exhausting.”
     “Does that include your family?”
     “Sometimes,” he admitted. “They’re family, I’d give my life for them. But even they are difficult to be around at times.”
     “Yeah, I can imagine.” Rose noticed all of the siblings tended to argue, even at the best of times. Not that she had siblings of her own to compare it to, unless she counted Kyan.
     They came to a red light and the car slowed to a stop. He turned to look at her. “But time with you is… pleasant. It’s something I enjoy. I don’t dread it, and don’t tire of it either.”
     Rose smiled, warmed by the compliment. “Thanks. I feel the same. You’re nice to be around too.”
     A rare smile passed over his lips. He reached over, very slowly, because by now, he knew that she wasn’t comfortable with sudden movement in her direction. Heartbeat escalating, she allowed him to pull back her hood, revealing her freckled face and setting free her curls of hair. He was leaned halfway across the middle console, his eyes locked onto hers. Even after seeing them so many times, they still caught her off guard, especially when the light reflected off of them, causing a faint yellowish gleam within the deep blue, like a nocturnal predator.
     “May I kiss you?” The request was soft, low, as if worried they might be overheard even in the privacy of the car.
     The question made her heart jump up into her throat, but it was also a strange relief. He was giving her a choice in the matter. With a nervous lick of her lips, she gave a shy nod and moved forward to meet him halfway. Instinctively, she closed her eyes and the next thing she felt was a gentle warmth pressed against her lips. The simple pressure sent a tingling thrill through her. It was wonderful. It felt comfortable and safe. Simple and appreciative.
     The blare of a car horn shocked them both apart, jerking them back to reality. Glancing around, Rose saw the light had turned green and there was a car behind them honking at them to go. Macklass muttered a soft curse as he got the car moving again. Rose let out a nervous laugh, brushing her hair back and pulling her hood back up. She could still feel the phantom kiss on her lips and a bubbling of happiness in her stomach. Rose didn’t think she would mind doing that again, if it was him.
     “That was nice,” she said after a minute.
     “Yes,” he agreed.
     That was all that was said on the matter. That was all that needed to be said.
     They’d been together for nearly a year now. They’d only ever kissed, held hands, and on a few particularly spicy occasions, they’d cuddled. Macklass’ older brother, Hadwin, had explained to her that elves typically took their time with courtship, and that their relationship was moving rather fast comparatively. If this was considered ‘fast’, Rose was perfectly content with it.
     A touch on her hand pulled her out of her reminiscing. “What’s gotten into you?” Macklass asked, his expression pleasantly curious.
     “What do you mean?” She had to remember to speak louder than normal.
     “You seem awfully pleased about something.” His lips quirked up in a teasing smile. “I apologize if I interrupted a happy daydream.”
     “No, I was just remembering things.” Rose glanced down at the table, her face heated, and tugged at one of her errant curls. No more fantasizing. Time to get back to business. “So, did Jenkto say how much we’re supposed to bring back?”
     “Five hundred, minimum,” he answered. “We’re running low on food.”
     Rose mentally winced as she cased the room. There were certainly enough people, and thus wallets, to easily supply that. But five hundred just sounded really demanding. Especially for an event that’s hosting bands who likely needed all the revenue they could get.
     Still, a job was a job, and Rose had to earn her place with the group. She had to. It was possibly the only way she could escape her nightmare of a home life and move onto something better.
     “I think I can manage that.”
     When Jerome came back with drinks, Rose politely declined the offered beer and excused herself to go to the restroom.
     Navigating her way through the venue, she managed to locate the women’s restroom. It was small and worn with the occasional chip or cracks in the walls and tiles, but it was decently clean at least. A couple of the stalls were already in use, but there was one available. She waited until she heard the other women vacate and the restroom was empty. Then she took out a compact mirror.
     Rose watched as a shadow behind her grew and changed shape. The head turned and stared at her from the mirror’s reflection. Only the eyes and the mouth were vivid, forming a visage that was impish at best, malicious at worst.
     “It’s time to get to work.” Her quiet voice echoed softly against the tiled walls as one of the bands outside started playing.
     Several hours later, it was well after midnight, and Macklass was driving them home while Jerome counted out their score. He happily announced they’d made it out with seven hundred and one dollars. Even taking into account the cost of tickets and drinks, it was over a five hundred dollar profit. Just as Jenkto wanted.
     “Way to go, team,” he cheered, popping his hand forward from the backseat for a high five.
     Rose slapped her palm against his, though she was unable to share in his enthusiasm. The whole affair left her exhausted and stressed. By the time they got back to the garage, Rose was falling asleep. Once they were parked inside, they got out to find two people waiting for them.
     “Jenkto! Hadwin!” Jerome called out in a hooting voice. How did he still have so much energy at this hour? “You guys seriously missed out.”
     “I’m sure you’ll tell us all about it,” Jenkto said with a roll of her pale blue eyes, though the smile she bore for him was an affectionate one. “Did you get what I asked for?”
     “We made over five hundred,” Jerome announced proudly. He skipped over to her, slapping a thick wad of cash into her expecting palm, then pulled out one of the T-shirts he’d nicked. “I also snagged this for you.”
     “Oh, goodie, I’ve been needing new clothes.” It was hard to tell if she was being sarcastic or not.
     Despite being older than him, Jenkto was shorter than Jerome. She looked incredible, as always, her stance exuding a confidence Rose envied. Like Macklass, Jenkto was fair and lovely. Half her purple hair was combed to one side, with the other half in rows of braids. Her nails flashed a shimmering lilac as she took the shirt from him. It would go nicely with her dark, punk aesthetic.
     Macklass cleared his throat. “I’ll be taking Rose home, before she makes a bed out of our floor.”
     Rose shot him a petulant look, and he smiled letting her know he was only joking.
     “Actually, Hadwin will be taking her home tonight,” Jenkto spoke up. “Macklass, there’s something we need to discuss.”
     This announcement disappointed Rose, and Macklass, if the slump in his shoulders was any indication. However, he gave his sister a silent nod, then looked to Rose. “Have a good night, then.”
     Rose nodded, offering him a smile. “I’ll message you when I’m home.”
     Macklass inclined his head, then tossed the keys to Hadwin who caught them. “Make sure she gets home safe, and don’t hit anything.”
     “You have my word,” then with a smile he added, “little brother.”
     Macklass shot him a pointed look before leaving the room with Jerome and Jenkto. Rose watched them leave, trying to ignore the pang of hurt she felt that Jenkto hadn’t even acknowledged her presence. She slumped back into the passenger seat and buckled in while Hadwin took position in the driver seat.
     “Mind guiding me?” he asked as he backed out of the garage.
     Rose nodded. “That’s why I’m the navigator.”
     Hadwin was the largest of his siblings, tall and muscular, with copper skin and dirty blonde hair. He was also the only one who seemed capable of growing facial hair, with thin sideburns joining into a goatee at his chin. It had taken a while at first before Rose was comfortable enough to be alone with him. Something she felt badly about, once she learned he was the most easy-going out of all of them.
     In between Rose giving Hadwin directions, he chatted her up with small talk. He wasn’t a chatter box like Jerome, but he also didn’t prefer the silence like Macklass. He asked her how the concert went, if anything noteworthy happened, and if they’d managed to keep Jerome from accidentally burning the place down.
     “I still remember that last place you guys hit up,” he recalled, stroking his goatee. “It was in…”
     “An old lumber mill,” Rose provided, cringing at the memory.
     The place had been a fire hazard to begin with… Several people were hospitalized, but thankfully no one was killed, and the fire department was able to get it under control fairly quickly. Jenkto had yelled at Jerome for nearly exposing them. Hadwin had yelled at him for not keeping his magic in check. But Macklass intensely scolded him for not only endangering himself and Rose, but also innocent bystanders.
     “Right, right.” There was a long pause before he spoke again. “So, I know it’s none of my business, but… I want to say I appreciate… well…”
     Rose glanced over at Hadwin, who looked incredibly awkward. “Is everything all right?”
     “Yeah, just, it’s nice to see my brother in such good spirits. Macklass I mean. I probably don’t need to tell you this but he’s never been the most cheerful of the family, but… I think he really enjoys having you around. We all do.”
     “I should hope so,” Rose said, laughing lightly. “I enjoy being around you guys too. Never a dull moment.”
     He snickered, then he let out a slow sigh. “It never is with those kids.”
     “Must be tough, being an older brother,” she surmised. Especially when their eldest brother was missing.
     “More than you know,” he said softly. “I just… more than anything, I just want them to be safe, and happy if possible.”
     Rose smiled. “Well, just my ‘humble onion’, but I’d say you’re doing a great job so far.”
     He chuckled at her use of a Tradespeak idiom. “‘An onion a day keeps the doctor away.’”
     “An apple,” she corrected.
     “I thought apples were bad, they ‘spoil the bunch’ and whatnot.”
     “No, that’s…” Rose shook her head, refraining from laughing. “Don’t worry about it.” She always enjoyed these conversations with him.
     Hadwin dropped her off in front of her house, bidding her a goodnight and driving off. Rose stood on the sidewalk, looking up at her house. Anyone else would think it was your average home in your average suburban neighborhood. Rose knew better. Hell lived inside that house.
     Rose took a deep breath, mentally steeling herself. She snuck inside, creeping up the stairs, stepping over the ones that squeaked. Once she successfully made it to her room, she quietly locked the door behind her. She managed to keep her eyes open long enough to send Macklass a text, shamble over to the bed, and bury herself in blankets. Within moments, she was sound asleep.
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