Freaks

Chapter 1

Everything is quiet.

It's like the whole world is waiting. Like the decayed expanse of the Outskirts is holding its breath, completely still beneath the smoggy night sky.

Something's coming.

I can feel it pounding in the air. Frantic, pulsing drumbeats. Something bad coming closer and closer, howling at our door as I take the steps two at a time, racing for the rooftop.

"Gabriel!"

My brother is hunched up like one of those old stone gargoyles at the edge of the crumbly roof, balanced on the balls of his feet, his wings folded tightly against his spine. "Jamie, go back inside. I'll be down in a moment." His voice is flat, completely controlled and level. That's bad. Whenever Gabriel speaks like that you know he's either furious, or worried to the point of panicking.

I stay rooted to the spot. I'm not always a very good listener when it comes to Gabriel telling me what to do. "It's another raid, isn't it?" I ask quietly, inching my way toward the edge of the roof. My brother might be a bird, but I do not like heights. No thank you.

I can see the fires that light up the horizon, the clouds of thick, dark smoke curling into the sky. Another section of the Outskirts, our refuge, burning to the ground by the Humans.

Funny, how I say Humans now as if I were never one of them.

Most of us who live in the Outskirts are freaks. And, mind you, that's one of the nicer things Humans say about us. We're different. We don't belong to their world. Most of us, like Gabe, are half-breeds. Part Human, and part Fey. Others, like me, are All Human, but the Fey turned us.

No one wants us to exist.

I don't know much about it, and if Gabriel knows more, he isn't telling me, but the way the story goes is that there was a place called Stonehenge, a portal between the worlds of the Humans and the Fey folk. There was a war going on, almost a hundred years ago now, and Humans destroyed Stonehenge, reopening the portal. For a long time they fought the Fey, but now I guess they have some sort of truce. They're at least willing to tolerate one another.

But what they aren't willing to tolerate is us.

Mongrels they call us. Half-breeds. The impure, tainted offspring of Human and Fey. Whether born or turned, we're something new. Something in-between. And no one likes it.

The Humans hate and fear us. We're too strange for them. A different species I guess they can tolerate, but something in between? Something that looks like them, walks among them, but is more powerful, more dangerous, something that shouldn't even exist? They can't stand us. They kill us, drive us out and hunt us down like animals. They think it's fun.

The Fey are happy to ignore us. We're impure, part-Human, not worth their time. To them we're nothing more than disgusting abominations, failed abortions. If the Humans kill some of us, enslave us, what does it matter to the Fey? We're worse than Humans: half-breed scum.

I narrow my eyes, scanning the burning buildings in the distance, the crumbling Outskirts and rubble-strewn streets that stretch out around us. The Outskirts have come to life, shadows dancing in the red firelight. All hell breaks loose.

"Gabe…" One of the perks of being a werewolf is the enhanced senses. Gabe's eyesight is good, mine's better. I grab his arm, pointing at the masses that move in the streets below. Humans, moving in packs, carrying guns, pipes, bricks, whatever they can lay their hands on. They smash the few windows that remain in the buildings, set our homes on fire. Laughing as the freaks burned.

They think they're vigilantes. I think they're murderers.

Gabriel pushes me away from the edge of the roof. "Inside, Jamie," he insists. "Now."

I can hear the Humans getting closer, the sounds of their cars clamoring over the rubble, and their coarse, hateful shouts in the streets. I let Gabriel prod me down the stairs, urging me to hurry. "They're coming inside!" I hiss, hearing them tear down the wood planks nailed across our gaping doorway.

"Move!" Gabriel throws open the first door we come to, shoving me through hard enough that I almost fall.

They're coming up the stairs. Heavy footsteps and loud, grunting voices that send a surge of terrified adrenaline through my veins. "Gabe-" Blood rushes in my ears. I can't hear, can't think…

"Hush." He stands completely still, his gold eyes sweeping the dusty, garbage-strewn room. I can hear the Humans getting closer, closer…

All of a sudden my brother's arms are around me and we're rising toward the ceiling, his dark wings beating the air. "Don't struggle."

The building where we live had been an office building once. The burned-out, broken sign above the doors still reads 'Westeros Accounting'… whatever that is. The concrete roof is falling to bits and rusty metal girders stick out here and there like the exposed skeleton of some metal and stone monster. Gabriel sets me carefully on one of them. The metal is solid and steady beneath my feet, but looking down, seeing how high up we are, makes my stomach churn.

Gabe keeps his arm around me, guiding me back into the long evening shadows.

"What if they see us?" I hiss, my voice high and thin with fear. I cling to Gabe, holding clammy fistfuls of his soft, worn shirt.

"They won't," he assures me, anchoring me lightly against the cool stone wall. "Humans never bother to look up."

Below us, the door bursts open with a violent bang.I barely manage to swallow a scream as Humans pour in, gruff, and angry, and armed.

Gabriel holds me tighter, squeezing my arm. "Don't look down."

I scrunch my eyes shut, turning to bury my head in his shoulder. Below us the Humans talk in harsh, angry voices. Cruel words, taunting us 'freaks' to come out, come out wherever we are. Spitting curses at one another. Arguing.

A gunshot explodes. A loud, echoing bark of gunpowder and death. I flinch, trying to bury my face in Gabriel's chest just like I had when I was little, thinking he would protect me from all the horrible things in the world.

Bang. Another gunshot and I nearly leap right out of my skin. Oh God.

"Quiet," I feel Gabe's grip on me tighten, his free hand stroking my hair. It's all going to be okay, Jamie. It's just a nightmare. You'll be all right. But this isn't a little kid's fear that he can just soothe away anymore. This is real, and it's bad.

"Gabe-" I can't breathe…

"Shut up." The order is tense, bit out through clenched teeth. Gabriel will deny it, he'll pretend to be brave for my sake, but I can feel him trembling, his heart fluttering in his ribs like the pigeons that get stuck in the building, flapping violently against the ceiling in search of an escape.

The men are grunting down below.

"We searched the rest of the building. None of those mongrel bastards here."

"You're sure?"

"'Course I'm sure."

A wave of crackling static erupts, making Gabriel flinch. I can't hear them for a moment, their voices too low for me to pick up, and then-

"Tom says they just flushed out a whole nest of the freaks down by the river, must have been like fifty of 'em in the building. Says they need some help containing the things."

"What're we waiting for?"

"Hey, Joe, how much you wanna bet I'll shoot a werewolf?" I can hear the sick, twisted grin in his voice. "Got some silver bullets right here."

I feel my stomach roll and Gabriel grips my arm hard enough to bruise. The Human's conversation fades away as they thunder down the stairs, whooping and hollering as they ride off, taking bets on who would kill what and how.

Neither one of us moves until the sounds of violence fade into background noise, and then Gabriel's shoulders slump with a heavy sigh and he lifts his head to study me. We're both shaking, wide-eyed and breathless. Something burns in his eyes. Indignation. Hatred.

"They think it's some kind of game," my brother snarls bitterly. Killing us is a sport to the Humans, no different than shooting deer or turkey. Gabe would know. The Humans killed his parents right before his eyes. That was something you didn't get over.

Gabriel had only told me the story once but I never forgot the look in his eyes, the pain and fear, the memories that played out on his face. I watched my brother regress, forced back to fifteen and a childhood cut short.

He ran when they murdered his parents, found himself in the ruins crumbling on the edge of the city. And a few years later he took it upon himself to adopt a skinny little stray he'd managed to find wandering lost among the rubble. Me.

Every year he remembered that horrible night, over and over again. I remember when I was little and the painful memories were still achingly fresh for my brother. I didn't completely understand his grief, all I knew was that he was hurting and I wanted to make it better. I'd crawl into his lap when he would cry and wrap skinny child-arms around his neck. "Don't cry, 'briel," I'd soothe in a little seven-year-old voice. "It's okay."

He'd run his fingers through my hair and breathe shakily, struggling to calm his tears. And he'd pull himself together and try to be strong for my sake.

Now that he's twenty-seven the pain has dulled, but it's still there. I see it in the shadowed looks, the way he pulls me into a bone-crushing hug just to remind himself that he hasn't lost the only family he has left.

"Close your eyes," Gabriel demands, breaking the silence. "And hold on." I barely have time to do so before he flaps his wings, carrying us back down from the nauseatingly high rafters.

I'm glad to set my feet on solid ground once more, but my brother refuses to let go of me. For a minute we just stand like that, holding one another, breathing hard, dizzy with fear and relief.

"Gabriel?" I'm only seventeen and, to be honest, there's a lot I don't know. I have a lot of questions and I always figure my brother has the answers.

"What's on your mind, kiddo?"

Kiddo. I guess brothers are supposed to hate nicknames like that, but I don't mind it too much. Gabriel is the only family I have, he raised me when my parents tossed me out like garbage, and the nicknames are a reminder of that. They remind me that I have someone who actually cares whether I live or die. Family is a rare gift for people like us.

"Why do the Humans hate us so much?" It's a question I've spent years pondering. What had we done to earn mankind's hatred? Why had they chosen to turn their wrath on us?

Gabriel sighs again, a heavy, world-weary sound. "I wish I knew, Jamie," he says sadly. "I wish I knew."