Menagerie of Shadow

The Collector - Book Three

by Mathias G. B. Colwell

Beathan, the half-fairy, is free of St. Thomas Prison, thanks to the valiant rescue efforts of Philip and Alayna. However, with a trace in Philip’s blood, The Collectors Guild is hot in pursuit.

Separated during a skirmish with Collectors in the forests of Transylvania, Philip and Alayna struggle not only to find one another but also to survive the deadly circumstances thrown their way.

Matters are further complicated by the arrival of an acquaintance, someone familiar both with them and the treacherous region of Transylvania.

In the end, science and magic are mixed, loyalty is tested, and difficult questions are asked.

Can they discover a way to free Philip of the trace?

Will Alayna even survive?

And most of all, will they find their way back to each other?


Chapter One

The crossbow bolt fizzed through the air. Alayna adjusted her body ever so slightly, enough so that the projectile missed but not enough to unsettle her balance on the eaves of the abandoned house. As it passed, the bolt sliced free a lock of her strawberry-blonde hair. Momentarily distracted by the striking contrast of the floating, red-gold hair framed against the austere, snowy ground, Alayna was almost struck by another bolt from the assailant. She saw it at the last moment and dodged again, this time with a bit more force. She jumped and then slid on the frosty ledge to avoid the bolt. The jolt of fear that trilled through her body was familiar by this time—it was a well-known accompaniment to battle. A year ago, the human version of herself would have been so terrified she likely would have frozen as stiff as the icy roof on which she perched so precariously. A year ago, she would have been paralyzed with fear. Not anymore. The Elfas in her, and perhaps the fact that she’d fought more times in the last half year of her life than she would have in many lifetimes as a human, was enough to keep her moving and dodging. Enough to keep her alive.

Returning fire with one of her own miniature crossbows, Alayna leapt with grace from the eaves of one frosty roof to that of another building, sliding again as she landed. Skidding with an intended elegance, she freed another crossbow from the clip on her hip and fired two bolts in quick succession. Her aim was true and the Collector below doubled over with a grunt as the two projectiles pierced his black cloak—one in the gut and the other in the shoulder—sending him spinning to the ground, dead.

Alayna didn’t even pause to think of the life she had just taken. This abandoned village in Romania was crawling with Collectors, and there was no time to waste on ethical quandaries. Besides, there wasn’t really a dilemma at all. It was kill or be killed. That was her reality now. Alayna reloaded her two crossbows and held them at the ready as she slunk quickly across the rooftops of the town. She was the eyes and ears in the air. The graceful one. Philip was likely in the midst of a brawl by this point. In fact, she could hear the clatter and creak of shattering wood made all the louder by the freezing temperatures. Philip had no doubt tossed someone through a beam, aided as he was by his troll blood. She flipped her fur-lined hood up against the cold as she moved and kept her weapons trained on the ground.

Another Collector stalked quietly through an alleyway beneath her. She dispatched him with a bolt in the back and reloaded. She heard a scream from the outskirts of town—a piercing cry—and then a muffled moan as the scream quickly subsided. That was likely Beathan doing his work around the edges. They had a system following months of being tracked and hunted, months of fighting and battles. After the first few hectic fights, they had needed to figure out a method. The strategy they had settled on for their skirmishes was fairly simple. Wherever the fight took place, Philip—the strongest and most resilient of their company with his enhanced healing—always took up the middle or center of the fight, drawing the most attention and distracting notice from the others as much as possible. He was the target, after all. Beathan always flanked the enemy. He utilized his half-fairy speed and crafty powers, which Alayna was still trying to understand; it was nearly impossible to get a straight answer out of him about anything, let alone about something so personal as his supernatural abilities. Alayna with her agility, her Elfas affinity for trees and heights, along with her increasingly good aim with crossbows, took up whatever high ground was available and provided aerial cover—just as she was doing now.

More screams echoed through the village, and Alayna hurried toward their source. Philip would need her above him to provide cover. That was always the plan, only this time their personal fights had pushed them in opposite directions. She prowled stealthily across the rooftops under a troubled, grey sky with darkly encroaching clouds. The first few flakes of snow began to drift down, swirling around her, making the footing even slicker, if that were possible. Alayna leapt lithely to another rooftop, crossing the narrow gap between buildings as if it were two feet instead of six. She crested the steep roof and slid down the other side, stopping herself at the gutter, and found herself looking down at a scene of mayhem.

There he was—her everything. Alayna’s true heart. His hair had grown even more in the last six months, and it hung wild and free just above his shoulders. It swirled with his movements as he fought, caught up in the icy breeze. Philip wore his usual sleeveless tunic, unlaced at the neck, and slim breeches tucked into black boots. He fought like a madman, like a tavern brawler possessed by a demon. He felled a Collector with his fist and turned to fight the next in line. He kicked out kneecaps and shattered forearms, leaving behind a wake of mangled bodies. But he was outnumbered and had taken a variety of wounds in the process. He needed her, just like he always did. He might be a hybrid, but he was still just one person.

Without delay, Alayna sighted her targets and began picking off their enemies. She winged the first Collector at which she aimed, but the bolt to his shoulder was enough to force him to fall back for a moment. Only five surrounded Philip right now. Her next bolt took a Collector between the shoulder blades, and he keeled over dead. Philip flashed a fierce grin of thanks in her direction and kept fighting. Kneeling on the eaves of the building, she reloaded. Alayna was just sighting her next target when she heard the crunch of frost above and behind her. Cursing, she swung around, arms aiming both small crossbows upward. She loosed both bolts as a dark form leapt down toward her from the top of the roof. One bolt flew high and wide, rushed as she was. The other grazed her enemy, but not enough to stop him from colliding with her, sending the two of them spinning off the roof into empty air.

Alayna landed with a shock of pain, one shoulder bearing the brunt of the fall. It twisted under her in agony as she fought to gain air in her lungs and purchase on the ground under her feet. Stumbling, she clawed her way to her feet and fumbled with cold fingers to reload the one crossbow she had managed to retain. Up high, she was calm and composed. Here on the ground, in the thick of it all, she was less so. Oh, she was more dangerous and qualified to fight than she had been a half year back when the three of them had fled St. Thomas after rescuing Beathan, but she still didn’t possess the extent of battle experience of either Philip or the fairy.

The sounds of the fray surrounded her. There were grunts, cries of pain, as well as shouts of plans and strategies as the Collectors fought to subdue Philip. The Collector who had snuck up on her and knocked her from her perch struggled to his feet, too. He looked a little less dazed than Alayna felt after the fall. He pulled a knife and a wooden stake from his belt. Alayna was no vampire, but vampires were dangerous enough that all Guild members in the field always kept a stake on hand. It was a standard part of every Collector’s arsenal. Alayna’s assailant grinned menacingly when he saw the flash of uncertainty in her eyes as she became aware of her vulnerable position on the ground. The man casually flicked the wooden stake into the air in a small toss, caught it, and hurled it with precision in Alayna’s direction. She arched her body to one side and let the stake fly past her. The Collector’s face darkened in fury at his miss. Alayna steeled herself and charged him with a curse of half-fury, half-fear. They came together with a clash of bodies and then spun apart, raining blows upon each other. The Collector slashed at her face with his knife, and Alayna’s dark cloak billowed as she twirled away, all grace and elegance. Her own belt knife came freely to her hand, replacing the crossbow she had dropped before attacking. She whipped in close and ducked under another slash, slicing her own blade against her enemy’s outer thigh. The Collector grunted in pain and stumbled. Their momentum carried them apart before they spun around to face each other again.

Alayna saw respect in the Collector’s eyes now, a wary fear of his opponent. She felt a savage surge of satisfaction. Perhaps she was right where she belonged, here in the thick of things. Maybe all her training with Philip had paid off more than she had thought. She pressed her advantage and darted in close again. This time the enemy’s knife slashed her shoulder, but it was a calculated wound and not too deep. She took the injury but was now within his barriers. Close as she was, she buried her blade in his chest with the speed of an Elfas. Up close and personal, she saw the light fade from his eyes as the glaze of death overtook him. Suddenly, the savagery and satisfaction she had felt was gone. Death was just death. It was a great, dark, blackness that took them all at one point or another. There was no joy in sending any soul there sooner than was necessary. But it was necessary. She heard Philip cry out in pain and turned to see him clasping his shoulder, blood seeping out from between his fingers.

Alayna shook away her morbid thoughts. She leapt and slid across the frozen ground to where her crossbows lay discarded from the fall and the fight. She loaded with the speed of practice and spun around, sighting and loosing all in one fevered motion. Her bolts flew true and parted around Philip, missing her lover by inches before burying themselves in the throats of his assailants. Philip shook off his injury and advanced on the final attacker. The Collector backed away warily but hopelessly. He knew it was over now, as much as Philip and Alayna did. Even injured as Philip was, the lone Collector stood no chance against a hybrid half-man filled with the strength and power of troll blood. Philip closed the distance and finished the man quickly with a blow to the face followed by a savage but ultimately merciful twist of the neck.

The heat of battle gone, a chill wind played around Philip and Alayna as they stared searchingly into each other’s eyes. Alayna watched the passion and battle fury—the wildness of Philip’s non-human side—fade from his eyes to be replaced by sadness. It was not remorse. Philip understood just as she did that survival took precedence. But she saw the sadness in his eyes all the same at having to kill so many of his former brothers. This was by far the biggest band of Collectors that had been sent after them yet. At least ten were dead by Philip and Alayna’s hands, and who knew how many Beathan had killed on the flanks.

Philip gazed at her with a deep look through eyes that drank in her soul.

“Thanks,” he said simply and without further ado. “It would have been difficult without you at my back.”

“You’re damned right it would have been,” she answered, joking, and then closed the distance between them, hands caressing his injured arm. His grin turned to a wince as she began to prod.

“Easy,” he muttered. “It’ll heal just fine. You don’t have to stick your fingers in it.”

Alayna grimaced in annoyance and prodded once more just for good measure before kissing him. His hands slipped inside her hood to find the sides of her face and press her elegantly tipped ears against her head. They kissed fiercely for a moment in the way that could only be experienced post-battle—the celebration of life and survival. They kissed for a lost-in-time moment, and Alayna wrapped her arms around him, wishing that she could somehow pull him so close that it would fuse their bodies together. She wished the cursed Collectors Guild would stop hunting them long enough for their bodies to heal from one attack before the next began. But that would never happen. Philip had not only taken up arms against his former employers but he had led an attack on St. Thomas Prison, one of the Guild’s bastions of power. An affront like that by a former Guild member could not be ignored, and so they had used their Blood Mages to activate the trace that had been placed in Philip’s blood so many years ago when he had first sworn his oath. That trace allowed them to follow him wherever he went. There was nowhere safe to hide.

“Interruptin’, am I?” The lilting, Irish brogue caused Philip and Alayna to pull apart.

Alayna quirked a haughty eyebrow at the half-fairy. “So, I see you’ve survived yet again, Beathan.”

“Tough t’ kill, I am.” The gypsy gave a half bow and a quick jig. “Shall we get out o’ here, or would the two o’ you rather keep kissin’?”

Philip smiled, but then his mirth faded. “We can’t leave yet. There’s work to be done.”

Beathan shook his head. “Ya’ can’t be serious, mate. Not again. The ground’s frozen solid.”

“They were good men. They deserve a proper burial.” His face was a stony mask of implacable resolve.

Alayna shrugged. “They did just try to kill us, love.”

“And we killed them instead. I know what happened, Alayna, but they were following orders. It’s not their fault they were sent on a suicide mission. We bury them. Besides, there are far worse types than Collectors in this world.”

“Is there even a shovel, mate?” Beathan tilted his head to the side, clearly still hoping to get out of ditch duty.

Philip stared at his best friend. There was a coldness in his eyes that hadn’t always been there. Alayna could see that killing Guild members for the last half year had taken its toll on him.

“Fine, search the buildings. Romanians need to dig just like anyone else. Maybe someone left a shovel around here.” Philip turned and began lining up the dead, closing their eyes almost tenderly.

Alayna felt a familiar ache as she watched him bid farewell to more of his one-time brothers, just as she had so often done these last few months.

They searched the buildings and, in a surprisingly short time, they found one shovel and an old pickax. They took turns hollowing out the icy ground and finally laid each dead warrior to rest in a shallow, foreign grave.

“Do ya’ want to say a few words?” Beathan asked Philip, sincerity in his voice.

Philip paused, thinking the question over. “I was once their brother, but I’m no priest. I wouldn’t know what to say. A burial is enough.” Then he heaped the last shovel of dirt over the final grave. Alayna watched as he slammed the flat of the shovel to pat down the frosty earth. It was an unnecessary action. She saw the unspoken curse in his eyes as he stared at the graves, knew that he was cursing his old masters for sending more men to their needless deaths.

She took his hand, and he grasped it tighter than she expected. The coldness of their skin in the late winter air forced them to let go sooner than she would have liked, forced them to tuck their hands back into the relative warmth of their cloaks—well, it forced her. Philip could endure much more of the cold than she.

"Menagerie of Shadow" by Mathias G.B. Colwell



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