For as long as I could remember, my mother always wanted to fit in with the upper class society despite both of my parents being born into middle class families. Luckily for them, they amassed a fortune by running a catering business that really took off after I was born—but she never wanted my sister, my brother or I to have the smell of food on our clothes because of it.
My mother made sure we were treated just as all the rest of the rich kids were, no matter the cost of it. My brother was spoiled and my sister was married off young to a family that was even more rich. I was meant to be the golden child to them—the one that never talked back and always did as they asked. My father had always been the quiet type, and I think I took after him when it came down to it. I knew I was nothing like my mother.
With our world still at war with uncivilized dragons and shifters alike, we had to hold our chins high and make sure everyone knew we belonged with the rich. Our clothes always had to be set right with not a hair out of place. I think they truly loved us in their own strict way, but it was hard to keep myself above water with all of their expectations and demands.
“Stand up straight.” My mother hissed as we waited backstage at one of my piano competitions. “And—fix your hair! They’ll mistake you for one of those savage shifters if you go out there like this!”
She pawed at my long dark hair and my lovely pink dress until I was once again perfect in her eyes. I smiled at her and everyone around us. Only when the high class strangers smiled back at me, did my mother do so as well.
I went to an aristocratic girls’ high school that my mother pulled a lot of strings for me to get into. Classes were easy to keep up with and the distraction of love was off the table when there were no boys around. It was early knowledge to my siblings that love was forbidden until she chose who we ended up with.
My older sister Nina married the second son of Leon, a real estate tycoon, by our mother’s arrangement. Nothing pleased her more than seeing her eldest daughter walk down the aisle to wed the man she had hand picked. If I was honest, it made me a bit nervous to even think about having my husband chosen for me one day. I don’t know how my sister ever had the courage do it. But we all knew that my mother always got the final word.
After school, I hurried down the stone steps but stopped short when I realized my driver wasn’t in his usual space today. Other students hurried past me to their own cars and I waited until the lot was almost cleared before I pulled out my phone and dialed my mother’s number.
“Pat, I completely forgot to tell you.” My mother interrupted. “Your father and I have to attend an impromptu charity gala tonight and we needed the driver. Please take a taxi home, dear. I put leftovers in the fridge to be heated for dinner.”
“Oh. Okay, mom.”
“Remember to practice your piano after homework, there’s another competition this weekend that I signed you up for.” I could hear the slight shift in her tone. My mother always loved to show the world my talent—even more than I did. For a moment, I wondered what would happen if I told her no. The thought alone scared me enough to erase it from my mind.
“This weekend?” I closed my eyes tightly. “Great. Okay. Have fun with dad, bye mom.”
I quickly hung up before my mother could question my enthusiasm. I only wished she would let me have a moment to breathe. I shoved my phone deep in my school bag and hurried down the road towards the underground tunnels.
The path took longer to get home, but I ached for the chance to be alone. I hadn’t been down through the tunnels since I was a kid and my feet still knew the way as if no time had passed at all. It was only after I had already entered that I noticed how different it was. Darker, quieter. I tried to side step the puddles of rotten water and garbage so I didn’t ruin my new shoes. I knew mother would never forgive me if I did.
An unease set in my stomach. Perhaps I should have taken the taxi. I knew what my mother would say if she found out I was down here—she would remind me of all the young girls my age that had been taken from walking home alone like this. Taken and sold to shifters who used girls for their own fun and throw them away when they were finished. Girls just like me.
War markings were spray painted across the walls in favor of the human side. Images of shifters were crossed out in thick black paint while the humans looked victorious. I had never seen a shifter up close, but even a cheap drawing of one with wings made my stomach turn, I had to look away.
I knew who the poor drawings was of—everyone knew when they saw that dark hair. His name was Dylan and he was rumored to be on the path to lead the shifters one day, which made him one of the biggest threats of all. He was the very face that haunted many nightmares in this world.
The war between shifters and hunters had been going on for decades. Our worlds were connected, but neither side could see eye to eye. They were banned from this land. If just one made the mistake to wander into the human world, they would be killed instantly. No trail, no question. Our armies and police had special weapons just for them to take them out in one hit.
If a human had crossed into the shifter realm… they took their time with how they tortured humans. Especially if they happened to be a woman. It was widely known that shifters favored human girls as if they were toys.
The thoughts always terrified me. Sometimes they even kept me up at night to know that shifters could sneak into our land and try to fool us.
I focused on the sound of my own steps echoing against the tunnel walls and let my mind clear out all the fog. I almost didn’t notice the man kneeling over a lump on the path in front of me.
“Oh thank god!” He stood and neared me. His fingers were crusted with dirt and his clothes were torn as if he had just survived a fight. Was that—blood on his shirt?
My feet immediately started to back away from him, but then I saw that the lump was a dog—and it didn’t look like it was breathing. “You have to help me. My dog, he’s very hurt.”