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Fearless by Lilli Carlisle

 

Fearless
A PLACE TO CALL HOME

A nameless slave is rescued from demons, hunters, and the worst of her own kind. Taken in by packs trying to survive in an underground city while on the earth's surface a demonic apocalypse is proceeding at a phenomenal pace, she fears she left one cruel master to serve another. It's hard to believe Joseph is the gentle, caring man he seems to be, but over time, she begins to trust him. Yet, even here, there are those who would see her dead, and when they make their move that's when she learns the depth of her feelings for a wolf shifter with a heart of gold.

 

Fearless by Lilli Carlisle Book Chapter One

 

Sarah watched the comings and goings of the small community from the bay window facing the courtyard of the restricted area. It was hard for her to believe she was miles underground. The lighting alone made it seem as though it was midafternoon. The world around her was vastly different from what she’d ever known. She found herself even more on edge than when she was held prisoner by the hunters and demons. Surprising that that was even possible.

Her mind raced back to the day her happy life was ripped away from her. The day the other hyena packs and human-hunters attacked her pack. The ground trembled as the explosions woke her and her family while gunfire erupted around them. Hers had been a peaceful pack unprepared for battle. The smell of acrid smoke seemed as fresh to her today as it had been decades ago. The searing pain from the heat and flames burning at her skin as she fought to hold on to her sister’s hand made her flinch even now. Her world swirled into a tornado of fire, smoke, and ash, clawing at her throat, choking her until she lost her grip on her younger sister’s hand. Her frightened cries for help were the last Sarah had ever heard from her.

Those cries for help bled into her more recent memories until she found herself locked in her cage at a “zoo,” which was really a warehouse for shifters who’d been captured by Collector Demons, vile creatures who’d breached the veil between two worlds with the intention of taking control of Earth. Explosions sounded in the distance as shifters and their new masters, the demons, were all running in multiple directions. Screams for help in unlocking the cages and gunfire punctuated the time between explosions. She’d been chained in her cage when a man appeared, who unceremoniously killed her former keeper with his favorite cattle prod. Typically, her transitions from one master to the next hadn’t involved this level of violence, but after years of being a captive, how it happened or when was surely out of her control.

Though, this time around, Sarah had to admit her accommodations were a definite upgrade from the small cage she’d been kept in. Since she’d arrived, Sarah hadn’t ventured far from her room without her keeper, a wolf shifter named Joseph—the same man who’d killed her former captor—and she’d yet to ascertain what the shifters Joseph was with wanted from her.

Joseph had backed the couch up to the window so that she could sit on it as she observed her new surroundings. No one had chained her yet, and she couldn’t help but wonder when that would occur. Inevitably, it always happened sooner or later no matter who commanded her: demon, hunter, or hyena, she’d been chained for decades. What she hated almost more than being captive was the suspense of waiting to learn what new horror would befall her.

Why wouldn’t they get on with it already? She was still waiting for the moment the façade of civility came crashing down. Especially to shifters, hyenas were the enemy and would always be considered a traitor by other shifters regardless of their intentions. In her pack’s case, they never hurt another shifter group but, given her kind’s history with the wolf shifters, their feelings about her were justified. Hyenas took great pleasure in leading human hunters to other shifters, and had now shifted their allegiance to the Collector Demons, to destroy the wolf packs.

While she waited for the inevitable demands and threats, Sarah had to admit watching the human children play accompanied by their pet dog, Archie, gave her great joy. She could sit for hours watching Jenny and Matthew run around doing this game called tag, or painting, or pretending in a game they called make-believe. Whatever the two got up to was an amusing distraction.

It felt like a lifetime ago when she’d chased her sisters and brothers around their home, playing until they were exhausted. Happiness had been so easy back then when her life was carefree and innocent. Days spent in the valley watching the clouds drift by without a worry in the world. Before she found out they were different. Their pack was different. They didn’t behave as other hyena packs, and for their passivity they paid the hefty price with their lives. Sarah was alone in the world without family or a home.

Shaking her head, she tried to shake off the longing for her former home and a life beyond the bars of her cages. Neither existed any longer, only in her broken memories. Surely, her pack would never rise again, so there was no use in dwelling on it. Memories were like explosives. They blew up in your face and tore you apart. Living in the past was a sure way of getting herself killed in the here and now.

The bear shifter couple, Ben and Marie, who’d helped cut off her chains, appeared to live in this area as well. Along with another bear shifter, Hope, who watched over the rescued human children, there was a woman who barely came out of her apartment. Sarah couldn’t help but wonder what they’d all done wrong to be sent into isolation as she had.

Joseph had taken the time to explain that the mysterious woman across the way was named Raine and that she was a human shifter like Ben, but not a bear. He couldn’t say which animal she shared her spirit with as the woman had never shifted or given them a clue. Raine even went as far as denying she was a human shifter and distanced herself from everyone.

However, one thing was certain: Raine was beautiful. With her long blonde hair, big brown eyes, and flawless skin, the woman was perfect. Sarah couldn’t help but compare Raine's healthy glow with Sarah’s patchwork of uneven scars courtesy of past keepers whenever she’d make a mistake or when they took out their frustration on her hide. Any or no reason at all, it was all the same to them.

Even with her shifter healing, the demons had found a way to ensure that she never healed properly. She huffed and shoved the thought to the back of her mind. There was no use in thinking about something that couldn’t be changed. Her scars, like her past, would never disappear no matter what she did.

Sarah understood she was a prisoner here, but Joseph had been nothing like the other keepers before him. He’d been kind to her, which was a new tactic in her experience. She knew better than to trust him and his seemingly nice gestures. She didn’t trust anybody. Not anymore. For a keeper, he was undoubtedly the best she’d had so far, but that made no difference in the end. She had no free will. Choice was not something that had been available to her for a long time. Sarah wasn’t sure what freedom would feel like. Making her own decisions seemed unfathomable after years of captivity.

Apparently, she’d exchanged one prison for another—one master to the next. Sarah had always called the individual charged with keeping her in line her keeper. As in “keep her silent,” “keep her muzzled,” “keep her working.”

She lowered her head to the couch cushions, trying to puzzle everything together she’d seen and heard as Hope came out from her apartment carrying a fabric bag the color of the sky on a bright sunny day. The she-bear didn’t stop as she often did when she neared the children, but instead continued in Sarah’s direction.

A familiar fear swamped her. Had she done something wrong? Was it time to put her in a cage, or was Joseph sending her away to a new keeper? Hope smiled and waved at her through the window as she neared the front door as if they were friends. Sarah couldn’t control her need to run and hide, ingrained as it was to protect herself,

She took off.

Springing off the couch, she ran for the only bedroom in the apartment, passing Joseph, who was getting out of his shower, as she went. That was one of the many things that confused the hell out of her. Joseph would leave her alone unsupervised and unchained. That had never happened to her before. Weren’t they concerned she’d try to escape?

“Sarah, what’s wrong?” he asked, but she didn’t even break stride. Her responses to specific stimuli were no longer under her control. They had become intrinsically part of who she was, occurring without conscious thought, and frustrating the hell out of her. She wasn’t a coward, though anyone witnessing her current behavior may find that hard to believe.

The knocking began moments after she managed to wedge herself under the large bed frame and into the back corner of the room, the farthest point away from the door. If they wanted to take her, they’d have to drag her out from under here. Admittedly, she wasn’t a large hyena, but she could still put up a struggle if they forced her to leave.

She could hear Joseph opening the front door, letting Hope in. Whatever was going on, he must be part of this. Sarah could hear them talking, but the fear buzzing in her brain made it impossible for her to make out what was being said. The words didn’t matter. They never did when they came for her. Another command, another threat if she were to fail were all Sarah would be left with. To them she was merely a tool.

It wasn’t long before she heard the door close, which confused her even further. A single set of footsteps were headed in her direction, and by the gait and weight applied to the flooring, it had to be Joseph. When he entered the bedroom, she could scent it was him, and he was alone, making her wonder what was going on and where Hope had gone.

If they followed what had been standard procedure for Sarah’s other captors, the bed should be up on its side by now, and they should have been dragging her free of her hiding spot. Sarah dug her claws into the carpet in case that option was still on the table.

Joseph’s bare feet stopped at the foot of the bed, and his knees, hands, and his handsome face joined them. She shouldn’t care if he was attractive. The aspect of a keeper made no difference. Evil creatures, one and all. Perhaps she was finally cracking under the constant threat of violence and mounting stress. Maybe she had Stockholm syndrome, finding one keeper preferable to the rest.

“It’s safe, Sarah. Hope is gone,” Joseph assured. She heard no deceit in his voice, and she would know, having had to hone that survival skill over years of being a captive. A slight tone change, nervous tic, or inhalation could be telling. She seemed to average about ninety percent correct, though the number could be skewed as keepers tended to lie.

There was always the possibility that what Joseph was telling her could still be a trick. There was that pesky ten percent when she was wrong. Others had managed to trick her before in a sick game. Some keepers liked to play. They’d offer her hope one moment and then snatch it away in the next after she’d fallen prey to their lies.

While she’d been lost in thought, Joseph had slowly inched his large body underneath the bed frame, forcing the bed to shift up toward the ceiling. Sarah dug her claws even deeper into the carpet through to the underpadding in case dragging her out was his intention.

“I promise no one will harm you here. Hope was kind enough to bring over a few outfits for you in case you wanted to shift into your human form,” he continued to explain. “Believe me when I say if someone did want to harm you, they’d have to get past me first, and I can assure you that that’s not an easy task.”

Sarah remembered Joseph explaining that he was a trained Enforcer for the North Woods wolf pack. At the time, she wasn’t sure if that tidbit of information was meant to assure her or warn her if she might try to flee. Considering this new context, perhaps he’d meant to reassure Sarah she was safe. She wouldn’t allow herself to fall for it, but accepted that the odds of her comfortably remaining under the bed were slim.

She was sure she’d regret this decision, but Sarah took the chance and inched closer to him, which served to make Joseph smile wider. She watched him for cues of anger and deceit but found none.

“That’s it,” he coaxed. “It can’t be comfortable for you under here.”

Sarah couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed and childish forcing him to push his much larger frame underneath here to get to her. A grown hyena should be able to stand her ground, even if she was an albino and came from a pack that was different from the rest of her brethren.

Standing her ground had resulted in painful lessons. Maybe it would be in her best interest to play along. If she didn’t cause any problems, she might be allowed to stay here in this apartment for a little bit longer. She hadn’t enjoyed this level of comfort since before her pack was attacked by other hyenas and her home was destroyed by hunters.

Growing up, she never knew there was a difference between her pack and the other hyena shifter packs. Her naiveté didn’t last long after her eighteenth birthday when the other hyenas and the hunters came for them.

“Would you like to see the clothing she brought for you?” Joseph asked, looking hopeful. He’d been nothing but kind to Sarah since removing her from her cage weeks ago. Perhaps extending an olive branch might be useful. She’d be disappointed when he inevitably betrayed her, but it was sure to happen. For now, she’d play along.

As she crawled the remainder of the way out from under the bed, she didn’t think she required clothing. It’d been a long time since she’d taken her human form. As hyena she had more resources to keep herself alive. Her human form was weaker and vulnerable to attack. No shifting, but she could pretend she cared about the clothes since she wanted to remain on her keeper's good side for as long as she could.

Joseph backed out, allowing her enough room so she could follow until they were both standing in the living room once again. The bag she’d seen Hope carrying sat on the coffee table benignly, waiting for her. When Sarah didn’t make a move toward it, Joseph went ahead and began pulling the clothing out and holding them up for her to inspect.

While she didn’t move, she was drawn to the flowing dresses, shirts, blouses, jeans, and more. Hope had thought of everything a human would need to feel comfortable, which made Sarah worry that they expected her to shift. Shifting was a hard NO for her. She wouldn’t give them more power over her than they already had. No keeper had ever been able to force her before, and even in the face of punishment, she’d refuse to do it now.

“Hope said that she wasn’t sure about your size in human form and that if the clothing needs to be altered, she has a sewing machine that’ll do the job.” Joseph looked happy at the finds even though they were not for him, which made her more certain he wanted her to shift. Damn.

The colors of the fabrics varied in a wide range of pastels and whites, which Sarah thought would complement her pale skin and hair. No matter what she thought of the garments, accepting them would be acquiescing to whatever ulterior motives Joseph had.

She didn’t do grateful. She’d spent almost all of her life caged and punished. She couldn’t muster a thank you for what seemed innocuous, but was probably a trap.

“I wish I knew what you were thinking,” Joseph said, sounding wistful before sitting on the couch and looking at her. “If there were a way we could communicate with one another, I believe this transition would be much easier for you. I could answer your questions.”

Sarah agreed with him on that point. So far, she’d only been able to communicate with the Goddesses, Raz, Rose, and Zahra. They’d never threatened her, and she sensed they never would. Every one of her previous keepers had insisted she provide them a line of communication, and when she’d refused the punishment had been brutal. To avoid the pain, she didn’t see why she shouldn’t provide Joseph with the ability to “speak” with her. In the end, it would lead to less confusion, which equaled less punishment.

She padded into the kitchen and rose onto her back legs while bracing her front paws on the edge of the stone countertop. Carefully, she plucked a knife out of the woodblock with her teeth. Once the handle was securely in her mouth, she brought the knife back over to Joseph.

A link would be needed and only used for communication purposes. Her thoughts would remain her own. The exchange of a single drop of blood would open the door to the connection between the two of them alone. If she did the same with the alpha triads, Sarah would have access to the others living here underground. No way was she ready for that, and she hoped they never forced it upon her.

She dropped the knife onto the coffee table and lifted her paw, hoping Joseph would understand what she was suggesting. Sure, she was queasy at the thought of the knife piercing her skin. It’d been only a few weeks since she’d left her last cage in that “zoo.” In the interests of keeping her keeper mollified, she was willing to try this much to lay the groundwork for her new captivity.

Besides, she’d already lived through lots worse. Nothing Joseph could do would surprise her.

He picked up the knife, and Sarah cursed herself for the slight flinch that worked its way through her body, but she remained rooted to her spot. She could do this.

“Are you sure?” Joseph asked. “I never want to harm you. However, to have the ability to hear your voice inside my head would be welcome so that I can answer your questions and reassure you.”

Sarah lifted her paw higher, showing her acceptance while being honestly curious why he hadn’t already forced the issue. When she’d been taken all those years ago, Sarah had shifted into her hyena form and never looked back. Communication with anyone other than her keeper was unnecessary, and frankly unwanted.

Gently, Joseph took hold of her paw and turned it to the side so that he could pierce one of her pads with the tip of the knife. With one final look over at her, he cut his finger and her pad before holding them together for the blood exchange. There would be no telling how long it would take for their link to form, but she knew it was now inevitable.

The big wolf shifter used the hem of his shirt to wipe away the remaining blood from her paw before inspecting the damage. Sarah could already feel the small wound healing thanks to her efficient shifter healing that was now working unimpeded by demonic power. That Joseph seemed concerned confused her. This was nothing more than a scratch that would heal in a minute. He knew that.

It had been a while since someone cared about causing her pain. Apparently, the wolf felt guilty. Wait a minute. The wolf felt guilty. She could feel Joseph’s emotions. She wondered if he could feel hers.

His head popped up from inspecting her paw and he stared at her with a wrinkled brow. “You’re scared.”

She was always scared. NBD. She had reason to be, and keeping her adrenaline up meant she was alert to danger. “I’m fine.” No need to explain. Usually, keepers preferred when she was frightened. Knowing they held all the power over her was what they desired, coveted even.

He didn’t respond to her statement, meaning vocal communication hadn’t settled in yet, but he could feel her emotions. She tried to share her confusion, hoping he’d understand that she wasn’t sure what to make of all this and what he wanted from her.

“I imagine you’re confused by everything that’s happening around you, but know that you are safe here, with me,” he said, and by his tone, he believed every word.

She wasn’t sure if that meant she was safe with him only, and that the others wouldn’t be receptive to her being among them, or that she was safe in general. It made sense if the others felt hostility toward her considering the hyenas had sold their souls in order to work alongside the hunters tracking down other shifter species to stay on the hunters’ no-kill list.

Though the small albino pack she was born into was not involved in any of that deception, they were lumped in with the whole traitorous species.

She was a prisoner. She didn’t have the option to leave if she didn’t like who she was living with.

“Hope is one of the kindest bear shifters I know,” he said. “If I’m not here and you need anything for any reason, go to Hope.”

He was suggesting she was allowed to leave this apartment unescorted. That couldn’t be right.

She sniffed at the clothing, noting the soft scent of soap mixed in with Hope’s. Faintly, Sarah could scent both children, making her feel a bit of joy that perhaps they’d helped put together the clothing for her. Then she remembered: shifters didn’t like humans almost as much as they hated hyenas. Evidently, Hope was the children’s keeper like Joseph was Sarah’s. That would make sense. Perhaps the human/shifters were forced to endure the same treatment as Sarah. Clearly, they’d been placed in this area to be watched and guarded until a decision was made about their futures.

“You’re happy. Now that’s an emotion I’d like to feel more of from you,” he said before winking at her. Odd that he used a gesture meant to be endearing. She couldn’t and wouldn’t let her guard down no matter what he did that seemed kind. Tables had been turned on her too many times to believe he was sincere.

It was odd that he felt her joy at the thought of the children packing her clothes, but not the suspicion about the others confined here. Perhaps their link was still touch and go, or he chose not to mention her wariness.

Joseph stood, picked up the bag, and headed toward the bedroom. “I’ll put your clothing in your dresser so that whenever you decide to shift, you can come in here and shut the door for privacy while you try them on.”

For some odd reason, he had been kind to her since the first moment he’d found her. Why they’d released her from her cage in the first place was bizarre. When Joseph had killed her last keeper, for a fleeting moment she thought she was being saved. Reality set in soon afterward when Joseph warned Marie and Ben as they approached not to harm her.

She was hated.

She was hyena.
 

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