Infernal Betrayal: an Aztec Urban Fantasy

Infernal Betrayal: an Aztec Urban Fantasy

New release! I’m doing final edits on book three of the immortal assassin series – the magical system is based on Aztec mythology but only in book three do we (literally) dive deep into Mexican death cults. Book 3 continues all the action and romance of the first two books but leads to an epic reckoning… here’s a sneak peak of the first chapter!

Chapter One

Heat hazed the world around me, sending shivers of rippling color dancing across my vision. Perhaps that was why I was seeing a ghost. Because he had to be a ghost, didn’t he? I’d killed Ewan Saunders weeks ago. I’d heard his last, labored breath as he’d tried to suck in air through his ruined lung.

Ewan’s smile broadened, exposing a golden molar and twin sets of tapered fangs. I’d never asked him for the story behind his many scars. Now I was wishing I had. So Valerius had been right. He had sensed his psychotic twin sister on this island, being hosted by this crazy-ass redneck. My former colleague, and friend. The man I’d killed, trying to save my sister. Sparks flew as he tread closer towards me through the ash and scorched earth.

“What have you done?” I whispered out loud, not really expecting an answer. My mind raced, tracing through the progression of events that had lead me to this exact moment. My failed mission to the Barbegazi stronghold in the Alps. Being hired by vampires to take out Elle Dawson, under false pretenses, and then bound to an infernal demon in an unholy ritual that made me virtually immortal. Being stranded on Wolf Isle as a ticking time bomb. Against all odds, escaping the island, rescuing Elle and the cure, and defeating Algerone Lamonia…

Somehow it had made all this destruction possible; maybe even inevitable. Cat was alive, Lamonia was dead, but so were the thousands of wolves I’d left behind. Ewan sidled closer and I ducked into a crouch, automatically going for my weapon, though I knew it would do me no good in this situation. If Ewan truly had a demon within him, he wasn’t going to stay dead.

“You really wanna know the answer to that question?” he asked, stuffing his hands in his pockets casually, as if he hadn’t just blown the island all to hell. His innocent smile and Southern charm was incongruous with the destruction behind him. It grated against my frazzled nerves like fingers running along a chalkboard. I knew instinctively that I wouldn’t like his answer. But I had to know.

“But you’re a Trust agent. Why would you help the vampires?”

Ewan shrugged. “Why not?”

“They kill people, Ewan. They kill them and eat them.” Vampires were everything the Trust was against at a core level. Even if not exactly xenophobes, we understood that creatures which fed on human blood couldn’t ever be allowed complete control of civilization or they’d turn it into their personal feeding banks.

Ewan’s eyes narrowed. “It ain’t so different from what we do, eh, Nat? At least they got a reason. They need to feed, to survive. You and me, we just do it for fun.”

Bile crept up my throat and I turned my head, just in case I threw up. It sickened me, but he was right. Although the Trust was predicated on the ideal of equality for all supernaturals, most mages had a visceral disdain for bloodshed in general and vampires particularly. Officially, the elite team of hunters I worked with were only meant to enforce justice and police those who got out of control and hurt humans, but I’d taken matters into my own hands on more than a few occassions.

Even before Valerius, I’d used my skills to enforce vigilante justice. The vampires’ aura was a dull throb, like a tension headache, their very existence made me nauseous. Taking out a vampire offered a slight moment of ease and took some of the pressure off. It made me feel like, just maybe, I was doing something right, something good.

But I’d never confessed the sick pleasure I’d taken to anyone else on my team, and had assumed Dom’s flat condemnation of my actions was universal. I’d been kicked out and scorned, refused magic, and carefully watched by the Trust’s lackey to make sure I halted my murderous moonlighting. Yes, I’d turned to Landon and his crew of assassins when the Trust atrocities had grown too horrible for me to bear. But I’d never enjoyed my work. I’d never gone into a fight thirsting for the kill, or had I? A sinking doubt grew in the pit of my stomach that Ewan and I weren’t that different, and I raged against it, biting my lip until I drew blood.

This disgust, this feeling of wretchedness and betrayal, was this how it had felt for Dom when he’d discovered that I was moonlighting as an assassin? Because if so, I wanted to throw my arms around him and apologize for all the times I’d bitched at him. I’d considered Ewan a friend, and felt a constant sense of guilt about killing him when he was just doing his duty. But now I was horrified by the man that stood before me. I itched to sink my fangs into his throat.

Ewan studied my expression with a smirk. “See? I can read it in your eyes. You want to kill me.”

“You committed genocide, Ewan!” I yelled. “Hell yes, I want to put you in the ground. Tell me why you did it and maybe I won’t rip your arms off and beat you with them.”

Ewan took another step, trying to circle around me. He carried himself with all the lazy assurance of a panther at rest. Everything about him seemed to have changed. The loveable wizard with his whimsical smile and good-ol-boy charm was still there, but it hung loosely like a second skin, and for the first time I could see the monster beneath. Had he always been like that, and I’d just never noticed? Or was Bryne eating him from the inside out?

“My, my. Looks like I’ve struck a nerve. Did I offend your delicate, ladylike sensibilities, Nat?”

“But…how?” I asked. I’d been told that the demon could only be hosted by a specific bloodline. My bloodline, which had been the reason they’d targeted my sister and then me. We were descended from a line of ancient Aztec mages who’d been hand-selected to host Valerius or Bryne when the time came.

My eyes swept over Ewan once more, taking in his plain, middle-American appearance. He was as Caucasian as they came and, so far as I knew, had no native ancestry. I wished I’d had time to finish reading the book of ritual magic, the Aztec guide I was having translated. It was to be my reward for killing Elle, a way to save my sister and get my life back. I really still had no idea what I was up against, but everything about this screamed wrong.

Ewan picked idly at a hangnail, still scrutinizing my expression.

“You didn’t think you were the last, did you? Lamonia wasn’t innovative enough the first time he tried the summoning. The ritual requires the blood of a mage in your lineage. I had the magic I needed, just not the blood. I tried taking your sister’s blood at first, but Valerius nearly strangled me to death. And there was no chance of stealing any from you after you were exiled and the Five were disbanded. So I had to get inventive.”

Ewan began circling me again and I adjusted my aim, bringing the gun to bear. If I had to kill him, so be it. I could drag his sorry carcass back to the ship and let the wolves dispense their justice. Maybe if we threw him into an incinerator for a day he’d stay dead.

“Did Dom ever tell you what I was up to? Or did Algerone have you chasing your tail so long that you never thought to ask?”

“He said you fancied yourself Indiana Jones and were raiding old tombs for ritual artifacts.”

Ewan snapped his fingers jovially. “So close but no cigar. I was actually looking for a lost Amazonian tribe. Some of your relatives, in fact. It took some doing because they really covered their tracks, but I eventually discovered their little hamlet in the jungle. It took a whole group of village elders to do the trick. I transfused myself with their blood one-by-one, just before the Dawson mission, until the demon found my body a worthy and compatible vessel. I’d been warned you were coming and had the ritual done in secret. And just in time, too. You killed me and left me for dead.

“But you came back,” I whispered.

“As did you, and here we are,” Ewan spread his hands and finished with a light laugh. “Two supreme beings standing in the ruined wreck of a once pristine beach. Beautiful, ain’t it?”

My eyes swept the beach, taking in the debris that remained from the destruction of Wolf Isle. The force of the blast had scattered battered bodies, wrecked cars, and assorted furniture haphazardly. Half a couch smoldered nearby, surrounded by scattered glass and palm branches. I wasn’t sure what encompassed Ewan’s definition of beauty, but it clearly didn’t match mine.

Dread and horror filled me as my brain caught up with his words. I’d never been close to my heritage, my lineage. I hadn’t known much about it, or taken much of an interest until after Cat’s accident. And now they were gone. Ewan had tracked them down, sucked out their blood and experimented on them. He was a plague. A monster.

“But, why this? Why the wolves?”

Ewan shrugged.

“It was always Lamonia’s plan,” he said. “A hundred years ago, he’d voyaged around the world searching for a powerful ancient weapon. He found what he was looking for trapped under an Aztec temple in the south of Mexico: two young, extremely powerful demons. He brought them back, but they could only be awakened with a descendent or pure blood host. First he tried with your sister, then you, but your pure blood was too well suited to host the demons, which made you stubbornly immune to his influence. He was never a fan of my own solution, but I decided to risk it. When it worked, Lamonia fed me pints of his own blood to make sure I was properly bound to him. He wanted power – more than immortality. He wanted to yield it. He was frustrated at needing a human intermediary, but the blooding was an adequate safeguard. He sent me down here as a failsafe. I felt it the second he died. The shackles were off, as it were. I couldn’t have controlled Bryne if I’d wanted to… all that rage, centuries of simmering anger. It all flooded out of me, and, well, you see the results. Don’t you get it Natalia, you did this.”

I shivered, despite the heat. Lamonia had warned me this would happen, but I killed him anyway to satisfy a personal vendetta. And now, thousands of wolves were dead. All those infected by the lupine cure, and those shipped off to Wolf Isle simple due to their race. Thanks to Elle’s cure, they could have all been saved. I’d doomed them. Now Bryne was free and unrestrained. An immortal demon in the body of a psychopathic mage, and there was no way to stop him.

“You’re sick,” I hissed. “You need help, Ewan.” I couldn’t believe that the man I’d shared freezing cold tents and blazing hot bunkers with for years could be this much of a monster.

“Aww, how sweet,” Ewan crooned. “Little Iron Heart wants to save me.”

He sobered, the smile fading from his face with such suddenness I could have sworn it had never been. “But I don’t want saving, Nat. I was promised a front-row ticket to the apocalypse. I’m not letting you or anyone else get in the way of seein’ it. I don’t know how you managed to gag Valerius, but I ain’t letting your bleeding heart get in the way of my fun.”

“Fun?” My voice shot through two octaves on the way out. I slipped my finger into the trigger guard and sank into a crouch, ready to launch myself at him. “You think this is fun? What do you think comes after the end of the world, you nihilistic asshole?”

Ewan drew a hand through the air as though scooping something water from a bowl. A ball of superheated air congealed in his palm. I’d seen him use this trick before and knew just how devastating the results could be. He tended to aim for the middle, the heat of the air burning holes into the target’s guts while the force of the compressed air carried it through the torso, eating away at the innards as it went. He’d lob ball after ball until he tired of the assault and switched to a new element. It was like a game of dodgeball from hell.

“Simple,” he said, twirling the mini cyclone on the tip of his finger. “We’ll usher in new age of humanity, with me ruling them all…as a god.”

My eyes bugged with disbelief. I couldn’t decide if he was completely batshit, or if he really thought it would work. Bryne only clung to his body because he’d drained some poor bastards dry and transfused himself with the proper blood type. What, did he plan to save a camp full of humans from the end of days only to suck them down like juice boxes when they’d outlived their usefulness?

“You’re insane,” I said. “She’ll erase you, you won’t remember anything.”

 

“Who told you that?” he smirked. “Your dead vampire? He was trying to limit us, he was afraid of what we’d become. He’s old, but he doesn’t remember what it was like in the beginning… emerging out of primordial fire. Don’t you remember, when it was just you and me? We were alone. They killed our mother. They locked us up, put us to sleep, buried us away. For awhile, our worship powered dynasties of divine kings. Then we were placated by blood while they built stone tombs around our mortal coils. We woke up to eternal separation and darkness.

I shuddered despite myself. Had Valerius and his sister been buried alive in human hosts? Immortal, but contained by a mountain of stone. No wonder they were angry.

It was not pleasant, Valerius agreed. But maybe it was necessary.

He’s scared, I realized. Something in him had changed. He’d been bound to Cat for years, maybe it softened him. He was more human than Bryne. Did that make him stronger, or weaker?

If we start all over, Valerius continued, wipe the slate clean of humans… the gods will fight again, humans will be reborn, who knows what worse faits await? Why risk worse calamaties when I’m already free?

“Sorry,” I spat, the words dripping like acid from my tongue. “Valerius and I are going to pass on the end of the world shenanigans. It’s just not our scene.”

Ewan’s eyes narrowed to slits and he bounced the ball once in his hand. “Then you’ll die.”

Winding up like a major league ballplayer, he let the sphere fly. It hurtled through the air with enough speed to create its own sonic boom. I barely had enough time to flatten myself to the ground, realizing too late that doing so wasn’t safe either. The patch of sand beneath me shifted, tugging me down with the inexorable force of quicksand. I kicked, moving my body horizontally. It took the stuff a little while to stick and the best way to escape quicksand was not to become trapped in the first place.

I’d barely shuffled out of the deadly mix when Ewan’s knee came flying toward my face. The impact rattled my teeth and sent pain shooting up into my skull. It would have been less agonizing if he’d just shoved a hot poker up one nostril. My nose broke, spewing blood all over the denim pant leg before me.

I landed on my back with a cry and rolled away from the stomp that came down toward my head. With his newfound strength, the blow was sure to crush my skull like a duck egg and pulp my brains all over the sandy beach. Even knowing he couldn’t keep me dead for good didn’t lessen my horror at the prospect. This man wasn’t the person I’d known. There was no telling what he’d do with my body.

I had to stop him, somehow. Ewan seemed to have no compunctions torturing or killing me. And I needed more answers before I could do the same to him. His powers had increased in their potency since the transition into a monster. The key was to disable Bryne, so we’d be on somewhat equal footing. If I let Valerius off the leash to play, the conflict would only escalate until the whole world was consumed.

There was only one method I’d found that could pacify Valerius for a time. I had Barabbas Grieves to thank for the knowledge that violent blood sacrifice was necessary to pacify the ancient Aztec demons. But if Ewan suspected my motives, he wasn’t going to waste time trapping me in quicksand or blowing a hole through my middle. He’d set me on fire and hold me in the flames while I baked like a rotisserie chicken.

Rolling onto my back, I lined up a shot and pulled the trigger. I missed my intended target, his eye, and instead blew a divot the size of a quarter in one cheek. Blood streamed through the superheated air, floating like glittering rubies for a few moments before evaporating completely.

I regained my feet, launching into a right hook that snapped his head almost ninety degrees to the side. I heard something crack, at any rate. Ewan spat a tooth onto the sand and muttered a curse.

“Guess you don’t hit like a girl anymore, Valdez.”

“I never hit like a girl,” I snarled. Ewan lifted a hand to click his jaw back into place, and I noticed a glimmering tattoo on his neck. I wondered how many times he’d died, and how many tattoos and demonic powers were at his disposal. I glared at the Aztec symbol, wishing I could read what it meant.

My mind raced over my powers, but there was nothing useful on this barren island, nothing but death. My eyes widened and I touched the tattoos on my collarbone. Fire, darkness, blood and death. Could it be that simple? I flexed my fingers, reaching out with my aura, sweeping across the landscape. It took a moment to see them. Hundreds of wolf corpses, mangled and half burnt, some little more than bones, letting off a dark energy. They felt a little like vampires: an absence of life like a pocket or hole. I felt my aura tether with them, binding them to my will, and when I beckoned, they came. Shaking themselves off from ash and debris, smoldering bones and charred tendons reattaching. I smiled as the first launched itself at Ewan, chomping down on his leg with feral determination. He screamed in rage as another attached itself to his arm, bringing him down.

I raised my wrist up to my mouth, biting swiftly into the thick, fleshy pad of my palm, digging hard to reach one of the many veins in my hand. I pressed it to his mouth, getting a grip on his bicep before he could twist away from me. Pinning his legs in place with mine, I hauled us both to the ground and grappled with the cursing redneck until I was satisfied he’d gotten at least a half a pint from my injured palm.

Ewan stood, eyes flying open wide as he sensed the disconnect.

“What the hell did you do, you bitch?” he hissed.

“Leveling the playing field,” I said, retrieving the gun from its position mere feet away. I leveled it at his head, smirking. “Now that you’re mortal again, let’s talk.”

Make sure you get the first two books so you’ll be caught up when this one launches!

Changeling Rebellion (missing chapter)

Changeling Rebellion (missing chapter)

Chapter 1

The van flipped onto its side and slid across the road, screeching metal and burned rubber. Anton, Mariposa and I, loose in the back, were tossed about like ragdolls. Mariposa’s head hit me in the face hard enough to leave tooth marks on my cheek. Anton, half wolf in instinctive panic, caught my elbow in his throat. The van hadn’t come to rest yet before a second impact sent it rolling into the ditch. My vision looked like a Picasso on spin dry, disconnected images whirling past too fast to recognize, my senses blurring into confused synesthesia. The smell of burning rubber and smoke becomes briefly inextricably tied to the feeling of the hard molded plastic of the dash when my face hits it. The spiders web of broken glass as the windshield shatters tastes like coppery blood in my mouth. The blaring of the horn is how panic feels, a senseless continuous scream, desperate and terrible and utterly overwhelming.

It’s kind of wild what goes through your head during something like that. You don’t think you’re going to die, or at least I didn’t. It’s all too fast, too chaotic. Mostly, you’re just thinking “oh shit this is going to hurt.” But the brain is a weird thing and sometimes it throws you a curveball. So in the middle of that panic, I wasn’t thinking about dying or what would happen if I didn’t make it or about my loved ones or anything else reasonable like that.

I was thinking, “You should have run away the second you saw that vampire’s stupid face.”

Less than a week ago, Dante swanned into my life with a plan to steal one of the most important artifacts in the history of the magical community from the middle of a party thrown by the all-powerful vampiric masters of the city. And for some fucking reason instead of grabbing my shit and getting out of town like a reasonable person, I went along with it.

As anyone— except apparently, me—could have told you, it was bound to go horribly wrong. Turns out the party was overbooked, crime-wise. Our relatively victimless heist happened to overlap with the high profile murder of a powerful vampire Elder. Son of a bitch practically died on top of me. It was a little hard to maintain a low profile once my dress was soaked in the undead bastard’s blood. So I thought hey, might as well go out with a bang. Why not just discover a couple of new powers, get shot, and literally burst into flames in front of the actual fucking Sumerian? That’s a great plan, right? At least as smart as getting into any of this to begin with.

To be honest, my world had been flipped upside down way before the van started rolling. I just didn’t fully realize how badly until this moment.

When things were finally still, I was somehow still conscious. Around me, metal ticked and creaked as it settled. The horn was still screaming, undercut by the absurd ding of the turn signal. The stench of gas fumes and smoke was strong enough to make me worry we’d explode in a ball of fire, like something out of a movie.

I was, to my genuine surprise, in no more pain than I’d been to start with, which to be fair was still a significant amount of pain. I’d been shot earlier and somehow managed to escape with just a broken rib, which is pretty good considering it could have killed me, but each ragged breath I took felt like being stabbed. Add that to my scalded throat and the full body bruise I was working on, and I’d just about hit the upper limit on how much I could hurt.

The van had landed on its side. The three of us in the back were thrown into a pile against the left wall, which was now the floor. The right wall, currently above us, was caved in around the point of impact. I fumbled to disentangle myself from Anton and Mariposa, my ears ringing and my head spinning. Some part of me was aware that I probably shouldn’t be moving, but it was not a part I was used to listening to. I fumbled my way towards the back doors, just thinking about getting out and away. But my fumbling attempts to shove them open were met with stubborn resistance. My brain caught up enough to notice how badly the doors were twisted and bent. Stuck. I wouldn’t be getting out that way.

A groan from behind me reminded me I wasn’t alone with a rush of muddled guilt. Right. I’d dragged my friends into this mess with me. Former friends, rather. Maybe. I grew up with Domino, and I’d known Mariposa, Whisper and Anton almost as long. In high school we’d developed a reputation for stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down and a few things that were. But then my parents died and I had to drop out and support my little brother, Aaron. Suddenly hanging out with criminals wasn’t just a risk to my future, which I never really gave a shit about, but to Aaron’s as well. I’d barely spoken to them in years, trying to go straight with a  variety of shitty temp jobs. For a minute during the heist it was like nothing had changed between us. I was almost having fun. I should have known better.

“Domino?” I called, turning back. But it was Anton, accelerated werewolf healing already at work closing a gash on his jaw as I watched. Mariposa was out cold, braids fanned in blood, and it looked like Domino was out as well, collapsed into the airbag, his glamour glitching, revealing flashes of dramatically patterned black and white skin. Whisper was coming around, blinking dark inhuman eyes and making confused wordless noises as she pushed the slowly deflating airbag away and pawed at her seatbelt with unnaturally long, iridescent fingers.

“What the fuck was that?” I asked Anton as he pulled himself together enough to meet my eye. He just shook his head, as confused as I was.

Whisper caught sight of Mariposa and made a panicked noise, yanking at her seatbelt.

“It’s okay!” I said quickly. “I got her!”

I knelt next to Mariposa, terrified of what I would find, but she was breathing. Banged up, but alive. There was a cut on her head bleeding heavily. I tore a strip of fabric from my ruined party dress to press against it. The bottom half was burnt to dark cinders, but the material closer to my waist was clean and soft. Whisper tore her seatbelt free only to find her legs trapped under the crumpled dash. She thrashed to get free, starting to panic.

“She’s alright!” I turned back towards her so she could read my lips, but she was too freaked out to see. “Mari’s alive!”

Anton grabbed her by the shoulder to get her attention and messily signed what I’d said. Whisper sank back into her seat with a sob of relief.

While I tried to finagle a better bandage for Mari’s head, Anton moved to check on Domino. At my worried look he nodded and I could breathe again. We were all alive. My head was still ringing and the pain in my side was like a distant siren growing louder and more urgent with every second. I had a feeling when it reached full volume I was going to be near useless. Mari needed stitches at least. We all probably should have been checked out at a hospital. I tried to gather my thoughts, wondering what the hell we were going to do now. We were supposed to meet Dante outside of town to hand over the goods and get the rest of our payment. If things had gone according to plan, I would have been home already, with a stack of money for Aaron’s college fund. But my face had been seen. I was going to have to get out of town. And since I only agreed to this bullshit so I could afford to keep Aaron in his expensive school, that made everything I’d just been through completely useless. Great. Whatever. I could hate myself for this later. Right now I needed to get to Aaron before the vampires did. Judith too. She didn’t have anything to do with this, but the cop Dante had for some reason decided should be my date to the party had seen us together, knew her address. And I’d never met a cop, particularly a wolf cop, who wasn’t on the vampire payroll. When the vampires realized what I’d stolen, they were going to come after anyone that knew me. Maybe I was lucky that, aside from Aaron and Judith, pretty much everyone I’d ever given a shit about was in this van right now.

“They hit us on the right,” Anton muttered, distracting me from my disoriented thoughts. He was squinting at the crumpled side of the van above us. “Right?”

“Right.” I nodded, then regretted it when it caused a bolt of whiplash pain through my neck. “…Right?”

I suddenly wasn’t sure myself. Something about that fact seemed wrong. Through the shattered windshield I could see the Bayshore freeway, scattered with pieces of our van, glittering on the tarmac and the heat-withered grass of the median. “Why?”

“They couldn’t have hit us on the right,” Anton said, his eyes widening slowly. “We were driving on the right side of the road.”

For two silent seconds I tried to process what that meant, my sense of unease growing rapidly. But the sound of tearing metal interrupted any conclusions I might have drawn. I looked up in abject horror.

Something was tearing open the side of the van.

It ripped through the steel paneling like cheap tinfoil, tearing it open like a can of sardines. My jaw dropped as I struggled to comprehend what I was seeing. Darkness against darkness, a shadow against the washed-out night sky, an amorphous shape that seemed to boil and tremble like a mass of black fabric in a high wind.

And then, with a fluid movement made suddenly sharp, like a sheet snapping in the rising gale of a coming tornado, a piece of that rolling darkness recoiled, sharpened, and flew at me like a lance.

I threw myself clear, stumbling hard into the wall behind me in my haste, not really sure how I’d even seen it fast enough to react, especially considering the shape I was in. The siren of pain in my side was only getting louder, but I had other things to worry about. Namely, the solid bar of darkness thick as my wrist and the color of absolute void, which had punched straight through the metal at my feet. Featureless except for the strange way it fluctuated between impossibly fluid solid and impossibly solid gas, it stretched all the way back to its source above me. The figure loomed over the hole torn in the side of the van, themselves like a tattered hole in the sky, black as the void between stars, blistering and boiling. I stared in horrified shock as a second spear flew at me. I had nowhere else to move.

Anton lunged, smashing it with a bear-like paw before it could hit me. The shaft of darkness splintered and shattered like glass, then flowed instantly back together like water, like video played in reverse. With a motion somewhere between the coil and crack of a whip and the sweep of an arm lashing out, it slammed broadside into Anton’s chest, knocking the nearly three hundred pound wolf man off his feet and flinging him backwards. I’d barely had time to process the shock of this before it was coming after me again.

Spears of darkness as jagged and unpredictable as lightning strikes came down on me like an air strike. Dozens of spear-sharp limbs ricocheted and branched into what felt like hundreds of arrows. They lanced through the cramped back of the wrecked catering van. I dodged them with a speed I didn’t dare think too hard about, in case realizing that there was no way I could be doing this made it stop working. Not that introspection is exactly easy when you’re trapped in an 8×5 foot metal box, like a fish in a barrel, while some kind of nightmare shadow monster is trying to kill you. Not to mention the probable head injury.

I twisted out of the way of one spike, dove under another, barely managed to vault a third, and every movement—hell, every breath—sent pulses of white hot pain throbbing down my side. Static crowded the edges of my vision, my body threatening to knock me out for my own good. How I hadn’t passed out already was another thing I was trying not to think about.

A wordless shout from Whisper distracted me and I nearly avoided getting speared through the gut as I followed her panicked gaze to where Mariposa, still unconscious, lay just behind me, squarely in range of the spikes currently stabbing in that direction.

I flung myself towards Mari, pulling her into my arms and rolling out of the way a second before her seat was skewered by a dozen spikes. Still holding her tight, I made a run for the rear doors, a distance that should have been two steps but seemed like a football field sized obstacle course, the spears piercing through the van like bars. One of the spikes shot by my face close enough to open a gash under my eye. I leapt over one, slid under another, smashed a third with the flat of my arm, then put my head down and barreled directly into the rear doors like a linebacker.

I’ve always been strong, but panic and adrenaline (and maybe some of whatever had happened to me at the party) had ramped my strength up from unlikely-for-a-person-my-size to actually inhuman. I crashed through the doors like they were made of plywood, blasting them off their hinges, and kept going out into the wet grass of the slope beside the freeway.

I fell to my knees, Mariposa spilling out of my arms, wheezing as the pain and exhaustion overwhelmed me. Whatever magic had seized me during the party, it had left me completely drained. Once back in highschool, the week before a big track meet, I’d gone so overboard with practice that I’d ended up in the hospital. This felt almost the same, just with more broken bones. Like I’d pushed myself well beyond my limits and kept going anyway. When I’d passed out running sprints and had to be peeled off the tarmac by EMTs, my dad said when your car is out of gas you can’t just keep running on fumes. At least not for long. But I wasn’t just running on fumes here. The gas tank had gone dry an hour ago and I was still rolling along on sheer momentum. It was like I’d discovered a whole different engine. It had taken a literal car accident—the smoking wreck was all around me—to slow me down; and even then I was somehow still moving. If my dad were alive he would have kicked my ass.

There was another sedan a few feet away, its front end crumpled and smoking. That must have been the second impact, when the first spun us into the oncoming lane. The freeway was busy even this late at night and other cars were stopping. A few concerned citizens were climbing out of there cars to check on us or calling 911. A few were taking pictures. How much had they seen? We could all get in serious trouble if we were found responsible for exposing a bunch of mundies to the un-mundane. But that was something to worry about after monsters stopped trying to kill me.

Every ragged breath felt like a dagger in my side. Groaning, I resisted the urge to lay down in the nice soft grass and pass out, and instead shifted to look back at the van, hoping maybe the creature would have just gone home. Which of course, it hadn’t. If I had that kind of luck I’d be in Vegas, not working three jobs and getting conned into stupid crimes that led to being skewered by shadow monsters.

The thing I’d glimpsed before stood on top of the flipped vehicle, a patch of absolute black against the light-pollution gray of the night sky. It had stopped making swiss cheese of the wrecked van, pulling its sharpened limbs back into the amorphous mass of its main body. There was a human shape in there I realized, now that it wasn’t just a black blur against the dark sky. The glow of the wrecked sedan’s headlights illuminated a dirty pair of converse, and the ragged hem of an old pair of blue jeans. Darkness boiled around the upper half of their body, obscuring all but those sad, scuffed-up sneakers. When the darkness guttered and billowed like a candle flame, I could see it moving around the solid edges of a person. I’m not sure if it was better or worse to realize it wasn’t just a mindless monster. Hell, it might still have been mindless despite the body inside of it. There were plenty of nightmarish Fae-things that rode humans like parasites, a kind of magical cordyceps. For whatever reason, this one wanted me dead.

Like a giant spider uncurling, new limbs unfolded from the center mass, sharp and segmented. They slammed into the ground on either side of the van, lifting the main body into the air as the beast crawled forward. A shiver of horror and revulsion ran down my back, not just at the sight of this massive malevolent arachnid moving towards me, though that should have been enough. What was worse was the way the body dangled beneath the spidery legs like a fat leech or a lynching victim, swinging limply by the head, limbs loose and corpse-like.

It moved slowly, staggeringly, with a jerky, unreal quality like a film that was missing every third frame. It stumbled and slipped frequently, like it was still learning to walk, or like the eerie way it moved was making it hard to know where to put its feet. The thing’s apparent clumsiness made it no less terrifying as it dragged itself towards me on its crawling stilt legs, not sparing the van and my friends inside it another glance. Through the torn open back doors of the van I could see Whisper shouting wordlessly, still trying to get loose from the wreckage pinning her to her seat. She hurled something, the rearview mirror I think, at the monster, trying to get its attention away from me and the unconscious Mariposa. It bounced off the creature’s side, completely ignored.

It kept its entire focus on me. Just me, I realized as I stumbled to my feet. I took a few steps away from Mariposa, and saw the creature shift its trajectory to follow my stumbling, agonized steps. It took me another heartbeat to figure out what it wanted. Against my thigh, in the pocket of my ruined dress, what we’d stolen burned like a brand. The Treaty of Five Races. The singular magically binding contract that had ended centuries of war between vampires, Fae, witches, wolves, and trolls.

Maybe it wasn’t really after me. Just the treaty.

And then, all at once, before I could even start running, the thing was gone.

The weird dropped-frame stutters had been increasing with every step it took and at last it flickered like bad TV reception and disappeared. I flinched, confused and afraid, neck twinging painfully as I whipped my head around looking for where it had gone. It couldn’t have just disappeared. The humans were acting like they hadn’t seen it at all, hovering near by as though unsure whether they should approach and offer help.

Before any of them could work up the courage the sound of a siren cut through the chatter and the still blaring wail of the wrecked van’s horn.

A patrol car cleared a path through the humans and stopped right next to the wreck. The black magitech box discreetly fixed next to the car’s antennae gave it away as belonging to an Otherside officer even before I recognized Detective Ryan getting out of the front seat, still in his tailcoat and tie. If I hadn’t been busy panicking about the monster, this would have been another good reason to freak out.

This was the wolf cop who’d been my date to the party. Undeniably hot in a wholesome farm boy kind of way, but not the guy I wanted to see right now. Especially considering he’d probably already been after us from the minute we left the party, way before he heard about the wreck. That magitech box connected him to the Otherside police radio, and also explained why the humans weren’t freaking out. It could generate a near mile wide Forget-Me-Not field, an advanced bit of magitech enchantment that made any human in its vicinity less curious and more suggestible. And if the thought of something that exploitable being in the hands of the notoriously corrupt Otherside police force makes you nervous, well you’re not alone. Regardless, the intended use is to make humans less likely to notice magic happening and more inclined to accept any semi-plausible explanation they’re offered, so the police department doesn’t have to foot the bill for quite so many expensive, unreliable memory wiping rituals.

The humans standing around looking uncertain right now were probably already half convinced they were accidentally interrupting the filming of a movie or something. But if that monster started hurting people or wrecking shit no amount of Forget-Me-Not in the world would stop them from freaking out. The device was also capable of generating a temporary Fae-space bubble. But Ryan didn’t turn it on, presumably because there were already too many humans watching and it would raise more questions if we just vanished suddenly. Also, he thought this was just a car accident that happened to involve the burglars he was after. He didn’t know about the big fuck-off shadow monster. Yet.

I was frozen. If I ran he’d come after me, and in my condition he’d definitely catch me. Arrest was a death sentence. The Triumvirate owned the Otherside police, literally. As soon as they realized I was the one who’d taken the treaty I’d be lucky if the vampires just arranged for me to “commit suicide” in my cell. Torture was more likely, and it wasn’t hyperbole to say I’d rather just die. The vampires were second only to Fae when it came to finding creative ways to cause pain. Even if I got away somehow, Ryan would arrest Domino and the others, who would be in just as much danger of lethal retribution once they were connected to the robbery.

Not to mention, I still didn’t know where that monster had gone.

“Miss Barr,” Ryan called, approaching me slowly, holding his gun at his side. “Put your hands up and get down on the ground.”

My mouth was too dry to make a sarcastic comment about how I was already on my knees. I glanced towards the van again, still trying to decide what to do. He must have been able to see the panic on my face. Run on the slim chance of maybe living and abandon my friends to a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, or stay and die horribly with them. Assuming the fucking monster didn’t pop back in and skewer them the minute my back was turned, and a bunch of clueless human spectators on top of that. Every option looked like death.

“Down on the ground, Evie!” Ryan demanded, apparently unsympathetic to the shit situation I’d put myself in. “Now!”

Before I could make a choice one way or the other, a shriek tore the air and a black spike the width of a young tree slammed into the hood of Ryan’s patrol car. The monster flickered back into reality with a crackle of static, and it did not look happy to be there. The human shape at its center, less dead than I’d hoped, had their hands to their head, a black hole mouth opened in a silent scream that the shadows echoed with an ear-piercing, inhuman shriek as they tore apart Ryan’s car, lashing out at the closest thing in mindless rage. Like I’d predicted, the humans started screaming and running, fleeing back to their cars. Ryan, his eyes wide and his arms bristling with wolf-fur, stumbled backwards away from it. He backed closer to me and I took advantage of his distraction to grab his arm and drag myself to my feet, tears springing to my eyes as my broken rib made it very clear how much it did not approve of this course of action. Ryan barely seemed to notice, steadying me with one hand while he stared at the monster destroying his car.

“What the hell is that thing?” he shouted over the twin shrieks of monster and metal.

“Fuck if I know!” I yelled back, which was, as it turned out, a mistake. The thing snapped to attention all at once and rushed at me, screaming and tripping over itself in its fury. It seemed to be getting the hang of walking, and it closed the distance between us much faster than before.

I turned and bolted up the slope, my exhausted muscles screaming and my damaged rib threatening mutiny. If we lived through this, Anton was going to tear me a new one.

Ryan ran after me. I couldn’t be sure if it was because he didn’t know the monster was only after me, or because he was still trying to arrest me, but I wasn’t about to stop and ask.

We hauled ass up the slope, the creature close behind us, struggling to find purchase on the steep hill with its spindly limbs and ungainly shape. One of its spiked legs snagged Ryan’s coat. He slipped out of it without hesitation. I grabbed him by the arm to drag him over the rise and through the thin line of acacia trees at the top of the hill. We sprinted through a dark backyard and over a fence towards a residential street. The monster crashed through the trees behind us, demolishing the fence in a shower of wood splinters. Then, just as I looked back over my shoulder at it, it vanished again in another TV static flicker. I stumbled to a stop in the middle of the silent, empty street. Ryan bent over, panting heavily, then snapped up and grabbed my arm.

“Where did it go?” he demanded.

“I don’t know!”

“What is it? Why is after you?”

“I said I don’t know!”

I scanned the houses and street signs for some idea of where I was. Nice residential neighborhood, lots of trees and nice little town houses. Potrero Hill, probably. Miles from home or help or any decent hiding place.

“Is it gone?” Ryan asked, looking back towards the wrecked fence where it had been. No sooner had he spoken than it appeared again, not where it had been before, but a few feet down the road, directly ahead of us.

“Nope!” I shouted, turning around and sprinting in the opposite direction.

It came after us, sounding its nightmare scream at a volume I was shocked wasn’t waking the entire neighborhood. But now the thing had us on flat ground, boxed in by houses. We were fucked. It only hadn’t caught us immediately because it kept flickering out of existence and back in again, sometimes closer to us, sometimes further away. Dumb luck was all that was keeping us alive, and if I knew anything about my luck, it wouldn’t last.

My heart pounded as I heard the squeal of breaks ahead of us. A familiar black town car tore onto the street and sped towards us and the monster behind us. The rear passenger door opened before the vehicle had even begun to skid to a stop, and Dante stepped out with innocuously casual grace, moving at a speed most humans wouldn’t be able to even perceive. In his hand was a sword, some kind of long, curved saber that looked like it belonged in a portrait of Napoleon on horseback.

Despite how fast he was going, he moved at what I could only describe as a saunter. He practically strolled past Ryan and I, who were still running for our lives, towards the creature attacking us.

I didn’t even have time to turn my head or wonder what the hell the vampire was doing. I heard the monster shrieking and felt a rush of air. By the time I managed to put on the brakes and turn around, it was already over.

For a split second I saw Dante, standing over the human figure at the creature’s heart, sword raised. The splinters of the monster’s shattered liquid limbs were still scattered in the air, not yet flying back together. There was an unnatural wind, rushing upward as though displaced by the sheer speed of Dante’s descending blade, which had torn his long black hair free of its tie and thrown it out above him like a black flame. His face was a contorted mask of rage.

And then I blinked and it was gone.

The creature vanished again, this time with a crack like thunder and a blast of wind that made me stumble.

Dante stopped his sword before it hit the asphalt of the road and straightened up. With a thoughtful frown, he touched his mouth and his fingers came away bloody. The thing must have got one hit in at least. It had split his lip.

“Odd,” he said lightly, like he was commenting on some unseasonable weather that had interrupted his walk.

“It’ll be back,” I called out as he sheathed his saber and stowed it inside the enchanted endless pocket of his blazer. “It keeps flickering in and out like that.”

“Well then, we had best leave before it does,” Dante replied, walking back towards his car. It had skidded to a stop in the middle of the road. His driver, a stout and surly European man, stood waiting by the driver’s side door as though nothing unusual had happened.

“I assume you would appreciate a ride?”

Dante opened the rear passenger door again and gestured for me to get in. I was too tired and in too much pain to even question it right now. I just limped over and collapsed into the leather seats with a sigh of relief.

“Detective Ryan,” Dante said, gesturing to the door again. “You are of course welcome to join us.”

Ryan glanced at the car, then at the spot where the monster had disappeared. He licked his lips, like he was weighing the pros and cons.

“Don’t suppose you’d let me drive?” he asked.

“I’m afraid that would be impossible,” Dante replied. “Sergei is quite territorial. You adjusted the seat when you borrowed the car earlier and he hasn’t stopped complaining about it since.”

“Mirrors too,” Sergei said, deadpan and expressionless.

Ryan climbed into the front passenger seat.

“Now.” As Dante took his seat in the back next to me and we began to drive, he cleared his throat and turned to me, frowning. “There’s something I must ask before anything else. What in god’s name have you done to your dress?”

“Burned it,” I replied, unremorseful. The thing had been pretty, but damn impractical. At least the singed lining was easier to move in. “In case you didn’t notice, things didn’t exactly go according to plan.”

“I did hear that things got a bit noisy there at the end. Something about you murdering an elder?”

“That wasn’t me and you know it! Everything would have gone perfectly if that son of a bitch hadn’t keeled over right on top of—”

I cut myself off with a pained noise as my rib reminded me that it was still broken and that yelling was a bad idea.

“You’re injured?” Dante asked.

“Fractured rib,” I admitted through clenched teeth. “It’s nothing, I just need painkillers and a month in bed. Anton tried to help, but then that thing attacked the van and—”

Then Dante kissed me, and anything else I’d been about to say disappeared completely.

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