I whistled between my teeth. “I do like to outdo myself,” I said.
I glanced over my shoulder at Noah, who was slowly losing a fierce battle with humidity. His brown eyes were half-hidden by the fog creeping up his glasses, and his black hair had fluffed out to nearly twice its usual size.
“You know. You’re welcome to leave and let me face the felding all alone,” I said, adopting the most innocent, pure-hearted damsel look I could muster.
With a sigh, Noah tore off his glasses and wiped them on his short-sleeved shirt. The black material was terrible at cleaning his glasses, though, and poor Noah ended up replacing humidity with dust and fabric fibers. “You know I wouldn’t,” he replied, giving me a cross glance.
Of course, I knew. I grinned and turned my attention back to the soft slap of the boats’ hulls and the dull roar of the waves, heavy with debris from the latest storm, beating lowly against the docks.
“We’ll be fine,” I said, as I resumed walking along the dock, Noah following despite his protests.
“How do you even know this is the right place?”
“I overheard Father and Professor Faye talking about it,” I said.
“Overheard,” Noah said flatly.
Okay, maybe overheard wasn’t the best word to use. Overheard implied that it had been happenstance. And it wasn’t. I had snuck out of my room in the dead of night and listened through the crack in a barely open door, after all.
“Details!” I declared, waving flippantly. “Point is, I know. The felding is here. I promise!”
“And you couldn’t let your father and Professor Faye handle it?” Noah asked.
“I imagine they’re both busy planning for the upcoming semester,” I replied. “They already have enough to do. We’d actually be helping if we dispatched this felding for them! Besides, we’re going to be acolytes soon, and—”
“And there’s a big difference between two new acolytes and alary like your father and Professor Faye.”
The alary were the elite warriors who secretly protected humanity from all the evil and creepy monsters in the world. But I was tired of letting them do everything, while I sat in the wings being treated like a fragile academy princess. I raked a few damp strands of blonde hair back from my eyes and looked across the road at my destination: the water treatment plant. The sound of churning water blended with the mechanical clang of grinding metal, as we waited for a car to pass by. Over the noise of the water treatment plant, a screeching snarl echoed off the buildings around us. I grinned at Noah, then sprinted across the road. I paused at a round, concrete wall, waiting for him to cross the road and join me. Despite there being no cars in sight, Noah looked both ways twice and sprinted across the road as if Satan himself ran in pursuit.
“Ready to slay a dragon?” I asked.
“Actually, I was thinking about Professor Lynn, whose great-aunt—”
“Had her head ripped off and eaten by a dragon,” I finished, rolling my eyes. “My father’s only told me that story a billion times. I don’t need it from you, too.”
“He’s just looking out for you,” Noah said. “As am I.”
I knew that, but sometimes, my father acted like I was nine instead of nineteen in three weeks. And I suspected if my father had his way, I’d be kept as far from danger as possible for the rest of my life. Even my angel-blessed blood and destiny as a warrior wasn’t enough to soothe my father’s fears of losing me. Like he’d lost my mother Aurora. Best not to think about her.
Noah wasn’t much different from my father, though he had absolutely no reason to be so protective. He was only twenty but fretted over me like an old, overly doting grandmother. But he’d once promised my father that he’d protect me, and despite that promise being made when Noah was eight, he took it very seriously.
“Besides, Professor Lynn’s aunt was killed by a fire dragon,” I said, forcing a smile. “This is a water dragon, and considering it’s just living in this water plant, it has to be small. The humans probably just think it’s an alligator.”
The hissing screech of the dragon split the air around us, just on the other side of the concrete wall. The solid, straight concrete wall. I tipped my head back, judging the height. Fifteen feet? Twenty? There didn’t appear to be any ladders or footholds and no nearby fence or tree to jump from.
“How are we going to get in?” Noah asked, as if he’d read my mind.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked.
It really wasn’t, but I refused to admit that I hadn’t foreseen this particular obstacle. I’d figure it out. I didn’t come all this way to be defeated by a concrete wall.
“We leave it to the alary, who have wings, years of weapons training, and blessings from the angels?” Noah asked.
“No,” I replied.
I kept walking along the length of the structure, searching for any way up. There was something odd, a place where the moonlight cast a short, horizontal shadow. I trailed my hands up the concrete, groping the space. My fingers brushed against an object, damp and solid, just above my head. It was the remains of something. A step or a ladder, maybe? “We climb,” I said, grinning.
Noah sighed and cast his eyes heavenwards, as if God Almighty might instill him with enough divine patience to handle me. I sucked in a deep breath and jumped. My fingers curled over the edge of the step as I hauled myself up. My eyes darted upward, squinting through the darkness. There was another step, a couple feet up. Carefully balancing on the narrow step, I pulled myself onto the next one and quickly scaled the side of the concrete. My arms burned as I reached the top and pulled myself onto the rim, being careful not to fall into the water on the other side. I turned to Noah, reaching a hand to help him stand as he joined me. “See? No wings needed,” I said.
He didn’t smile. Instead, he gazed into the murky pool of water beneath us. “Is it even in here?” Noah asked.
I bent down, peering closer into the water, but only saw my own distorted reflection in the smooth surface. In the murky water, my blue eyes looked black and my pale hair a dingy gray. I pulled at my black blouse, which clung uncomfortably to my skin. The humid air that struck my bare stomach didn’t offer the comfort I’d wanted. The sweat gathering under my breasts and beneath my sturdy, canvas pants was worse. If there hadn’t been the threat of a dragon, I’d have been tempted to jump in fully clothed, despite the filmy layer of grime floating on the water’s surface.
Without warning, a flash of blue lightning lanced through the water toward us, just as something slammed against the concrete. A jagged sliver forked up the side of the wall beneath Noah’s feet, a trickle of water seeping out of the crack. Noah stumbled backwards as the concrete shuddered under his feet. I grabbed his arm to stop him from stepping off the ledge.
“Careful,” I said, as he regained his footing.
I drew a four-inch cylindrical rod from my back pocket and pressed my thumb into the m-shaped rune – flicking my wrist the way I’d seen my father do a thousand times. The weapon extended into a nine-foot lance with a deadly point.
Noah’s jaw dropped. “Cora, no. You didn’t,” he said.
“Oh, but I did!” I replied, smirking. “What else were we going to use to fight a dragon?”
Noah smiled, a new eagerness flashing in his eyes. He reached over his shoulder and drew a star-bright Crusader’s sword from the sheath across his back. “The sword of Saint George?” he suggested.
“And you criticized me for stealing my father’s dragon lance!” I exclaimed.
“The good Saint’s sword was just gathering dust in the library,” Noah said.
“There’s hope for you yet,” I replied, “but God above, my father is going to kill us both.”
My father was the chancellor of Divine Providence, the academy that trained the alary, and as his daughter, I knew I’d get a good scolding and a slap on the wrists. At worst, maybe a month of latrine duty. But Noah could face real punishment, especially for borrowing a Saint’s weapon. His mother worked in the kitchens of Divine Providence, and his father had abandoned him long ago. Noah didn’t have a high-ranking family to protect him.
“It’s not too late to turn back,” Noah said, his voice becoming serious, “and pretend none of this ever happened.”
I shook my head and tightened my grip on the lance. “Not unless we’re hauling the head of a water dragon with us.”
The surface of the water churned a little. I watched for flashes of blue, studying the shimmer of moonlight reflecting on the surface.
“Do you see it?” I asked, as I circled around on the ledge.
I tucked my father’s lance between my bicep and my ribs and curled my hand around the weapon’s shaft, forcing it steady. My whole arm ached from its weight. It was bigger than me by about three and a half feet. That gave me a good reach, but I hadn’t anticipated it being so unwieldy. Father always made it look so easy, and the life-size mural of Michael and his six brothers slaying a dragon horde in the great hall made it look simple enough. Tuck under your arm, aim, pointy-end forward. But they had wings, which probably served as a counterbalance. God, why hadn’t I thought of that before? As blue lightning flashed in the water, I suddenly wish I’d brought a trident instead or a sword like Noah had.
A swish of a finned tail flicked up through the surface. I stabbed the lance down before the dragon could disappear into the depths again. Its snarling cry tore through the air and echoed off the water, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere.
The dragon dove, threatening to pull my lance with it. Frantically, I pushed on the rune, causing the lance to collapse once more. Red blood spurted from the tip, staining the water with a colorful cloud. Once more, I pressed the rune on the lance, extending it to its full length again. Beside me, Noah cried out. I barely caught sight of the triple row of jagged teeth, as the blue-scaled beast reared out of the tank behind us. For a split second, I stood frozen and mesmerized. I’d always heard of dragons as being monstrous beasts who ate the hearts of angelborn for power. A hundred angel hearts and—the bestiaries said—a dragon could become human. I’d seen countless illustrations and tapestries of dragons being slain.
But I’d never realized how beautiful they were. The dragon’s scales looked like sleek, polished sapphires, and its delicate-looking wings were thin and translucent like a dragonfly’s. Even the dragon’s sharp spines and crests seemed lovely, like icicles clinging from a tree. Then, the spell was broken, and I steeled myself for the coming attack. It snapped at Noah, who slammed into me, pushing me off-balance and into nothingness.
Over our heads, the dragon launched from the edge of the tank. It flew through the air with its short wings, then dove into the murky sludge just feet from us. When my body struck the lukewarm water, I floundered, struggling with the weight of my father’s lance. Praying that the dragon didn’t choose then to strike, I collapsed the lance and dragged my way up through the water, gasping for air as I broke the surface. My eyes stung with the rank, chemically treated water. My soggy boots dragged me downwards, but I kicked hard to stay above water. I reached the edge of the tank and leaned against it, swiveling my head to look for Noah.
He surfaced a short distance away, but then dove and disappeared for several heartbeats. When he surfaced again, his face was frantic.
“What is it?” I shouted.
“I dropped the sword!”
I growled in frustration and tucked my father’s lance into my back pocket. Instead, I drew out my mother’s twin daggers, as always, sheathed at my thighs. With my hands free, I swam across the water and shoved the hilt of the second dagger into Noah’s hand, just as the water beneath us began to churn.
I kicked away from the edge of the tank and out of the path of the breaching water dragon. It broke the surface, jaw chomping. I gasped, pain shooting up my leg as its teeth sank into my ankle. I sucked a frantic breath before the creature dragged me beneath the surface. Twisting my body underwater, I thrust the dagger down at the scaled flesh of the beast. The blade turned against scales, unable to penetrate the thick, natural armor. I almost screamed in surprise as a second scaled body slammed into my ribs, but forced my mouth shut to preserve precious air, biting my tongue hard in the process.
I slashed again at the dragon holding me, then kicked hard with my other leg. Its teeth ripped through the skin at my ankle and snagged on my boot, a chunk of leather coming away in its mouth. I kicked off its head to surface, took in a frantic breath, and dove again.
I roughly wiped away water from my burning eyes and searched for the dragons. I barely made out the flickers of blue as their scales and wings glowing in the moonlight. Their tails swished, cutting through the water as they circled back on me. The water rippled as Noah dove beside me. We nodded at each other as the first beast snaked its way toward us. It cut swiftly through the water with its short wings and swaying tail.
The beast’s mouth opened wide like the gaping jaws of an alligator. I kicked away, out of its reach, as Noah slashed his dagger across the eye on one side. I buried my hilt through the other. Blinded and enraged with pain, the dragon snarled and thrashed. My chest burned, and I pushed myself back to the surface for air.
I barely managed to gulp a fresh lungful of air before the second dragon rammed into me. It seized my left arm with its jaws and wrapped its wings around me like a cocoon, dragging me beneath the surface. I slashed out with the dagger, slicing through the delicate skin of its fragile wings until the blade struck bone. It thrashed and recoiled. I surfaced again, then cried out as its sharp spines dug into my back. Once more, its jaws gripped my bleeding ankle. “Noah!” I yelled before my head sank beneath the surface again.
My lungs burned from the lack of oxygen, and the moon above the tank grew fuzzy as the dragon’s deadly grip pulled me to the bottom of the tank. Blood stained the water and swirled around me in clouds of color. How much was mine? My ankle and arm throbbed, and the deep gouges in my back burned like wildfire.
A shadow blotted out the light. The dragon’s jaws loosened, and its whole body grew limp. I slipped out of its grasp, but my clothes were sodden and my muscles weak with exhaustion. I kicked and swished my arms through the water, but my movements were sluggish. Heavy, impossible. My thoughts were groggy, slow, and my vision grew black at the edges, as murky as the water around me.
Strong arms wrapped around me. A part of me wanted to thrash, to fight off this new attacker, but I was so tired. So very tired. When the night air hit my face, I gasped, coughing up water as I was lifted through the air. My rescuer’s feet struck the pavement at the foot of the tank. Did he just jump down to the ground? Impossible. The distance was fifteen or twenty feet.He loomed over me, night-black eyes gazing into my face with sharp intensity.
“Dammit, Cora,” he muttered.
His dark, velvety voice was familiar, although my mind was slow to put a name with it. I blinked in confusion. My eyes burned from the water, but I was almost certain I glimpsed fanged teeth between his lips.
“Aamon?” I whispered.
I must be imagining things. It couldn’t be him.
My body recoiled from the hard pavement as Aamon laid me on the ground. Every cell of my body felt hyper-sensitive and charged. I shakily sat upright, my throat raw. My eyes traced over his dark hair, his strong jaw, and the barely noticeable scar that cut just beneath his right eyebrow. It wasn’t a scar earned in battle or anything like that. He’d hit his head on the coffee table as a child.
“Aamon,” I rasped, choking on his name.
He glanced at something in the distance, then shook his head.
A second later, his thumb traced my cheek, his touch like lightning. “Please, don’t do anything stupid,” he whispered. “Anything else.”
I shivered at the chill on my skin where his hand had rested. Then, he was gone, as if he’d simply become one with the shadows around me. My head spun as I looked around, trying to find him.
“Cora?” my father cried.
I glanced up. His metal armor and star-white wings shined in the moonlight.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Noah,” I croaked, my throat is rough and raw, “The dragons.”
He sighed and flicked a hand to command the others. I swallowed, closing my eyes against the pain that throbbed through every part of me. I couldn’t bring myself to move. My thoughts were in fragments, but still, I wondered if Noah was okay and if we at least managed to get a dragon head out of this whole, stupid misadventure.
Read two more episodes for free, or get the full book!
I was going to kill Lydna when I got back to Divine Providence. I glared at my boots, pink frilly dress and studded leather jacket. She’d sworn this look was popular with humans, but the other passengers wore muted, comfortable clothing. But it was a short flight, and all I had to do was watch movies and kill someone.
I wondered if I should order champagne, but I needed my head clear. I clocked my mark, a few rows ahead of me, just behind the curtain that led to first class. From what I could see, he had at least one travelling companion. My long legs were cramped behind the tiny seat, and I felt the weapons strapped to the small of my back. Vamps preferred guns, so I’d be the only one armed, not that it mattered. Taking down one vamp alone would require skill, even with the wooden stakes I’d snuck through airport security, and two was suicidal.
This is why the alary never went on missions alone, but I had to prove myself somehow. A year after giving birth and Joel still managed to keep me bound to the manor like an invalid. A high-value vamp was just the right target to prove to the chancellor I was ready for action.
But he’d be isolated from his horde, and trapped in a steel box, seven miles in the air. There was nowhere to run, which meant one of us wouldn’t be making it home tonight. This plan was either genius, or insane. Lynda would have called it post-partum psychosis or something like that, but a future of being homebound, learning to cook and taking care of an infant was infinitely worse than death. I’d been bred as a killing machine my whole life, and I refused to let my skills go wasted.
Besides, I’d killed dozens of vamps in only a few short years, some even before I’d earned my wings. Not to mention a handful of fae and djinn, though they were much rarer. I’d only seen a mermaid once, but we usually leave them alone, as they don’t interfere in human affairs and are absolutely deadly underwater.
I didn’t recognize the dark-haired bloodsucker in first class, but I’d done my research. Some kind of eastern european aristocrat. I was surprised he wasn’t taking a private jet for the instagram, but then I guess he wouldn’t show up in the pictures anyway. Vamps weren’t exactly insta-friendly.
And despite their wealth, they were cheap, which is how I knew he’d only be travelling with far fewer bodyguards. I heard a laugh ahead of me, and realized he’d starting chatting up another passenger, a pretty blonde with a white skirt and a gold necklace. She had far too much mascara and lips that were too plump to be natural. My heart pounded as she glanced at him wickedly, before getting up to use the restroom. He followed a moment later.
Charming bastard. Sure he’s handsome and rich as fuck, but that didn’t mean he had to bang every former gameshow hostess that crossed his path. With any luck, he was just thirsty. A few sips of first-class heiress blood would slow his reflexes, and keep him distracted so I could sneak up on him.
But that meant this was happening now.
The angelic brand on my arm started to glow in anticipation, but it was dampened by the dark leather jacket. I couldn’t stake his companion with so many passengers around, but thankfully they also disguised my smell, so I was able to sneak up close enough to touch him. The light flashed down my palms as I pinched the space behind his ear. My magic sparkled under his translucent skin. He flinched, but didn’t move, as my power held him paralyzed. With my other hand, I took a clove of garlic from my jacket pocket and stuffed it gently between his fangs. His eyes widened as the allergic reaction stiffened his limbs, activating the dormant rigor mortis in his black veins. I shut his jaw and strapped a disposable eye mask from the care package we’d been given.
“Night night,” I whispered, as I pulled my fingers away from his neck.
One down, one to go.
* * *
I saw a flight attendant glance at the bathroom door, but she just rolled her eyes. Apparently she was used to first class passengers taking their priveleges into the bathroom. I waited till she passed, then rammed the flimsy door open with my shoulder, busting the cheap lock. The vamp’s pale chin was covered in blood, his fangs fully extended, his back to me. I slashed out with the wooden spike, but he whirled quickly, blocking himself with the girl. I stabbed between her shoulder blades, but the wound was shallow. She moaned, still intoxicated from the vampire’s venom. I kicked the back of her knees, and she folded like a puppet, leaving the vampire exposed. This time I struck true, but in the tiny bathroom, I couldn’t get enough momentum to pierce his ribs. I felt the stake slide between them, inches from his heart.
Shit. This was not going well. He sneered at me, smashing my head into the mirror, before rushing past me into the main cabin. I took a deep breath and followed, picking bits of glass out of my hair.
When he reached his companion, he tore off the eye mask and pried the garlic out of his mouth, scowling as he wiped the vampire drool off against the plush seat fabric. In about a minute, I’d have to fight both of them. But I didn’t need a minute.
Passengers screamed as I charged down the aisle, leap-frogging over the rows of chairs to plant a boot into his jaw. He caught my leg and threw me to the ground, so hard the luggage compartment above us snapped open, spilling their contents. Movement to my left caught my eye, and I squinted at the dark shape outside the oval window, silhouetted by the moonlight sky.
I flinched at the sound of tearing metal. Green scales pressed up against the window.
“You fool,” the vamp croaked, just as one of the engines was ripped off in a burst of flame, smoke and a shower of sparks.
The plane rocked violently to the side, before going into a nose dive that had us tumbling across the floor, then sliding along the walls above the heads of the strapped-in passengers. Joel was going to kill me when he found out about this unsanctioned mission. If I lived that long.
I couldn’t fight a dragon with a wooden stake. This one looked centuries old, very mean, and nearly as big as the plane. They rarely attacked humans, and there hadn’t even been a sighting for over a decade, as far as I knew. What are the chances, I muttered.
I stood my ground as the vampire charged, tearing apart the upholstered seats with his elongated claws as he dashed across the ceiling. The oxygen masked popped down, and the passengers clutched each other as they strapped in tightly. If I could just get my fingers around his wrist, I could incapacite him, at least until I figured out what to do next. But before his blow landed, the plane was torn apart from beneath us.
Wind sucked him instantly out of the mangled shell of the airplane. I clutched hold of the nearest seat, wrapping my hands into the seatbelt straps, even though the vibrations of the shaking plane made my teeth chatter.
Behind me, voices screamed as the now-open main cabin of the plane tumbled downwards in a death spiral. A little girl looked up at me with wide eyes and I heard her whisper, “look Mommy, an angel.”
“Sorry kid,” I said. “I’m not that kind of angel.”
Then I took off, driving through the scorched carnage of the plane and narrowly missing the flaming engine. I felt its warmth as I tumbled past. Then I flattened my body, riding the air forward like a missile. I found the dark silhouette of my mark a few hundred feet away. He probably wouldn’t survive the fall, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I grabbed his torso between my legs and stabbed him with the stake. He fought me off at first, but he wasn’t used to the low oxygen.
The thin air at this altitude made him weak. Finally, I felt his ribs snap and the wooden stake plunged into his rotten heart, oozing dark sludge over my fingers. Then I kicked away from him, as he plummeted towards the earth. Wind buffeted against me as I tore off my leather jacket, and rolled my bare shoulders back to unfurl my wings. I glanced back at the airplane, now a flaming inferno spinning towards the ground, but it was too late to save them. I watched as it hit the ground in an explosion, close to where my mark had fallen.
That’s one way to kill a vampire.
* * *
I took a breath, slowly flapping my wings to maintain altitude, wondering if I’d made the right choice. I could have saved that kid, but I’d chosen to take out the vamp instead. I couldn’t save the whole plane, but that kid, her, I could have saved. Now she was just another soul on my conscience.
My head still buzzing from the fight, I didn’t hear the slow pulse of the dragon’s wings until I felt the warm steam of his breath just behind me. The burst of hot air spun me sideways and when I glanced back, it was too late to avoid the wall of scales. Its talons bound me like a vice, snatching me in its massive claw like a hawk with a trout.
I felt the angelic mark on my wrist glow with power as I extended my shield around me, narrowing it to just a razor’s-edge over my skin to keep me from getting crushed. Even so, the pressure was immense. Enough to turn an SUV into a tin-can.
I clenched my jaw as the dragon flexed his knuckles. When the creature didn’t eat me immediately, I realized it was tenderizing me. I cursed at the nearly-full moon, which was pink and low on the horizon. I knew I should have consulted the astrocharts before leaving.
It was nearly Summer Solstice, on the year of a super strawberry moon that only occurred every twenty years. Breeding season. Dragons were periodical; like locusts, they emerged every few decades from their underground burrows, in search of mates. I’d been an infant during the last cycle, but that was no excuse. It was a stupid, and potentially fatal, mistake.
The thought of being fed to a nest of hatchlings made my blood freeze. Killing a vamp with an airplane? Badass. Becoming infant formula for a brood of baby dragons? Not cool.
The runes on my arm scalded against my skin, drawing more energy than I ever had before. My wing was pinned at an awkward angle and I gasped when I felt it snap. I shifted, trying to relieve the pressure, and the sharp edge of the dragon’s talons stripped off a few dozen primary feathers from my carpal edge.
I watched them fall with a sense of loss; I knew how long those suckers took to grow back. It meant Joel would have a new reason to keep me grounded, assuming I made it back at all. But I didn’t have much time to think about it. If I lost consciousness, I’d be done for. The stakes were useless against a full grown dragon, but I wasn’t out of options. With a snap of my wrist, I threw one at the dragon’s eye. At the same time, I flexed out with my shield, with all my remaining strength.
The distraction was just enough to pry apart the talons, allowing me to slip out and plunge into free fall. A moment later, I was tumbling down towards the city. I flapped my wings, which leaned to the side. My broken wing felt like a razor slicing through my shoulder, and it was hard not to fold it in and fly in circles, but with my shield energy depleted, I wouldn’t survive a fall from this height. I scanned the city skyline, as the evening lights of Boston rushed towards me. The streets were still full of tourists, warming up and pregaming for a hard night of drinking. Fucking Fridays.
I found a dark spot in the grid below, and recognized the steep towers and turrets of a church, one of Boston’s oldest. I knew it had a cemetery in the back. Perfect. With any luck, the trees would break my fall. Maybe there was even a pile of leaves waiting between the gravestones.
I started braking a hundred feet up, using the warm, polluted air of the city to slow my descent. Despite my stripped and broken wing, I managed to reduce my speed considerably, nearly hovering over the cemetery for an instant—barely enough to scan for threats. But then my strength gave out, and I let gravity take hold. I was still coming in too fast. It would hurt, but I’d live. I tucked my wings in, preparing for a hard landing as the ground raced up at me. But I never made it. Something dark hurdled into me from the side, knocking my breath away. The momentum carried both of us through the rose-shaped stained glass of the main ocular window.
Keep reading the short prequel!
The short story is about 10K words and ends on a brutal conclusion (the *end* of that protagonist, but the beginning of the main protagonist that continues in the full series.) If you like the prequel, or just want a longer, more satisfying read, you can also get the full first book on Kindle Vella.
I’m in final edits for this book, which I’ve been working on for nearly two years… read the first chapter and if you want more, please go preorder the book!
We raced through the dark woods until we were breathless, and even then we didn’t stop. The dry branches sheltered us from the burning embers that fell from the sky, but the blanket of gray ash left clear tracks that would be easy for King Richard’s guards to follow.
Jazmine began to lag behind, so I gave up my seat on the slagpaw. I frowned at Camina’s pale, sweaty skin, and the bloody wounds from the slagpaw’s razor-sharp claws.
She was losing too much blood, but we couldn’t afford to stop. I knew the king’s guards would be right behind us.
I helped Jazmine onto the shaggy beast and kept going on foot. I felt like I could run a hundred miles – my blood was still buzzing with elixir, and the angry red digits on my diamond wedding bracelet practically screamed a warning: 12%.
Already much higher than normal, but I knew it would drop quickly if we kept up this pace. I shuddered, remembering Jessica’s crazed, bloodshot eyes as she tried to take a bite out of my neck and slurp elixir straight from the source. First we were chosen, then trained to compete in the trials. But it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
One of the rebels—a woman with tight braids—saw me looking at my wrist and scowled.
“We need to get rid of that thing,” she said. “They’ll be tracking us.” A few dozen rebels had fled from the citadel after the attack, but they must have split up into the woods. Only the woman and two men were still with us, dressed in rough leathers and merchant clothes. I realized with dread that I had no idea who they were, or where we were going.
“This way!” the older man shouted. He had a dark beard and light blue eyes. His long hair was tied back with beads and leather straps. We cut sharply through the trees, emerging between a group of massive boulders next to a rushing waterfall. Ancient pipes and channels cut through the rock, along with the crumbled remains of a stone bridge, torn apart by ivy.
“Take off your bracelets,” he said, gesturing towards me. I turned my hands over in the light, my eyes widening at the dark, jagged markings on my palms and wrists. I’d always had the birthmarks, but the shapes seemed to have changed and morphed. When I realized it was because of the dried blood covering my skin, I stumbled down the rocks to the creek and began scrubbing my hands raw. The dark blood formed clouds under the water, staining the waterfall red for a few moments.
Jazmine took off her bracelet, then unfastened Camina’s as well. Camina’s eyes fluttered open and she whispered something, but she was too weak to resist. Jazmine handed both bracelets to the man, and nodded at me. I bit my lip, and unclipped the diamond wedding band from my wrist. I knew I shouldn’t be sentimental, but the practical value of it alone made me reluctant to part with it.
“Isn’t it valuable?” I asked. “Couldn’t we trade it for supplies?”
“Only if we live past today,” the woman smirked.
I glanced up at the thick gray ash, falling between the dark trees. My experience of the wild had been short hunting trips barely outside the walls of Algrave, and traveling to and from the citadel. I had no idea how to survive for real, and the open space around me seemed suddenly paralyzing. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves—but then choked as I tasted ash on my tongue.
My eyes widened as I realized I was out in the open, breathing the poisonous air without a scarf or mask. We were still wearing the gossamer pink skirts and white leather jackets the king had picked out for the trials, though now torn and stained with blood. I ripped off the sleeve of my shirt and tied it around my head as a makeshift filter. The leather jacket covered my neck and arms well enough, though my legs were bare.
The rebels were more prepared, in dark layers of heavy clothing, their hoods pulled up and fabric masks that attached behind their ears.
The bearded man took three large sticks and strapped the bracelets to them, then chucked them downriver off the edge of the cliff. I watched them bob in the water before disappearing around the bend. It made me feel lost and adrift.
“That should buy us a few hours,” the man said. “But we’ve got to keep moving.”
“What a shitshow,” said the younger man. His eyes were a dull green, and he was wearing dark jeans, studded leather bracelets and bands running up his forearms.
It was the first time I’d heard him speak, and his voice grated on my nerves. “Some rescue. Where’s Father Marcus? Where’s Trevor? All we got was three chosen – their elite are sure to come after them. This wasn’t the plan. We should leave them here, or let them go back.”
“Go back,” Camina rasped.
“You think you saved us?” I asked, crossing my arms. “You might have gotten us out of the maze, but you’d have been stuck at the gates if we hadn’t opened the the doors for you.” So would I, for that matter, if Damien hadn’t helped. It had all happened so fast. I could feel my brain trying to puzzle out what exactly took place in the citadel, but there wasn’t time. We had to keep moving.
“Go back,” Camina repeated.
“She’s burning up,” Jazmine said, with a hand against Camina’s forehead. She pulled back her thin blonde hair. Her silver eyes looked feverish against her pale skin. “I don’t suppose anybody has more elixir? I mean, you guys did steal some, right?”
The woman took out a small knife, and Jazmine’s eyes flashed. In less than a second her blade was drawn as well—the long, scrap of metal she’d torn from a mechanical spider during the trials.
“Hold up, I just want to check her wounds,” the woman said, palms raised. Jazmine stepped aside, eyes wary, and the woman cut open Camina’s dress. A deep, ragged gash cut across her abdomen, and three more sliced through her arm, nearly to the bone. The blood was bright red against her pale skin and the white costumes we’d been forced to wear. My stomach twisted painfully.
She would already be dead, if not for the elixir in her system, but she’d probably burned through it all trying to keep her together.
“We should just leave her,” the young man repeated again. He was a few years older than me, in a green hooded rain jacket. Brown hair poked out around his ears, and stubble darkened his chin. His bushy eyebrows and an unfortunately crooked nose gave him a grumpy expression.
“She’ll just slow us down. She’s not going to make it, anyway.”
I grabbed him by the shirt and lifted him up over the edge of the cliff, letting his feet kick over the drop towards the churning rocks below. His eyes widened in panic.
I could feel the elixir burning inside me, giving me superhuman strength. I knew it made me reckless, irrational – but right now I didn’t care. My loose hair whipped in the wind. I probably looked as crazed as I felt.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” I growled. “I’m grateful for the little stunt you pulled in the arena, but I don’t know you, I don’t trust you, and I’m having a really, really bad day. So either you save my friend, or we can part ways right now.”
The man lifted a pistol and pointed it at my head. I turned and smirked at him. I was pretty sure I could disarm him before he pulled the trigger.
“Easy now,” the woman said. She pulled out a small glass vial from her bra and held it up. It was mostly empty, but there were at least a few more sparkly drops clinging to the bottom of the vial. She gently removed the cork and tilted the vial to Camina’s pale lips. I watched as the bright blue drops of glittering elixir rolled down past her teeth. I counted three – three times the weekly dosage humans were allotted during the renewal ceremony, but only a drop more than the daily allowance we’d received since becoming chosen. I prayed it would be enough.
The woman shook the vial, then held it up again to show me the empty container.
Only then did I release my grip on the man and set his feet back on the ground. He scowled at me like a frustrated teenager, even though he was probably in his early-twenties.
My arm was burning from lifting him so long, but I stuffed them in my pockets so he wouldn’t see me shaking.
“We’ve got to go,” the man said. “We’re too exposed here.”
“Go where?” Jazmine asked, looking around uneasily.
“I left a package of supplies nearby, for emergencies. We pick those up first, then head for higher ground. I know a place we can stay the night, even hole up for a few days if we have to.”
The slagpaw whined and licked its chops, then sat down awkwardly. I realized for the first time the beast had several arrows buried deep in its hindquarters.
I looked at him, trying not to be unnerved by the creature’s glowing red eyes and jagged rows of teeth. Even sitting, it was as tall as me. I’d never been this close to one before, or had the opportunity to really study the creature. Slagpaw were the shadow demons of children’s fairy tales. Few people saw them and lived to talk about it. But I knew this one meant me no harm. It was like a dog, but with the shoulders, muscles and arms of a large man, with long claws that practically dragged on the ground.
“This is going to hurt,” I whispered in his large furry ear.
The creature nodded, then I grabbed the first arrow and yanked it out. The beast yelped and shuddered, but didn’t bite my arm off at least. I removed two more arrows, then led him to the creek and washed the wounds, up to my ankles in shallow water.
“How are you even controlling that thing?” the younger man asked.
“I’m not,” I said.
“Then why hasn’t it eaten us yet?”
I didn’t know how to explain. I wasn’t sure I was ready. Jazmine looked curious as well, but if I thought about what I’d done, I’d come apart, and we didn’t have time for that.
“Let’s get somewhere safe,” I said. “Then I’ll tell you everything. By the way, I’m Emily. This is Camina and Jazmine.”
Camina stirred at her name, and I looked to see her wounds were already starting to close themselves up as the elixir worked its magic. It truly was a miracle.
“Frank,” the older man said. “That’s Luke and Beatrice.”
As we went deeper and deeper into the wild, further out than I’d ever been before, my pulse began to race and I jumped at every sound. I was no stranger to the wilds, but I was usually better equipped, with my father’s bow at least, and much more quiet.
Up above, cawing drew my eyes to a handful of large, dark birds that followed our progress. Probably waiting for us to submit to the ash or exhaustion. Most of the wild animals outside the compounds wouldn’t turn down fresh meat if they could get it. I knew that some plants struggled in the shade and grey skies, but even if they survived long enough to bear fruit, it wouldn’t be fit for consumption. That’s why we had the compounds, and the purification engines. The only place where humans could survive.
We climbed higher up the side of a mountain, trying to stay on the wide granite stretches between the sparse pine trees. We were more exposed, but the wind-swept ground didn’t leave tracks behind us.
Finally, Frank pointed out a rectangular entrance cut into the side of the hill, framed by large chunks of rotting timber and sealed with a metal door and pile of boulders. Up above us, the exposed metal ribs of a large construction jutted out from the rock, with hanging, rusted metal stairs and doors that led to nowhere.
“We’re going in there?” Jazmine asked, frowning. I knew what she was thinking; I grew up warned against the structures of the Before. They were unsound and full of danger. If they didn’t collapse on you, the poisonous ash or slagpaw would get you.
But I knew now, not everything I’d been told when I was younger was the truth, and we needed to get out of sight. Frank shoved the door aside with his shoulder, and it screeched against the rocky ground.
“Do you mind leaving your friend outside?” Luke asked. “He gives me the creeps, and it’s small enough in there anyway.”
“Stay,” I said, pointing at the covered area beneath a ledge. The slagpaw whined at first, but then licked my cheeks, turning around twice before settling into a furry ball.
Slowly we followed the others inside the dark mouth of the cave. Beatrice lit a small gas lantern, and held it up, leading the way. Frank and Jazmine supported Camina, who was walking unsteadily between them, with Luke and I bringing up the rear. It was so dark, I had to watch my steps, even though I could barely see my feet. I gasped as we crossed a thin wooden plank. It wobbled, sending a cluster of pebbles richoteting off the deep walls of a cavern. I heard them plunk into water far below.
Frank led us through the twisted tunnels of stone and metal, then through a narrow crevice into a small cavern, that looked semi-furnished. In the middle was a campfire, some pots and pans, and bundles of old clothes and fabric, stuffed together with leaves and straw for a makeshift mattress. Broken glass and tin cans sparkled in the darkness like a treasure hoard.
It smelled of rot and nature, but wasn’t foul – I realized the stench that had followed us since the citadel had been Trevor’s thick fur and the unnatural stink of a mutid.
Luke started working on a fire, and Beatrice strung up a line of cans near the door.
“So we’ll know they’re coming,” she said sheepishly, seeming to recognize that if the elite found us here, we’d be dead before the early warning hit our ears. Then she pulled out some folding chairs and set them up around the fire.
I sank into mine, crossing my arms. The sensation was uncomfortable, to say the least. In the stillness and darkness of the cave, the events of the last few days came rushing back, and I felt my eyes water. I’d been running on survival mode so long I didn’t know how to sit still. I literally didn’t know who I was anymore. Emily Sharrow wasn’t even my real name; my mother had confessed as much before she died. Damien told me I was a half-breed. An impossible, and possibly the only, elite offspring.
A genetic experiment, he suggested, just before I’d been arrested on charges of conspiracy to murder the crown prince. The look of betrayal in Damien’s eyes when they discovered the pistol in my pocket scorched my heart and filled me with shame. But he’d helped me escape, even after all that. I didn’t know where that left us.
Frank passed out a bowl of soup, some kind of tough meat and wild carrots, then the others looked at me expectantly, their eyes bright in the reflection of the fire.
“Curate Marcus is dead,” I began, creasing my hands in my lap. “I think… I think I killed him.”
Beatrice sucked in a breath, and Luke flinched. I saw his hand move towards his weapon, but Frank held up a hand for me to continue.
“I didn’t realize, I didn’t figure it out until… the slagpaw,” I said quickly. “They’re human. I think it’s what happens if you consume too much ash. King Richard, he wanted me to kill them, he wanted me to kill the rebel leaders. When they attacked us in the arena, we were just defending ourselves. I think the first one, it must have been Marcus.”
“And the second is Trevor,” Beatrice murmured, her eyes flicking towards the entrance. “That’s why he didn’t attack you?”
“Hold up,” Jazmine said. “Forgive a girl for asking questions, but what the hell is even going on? All I know is, trials. Then Camina was hurt, then people were shooting at us. I came with you to protect her, not to join some rebel alliance.”
“Trevor’s my friend, from Algrave,” I said. “I didn’t know he was a rebel, not until after I was chosen. Curate Marcus contacted me, they wanted me to join them. I wasn’t going to at first. But then… the way Richard treats us, you have to see it’s not right. He made Tobias kill Penelope, his own chosen.”
“She was a rebel,” Jazmine said, with a shrug.
“So?” I snapped. “She didn’t deserve to die. Not like that. When we went back to Algrave, it was to save my mother. Damien gave me elixir to save her, but then his guards came and started arresting people.” I flinched, remembering the truth. “The woman who raised me, the one I was trying to save, she was killed. They arrested me. The trials, it was supposed to bring me to heel. To prove King Richard could control me, by making me kill Trevor. But… I resisted him. When he realized he couldn’t compulse me, he would have killed me.”
“How is that even possible?” Luke said. I frowned, glancing around the circle, their faces red in the glow of the fire. I trusted Trevor, but I didn’t know anyone else here. Damien had sworn me to secrecy, but what did it matter now that the king knew I was renitent? He would hunt me down, which meant these people were in danger. They should know what they were getting into.
“Just before she died, my mother told me I was adopted; that my real mother was executed, and that my real father was an elite.”
“Apparently not,” I said. “Curate Marcus, he said it was because of my grandfather, John Patten. He stole something from the king – an antidote to the elixir. They think he did experiments on his own daughter, my mother, and that’s why she was able to get pregnant; and that’s why the king can’t compulse me.”
The silence lengthened, and I could tell the others were wary. I’d just confessed to a band of rebels that I was part elite. I was the enemy.
The moment was broken when Camina stirred, sitting up, her pale hair sticking to her warm face. Her fingers grasped for a weapon, before finding the large holes in her shredded shirt and checking her wounds carefully.
“What happened, where are we?”
“Don’t worry, we’re safe,” Jasmine said. “Outside the citadel.”
“What have you done?” Her eyes widened, taking in the rocky sanctuary. She rose to her knees, her legs shaking. “We’re escaped rebels now. We were raised to serve the elite. Loyalty, honor, courage. If I hadn’t been chosen, I would have applied to become a soldier or one of the king’s guard. This, this life, I don’t know how to do this.”
“But we can be free,” I said. “We can choose.”
“Are you serious?” She spat, glancing around at the cracked cement and creeping vines. “And what, live underground like rats? Hiding from elite and slagpaw forever?”
“You’re free now. You can choose your own path,” Beatrice said. “Like the rest of us.” Creases formed around her eyes as she smiled, handing Camina a bowl of soup.
“I didn’t choose this,” Camina muttered, turning away and facing into the shadows, away from the fire.
Despite my exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep. The stillness of the cave was broken by slow dripping water and a leathery rustling above that I suspected were bat wings. At any moment the king’s troops could slip into the darkness and slit our throats. And yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about Damien. Even after he thought I’d betrayed him, he still helped us escape. Did he think by letting me go, he’d be killing his own father? Probably not. At the trials, I almost tried, but I couldn’t risk hitting Jamie or Loralie. Damien couldn’t read my mind. I never had time to explain myself after getting arrested in Algrave. And now I’d run off with rebels. He probably thought I’d manipulated him from the start somehow.
My wide eyes searched the darkness. By the glowing embers of the fire I could make out faded graffitti on the cracked walls.
Vampires suck, wrote one in faded green paint, so old I could barely read it. I didn’t know if it was a joke or a warning.
The strongest shall survive, read another. It was the opposite of what I’d been raised to believe; that the two races could only exist together, symbiotic species that depended on each other for survival.
Death to Elites, read another, in scratchy writing that took up most of the wall. This was probably a rebel holdout, used since the race wars a century ago. When humans and elite had nearly destroyed each other, until King Richard saved them from the brink of extinction. This was the history I knew, at least. The history I’d been told. The very idea of killing elites sent a shiver down my spine; it was more than a sacrilege, it was a death sentence. Undermine the kingdom and the royal order, and we’d devolve back into decades of war, starvation, sickness and pain. Everyone knew this, and yet the rebels risked everything, trying to change the system.
I hoped Damien would be okay, that King Richard wouldn’t hurt his own son, but I wasn’t sure of anything anymore. In a few decades, he’d probably forget about me, like he had my grandfather.
In the meantime, I was all alone. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t know what came next. I wished Trevor was here, that I could talk with him. I sat up suddenly. Trevor was right outside. Would he stay a slagpaw forever? I remembered the scratchiness when I’d breathed too much poisonous ash; and coughing up dark phlegm. Without the elixir, I’d have died – or, perhaps, have changed, like Trevor. The elixir countered the effects of toxic poisoning. My heart pounded in my throat and I sat up suddenly. Was it possible Trevor was still in there, that the process could be reversed?
I glanced at my wrist, and glared at the bare skin where the bracelet used to be. I had no idea how much elixir was still in my system, but there had to be some. I wasn’t badly injured in the trials, which meant the unused elixir would stay in my blood longer, until I burned it up with activity.
I tiptoed back out of the cave, careful not to disturb any of Beatrice’s traps, until I opened the door to the mine and stepped outside into the cool night air. The flakes were light tonight, and I could see the patch of light behind the clouds that I knew to be the moon. I’d only seen it once, in a blood memory.
It reminded me of something else; something I’d seen when I kissed Damien at the gates and tasted his blood. A buried trunk, an unmarked grave. My eyes widened as I realized it wasn’t an accident. Damien had pushed that memory towards me; he must have bitten his own lip so he could pass me the information. It was a clue, a place to start looking.
But first, I needed Trevor. He wasn’t at the entrance where I’d left him. I felt exposed, looking out over the horizon. I could see the glowing towers of the capital, like jagged crystals against the dark mountains behind it. The citadel of lights. Coming from Algrave, it had always seemed like magic, but I knew now it was science and electricity.
I heard a deep Rumble that seemed to pierce through me. behind me and whirled around. My pulse spiked as I saw the slagpaw above me, a dark silhouette against the sky, on a boulder above the mines. His lip curled up in a snarl, displaying his gleaming white teeth.
“Trevor?” I asked cautiously. The beast jumped through the air and I ducked. It landed behind me and padded forward, its hair bristling.
He sniffed the air and his red eyes burned in the darkness, like twin coals. His claws clicked on the ground as he stalked forward, with a guttural growl I felt in my bones.
“Don’t eat me,” I said. “I think, I think I can still help you. If you drink enough elixir. I hope. Nod if you understand.”
What if it was too late, what if the Trevor I knew was already gone?
Tears welled up in my eyes at the thought, but I had to try anyway. I took the jagged shard of broken glass I’d grabbed in the tunnels and pierced my wrist, feeling the warm blood spill down my fingertips. Then I held them up away from my body.
The beast’s eyes grew round with surprise, and he whimpered.
“Do it,” I said, leaning forward. A gust of wind brushed past my dress, freeing my dark hair. It rippled in the moonlight. My white leather jacket, now shredded and torn, and chiffon pink dress, stood out like a rose against the barren landscape. I shivered, suddenly cold, as I cupped my palms into a bowl to pool the blood.
The dark shadow of the slagpaw hovered over me, hesitated a moment, then flicked out its rough tongue, licking my palms and wrists clean.
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!
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?”
“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!
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’sname 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.
The rusty blue hatchback ahead of me slows to a stop. Three cars in front of it, a cop waves his arms, directing traffic around the blackened husk of a truck and several emergency vehicles. Smoke wafts into the early morning sky, but neither of the ambulances have their lights on. Here I thought my Monday sucked. Hopefully, the driver was able to get out in time.
I tap the steering wheel. Damn it. I hate accidents. “Siri, start my scanner app.” The screen on my phone flashes to life.
“Code 16 on Broadway and Fifth. Single vehicle accident, no—” the voice crackles. I know that dispatcher, and that code. I’ve got to get out of here. I turn my phone off and toss it on the passenger seat. I can’t be around dead people; it never ends well. If I get too close, I’ll have more problems than missing my 9:00 a.m. card reading.
The car in front of me inches forward, and a narrow side street barely wide enough for my compact car appears on the right. Veering sharply, I stomp on the gas and zip down the street, a chorus of horns honking behind me. One block. Two blocks, and we’re past the accident. Phew. I’m safe.
Five minutes later, I pull behind my tea and tarot shop, Make Like a Tree and Leaf, and kill the engine. The peeling yellow paint and boarded up back windows probably don’t add much appeal for my customers, but it’s mine, and I love every inch of it. Besides, the front isn’t that bad. I remind myself to wash the bay window and sweep the steps, but that’s about as far as I go for aesthetics.
A gleaming black motorcycle with flames on the side roars down my street and pulls to a stop in front of my shop, parking on the grass. Granted, it’s dead grass, but still… I have a driveway for a reason. I tamp down my annoyance. Don’t piss off the client, Max.
Clad in black leather and faded blue jeans, the guy that gets off of his bike is about twenty years past his prime, with a scraggly gray beard trailing down to his copious stomach, and a black and white skull and crossbones bandana wrapped around his head.
“You the psychic?” he asks, looming over me. The low rumble of his voice matches the sound of his engine.
“Are you my nine o’clock appointment?” It doesn’t hurt to be cautious, especially in my line of work.
“Yup. My old lady said you was legit. I, uh, got a question I need answered.” He rolls something around in his mouth and spits a wad of chew into the grass. Eww. This day just keeps getting better and better.
“Great. Follow me.” I unlock the door and hold it open for him, pressing my fingers against the opal and jet amulet around my neck. Intuition and protection, my most essential bedfellows. The stones don’t heat up against my touch, so the guy’s not a demon. I have to check; those bastards are pretty crafty.
The guy limps to the little round table I use for readings and sits, the ratty wicker chair creaking beneath his weight. His beard spills out onto the velvet tablecloth, and he tucks it away. Interesting. Most people at least glance at all of the carvings on the walls, the books, the Hand of Glory trapped under a glass dome to stop idiotic kids from trying to pick it up.
I clear my throat. “I’m Max. What’s your name?”
“Bud,” he says. Okay, then. A man of few words. Let’s get started.
I grab the deck of cards stacked next to me and shuffle them without thinking, trying to ignore the energy pulsing from the man across from me. It’s dark, and now that we’re this close to each other, I can’t stop the images that spill from the cards into my head.
A balding man in a business suit kneels on the floor, his hands clasped in front of him. “I just need more time, please.” A gun appears, pressing against the man’s forehead. “You have twenty-four hours.”
With a start, I shake off the vision. Who is this guy? I don’t want to see anymore because I know, without a doubt, that the next image I see will be of my client pulling the trigger. That’s what this man does. That’s the kind of man he is. Hands shaking, I separate the cards into two stacks and then shuffle them together again. I have to keep this professional. I’ve read for murderers before, so this shouldn’t be any different.
“I’m going to do a three card spread for your past, present, and future. While I’m shuffling, try to think about your question.” I fan the cards out before him. “Now pick one.”
He gingerly plucks one from the spread and I lay it on the table. Then I have him pick two more and I place them on either side of the first.
“You don’t have to tell me, but it helps if I know what your question is.”
His eyes, a light brown, meet mine. “The question.” I nod. “I, uh, have a job opportunity, and I was wondering if I should take it or not.” His words are weighted. Whatever Bud’s problem is, it’s not about a new job. There’s something else, something deeper, but I sure as hell am not going to ask him.
I turn over the first card. An old man sits at the edge of a rocky cliff, contemplating the cosmos. Waves crash against its base and the moon shines overhead. He holds a lantern in one hand and a gnarled wooden staff in the other. It’s upside down. “This is the Hermit, the card that defines your present circumstances. It’s inverted, which means upside down, and stands for isolation or loneliness, often to the point of harmfulness. Like you’ve lost your way.”
“That don’t make any sense.” Bud shakes his head. “I’m not lonely. I have lots of friends.”
He’s right. I don’t feel any loneliness from him. There’s a discord here, a disconnect between the cards and the client. A haziness that tells me that the card is correct, but maybe Bud’s not asking the right question. I could also be accidentally reading someone else, another client I have booked for today, or someone I’ve read recently. No, that doesn’t feel right, either. I bet the cards relate to his real dilemma, the one he won’t talk about.
I flip over the next card. A middle-aged woman in a black cloak stands with her head bowed before a stream. Five golden chalices are clustered around her feet. Three of them lay on their sides, their contents spilled, while the other two remain standing.
“This the Five of Cups, and it’s your past card. It shows what’s influencing your life today and the decisions you make. It often represents loss and despair, dwelling in the past and an inability to look toward the future.” God, what a depressing card. This guy must have had a lovely childhood. “Have you lost someone close to you, such as your parents or a sibling?”
Bud shakes his head. “Nope. You must be doing it wrong. I ain’t lost nobody.”
“I never read them wrong.” I may embellish the truth a little, especially when I see glimpses of a client’s impending death, but I never read them wrong.
My fingers hover over the last card as it hits me. This isn’t about him, at all. This is about me. Crap. As if directed by some higher power outside of myself, I turn over the last card. In the middle of the image is a stone tower. A jagged bolt of lightning strikes the top, and flames burst from two little windows. In the back of my mind, I can almost hear the tiny figures scream for help and the fire crackle as it consumes everything in its path. The Tower. Like the last time I read my own cards by mistake, I have a feeling this isn’t going to end well for me.
“What’s it mean?” Bud taps the card with one oil-stained finger.
“This is the future card. The Tower,” I say, my voice hushed. “It represents destruction and change. Turmoil. The annihilation of everything you’ve held deeply in the past so that something new can come. It doesn’t have to be terrible.” But it usually is, at least for me. “It embodies change, sometimes difficult and challenging. Out with the old, in with the new.” I take a deep breath. Come on, Max, you can do this. Don’t let Bud see how rattled you are. “I, uh, I don’t think you should take this job, whatever it is. It doesn’t look it’s a good idea.”
“Huh.” Bud leans back. His hand disappears under the table. The gun from the reading flashes in my mind. “I don’t know about that. Seems like a pretty easy decision to me.”
“Who did you say your girlfriend was again?” My question rings in my ears. Danger. Run. Get out of here while you still can.
“I didn’t.” Bud pushes up from his chair, using the table for leverage. He touches a lump in his pocket and my heart leaps into my throat. This is it. This is how I’m going to die. In a shady tarot and tea parlor on the wrong side of town, surrounded by stuffy books and the hand of a murderer.
“Tell you what,” I say, forcing cheeriness into my voice. Maybe if I pretend everything’s fine and I don’t know what’s happening, I’ll walk out of this one alive. “My readings usually aren’t this wrong, so why don’t I let this one be on the house. Free of charge. And you can come back and we’ll do another reading later.” Please, don’t come back. “How does that sound?”
Bud stares at me for several seconds, as if trying to make a decision. Then he scans the room, his eyes taking the sigils carved into the walls and the floor and painted on the ceiling, the shelves lined with books and tea cups and oddities from around the world. The old armoire that he can’t possibly know is filled with hundreds of little glass jars, each containing something more precious than life itself. Then his eyes widen, filling with something that looks an awful lot like fear. Maybe he does know. Not everything of course, no one does, but enough to freak him out.
“Yeah, sure. That sounds good.” He pulls out a crumbled bill from his pocket and drops it on the table. After he hurries out of the door, I stare out the front window, pressing my hands to my chest as if that might slow my racing heart.
“You know that guy was here to kill you, right?”
I leap away from the table, whirling around. An auburn-haired man leans against the fireplace, his arms crossed. If it weren’t for the arrogant smirk on his face, he’d be pretty hot. A little like Robert Pattinson, except that this guy’s dead.
“Who are you and what are you doing here? I have some of the strongest wards available on this place.”
The man shrugs and joins me at the window, watching as the motorcycle thunders down the street. “Your pal there was a low–level henchman. What’d you expect? You told his boss’s girl to leave him, and he couldn’t have that. Bud was sent to take care of you.” He turns to me, assessing me with his pale blue, cloudy eyes. “But you knew that, didn’t you? Just like you know he’ll be back.”
I swallow the sudden lump in my throat. “I can take care of myself.”
The ghost barks out a laugh. “Yeah, sure you can. Why didn’t you summon a demon or something? Isn’t that what your permit is for?”
I bristle at his snide tone. I summoned a demon on my sixteenth birthday as a dare, and apparently that’s all anyone remembers about me. It’s safer that way.“Who are you?” I ask again.
“My name is Luke Madrid,” he says, executing a deep bow. “Newly retired from the PD, and this life, I guess you could say. I used to be one hell of a detective, until I got stuck with the SCU.” He must be talking about the Supernatural Cases Unit. It has one of the worst solvable rates there is because suspects can, quite literally, make evidence disappear. “My death, well, has kinda put a damper on things.” He frowns, and his gaze turns inward, like he’s trying to remember something. I almost feel sorry for him. That gradual losing of one’s self must suck, but he’s haunting me without my permission, and it’s starting to piss me off.