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Evalle kept a city block between her and the Cresyl demon skulking along Peters Street through one of the riskier sections of downtown Atlanta after dark.
Three-in-the-morning dark. Graveyard quiet for a Sunday morning. Where were all the people leaving the bars? There should be more on the street than this.
But more importantly, who had sent a Cresyl demon into this territory—again—and why? Second time in ten days, and she wouldn’t have identified this one so quickly if not for having studied up on them after the last one showed up and ruined her day.
So many nonhumans to learn about, so little time. Especially while hunting them. But the last Cresyl sighted in Atlanta had disappeared before causing any trouble.
This time, they weren’t so lucky. A human had died, and in a suspicious manner for a demon attack. A death that meant trouble for Evalle in the worst way with VIPER.
The body of a young female had been mauled with only the heart missing. Worse had been the stink of sulfur, which told her exactly how nonhuman the attack had been. But that didn’t make sense. A demon had to ingest the entire human to take a soul, so why only one organ? Why maul the body?
It didn’t smack of demon. It smacked of the way Alterants had decimated bodies in the past.
Was someone intentionally trying to make the killing appear as though an Alterant had attacked the woman?
Or am I just being paranoid?
She wished Tzader and Quinn hadn’t both been called out of town. They could sort reality from paranoia. She hadn’t been really good at doing that for herself since surviving their escape from the Medb two years ago.
Had the Medb sent this demon?
Were they still trying to get her?
But that didn’t make sense either. Cresyls were South African and not Celtic, therefore they weren’t the kind of demon the Medb would use.
Stop with the crazy thoughts and catch that friggin’ thing sneaking around the city. If she handed proof of what had killed the human to VIPER before they opened an investigation, she wouldn’t face even suspension. If not, the first finger would point at her the minute they found out about a ripped-up human.
Always worked that way.
Guilty beyond doubt. Burden of proof on me, no matter how much I prove myself.
She’d never harmed a human, but she was an Alterant after all, profiled in the purest sense of the word as a predatory threat for nothing more than breathing their air.
Even temporary suspension would be unbearable, because it meant having her powers stripped to a minimal level. That would leave her practically defenseless in a city where preternatural beings moved silent and deadly.
Like the being that crept along steadily ahead of her.
If she ran around Atlanta without her powers, it’d be open season on her and she’d end up on a slab in the morgue next to that poor woman missing a heart.
Much as the idea of losing her powers gave her the shakes, her greater worry would be that the sudden stripping of powers might trigger an involuntary shift into her beast form out of a natural instinct to protect herself.
That would end any question of her guilt as far as VIPER was concerned, and she’d be doomed.
She’d face a room full of demons to avoid that scenario. Besides, VIPER needed her out here working. She had the best informants in the city when it came to supernatural intelligence.
That’s how she’d found this demon in so little time.
The Cresyl stumbled, caught his balance, then stopped as though stuck in place. Dividing her attention between him and her path, she barely sidestepped a pile of putrid-smelling ick on the sidewalk that he’d left in his wake.
Great … like walking behind a horse. Jeez. Didn’t they have any sense of cleanliness?
He—the demon’s gender as determined by the size of his horns—glimmered in and out of shape, appearing more as shadow and mist than anything lifelike to unsuspecting humans at three in the morning. Even through her dark sunglasses, Evalle’s natural night vision picked up his bony spine, slinking tail and leathery skin as clear as a high-resolution image.
Why was he moving at such a sluggish pace? Cresyls were generally quick and dangerous … and traveled in pairs.
Where was this one’s mate?
Which one had ripped into a human tonight …
Or had they?
Something had, and they were the most likely candidates. The remains of the young woman had shown up in the Atlanta city morgue a few hours ago. The morgue where Evalle worked part-time as a maintenance tech from ten at night until five in the morning. All agents at VIPER were expected to integrate into the community, preferably somewhere that allowed them intel on supernatural activity.
The morgue was a perfect place to be. Not just for VIPER but for her own personal reasons as well.
The dead were not a threat.
Most of the time.
And what better place to hear about unusual killings or strange DNA evidence? Being on call for early Sunday morning usually meant processing run-of-the-mill Saturday night violence, not a demon mauling. The graveyard shift supervisor who’d received the woman’s body had filed a request that animal control come inspect the ravaged body and gouged chest.
That visit wouldn’t happen until Monday during business hours. But Evalle couldn’t gamble on the possibility of VIPER finding out about the mutilation before Monday, since they had other spies with morgue access besides her.
Even if a wild animal from the zoo could have ripped the heart out of the body so cleanly, any investigator would question why an earthly predator would leave the rest of the body uneaten.
Animals tended to be sloppy killers. Demons not so much.
Everything about this death was off, didn’t fit anything she’d ever seen or heard about with regard to Cresyl demons—or any other kind, for that matter. Her Spidey sense was tingling off the charts, and she couldn’t shake the feeling this was bad for her. Real bad. Having been alone right before work, she had no alibi for the time of death.
Not paranoia. I’m being set up. I have to be. Nothing else made sense.
Quinn and Tzader would help with a minute’s notice, but they were in Charlotte, and she refused to call them like some helpless female. I came into this world alone and I can handle anything it throws at me.
And by the gods, she could handle the Cresyls.
If she didn’t make a mistake.
Or run out of time. With daylight coming in less than two hours, she’d be forced off the streets to hide from the August sun. That was why she’d faked a case of nausea at the morgue and clocked out early to go home. It wasn’t a total lie. She really was feeling sick to her stomach that someone wanted her butt in a sling.
Or more to the point, a cage.
Evalle flinched as unwanted memories tore through her with sharp talons at that thought. Nothing set off her panic attacks worse than imprisonment.
Well, there was one other matter, but she wouldn’t think about that either.
Focus. But it was hard. No matter how much she tried to keep the past buried, things like this threat unearthed her worst fears and made the old wounds burn anew.
Which was why she’d much rather battle the demons without. Once she killed them, they stayed dead. Too bad the ones inside her weren’t so cooperative. Even when she did manage to kill one, a dozen more cropped up to attack her.
As Quinn would say, bloody inconsiderate wankers.
But that was neither here nor there. She’d made the ten-minute ride to her secure apartment beneath a downtown parking deck only to pick up a weapon—the special dagger she carried, which had a bone handle carved with Celtic designs. The blade shimmered with a death spell. Badass to the extreme, it could be used to kill most demons if she stuck the blade into the creature’s forehead between where horns grew above each eye. The dagger had been a gift from Tzader after he and Quinn had saved her life in Utah.
Just one of several treasured gifts from Tzader and Quinn, with friendship and trust being the most cherished of all.
But she was on her own right now.
The demon paused in the middle of the next block at the newspaper-wrapped feet of a sleeping vagrant, a poor wadded-up piece of humanity not bothering anybody.
Was it sizing up the guy as a meal?
Evalle paused, perfectly still. Sweat trickled beneath her top to streak down the naked skin on her back and soak the top of her jeans. The back of her vintage BDU shirt stuck to her back. She wore the cotton military shirt for comfort, but nothing felt good in this heat. Her steel-toe boots were hot, but much handier and safer than sandals if someone or something wanted a throw down. She fingered the dagger in the sheath at her hip and wrinkled her nose at the sulfuric odor trailing off the demon. The odor was too faint for a demon who had eaten a human heart.
Although one of them might have discovered the magic of deodorant or perfume.
Then again, perfumed crap still stank no matter what you did.
Maybe this thing hadn’t attacked the human. She didn’t like the idea of hurting anything on purpose, but that young woman had died a hideous death, and the quickest way to find this thing’s mate would be to make him call for help.
Besides, as a VIPER agent, she was expected to do whatever it took to protect the humans from predators.
And she would.
A car turned onto the street half a mile down and headed toward her, the burned-out muffler rumbling loud in the still night. She kept her eye on the demon. The last thing she wanted to do was attack one in front of a civilian who would see the demon clearly if it solidified to do battle, but she wouldn’t let him kill the vagrant.
The demon shook his head and mumbled under his breath, then continued on as though reluctant to pass up the human.
She let out a breath of relief, but why had he passed up this chance?
When the approaching car’s headlights flashed on the demon, the creature sprinted ahead then disappeared to the left down a side street.
Evalle sucked into a recessed doorway until the car passed her then rushed forward, holding her breath as she leaped over the vagrant, who reeked of body odor and urine. Man, that stench gave the demon a run for his money in the stink department. Maybe the demon had paused to wonder if the guy was kinfolk.
At the corner, the side street turned left and shot through a dark shadow cast by buildings on each side.
The street stopped at a railway embankment.
Empty. No demon.
Damn. She couldn’t have lost him.
Evalle moved ahead carefully, sniffing for any wisp of sulfur in the air. Luckily, she caught the scent by the time she reached a weed-infested concrete pad twenty feet square at the end of the street.
The demon, now in solid form and hunched over, sat on a stack of tires, patting his scaly head above the horns. He mumbled incoherently. The scent of rotten eggs stank up the air, but the smell would be even more overwhelming at this distance if he’d fed on a human recently.
“What’re you doing here?” She spoke with authority even though she doubted he’d just blurt out the truth. Had to open the conversation with the Cresyl somehow.
He slowly lifted his head. Drool slid off one side of his wide mouth. His dull yellow eyes were unfocused. He started muttering again, a low guttural sound. “You.”
Huh? What was wrong with him? She took another step but kept a ten-foot separation. “You working with anyone?”
For a Cresyl, this one didn’t act dangerous. He acted demented … or drugged.
Or maybe sad. Could he be sad about something? And why had she sensed it? She’d have thought her emerging empathic side was more discerning. “Who killed the human?”
His eyes moved around in strange circles, then focused on her. “You.”
“Guess I should make it multiple choice. Got any more words, or do I have to buy a vowel?”
Where are you, Evalle? Tzader called to her telepathically.
Off Peters on the south side of Atlanta. Not far from where we busted that Midnight Moon Fae ring last year. Why? Where are you?
In Atlanta. What are you doing?
Thank the goddess Macha that Tzader was back. Evalle wouldn’t turn down his help. I’ve cornered a—
The demon snarled and jumped to his feet, shoulders hunched in an aggressive stance. His eyes glowed white hot. “You killed her.”
“Killed who?” She pulled out the dagger and spun it once, preparing for him to attack.
“You killed her.” He started howling, and his body shook as if reacting to a drug, but drugs didn’t work on demons, did they?
He took a step and stumbled.
Had someone cast a spell over this thing to accuse Evalle of killing the woman? “Who’s your master? Who sent you here?”
Get back to you in a minute, Tzader. Busy right now.
“She died. You. Die.” The demon launched himself at her.
He had to be talking about someone else. A Cresyl would never avenge a human.
She dodged to the right and swung around when he missed her. “Who killed the woman?”
“You.” He stumbled around and snarled.
“Could we fast-forward to a new answer?” She needed a question he couldn’t answer with “you.” “Where’s your mate?”
That had been the wrong question.
He lifted the stack of tires and threw them at her, but she was too quick and spun away.
Or he was too slow for a demon. When she stopped spinning, she faced him. He curled over his chest, moaning so pitifully she almost felt sympathy for him.
Why wasn’t his mate coming to him?
If he stopped making that horrid sound long enough to talk, she might get some answers out of him. She’d planned on his fighting her so she could catch his tail. Cresyls were like opossums. If you could wrap one’s tail around your forearm, he was under your control.
Something had screwed up his mind.
Maybe he had some kind of weird sickness. Did demons get sick? Like demon Parvo or something?
She couldn’t hurt something that wouldn’t fight her.
Evalle softened her voice and eased toward his tail as she spoke. “Look, buddy. Just tell me who sent you here and I’ll find someone to help you feel better. Or tell me where your mate is and I’ll go get her for you.”
The demon howled a screeching sound so high-pitched no human could hear it. His tail lengthened, whipping around to slap her legs out from under her. She slammed backward, her skull bouncing on the concrete.
Dazed, she blinked and touched her sunglasses, which were cockeyed on her face. No one had told her Cresyls could do that with their tails.
He dropped down over her, landing his knees on each side of her legs, arms arched above his head with claws extended to attack and a mouth full of teeth open to rip a chunk off her body.
Survival instincts shoved her mind past the pain in her head. Someone called her name from far away … or had it been Tzader in her mind?
The demon swung downward in slow motion.
She kept her eyes locked on the crazed look in his gaze. Blood rushed through her ears. Her heart pounded like war drums in her chest the closer his sharp fangs came to her face.
At the last minute, she whipped the dagger up in both hands and stabbed him in the forehead.
Putrid yellow dust swirled, then disintegrated, confirmation he hadn’t killed a human. If he had, she’d have been able to capture his essence in her fist before it disappeared.
Crud. No evidence. She had to get the other demon.
“Couldn’t you wait until I got here?” an angry male voice yelled from the alley.
She rolled over and pushed up to her knees to find Tzader running toward her. He had on a T-shirt, jeans and boots that were all so dark she’d never have seen him with normal vision.
Dusting off her jeans, she stood. “No, I couldn’t wait.”
“What’s the point of saving your butt in Utah if you’re going to put it at risk every time we turn our backs?”
“Can we not have this argument again?” She would forever be appreciative to Tzader and Quinn for saving her life and guarding her secret, but they were like two overprotective brothers at times.
Most of the time.
“This was just a Cresyl, and a whacked one at that.”
One of Tzader’s eyebrows rose in question. He crossed his arms. “So you fell down on the ground to even the odds?”
Rather than admit she’d made a tactical error no trained warrior should by underestimating her opponent, she shrugged. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“What was the rush?”
She told him about the body at the morgue. “I didn’t find out who sent the demon and I can’t prove that any Alterant—including me—is innocent of killing that human until I get that second Cresyl.”
Another Alterant surfacing wouldn’t draw the attention away from her either. In fact, it created more problems. Things had been quiet for a long time, but two months ago a new Alterant had shifted and attacked humans. Evalle had been brought into VIPER once again and questioned extensively about her ability to prevent involuntary shifting. In reality, Sen—the top dog at VIPER—had been trying to catch her in a lie so that he could put her in protective custody.
Protective? Yeah, right.
Tzader sent his gaze up at the sky that was lightening by the minute. “You’re running out of time.”
“I realize that. Now that you’re back, we can split up and search.” She started walking toward Peters.
He fell into step beside her. “I can’t go hunting yet. I came back to meet someone who has a lead on the Belador traitor.” They had yet to identify the bastard who’d betrayed them.
Two years … Two friggin’ years and they weren’t a bit closer than they’d been while shackled in the cave. Meanwhile a traitor was moving undetected in their ranks, and who knew who else he’d killed and betrayed.
“That’s great.” She’d wondered many a night if they’d ever find out who’d betrayed them in Utah. Whoever it was, they were resourceful and smart.
“It would be great if I didn’t have to worry about you out here on your own chasing demons. Give me an hour to make this meeting and we’ll go together.”
Was he nuts? She looked up at the pale night sky again. “Don’t have an hour. Clock’s ticking and I can handle a Cresyl demon. If VIPER gets word of this first, you know what they’ll do to me. Sen has zero tolerance for anything with my name on it.” She stopped at the corner, her hand automatically at rest on the dagger handle.
“I doubt he’ll hear about the killing before Monday. We’ll find the other demon first.”
“What if we don’t, Z? What if he does find out before Monday?”
Tzader looked away, bitter worry clouding his gaze. “Then I’ll make sure Brina knows. She’ll be there for you.”
Yeah, right. She’d sooner trust a cottonmouth not to bite her in the woods.
Evalle didn’t consider Brina as supportive and benevolent as Tzader did, not when it came to Alterants. Brina was the counterpart to Sen, since they were both in liaison positions, but with one difference. Whereas Brina was an advocate when acting as liaison between Beladors and their goddess Macha, Sen was strictly a conduit between VIPER agents and the Tribunal.
Sen enforced Tribunal decisions. No advocacy.
Especially not where Evalle was concerned.
Macha and her Beladors had to abide by Tribunal decree. To go against it would turn all Beladors into enemies of the VIPER coalition. They would all be marked as outlaws and ordered for execution. If that happened, Evalle’s tribe would battle on all fronts, not just with predatory nonhumans and other powerful beings.
She shuddered at that thought. “Brina would never speak up for me.”
“Have a little faith in her. She will intervene if I tell her you didn’t shift and kill a human.”
And Evalle was supposed to trust in that? She could feel the prison door already closing on her.
She clenched the handle of her dagger. “I might show faith in Brina if she’d ever shown some in me without you asking for it first. Regardless, she can’t stop the suspension. If I don’t find proof of what really did the killing, I am screwed. You know what VIPER will do if I don’t find the flaming demon to prove otherwise.” She held up her hand when Tzader’s eyes thinned to his look of lecture mode. “Neither of us has time for this argument, and I’m not walking into VIPER without something in hand to prove my innocence. Call me after your meeting and we’ll team up.”
“I can hunt after daylight, so don’t take any chances. Do you even know where the other Cresyl is?”
“Not yet, but I will soon even if I have to rattle every Nightstalker in the city.” But hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. She’d try Grady first.
Even though he was a pain in the butt and made her work for every piece of intel she squeezed out of the old ghoul, he was one of the best informants when it came to anything supernatural.
Tzader looked around the street, taking stock of everything seen and unseen. “Your bike in the area?”
“Parked on the next block.” Her cell phone buzzed with a text message. She reached to pull the phone from the back pocket of her jeans.
He checked his watch. “I gotta go or I’ll be late. I’ll call you soon as I’m free, but worst case I’ll swing by your place after daylight.”
“Okay.” She lifted the phone into view as Tzader’s swiftly moving form disappeared in seconds. The text was from Kellman, one of two teenage male witches who lived on the streets because they had no family and no coven.
The message was simple: SOS … demon.
She took off running and punched up the GPS program Quinn had installed in her phone that would trace back a cell call to a location.
Please, please let the demon threat be the Cresyl’s mate. For once in her life, let her be lucky …
With fewer than ten demons seen in this region in a year, that was a good bet.
At the next intersection, she hung a left and pulled out her remote key, pressing it when she got within fifty feet of her motorcycle, a metallic gold Suzuki GSX-R. She adored her gixxer, which bolted down the highway like a bullet. The headlight flashed once, scaring away the vagrants huddled around the bike. She kinetically freed her full-face helmet from where it was hooked over the mirror on the handlebar and strapped it on as she straddled the bike, then fired up the engine.
Pulling away from the curb, she rolled on the throttle sharply. The front tire lifted off the ground for fifty feet.
In twelve minutes, she was cruising along Metropolitan Parkway. She turned onto the cross street indicated on her cell phone, drove a quarter mile and stopped in front of a brick building for a trucking firm that was closed on Sundays according to the schedule on the door. She listened for the boys above the low buzz of her engine.
But that being said, the air reeked of a distinct sulfur stench.
Strong. Vibrant. Deadly.
The smell of well-fed demons.
And inside were two scared kids….
© 2010 Sherrilyn Kenyon