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By KATE DOUGLAS
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Kate Douglas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSunday night
He struggled out of the darkness, confused, disoriented ... recalling fire and pain and the soothing voices of men he couldn't see. Voices promising everlasting life, a chance to move beyond hell, beyond all he'd ever known. He remembered his final, fateful decision to take a chance, to search for something else.
For life beyond the hell that was Abyss.
A search that brought him full circle, back to a world of pain-to this world, wherever it might be. He frowned and tried to focus. This body was unfamiliar, the skin unprotected by scales or bone. He'd never been so helpless, so vulnerable.
His chest burned. The demon's fireshot, while not immediately fatal, would have deadly consequences. Hot blood flowed sluggishly from wounds across his ribs and spread over the filthy stone floor beneath his naked hip. The burn on his chest felt as if it were filled with acid. Struggling for each breath, he raised his head and stared into the glaring yellow eyes of an impossible creature holding him at bay.
Four sharp spears affixed to a long pole were aimed directly at his chest. The thing had already stabbed him once, and the bleeding holes in his side hurt like the blazes. With a heartfelt groan, Dax tried to rise, but he had no strength left.
He fell backagainst the cold stones, and his world faded once more to black.
"You're effing kidding me! I leave for one frickin' weekend, and all hell breaks loose. You're positive? Old Mrs. Abernathy really thinks it ate her cat?" Eddy Marks took another sip of her iced caffé mocha whip and stared at Ginny. "Lord, I hope my father hasn't heard about it. He'll blame it on the Lemurians."
Ginny laughed so hard she almost snorted her latte. "Your dad's not still hung up on that silly legend, is he? Like there's really an advanced society of humanoids living inside Mount Shasta? I don't think so."
"Don't try and tell Dad they don't exist. He's convinced he actually saw one of their golden castles in the moonlight. Of course, it was gone by morning." Eddy frowned at Ginny and changed the subject. She was admittedly touchy about her dad's gullible nature. "Mrs. Abernathy's not serious, is she?"
"I dunno." Ginny shook her head. "She was really upset. Enough that she called nine-one-one. I was on dispatch at Shasta Communications that shift and took the call. Shascom sent an officer out because she was hysterical, not because they actually believed Mr. Pollard's ceramic garden gnome ate Twinkles." Ginny ran her finger around the inside of her cup, chasing the last drops of her iced latte. "I heard there was an awful lot of blood on her back deck, along with tufts of suspiciously Twinkles-colored hair."
"Probably a coyote or a fox." Eddy finished the last of her drink and wished she'd had a shot of brandy to add to it. It would have been the perfect finish to the first vacation she'd had in months-two glorious days hiking and camping on Mount Shasta with only her dog for company ... and not a single killer garden gnome in sight. She grinned at Ginny. "Killer garden gnomes aren't usually a major threat around here."
Ginny laughed. "Generally, no. Lemurians either, in spite of what your dad and half the tourists think, but for once, Eddy, don't be such a stick in the mud. Let your imagination go a little."
"What? And start spouting off about Lemurians? I don't think so. Someone has to be the grown-up! So what else happened while I was out communing with nature?"
"Well ... it might have been the full moon, but there was a report that the one remaining stone gargoyle launched itself off the northwest corner of the old library building, circled the downtown area, and flew away into the night. And ..." Ginny paused dramatically, "... another that the bronze statue of General Humphreys and his horse trotted out of the park. I didn't check on the gargoyle, but I went down to see the statue. It's not there. Looks like it walked right off the pedestal. That thing weighs over two tons." She set her empty cup down, folded her arms, and, with one dark eyebrow raised, stared at Eddy.
"A big bronze statue like that would bring in a pretty penny at the recyclers. Somebody probably hauled it off with a truck, but it's a great visual, isn't it?" Eddy leaned back in her chair. "I can just see that big horse with the general, sword held high and covered in pigeon poop, trotting along Front Street. Maybe a little detour through the cemetery."
"Is it worth a story by ace reporter Edwina Marks?"
Eddy glared at her. "Do not call me Edwina." She ran her finger through the condensation on the scarred wooden table top before looking up at Ginny and grinning. "Maybe a column about weird rumors and how they get started. I'll cite you as Ground Zero, but I doubt it's cutting edge enough for the front page of the Record."
Ginny grabbed her purse and pulled out a lipstick. "Yeah, like that rag's going to cover real news." "Hey, we do our best, and we stay away from the tabloid stuff-you know, the garbage you like to read?" Laughing, Eddy stood up. "Well, I'm always complaining that nothing exciting ever happens around here. I guess flying gargoyles, runaway statues, and killer garden gnomes are better than nothing." She tossed some change on the table for a tip and waved at the girl working behind the counter. "Gotta go, Gin. I need to get home. Have to let Bumper out."
"Bumper? Who's that? Don't tell me you brought home another homeless mutt from the shelter."
"And if I did?"
Ginny waved the lipstick at her like a pointer. "Eddy, the last time you had to give up a fostered pup, you bawled for a week. Why do you do this to yourself?"
She'd be lucky if she only bawled for a week when it was time for Bumper to leave. They'd bonded almost immediately, but she really didn't want a dog. Not for keeps. "They were gonna put her down if no one took her," she mumbled.
Ginny shook her head. "Don't say I didn't warn you. One of these days you're going to take in a stray that'll really break your heart."
Eddy heard Bumper when she was still half a block from home. She'd only left the dog inside the house while she went to town for coffee, but it appeared the walls weren't thick enough to mute her deep-throated growling and barking.
Thank goodness it wasn't nine yet. Any later and she'd probably have one of the neighbors filing a complaint. Eddy picked up her pace and ran the last hundred yards home, digging for her house keys as she raced up the front walk. "Bumper, you idiot. I only left you for an hour. I hope you haven't been going on like this the whole time I've been gone."
She got the key in the lock and swung the front door open. Bumper didn't even pause to greet her. Instead, she practically knocked Eddy on her butt as she raced out the front door, skidded through the open gate to the side yard, and disappeared around the back of the house.
"Shit. Stupid dog." Eddy threw her keys in her bag, slung her purse over her shoulder, and took off after the dog. It was almost completely dark away from the street light, and Eddy stumbled on one of the uneven paving stones by the gate. Bumper's deep bark turned absolutely frantic, accompanied by the added racket from her clawing and scratching at the wooden door to Eddy's potting shed.
"If you've got a skunk cornered in there, you stupid dog, I swear I'm taking you back to the shelter."
Bumper stopped barking, now that she knew she had Eddy's attention. She whined and sniffed at the door, still scratching at the rough wood. Eddy fumbled in her bag for her keychain and the miniature flashlight hanging from the ring. The beam was next to worthless, but better than nothing.
She scooted Bumper out of the way with her leg and unlatched the door just enough to peer in through a crack. Bumper whapped her nose against Eddy's leg. Shoving frantically with her broad head, she tried to force her way inside.
"Get back." Eddy glared at the dog. Bumper flattened her ears against her curly head and immediately backed off, looking as pathetic as she had last week at the shelter when Eddy'd realized she couldn't leave a blond pit bull crossed with a standard poodle to the whims of fate.
She aimed her tiny flashlight through the narrow opening. Blinked. Told herself she was really glad she'd been drinking coffee and not that brandy she'd wanted tonight, because otherwise she wouldn't believe what she saw.
Maybe Mrs. Abernathy wasn't nuts after all. Eddy grabbed a shovel leaning against the outside wall of the shed and threw the door open wide.
The garden gnome that should have been stationed in the rose garden out in front held a pitchfork in its stubby little hands like a weapon, ready to stab what appeared to be a person lying in the shadows. When the door creaked open, the gnome turned its head, glared at Eddy through yellow eyes, bared unbelievably sharp teeth, and screamed at her like an avenging banshee.
Bumper's claws scrabbled against the stone pathway. Eddy swung the shovel. The crunch of metal connecting with ceramic seemed unnaturally loud. The scream stopped as the garden gnome shattered into a thousand pieces. The pitchfork clattered to the ground, and a dark, evil-smelling mist gathered in the air above the pile of dust. It swirled a moment and then suddenly whooshed over Eddy's shoulder and out the open door.
A tiny blue light pulsed and flickered, followed the mist as far as the doorway, and then returned to hover over the figure in the shadows. Bumper paused long enough to sniff the remnants of the garden gnome and growl, before turning her attention to whatever lay on the stone floor. Eddy stared at the shovel in her hands and took one deep breath after another. This was not happening. She had not seen a garden gnome in attack mode.
One with glowing yellow eyes and razor-sharp teeth.
Heart pounding, arms and legs shaking, she slowly pivoted in place and focused on whoever it was that Bumper seemed so pleased to see.
The mutt whined, but her curly tail was wagging a million miles a minute. She'd been right about the gnome. Eddy figured she'd have to trust the dog's instincts about whoever or whatever had found such dubious sanctuary in her potting shed.
Eddy squinted and tried to focus on the flickering light that flitted in the air over Bumper's head, but it was jerking around so quickly she couldn't tell what it was. She still had her key ring clutched in her fingers. She wasn't quite ready to put the shovel down, but she managed to shine the narrow beam of light toward the lump on the floor.
Green light reflected back from Bumper's eyes. Eddy swung wider with the flashlight. She saw a muscular arm, a thick shoulder, and the broad expanse of a masculine chest. Blood trickled from four perfectly spaced pitchfork-sized holes across the man's ribs and pooled beneath his body. There appeared to be a deep wound on his chest, though it wasn't bleeding.
In fact, it looked almost as if it had been cauterized. A burn? Eddy swept the light his full length. Her eyes grew wider with each inch of skin she exposed. He was marked with a colorful tattoo that ran from his thigh, across his groin to his chest, but other than the art, he was naked. Very naked, all the way from his long, narrow feet, up those perfectly formed, hairy legs to ... Eddy quickly jerked the light back toward his head.
When she reached his face, the narrow beam glinted off dark eyes looking directly into hers. Beautiful, soul-searching dark brown eyes shrouded in thick, black lashes. He was gorgeous. Even with a smear of dirt across one cheek and several days' growth of dark beard, he looked as if he should be on the cover of People as the sexiest man alive.
Breathing hard, her body still shaking from the adrenaline coursing through her system, Eddy dragged herself back to the situation at hand. Whatever it was. He hadn't said a word. She'd thought he was unconscious. He wasn't. He was injured ... not necessarily helpless. She squatted down beside him, and, reassured by Bumper's acceptance and the fact the man didn't look strong enough to sit up, much less harm her, Eddy set the shovel aside.
She touched his shoulder and grimaced at the deep wound on his chest, the bloody stab wounds in his side. Made a point not to look below his waist. "What happened? Are you okay? Well, obviously not with all those injuries." Rattled, she took a deep breath. "Who are you?"
He blinked and turned his head. She quickly tilted the light away from his eyes. "I'm sorry. I ..."
He shook his head. His voice was deep and sort of raspy. "No. It's all right." He glanced up at the flickering light dancing overhead, frowned, and then nodded.
She could tell he was in pain, but he took a deep breath and turned his focus back to Eddy.
"I am Dax. Thank you."
"I'm Eddy. Eddy Marks." Why she'd felt compelled to give her full name made no sense. None of this did. She couldn't place his accent, and he wasn't from around here. She would have recognized any of the locals. She started to rise. "I'll call nine-one-one. You're injured."
His arm snaked out, and he grabbed her forearm, trapping her with surprising strength. "No. No one. Don't call anyone."
Eddy looked down at the broad hand, the powerful fingers wrapped entirely around her arm, just below her elbow. She should have been terrified. Should have been screaming in fear, but something in those eyes, in the expression on his face ...
Immediately, he loosened his grasp. "I'm sorry. Please forgive me, but no one must know I'm here. If you can't help me, please let me leave. I have so little time...." He tried to prop himself up on one arm, but his body trembled with the effort.
Eddy rubbed her arm. It tingled where he'd touched her. "What's going on? How'd you get here? Where are your clothes?"
The flickering light came closer, hovered just in front of his chest, pulsed with a brilliant blue glow that spread out in a pale arc until it touched him, appeared to soak into his flesh, and then dimmed. Before Eddy could figure out what she was seeing, Dax took a deep breath. He seemed to gather strength-from the blue light?
He shoved himself upright, glanced at the light, and nodded. "Thank you, Willow."
Then he stood up, as if his injuries didn't affect him at all. Obviously, neither did the fact he wasn't wearing a stitch of clothes. Towering over Eddy, he held out his hand to help her to her feet. "I will go now. I'm sorry to have ..."
Eddy swallowed. She looked up at him as he fumbled for words, realized she was almost eye level with his ... oh crap! She jerked her head to one side and stared at his hand for a moment. Shifted her eyes and blinked at the blue light, now hovering in the air not six inches from her face. What in the hell was going on?
Slowly, she looked back at Dax, placed her hand in his, and, with a slight tug from him, rose to her feet. The light followed her. "What is that thing?" Tilting her head, she focused on the bit of fluff glowing in the air between them, and let out a whoosh of breath.
"Holy Moses." It was a woman. A tiny, flickering fairylike woman with gossamer wings and long blond hair. "It's frickin' Tinkerbelle!" Eddy turned and stared at Dax. "That's impossible."
He shrugged. "So are garden gnomes armed with pitchforks. At least in your world. So am I, for that matter."
Eddy snapped her gaze away from the flickering fairy and stared at Dax. "What do you mean, you're impossible? Why? Who are you? What are you?"
Again, he shrugged. "I'm a mercenary, now. A hired soldier, if you will. However, before the Edenites found me, before they gave me this body, I was a demon. Cast out of Abyss, but a demon nonetheless."
He knew she was bursting with questions, but she'd taken him inside her home, given him a pair of soft gray pants with a drawstring at the waist, and brewed some sort of hot, dark liquid that smelled much better than it tasted. She'd handed him a cup; then as she left the room, she'd told him to sit.
He sat, despite the sense of urgency and the pain. The snake tattoo seemed to ripple against his skin, crawling across his thigh, over his groin and belly to the spot where the head rested above his human heart. He felt the heat from the demon's fireshot beside the serpent's head burning deeper with each breath he took. Exhaustion warred with the need to move, to begin the hunt. In spite of Willow's gift of healing energy, he felt as if he could sleep for at least a month. Instead, he waited for the woman, for Eddy Marks. He sipped from the steaming cup while she opened and closed drawers in an adjoining room and mumbled unintelligible words to herself.
Excerpted from DEMONFIRE by KATE DOUGLAS Copyright © 2010 by Kate Douglas . Excerpted by permission.
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