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Sharp steel whispered in Devin's mind. Once ancient copper, then bronze, finally iron now finely honed steel that took and held a sharp edge, never rusting, never dulling.
Then again, no demon blade had ever needed sharpening, whatever its form and substance.
This bladethe one attached to Devin, a merciless presence within his mind and soulnudged him through the night, riding him endlessly. Patrol the streets, protect the innocent.
Never mind that the demon trapped within would prefer to be doing anything but.
And so Devin now drifted along the ugly end of a short strip mall in southwest Albuquerque, following the grudging guidance of the geas-compelledand curseddemon. He didn't see anything in the sporadically lit parking area, didn't hear anything but the blade knew. Someone here meant harm to an innocent.
Currently the demon manifested itself as a small lock-blade pocket knife, a default form that suited them both. And in this cold night, it served as a pocket warmer as well, keeping his hands in leather half-finger gloves warmer than they had any right to be, even warming his body beneath the black leather jacket. A plain old lock-blade knife
Truth was, he never knew what he'd find when he reached for it, just that he'd find something.
And that he was ready for anything.
I must have heard wrong. Or written down the wrong address. Or misunderstood something. Even if she knew she hadn't.
But this just couldn't be right.
Natalie Chambers hesitated at the narrow alley between buildings in the strip mall. Surely there should be better lighting here. This was the southwest quarter of Albuquerque, after all. A place of tightly placed and colorful shops, bars over the windows, gang tags at the corners and copious stout fencing. She'd expected to find direct lighting here at this parking lot of ancient asphalt and stark white adobe structures.
A glance overhead pinpointed the burned-out bulb. Great. According to the notes she could no longer read, the small architectural office she sought should be.
Right here. Right between the two stores. Right in this alley.
She jammed the paper into the pocket of her slacks and pulled her vintage peacoat more tightly around her turtleneck as the breeze lifted the thick waves of her hair and brought out a shiver along her arms.
Then again, maybe the shiver wasn't all about the cold. Maybe it was about standing here in this run-down shopping strip going on midnight, with no sign of any architect's office and no sign of any welcoming window light and her "uh-oh" alarms suggesting that if she planned to call Compton and double-check the address, she should do it from the car.
With the doors locked.
But if she secretly hoped her boss would suggest it could wait until morning, she knew he wouldn't. He didn't jerk her around on a whim, but he did expect her to respond when occasion arose. And it was a good job, an amazing job, her freakin' dream job after years of pulling herself back together in the aftermath of one incredibly wrong road taken.
She fumbled in her flapped coat pocket, hunting the phone even as she turned for the car. "Note to self," she muttered. "Add mini-flashlight to key chain."
"Too late for that, sweet ass." The man's voice came from the darkness; the phone squirted from her startled fingers back into her pocket. She fumbled for it, digging past keys and tissues and a baby tin of curiously strong mints even as she backed away from the voice, searching for the man in the shadows.
And ran smack into the solid presence of another body, his wash of garlic breath across her ear, strong hands clamping down on her upper arms and squeezing them to her sides.
Fear raced through her belly, weakening her knees. "Sorry, boys," she said through gritted teeth, hand still groping for that phone, knowing if she could flip it open and hit the autodial for Compton's household if he could hear what was happening "This particular sweet ass is busy tonight."
"Just give us the documents." The first figure emerged from the alley, grew close and largevery largeand resolved into a rugged man with tattoos across his heavily used face. "Then we can make this fast. Otherwise." He shrugged. "We get to have fun."
Fear escalated. This man wasn't posturing. He wasn't trying to impress her. He was without soul, without heart and he would eat her alive if it served him.
Or maybe even just for the fun of it.
"I" she said, and the word got stuck in her throat. "I don't have any" Still just a whisper, it was enough; if his smile had been frightening, the scowl was now terrifying. She blurted, "I haven't found the office yet!"
The hands tightened, digging in painfully even through the thick wool of the coat, numbing her fingers. Tattoo Head shrugged, looking beyond her to his accomplice. "We'll come with you," he decided.
But I don't know where I'm going seemed like exactly the wrong thing to say. Get screwed wasn't going to go over so well, either. But these men weren't going to let her go once they had the documents, either. No, they'd take the papers, and then. They'd have fun.
Not with me. She went utterly limp in the hands that held her, slipping down while he cursed and bent to catch at her coat.
With a courage-bolstering cry, she sprang up, the top of her head connecting with some part of his facesomething that cracked and gaveas she rammed her elbows back and slammed her heels at his shins and turned herself into a whirling dervish of resistance, taking the man so very by surprise that he staggered back, tripping over the parking curb. Natalie went down, too, stumbling to her hands and knees, but only for a momentand she was already running by the time she regained her feet.
It didn't stop Tattoo Head from snagging her, cruelly wrenching her arm back so she cried out again, this time from surprise and pain and oh, yes, fear again. "Stupid bitch," he growled. And when she opened her mouth to scream, the loudest, the most attention-getting sound she could muster, he backhanded her with such casual force that she would have gone flying had he not still held her.
Scream! her deep inner survivalist self cried to her. Fight! Kick! Gouge his eyes out!
Dazed, she hung limply in his grip, her vision full of dark shadows and blurry edges, her face one big throb of pain.
"Get up," Tattoo Head growled at his partner, his voice no less impatient. "Get the car."
"Too late for that."
Hold on. That was a third voice. A third man. One who meant to interrupt one who somehow sounded yet more dangerous than the first two put together. And though fear and violence still combined to keep Natalie's knees loose and useless, that small deep inner voice said They'll keep each other busy, and then you run.
But Tattoo Head stiffened, just ever so slightly. "This isn't your problem."
Maybe it was the tension that laced his voice. Maybe it was his words, hanging heavy in the air, slowing the moment. Natalie lifted her head, blinking her dazed vision into something sharper. Blinked again, disbelieving. As if there was really a man striding out of the parking lot, all full of a predator's power, lithe strides with just the right amount of prowl. Not arrogant, not even with that movement and those long strong legs and broad shoulders beneath a formfitting leather jacket, dark hair unruly, brows dark and lowered, gaze too intense for the darkness.
But a man who knew what he was. Danger.
"Walk away," Tattoo Head said, shifting his grip ever so slightly. Natalie felt strength trickle back into her knees, limbs coming alive with hope. "This isn't your problem."
"You'd think not," the man said, a strange acknowledgment there, maybe even a hint of apology. "And yet, here I am."
Tattoo Head's partner finally made it to his feet, coming up beside Nataliereaching into his jacket. "No,"
Tattoo Head snapped. "Take him downand don't bring the cops in on us."
A gun. The man had been reaching for a gun. But now he made a disgruntled noise, spat blood at Natalie's feet with a look that said she'd pay for every drop, and reached for the back of his belt instead, freeing a small stub that whipped out into a telescoping, weighted security baton.
If her approaching rescuer had any weapon at all, she couldn't see it. Unless
Is that a pocket knife?
One of the really small ones?
She swallowed. Hard.
Something flashed suddenly in his hand, hard and white hot, sunlight gleaming off bright metal in the midnight darkness. Natalie squinted against it and Tattoo Head raised a hand to shield his eyes. And then she could see again, but she didn't believe it. Not really. Because where had that thing come from? That sword? What else could you call it, all long and thin and pointy, with a guard of elaborate whorled metal.
He held it as though his hand was perfectly at home with it. And he gave Tattoo Head and his partner a strangely regretful look. "Well," he said. "Looks like you get to die."
Because of what they'd seen?
But I saw it, too.
New plan. Run from the rescuer, too. But for the moment she was still solidly snared, and even as Tattoo Head reached for his own weapon, he dragged her backheading for the car that she just knew she'd never leave alive. She made herself heavy, she dragged her heels, she skinned her palms. Her slacks tore. He didn't appear to notice any of it. She grabbed a parking curb and held it; he jerked her and she cried out, losing flesh and breaking fingernails.
But neither of them looked away from the two men Tattoo Head's partner and the interloper closing on one anotherthe partner cocky, the interloper.
No posturing, just grim resignation. No sign of fearnot even though the baton could take him down with one well-placed blow, could disarm him, break his wrist bones, his hand his arm. Could kill him, if it landed just so, whipping dangerously through the air to pop against his head.
And who knew how to use a sword these days, anyway? A refugee from the Renfair so recently in town?
This man, that's who. This man who held his body in an easy guard, the sword in position to cover all four vulnerable quarters, his shoulders turned to present as little target as possible. Not as though he thought about it, not as though he arranged himself, but as though he just simply knew. The long, slim blade moved precisely, fending off the baton's feints with little effort. Patient. Until the attacker grew anxious, hovered perceptibly on the edge of some great attackeven Natalie could see that muchand then charged, whipping the baton into a game of brute strength.
A quick flick of the sword, a binding motion, and the baton flew away. In the same motion, the manher rescuerstepped forward, straightened his arm impaled his erstwhile opponent with a meaty impact. Natalie flinched, startled by a mind's eye flash of old memory, metal and death and looming strike
Tattoo Head snarled a startled curse, and before Natalie could do anything more than gasp warning, lifted his own weapon and flung ita knife, big but dark and all but invisible in the darkness, flipping end over end and still somehow even as the man yanked his sword from the big lump of dead person on the asphalt, he ducked wildly aside and didn't take that blade in the chest or the throat or the central part of his body where it had been aimed.
He took it in his upper arm instead, staggering backward a step, and then he ignored it completely, that handle sticking out of his arm like the world's biggest sliver and oh, hell, how could he not grab it and yank it away. How could he heft his own sword, no good from fifteen feet away now except then came that flashand with it the scent of hot steel and the light running down metal in coursing rivulets. Natalie's jaw dropped and she damned well didn't have to be told duck as she saw the knife suddenly in his hand, held so lightly, so expertly. She scrunched herself into a tight little ball and as the knife caught every bit of available light, spinning air toward astonished Tattoo Head.
And this knife found its mark.
Natalie jerked herself free the moment she heard the impact, rolling away. Tattoo Head fell heavily just beside her, and she scooted another several feet. Rescue yourself, girl. That's what you know. And that means it's time to run
But somehow, that silvered blade was back in her rescuer's hand, though he'd never closed the space between himself and Tattoo Head. Two men down, and looking pretty dead. One man still standing, his weapon dis-appeared. A big knife handle sticking out of his arm. His stance wavering.
Run away, girl. To the car. To the phone. To call Compton.
Okay, to lock the doors first.
He made a disgruntled noise, kneeling awkwardly beside the first man, pressing what was left of his bladeback to a pocket knife, it wasagainst the man's flesh.
An acrid scent wafted across the space between them on a breeze Natalie no longer found cold. Run away. But her legs weren't obeying and her body trembled, weak with relief instead of fear and her eyes stayed riveted on the dead man, on the way his flesh seemed to crumble or maybe that was just the darkness and her freak factor. She blinked hard and no, she knew crumbling when she saw it. She'd built her share of sand castles; she'd watched them soften and melt and tumble grain by grain back to the ground until there was.
No man who had first laid his hands on her.
Too late to run away. Time to throw up.
But the man who'd come out of the parking lot to rescue her took it all in stride, and she didn't think that was quite fair. The whole night wasn't fair, come to that. Especially not if he was going to come over here and dissolve Tattoo Head away right next to hershe scooted away in anticipation, but he'd stopped. On his knees, hands propped on his thighs, he finally seemed to notice the big freakin' knife sticking out of his armand with that same expression of resignation but no hesitation, he reached for it yanked it out.
It must have hurt like hell, to judge from that gritty little sound he made, the way his eyes squeezed closed and his jaw opened, as if he'd managed to take himself by surprise. And then she felt it, the warm drops of rain, heard the sudden steady pulse of fluid against the asphalt.
"Oh," she said. "Hey. Whoa. You, uh"
By then he'd opened his eyes. "Ah, hell.''''
Yeah. Arterial blood, spurting hard and fast with every beat of his heart. Blood rain. He'd bleed out fast, without help. Maybe he'd bleed out anyway.
Natalie didn't bother to glance around. No one here to help but her. That's the way it was.
Yeah, way too late to run away.