Deep in Crimson
A Return to Sanctuary Novel
By Sarah Gilman, Kaleen Harding
Entangled Publishing, LLC Copyright © 2013 Sarah Gilman
All rights reserved.
Two unusual scents carried on the dwindling thunder-storm's breeze: humans and demon blood. Jett paused, his muscles tense, his mouth dry.
Nothing good ever came of the scent of blood in the air.
Nothing good ever came of the presence of humans.
Nothing good, sure as fuck, ever came of those two things together.
He abandoned the two lifeless ducks, which he'd caught by hand, next to the fire pit. Breathing deeply through his nose, he circled the area in the forest he considered his.
Heavy rain had washed away most scents except for sodden earth. The breeze blew from the direction of Vermont's demon colony, Sanctuary, in the valley below. If he made his way down the mountain, he'd find a bloody scene — he sniffed the air again — less than a half mile away.
An attack on Sanctuary by humans? He turned his back on the breeze and shut his eyes, his heart rate resisting his mental demand for it to slow. An attack was none of his business as long as the humans stayed the hell away from him and away from the archangels — what little hope there was of that.
He paced. Hostility toward any demon colony usually focused on the archangels, whom the demons protected. Religious zealots throughout human communities viewed both demons and the "fallen" archangels as evil and wanted both species killed, but archangel feathers sold to the highest bidders and dedicated collectors.
The result: poachers, and an ever-dwindling archangel population. A few countries had given land to demons to form colonies, similar to Native American reservations. The demons took in the archangels and offered protection from poachers, and, in exchange, the archangels shared their various skills, such as healing abilities. Despite the sovereignty of the colonies and the Guardians who protected the borders and the residents, attacks still came and blood still stained the ground from time to time.
Jett had stayed in this place, on the fringes of the demon colony in northeastern Vermont, for one reason — to make sure the archangel Raphael and his son, Wren, weren't betrayed again by the demon Guardians who were supposed to protect them.
At first, Jett couldn't comprehend why Raphael had wanted to return, why the archangel was willing to trust again. But it had turned out his personal Guardian, Lark, hadn't been the one who murdered Raphael's mate, attacked Wren, and imprisoned Raphael. Lark's body had been stolen for eighteen years by the revenge-bent spirit of Thornton Bailey, a poacher Wren had killed.
The same poacher that Jett had been forced to work for.
He knelt by the stream, washed his hands, and drank. The thunderstorm — still rumbling in the distance, flashes of light illuminating the cloud-and-night-shrouded Green Mountains — had soaked him and plastered his hair to his neck. He stripped, hung his clothes on a rack he'd made from tree branches, and ignited demon fire on his skin, drying himself and shunning the midnight chill.
Another gust carried the scents again. Only two human scents, but a lot of demon blood. Dressing in his second set of clothes, well-worn jeans and a long-sleeve black shirt he'd stolen from human campers, he repeated his mantra in his mind.
Not my business. I don't give a shit.
The demon in charge of the colony, Vin, left him a note not long after he'd arrived, warning that unless he came directly to the Guardians first, he needed to stay away from all of Sanctuary's citizens, or he'd be viewed as a threat. Suspicious fuckers didn't trust him. Who could blame them? He used to work for poachers — even though it had been against his will.
So, whatever this was, it wasn't Jett's problem. The Guardians protected Sanctuary, not him.
He wanted to check on the archangels, Vin be damned, but they rarely flew in the middle of the night and only left the house at such hours to socialize in the demon village. Jett couldn't get close enough to see into the houses. He'd have to wait — the archangels always flew at dawn. If they failed to show, he'd act.
He hated waiting, even though that was all he ever did anymore, in his self-made purgatory on top of this mountain. He cleaned his twin hunting knives, the only things he'd taken with him when he'd fled Raphael's former prison, and returned them to sheaths on his thighs.
The breeze blew again and he breathed in deeply, catching the scent of blood, stronger this time.
A month ago, Jett had passed through the woods near three demon boys at play. It had appeared one of them was pretending to be Jett by jumping out from behind trees, covered in mud, making his friends run and scream.
Little bastards. What did they think he was, some sort of boogeyman?
One of those boys ... was that scent in the air his blood? He'd been eight, ten years old at most.
He was a prick and he knew it, but he wasn't the sort of prick to ignore a hurt kid. A memory surfaced from his own childhood, of waking from a healing fever on blood-soaked sheets because the humans, who'd whipped him and cut him to study his healing abilities, had simply locked him in the observation room to recover alone.
Muttering more curses, he grabbed his jacket, then made his way through the trees and down the steeply inclined mountainside. He broke into a run, suddenly furious with himself for not acting immediately. It wasn't his business — the Guardians protected the colony. But they hadn't protected Jett the day he'd been kidnapped, so many years ago.
The scents led him to a hemlock grove, the soaked earth churned up from an apparent struggle. Four bodies, all demons, lay in the mud, their throats torn open. One adult. Three little kids, including the one whose scent Jett recognized. He'd seen death before. Had killed before. But the sight of three small bodies in a pile made him dry heave, sweat breaking out on his forehead.
Even if he'd rushed here the moment he'd caught the scent of blood, there would have been nothing he could do for grievous wounds such as these. Small comfort.
The back of his neck prickled, and he stared upward. A gap in the canopy framed an archangel in flight far overhead, circling. If Raphael had come in response to the injuries, guided by his preternatural ability to instantly heal others, it was too late. Even Raphael couldn't fix death.
And Raphael had better stay the hell away while humans occupied the woods.
Jett shut his eyes and inhaled. The scents of the scene around him invaded his nose — this crime had occurred after the rain had stopped and little had been washed away.
The scent of one demon didn't match the bodies. The scents of two humans and the missing demon led through trampled undergrowth, away from the colony toward the logging roads further up the valley.
"Oh no you don't, fuckers." Jett turned in that direction and sprinted.
* * *
Lexine, running and clinging to the arm of a black-clad Guardian, stumbled to a halt in a small clearing surrounded by hemlock trees. Warm and shaky from adrenaline, her legs protested even holding her upright. The Guardian hadn't wanted to bring her along, but she'd followed him — her brothers were out there, damn it! — and he'd been unwilling to leave her alone in the woods with humans around.
A birth defect prevented her from seeing well in the dark like most demons, but Raphael's stark-white wings all but glowed in a beam of moonlight now that the storm clouds had thinned.
The archangel knelt in water-saturated, trampled peat, holding a body half off the ground. Darkness obscured the visual details, but as she approached them, the familiar scent confirmed her worse fears.
Jac, her brother.
Raphael is here, it's okay, it's okay, it's okay. Jac would heal. He wasn't moving because he was deep in a healing sleep. Tension fled her body in a heavy sigh.
The archangel glanced up and shook his head. "He bled out before I got here."
She dropped to her knees, swallowing a strange urge to laugh out loud at Raphael's words. "That can't be."
"I'm sorry, Lex."
She stared, her jaw shaking.
"I'm so sorry." In a rare gesture from any archangel, he touched his wing to her back, his flight feathers dragging through the mud.
Her denial shattered. Sobs tore out of her throat and she dropped her face to her brother's dirt-and-blood-matted hair.
Another scent pulled her back from the edge — a distinct, sweet, citrus fragrance entwined in the nauseating mess of odors. Her younger brother, Bryce, had been hiking that night as well. She didn't smell his blood, thank goodness. "Bryce?" Clutching Jac's shoulder, she raised her head and looked around, straining her eyes. "Bryce?"
A Guardian stepped closer, crouched, and spoke quietly. "Scents indicate two human males took him and fled."
"Vin and his team have gone after them. We'll get Bryce back, Lexine."
She struggled to her feet in the mud, sniffling, trying to isolate the scents despite her stuffed-up nose and tears. The Guardian was right, of course — Bryce's scent mingled with the humans'. But there was also another intense, more recent scent that shot straight to her heart and jolted it into a rapid flutter.
Jett, the demon who'd been living secluded in the woods for the last eleven months — the object of gossip and suspicion and confusion — who'd been presumed dead as a child. He'd gotten entangled with poachers, but he helped rescue Raphael.
She knew his fragrance of tea and honey from the cemetery, where he lingered, out of sight, whenever she tended the landscaping. Creepy, but not threatening — Raphael trusted him, and that was good enough for her.
He'd gone after the humans and wasn't far behind them. Nothing else mattered.
"I'll bring you home," the Guardian said, offering his arm.
She shook her head. "Jac would go after them." Her voice shook. "He'd kick my ass if I just sat at home like a blubbering fool while humans have our brother."
"Lex, you need —" Raphael began.
Lexine caught Bryce's scent and ran after it.
"That's no way to treat a little kid."
The moment Jett emerged from the woods and spoke, the two humans whirled, the captive demon child locked in the arms of the brawny, taller member of the kidnapping duo. The giant man clutched his prisoner's throat and backed toward the car parked along the muddy, puddle-ridden logging road. His partner covered his retreat, aiming a semiautomatic handgun at Jett.
Though the rain had stopped, water dripped from the canopy of the old-growth forest, the only sound aside from the boy's muffled protests. The faint mix of scents on the breeze indicated that Sanctuary's Guardians were catching up, but still had a lot of ground to cover. The humans would escape in the vehicle if Jett didn't intervene, but he hesitated.
Demons were a malevolent, disgusting species. Violent beings who took pleasure in others' misery.
Or so his captors had raised him to believe.
In the eleven months Jett had been studying the colony from the shelter of the forest, he'd seen nothing to suggest anything he'd been taught about demons was true.
Not one damned thing.
This child didn't deserve anything the humans had in mind.
The little boy wriggled and kicked, his arms secured behind his back. A band of metal wrapped around his head and covered his mouth, preventing him from biting. Far too young to ignite demon fire on his skin, he stood no chance against the two men. Even if he could ignite demon fire, which was itself harmless to demons' skin, he'd seriously burn himself with the molten metal.
The kidnappers' plain clothes and unmarked vehicle gave nothing away, but the scent that came from the SUV when the human opened the door identified the kidnappers better than a photo identification card. The interior reeked of rubbing alcohol, formalin, rubber gloves, and a myriad of other chemical odors — the stench of the despicable research facility that had been Jett's prison for thirteen years of his childhood.
He'd be damned if he stood by and allowed these criminals to escape with another innocent child. Jett hissed, baring his fangs.
Had Jett been taken from the colony in the same manner as this? He'd been so young. He remembered nothing.
The heavy-weight human shoved the boy into the SUV, locked the door, and rejoined his partner. The two men faced Jett, aiming their guns. Calm. Ready. Professionals, for certain. But had they ever faced a demon their own size?
Growling, Jett bared his upper and lower fangs and ignited demon fire. The flames engulfed his body but left his skin and his worn, threadbare clothing intact — the fire destroyed only if he willed it. He lunged toward the humans.
"Holy fuck!" Gunshots rang out, but the humans fired one-handed and blind as they shielded their faces from the heat of the demon fire. A bullet grazed Jett's arm, but the other shots went wide.
He plowed into the nearest kidnapper, seized the gun, and fired into the man's stomach. Letting the bastard collapse to the ground, Jett sprang at the second human and shoved him hard against the side of the gray SUV.
Jett extinguished his flames and sank his fangs deep into his opponent's muscular shoulder, tasting sweat and blood. The scent of the other children, of their deaths, clung to the man's clothing. He bit deeper.
The venom from his fangs went to work in seconds, propelled through the human's blood to his brain by his own rapidly beating heart. A scream ripped from the kidnapper's throat and he seized hard enough to break his own back.
Jett stepped away, letting the limp body drop to the ground, and spat out the blood. He licked his fangs. Stimulated by the recent bite, the venom flowed hard and filled his mouth with a caramel-like sweetness.
The other human lay on his back on the puddle-ridden ground, blood running from the corner of his mouth. Gurgling sounds accompanied his shallow, rapid breaths. Eyes narrowed, he reached into his jacket as Jett approached.
A blade glinted in the moonlight. Jett caught the human's wrist and sank his fangs into the bastard's forearm. Already half in the grave, the human's venom-induced spasms subsided in seconds. Pity had been trained out of Jett years ago, but now, he paused. Not long ago, he'd shown another person empathy, an act that changed his entire existence. He'd won his freedom and no longer saw himself only as a monster. Still, for these kidnappers who intended God knew what for the demon child, no regret rose.
Jett searched the body and found a set of keys. Hooking the keychain around his thumb, he hurried back to the vehicle.
The child sat on the backseat, his eyes wide between his mussed red hair and the steel gag, breathing hard through his nose. Jett froze. Even after so many years, he could feel the cold, tight metal clamped around his own head.
Tears beaded at the corners of the boy's eyes. Jett lifted him out of the car. The child trembled, his head heavier against Jett's shoulder than it should have been, thanks to the metal device designed to keep a demon from biting. Holding him securely with one arm, Jett lifted a hand to the back of the boy's head. He used the keys to unlock the gag and tossed the thing away.
Sounds halfway between screams and sobs erupted from the child. Jett tightened his grip around the boy's shoulders and fumbled with the lock on the handcuffs. As soon as the restraints fell to the ground, the child threw his arms around Jett's neck.
"It's okay." It's okay? Damn it, he wasn't kid-savvy or nurturing in the best of circumstances. He ignited a thin layer of demon fire over his body. The one fuzzy recollection he possessed of his father was that fiery, comforting embrace. "You're okay now."
The boy's breathing calmed, his faced pressed into the flames, but he maintained a choking grip on Jett's neck.
"You're strong for a ... How old are you, little one?"
The child leaned back slowly, wiped at his eyes, and murmured, "I'm not little. I'm five and a half."
"I've never met a stronger five-and-a-half-year-old."
A ghost of a grin pulled at the corners of the boy's mouth.
"What's your name?"
"I'm taking you home, Bryce." Jett stood and tried to maneuver so that the kid didn't see the two dead humans. It didn't work. Though the shaking resumed, Bryce craned his neck over Jett's shoulder and hissed.
Bryce hissed again and growled. The sound, not par-ticularly menacing coming from a young boy, lightened Jett's mood as he headed for the woods.
A strange whistle filled the air and pain exploded in Jett's lower back. He sprang forward the last couple yards to the cover of the evergreen trees and, supporting Bryce with one arm, pulled a small dart free from his backside. The colorless liquid in the dart could have been anything, but the rapid numbness spreading throughout his limbs told him all he needed to know. His legs gave out and he collapsed to the ground on his side. Bryce scrambled to his feet.
"Run, Bryce." Jett slurred the words. Fuck, how had a human snuck up on him? (Continues...)
Excerpted from Deep in Crimson by Sarah Gilman, Kaleen Harding. Copyright © 2013 Sarah Gilman. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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