A Dante Walker Novel
By Victoria Scott, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLC Copyright © 2014 Victoria Scott
All rights reserved.
Dinner with a Demon
If war is coming, I make it look damn good.
I am: sharp eyes for hunting, broad shoulders for fighting, strong hands for gripping a weapon. I am built for this. I will protect Charlie, and I will rescue Aspen from hell. There's nothing I wouldn't do for my girls, and I plan to do it all. Blood will spill, and I will spill it without a second thought.
I am a machine.
Like a sinister boxing match, the rivals lie ready. In one corner, we have five collectors, people who work for the underworld administering sin seals to those still alive. Working alongside them are dozens of humans who do their bidding. These dirt bags are called sirens.
In the other corner, we have seven liberators, people who work for the heavens that can dissolve sin seals on living humans. We all wear cuffs, called dargon, which allow us to walk the earth after death and to sense each other if we're nearby. But that's where our similarities end.
The collectors want Charlie, my girlfriend, and Aspen, my friend. They want them because an ancient scroll said they are a savior and soldier sent to fight in a brutal war between heaven and earth. They have Charlie's soul, and Aspen ... Well, they have all of her. This is what I like to call a crap storm situation. Because if the liberators have the savior and the soldier — body and soul — on our side, we'll most likely triumph over hell. Otherwise, we'll be grossly outnumbered and outmatched by the collectors and their swarm of human soldiers.
Since hell has Aspen, and Charlie's soul, things aren't exactly stacked in our favor. To make matters worse, a victory for hell could tip the delicate scales between heaven and hell in the latter's favor, making it possible for demons to walk the earth unrestricted. Que chaos and suffering for all mankind.
The bottom line is that war is imminent, and Kraven, the self-proclaimed leader of our group and juiced-up liberator, says soon there will be a sign. After that sign, war will arrive within two weeks. Good thing since sirens are lingering outside our humble abode. Who knows when they'll finally decide to break down the door?
Spinning around, I find Charlie standing against the bathroom doorframe. Here is the girl who will save us all. The girl destined to fight in this battle alongside Aspen and whose charity will usher in Trelvator — a hundred years of peace on earth. Blond hair spills over her shoulders, framing a heart-shaped face. Her skin is porcelain, her smile is bottled sunshine, and her body is sick in a good way. She is perfect.
She's perfect because I made her that way, because I talked her into signing a contract in which she traded her soul for beauty. Even though I've fought to change the person I am, the person who did that to her, I'm still a demon at heart. Big Guy may be Lord of the Heavens, and I may have gold dargon wrapped around my ankle, marking me as a liberator, but inside, deep down, a demon growls.
Sometimes I still feel the old cuff around my ankle.
The one I wore as head collector.
Charlie wraps her arms around my waist, and her fingers clutch my back. My armor falls away in an instant, and I'm no longer what I was a moment before. Now I'm sharp eyes for watching her, and broad shoulders for easing her worries, and strong hands for holding her tight.
"Are you ready?" I whisper against the crown of her head.
"Yes," she answers. "I'm excited."
I doubt that's entirely true. Cancer ate her Grams until nothing remained. Aspen, my first assignment as a liberator, gave her body and soul to Rector, to hell, so that I could escape with Charlie's soul. Only after I surfaced from the mouth of Hades with what turned out to be my soul did we learn that Charlie and Aspen were the savior and soldier we needed to win the war. So, yeah, I think Charlie may not be as excited as she claims.
Then again, I've pulled out all the stops tonight. Dinner by candlelight, food made by my own hand, and me as company. Pow! Charlie's mind may be filled with sorrow, but soon, it'll be filled with the awesome that is Dante Walker planning a date. In a Hive. Of angels planning for war. But whatev. It'll still be better than bacon, which is serious.
I tilt her head up and move my mouth close to hers. Then I speak so that our lips brush against each another. "I'm going to make you forget."
"Forget?" she says, confusion lilting her voice.
"Yeah, I want you to be with me tonight. No thoughts of what lies outside these walls."
Humans who work for demons, who want to steal Charlie away.
"I can forget," she answers. "If you hold onto me, I can do it."
I wrap my hands around her cheeks and press my mouth to hers. Her head falls back, and she mimics the movements of my lips. The warmth of her, the feel of her tongue, washes over me. It makes my heart feel like a missile.
Her hands climb higher up my spine, over the dragon tattoo covering my back. Her chest grazes against me, and her hips connect with mine. For a moment, I contemplate killing the date idea and carrying her back to my bedroom. Yes, there is impending war. Yes, the girl I think of as a sister is in hell. But blood still burns through my body, and right now — always — it burns for Charlie.
"What are we having?" she mutters, breaking our kiss. "I guess I am hungry."
"We're about to have each other. Screw food."
Charlie laughs lightly, but she also takes a backward step. I'm not even sure if she does it on purpose. It's been a week since I returned from hell. A week since I left Aspen behind. In that time, Charlie hasn't so much as slept in the same bed as me. Granted, I'm not sure Big Guy would be real pleased that we ever did this in the first place, but what do I care? It's not like he and I have a relationship. Not like him and Kraven do, apparently.
The last seven days, all Kraven has done is walk around muttering to himself. If before he was Mr. Clean in his ever-present white clothing, now he's Mr. Clean sniffing the fumes from his own products. Valery says he's waiting for the sign that will determine the day of war. I say he's bat-shit crazy, and we need to skedaddle before he makes like the Unabomber and blows us all to kingdom come.
"I made you dinner with my own two man hands." I cup Charlie's chin. "So you need to prepare yourself for the mind freak that is my culinary skills."
"Should I call Wolfgang Puck?" she asks, smiling.
"And tell him he's out of business? Yeah, you might want to give him a heads up. It'd be the honorable thing to do."
I take her hand and press a kiss into her palm. Her fingers curl over the place I touched like she's self-conscious of her hands. She shouldn't be embarrassed. Fierce? Yes. Badass? Check. Anyone who saves me from hell by shooting blue lights from their hands and into the belly of a demon is A-OK, even if I don't know how said blue light works or if it'll make another appearance. Even if it does unsettle me to my core that Charlie has this untapped power that I never knew about.
As I lead Charlie toward the Great Room, I pretend everything is okay. We need this. What I don't show her is what lies inside my mind.
You left Aspen in hell.
You are selfish.
I do my best to push these thoughts down. I'm doing a decent job quieting those voices when we turn a corner and see Blue. Before I do anything else, I glance at Charlie. She radiates like the North Star, like she's never been truly happy until now. It feels like a sucker punch.
"Blue." Charlie lets go of my hand and rushes toward him. Blue looks up from a book he's holding and sees Charlie coming toward him. He drops the novel to his side and opens his arms to her.
I want to break his arms.
Then I remember he hates me because I left the girl he's crushing on, Aspen, in hell, and I want to break my own arms.
Blue wraps Charlie in a hug, but it's different than he's done in the past. He doesn't cling to her, he just holds her for a moment before letting go. When he eyes me over her shoulder, he grabs onto Charlie's nonexistent biceps and gently pushes her away. It's as if he thinks I've trapped him somehow. Like I used Charlie as bait.
"I've missed you," Charlie says, gazing up at Blue. Her words sting, though I don't know why. Blue's attention is elsewhere now. On a different girl. It just so happens that girl is in hell.
"What are you looking at, prick?" Blue snarls in my direction. "I told you to stay away from me."
Blue's stance reminds me he's not the guy I met months ago in Peachville, Alabama. He's neither lanky nor goofy. Not since he died fighting Rector to save Charlie. Not since he came back with a liberator cuff around his ankle. Now he's tall and strong and doesn't look half bad, for a dude. Even with big, dopey eyes and a head full of blond curls that makes him look in the way of canines.
I have so many things I want to say to him right now, but I can't find the words to defend myself. So instead, I move forward and take Charlie's hand again.
"I'm not going to apologize." My voice is firm when I meet Blue's gaze. "Not to you. I don't owe you anything."
"What about her?" Blue's top lip curls in disgust. "Did you owe Aspen anything? A fighting chance, at least?"
"Blue," Charlie says. "You know he didn't have a choice."
"Like hell he didn't." Blue points at me with the book in his hand.
"He thought he was saving my soul," Charlie whispers.
Blue's gaze whips to her face, and his own features soften.
"Come on," I say to Charlie. "We have a dinner to get to."
Blue's anger resurfaces as we move past him. "Enjoy your dinner, Dante. I'm sure you can forget what happened down there easily enough." And then, quieter, "Selfish asshole."
All I think when I hear his last remark is, I want this pain.
When we get to the Great Room, Charlie's eyes widen, and her mouth upturns in a smile. She touches two fingers to her lips like she's wondering how it got there. Her other hand loosens in my grip.
"Grams would want you to try and be happy," I say.
"Grams wouldn't want any of this." Charlie moves toward the table. When she turns toward me, her face is still pulled into a smile, but it isn't real. Seeing her this way, pretending to be happy, it's like spotting water in the dessert.
Before I even know what I'm doing, I'm crossing the distance between us. I pull her chair out, and she sits, tucking a purple skirt the Quiet Ones dressed her in beneath her. The Quiet Ones are liberators as well; two girls that have chosen to serve the savior and soldier in complete silence rather than fight. I'd say this is copping out, but what are you gonna do?
"I'll have you know," I say, doing my best to sound cheerful, "that every last course tonight is red."
"Seriously?" she says. "You created an entire dinner around our favorite color?"
"I aim to please."
A human shuffles out from the kitchen area with two plates in his hands. I've questioned Kraven a dozen times on how it's okay that they've brought humans into the Hive. He assures me they don't know what we are, but I have my doubts. I also have my doubts on whether dying by the hands of a siren or collector is a reasonable occupational hazard for anyone to risk, especially if they don't know about that hazard.
The man, a guy in his mid-fifties with grey pants positioned way too high on his waist, sets down our first course. Charlie picks up the smallest fork and pierces a leaf of red cabbage coated in raspberry vinaigrette. Before she puts it into her mouth, she pauses.
"What is it?" I ask. "It can't be that bad. You haven't even tasted it."
She lowers her fork. "I just thought we could ... "
Boom. I didn't see that coming. I want to tell her to forget it. That I'm not boys with Big Guy and never will be. But she raises her chin and squares her shoulders, and I know I can't deny her this. One, because I'd do about anything to make her happy. Two, because she has blue, glowy hands that make me wary of pissing her off.
"So we'll pray." I straighten in my chair.
Charlie smiles. Then she lowers her head and closes her eyes. I watch her for a moment, and then catch one of her eyes slipping open.
"Why aren't you praying?" she asks.
"I thought you did it out loud," I respond.
"I'd rather do it quietly, if that's okay."
I open my hands as if to say, whatever does it for ya.
"You have to close your eyes," she says with a playful quirk of her lips.
I want to kiss her again.
Charlie lowers her head, and this time I do, too.
Dear Big Guy, way to abandon my ass in hell. Where were you? I thought you were all-powerful. Not for the likes of me though, huh? Guess I don't blame you. I don't do crap for you, so why would you do anything in return? No biggie. I'm a lone wolf, Big Guy, howling at the moon. I don't need your help rescuing Aspen, and I don't need help protecting Charlie. I'll do it myself. Pow!
I stop praying and glance at Charlie.
Her eyes are closed. Her lips move in this gentle, quiet way, like she's really talking to someone. All the worry lines I've come to memorize have vanished. Gone is the tension in her shoulders. All that remains is this peace that seems to hum, like rain falling outside.
I always knew Charlie was religious, but I've never seen her pray. The way she's concentrating, you'd think she truly believed Big Guy was listening. That it's as simple as that. Open your mind and talk to him.
I don't want to rupture her fantasy, but he's not there. Not really. Big Guy has his own agenda and having a real relationship with Charlie isn't part of that. Something dark yawns awake inside of me thinking about him fooling her this way. It begs for me to break something, to destroy this peace like a lion attacking his prey.
But then my sweet girl raises her head.
And I wonder if I am wrong.
She seems in this moment like someone who has something she didn't before. I want that something. I don't want that something.
I just want to freaking eat.
"Ready to dig in?" I ask, suffocating the darkness.
"Thanks for doing this, Dante. It means a lot." She takes a bite of the salad.
And then, somewhere outside the Hive, through the cold January snow —
A trumpet sounds.
At first I think my salad is just that bomb. That my menu selections require trumpets and marching bands.
Then Valery races in, all breasts and curves and red hair. She looks like she was sleeping with full makeup on. Not surprising. My head fills with a soft buzzing as the cuff on my ankle senses hers. She trots up to us wearing a yellow nightgown that falls mid-thigh. It's a bad color on her. Redheads and yellow don't mix.
"Hey, Red." I stand from my dining chair. "You going to bed at 8:00 these days? Wouldn't surprise me considering your age and all."
She jabs a manicured nail in my direction. I'm wondering who's doing her nails in the middle of nowhere, in a piecemeal house on the edge of an ocean cliff. "I'm like five years older than you, Dante."
"More like ten."
"I am not —" She stops and shakes her head. "Did you hear that noise?"
"The sound of your heavy breathing? Yeah, I heard it a mile away. You had to run, what, thirty feet to get here?"
"I heard it." Charlie comes to stand beside Valery. "It was like a blast of sound, like a musical instrument."
For the first time, a chill tiptoes down my spine. I thought I'd imagined what the sound was. That it was actually Kraven outside, setting off one of his bombs in a trial run. Valery lays a hand upon her chest. She does that a lot. I'm not sure whether it's an unconscious tic or one she does because it's so Hollywood starlet. I'm guessing the latter.
Red opens her mouth to say something, but Max interrupts her.
"What are you doing out here, Val?" he asks, striding across the room. His usual lopsided grin is gone. Max is my best friend, my boy, my brotha from another motha. But lately, he's been less friend and more Angry Fiancé Who's Not Allowed to Marry His Girl. I guess Big Guy still hasn't given the ex-collector a full pardon. I'm sure I haven't been given one, either. Difference is I don't care. And Valery does. She won't marry Max until Big Guy stamps his approval on the deal.
"Did you hear the sound?" Valery asks him.
Max nods, but his glassy eyes never leave her yellow nightgown. I guess for him, a redhead in yellow is the equivalent of a bong hit.
"So we all heard it," I say. "What does it mean?"
Valery smiles too quickly, and the gesture says everything she doesn't. "Nothing. It's probably just the sirens messing around."
"The sirens?" I step closer and lower my voice. "You mean the hundred or so humans clinging to the ocean cliff outside the Hive like freaking cockroaches? The ones who work for the collectors? The ones who want to slaughter us in our sleep?"
"Don't be so dramatic." Red flips her hair off her shoulder. Max watches her hand fly through the air with fascination. Like she just did a magic trick and he can't believe his eyes.
"What was that sound, Valery?" I say, making sure to emphasize that I'm not using my nickname for her.
"It could be that ..." she starts.
Charlie lays a hand on Valery's forearm. "What is it?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Warrior by Victoria Scott, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2014 Victoria Scott. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.