cOMING aPRIL 8TH!
I watched it scrape across the rutted bar, my eyes dragging slowly from that image to his face. The vision blurred a little until finally merging into a thirty-something man who was not at all pleased I was getting shitfaced at, of all things, a bar.
Didn’t he know that was what these establishments were for?
“You’re not the boss of me,” I mumbled, reaching for the bottle in his fist. He easily moved away, and my hand swam through empty air before banging on the bar. The jolt of pain knocked a little sense into me.
Well, shit. Maybe I was a bit drunker than I thought.
How long had I been sitting in this dimly lit bar, sucking down drinks with the drone of a sports game in the background and the smell of stale liqueur in the air? One hour? No, it had to be two. Or more? It was not a good sign that I couldn’t remember. I’d left work at five, annoyed with the complaints of employees I had no idea how to manage. Instead, I was drowning my sorrows in at least seven glasses of whiskey.
Or was it eight?
“It’s for your own good.” The bartender wiped the wet ring in front of me with a rag before tossing it over his shoulder. It wasn’t a bad shoulder. Come to think of it, his whole body—under that dingy flannel and ratty jeans—wasn’t bad.
He watched as I drunkenly appraised him. “You can’t drive in this state. Want me to call you a cab? An Uber?”
I shook my head, batting at him. “I’m… a witch. I can use magic.”
“Right. And I’m a merman. You should see me swim. Just call me Michael Phelps.”
He laughed, dimples appearing in his cheeks beneath the growth of about a day’s worth of stubble. His eyes were green and watchful beneath heavy brows. He was cute in a sloppy way with his home haircut, threadbare lumberjack attire, and an earring? Did I date guys with earrings? That didn’t seem like me. Then, I reminded myself that I didn’t date anyone. The guy I liked was in a magical jail for the next fifteen years.
That was part of the reason I was drinking myself into a stupor, wasn’t it? It wasn’t simply my job. Dax was imprisoned, and I had no way to free him. The guilt was eating away at me. My father had been the one to threaten and kidnap Dax’s sister, making Dax agree to do things he would never do—mainly collude with international criminals who happened to be related to me.
Plus, there was the whole “watching my every move so he could kill me thing.” Yeah, that.
But we’d worked that out. He’d explained everything with a Truth Teller in his palm, his eyes holding mine as Magical Law Enforcement barreled in, sealing his fate once and for all. He’d told me the truth—that he cared about me, he’d wanted me close so he could rescue me, and he’d never wanted to hurt me.
Then, he’d been captured and sentenced to fifteen years in prison—no hope of parole.
Those assholes didn’t even offer conjugal visits.
Back in the bar, I got up, stumbling a bit as the world tilted. Grabbing the barstool, I closed my eyes until it stopped spinning.
“Hey, are you sure you don’t want me to call you a cab?”
When I looked up, I found the nice bartender watching me with real concern. He was sweet. What was his name? Matt? Mike? I should probably know it by now. I’d been coming here on the regular for the last few weeks. Was it Michael?
“I’m good, Michael,” I said, feeling for the well of magic that always bubbled like an undercurrent below the surface of my skin. “Or, I will be in a minute.”
He frowned as if he didn’t believe me. Or maybe I’d gotten his name wrong. I gave him a wave, smiling awkwardly before digging in my pocket for a wad of cash. Not bothering to count it, I slapped it down on the bar.
“Keep the change, ya filthy animal.” What did I need human money for anyway? With a wiggle of my fingers, I could turn paper into replicas so good it could fool any Regular.
As he started to reach for the bills, I tried my damnedest to walk in a straight line toward the door.
I mostly succeeded.
Stumbling into the street, I glanced around. It was Thursday… Or was it Tuesday? Either way, it was about nine PM, and the downtown street was bumpin’. Cars cut down the road, swirling the steam spilling from the manhole covers while the stoplights blinked from red to green. The city never smelled great, but with the colder air, the odor was mostly hidden under the scent of car exhaust and a street vendor’s piping hot Coney dogs. From down the street, a bar thumped with pop hits while ladies in tight dresses shivered in the line along the building’s side.
Detroit was gritty and raw, but I loved it, down to the smell of sulfur wafting from one of the alleyways.
The distinct smell of a demon.
My senses tingled as I locked onto the scent. It was my bloodhound sense that allowed me to track only one thing—the minions of hell itself. And now that I’d sensed one, I needed to sober up fast if I was going to do something about it. The heat from the enchanted dagger in the holster beneath my arm indicated I was about to do just that.
Well, yippee kai yay. It was time to slay some demons.
I slapped my palms together, rubbing them in excitement. At least, that was the action I attempted, but my hands hit only once before my body tilted. It made me stumble sideways and crash into a brick wall.
Oh, yeah. I was still drunk.
Pulling into a patch of shadow at the side of the bar, I tried to remember the sobering spell Frankie had taught me, but it was hard enough to remember while sober, so how the hell did she think I’d keep it straight once I was drunk?
It took me a few moments to remember I’d written the incantation in the notes tool on my phone. With fumbling fingers, I turned my phone on and pulled up the app.
Once the words stopped swimming, I read through the spell, nodding as I remembered. It was simple. I just needed to make sure I didn’t mess it up and, like… blow my head off. Last month, I’d made my face disappear, which had not been great. In hindsight, though, it had saved my life when a magical demon had tried to kill me. So, actually, my failures were also the things that saved my ass.
With this thought in mind, I shook out my hands and remembered to breathe like Dax had taught me. I recalled his words about magic being rooted in love, not hate.
Then I cast the spell.
“Sobrius sursum.” I shot my fingers at my face.
The spell hit me like a bucket of cold water. I stumbled, my leather jacket grazing against the brick wall as I nearly fell into a pile of garbage before righting myself. My head throbbed and a burnt taste lingered in my mouth, but when I stood up, the world was no longer spinning and I could think clearly. The spell had removed the alcohol from my bloodstream. Well, most of it. I was still a little buzzed, but that was okay. With magic and my enchanted blade, I could slay demons in my sleep.
“Good job, Frankie,” I whispered, putting the phone in my pocket and zipping it up. “Now, about that demon.”
I found the sulfur scent again easily. It was like a skunk trail on a crisp October night, so distinct I couldn’t miss it. Well, the humans could. They walked around, breath puffing against the chilling temperatures, chatting and laughing like there wasn’t an agent from hell lingering in the shadows hoping to kill them.
A pair of girls, barely legal, walked close, both wobbling on high heels they clearly weren’t used to. They were headed toward the sulfur scent and the dark apartment complex it was wafting from. Not good. I had a feeling they were as drunk as I had recently been, the perfect mark for a demon’s next meal.
“Careful there, ladies,” I said, stepping in to block their path. “There’s a perv that way flashing his naughty bits. And, let me tell you, that is not a sight you can unsee.” I shook my head, making a sound with my lips to indicate I’d be scarred for life.
“Like a baby carrot left in the fridge too long.” I wiggled my pinky.
Their eyes went wide. The brunette exchanged a look with her redheaded friend before turning her gaze back to me. “Thanks. We’ll just… go in there.” She pointed to the bar I’d just left. Maybe they’d have better luck with Mark. Or was it Marcus?
“Sounds good. That’s a nice joint. Ask for Mike.” I patted the brunette on the shoulder, perhaps a little too hard because she mouthed Ow before they grabbed hands and clomped across the street.
With them safely taken care of, I prepared to meet my prey.
I followed the scent down the street and into a back alley toward a large, dark building that loomed in the distance. From the road, I could tell it was about four stories of decaying brick and molding drywall. About fifty apartments, all vacant, made it a demon’s playground. They loved these places. It was one of the reasons they flocked to this city and why I’d ended up here. And it was my job to make sure they died painful, agonizing deaths before they could take anyone out with them.
I inched my way toward the building’s entrance while surveying the scene. As my boots cut up the uneven sidewalk, I scanned each broken window. Black squares stared down at me like vacant eyes. New graffiti covered the old, and trees grew up in the courtyard in the center of the U-shaped block, letting me know this place had been long dead.
The creep factor had been turned up to eleven, but it would take more than a little darkness and decay to scare me. Though, I still had a fear of cookies thanks to the Candy Witch’s gingerbread soldiers last month. What kind of lunatic animated baked goods?
I glanced up, noting each of the four stories, every apartment, tracking all the places the little bugger could hide. Throwing a glance over my shoulder at the street and finding it abandoned, I drew the demon blade. In the moonlight, the ancient runes etched into its steel glimmered before fading again. I’d always loved this blade, but now it brought me joy as well as sadness. This was Dax’s blade, the one I’d stolen from his house. It had been the reason I’d first laid eyes on him and the reason we’d first kissed—though that was a bittersweet memory since he’d drugged me and tricked me to get it back.
Yeah, we had a rocky past. It was, as they said, complicated.
The thoughts sizzled away as the demon’s scent tickled my nose. He was close. And big, judging from the stench. Either that, or he’d had a spa day in the bowels of hell just for funsies before voyaging up.
I stalked forward, finding an empty doorframe and pitch blackness inside. The door was long gone, as were the windows on either side. Peering in, I saw the standard fare of garbage, animal waste, and crumbling building materials. The rest was a black void of nothingness ready to swallow me whole.
Should I go in? I had a habit of rushing into things that were super dangerous without thinking, getting myself into deep trouble several times, but my head was still attached to my shoulders, wasn’t it? Plus, I had the demon blade and magic. That was new as of the last few weeks, and I’d almost forgotten to use it.
Quickly, I ran through the shield spell Frankie taught me, doing the fancy finger work and speaking the words before pushing it out. A tingle of magic ran down my arms and out my fingers before solidifying into a shiny barrier in front of me.
There. I was all set. Nothing bad could happen, right?
Dax had always told me not to say that or even think it. Bad juju. Frankie would say I should call for backup, but no matter how much I loved Frankie and Jason, calling them here would only slow me down.
I didn’t believe in luck or waiting for backup. I believed in cold hard steel and myself.
With the blade in my fist, I barreled inside.
The smell was strong here—leftover Easter eggs mingling with rot and decay. Spider webs traced sticky fingers over my face, making me cringe and bat them away. Mold made my throat tingle as I stalked down spongy floorboards, my boots shuffling through the trash and making far too much noise. So much for a quiet entry. It didn’t matter. I wanted this bugger to know death had arrived.
There was a thud down the hall and the sound of scampering. The demon had heard me coming and seemed to be moving away rather than toward me. Good sign. It was scared of me—as it should be. It was scary.
I gave up being quiet and ran down the dark hallway. The light from the doorway died, leaving me in almost total blackness, but I didn’t need to see. My senses were honed by the magic that coursed through my veins. I was a finely tuned machine. A powerhouse. A--
The demon stepped out from behind a wall, blocking my path.
He was fucking terrifying. As large as the most massive human, his body blocked my path and glowed a dim red. He was a Samael, a fire demon, and he was huge. Heat radiated off his boiling skin, and fire burned where his eye sockets should be. Giant black horns scrapped the drywall as he swiveled his massive head in my direction.
Gigantic cloven hooves shook the floorboards as he settled himself to block my path. When he opened his mouth, a roiling bog of hot, putrid stink spilled out as he roared loud enough to shake the foundations.
“Son of a biscuit,” I murmured, readying one hand with another protective spell while the other clutched the blade. “You’re a large fella, aren’t ya? How about a water spell? Then the old stabby-stabby. That’ll put a damper on your day.”
As I was about to form the spell, something shifted behind me. I had just enough time to whirl around in time to see a tiny sloth demon jump into the air. His eyes flashed, as did the blade in its fist. I spotted the weapon right as it arched toward me before it buried itself between my ribs.