Table of Contents
With a heavy heart, I called the number he’d given me. He answered on the first ring. “Mr. Kidd? I am listening,” I said.
“Oh, I . . . um . . . Well, I have a bit of a problem, and I was told you were an expert in such matters.”
I had to laugh. The human penchant for understatement never fails to amuse me. “No, sir, you do not have a ‘bit of a problem.’ You made a pact with demonic forces. You sold your soul to the devil, and now you want me to get it back. This qualifies as a huge problem.”
It always takes people a moment to recover when I put things so plainly, and in the silence I added, “I will meet you at the Chino’s across the street from your hotel. You have one hour to convince me.”
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First printing, July 2010
eISBN : 978-1-101-18852-1
Copyright © K. A. Stewart, 2010
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To Aislynn, for being;
to Scott, for believing;
and to Janet, for doing the hard stuff
Thanks to my agent, Chris Lotts, for fishing me out of the slush. To my editor extraordinaire, Anne Sowards. To my beta slaves: Janet Yantes, Geoff Glover, Jesse Philips, Lori Diederich, Jessica Vaughn, Jenn Wolfe, and Will Sisco. To Auggy, for being beta, webmaster, and pet code monkey all in one. To Dr. Gita Bransteitter for being my part-time medical consultant and my full-time best friend. To the Rogue’s Row at the back of the Metro bus, for always making me laugh. To Zak, Beth, and Badger of Badger Blades (www.badgerblades.com
) for making Jesse’s swords a reality. To the AW Purgatorians for commiserating when I was down and for kicking my butt to get me back up again. To Aislynn, who keeps insisting my books need more dragons. And to Scott, without whom there would be no Jesse Dawson at all.
here’s a certain sound the human head makes when it hits the trunk of a tree. Meatier than a “crack”; not quite as hollow as a “thunk”—it’s unmistakable. And when it’s my head, I tend to take offense.
I leaned against said tree and glared at my opponent until my double vision returned to single and the world swam back into focus. “That one’s gonna cost you, Crabby.” If looks could kill . . . well, first off, my life would be a lot easier.
On the other side of the clearing, what looked to be a mutant crab-scorpion crossbreed rattled and hissed at me in annoyance as it tried to wipe the thrown dirt out of its stalky eyes. The silver light gleamed off its knobby black shell, giving it a metallic sheen. Its right pincer, large enough to neatly sever my thigh, clicked and clacked loudly. A drop of venom hovered at the tip of its thick segmented tail, the dangerous appendage arching high over its back and weaving like a snake in thrall.
Taking a deep breath, I tossed my thick braid back over my shoulder, out of reach of grasping nasty things, and adjusted my grip on my sword. My breath and the cold night air combined to create frost in my beard, and I wiped it away with my free hand, flinging aside the pellets of ice. The crab creature got its vision cleared and gave a threatening stab of its tail in my direction.
Now, I’m a believer in the power of positive thinking, but do you ever just have a sneaking suspicion you’re not winning?
The distant whump-whump-whump of a helicopter broke the silence as it patrolled the camp’s perimeter and kept the paparazzi and innocent bystanders at bay. Any sane person or animal had long since fled the chill and the noise, which left just me and my definitely questionable grip on reality. The full moon was up in the sky somewhere, casting the world in blue-white serenity, while down here under the tree canopy I did the tango with . . . that.
What I had here was a class-two Scuttle demon, the category so named (by me) for the way they . . . well . . . scuttled. Only one rung up from primordial ooze on the demonic ladder, most times they were easily confused and taunted into carelessness. None of them would ever be a candidate for Mensa.
Lack of intelligence didn’t mean lack of speed, however, or lack of armor. I was having a helluva time getting past that thick carapace. My blade already held quite a few nasty nicks from the attempts. Marty was going to kill me for hurting one of his precious swords.
Still, the crab-demon had a few wounds. Intangible dark energy, which passed for blood amongst demonkind, slithered across the forest floor with eerie sentience, coalescing into a ball of black nothingness behind the creature. I’d heard that essence called void-blood, nether-essence, or some other poetic-sounding crap. To me, it was just blight, and it would suck the life out of whatever it touched.
I gave the demon the universal “Come get some” gesture and pushed off the tree to resume a fighting stance. The crab scuttled left, testing me, and I carefully placed my feet on the uneven terrain as I shifted right. It was impossible to feel my way through the thick soles of my boots, and I couldn’t afford to take my eyes off the demon. My armor jingled faintly, sounding like macabre sleigh bells, and the crab hissed and snapped its pincers in return. Not for the first time, I questioned the wisdom of wearing only chain mail and leather for protection. I’d found that I simply could not move well enough if I added plates to it, but was mobility worth it if I couldn’t stop a crushing blow?
Lightning quick, the demon charged, spiny feet carrying it across the clearing in an explosive crackle of dead pine needles. At the last second, I calmly side-stepped right, avoiding the massive claw and dodging the poisonous stinger, bringing my sword down at the juncture of one chitinous leg. The twiggy limb snapped with a gunshot report, and the crab- demon screamed in inhuman outrage. The severed leg dissolved, and dark energy poured from the wound, billowing into the night air to join the rest that had escaped. Slowly it began to swirl, forming the beginnings of a portal.
You don’t really kill demons. You can only wear them down until they lose the strength to hold on to this plane. Thanks to the crab’s armored form, the fight had already gone on longer than I would have liked, and the trick would be to see which one of us was going to tire first. Next time—if there was a next time—I hoped for a fluffy bunny demon, something pink and easily dispatched.
I let my momentum carry me past and away like flowing water, again finding myself across the clearing. Now, I’m a fairly athletic man in the prime of my life, but we’d been at this for the better part of forty-five minutes, and the running back and forth all night was getting old. “Come on, Crabby. I’m too old to play tag.”
The Scuttle demon limped in awkward circles for a moment, as if the now- missing leg had been the rudder keeping it on a straight path. Its eyestalks swiveled to keep me in sight, and it chittered something furious at me. I’d reduced it to babbling. It wasn’t even bothering to speak English in its fury.
The next charge wasn’t quite so coordinated. Twice on that pass, my katana glanced harmlessly off the black shell with a jarring clang. I felt it all the way to my shoulders. As I moved to spin away from the tail again, the demon whirled and slammed that massive pincer into my left hip. I went tumbling head over heels into the leafy forest litter, barely managing to keep my sword. The pungent smell of crushed pine needles filled the air.
It wasn’t broken. Broken hips happen to old people, not to strapping young men of thirty . . . -ish. But it was going to bruise, and I could feel links of chain digging through my jeans and into my skin where the padding beneath gaped. I didn’t have time to ponder the state of my armor or the severity of my injury. I didn’t even have time to get up off the ground.