Authors: Pippa DaCosta
ou can’t let
them win. Ever. Don’t give them an inch. Don’t give them an opening. Strike first. Hit hard. Hit fast. Be stronger. Be better than they could ever be. They think we’re weak, Gem. We’ve already won. They just don’t know it yet.
I woke with Del’s voice whispering in my ear and blinked into the sunlight pouring into a living room I didn’t recognize.
Del wasn’t here. But I'd heard him, hadn't I? And then I remembered he was missing, and this house wasn't Fairhaven. There was the vase, back on its mantelpiece, and there was the demon, sitting in a chair, boots up on a table, eating cereal from the bowl cradled in his hand.
What time was it? I had to get back to Allard.
I shifted on the obscenely comfortable couch cushions and tried to sit up, but my head and shoulder beat out a painful base-like throbbing, turning my stomach over. I’d move in a minute—once I could see straight.
“I fixed up your shoulder.”
bowl clattered against the tabletop, and the chair creaked.
I stared up at the exposed ceiling beams, squinting into stabbing shafts of sunlight.
“Interesting tattoo you’ve got.”
He couldn’t see my face or else he’d have read the alarm there. What if he’d recognized the branding? What if he’d called the Institute, and they were on their way here? No, he wouldn’t. He was demon, and no demon would call the Institute, not unless he was looking for a fight. And damn, he
fight. Demons weren’t usually good at hand-to-hand combat. They relied on their strength, their elements, and when those didn’t work, they dropped the human act altogether and resorted to teeth and claws. But not him. He’d moved as though he was trained—like me.
“It’s nothing. A demon brand.” I poked at my sore ribs and shifted onto my side.
He crossed his arms over his chest and watched me from across the room. He probably thought he was safe with the width of the room between us. He wasn’t. His anger had fizzled away, along with his element. He looked like a normal guy, one you’d pass on the street, maybe even check out, without any idea of the beast beneath that West Coast tan.
“So you’re owned then?” His absent gaze wandered about the room, as if the question was just idle small talk, but his eyes had cooled and narrowed a fraction.
What did he know about being owned?
He made an odd little dismissive
noise and settled his gaze on me, but this time with purpose. “Allard sent you.”
I pushed upright on the couch and closed my eyes for a moment, waiting for my head to stop spinning. “I don’t know any Allard.”
“Sure you don’t. And I suppose you’re not one of the two half bloods Allard has in his stock?”
“I’m not stock.” How did he know?
He planted his boots and leaned forward in the chair. “Did he tell you that?”
I refused to show how his words eroded my confidence. I wasn’t stock. I wasn’t owned. That was behind me. “It’s a partnership,” I said, and instantly regretted it. I didn’t owe this demon any explanation. He already knew too much.
“You know half bloods are owned. It’s the way of things. It’s always been the way of things. Just because the veil closed doesn’t mean anything has changed.”
“What do you know about being a half blood?” I snapped, reaching for my dagger only to find the sheath empty.
The demon plucked my blade from his back pocket and placed it on the table in front of him. “I know because I am one.”
Now it was my turn to make that dismissive snort. “No you’re not.” I sounded like Officer Ramírez. He couldn’t be a half blood. Half bloods were rare enough before the veil fell. Those who weren’t torn apart by its sudden collapse and sundering of energies were weakened and slain by demons during the battles. Besides, if he
a half blood, I’d know it. I’d
I held his gaze. He wasn’t looking away, and neither was I. A muscle twitched in his jaw. If he was a half blood, did he perhaps know what my scorpion tattoo meant? Did he have one too? Could he be Institute? Me and Del were products of the Boston Institute. The LA Institute could have been splicing demon and human DNA too.
“What’s your name?” I spread both hands carefully on my thighs. Dried blood brushed against my palms. The pungent smell of my own stale sweat tickled my nose. I didn’t dare check my shoulder. It still hurt, but I could think around the pain.
He reached for the key pendant he wore on the cord around his neck and gently rubbed it between his fingers and thumb. “Torrent.”
Torrent? A nickname, because of his water element, an element I’d gotten very familiar with last night. He could have killed me—twice—and our scuffle really hadn’t taxed him at all. He had too much power to be a half blood, didn’t he? But he
survived the Fall. Only the strongest survived.
“Are you owned?” I asked quietly.
I blinked and stared at the cold fireplace. Whatever demon owned Torrent must have been formidable to keep him.
“You’re in deeper than you know, Gem.”
He knew my name? How? His gaze stopped my runaway thoughts. The laughter had vanished from his eyes. Tension locked his body down, as though he readied for an attack, and his element rose around him. Its invisible weight prickled my skin.
“I can’t let you leave here with the
” He spoke matter-of-factly, but there was nothing calm or relaxed about the swirl of his element and its building charge.
So he knew what the vase was. I licked my lips. “And I can’t leave here without it.”
“Then we’re at an impasse.”
“Yes we are.” The memory of my brother’s whispers sailed through my thoughts.
“We’ve already won. They just don’t know it yet.”
Torrent didn’t see the blade of ice coming. I formed it between one second and the next and flung it with absolute precision, straight at his heart. It punched home, dead center. They always do. I got to my feet and strode to the mantelpiece. I heard him fall, taking the table with him with a great clatter and the dull thuds of his body hitting the floor. His cereal bowl smashed, scattering jagged porcelain fragments across the hardwood floor. One butted against my boot. I looked down and toed it aside. His element swirled, hissing and spitting at mine.
I picked up the vase and headed for the doors.
“Walk out…” he gasped. “You…help.”
I paused at the doors. Sunlight warmed me through, thawing the ice in my veins. “Goodbye, Torrent.”
* * *
ne of my
earliest memories was of a maze of pale green walls. The corridors never ended, no matter which way I turned. I ran, my feet bare, my paper-thin gown flapping around skinny foal-like legs, and the demons kept on coming. I’d run the maze before because I always knew which way to turn to find the little clear plastic box. I’d run and run, lungs aching, throat burning, my feet slapping against the smooth floor. The sound of scrabbling claws chased me down. I made it to the box, every time—I’d learned later, there were others who hadn’t—and once inside, I’d yank the clear door closed. The demons didn’t see the box. They saw only me, the wraith-like little half-blood girl. They would launch themselves—claws extended, jaws wide, eyes ablaze—and slam into my tiny box, sending shudders rattling through my bones. They’d snap and snarl, hook their teeth into my box, and gnaw at its edges, desperate to get to the feast huddling a few millimeters away.
, the Institute had called it.
At first I was afraid, and I learned how to run. Then I was angry, and I learned how to fight with my fists and my element. Then I got even. I lured those demons into a corner and ambushed them, killing every last one. After countless visits to the maze— after weeks, years—I’d started liking it, and killing became as natural as breathing. It was what I was good at, what I was
for. What I lived for.
So why did the fact I’d killed Torrent twist eels of unease in my gut? He was just another demon. He’d said he was a half blood. That wasn’t something a demon would lie about, but being half human didn’t make him any less demon.
I mulled over this unease as I made my way back to Fairhaven. Perhaps it was because he’d had chances to kill me and didn’t take them. But that only made him weak.
“Strike first. Hit hard. Hit fast,”
Del’s voice sounded in my thoughts. He would have squeezed my shoulder and told me I’d done the right thing. But he was gone, and I was alone.
The final time I’d run the maze, the Institute had pitted me against my brother. And I’d been afraid all over again. The maze was my earliest memory and my last of the Institute before the demon prince with the coal-black lava-veined wings stole us away in a night scarred by fire. I didn’t like to remember what followed. As I entered Fairhaven’s grounds, I blocked the memories and focused instead on delivering the
I waited for Allard, alone in his red room, one of the several conference rooms he used for meetings and other private things. The red room was an opulent, pre-Fall piece of comfort. Someone—I doubted it was Allard—had furnished it with leather couches and mocha touches. The walls had been painted a deep red, hence the name. This was a good room. There were other not-so-good rooms. I’d seen the white room not long after arriving at the pier and had no wish to see it again. And as far as I knew, nobody but Allard himself had seen the inside of the black room.
I placed the vase on a coffee table and wandered among the chairs, not wanting to get comfortable before I’d gauged Allard’s mood. The other tables were empty. Demons didn’t keep clutter. They had everything they needed inside their heads. The room looked staged, like a brochure picture, perfect but for the layer of dust and the slight aftertaste of demon in the air.
My shoulder itched. I caught a pungent whiff from my clothes and wrinkled my nose. I smelled like something a demon had dragged home. I could have showered and cleaned up first, but at least Allard would see the retrieval hadn’t been easy.
Sunlight poured in through the window. Outside, the city stretched farther than my human eyes could see—A whole world, filled with people, one I stood on the fringes of. Would it ever feel like a home?
Power gently nudged my back. I glanced back at the vase. What did Allard plan to do with the
he do with it? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Once I found my brother, Del would know if the
might be a problem and what we should do about it—if anything.
The door rattled, and Allard breezed in. His eyes went straight to the vase. He smiled, clicked the door closed behind him, and wove his way through the chairs to the table. After a slight hesitation, he picked up the vase, cradled it carefully in one hand, and stroked the other over its surface.
“Any trouble?” He didn’t take his eyes off the vase.
“A demon. I dealt with it.”
To look at the delight in Allard’s eyes, you’d think he held a priceless piece of art, not a tacky, dime-a-dozen vase. Only the dull background throbbing of power gave away the vase’s true worth.
“This is…” He spluttered a laugh. “This is marvelous.” Then he turned and launched the vase across the room. It exploded against the red wall, shattering into countless pieces.
I stilled, making myself small and quiet. My element rippled, eager to spring free and protect me, but I reined it back.
Allard flung his gaze over his shoulder, looking for my reaction. I gave none, and he grinned. “Now the real fun begins.” He kicked broken bits of vase aside and knelt down, out of sight behind a chair. When he straightened, he held up a small, marbled stone. “Yes. Yes!” In a demon-blur, he was at the window, examining the stone in his hand. Sunlight glittered off its surface. He turned it over and stroked his fingers over it. “Gem.” He beckoned.
I would have preferred to slip out the door, but if I did, he’d likely call me back. Better to get this over with while his mood was amiable. I also couldn’t deny the lure of the stone, especially when combined with the delight on Allard’s face. When I stopped beside him, I clearly saw veins pulsing through the stone in time with the beat of elemental energies stirring the air.
“This is the key.” He snagged my hand and pushed the stone into my palm.
A shock of static burst up my arm, dove deep inside, and hooked claws into my demon, almost yanking her to the surface. I gasped, and my knees almost buckled. Only Allard’s firm grip on my elbow held me up. I wanted to drop the stone, to fling it back at him, but he’d closed my fingers around it and clasped his hand over mine. The fear died with a sudden inner click, and my demon clamped a hold of the stone, clutching it close.
“Mm… Chaos…” he purred. “Now, doesn’t that feel good?”
Chaos surged though me, wove around my veins, pumping power and madness into my human skin. My demon rose up, straining against the bands of control. I let out a cry, and finally, Allard snatched the stone from my grip. Its absence burned the madness away, clearing my thoughts.
Allard’s fingers dug deeper into my arm, holding me fast. When I regained some sense of reality, his dark brown eyes bored into mine, and his element licked over my body, utterly invasive and completely irresistible.