Authors: Pippa DaCosta
the last person I wanted to see when I opened my eyes to find him standing, arms crossed, bristly jaw set. He’d packed all of his fiery self back into cargo pants and a white tank top that strained against his obscene physique. His gaze could have stripped my skin from my flesh. He took in the smattering of bruises on my cheek and paused at the red welts where Allard had sunk his teeth in.
I’m not stock.
Did he tell you that?
Maybe Torrent and I had more in common than I wanted to admit.
I glared right back at Joseph, knowing the marks told a story. “What?”
He grunted, unfolded his big arms, and produced a jet injector. I had to stop myself from snatching it and calmly held out my upturned hand.
A wordless conversation passed between us. His eyes berated me every way they could for being weak, for being half human, for being female, and young to boot. I raised an eyebrow in reply and hoped my don’t-care-what-you-think face was up to scratch.
“Get in my way again,” he grumbled, “like you did with that
and I’ll burn your icy ass to ash.”
My raised brow twitched, seemingly of its own accord. “You were lookin’ at my ass?”
His nostrils flared, and his barrel chest expanded. “Count yourself lucky you have Allard’s protection.”
“Lucky, right.” I snorted, rubbing absently at my neck.
He dumped the injector in my hand and was about to turn away when I asked, “Where’s my brother?”
A flicker of confusion dampened the scorn on his face.
“You are looking for him? Allard said—.”
“Yeah. Your brother. We’re looking.” He grumbled something else under his breath and stomped down the hall, sending tiny lessers darting for the shadows.
I slammed the door hard enough to crack the frame, clamped the injector between my teeth, and rolled up my sleeve. I needed to get myself together. PC34A was a big part of that. It would certainly stop my demon from crawling out of my skin. She was eager to burst free, to yank up every available molecule of ice so she could stab every single damn demon that dared get in my path—right before running Allard through. Unfortunately, an ice dagger through the heart probably wouldn’t kill him.
I wiped a hand across my dusty mirror, plucked the injector free from my mouth, and hovered it over my exposed upper arm. My hand trembled, sloshing the liquid in its vial. What if I didn’t take my hit? What if I let my demon come? They’d all think twice before crossing me then.
I swallowed the bitter taste in my mouth and flicked my eyes up at my reflection. She was there, looking back at me. I saw her in the tiny curl at the corners of my mouth, the glint of something
in my eyes, and deeper…
Missing even one hit was a slippery slope. The more freedom I gave her, the more she’d take, and the more I’d lose my grip.
I shifted the injector, my palms suddenly clammy. There was a fine line between human and demon in a half blood. We were both—no half measures—despite the name. Hybrids, the Institute called us, a marriage of human and demon DNA, the best and worst of both creatures. The demon in me, she was as entitled to life as I was. But I managed her. I always had. Control. Mine was perfect.
I craned my neck to the side and popped joints, relieving the pressure around sore muscles. A flicker of a memory passed in front of me. The white room. Allard, magnificently demon, his hand wrapped around my neck, claws clicking. The ghost of Allard’s grip squeezed.
You know half bloods are owned.
That damned Torrent. Why couldn’t he have let me walk away with the
I recalled the scars I’d seen crisscrossing Torrent’s chest and back. They’d looked old and well healed, but that could mean he was obedient now and hadn’t always been. He likely didn’t have a choice in anything he’d done so far, except maybe not killing me. His owner, Vanessa, wouldn’t care if I lived or died.
My neck throbbed. The bite had mostly healed. On the outside anyway.
I wasn’t owned. The demons who shared the hotel thought I was. Joseph thought I was. Allard clearly believed it. But I didn’t, and that distinction was important, wasn’t it? I would show Allard, but it wasn’t time—not yet. I needed him to help find Del. I needed him to keep the Institute away, but I’d make him remember who I was, that I was more than just a half-blood pet.
“Not yet,” I told my reflection—told
looking back through my eyes—and jabbed the injector into my arm. Cool PC34A coursed through my veins, settling the scratching, shifting, twisting madness in its wake until there was only my own steady heartbeat in my chest and smooth human thoughts in my head.
My gaze settled on the key ring resting on my dresser. The gift. I tossed the empty injector onto the dresser and snatched up the key ring. My hand didn’t tremble now. But as the thing twirled from my fingers, I couldn’t bring myself to drop it and crush it beneath my boot.
My eyelids fluttered closed. I breathed in around the bruises, let the drug melt the ice in my veins, and set the key ring carefully back on the dresser. When I opened my eyes, the girl looking back at me was entirely human and in control.
t was evening
by the time I caught up with Allard. Another day wasted. Another day Del hadn’t returned, another day without his hit of PC34A. Restlessness fizzed through my veins. Clearly, something had happened to my brother, and Allard didn’t care. What had I honestly expected from a demon?
The abandoned high school auditorium played host to a weekly cage fight. Allard didn’t usually visit the fruits of his labor, preferring to deal demons instead of betting on them, but clearly his bloodlust was up.
Cars lined the street. Few people ventured any further, not with a nw-zone throbbing like an open wound a few hundred yards away and a known demon colony infesting the pier. I eyed the vans, sensing their restless cargo chained inside. Lessers were bought and sold for these fights, and the toughest, those that survived fight after fight, often earned their owners a certain amount of street prestige. Sometimes, humans could be as bloodthirsty as demons.
A thunderous roar went up from inside the theater, but nobody outside batted an eye. I sauntered through the groups—young human men, mostly. Something about demon fights and testosterone mixed like gas and a naked flame. But there were a few women here, giving my black cargo pants, hiking boots, and slip of a top a wary once-over.
I made my way through the old high school grounds, into the main theater, and jostled into the seating area. They’d pitted a
, and by the bloodied state of the
, it had already survived several fights. The
stood at least seven feet tall, but its wingspan was twice that. With their long, piercing beaks riddled with teeth, they resembled what humans called pterodactyls. This one’s wings had been clipped, as was common practice. The
though, squat low to the ground on its oily black scorpion body, wasn’t taking any shit. Its upper half was vaguely humanoid, but that was where the human resemblance ended.
were wild lessers. They roamed freely in the netherworld and were the beasts most likely to rip you to pieces if you stayed still long enough to attract their attention. This one was missing a pincer, but that only seemed to piss it off even more. The thing skittered on its rippling legs, constantly stabbing overhead with its stinger, while its one good pincer clamped around the
The crowd roared and heaved like a great rippling wave of energy. The air hung heavy and thick with the smell of blood, demon excrement, and the burned rubber smell of the netherworld.
A shudder ran through me. What few memories I had of the netherworld were broken images, scattered mostly in my dreams. I’d spent only a week there in human time—longer in netherworld time—a week my human mind refused to recall, and I had no desire to dredge up those events.
beat its wings, sending up clouds of grit and dust. It gave an earsplitting shriek, and the
hunkered down. Its scales rattled, producing its distinctive hiss. It looked submissive, but it wasn’t. When you put two demons in the ring, there’s no submission to be had. The weakest would be eaten.
I’d seen enough, and after sending out a little of my element to feel for Allard, I caught the smooth, hardness of his presence nearby but away from the ring.
I nudged and sidestepped my way through the crowd until finally breaking free near a fire door. I eased through just as the
must have struck its killing blow, igniting the crowd into a sundering roar.
Relieved to be away from the noise, I headed down a corridor, into an open-air plaza. Six months of weeds and bushes had encroached on what probably had once been a lively meeting place for high school kids.
Allard and a neatly dressed man stood beside a bench. I leaned against a waist-high planter, watching Allard count cash from a roll. A demon deal, I figured. After a few quiet moments, Allard’s customer noticed me with a startled twitch. I smiled back.
“Don’t mind her,” Allard said without looking up.
“Who is she?”
Allard continued to thumb through the cash without answering then handed over the bills and received a grocery bag in exchange. “Enjoy the fight.”
“I’ve seen enough demons to last a lifetime.” The guy shrugged, gave me a parting once-over, and strode off too quickly to be casual.
Did he not know he’d just completed a transaction with a demon? Maybe not. People believed what they wanted to believe, and Allard was very convincing.
“Who was he?”
In the layered shadows, Allard’s smile cut a sinister curl. “Institute.”
Run. Do it now.
I can’t go. Not without Del.
“Why is he here?”
Well, listen to me, sounding as if I don’t care
. If Allard could hear my heart, he’d hear it trying to pound its way out of my chest.
Dry amusement glittered in his gaze. “Our arrangement dictates I keep you and your brother safe from the Institute. That man, Doctor Taylor, is part of that process.”
“And if he recognizes me?”
Allard looked at the shadows crowding the corners. “Human eyesight is poor in darkness. Your hair color, the fact you’re a several thousand miles from where you should be… I’m sure you’re safe.”
Maybe I was safe. Or maybe, once I found Del, it was time to leave LA. “What’s in the bag?”
Allard took a second too long to answer, his gaze roaming me the whole time. He did that—paused as if, between one beat and the next, he’s peering into your soul. “You really don’t need to worry. When I make an arrangement, it’s binding.”
I should have arranged to keep myself safe from you.
I realized I was rubbing my neck and dropped my hand. Too late. He’d seen. His eyes flashed in the dark with something I didn’t want to think too deeply about.
I sent an internal chill through me, cooling off the simmering anger and racing fear before both could loosen my tongue and get me in more trouble. “Where’s my brother?”
His eyebrow quirked in an expression that seemed almost too human. “He’ll be found.” He started forward.
“Do you doubt me, Gem?” Too close, he stopped, pinning me under his uncompromising glare.
I don’t doubt you’re up to something.
“But I do doubt Joseph. I asked him about Del, and he acted like it was the first he’d heard of it.”
Allard’s chuckle had the appeal of drizzled syrup. Had I not still carried the bruises from my trip to the white room, that laugh might have made my demon salivate. But he straightened his face with surgical precision, wiping the laughter clean from every line, every glance, until he stood as cold and hard as his element. “We have an arrangement. I’ve tasked Joseph with finding your brother. He’ll be found. Ask again, and I’ll throw you in the ring.”
Nearby gravel rattled and danced. Allard hadn’t moved, but he didn’t need to flex his elemental muscles. Its shifting quickened my heart and spritzed my neck with sweat.
“You wouldn’t,” I snarled, reining back on my own shifting element.
This was the part where I should look away and dip my chin, eyes to the floor. A half blood does not challenge her owner. That’s how it was in the netherworld. But we weren’t in the netherworld.
I gritted my teeth and glared into his dark eyes, eyes so dark, nobody would ever believe his true form was marble white.
“Enough.” He shoved the bag into my chest, almost knocking me off my feet. “Come. I wanted to ask you about your time in the netherworld.” He strode toward the abandoned high school grounds, expecting me to follow.
“How—” As soon as I opened my mouth to ask how he could possibly know, I already had my answer. He was too clever to ask the Institute directly, but clearly, he’d teased indirect answers out of them.
“Rumors are, you and your brother were taken by a Prince of Hell. Stolen from the Institute’s most secure facility in Massachusetts, never to be seen again. Presumed dead.” He tossed a smile over his shoulder.
I trailed along behind, not wanting to think about the nightmare that had been real all along. Peeking inside the bag, I spotted a handful of jet injectors. Doctor Taylor was Allard’s source for PC34A. That was information worth holding on to.
“Do you know which prince freed you?” Allard continued, his tone mildly enquiring, but the politeness gave him away. He was treading carefully, choosing his words with thought.
“Who says me and Del didn’t escape and make our way here alone?”
A few more strides passed beneath us. A breeze filtered through the palms, dislodging dust and sending it raining down as a fine mist.
“You remember how I found you?”
On my knees, rifling through trash like a lesser demon.
It didn’t need to be said. I could hardly forget.
I was expecting Allard to turn and flash me his smile again, but he walked on, weaving around a sapling that had taken root between paving slabs and cracked them apart. “You’re many things, Gem. But you lack real-world experience. You didn’t escape without help.”
I clung to the grocery bag and fixed my gaze on Allard’s straight shoulders. Empty buildings loomed on either side. Something skittered across Allard’s path—a stray cat maybe, or a lesser. This close to the Promenade nw-zone, it could be either.
I tried to think of anything but the prince, but the images dragged me down. I’d never seen anything like him before or since. Few people had. Skin like black marble veined with fire. He was my first lesson in how the Institute was unprepared to deal with beings of such immense power. Then everyone learned what real nightmares looked like when the veil fell, and they came.
“Gem…” Allard growled, snapping me back into the moment.
We’d stopped on the sidewalk outside the high school. The noise from the crowd inside lapped at an otherwise quiet night. The loitering groups had thinned, leaving a few stragglers discussing the fights.
“What?” I snapped.
“I don’t know anything.” That was true enough, but Allard was looking at me like he might at any moment decide to grab me by the neck, slam me down on the pavement, and bury me under tons of earth. Not knowing wasn’t an option. I shrugged. “I don’t remember. Something happened after he broke us out. There was a fight. Another demon grabbed us, and the next thing I knew, we were in the netherworld. I never saw the prince again.”
I turned my face toward LA’s blanket of city lights. At least the netherworld was locked away behind the veil. That place, that world, made the leftover nw-zones here look like petting zoos. And the demons there, they were the true monsters.
“Which other demon grabbed you?”
I swung my attention back to Allard to find him frowning. “Does it matter?”
“What did he look like?”
“I don’t know. He was…” He was beautiful with dusty wings. One touch of that dust, and I’d almost lost my mind in my
to ruck with him. It was madness, that need. The human parts of my mind would have done anything to touch him, for him to touch me. I could still hear myself begging. After that, just flashes of pain, the taste of blood, and one word.
I hugged my arms around me and sighed through my nose. “I don’t remember much of the netherworld. It was madness. I was demon, and I wasn’t in control of anything. Stuff just happened to me. The demon, he… I… I only saw him a few times. Then I was back here. Okay? I don’t know anything.” I realized I sounded whiny and petulant, and Allard’s unimpressed frown wasn’t helping. But it
the truth. Whatever plans the demon had, he didn’t share it with Del and me. Then he was gone, and we were on the run in the netherworld—until the veil fell.
I scratched at my arm and relished the human pain. It grounded me, reminded me who I was, where I was. Human. Gem. In Los Angeles. Not demon. Not in the netherworld. Not lost to the horror.
Allard’s dark eyes studied me closely. “Interesting how a prince would go to the trouble of breaking you both out of an Institute facility. Why was that?”
“I told you. I don’t know.”
“Speculate.” The ground trembled, and a sound like a truck rumbling by shuddered through the air.
Clearly, he wasn’t going to drop the subject. “Why do
think?” I snarled.
He drew in a deep breath. “Be very careful, half blood. I’ve treated you kindly, given you sanctuary. How long do you think it would take for the Institute to find you? Minutes?”
I clamped my teeth together. Control. I had to stay in control. Now was not the time to challenge him.
Allard regarded me coolly, waiting for my reply. Further along the sidewalk, we’d earned ourselves a small audience. It was probably that audience that stopped him from driving me into the sidewalk.
“The prince wanted our combined power.” My teeth tingled, lengthening. My demon was bleeding through, and I let her stretch, just a little. “Before the veil locked up tight, half bloods could draw their element from this world and the netherworld, making us twice as powerful as any demon—besides the princes.” Sighing through my nose, I loosened some of the knotted tension. “The Institute, the princes, they all wanted a piece of us. We were created as weapons to defend humanity against demons like you.”
But it didn’t quite go down that way.
Allard stood demon still, his predatory mind going over the facts. Had he known I had the potential to blast him and his demon buddies all to hell if the veil should ever fall again? He did now.
He shifted his stance, ran the top of his tongue along his bottom lip, and canted his head. A new suspicious curiosity narrowed his eyes, and I started to wonder if I’d given away too much.
“What did you feel, Gem, when you drew your element from the veil?”
Unstoppable. Lethal. A force of nature. Like I could freeze both the worlds.
“What does it matter? The veil’s locked. And I can barely make a snowball in this heat.”
He laughed, properly laughed from deep inside. “Gem, you have me all wrong! I have a surprise for you at Fairhaven.” He turned and sauntered up the street, leaving me frowning at his back.