Authors: A. R. Kahler
Melody’s at my side in an instant, her hand on my shoulder. Her touch is hot and quivering, like she’s ready to shift into some ferocious beast at any moment. We stare at the horizon where the orange glow grows brighter. There’s no mistaking the scent of brimstone now. My throat burns with eager hatred.
“What is it?” asks the woman leading the mob. There’s a shake to her voice, one that definitely wasn’t there a moment ago. She may hate me, and she may not know what Lilith truly is—the whole troupe was magically forced to forget—but everyone skirts around the crazy little girl. We all know that a happy Lilith is a terrifying Lilith.
“A demon,” I say.
“Demons don’t exist,” she says, which is probably the dumbest thing she’s said all night. She’s a shape-shifter working for a faerie, and she doesn’t believe in demons?
“They do,” I say; my eyes flicker to Lilith, who smiles wider, then back to the woman. She’s right—she
be right. Until now, Kassia was the only demon I’ve heard of. If there were more, the world would already be in flames. Right? Was this some sort of demonic apocalypse?
“What are we going to do?” Melody asks. I glance at her and realize I don’t even know if she remembers when Kassia attacked. The troupe was brainwashed into thinking the tent burned down in a fire, a fire that somehow cost us half the performers. Mel wasn’t even on site when it happened. But there’s something in her eyes that tells me she knows just how deep the shit we’re stepping into is.
“So long as you’re here, Mel,” I say, trying to keep my voice from carrying to the troupe, “the immortality clause should stand. Your tithe should keep us safe.”
, Oracle,” Lilith says. “But I wouldn’t rely on Mab’s magic. It has failed before. And without her around, the risk of failure is much more likely.” She clenches her fists as she says this; thin shards of light spear from her hands, red and hot and vanishing in an instant.
“Take Lilith,” I tell Melody. “I don’t care where you take her, but just get her out of here. Lock her in her trailer if you have to, and make sure she doesn’t get out.” I catch sight of Austin, standing there like he’s ready to take on the world. “Scratch that. Take her and Austin to bunk zero. I don’t want him getting hurt in the cross fire.”
Bunk zero. I haven’t stepped foot in there since Kingston showed me the Wheel that turned Dream into fabric and somehow fed the Fey. Like Mab’s office, I knew it was a world apart, somehow connected and separate from the show. Hopefully it was far enough to keep Austin safe and Lilith from causing trouble.
“I should be helping you,” Melody says. Her teeth are clamped and the muscles in her arms are doubling in size. “I should fight.”
“You’re the only one I trust to keep her from getting involved,” I say. “Besides, you know what happened the last time you got hurt.”
She looks at me like I’ve wielded a blade against her, but she nods tersely and grabs Lilith’s arm. She knows I have a point; Melody's tithe keeps the troupe immortal. If she gets hurt, our immortality clauses go down the drain. We nearly lost the troupe the last time she got sick.
“I’m not going to leave you,” Austin says. His words burn and Lilith giggles. I want to punch that little girl in the face.
I step up to him and lower my voice, putting a hand on his arm. Once, he was enough to protect me and my sister from the evils of this world. But these new evils are definitely not from this world. And neither is a part of me.
“Please don’t do this,” I whisper. “Just go with Melody. I’ll be perfectly safe. Contractually immortal, remember? And I don’t know if Mab gave you the same clause.”
He bites his lip, his eyes searching mine like he’s trying to find weakness, some reason to stay.
“I can take care of this,” I whisper. “But not if I’m worrying about you.”
I know he wants to fight, I can see it in the jut of his jaw. But he doesn’t. He just nods and kisses me on the forehead.
“Kick his ass,” he whispers. Then he nods to Melody and lets her lead him away from the fire.
“Have fun playing,” Lilith calls out.
Then they round a trailer and vanish from sight.
“Right,” I say, addressing the troupe. Even though the glow on the horizon is still distant, it’s getting closer by the second. I can practically hear the crackling cinder of burning earth. I can smell the hatred. “We have to hurry, before—”
The world tilts.
Fire wreathes me, blazes as the tent crisps and peels up into the darkened sky and all around are bodies, so many bodies, burnt and twisted, and beside me Kassia is laughing, laughing, dancing and laughing in the dust of their bones.
I gasp as though drowning and the world sears back into focus, burning in at the edges like parchment. I’m on my knees and everyone is staring at me; I can’t tell if they look alarmed because there’s a murderous demon approaching or because I’m passing out on the job. I bring a hand to my temple and force myself to stand. There’s a ringing in my ears and my throat burns from brimstone.
I shouldn’t be having visions. I just fed.
The thought of blood makes my stomach turn in disgust and hunger, all in one nauseating go.
“Before what?” the Shifter leader asks. It takes me a second to realize my vision cut me off. I glance at her and can’t help but see her flesh char. “What’s coming for us?”
This is it,
This is our end. At least Austin’s safe.
The fact that protecting him was even an impulse surprises me. But it’s true—even if the trailer burns down, he should be okay. Bunk zero leads to Faerie; destroying the trailer would just close the gateway. It's probably the safest place for him.
“A demon. Like I said. And it’s going to rip us apart. If it’s anything like what I’ve fought before, I’m the only one who can stop it. You guys can try to fight, but it will probably just kill you before you leave a mark.”
“Fuck that,” the woman says. “I’m not just going to bend over and take it. None of us are.” She glances at the troupe, hope stirring in my chest. Is the army rallying?
Her next words dash every hope I had: “Let us out.”
“What?” I ask.
She steps toward me. “I said,
let us out.
We’re not going to die fighting for this show. We don’t even want to
here. Change our contracts so we can run.”
My mouth opens and closes. No words. You could almost mistake the glow on the horizon for dawn. Except dawn is hours away, and the glow smells like burning death even from here.
“Did you hear me?” she asks. She looks to where I’m staring and her voice goes frantic. I don’t know if she’s new or if she was here for Kassia’s attack, but there’s something primal in her that’s breaking out, something that knows death is on its way.
And that’s when something primal snaps in
“Get out of my sight,” I say. I glare at her, my words slow and measured and filled with rage. “Before I kill you myself. Go hide beneath the fucking trailers if you have to.”
“Let me out of my contract!” she screams. The horizon is brilliant now. It’s no longer just the bonfire that crackles; the sky itself seems to burn.
“Fine!” I scream back. Something in me crashes free, a knowledge and power I never realized I had. Suddenly, she's not a nameless face. Her contract blooms in my mind, her life held within the lines of ink and blood. “Tanya Jessalyn Hyll, I release you from your fucking contract. You’re fired!”
She gasps. For the briefest moment I think it’s shock at what I’ve said. Then she gasps again, a hand going to her throat. Another gasp. A gag. She drops to her knees.
Something in me takes over, something filled with rage and power and loathing. I stare down at her without flinching. My fists clench at my sides. I don’t know where this knowledge comes from, don’t know how I know I’m killing her. But I wield the power willingly. They want a devil to crucify? I’ll play the part. My next words drip venom.
“You are worth nothing to this show, Tanya. And we don’t carry dead weight. Consider this your official termination. Your final termination.”
I don’t flinch as fire flickers in her throat, as tendrils of flame burn against her lips. She chokes as her lungs turn to cinder, as she catches the last inhalation of her own charring flesh. I step forward, closer to her burning body, and watch her flesh sizzle. Only when she slumps to the ground, her flesh turning to embers, do I glare at the troupe.
“Who else?” I hiss. “Who else wants out?”
As expected, no one says anything. I take a deep breath, try to steady myself and keep the inner screams from attacking my resolve:
What the hell did I do? What the hell did I just do!?
“Let this be a reminder. I am your leader. I control who lives and dies. And now, I have a demon to kill.”
Then, before any of them can say anything, I step around Tanya’s smoking body and head straight toward the approaching demon. As expected, not a single one of them comes to my aid. Even when I leave the fire, the air is bright and hot.
There’s a small voice in the back of my head still screaming at me, wondering what the hell I’ve just done and how I could do it without the slightest bit of remorse. A woman just died because of me. Not only did I somehow suddenly know her true name, but I was also able to end her contract then and there. I’m a monster, just like Mab, and I’m suddenly grateful Austin wasn’t there to see the transformation. But that voice is quickly silenced when I walk past the final trailer. The demon isn’t just approaching. The demon is here.
He stands a few hundred feet away, and for the briefest moment the anger of duty cracks into fear.
The creature burns like a dark star, all broken cinder and black ash, fire wrapped around it in a shroud. Like Kassia, the demon is childlike in stature, though this one is clearly masculine. He tips his head to the side when I approach. The broken-bird gesture sends chills up my spine as Kassia’s image flashes through my mind.
I stop a few feet from the trailer. The demon doesn’t move any closer.
“Who are you?” I ask. The heat radiating from his body makes the night even colder, and I feel sweat forming on my face as my back freezes.
For a while, the demon says nothing. He doesn’t move, doesn’t speak, just stares at me with his hellish red eyes as fire twines around his burning flesh.
“My name?” he says. His voice is deep—old and distant, like it’s echoing out from an abandoned well. “The Oracle wishes to know my name?” His brows furrow as he thinks, a fresh wave of flame wrapping around him.
In that moment, I know he’s different from Kassia. Somehow. The demon I’m used to would have her hands around my throat already. She wouldn’t be answering questions.
“My name,” he says after a moment. “Yes, I had a name. My name was Cortis.”
“Cortis?” I ask. The demon almost sounds sad when he says it. Do demons get nostalgic? “What are you doing here?”
And I realize how insane this is. I’m standing ten feet away from a creature that could burn me apart with a glance. I should be trying to summon my powers, trying to kill the bastard. But as I stand there, I can’t find a hint of the spark anymore—no tingle in my skin, no stars racing through my fingers. And for his part, the demon isn’t being, well, demonic. He’s just staring at the scorched and curling grass at his feet with a wistful expression on his face.
“I…” he finally says, then trails off. “I was sent with a message.”
“A message?” I ask.
Who the hell would send a demon with a message?
Another long pause. Then he looks up. A small bead of magma drips from one eye, almost like a tear. Then fire cracks through his features, and that tiny moment of emotion burns.
“My father,” he says.
“Oberon. And his message is this: Burn.”
I don’t have time to react. The moment the words leave Cortis’s mouth, his arms snap out to the sides and fire bursts from his body. I try to cover my eyes but can’t block out the blinding light, the red and ash that sear my sight.
A moment passes. I know I should be dead. Burnt to a crisp. But although my skin is blistering with heat, I’m still alive. I take a deep, burning breath and open my eyes.
Fire billows inches in front of me, sweeping up and over like I’m shielded by some invisible dome. Melody’s tithe: it’s actually working. Flames rage toward the sky, but they don’t get through, they don’t touch the trailers that glow red and white in the hellfire.
“Are you finished yet?” I call out. There’s no answer at first, but after a few more moments of futile fire, the flames subside.
“Is that it?” I ask Cortis. “All bark and no bite?”
The demon smiles. Whatever trace of humanity I’d seen in him earlier is gone; the creature that stares out through those red eyes is filled with hatred.
“Why not cross that line and find out?” he asks.
My eyes flicker to the grass at my feet; sure enough, one side is blackened, a razor-straight line cutting it from the browning earth on my side. Barely three inches separate me from disintegration. But I don’t step back. I square my shoulders and stare the demon down.
“I could say the same,” I say. “Or is your magic not as strong as Daddy hoped?”
Taunting a demon may not be the smartest thing I’ve done in my life; in fact, it’s probably a close second to joining this damned show in terms of life-threatening stupidity. But as far as I can tell, Cortis and I are at a standoff, and I’m not about to walk away when he’s already fired a warning shot. I have no idea what would happen if he
cross the line.
“Jesus Christ,” says a voice to my left. “And here I thought I was just getting hot flashes early.”
The demon’s smile turns even more wicked when Melody stands beside me.
“I told you to stay with Lilith,” I hiss.
“I got bored,” she says. “Besides, I handcuffed her to the wall and put Austin on guard duty.”
I have just enough time to wonder if they’re the same handcuffs Kingston borrowed from Mel when the demon shatters the moment.
“Is this the bound girl?” he asks. He reaches out like he’s going to stroke Melody’s face, but his hand stops short, right at the line where the magical barrier would be.