“I didn’t do it, I swear!”
The lesser demon’s voice turned into a high-pitched whine. He inched his black, clawed hand toward the long knife I’d dropped on the ground.
I slammed my foot down on his hand. Hard. “Uh-huh. Must’ve been some other demon who looked just like you, right?”
His feet dug into the ground in an effort to escape, the muscles of his legs straining. But he wasn’t going anywhere.
I’d found him with his claws sunk deep into a goblin’s neck, ten minutes after he’d attacked a group of humans. He’d obviously been summoned, and if he was free of his bonds, he’d managed to kill his human summoner.
High demons could feed off a number of things– lust, greed, lies, and– it was rumored– fear. But most lesser demons preferred pain. Unfortunately for them, there were rules involving a little thing called consent.
That was where I came in.
“The Mage Council will be pleased to finally have you in their hands, Asparas.”
The demon shrieked, screaming denials, even as his claws dripped goblin blood on the pavement. That pavement– and everything else in Durham— was covered in a layer of yellow pollen. Spring had reached North Carolina and my allergy spell was barely holding strong this year. Another few days of this and I’d need to buy yet another charm.
“Okay,” I said. “Onto our next order of business. I’m going to ask you a question, and I’ll know if you lie.”
Six months of this. Six months with the dagger I now clutched in my fist and I was still no closer to learning the truth.
Asparas froze, his eyes widening as I rolled him over with my foot. He bared his fangs at me as his tail whipped out, aiming for my leg. I sidestepped and gave him a disappointed shake of my head as I reached into the pocket of my jeans for the picture I carried everywhere.
“Have you ever seen this woman before?”
The Mistilteinn Dagger began to glow a dull red, and I gaped at it. The demon was lying. For a moment, I stood frozen as I attempted to come to terms with it. After four and a half years of searching, Asparas was the first creature I’d ever interrogated who had recognized the picture of my mother.
“Who killed her?”
“I don’t know.”
Truth. “But you know something. When did you see her?”
Little known fact about lesser demons: They have photographic memories. It helps them break out of contracts when they’re summoned by idiots who want a demon on a leash but have no idea how to phrase their orders in a way that the demon can’t escape.
“December 18th, 72AP.” Asparas’s voice was sulky and he beat his wings again. Unfortunately for him, one of my throwing knives had cut through the membrane of his wing when I found him crouched over the goblin.
It took me a moment to connect the date. December 18th, 72 AP was the day my mother died. Seventy-two years after the first portals were opened on earth, my mother was murdered— likely by one of the creatures who’d originally streamed through, making this world their home.
“Who did you see with her? Who killed her?” I knew better than to ask multiple questions at once, but I was officially flustered.
“She was already dead,” the demon snarled. “Just another witch corpse, and no way for me to feed. Why would I care?”
I took a step closer to the demon and tilted my head. He froze, then began to tremble.
My voice was very quiet. “Was there anyone else near her?”
Asparas stayed stubbornly silent and I crouched next to him, keeping one eye on his sharp teeth. “Answer me and I’ll put in a good word with the Mage Council.”
The dagger glowed red and I sighed. Unfortunately, it was an equal-opportunity artifact, and it reacted to my lies as well. “I’ll tell the Council you cooperated,” I amended, and the red disappeared.
The demon cursed in a language I didn’t recognize, but his eyes darted as he weighed the pros and cons. Finally, he snarled at me.
“There was a high demon examining her body,” he said sulkily, glowering at the picture in my hand.
My pulse beat faster and I fought to keep my voice steady as I stood straighter.
The demon suddenly gaped, blood pouring from his throat and I froze, staring down at him for a shocked moment.
I whirled and crouched, dropping my shields long enough to send out a tendril of power in an attempt to track the owner of the arrow.
Nothing. They were gone.
I glanced back down at the demon. Dead. An arrow stuck out from his throat, and I twisted until it came free, careful not to make contact with the tip, in case it was poisoned. The arrow was matte black, which explained why I hadn’t seen it coming— it hadn’t caught the light. Even the feathers were black, and I stared at them consideringly. I knew the types of bolts most of the bounty hunters in the Triangle used, and I’d never seen one like this before.
Someone hadn’t wanted me to hear what the demon had to say. The only lead I’d ever gotten, and he was dead.
But I now had half a name. I could use that.
I dragged the demon the twenty feet to my Toyota, hauling his body into the trunk. The Mage Council wouldn’t be happy— they’d wanted him alive— but I’d still get half the bounty. The sooner I wrapped this job up, the sooner I could figure out who ‘Ver’ was. I grunted as I shoved the demon’s limbs into the trunk. I kept an old tarp handy for moments like these, and I adjusted it to prevent the blood from soaking my trunk. With a last glance around the vicinity, I slammed the lid and headed for the Mage Council’s local offices.
The lives of humans on Earth all changed within a single moment just over seventy years ago– the moment the portals opened and paranormals streamed through in droves.
The ten years following the opening of the portals were known as the Decade of Despair. While the name still made me roll my eyes, there were few other ways to describe the years where close to a billion people had died. The Mage Council had fought the good fight, and it still focused on recruiting the kind of humans who wanted to make a difference… and those who longed for power of their own. I didn’t fit either category.
Before the Decade of Despair, the Mage Council’s Durham facility was the Durham County Human Services building. I’d seen pictures of the original building in a book somewhere, and it had been designed with plenty of windows in an attempt to make it more welcoming.
The Human Services had been mostly rubble after the Decade of Despair, and the Mage Council had snapped it up. The new facility was designed to withstand anything paranormals threw at it– the walls were made of colossal stone slabs, and the lower floors had bars on the windows. Most of the glass was long gone since the mages considered it a security risk, and it was now an unimaginative gray block of a building with some of the strictest security measures in the city.
The facility spanned a city block and towered over the smaller apartment buildings in the area. Along with floors of offices, a library, and the mysterious, ultra-secure upper floors, the facility had been expanded to include a judicial floor, a basement prison, and an execution chamber.
Ben was leaning against the side of the building when I arrived, and I silently cursed. He looked like one of those guys who’d peaked in high school, and was reliving his glory days over and over. His hair was thinning, but he’d occasionally spring for a glamor-charm, giving him a luscious head of hair for a few weeks before the spell faded. Most of his muscle was slowly turning to flab, and he spent the majority of his time off attempting to get laid.
Ben’s smile widened and he wandered after me as I dragged the body around to the back entrance so it could be checked in. He watched me silently and I refused to give him the satisfaction of acknowledging his presence.
The mage working behind the check-in counter gave me a dark look as he processed the body. I shrugged and stared mournfully at the cash he’d slid under the glass screen. I’d counted on twice the bounty. This week was going to be tight.
I ground my teeth as I shoved the cash into my pocket and took the paperwork from the mage. Whoever thought they could get away with killing my mark in front of me would have another thing coming, oh yes they would.
I had half a name, and it wouldn’t take me long to research exactly who that name belonged to. For the first time, I had a solid lead— someone who’d been seen near my mother’s body. That was cause for celebration.
“So, how exactly did you fuck that up so bad?”
Ben hadn’t taken the hint. Maybe if I pretended he was invisible, he’d leave me alone. The mage still hadn’t forgiven me for plying him with drinks six months ago and making him spill everything he knew about the dagger currently sheathed on my belt. He’d been snooping around the restricted section of the Mage Council’s library, and if the council found out, he was in big trouble.
The Mistilteinn Dagger was also known as the Dagger of Truth. The moment I’d heard of it, I was determined to make it mine. With the dagger in my hand, I’d be able to interrogate suspects without needing a truth spell.
Of course, if the council discovered exactly where I’d found my dagger, I’d be in much deeper shit than Ben. The Mage Council had to cooperate with the high demons, because if it came down to a war, the demons would wipe them all out without blinking. Stealing ancient artifacts from the demons wasn’t conducive to a good working relationship.
Both Ben and I had kept our mouths shut, but that didn’t mean we were buddies. He thought the dagger should’ve been his, even though he hadn’t had the ovaries to go after it. Me? I’d never forget the first time I worked with him after joining the Mage Council and he double-crossed me, stealing the mark and leaving me stranded, deep in red cap territory after dark. Turns out, vicious, murderous goblins don’t listen to reason. I still had a scar on my thigh as a reminder of that night.
He was still staring at me. I scowled. “Mind your business,” I advised him, and he lifted his lip at me before turning and stalking away.
I headed back around the front of the building, scanned in at the desk in the lobby, and took one of the elevators up to Cara’s office. The apprentice mage specialized in weapons and, if I slipped her a fifty, she’d likely examine the arrow for me. The fact that someone had killed Asparas before he could tell me who was seen near my mom’s body could be coincidence, sure. He could’ve pissed off any number of people during his rampage across Durham.
But I’d been doing this job for long enough that I didn’t believe in coincidences.
I knocked on her open door, my eyes scanning her office. A collection of swords leaned against the wall in one corner, a tiny window offered a small glimpse of the city below, and her floor, desk, and guest chair were littered with books and weapons.
“Shit.” I’d been hoping she’d be here, but she must be out in the field. While I really needed to get the arrow analyzed, I didn’t have time to wait around. I made a mental note to text Cara later and took the elevator back down to my car where I Googled, enjoying the breeze coming through the open windows. Within a few weeks the North Carolinian heat would be brutal.
The page loaded and I scanned the results. The search term demon + Ver gave me a few options. There was Verrier, known as the demon of disobedience, or Verrin, the demon of impatience. I scrolled, occasionally lifting my head to keep an eye on my surroundings. Few people would start shit this close to the Mage Council’s facility, but it paid to be careful.
Neither of those demons had been seen on Earth during the past fifty years. That didn’t mean they weren’t going by different names. Maybe they’d just been careful not to draw attention to themselves. I blew out a breath, running my thumb down the list.
Vercan. His social media listed his home as Raleigh, and once I searched his name directly, it was evident that he’d been here when my mother died. Turns out, he was a proponent of ‘demon’s rights,’ and he’d been one of the first demons to champion cross-species relationships several decades ago.
I raised an eyebrow at that. Even fifty years ago, those kinds of relationships could get you killed. Now things were changing, and there was even a dating app devoted to paranormals.
I did a little more online stalking, my anticipation making it difficult to focus. Vercan was my best lead, so I’d start with him and check out the other demons if he proved to be a bust. I went still as I found a Facebook post he’d been tagged in. He was on the guest list for one of Samael’s parties tonight. One of his private parties. My mouth went dry at the memory of the last party I’d attended.
Samael was the biggest, baddest demon on the East Coast– and likely the country. Nothing happened in his territory without his express permission, and he played nice with the Mage Council because he chose to— not because he had to.
It was his obsidian tower that loomed over Durham, sticking out like a sore thumb. And while the mages liked to pretend they were in charge, everyone knew they bowed to the high demons.
Samael’s masquerade parties were legendary. Humans, mages, witches, fae, even— I’d heard— the occasional werewolf would attend, although the latter never stayed long— their alpha didn’t approve. The parties allowed the demons present to feed off the attendees’ lust, lies, and greed, while the attendees got to brag about partying with the demons. A win-win for assholes.
Unfortunately, it seemed as if tonight was one of Samael’s exclusive, invite-only kind of parties. I scanned the tower’s website and grimaced. Samael had just held a masquerade party for the public a few nights ago, which meant the next one could be weeks away. And Vercan was due to fly to Europe in a few days.
This was my best chance.
I chewed on my lower lip. When my sister and I were growing up, my mom had one rule. One instruction that she repeated ad nauseum: stay away from the demons.
But what if the demons could help me find out who killed her?
I started my car and pulled away from the curb. As long as I could get into the party, I could stay out of Samael’s way and have a quick chat with Vercan. Unfortunately, my dagger would have to stay behind.
Since high demons can smell— and feed off— lies, I’d figured it wouldn’t do any harm if I “borrowed” the Mistilteinn Dagger. Even learning it was Samael’s dagger, and that it was guarded by a dragon hadn’t been enough to deter me.
The scariest part hadn’t been the dragon. The scariest part of my shenanigans had been dancing with Samael so I could get close enough to steal a single hair from him, allowing me to break his wards without him noticing. The thought of revisiting the demon’s tower made me tremble.
If he recognized me as the woman responsible for stealing his dagger, I was worse than dead. My hands tightened on the steering wheel. As long as I didn’t rouse suspicion, I’d be okay. And I wasn’t losing this lead.
Decision made. I was going to the party, and I knew just who could help me get in. I turned the car around. My day-drinking friend wouldn’t be hard to find.
The sun was already beginning to set as I parked my car on Main Street. Meredith’s Bar was a squat, brick building that had seen better days. It had an outdoor seating area in the back, but most people chose to stay inside, where they could keep an eye on everyone who walked through the front door.
Steve was slumped on his usual stool at the bar, staring into his drink.
There weren’t many places in the city where paranormals could let their guard down and have a drink without watching their backs. Steve was a human, but working for paranormals didn’t usually make humans popular amongst their own kind. I’d made sure to keep an eye on his schedule, and today was Steve’s day off.
Steve always looked slightly disheveled, as if he’d just gotten out of bed, and today was no different. He needed a shave, his glasses were smudged, and there was a yellow stain on his shirt. Behind his glasses, his grey eyes were slightly blurry— but they sharpened on my face as I sat down next to him.
“What do you want?”
“Can’t I just want the pleasure of your company?”
Steve’s brow furrowed, and he pushed his dirty blond hair out of his eyes. “The fact that you’re using that tone with your ‘I need something’ smile tells me everything I need to know.”
I dropped the smile and replaced it with a scowl. “I was trying to be charming.”
“Fine. I need a favor.”
He slid me a suspicious look. “What kind of favor?”
“I need to get into Samael’s party tonight.”
“You’re not on the list.”
“That’s kind of the point of this conversation.” I waved a hand between us and he instantly shook his head.
“Uh-uh. No way. You’re dreaming.”
I tilted my head, staring Steve down. “I need this. I’ll pay for it.”
“It’s too dangerous. For both of us.”
“Come on Steve, you know how it goes. I help you out, you help me out, everyone wins.”
“No.” He lifted his hand for another drink and I ran my finger along one of the deep scratches in the wooden bar while we waited. Mere was busy pouring whiskey for a group of werewolves, and one of them was watching her intently, his yellow eyes almost glowing. From the twitch of her lips, Mere was well aware of him checking her out.
Above the bar hung a sign that had once read “Tom’s Bar.” Sometime between now and when I’d been here last, the “Tom’s” had been crossed out and replaced by “Meredith’s”.
Tom disappeared a few years ago. And he hadn’t been missed. The old curmudgeon had been a bigot, ensuring paranormals felt so unwelcome that they chose to drink almost anywhere else.
Never mind the fact that his daughter was a witch.
Meredith had run the bar for months after he disappeared, finally throwing up her hands and advertising drink specials to lure in both humans and paranormals. Mere didn’t care who her clientele was, as long as they drank enough to pay her bills.
Meredith’s was now neutral territory– one of the few bars in Durham where paranormals could rub shoulders, mages could make deals, and witches could scheme without drawing attention. It was an unwritten rule, but starting a fight in Meredith’s would have every creature in the bar on your ass within moments.
Mere wore her long, black hair in a thick braid, hazel eyes dancing as she grinned at a gnome who stood up on a bar stool and slid a few bucks into her tip jar. She wiped her hands on her apron and nodded at him, glancing at the young fae bartender she’d recently hired. He waved his hand and the cap flew off a bottle of beer, which lifted into the air and poured a thimble-sized glass of beer for a pixie who was fluttering drunkenly across the bar.
The bartender said something to Mere and she moved toward us.
“Danica,” she greeted me, leaning against the bar. “What hell are you raising now?”
I couldn’t help the smile that curled my lips. Meredith was good people.
“The bad kind,” Steve said sourly as she slid another whiskey his way. “The demon kind.”
I sighed as Mere raised her eyebrow at me. “Why am I not surprised,” she said. Her gaze dropped to the dagger on my hip, obviously remembering the night I’d plied Ben with alcohol.
“It’ll be an easy in-and-out,” I promised Steve. “You get me in, I’ll talk to the guy, and then I’ll disappear. No one will even know I wasn’t on the list.”
Steve sighed, but I could tell I almost had him. “Why is it so important you talk to this demon?”
I told him about the lesser demon and the arrow. Steve raised a brow as he sipped at his whiskey. Behind us, a group of goblins burst into laughter, and Steve hunched his shoulders, shooting a look toward the crowd. He may work in the tower, but that didn’t mean Steve was fond of paranormals.
I followed his gaze. The goblins were leaning toward each other, their red eyes intent as they talked in hushed voices. One of them glanced our way and bared his pointed teeth, the malevolent expression on his green face warning us to mind our own business.
Steve shook his head morosely and twisted in his seat toward me. “So you think this guy knows something about who killed your mom?”
I nodded. “This is my best chance to question him before he flies to Europe.”
According to my research, Vercan had a security team who’d been working with him for decades. But he’d have to leave them at the door to get into Samael’s party.
Steve sighed. “In and out?”
“In and out,” I promised, and he closed his eyes briefly.
I grinned at him. “You’re amazing.”
“You’ll owe me.”
“You know I’m good for it.”
“I don’t want your money. I want a favor. To use when I need it.”
“Done. You know, you could really use a haircut.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Don’t make me regret helping you out.”
I glanced outside. The sun would be setting soon and I needed to get ready for the party. With a final ‘thank you’ to Steve, I waved at Mere and she nodded at me from across the bar.
Sneak into the party, talk to a demon, and get out again. How hard could it be?
I smoothed my hands down the little black dress I was wearing. The dress had strategic cut outs, which should hopefully draw attention away from the thicker material and the drape of the fabric in other, much more strategic places.
I slid my Benchmade Nimravus Cub II into the knife sheath around my neck. The Nim Cub was one of my favorite knives— lightweight, tough, and with a three-and-a-half-inch blade that made it easy to hide. My knife sheath was attached to a sparkly lanyard, which would look like a necklace caught beneath my dress, and I could reach the knife even if my stupid heels made it difficult to balance.
Samael had no rules about guests being armed at his parties. But, like Meredith’s, his tower was neutral territory. You could carry, but if you used those weapons, you were in deep shit.
I placed the Mistilteinn Dagger on the nightstand beside my bed. There was no way I could risk taking it into Samael’s territory, which sucked, since it meant I’d have to rely on good, old-fashioned intuition to tell if Vercan was lying.
Nothing I could do about that.
Outside, the sun was setting, the light streaming in through the huge windows. I’d fallen in love with the apartment for many reasons. It was in Southeast Durham, in a neighborhood that was still mostly human. It was once a renovated textile mill, and it had escaped the decade of despair mostly unscathed, apart from a few cosmetic issues which had been fixed long before I moved in.
Most importantly, my apartment faced west— with no view of the tower that dominated the city. In fact, a few streets further west, the neighborhood was mostly made up of humans, and if I focused hard enough, I could pretend the demons didn’t exist.
The apartment was well out of my price range, but the owner’s daughter had a little problem with a stalker ex-husband and I’d helped her when I’d first arrived in Durham. One glance at my butterfly knives, and he’d decided he no longer needed to show up at her workplace or call her sixty times a day. Interesting how that worked.
The owner had ignored me when I said I didn’t need to be paid. Finally, he’d mentioned that he had an empty apartment. It was a security risk to leave it empty these days, and I’d be doing him a favor if I moved in and paid reduced rent.
I was weak. I’d moved in a few days later.
I pushed my hair off my face and frowned. Put it up and make it more difficult for someone to grab, or put it down and use it to shield my face?
Down. Chances were beyond slim that I’d have to fight tonight. Samael didn’t tolerate any disturbances.
The woman in the mirror had haunted green eyes and a pale face. She did not look like a woman who had her shit together. I turned away and blew out a deep breath. I’d been so focused on getting into the party, I hadn’t given much thought to the reality of it. Getting caught sneaking into Samael’s tower was suicide.
I crossed the room, my eyes dropping to the pictures on my cluttered desk. On them, my mom lay dead, her eyes blank and staring, the bracelet I’d made her still on her outstretched arm. Both the stricken expression on her face and the blood surrounding her body had made it obvious that she’d died alone and in pain.
These were the photos I’d been sent two years after my mom had died. I’d been told it was an accident, and I’d truly believed it, until someone had slid the evidence of her murder under my door in Austin.
I’d returned to Durham two days later.
My kitten weaved in and out of my feet, her purr a comforting motor. I’d rescued Lia from a flooding gutter eight months ago, and she rewarded me by jumping out at me and wrapping her paws around my ankle whenever she got the chance.
“Can’t hang around, cat. I’ve got a demon to track down.”
I ordered a Lyft before I could back out. No need to advertise my presence near the tower by using my own car. The Lyft was only a few minutes away, so I gave my feet a break and took the elevator. I slid straight into the car and smiled at the driver.
“Danica?” the fae asked and I nodded.
He pulled away without a word and I studied the back of his elegantly pointed ear. It wasn’t often that I interacted with the fae. The high fae preferred to stay in their own realms, and it was well known that the seelie and unseelie kings couldn’t stand each other.
But the fae also adored human technology, investing in some of the biggest tech companies on earth. To them, our phones were magic, and many of the fae had attempted to integrate with humans— with varying levels of success.
This fae appeared almost human, with white-blonde hair and unearthly pale skin. But when I dropped my shields, I could barely feel any power from him. A member of the seelie or ‘light’ court then. But not high fae. If he was high fae, he would’ve seethed with power. And he wouldn’t be driving a Lyft.
His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror as we pulled up to the tower.
“Stay safe,” he said, and I nodded, closing the door behind me. I tipped him and then slid my phone into my purse as I gazed up at the obsidian tower.
A healthy percentage of Durham residents had protested when Samael began building this tower several years ago. To make way for the obsidian monstrosity, he’d demolished some of the last standing reminders of life before the portals opened— the Lucky Strike water tower and neighboring smokestack.
The protests had made no difference. In a city where the tallest building had been under 400 feet, the colossal, 2000-foot tower was a huge ‘fuck you’ to anyone who had a problem with it.
It was also a warning. The Mage Council may be in charge, but they ruled only with the demons’ permission, and that could all change in an instant. Samael began construction six months after a rogue mage let a spell loose. The mage was retaliating against the council after he failed testing to move up the ranks. Four thousand people had died, and the ballpark was nothing but a crater.
Weirdly enough, since the demons had moved downtown, things had been quiet. Funny that.
I forced my shoulders to relax, pasting a smile on my face as I handed the gold invitation to the demon on the door. He ran his scanner over it and gave it back to me with a nod. My heels clicked as I crossed the dark marble floor to the elevators. Unlike last time, I didn’t need to join a line of humans and paranormals waiting for the elevator. I slid inside with a couple of demons, watching carefully as they shifted around each other, hunching their shoulders awkwardly.
I couldn’t see their wings, but I knew they were there. Unlike lesser demons, high demons automatically kept their wings hidden carefully away from prying eyes. I wasn’t sure if it was because humans would be terrified if they could see the wings that made them so different, or if it was because their wings represented a vulnerability.
I was guessing both.
The elevator was still the most spacious I’d ever seen. From what I’d heard, Samael had a short list of people he allowed to land on his roof and balconies, and I wondered if his insistence on making sure creatures with wings ended up cramped and uncomfortable in his elevator was a strategic move. From the little I knew about him, I was guessing he’d enjoy putting visitors to his territory on the back foot.
While I’d never seen a high demon’s wings, I’d briefly brushed my hand over Samael’s when we’d danced. I’d expected them to be leathery membrane— similar to the lesser demons I hunted almost daily. But they’d been downy and soft and my hands had itched to explore more.
I shivered at the memory and one of the demons glanced at me, his eyes darkening. I forced my thoughts elsewhere. No need to provide the demons with a snack.
Last time I’d come here, the elevator had stopped at the 70th floor. I’d seen the ballroom, with its expansive white marble floors, French windows, and orchestra. That room was a farce, created for the humans and anyone else stupid enough to offer themselves up for the demons’ consumption. Today, the elevator stopped on the 51st floor. This, this was the truth.
I followed the demons out of the elevator and my head immediately began to spin. Something magical was being pumped through the vents. It made me dizzy, and far too relaxed. I was tempted to lower my shields a little and clear my head. But using magic here would get me noticed. And if I got noticed, I’d get dead.
Blinking a few times, I attempted to clear my vision and moved away from the elevator, leaning against one of the dark walls as I surveyed the huge club.
Music pounded, the base rattling my bones as strobe lights danced amongst the gyrating bodies. A few feet away, a werewolf laughed, eyes yellow as a witch beckoned him closer, her face carved out of lust. Here and there, I caught glimpses of dark feathers, but they were always gone the moment I turned my head. Demons danced with high fae, witches grinded on werewolves, and humans joined the debauchery with wide eyes and faces twisted with feral hunger.
The walls were a deep black which matched the gleam of the floors. But one entire side of the club was open, the huge doors pushed back, revealing an expansive balcony where people were enjoying the fresh air. To the left, a long, dark bar gleamed, and six human bartenders poured drinks.
The skin along my spine prickled in awareness. There were eyes on me, and standing here would only draw more attention. I strode forward, disappearing into the crowd, where I began searching faces. A demon grabbed for me, and I ducked away with a teasing smile. “Later,” I mouthed, and he nodded, his eyes hungry as his gaze slid over my skin. I ducked around a couple of fae who were making out so heavily they’d drawn a crowd of demons who inhaled their lust, eyes flaring.
The music changed, and the crowd howled as the DJ yelled something I couldn’t catch. Okay. I could do this. From the little research I’d done, I found it difficult to believe Vercan would be grinding against a stranger on the dance floor.
There. Those guys looked important. They were walking through the club with the purposefulness of traveling businessmen who needed to get to their gate before a flight. I shoved my way through the crowd after them, catching a glimpse of their wide shoulders as I squirmed between a couple of demon women.
“Watch it, witch,” one of them snapped, slamming her invisible wing into me. I stumbled, cursing as I lost sight of the men. They hadn’t looked like they were here to feed or dance. They’d looked like they were about to attend a business meeting.
I scowled and headed in the direction I’d seen them walking, aiming for the wall, where I leaned a hand out to take some of the weight off my aching feet. The wall disappeared, and I stumbled as it spat me out, sliding shut behind me. I caught my balance and gaped at the huge, elegant room. This was where the real business was done. I forced myself to keep walking as if I belonged in the pristine space.
Thankfully, most of the creatures here seemed too busy to pay me much attention. The marble floor gleamed with veins of gold, reflecting the light from the ornate chandeliers. Leather sofas and armchairs were scattered across the vast space, and another bar— this one much smaller— covered one of the walls, and scantily-dressed waitresses carried drinks on trays and took orders from the paranormals gathered in groups around the room.
I drew in a deep breath and my head was immediately clearer. Whatever magic had been pumped through the vents in the main club had disappeared. For the first time, I could think properly, and I forced myself to keep moving toward the end of the room, where the bathrooms beckoned me.
There were a few more dimly lit alcoves on the way to the bathroom, some of them with their thick, blood-red curtains pushed back, and others with them closed.
In the first alcove I passed, two demons sat, their voices a low hiss as they argued. I averted my gaze and kept walking. I gaped as I made my way past the next alcove. A female demon was riding a werewolf, and he had his head thrown back, his claws digging into the table in front of him.
Do you, boo.
I picked up speed, my shoulders slumping as I made my way to the bathroom where I splashed water on my wrists and rolled my neck.
My stomach roiled. If my mother knew I was here, she’d stir in her grave. If there was one thing she’d taught me, it was that demons were the most serious threat to my safety. I didn’t know why she’d taken me and run— or why she’d left my sister behind with the coven— but the fact that a demon’s magical imprint had been found near her body was suspicious as hell to say the least.
I pushed that thought away. I didn’t know if demons could smell fear, but it seemed likely. Either way, walking around with my heart thumping in terror would mark me as a victim to every paranormal here. I’d do a loop of the room, paying careful attention to the alcoves, and if I didn’t find Vercan… maybe I could pretend to be a waitress.
I snorted, ignoring the glance a light fae woman shot me as she approached the sinks, pulling a tube of lipstick out of her purse. She wore a dress that looked painted on, with diamonds glittering from her pointed ears. Her long, blonde hair almost touched her butt, and she gave her reflection a satisfied nod before she strode out.
I’d be satisfied too if I looked like that.
Drying my wrists, I pushed my hair back and firmed my shoulders. Time to get it done.
I pushed the bathroom door open before I could change my mind, ignoring the little voice in my head that urged me to haul-ass out of here, order a Lyft, and crawl under my favorite blanket with my cat.
I canted my head, using my hair as a shield as I swayed my hips, heading toward the area with the darkened alcoves.
My steps faltered as I glanced away from the alcoves, toward a table where a demon sat alone at a table on the outskirts of the room. My pulse raced as my vision narrowed until all I could see was him.
Vercan was staring into his drink, his face set in a scowl. The demon was handsome, but unlike most demons, who practically radiated sin, Vercan looked like a banker.
His blonde hair was cut short, his face clean-shaven, and his mouth was pinched in what either disapproval or contempt. He pushed his drink away as he got to his feet, and I forced myself to keep moving. Leaning against the nearest wall in an effort to appear nonchalant, I watched beneath my lashes as he headed toward the bathroom.
Vercan stopped at one of the curtained alcoves and glanced at his watch. He was obviously waiting for someone, and he stared out the open, floor-to-ceiling window across from the alcove as he waited. With most of his visitors either winged or powerful enough to fly, Samael obviously wasn’t concerned about health and safety.
I jolted into motion as Vercan stepped into the small space and pulled one of the curtains shut behind him. He was clearly meeting someone here, but until that person showed up, this was my chance.
I strode after him, pushed the curtain back open and waltzed inside like I owned the place. Vercan frowned at me, nonplussed, but from the disdain in his eyes, he obviously didn’t see me as a threat.
I got straight to business.
“December 18h, 72AP,” I rattled off. “Almost four and a half years ago.” I pulled the picture out of my pocket and held it up in front of his face. “You were seen near this woman. Did you kill her?”
Surprise flashed across his face, but I was focusing on his eyes. And I saw the recognition.
“You know who she is.”
“Leave, witch, or die.” His dismissal grated, and he glanced past me impatiently, obviously still waiting for whoever he was meeting.
I didn’t have time for this. I glanced around, but we were hidden from view of everyone else in the main room, so I reached for my Nim Cub. It was nestled against the demon’s throat before he could move.
Something rustled behind him. Something I was pretty certain were his wings. For the first time, he tensed.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s the problem with having a security team. You get lazy. You don’t recognize a threat when you see one.”
“You’re waving a weapon around in Samael’s territory? You’re either suicidal or insane.”
I gave him a wide smile. “Neither. I’m desperate. And since you’re rather long-lived, you’ll know that my desperation makes me dangerous to you.”
Vercan stayed silent and I pressed the knife closer to his throat. He tensed, and I drew blood. He didn’t need a weapon. According to my research, Vercan wasn’t high on the power scale, but he was still bigger than me, stronger than me, and if I couldn’t anticipate his moves, I was dead. Samael probably wouldn’t even punish the demon, since I’d threatened him first.
“Uh-uh,” I crooned. “The woman. Tell me what you know and I’ll get out of here.”
He didn’t take his eyes off me. “You’re writing your own death sentence over a witch who has been dead for this long?”
“That witch is my mother. What do you know?”
Vercan didn’t quite roll his eyes, but from the sneer on his face, it was close. I shrugged like I had all the time in the world, but my pulse pounded a dull thump in my ears.
“Since you’ve gone to all this trouble, maybe I’ll tell you.” He smiled viciously. “The witch–”
He gurgled and blood sprayed my dress. I stared at him, uncomprehending, and he slumped to the ground.
I attempted to crouch, but it was too late. Samael’s wards had caught me— attuned to violence in his territory. I was trapped like a bug in amber, the ward keeping me frozen and awaiting my fate.
I couldn’t move, couldn’t talk, could barely breathe. That meant that I couldn’t draw blood in an attempt to break the ward. It was one of the strongest I’d ever seen.
And if I stayed here, I was dead.
Panic rose, sharp and nauseating. From where I stood, I could see the arrow sticking out of the demon’s throat. Vercan shouldn’t have been dead— it took much more than an arrow to kill a high demon. And yet he was slowly turning to ash, his extremities blackening even as I watched. Someone had killed my lead. Again.
My evidence was disappearing.
I struggled, claustrophobia making my head spin. If I didn’t get a handle on my breathing, I’d pass out, and whoever had killed the demon could decide to kill me too.
Why kill me when they can frame me and have Samael kill me instead?
I swallowed back bile and forced myself to count to ten. All I had to do was draw some blood and I could likely break the ward. It would hurt like a bitch, but I could do it.
My lungs functioned, my eyes blinked, but my hand was still frozen in the air, the knife making it clear I’d been threatening the demon. I stared at my hand, willing it to twitch. If I could just move the knife, just curl it back until it sliced into my palm, I could attempt to break the ward and get out of here.
Time crawled by as I strained. It felt like I’d been standing in the alcove for twenty minutes, but it had likely only been a few seconds. Samael’s security would be here any moment. I needed to get gone.
Okay, the knife was a no go.
My mouth was slightly open, frozen on my last word. I dropped my shields and focused every ounce of my will on my teeth. Maybe I could bite my tongue.
Move. Move damn you.
This was my own fault. I’d let my magic languish, buried it deep and ignored it, and that decision was going to kill me. No. I wasn’t going out like this. I refused to die until I found the creature who killed my mother and made them pay.
Black spots formed in front of my eyes as I strained. My teeth moved a fraction of an inch and I poured more of my will into making them move.
Something wet slid from my nose and into my open mouth. I must’ve given myself a nose bleed from the strain.
The sharp taste of copper was a gift.
I was sure there was a much more elegant way to break wards that didn’t involve blood, but I’d use what I had. I concentrated, drawing every last ember of my magic into me, and for a single moment, I could see the ward around me— a deep, midnight blue, shimmering silver in places.
How something so deadly could be so beautiful was beyond me.
I strained further, tasting more blood, and with a ‘pop’ the ward broke. I stumbled forward, narrowly missing Vercan’s body as I twisted in the air, panting. I turned just as a shadow approached. I was out of time.
A high demon blocked my only exit. A high demon who burned with power and fury.
I was dead meat. I was going to be killed by a demon so beautiful, it almost hurt to look at him.
Blue-black hair stood ruffled on his head, as if he’d just pushed his hand through it in frustration. I’d seen the lower half of his face once before, so my gaze darted over the sharp line of his jaw, the scruff along his chin, and the cheekbones that seemed to be slashed through a face that would make angels weep.
His silver eyes burned into mine, his lush mouth twisted, and a scar cut through one eyebrow— the only flaw in an otherwise perfect face.
“Well, this is interesting.” I flinched at the promise of death in his voice. His gaze shifted to the demon on the floor, his extremities already ash. The older demons were like that when they died, as if their body belonged only to the underworld, and when they were done using it, the underworld snatched it back.
“I didn’t kill him,” I blurted out, and Samael shifted his gaze back to me, scanning me from head to toe. His gaze lingered on my face and I wiped at the blood smeared above my lip.
“You broke my ward,” he mused. I didn’t know how he could make such inane words sound like a death threat, but my hand tightened on my knife. At the very least, I could go out fighting.
“It wasn’t easy,” I admitted. “Listen, I think I have some explaining to do. This isn’t what it looks like.”
“You didn’t come into my territory and threaten one of my patrons with bodily harm, even though violence is forbidden without my permission? That patron wasn’t killed by someone who managed to escape my ward while you were trapped in it?”
I blinked. “Fine. Turns out it’s exactly what it looks like.” I attempted a nonchalant shrug. Samael ignored me and turned his head as another demon approached.
“Get Sitri,” he ordered, and the demon faded away. Just a few seconds later, another demon appeared.
Where Samael was beautiful, this demon was almost pretty. His dark hair fell over his face, hiding his eyes, which were a pale purple— almost lavender. Those eyes seemed lost, even as he focused on my face, his lips forming in a pout that told me clearly, without words, that I was in deep shit.
“Invitation,” Samael ordered, and I tensed. “Please,” he murmured, “disobey me. I haven’t gotten my hands dirty for weeks.”
I shuddered, opened my tiny purse, and withdrew the invitation.
Samael jerked his head and the other demon stepped forward, taking the invitation.
He smiled at it, like a kid who’d been given a lollipop. “Ooh,” he said. “Whoever made this is interesting.”
I shuddered again. Appearing interesting to these demons could only be a bad thing.
“Give it to the witch,” Samael told Sitri, and I froze. He wasn’t talking about me. I shouldn’t be surprised that the scariest demon on the East Coast had a personal witch doing his bidding, but I was.
Samael’s eyes met mine. “Wipe that disgust off your face,” he ground out, and I forced my lips to untwist.
Sitri disappeared and I stood still, waiting to hear my fate. I wasn’t stupid enough to try to escape just yet. I’d only have one chance, and until then, I needed to appear non-threatening.
Samael stepped forward and yanked my purse off my shoulder. He rifled through it, snorting as he shoved a collection of small throwing knives aside. Finally, he pulled out my ID card.
I hadn’t had time to get a fake. I’d burned my last fakes a few months ago on a job in Mississippi, and these days, fake IDs were expensive and time consuming to get.
“Danica Amana,” he read. “I’ve heard of you, bounty hunter. You’ve made quite a name for yourself in the past six months.”
Yeah, because unlike most other bounty hunters, I wasn’t motivated by money but by something much more important.
I stayed silent as he studied me. His voice was an amused purr. “It won’t work, you know.”
“What won’t work?”
“Waiting for your chance to escape. There are no chances here.”
I bared my teeth at him. He bared his back. His teeth were scarier.
Sitri reappeared. “It’s a fake,” he sang out. “A very good fake, but a fake all the same.” He held up a picture of Steve. “According to the witch, this man is responsible.”
Sickness rose, and I felt the blood drain from my face. It was one thing for the consequences to be my own, but I couldn’t let Steve die for my actions.
“You have two choices,” Samael said, and I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like either of them. I tilted my head, refraining from waving him on. Being a smart-ass wouldn’t win me any points with this guy. “Your first choice? Both you and the traitor die. This Steve dies harder, begging for death for daring to cross me.”
He’d do it too. I could see it on his face. He’d squash me like a bug, and leave my corpse lying here on the floor. He’d make Steve wish he’d never met me before he died. Then he’d have a drink or two with his associates before he tucked himself into bed, where he’d sleep like a fucking baby.
Dread filled my stomach. “And the second choice?”
“You work for me.”
“In what capacity?”
His gaze dropped to the demon on the floor. “This isn’t the first death in the past few weeks, although it’s a different method. Something is hunting demons, and your reputation precedes you. You’ll be my personal bounty hunter.”
I squashed down every instinct urging me to tell him to go fuck himself. “For how long?”
He tilted his head in that alien way that told me, more clearly than words, that he was not– and would never be– anything close to human. Both demons stared at me like I was a particularly dense brand of stupid and I ground my teeth. Demon vows were—
“Forever,” Samael said, pure male satisfaction dripping from the word.
I stared at him. I couldn’t– wouldn’t–work for a demon for the rest of my life. Mom had warned me off demons from the moment I could talk, and turning my back on the Mage Council was a good way to end up dead. On the other hand, a short-term job would give me free access to his demons, and there was a chance one of them would know why Vercan was near my mom’s body. If I was careful, I could walk away from this with more information than I’d ever had.
“I’ll make you a deal.”
The corner of his lips curled in an expression I’d call amusement on anyone else. On him, it just looked like he was considering doing murder.
I pulled on my metaphorical big-girl panties. “If I figure out who’s killing your demons within a month, you let me go.”
Languid amusement rolled across his eyes. “Why would I do that?”
“Don’t you want someone extra motivated to solve your mystery before more of your kind die?”
“I hold your fate in my hands, little witch. How much more motivated do you need to be?”
I reached deep and grabbed onto what little courage I had left. “Lookit. All I’m saying is, this is a good opportunity for both of us. You need this solved in a timely manner, and I don’t want to be working for a demon for the next sixty years.”
I shrugged. Odds were high that I would be dead well before then, but I liked to be optimistic.
His amusement deepened.
“One week,” he said.
I tamped down the panic that made me want to scream at him. If I wanted him to negotiate, I needed to be calm and smart.
“At least make it achievable, demon. Three weeks.”
Sitri’s eyes widened at me, as if he was questioning my sanity. Samael angled his head, reluctant interest in his eyes.
“Two weeks,” he said, holding up a hand when I opened my mouth. “Find whoever is killing my demons and kill them within two weeks and you may walk free.”
The expression on his face told me clearly that arguing wouldn’t help. At least I had a chance to escape servitude.
“Fine,” I ground out. Today was Saturday. I could do this. I just had to be focused.
Sitri handed him a blade, his eyes bright with suppressed mirth. Glad someone was having fun.
“Hold out your arm,” Samael said.
My mouth went dry. I was really doing this. I glanced down at the body on the floor. The fact that I had no choice should’ve made it easier, but I’ve never done well when my back’s up against a wall.
I shoved my left arm at him before I could lose my courage. His hand was hot as he wrapped it around my wrist and I shivered. My body was unreasonably aware of his every movement. I guessed that made sense, since he held my life in his hands.
The demon pulled me close, until I was just inches from him. He smelled like burning wood in a winter cabin— the comforting smell at odds with who he actually was. Demons had an affinity with fire— something I wouldn’t forget.
Samael turned my arm over with a hum. “Usually, I use the inside of the arm. But for you, I like the idea of my mark being a little more… visible.”
I ground my teeth. The demon had decided to torture me. It wasn’t surprising really. He knew I’d be shunned the moment the Mage Council knew I was bonded to a demon, and the thought pleased him.
The pain was sharp, his hand a blur as he cut a long line down my forearm. I gasped, instinctively attempting to pull my hand away and he tightened his hold, shaking his head. His thumb danced across my inner wrist, and he handed the knife back to Sitri.
The demon smiled at me and then sliced down the inside of Samael’s arm.
Samael leaned close. “You smell familiar, little witch.”
I swallowed. If he connected me to the witch who stole from him six months ago, I’d soon be begging for death.
“Yeah, I get that a lot. Guess I’ve just got a generic scent to me.”
Silence stretched between us. I loathed demons. Always had, always would. Yet something about this demon made everything feminine and needy inside me sit up and take notice.
That’s what demons do. They take your desire and twist it, until you can’t tell where you end and they begin.
Samael gave me a slow smile that was all twisted sheets and hot, sweaty bodies. “There’s nothing generic about you.”
I didn’t need Samael finding me interesting in any way. “I’m just a basic witch,” I mumbled.
He inhaled my scent again. “There’s nothing basic about you either.”
I was pretty sure that wasn’t a compliment, but before I could ask, he pressed his arm to mine, and I was engulfed in fire.
It ripped through me and I fell to my knees, my arm still in the demon’s hand. His eyes burned into mine, his expression hard as tears dripped down my cheeks. I grit my teeth and forced myself to stand, glowering at him.
The demon’s eyes glowed. “I’m going to enjoy this,” he said. He removed his hand, and I breathed around the urge to puke.
Gold twined up my left forearm in an intricate design. It danced in the dim light like it was alive. On anyone else, the shimmering color would be beautiful. On me it marked me as Samael’s. My hands itched with the urge to grab the knife and slice it off.
“It would reappear on your scarred flesh,” Samael said softly, warning dripping over every word.
I was barely holding onto my sanity. I stared at my arm, my whole body trembling. “You can read my mind?”
He shook his head. “I can read your face, little witch. You’ll have to do better if you are investigating creatures who’ve been alive since before your great grandparents were born.”
With that, he glanced at Sitri, who nodded. Samael swept out, and Sitri’s gaze dropped between me and the body.
“Samael’s second will be in touch tomorrow,” he said. “For now, I think it’s time for you to leave.”
I stayed where I was, glancing down at the body on the floor.
“I want the arrow.”
The demon tilted his head, and I stared him down. “Whoever killed Vercan did it so he couldn’t answer my questions. I need to find out who it was.”
I had the other arrow, safe at home. But I wanted this one too. The more evidence, the better.
“I don’t think so. Vercan may have been an annoyance, but he was one of ours.”
Sitri crouched down and cut the arrow from Vercan’s body. Fine. At least I had the other arrow. And I sure wouldn’t be mentioning it to these guys. The demon clutched the arrow in his hand, ignoring the dripping blood as he gestured for me to follow him out of the alcove.
My face burned. Every eye was on me, and I forced myself not to hunch my shoulders, wishing I had a jacket to cover the mark on my arm.
I’d bet there was another exit closer to that back alcove. Samael was using me as an example to anyone else who thought to cross him. “See what happens to people who fuck with me? They’re publicly humiliated.”
I breathed out, staring each demon in the eye as I passed. For the next two weeks, they couldn’t touch me.
“It had to be done,” Sitri said. “This protects you too.”
I sneered at him. “Protects me? My reputation is now dirt.”
“But you’re alive.” He shook his head at my expression. “Humans. Your constant emotions must be exhausting.”
* * *
I stared out the window, enjoying the silence. These parties were necessary for my long-term plans, but after so many years, I was beginning to run out of patience.
Durham was sprawled far below me, the warm glow of lights disguising its seedy underbelly. The population had tripled since the portals opened, and the paranormals lived side by side in a way they never had before. Some days, the city felt like a powder keg, one lit match away from exploding.
I glanced over my shoulder as Sitri approached and he bowed his head.
“I informed Ag of the bounty hunter’s new allegiance. He will take her to the most recent scene after he returns tomorrow.”
I nodded. My second was currently investigating where, exactly, the mages were getting their power. As he had been for decades. Mage power shone a dark, dirty brown, and I was certain it didn’t belong to them.
My thoughts returned to the bounty hunter. I was almost certain I’d met her before, but the past few years had been a blur of planning and then adjusting those plans when Lucifer retaliated.
“I want her followed.”
Sitri’s brow creased but he nodded. “I will have her every move reported back to you.”
“Good.” My deepest instincts were telling me that the witch would be important to my plans somehow. If there was one thing my father had taught me, it was to listen to those instincts.
“I want my orders broadcast across my territory,” I said, turning back to the window.
“Your orders?” Sitri asked, and I shook myself out of my mood.
“No demons travel alone until the threat is contained.”
I could practically feel Sitri raise one eyebrow. “They won’t like that.”
“I don’t care.”
“I’ll see it done.”
I nodded absently as he left, my thoughts returning to the little witch. No one had dared defy me in my territory before, and I wasn’t sure if I was impressed by her courage or disgusted by her stupidity. Likely, a little of both.
There was no question that she was beautiful, with her smooth skin, dark hair, and flashing green eyes. But it was the sharp, stubborn jut of her chin that interested me. The way her hands fisted as if she imagined wringing my neck made me want to circle her throat with my own. The way she curled her lips in disdain that made me want to slam my mouth down on hers.
I’ve killed others for even planning to do what she did tonight. I’ve brutally punished those who attempted to bargain with me, and none who have broken the rules of my tower have lived to speak of it afterward.
And yet, I found myself strangely intrigued for the first time in decades. My demons were struggling to gain traction in the search for the killer, with most paranormals refusing to cooperate with them, and humans too terrified to answer their questions. The bounty hunter had a reputation for getting answers, but more importantly, she was a neutral party, with the backing of the Mage Council. Putting her on this investigation was a smart use of my resources.
I turned away from the window. The little witch would fall in line with the rest of the creatures in my territory. Or she would learn why I was the most feared demon in this world.