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Authors: Megan Derr

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BOOK: Dire Straits
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Then Ezell looked up and saw him, his jaw dropping and eyes widening in complete surprise. He hadn't known, Bannick realized. Ezell hadn't know who, exactly, was meeting him.  But the
recognition
that filled his face made Bannick the happiest person in the world. He pushed his way through the crowds of people, meeting Ezell halfway.

"I don't believe my eyes," Ezell said, hazel eyes still sharp and pretty behind the fancier spectacles. His accent was still sharp, smooth city, but Bannick had always liked it. He smiled at Bannick, and he might be a little rough around the edges now, but that smile was still soft and sweet. "Bannick Poore, as I live and breathe, and wearing an Exorcist's collar. Wonders never cease."

Bannick smiled and lowered his cigar, leaving it to dangle all but forgotten from his fingers.  "Wonders, indeed. When did you turn to necromancy, Ez?"

Sadness flitted across Ezell's face, but all he said was, "I got one hell of an education, overseas. How have you been, Ban?"

Bannick reached up with his free hand and lightly touched Ezell's cheek. He was in need of a shave, but didn't look bad at all for want of it. To his surprise, Ezell leaned in to the touch, eyes closing briefly, something like longing flitting across his face just as the sadness had a moment ago.

Kissing him seemed as effortless and natural as breathing, after that. Ezell tasted like coffee and cream, a hint of porridge and honey—and sweetened calm weed. Drawing back slightly in surprise, Bannick looked into the sad hazel eyes and asked softly, "Why the calm weed, Ez?"

In reply, Ezell plucked the forgotten cigar from Bannick's fingers and took a long drag, blowing the smoke out like a man who had done it a thousand times. "I told you," he said. "I got one hell of an education."

Bannick just kissed him again, figuring questions could wait. Ezell's kisses were new and old—the sweetness was there, the enthusiasm, but time and experience had transformed both into something much surer and richer.

"We should go," Ezell said softly when they finally parted. "You're making a spectacle, Father."

"I'm a spectacle anyway," Bannick said with a soft snort, but he stepped back to a more respectable distance. "Any bags or trunks we need to retrieve?"

Ezell shook his head. "No. I travel light."

Bannick nodded and led the way through the station, asking over his shoulder, "Do you ride?" The Ezell he'd known once had never been on a horse, a pure city slick who walked or took a carriage, but given the way he was dressed and the way he packed…

Laughter drew him up short, and he looked over his shoulder, drawing to a stop as Ezell replied with a smirk, "Now, Ban. You were the one who taught me to ride."

Bannick stared at him, surprised by the response even if he should not have been. Ezell had been inexperienced when they had met, but he had not been shy or hesitant, either. Fourteen years later, it only made sense he had no inhibitions left.

Returning the smirk, Bannick said, "I surely did, didn't I? Come on, then."

Like Bannick, Ezell carried only saddlebags and a satchel. It made Bannick wonder just how much travelling Ezell did that he travelled like a priest. He also dressed rather similarly, though rather than the frock coat Bannick favored, Ezell wore a black jacket with double-breasted brass buttons cut to his waist. Over his pants he wore black chaps—so, really, asking him if he rode had been a bit ridiculous.

Settling a hat much like Bannick's on his own head, Ezell swung smoothly up into the saddle and looked to Bannick. "Shall we go look at the cave? The sooner I can contain and destroy the dire demon, the better for everyone." He smiled and added quietly, "I never thought I would see you again, Ban. I'm glad I was wrong."

"I'm glad we were wrong, too," Bannick replied just as softly, drunk on those eyes just as he'd been fourteen years ago. Then he ducked his head, hand on his hat, and made himself focus on his job. "To the cave, then. I added some wards earlier that should be enough to buy some time."

He led the way out of town along an old, beat-up path, then onto a smaller path that wandered through the hills that surrounded the dusty town.

Halfway there, he jerked in pain and dismay. "My wards—the dire demon already broke through my wards—" He should have made them stronger! Damn it!

"Shit!" Ezell swore then turned his horse sharply and started back toward town.

Bannick was right beside him. The cave was pointless now, if the demon had gotten free. Right now, it wanted to replenish itself, and there was no better place to do that than town.

By the time they reached town however, they had clearly arrived too late.  The chaos, however, seemed centralized around the Sheriff's office, of all places. Shoving their way through the madness, Bannick threw himself off his horse and raced up the steps—

Just as something out of a nightmare came out, crawling on all fours like a horrific beasts. Blood and gore dripped from its jaws, glistening wetly on black fur.  If the thing had started out human, there was no obvious way to tell that now.  It was a well-made dire demon, really, but that just meant it was going to be all the harder to kill.

It's voice was a guttural growl in Bannick's mind.
Blood drinker.

Bannick drew his right gun and fired. The sound of the revolver firing cracked out, light flashing as the bullets left the gun, causing people to flee even more frantically than they already had been. The dire demon screamed as it was struck, but it didn't go down. All Bannick could do was stun it, keep it occupied. He fired again, keeping it distracted, pulling his other gun and alternating silver bullets with rune bullets.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Myre appear to take care of the panicked people, but he never took his focus off the demon.

"Let me deal with it," Ezell said, stepping forward as Bannick fired his last shot and withdrew to reload.

The dire demon's voice came again, a slow and sinuous growl in his mind. Having lost all ability to speak in the transformation, it was using magic to communicate telepathically.
Demon
. Bannick jerked at the word, looking up at the dire demon—and realized it was looking at Ezell.
Brother
the dire demon growled again.

Ezell replied, a stranger timber to his voice making it deeper, rougher. "
We are no kin of yours, mad monster
."

The dire demon lunged, but fell back, screaming in pain, as it met the wall of Ezell's magic. Ezell did not let up, but began to speak rapidly in the sibilant language of the
Books of Necromancy
. The dire demon quickly rallied, and the fight turned bitter, brutal, as each fought for control but neither quite gained it.

Then, abruptly, the dire demon turned and fled, vanishing through the streets, screaming angrily. Bannick bit back the questions flooding his mind and focused on Myre. "What happened?"

Myre shook his head, and Bannick only noticed then that Myre was crying. "Don't rightly know. One minute it was all good, then we heard screams—and then that
thing
busted in and all of a sudden the Sheriff is dead and in—in—
pieces
." He broke off and struggled to get a hold of himself.

Bannick strode to him and gripped Myre's shoulders. "I'm sorry. We should have stopped it before this happened. I thought we had more time. I miscalculated. This was my mistake."

Myre shook his head, but said nothing.

"Get your wife. Get everyone. Pile them in the church and cast the appropriate spells. No one leaves until we give the all clear, understand? Ezell and I will destroy the dire demon and
this
time I will not fail you."

"You—you haven't failed at all," Myre managed. "If you weren't here that thing would have already killed at least half the town. I'm no fool. It woulda stayed here 'til there was nothing left to eat. I just don't get why it came after the Sheriff like that—all focused and intent, like it was hunting him all particular."

"I'll find out," Bannick replied, though he already had a theory on that.  He doubted they would ever know for sure, but a demon only hunted that intently when they had a chance to kill the one responsible for what had been done to it—or the descendant of the one responsible. Bannick would lay good money the Sheriff had possessed an interesting family history. "Now, go. Get everyone to safety."

When Myre was gone, when they were completely alone outside the ruins of the Sheriff's office, Bannick strode to where Ezell stood by the horses.  He reached out and cupped Ezell's jaw, forced his head up. He gasped, even though he had known what he was going to see, but the fractures of bright yellow amidst the hazel were still startling. "You—you were possessed. You fused with it."

"We've fused, yes,"
Demon Ezell said in a growly purr, dragging out the vowels.
"We told you, we got one hell of an education overseas.
" He pulled free of Bannick's grasp and crowded into Bannick's space, leaning up to nip hard at Bannick's rough, unshaven jaw.
"We have been curious about you, Bannick Poore. The memories of you burn brighter than all the rest. Did not expect you to be a drinker of demon blood."

"Where's Ezell?" Bannick asked.

"He is me, I am him, we are one,"
Demon Ezell replied.
"I tend still to dominate, however, when the magic is needed, yes. Do not think, though, that we are separate just because your sweet memory is still in charge most of the time. We are both aware, all the time."

Then he abruptly kissed Bannick, hard and sharp, and Bannick tasted blood—Ezell's blood. Demon blood. He shuddered and held Ezell's head in his hands, kissing back voraciously, unable to help himself, taken by the rough, hungry kiss, ravenous for the blood that filled his mouth, drunk on the fact it was Ezell feeding it to him.

He tore away only because he needed to breathe, and only after dragging his tongue along the split in Ezell's bottom lip.

Then he realized his hands were trembling, his heart beating far too fast, as the demon blood rushed through his system and made everything so much more. Reaching into his coat, he pulled out his cigar case and extracted one. Putting the case away again, he pulled out a match and lit the cigar. He took a long, deep drag, let the calm weed work, blowing the smoke out slowly.

Ezell looked at him with demon eyes, then stole his cigar and took a long pull himself. Slowly, slowly, the bright yellow demon fractures in his eyes faded, until only Ezell's gentle hazel eyes remained. He took another pull on the cigar then another, until the trembling in his hands had eased.

Bannick took the cigar back and smoked in silence for a moment, never taking his eyes from Ezell. Finally, he said, "What happened, Ezell? Why are you fused—why weren't you exorcised in time?"

"I'll tell you everything later," Ezell replied, looking away. "I had every intention of telling you from the moment I saw you. But it's a long story, and the dire demon is more important right now." He looked up slowly, hesitantly. "Maybe you can tell me then why you're a blood priest when you never had any interest in drinking demon blood."

Smiling tiredly, Bannick replied, "I guess we both got more education than we could stand. Let's go get that dire demon, Ez. Then we can talk all about our demonic lives."

"Yes," Ezell agreed then hesitated—then leaned up, hands braced on Bannick's chest, and kissed him softly.

Bannick cradled the back of Ezell's head in one hand, fingers curled into the hair at his nape, and let the kiss linger a moment, savoring it, steadying himself on it.  So different from the one given to him by Demon Ezell only a moment ago, but there were similarities. He was definitely kissing the same man, no matter how soft or hard the kiss might be.

"Let's go," he finally said, clearing his throat when the words came out rough. Swinging up into the saddle, he spurred his horse into motion and they rode off, back to the cave.

It was their best place to start; hopefully the dire demon had retreated there to lick its wounds and wait for dark. Dires always worked better in the dark;. The weakest dires could not go out in sunlight at all, and even a dire demon would find too much sunlight taxing—especially just after waking, attacking in full morning sun, taking a dozen magic bullets, and going head to head with a necromancer.

Partway to the cave, they heard screams from another direction. Bannick turned his horse toward it, spurred it to go faster, racing down a small path toward what proved to be a little cabin and stable.  He barely stopped his horse before dismounting and racing to the stable.

Then Ezell was there, calling up his magic, throwing it at the stable, pouring out all he had to keep the dire demon trapped inside.   Leaving him to it, Bannick went it to find any survivors and nearly collided with a woman and two children as they came running out, screaming and crying. "Get to town!" Bannick told them, all but dragging them to his horse, piling them on, and slapping the horse into motion once they were settled.

When they were safely away, he turned his full attention back to Ezell and the dire demon. "Can you build a ward?" Ezell asked. "One that'll hold a couple of hours?"

"I can sure try," Bannick replied and reached into the inner pocket of his frock coat, pulling out a silver flask that was stamped with the goddess symbol on one side and a rose and thorn crest on the other. Uncapping it, he drained half the contents.

BOOK: Dire Straits
12.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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