Authors: Nina Bangs
NEW YORK CITY
“This is Al. He didn’t have a good night.”
Jenna widened her eyes. She hoped she looked suitably naïve and stupid. “You didn’t find any lost souls to save? How sad.”
For a moment a predatory gleam lit his eyes, and then he smiled.
Jenna forgot to think, she forgot to blink, she forgot to
. She knew smiles, all the things they said and didn’t say, all the ways they could manipulate. In the hands of a master, a smile could be the ultimate weapon. It could persuade, compel, destroy.
And Jenna was looking at a master. A woman could crawl on her hands and knees to a man with that smile. It was a soul-searching, sensual lifting of his lips, all savage beauty and frightening secrets.
“We found everything we were looking for tonight.” On that cryptic note, he turned and walked from the room.
For Donna Maloy, who for so many years has guided my literary ship through treacherous waters filled with deadly logic problems. Thanks for keeping me afloat.
It was a primal scream filling his mind, blocking out things he should understand, remember.
It was heat and rage and a pounding in his head demanding more, more, and still more death. It blazed hot and hungry, devouring him from the inside out. But nothing could burn away what lived in his soul.
His beast was free. No way was he forcing it back into its cave when there was still a demon left to tear apart. Shedding all human thoughts, he mounted his primitive soul for a last wild ride.
The demon was in its true form as it flapped leathery wings and rose above him. All its supernatural powers were useless against his beast, so now the demon was playing its last card. A straight-up physical attack. Dumbass
The demon plunged toward him, and he roared as he rose to meet it. It screamed, a long cry of shock and pain as he ripped one of those wings away. Its dark, thick blood flowed sluggishly across the churned-up grass and dirt.
The smell of demon blood drove him wild. Before the creature could scuttle away from him, he ripped off the other wing. Now all it could do was flop around helplessly.
It had all been too easy. In a killing frenzy, he ripped the creature to shreds, refusing to quit even after the demon’s dying screams had ended.
“It’s over, Al. Control your soul. Come back to us.”
The voice in his head should make sense to him. He knew that. But he resisted. Come back? What if he didn’t want to?
Breathing hard, he looked around for more living bodies to tear, rend,
Only a river of blood could drown the pain, the confusion, the need for never-ending violence.
“The killing is done. Obey me.”
No. The killing would never be done. He looked down on the human standing by the tree, the one talking in his head. He didn’t want anyone telling him to stop. He’d kill this one next. Then the voice would stop. The one that made him
, the one responsible for all those hated new
He took a step toward the man. With no warning, an invisible force slammed into him. The earth shook as he crashed to the ground. Panicked, he fought to rise. Primitive instincts screamed at him to get up before something bigger and badder killed him. But the force held him down. The voice spoke again.
He remembered. The voice had a name. Fin.
“Everything will be okay, Al.”
had a name. Al.
“I wouldn’t lie to you.”
Sure he would. It seemed like the murmur of Fin’s voice had always been in his mind, even across the endless ocean of time. Fin had promised that together they could defeat the destroyers, that all would be as it was before. He’d make it happen.
See, now Al had a basic problem with that promise, because his world hadn’t
any destroyers. Other than Al, that is. And Al’s efforts had been strictly local, driven purely by the need to feed.
Then Fin had ripped Al’s essence from his body and buried it deep in the earth. Al should’ve known better than to trust a voice in his head.
“You’re human now, so it’s time to return to human form. You’ll get a chance to hunt again.”
Right. Fin had promised that Al would again walk the Earth as the hunter he once was. He’d laid that lie on him just after he’d roused Al’s soul from its long sleep far beneath Machu Picchu and given it a new body. Not the body Al wanted.
Afterward, Fin had stuffed Al’s brain with every bit of knowledge he’d need to function in this new time. Fin had promised that Al was human now.
But he’d lied. Again. Al didn’t feel human. He felt trapped.
And Fin’s lies kept on coming. He’d promised that Al and the rest of the Eleven would be happy here once they defeated the immortals who wanted to destroy the human race. Evidently, these were the same immortals who had destroyed Al’s world. Even though Al couldn’t remember the event in question, Fin expected him to believe it had gone down just like he’d described. Fat chance of that. Besides, Al didn’t give a flip about the freaking human race. And he’d
be happy here.
Up until now, Al had held it all together, fooled everyone into thinking he was okay with chasing the immortals from city to city with only brief fights to break the monotony. He’d stayed in control. But not to night. Demons had been the fuse, and the battle his flame. He was ready to blow.
“Put your soul away before I have to hurt you.”
Al tried to hold onto his soul, his
identity. He twisted and fought Fin’s compulsion, but suddenly he was back in his human form. Filled with bone-deep disappointment, he climbed slowly to his feet and took a deep breath, reaching for the brittle shell of calm he pulled around him when others were near. Not that it would do any good. Everyone had just seen how close to the edge he was. Meltdowns weren’t pretty.
Al wasn’t ready to meet anyone’s gaze. He stared at the ground.
Blood always looked black at night. Even demon blood.
demon blood. Too bad that’s all that was left of the fight, just a few patches of black soaking into the earth. Not very satisfying. Al wanted bodies. Lots and lots of beautiful dead bodies.
Fin moved up beside him. “A good night’s work.” He must’ve decided to ignore Al’s loss of control, at least for the moment.
Al accepted the change of subject. “Why did you come with us on this job? You could’ve stayed in your fancy new condo and just channeled your power through one of us.” He gazed out over the dark waters of the Schuylkill River, away from his leader and those weird eyes that saw way too much.
“This was our first battle in Philadelphia. I felt the need to celebrate the moment with a hands-on experience.”
Al could hear the amusement in Fin’s voice. “Is that all?”
“No.” Amusement gone. “Boat house Row is just down the road from here. All those boathouses lit up like Christmas trees would be a magnet to you. The humans might be gone, but that wouldn’t stop you. Property damage triggers investigations. We don’t need that.”
Al almost opened his mouth to throw a look-who’stalking at his leader. Fin had wiped a Houston landmark from the face of the Earth in a matter of seconds. But then he thought better of it. Another human characteristic: thinking about consequences. He liked his old life, a time of unrestrained savagery when the consequences never touched him, only his prey.
He’d been watching Lio emerge from the river, but now he turned his complete attention back to Fin. “You don’t think we could control our beasts? You think we’d go on a killing spree?”
Al thought he knew what Fin would say, but he still needed to ask. The same way he’d poke at a sore tooth with his tongue. The pain felt so good. It let him know he was still alive.
Fin’s long silver hair and matching eyes gleamed in the pale light of the full moon. The hair and eyes wouldn’t help him keep a low profile.
Fin shrugged. “Not Ty. Now that he’s mated to Kelly, he’s mellowed a little. She’s calmed him down. And Lio gets a rush from the whole thing, but underneath he’s cold and contained.”
“So it’s me you don’t trust?” He tried to work up some outrage, but it wouldn’t come. Fin was right.
Fin met his gaze. “What would’ve happened if I wasn’t here to call you back to night?”
Al didn’t answer. And yeah, he knew he had a sullen expression pasted on his face. He hated when Fin was right.
Fin’s smile held a bitter twist. “Besides, you have lots of rage to work through.”
Al didn’t bother to deny it. Fin knew every corner of his soul. “So?” A lame answer, but it was the only one that came to mind.
“Don’t work through your issues by running away from them, Al. That’s what you’re doing each time you block out your humanity. You don’t want to become a liability to the Eleven.” The warning was clear.
Ty joined them. “Hey, we kicked demon butt to night. I haven’t had this much fun since we left Houston.” He thought about what he’d said. “Don’t tell Kelly. She’s never gotten the violence-is-fun thing.”
Lio had pulled on his clothes and joined them. Tearing apart a bunch of demons hadn’t put a wrinkle in his fashion-mag image. Al wondered how he did it. And why it even mattered.
“You are so whipped.” Lio raked his fingers through hair that even damp looked perfect.
Ty turned on him with a growl.
Lio ignored Ty’s reaction. “I froze my ass off in that water.”
Fin held up his hand to stop whatever Ty intended to say. “Okay, it’s over. We did the job. You guys ripped them up, and I tossed what was left back into hell. I’ll get rid of this last one now. Once they pick up the pieces,”—Fin meant that literally—“they won’t stick their noses or any other body parts through the portal again.” He sounded sure of that.
“Why not? What’s to stop them from getting their act together and making another run at it?” Al wanted that in a big way. He wanted a second chance to vent his frustration, his
in mindless, savage fury.
“Because I told them not to come back.”
Fin’s voice was soft, reasonable, and the scariest thing he’d heard that night. Al just nodded.
“They belonged to Eight. He’s the only one with enough power to make a bunch of demon dirtbags work together.” Fin glanced at his men. “We needed information, but by the time you got through with them, they weren’t in any condition to answer questions. Curb your enthusiasm next time.”
Lio and Ty grunted their grudging agreement.
Al wasn’t in the mood to agree with anything Fin said, so he opted for a question instead. “I don’t get it. Back in Houston, you brought the Astrodome down without breaking a sweat. So why’d you settle for just sending the demons back into hell? Why not kill their asses?”
Fin turned his silver gaze on him. “I can’t.” His expression said the subject was closed.
“Glad you cleared that up. Thanks for the detailed explanation.” Al’s muttered sarcasm was meant to be heard.
Fin didn’t get mad. He never lost his temper. And that’s exactly what shoved
temper into the head-exploding range. What would it take to make the almighty Fin lose it? Something half remembered suggested Al wouldn’t live through the experience.
In calmer moments, Al recognized that some of his anger probably came from being so close to Fin. None of them could be around the guy long without feeling their primitive emotions ratchet up. Fin had never explained why that happened. There were lots of things Fin didn’t explain.
For just a moment, Al felt other thoughts intrude. Memories of times and places Fin never talked about. But then the pain in his head started, and the fog rolled in. His memories faded away as they always seemed to do.
Fin threw him a sharp look. “Demons are true immortals. Just like Zero and the rest of his crew. I don’t have the power to destroy them. I can only change their home address.”
Al pulled his calm a little more tightly around him. “Got it.” He wished they knew the names of the damn immortals they were hunting, because he could never get used to calling them numbers. Of course, Fin got off on numbers, so he was probably in his happy place.
“Time to go.” Fin stared at a spot in the center of the clearing and a portal opened. He sent the pieces of the last demon through, closed the portal, and then turned toward the SUV. “Get it together, Al. We’ll wait.” He didn’t look back as he spoke.
For the first time to night, Al was grateful to Fin. He knew Al needed a little breathing room and was giving it to him. Okay, grateful moment over.
Ty and Lio spared Al a curious glance, but they didn’t ask any questions. He appreciated that too. He watched them until they’d climbed into the SUV before turning his gaze back to the river. A strong breeze was blowing off the water. It whipped his waist-length hair around him in a wild tangle, but that didn’t bother him.
He always kept his hair braided, except when he hunted. It was a stupid symbolic gesture that didn’t mean anything to anyone but him. Wearing his hair unbraided was a reminder—of what he’d been, of what he’d never fully be again. It meant freedom, an emotional cutting loose. He smiled. Well, not exactly smiled. More a baring of teeth. If Eight, the immortal they were hunting in Philly, had gathered enough of an army around him, maybe Al would get to cut loose a lot.
It would take too long to braid his hair now. Reaching into the pocket of his jeans, he pulled out a leather strip and tied it back.
Then he closed his eyes and just stood there for a minute while his soul slowly backed into its cave until it was swallowed up by the darkness. But his mind could still see its eyes staring out at him. Watching, waiting for the next chance to claw its way to the surface.
“Come on! Hurry it up! I’m starving!” Ty’s shout echoed in the darkness.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.” Just to annoy Ty, Al took slow steps all the way to the SUV. In another time, Ty could’ve torn him apart. But now things were a little more equal. That was the only upside to
Once inside, he settled into the seat next to Lio. Al let the other men talk as Luke, Fin’s human driver, headed away from Fairmount Park. They were damn lucky that both Houston and Philly had parks that covered lots of land. Plenty of private areas where no humans would be at night.
He glanced at the houses that made up Boathouse Row when Luke drove past them. Every house was outlined with strings of white lights. Pretty in the dark. Fin was wrong. He wouldn’t have come down here and done a demolition act. He would’ve searched for something that could fight back.
Once away from the houses, Al sank into himself, his favorite place nowadays. But Lio ruined his attempt at some healthy brooding by punching his shoulder.
“Bet I could run up those steps faster than you could.” Lio pointed.
The steps—lots of them—led up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Al recognized the building because Fin had made all of the Eleven study maps and guidebooks of Philly until their eyes crossed. His excuse was that if they ever had to drive themselves in an emergency, they’d damn well better know where they were going.