Authors: Pippa Dacosta
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Paranormal & Urban, #Literature & Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy
ARKEST BEFORE DAWN
#3 The Veil Series
opyright Pippa DaCosta
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictions and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Version 1. Oct 15th 2014.
every night a bloodied and disheveled Prince of Hell shows up on my doorstep with an orphan girl, demanding I keep her safe before vanishing into thin air. But that’s exactly what happened when I first met Dawn.
I’d worked up a sweat scrubbing demon blood out of my suede boots. The day hadn’t gone well. My work as a
lance Enforcer had seemed like a great idea at the time, especially the ‘free’ part. The Institute had answers I needed, but I was beginning to feel more and more like their blunt instrument. Demons hear
and don’t want to sit and talk about their options. I killed more demons than I talked down, and being half-demon myself, my choice of profession gnawed away at my resolve. I was having a crisis, which was part of the reason I was scrubbing my boots with all the gusto of someone trying to wipe clean a guilty conscience.
Jonesy, my cat, wove around my ankles, determined to distract me, but it was the delectable voice of the Prince of Greed that finally caught my attention. I flicked my hair out of my eyes, tossed my ruined boot and scrub brush into the kitchen sink, and glared across the lounge at the TV.
On screen, Akil had poured all of his raw masculinity and charisma into a relaxed posture at the end of a plush crimson couch. He’d dressed impeccably in a dark suit that probably cost the same as a year’s rent for my new apartment. He hadn’t aged a day in the fifteen years I’d known him and still managed to pull off the slick thirty-something routine with masterful perfection. Never mind that he was an immortal chaos demon, spat out of creation at the same time as the earth. Nobody cared about that. All they saw was a professional businessman who had an answer for everything and could charm the scales off a snake.
“Not all demons are good, of course.” He smiled, and the woman interviewing him raised her plucked eyebrows. “That wasn’t what I was implying. I wanted to merely stress that demons are as varied and diverse as people.” Whatever he’d been asked, he wasn’t in the least perturbed. You couldn’t ruffle his princely feathers as easily as that. I should know. I’d ruffled his feathers—or rather, his leathery, lava-veined wings—once or twice.
Akil’s host drew a tight smile across her lips. “What about yourself?” She uncrossed her shapely legs, shuffled back in her high-backed seat, and then re-crossed her legs again. A murmur rippled through the unseen audience. Akil’s smile hitched up at one corner, and a few feminine jeers from the audience lifted the mood. The host smiled and tucked her hair behind her ear. “Well? Everyone wants to know why you decided to come forward as the spokesperson for the demon community.”
“Jenny.” He purred her name like it was forbidden. I arched an eyebrow as Jenny squirmed in her seat. “It was necessary. Someone had to do something. Things couldn’t go on as they were. The good people of Boston need answers. They need to know we’re not terrifying monsters, just... misunderstood.”
I snorted a laugh.
Jenny glanced at her audience and back to Akil. “Many of us here have seen the rather blurry news footage of you protecting Boston from the... Lah-Kar–”
“Larkwrari demon.” Akil helpfully provided the correct pronunciation, the word rolling off his tongue with an ancient accent I’d never fully pinned down. Given his bronze skin tone and hazel eyes, people often assumed he was Italian or perhaps from somewhere further afield, somewhere hot and exotic. They were right about that. Before he’d come out as full-blood demon, very few had witnessed his true appearance and lived to describe him in detail, although there were a few pixelated images currently going viral on the internet. The women swooning in the audience would run screaming if they knew him as Mammon, Prince of Greed.
“Yes. That was two months ago,” Jenny said. “Are we likely to see more events such as that one in Boston Gardens?”
“It’s highly unlikely. That situation was extreme...”
I bowed my head and turned my back on the TV. I’d been at the Gardens during the ‘event’ they spoke of. In fact, Akil wouldn’t have been able to save the city without me. But where he’d walked into the spotlight afterward, I’d slunk into the shadows. I hadn’t seen him since. Nor had I seen or heard from Stefan, the half-demon who had caused the tear in the veil which protects this world from the netherworld, thereby letting the Larkwrari demon through. When it was all over and I realized I was on my own, I’d agreed to work freelance for the Institute as long as they stayed out of my life. So far, so good. On the surface, everything was fine, but scratch off the veneer, and I still struggled to cope with the emotional fallout from that day.
Jonesy, my cat, leapt onto the kitchen counter and nudged my arm with a rumbling purr. I tickled behind his ear. “I know, buddy. Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.” I’d abandoned Jonesy once before, around the time Akil had torched my old apartment building in an effort to flush me out of hiding. Yeah, not all demons are good. I’d yet to meet a good demon, and yet the people seemed to buy what Akil was selling.
Two booms against my front door frightened Jonesy enough for him to skitter off the counter and dart under the coffee table. They were the kind of knocks the police give you before kicking your door in.
I already knew who stood outside my apartment. His radiating warmth seeped beneath the door and crept inside my lounge. The framed modern art adorning each of my apartment walls served a purpose: the anti-elemental symbols locked down elemental power. Plus, he couldn’t get in without a personal invite. Even knowing I was protected, I still felt a trickle of fear raise the fine hairs on my arms. I liked to call it fear because the alternative—desire—didn’t sit well with my human half.
“Go away,” I called. The Akil on the pre-recorded TV interview was still busy charming his audience. He had them laughing now, smiles all 'round. Even Jenny had warmed up to him. A dash of color brightened her cheeks. I grabbed the remote and switched off the TV.
“Muse, this is important,” Akil said, his voice muffled behind the closed door.
“Then call me.” I moved a few steps toward the door and stopped. “I tried to call you, and you ignored me.” That had grated. It had taken me weeks to pluck up the courage to call him so we could meet and talk about Subject Beta, about the princes, about everything he should have told me before, and he’d blanked me like one of his fangirls.
“You need to open this door.” That delicious voice eased beneath my defences and wove into my thoughts.
My chest tightened, and I clenched a fist over my heart. I had the essence of a demon shrink-wrapped around my soul, a vengeful necrotic parasite feeding and polluting my insides. I preferred to call the thing a parasite because, if I used his name, it made it too real, too fucked up. Akil probably had the means of removing it. When he’d tried, I’d shut him down. Letting him help felt too much like trusting him, and that was something I could never do again. I had no desire to trade one demon’s hold for another. Occasionally, the dark thing hitching a ride in me decided to make its presence known, and now was one of those times.
“Akil, please... just go.” I winced as the dark pulsed out of time with my heart.
“I need your help.”
Dammit. He knew just how to push my buttons. “You’re a capable guy. Figure it out.” I moved close enough to the door that I could reach a hand out to open it, but I held back, fingers twitching.
“I have. That’s why I’m here. You don’t need to invite me in. Just open the door.”
I wasn’t inviting him in. I’d tried that once. He’d subsequently attempted to kill me. We had a complicated relationship.
I reached for the door handle as my demon unfurled inside me, awakened by Akil’s presence. Her purr rumbled through me, making her desires perfectly clear. Everything about Akil flicked her switches, but I was the one calling the shots. Plus inside my apartment, she could no more manifest outside my skin than he could call his power. The symbolic artwork on my walls held her back.
When I opened the door, the verbal assault I’d prepared fizzled away in a gasp. Akil’s torn claret shirt hung askew, and his suit pants were blood splattered. He had scuff-marks across his cheek and forehead. Blood dribbled down the side of his face. His normally hazel eyes brimmed with liquid fire. All of that I could have dealt with, but it was the young girl cowering behind his leg that surprised me the most. Her wide chocolate eyes peeked out at me as she clutched a stuffed rabbit to her chest, its faux fur matted with blood.
“What did you do?” I growled at Akil.
He narrowed his flame-filled eyes at me and then crouched down to face the little girl. Akil, his hands clasped around the little girl’s upper arms, looked her in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry you witnessed... that. I had no choice. Muse will protect you. She’s more formidable than she looks.” I gasped, open mouthed, at the both of them.
The little girl blinked and clutched her bunny tight against her chest.
“I must leave you now.” He smiled and toned down the fire in his eyes. He couldn’t do much about the blood and his general disheveled state, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Do as Muse says. Promise me.”
“Okay. Will you come back?” she asked in a tiny, mouse-like voice.
Akil took too long to answer. I glared at him. “Yes, he’ll come back,” I snapped.
Straightening, Akil gave the girl a slight shove in my direction. She took a few steps inside and peered over her rabbit at my lounge as though looking at an alien world.
I flung my attention back to Akil. “What the hell, Akil?” I hissed, reining back my tone to avoid rousing my neighbors.
“Do the right thing, Muse.” The softness of his tone set off alarm bells in my mind. “I know you will.”
“You can’t just turn up after two months and dump a little girl on me. I don’t know how to look after children. What am I supposed to do? Who is she? Why do you look like you’ve gone ten rounds with a Hellhound?”
Akil ran a hand through his mussed hair, and I saw it tremble. How could I not? Akil didn’t behave like this. He was the suave bastard on TV, not the beaten-up wreck at my door. “Just keep the demons away from her.”
I gulped back a rising knot of panic. “What? Why are demons after her? She’s just a little girl.”
“As were you. Once.” He glanced down the hall. A door-lock rattled; one of my neighbors had decided to investigate the commotion in the hallway.
“Akil...” I warned, lowering my voice to a stage whisper, “are you telling me she’s a half blood?”
He met my stare. “Do the right thing.”
“Is everything all right, Charlie dear?” my neighbor, Rosaline, asked, her English accent neat and clean. I poked my head around the door and gave her a sweet smile. A delightful sixty-something widow, she couldn’t help caring too much about the lost cause next door – me. We’d bonded over tea. She made a mean lemon drizzle cake.
“Everything’s fine, Rosa. I was just talking with my friend here... Not to worry. I’m sorry if we disturbed you.”
“No-no...” She grinned and gave me a quaint royal wave. “As long as you’re okay, my dear. Oh, would you mind taking a look at my television? I can’t seem to change the channels. All I get is the Discovery channel, and I’ve had just about enough of rampaging wildebeest for one day.”
“Yup, sure thing. Will do...” I waved and watched her plod back inside her apartment. When I turned to face Akil again, he’d made himself scarce.
I uttered a curse and then remembered my young guest and cursed again for swearing in front of a child. The little girl didn’t seem to hear anyway. She wore a slip of a dress, several sizes too big for her skinny little body. Her socks were mismatched, and her black patent leather shoes scuffed. I moved around her. She blinked wide doe-eyes up at me. Her flushed cheeks, pink lips, curly mouse hair, and oval face suggested an age of eight or nine years, and I inwardly cringed. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with her. Thankfully, the demon smacking into my apartment window distracted me from that thought.
I jerked around and saw a dark shadow slam against the window, leaving oily imprints on the glass and rattling the frame. Another clattering boom against the adjacent window snapped my attention across the lounge. Claws scratched at the glass, setting my teeth on edge. I couldn’t quite see the demons—too human to focus on their ethereal forms—but whatever they were, they didn’t appear to be able to break through. My symbols worked their magic. I had a few seconds of smug satisfaction and then I heard a raucous cry coming from my bedroom. Jonesy blurred across the floor with a yowl, and following behind came a heaving cloud of black smoke. I’d left the bedroom window open.
My demon came to me like a blast of hot air from an oven. She’d already been lurking at the back of my mind, now she butted up against my skin. The protection symbols prevented me from summoning all of her. I couldn’t use my element, but I had enough fire in my veins to see the prehistoric creature inside the miasmic shadow. I’d seen it before. They patrolled the night sky in the netherworld, and they also made an appearance in most dinosaur reference books. Palaeontologists called them pterosaurs, better known as pterodactyls. Demons called them
venatores – hunters.
It teetered forward on its winged arms and legs, claws scratching against my hardwood floors, and cast its beady-eyed glance around. It let out an ear-piercing screech. The little girl squeaked behind me and scurried into the corner of the room where she ducked down and tried to hug herself into a tiny, insignificant ball.
I pinned the hunter in my sights and snatched a kitchen knife from the rack. We were equally matched in height—which isn’t saying much—although its claws and beak full of razor-edged teeth gave it the distinct advantage. It screeched at me, the brittle sound like a clatter of cymbals.
“I already have demon blood on my boots,” I growled. “I’d really prefer it if I didn’t have to wash it off my walls as well.”
It swung its elongated head and tried to get a fix on the girl behind me. Skittering to one side, it flapped its wings and snapped its jaws, unconcerned by my threat. Another of its companions slammed against the lounge window, jarring the glass. The hunter jerked its head, acknowledging its companion’s idiocy. I used its distraction and bolted around behind it. Attacking it head on would get me a face full of sharp teeth. Snatching its left wing, I used my own momentum to swing around behind it. Its beak swung around after me, the two of us pirouetting before I plunged the kitchen knife into its leathery hide. I still had hold of its wing and yanked as it bucked away. The knife slid out with a
Blood spurted. Its beak snapped at me, close enough to taste the fish-oil stench of its breath. I recoiled, ducked, and as it snapped over my head, I thrust the knife into its neck and tugged its throat out with a grunt of exertion. The hunter whipped around, wings flailing and claws tearing at the gaping wound. It stumbled and staggered about the lounge, rearranging my furniture, and collapsed across my coffee table.