I don’t normally leave notes like this. Being what I am, I tend to get…possessive.
When adrenaline and magic are mixed together, understandings that seem solid in the dark of night, fade away in the light of the day.
There is a car, a driver, and full payment for last night’s work downstairs, waiting to take you wherever you want to go. Get in it, and I won’t trouble you again.
Or—you can stay.
Andi, my life isn’t normal, and once you learn the truth about the monstrous things that underpin the world you cannot ignore them. If you decide to stay, any future will be dangerous and uncertain—but we would figure it out together.
It would be far better for you to go and forget these last few days. If I were more of a man I would insist on it, because it would keep you safe.
But the dragon in me cannot let you go, and so I leave it to you to choose.
Andi walked back to the bed with the note, spotting her phone on the bedside table where Damian must’ve left it for her. Now even he was telling her she might be cursed. Great. She snorted.
But that was the thing about curses, she thought, folding up the note. Once you knew they existed it was already too late, you were cursed either way – to either live in danger, or live regretting what you might’ve missed to play it safe.
And after this morning, Andi didn’t need to look in a mirror to know what kind of woman she was.
She picked her phone up and quickly dialed a familiar number. “Hey Maria? This is Andi. Sorry, I’m calling in sick today.”
Then she put her phone down and crawled back into bed, to wait for her dragon and whatever was to come.
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Wait, where's Chapter 11? Well there were some quite explicit sexy times that not appropriate for all jurisdictions or those under the age of 18, so I can't put that on this blog. But if you want to read them, you can sign up for my mailing list and get it mailed to you! (Note: You can still continue reading the non-sexy times part of the story below)
Chapter Twelve (partial)
“Oh my God,” she whispered, collapsing by his side.
“Yes, that,” he agreed, wrapping an arm around her and pulling her with him to the sand.
Andi lay beside him breathing for a long few minutes. Her eyes were closed, but he knew from her breathing that she wasn’t asleep, only thinking. “Is it always like that?” she eventually asked him.
Damian looked down at her, his dragon’s imperative echoing in his mind. To mate her. Even though she was human.
It doesn’t matter. She is ours, his dragon promised.
He reached over to stroke a strand of hair away from her cheek. “There’s only one way to find out.”
Andi woke up sometime in the early evening deliciously exhausted, ecstatically happy—then she realized she was alone in bed.
An empty bed, after last night? Where was Damian? She listened for the sound of a shower and then realized he could be back swimming in the pool for all she knew.
If he was though—she could go join him. Or maybe not—it was a miracle she hadn’t drowned yesterday, with all the things they did. Andi laughed to herself, her heart thrilling at the thought of spending another night with the stranger who’d swept her off her feet. She felt herself grinning at the ceiling like an idiot and not caring. Everything that had happened was real. All of it.
And dragons were real. Just like Grand Auntie Kim had promised.
There are dragons in this world, my dear. Real dragons. Beware. To know a dragon is to be cursed forever.
Had the stories she had told Andi actually been true? Even if they were true, would it matter? Andi immediately she knew the answer. She got out of bed.
“Damian?” She listened carefully, for any response, and not hearing one, she called again. “Damian?”
Was he making her breakfast? Or dinner? She glanced at the windows—Damian had pulled heavy curtains closed to block the light for them, but she knew outside the sun was dropping down.
She stood up and wrapped a sheet around herself, and knew she’d feel like a Grecian goddess for as long as she didn’t look in any of the many mirrors at her sex-tangled hair.
“Damian?” she called again, walking towards the door. And as a note came into focus, pinned on it with a dagger, her heart started racing again.
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There’d been a moment where he could’ve had the strength to walk away, despite his dragon’s urgings. He was hard underneath the water, but she didn’t need to know that, and he could’ve pretended not to hear her and swam into shore regardless. But—
It’s been too long, his dragon grumbled. It was wrong. It hadn’t been that long since the last time he’d slept with someone—but it’d been for-fucking-ever since fucking had meant something.
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DO NOT LET ANYTHING HAPPEN TO HER! his dragon shouted at him, as though there was a chance in hell he might.
Shut it! he shouted back at it. He scooped her up as she shrieked, racing her back into the house and through the halls. How much Unearthly blood had touched her? How long had it been in contact with her skin? The closest earthly comparison was like phenol—an acid that numbed you as it burned—incredibly dangerous, and one of the many reasons all his men had magical protections.
“Damian!” She was pounding her fist on his chest, and he was entirely ignoring her until they reached the room with his dragon’s bathing pond. He threw her far out into the water and then leapt into it himself to swim after her.
She bobbed back up, spitting water—and spitting mad. “What the fuck!”
“The blood is dangerous. You have no idea.” He hauled her up to inspect her side.
“I’m half-naked!” she shouted at him.
“So? I’m all naked.” He reached for her to inspect where the blood had brushed her skin. It had already erupted into a bright red welt. He dunked her back into the water, chest-height, and started swirling water quickly past it with a hand. She stood in the water on her tiptoes, panting angrily, water flowing over her breasts with each sweep of his hands, nipples pebbling in the pond’s chill. Shit. “Grim, heat the pond!” he commanded.
“Do you want to explain what the fuck is happening to me right now?” She moved to cross her arms, to hide herself from him, but he caught her wrist just in time. He couldn’t risk her getting burned elsewhere.
“I’m sorry. I know this is strange, but some Unearthly blood is acidic. Or poisonous. Depending on the monster.”
Will she be all right? His dragon rushed forward inside him as if to see for himself.
STOP THAT, Damian commanded. Since when had his dragon ever given a fuck about a human?
Andi slowly lowered her head down to look at her side. “Don’t,” he warned her.
“I’m a nurse, okay? Let me see.” She pushed his hands away and held her arm up, while holding her breast out of the way, rocking forward out of the water to look. Watching her touch herself, even for clinical reasons, did dark things to him. Damian wished the water was opaquer. “It doesn’t look that bad,” she went on.
“We caught it in time. But you’ll need to stay in here for a while until it’s all diluted—just in case.”
She carefully crossed her arms high on her chest, fully covering herself from him. “Fine.”
Had he been looking that greedily? If so, who was to blame? The remnants of the succubus’s sting, his dragon, or him? All three? His dragon was roiling inside, beside himself with proprietary concern. He could still feel the surges of inappropriate lust—surely just his succubus-caused hangover from being attacked last night—and he’d be lying if he said she wasn’t beautiful now. The perfection of her breasts, curve of her neck, the way her hair flowed –after her kissing him earlier, it was all too easy to imagine them entwined together, his lips on her neck, her breasts pressed against him, his cock seated deep.
Yessssss, his dragon purred.
Damian quickly swallowed and splashed his face, trying to get his head clear. She would have to forget all this—he should not, could not get attached. It would only make it hurt more later.
Pain is fine, his dragon disagreed.
No one asked you, he told it.
Andi watched him splash himself beside her, totally in his element. Less than three minutes ago, she’d been flirting with a dragon, and now she was half-naked in the water with one. Oh, and also burned by acid from monster-blood—because that was a thing that could happen. And to think they never covered that in nursing school.
Damian dunked himself then resurfaced, snapping water out of his hair with a quick shake, before he looked at her again. She could tell by the way he was trying to look at her eyes and not down at all that he was trying very, very hard to grant her some privacy—and she was trying to do the same. Only the way his shoulders breeched the water and how she could see his biceps every time he moved his arms was pretty damn distracting—as was the rest of him. His wide chest narrowed down to abs that were as rippled as the water they both stood in—the expression on his face, dark and brooding like a storm. He was almost too hot to be real—which made sense because he was a dragon. A dragon. An actual, real, honest-to-God, wings-and-all dragon.
She let herself drop into the water, letting it surround her so that she could think. Then she made the mistake of opening her eyes and found herself at Damian’s waist height—and the view below was not any less distracting than the view above. She sprang out of the water, back to her feet again.
If she slept with him—an “if” that was getting smaller all the time, turning the corner into a “when”—chances were, she would have a very good time.
“Are you okay?” He leaned closer, his voice full of concern. She had a feeling he was asking about more than the burn.
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be? I just almost died two or three times, plus met a dragon. One that I kissed for some strange reason, earlier in the night.” She laughed nervously and rose up on her tiptoes, the seam of his jeans riding uncomfortably-comfortable between her legs.
He grunted. “About that…that wasn’t you.”
“Tell me about it.”
“No…literally. You weren’t thinking right. You were under a spell.”
Of course, she was, Andi thought with a titter. That made as much sense as anything else. She covered her breasts with her elbows and splashed her face with water to buy herself time to just calm down and think, because if she didn’t, she was going to have a panic attack. She released a breath and gathered herself before addressing him again. “So, what now?”
“Now—we wait. To make sure there’s no way you’ve been burned. And then after that,” Damian closed his eyes and shook his head. “I can’t claim to know. There’s a room in my house that has Forgetting Fire in it and I should take you there to erase all your memories.”
Her heart jumped into her throat and trembled there. “You’re kidding—right?”
“I’ve done it before to others,” he said to her and shrugged, not without kindness. “You don’t really know me Andi. And—you shouldn’t. Look how much danger you’ve already been in at my side. I never should’ve hired you, muchless let this morning happen. But,” he said slowly, looking over at her as if daring himself to do so. “I’d rather not do that to you.”
“Well I definitely don’t want that, so it’s settled.” He snorted softly as she went on. “So you’re going to tell me everything, right?” That was the least he could do after making her live through last night.
His eyes widened. “Not if I can help it.” He looked away from her, a lock of dark wet hair falling into his face. “Andi, no one can know what we are. Or what we do. Which is why when you leave here, you can’t talk to anyone—and you can never come back.”
She watched him set his shoulders like he must’ve done a million times before, ready to take on a burden that no one else even knew he carried. “Isn’t that…lonely?” she asked.
“You have no idea.” Damian gave her an infinitely sad smile, then angled his head down again. “May I?” Andi frowned, but bounced up on her toes so that he could lean down and see the underside of her breast. “Good. The swelling’s gone now. It’ll only leave a small mark, if anything.” He put a hand out to touch her, then stopped himself—and she found herself wishing he wouldn’t have. It’d been so long since someone had looked at her the way he did, with the hunger in his eyes. She could watch him denying it, pretending to be normal, as he said, “Come on, let’s go to shore.”
She uncrossed her arms and began sweeping herself in the water, thinking hard. When was the last time she’d ever met anyone like him? Would she ever get the chance to, again? “I…don’t think so.”
His brow furrowed in confusion. “You’re safe with me, Andi. I swear I won’t make you forget your memories of being here.”
She shook her head and laughed. “I honestly don’t think you could, I don’t care how much magic you used,” she said, pushing herself into deeper water as she slowly made up her mind.
“You’re lucky we won’t be testing that then.” He surged after her, his golden eyes watching her, as he hovered in the water not that far away. Andi remembered the way he’d been staring at her earlier in the night—and it was having the same effect on her now, it stole her breath away. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked as she took another sweep backwards and he matched it.
She looked at him, and around the room they were in, and thought back on every crazy thing that’d already happened with him. The thought of forgetting any of it was impossible—and the thought of leaving it behind her was almost just as bad. She watched his strong arms break the water to hold himself up and remembered what they’d felt like, holding her—and what she’d felt while kissing him. Even if it was a spell that made her do it—once she done it—there was something there. Something she didn’t want to give up on so quickly.
“You said if I leave I can’t come back. So what if…I don’t want to go just yet?” she asked while holding herself aloft, her breasts bobbing in the waves her arms created.
He paused in swimming and she watched him sink. “Andi,” he said, making her name a whisper as his eyes narrowed in concern, “you don’t know me.”
“I know,” she agreed. “But…what if I know enough?”
A long moment passed between them like a current of electricity—and then he swam for her.
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Damian heard the klaxons halfway through his shower and was tempted to blow them off. Trust Austin to run a drill after the longest night they’d had in a while.
But if they weren’t a drill, it meant a perimeter breach. What on earth—or off it—could penetrate their barriers?
The shimmer-tiger. Damian hit the shower off and stalked into his bedroom without thinking. Shimmer-tigers were nasty affairs. They weren’t fast, but they were sneaky, and their ability to teleport—albeit slowly—gave them an advantage over what other Unearthly creatures lacked.
It would be foolhardy for a shimmer-tiger to come after him directly. But he had plenty of humans and semi-humans in his employ, plus—he heard the sound of a violent crash and a distant, high-pitched scream.
“Open this window, now,” he commanded, and Grimalkin obeyed, whipping the shutter up. He could see the roundabout, three stories down, where a steaming van had crushed his fountain, and Andi was curled up, surrounded by the materializing tiger on three sides. For once, both he and his dragon agreed—he punched the window’s glass out, throwing himself through it as a man, knowing he would land as his dragon.
In her time as a nurse, Andi had watched a lot of patients die, and she’d learned there were three types of death:
The easy, quiet kind that struck in the night, and you knew no better before you went.
The kind that came up and walloped you—massive heart attack, massive pulmonary embolism, burst aortic aneurysm—that killed you so fast you hardly had time to be afraid.
But to her mind, the worst was the in-between kind. The strangle-some kind. Where you were aware of what was happening—when you couldn’t get enough air, or when the chemo stopped working—and there was absolutely nothing you nor science could do about it.
And that’s what it felt like was happening now.
That…that…that…thing was coming after her, and it didn’t matter what she did or where she went, it wasn’t going to stop, and she knew with every fiber of her being that whenever it did catch up with her, it wasn’t going to just kill her. No, she could tell by the insane grin on its face that it was going to hurt…
Glass broke from somewhere far above, and it felt like it was the sound of her sanity giving way. It rained down, and she heard it land on stone and water, and then something cast a shadow over her like a low-flying plane. She threw her arm up to protect herself and then gasped as a dragon landed.
If she hadn’t spent the night in the carnival house, if she hadn’t pulled the stinger out of Damian’s side, and if she hadn’t been under attack by that thing, she would’ve thought she’d broken her mind. But as it was, she struggled up to standing and shouted.
Her cries for help only enraged his dragon further. It bellowed in anger the second its paws touched the earth, and the dragon’s thoughts raced through Damian’s mind.
This home was his home! And everything in it was his!
Damian struggled to disconnect that thought from the dragon’s mind; the girl was not part of the package—even if they were saving her. Damian knew he wasn’t safe, and shit like this was why!
The tiger! Damian redirected, and the dragon growled.
Of course, the tiger. The dragon batted his concerns aside. He’d landed inside the circle it’d been creating of itself, trying to funnel her toward its face-bits, only she’d been smart enough not to run. He wove his head to look at her.
Stay here, he tried to emote, but with his dragon’s face on, all snout and teeth, who the hell knew what she saw, or what she thought of him? Her eyes were wide, and she was terrified; he could smell it, but who wouldn’t be?
Not me, Damian’s dragon reminded him.
No, of course not, Damian groaned.
Never me. The dragon whirled, using his own Unearthly ability to hone in on the tiger’s most solid part. Because I like killing.
The dragon pounced at this, using a massive paw to press half the tiger down, snapping its teeth through a portion of the rest of it. The problem with fighting a shimmer-tiger was the teleportation. If his dragon didn’t kill enough of it, quickly, it’d vaporize itself, heal, and reform. So his dragon shook its head, feeling things snap and tear deliciously, clawing at the piece it’d bitten into until it was sure it’d rendered enough of the tiger’s flesh useless that it could never regain its form.
At the end of it, he was spattered in acidic violet-colored blood—it streaked against his golden scales, and he resisted the urge to clean himself with his tongue.
See? the dragon rumbled, satisfied with itself. It whipped its head back and roared, a sound of ultimate triumph, arching its back and flexing its wings. My home, it insisted.
Yes, Damian agreed.
And now—my woman. The dragon’s head snaked back to Andi with alacrity.
That…that is a dragon.
Her mind could barely name it; it felt so unreal. A lifetime of watching movies, reading books, playing video games, had somehow never prepared her to see the real thing. Had she hit her head when the van hit the fountain? Was this one more crazy thing here? Or was her mind cracking in two?
It was golden, massive, winged, and glorious—and it acted as if it could understand her. When it looked at her, Andi thought it was trying to communicate something, and for the first time that morning, she’d felt safe. But then it leapt onto the other beast, pressing it down with massive paws and slaughtered it in front of her. That was the only word that would work for what it did. She watched it snap its teeth through a chunk of the thing that hunted her and shake its head like a dog with a toy—between that and the keening sounds the other thing made as it died, she knew this moment would haunt her nightmares forever. Violet blood rained over the grounds as the feline demon was literally torn to meat in front of her.
But it was a dragon.
And when it was done, the dragon whipped its head back and roared, a sound of pure triumph, arching its back and flexing huge sail-like wings, until they blocked out the sun.
And then it turned to look at her.
Andi’s heart had already been beating fast, but now it was as if she had shot herself with epinephrine.
The dragon folded its wings, lowering itself slowly as if trying not to scare her. And those eyes—those familiar eyes—they were massive now, but still the same.
Damian was a dragon.
A real, honest-to-God dragon.
There are dragons in this world, my dear. Real dragons. Beware. To know a dragon is to be cursed forever.
But Grand Auntie Kim never explained how, exactly. And in the stories she’d told her, things weren’t clear either. In some, the dragons were savage and ruthless; in others, noble protectors and guardians, but as she wracked her brain for childhood memories, she couldn’t remember a way to tell one kind from the other. The only thing that echoed was Auntie Kim’s warning about avoiding being cursed.
Why had I never bothered to ask her?
Because I didn’t ever dare think they were real.
Yet Andi couldn’t stop herself from moving toward the dragon, her hand outstretched.
She knew she would probably regret this later—but wouldn’t she regret it just as much if she didn’t? Which was worse? What ifs or never should haves?
She stopped mere inches away from him.
No! No, no, no! Damian shouted at the beast and fought to regain control from the inside. The dragon wrestled him.
Mine, it growled.
No. She is her own. Damian redoubled his efforts, pushing the dragon back and down.
For now, it conceded, and then abruptly went away, leaving Damian pushing against nothing but himself inside his dragon form. Able for the first time to see the outside world with his own eyes, he found Andi.
Staring at him.
She knew what he was.
And still, she walked slowly toward him, with a look on her face that wasn’t the horror, disgust, or fear he had expected.
It was awe.
She would turn and run at any moment, and he would have to chase her down, change back to human, and somehow convince her to go back to the house where he could expose her to the Forgetting Fire as quickly as possible.
But something in him wanted her to see this beastly part of him, the part he kept hidden deep inside. He folded his wings and lowered himself to all fours, in an attempt to make himself smaller and less threatening.
Step by slow step, she approached him, watching him as carefully as he was watching her. With his extended senses, he could hear the rapid beating of her heart, smell that sinfully sweet scent of near panic and wariness.
She stopped inches away from him.
Run, he thought, run for your own good.
He lowered his head to her, intending to show her his teeth, which were the size of short swords.
And to his surprise, she reached out and touched him.
I should run, she thought, for my own good.
But instead of running, she touched the protruding ridge on the side of the dragon’s face, where a cheekbone would be on a human. His scales were hard and hot but not uncomfortably so.
Suddenly his scales rattled in a shivering reaction. Andi gasped and jumped back and watched as the dragon seemed to melt away.
And then Damian stood there, in human form. The same man she’d seen in his bedroom earlier, only now completely naked, and the rest of him was just as hot as the half she’d already seen. He was perfectly proportioned chiseled perfection, and the memory of his lips on hers and his hands on her body came rushing back with fresh heat.
“Why aren’t you afraid?” he asked her.
Andi blinked. “Should I be?”
Damian opened his lips, but no words came out. Instead, he tilted his head, watching her as if he thought she would bolt—running off screaming at any moment. She’d be lying to herself if she didn’t admit that a small part of her wanted to do just precisely that.
Damian was a dragon. But he was also a man.
A very, very good-looking man. And the rest of her wondered if his skin would be as hot to the touch as the scales had if she felt it now.
Thoughts like that will only get me into trouble. Andi made an effort to look around, at the steaming bits of monster flesh scattered around them and the smoking wreck of a van behind her. She should be scared witless, and part of her was, but the same snark she hid fear with at the hospital came out to protect her. “I take it this is just another normal Friday night for you?”
“Saturday morning, technically,” he corrected, slowly smiling.
She turned back toward him and smiled too, then quickly looked away—feeling her face getting red. She’d seen a lot of naked men; it was a hazard of her job, but he wasn’t a patient, and…she tugged at the too long cuffs of the shirt she was wearing.
“So, what happened to your injury?” she asked.
He put his hand to his ribs where she’d pulled out the stinger. “I heal quickly.”
“Uh-huh.” She made every effort to keep her gaze high. “Any more monsters coming that I need to worry about?”
“Not to my knowledge.” He kept looking at her strangely—like he thought she was the unreal one.
Andi folded her arms carefully. “Okay, then, look, are you going to tell me what’s going on? Or are you going to pretend this isn’t happening and tell me I’m going crazy?”
He squinted his golden eyes at her. “No. You’re not going crazy,” he said, tilting his head. “Aren’t I…scary?”
The bubble of nervous expectation around her popped, and Andi laughed out loud. “If you have to ask, you’re probably not.” She gave up and let herself look at him, at his fucking perfect naked body. “At least, not right now.”
He cracked a smile. “Yes, well, about that,” he said, lowering his hands to cover himself politely, and then the smile fell from his face as he took a fast step toward her. “What’s that?”
Andi blinked at his abrupt shift in tone. “What’s what?”
He grabbed her arm and held it out. There was a spot of violet on the white shirt she was wearing, right under her left breast.
“Did it touch you?” He didn’t unbutton it—he just grabbed both sides of it and ripped it off her.
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Andi was swung over Austin’s shoulder and started hitting his back with closed fists. “Hey! What the fuck!”
Austin ignored her and started to run toward the garage. He swiped a keypad with his hand—she watched him do it through his armpit, and then ran with her inside, knocking the air out of her lungs with his broad shoulder. “Get your hands off of me!” She grabbed hold of his belt and used it to brace herself, trying to slide forward. He completely ignored these efforts and any impropriety, hitching her back up by her crotch.
“HEY!” she shouted, twisting to try to knee him in the head.
“It’s for your own safety,” he explained, grabbing hold of her waist again. She thought he was about to set her down, but no, he held her under his arm. Her hair swirled, blocking her vision, but then she heard a latch open, and he threw her into a tiny space with shelves and a metal plated floor.
Andi got to her knees and inhaled because she was an excellent curser in three languages and she was about to tell Austin off, but the look of fear on his face stopped her cold.
“Keep quiet. You’ll be safe in here,” Austin said and shut the door. She heard it lock, heard him leave, and knew she was alone in the dark.
Andi felt around the edges of the space she was in. Judging by the curve of the ceiling and the way she was barely able to stand up all the way inside, she thought she was in a van.
“Fucking asshole serial killer,” she muttered to herself. Sammy’s fears were right.
She patted her pockets. Her phone must’ve fallen out of her pocket on the way here—same for her envelope of money. All this trouble, all for nothing, and now… She moved her way up to sit on what seemed like a bench.
“What the hell have I gotten myself into?” She brought her knees up to hug to her chest. Why the klaxon and why the shutters? It’d have been an elaborate ruse if all that had happened just to kidnap her now after she’d been here all night. Same thing for if they didn’t want to pay her—a month of pay was a lot to her, but not to Damian and his eight-hundred-dollar shoes.
She pulled one of them off and beat it against the side of the van.
“Can anyone hear me?” she shouted, then thumped some more. “I’m in here! Let me loose!” She took out all her frustrations on the van’s interior, beating on it like it was a piñata. “Get me the fuck out of here!”
When she was done, she threw herself back on the bench, exhausted and panting, just this side of crying herself to sleep when something thumped back hard enough to make the entire van rock.
“Hello?” she whispered. Why hadn’t she thought about the freaking fist-sized bee stinger before she’d made that much noise?
The van rocked again, as whatever was outside hit it from the other side. Andi bit her lips not to scream and scurried underneath the bench, pressing herself against the wheel well, feeling the pattern on the cold metal floor press against her skin.
She breathed in and out into her coat—half to calm herself, and half to mask her breathing. Whatever was outside… Oh, God…oh, God…oh, God.
But it was gone now. Right?
Andi lay stock still trying to see in the dark, and phantoms came—the kind you get when you rub your eyes too hard. Shimmers of gold with stripes of green—only her eyes weren’t closed. She was filled with a sense of unholy dread as she realized something was materializing inside the van with her.
In the coin toss between dying lying on the ground and dying trying to escape, escape won. She rolled herself out and up and ran for what she thought was the front of the van and searching against the wall there for something—anything to help her—and on her second panicked pass through, she found it—a latch so flat it couldn’t catch on anything. She popped it open so hard she broke a fingernail, but then fluorescent light flooded through. The van was still in the garage. She crawled through the hole—no way it’d been meant for that, probably just a pass through, she was just lucky she was small—and fell into the van’s cab.
The van rocked behind her, and she heard the sound of something slithering. She kicked the pass-through shut and lunged to lock it just in time. A solid thump jarred her.
Whatever was back there was pissed. She whirled in the driver’s seat, looking for something to protect herself with, and caught the glint of keys. In the ignition. Because when you had your own garage inside your own fortress, there was never any reason to take them out. She froze for an instant, trying to remember how it was that people did these things in movies, then twisted the keys wildly. The engine sputtered, and lights came on. She stomped at pedals indiscriminately, and the van threw itself backward. She heard it hit god knew what, but more importantly, whatever was inside the van had fallen backward—hard.
Her panicked hands scrambled over the console, trying to figure out what was what and put the van into D because it had to be for Drive, didn’t it—if R was for reverse? And then she stomped on one pedal. Nothing happened, so she stomped on the other, and the van lurched forward, racing fast.
“Oh, shit!” she shouted, as the entire van ran into the garage door and it rocked forward. She kept her foot on the gas and heard the tires spinning as they tried to crawl up the bent doors.
“Come on!” She shoved herself forward as if her own slight weight would somehow help things as a shimmering began beside her. “Oh…no…come on!” She beat her hands on the steering wheel, and the van revved up a fraction of an inch higher—high enough for the wheels to catch on some mechanism of the door itself, pull itself almost vertical, and then the weight of the van crushed the garage door down and forward like a soda can. The van ran over the remains of the door, bouncing like it was going over craters on the moon, and then headed straight toward the fountain she’d thought was so pretty in the night. She only had time to scream before she crashed into it.
She was flung forward, and the steering wheel knocked the breath out of her. Gasping, she rolled toward the door, her foot still on the gas. The thing shimmering beside her hadn’t stopped. It was growing more solid, and she didn’t want to know what it was. The mere fact that it still existed in daylight meant that it was bad. The klaxons hadn’t stopped alarming; they were louder now that she was outdoors. Andi opened the door and fell—the van had jumped onto the fountain’s wall, leaving a three-foot gap between her and the ground. She landed on her forearm and scraped the shit out of it, shouted in pain, and then crawled away until she could gather herself enough to run—only to find that there was a golden-metallic shimmering ahead of her now.
She crouched, panting. She’d lost one of Damian’s shoes, her elbow was bleeding onto his dress shirt, and there was a thing hunting her—was it real? It had to be. She took off Damian’s other shoe and threw it at the golden glow, only for it to bounce back.
That seemed like an inherently bad sign. “Oh, no.”
More and more of the striped monster—that was the only word she had for it, that had to be what it was—was forming. Too many limbs and three tails; it was like a cross between a tiger and a centipede, and it had an almost human face that wouldn’t stop grinning.
Andi drew in on herself. The thing could move through walls. There was nowhere she could go that it wouldn’t be able to touch her. She was going to die here, and she wouldn’t know what killed her.
Check back tomorrow for another installment!
This is the sixth piece of a Instagram Collage Puzzle about the story. Come follow Kara on Instagram for more and see how the picture develops!
When Damian closed the bathroom door, Grimalkin was waiting for him, sitting primly on the marble counter, tail lashing up and down.
“I put the stinger in your office for you and cleaned up all the blood.”
“And not a moment too soon,” Damian said, leaning back against the closed door. He wondered how long it’d take Andi to vacate the premises. She was right behind the door now, probably not even dressed, putting his clothing over her taut, tight body—that he’d gotten to briefly touch.
Why did you stop her? his dragon asked. Part of being a shifter was experiencing one another’s feelings when paying attention, and when Andi had started kissing him, his dragon had been fully present.
Because it wasn’t real. We stank of succubus.
His dragon pondered this. It felt real to me.
It had, hadn’t it? It’d seemed like the most real of dreams. Waking up to a beautiful girl taking an interest in him, wanting him to take interest back. Everything in him had longed to answer her, and he would have done so, eagerly—thoroughly—if he hadn’t remembered the succubus’s scent.
You should have let her continue, his dragon said.
And not for the first time, Damian realized his dragon wasn’t big on consent. It wasn’t worth getting into with the beast. Especially because his dragon was inside him; it knew how hard he’d been tempted. He thumped his head against the door’s solid wood.And if he kept thinking about it, he’d be as hard as the door behind him. Fucking pheromones.
“…and you told me that you would heal,” Grimalkin said, pointing his tail at Damian for emphasis, and Damian realized he’d lost some of his cat’s words while thinking about Andi. He pushed away from the door and into the here and now.
“I would have. Except for the succubus stinger in the way.”
“That you didn’t know that you were hit with.”
“I’ll admit I didn’t check that closely.”
Grimalkin wove his head back and forth in grand disappointment. “This is why you need a mate. It is easier to clean all the places that need cleaning if you have someone else’s tongue helping you.”
It wasn’t the first time his protector had urged him to find someone—and, unfortunately, Damian knew it would not be the last. “I’m alive, Grim. I mean, come on, a stinger might’ve made me pass out with poison for a little while, but it’s not like it was going to kill me.”
Grimalkin jumped down to the bathroom floor and reached up with both front paws, planting one on each of Damian’s thighs, gently pricking through his slacks with his claws. “If something happens to you,” he began, and Damian leaned down to pay attention as his cat’s eyes went so wide, they were almost all pupil. “Who is going to buy me cheese?”
Damian laughed and gently kneed the cat down. “It is tomorrow, now, isn’t it?” he said, reaching for his belt buckle.
“Very much so. But you can shower first,” Grimalkin allowed him, with a wrinkle of his nose.
The second Damian was gone, Andi tried a door that was not the bathroom, found his closet, and resisted the urge to just hide inside.
What on earth had just happened to her? She’d told Damian she wouldn’t ask questions—of him!—but that didn’t mean that she wouldn’t spend the next three months asking them of herself. What the hell? Green blood? And the entirely inappropriate way that she’d pounced on him? That wasn’t like her at all.
There are dragons in this world, my dear. Real dragons. Beware.
Auntie Kim’s warnings echoed in her mind, and after the night she’d just had, dragons seemed downright sensible, so, sure, why not?
She tamped down her upcoming freak-out and found jeans that were far too long for her, cuffing them up and belting them tight, before rifling through his closet for a shirt. They were all dress shirts, so she picked the nearest one and tied it at her waist—if she’d tucked it in, it’d have gone down to her knees.
Last but not least, she put on the shoes he’d evidently kicked off on his way in—which were far, far too big on her, like clown shoes almost—and tried to remind herself that it didn’t matter that she wasn’t getting her own shoes back, because with what she was getting paid she could definitely buy new ones.
She caught a blurry glance of herself in one of the many bedroom mirrors on her way out. She looked like she was very ineptly playing dress up. Whatever! She just needed to take a shower at her own place—and crawl into her own bed and forget this unbelievably strange night—and forget him. She glanced back at the closed bathroom door and heard the water turn on. Whatever was going on here, he was at the center of it. He was trouble, for sure.
Incredibly hot trouble.
Andi growled at herself, then picked up her bag of wet clothes left by the bathroom door and stepped out of the room.
“HEY!” she yelled, her voice echoing through the apparently empty corridors. “Is anyone here?”
To her surprise, Austin was waiting for her by the time she got to the lower level, and he seemed surprised to see her. “Damian didn’t take you home?”
“Nope,” she said, as his eyes took her outfit in.
“Damian…took you to bed?” Austin guessed.
Andi rolled her eyes. Not for lack of trying on her part for a bit there. “Also, no, although not that it’d be any of your business if he had.” She wondered what it meant that that’d been Austin’s first guess—did Damian have a revolving door? He was rich and impossibly handsome; of course, he got laid—all the time, probably.
And none of those women had realized he wasn’t human like she had.
“I pulled a weird purple thorn from him. He was bleeding green blood,” she said calmly, watching Austin’s reaction.
Austin looked at her, a mixture of surprise and wariness in his eyes, clearly wondering how much she knew, how much she would ask him to explain.
“Don’t worry. He’s fine. He told me to find you and have you pay me and take me home.” She stopped, and Austin looked at her, clearly waiting for her to ask more questions—questions she desperately wanted to know the answer to!—butshit with her brother had taught her that sometimes it was better not to get involved. “Look, I’m tired and I’d just like my money and a ride to the bus stop.”
Austin hesitated for long enough that she started to get worried, then shook himself and said, “All right. Wait here.”
He returned with her coat and a large envelope. Before he handed it over, though, he glanced down. “Do you know those are eight hundred-dollar shoes?”
Andi stopped herself from gasping in time. “So?” she said instead, defiantly.
“And they’re…men’s shoes.”
“I know. I can mail them back, all right?” She pulled her coat on roughly and found her own phone in its pocket. “I don’t want to talk about what happened to mine. Just take me to the bus already.”
He looked her up and down again. Something about her current situation made him uneasy—but it didn’t stop him from leading her outside.
She did as she was told, waiting on the mansion’s marble stairs as Austin went to retrieve a car. Dawn was rising over the horizon, and from this height, the light spilled over the hills, making the morning breathtaking. A light breeze pushed the scent of roses her way and picked up a lock of her hair to play with.
Out here, it was like last night had never happened—like it wasn’t even real. Like the entire night had been a bad dream—except for the part that hadn’t been.
And her kissing him.
Whatever he was.
She was almost glad she hadn’t asked questions because if Austin had lied to her—which, of course, he would’ve; he’d have to—she’d have started to doubt her own two eyes.
Because that blood had not been human. Maybe that green stuff was what they pumped you with when you were rich enough to get to pay to somehow live forever? She fought not to nervously laugh at herself. She’d be on the bus soon, and she didn’t want to seem crazy with a fist-sized wad of cash inside her pocket.
But where was Austin? Was he ghosting her?
Maybe Damian was…a ghost? And that green stuff had been ectoplasm?
Andi put a hand to her head, feeling the edge of a no-sleep headache approaching, knowing she needed to get to bed soon before she could think about anything else stupid—crazy, impossible—and real.
And then, just like it’d been designed to set off a migraine, a klaxon started wailing from somewhere behind her.
Andi whirled to look back at the house. “What the—” she got out before the lights on the inside of the house went red, and the metal shutters started loudly rolling down outside, cutting through ivy and beginning to cover all the castle’s windows.
“Fuck,” she breathed as a car pulled up behind her.
“More like, oh, shit!” Austin said, getting out.
“No time to explain,” he said, and just as she’d imagined earlier in the night, he picked her up and put her over one shoulder.
Check back tomorrow for another installment!
This is the fifth piece of a Instagram Collage Puzzle about the story. Come follow Kara on Instagram for more and see how the picture develops!
Andi’s clothes were not dry by dawn. She was tired and wet and cranky, and the phone Mr. No-Name had given her said it was six a.m. Someone should be coming to relieve her soon, right?
Then she heard it—the sound of a door slamming from afar.
Was it real? After her experiences earlier tonight, she doubted it. Then she heard another door, somewhere deeper in the house.
If whatever lived in this house wanted to torment her, pretending to be distantly slamming doors was an odd way to do it, which made her think that the sounds were real and that someone had gotten home a little early.
Good, then that person could take her the fuck away from here—after paying her handsomely, of course. Nothing about her patient had changed overnight. She’d done a good job, in spite of everything else.
She put her wet clothes in the bag the dressing supplies had come in so they wouldn’t drip and then decided to hunt down the person who’d slammed the doors.
Andi walked back to the entryway—the path seemed about two rooms shorter, but she wasn’t going to question that right now—and found herself in front of the main door, with the staircases behind her. She turned, and the spiral one up to the ceiling that’d caught her eye earlier was gone now.
Of course, it was.
She swallowed and fought the urge to rub her eyes again.
“Hello? I need to go home now.”
No one answered, not even to laugh. She stood equidistant between the two stairs—they both led to opposite wings of the house. She could waste hours looking for someone here. A splash of emerald green caught her eye—on the stairs to her right. It wasn’t pondwater from her escapade earlier. She’d never made it up to the front of the house; she was sure of it. No, it looked like someone had spilled…cough syrup. And there was a trail of it—heading up.
She was only seventy percent sure she hadn’t seen the trail coming in, but it was enough. She held the fur coat tighter around her waist and followed it up the stairs.
The green stains led her down endless halls, doors that were bolted from the outside, and past judgmental looking statues until they reached a door. Perhaps the second one she’d heard shut earlier? She leaned against the outside of it, and would’ve sworn she heard someone stirring inside. She rapped on it gently. “Hello?”
No one answered. But it, unlike the other doors she’d passed by, wasn’t locked. She twisted the handle and opened it up.
The room inside was huge—palatial even; it could’ve bunked an army. One wall was lined with books—the older, the better, it seemed—with chairs and a bar, and then another wall was just mirrors, which was a little creepy. They were all different shapes, with separate ornate frames, and all their glass was fogged. Who the hell collected this many mirrors, and why? Rich people—with bad taste.
And then, in the middle of the room, near the windows which were letting in light from the oncoming dawn was Mr. No-Name, lying shirtless in the middle of a very large bed. The green stains clearly led up the carpeting directly to him.
No, no, no…enough weirdness for the night. This was not something she would be investigating. Helllllll, no!
But Mr. No-Name’s features were softer now that he was asleep. And he looked…just like the pictures of Damian Blackwood that she’d googled up—the old, grainy ones that were scanned in from old newspapers with no originals. And…also a lot like the younger one with the same name she’d read about too—the asshole cousin with the fancy car and a different girl on his arm every weekend.
None of that explained why he was bleeding green, though.
There are dragons in this world, my dear. Real dragons.
She crept up to the bed’s edge. If only she knew how to drive, then she could just rifle through his clothes for car keys.
“Hello?” she asked again at the foot of the bed, tempted to knee the mattress. “Hey…I want to go home now.”
When he didn’t stir, she leaned in and caught a whiff of something that was the worst stink she’d ever smelled—no small feat considering she was an ICU nurse. Her nose wrinkled, her body recoiled, and then…bliss. Like a good night with girlfriends after drinking a whole bottle of wine, or like the haze you got before an Ambien made you go to sleep. Soft and gentle bliss. She was safe, and she knew she wouldn’t have to worry about anything ever again. Things…everything—her job, this job, her missing brother—finally felt easy.
And Mr. Blackwood—who’d already been the hottest man she’d ever seen in person—was now utterly irresistible.
Sure, he was bleeding electric green fluids from a gash between his ribs, and she should definitely be concerned about that—said a small and shrinking part of her mind—but why not just take a moment to appreciate the perfection of the rest of him, first? Andi put a knee on the mattress and slowly crawled up on the side opposite the bleeding to get a better look. She hadn’t seen him with his shirt off yet, after all. She hadn’t known the way his strong hands became muscular arms, the kind that could pick a girl up and carry her off without even trying. The way his shoulders framed his torso, and the way the muscles made his chest worth licking, down to a ripple of abs and a fine trail of hair leading down…
She was practically hovering over him now and while—this is out of character for you! Stop it!—howled inside from somewhere far away, the rest of her wanted to know everything about him. How he smelled, how he tasted, how it would feel when she touched him, and how it would feel when he touched her…preferably deep inside.
Would he mind?
She brought her hand up to brush the angular slope of his cheek.
“Hey,” she whispered.
His golden eyes fluttered open, taking her in, and they had an oddly inhuman sheen. “Hmmm?”
“Wake up,” she urged him. “Wake up enough to say yes.”
He blinked. “Yes to—”
She leaned forward and planted her lips on his, swallowing whatever he was going to say next. In an instant, his head tilted to make his mouth fit hers perfectly, letting her tongue push in, and his hands were rising up the inside of the fur coat she’d stolen downstairs. Then he was fiercely kissing her back, his lips urgent against hers, his tongue pressing into her mouth, and although she was the one hovering above him, it felt like she was falling in—into what, she didn’t know—but she never wanted to land. This was what she’d always been looking for, and she hadn’t even known it.
One of his arms circled her waist, pulling her closer to him, and his other hand slid up her ribs to hold her breast and swipe a thumb against her nipple as she melted into him. If need could be made manifest, she felt it pulse from him, and everything in her wanted to answer its call. She shivered and let go, her body asking him for more, ready for anything, when he rose up and pushed her back, roughly.
“What?” Andi wasn’t sure precisely what she’d done wrong when all she wanted to do was make him happy.
“Goddammit,” he said, his voice hoarse, looking at her, clutching his hand to his bleeding side. “Grim, please exchange all the air in this room now and don’t stop till I say so.”
“But I can explain!” she went on, even though she couldn’t, as a sudden breeze sprang up from nowhere.
“No…just…be quiet.” He put a hand out to stop her from talking, and she bit her lips to obey. He was so handsome and magical and smart! How had she ever thought she could ever leave his side?
“Listen, this isn’t you.” He rocked himself over to the side of the bed to stand, and Andi noticed the pool of green he left behind him had gotten larger in the meantime. “Just go outside, find Austin, and tell him to pay you and take you home. I need to go bathe.”
Andi was torn between staying quiet like she’d been told and mentioning the blood, like the nurse-voice inside of her demanded. Her fear of him being hurt quickly won out over her fear of disobedience. “But, are you okay?”
“No,” he growled without looking back at her. “You don’t actually want me, and I have a completely inappropriate hard-on. I am not okay.”
“Because of the green blood?” she guessed, trying harder to help him.
“What’re you…” he said, turning back, seeing the trail of green he’d left behind, looking down at his own hand covered in the stuff. “Shit. Sometimes the scales make it hard to feel things.” She didn’t know what to make of that, or what he said next. “Why aren’t I healing?” He reached for the wound and then gasped, before crumpling to the ground.
Andi watched in horror—was he dying? She’d only just found him!—and ran over to his side.
His blood was definitely green and seeping out of a large gash between his ribs. Fresh air was buffeting against her face now and kneeling on the ground beside him she could feel all her uncertainty return, closely followed by a steamroller of anxiety and a semi-truck of self-doubt.
What-what the hell had just happened? She’d almost jumped him—what the fuck? She knew she needed to get laid, but come on, have some self-respect, girl!
But nurse-mode came and saved her from a spiral of embarrassment and shame. Even if his blood was green—presumably, it needed a heart to pump. She felt for a pulse and watched for chest rise. He was alive, but something was hurting him—she could tell by the excruciated look on his face. She tugged his arm away from his chest to see better, positioning him until she could see the wound—where there was a thorn jutting out.
Or more like a stinger. Of a giant dead bee. And it was still pumping something bad into him.
What the ever-loving fuck? She desperately glanced around. There was a bar set on the bar with tongs for ice. She raced for them and returned.
“I’m pretty sure this is going to hurt,” she warned him, then grabbed the stinger and yanked it out. Poison still dripped from its tip, and suddenly the bar tongs were a lot shorter than she wanted. She threw the thing across the room—tongs and all—and looked back at him.
“Mr. Blackwood?” She shook him gently. He was still breathing evenly. She didn’t think he’d popped a lung—only the tear in his side kept leaking green blood. “Damian?” she prodded, taking a guess that seemed more possibly correct all the time.
He suddenly shook his head, and when he opened his eyes, they were as human as ever. He blinked at her, pushing himself up on his arms. “What’re you still doing here? I thought you were a dream. And…what happened to your own clothes?” His hand reached for his side while staring at her. “Is that…one of my grandmother’s furs?”
Andi clutched the coat defensively, suddenly aware she was wearing something that probably cost more than her monthly rent and not much else. “No. I mean…it may be…but I got lost, and I stumbled and fell into your pool.”
He looked adorably confused. “My…pool?”
“No.” She held up her hand and frowned at him. “You’re leaking green; you don’t get to ask questions. What the hell happened to you…Damian?”
He frowned at the use of his name, clearly surprised that she had figured it out. Score one for me, she thought.
“Did you get attacked by…whatever it was that attacked your friend?”
“Not today.” He glowered at her. “You’ve completed your duties by staying the night. Now go away.” He rolled up and onto his knees, to stand and walk away from her.
“You’re kidding me, right?” she asked, following him. “You dripped a trail of blood all the way to your room.” She pointed down at the ground, only the green stains were gone. They couldn’t have been all in her head. She’d seen them. “Don’t you want a report on your friend, whoever he is?”
“Is he alive?”
“Then it’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Like I haven’t heard that before.” She put her hands on her hips where they wouldn’t be tempted to touch him. “Look, even though somehow you turn me into a walking sexual harassment case, I’m not going to leave you when you’re bleeding. Even if it is green.”
“It was a huge gash! You’re lucky I didn’t call nine-one-one!”
Damian, now that she was sure it was him, took in a breath and released it, then held his arms up so she could inspect him. She walked a quick circle around him—he had abs like fucking whoa—andcouldn’t see the wound anymore.
She bit her lips and scanned the room. He was healed somehow, and there was no longer a pool of green blood on his bed, and she couldn’t see where she’d thrown the stinger or the bar tongs, despite the fact that there was no one else in the room to move them.
“Satisfied?” he asked her.
“Not even vaguely,” she said. She watched her phrase spark a challenge in his eyes, one he just as quickly quenched—his face losing all the softness it’d held when he’d been asleep or injured—returning to its cold and slightly disapproving baseline.
“Go find Austin. He’ll pay you and take you home. Forget all the rest,” he said. She didn’t move a muscle, and he sighed. “Please, for the first time in your life—I’m sure—just do as you’re told.”
Her resolve to get to the bottom of things wavered. She’d already known this place was impossibly strange, but somehow, he was the strangest thing of all. Even without the insta-lust and green blood. There was just something…improbable…about him.
“Fine,” she said with a sigh. She’d spent enough nights trying to convince doctors that things were going bad before lab values proved her right to know that no one wanted to listen to the unbelievable until they had to.
“Thank you,” he said with a slight nod of his head. He turned and started walking toward what was presumably a bathroom. “Grab clothes from my closet and leave the fur behind. It has sentimental value.”
Before she could respond, the door closed behind him.
Check back tomorrow for the next chapter of the story!
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Damian felt like he had been shot, electrocuted, and stabbed.
What had actually happened was worse.
They’d killed the succubus, but before that, she’d wounded him. And for some reason, he wasn’t healing as fast as she had. That, plus her residual effects, had the dragon inside him howling to be released, furious at the cage once more. He felt his muscles enlarging, hardening in response. With gritted teeth, he mentally forced the beast back.
“Did anyone else get hit?” he asked, looking around. Everyone present shook their heads, and he knew Max was safe in his sniper’s roost.
“Good. I need to go,” he said, and turned, heading blindly away.
“Don’t think you can shirk cleanup crew next time!” Austin yelled. Damian ignored him.
It was harder to find cars to hotwire in these days of Uber, but he found one, practically pulling the door off its hinges to get inside. He’d have Mills figure out who owned it and recompense them later. All he knew was right now was he really fucking needed to get home where he could make the walls around his dragon real.
The car started, and he did a bootleg turn to race for the Briars—thinking fast—trying to keep his human side active and his dragon half down.
All of them had been touched by succubi before. It seemed like they were always waiting just outside of gates, waiting to lure the unwary. Their perceived beauty, their attention, and that pheromone kept their victims in line, while the succubi fed on them, night and day until their followers became mindless fanatics who would do anything the succubi asked—from killing their own families to disemboweling themselves for a smile.
Typically, after an adrenaline-filled hunt and exposure to the pheromones, anyone who had come in contact with the creature would have the urge to fuck everything that moved for the next few days.
It hadn’t turned out like that for him.
Instead, it had wakened the doubts inside of him and given them a voice.
He had taken the lead because, in the past, he’d proven immune to a succubi’s touch. But tonight’s had been different. More powerful than other ones they had previously faced.
Come fly with me.
It was like the succubus had spoken directly to him. No, not to him, but to the dragon inside—the dragon who never got to fly when he wanted to, the dragon he kept with him on the ground.
Come fly with me.
He parked the car and stumbled out, ignoring the voice inside his head, pressing his hand to the keypad. The door unlocked, and he limped into the white marbled foyer.
Why the fuck had he decided to place his bedroom up all those goddamned stairs?
You could just fly.
Step by step, he dragged himself up the stairs, down the carpeted halls, and into his room, where he studiously avoided looking at himself in any of the many mirrors he used to communicate with other Realms. Right now, he was afraid of what he’d see. He didn’t want to watch the dragon surging underneath his skin.
He opened the bottle of whiskey on his bar and chugged it until it was empty. It slid down his throat—a comforting warmth compared to the violence of the dragon fire within him. No one could get hurt, and all it did was make him sleepy. Grimalkin ran in and sniffed the air, likely catching a huge whiff of succubus pheromone. His hackles raised in an instant, his tail poofed, and he hopped back three feet with a wrinkled nose.
“I haven’t smelled anything that bad since you brought me a stinking bishop.” The cat shuddered and wiped its paw at its nose furiously. “Are you okay? And did you bring me any cheese?”
“Nice to see you, too, Grim.” Damian flopped onto his bed, holding the empty decanter. Grimalkin jumped up onto the bed with him and leaned over, almost touching him nose to nose, slightly crossed blue-eyes full of concern.
“There’s green blood on the ground. Is it yours?”
Damian shrugged. “I got hit a few times. Nothing I can’t heal.”
Grimalkin’s tail lashed several times before he asked, “Did you return with as many as you left with?”
“Yes.” Damian knew Grimalkin wasn’t fond of everyone in his crew, but the cat was aware of how losing more men would hurt Damian.
“Good.” Grim’s nose was still crinkled, and his tongue was out, and Damian had the bizarre urge to tap it. Before he could do so, Grimalkin’s eyes widened, pupils as dark as the night sky, as he segued into beg mode. “You know,” Grimalkin said, voice low, like he was dying, “if you’re gonna stink that bad, the least you could do is bring me cheese.”
Damian tried not to laugh and failed. “Can’t you just magic some up?” he asked for the millionth time.
“It’s not the same.” Grimalkin rubbed his head against Damian’s jaw, muttering, “Just a little Port-Salut. That’s all I’m asking.”
“Oh my God, Grim,” Damian said, pushing him away. “Okay, okay; I’ll order some.”
The cat perked up again, life returned. “No magic? Real cheese? Delivery drivers? To the front door?”
“Yes, I swear. But…tomorrow. It’s late.”
“So?” Grimalkin protested, teleporting Damian’s phone onto the bed with them and into his hand. “Use the metal thing!”
“I’m not making someone deliver cheese here, Grim. It’s almost dawn.”
“But it’s cheeeeeeeese,” Grimalkin whined, looking forlornly at the phone in Damian’s hand.
“I know,” Damian said, dropping the phone to knuckle the cat’s head. “But I’m not an asshole, okay? And if you’d rationed yourself better—”
“Rations? What’s next, American slices?” Grimalkin said, and the house around them trembled, cat and domicile both quaking at the thought. “Do I look like I can survive on Jamison’s Velveeta?” he asked Damian in all seriousness.
“No, of course not,” Damian reassured the beast. “I’ll do it tomorrow, I swear. Just…for tonight…I’m gonna need more of this. Please.” He held up the decanter.
Grimalkin waved his tail petulantly, but then blinked his eyes slowly and obliged him, filling it with whiskey again. There were benefits to having a magical guardian assigned to you at birth—once you got past its odd dairy addiction.
Damian sat up, took another swig, and then dropped back down. “How’s the girl?” Austin would have to take her home. He was in no condition—between the magical wounds he’d taken luring the succubus out, and the residual pheromones that Grim was scenting on him.
“Wet…and cheeseless,” Grimalkin said, before staring at the spot where the wall met the ceiling and rubbing a paw behind one ear. Damian had no idea what Grim meant by that, but he’d learned that sometimes it was better not to ask.
“Okay, then. Alone time. Now.” He swept his arm sideways, making the cat jump neatly over his hand.
Grimalkin pounced on his fingers and bit them gently, mumbling around them. “But tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow. I swear.”
The cat sprang off the bed and walked for the door. “Don’t forget!”
“Like you’d let me,” Damian said and ignored the pointed tail flick Grimalkin made in his direction. Despite how irritating his obsession could be at times, Grimalkin was the one thing from home he’d gotten to take with him from the Realms, and Damian was glad to have him.
Finally alone, Damian sat up. He was sore—sitting up made his head spin. He walked across his room to put the decanter back on the bar and took off his shirt.
You could’ve flown tonight. His own dragon now, emerging as he headed back to his bed, tormenting him with the succubi’s words.
If it wasn’t one beast bothering him, it was another. But where Grimalkin was concerned for him—at least, even if his own well-being came a close second to cheese for the cat—his dragon hadn’t cared. At all. His dragon had watched the succubus torturing people on the dance floor and been totally unmoved. It didn’t judge the succubus for doing what she needed to to survive, didn’t find her violence disgusting or cruel.
What did it say about him that something so monstrous was a part of him?
It says I shouldn’t have put the whiskey down so far away. Damian didn’t get up to get it, though, instead choosing to close his eyes and will himself to sleep.
Check back tomorrow for the next installment!
This is the third piece of a Instagram Collage Puzzle about the story. Come follow Kara on Instagram for more and see how the picture develops!
It was very easy to creep yourself out at the hospital at night.
Everything in a hospital was industrialized. There was a veneer of warmth in patient spaces—warm lights, nice murals, wood paneling—but underneath that, in the guts of the hospital, things were usually poorly lit and dusty. Hallways full of empty beds with restraints still attached to them. Baby incubators with broken lamps. Pipes that knocked and wheels that creaked.
And that was before you got to any of the people dying.
Because she didn’t know how many people had died in this house—it was so old, she was absolutely positive that multiple people had—Andi did what she always did to make herself feel better. She threw all the lights on.
They sputtered to life like the wiring was old, but they brightened the room a little—enough to keep her spirits up, for now.
And after that, it was time for nursing. A full assessment. Just like she was at work, that’s all she had to pretend.
She walked over to the patient’s bed. Normally she’d have started off by trying to wake him. Even though he was unconscious, he looked strong. That, and the uncompromising way with which Austin’d restrained him—barely any slack on either wrist—made her second-guess herself. Instead, she just lifted up his eyelids to make sure his pupils moved.
After that, airway—he was breathing on his own, albeit with an oxygen mask—and circulation—all of his IVs were good, plus his rate on the monitor was normal. Last but not least, a quick head to toe. She lifted up the sheets. It wouldn’t do to wait eight hours to find out he had a pool of blood growing underneath him, hidden by the linens.
She was surprised to find him naked underneath. He was ridiculously well-muscled. Half of his torso was covered by a large bandage, and what wasn’t was covered in even more tattoos, just like his arms. They were old…formal…and strange. Like words written in a language she not only couldn’t understand, but had never seen before, and she considered herself pretty damn worldly. Or at least she’d watched a lot of National Geographic.
They were almost like…hieroglyphs? But not quite.
Andi ignored the tattoos and went back to frowning at the dressing, mad at herself for not assessing her patient before Austin’d left. It went from his hip to his shoulder, and it was too big to be from surgery. How would they have performed surgery here? Surely, they weren’t that old/rich/crazy. It had pink drainage on it. She put on gloves to touch it and found it saturated.
Which meant it wasn’t doing him any good and needed to be changed.
Andi looked around the room. This wasn’t civil war times; surely, she wasn’t going to use a half-stuffed pillow. Austin had brought the crash cart in from somewhere. Maybe there was a medical supply room down the hall?
“Be good,” she commanded her patient and trotted down the way she thought Austin had gone.
What Mr. No-Name hadn’t mentioned about the house was that it was very nearly a labyrinth.
Though, now that she thought about it, Mr. No-Name-With-a-Fancy-Watch was probably a Blackwood himself. Maybe a distant cousin or something. She had once read a book about a rich family who hired lesser relatives to keep their secrets. Maybe that’s how the Blackwoods rolled.
She went through rooms that didn’t make sense—one filled with wrapping paper. Did Mr. Blackwood really send so many gifts?—a bedroom, a mudroom—even though it didn’t connect outdoors—a kitchenette, a game room, a tiki bar, a closet with enough furs in it to lead to Narnia. She counted rights on her right hand and lefts on her left hand and was able to make it back, but she hadn’t found anything useful. Not even a bathroom. Or a coffeepot.
When she returned, there was a sterile chest vest in its package, sitting on the patient.
The first thing Andi did was to check the patient’s restraints. Because if this was his idea of a “fun game,” then she would strangle him until he really needed that oxygen mask. But he was just like she’d left him; he hadn’t moved. Who the hell had brought her that?
“Hello?” she asked, not sure what would be worse—if no one answered her or if someone did. “Is anyone else here?”
She thought she heard an echo of her own voice but wasn’t sure.
“Okay,” she announced, stepping closer to him. “If someone is taping this to punk me later, let me just say preemptively that you’re an asshole.”
She yanked back the sheet dramatically, hoping to trigger something. When nothing happened—same hot patient, same slow bleed—she pulled on fresh gloves.
The patient’s chest was hairless, which was good because she was ripping an awful lot of tape off of him. Apparently, Austin had never heard of abdominal binders—or maybe this dude appreciated the free wax. She snorted to herself as the last of the tape came free, and the soggy dressing slid off, revealing the wound underneath.
There was no way a “fall” had done that to him—not unless the stairs here grew claws and teeth. The end of the chest tube was expertly taped to his rib cage, like a sleeping snake, but underneath it was jagged rakes of red. It looked like he’d been clawed, but she couldn’t begin to guess what’d done it. She held out her own hand for comparison and couldn’t have done that to him even if she were Wolverine and her fingers fully spread. And then there was a…bite mark? Coming down over one shoulder? No wonder his lung had popped.
She glanced back up at his face. Had his head gotten hit, too, in his fight with whatever the hell this had been? Or had he just freaked the fuck out and gone catatonic? Because if something big enough to do this decided to pretend she was a cat toy, that’s what she would do.
She frowned at his wound for a thoughtful moment, then expertly wrapped him up, making sure to pull the sheet up to his neck, exactly how she’d found him.
“I don’t know what you got into, but I hope it doesn’t get into me.”
Then she walked away from the bed and sat on one of the library’s leather couches.
The downside of not having her own phone meant not having her ebook app for reading. She scrounged a few of the old books left on the library’s shelves. Management at the hospital never got that you had to do something to pass the time at night—that some nights you weren’t getting paid to work, so much as getting paid to just stay up and be there in case there was work to be done. She opened up The Count of Monte Cristo and started reading.
Hours passed. At work, she’d nap on break, but there were no real “breaks” here to speak of, plus she sure as hell wasn’t sleeping. She checked on the patient regularly, tried to pretend medical supplies hadn’t just appeared when she needed them, and that there was a way falling down stairs could do that to a man.
Halfway through her book, she had a thought.
What if…the patient here really was Mr. Blackwood and they were torturing him so they’d get his fortune?
She looked from her book to her patient. No, she was just getting ideas from her book. It was almost five a.m. That was when everybody started feeling loopy. Humans just weren’t meant to be up this late.
But what if… Whatever other crazy idea she was going to have evaporated when she heard a child’s voice.
“Help me,” it pleaded.
Andi jumped up and whirled, feeling her heart race in the silence.
Had she heard that? She had to have. She’d been up late plenty, and she’d never hallucinated before. And yet, just as she was about to talk herself out of it, she heard the voice again.
“Please, help me,” it begged her from farther away.
Mr. No-Name hadn’t mentioned anyone else in the house.
But for a house this big, it would be normal to have more staff, right? The staff was beneath attention and mention. But maybe Blackwood senior or junior or third cousin once removed was into Bad Things, and this was the only chance whoever needed help would have to escape to safety?
“Oh my God, can you hear me?” the voice sobbed in a desperate panic. “Please be real. Please…and come find me!” the voice cried.
Andi took one look behind herself at the patient—safely sleeping just the way he had all night long—and then went racing after the voice.
She tore through the strange house, following the voice as sometimes it sounded far away—sometimes closer—always pleading. If whoever was calling her felt safe enough to ask for help, they must really be alone.
“I’m coming!” she shouted. She finally felt like she was on the trail. The voice became louder, the calls more frequent, summoning her to a bedroom outfitted like a dungeon. The walls were lined in green velvet wallpaper with ornate patterns burned out against it, and black leather furniture-like objects were arranged tastefully—almost like art—if Andi hadn’t known what they were for.
She ran through it at top speed into the next room and found herself in a room almost exactly like the basement of her first home when she was growing up. Orange shag carpet, tan wood paneled walls, with a green felt regulation pool table sitting in the center of it. Same dingy light overhead, the same scent of cigarette smoke lingering in the air.
“Are you kidding me?” she whispered as she stopped in her tracks. The balls were racked and ready to play. All she was missing was Danny, her partner in crime. Pool was their father’s favorite hobby. They played it with him incessantly any time he visited, hoping that someday they’d be good enough to make him stay. Whenever he left, she and Danny would play against each other for hours, practicing for the next time. They’d win his love someday, they knew it….
“Help me!” begged the voice. It sounded like it was just one room away now. She ran for the door like her chalk-dusted memories were chasing her—so quickly she couldn’t stop herself and wound up falling.
Into a pond.
Andi bobbed up for air, gasping, surrounded by lily pads as wide as dinner plates and peals of laughter.
“Stop that!” she shouted, looking up to see who was laughing and finding only another high ceiling with a star-like chandelier. The laughter didn’t stop.
Someone was having a very elaborate joke at her expense.
She felt herself turning beet red and swatted at the hip high water, then felt her ankles sink. Somehow, the bottom of this koi pond—inside the house—was mud. She panicked and kicked her shoes off, losing them to the murky depths in her rush to swim to the pond’s side and clamber back out the way she’d come. She was totally sodden, and now she didn’t have any shoes. “Fuck you,” she told her unknown assailant. “And fuck this.”
The laughter stopped. There was a rustling behind her, and a chill went up her spine—the cat appeared. Grimalkin walked over and meowed at her with cross-eyed disapproval, before sitting on his haunches to lick a paw judgmentally.
“Do you believe this?” she asked him, gesturing to herself and her surroundings. Grimalkin started purring loudly in response, which sounded a bit like laughing.
“Get it together, Andi.” She pressed the heels of both hands to her eyes until she saw flashes and composed herself.
This night was cancelled. The second she got her money she was leaving this crazy place.
She stomped back the way she’d come, racing through the green-walled dungeon and found herself back in the room with the patient three doors later. Andi stood in the doorway and blinked at the impossibility of it all.
“No way!” But he was still alive, at least. She glanced over the numbers on his monitor—all within healthy ranges—then realized she could hear herself dripping on the hardwood floor. She scurried over to where the bed was, but she wasn’t sure dripping on a rug was any better. She remembered one of the rooms she’d been in earlier and dared to find the coat closet again.
Hiding inside of it, she took all her wet clothes off and pulled on a fur—huge, black, and fluffy.
She didn’t even care if she got the fur dirty. At this point, Mr. Blackwater, or whoever the hell was laughing, deserved it. She just wanted to go home.