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“What’d Grim say?” Austin asked Damian on their way to the garage.
“That she’s too small to be of any use.” In reality, Grimalkin had asked if Andi had brought him any cheese, the bluer, the better—because the house was out. Luckily, Damian was the only one who could understand the hugely powerful multidimensional guardian he’d been assigned at birth, so no one else knew how easily a gift of cheese would distract him.
“For once, the cat and I agree. If my brother wakes up –”
“I know,” Damian said, shutting down further conversation. If Zach woke up while they were gone—a big if—then hopefully he and the nurse could have an intelligent conversation, after which she’d take off his restraints. He’d be confused about what had happened, but he’d be smart enough to realize she was an outsider.
He got into the armored SUV, waiting with some of the rest of his crew. It was just him and the guys tonight. Max was driving, Jamison had his eyes on his electronics, and he sat close to Austin who was busy wiping down the barrel of something black and shiny.
He sank back into his seat, thinking about the nurse.
She smelled good, his dragon commented.
Shush, he told his dragon—but it was right.
Oil, plastics, but more overwhelmingly, the aroma of iron, surrounded him. Humans had so much iron in their blood; it was a wonder to him that they weren’t magnetic. Living in human society, he had gotten used to the metallic scent, but for some reason, tonight it seemed more pungent than usual.
It was all because of her.
When she had gotten into the car, the gaseous stink of the bus she had been on and the medicinal chemical scents that were a hallmark of her occupation clung to her coat. Those were expected.
But underlying all that was her own subtle scent, undetectable to most humans, and yet abruptly mouthwatering all the same.
Apples and caramel, yes, that’s what it reminded him of—and saltwater.
He swiped through his emails, opening the unread files Mills had sent over. Top of her class in community college and then nursing school. But she’d suffered student loans, a staggeringly high amount of debt owed to a hospital which looked like medical bills for a relative before it got wiped—presumably by that relative’s death—and a brother who apparently couldn’t resist taking rides in cop cars. Which made her perfect for his purposes: hungry enough to be looking for cash, smart enough to keep Zach alive, and hopefully, smart enough to not ask many more questions.There was always the Forgetting Fire if she got too curious. He reached the end of her background check and found she lived in a gentrifying part of town in an apartment above a Greek bakery. That explained her scent. Her apartment probably smelled entirely of baked goods.
Mystery solved, Damian put the phone back into his pocket. But his mind went right back to her. Andi. What an odd name for a girl. He had the strangest urge to say it out loud, irrationally, to see if the sound tasted as good as she smelled. And that interesting streak of blue that he’d glimpsed a flash of before she’d wound her dark hair up—something about the act of her hiding it made him want to unwind and expose it again, to possibly feel the wrap of it around his hand.
“Why’d you warn her about the house?” Austin asked Damian, distracting him from his thoughts.
“Because Grimalkin doesn’t like strangers.”
“He doesn’t like anyone,” Austin countered.
“He’s keeping an eye on Zach, isn’t he?” Max said from the driver’s seat, defending Damian’s guardian’s integrity. Damian knew his cat and his old weapons master got along—they had to; they were the only two things that’d come from the Realms with him, albeit at different times. The battle armor Max had on made the whiteness of his skin around it even more shocking, and Damian knew if he had his hat off, all his hair would be ghostly pale. He’d had an albino’s pale eyes, too, before he’d lost them in a fight with another bear-shifter. Mills had replaced them with something magical hidden by goggles, turning him into the perfect bearer of Damian’s Forgetting Fire, since its powers no longer seemed to work on him. And whatever kind of eyes he had now, he could snipe an Unearthly creature down at eight hundred yards.
“Grimalkin’s probably hoping that he’ll die,” Austin said darkly.
Max broke into a toothy grin. “Nah, if Grimalkin wanted either of you dead, you’d be dead already, puppy.”
Austin snorted at him. “Better to be a wolf who’s a fighter than a bear who’s a chimney sweep,” Austin muttered, before addressing Damian again. “Was she sensitive enough for the perimeter to bother her?”
Austin grunted. “How’d she do?”
“Admirably, considering she didn’t know she was being magically attacked.” There were several concentric security rings around his mansion, some magical, some not. He’d both seen and tasted her panic as they’d driven over one of them—the one Austin had been supposed to turn off. He’d seen other men throw themselves out of moving cars in fear and not know why to crawl crying back downhill. While she’d been scared, Andi hadn’t run. Another interesting point.
“Do you think she bought it?” Austin asked, pretending to put a driver’s hat on.
Damian knew he meant the subterfuge of him pretending to be a driver in his own employ. He’d wanted to meet the person taking care of Zach, to get a feel for her—he hadn’t expected for him to wind up being so intrigued.
“Doesn’t matter,” he answered. “Either she doesn’t figure it out, fine; or she does, and the fire will make her forget.”
“Why bother? No one would believe her. She’d just be another internet crackpot,” Jamison said while staring intently at the computer on his lap, as immersed in it as Austin was his weapons. He was very dark-skinned and lean in opposition to Max’s bright whiteness and Austin’s bulk, and between the hardware on his lap and the hardware of his arm that they’d replaced with tech, the man was practically half-computer.
“You mean, like you?” Austin said, goading the younger man.
“Don’t make me change your Netflix password,” Jamison snarked, then waved his hand for silence. “We’re approaching the source of the signal. Slow down, Max.”
Max grunted an acknowledgement. He was driving what Damian called “the tour bus.” It was a heavily armored SUV, fortified with metal shielding, bulletproof glass, blast-resistant undercarriage, and, more importantly, personally warded by the most powerful witch on this side of the Pacific. Damian knew where they were by scent—the saltwater, gas, and oil fumes could only be from the familiar miasma of the docks—and they were here because somewhere nearby there was an Unearthly creature they needed to kill.
A few days ago, a gate had opened in Damian’s domain. Gates were random rifts or tears between this world and other Realms, occurring when and where Earth and other Realms overlapped, allowing Unearthly things through for as long as the passage remained open. They could be as small as an atom, leaking a slow trickle of matter through that didn’t belong—making exposed non-magical humans think they saw Bigfoot, UFOs, or ghosts—or they could burst open like lanced boils, letting creatures that Ought Not Be through, flying, crawling, or oozing out to wreak havoc on whomever was unlucky enough to encounter them. Damian and his crew’s job was to kill the monsters, seal the gates, and wipe the minds of any human left alive.
They’d easily closed the most recent gate fifty miles outside of town, but not before three sizable creatures had made it through. The one they’d decided was the most dangerous, that needed to be put down instantly, had been an insectoid creature the size of a bus with bulletproof chitin and webbing that had been tougher to cut than steel cables. It’d been impervious to fire, too—at least human fire. Which was why Damian had had to let himself go.
They’d corralled the monster in a low canyon, but it’d slithered up a wall and over the defensive line Damian had created for the men, cutting him off from them. Zach abandoned his post, ran to help, and gotten grabbed. He’d screamed—and Damian could still hear those screams, agonized and terrified, now—and Damian had changed in an instant. From the human that he pretended to be, to the dragon that he was.
Massive. Mindless. Monstrous.
His dragon ended the creature in moments, reveling in the freedom and destruction, flipping the thing over to claw through its underbelly. Afterward, Damian had struggled to regain control. It hadn’t been easy.
“How much farther?” asked Max through gritted teeth.
Damian could feel the preparatory intensity of his crew as they waited quietly for Jamison’s next instruction. Between Zach’s injury and losing Michael last year.… Just because they were good at what they did didn’t mean it was safe.
“Almost there. We’ve gotta pass it to triangulate it. Just keep going,” Jamison said, oblivious to everything but the data he was harvesting on his screen.
Damian had told Jamison and Mills to prioritize creating technology to predict when gates were opening, so they could preemptively seal them before the Unearthly came through. They were gaining ground, but until they managed to perfect it, members of his team would always be in danger—and so would Damian. Because every time he shifted, his dragon came closer to claiming—and keeping—control.
“Stop,” Jamison said, closing his metal hand into a fist.
The vehicle downshifted, and the men hurried to finish arming themselves as Damian thought of everything he’d given up to get this far, everything he’d put his men through—all the Unearthly they’d faced, losing Michael, and now, nearly losing Zach.
“Whoa,” said Austin, looking at him askance, and Damian realized he was exhaling smoke. “Let’s keep it together this time, ‘kay?”
Damian narrowed his eyes at him. “Zach almost died.”
“I know,” said Austin with a dispassionate look on his face. “He’s my brother. But that doesn’t change things.”
Damian held his gaze, fighting the urge to let his eyes flare with magic.
The very same thing that gave him purpose, which made him a member of this team, was also the very thing that put them all at risk.
His own Unearthly heritage.
Of all of them, Austin was the one who never forgot what Damian was. And when he finally turned, becoming draconic without hope of turning back, Damian knew without a doubt that Austin would be the one to put him down.
“Which one’s here tonight?” Max twisted around to look back now that they were parked. “The lady or the tiger?” They’d all seen the other two creatures they’d passed over in favor of killing the bus-bug thing.
“Hang on.” Jamison’s magical equipment wasn’t anywhere near as sensitive as Damian was at this range. He closed his eyes and reached out with his senses. The all too familiar red magic bloomed in his mind, shaping itself into a vision of the source. He felt the fiery warmth that all creatures from the Unearthly side had—and more—longing, desire, and urges that made his heart beat faster and his heat sink low.
“The lady,” said Damian
Everyone groaned. It wasn’t that they couldn’t take down a succubus. They were pretty frequent Unearthly escapees—it was just the aftereffects that made things difficult.
“It had to be a fucking succubus,” said Max with a groan. “They’re creepy as hell, once you get down to the real monster underneath.”
“Agreed,” Austin said, then turned to Damian. “What’s this one look like?”
He concentrated on the spark again.
“In the other Realm, it has white wings, along with the tentacles,” he said finally. “Here, it’s got big breasts and blonde hair—a cross between a Christmas angel and a porn star.”
Austin cursed, but reached for the net gun before stepping out.
They were indeed, as Damian had predicted, on the docks. Which was a strange place for a succubus to be working, unless there was some sort of pleasure cruise—an emphasis on pleasure—nearby. But Max had his goggles on, scanning nearby buildings. “Over there,” he said and pointed. Once he had, Damian could feel it too, without any technological or magical enhancements.
Somewhere, in one of these buildings, was a bass-heavy beat.
An illegal warehouse party at the docks attracting a succubus? Sounded about right. “Spheres, Jamison?”
“Catch.” The other man reached into a belt holster and retrieved marble-sized magical objects to toss to each of them. Damian caught his and felt a layer of magic envelope him as they walked down the alley. It wasn’t there to protect him, so much as to protect other people from him—and the crew. No one wanted to see their group of overly muscled and beweaponed men walking down the street, so the sphere showed them whatever they wanted to see instead—men without guns, puppies, lost balloons. Damian didn’t question the sphere’s judgment, he just knew that they worked.
“The only thing is…” Austin began, as they got closer to the sound.
“We’ll still need a victim to lure it away,” Damian said, finishing his statement. He unholstered his gun to hand it over to Jamison.
“How come only you get to talk to the pretty ladies?” Jamison teased.
“Because I’m immune to their charms. And if this one is as bad as it feels, it has very nasty knives.” He handed his sphere over, too, leaving the safety of its magic behind. The others were all in tactical gear, but he’d kept on the suit he’d worn to pick up Andi. He didn’t need gear when there was a sixty-foot, fire-breathing reptile inside him longing to get out and fuck shit up.
Max cracked the knuckles on one hand. “Where do you want us?”
Damian scanned the building. Two huge men were bouncing in front of a door that was practically vibrating with the bass from the building behind it. The building itself only had small windows up at the top, strobing red and gold with the lights from inside, which meant external visibility was shit, but he had a feeling he’d be able to lure the thing out.
“Southeast exit’s best,” Jamison said, looking at schematics on a tablet. “The other buildings there form a natural cage.”
“Done,” Max said, jogging to the warehouse’s far side. Jamison saluted Damian with his metallic arm and ran off in the other direction—which left him and Austin alone.
“Try not to have too much fun before the hurty bits,” Austin said with a smirk, then went to head around back. Damian counted to twenty to give them all time, then headed toward the door with his most wicked smile.
Getting in was the easy part—a hundred-dollar bill did that—but he stood out once inside, very different from all the riotous dancers. He was GQ, and they were all sweaty, high, and half-dressed—a wild throng of humanity.
More like prey, grumbled the creature inside him.
He ignored it and made sure the southeast exit was feasible. It was at the end of a hallway and not blocked by pallets or locked with chains.
“Southeast is a go. Going silent now,” he replied, taking out his earpiece before walking toward a makeshift bar created out of pallets and storage boxes. He didn’t blame the succubus for coming here; he would’ve liked to’ve done so himself, as a human. To just be able to let everything go—and to know that everything would still be safe and okay.
He didn’t have that liberty.
Damian closed his eyes, pulsing the powers inside him out to search for her like radar. Once, twice, three times and the beast would feel him, but it didn’t matter, he had her—in the middle of the dance floor. A group of men and women circled her, thinking they were enjoying themselves. He knew if he let his gaze go draconic, he’d see her true form—wings tucked back as her waist-high tendrils spun out to spike everyone nearby. Everyone she speared would think they were in love—with her, with here, with life, it wouldn’t matter—and if she wasn’t stopped, she’d drain them of energy until they became her mindless slaves.
He ordered a shot of whiskey and downed it at the bar before heading to the dance floor. This wasn’t the place to sip. If he was going to get her to follow him outside, he needed to seem fully human, and every human here was drinking. The group of people around her had grown from five to ten; he needed to act quickly, but he hesitated intentionally, like he was unsure, and made sure to catch her eye on a spin.
She had hair like the sun, and it swirled around her like her tendrils would have if he’d allowed himself to see them. He stood at the edge of the dance floor, looking rich and cruel and disapproving—not taking his eyes off of her—daring her to come to him.
She was like a cobra dancing with a snake charmer, doing everything in her power to lure him closer into tendril range. But that wouldn’t do. He needed her alone, so he watched her studiously, letting her know he was interested, but not content to be amongst the commoners.
One by one, dancers seemed to come out of their reverie and stumble to the edges of the dance floor as she released them, not knowing how close they’d come to losing their lives. He had to fight not to smile. This wasn’t his first time with a succubus; they were all alike—completely certain in their abilities to torment humans and completely unable to ignore a challenge.
She was close now, still dancing, but just for him. She was wearing next to nothing, the thigh-high slits of her skirt showing off her legs as she moved, as she kept moving hypnotically, coming closer. He could smell the addictively sexy pheromone she emitted and almost wished it worked on him because it was hard to stay still knowing that once she came a few steps closer she would strike.
She smiled winningly and the first tendril hit—straight through his heart. The dragon half of him bellowed and rose and fought, and he had to wall it off as quickly as he could. Calm down. Now!
He did his best impersonation of a struck human for her. “You,” he whispered, his voice low.
“You-you’re different.” Her voice was a purr with an inhuman thrum underneath.
She struck another tendril through him, and instead of screaming, he had to pretend to be enamored. “I want you.” In real life, he would never be that abrupt, but bewitched humans had no common sense.
“That’s good,” she purred. “I want you too.” She reached her hand up and touched his face. “I’ll tell you a secret. I want everyone here.”
He smiled at her, pretending to be innocent, trying to ignore the way he could feel the spears of her magic slide in and out of him, sucking at his essence. Her hand trailed down his chest and seemed certain to go lower.
“Me first?” he offered.
Kill her! the dragon in him growled.
SHUT UP! he commanded.
“Oh, yes. You first,” she agreed, letting her hand sink to his waistband. He reached for her and dragged her close, kissing her hard, before she could feel that he wasn’t—that he was the only thing not turned on by her within thirty feet.
“I need you,” he said, coming up for air like a desperate man. The things she was doing to his brain and inside of him—a migraine blossomed, and it was hard to stay clearheaded—and his dragon howled. “Outside?”
She smiled at him, and with his dragon this close, it looked like all her teeth were fangs. “Yes,” she agreed, and together they stumbled toward the southeast exit.
Damian wasn’t sure what shape his crew’s attack would take, as he made out with the creature down the hallway toward the southeast door. He ignored the pain, trying to concentrate on the feel of its breasts against him and not letting it lock him in against a wall.
Then they reached the door, and he shoved her outside, blocking the door with his own body. He didn’t want the succubus running back into the crowd as they shot her with warded guns. No one would get hurt, but the chaos they’d cause could create a stampede.
Every single thing they fought with was warded—right down to the bullets. Which meant they wouldn’t hurt normal humans—just Unearthly things.
Which also meant he was in harm’s way.
“Move!” Austin shouted at him. The succubus took in her surroundings—the blinding phosphorescent lamps his crew had set up, the guns that were trained on her.
“Whaaat?” Her voice rose with an unholy pitch. “No—I did not escape the depths of—”
A sniped shot—Max, from a nearby building, Damian knew—came through her neck, blowing out her throat. He could almost hear the bear-shifter saying, “Don’t care,” as he silenced her. Damian threw her forward with all his might, felt the tendrils releasing for a second as they moved with her, and then they grabbed on harder. He sank to his knees as she drained his strength, and with wide eyes, he watched her heal.
Unearthly things were stronger than Earthly ones, yes, but they didn’t heal like that. Maybe Max had only grazed her? But then why was his shirt streaked with so much blood?
His thoughts took only half a second, and then he heard Jamison call his name. “Damian! Catch!”
Jamison was throwing his weapon to him, and the succubus batted it down with a now-visible wing. It didn’t matter, though. Austin was advancing—pumping rounds into her—and Max was still sniping her from afar, and slowly, the human shell of what she appeared to be was blasted away until only the monster of what she was shone underneath the phosphorescent lights. Their weapons pushed her back out of striking range and then Damian was free. She sank to her knees, her tendrils writhing desperately around her, searching for fresh victims.
“No,” she whispered as she realized she was dying. An iridescent purple eye swung in an overlarge socket to spot him. “You and I…we are the same. I felt it in you. Why do you align yourself with them when you could have flown with me?”
Damian didn’t have an answer for her; he just stood and picked up his gun. This needed to be over. He squeezed off a round into her head as the tendrils that had pierced him snaked weakly by his ankles.
“I will crawl into you and eat your soul,” she threatened, from a mouth that spontaneously appeared on her neck as Jamison brought a lamp closer.
“Pity for you, I don’t have one,” Damian said and fired the shot that finally ended her.
This is the first piece of a Instagram Collage Puzzle about the story. Come follow Kara on Instagram for more and see how the picture develops!