Excerpt for Demon Rising by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



In a post-apocalyptic world ruled by magicians and their demon pets, twenty-four-year-old Becca survives the dangerous streets by relying on her wits, her fists, and the limited goodwill of her boss, a local crime lord. When news comes of a fire back home and the family she left behind dead, she realizes her dark past has finally caught up to her. On the hunt for her missing sister, she must rely on Darion, a treacherous ex-boyfriend with ties to the local coven, for back-up. Problem is he’s a pyromancer who can’t be trusted. Will she escape the sticky web of treachery and deceit with her sister and her heart, or will she sacrifice it all to save another?




KUDOS for Demon Rising



“...an enthralling new voice gives us a magical world where love leads to dark decisions.” ~Jami Gray, award-winning author of the Kyn Kronicles



“For a debut novel, the story is extremely well written, filled with wonderful characters, strange happenings, and fast-paced action. I, for one, found it very hard to put down. I can’t wait for the next book in the series.” ~ Taylor Jones, The Review Team of Taylor Jones & Regan Murphy



“Demon Rising is well written with a solid, well-thought-out plot, plenty of surprises, and great characters. Fast-paced and compelling, it will keep you on your toes all the way through.” ~ Regan Murphy, The Review Team of Taylor Jones & Regan Murphy





ACKNOWLEDGMENTS



This being my debut novel, my gratitude runs deep for everyone who has helped and encouraged me with my writing. To my parents, who instilled in me a love of learning and always are willing to help me manage the chaos. To my first critique group, the Seven Evil Dwarves, who told me to keep on writing. To Jami Gray, who told me to not give up on this novel. A big thanks to everyone at Black Opal Books, for believing in my novel and working hard to see it in print. To my sister, who was my first reader, and Marci, who was my first cheerleader. And lastly, to my husband Spencer, who never doubted my dream.




DEMON RISING



DEANNA BROWNE



A Black Opal Books Publication

Smashwords Edition



Copyright © 2017 by Deanna Browne

Cover Design by Kimberly Killion

All cover art copyright © 2017

All Rights Reserved

EBOOK ISBN: 978-1-626947-22-1



This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.




EXCERPT



He was her uncle, but she knew he didn’t have her best interests at heart...



“You killed them.” It didn’t matter if he threw the match or not, he let this happen. “Your kind killed them all.”

“I didn’t start the fires. I tried to save them.”

She laughed, a sick cackle. It sounded as if she was losing her mind. Maybe she was. “And I’m supposed to believe you. Tied to this bed.”

“You took off, abandoning your family. I couldn’t take that chance. I can’t have you roaming free here, until you remove your Hand of Mary tattoo. Then I can ensure your safety.”

“My safety?” She thought he had to be high or something. “You have a Soultorn here. You’re a wizard. You’re not concerned about my safety.”

“I looked for you for over a year. However my sister chose to raise you, wizards are not the problem. They’re the solution to what ails mankind.”

She glared at him. He couldn’t be serious. Her family was dead, and he really thought she was going to side with him. Her nails dug into her palms, and she ached to claw herself out of this room.

“He’s here,” the Soultorn said in a deep voice.

Jeremiah nodded to the demon. The door opened and someone entered.

“I don’t like to be kept waiting,” Jeremiah scolded and went to the door.

“I came as soon as I could,” the man replied.

Her stomach dropped. The familiar voice struck Becca like a cold glass of water. She whipped her head to the side. It was Darion.

She’d been looking for him, hoping he could provide a clue to what happened to her family. Now he stood in her uncle’s house a black bag under one arm. Whatever Darion claimed when they were dating, he obviously worked with the devil himself.




DEDICATION



To Spencer, for believing I could.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

About the Author




Chapter 1



The tattoo on Becca’s neck prickled as she walked the crowded path to work. Searching for the possible source of magic, she continued forward, with coffee in one hand and the other resting by the knife at her waist.

She moved amid a throng of people, shuffling along the worn walkways. Heavy clouds were scattered across the sky, while dilapidated buildings surrounded them, a haunting reminder of what once was. A young man pushed past Becca, dressed in blue coveralls. He must be heading to the line.

The warehouse traveled up twenty stories high, the tallest building in town with a large fountain in front. It must have once been a beauty. Now the fountain, covered in graffiti, ran dry and the boarded up windows could barely keep the wind out.

A familiar, lanky guard stood watch on the side of the road. Could he have been the source of the magic warming her tattoo? He scanned the crowd with a demon dog at his side, a German shepherd with unnaturally large black eyes.

Turning forward, she let her dark hair fall into her face, not wanting to draw his attention. She stepped past the guard undisturbed. She could handle herself with the guards, but her boss, Nikko, constantly nagged her about keeping a low profile.

The crowds pressed together, and a large man knocked into Becca’s side, tripping her. She stumbled, spilling the remains of her coffee all over her black jeans. Someone swore as the crowd surged forward, and she stepped to the side.

At five-foot-five, she was on the small side, but strong enough to cause pain and scrappy enough to avoid it when she could. The crowds weren’t her problem, though. That would be the presence behind her, causing her tattoo to burn.

She whipped around and grabbed the small hand, reaching for her hunting knife. A young boy, maybe ten or twelve years old, struggled in her grasp. Blond hair curled around his ears. His face was lined with dirt. Once she glimpsed his eyes, she tightened her grip and shoved him back against a brick storefront.

A hellish black, his eyes revealed the demon residing inside of his body. Becca clamped down on any sympathy she might have had for this child, for he was no longer a child but a Soultorn. Fury rose, fast and fierce. Some wizard had corrupted this boy past repair by summoning a demon and using the boy’s body as a host.

She pinned him against the wall with her forearm, her knife pointed at his throat. “Where’s your master?”

“It could be you if you want,” he lied.

His lips twisted into a wretched smile, revealing broken and stained teeth. The sour smell of his fetid breath turned her stomach. There could be only one master a Soultorn would ever answer to, and that magician must be an idiot to let a Soultorn roam free. Maybe they wanted someone else to dispose of it.

She should just kill this body. It would be a kind mercy for this poor boy whose body had been stolen. His blond curls and freckles tugged at her gut, reminding her of a past she didn’t want to remember.

“Come on, lady. A kid’s gotta eat,” the demon whined, trying to force his expression into something pathetic.

A black leather jacket and steel toed boots didn’t scream “lady.” Ladies didn’t work as a runner for the local drug lord either, but at twenty-four, it was the best job she could get.

“You’re a demon. All you eat is other’s pain.” Becca edged the knife deeper against his neck.

Demons could eat food. The human bodies they stole preferred it, but death and destruction was a demon’s main course. The Soultorn in her grip struggled to swallow against the blade’s lethal edge.

Her lips pressed into a tight dark smile. “What? Realizing that a lesser spawn of hell like yourself may not have a shot at the afterlife?” Not that she knew much about demon realms, but she’d heard that demons never enjoyed returning.

What idiot summoned this lesser demon? Weak magicians recklessly played with demons in a hopeless attempt to grasp power. Demon pets and Soultorns were not allowed in the Mundane market streets without a leash. The law, weak as it was, helped to keep the Mundanes somewhat safe from being enslaved by every two-bit magician. It wouldn’t do any good for the wizards to kill off the work force.

The Soultorn spoke in a foreign tongue. Her tattoo tingled and dark spots filled her vision. She focused on maintaining her grip. As the Soultorn’s dirty fingers dug into her jacket, pain shot up the arm that clutched the knife. Her tattoo protected her against minor magic, but not direct attacks.

Out of time, Becca grabbed its hair and rammed its head into the wall, hoping to weaken it and break the spell. It took several hits before those pitch black eyes rolled back, and it collapsed on the ground.

Her breath left in a rush. Her fingers tingled with the return of feeling. She shook them out and stepped back, knocking into her now empty coffee cup. Dang demons, she’d lost her coffee and had to deal with a minor demon before nine a.m. Yeah, it was a Monday.

The Soultorn fell at an awkward angle, knocked out but still breathing. She didn’t have the stomach to kill a child host this morning. Now the magician who created it? That was a different story.

“Are you going to finish it?” Ted, the local coven guard from across the street, appeared behind her, placing a hand on her arm. His vicious grin and long brown hair almost mirrored the look of the possessed German shepherd at his side. The dog’s tail wagged high in the air, his teeth sharp and white. Not only could demons reside in humans, but magicians could put them into animals as well--changing the whole meaning of family pet.

Becca shuddered in disgust and backed away from his touch. “Isn’t that your job?” It was the one useful thing maggots like Ted did to help the Mundanes.

“Yes, but I like a girl with a little blood on her hands.” As if in agreement, the demon dog at his side barked.

The only blood she wanted to spill was his. Wizards like him caused deaths like this without a second thought. “Just do your job,” she said, pushing past him. She might be able to take on a minor demon, but not a wizard. Besides, she had to get to work.

Growls erupted from the possessed German shepherd, and with a single command from its master, the dog pounced on the boy’s body. She walked away, the grisly sounds of his attack echoing off the buildings.

She was grateful that she’d skipped breakfast, because there was no way it would have stayed down. Most people avoided the scene, except a couple of onlookers who watched with vacant expressions. Hurrying down the street, she tried to block out the noise. The face of the boy flashed into her mind. Her chest tightened as she mourned the boy--not his body, but his spirit that was stolen too soon.

One more demon vanquished. Hopefully, the creator would be punished, though probably not. And the boy--just more collateral damage.

Something she’d seen all too often with city life. Still, it was better than living outside the city walls, where gangs and demons roamed free. Somehow, that didn’t make the boy’s death easier to swallow.

She didn’t slow her pace until Nikko’s building came into view, an old two-story bar with dusty floors, but clean glasses. Its dark frame appeared vacant, but there was a full house. People watched from the darkened windows around the clock. Before she could knock, the door creaked open.

“Hey, sweetie.” Tyson welcomed her with a sly smile. His large frame and soft face gave him the appearance of an oversized teddy bear, but she’d seen that teddy bear break a man’s neck.

“Nothing sweet here.” She strode past.

“Okay,” he replied, one hand rose up in defense.

As she continued on, he murmured, “Heard she knifed her last lover.”

Her lips lifted in a grim smile. She’d worked hard for that kind of rep--a necessary tool in a business full of men.

The bar reeked of smoke and alcohol. One wall was decorated with a rainbow of colored bottles. Across the floor, two guys played a game of pool. An older man nursed a cup of coffee at one of the many small wooden tables. She’d have to grab a cup later.

She turned down the hallway and maneuvered to the back, to Nikko’s office. After a quick knock, Nikko called her in.

He hovered over papers at his desk while a cigarette burned away in the ashtray. He played with one of the metal studs piercing his brow. She studied him while he remained deep in thought, knowing better than to interrupt.

A dark, intricate tattoo decorated one side of his face. Ancient runes she often tried to decipher. Rumors said his family came from Asia, farther away than she could imagine.

Dressed in a fitted navy suit that complimented his short, dark hair, he emanated beauty and terror all at the same time. Long ago she advised him to forget about dressing so nice, since everyone stopped at his face.

“Becca.” He didn’t bother to look up. “I need this out of here.” He finished writing a note and sealed it in an envelope.

“Who in the world needs to get high this early?” She fell into a nearby chair not quite ready to head out. Yes, she ran drugs and other things for a crime lord, but she was never dumb enough to do them. At least with Nikko, she could face the thugs head on, instead of at the factories where they lurked in the shadows.

“What we supply is in constant demand.” His brown eyes glimmered with mischief. “That’s why we both have jobs. Today, I need you to head out of the city to Mariah’s place.”

Tension shot through her and she bolted upright, hands fisted on her knees. “Not Mariah’s. I’m not going there again.”

“Calm down.” He dismissed her objection with a wave of his hand. “You’re the only one I can trust not to get sucked into her little tricks. Last time, Tobi returned in such a state he couldn’t remember how to piss straight. I can’t afford that.”

“Tell your guys to grow a pair. Or get them tats.” She didn’t remember even getting her tattoo as a child, but it had saved her hide more than once.

“That would cost more than Tobi.” He finished packing the bag. “You know the deal. You want another job, you do this one.”

“I may end up killing that witch.” She meant it. The best kind of magician was a dead one. She also couldn’t ignore the nagging voice in the back of her mind that said she might run into someone she knew, someone she didn’t want to see again. The only magician she ever let get close to her, too close.

Nikko ignored her protest. “Just get me my cash first.”

“I hate you,” she said with no real malice. Lucky to have landed a job outside of the factories, she owed Nikko a lot. He’d helped improve her knife skills and paid her enough so she could afford her own studio apartment. However difficult the job, she’d do it. And he knew it.

“That’s why we get along so well.” He smiled. “Take the bike. Mariah wants this soon.”

“What? Is she sacrificing small puppies?” Becca grumbled as she got to her feet. “Or her own mother this time?” A witch could stew up endless nightmares.

Nikko ignored Becca and tossed her the bag.

Catching it, she sighed. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” Who knew what dead creatures or bones might be in there? Drugs were easy in comparison.

“I never do.” He pushed keys across the table. “Just take good care of my baby. She’s worth more than you.”

“Telling me that every time I touch Dedra doesn’t help my self-esteem.”

“Can’t believe you named my Ducati like an old mare,” he mumbled, standing up. “Just get it done, and bring it back tonight.”

“Will do.” A smile lit up her face. She’d named his bike when she realized the price he paid for it. Guys only do something that stupid or expensive for a broad. With the bag on her shoulder, she turned to leave.

“And, Becca?”

She turned back. “Yeah?”

His dark eyes warmed. “Be safe.” Beneath the sarcasm and crappy jobs, Nikko watched her back, maybe because she was his best runner, or maybe he considered her a friend. She never asked.

She winked. “Ain’t I always?”




Chapter 2



After grabbing coffee, some supplies, and gas for Dedra, Becca headed out of town. The sleek black bike roared through the forest. Even the apprehension in her gut couldn’t stop the smile on Becca’s face as she raced through dirt roads and inhaled the smell of trees. She grew up driving a slow stubborn mule that wouldn’t go over ten miles an hour, and so going fifty over small dirt mounds provided an exhilaration she rarely experienced.

Her father had once told her people used to race cars going almost two hundred miles an hour. She couldn’t fathom it, the life before. Her father, who had lived through The Rising, always referred to time as “before” or “after” The Rising, when covens replaced the government and magicians ruled.

Continuing through the back roads, she kept her speed up, wanting to get this delivery over with. She avoided the main highway that wrapped around the boundary of the city and any unnecessary attention. The coven magicked the city boundaries for protection against rogue demons and stationed guards at entry points. Outside those walls, anything went. Gangs roamed the countryside and lived in the rundown buildings from before.

Another hour ticked by before she finally slowed outside of Mariah’s place. The sun hung high and bright, but it wasn’t enough to chase away the creeping sense of unease. Becca rubbed the Hand of Mary tattooed on the nape of her neck, which her ponytail barely covered and prayed it would be enough. The hand shaped tattoo turned down with an eye in the palm, and colored in various shades of blue. Intricate symbols filled the fingers.

Mariah’s home must have once been magnificent. Now broken shutters littered the old two-story home, faded blue paint peeled from the side, and boards were missing from the porch. The various dead rodents hanging from its roof didn’t help.

Becca knocked loudly on the weathered door. She reached in the bag and pulled out the package and her knife.

Mariah, herself, wasn’t too dangerous. She messed with people’s emotions, but without a greater coven or Soultorn to call upon, she only could harm idiots who wanted to succumb.

“My darling...” The witch purred as she opened the door. Her slurred voice indicated the celebrating had started early. Her long black hair hung in a ratty braid, her dark features highlighted by eager silver eyes.

Becca’s lips curled in disgust. “Do you have payment?”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Always all work and no play.” The witch grabbed an envelope from inside the doorway. “I wish that tall blond boy would come back to visit.”

Becca’s hands tightened, but she didn’t trust herself to reply. Just get the money and get out.

“Do you want some side work? I know how stingy Nikko can be.”

The scrape of the witch’s magic against Becca skin made her neck ache. The tattoo on her neck warmed with pinpricks. “No thanks, witch.” The word spewed out like a curse.

Mariah leaned against the doorway, and to Becca’s annoyance, acted oblivious. “What about some gossip? People are willing to pay a lot for gossip, especially a scavenger like you.”

She was a runner not a scavenger, but Becca didn’t bother to correct her. She reached for the envelope, but the witch moved it just out of her grasp.

“Cut the crap, Mariah, and give me the money. You know Nikko doesn’t pay for gossip. He’ll only give you a cut if the deal pans out.”

The witch traced a long finger down the envelope. Becca’s spine stiffened. Fear shot through her body as she lost control. Her knife remained clutched in her hand, but she couldn’t move her arm. She couldn’t even speak. Becca shouldn’t have come. Mariah had gotten stronger.

Mariah’s eyes flared with haughtiness. “You need to learn some respect. You’re a minion. I’m a witch. I can have my demon eat you for breakfast.”

Becca hollered obscenities or tried, but she could only manage to blink. Fury built inside of her, at the feeling of helplessness under the spell.

Undeterred, the witch kept talking, “Tell Nikko there’s a small farming community east of here, burned to the ground. Never cleaned out. The ashes are still smoldering. I want a cut on what he gets, and he better not try to cheat me. Hear me?”

Did this stupid witch expect her to reply? A silent moment passed where Mariah gloated like a bird with her feathered chest puffed out. In the quiet, the slow tentacles of fear crawled up Becca’s back. She pushed them down. There were several farming communities that hid from the attention of the city coven. It could be any of them.

After she relished her moment of triumph, Mariah touched Becca’s forehead with one long finger. Becca stumbled back, the power losing its spell.

Becca regained her footing and glared at Mariah. She wanted to fight her, but was outmatched in a head on fight against magic. “You think Nikko’s going to send someone way out here for a wild goose chase? If you waste his time, he’ll double your costs.”

“If you blow a big deal for him, he may lower his costs in other ways,” Mariah grinned, looking hideous and threw the money at Becca’s feet. “Trust me.”

Becca picked up the cash and thumbed through it. “Not a chance.”

Tossing the package to the witch, she headed back to the bike. She knew better than to turn her back on a witch, but Mariah wanted Nikko to get this message. She wouldn’t kill the messenger, not yet.

“You know you’re curious,” Mariah said barely loud enough for her to hear.

Becca turned the key and started Dedra with a loud roar. Speeding down the road, the witch’s words spun around her mind. She was already out here and familiar with the land to the east more than she wanted to admit. Nikko would want the information as soon as he could get it. Gas may be tight, but she should be able to take a more direct path back to the city.

Besides, she’d told herself she’d go back one day, but then one day turned into eight years. She ran out of excuses. She had to go, even if she lacked the courage to knock on the front door.



***



Caleb awoke next to his parents’ grave. The reality of their death set in with the rise of the sun. He’d buried them last night, with the end of a burnt shovel. Lying against the cold earth, he lacked any desire to move, to leave their graves. Smoke permeated his clothes, his hair, and his existence as he stared at the burnt wreckage of what had been his life.

As he dug his hands into the grass, hollowness enveloped him until he couldn’t feel anything at all. Dirt and soot darkened his hands. There were no more tears left as he sat in front of their graves. His world had vanished, and the embers of his family home were still warm.

He’d buried his parents under his mom’s favorite bush. Its white flowers grew into tight balls and gave off a fragrance that smelled like her. The heavy green branches covered their graves, hiding them from scavengers.

He plucked a petal and crushed it in his hand. Lifting it to his nose, he could only smell smoke. The remnant of what killed his parents. He placed a clenched fist on his chest as he struggled to draw a clear breath.

Off hunting days earlier, he had seen the smoke first, dropped his kill, and taken off for the house. It had been burning for hours by the time he arrived. He was forced to watch it, unable to do anything. Now all he wanted was to lie down next to their graves and never get up.

He was disgusted with himself. What would his father think? But his father wasn’t here anymore, was he?

Caleb coughed, and his throat burned as he spat out black phlegm.

“Why?” he cried to the sky. Why were his parents in the house? They should have had plenty of time to get out. What about the neighbors?

The other homesteads flashed through his mind. Though miles away, they would have noticed a fire. The flames were contained before he arrived, so someone must have been here. Who was the question?

Slowly, the pain in his chest morphed to anger. He stood with resolve and purpose, his large shadow covering their graves. He might never see his parents again, but he would make sure whoever did this would pay.




Chapter 3



Haunting memories appeared along the dirt path as Becca weaved through the forest. The cool wind whipped against her face, as she stared through her dark sunglasses.

She could never forget the last time she took this road. Years ago, she walked this dirt trail--more like ran. Swallowing down the guilt and shame, she pushed away the cold memories of that night, which floated like ghosts among the pine trees.

The stream that she often swam in as a girl weaved behind acres of old farmland and scattered homes. Some empty. Others full of people or families hiding out, not willing to live in the cities and play the coven’s game.

Becca continued maneuvering the rugged path. Her hands ached from gripping the handles of the bike. She slowed as old fears surfaced. What would they say? She took off for a reason, but it wasn’t because she didn’t love her family.

In a few more miles, the smell hit her. Smoke.

Dedra roared to life as she remembered Mariah’s words. The burned down homes couldn’t be her family. It couldn’t.

Her breath caught in her throat as she glimpsed the disaster on the other side of the river. Where her family’s two story home once stood, now all that remained was blackened debris. She recognized their brick fireplace dark with soot.

No. Not her home. Her hands shook and the motorcycle skidded into a nearby bush. She barely registered the pain in her leg, probably just road rash. She untangled herself from the branches and hurried toward the rubble. She had to cross the rushing river and searched for the spot to cross. She soon found the large fallen tree that she’d helped her father carve into a makeshift bridge.

This couldn’t be happening. Where were they?

After crossing the bridge, she stopped. Someone was hunched over in the midst of the wreckage, a scavenger picking over the burned remains. Her family’s remains.

Blood pounded in her ears as she pulled out her knife from a sheath on her belt. She lightened her steps as she approached, scanning the area. Scavengers usually didn’t work alone.

Her shoe crunched on the burnt debris. The scavenger’s head snapped up, his thick frame tall even for a guy. Becca didn’t think, just barreled toward him, her knife at the ready.

He spun to the side, deflecting her strike. The knife glanced off his forearm. She spun around and something hard crashed into the side of her head. She stepped back as dark spots danced in her vision. He was bigger and heavier than she’d realized, but she had the rage of a demon. She feigned an attack with her knife and then landed a solid kick to his thigh.

“Sweet Jesus,” he mumbled, taking a step backward.

As the black spots finally cleared from her vision, she focused on his voice. She’d heard those words so many times and had watched her best friend get smacked by his mother for swearing.

It couldn’t be. This guy stood over six feet. His face had filled out and was now covered with a scruffy beard. His dirty blond hair held a familiar wave, though cut short, and those almond-shaped green eyes hadn’t changed at all. There stood Caleb, her best friend from years ago.

She faltered.

He notched an arrow in his bow and aimed it directly at her. “Don’t make me shoot you,” he said with a voice, deep and full.

How did she miss his bow? She didn’t compute the threat in front of her. Soot streaked his face and darkened his hair. His jaw clenched. The mischievous green eyes, she’d loved years ago, now watched her carefully. He must have recognized her, though it had been several years.

Ever so slowly, she sheathed the knife, raised her hands, and pulled back her dark hair. The tie must have fallen out at some point.

Despite her shock, her heart warmed at the sight of the friend she’d never thought to see again. “Caleb.”

His eyes widened. He lowered his bow, and his breath escaped in one long rush. “Rebecca?”

She shivered with a cold chill, as if stepping over a grave. She had buried that name long ago with the rest of who she used to be.

“Is that really you?” He stepped closer and reached out, as if she might not be real. Before she could find her voice, he wrapped his large arms around her. She froze in shock. This was Caleb, her Caleb, here in front of her, holding her.

She let his strong arms hold her and, for a brief moment, they took her back to a time when his kiss was all she wished for. Yeah, they had been best friends, plus some.

It took less than a minute for her to come to her senses. She pulled away. A warm flush covered her face. “What are you doing here?”

“I was out hunting several miles north when I saw the smoke. They burned out all the homesteads along the creek.” An emptiness haunted his features that she’d never seen before.

“All of them? Are your parents okay?” She had happy memories of his parents and their kindness and humor.

He looked down and shook his head. “The Brightons too,” he said, his voice tight.

She couldn’t feel her legs and struggled to breathe amid the ash. “Are they all dead?”

The words felt distant as if some other person asked it, some other person whose heart hung on a precipice waiting to shatter.

His eyes ached with deep pain. “Yes.”

Tears filled her vision. She dreaded the words she had to say. “My family? I need to find them,” she said, biting back the sorrow and grief that threatened to explode inside of her.

The odds they survived were low, but if they didn’t, they would need a proper burial before a witch like Mariah found them and used them for dark magic.

He nodded. Without speaking, he began sorting through the remains of her old life. She tied a handkerchief around her face and joined him, racing against the falling sun as they sorted through the twisted metal. They pieced together some recognizable items--a sewing machine and an old knife, but most were lost, burned beyond recognition or use. The large two-story home was reduced to a skeleton of what had been.

They approached the last back corner of the house, where her parents’ bedroom had stood. She prayed as her blackened hands dug through the soot.

“I can do this if you want,” Caleb offered, wiping a rag across his forehead.

“No. I have to do this.” For my family. She might have abandoned them years ago but not now. Guilt tore at her, like an open wound that wouldn’t stop bleeding.

“I know.”

She glanced at him, holding his gaze. He did know.

They searched where her parents’ bedroom would have been. Under a twisted metal frame, she found the remains of her mother and father. The blackened masses were skeletal outlines of petrified bone and ash. Caleb knelt down picking up an object. He rubbed the soot off of it, and she recognized the gold misshapen band as her mother’s wedding ring.

Becca stumbled back onto the grass. Turning away from the fire, she threw up. Tears poured down her face as she emptied her stomach. Pain tore at her heart, shredding it to pieces. They were dead. The words played over and over in her mind.

She stumbled farther away from the house, wanting a clean breath.

She couldn’t help the most obvious question that had haunted her all day. Would this have happened if I’d never left? I could have prevented this. Saved them. She’d always been the strongest in the family, hunting with her father regularly.

Caleb approached from behind and held out a knife--her father’s hunting knife, black and charred. “I thought you might want this.”

“Thanks.” She hastily wiped her eyes on her sleeve. She needed to pull herself together. “Did you find Elizabeth?” Her heart burned with the memory of her sister.

“No. No other bodies.”

“Is it possible we missed her remains? Could she have escaped?” She was scared to let herself believe it. Her chest heaved, heavy with the smoke in the air.

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Why was my dad in the bedroom with my mother? If gangs came or even a fire, they would have gone to the cellar.” Her words came out slow, remembering the emergency shelter behind the house. “The cellar,” she said it again, hoping Elizabeth would have been smart enough to run there.

Becca rushed to the backyard, stumbling over debris. She knelt on the burnt grass and brushed off a layer of dirt, revealing the metal door. Caleb helped her lift it open. If her family was attacked by gangs or rogue demons, Elizabeth would have been sent to the basement for safety.

Hurrying down the stairs, she called out for her sister. “Elizabeth. Elizabeth!”

There was no reply.

Her words bounced off the concrete walls lined with canned goods and emergency supplies. Becca grabbed a glass jar of peaches and threw it against the wall. The jar shattered and the smell of peaches filled the room. Peach cobbler. Her mother’s favorite dessert. Becca clamped down on the flood of memories and focused instead on her heavy breath and pounding heart.

Where’s Elizabeth? Could she be alive?

“I never knew you had this,” Caleb said, taking stock of a nearby shelf.

“No one did.” Becca wanted to scream and break everything. All of these supplies didn’t help save her family.

Leaving Caleb in the basement, she took the stairs up two at a time. Elizabeth had to be here somewhere. Becca stood in the middle of the scorched remains.

Turning in a circle, she searched, hoping for a clue as to where Elizabeth was and who did this. Soot covered Becca’s shoes and dusted the rest of her body. The debris of her former life caused a sickening in her gut. She coughed repeatedly from the ash in the air.

She had to move. Get out of this hell. She jumped off what had previously been her front porch and sprinted up the worn path to the well. She welcomed the burning in her legs as she finally reached the top, gasping.

The bucket, in its usual place, hung off the back side of the pump. The twisted irony that no one even made it to the well to put out the fire, made her want to punch something.

Filling the bucket with cold water, she poured it over her head. Then she reached for the pump to fill it again, and again. She rubbed the ash, the misery, and the death off her skin and clothes. The cool water numbed her to the core.

After scrubbing her body clean, she sat down under a nearby tree, exhausted. Her breath calmed with the smell of fresh grass as she watched the sun set amid scattered clouds. She was grateful for the time alone to pull herself together.

Caleb took his time striding up the hill. His broad, muscular shoulders stretched against his jacket. He had grown in more ways than one since she’d been gone. He had a confident stride now, and a strength in his face. He sat on the ground next to her, with a familiarity that she missed. “I searched around the house, but didn’t find any sign of her,” he said. “Do you think she would’ve run?”

“I don’t know.” She offered him a drink, which he took.

He finished the water and then stood to get more.

“Where would she go?” she asked. “Our only living relative was my uncle, and we never knew where he lived.” The thought of Elizabeth running to her uncle sent a cold shiver down Becca’s spine. “It’s a long walk to the city.”

“You made it.” He held her gaze. His eyes held more questions than she wanted to answer.

Caleb moved aside and dumped water on his head, shaking out his hair like a wild dog. Streaks of grime covered his muscular arms.

Turning back to the wreckage of her old home, she rubbed her neck and tried to think of some answers. “The smart thing for Elizabeth to do would be to hide along the river and wait for whoever it was to leave. Then grab food from the basement and wait out the fire. But the basement was untouched. She would have come out if she heard us.”

Caleb ran a hand through his wet hair. “My mother once told me they had men in a large red truck that use to put fires out for people. Can you imagine that? Now we just have scavengers to pick through the rubble.”

Becca ignored his comment. Talking about what used to be never did any good. A lot of things were better before The Rising.

“If she was scared, she could have taken off,” he suggested.

“Maybe, if she’s alive.” The words hurt to say, but they were a reality.

The sun descended behind the trees, their shadows falling on the remains. From this distance, she could only make out a few things: the stove, fireplace, and a crumpled metal swing that sat in what used to be the front porch. Wooden beams surrounded the house in an odd pattern--almost intentionally separated or pulled back from the house. Standing, Becca headed to the tree.

“What are you doing?” Caleb asked.

“I need to get higher. Give me a sec.” She grasped a familiar knot, and hoisted herself up. She winced as her leg, still fresh with road rash, rubbed against the tree. Maneuvering through the dense branches, she scaled the tree. The nearby homesteads were difficult to see, but Becca could make out the blackened remains.

How could they all burn down without spreading to the forest? And why?

Turning back around to her house, she noticed certain beams not burnt laying around the home in a distinct pattern, containing the fire. The hairs on her arms stood on end. This was more than looting or gang violence. Slowly the pieces fell into place.

The witch told her of this destruction earlier. No wonder scavengers hadn’t found it yet. Only wizards could have done this. But what were they after? Maybe this was just a message from the coven, that no one was safe outside city walls.

But where did that leave Elizabeth? Dead or stolen away? Becca had to find out.

She needed to go to Mariah’s. The witch had told her about the burnings, and she probably knew more. Not that getting it out of Mariah would be easy. Becca glanced down at Caleb, whose bow hung over his shoulder. She’d told Nikko she would kill that witch, and she just might.




Chapter 4



Elizabeth watched the scenery flash by the window on the car ride to the city. Gray buildings and dirty bricks looked dismal in the daylight. She tucked her hands under her long skirt.

She could hear her mother, scolding her back at their homestead, “A lady doesn’t chew her cuticles.”

Mother was right. Elizabeth had nothing to be afraid of. People had traveled in cars regularly since before her parents were born. If anything, she had been waiting for this adventure, a life outside of the farm for years. But something felt...off.

She better not be getting sick from pollution. The windows of the car had been closed tight since they’d entered the city limits. The silver car’s upholstery shined bright, but a sickly odor of mold or mildew permeated the car. It could be the men in the front. The driver’s slicked-back hair looked greasy and the man next to him, with dark sunglasses, possessed an unsettling stillness.

It’s probably just homesickness. City people are bound to be different.

She yelped as the car hit a large bump in the road.

Uncle Jeremiah patted her knee. “Just a pot hole, dear.”

She pulled her sweater around her tighter. He had a sharp coldness about him. She’d never felt comfortable with him, but he offered her a future she couldn’t get back on the farm. So she ignored his heavy hand.

He probably meant to be comforting, but she felt like a child instead. She was eighteen years of age, heading to meet her future husband--not a child at all.

She hated to admit it to herself, but part of her ached for her parents. They’d seemed so distant when she said goodbye.

This was their idea, though, and had been planned for years. It was for the best.

Out the car window, weathered buildings and abandoned store fronts flashed by. This run down city held no attraction for Elizabeth. Why anyone would choose to stay here was a mystery. Her thoughts traveled to her sister Rebecca, who’d run away to the city years ago, only to die at the hands of some street thug.

“Rebecca was always a wild one,” her father had often said.

Mother called it a rebellious spirit and warned Elizabeth against the same. “Even if it doesn’t have the eyes of a demon, it can still be evil.”

She worried how her parents were going to get on without both of their daughters. Once married, maybe she could live nearby her family’s homestead.

“Can you tell me about my fiancé?” she asked her uncle, hoping to ease the worry knotting in her stomach.

“He’s older. Wealthy, of course. His grace and influence is unmatched.” With a quick glance at Elizabeth, he added, “Quite handsome, too, from what the other women say.”

She tried to smile and push out the picture of a wrinkling man sitting in a mansion. Once again she had to remind herself just how lucky she was.



***



Countless stars watched from above as Caleb and Becca finished burying her parents. They worked hard to hide the graves near the river. She rubbed her numb hands together.

All feeling had fled into the cold air, mirroring her insides. Her tears had run dry, and no words could ever make this right.

They headed back to the basement. The flashlight trembled in her hand, bouncing along the path ahead. Revenge kept her moving, urging her to get on the road quick and find answers. Luckily, no one had come to check out the fire yet. The hollow sounds of her heels echoed across the basement.

Caleb snatched a couple bottles of water off a nearby shelf. “So how far is this witch’s house?”

“A couple hours.” She grabbed a nearby backpack and loaded it with water and food from the cupboards for the ride back. She hadn’t eaten all day and didn’t feel like it now, but had to keep her strength up.

“And this witch will know something about the fires? How strong is she?” He had a deep edge to his voice she wasn’t familiar with.

“Not terribly strong, but she does have magic. It will be difficult getting answers, especially if she doesn’t want to give them.” A bottomless ache resonated in her chest, and her determination to get answers, one way or another, grew. They finished packing supplies and headed back to the bike.

“Come to think of it.” She stopped suddenly and turned, forcing Caleb to bump into her. “Mariah will be more talkative if I’m alone.”

He started shaking his head before she finished her sentence. “You’re not going in alone. It’s too risky.”

“I know, but I’ll have a better chance by myself.” That’s what mattered.

“You’re not the only one who lost everything.” He closed the distance between them. She lifted her chin to meet his gaze. “It’s not worth the risk,” he said.

She steadied her emotions, the raw pain turning to anger at those responsible.

“Let me try,” she said. “I’ll keep her on the porch. And if I need help, you’ll be ready with your bow.” It was the best plan she could think of. “She could use you against me. You’re more dangerous, where she can’t see you.”

He spoke through gritted teeth, “All right. But one false move, and I’ll pin her to the door frame.”

“I’m counting on that.”

They found the bike sticking out of a nearby bush. The crash felt like an eon ago, despite the road rash burning her leg.

Caleb inspected the bike. “Will it run?”

“It better. Nikko will have my hide otherwise.” She already worried about having enough gas since Mariah’s place was miles out of the way for the trip back.

He picked up the bike. “Nikko?”

“My boss. Usually pretty reasonable, but he loves Dedra.” She yanked a branch out from the handle bars and knew there would be hell to pay. “Longest relationship he’s ever had.”

Caleb swung a leg around, taking the driver’s seat.

She pulled up short and frowned. “Umm, I think since it’s my boss’s, I better drive. This bike is worth more than my job.”

His lips pulled up in a crooked smile. “We both know who the better driver is. Plus, I gave you the last argument.”

It had been years, but the familiarity of their conversations, even their arguments summoned a soft comfort she didn’t realize she missed.

“I beat you a couple times, you know?” She’d forgotten their makeshift racing around their property.

“Because you cheat.” He turned on the engine, tuning out her rebuttal.

She rolled her eyes, threw on the backpack and his bow, and climbed on, holding on as he sped forward. Her chest tightened at the forced closeness. He wasn’t a stranger, but she’d sure changed. Was it possible to repair the damage to their friendship and start anew? She would have to think about that later, for they had a witch to visit.



***



Her raw throat burned from yelling directions for the last couple hours. The motorcycle slowed as she saw the flames shooting up amid the forest.

Her stomach clenched, in anger. It had to be Mariah’s house. Their only chance for answers burned in the distance. Becca rubbed the back of her neck. What happened?

They watched from the safety of the forest. The second story had collapsed in on the house. It had been burning for a while and was another controlled burn since it wasn’t spreading to the rest of the forest. Anyone who might be responsible was long gone.

Becca leaned back, putting space between them. “I shouldn’t have left without more information.”

“You had to,” he reminded her.

“Maybe.” But now the trail and any chance of answers were lost. What was the connection between her family and Mariah? The only link she could think of was herself. That wasn’t good.

“You want to wait to investigate?”

“No.” There would be nothing left.

“Where next?” Caleb asked. “We have less than a quarter tank of gas.”

There was one person who might have answers. The only wizard she really knew. Someone she’d trusted, maybe even loved once, until he lied to her repeatedly. Darion.

“I have an old acquaintance in the city. He may have some answers.” Ex-boyfriend was not something she wanted to admit, to anyone. And introducing him as such to Caleb felt even more off.

“Okay.” Caleb peeled out in the dirt and shot forward.

She held on, trying to focus. The trip back would take longer as they had to enter at a city gate. While anyone could leave the city through the coven’s invisible wards, entrance was only possible at certain points.

Trees thinned and night had fallen as they finally approached city limits, and Dedra sputtered to a stop.

“It went farther than I thought,” she said.

They both climbed off, stretching their legs. Caleb pulled the flashlight out of the backpack.

“No light.” She pushed it down. “We don’t need any unwanted attention.”

“Right. Right,” he said putting it back. “I must be more tired than I thought.”

Even in the moonlight, Becca could see his heavy eyes and slow steps. “When’s the last time you slept?”

“You mean before I buried my parents?” His voice held no anger, just a numbness that tore at her heart and ignited her need for vengeance.

“It’s only four or so miles to the city. We can rest at my place.” Out in the open and exposed as they were, they didn’t have the luxury of rest.

He pushed Dedra down the dirt path, lining the side of the road. “Your place, huh?”

“It’s not much.”

She scanned the area but couldn’t see past the shadows of trees and bushes. She didn’t like this. They were too exposed. The cloudless night offered little cover. Going through the woods wouldn’t work, since pushing Dedra without a trail would be noisy.

Noticing Caleb’s watchful gaze, she asked. “What is it?”

He shook his head. “Nothing.”

“No, what?”

“I keep wondering if this is real, if you’re real. It’s been four years. But with you here--” He glanced at her again. “--I never thought I’d see you again.”

“Me either.” It was surreal, walking with Caleb in the forest. Yet here he was, awakening those old memories and feelings that she never thought she’d experience again. Part of her died that night when she left. The other half was scarred for life.

They continued on in silence, the bright stars shining down with unearthly promises. A disconcerting rustle sounded in the trees up ahead. Taking the bow off her back, she handed it to Caleb, more sure of his ability than hers. “Just in case,” she whispered.

She took the backpack from him and grabbed the bike’s handles. He notched an arrow, and kept it low and ready.

About the time she began to wonder if maybe she imagined things, something rushed out from the darkness.




Chapter 5



A man tackled Becca to the ground, his size overwhelming. His weight crushed her and her breath rushed out. He pressed a large branch of some kind against her chest, trapping her on her back.

How could an elephant of this size move so quietly? She fought against the make shift staff as it inched its way to her windpipe, and wished for the knife at her side.

“Get that bike out of here,” the man shouted.

She struggled and turned her head in time to see a handful of men take off with Dedra. A classic stab and grab. Thugs. Nikko was going to kill her.

Several feet away one man lay on the ground with an arrow sticking out of him, while another man rushed Caleb. There wasn’t enough time to get off a shot, so he punched him in the face. The man staggered back, and then charged forward. Caleb was strong, but these men fought dirty.

She turned back to her attacker, as anger rose bringing a sour taste to her mouth. Pressing in her heels, she pushed against his body, struggling against the man’s massive size. The movement tipped him forward just enough for her to catch the scent of rotting fish. The stomach roiling stench made her gag.

Slamming her forehead into his nose, she ignored the gushing blood and the resulting pain from the hit. Swearing, he reared back and reached for his nose, releasing the pressure on the stick at her throat. Taking advantage of his distraction, she grabbed the knife from her waist and struck repeatedly. He hollered in pain.

Rolling out from under him, she jumped to her feet ready to strike again. Caleb’s bow thrummed, beating her to the punch, his arrow piercing the large man’s throat. He collapsed in a gurgled heap at her feet.

She stepped back. The trees spun around her as she tried to clear her head. Dedra was long gone. Caleb stood on shaky legs as his bow was aimed on the last attacker still standing.

The small dark fellow retreated, hands raised, and then turned tail and ran. They let him. He wasn’t worth chasing.

She dusted off the backpack while Caleb collected the arrows. Their movements were quiet, only the sound of their breaths mingled with the wind in the trees. She turned her head as he yanked it from the man’s throat. This hadn’t been her first fight, but death never settled well with her.

“Thanks,” she told Caleb. This was one fight she wouldn’t have survived alone.

Branches broke nearby and Becca turned, knife at the ready. More friends?

Something small pushed through the underbrush. A short demon scurried out and attacked the dead body. The demon wore the shape of a mongrel dog, but with a thin torso that twisted and arched unnaturally. It tore at the man she fought only moments ago. Bile rose in the back of her throat.

The twang of the bow cut through the night as Caleb released another shot, and it found its mark. He walked over, put his boot on the demon’s head, and yanked out the arrow.

She quietly backed up, her limbs tingling with exhaustion.

He cleaned the gore off his arrow, but motioned to her shirt. “You okay?”

Looking down, she noticed the blood covering her chest and shuddered in disgust. “Yeah. It’s not mine. I could use a shower, though. And you?”

“Nothing that can’t wait till we’re out of here.” He started out, heading deeper into the woods, a tired rasp to his voice.

After five or ten minutes, fatigue pulled at her. Her dragging feet were making too much noise, and she struggled to soften her step. Her body ached, and she could feel that last fight. A little farther along, Caleb started favoring his right leg, which spoke more of his injuries than he would.

She slowed down. “Drink?”

He nodded and took the bottle

She checked her watch. They had a few more hours until dawn. They might make it, but without sleep and rest, if they ran into anyone else they might not fend so well. “Let’s find a spot to hole up in. We both could use a couple hours of rest.”

He shrugged. “Sure.”

His easy agreement, told Becca she made the right decision. He could still move with a hunter’s step, silently among the cluster of fallen branches and leaves, but his shoulders hung heavy.

They found a cluster of oak trees that should provide some protection while they rested. She turned sideways to slide into the grouping. Branches snagged at her clothing, but there was enough room to hide. She sank down against a tree trunk. Caleb snapped off a couple branches before he lowered himself to the ground. His bow, still intact, lay across his lap. She closed her eyes, trying to shut out the world and the last twelve hours.

As the night settled quietly around them, she could hear Caleb pulling off his jacket.

She scooted toward him and turned on her flashlight, pointing it at the ground. “What happened?”

“He stabbed me with something. Not a knife. Not a real one at least.” Blood soaked the material.

She rolled his sleeve up. Blood smeared over his thick, muscled arm. The gaping cut bled slowly. “Probably homemade.”

Grabbing her backpack, she pulled out the water bottle and some gauze and duct tape. She wished for alcohol, but that would have to wait until they got back. Dirty weapons made for infectious wounds.

He held the flashlight low while she went to work. Maybe it was the attack, or the darkness surrounding them, but she was very aware of the short distance between them. His sweet breath on her brow. Her cold hands fumbled with the tape.


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