Chapter 1

Surrey, England

The little girl watched me from the corner of her room. Well, to be honest, it was more like she watched me from the corner of the room where the wall met the ceiling, high above her pink, floofy, vomit-covered bed. Also, she wasn’t exactly a little girl—not at the moment.

Her too-pale face and bruised eye sockets snarled at me in a rictus of anger, hate, and maybe a touch of fear. Like I haven’t seen that before. Hey Pumpkin, wanna get a little exorcism?

The problem was her age. Not the age of the immortal demon that currently possessed her body, but her own frail, sickly, five years of existence.

I’ve ripped demons out of all kinds of people, young and old, but never a tiny five-year-old girl whose lifelong illnesses had left her ready to break and snap in a stiff wind. Granted, right at the moment her body held the strength of several men, but that wasn’t anywhere near enough to slow me down, and the demon knew it.

I’ve ripped demons out of all kinds of people, young and old, but never a tiny five-year-old girl whose lifelong illnesses had left her ready to break and snap in a stiff wind. Granted, right at the moment her body held the strength of several men, but that wasn’t anywhere near enough to slow me down, and the demon knew it.

No, if I jumped up, stood upside down on the ceiling, grabbed her little frame in my hands, and yanked the demon from her body, I’d likely end up with a broken little kid… not the result I was here to achieve. Ooops, my bad doesn’t work with exorcism and terrified parents.

The possession was pretty high profile. Global, in fact. The girl, Poppy Barden, had developed her unwanted boarder within days of her family moving into the old brick row house in Cobham. Seems it had a bit of reputation—the house, not Cobham. But the rent was cheap and the costs of treating Fanconi anemia for most of Poppy’s young life had left the family short on resources.

Immediately after the move, noises and smells in Poppy’s room had started, bangs and clangs, and before Kate and Timothy Barden could seek help or even vacate, the possession was complete.

In today’s world, society was ever-alert for signs of possession, demonic activity, or other supernatural activity. So Poppy had received a whole host of visits from high-ranking church exorcists, but all had failed, as the world watched.

Hence my personal invitation by the British government to give it a go, as it were. It was currently near midnight, which is a bad time for an exorcism but gave us the best hope for avoiding crowds and sensationalism, at least according to the folks in charge. A quick peek out any of the windows would have put paid to that quaint thought… it looked more like the house was possessed by One Direction than a demon, at least based on the crowds that were pressing against the ring of Bobbies outside. It probably didn’t help that it was the only me inside and the rest of my highly photogenic team was outside, fully visible to the masses. I could hear news teams and autograph seekers all calling out to Tanya, Stacia, Lydia, Nika, and a few to Declan. There were even a few mentions of Awasos’s name among the reporters. Not so much Arkady, though. Something about a giant warrior vampire left people slightly reluctant to call attention to themselves.

But having them outside couldn’t be helped. It’s how we roll when we’re treating a possession. Just me, at first, with my pregnant mate safely outside, surrounded by the rest of the team, all of them wearing amulets of my own making.

I had mentally prepped myself for a torrent of hate-filled words about the unborn twins Tanya was carrying. But even so, Poppy’s unwanted squatter had reached new lows for foul demon-speak, and it showed no signs of stopping. It was inventive, I had to give it that, but it kept Grim straining at his cage door. I had made such progress on that psychological front, gaining more control over Grim. That lasted right up till the pregnancy, then my own inner monster took on a new, enhanced vigor of violent watchfulness. Must protect mate and unborn progeny. Grim smash. It didn’t make this situation better.

Time for a new approach, one with its own set of risks.

“Could someone send the Kid in please?” I said at regular, conversation-level volume. Most of my crew outside easily heard me. The demon shut up and cocked its head.

A moment or two later, the front door opened and closed, followed by a series of steady, even steps. My eyes were on the demon-filled Poppy, but my Grim-focused senses followed Declan’s approach like an inbound 747 on London Heathrow’s radar.

“Hey,” he said softly as he simultaneously entered the room and my peripheral vision, his own attention focused on the demon in the upper corner of the room. His heart rate was just a bit elevated, but his breathing was normal and he didn’t smell of fear… much.

“I need your help,” I said. “How’s your TK?”

“I’m thinking you’re wondering about control, not power?” he asked, understanding my question about telekinesis.

“Yeah, gentle control,” I said.

“Pretty good, but I’m not sure it’s that good,” he said, studying the demon-ridden girl. It was watching him back like a hawk watches a mouse.

Poppy opened her mouth and hissed at him. “You should be ours. You will be ours, witchspawn,” the thing inside the little girl said. Then it spoke in another language, a guttural, harsh-sounding tongue I’d never heard before.

Beside me, my side vision could just pick up Declan’s head tilting, maybe in surprise. Then he spoke back to it in the same language, haltingly at first, but gaining fluency as he went.

“What the F was that?” I asked, caught off guard by that little plot twist.

“I don’t know. Well, I do, but I didn’t,” he said, sounding shaken.

“Ah, what?” I asked.

“I’ve never heard that before, but I can apparently understand it and speak it. I think it’s from the book,” he said slowly, thoughtfully.

It took me a second but I realized he was speaking of the Book of Darkest Sorrow, the former grimoire of his evil ancestor from Germany’s Black Forest.

“What exactly is it?”

“I think it’s some kind of language for dark witches to speak with demons,” he said.

“It’s not the language of Hell, though, because I understand that,” I said.

“No,” he agreed, “it’s like some kind of bartering language.”

“What did it say?”

“Well, I think I just got a job offer,” he said.

“And what did you say?” I asked, not liking this little development one bit. I took my eyes off the demon and glanced at him.

“I wanted to know more about the medical benefits,” he said, grinning. “‘Cause that shit’s always going up, if you know what I mean.”

I felt a frown form itself on my face. He was obviously joking, because what nineteen-year-old cares about health care insurance, but I was taking chances here by exposing him to demonkind, chances that I had been warned against by my angelic case officer.

“I’ve got an idea,” he said. “Let me give this a shot. Trust me,” he said.

Great. Now I could either take a world-changing roll of the dice or lose his trust.

“They lie, right?” he asked as I thought furiously.

“Yeaaah,” I agreed cautiously.

“Cool. Hey Stinky,” he called out, then switched to that other language. The demon listened, head cocked in interest. Then it crept out from its corner, clinging to the ceiling like vomity Spidergirl.

Declan kept talking, but now he moved further into the room, pulling a powder-pink chair from the vanity set by the wall. He set the chair in the middle of the open wooden plank floor, kicking various items of clothing away to clear more space. Moving back to me, he stopped speaking and waited.

The demon crept out till it was directly over the chair. Then it began to speak back to him, its voice urging and cajoling. Abruptly, it let go of the ceiling and fell, spinning over to land in the chair with an awful sort of agility.

Declan stepped forward, speaking again, and began to walk slowly around the demonic child. He was walking counterclockwise, widdershins, and his right hand was casually unwinding a slim strand of string from his spell bag.

The demon smirked, not fooled by his act, but continued to sit in the chair, watching while the warlock circled it with a bit of string. This was his big play? An obvious and awkward attempt at putting the demon inside a circle? Made of string?

He finished his circuit and then dropped the other end of the string back where he started.

The demon finally looked at me for the first time since Declan had entered the room.

“Maybe you deserve to keep this one,” it smirked.

Declan dropped to one knee, connected the loose ends of string and spoke a word of Gaelic. The ends sparked and fused, the rest of the cord straightening into a perfect circle.

“I Circle thee once,” the young witch said to the demon. Straightening back up, he pulled a cylinder of table salt from his bag and started to pour a second circle just outside the edge of the cord, moving faster than the first time.

“Stupid witch spawn,” the demon grated, waving one hand at the floor. A blast of flame rolled off its fingers and shot straight to the cord in front of it. Nothing happened, except the wooden floor charred a bit. The cord stayed perfect.

“It’s Kevlar, moron,” Declan said as he took the last few steps and finished his second circle of salt. “It’s fireproof. Oh, and I Circle thee twice.”

The demon went batshit. It screeched, loud enough to make both of us cover our ears. It picked up its chair and smashed it against the invisible wall of magic that Declan had ringed it with. The chair broke into splinters, but the circle held. Ignoring the wood, it pounded on the invisible arc that held it in place, smashing back and forth across the circle too fast for a human. The circle held.

Declan was now pulling a blue electronic cord from his spell bag. “Ethernet cable,” he said. “I was gonna throw it away, ‘cause, you know, not much use nowadays, but then I realized it’s flexible copper wire. Makes good circling material.”

He stretched it out and laid a third circle around the salt and Kevlar.

“I Circle thee three times, demon. Thou art bound,” he said, closing the third and final circle.

Instantly, the demon stopped its frenzied rage. It stood, staring murderously at the young witch, but said nothing.

“What now?” I asked.

“Well, I made the first circle just a bit bigger than the chair, the others just outside the first. I figure you can lean over, grab her, and force it out faster than it can escape. You need to be quick because as soon as your body crosses the inner circle, it’s free. But speed isn’t really a problem for you, is it?” he asked.

I smiled as he spoke and at his final word, I Moved.

The Hell beastie was quick, I’ll give it that, but I was faster. My aura was already pooled and waiting in my right hand as I grabbed her left knee and then the back of her neck with my left hand. The demon arched the little girl’s back, but my aura was streaming out of my right hand and it flowed up Poppy’s body, pushing the demon ahead of it. Poppy’s nose started to bleed black, and then her ears bled ebony slime too. The black shit was demon essence and it poured out and ran around her neck straight to my left hand like iron filings to a magnet. Her mouth opened and another stream of demon crud gushed out, seemingly endless. But it wasn’t. As quickly as it had started, it finished. Poppy’s nose, ears, and mouth all cleared of demon snot and the little girl drew in a sudden breath when I pulled my crud-covered left hand away from her neck.

The next part… well, you already know it, don’t you? Left hand up, silent call to Kirby, flapping of pickup truck-bed wings, giant smoky bird filling the room, snatching the gloppy demon crap, and winking out of existence.

Declan was looking at me, blinking a bit. “I’ve never actually seen that, up close, before,” he said, eyes wide.

“Tanya,” I said to my mate, simultaneously giving him a nod to acknowledge his words. It’s all the same to me, but I’m told it’s a pretty interesting experience when I banish a demon.

A lilac and jasmine scented wind blew through the room and my vampire was standing there, her hands gently taking the little girl from mine. Her bright blue eyes were fierce and angry as she scooped Poppy up and took her to the bathroom to clean her up. My Tanya’s maternal instincts had appeared in a dump truck load when she got pregnant with the twins. They’ve been ramping to ever-higher levels of protectiveness with each day of her pregnancy. I had heard her foot tapping impatiently outside from the moment I entered the house.

Lydia was suddenly there too, and she deftly wove around the witch kid and myself, grabbing fresh child clothes from Poppy’s dresser, giving us an unreadable look, and then disappearing into the bathroom with Tanya and the child.

Declan raised one eyebrow at me before looking at the closed bathroom door, then shrugged and started picking up his two cords. He looked at the circle of salt with an expression of uncertainty, but then Nika came through the door with a small broom and dustpan.

“I’d say something smart about you reading my mind, but it’d just be obvious,” he said as he took the cleaning implements and swept up the salt.

“Nah. No one would believe you had enough mind to read,” Lydia said, opening the bathroom door. Tanya came out, cradling the little girl over her own rounded stomach, and marched past us, down the stairs, and out of the building, giving us a quick smile but still mortally offended that a demon would pick on such a small, sickly child. Then I looked at Poppy. Her color was better—a lot better. Like someone slipped her a vampire blood droplet or two and fixed what ailed her.

Declan held up the salt-filled dustpan and took a pinch between his fingers before flicking it at his tiny vampire nemesis. “I banish thee, pixie of annoying pestiferousness.”

“Awww. The lad is learning new words, trying to make something of himself. Heartwarming, but tragically destined to fail,” Lydia said back, pulling a blanket from a linen closet and following Tanya’s path.

Declan dumped the dustbin into a garbage can, leaned the broom against the vanity, and looked up, ready to leave.

“You had quite a conversation with the Hellspawn. What did you say to it to get it to sit in the chair?” I asked.

He raised one eyebrow but spoke without hesitation.

“I told it I felt underappreciated, scorned, and always treated with condescension. That I wanted more respect. It fell all over itself to tell me all the ways that Hell would provide me with power and underlings that feared me,” he said.

“But you don’t really feel that way, do you?” I asked the kid who was so much the little brother I never had.

“Oh I had to tap real feelings to be convincing,” he said, nonchalant.

It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. Behind him, Nika was smirking at me.

“I do feel that way… Lydia’s treatment of me is appalling. So hurtful,” he said, struggling to keep a straight face. “In fact, it borders on harassment.”

Outside, I could hear Tanya talking to Poppy’s parents as she gave them back their child. Lydia spoke quietly, knowing Nika and I could hear her. “Tell him he ain’t seen nothing yet.”

“Lydia says she’s just getting started,” I told him.

“Unwanted and pervasive… those are the terms, right Nika?” he asked the blonde vampire as we all headed to the stairs.

“Don’t get me involved,” she said, smiling. “But you’ll want to document all of the incidents to HR. That’s the pervasive part,” she added helpfully.

“Traitor,” Lydia said outside. Nika looked at me and winked, then exited the house.

“That was fast thinking in there, Declan,” I said.

“No, I’ve been considering harassment charges for months,” he said, deliberately misunderstanding me.

I shook my head and he laughed.

“Yeah but it’s a one-off isn’t it? That demon will spread the word in Hell, right?” he asked. “It won’t work again.”

“Probably not, but you can never tell. Most likely the news will get out, but they hate each other as much as they hate us, so you never know. But tell me more about that witch-demon language,” I said.

“Yeah, me too,” a beautiful platinum blonde said at the doorway, green eyes locked on the witch kid. “I don’t think I like evil-sounding witch and demon bartering languages,” she said, handing him a Bluetooth earpiece.

“It spoke and I understood. Weird, huh?” he said, staring back at her.

“It was created by witches to speak with summoned demons without others knowing what was said. Sorrow had complete knowledge of it,” Omega said through the earpiece as Declan put it in his ear. “You are unharmed, Father?”

“Yeah Omega, I’m good,” Declan said to the most powerful intellect on the planet. Demons and electronics do not mix, and Omega had been almost blind and dumb to what was going on inside when his teenage parent had been in the house. I say almost because there were dozens of directional microphones and powerful cameras aimed at us and Omega would have suborned the best ones, if not all of them. Still, he was almost fanatically concerned with Declan’s health and welfare. Which was more than a little worrisome on a whole bunch of levels.

“Unappreciated and scorned, huh?” Stacia pressed, frowning at him.

“I was acting, Stacia,” he said, frowning back, although his frown was flavored with worry.

“Oh really?” she asked, hands going to her hips, which pulled his eyes down briefly before they came back up, thoroughly confused. “Like I am right now?” she asked with a genuine smile. Then she leaned forward and kissed him on the lips before spinning around and moving over toward Tanya, Poppy, and Poppy’s parents.

He looked at me, confused.

“Just go with it, kid. I don’t think we’re ever supposed to understand,” I said, which earned me an over-the-shoulder glare from Stacia and a frown from Tanya.

“Mr. Gordon? I take it the entity has been dispersed?” a man in a dark suit asked me, approaching from the police lines. He had introduced himself as Trevor Holme from the Home Office. I know… Holme from Home. I had manfully ignored it when he met us at the airport and now I was just happy he was here to save me from my own mouth.

“It’s gone. I have some warding stones to give to the Bardens, but they should be fine,” I said.

“Ah, the famous Zuni fetishes, no doubt?” he asked in his very Oxford accent.

“You’ve heard of them?” I asked, uncomfortable with our notoriety.

“Whole dissertations have been written, argued, and defended about your fetishes,” he said.

Twenty feet away, Lydia’s face popped up with a knowing smirk and I knew it would be a long, long time before I was allowed to forget that unfortunate sentence.

Chapter 2

We were flying about 35,000 feet somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean when Omega spoke over the corporate jet’s speakers.

“I’ve found them.”

“Louanna and Dragan?” Declan asked, sitting up straighter in his seat next to Stacia. The rest of us mostly just looked confused.

“I am ninety-three percent certain they have just this moment taken over an adult entertainment establishment in Las Vegas, Nevada. I believe, based on audio data, that it is her and that she and her offspring have just violently overthrown the Painted Horse Gentlemen’s Club. It features scantily clad females dancing for male entertainment.”

“Thank you Omega, but we know what a gentlemen’s club is. Do you have any idea who the girl might be?” Tanya asked.

“I have been searching records for missing persons, particularly in the southern United States. Ten months and four days ago, a police report was filed in the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s department near Ville Platte, Louisiana. Louanna Martel, age seventeen, was reported missing from her home by her paternal grandmother. The subsequent investigation concluded that she ran away from an unhappy home life with an unknown male, who was reputed to be a member of a motorcycle gang. No reference is made to the name of the gang.

“Louanna is sixty-two inches tall, approximately one hundred and eighteen pounds, with black hair and brown eyes. She has a dark complexion and has facial features generally representative of both African-American and Caucasian races. Here is her driver’s permit photo,” Omega said.

The cabin bulkhead-mounted monitor flashed on and filled with one of those government-issued photos that make everyone look like a serial killer. Although this one really was a serial killer.

“She’s pretty,” Nika noted.

“Beautiful really,” Stacia said before turning to look at Declan.

He was studying the photo, eyes narrowed and nodding in recognition. “Don’t be fooled. She’s a nasty, toxic Crafter who deals in death magic. Remember, this is a person who conceived a demon in utero, which means she had to banish the soul of her own child to make room for the demon,” he said.

“One who can smile and seem innocent and sweet, no doubt,” Lydia said.

I could feel Tanya’s outrage through our link, which was particularly strong because she was lying with her legs across my lap so I could massage them. So mad, she couldn’t quite speak.

A couch-sized mass of fur and muscle moved at our feet as Awasos smelled her anger. He raised his massive head and looked back at her before settling back down on his forepaws. The big corporate 747 can handle him in bear form, so it’s his favorite form of travel.

“She can pull the air from your lungs and will smile at you while you asphyxiate,” Declan said.

“It takes more than that to take us out,” Arkady rumbled.

Vampires can go for a very long time without air, ten minutes at the very least. And a vampire can get a lot done in ten minutes.

“Ten months? What? Did she get pregnant before running away with Loki’s Spawn?” Nika asked.

“The werewolf that Stacia captured, Karen Lyon, said the kid was only a couple of months old when we met him, but he looked like he was many years older,” Declan said.

“And he moved like… well, like nothing I’ve seen,” Stacia said. “I only caught a glimpse, as I had my own battles at the time, but it stuck with me.”

“Yeah, he didn’t move like the demon in Poppy, either. More like a vampire circus acrobat on speed,” Declan said. “So maybe her pregnancy was abnormally short too?”

“A simple regression would indicate the entity Dragan might age approximately two to three years per month. If the rate of growth in utero was similar, Louanna’s pregnancy may have only been a month in duration,” Omega said. “Of course, that is assuming his maturation rate is not accelerating.”

“So we need to get to Vegas and snuff this out as soon as possible. We don’t need that thing growing up,” I said.

“As it is, it’s been a month since the paper mill battle. He’s probably looking like a ten year old by now. Did you get any video, Omega?” Declan asked.

“The Painted Horse is well equipped with CCTV, but all entrance cameras failed at the approximate time Louanna entered the building.”

“Figures. She’s learned to handle cameras now,” Declan said.

“Or this Dragan has,” Lydia said.

“Omega, can you tell us what happened?” I asked.

“Approximately eighteen minutes ago, the camera system of the Painted Horse Club went offline. The club’s state of the art telephone system was in use by the reception desk at the time. One of my subprograms was monitoring calls in the Southwestern United States. It detected a female voice that matched my audio records from Fetter, Maine. She was speaking in the background during a call from a group of young men seeking to reserve a bachelor party at the facility.

“The voice requested an interview with the club owner and was directed by a receptionist to the owner’s assistant, who subsequently led the individual back to the corporate offices. The club’s phone lines seem to be in almost continuous use, which allowed me to monitor much of the situation. Two of the receptionists held a brief, derogatory conversation regarding the son of the woman who requested the interview. Some of the terms they used matched my father’s description, particularly with regard to his eyes. Eleven minutes and sixteen seconds later, the club’s principal owner, Aaron Rider, entered his personal office and confronted the owner of the voice. From the sounds generated, it is likely that his assistant died within the next twenty-two seconds. The subject voice then chanted in a mixture of French and Haitian Creole. Audio quality and pickup volume were too poor for a complete translation, but the gist of the chant was a petition to several deities in the Petro and Ghede loas of the voodoo religion. Additional comments by the speaker, who told Aaron Rider to call her Lou, indicated the dead assistant was successfully reanimated. She then gave Aaron Rider the option of dying or becoming her living servant. He chose to live. She then discussed changes to the club consistent with what was done to the paper mill in Fetter. She also named her son to Mr. Rider as Dragan.”

“Is she talking about her plans at the moment, Omega?” Tanya asked.

“No, Tanya. She went silent three minutes ago,” Omega said.

“Can you repeat what plans she did discuss?” Tanya asked.

Omega didn’t answer. My group exchanged glances, everyone finally looking to Declan for answers.

“Ah, Omega?” he asked.

“Sorry Father. I am monitoring a new situation… in Washington, D.C. Elements of the Secret Service have placed priority emergency calls for medical assistance at an apartment rented by one of President Garth’s closest supporters. The calls originated thirteen minutes ago. EMTs arrived on the scene four minutes ago and took over CPR from Secret Service personnel on a white male whose age and general description match the president. The patient has been loaded into an ambulance and is now en route to Bethesda Hospital.”

“Are you telling us the president is having a heart attack or something?” Lydia asked.

“Based on the code words they are using and the fact that ninety-percent of the protection detail is escorting the ambulance, I would say it is almost certain that the president has suffered a massive myocardial infarction and is currently not responding to treatment.”

“Whoa. So in the last few minutes, the witch turned up and Garth might be dying… talk about positive developments,” Lydia said. Everyone looked at her. “What? Don’t tell me anyone here is even slightly worried about that asshat of a President.”

“You speak the truth, Lydia. It’s one of the reasons I love you,” Tanya said.

“Well, she speaks the truth as best she can grasp, which is, admittedly, not a great deal,” Declan said.

“Oh damn,” Nika said softly as Lydia’s gaze swiveled to lock onto the foolhardy young witch.

Before all-out war could ensue, I jumped in. “Is there anything odd about Garth having a heart attack, Omega?”

“The White House physician filed a complete report on the president’s health two weeks ago, following a regular medical checkup. The report included the results of an annual stress test and blood screening for heart disease. The president passed with very strong numbers. Furthermore, I have accessed Secret Service records of all the protection team’s communications for the last three hours. It suggests that the president had an assignation with an unknown female at the apartment.”

“So he was having one of his infamous affairs but shouldn’t have had a heart attack while in the sack with the tart?” Lydia asked.

I don’t, for a moment, believe she’d forgotten Declan’s zinger, but at least she was focused elsewhere for the moment. I was pretty sure the kid was gonna catch hell.

“It is within the realm of possibility that he could suffer a myocardial infarction while engaged in coitus, but the odds were fairly low.”

“Is foul play suspected?” I asked.

“The remaining elements of the security detail have lost the young woman in question. She seems to have disappeared during the confusion. There is considerable ongoing chaos between the Service and the White House staff. Vice President Polner has been awakened and taken to the White House. It would appear that they are preparing for succession while simultaneously attempting to cover and mitigate the potential public relations damage,” Omega said.

“Lydia, get the business office on the line. We need to take some steps. The markets will tank at the open if Garth is really dead,” Tanya said.

Five minutes later, Omega announced that the President of the United States was pronounced dead on arrival to Bethesda Hospital. Vice President Vincent Polner was immediately sworn into office as the next president.

Word got out within minutes of the ambulance arriving at the hospital, and all the major news channels interrupted late, late night programming to follow the story. The new president addressed the media briefly from the White House Press Room.

Declan and Stacia fell asleep at about three in the morning and I drifted off not long after while the vampires stayed glued to the news and ensuing market madness.

The next thing I was aware of was Omega’s voice.

“There are two inbound aircraft that have not yet identified themselves approaching at Mach 1 from the United States eastern coast. Encrypted communications indicate they are Air Force F-16 fighters assigned to the Eastern Air Defense Sector.”

Copyright John Conroe