“Huh.” I was almost positive I’d closed it last night. Maybe Mom had gone to the Krispy Kreme to get doughnuts? Mmm. My stomach grumbled. I grabbed the garden spade out of the mess of tools piled atop the small folding chair, bemoaning another morning eating shredded wheat if there weren’t doughnuts. Who did I have to kill to get some Count Chocula up in this house?
I flipped the spade over in the air, catching it by the handle while I gazed past the yard. The row houses across the street all had bars on the windows and paint peeling off the sides. The old women who inhabited them didn’t speak much English. Once I’d tried helping one of them pull her garbage bags out to the curb, but she’d yelled at me in another language and shooed me away like I’d been trying to steal it.
They were all out on their stoops right now, cutting coupons or doing whatever it was that old ladies did. Traffic packed the street. It was always like this on a Saturday afternoon, especially when it was turning out to be nice day for a beach trip.
My gaze crawled over the townies and the tourists as I continued to toss the spade in the air. It was always easy to pick out the out-of-towners. They wore fanny packs or abnormally large sun hats and their skin was either fish pale or sunburned.
A strange shiver coursed over me, spreading tiny bumps over my flesh. I sucked in a sharp breath, my eyes scanning the passing crowds with a will of their own.
Then I saw it.
Everything stopped around me in an instant. The air went right out of my lungs.
No. No. No.
He stood at the mouth of the alley, directly across from the bungalow and right beside the front porch where the old ladies sat. They glanced over at him as he stepped out onto the sidewalk, but they dismissed the stranger and returned to their conversation.
They couldn’t see what I saw.
No mortal could. Not even a pure-blood could. Only half-bloods could see through the elemental magic and witness the true horror—skin so pale and so thin that every vein popped through the flesh like baby black snakes. His eyes were dark, empty sockets and his mouth, his teeth…
This was one of the things I’d been trained to fight at the Covenant. This was a thing that thrived and fed on aether—the essence of the gods, the very life force running through us—a pure-blood who had turned his back on the gods. This was one of the things I was obligated to kill on sight.
A daimon—there was a daimon here.
I wheeled away from the railing. Whatever training I’d managed to retain vanished in an instant. Part of me had known—had always known—deep down that this day would come. We’d been outside the protection of the Covenant and their communities for far too long. The need for aether would eventually draw a daimon to our doorstep. Daimons couldn’t resist the pure-blood mojo. I just hadn’t wanted to give voice to the fear, to believe that it could happen on a day like this, when the sun was so bright and the sky such a beautiful azure blue.
Panic clawed at the inside of my throat, trapping my voice. I tried to yell, “Mom!” but it came out a hoarse whisper.
I rushed through the bedroom, terror seizing me as I pushed and then pulled open the door. A crash sounded from somewhere in the house. The space between my bedroom and my mom’s seemed longer than I remembered and I was still trying to call out her name as I reached her room.
The door opened smoothly, but at the same time, everything slowed down.
Her name was still just a whimper on my lips. My gaze landed on her bed first, and then on a section of floor beside the bed. I blinked. The pot of hibiscus had toppled over and broken into large pieces. Purple petals and soil were strewn across the floor. Red—something red—mingled among the blossoms, turning them a deep violet. My gasp drew in a metallic smell that reminded me of the nose bleeds I used to get when a sparring partner would get in a lucky shot.
Time stilled. A buzzing filled my ears until I couldn’t hear anything else. I saw her hand first. Abnormally pale and open, her fingers clawed at the air, reaching for something. Her arm twisted at an awkward angle. My head shook back and forth; my brain refused to accept the images in front of my eyes, to name the dark stain spreading down her shirt.
No, no—absolutely no. This was wrong.
Something—someone—braced half her body up. A pale hand clenched her upper arm and her head lolled to the side. Her eyes were wide open, the green somewhat faded and unfocused.
Oh, gods… oh, gods.
Seconds, it had only been seconds since I’d opened the door, but it felt like forever.
A daimon was latched onto my mother, draining her to get at the aether in the blood. I must’ve made a sound, because the daimon’s head lifted. Her neck—oh gods—her neck had been torn into. So much blood had been spilled.
My eyes met those of the daimon—or at least, they met the dark holes where its eyes should be. His mouth snapped away from her neck, gaping open to reveal a row of razor-like teeth covered in blood. Then the elemental magic took over, piecing together the face he’d had as a pure, before he’d tasted that first drop of aether. With that glamour in place, he was beautiful by any standard—so much so that, for a moment, I thought I was seeing things. Nothing that angelic-looking could be responsible for the red stain on my mother’s neck, her clothes…
His head tipped to the side as he sniffed the air. He let out a high-pitched keening sound. I stumbled backward. The sound—nothing real could sound like that.
He let go of my mom, letting her body slip to the floor. She fell in a messy heap and didn’t move. I knew she had to be scared and hurt, because there couldn’t be any other reason why she hadn’t moved. Rising up, the daimon’s bloody hands fell to his sides, fingers twisting inward.
His lips curved into a smile. “Half-blood,” he whispered.
Then he jumped.
I didn’t even realize I still held the garden spade. I raised my arm just as the daimon grabbed me. My scream came out as nothing more than a hoarse squeak as I fell back against the wall. The painting of Artemis crashed to the floor beside me.
The daimon’s eyes widened with surprise. His irises were a vibrant, deep blue for a moment, and then, like a switch being thrown, the elemental magic that hid his true nature vanished. Black sockets replaced those eyes; veins popped through his whitish skin.
And then he exploded in a burst of shimmery blue powder.
I looked down dumbly at my trembling hand. The garden spade—I still held the freaking garden spade. Titanium-plated, I realized slowly. The spade had been coated in the metal deadly to those addicted to aether. Had my mom bought the ridiculously expensive garden tools because she loved to garden, or had there been an ulterior motive behind the purchase? It wasn’t like we had any Covenant daggers or knives lying around.
Either way, the daimon had impaled itself on the spade. Stupid, evil, aether-sucking son of a bitch.
A laugh—short and rough—bubbled up my throat as a tremor ran through my body. There was nothing but silence and the world snapped back into place.
The spade slipped from my limp fingers, clattering on the floor. Another spasm sent me to my knees and I lowered my eyes to the unmoving form beside the bed.
“Mom…?” I winced at the sound of my voice and the shot of fear that went through me.
She didn’t move.
I placed my hand on her shoulder and rolled her onto her back. Her head fell to the side, her eyes blank and unseeing. My gaze fell to her neck. Blood covered the front of her blue blouse and matted the strands of her dark hair. I couldn’t tell how much damage had been done. I reached out again, but I couldn’t bring myself to brush back the hair covering her neck. In her right hand, she’d clenched a crushed petal.
“Mom…?” I leaned over her, my heart stuttering and missing a beat. “Mom!”
She didn’t even blink. During all of this, my brain was trying to tell me there was no life in those eyes, no spirit and no hope in her vacant stare. Tears ran down my face, but I couldn’t recall when I’d started crying. My throat convulsed to the point I struggled to breathe.
I cried her name then, grabbing her arms and shaking her. “Wake up! You have to wake up! Please, Mom, please! Don’t do this! Please!”
For a second I thought I saw her lips move. I bent down, placing my ear over her mouth, straining to hear one tiny breath, one word.
There was nothing.
Searching for some sign of life, I touched the undamaged side of her neck and then jerked back, falling on my butt. Her skin—her skin was so cold. I stared at my hands. They were covered with blood. Her skin was too cold. “No. No.”
A door shut downstairs, and the sound broke through to me. I froze for a second, my heart racing so fast I was sure it would explode. A shudder passed through my frame as the image of the daimon outside flashed through my head. What color had his hair been? The one in here had been blond. What color?
“Hell.” I scrambled to my feet and slammed the door shut. Fingers shaking, I turned the lock and whirled around.
There were two. There were two.
Heavy footsteps pounded on the stairs.
I rushed over to the dresser. Squeezing myself behind it, I shoved the heavy furniture with every ounce of strength I had in me. Books and papers toppled over as I blocked the door.
Something slammed into the other side, shaking the dresser. Jumping back, I ran my hands over my head. A keening howl erupted from the other side of the door, and then it struck the door again… and again.
I whirled around, stomach twisting in painful knots. Plans—we had a stupid plan in place just in case a daimon found us. We modified it every time we moved to a different city, but each one boiled down to one thing: Get the money and run. I heard her voice as clear as if she had spoken it. Take the money and run. Don’t look back. Just run.
The daimon hit the door again, splintering the wood. An arm snaked through, grasping at the air.
I went to the closet, pulling down boxes from the top shelf until a small wooden one fell to the floor. Grabbing it, I yanked it so fiercely that the lid ripped from the hinges. I threw another box at the door, hitting the daimon’s arm. I think it laughed at me. I grabbed what my mom called the ‘emergency fund’ and what I referred to as the ‘we are so screwed’ fund and pocketed the wad of hundred dollar bills.
Every step back to where she had fallen ripped through me, taking a piece of my soul. I ignored the daimon as I dropped beside her and pressed my lips to her cool forehead. “I’m so sorry, Mom. I’m so sorry. I love you.”
“I’m going to kill you,” the daimon hissed.
Looking over my shoulder, I saw the daimon’s head had made it through the door. He was reaching for the edge of the dresser. I picked up the garden spade, wiping the back of my arm over my face.
“I’m going to rip you apart. Do you hear me?” he continued, squeezing another arm through the hole he’d made. “Rip you open and drain you of whatever pathetic amount of aether you have, half-blood.”
I glanced at the window and grabbed the lamp off the table. Tearing the shade off, I tossed it aside. I stopped in front of the dresser.