At dusk, Xypher paced the small condo, wondering if he was making a mistake by staying with Simone. For all he knew, his presence here was an even greater threat to her than leading would be.
He felt the air stilling an instant before Jaden appeared. His unholy eyes were a particularly vibrant shade of green and brown.
"You have it." It was a statement of fact, as if he could sense the amulet.
Xypher pulled it out of his pocket and held it in his hand. No larger than the size of a quarter, it looked like a piece of green turquoise with delicate silver scrollwork around it. It seemed so harmless. It was hard to imagine this object bringing down a god, but then, salt was a completely innocuous substance while being power fill enough to ward off an army of demons. "I have it."
Jaden extended one hand and waited. Xypher dropped the amulet into his palm.
Taking a deep breath, Jaden closed his hand and held it reverently. When he opened his eyes, they were bloodred, "Thank you."
The gold bracelet fell open and hit the floor at Xypher's feet. "How did you do that?"
He scoffed. "As if I'd explain the source of my powers to you, demon. Merely be grateful that you have fulfilled your part of the bargain."
Xypher could feel his powers growing with each word Jaden spoke. This was what he needed. What he had to have.
Leaning his head back, Xypher laughed. For the first time in centuries, he felt like the god he was. And with those powers came sudden clarity.
"You knew about Simone's parentage ..."
Jaden shrugged. "Of course I did. Who do you think her father bargained with for her protection? I took his soul in exchange for binding her powers from her and the rest of the world."
A shiver went down his spine. "You betrayed him by allowing her to be converted."
Red licked the hides of Jaden's eyes as he glared at him. "I betrayed nothing. She exposed herself. By being bitten, she undid her father's bargain. I told her father at the time the drawbacks of my shield. He never thought she'd come into contact with other demons."
Poor bastard. He should have known his daughter would find mischief.
Then again, had it not been for Xypher, her secret would have been safe forever. He had no one to blame for her current situation except himself and he hated himself for his part in her conversion.
"What of her mother?" he asked Jaden. "Was she a demon, too?"
"She was human."
That baffled him. Humans and demons seldom ever interacted in anything other than a combative situation that almost always resulted in the death of the human. "How did they end up together?"
Jaden placed the amulet in his pocket, "Simone's mother was an unfortunate mistake. Palackas, Simone's father, was a bound demon who stumbled across her one night while he was carrying out an order for his master. One thing led to another ... He inserted part A into slot B, and he fell in love with her, but as to be expected, his master refused to release him. Rather than come to me, he ran for freedom to be with her. His master called out the hounds to hunt him down, and either return him or kill him. They hunted him for years until they found his scent here in New Orleans, Because Simone's mother and brother held the scent of the father, they found them and killed them instead of him by accident."
"Why did Simone live?"
"Unlike her brother who inherited all of his mother's humanity, she had her father's demon genes in her. Enough that her blood held its own unique scent apart from her father's. The Skili weren't authorized to slay anyone except her father and so she was spared."
"But they killed her mother and brother."
Jaden snorted. "Have you ever met a Skili? Just because they look human doesn't mean they have a brain. They're dogs. All they smell is blood and genetics. They thought the two of them were her father. Palackas's master was pleased since he thought their deaths would bring Palackas home again."
But it hadn't. The poor man must have been lost after their deaths and stricken not only with grief but guilt. And fear that his daughter would soon join his wife and son.
The Skili were an elite tracking force that was sent out to destroy any demon who violated their laws. Part human, part bloodhound, they had no will of their own. All they did was track and kill. If Palackas hadn't known why Simone had escaped, he'd have been terrified of the Skili finding her next.
"Did her father know why they didn't kill her?"
"He didn't ask."
"You mean you didn't tell him."
Jaden shrugged nonchalantly. "He summoned me for a bargain. Who am I to dissuade a demon when he offers me his soul?" He gave Xypher a pointed look.
Xypher cursed as he remembered the bargain he, himself, had made with the demon lord.
"My father killed himself."
Xypher turned at the sound of Simone's quiet voice. She stood in the doorway behind him, holding on to it with a grip so tight he could see her knuckles turning white. Her wan face worried him.
Jaden took no mercy on her. "He killed himself to protect you, child, and to appease his master. Even if he'd gone back to his master at that point, his master would have ordered his execution. He'd been gone too long from his bindings. Plus there was still the matter of you to worry over. The last thing your father wanted was for you to be captured and turned into a slave, too. So he took his fate into his own hands and used his life force to seal our bargain."
"You bastard!" Simone ran at him.
Xypher caught her to his side and held her in place. "Don't, Simone."
"He let my father die!"
Xypher could feel the anguish of her cry, but it changed nothing. "You can't attack him, Simone. He'll kill you."
One comer of Jaden's mouth quirked up. "And I'll enjoy every minute of your dying."
She lunged again. "You're a monster."
"I can be. But I prefer the term . . . 'broker.' "
Growling, she fought against Xypher's hold. "Get out!"
Jaden tsked. "And to think I've always heard how wonderful Southern hospitality is. Guess that's only for humans." His eyes faded back to their normal color. "Our bargain is met, Xypher."
Jaden tapped his shoulder twice with his fist, gave a short, mo clang bow, and vanished.
Simone tinned on him. "Why didn't you let me scratch his eyes out?"
"Because he would have ripped your head off before you got near him."
She shook her head in disbelief. "You're a god. How powerful can he be in comparison?"
"Powerful enough to kill me and you with nothing more than a thought."
Simone paused as she realized he wasn't kidding. "I don't understand."
"The universe has order, Simone. At the end of the day, we all answer to someone. While gods are all-powerful, we have limitations. A creature like Jaden can kill us and absorb our powers for himself."
"Then why doesn't he?"
"My guess is he, too, has limitations on what he can and can't do."
"Set by whom?"
"That's the question, isn't it? I don't know the answer, and I don't know anyone who does."
She wiped at the comer of her eye as she left him to look at the photographs of her family on her mantel. "Do you think my father knew and understood what he was doing when he summoned Jaden?"
"Probably. Most demons do. Even though we're raised aware of the fact that he's our bogeyman, Jaden usually explains the drawbacks of a bargain to those who make it. I may not like him, but as a rule, he is fair and impartial. . . even when he's being intolerant."
Simone turned to face him. "He didn't tell you about the amulet and what it did."
She had a point. Jaden had hidden that knowledge from him. "No, he didn't, which tells me it must be important to him on a personal level."
Simone barely heard those words. Honestly, she didn't care about Jaden and his desires; or wants. What mattered was the fact that her family had died.
And he'd played a part in it.
I'm a demon . . .
Those words kept chasing themselves around in her head. How could this have happened? How could she not have known? Suspected something. . .
"There's a special fire inside you, angel," her father had once said. "One day you'll understand it. "
Was this what he'd meant?
She looked at Xypher, needing answers she doubted she'd ever have. "Why would my father have killed himself? Wouldn't he have been better off protecting me while alive?"
"I'm sure he was thinking of the fact that he hadn't been able to protect your mother or brother."
"I needed my father!"
Xypher flinched. The pain in her voice tore through him. He'd never wanted to comfort anyone before, but right now, he'd give anything to ease the anguish he saw in her hazel eyes.
He gathered her in his arms and held her close. "I know."
She shook her head against his chest. "Do you know how hurt I was that Jesse came to me and not my family? Over the years I've seen hundreds of ghosts. But never my mother or father. Never my brother. Didn't they love me enough to at least say good-bye?"
His gut tightened in sympathy for her pain. "Of course they did, Simone. How could they not? Your father died to protect you. That is real, true love."
"Then why haven't they ever come to me?"
"I don't know. I don't. Maybe they couldn't." "Because they didn't care."
"I'm sure that's not it."
Simone wanted to believe that, but it was hard. And in all these years, she'd never shared that with anyone. She'd always kept it bottled up where it incinerated her soul squeezing her eyes shut, she forced herself to stop these thoughts. They were counterproductive.
What was done was done.
Surely Xypher was right and they would have come to her had they been able. But there was still that part of herself that doubted. That part of her that felt as if no one had ever loved her.
At least Xypher was here.
Their bracelets were gone. He could leave anytime he wanted to, but so far he hadn't.
Her stomach jerked from her nerves and grief. She pulled back, afraid of the sensation. "I still feel sick. How long is this going to last?"
"Until you get used to your powers. I imagine."
She didn't like the sound of that. She wanted something concrete she could put her hands on. Something tangible. "I can hear your heartbeat. Jesse is in his room with Gloria, showing her how to play Atari. My neighbor on the right is fighting with his wife over the phone, and my newest one, the woman on the left, is hungry. How do I know all that?"
"It's your powers. You'll be able to sense other people in a way you've never imagined."
"Will I hear their thoughts?"
He gave her a land smile. "Only if they think out loud. But you will be able to sense the emotions people struggle to hide. That will tell you more about people than anything else."
"Will this massive headache ever ease?"
Nodding, she looked down and touched his wrist where the bracelet used to be, "You're free of me now."
"Then why are you still here?"
Xypher hesitated. It was something he wondered about himself. But he couldn't leave her. She was vulnerable and alone, and having been there himself, he couldn't bring himself to abandon her. "You need help."
"I can manage on my own. I always have."
"I've no doubt you can. But you helped me when I needed it. I'm returning that favor."
Simone leaned her head against his shoulder, truly grateful for his support. "Thank you, Xypher,"
She rubbed his arm as the entire events of the day played out in her mind. "Because I'm a demon now, is Jaden over me?"
"No. So long as you own your soul and you don't baiter it, no one has power over you."
She pulled back to look at him. "What if someone takes my soul?"
"No one can take your soul without your consent. Souls don't work that way."
She was glad to know that. Being a demon was scary chough, the idea of losing her soul was even more terrifying. God, she had so much to learn. It was like being born all over again. There was so much about herself that she didn't understand.
She wanted to learn the depth of her powers and what part Jaden played in the universe,
"I have a question ... If Jaden is so powerful, couldn't you make a bargain with him to kill Satara?"
Xypher brushed the hair back from her face. "Jaden doesn't work that way. He won't actively do anything. Rather, he provides the means for each of us to carry out our desires, If you need more power, he finds it. If you seek an amulet or device, then you call him. As he would say, he's a means to an end, not a lap dog."
"Why didn't you have him open one of the portals to her, then?"
"He refused me when I asked it of him."
"Refused you? Why?"
"Since Kalosis is controlled by the goddess Apollymi, I guess his powers wouldn't work there. But I don't know. It could be something as simple as he didn't like what I bartered with. Jaden can be extremely capricious at times."
"That doesn't seem right."
"Tell me about it." He looked around. "Now, I don't know about you, but I'm hungry."
She smiled. "Famished." Suddenly that smile faded, "I'm not going to be drinking blood now, am I?"
"I hope not. If you are, we're going to have to learn how to bleed Jesse."
Jaden flashed back to the tree where he'd first been summoned As expected, Kaiaphas was waiting for him.
"Greetings, my lord," the demon said, bowing.
Jaden would give him kudos for knowing when to grovel. But kudos wouldn't save his ass. "You attacked your brother in the open today."
"My mistress demanded it."
Jaden slung his hand out and pinned the worthless bastard to the tree. "And by doing so, you undid a bargain I made. Do you know what that makes me?"
"No, my lord."
"A liar. And that is one thing I've never been." Jaden wanted blood over what had happened today. Palackas had given his life in vain and that sent Jaden to a level of pissed off he didn't like to function in.
But it wasn't his place to demand satisfaction over the demon's death. Frustrated, he released Kaiaphas and let him fall back to the ground. "I don't want your virgins. You can keep them."
"What then, my lord? Name your price and I will deliver it to you."
"There's a Dimme in this town. Bring me her heart."
"Is that all?"
"Trust me, it's enough."
Kaiaphas blinked as Jaden vanished from his sight. . .
A Dimme. That was easier said than done. First, they were brutal and rumored to be invincible. He wasn't sure if he had the powers to even look at one.
Licking his lips, he remembered his fight earlier that day. The woman . . .
Her blood had held the Dimme in it. He was sure of it.
Perhaps if he delivered her heart to Jaden, that would suffice. After all, wasn't one Dimme as good as another?
Snapping his fingers, he went back to Kalosis to round up a sortie for his next attack. Simone was a medical examiner . . .
Smiling, he thought of one way to definitely get her out of her house.