It was a Seeker demon. I’d only ever seen one in the old books Abbot kept in his study. Seekers were like the Indiana Joneses of the demon world, able to locate and retrieve just about anything their handler sent them after. Unlike Indy, though, Seekers were mean and aggressive.
The Seeker smiled, revealing a mouth full of wicked-sharp teeth. “Gotcha.”
Gotcha? Got what? Me?
He lurched toward me and I darted to the side, fear spiking so fast my palms dotted with sweat as I touched his arm. Bursts of neon light shimmered around the Seeker’s body, making him nothing but a pink blur. He didn’t react to the tag. They never did. Only the Wardens could see the mark I left behind.
The Seeker grasped a handful of my hair, wrenching my head to the side as he grabbed for the front of my shirt. My cell slipped from my hand, smacking on the ground. A stinging sensation shot down my neck, over my shoulders.
Panic flooded like a dam had burst open, but instinct propelled me into action. All the evenings I’d spent training with Zayne kicked in. Tagging demons could get hairy every once in a while, and while I didn’t have ninja-stealth skills, there was no way in holy Hell I was going down without a fight.
Rearing back, I brought my leg up and planted my knee right where it counted. Thank God demons were anatomically correct. The Seeker grunted and jerked back, ripping out several strands of hair. Red hot pins and needles burned across my scalp.
Unlike other Wardens, I couldn’t shed my human skin and kick major behind, but hair-pulling flipped my bitch switch like no one’s business.
Agony exploded along my knuckles as the Seeker’s head jerked to the side when my closed fist hit him in the jaw. It wasn’t a girlie hit. Zayne would be so proud.
Slowly, the demon turned his head back to me. “I liked that. Do it again.”
My eyes popped wide.
It rushed me, and I knew I was going to die. I’d be ripped apart by a demon or worse yet, pulled through one of the many portals hidden throughout the city and taken downstairs. When people inexplicably disappeared into thin air, it was usually because they had a new zip code. Something like 666, and death would be a blessing compared to that kind of trip. I braced myself for impact.
Both of us froze in response to the deep, unfamiliar voice oozing authority. The Seeker responded first, stepping to the side. Turning around, I saw him.
The newcomer stood well over six feet, as tall as any Warden. His hair was dark, the color of obsidian, and it reflected blue in the dim light. Lazy locks slipped over his forehead and curled just below his ears. Brows arched over golden eyes and his cheekbones were broad and high. He was attractive. Very attractive. Mind-bendingly beautiful, actually, but the sardonic twist to his full lips chilled his beauty. The black T-shirt stretched across his chest and flat stomach. A huge tattoo of a snake curled around his forearm, the tail disappearing under his sleeve and the diamond-shaped head rested on the top of his hand. He looked my age. Total crush material—if it wasn’t for the fact that he had no soul.
I stumbled a step back. What was worse than one demon? Two demons. My knees shook so bad I thought I might face-plant in the alley. A tagging had never gone this horribly wrong before. I was so screwed it wasn’t even funny.
“You should not intervene in this,” the Seeker demon said, and his hands curled into fists.
The new guy stepped forward noiselessly. “And you should kiss my ass. How about that?”
The Seeker grew very still, his breathing heavy. Tension became a fourth entity in the alley. I took another step back, hoping to make a clean getaway. These two were so obviously not on the same page with one another and I did not want to get caught in the middle of this. When two demons went at it, they were known to bring down entire buildings. Faulty foundations or poor roofing? Yeah, right. More like an epic demon death match.
Two steps to the right and I could—
The boy’s gaze slammed into me. I sucked in air, staggered by the intensity of his gaze. The strap of my bag fell from my limp fingers. His eyes lowered, thick lashes fanning his cheeks. A small smile pulled at his lips, and when he spoke, his voice was soft, yet deep and powerful. “What a predicament you’ve gotten yourself into.”
I didn’t know what breed of demon he was, but by the way he stood there like he’d created the word power, I figured he wasn’t a lower demon like the Seeker or a Poser. Oh, no, he was most likely an Upper Level demon—a Duke or Infernal Ruler. Only the Wardens dealt with them, and that usually ended in a bloody mess.
My heart threw itself against my rib cage. I needed to get out of here and fast. No way was I going toe-to-toe with an Upper Level demon. My measly skills would earn me a butt kicking to remember. And the Seeker demon was growing angrier by the second, clenching and unclenching his meaty fists. Things were about to blow and blow bad.
Grabbing my book bag, I held it in front of me like the lamest shield ever. Then again, there wasn’t a thing in this world besides a Warden that could stop an Upper Level demon.
“Wait,” he said. “Don’t run off yet.”
“Don’t think about coming any closer,” I warned.
“I wouldn’t think of doing anything you didn’t want me to do.”
Ignoring whatever that meant, I continued to edge around the Seeker demon and toward the mouth of the alley that seemed so incredibly far away.
“You’re running anyway.” The Upper Level demon sighed. “Even after I asked you not to, and I think I was really nice about it.” He glanced at the Seeker, frowning. “Wasn’t I nice?”
The Seeker growled. “I mean no offense, but I don’t care how nice you are. You’re interrupting my job, you tool.”
I stumbled over the insult. Besides the fact that the Seeker was speaking to an Upper Level demon like that, it was such a...human thing to say.
“You know what they say,” the other demon countered. “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but I’m going to demolish you.”
Screw this. If I got back on the main street, I could lose both of them. They couldn’t attack in front of the humans—rules and all. Well, if these two were going to play by the rules, which seemed doubtful. I whipped around, dashing toward the opening of the alley.
I didn’t make it very far.
The Seeker hit me like a freaking NFL linebacker, knocking me against a Dumpster. Black spots darkened my vision. Something squeaky and furry dropped on my head. Shrieking like a banshee, I reached up and grabbed hold of the squirming body. Little claws tangled in my hair. Two seconds from stroking out, I yanked the rat out of my hair and tossed it onto the garbage bags. It squeaked as it bounced, then darted into a crack in the wall.
With a low snarl, the Upper Level demon appeared behind the Seeker, grabbing him by the throat. A second later, he had the Seeker dangling several feet off the ground. “Now, that wasn’t very nice,” he said in a low, ominous voice.
Spinning around, he tossed the Seeker like a beanbag. The Seeker slammed into the opposite wall, hitting the ground on his knees. The Upper Level demon raised his arm...and the snake tattoo lifted off his skin, breaking apart into a million black dots. They floated into the air between him and the Seeker, hung for a second, then dropped to the ground. The dots oozed together, forming a thick black mass.
No—not a mass, but a huge freaking snake at least ten feet long and as wide as I was. I sprang to my feet, ignoring the wave of dizziness.
The thing spun toward me, rising halfway up. Its eyes burned an unholy red.
A scream caught in my throat.
“Don’t be scared of Bambi,” the demon said. “She’s only curious and maybe a little bit hungry.”
The thing was named Bambi?
Oh, my God, the thing stared at me like it wanted to eat me.
The...the giant snake didn’t try to make me his snack pack. When it swung back toward the Seeker, I nearly fell over from relief. But then it shot across the small space, rising until its monstrous head hovered over the petrified lesser demon. The snake opened its mouth, revealing two fangs the size of my hand and, past them, a yawning black hole.
“Okay,” the demon murmured, smirking. “Maybe she’s a lot hungry.”
I took that as my cue to book it out of the alley.
“Wait!” yelled the demon, and when I didn’t stop but ran faster than I ever had before, his curse echoed in my head.
I crossed the avenues bordering Dupont Circle, passing the shop I’d planned on joining Stacey and Sam at. Only when I reached the spot where Morris, our chauffeur and about a dozen other things, would pick me up did I stop to breathe.
The gently hued souls thrummed around me, but I didn’t pay attention to them. Numb to my core, I sat on a bench by the curb. I felt wrong, off. What the Hell had just happened? All I’d wanted to do was outline All Quiet on the Western Front tonight. Not almost devour a soul, nearly get killed, meet my very first Upper Level demon or watch a tattoo turn into an anaconda for chrissake.
I glanced down at my empty hand.
Or lose my phone.
Morris didn’t talk on the way to the house on Dunmore Lane. No big surprise there. Morris never spoke. Maybe it was the stuff he saw going on inside our house that left him speechless. I really didn’t know.
Fidgety to the tenth degree from sitting on the bench for about an hour waiting on Morris, I bounced my foot on the dashboard the whole way home. It was only four miles, but four miles in D.C. equaled a billion miles elsewhere. The only part of the trip that went fast was the private stretch of road leading up to Abbot’s monster of a home.
With four stories, countless guest rooms and even an indoor pool, it was more like a hotel than a home. It really was a compound—a place where the unmarried male Wardens in the clan lived and operated like command central. As we drew closer, I blinked and let out a muttered curse that earned me a disapproving look from Morris.
Six stone gargoyles that hadn’t been there this morning were perched on the edge of our rooftop. Visitors. Great.
I pulled my feet down from the dashboard and grabbed my bag off the floor. Even with their wings folded in and faces turned down, the hunched shapes were a formidable sight against the starry night.
In their resting form, Wardens were nearly indestructible. Fire couldn’t harm them. Chisels and hammers couldn’t breach their shell. People had tried every form of weapon since the Wardens went public. So had the demons since, well, forever, but Wardens were only weak when they looked human.
The moment the car drifted to a stop in front of the sprawling porch, I jumped out and tore up the steps, skidding to a halt in front of the door. In the upper-left corner of the porch, a small camera shifted to where I stood. The light blinked red. Somewhere in the massive rooms and tunnels under the mansion, Geoff was in the control room and behind the camera. No doubt getting a kick out of making me wait.
I stuck out my tongue.
The light turned green a second later.
Rolling my eyes when I heard the door unlocking, I opened it and dropped my bag in the foyer. Immediately, I started toward the stairs. After a second thought, I swiveled around and raced toward the kitchen. Finding the room blissfully empty, I dug out a roll of sugar-cookie dough from the fridge. I broke off a chunk and then headed upstairs. The house was cemetery quiet. At this time of the day, most would be in the training facility underground or had already left to hunt.
All except Zayne. For as long as I could remember, Zayne had never left to hunt without seeing me first.
I took the steps three at a time, munching on the dough. Wiping my sticky fingers across my denim skirt, I nudged his door open with my hip and froze. I seriously needed to learn how to knock.
I saw his pearly-white, luminous glow first—a pure soul. Different from a human soul, a Warden’s essence was pure, a product of what they were. Very few humans retained a pure soul once they started exercising the whole thing called free will. Due to the taint of the demonic blood I carried, I knew I didn’t have a pure soul. I wasn’t sure I had a soul at all. I could never see mine.
Sometimes...sometimes I didn’t think I belonged with them—with Zayne.
A sense of shame curled low in my stomach, but before it could spread like noxious fumes, Zayne’s soul faded, and I wasn’t really thinking about anything.
Fresh out of the shower, Zayne tugged a plain black T-shirt on over his head. Not quick enough that I missed a tantalizing glimpse of abs. Rigorous training kept his body chiseled and rock hard. I dragged my gaze up when the stretch of skin disappeared. Damp sandy hair clung to his neck and sculpted cheeks. His features would be too perfect if it weren’t for those watered-down blue eyes all Wardens had.
I shuffled to the edge of his bed and sat. I shouldn’t think of Zayne the way I did. He was the closest thing I had to a brother. His father, Abbot, had raised us together and Zayne looked at me like the little sister he somehow ended up saddled with.
“What’s up, Layla-bug?” he asked.
Part of me loved it when he used my childhood nickname. The other part—the part that wasn’t a little girl anymore—loathed it. I peeked at him through my lashes. He was fully clothed now. What a shame. “Who’s on the roof?”
He sat beside me. “A few travelers from out of town needed a place to rest. Abbot offered them beds, but they preferred the roof. They didn’t—” He stopped suddenly, leaning forward, grabbing my leg. “Why are your knees scuffed up?”
My brain sort of shorted out the moment his hand touched my bare leg. A hot flush stole over my cheeks, spreading way, way down. I gazed at his high cheekbones and those lips—oh, God, those lips were perfect. A thousand fantasies blossomed. All of them involved him, me and the ability to kiss him without sucking out his soul.
“Layla, what did you get into tonight?” He dropped my leg.
I shook my head, dispelling those hopeless dreams. “Um...well, nothing.”
Zayne moved closer, staring at me as if he could see through my lies. He had an uncanny ability to do so. But if I told him everything, like the Upper Level demon part, they’d never let me leave the house alone. I liked my freedom. It was about the only thing I had.
I sighed. “I thought I was following a Poser.”
“And you weren’t?”
“Nope.” I wished he’d touch my leg again. “It turned out to be a Seeker pretending to be a Poser.”
Amazing how quickly he went from superhot guy to all serious-faced Warden. “What do you mean the Seeker was pretending?”
I forced a casual shrug. “I really don’t know. I saw it in McDonald’s. It had the appetite of a Poser and behaved like one, so I followed it. Turned out it wasn’t a Poser, but I tagged him.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” His brow pinched, a common expression whenever he was turning over something in his head. “Seeker demons are errand boys, or they’re summoned by some idiot to find something stupid like frog eyes or the blood of a bald eagle for a spell that will inevitably backfire. Pretending to be a Poser is not typical.”
I remembered what the Seeker had said. Gotcha. As if it had been looking for me. I knew I needed to tell Zayne that, but his father was already a spaz when it came to where I went and who I was with. And Zayne was pretty much required to tell his father everything since Abbot was the head of the D.C. clan of Wardens. Besides, I had to have misheard the Seeker, and demons rarely had a reason for doing weird or unexpected things. They were demons. Explanation enough.
“Are you okay?” Zayne asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I paused. “I did lose my phone, though.”
He laughed, and oh man, I loved the sound of his laugh. Deep. Rich. “Jesus, Layla, how many does that make so far this year?”
“Five.” I stared at his heavily stocked bookcases, sighing. “Abbot isn’t going to get me another one. He thinks I lose them on purpose. I don’t. They just...unfriend me.”
Zayne laughed again, nudging me with his denim-clad knee. “How many did you tag tonight?”
I thought about the few hours after school, before I met up with Stacey and Sam. “Nine. Two were Posers and the rest were Fiends, with the exception of the Seeker.” Which Zayne would probably never find since there was a good chance Bambi had eaten it.
Zayne gave a low whistle. “Nice. I’ll have a busy night.”
And that was what Wardens did. Generation after generation, they’d been keeping the demon population in check since long before they went public. I was only seven when it happened, so I didn’t remember how the public responded. I’m sure the big reveal included a whole lot of freaking out. Oddly enough, I moved in with them around the same time.
The Alphas, the angelic guys who ran the show, understood that there needed to be good and bad in the world—the Law of Balance. But something happened ten years ago. Demons began pouring through the portals by the buttload, creating chaos as they wreaked havoc on everything they came in contact with. Possession of humans