Riley Blackthorne’s two apprentices were having too much fun, laughing and playing in the unusual Atlanta snowfall. It’d grown increasingly cold throughout the day, and at dusk the white stuff began to accumulate. This being the South, traffic had immediately snarled in the grip of a “snowstorm” that promised three inches tops.
Riley chose to ignore it. Though it was pretty in a fairytale sort of way, it was a distraction. When you trapped demons for a living, distractions could be fatal. Or at least earn you a lot of time clawed up and healing.
“Guys, let’s focus here,” she said, sounding at least two decades older than her eighteen years. It all came down to what life had thrown at her, most of it bad, and almost all of it during this last year.
“But the snow’s so cool,” Richard said, proving he was a true Southerner. Someone from up north would have shrugged and moved on.
Richard Bonafont was thirty-something, a former radio DJ, now on his second marriage. He wore wire-rim glasses and had a ready smile. He and Kurt Pelligrino had been with her since the summer, and were partway through their training. The third apprentice, Jaye Lynn, was out on family leave at the moment, but Riley expected her back in the trenches soon.
“Yeah, but how often does it snow down here?” Kurt asked. Just into his twenties, he was single, tall, and sporting some serious muscles.
As apprentices went, these guys were sharp, not like some who were hotheaded or downright stupid—traits that did not promise a lengthy career in the Atlanta Demon Trappers Guild.
At least a hothead could change. Denver Beck, Riley’s fiancé, had. Being stupid, on the other hand, was a lifespan-limiting issue, especially when you were dealing with Hellspawn.
“Here’s a hint: We are in Demon Central,” Riley said in what she called her “teacher’s voice.” She came by it honestly; both her parents had been educators and her father, one of the best demon trappers in the country.
“Demons should like snow too,” Richard said. “They never get to see it in Hell. I wonder if they’d build a snowman if they had a chance.”
“Probably make it look like Lucifer or something,” Kurt chimed in. “Though I bet they wouldn’t have the balls to give him a carrot for a nose.”
“No snow in Hell.” Riley knew that for sure, and exactly what the Prince of Darkness looked like. There were no carrots involved. “If you don’t pay attention, this pretty, white, fluffy stuff may be the last thing you see.”
“You know, you can be a real bummer,” Richard said, shaking his head.
“Better a bummer than a corpse,” she shot back. Then immediately felt bad.
In their own way, these guys were telling her to chill out. She’d been too serious since her trip to Scotland in late October. Nearly being killed by an Archfiend and a rogue necromancer would do that to you.
“Okay, message received,” she said. “I’m far too grim tonight. Sorry.”
Riley looked up, caught a snowflake on her tongue, and tried to lighten up. It wasn’t like they were going to do anything before another demon trapper arrived. It was standard procedure now: The first time an apprentice trapped a Grade Three fiend, a pair of experienced backups were required. Tonight, those parts would be played by herself and Journeyman Trapper Lex Reynolds.
As they continued to wait for Reynolds, her apprentices horsed around in the snow while Riley executed a slow three-sixty to scope out their surroundings. Demon Central, as the trappers called it, was located just south of downtown Atlanta. With the depressed economy, it’d been a dumping ground for garbage by those trying to avoid paying the high trash-collection fees. Now, with the economy finally improving, it looked cleaner. The ocassional deep holes in the pavement, a remnant of Civil War Atlanta, remained.
“‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,’” she murmured. Maybe in Tolkien’s Shire, but in this part of the city, holes meant Hellspawn. Grade Three demons loved them. Since their usual home was Hell, a hole in the middle of a major city had to be an improvement.
The guys behind her were too quiet. Riley turned to find that they had fashioned snowballs and were eyeing her as a potential target.
She grinned. “Remind yourselves that I assign who cleans the demon crap from under the holding cages at Master Harper’s place. And I’ll be doing that for the rest of your apprenticeships.”
The snowballs hit the ground simultaneously. No one liked that task. At least she let them wear gloves and use a shovel, unlike when she’d had the job.
“So who can give me a rundown on the type of Hellspawn you’re trapping tonight?”
The two looked at each other, and it was Kurt who answered.
“A Grade Three demon, also known as a Gastro-Fiend, is an all-purpose omnivore. It’ll eat anything. They usually stand about four feet tall, have six claws on each paw, and one or two sets of razor-sharp teeth, depending on the fiend’s age.”
She nodded. “Why do they live here?”
“The holes,” Richard replied. “They seem to like them. And all the garbage down here.”
“At least until recently,” Riley said. “The city is cleaning up this area of town. Why is that a problem for us trappers?”
That stumped the two apprentices.
“What happens when you alter a predator’s natural habitat?” she nudged.
Richard nodded his understanding. “It finds another place to hunt.”
“Exactly. The Threes have been branching out. They’ve always been pretty mobile, but clustered down here for the most part. Now they’re regularly seen as far north as Midtown and Buckhead, and as far south as the airport. Though why they’d go down there is anyone’s guess.”
“This change of territory doesn’t sound good,” Kurt said.
“No, it’s not. The Guild warned the city about what might happen if they messed with this area, but they’re eager to develop the land after the casino went bust. The demons expanding their hunting range is a prime example of what my dad used to call ‘unintended consequences.’”
Before either of them could respond, something crawled across Riley’s skin, like the sharp skitter of thousands of clawed feet. A quick glance at the other two proved they’d felt it as well.
“What was that?” Kurt asked, his eyes widening.
“That would be magic.”
“Really? How cool is that?” Richard said.
“Not at all cool. Not down here.”
Another crackle of magical energy lit up the night, appearing farther south, near Alabama Street.
“Not our problem, right?” Kurt asked, his voice thinner now. “I mean, Grade Three demons aren’t going to care if someone can sling spells around.”
He was correct. A Gastro-Fiend wouldn’t care—a necromancer would make just as tasty a meal as a demon trapper if he or she wasn’t careful. Most of the magic users were brighter than that.
“It’s not just Threes down here,” she said. “That’s the danger.”
With each increase in grade on the demonic rating scale came a corresponding increase in lethality and smarts. Playing with magic in Demon Central was like laying a juicy steak in front of a hungry mongrel. Some of the demons would ignore it, but not all. Not the really badass ones. They’d love nothing more than to grab onto the soul of some clueless necromancer. If you delivered a summoner’s soul to the Prince? That’d earn you special brownie points.
Hell was all about one-upping your fellow fiends, the ultimate corporate hierarchy. Mortal institutions were only pale imitations.
When the ground rumbled beneath her feet, Riley knew the magical bait had been taken. “Damn!” she said, pulling out her cell phone.
“What was that?” Richard asked.
“Big trouble.” Riley sent a text, one that automatically went to all the demon trappers on duty tonight. One that meant they should drop whatever they were doing and get here as fast as possible.
FIVE IN DEMON CTRL
No other directions would be needed—a Geo-Fiend, or Grade Five demon, stood at least seven feet tall. No way you could miss it. All the trappers had to do was follow the lightning and the raging windstorm.
Once she finished the text, Riley looked over at her apprentices. Richard’s and Kurt’s faces had paled now. They knew what a Five was, and they knew they were nowhere near ready to confront this level of demon. It would be suicide.
She needed to reinforce that thinking, so they didn’t try some of the crazy stuff that she had when she was an apprentice.
“Guys, this thing is above your pay grade. You stay here. Do not get in the middle of this.”
“But—” Kurt began.
“No! This fiend will tear you apart.” Riley paused. “This is the kind of demon that killed my dad. You know, Paul Blackthorne, Master Demon Trapper?”
“But you need backup,” Richard insisted.
Her newbies had guts, that was for sure. But guts with no training would get them just as dead.
“Backup will be here shortly. What you can do is keep the civilians away. There are bound to be some nosy ones around,” she said, pulling a blue grounding sphere out of her backpack. “Stay safe, okay?”
They both nodded, still in shock. There was a point in every trapper’s career when the job bitch-slapped them, and she suspected that moment had just arrived. This was usually when the decision was made: Continue with the training or walk away? Riley would tackle that issue later.
Right now, she had a demon to trap.
Riley took off at a trot. One street away, she found herself facing increasing gusts of wind and lightning bolts that slammed into the buildings nearby, causing debris to break loose. As she drew closer, she found the source of the trouble: A man in a dark-blue robe stood in the middle of the street, magic arcing around him. Didn’t he realize that he had attracted one of Hell’s most lethal killers?
“What a total idiot,” Riley said, picking up speed. If she could hold the Geo-Fiend in place until the other trappers arrived, they could ground the monster and send it back to Hell. If not, there would be more earthquakes, high winds, and casualties.
One of which might be her.
Riley had nearly reached the necromancer when he turned in her direction. He didn’t look familiar, but then, she knew only a few of the corpse summoners. On the whole, she tried to avoid them.
The necro smiled at her, pulled up the hood of his cloak, then vanished in a ball of bright-blue light.
“What the . . . oh no.”
Had she just been set up?
The Geo-Fiend rose out of the boiling asphalt, its bull-shaped head resting on a pair of massive shoulders that would make any steroid-stoked bodybuilder proud. Horns curved out of its skull, and it had two massive canines. Coal-black skin contrasted with the blazing-red eyes, which homed in on her immediately. That wasn’t surprising. If this behemoth could kill her, or obtain her soul, it would be given the biggest celebratory party Hell had ever seen.
“Blackthorne’s daughter!” the fiend bellowed.
It hovered above the ground now, wind swirling around it, picking up snow and debris. The mini earthquakes were bad enough, but the debris could be lethal. She’d lost her father that way.
Riley ground to a halt about forty feet from the monster, needing to buy time for the others to arrive. Her heart hammered and her palms sweat, making it hard to keep hold of the grounding sphere.
She thought of the man she loved, how Beck would handle this. And then she knew the best way to play it.
“Hey, dumbass!” she called out, channeling her fiancé’s, mouthy attitude. “Yeah, you! What are you doing here? Don’t you know Atlanta is a no-go zone for you losers?”
“Your soul will be mine!” it called back.
One-track mind. “Not happening,” she replied, sweat now rolling down her back despite the chilly night. “How’s old Lucifer nowadays? Still cracking heads like a good tyrant?”
The demon snarled at the mention of his lord. The fiends might serve the Fallen angel, but that didn’t mean they liked to be reminded. The lesser demons would cringe at his name. This one just winced.
Without any warning, the ground in front of Riley cracked, heaving open. Heat and the stench of rot rose in a steady cloud.
“That again? Really? Don’t you guys learn any new tricks?”
Where is my backup?
If a Five came to the city, every demon trapper on duty had only one response: They came to the battle.
Yet here she was, alone.
They wouldn’t let me die like this.
Or maybe they would. At least some of them.
The demon laughed in amusement, knowing she was in trouble. “Pledge your soul to me and I will let you live,” it offered.
“Yeah right.” Riley smirked, trying to cover the fear that had wound itself around her middle and squeezed like an anaconda.
“Let me guess, that deluxe “Sell Your Soul to Me” package comes with a one-way trip to Hell, a personal welcome by the Prince himself, and an eternity of torment. Am I right?”
The fire in the demon’s eyes grew brighter now. “Of course not.”
“Liar. You forget, I’ve been down there. I know what it’s like.”
And no matter what it took, she would never go there again.
The demon flicked its hand, and a mini tornado formed on its palm. That was this kind’s strength—the ability to command the weather and generate earthquakes. It dropped the funnel to the ground, and it immediately grew in size, spinning the snow as though she and the fiend were inside a hellish snow globe.
Usually Demon Central was littered with scraggly metal fencing, left in place because most people weren’t brave enough to try to salvage it in an area full of monsters. The grounding spheres worked best by connecting with the metal and—if you were lucky—enclosing the Five in a circle of magic. Once the fiend touched ground, it would return to Hell. A quick check proved that the city’s ambitious cleanup plan had robbed her of that option, at least when it came to the fencing.
“Thanks a bunch, guys,” Riley muttered. Now she would have to lob the magically charged sphere underneath the fiend. If the sphere hit in just the right place, it’d work. Most times, it didn’t.
Just as she was about to throw the sphere, a voice called out. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed Lex Reynolds running toward her at top speed. The bad news was that he was the only one.
He skidded to a halt by her side and, breath heaving, asked the same question she’d been thinking. “Where is everyone?”
“Polishing their nails, apparently.”
He met her eyes and the message was passed: They were on their own. At least until someone grew a conscience. Or a pair.
The earth rumbled again and they dodged right to avoid another sinkhole, debris swirling around them. When Riley looked back, the demon had shifted closer. Too close.
“Stay or take off?” she called to Reynolds. Not that she wanted to run, but they were in deep trouble.
“Stay,” he said. “Let’s send this thing home.”
“Then we’ll kick some people’s asses.”
“You got a deal.”
They flanked the Five, carefully avoiding the steaming pits that continued to open around them. It was harder to avoid the crap whirling in the air.
A low groan from Riley’s left indicated that one of the derelict buildings wasn’t tolerating the wind. “Reynolds!” she called out in warning.
He sprinted out of the way as a jumble of bricks cascaded to the ground, adding even more fuel to the demon’s windstorm. A crackle of lightning made Riley look up just in time to avoid being speared by a sizzling white bolt before it slammed into the ground, scorching the pavement in a five-foot circle. Car alarms blared in the distance.
Reynolds’s blistering expletive and “Hell no, you bastard!” told her that the Five had just made the same “Sell Your Soul” offer to him. So much for being special.
Her fellow trapper’s grounding sphere fell short. As the demon roared in anger at the futile attempt, Riley took her best shot. Her sphere landed closer to its mark, which only infuriated the Five more. As the magic took hold, grabbing onto the fiend, her companion sent another grounding sphere under its clawed feet.
When the Five went ballistic, fighting against the magic, they broke open their shield spheres, forming a protective envelope of magic around each of them.
Riley’s heart raced and her breath grew short as the storm roared around them. Another sphere arced near the demon, a long lob from somewhere behind them. That sphere caught as well, and with a final deafening roar, the Five sank into the ground, leaving behind one last, sharp shake that sent Riley tumbling to her knees.
As the debris pattered around them like rain, she covered her head, praying the shield spheres held a bit longer. Finally the fallout ended, and she regained her feet.
Reynolds raised his head. “You okay?” he called out.
“In one piece.” A trickle of blood ran down the side of his face. “Jackson, you good?”
Master Trapper Chris Jackson joined them now, his face and ponytail covered in brick dust. “Sure am. Damned that was a big mother.”
“Where the hell are the others?” Reynolds demanded.
“I have no idea,” Jackson said. “I was at Georgia Tech. I figured I’d be the last to get here.”
If he could make it all the way down to Demon Central, there was no good reason the rest of the trappers weren’t here.
“We just got hung out to dry,” Riley said. “And I’m willing to bet it’s because I was the one who sent out the call.”
The two men traded looks, but didn’t argue. That only made her angrier.
“I owe you guys,” she said. “Really.”
“No, you don’t. But you do owe the others some serious pain,” Reynolds said.
She nodded grimly. And I’m the girl to deliver it.
Riley’s two apprentices had waited for her, doing just as she’d asked: keeping the curious out of harm’s way. Tonight it was only a small knot of bystanders. One of them was filming her on his cell phone.
Every. Blasted. Time.
By tomorrow she’d be on YouTube. Again. It was a sure bet that Beck would see the video, and then she’d get a worried phone call from Scotland.
When she reached her apprentices, she gave them a pleased smile. “Thanks, guys, you did good.”
Kurt shook his head, his eyes still wide. “My God, that thing was huge!”
“Yeah, they are just that,” she said, trying not to show how much she was shaking inside. “But we took it down.”
“I thought there’d be more trappers here to help you,” Richard said.
Now was not the time to tell them why she thought that hadn’t happened.
“You guys go on home. We’ll trap a Three another night.”
They looked relieved and she knew why: The sight of the Five had filled them with terror. She wasn’t much different. Only two other of Hell’s killers scared her more: Fallen angels and Archfiends.
“See you tomorrow at nine at Harper’s,” she added.
If her gut was right, they’d be there. If not, one or both of them would have phoned in their resignations. And she wouldn’t blame them. Sensible people did not trap Hellspawn for a living.
“Good night, Riley,” Kurt called out. Richard seconded it and they headed out of Demon Central, talking back and forth animatedly.
She looked over at Jackson, who was just getting off his phone.
“You called Harper?”
He nodded. “He wants you to head up to Stewart’s house. He’ll meet you there. They want a report. I already gave them mine.”
Oh boy. “Who was on duty tonight, besides you and Reynolds?”
“McGuire, Stanfield, and Machen.”
Riley snorted. “Why am I surprised? Those guys have never wanted me in the Guild.”
“There are only a few,” Reynolds said. “Most are fine with you being a trapper. After what you did for us last spring, everybody oughta be worshipping at your feet.”
“Not likely,” she said. Lowering her voice so none of the bystanders could hear her, she added, “Some think the only reason Heaven and Hell almost went to war was because of me.”
“Then they’re stupid,” Jackson said. He walked to where the small knot of locals was clustered. “Time to go home, folks. The demon is gone.”
To her amusement, a young lady offered him a scrap of paper and asked for his autograph.
“Groupies,” Reynolds murmured. “Gotta love ’em.”
A few more cell phones flashed, capturing Riley in her post-Five-whirlwind glory. Just once, she wished they’d see her looking good. Unfortunately, for a trapper, this was the norm.
She hadn’t mentioned the necromancer to either Jackson or Reynolds, saving that newsflash for the two senior masters. Because if anyone knew how to handle that problem, it would be them.
# # #
Grand Master Angus Stewart lived in Riley’s dream home, a multi-story, blue Victorian, complete with a turret and a ballroom. Because it had once been the Vatican’s requirement that Stewart keep an eye on her, she’d lived with the grand master since earlier in the year. Now that Beck was away in Scotland, she split her time between here and his place across town. Once Beck was back home for good, there’d be a wedding to plan and . . .
Not yet. There was just too much going on to think about all that.
Her own master’s truck was already in the driveway, which meant Harper had headed over here the moment he’d gotten off the phone with Jackson.
He and Stewart are going to be furious.
The scent of aromatic pipe tobacco greeted her as she entered Stewart’s favorite room in the huge house. The stone fireplace currently hosted a warming blaze. Her eyes automatically tracked to the Scottish flag above the mantel, the white St. Andrew’s cross on a blue background. Family pictures adorned the walls, and a couple new photographs of grandchildren had been added.
Stewart sat in his usual chair, one of his legs propped up on an ottoman. Unlike usual, he didn’t have a glass of whisky at his elbow, no doubt in deference to Harper’s battle with alcoholism.
Harper gave her a quick look, then shook his head at her appearance. “Yeah, it was a Five alright,” he said.
“That’s for damn sure,” Stewart said.
“I look that bad?”
“A lot like Dorothy after the tornado blew her ta Oz,” Stewart said, his light accent a reminder of his homeland.
He was in his sixties, had spent the last decade in Atlanta, and was a member of the International Demon Trappers Guild. Though as a grand master he technically outranked Harper, it was Harper who ran the local Guild. When she’d asked why, Stewart had explained that Harper deserved to be the head of Atlanta’s trappers, that he’d paid a very high personal price for that job.
Harper, on the other hand, was in his fifties, but looked older. Part of the reason was the wicked scar on his face. His years of living in a bottle hadn’t helped, but now that he’d joined Alcoholics Anonymous, Riley’d had the opportunity to see the real Harper. Still a tough old bastard, he had a heart buried down under all the attitude, something she hadn’t always thought possible.
Riley chose her favorite chair in the room. Fortunately, it was leather, so she wouldn’t leave too much of a mess behind. It was also close to the fire.
“Sorry. I was going to clean up, but I wanted to talk to you guys right away.”
“Not a problem. If ya need somethin’ ta drink, help yerself,” their host said.
“No, I’m good.” She pulled out a water bottle from her backpack and took a sip. The silence filled in around them.
This was familiar territory. More than once, she’d been here with these two men after one momentous event or another. Back then, Harper had been the enemy, but now they had a truce in place. From the fire in his eyes, she could tell he was mad. At least it wasn’t at her.
“Give us your report,” her master ordered.
Riley did as he asked, laying it all out, including the necromancer who had summoned the Five and how it seemed as if he’d been waiting just for her.
“Shite,” Stewart muttered. “Lord Ozymandias has killed enough of the fools, ya’d think they’d learned their lesson.”
Harper fumed. “So we’ve got two separate problems here: the necro calling up a demon, and the fact that three of our trappers didn’t back you up tonight. Is that right?”
She nodded. “If Jackson hadn’t shown up, Reynolds and I would have been in big trouble.”
“Dead, you mean. And I do not want to be the one who has to call Beck to tell him his squeeze is history because no one was there for her,” Harper said.
“Trappers’ meetin’ tomorrow night?” Stewart asked.
Harper nodded in response. “The sooner the better.”
“Telling them they have to treat me like any other trapper isn’t going to work,” Riley said. “Some of them are always going to hate me.”
“It depends on how they get told, lass,” Stewart said. He looked over at Harper, and her master gave a nod. “Get some rest. Ya did a fine job tonight.”
She knew that, but it felt good to hear it.
Harper cleared his throat. “I agree.”
A compliment from her master? That was rare too. “Thank you. I’ll be staying at Beck’s tonight,” she said.
“Keep yerself safe, lass.”
“I will. Thanks.”
As Riley reached the front door, they began to talk back and forth. She couldn’t hear the exact words, but she caught the undercurrent of righteous anger. Once again, she was unwillingly causing hassles within the demon trappers’ ranks.
This crap has to stop.
(c) 2015 Jana Oliver – All Rights Reserved
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Jana is an international & multi-award winning author in several genres including young adult, paranormal romance and urban fantasy.