THE order seemed clear enough: Punishment and extraction. The heavy rain washed the city streets of Fenian and would empty the area of the usual pedestrian traffic. Varun waited in his vehicle around the corner of his target’s home until he knew all in the neighborhood had gone to bed. The storm was expected to last into the morning light and would ensure the cover and the water Varun would need to accomplish his task.
“Amer, watch the front for my return,” Varun instructed his driver and climbed out, into the storm.
Rain lashed at his face, soaking his suit and raven hair. Varun’s careful footsteps clicked against the wet pavement, fading into the storm’s music of raindrops and wind. He didn’t hunch his six-foot-one frame against the weather—water didn’t bother him.
When he reached the porch, Varun paused. Every drop of liquid that had saturated his tailored suit leeched out of the expensive fabric and dropped to the ground. His hair dried just as quickly. With a single graceful movement, Varun ran his hand through his hair, having it fall into place effortlessly. The locks covered his temples, concealing his broken demon horns.
Once free of water, Varun rang the doorbell and waited. He figured the party he had vacated hours earlier would have run its course by now, but the host, Barish, would still be awake. The demon was known for his late hours.
When the door finally dragged open, Barish stood alone in his eveningwear and a scowl. “Varun? What are you doing here? The party—which you rudely left early—is finished.”
“Well, it was extremely dull, Barish—just what I expect from a demon of your standing.” Varun smirked, sliding his foot forward to stop the door if Barish dare try to close it.
“I tolerate you only because of what you are,” Barish reminded.
“Which is a wise choice.” As a demon born into an element, Varun held a high position in society. Elemental demons were rare and, as all things rare are, valued above others.
“Why are you on my doorstep at this hour?”
“Invite me in, old friend.”
“Friend?” Barish laughed mockingly. “I don’t think we’ve ever been on friendly terms.”
“If that was the case”—Varun pressed on the door, opening it wider to gain entrance—“you wouldn’t have invited me to every dreadful party you’ve ever had the notion to host.”
Without further argument, Barish closed the door behind Varun. “Parlor,” he said.
Varun followed the other around the corner to the room he had lounged in just hours earlier. The space had already been cleaned and the decanters refilled with the sweet-smelling alcohol Barish enjoyed and Varun despised. Varun wandered to the fireplace hearth and watched the dwindling fire crack and send embers into the air.
“Why are you here, Varun?” Barish questioned, settling himself onto one of two plush couches.
“I want to see it.”
Varun smiled, turning his tranquil blue eyes onto Barish. “The human. You keep him here, don’t you? Such an expensive creature wouldn’t be safe out of your sight.”
“You had no interest with the stray at the party. I only had the party to entertain my guests with a human, and you left. It was very insulting.”
“Why would I tarnish my reputation in front of the elite? I’d much rather do that in private.”
Barish snorted once to accompany the roll of his eyes. Varun waited. “The human needs rest, Varun. You can image why; you saw the size of the gathering.”
“I did,” Varun confirmed. “I want to see it. Bring him out here.”
“And what exactly is in it for me if I let you use him?”
“I never said I wanted to use him,” Varun corrected Barish’s assumption with a tsk. “I want to see the human. Where did you obtain the creature?”
“Black market. It isn’t exactly legal to buy a stray, now is it?”
“And that is what you’ll get for the exchange.”
Barish narrowed his eyes. “What?”
“I won’t inform anyone what you have here if you show him to me.”
The atmosphere between the two demons electrified. Under normal circumstances, Varun would be foolish to make such a demand, but he knew a non-elemental demon like Barish posed no threat. The evening’s cleanup would be finished before the storm outside had time to gather full force.
“No one in our fine country of Bretagne cares about strays.” Barish waved off the threat.
“Is the human even here, Barish? Or did you and your friends kill him?”
“He’s resting in the bedroom. He might be dead by morning, but I’ll let my servants clean up when they return for their duties at nine. If he survives until then, the angel can heal the worst of the injuries.”
Varun smiled. The human would be easily located then. “Do you know the penalty of keeping a human pet?”
“Is there such a thing?” Barish asked sarcastically.
“We all hear the whispers, Barish. Human collectors have a strange habit of dropping dead. Aren’t you worried about that rumor?” Varun left the hearth, winding his way behind the couch and to the window. “Have you ever wondered if it wasn’t a rumor?”
“Of course it is. Murder would never be allowed as a legal means to cease an illegal activity,” Barish scoffed with annoyance. “Can you see yourself out? I’m tired, and you’ve pulled me from relaxing before I turn in.”
“Have you heard of STAR?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea of what you’re saying, Varun.”
“STAR. I bet you had no idea such an entity existed in our city.”
“Stray Treatment, Assistance, and Recovery,” Varun whispered what little had permission to know. “STAR punishes the few who give us all a bad reputation by promoting the stray trade. Trapping and hoarding humans as sex toys should be beneath our level of civilized society.”
“You’re mentally unhinged, Varun. There’s no secret police for such a thing.”
“It wouldn’t be much of a secret if everyone knew, would it?” Varun laughed appreciatively.
Barish rubbed his face and leaned forward. “Okay, Varun. Humor me. Why do you know about this secret organization?”
“I work for STAR, sweet Barish, and you’re being punished,” Varun explained, indifferent to the demon’s fate.
“Punished?” Barish chuckled, delighted by the joke Varun had started. “You’re amusing tonight. Tell me, what brought this on?”
“An order. I left your party to report you. You had been in our sights for a while after a spotter saw you speaking to a known trapper.” Varun shoved the window up, shaking the encasement. Immediately, wind and rain lashed at his face. “But I honestly hadn’t expected you to flaunt a stray to eight guests.”
“What are you doing? You’re letting in the rain,” Barish cried out, getting to his feet with full intention of closing out the storm.
“I want the rain,” Varun explained. Lifting a hand, he spoke gently to his element, “Won’t you come inside out of the wind?” Rain droplets gathered just inside the window, floating in the air and wavering when the wind blew but holding together in a single, growing form.
Barish let out an annoyed huff. “I’m not in the mood for a show, Varun. Water demon or not, I’d appreciate if you keep my house dry.”
“I’m not one to apologize for my work, Barish. I truly have no remorse or joy in this part, but an order is an order.” Varun lifted his gaze to the other demon. “I’ll try to end it quickly. That’s all I can do if you give me what I need.”
Barish looked at the floating water and back at Varun, realizing the elemental demon’s intention. “Murder.”
“We call it ‘assassination’, but it’s a form of murder,” Varun agreed stoically.
“All for a human?” Barish gasped, shocked by betrayal. “A demon will kill one of his own for a lowly creature?”
Varun sighed softly. “Humans are pitiful beings who are incapable of protecting themselves. I actually don’t care too much about their fate as a race, but I’m paid rather handsomely for each assignment. I’m a bit self-absorbed—as my butler likes to inform me.”
“Don’t do this, Varun. It isn’t right. We’re brethren. You might be with an element, but we’re still cut from one cloth, are we not?”
Varun rolled his eyes. “Why is it required to explain anything at all? I could avoid all of this jabber if I just killed stray owners.”
“You’re a lunatic,” Barish declared. “I’m calling for help.”
“Call.” Varun shrugged. “STAR controls the police—they’re essentially one and the same.”
“I don’t believe it.” Barish grabbed up the telephone and began dialing.
Varun looked at the combined raindrops that had waited so patiently. He gave a nod and sent them across the room, surrounding Barish’s head. Varun watched impassively as Barish stumbled backward, frantically attacking the bubble of water. No matter how much he managed to splash away, it would return, seeking to fulfill Varun’s wish.
Not wanting to watch the last moments of life, Varun placed the phone receiver back onto the cradle and left in search of the human stray.
Varun reached the last door in the hallway, wrapped his hand around the knob, and slowly entered the darkened room to the smell of blood. “Appalling.” He sneered, spotting the naked figure curled up on top of the filthy blanket. The blond hair was matted to the face and neck with sweat or another substance Varun would ignore. The dark markings across the pale skin had not been there when Varun had first seen the creature.
Slowly crossing the room, Varun watched for the subtle rise and fall which would tell him if the human still breathed. Seeing no such sign, Varun placed his ear beside the human’s face. The quiet sound of life remained.
Leaving the blanket, Varun gently gathered the human into his arms. A few cuts reopened, spilling blood onto his black suit, but Varun ignored the inconvenience. The human was light and smaller than he had looked when Barish had revealed his toy during the party.
“You’ll probably die tonight,” Varun whispered, watching the head fall back without resistance. “There’s not much life left in you.”
Returning to the parlor, Varun whistled lowly and watched the water recede out of Barish’s body and return outside. When the last water droplet pulled out of the demon’s clothing and leaped onto the windowsill, Varun turned and took his leave.
HIS vehicle pulled to the curb in front of him, and an angel without wings jumped out of the driver’s side to open the back door for Varun. “Take us home, Amer,” Varun commanded, sliding into the back.
“Sir, the human—”
“Don’t argue with me,” Varun warned, leaning over to slam the door. Amer hesitated a moment before accepting the order.
RAIN pelted against the decorative glass inlay in the oak door. The sound threatened to lull the waiting butler to sleep. Late nights were always difficult for Triste. The angel forced himself to his feet and stretched his arms over his head. No matter the hour, he wouldn’t leave his post until his master returned.
Pacing in the entryway, Triste listened to his steps echo in the lobby, smiling at the seemingly unnaturally loud volume. Knowing he would be alone, Triste clicked his heel twice against the tile, hearing the echo round the corner and continue. He smiled and tapped out a short rhythm. He was, at least for a moment, distracted from his fatigue.
“Is that you, Triste?”
Hearing the voice, Triste straightened. “Lady Sila?”
“Oh, it is you.” The voice rounded the corner, into the corridor, bringing the speaker into view. She was a short angel that had long ago lost the ability to retract her wings. A sickness or injury had caused her body to malfunction, but she looked healthy as any young angel.
“Why are you out at this late of an hour, Lady Sila?” Triste questioned gently. She lived on the ground floor to avoid the confined space the lift offered. When angels released their wings, they were quite cumbersome in most spaces.
“Insomnia,” Sila answered. “Is Varun out, then?”
“Such a fine demon, but you deserve better, you know.”
Triste smiled wryly. “I am but a servant. I’ll remain here until I’m dismissed.”
Sila snorted once. “Leave him. I’ll pay you just as well for your services.”
Triste laughed softly, earning a smile from Lady Sila. “That’s very kind of you, but you know I won’t leave Varun.”
“Who would?” Lady Sila sighed wistfully. “Such a handsome demon.” She tottered in a half circle, aiming herself back to her apartment.
“Good night, Sila,” Triste called out and saw her hand rise in response.
The muted sound of a vehicle drew Triste’s attention. He quickly opened the door and rushed into the rain to greet his master. His steps faltered when he saw what Varun carried. The limp body of a human had been the last thing Triste ever thought he’d see Varun hold in his arms. If the human was indeed a corpse, as it appeared to be, that would be even stranger behavior.
“Did it go well, sir?” Triste asked as Varun passed him. He glanced to the driver, seeking an unspoken answer, but Amer merely shrugged a shoulder.
“I don’t expect a headline, if you’re asking,” Varun answered, waiting for Triste to open the door for him.
“Very good.” Triste followed his master’s heels down the corridor and waited for the lift. “Sir, what is that you’re carrying?”
“A human,” Varun answered curtly.
The two transferred into the lift, and Triste pressed the button for the top floor. “It’s unclothed. Is that sanitary?”
Triste stole a quick glance at the demon’s face, noting a discolored patch on his cheek. When a demon grew tired, sick, or battled an illness or injury, his scales would show. The same happened for an angel, except with feathers or an inability to hide wings.
“Did the assignment wear you out? Shall I prepare the bath or bed?” Triste lowered his gaze to the human. In the lighting, Triste could clearly see the injuries. The human would need a thorough cleaning to distinguish bruising from filth.
Varun didn’t answer. Triste looked at the sharp blue eyes framed by raven hair and felt the first pang of heartache that accompanied close proximity with his master. Triste tore his gaze from Varun and forced his mind to focus on only the numbers counting up to thirtieth floor.
“Take him,” Varun commanded just before the doors slid open. “Bathe, dry, heal, clothe, and put him in the guest bedroom.”
Triste took the human, grateful the stray was light and small. As an angel, Triste was considered tall at five foot ten, but, like all angels, he could not carry much weight. “Yes, sir.”
“Use the chain. We don’t know what he’ll do when he wakes.”
“Will you require any further assistance tonight, sir?”
“No. Do not let me see you until morning.” Varun’s blue eyes narrowed in warning.
“Yes, sir,” Triste whispered, lowering his head to Varun.