Chapter 1

 

 

“THERE HE is again!” Bren Harrold looked at his cat—Pixel—and motioned to the window. He grappled for his camera, shrugging at the cat. “I’m going to get him this time. I swear it, Pix!”

He ran out the back door, taking the lens cap off his digital SLR, and aimed it at the murky sky over the Pacific. Where the hell had it gone? The creature had been flying in lazy figure eights just above the cliff line two minutes ago.

Just like every other night this week! The times varied wildly. Sometimes it was there just before dinner, when the sun was still fairly high in the sky, casting it into a wild shadow against the clouds, and other times the creature arrived near midnight. Sometimes it was one swoop and he was gone, and other times the creature seemed to linger for five or ten minutes.

It never allowed itself to be photographed, and Bren had tried. Cell phone camera shots had come up empty, even the one time he knew he’d had the creature dead center in the frame, and the digital didn’t capture so much as a smear, even at the highest resolution and speeds.

It was driving him crazy.

Bren jogged to the edge of the cliff and looked out over the water, scanning the skyline, the water, everything in between. It wasn’t quite twilight, the evening warm, the sky bathed in shades of gold and orange. The warmth would linger before cool dampness would chase it away, just as Bren seemed to have chased away the creature. It was an impossible quest, but he couldn’t resist the challenge.

He had the distinct feeling the creature was taunting him.

Bren trudged back inside, the setting sun tickling his senses, and looked at the giant ginger cat. He could swear Pix was smirking.

“No luck, old chap?” the cat asked, sarcasm dripping off every word.

“You know I had no luck,” Bren shot back, rubbing his neck. It was just his luck that his talking cat—not that talking cats were exactly the norm—was so sarcastic. Why couldn’t he have scored a cat who was demure? Was there such a thing? Then again, Pix wasn’t an average cat. There were mysteries about Pix.

“Just you and me for dinner, then,” Bren said, stretching. His back ached from long hours at his computer, programming the new update to Zeus’s War, the runaway-success game he’d conceptualized and designed. The distribution rights had been sold to Kenniworth Games, but Bren had negotiated rights to be solely responsible for the early stages of the game, all the sequels, and all the expansion packs. The control meant he could oversee his product, rather than losing all control over it.

“Scintillating company,” Pix replied, and Bren fought the urge to roll his eyes. Having a talking cat certainly made his days more interesting. “And then I suppose you’ll do more of that deadly dull programming and leave me to my TV shows?”

“Not tonight.” Something about yet another near encounter with the creature had Bren off his game. So close and yet so far. Again.

“What do you suppose it is?” he asked, removing a small portion of salmon for Pix from his plate and putting it in a bowl.

“It? I presume you mean wingy out there.” Pix was staring intently out the window, and Bren rushed outside again, in the hopes that—no, it was already gone.

“It doesn’t usually come back on the same night,” Bren muttered when he was seated at the table, Pix on the chair beside him, his own plate and a dish of water before him. “I wonder why it did.”

“Your handsome face,” Pix retorted, and Bren choked on a mouthful of soda. “Perhaps it has need of the spring. Have you checked there?”

“Twice.” His family’s job was maintaining property, including the healing spring, and he checked there morning and night to see if anything might have been disturbed or any creatures needed his aid. Nothing had changed there, and all users were supposed to sign in here at the house. “Quiet time for us, Pix. We had the two mountain lion shifters use it on Monday, and the sprite and elf weekend before last.” Granted, theirs wasn’t the only healing spring on the West Coast, but it was one of the most accessible from San Fran, Portland, and Seattle, and it sat on ancient hallowed ground.

“Keep checking, it wants something, and if it was going to attack, it would have tried already. You have the wards set so high we’d hear its flesh sizzle if it wasn’t welcomed in or arrived with anything but positive intentions.”

“Good point, Pix.” Bren reached over to scratch behind the cat’s ears, wishing his brother hadn’t been cursed to feline form seventeen years ago. At least he was a good conversationalist, especially with Mom and Dad on their extended cruise. And Pix didn’t seem to mind being a cat, which was a damn good thing, because the curse on him had proven to be unbreakable.

“Don’t worry, Bren. You’ll figure it out. Thanks for the salmon.”

With a swish of his tail, Pix disappeared, most likely to curl up on the couch. He loved reality TV, and Bren was sure there was some Real Housewives Of… something show somewhere that would entertain Pix. No opposable thumbs hadn’t slowed Pix’s entertainment choices. He was a whiz with a computer keyboard and had mastered the TV remote.

As for Bren, he had some research to do. He wasn’t as aware of all the types of Paras as his brother, and while he was vaguely aware of winged creatures, he knew them to heal within their ranks, the ones that weren’t hidden in society’s shadows, even now. During the Demon Wars, there had been winged combatants, but the Reichrath hadn’t had much information on that time. Too many records had been stored in New York City and destroyed, and the Reichrath had been busy trying to recreate what they could and making sure the Para government stayed intact, rather than protecting and generating new history. A little research online should start the process of giving him some answers.

 

 

“GODDAMMIT ALL to hell!” Dante bobbled and wove, riding a current a little farther out to sea. He needed to get to that spring, to heal the deep gashes in his wings wreaking havoc with his flight patterns, but he didn’t dare do so until after dark. It seemed right to him that he’d come to the place he’d been all week, now that he’d been injured earlier today.

The Harrold family, gatekeepers of the spring, cemetery, and charmed forest on this acreage, were sticklers for record keeping, and Dante couldn’t let the Reichrath or his Cabal know he’d been here. He’d engaged in “unofficial” research and had raised the ire of some pretty nasty beings. While the end sometimes justified the means, he had to be alive to present the information and out the Cabal traitor selling his people’s secrets to the demons. And there were other things he had to do, on a personal level, to right the wrong done to the victim of said traitor.

Demons were never fun on a good day, and today hadn’t been the best. Dodging curses and the poisoned snakes they’d tossed his way had exhausted him, and when the cute little boy had come up to him, a poison-laced sword in his hand, and had begun hacking at Dante’s wings, his chest, even his head, he’d been sure he was a goner.

Somehow—he wasn’t exactly certain how, even now—he’d managed to escape the warehouse he’d been trapped in and flew toward the coast. And the healing spring. The poisons were working on him—that and the blood loss would ground him sooner rather than later—but he couldn’t draw healing power from the spring until the sun had gone down. At least he’d managed to find an Internet café and sent copies of the paperwork to his secured cloud account.

The sun was mocking him, hovering there low on the horizon, brushing the water, but not sinking below it. Dante tried to hold back his agony, but it escaped in pained, animalistic sounds.

He needed that healing, before it was too late. The anguish the poison was wreaking on him was weakening him further. He knew this poison—intimately. It had almost taken him out several times before, back when he’d been with the Krylos flight corps just after 9/11. Guarding the major cities from human threats had been enough, but a demon attack had nearly brought him down and cast the entire Para world in eternal darkness.

Not all the corpsmen had been so lucky. His lover, Leith, had perished that day, drowned in the ocean after being overcome by poison, never to be found again. Leith hadn’t been the only one lost in the Demon Wars of 2001, just the most personal to Dante.

By God, he wasn’t going to go down that way, dashed against the rocks.

He made another wide circle, trying to ride what currents he could and save what energy he still possessed—energy that was bleeding out almost as quickly as his lifeblood. It flowed from the deep gashes and had finally slowed to a trickle, but Dante needed every drop he had to fight the poisons beginning to impact his nervous system, his rate of speed, the mental acuity needed to calculate airspeed, rate of descent—all those important things inherent to staying aloft.

He would make it—at least he thought he would. No fun being dashed against the cliffs to tumble into the sea. Sure, there were rumored to be merpeople around these areas, but he wasn’t positive there was a colony nearby, and he sure as hell wasn’t willing to take a chance with his life on a hope.

Dante coughed several times, wiping at his mouth, the comforting rhythm of beating wings soothing him. He was bleeding internally too, maybe the gash to his chest had gone deeper than he thought, his normally crimson blood studded with gold sparkles. What he was coughing up was dull, brownish, no sparkles to be found glittering in the evening light. It was acidic and vile. It burned coming up and sizzled on his skin, leaving scorch marks behind.

This was bad. Very bad. Maybe he wouldn’t make it. Maybe he’d end up like Leith…. Maybe….

“Snap out of it, Dante,” he told himself, his voice breaking in the still evening sky. Out here they didn’t have a lot of air traffic—the patterns took jumbos at least fifty miles north or south, business jets out over the ocean farther. What he did have was the salt spray, the crashing of waves on rocks way below, and open sky. He’d discovered this place on the way from doing recon, and something about it had called to him.

Dante flew higher, risking the keeper of the land seeing him. The guy—at least he assumed it was the Harrold son—would stare out the window, and every time he did, Dante would head off northwest, too far to see, or to be seen.

He didn’t know a lot about the family. Two sons, no daughters, as far as he was aware. Something had happened to one of the kids many years ago. Parents were considered good Reichrath members; family had been involved in the guardianship of this land for centuries. He hoped they were good Reichrath members. Better safe than sorry, especially when he was this weak. Better to stay aloft as long as he could, rather than risking any chance of attack.

The healing spring called to him, a seductive little psychic whisper that worked against the lassitude stealing his strength, energy, and will. He had to wait until dark to get the full benefit.

Had to.

How much longer would it be?

Did he have it in him to hold on?

Would the wards keep him out?

Were these to be his last moments on earth?

Dante wobbled once before going into a drunken figure-eight pattern, bringing himself over the lip of the cliff. If the Harrold kid thought him an invader and killed him, it’d be a shorter death.

But staying out here was certain to end in his watery demise.