Earthen Realm, Dempsey Colony
Country music warbled through a battered radio on the shelf behind me. I glanced through the cutout between my kitchen and the dining area, but none of my customers seemed to mind hearing about heartaches and hound dogs, so I let it lie.
“Maddie,” I yelled. “Order up.”
My sister finished marking her notepad, then made a beeline for me.
“You’re still coming over tonight, right?” She plucked napkins from a leaning stack and took the plates from my hands. “I’ve got popcorn, movies galore and China King on speed dial.”
“Sounds like heaven.” And I meant every word. Our girls’ nights came less often these days. Maddie wouldn’t be free if her mate, Clayton Delaney, hadn’t gone off realm, to Askara.
Clayton worked with the freeborn legion, the demon equivalent to the Red Cross. Before Maddie, he’d traveled between this realm and the next often, bringing supplies and medical care to those in need. Now he was content to let others go in his stead, which suited her just fine.
I wasn’t sure what had tempted him off realm this time, and Maddie’s lips were sealed. Huffing bangs from my eyes, I ignored the envious twinge in my chest. Even Clayton’s brother, Harper, wouldn’t spill any of the details. I frowned. Actually, I couldn’t find him to ask.
“Good deal,” she said. “I was hoping we could—”
A metallic screech sliced open my ears as the diner trembled.
I braced on the counter. “What the hell was that?”
“Madelyn,” a masculine voice, raw with pain, roared down the short hall.
“Oh God.” Maddie’s eyes rounded at whatever she saw. The plates she held wobbled, sliding down her arm to shatter as they hit the floor. She ran for all she was worth, past me.
“Marci,” I called for my managing waitress. My apron tangled. I gave up, ripping the neck strap while tugging it over my head. I tossed it to her and made eye contact. “Cover for me.”
“Is something wrong?” She touched my shoulder, but I shrugged her off.
“Don’t know yet.” I sprinted down the hall and out the rear exit, skittering through gravel. Sunlight cost me my vision long enough I heard my sister’s pained cry before I saw her.
Maddie knelt beside Clayton, who sagged against the brick wall opposite the door he’d torn from its hinges to reach my sister. Her pale hands were stained red, and his right wing hung from his shoulder in tatters. Blood pooled at his hip. His black eyes shone with feral intensity, but each stroke of her hand down his cheek lulled his heaving chest into a more even rhythm.
The glamour he wore to appear human had failed. He was operating in full demon mode.
Lucky for us, the gateway between realms stood nearby, and our small colony touched its border. Otherwise, we’d be in for trouble. Evanti demons weren’t what I’d call inconspicuous. They were black-skinned, with matching hair and eyes. The only touches of color on them were their massive carmine-colored wings. Unless aroused, then their dark eyes rimmed with silver.
The way Clayton’s eyes shined for Maddie left few of his intentions to my imagination.
I turned before I saw the stuff of nightmares—my sister and demon-in-law making out.
“He needs Doc River,” a harsh voice grated to my right. “Not sexual healing.”
Dillon, another Evanti demon, stood at my elbow. A wide gash split open his face, made the cheek beneath his bicolored eyes swell. His glamour was intact, as always. I sometimes wondered if even he knew how his natural form looked. Sometimes I forgot he wasn’t human.
That was the point. All Evanti used glamour here. They had to.
Earth might be our salvation, but none of us were fool enough to think humans, en masse, would welcome the knowledge that escaped slaves, winged demons from another realm, had set up colony in this sleepy town at the base of theBlue Ridge Mountains. Not that all of us had wings. Askaran demons, even half breeds like Maddie and me, looked human for the most part.
“What happened?” I squinted up at Dillon, into the sun.
“Fucking ambush.” He rolled his shoulders as if limbering up for a second round. “Talk about your piss-poor party planning.” He snarled. “Nesvia needs to get her shit together.”
“What are you talking about?” I frowned. “Nesvia had a party?” And he’d been invited?
“Something like that.” He sounded thoughtful. “We have news.” He cracked a smile, something so rare from him, I stared. “Didn’t think I’d live to see it, but Harper will fill you in.”
“Harper?” I asked. “Is he here?” I glanced around. “Or did you stop by his place first?”
Dillon glanced away, and suddenly I knew the reason I hadn’t been able to find Harper.
He hadn’t been here, on Earth, to find. He must have sneaked off realm with Clayton.
Tremors worked from my knees, through my chest, and rattled my heart in its cage. “Where is he?” I spun on Clayton, who would have known, and Maddie, who hadn’t told me.
“Emma.” The way Clayton spoke my name, trying to soothe me, raised my hackles.
I couldn’t breathe. From one second to the next, my brain scrambled. My pulse skittered.
I tried again to be rational, but every pair of eyes in the alley had locked on me. I swallowed hard and locked my knees, but they still shook hard enough to make my teeth rattle. I’d seen those sympathetic glances once before, the last time he went to Askara…the time he didn’t come back. I couldn’t lose him, not again. Spots danced in my vision. “Where is Harper?”
“I’m here, Emma-mine.” His voice caressed my ears with the sweetest relief.
I sagged with it, almost too limp to turn. When I did, I got an eyeful of what no one wanted to tell me. I swallowed again as my gorge rose. He was sliced from black shoulder to hip. One of his carmine wings dragged the ground, and so help me God, there was an arrow lodged in his flank. His lips hitched to one side in his trademark, lazy-days smile as if nothing were wrong.
“Come here.” He opened his arms to me. Well, one arm. The other hung limp at his side.
I was glued to his chest before my mind caught up with my feet. “What’s wrong with you two? You should have gone to the clinic. You should have gone to Doc River, not come here.”
Granted, Doc’s clinic was still brand new, but she’d been the resident doctor for decades.
A low growl worked through his chest, sounding wet and making me shudder with fear. I kissed his collarbone. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to strangle him for doing this to me, again. For lying by omission, because he knew I’d crack under the strain of him leaving. There was nothing I could imagine so important he would risk himself by returning to Askara.
It had stolen five years of his life.
I didn’t have it in me to forgive him if he let it steal even one more day.
“You’re bleeding out.” My voice went hoarse. “You’re going to the doctor.”
Instinct must have overridden his common sense. Both he and Clayton had been drawn to their mates, or in my case, would-be mate, as an imperative above seeking medical attention. Now his primal self was sated, and his adrenaline crash would be a doozy. “Come on. Let’s get you to the clinic.” I called over my shoulder, “Dillon, get Clayton on his feet while you can.”
I led Harper across the street, past gawking humans, fellow colonists with ties to the Evanti, and into Doc River’s clinic. Doc’s lips set in a grim line as she herded him to an exam room. I collapsed into a chair in the waiting room and told myself every little thing was fine.
I started when someone jabbed my shoulder, then I rubbed the sore spot. Doc River stood over me with a pen in her hand, looking like she might want to poke me again. I scowled and she shrugged. After sinking into the chair beside me, she crossed her feet at the ankles on the coffee table.
“Hey, perk up. He’s fine.” Toying with the wild ends of her white braid, she added, “Or he will be. He’s looking at a good twenty-four-hour healing window, and I want him walking everywhere for the next week. He can’t risk those wings. Keep his feet on the ground.”
My head bobbled along as I soaked up the important part—that he would recover. Even though Evanti healed fast compared to the sloth of human mending, I worried.
“How’s Clayton?” Shame heated my cheeks. “And Dillon?” I hadn’t thought of him until this minute.
“Dillon refused treatment.” She clicked her tongue. “Like he’s got something under that glamour I haven’t seen before. As for Clayton, that boy hasn’t been this messed up since Maddie ran over him.” She made a rapid sign of the cross. “Speaking of lead-footed demonesses, I need to give this speech to her.” Pointing over her shoulder, she said, “You can go in now.”
I nodded, the only thing my head seemed capable of doing, then followed bloody footprints to a room in the back. Beeps and whirs from machines put me on edge, but when I stepped across the threshold, I heaved a grateful sigh. He was dozing, and his color looked good.
I went to his bedside and sat on the edge, staring until I had to reach out and touch some part of him. Pushing dark curls from his forehead, I stroked his temples, then his hollow cheeks.
“What were you thinking?” I murmured, more to myself than to him.
Askara was our home realm, a brutal realm where slavery thrived.
For all that I claimed Maddie as my sister, we weren’t blood relatives. Her mother, Eliya, was the fallen queen of Askara, which made her the princess ascendant. My father, Archer, had been Eliya’s longtime consort, but my mother was a human courtesan, which made me his half-breed, bastard daughter. Since Mother had died giving birth, her indenture passed on to me, and I became a slave in Father’s house. Eventually, I’d been given to Maddie as her handmaiden.
I’d had no future, no dreams and no hope there. I’d been nothing.
Except in Harper’s eyes, where I was more than the station of my birth, more than an accident of genetics, I was a female of worth. In all the years Harper had served as Maddie’s guardian, his closeness to her had made my father assume Harper was in love with her. Never had it occurred to Father that he could love someone like me.
He’d been dead wrong.
Tick. Tick. Tick. A machine at Harper’s shoulder spat out a curlicue of paper with his vitals. As I stared at the peaked sketches, I was transported back to the mountainous city of Rihos, to the night of Maddie’s ascendancy ceremony, the night that changed all our lives.
I squeezed my eyes shut and matched my frantic breaths to his measured ones.
The heat of his palm cradling my cheek snapped my eyes open.
“Don’t cry.” His words slurred. Doc must have given him something for the pain.
I leaned into his touch. “I’m not.” Sniffling, I added, “You scared me.”
“Didn’t mean to.” His thumb swiped beneath my eye.
“You went back there.” I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from raising my voice.
“Had to.” His forehead puckered. “No choice.”
“There’s always a choice,” I said on a near-hysterical laugh. “You just make poor ones.”
His voice turned gruff. “Not true.”
I wanted to drive home my point, but the old argument wasn’t worth rehashing.
He knew about choices. He had made several on the night he crashed Maddie’s ceremony, and we both had to live with the repercussions of my father’s death and Harper’s choice to bring Maddie and me to Earth. He’d spared us a most intimate violation, rape at the hands of aFirst Court priest, then he’d returned to Askara, to warn his father and brother of what he’d done, and flown into an ambush.
His father, Marcus, had died. Clayton had been good as dead. Harper…he didn’t return.
All because of his choice to spare me and my sister from the lives we would have led.
For five years, I mourned his death. I made him a grave. I erected a marker, for God’s sake. Then last month, Clayton had found him. He’d been imprisoned, by Eliya, all this time.
Learning Harper was alive tilted my world’s axis. I’d been running backwards ever since.
“Have news,” he said. “About Nesvia.”
I swept my arm down his side to indicate his wounds. “Nesvia was there for this?”
He made a sound of agreement as his eyes fluttered closed.
Nesvia was the closest blood tie Maddie and I had. She was our half-sister, the only child born to her mother and my father. She was a reformist who craved change and Eliya’s crown.
Harper’s arm went limp, and his fingers slid down my face. I caught his hand and held it.
A knock at the door drew my head around. Maddie stood there, her face drawn and pale. Blood streaked her cheeks, vivid scores marring her alabaster complexion. “I’m sorry.”
“You knew he was going.” Of course she knew. Mates shared everything, and Harper couldn’t have gone without clearing the trip through Clayton first. “And you didn’t tell me.”
The worst part was, as much as her betrayal stung, I’d done the same or worse to her where Clayton was concerned. Forgiven and forgotten. We always hurt those we loved the most.
“He knew you’d be upset. He made me promise I wouldn’t say anything.” She ran a hand through her hair. “He had no choice—Nesvia summoned him and Clayton. They both had to go.”
My chest tightened as fear snuffed out my anger. “Why summon them specifically?”
Maddie bit her lip, as if deciding how much to tell me.
I stood and stalked toward her. “Why, Maddie? What’s happening?”
Her gaze slid over my shoulder. When she saw Harper sleeping, she shut the door behind her and guided me into a chair at the foot of his bed. “Nesvia has been confirmed. She is now the Queen Ascendant of Askara.” Maddie took my hands in hers, and they trembled. “She’s done it.” Her eyes gleamed. “She’s freed the slaves.”
My mouth fell open.
Our sister was now queen. Our kingdom was now free. Our lives were truly our own.
“But why ask for Clayton and Harper?” It made no sense. “Why not you, or even me?”
Her smile lost some of its brilliance. “She knew Clayton wouldn’t allow me off realm until he was certain her peace offering wasn’t a ruse. And I think…” her cheeks pinked, “…Nesvia assumed you wouldn’t go without me.”
“Oh.” In other words, she still viewed me as a slave who dared not leave her master.
“Besides, her proposition was meant for them.” Maddie shifted in her seat when my hands tightened. I loosened my grip so I wouldn’t hurt her. “Clayton and I have been exchanging letters with Nesvia for the past several weeks.” I nodded along. She’d mentioned it to me before. “And during that time, we outlined how the earthen colony operates. How it’s funded. That sort of thing.” She leaned closer. “Since Marcus Delaney founded this colony, and Nesvia has ties to him through me, and you, she’s asked that one of his sons found a new colony…in Askara.”
“No.” The chair I’d sat in toppled onto its side when I got to my feet.
“Clayton can’t accept her offer. This colony depends on him. They trust him to care for them and head up the legion.” Her gaze lowered. “He’s also afraid of what might happen if I returned. Like it or not, I’m still a princess, and Nesvia’s coup has swirled a lot of controversy.”
My back hit the wall, and I slid to the floor. “What did Harper say when she asked him?”
Maddie rubbed her arms as if she were cold. “He said he would consider her offer.”
“Of course he did.” I hid my face in my hands and braced my elbows on my knees.
Harper. He had locked the horrors of his imprisonment in some mental vault and buried the key so deep, his confusion was genuine if you asked him about what had been done to him.
Sadly, his loss remained razor sharp in my mind. Our separation burdened me, pressed on my shoulders, miring me in dreck from where we’d come from, where he’d have us go yet again.
Copyright © 2012 Hailey Edwards
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication