Celeste crouched in the underbrush, her body curled into a tight ball. Breath silent, she tried to ignore the damp chill sliding beneath her clothes. The electric blue sky above the tree canopy would have fit nicely with a warm summer day. If she wasn't freezing her ass off crammed under a dense rhododendron, she would have appreciated the way the sky brightened up the chilly winter afternoon. At the moment, the cold—and the predators surrounding her position—occupied all her thoughts. She'd left her home that morning on a scouting mission. An ambush was not in the plan. Unfortunately, the plan had changed.
The Vorati demons were everywhere. So far she'd counted six. Not certain where she hid in the thick growth, they worked their way in a shrinking circle, using scent to triangulate her location. To a Vorati nose, a Shadow smelled better than a sizzling steak might to a starving human. If they hunted her for too long before they found her, the enticement of her scent might drive them into a frenzy. She'd heard what frenzied Vorati could do to a victim. Eons ago, when they'd been in their demon bodies, they'd eaten their victims raw. Apparently, a frenzy brought them back to the old days. Enough said. Not an appealing end.
Over the past few weeks, Celeste had been picking them off one by one in carefully planned guerrilla attacks. Since her first strike, it had been a matter of time before they took the offensive and came after her. The demons moved around her position, faces raised to sniff the air, tightening the noose with each breath.
To an outsider, they appeared to be normal humans. They'd even dressed in hunting gear, holding their rifles and shotguns with ease, their brown camo a perfect match for the leafless trees of late winter. They might have brought the guns to hunt game. Might even have left their nest with the intention of bringing home fresh meat. The Vorati wouldn't use the weapons on her. If they caught themselves a Shadow, her death would be far slower than one granted by a bullet.
Once, these bodies had belonged to human men. Her neighbors. Celeste thought they were from the family who'd lived in the holler where the nest had taken root. She hadn't known them well—their home was a few miles outside her regular travels. Now their bodies were shells, their human souls devoured to make room for the infecting Vorati demons.
All it took was a crack in the soul. A little moral decay. Maybe one of them stole. Or hit his wife. His kids. Cheated. Sold drugs. It was hard to say what opened the door to infection. One man's sin might be another's strength. One thing was constant: if it weakened the soul, the Voratus could gain a foothold. It would shove its claws in the tiniest cracks, working the victim until nothing remained. The demons found every failing, whispered in the darkest corners of their victim's heart. What was one more drink? If she didn't want to take a punch, she shouldn't nag so much. You deserve it, do it again. Seductive urgings, on and on until the fissures in the soul grew into canyons, inviting the demon to move right
Once they got in, they were nearly impossible to expel. The demons fed on emotional energy. Any emotional energy would do, but the Vorati savored the negative. Pain, fear, hatred, and rage were a gourmet buffet. Once they began to take over, they destroyed the host's life, feeding from his or her misery until they'd extracted the maximum amount of suffering. For dessert, the demons consumed the remains of the host's soul. If they managed to crack the souls of the host's friends and family in the process, more the better.
A host discovered early enough could be healed, the infecting demon removed. It happened less often than Celeste would like to admit. Too many of the infected were terminal. Victim by victim, the men surrounding her had fallen to infection. Celeste doubted there was anything human left outside their basic biology. Even their muscles and bones would have grown inhumanly strong since the demon had taken residence. Eventually, the demands of the demon spirit in a human body would burn out the host. The body would crumble, leaving the Voratus once again incorporeal, searching for a new human to infect. Burnout wouldn't save Celeste. The strongest demon might consume a human body in a few months. Most of the time, it took years. Not soon enough to do her any good.
She counted six of them at various points on each side of her. Taking a risk, she extended her senses, searching for a weapon. Like all Shadows, she was able to control the energy around her. While every Shadow had some skill with telekinesis, Celeste's was weak. Too weak to do much damage to the demons. Somehow she didn't think throwing sticks and stones at them would do any good. She was a healer, able to guide energy to knit wounds together, to supercharge the body's natural ability to repair itself. She'd heard of healers who had studied how to use their talent as a weapon. Celeste had never tried. The idea of using her innate understanding of the body to kill made her stomach turn. Her revulsion suddenly seemed naive. It would be comforting to explode the Vorati's heads or hearts from this nice safe distance. If she'd had better control of her telekinesis, she'd do it, healer or not.
But Celeste had a handicap, a failing that had forced her to hide in these mountains in the first place. While her healing was adequate, her control over the rest of her Shadow abilities was marginal. Electrical interference sent her grasp of her power skidding out of control. In this modern world, electricity was everywhere. Every one of the Vorati had either a cell phone, walkie-talkie, or a powered scope on his rifle. A wristwatch battery could be enough to set her off. Anything that ran on an electrical current. And the electricity left her completely fucked.
Most Shadows could work around it, barely noticing the spiky, aggressive surges as they manipulated the warm waves of natural energy around them. To Celeste, the smallest source of electrical current created barbed wires crossing and twisting through the Earth's energy, sending unexpected bursts that turned her gentle power uncontrolled and deadly.
Leaves rustled a few feet behind her, just out of sight. Celeste directed her senses backwards, fighting the instinctive recoil when she hit the repellent vibrational hum of a Vorati-infected body. It felt like a swarm of angry bees closing in. No more than five feet away, it was almost on top of her. Time had run out. Her gut sank. She couldn't escape their net unseen. She would have to fight.
With fluid strength, she surged to her feet, turning as she rose to face the nearest threat. The demon flinched, unaware she was so close. Idiot. It should have scented her. Taking advantage of its surprise, Celeste struck out with her left foot, aiming for its booted ankle. The crack of bone shouldn't have been so satisfying. While she might not be skilled in offensive power, she'd had a little training in hand-to-hand combat. At this proximity, despite the electrical interference from the walkie-talkie clipped to the demon's belt, she could channel enough latent energy into the kick to crack a demon-enhanced bone.
Crack, but not break. The demon teetered on its feet, but it didn't fall. It stared at her in incomprehension for a breath too long. Knowing she had bare seconds before the others were on her, Celeste ducked his swing and dove for the cracked ankle. She gripped his booted toe, giving it a vicious twist as she rolled past him. The bone broke through, leaving the foot dangling at an ugly angle. Celeste completed her roll, coming to her feet a yard behind the now prone demon. She reached behind her for the long knife sheathed at her back. Standing in a small clearing, no longer penned in by the rhododendrons, she had just enough room to use the knife.
The Voratus struggled to rise, managing to reach its knees before its mangled ankle gave out. It tumbled to the dirt with a cry. Celeste had no time to enjoy her triumph. The five remaining Vorati fanned out before her, eyes bright and hungry.
Gabe studied the fight from his vantage point fifteen feet up a formidable white oak. His skin crackled with the prickle of heat that warned every Warder of Vorati close by. Five of them no more than twenty feet away sent a rage of fire over his nerve endings. In a human, the built-in warning system would have been excruciating. For a Warder, especially a seasoned soldier like Gabe, the burn primed him for the fight to come. He forced himself to wait and watch before jumping into battle.
The Shadow female fought well, with a fluid grace backed by more power than she should have been able to deliver from her delicate frame. She must have been channeling energy through her kicks and punches. Still, she'd be smarter to carry a weapon. Belatedly, Gabe caught a flash of light on steel in the soggy leaves. Correction: she had been smart enough to bring a weapon, just not good enough to keep it. She had fighting skills, but she hadn't been formally trained. At least not with the consistency to be truly proficient. Just enough for her to think she could take care of herself. If this went on much longer, she'd learn the hard way that she couldn't. Not against five Vorati at once. Hell, half the Warder soldiers he knew couldn't hold up against five Vorati.
Gabe didn't wonder why the attacking demons hadn't used their weapons. He knew why. They wanted her alive. A lone female Shadow was their wet dream. Literally. If they took her alive, the Vorati would torture her in every manner imaginable until her body gave out. If Shadow physiology resembled a Warder's, her body would last far too long.
Gabe's business was protecting humans, not watching out for pocket-sized Shadows who were in over their heads. But she was surrounded by his target. And to be honest, she was like nothing he'd seen before. She wore low leather boots, insulated leggings and a fitted, dark green quilted jacket. She dressed like an experienced hiker, and she moved as if whirling on a dance floor, gliding from partner to partner with stunning elegance. Though she fought with strength and focus, it wasn't hard to imagine her in a gown, bathed in candlelight, floating through a ballroom instead of ducking and striking with her small fists. For a moment he was mesmerized by the sight of her golden hair flashing in the sun. Then the Shadow turned the wrong way and moved straight into a heavy fist aimed at her cheek. She went flying, the back of her head smacking with a hollow thunk into the trunk of a half-rotted tree. With a curse, Gabe leapt to the ground and threw himself into the fight.
Alone, Gabe could have handled the five Vorati without much trouble. The Shadow hadn't injured any after breaking the first demon's ankle, but she'd managed to weaken them just enough. It took her less than a minute to shake off the hit to her head and get back in the fight. She faced two of them. One appeared to be bleeding from a knife wound on his arm. Blood dripped from his hand, staining the leaves at their feet. The other was uninjured, but the rifle slung over his shoulder hampered his movements. She could handle them on her own.
Gabe went after the remaining three. His first he grabbed from behind, wrapping his left arm around its neck in a tight noose, forcing the demon's back flush to Gabe's chest. With an ease born of centuries of practice, Gabe reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and withdrew a slender copper calix. He thumbed off the protective cover, revealing a razor-sharp tip. Shaped like an oversized dart, with a flat, oval bulb at the end where a dart's feathers would be, the calix was their best weapon in the war against the Vorati. In a firm strike, Gabe stabbed the long point deep into the Voratus's chest. It cut through fabric and bone with ease, piercing the demon's heart. The moment the deadly tip hit the heart, the bulb of the calix surged to life. With a rasping, sucking sound, it pulsed in concert with the demon's heart, dragging the infecting Voratus demon from its formerly human host.
Once it began its work, nothing could dislodge the calix. It sucked and pulled with the violent pressure of a whirlpool, packing the demon's essence into the flat copper bulb, trapping it for eternity. The Vorati were incorporeal in their natural state. Killing the host body did nothing but release the infecting demon to find a new host. The calix severed the cycle permanently. Gabe dropped the dead body and turned to take on the next enemy.
The other two halted in their approach, faces pale. He loomed over them, tall, leanly muscled, clothed all in black. Gabe made for an intimidating figure. He wasn't above using it against his enemies. Rogue Warder or Voratus, they were all easier to kill when they were afraid. For a heartbeat, they stared at each other, the Vorati frozen in fear. They must have felt confident attacking a single female Shadow. They hadn't counted on facing a Warder soldier. Over their shoulders, Gabe saw the Shadow preparing to drive her own calix into the back of one of the demons. Taking advantage of the Vorati's momentary stillness, Gabe grabbed the closest one by its shoulder, yanking it forward until it lost its footing. As it stumbled, Gabe turned, his grip twisting the Voratus so that it came down hard on its back. A quick stab and he buried the calix to the hilt.
The second one, the one who'd held a rifle, had vanished. Maybe it didn't like its chances now that the odds had changed. A calix stood impaled in the back of the demon with the broken ankle. The Shadow might not be the best fighter, but she was efficient. She had her back to him, scanning the dense trees for further threats, her eyes focused on a man-shaped form half hidden by dead vines. The area wasn't clear of demons. A familiar, hot prickle touched Gabe's skin. The shape in the trees wasn't just any Voratus. He knew this one, recognized its specific heat signature. Burned into his senses, scarred into what remained of his soul, this demon he'd never forget. He'd memorized it years ago, the day he'd realized his worst nightmares had come to pass. Gabe had searched for this demon every day of the last eleven years.
What were the odds he'd travel to the middle of nowhere and discover the one Voratus he wanted dead more than any other? So extremely unlikely he was probably imagining things. Or it was fate. Either way, he wasn't going anywhere until he knew one way or another if he'd found his quarry after all these years.
"Do you see that?" the Shadow asked, her voice low, body still. She inclined her head toward the form in the trees.
"See what?" Gabe lied. "Where's the one with the rifle?"
As if it had waited for the perfect moment, a bolt of agony stabbed through his shoulder, followed a millisecond later by the crack of the rifle. The sharp sound echoed through the trees. A moment later, all sense of the Vorati faded. The demons were gone and he'd been shot.
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