Authors: Jordan L. Hawk
Tags: #Gay & Lesbian, #Literature & Fiction, #Fiction, #Gay, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Genre Fiction, #Gay Romance, #Demons & Devils, #Psychics, #Vampires
What the fuck had happened to Melanie in the years since she’d married Ben? She’d never been like this before, had she? Ben sure as shit hadn’t. Wouldn’t he have said something during one of their increasingly-infrequent phone calls if things had changed?
Sure, they’d drifted apart, but it was at least as much Caleb’s fault as Ben’s. He’d gotten busy with his painting, trying to balance the desire for appreciation with the need to remain obscure. He’d managed to keep his ability hidden since he was a teen, but he couldn’t risk too much scrutiny.
Now wasn’t the time or place for an argument about religion. “Then what killed them? More people like your friends here? A Spec ghoul squad wouldn’t have left the bodies.”
“I don’t know. Now be quiet and concentrate on the mission.”
There was nothing on the first floor but dead ghouls. Dave led the way up to the second story, the risers creaking ominously under their weight.
The flooring here was far more uncertain, groaning under every step. Caleb flinched at each sound. Somewhere nearby was a demon, which would kill them all if it got the chance. If it had taken out a pack of ghouls, it was even more dangerous than he’d thought. What if it was watching them even now?
“Here!” Dave called, voice low and urgent. Crouching on the filthy hardwood, he directed his flashlight beam onto the floor in front of him. A line of footsteps made a clear trail through the dust, the imprints those of smooth-soled dress shoes like the ones Ben was supposed to have been buried in.
The footprints led to the end of the hall, where an open door revealed a steep, narrow stair up to the attic. “Not much room to maneuver,” Karen said, and Caleb found he vastly preferred her former sneering confidence to the note of worry in her voice now.
Dave went first, taking point while the rest of them hurried up the steep stairs. Late afternoon sunlight streamed through a gaping hole in the roof, revealing the long, narrow expanse of the attic. Broken boards, rotting furniture, and other junk turned the space into a maze, and the hair on the back of Caleb’s neck stood up.
Something was wrong.
He glanced automatically behind him, gauging the distance to the stairs. Only the shadowy doorway they’d come through wasn’t empty.
A man stood there, watching. It was impossible to make out his features in the dim light: nothing but gray hair and the shape of a face, the outline of an expensive suit, incongruous amidst the decay of the building.
Caleb opened his mouth to yell a warning, but was interrupted by the crash of an old wardrobe flying open in a huge cloud of dust.
Something surged out of the wardrobe, fast and dark and streaming shadows. A beam of dull sunlight poured through one of the holes in the roof, illuminating its face. No, Ben’s face: white and bloodless, but still his features, shocking in their familiarity. But the eyes…
They were black as an oil slick, without white or iris. Something sparked in their depths, like distant lightning on an infinitely-far horizon.
The demon in Ben’s body paused for a moment, head tilted back slightly, nostrils flared. Its lip curled, betraying the gleam of white fangs.
Rage slammed into Caleb like a freight train in his chest, and he forgot about the mysterious figure in the doorway. This thing had his brother’s face, but it wasn’t Ben. With an incoherent scream, he ran at it, hatchet and knife raised. Melanie shouted his name, and Dave yelled to get back out of the line of fire, but he couldn’t let this desecration continue another second.
The demon exploded into motion, closing fast, and Caleb barely had time for a second of terror before they met.
Except they didn’t. It darted around him, as if he weren’t even there, as if it took no more notice of his presence than of the decaying furniture.
His hatchet met only empty air. His sneakers skidded on the dusty boards as he tried to stop. A loud crack sounded, and his foot plunged through the rotted boards. A startled shout tore its way out of his throat as he slammed into the floor—
Then he was falling, tumbling in a rain of rotting wood, Melanie’s scream ringing in his ears. His arms and legs flailed madly, but there was nothing to grab as the world rushed up to meet him. Agony speared through his back and shoulders, and he felt wood break again beneath the impact. The last sound he heard was the crack of bone as his body hit the floor three stories down.
* * *
The smell of the demon is strong, but the mortals block the way. Do they serve it? Perhaps; he has seen such before, although he does not understand why they would act in such a way. Do they want to become its prey?
It does not matter. He avoids one of them; a flicker of memory stirs, a dull impulse from the body he inhabits.
One of the things mortals either love or hate, in their strange way. This one is no threat; he ignores it, just as he ignores the sound of breaking timber a moment later.
Another mortal runs for the stairwell, shouting a name. The rest close with him, and they pose an irritation. Bullets shake his borrowed body, silver burning dully as they burrow in. A machete swings from one side, striking his arm and leaving it dangling by a thread of skin and meat.
He knocks the mortal aside with his remaining arm and breaks into a run, following the trail of the demon to the stairs. But the rotting building betrays him; one foot goes through the boards, slowing him just enough for the mortals to be on him again.
His claws flash out, catching one of them across the face in a spray of blood. The wound is not fatal; the mortal screams, clutching at the injury and stumbling away. Three of them dealt with, which means there is still one more—
The machete slams into the back of his neck, severing bone. No! His prey will escape! He must—
The second strike severs his head and sends it flying.
For a moment, he is formless, released from the uninhabitable body.
Then the familiar heaviness settles around him, the nearest empty shell drawing him like a lodestone draws an iron filing. It is like every other time since the beginning…except there is someone pressing hard against his chest, broken ribs bending under the pressure, a voice sobbing and begging and screaming above him.
Something shifts inside his chest, and the universe explodes.
He’d believed he knew the nature of pain, from the dim memories of the dead whose bodies he took, from the twinges of their cold nerves when knives or bullets struck the borrowed flesh.
He’d been wrong.
This is no faint discomfort, but pure, searing agony. Bones grind against one another, even as something continues to slam inside of his chest, over and over and over again. The ends of ribs snap into place, followed by vertebrae, his neck straightening as bone and flesh become whole again. Healing…but dead bodies do not heal, so how can this be?
Oh God, what’s happening?
There is a voice in his head, and now a new feeling, one he has never before known except in the memories of the bodies he has worn: panic
Something is wrong, horribly wrong. Is the demon killing him?
It’s in me! The thing murdered Ben and now it’s inside of me! Oh God, no, get it out!
Fear makes it hard to breathe—he shouldn’t need to breathe—and something is compressing his chest. An attack; he must make it stop,
make it stop
, make it stop,
make it stop!
He comes up off the ground, claws digging into his attacker. A glimpse of a face pale with terror, a scream as he sinks his fangs savagely into her arm—
No, not Melanie, don’t hurt her, I’ll do anything you want, just stop, stop STOP!
Blood is in his mouth, but that’s all it is. Just blood. No trace of demonic energy, no trace of food, and he spits it out. He can barely smell the demon anymore, but there are other scents now, ones he hadn’t even realized existed: perfume and dust and piss and car exhaust and mortal blood, all crowding for his attention.
And still this voice screaming in his head
(stop stop stop stop stop stop)
and this alien pounding in his chest.
This beat of a living heart.
The sedan’s tires squealed in protest as John swung around the corner, before braking sharply in front of the abandoned house just off the interstate. A handful of other cars were already parked there: unmarked sedans alongside a large black van with the Strategic Paranormal Entity ConTRol—aka SPECTR—logo displayed prominently on the side. Agents in body armor stood guard around the perimeter, although at three in the morning it wasn’t likely they’d get many curiosity-seekers. Especially not in this neighborhood, where gunfire and the wail of sirens were nightly occurrences.
John drained the cup of nasty gas-station coffee, unsnapped his seatbelt, and climbed out of the car. After grabbing his black nylon workbag out of the trunk, he started across the street toward the abandoned house. Broken glass grated beneath his shoes, some of it from old vandalism, some of it from crack pipes and drug vials.
Just once, he’d like to get called to a swanky mansion with crystal chandeliers and air free of the stink of garbage.
Hell, he wasn’t even supposed to be
on call. Sean was the exorcist on duty tonight. But when the boss phoned, a smart agent got his ass out of bed and in the car, no matter how late—or early—it was.
He pulled out his badge as he approached the line of agents. “Go ahead, Special Agent Starkweather,” the guard said after a cursory inspection.
Sean waited near the sagging ruins of the porch. Harsh floodlights illuminated the area, and John caught sight of crime scene investigators examining a set of fresh skid marks. Someone had been in a hurry to get out of here.
“You always take me the nicest places,” John said as he approached.
Sean tossed down his cigarette and ground it out with his heel. “Thanks for coming.”
“You know I’m always ready to pull your cute ass out of the fire,” John said with a wink, even though Sean wasn’t remotely his type. Not to mention straight.
It was an old routine, going back to when they’d been at the state school for the paranormally-abled, but tonight Sean wasn’t saying his lines. “What did Kaniyar tell you?” he asked instead, cutting to the chase.
John took a closer look at his friend. The other man’s suit was wrinkled beneath his dark wool coat, the bags under his eyes indicating long nights and little sleep. The pervasive reek of cigarettes hung around him even more than usual, like he’d been chain-smoking for hours.
“Not much,” John said with a shrug. “She just barked the address, told me to get down here ASAP, and hung up. She’s lucky I didn’t think it was just a dream and roll back over.”
“That’s Kaniyar for you.” The district chief wasn’t known for her friendly demeanor. “This is…well. It’s fucking weird, is what it is. A 911 call was made from this location around sixteen-hundred. A woman, asking for medical assistance. Said there had been some kind of accident, and her brother-in-law had fallen. No respiration, no heartbeat. The operator began talking her through CPR. A few minutes later the screaming started. By the time the ambulance arrived, the caller was gone, but the possessed brother-in-law was still here, freaked out and screaming his head off. Clothes torn and covered in blood, but not a scratch on him, by the way.”
Not the typical setup, to say the least. “What have we got? Wendigo? Therianthrope?”
Not much of a joke, but it was three in the morning, and Sean was obviously running on nicotine and nerves at this point. “Very funny.”
Sean took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, pulled one out, and lit it. “I’m not kidding. Vampire.
if you want it to sound all fancy.”
It wasn’t like Sean to push a joke this far. “A drakul? You mean something that runs around taking over dead bodies and drinking blood? Did you sleep through Non-Human Entities 101? Drakul aren’t real.”
Sean shook his head, gaze fixed on the ground in front of him, hands thrust deep into his coat pockets. “I don’t know what else to call it. The victim claims he isn’t a faust, but was possessed against his will. He says he came here with some other people looking for the NHE because it stole his brother’s body from the funeral home.”
“To eat it, sure.” Ghouls stole corpses all the time, which was why all funeral homes and morgues were required to have twenty-four-hour surveillance and a hotline to the local SPECTR office.
“No. The victim says the body walked off. Says he saw the footage. And guess what we found up in the attic? An autopsied body, dead awhile, with its head cut off.”
“No way,” John said as they walked up to the partially-collapsed porch. “NHEs have to inhabit a living body. They don’t have enough energy on their own—they have to get it from a host. It’s got to be a hoax.”
“Is that your professional opinion, Special Agent Starkweather?” asked a calm, cold voice.
A tall woman stepped out of the shadow of the porch, her hands clasped behind her back with studied casualness. District Chief Indira Kaniyar wore her black hair pulled tightly back from her strong-boned features, as if to better display the four pale scars slashing across the bronze skin of her face.
“It has to be, ma’am,” he said with a shrug.
“Not according to Agent Pittman.”
Damn. Pittman was Kaniyar’s right-hand man and one of the best empaths in the southeast. If he said the possessed wasn’t lying, the guy was telling the truth as he understood it.
“Continue with your report, McNamara,” Kaniyar went on, with a nod to Sean.
“The possessed says he had fangs and bit the caller. There aren’t any fangs now, by the way.”
“So he’s crazy.” It took an NHE time to get enough of a hold to make physical changes in its host, especially an unwilling one. A few hours wouldn’t be enough.
Sean laughed; it turned into a smoker’s cough. “Fucker’s crazy all right. Babbling about hunting, drinking blood, demons, and I don’t even know what. I figured I’d just rip out whatever got inside, however it got there, and we’d straighten it out once he had a nice rest in the psych ward.”