Deal in Divinity
Heaven and Hell are warring on Earth, and Ander Castillo is stuck in the middle. Ever since demons broke through the gates of Hell and decimated humanity, Ander, along with other “blends”—humans with angelic blood—has been hiding in Gardners, one of the few remaining sanctuaries. The decrepit city is watched over by strange, distant angels, who protect its residents but offer no advice or comfort.
Leaving Gardners is a death sentence, but love drives Ander to attempt the impossible and set out beyond the walls to find the foster brother he lost long ago. Yet Ander’s no true angel, and a few feathers on his neck can’t save him from the monsters running wild over Earth. Soon enough he faces an impossible choice: a vicious death or making a deal that will tie him to a bloodthirsty demon. Forever.
Everything is not as it seems, though. Ander’s left wondering if evil can wear an angel’s face or love can hide in a demon’s luminous eyes. As he and his new deal-bound “partner” are drawn into the affairs of entities far beyond them, Ander’s strength and resolve are tested, and only love and loyalty will give him a chance at a future worth living.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), angst, atonement, child abuse / neglect, death / the afterlife, enemies to lovers, family, first love, first time, found family, grief, isolation, mind control, pining / UST, power imbalance, protection, religion, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, soul bond
Ander had made a horrible decision. Perhaps it would kill him.
Taking a deep breath, he stared at the towering wall that encircled the remnants of his hometown. The barrier was a ramshackle thing, strung together with anything sturdy enough to be nailed or welded down, by people desperate for shelter.
Over the past three years, the wall seemed to have gotten closer and closer to Ander, choking him every time he saw it. Like a collar on his neck—but a collar worth wearing. The soft chime in the air reminded him of that. The sound drifted down from the angels perched on the edges of the wall. They were the guardians that protected everyone from the monsters outside.
Ander was leaving that security. He hefted his bag on his back, eyebrows pinched together. The hot pavement under his tennis shoes led to the highway out of town, out into the changed world. The mere thought made his knees shake, and every cell in his body told him to turn around, go into his room, and sleep this stupid idea away. Told him it was fine to live his mundane, repetitive, and solitary life, because it kept him safe. It took a lot of effort to walk toward the gates.
A life safe doesn’t mean a life worth living.
Ander scratched his neck in a nervous tic, fingers running across the feathers that stuck out from his skin like onyx shards. There were only a handful of them, and he was always tempted to yank them off. He resisted the urge—he didn’t want to seem like a completely crazy person when he was talking to the Couriers.
Up ahead of him, a group of blends were putting packages and letters into soft tan bags that matched the dry Texas dirt. They stood in front of the silver gated arch that formed the entrance to the town. A bit of blood stained its edges, and Ander had to look away. Had to focus. His target was a younger Courier named Michael, who seemed like the friendliest from what Ander had been able to gather. He was a lean man with cropped white hair and the only one to carry a smile.
Ander headed his way. As he grew closer, Michael turned toward him slightly.
“Hello. What can I help you with?” He held out his hand.
Ander hesitated; he didn’t often converse with purer blends.
Michael’s eyes were a solid sapphire that glowed against his skin, which was a touch darker than Ander’s own. He was beautiful, like all strong blends, and his allure made Ander’s head spin. Somewhat hypnotized, he took Michael’s hand, gripping it briefly with his own sweaty one, before letting go.
Michael smirked, eyes sparkling like waves crashing on the shore. “My name is Michael. Do you have a letter for me to deliver?”
“Uh. Uh, no, I don’t. Thank you. No, I . . .” Shit. Ander had planned this speech for a week. Damn pretty blends and their dazzling faces. “I want to go with you.” He blushed, heat lighting up his face.
“Go with me?” Michael repeated. “Haven’t heard someone say that in a while. It’s dangerous, especially for those whose blood runs on the more human side.” He stared Ander down, studying the scruff on his neck. “Where is it you want to go?”
Ander couldn’t tell if Michael was humoring him or genuinely interested. Either way, he hadn’t been rejected. Yet.
Michael bit his lip. “The town deep down south?”
“That’s slightly out of our jurisdiction. Like I said, deep down south.”
“I know. I’d only travel with you as far as you go. Then I’d make my own way.” Ander kept his voice firm. He had to. He barely stood five feet five inches, which combined with his black, curly hair, made him mimic a battered mop. The least he could do was sound confident.
“Atlasville is uncharted territory. We still don’t know what went down there after the Gate broke. Demons could completely have it by now.”
“I know,” Ander said again. “And I know the dangers of demons. I wasn’t in Gardners when this started—I was out there.” His body stiffened at the memory.
“How’d you make it in here?”
“I heal crazy fast. It kept me alive in the beginning, so I know I can handle a bit.” He stared hard at Michael.
Michael narrowed his eyes and scrunched his mouth. “I might remember you being brought through the gates. I thought you were dead.”
Ander’s stomach twisted in cold knots. “But I wasn’t.”
“You barely made it.”
A pit grew in Ander’s chest. If he had been luckier, if he had a little more angel blood in him, then Michael probably wouldn’t hesitate, wouldn’t recall him as a bloody mess being dragged into the safety of Gardners. He had barely made it. If my rescue had been only minutes later . . . Ander swallowed.
“Going back out there again after what the demons did to you the first time? Doesn’t seem wise,” Michael said after a moment. “People leave it up to us to do the running back and forth because it’s dangerous.”
“I know that. We’ve all seen people leave and not come back. But that’s a risk I’ve come to terms with.” Ander gritted his teeth. “You have to take me,” he said louder.
“I do?” Michael had the slightest smirk on his face.
“Yes. There’s no reason not to.” Ander put his hand to his chest. “Like I said, I heal, so if things get bad, I’ll probably survive it.”
“Then what do you need us for?”
“You know where to go and how things have changed out there after all this time.”
Michael was frowning now, and anxiety zipped through Ander’s gut.
“Look, if I die, it’s not on you,” he blurted. “So take me, okay?”
All the Couriers were looking at him now. His feathers pricked up in embarrassment. So much for appearing brave.
“Are you going to be this annoying if we take you?” a Courier asked, crossing his arms.
“I’ll be extra annoying if you don’t.” To his amazement, Ander managed not to stutter. “Please, take me.”
There was a strange silence before the Courier rolled his eyes and motioned to Michael.
“Let the guy come. If he dies, he dies. We have a schedule to keep for the sane people of Gardners.” The Courier turned around, walking through the arch. He glanced back for a moment. “But there’s a reason not many people head out, besides us.”
Up on the edges of the wall, seven angels turned their heads, apparently sensing the Couriers near the entrance. A shiver slunk down Ander’s spine. He rarely looked at them, all massive bundles of white feathers and limbs, with dozens of eyes peering from each form. It was too much to focus on, even after all these years. But now, they were gazing at the group, and Ander had to stare solely at Michael in order to ease his nerves.
“Well,” Michael said, as his party started to leave, a few of them giving Ander unreadable expressions. “I guess, yeah, you can come. It is dangerous, you being, well . . .”
“A weak blend?” Ander finished.
“Yeah. We don’t get attacked by demons often anymore; we’ve held our own for a while, so they usually stay clear. But if they see you, if they see that maybe you’re a weak link—” Michael started digging into one of the many pockets on his jacket. He pulled out a red bandanna and wrapped it around Ander’s neck.
Ander froze as the fabric tightened. “What are you doing?”
“If they can’t see the feathers, maybe they’ll think you’re a normal human. That’d be safer.”
“That only means I’m weaker in their eyes, doesn’t it? That’s why all the normal humans are dead. Well, most of them.”
Michael nodded but then leaned in close again, whispering into Ander’s ear, his voice too soft and delicate for such a topic.
“Yes, but they won’t be tempted by your blood.”
Ander stiffened, his throat dry. “But I’m barely a blend. I thought they only liked, um, stronger blood.”
“If you’re coming with us, you need to know that it doesn’t matter to them how much of you is angel—as long as they can taste it, they want it. A lot of them are addicts, and all blend blood is the same to them. Do you have everything you need?”
“You think I’d come unprepared?”
“I don’t know what I think.” Michael gave a forced chuckle. “I don’t know what your plan is. But it looks like it’s happening, so, I hope you’re ready.”
Ander’s heart jumped. Holy shit. He was doing it. He was leaving Gardners and safety, all on a gamble. After years of stagnation, he was finally breaking free from the solitude that had encased him. But the price was monsters at his throat.
He took a deep breath. “I’m ready.”
“All right.” Michael motioned to the silver arch. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Ander Castillo, come on; let’s head out.”
Ander glanced at the angels and saw they were still staring as the Couriers left, Michael and Ander at the end of the line. Weird. Ander turned his attention on the sky past the arches, the wide, creamy blue. It almost looked inviting.
Ander hadn’t seen the world since the first days when the demons had broken out of Hell and he had crashed his way into Gardners. It was one of the few refuges, guarded by angels who’d appeared just as mysteriously and quickly as the demons. Anything out of their reach, past the barriers, was in danger.
At the entrance, a thick shadow fell from the arch, cast by the sun overhead. Once he crossed that darkness, that was it: he would be out there. He took a step, and his faded shoes hit the concrete on the other side.
The angels howled.
Ice sliced Ander to the bone as he and the Couriers froze. The angels had never made a noise like that. A scream, like a knife on rock.
Ander stared up, straight at one that was mostly a hoard of feathers with a strange skeletal-thin body barely visible underneath, then to the rest. They were all arched, as if prepared to jump. Adding to the strangeness, there was a chirring in the air. The angels were speaking, and Ander had never been able to grasp it. Their language was the whisper of a thousand leaves, the thrum of thunder, and the snap of lightning. Otherworldly.
“What was that about?” Ander muttered.
“I . . . I don’t know,” Michael said. “I don’t understand angelic at all.” His wings were partially unfurled now as if ready to fly.
Testing the waters, Ander took another step. The angels didn’t do anything else, but they continued to watch, their bodies half-raised. They had never stopped anyone from leaving before. At least not since leaving had been approved.
One more step. The angels shifted, turning to each other. Ander ignored them; if he was doing something wrong, surely they would tell him in a way he could understand?
A few of the angels cooed amongst themselves, as if some agreement had been made. Does that mean it’s all right? Ander looked back at them one more time. They only watched. But a strange feeling was in the air, a foreboding that elicited a shiver from him.
“That’s weird,” Michael said, grabbing Ander’s shoulder. “But I guess it’s okay. Let’s go.”
This was it.
He continued to walk forward, the Couriers and the world ahead of him, the angels behind. The highway stretched out up the overpasses, and thin roads spread like tendrils to long-abandoned houses. The scene was so desolate, so old, so hurt.
“Who are you looking for, anyway, if you don’t mind me asking? Who’s worth going out into demon territory?” Michael said, while peering over his shoulder at the angels.
Ander’s breath hitched as he thought of comforting hands and sea-blue eyes. A memory from long ago but still ingrained in him. His heart ached. “Family,” he said.
There was an unending heat that came with the journey. Ander had expected it, though walking in it was something else. It was always hot in the Texas sun, but in Gardners he’d at least had shade from buildings and trees. They’d trekked for seven hours so far and there had only been an endless emptiness in the landscape to match the blank sky. Nothing but dryness. Ander wiped sweat from his brow. Michael wasn’t sweating at all, even though he was trudging the same burning path as Ander.
“Those things over there are demon carcasses. We’d move them, but the stench . . . it’s too much.” Michael motioned off into the distance, where vomit-colored lumps of flesh sat, rotting in the sun. Ander was too far away to smell them, but he could feel them. “And nothing but bugs will eat demon corpses, so they’ll be there for some time.”
“Did you guys kill them?”
“Not me, but the other Couriers. I wasn’t one back then. I only started doing this a few months ago. Never been that good at flying, so I wanted to get better at it. These damn things make me feel clumsy compared to the others, though they are lovely.” He flapped his wings for emphasis.
Ander twisted his mouth. They sure were. He’d been grateful for his ability when the gates had first broken, healing him from whatever pain the world threw at him. But when he’d entered the city, he had witnessed true power from those with real angel blood. Some had been blessed with gifts beyond understanding, strength immeasurable, hands that could weave fire or air. And he had waited, praying the same would be given to him.
Months and months in, he had been given a graze of feathers on his neck. And that had been that.
“How much angel blood do you think I have?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Like one-tenth. Less? I’m not good at math or genetics. Which is unfortunate: I was going to be a teacher. Can you believe that?”
“At least you knew you’d probably get a job. I went for photography.” He didn’t mention the part where he’d dropped out.
“That sounds fun. I had to go work with teenagers all the time to get my degree. And then I realized I didn’t really like kids.” Michael laughed. “That’s terrible right? An angel who doesn’t like kids?”
“I mean, you didn’t know you were part angel.”
“True, but the blood was always there, right? You would think . . . it would have made us better people. Aren’t angels supposed to be perfection or something?”
“You don’t know what angels are supposed to be?” Ander tilted his head. Michael’s face was stern around his eyes. “But you’re one of the closest to them.”
“I don’t feel close at all to be honest. They seem so far away.”
Ander swallowed dryly. Michael’s face remained the same.
The air was sweltering, and in the middle of the sky, the sun was a burning eye, watching them. The heat blurred the top of the roads into a sizzling mess. Ander’s arms and nose got a nice cherry red. He hadn’t thought about sunscreen, though presumably he shouldn’t need it. He hadn’t burned so far in Gardners.
The outside was strange. He’d done a fair bit of traveling before the chaos, but this was different. Everything was a wounded clone of what he’d known before, a skeleton. Buildings were damaged, roads and cars empty; every so often they would pass by a human corpse, stripped of all flesh and blood. It was unnerving.
“Do you like doing this?” Ander asked, in an effort to distract himself. “Maybe-dying to make sure that someone a couple of miles away gets a letter from someone else?”
“Yeah, I do,” Michael said without hesitation. “It provides some normality, you know? Writing to a friend or a loved one, knowing what’s happening in other sanctuaries, it gives a sense of security. We used to do a lot of scavenging for supplies too. Have to travel farther and farther for that though now, when the time calls. Thankfully, the city gardens and farms have made it less needed.”
“I’ve tried to help with those. But I seemed to mostly get in the way.” Ander laughed dryly. “I was on weed-picking duty. Or washing dishes for the school.”
“Hey, they’re still jobs. Not everyone is suited for the harder things. Especially being a Courier.”
Ander nodded, a tight knot in his throat. It wasn’t the first time he’d been told he wasn’t fit for something. Even when Gardners was forming and every able-bodied person had been needed, Ander had been put on the bench by blends far stronger than him.
He grimaced. “How far is the next town?”
“We’re about three miles away now. This looks like a fairly safe trip; good for you.” Michael nudged Ander’s shoulder and chuckled. “I’m glad. I was worried.”
“I told you, if something happened, you didn’t have to worry about me,” Ander said, staring at the ground.
“Yeah, but I wasn’t going to just leave you for dead.”
Ander bit his lip, still unable to look back at Michael. The guy was nicer than he had expected. Instead of being pissed that Ander had thrown himself in the middle of his trip, he seemed eager to chat, to explain things. Ander hadn’t had this much conversation in months.
“. . . Thank you for that.” His face must’ve been so red. He hoped that Michael understood how much he meant his words. In the distance, the slight bumps of architecture that made the next town became visible.
“That’s Afriel right?”
“What was its name before?”
“Trenton. I think.”
“That’s a dramatic name change.”
“Well, you know, they’re very . . . angelic over there. They thought it would please their angels more. I don’t think the angels care a bit, but as I said, I don’t know what they are about.”
“Do you think a Half does?”
“Maybe? Don’t have one in our town anymore. Never got a chance to ask.” Michael’s voice had gone faint, his face gentle. Had he and the Half been close? Perhaps not a topic to press.
“How many angels does Afriel have? Three?” Ander asked, hoping his subject change wasn’t too obvious.
“Yeah, not as many as us, though their town is about the same size. But they have a lot of strong blends, so they stay pretty safe.”
“But don’t they fight demons a lot?”
“They do. Causes them trouble, if you ask me. Go around fighting demons on purpose, they’re going to start fighting you back unprovoked. Afriel seems to think it’s their duty or something. They think demons all have to be wiped off the planet.”
“Don’t they? They’re bad.” Ander felt like an idiot for asking such a question, but Michael’s evident disapproval made him curious.
“I mean, theoretically, yes. But I’m not so sure about all of them, all the time.”
“Michael, are you talking shit again?” A Courier barked, whipping their head around.
“You saw how well Millstone was doing!” A blush crept up Michael’s face as he glared at the Courier who’d called him out. Ander chuckled; he hadn’t seen anything close to embarrassment cross Michael until now.
“Millstone was skeezy as shit. We ain’t ever going back there. I don’t care what anyone says.”
“What is Millstone?” Ander asked slowly.
“It was . . . It’s a town a bit further south. Not Atlasville-south, but you know, on the way.” Michael waved his hands. “It happened to be near a different town we were delivering to, so we stopped by and were vexed by what we saw. And Louis in particular, well they didn’t like it.”
“The blends and demons there fuck,” a red-haired woman in the group called out. Several of the others groaned in unison.
Ander stared. “Wait, what? What do you mean they . . . What?” He had seen demons, and nothing about them was appealing. They were masses of limbs and teeth and eyes. They were the size of cars and made sounds like broken glass skidding across rocks. There were a few that had human qualities, but they were still like animals, ripping out throats and spilling blood.
“It’s obviously an anomaly, one that we would prefer to keep from the people of Gardners,” Michael continued. “It was only that one town, that one incident. But . . . but demons are different than they used to be. Some of them, anyway. They talk like us, and they . . . I don’t know, it was bizarre. They were easier to understand than any angel I’ve ever spoken to. It was strange, very strange. They were people, basically.”
“But they’re not,” Louis said, turning around, their brown hair plastered to their ivory skin with sweat. “They’re not people. They’re demons. And you’re a blend, and they would kill to get a hold of your blood so they could get high; don’t forget that.”
“You could talk to them? They talked to you? You had a conversation with a demon?” Ander paused, words getting stuck in his throat. “And didn’t die? Why haven’t you told anyone in Gardners?” He faced Michael, who appeared to be thinking.
“It’s better not to know,” Michael said after a moment. “It’s too confusing, too stressful. The people of Gardners are safe and secure; we don’t want to scare them for no reason and build up distrust. They wouldn’t understand. If we said demons not only look like people but talk like one too, are more like us than we thought, they would probably start accusing each other of being demons in disguise. It’d be a witch hunt.”
“Why are you telling me, then?”
“Like I said, now you’re out here, you have to know,” Michael took a deep breath. “And if you do . . . if you do get to Atlasville and back, I would appreciate it if you don’t go around telling everyone. We will tell them, you know, eventually, on our own time.”
Ander bit his lip. It didn’t make sense to him. The world was changing again, and people were being left in the dark because . . . because it would stress them out too much? Demons taking over the planet was stressful. Lying wouldn’t make anything easier; it would only worsen the few ties people had managed to keep with one another.
“I can tell you don’t really agree with us,” Michael said after a pause. “But we know what’s best okay? We’ve been out here where others haven’t. So, as I said”—his voice went dark—“it would be appreciated, and wise of you, to not say anything.”
A chill crawled up Ander’s spine, and he shifted in the sun. Had that been a threat or a simple warning? Was Michael holding more information Ander would need to survive?
“I don’t think anyone would listen to me if I tried to tell them otherwise anyway.” Ander shrugged. “I don’t have any family or friends there. And people aren’t keen on making new friends at the moment.” He tried not to sound bitter. It wasn’t like he was the only person who’d been knocked to the side after everything, but he wasn’t a misery-loves-company fellow.
“People aren’t as trusting anymore. They’re rougher around the edges,” Michael said solemnly. “More of a reason not to tell them.”
“But you’ve been nice.” Ander glanced at Michael. “And, well, I’m hoping I’ll find others like you once we separate.” He laughed nervously. “It would be comforting to have a friend along for the walk.”
Michael hesitated for a moment. “I hope you find that friend.”
“Hey, we’re practically there,” the redhead shouted, pointing at Afriel. It was odd to see another refuge in the world. Ander had known they existed, but it had seemed impossible, back in Gardners. The idea that more people lived and breathed just beyond the walls that encircled Afriel was enticing. A new town meant new people, perhaps kinder than the ones he’d been with. Shaped differently by the events than Gardners had been.
Ander picked up his pace. Before, traveling ten miles wouldn’t have been a big deal, not with an air-conditioned car and a nice playlist. But now it meant hours walking under a sweltering sun. Ander gritted his teeth; there was so much left to this venture, and he had to keep going. Just another mile or two left.
“Where are all the angels?” a silver-winged Courier asked.
The question hit Ander like a bucket of ice. Everyone stopped. He went cold down to the soles of his feet. A silence rippled among them all, a unified wave of fear.
Michael grabbed Ander’s shoulder and gripped him tightly. “Don’t let them see your feathers,” he whispered.
That was all Michael got to say before something in the distance screeched. It was a sound Ander wished he could forget, an awful cry like metal against concrete. He took a step backward as he tried to pinpoint the source of the noise, but it was impossible to tell.
The ambush would have to be from ahead. To their sides were just empty streets and abandoned cars that were rusted and crushed almost to pancakes. The sidewalks were cracked and broken upward into the sky like stalagmites. Past them were ditches carved in the ground, overflowing with years of debris carried by the wind, then lodged in gravel and drainpipes.
Metal grinding to his right had him twisting to those trash-filled trenches. Like a blot of ink growing rapidly in water, a black mass of arms and legs pooled out from a drain. Ander froze. He was thrown back in time, to the very first day, the first night in a world where demons had cried in the darkness, yanked people out of cars, and tossed them in the air like toys.
Ander grabbed his own arm, his teeth clenched. Phantom pain pricked his skin.
The demon pulled itself out of the ditch, resembling a blob of tar. It was huge, slimy, the size of a bus, and glistening profusely in the high noon sun. There were hundreds of skinny black arms dripping off its body, dragging across the ground with wet paps. It screamed again, and this time Ander saw them: all over its gelatinous form, hundreds of mouths gaped, every single one full of sharp white teeth.
Then the demon threw itself at them.
Dozens of wings unfurled as one, in a sweeping gust of wind that kicked up dirt and debris. Ander was almost knocked backward as the Couriers leaped at the threat. They flew overhead, jerking the demon by its arms and ripping them off, flinging it back and forth to each other with their stunning strength, dodging its desperate flails as it shrieked.
Ander stood there, staring. He felt a pit in his stomach. Why couldn’t he do that? Why couldn’t he fly or . . . or something? There were thousands of these creatures out there, and he had no self-defense against them. He took a step backward. The cries from the fight faded in and out like a siren as the ground began to spin under his feet. If the Couriers weren’t here, I’d be dead.
They needed to get out of there, take shelter. Ander looked back at Afriel, sweat dripping from his palms. It had probably been ravaged by this creature too—
Wait. It was supposed to be a town with three angels. Actual angels. And this demon couldn’t even stop the Couriers tearing it apart. There was no way it could have taken down the angels that protected Afriel. So what had?
Static cracked through the sky. A Courier yelled in pain, white feathers spraying in the air as they tumbled to the pavement, landing with a sickening thud. Ander recoiled and scanned for the source of the attack in a panic, only for more shots to ring out in rapid fire, too many to count. The Couriers dropped like flies, thrashing, their wings flapping desperately.
Then Ander was hit. Electricity snapped up his spine, his body jerking as breath was ripped from his lungs. He staggered backward and pawed wildly at his side, finding the center of the pain: left, near his rib cage. Warm red blood soaked his hand.
Did I get shot?
Fire cracked across his knee, and he collapsed to the ground. From Afriel, a dozen creatures headed toward them. Ander groaned, tried to push himself up, but only managed to twitch a shoulder, his body was so racked with pain. But so were the others—to his left a Courier managed to get to their knees before crumbling forward.
And then the enemy was upon them.
“Look at this, boys,” a voice hummed.
A woman had stepped to the front of the monsters. No, not a woman. She had a long snake-like tail that curled from her back, twisted into coils on the ground. And as she strutted closer, she gave a hyena-like cackle, showing off a row of shark teeth.
The other demon, the black blob, whimpered and clambered over to her. She pet its slimy sides, cooing at it like one would a child. “Shh, shh, Nevuro. You did good.” She kissed it and it . . . purred? Then she plunged a foot down on a Courier, her heel digging into his skin, making him cry out in pain.
“Michael!” Ander yelled as the man writhed in agony. It was a mistake. The demon’s head whipped over to him, and a smile crossed her face. It stretched too far, from sharp cheekbone to cheekbone.
“Oh, almost forgot about you over there. You didn’t run over all heroically like the rest of your friends, did you? Don’t blame you, Nevuro is a spooky fellow. Especially to a poor little human like yourself.” She pointed a rifle at him and snickered before swinging it over her back. Had the electricity come from her as well? The bullet certainly had. “Tie up the blends, boys. We’re going to have a party tonight.”
Roughly, the other demons wrapped chains around the Couriers, hefting them up on their shoulders like bags of meat. Seven blends, snatched away almost effortlessly. How is this happening? Michael had said that nothing went wrong on deliveries anymore. And now in one fell swoop, everyone had been crushed. Had this group also taken down the angels? Was that possible?
Ander’s stomach rolled. Will Gardners be safe?
“Not likely,” the demon said, leaning down. “They’re next.”
Ander’s eyes went wide. He could . . . he could feel her. She was in his head. A pressure in his skull, a heaviness he couldn’t push away, like cold glass sliding against his brain. What was she?
“I’m a legit demon darling, and angels don’t mean shit to me.” She scratched a nail down the side of Ander’s face, drawing blood. “Human blood, what a waste. Barely even tastes good.”
Ander grunted. She propped a hand on her hip, eyes half-lidded as she brought her fingertip to her mouth, licking the red liquid.
Suddenly her pupils dilated.
“Oh, holy shit.” She stood up, a grin splitting her face, every razor-sharp tooth revealed. A laugh crackled out. “Look what we’ve found here. Fuck yeah.”
Ander furrowed his eyebrows. The hole in his chest deepened, a pit swallowing him. What the hell was going on? His eyes darted back to the Couriers, some of whom were trying to fight the demons, but the assault had clearly been brutal to all of them. Ander couldn’t even move with the static from the bullet that had coursed through him, though his body was quick to heal.
One Courier tried to stand up and was greeted with a stab in the back. She sobbed, her voice echoing in the emptiness.
Ander grimaced. Why didn’t his ability involve healing other people? Because if he could just get to them—
“Slow down, there.” The demon shoved her boot into his back, and the sharp heel pinned him to the hard dirt. “You’re not going anywhere.” She licked her lips. “I’ve got big plans for you, Halfie.”
Ander blinked. Wait. What?
Ander stumbled forward as he was yanked by the female demon in charge—Mayrez, they had called her. She had him tied up by leather ropes and was dragging him alongside her like a disobedient dog. He had felt like one when the demons had gone to bind him and he’d fought back to no avail.
He clenched his jaw so hard it felt like it would snap.
But this treatment was preferable compared to what the Couriers were dealing with. Their aggressive efforts had led to the demons knocking them out, piling them in the back of a cart like stacks of hay. If Ander had been able to fight like that, would he have been given the same fate? Or was Mayrez also giving him “special treatment” because of the insane ideas she had in her head?
What had she meant when she called him a “Halfie”? Halves were powerful, ethereal, and they flew. He was a fledgling bird at best.
He tried not to think about it too much, or of anything, since Mayrez could pry into his mind if she felt like it. Ander couldn’t feel her now, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t there. He glanced nervously at her as she whistled, then back at the three other demons pulling the cart that carried the semiconscious Couriers.
What was going to happen to them? Would the demons kill them? Snap their necks like a can of cola and drink? Ander shuddered. Is that what’s going to happen to me?
Okay, so the plan of getting to Atlasville without too many hiccups had been derailed. But there has to be a way out of this. The thought of leaving the Couriers behind made him nauseous, but he couldn’t imagine saving them, not with his powers of shit-all. He had to focus on keeping himself alive. He straightened his shoulders, but they still shook.
This was his nightmare.
The gates to Afriel opened, and Ander’s train of thought crashed to a halt. Demons. There were demons everywhere. Huge skeletal beings with skin so thin it hung off their bodies like wet tissue paper, clinging to bone—the ones Ander remembered so vividly on the day of the gates, the ones that made him want to die. Teeth and tendons snapped and clacked as other creatures moved on multiple limbs, no limbs, and throaty grunts and whispers filled the street. They clambered about the ruined and broken town like maggots squirming in a wound. The hair and feathers on his neck stood up.
As the group headed through the now-overrun city, the demons turned to them; one with the face of a decaying deer but about twice the size sniffed at them, then snorted, his breath a thick black smog. The eyes in its head wouldn’t stop rotating wildly. It brought its mouth closer to Ander, opening it slightly, revealing rows of shark teeth. Further back, eyes plastered the lining of its cheek, staring. It smelled like sulfur, like Hell, like fear itself. Ander couldn’t stop trembling. His own breath was lodged in his throat, and he couldn’t look away from the demon as it got closer and closer, inches from his face.
“Back off,” Mayrez said, smacking it on the nose. “This isn’t for you, you fucking sack of shit.” She smacked it again, and it cried out like a scratchy record, retreating on a lower body that appeared to be multiple human torsos fused together, walking on their arms like a centipede. Ander looked away; it was too much. He’d told himself back in Gardners that he could handle being face-to-face with these monsters again. But now it was taking everything he had not to curl up and cry.
People had been snatched from each other’s arms by these creatures. Their families callously ripped apart and their guts strewn across streets. Ander had been there. How could he ever forget something like that? One day normal, next he’d been cowering in an alley as half a human corpse was tossed over him, sliding down the brick wall like a splattered tomato.
Suddenly, a demon skittered by while chewing a gnawed-on arm, and Ander dry-heaved. Fuck. He was a fucking idiot. Leaving Gardners had been a stupid, horrible, fucking terrible decision. He should have stayed there until he was a hundred and died of natural causes instead of heading off to get killed by one of these. These disgusting creatures that devastated everything around them.
Whatever remained of the original Afriel was hard to distinguish from the wreckage that now covered it. According to the Couriers, it had once been a beautiful refuge, but all Ander saw was a graveyard. Marks of death were everywhere: body parts scattered like littered cans, blood staining the dented carcasses. Fresh blood. This attack had been recent, Ander realized as his eyes darted around from building to building.
How had it happened? Why had no one been able to escape and warn any other city, especially Gardners, which was so close and so safe?
Ander was getting dizzy, and every step sent him swinging to the left or the right. Demons and bodies surrounded him, along with the smell of blood and rot. He closed his eyes, tried to breathe.
Then, there was a tap on his face and he blinked. Mayrez was smirking at him. She patted him again.
“Don’t panic there, Halfie, you’re going to be fine. I’m sure whoever pays for you will keep you in good condition.” She gave him a peace sign and kept walking, yanking the rope hard enough to make him stumble.
“Wh-what?” This can’t be happening. He frantically scanned his desolate surroundings for anyone else—an angel or blend, hell even a human. Anything besides a demon.
But there was no one. The Couriers were still out. It was only him, uselessly alone, surrounded by monsters that wanted to eat him in a town that reeked of decaying flesh.
“This is the joint,” Mayrez said, coming to a stop outside a dingy bar with a falling sign. She pushed Ander forward, and he fell through the swinging door.
He stumbled to his feet and looked up, his hair flopping, sweat dripping down his forehead. At least thirty demons stared back at him from where they sat clustered around scattered tables and squashed up in damaged booths. There were strange ones, and the humanoid ones like Mayrez. Some of the latter resembled normal humans, but they carried an aura that left Ander feeling hot and trapped, like a rabbit with its leg caught, waiting for the hunter. Like the rabbit, he wanted to thump his feet onto the ground and dash.
Mayrez kicked him, forcing him down an empty path between the bar and the mess of a seating area. He chewed his lip and scanned for another exit, but it was hard to get a clear view of the place through all the demons. The building was definitely a bar, or at least it had been. The current guests probably weren’t tossing vodka shots and leaving tabs open in here.
Frazzled anxiety scratched at his chest—fight or flight mode, and he would settle for whichever one was easiest. He walked faster, still searching for an escape, and Mayrez laughed. She yanked him up a set of stairs with the rope around his neck.
“What the hell is this, Mayrez?” a demon called out. “You said you were going to get us some nice blends. All I see is some human garbage.”
“Calm down, boys, don’t let your eyes betray you. We got a diamond in the rough here.” Mayrez draped her arm around Ander and pinched his cheek, forcing him to gaze out at the crowd who were a blur of eyes and teeth. Oh god, fuck. He started hyperventilating, each pull of air hitting the back of his throat and making him swallow hard.
“Smile, boy, you want them to like you,” Mayrez whispered between thin lips. She pulled him across to an empty stage. Where was everyone else? No one else was being forced through the swinging doors. Where were they taking the Couriers?
Why was he alone?
“I think you’ve gone crazy, May. Maybe you’re hitting the stuff too hard, losing your brain. Now you’ll only be a pretty face.” The demon snorted, chuckling. He took a swig from a mug. Red dripped from it. Ander swung his head from mug to mug in every demon’s hand. They were all drinking blood. Oh god.
“Fuck off,” Mayrez said. “Now you don’t get to bid, Laz.”
“Oh, how unfortunate, I won’t get to waste my salts on a fucking beanpole.”
A few other demons laughed and Mayrez hissed. With her attention diverted, Ander tried to figure a way out. Obvious exit: where he came in. There were a sea of demons between him and it. Sharks in the water. Elsewhere? Windows to the left and right had bars on them.
Breathing was getting difficult. His jaw clenched. Fuck. He was freaking out. He was freaking the fuck out.
In the midst of his very reasonable panic attack, Mayrez slashed the side of his face. His blood splattered onto the stage as he doubled over, pain flaring across his cheek. What the hell?
“Taste it, you fucks,” Mayrez snapped raising her free hand. Ander blinked furiously; she had gotten near his eye, and the world was faded, messy.
A demon close to the stage—dressed in an all-white suit—scoffed before swiping a smooth pale finger through the blood. He brought it to his lips, licked it softly with a sharp pink tongue. Immediately he lurched to his feet, his chair clattering behind him. “He’s a Half.”
“Are you kidding me!” a voice cried out. “There’s no way that fucker’s a Half!”
The whole bar echoed with voices, shouts. Demons started yelling things that Ander couldn’t understand.
Mayrez cackled and smacked Ander’s back. “I knew they’d love you.”
“I’m not—I’m not a Half,” Ander stammered, unsure how he managed to get the words out. “I don’t . . . I mean look at me.”
The crowd in front of him seemed to think otherwise, especially the man who had tasted his blood, the one now staring at him, hard. Ander took another step backward, thrashed his arms, rubbed against the leather that bound his wrists. He had to get out. He had to get out.
Nearby demons reached out their clawed hands, scraped Ander’s blood to their mouths. As soon as they got a taste, they became ecstatic, murmuring to themselves, eyes fixated on Ander; wolves licking their chops for a bite of sheep. Every time he made eye contact with one of them, the cold panic in his chest built further, consuming him.
“What will the bets start at, friends? I’m not selling him for less than three hundred pounds of salt, unless one of you fuckers has a soul instead.”
Ander bit harshly into his lip.
“Three hundred? You’re crazy!”
“That’s high even for an angel!”
“You’re trying to pull a fast one!”
“I bet five hundred.”
The room went quiet, which was somehow worse than the noise. The bet had come from the demon in the front, the demon in complete white. His eyes were a pale blue, like a dry day—empty.
Mayrez whistled. “Really liked that taste, huh, Micah?”
“Five hundred,” Micah repeated. His hair was snow-white, and a ring of small and translucent horns made their way around the top, with two bigger ones in front. This demon appeared oddly angelic amongst the rest of the crowd. He fixed his jacket, and Ander could see specks of his own blood splattered on it. As if it was a canvas for his wound.
“Five-fifty,” someone else shouted—Ander didn’t see who. Micah’s stare had captured him. He was lost in that stillness, trapped in the ice.
“Six-fifty!” Micah gritted his teeth. There was a frigid cold that came off him. Like the darkness of a winter blizzard. Like starvation, isolation, hopelessness. It made Ander want to hide, get away. He was not safe if this demon could see him, that much he was sure of. All of them were monsters, yet this one was something worse.
“Has he healed already?” a demon asked, just loud enough to prompt a few others to eye Ander more intently. He paled. Fuck. Well, there went any chance of him escaping unnoticed.
The murmur of the crowd turned to an eager buzz, and Ander’s knees started to shake. Mayrez grabbed him by the chin, turned him toward her, and ran a thumb down his face where the slice had been.
“Shit.” She wrapped her arm around Ander again and pulled him in close. “That starting price has doubled folks. We’ve got a healing angel here; you know what that means.” She stuck out her tongue. “He’s got a longer expiration date.”
“Two thousand and five hundred!”
“You don’t have that!”
“Let me see him!”
Demons started to claw over each other to get closer, a mass of teeth and claws. Mayrez snarled. “Hey, everyone, cool it!”
A demon began to yank himself onto the stage, only for Mayrez to drop Ander’s ropes, dart forward, and shove him full force. He went tumbling into the crowd, but two more were already taking his place. They clambered onto the platform, and Mayrez huffed like a bull as she started to punt and toss the assailants before they made it halfway across the stage. She grabbed one by the skull and crushed it. “I said fuck off!”
For a second, the energy of the crowd wavered.
Ander inched backward.
He had to run. He didn’t know how, or where the fuck he would go, but he had to go, and he had to go now.
He cautiously took another step back as Mayrez swiped at a nearby demon with a hiss, electricity flashing in the air, and the swarm reared back with wide eyes. Where to go, where to go? Fuck, where— There. Through a gap in the curtains, a dusty emergency exit sign gleamed above a doorway. He darted.
The chaos went from a storm to a hurricane. Suddenly every demon was full-out screeching in frenzied rage. He ignored them and flung himself through the exit doors. What a fucking stupid plan, maybe even more so than his original of leaving Gardners.
The fire escape was not an immediate out. Ander found himself running through a small hallway, which was stuffed to the brim with gadgets, chains, whips, collars—things that made his skin crawl. Far ahead of him was another door. That one had to go outside.
But what then? Just because I’m outside doesn’t mean I’m free.
He ignored that thought and every other doubt and ran.
He had just managed to put a good distance between him and the first door, when the ground beneath him opened up.
Before he could hit whatever lay below, a figure slammed him into a stone wall, pinning him there. His head rang from the impact. Clawed fingers gripped his mouth, and the person whispered hotly into his ear, rough and low.
“Don’t make a sound, fuzzball.”
Ander’s wide stare met bright aqua-green eyes that seemed to glow in the darkness. Overhead, there was clamoring, shouting, hisses, and cries. Mayrez was screaming at the top of her lungs. “Find that fucking Halfie right now or I’m killing all of you!”
The demon in front of him chuckled a bit, holding a finger to his lips. He had knife-like ears, and they twitched to the side, like a rabbit . . . or a puppy. The comparison confused Ander as soon as he thought it.
There was so much noise above him, all the demons yelling incomprehensibly. The ravenous screeches sent Ander’s heart beating a thousand times a second, his breath slipping in panicked huffs between the demon’s hand.
The demon, keeping his finger on his lips, slowly removed his other hand from Ander’s mouth. He slid his claws to the binding around Ander’s wrists, then paused. With a flick of his hand, the demon split the fabric open, freeing him. What the hell? Ander curled his sore hands to his chest with shaking breaths. The thrumming in his ears was making him dizzy, and his whole body was hot with adrenaline. He stared into the dark, body tense and mouth a firm line, waiting for the demon to bite him or do something, anything.
After a minute, the demon tugged one of his hands softly, urging him further into the strange and secret bottom floor. Ander resisted for the shortest second. This was still a demon. The path was pitch-black and eerie, and he had no clue what was ten feet in front of him. However, he did know that above him monsters were ripping a building apart to find him so they could drink his blood. There was Micah. There was Mayrez.
So, unfortunately, following a mysterious demon into a tunnel seemed like the best option. He let the demon pull him into the darkness, taking his dwindling hope along.
It smelled musty and strange wherever they were. Every so often they would pass a light bulb strung up on the wall that let him glimpse a little of his surroundings. All he could tell was that the wiring was terrible and they appeared to be in cement tunnels. That wasn’t exactly comforting.
In front of him, something swished back and forth; it had brushed his nose a few times. Ander guessed that the demon had a tail, but he couldn’t make it out properly, even during the few times they dashed in front of a light source. It felt feathery.
The yelling and shouting overhead had slowly faded away, but they kept moving. Ander’s shaking hadn’t stopped; where was he being taken? Had he escaped just so this guy could devour him all by himself? Getting away from one demon seemed easier than getting away from twenty. But he still had no idea how.
Suddenly, they halted.
“Stay there,” the demon said, letting go of Ander’s hand, which Ander yanked back immediately. The casual contact with a monster had been unnerving. He stared uneasily in the darkness, as around him sounded the thumps of footsteps. What on earth is he doing? Something screeched, something broke, and then in a blinding flash, there was light. Ander jumped, squinting until the white faded away.
He was in a small room with brick walls and broken furniture scattered about—and a bar? As out of place as it seemed, there it was, a stained counter with dozens of dusty glass bottles behind it. Thin wooden chairs circled tables with moth-bitten checkerboard tablecloths. Above hung a chandelier coated with filth that clouded the crystal lights. Everything seemed old: the appearance, the smell, and the air itself. A tangible heaviness caked the place, made from dirt and grit.
Even with all of that, nothing was as surprising as the demon that stood a couple of feet from Ander. He wore no shirt, and his skin was a sun-earned sandy color with black patches on the shoulders like massive ink stains. The guy was muscled, probably from running around murdering people.
He also appeared younger than expected given how gravelly his voice was. He looked only a couple of years older than Ander. Ander didn’t take that at face value though; the guy could be a thousand years old. Ander’s understanding of demons was limited after all. What he did know was that they couldn’t be trusted. He narrowed his eyes.
“Welcome to my secret little hovel, dust ball,” the demon said, sliding over the top of the counter before coming to a stop. He crossed his legs and placed a hand on his stubbled chin, charcoal-gray hair flipping to the side. A sharp smile cut across his face that exuded an almost cheeky confidence. It was strange on a demon.
“Why did you bring me here?” Ander stepped backward, his hands skimming across an old turntable. He scanned for an obvious exit but found only the one they had come from. Was this room a dead end?
“Straight to the point, huh?” The demon chuckled, showing two rows of pointed teeth, one of the canines chipped. They all matched the two white horns on his head. “That’s fair, that’s fair. I mean, I didn’t save you out of the goodness of my own heart, I’ll tell you that much.” He licked his lips, and Ander shivered.
“Are you going to kill me?” Oh god—he needed a weapon. He glanced down at the table with the record player; it had a drawer that was slightly open. Maybe something useful was stuffed inside. “Is that what this is about?”
“Pfft, what? No, dude.” The demon waved his hand nonchalantly, as if they weren’t talking about Ander’s life. Did he say dude? “That would be completely . . . irresponsible of me. It would be pointless. A waste of your blood. No, no, I brought you here to one, save you, and two, offer you a proposition.” He wiggled two fingers.
“Well, yeah. Duh.” He swung his legs around and jumped off the counter. A long and gray tail swished behind him with a feathery mass of white and pale silver at the end, fanning out like a quill. “You’re a Halfie, you little puffball. Do you know how long it’s been since anyone has seen one? A bunch of them got murdered right in the beginning.” He slid a sharp black claw across his throat. “Because some assholes couldn’t control themselves when we got here. Then the remainder either joined up with the angels or . . . made deals.”
“What does that mean?”
The demon had taken one step and then stopped. “What?”
“What do you mean they made deals?” Ander repeated. “What does that mean?”
“You know, a deal?” The demon waved his hands between the two of them. “A deal with a demon. An agreement, a pact?”
Ander simply stared. He had heard, of course, about deals with the devil and shit like that back before anyone thought demons were real. But that had only been through strange folklore talk, catchy country songs. However, as he looked into this demon’s bright sea-foam eyes, he could tell there was more going on.
“Where have you been this whole time, buddy? Under a rock?” The demon raised an eyebrow.
Ander thought of the Couriers, to Michael, to all the things they had been hiding from the city. “Kind of? So I’m going to need you to elaborate.”
“Okay, okay, then.” The demon tilted his head, mouth scrunching for a moment. “A deal is what I said, an agreement. You ask something of me, I ask something in return, and then I am bound by that agreement, but so are you.”
He took a step forward. Ander tried to retreat, but he’d already backed up as far as he could. He glanced over at the drawer; an object glistened inside it. Metal? “Bound how?”
“Bound by magic, or power, or whatever.” The demon threw his hands up in the air. “I don’t exactly know how it works either, but it does; that’s the point. And you know what I want from you.” He clicked his tongue. “So, I need to know what you want from me, and we can get this show on the road.”
Ander chewed his lip. Was this a real thing? It didn’t make sense. “Why not kill and eat me?”
“I already said, that’s a waste. You’re packed full of Halfie blood. Killing one of the few of you left, that diminishes the supply. Bad for everyone, but especially me.” He placed his hands on his chest and took another step; he was only a foot away from Ander now. The height difference made Ander’s heart race. “I want you all to myself, my own personal stock of blood, and that’s what the deal will ensure. If you bind yourself to me, your blood becomes only for me. Another demon couldn’t have you; your blood would be a poison to them.” His eyes lit up. “It would kill them.”
Ander’s body fuzzed with what felt like static as his eyes grew wide. Fuck. This guy wanted to cart him around like a juice bottle. “What happens if I say no?”
The demon scowled. “Well. Then I wouldn’t need you. And I’d toss you back up there. That would be unfortunate, I’d imagine. Mayrez is probably really pissed off.”
Whelp. Ander’s pickings were looking slim.
“But that won’t happen, because of course you’ll choose the option I’m giving you. After all, it’s a win-win. There’s got to be something you want, and I’m a demon—a fucking demon, kid. Power, riches, a couple of dead bodies? I’m your guy.” He winked. “There’s a reason people make deals with us, buddy; we are beneficial entrepreneurs. Wonderful trading partners. All you have to do is tell me what we’re trading.”
That was the problem. Ander didn’t want anything; he simply wanted to make it to—
“Anything?” he asked.
“Yeah, kid. Anything.”
“I need to get somewhere.” Ander fidgeted, glancing at the ground. How could he guarantee this wouldn’t go south? If he worded it wrong, would it get twisted around like in some sick fairy tale?
“Bro, I can get you anywhere.”
“But what happens when we get there?” Ander stared at the demon harshly. “What happens to the deal then? You keep taking my blood after that? For the rest of my life?”
“Ideally, yes. I’d take from you when I need it. Whenever I want.”
Nausea hit Ander, bile at the back of his throat. He couldn’t believe he was contemplating this. Letting a demon invade his body whenever it felt so inclined; a lifetime of someone pulling blood from his veins like oil from the cracked ground. But what choice did he have? He’d been torn away from the Couriers. Mayrez was after him. He was alone, he was lost, and he had nothing. This demon could get him out of that.
“I need to get to Atlasville.”
“Oh, that’s a bit far. You’re on an adventure, huh?”
Ander glared. “I have someone I need to get to. And I need you to get me there, alive, safe, and unharmed. You have to do whatever it takes to protect me.” He hesitated. “And promise—swear—to bring me to who I’m looking for.”
“Who are we looking for?”
“His name is Ronan. He’s important to me. He’s my foster brother.” Ander’s face was hot. “I don’t know if he’s alive or not, but I have to find out. He’s all I have left. He’s all I’ve ever had—” His voice broke, catching him off guard. This was the first time he’d said so much about Ronan to anyone.
“I see,” the demon mused. “Okay. All you need from me is a bodyguard of sorts. I can do that. We travel, I get you to Atlasville, we find this Ronan guy, and you become my meal ticket. It’s a great plan. I am one hundred percent on board.” He clapped his hands. “Let’s make it official!”
“How—how do we do that?” Ander asked, shoulders tensing. All he could picture was a sick sacrifice involving slitting the throat of a bird or small mammal. Maybe dipping a paintbrush in the blood and drawing a pentagram on the floor. He didn’t know a lot about the world of the occult.
The demon smirked. And kissed him.
Fire went through his body, from his face to his toes, ravaging him in a flash. The demon’s claws grabbed Ander’s upper thighs and burned him. The air was ripped from his lungs and replaced with flame. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t breathe. There was only the raging blaze, stripping everything in its path.
Then the demon pulled away, taking most of the inferno with him. Ander gasped. What the fuck had happened? His knees wouldn’t quit shaking. And . . . there was a tendril of fire flickering in his chest. He pressed his fingers against the strange heat.
“You feel that, huh? Now it’s official. I’m Sytri, your one and only beloved demon.” Sytri took a bow, looking up with a smirk. “And you are?”
Ander’s face grew hotter, his hands trembling. What specifically had happened inside of him to make this official? Oh my god.I think I’ve made a horrible mistake.
“Ander? That’s pretty cute. I’m probably going to stick to calling you fuzzball, though. Or maybe dust bunny. Freckles? Maybe Halfie. It’s nice and sweet. We’ll figure it out.” Sytri flicked his nose. Ander stayed plastered to the wall, trying to regain his breath.
What have I done?