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|The Reckoning(Darkest Powers #3) by Kelley Armstrong|
I looked around. Dust still filled my eyes, making them water. The floor was carpeted in plaster. The walls were a patchwork of cracks and hanging chunks of drywall.
The room groaned again, softer now, like it was settling, and all that remained was the sweet smell.
The demi-demon kept urging me on. I got to my feet. Outside, I could hear the distant shouts and cries of the Edison Group. Overhead the light flickered like a strobe, throwing the windowless room into darkness.
“You have your distraction,” the demi-demon said. “Now take advantage of it.”
As I stepped toward the door, something brushed my leg. I jumped and looked down. Nothing was there. Another step. Warm fingers stroked my cheek. Hot breath whispered wordlessly in my ear, blowing strands of hair, tickling my neck.
“I-Is that you?” I asked.
“Of course,” said the demi-demon…from across the room.
I looked around. I couldn’t see anything except debris. The light continued to flicker. Distant voices shouted about finding the computer tech.
“Their systems are down,” the demi-demon said. “Perfect. Now go.”
I started forward. At a giggle to my left, I spun. A growl sounded behind me and I spun again.
“The door,” the demi-demon said. “Get to the door.”
A blast of hot air knocked me off my feet, flat onto my back.
A giggle erupted above me. Then a low voice, speaking in a foreign language. I pushed up. Another blast slapped me down. Hot air whirled around, drywall dust flying like a sandstorm, filling my eyes, my nose, my mouth.
I crawled toward the door. The wind buffeted me from all sides. That sweet smell-sickly sweet now-made my stomach churn. Invisible hands stroked my head, my back, my face. Fingers plucked my shirt, pulled my hair, pinched my arms. Voices whispered and growled and shrieked in my ears. But the only one that mattered was the demi-demon’s, urging me on, guiding me to the door.
My head struck the wall. I patted around until I found the doorknob, pulled myself up, and turned it. Yanked. Turned. Yanked.
“No,” I whispered. “Please, no.”
Seems those electrical failures might not be so convenient after all.
Fingers ran through my hair. Warm breath caressed my cheek. Hot wind whipped around me. The light flickered.
“Sweet child,” a voice whispered.
“What is she?” another asked.
A giggle. “Are you sure?”
“What have they done to her?”
“Get away from her,” the demi-demon said. “She’s not yours. Shoo. All of you.”
“Wh-what’s going on?” I asked.
“Nothing to worry about, child. It’s simply a bit of fallout from the liberation ritual. There are usually precautions taken against such a thing, but we didn’t have the time. Or the materials.”
“Precautions against what?”
“Well, when you free a demon, you open a…”
“Portal into the demon world?”
“Portal is a strong word. More like a teeny tiny tear.”
The voice continued as we talked. The unseen fingers touched me, poked me.
“These are demons?” I said.
“Hardly,” she said with a sniff. “Minor demonic spirits. Little more than pests.” She raised her voice. “Who are going to be in serious trouble if they don’t heed my commands.”
The spirits hissed and spat and chortled. And stayed where they were.
“Ignore them,” she said. “They can’t do more than touch you, and they can barely do that. Think of them as an infestation of otherworldly insects. Annoying and inconvenient, but hardly dangerous. They can’t manifest in this world without a dead body-”
She stopped short. We both looked at the closet door.
“Quickly,” she said. “Send me back to that guard. If his corpse is occupied, they can’t-”
A thump sounded from the closet. Then a low hiss. I spun and yanked on the exit door. Growls erupted from the closet. As I whaled on the door, I heard a scratching, like nails scraping wood. The click of a knob. The squeak of the door hinges. I spun toward the closet. The lights went out.
FINGERS BRUSHED MY FACE, making me jump back from the door. Across the room, nails scraped along the floor.
“He’s coming,” a voice whispered. “The master is coming.”
“M-master?” I said.
“They lie,” the demi-demon said. “It’s just another-”
A wail at my ear drowned her out. I jumped back, knocking over a chair and falling hard. A blast of desert wind whipped my hair in my face, twisting my clothing, binding me. I heard the sounds of struggle, the curses of the demi-demon barely rising over the gibbering and shrieking of the spirits.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. The wind died and the room went silent.
Completely dark and completely silent.
“A-are you there?” I called.
She didn’t answer. Instead, I heard the scrape of nails, then the whisper of fabric as it slid across the floor. I leaped to my feet only to tangle in the fallen chair and topple over it, bashing into another piece of furniture. The back of my head cracked against something and the wound from earlier reopened, blood streaming down the back of my head.
The scratching stopped, and I heard sniffing. Sniffing and the smacking of lips.
I wiped the blood away and scuttled back, thumping into the wall. A chattering, then a hiss, and it went quiet again. I could pick up the distant voices of the Edison Group, and I clung to that, a reminder of where I was, in the lab, not locked away in a basement crawl space with dead bodies crawling toward me.
Umm, actually, yes, there is a dead body-
But it wasn’t a rotting corpse.
True, it’s a nice fresh one…possessed by a demonic spirit.
The scraping started again. I wrapped my arms around myself and squeezed my eyes shut.
Oh, that’ll help.
No, but this would. I concentrated on freeing that spirit. I kept at it, as hard as I dared, but that whispering of fabric and scratching of nails kept coming closer, so close now I could hear the scrape of buttons against the floor. I scrambled to a new spot, hit another chair, and crashed down on top of it.
Just release it. Stop worrying about getting away. Release it.
I closed my eyes. Not that it mattered. The room was so dark I couldn’t see a thing, couldn’t see the guard’s body slithering across the floor, couldn’t see how close it was, couldn’t see it-
I released and released and released, but it still kept coming, the whispering and the scratching, the hissing and the chattering. I could hear more now-teeth clicking and grinding. And I could smell that sweet demon odor mixing with the stink of burned flesh, making my stomach heave.
I did, but no matter how hard I tried, the thing didn’t pause, didn’t growl or hiss, gave no sign it felt anything.
Hot breath seared my ankles. I yanked my knees in and hugged them, blinking hard, desperately trying to see even a shape, but the room was completely dark. Then the scratching and whispering and chattering all stopped, and I knew it was right in front of me.
A sharp rip, like fabric tearing. Then another kind of rip, a dull, wet sound that made the whimper die in my throat, and I huddled there, knees drawn tight, listening to that awful wet tearing sound, punctuated by popping, like bones crackling and snapping.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Dismiss, dismiss-
Something wet and cold flicked across my ankle. I pulled my foot back, hands flying to my mouth, stifling my scream. I leaped to my feet, but icy fingers grabbed my legs and yanked me down. It held me tight, hands climbing up my legs as it pulled itself onto me.
I went wild, kicking and punching, but it held me down with superhuman strength and then it was on me, crouched over me, pinning me, hissing, sickly sweet breath blasting in my face. I felt something cold and wet on my neck. It was licking me, licking the blood.
I punched and kicked and imagined releasing it and for a second felt that iron grip loosen. I heaved and rolled, and managed to get free, scrabbling backward until I hit the wall.
I pushed to my feet and tried to run, but tripped over the chair I’d toppled earlier. I caught myself before I fell, then scurried back, expecting any moment the thing would pounce and knock me down. But it didn’t, and when I listened I could hear a wet rasping noise where I’d left it. I backed away slowly.
With a click, the lights came on, and I saw the guard crouched on all fours, arms and legs bent…wrong, bent where arms and legs shouldn’t bend. It looked like some kind of monstrous insect, limbs broken and twisted, bones sticking through fabric. Its head was down and it kept making those wet rasping noises.
I stepped to the side and saw what it was doing-licking my blood from the floor. I backed up fast, and it turned its head-completely turned it, the flesh on its neck ripped through, the head swiveling freely. It curled its bloodied lips back, bared its teeth, and hissed. Then it skittered toward me, those broken and twisted limbs moving so fast they seemed to skim the floor, body held only inches above it.
I ran for the closet door. With lightning speed it raced into my path. Then it reared up, hissing and spitting.
“Release it, child,” a familiar voice whispered at my ear.
“Y-you’re back.” I looked around, bracing against the pokes and pinches. “The others…”
“Gone, and staying gone. Only this one remains. Release it and you’ll be done.”
“And now I’m here to distract it while you try again.”
A gust of hot air whooshed between me and the thing, and it reared again, gaze following the wind as the demi-demon whipped past.
I closed my eyes.
“Your necklace,” she said.
“R-right.” I tugged it off and looked at it, reluctant to put it down.
The thing spun on me again. The demi-demon said something in another language, getting its attention. I set the necklace on a chair, within grabbing distance, then closed my eyes and worked at dismissing it.
I felt the spirit slipping away, snarling. At a click, my eyes shot open, gaze following the sound to the door.
“Yes, it’s open,” the demi-demon said. “And not a moment too soon. Now finish this.”
Knowing the door was open gave me the extra boost I needed, and the next sound I heard was a thump as the guard’s broken body fell to the floor.
“Excellent,” the demi-demon said. “Now retrieve your trinket and-”
A furnace blast of hot air hit me, so strong it made the others seem like a gentle breeze.
“Wh-what’s that?” I said.
“Nothing, child,” she said quickly. “Now, hurry.”
I GRABBED MY NECKLACE and pulled it on as I raced for the door. I was about to veer around the guard’s body when it rose, pushing to its feet as if its bones weren’t broken in a dozen places. I started around it.
“Stop!” it thundered.
I did. I have no idea why. It was just that kind of voice.
I turned to see the guard’s body standing straight, chin up, eyes blazing an unearthly green. I could feel the heat radiating off it even from a half-dozen feet away.
“Diriel!” it roared, peering about the room.
“Um, over here, my lord,” the demi-demon said. “And may I say, it’s a pleasure to see you-”
He spun in her direction, and when he spoke, his voice was weirdly melodic. Like the demi-demon’s, only deeper, masculine, hypnotic even. I stood there, rooted to the floor, just listening.
“For over two decades you have not answered my summons. Where have you been?”
“Well, you know, it’s a funny story. And I’ll be happy to tell you just as soon as I-”
“Are you asking me to wait on your convenience?” His voice was low, but it made me shiver in spite of the heat.
“Certainly not, sir, but I’ve made a bargain with this-”
“Mortal?” He wheeled, as if seeing me for the first time. “You made a bargain with a mortal child?”
“Like I said, funny story, and you are going to love-”
“She’s a necromancer.” He stepped toward me. “That glow…”
“Isn’t it pretty? There’s such charming variation among these mortal supernaturals. Even the weakest among them gets something, like that lovely glow.”
“A necromancer’s glow is indicative of her power.”
“Quite right, and it’s a good thing, too, because being such a weak necromancer, she needs a very strong glow to attract any ghosts.”
He gave a dismissive snort and walked over to me. I didn’t flinch-but only because I was frozen with terror.
This was a demon. A full demon. I knew that with a certainty that made my legs quiver.
He stopped in front of me and tilted his head, sizing me up. Then he smiled.
“So,” said the demi-demon-Diriel. “I’m just going to help this poor, defenseless necromancer child…”
“Out of the goodness of your heart, I suppose.”
“Well, no, it seems the silly chit freed me. Completely accidental. You know children, always playing with the forces of darkness. So it seems she’s done me a favor, and if you’ll let me complete the contract, sir, I will be right with you-”
“How powerful does a child necromancer need to be to free a demi-demon?” he mused. “I can feel your power, little one. They’ve done something to you, haven’t they? I have no idea what, but it is wondrous.”