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|Thirteen(Women of the Otherworld #13) by Kelley Armstrong|
I jogged faster.
When the path branched, we couldn’t tell which way they’d gone. The denser forest meant less undergrowth to break through and drier ground, which didn’t hold prints. We split up.
I’d gone about a quarter mile when a figure burst from the forest. It was a girl. Really a girl, no more than eleven. I knew we were looking for children, but I hadn’t really believed it, certain there was another explanation.
It was a child, snarling and snapping like a rabid dog, saliva dripping from her mouth, blue eyes flashing, her ponytail spiked with twigs and laced with dirt. Dirt crusted her skin and clothing. Dirt and blood. Some of the blood had to be hers—her face and bare arms were cross-hatched with cuts and scrapes. But there was too much to all be hers.
I thought of that body in the motel room. The operative.
The girl ran at me, and I instinctively started casting. I didn’t consider my choice of spells. I just thought of that body and I cast from my gut. A demon-reveal spell.
The girl let out a horrible scream of agony that would have made me stop if it hadn’t confirmed my suspicion. As I finished the incantation, I slammed into her. Her tiny body folded like a rag doll and crashed onto the ground. I winced, but I still dropped, straddling her, pinning her hands over her head as she writhed, eyes squeezed shut.
“Keeping your eyes closed won’t help,” I said. “That scream told me I was right, demon.”
She opened her eyes. The blue had brightened to an orange-tinged red. She spat and howled and writhed.
“Savannah!” Mom’s voice. I heard her feet pounding along the path.
“Over here,” I called. “I got one.”
I kept my gaze on the girl as Mom came to stand beside me.
“It is a child,” she whispered.
“Not exactly. Check out the eyes. Never quite seen that color, but it’s definitely demonic.”
“No, baby, it can’t be. She’s just a child. The Berithian Treaty—” She stared as the girl’s eyes flashed. “That’s a demon.”
“Um, yeah. I—”
The girl reared up, teeth bared and on a collision course with my arm. Mom caught her in a binding spell.
“Thanks,” I said. “I cast a demon reveal, which means my spells won’t work on her for a while.”
“Which is why you really shouldn’t cast it if you suspect a demon.”
“I knew what I was doing, Mom.”
I’d made the right choice—reveal the demon before risking harm to the girl. Just because I couldn’t use spells on it afterward didn’t mean I was defenseless.
Mom crouched beside the girl. “I don’t understand. The Berithian Treaty …” She moved behind the girl and pinned her shoulders. “Okay, I’m going to release the spell so we can talk to her. Oh, and the eye color? That means it’s not really a demon. More of a demonic entity. You won’t have had any experience with these guys. Strictly hell-dimension dwellers. At least until now.”
She snapped the binding spell and the girl started gnashing her teeth and kicking. We had her securely pinned, and when she realized she wasn’t going anywhere, she settled for hissing, eyes pulsating between red and orange.
“Where’s Jaime Vegas?” Mom said.
The girl spat. Mom pinned one shoulder with her knee instead, and lifted the sword over the girl’s head.
“You know what this is?”
The girl chortled. “Yes, but you cannot use it, angel, or you will kill the child.”
“How did you get inside her? The Berithian Treaty forbids demonic possession of children—”
“Treaties are for cowards. The Tengu are not cowards.”
“How did you possess humans at all?” I said. “Only full demons can possess living—”
“Nothing is as it was. Everything is as it should be. Or soon will be.”
“Forget the how,” Mom said. “We want Jaime Vegas. The woman you were chasing.”
“We know who we chase. Tengu are not fools. While the others pursue chances, we wait and we watch for opportunity. Then we strike.”
She lunged, teeth sinking into my arm. Mom hit her with an energy bolt. She let go and fell back, screaming.
“You hurt the child,” the girl whispered. “You hurt the child.”
“Yeah, well, you know what would really hurt the child?” Mom put her other knee on the girl’s shoulder, then wrapped both hands around the sword and leveled it over the girl’s chest.
“You will not,” the girl chortled. “I know you will not. It is forbidden for your kind to kill an innocent.”
“Who said anything about killing?” Mom lowered the sword to the stomach and used the tip to pluck up her shirt. Then she lowered it within an inch of the girl’s bare skin. “All I need to do is cut a hole big enough to rip you out of there. Skewer you on my sword and you’re trapped.”
The girl closed her eyes. When she reopened them, they were blue again. She looked up at Mom.
“Wha—what? Wh-who are you?” She saw the sword and screamed.
“Nice try,” Mom said.
She lowered the tip until it brushed the girl’s skin. The girl let out a howl of pain and terror as the skin blistered.
“Pl-please,” she sobbed, looking at me. “Don’t let her hurt me.”
I hesitated and my grip loosened. The girl pulled one hand free and I lunged to grab it, but she only clasped my arm, finger shaking as tears streamed down her thin face.
“Please,” she said.” I don’t know what I did wrong, but I’m sorry. I’ll be good. Just don’t let her hurt me anymore.”
“Mom?” I said. “What if—?”
“Cast your spell again, baby.”
I did. The girl squeezed her eyes shut and tried to hold in her shriek as the reveal burned through her.
“Like I said,” Mom muttered. “Nice try, demon.”
She touched the sword to the girl’s stomach. It blistered on contact, a fiery red splotch that made my stomach churn. Yes, blisters, a burn, maybe a cut—it would all heal. I’d think nothing of doing it to an adult. Only this wasn’t an adult, and even if the child couldn’t feel it now, she would once the demon left.
Mom caught my attention and cast a privacy spell, so the demon wouldn’t overhear.
“That’s why they possessed children. I know this isn’t easy, baby. It’s not supposed to be. That’s the point.”
I nodded. My mother dragged the sword tip along the girl’s stomach. No pressure applied, but the skin broke anyway, blood oozing up.
“You hurt the child!” the demon shrieked. “You must not hurt the child!”
“No, I hurt you. And I’m about to hurt you a whole lot more if you don’t—”
“She got away. The necromancer. She did escape us.”
“Then why are you still here?”
Silence. Mom drew the sword back along the shallow cut. The demon writhed, then spat, “She is here. The Tengu can smell her. But we cannot find her. She hides.”
Mom’s exhale of relief was so deep the sword shuddered, making the demon yowl. She raised it off the girl’s skin.
“Okay,” I said. “So we need to find—”
“In a moment,” Mom said. “Jaime’s safe. She’s found a place to hole up. We need to ask a few more questions.”
She lowered the sword again. As the demon squirmed, so did I. Yes, we had questions, but the main one had been answered. The rest we could figure out on our own.
“Who sent you?” Mom asked.
“Nobody sent us. We saw opportunity. We acted. The Tengu are not slaves.”
“No, but they are boot-licking toads. You saw an opportunity to grab Jaime. And do what? Who wants her? You were going to turn her over to someone. Who?”
She lifted a finger from the sword, telling me to wait.
“Mom, they don’t want Jaime. That’s not the opportunity they saw. It’s you. They came for you. Jaime’s just a means to an end.”
Mom turned back to the demon. “Is that right? You saw me materialize and you came for me. You went after Jaime to get me. Who—?”
The demon let out a wail so high pitched it made my ears hurt. Then the girl’s body went slack, head lolling back. Eyes closing.
“Here we go again,” Mom muttered. “Tengu do love drama.”
The girl’s eyelids fluttered. Then they slowly opened. She blinked. Frowned. Looked around at the treetops. Then at the sword.
“What the hell?” the girl said.
She followed the sword up to my mother’s arm, then to my mother, still kneeling on her shoulders.
“What the hell!”
The girl struggled, kicking and hitting and swearing a blue streak. Not exactly the language you’d use if you were trying to impersonate an eleven-year-old. One look at the girl’s ragged clothing, though, and you knew she wasn’t just some random child plucked from the schoolyard. She was a street kid.
This time it was Mom who cast the reveal spell. The girl didn’t flinch, just keep struggling and shouting obscenities.
Mom eased off the girl’s shoulders, lowering her sword and holding the girl by the arm instead. The girl let Mom help her up, then took a swing. Mom lifted her sword and said, “Uh-uh, sweetie.”
“I’m not your sweetie,” the girl snarled. “If you brought me here for some perv, you’ll be sorry. I’ve got friends, you know. They have blades and—”
As she twisted to talk to my mother, she winced. She pulled up her shirt. “What the hell? You cut me! And burned me! You can’t do that. I’ve got rights.”
“Yes, you do,” Mom said, keeping her grip tight on the girl’s arm. “I’m sorry you got hurt. We didn’t mean it. But someone gave you something—drugs or something. You attacked a friend of ours.”
“I didn’t attack any goddamned—”
The girl stopped. She stared down at her blood-speckled shirt. Then she lifted her hands. Her nails were crusted in blood. Her eyes widened and the tough little girl fell away, horror filling her face.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said quickly. “Whoever gave you the drugs is to blame. And our friend is fine. But there are other kids out here. Your friends maybe. They got the same drugs. I’m going to take you someplace safe and—”
The forest erupted as five kids swarmed in, surrounding us. I grabbed the girl and pulled her against me. My fingers flew up in a knockback, but the girl yelped and flung herself away, disrupting my spell.
“Leave me alone,” she said. “These are my—”
One of the kids let out a banshee howl and flew at the girl, his hands curved into claws. I pulled her out of the way just in time and kicked, catching him in the thigh. He crumpled, gnashing his teeth, lips drawn back in a grotesque, inhuman snarl.
The others hovered there, circling us, growling and eyeing the fallen boy, uncertain.
“Mickie,” the girl said. “It’s me, Sara.”
He pushed to his feet, lips still drawn back. His dark eyes flickered, then flashed orange. Sara stumbled back against me. I put my arm around her and held her there.
“It’s okay,” I murmured. “It’s the drugs.” I glanced over at Mom. “Can we dispel them?”
“Not without the ritual.” She hefted her sword. “Or this.”
“You kill the children if you use that,” the boy—Mickie—said. He was no more than fourteen, with a scarred lip and uneven cornrows. The oldest of them. The others watched him, waiting for a signal.
“Okay,” Mom said to the boy. “So I can’t use the sword. I saw what you did to that guy in the motel. I’m not stupid enough to fight the lot of you. So, if you let my daughter and the little girl go—”
Mickie cut her off with a sneering laugh. “You think the Tengu are fools? You would not give yourself to us so easily. We will not let your daughter go. They say she is valuable, too. You will wait here with us until the necromancer is found. Then you will come with us or we kill all the children. One by one, we kill them.”
The girl started to scream. It took me a moment to realize why. I guess that’s what comes from living my life—I hear a threat and it rolls off me until there’s a good reason to suspect it may be serious.
I put my arm around the girl as Mom pretended to negotiate with the leader.
“He—he said—” Sara’s thin body shook so much she could barely get the words out. “He’s going to kill us. Mickie’s going to kill us.”
“He doesn’t mean it. It’s the drugs. We won’t let anyone hurt you.”
“I want to go,” she whispered. “Please, can you make them let me go?”
“Just hold on.”
“I know how to …” She whispered something I couldn’t catch, her voice too clogged with tears and snuffles.
I bent down. “What’s that?”
“I said I know a way we can …”
She motioned me down so she could whisper in my ear. I leaned over.
She grabbed my hair and sank her teeth into my neck, just above the bandage. I flung her away. She stumbled back. A flap of my skin hung from her teeth. Blood dripped down her chin. Her eyes flashed orange.
I lunged, grabbed her by the scruff of the neck, and threw her toward the others just as the boy behind me charged. Mom slammed him with a knockback that sent him flying sideways. I grabbed his arm and yanked him aside, giving us a clear path out.