“Demons will find you, Jasmine. They sense us just like we sense them. It isn’t safe for you to be out here without one of us.”
“I’m not weak.” I cut him a sharp look.
“I’m not saying that. You’ve never been weak. Not once.” His sincerity rang true. “But if you were ever to run into an Upper Level demon, you would not get away.”
I bit my lip. There were many types of demons. Most common were Fiends. They looked human and they were into general mayhem, breaking things down, starting fires, manipulating the emotions of large crowds. I’d heard they could be ferocious when cornered. Then there were Posers. They too looked human, but only for a short while, and they had one hell of an appetite, including the rare cannibalistic tendency. When they bit a human, things went downhill fast—like turning-into-a-zombie fast. There were dozens more, but most dangerous of all were the Upper Level ones—the princes and dukes of Hell—the very kind that had killed my mother and wiped out Dez’s clan. They were rare, but their threat was very real.
Suddenly, some of the fun was sucked right out of this experience.
His apology caught me off guard and I wanted to not be affected by it, but my chest spasmed.
“When I left, I knew it would impact you, but I didn’t realize all that it would change,” he continued quietly. “I didn’t think that you’d be alone, stuck there.”
“Stuck” was an accurate description. “Well, I guess in reality, you really didn’t owe me anything, right? You didn’t accept my father’s offer and you—”
“I did owe you.” His eyes flashed teal. “If it hadn’t been for you, well, God only knows what would’ve become of me. You helped me move on, for the most part. And you...” He trailed off, staring out the passenger window. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re enjoying this.”
I accepted the change of subject, wanting to recapture the earlier giddiness. “I think I’m doing pretty awesome.”
He chuckled. “You are. I think you’ve got it down. You’ve always been a fast learner.”
I smiled and then a jolt of nervousness hit me. Once I completed a condition, then I had to fulfill his. Kissing. Fire spread across my cheeks. Sweat dotted my palms. Would I have sweaty palms while I kissed him? Ew. I told myself I didn’t care if I did, but as Dez had reminded me, I was a terrible liar. I did care.
“Can I drive some more?” I asked.
“You can drive as long as—stop the car!” he shouted suddenly, rearing up in his seat. “Stop the car, Jasmine. Now!”
Tiny hairs rose over my body as a thick, smoky feeling invaded my blood. Something was wrong, something unnatural. I slammed my foot on the brakes. Tires squealed and the smell of burnt rubber filled the air, but another scent overshadowed it—the smell of rotten eggs.
The back wheels spun out and the SUV fishtailed into the other lane. Desperately, I straightened the wheel and we slid to a bumpy stop along the side of the road.
Movement blurred from a thick cropping of trees crowding the road. The air shimmered and warped, as if a lens was out of focus and then was corrected. As if a veil had been ripped away, forms rapidly took hold. My eyes widened and I smacked my hand over my mouth.
Two of them stood side by side, their lean, muscular bodies covered in reddish matted fur. With clawed, four-fingered hands and hoofed feet, they didn’t resemble anything remotely cuddly or friendly. Their wings were black and fragile looking. Mouths gaped open, each exposing a ragged set of teeth that rivaled a great white’s. A large brown horn curved out from each camel-shaped head, sharp as a dagger.
My heart jumped into my throat as I processed what I was seeing. Humans believed these creatures to be nothing more than a legend, comically named the Jersey Devil. One part of that name was correct. I knew what these things were. I’d seen them in books I’d sneaked from my father’s library.
They were Terriers—demons.
Stomach lurching, I studied the horrific-looking creatures. Terriers were lesser demons, ones rarely seen by the human eye. They were controlled by Seekers—demons who were in charge of finding something for an Upper Level demon or for Hell itself. If there were Terriers, it meant they were rooting around for something.
I’d only seen a demon once—an Upper Level one who had made it past the males protecting Danika and me while we’d traveled from a nearby town with our mother. I had been six, and a simple outing had turned into a tragedy.
“Stay in the car,” Dez ordered, throwing open the car door. “No matter what.”
In a second he was outside the SUV, slamming the door shut behind him. One of the Terriers cocked its long, narrow neck to the side as it lifted its nose, sniffing at the air. A squawking sound came when it opened its mouth.
Two more Terriers appeared between the trees, answering the call. I lowered my hand to the seat-belt clasp. Four of them? One against four? Icy fear embedded deep into my soul. It was like being six again, helpless and only able to watch the horror unfold.
A stuttered heartbeat later, Dez phased into his true form. The back of his shirt shredded and slipped from his body as his wings unfurled, arcing high on either side of his broad shoulders. The change took only seconds, but the end result was magnificent. His skin turned a dark gray and his jaw widened, nose flattening. Two horns erupted from the messy spikes of auburn hair, curving back.
Seeing him in his true form for the first time in years, I could no longer view him as the handsome boy I had fallen for.
Dez was now a full-grown male—a warrior at that.
A Terrier shrieked as it went airborne, wings flapping as it charged Dez. He didn’t hesitate. Leaning back, he planted his foot in the Terrier’s midsection, kicking the large birdlike creature into another. Both creatures hit the ground, a mess of rolling talons and beaks. Another raced toward Dez, and he bent at the knees, muscles tensing along his back. Launching into the air, he caught the Terrier around the neck. Dez twisted in midair, throwing the Terrier the way one might swing a bat.
The demon flew through the air, smacking into a tree. The impact cracked like thunder. Tree bark splintered and the tall fir snapped in half, falling into another fir. The Terrier hit the ground, unmoving. A second later, the body shuddered and then collapsed into itself, disappearing in a spewing of black smoke.
The three remaining Terriers were up, circling Dez. He spun under the closest, narrowly avoiding the razor-sharp edge of its beak.
His lips curled up on the sides as he rose into the air. Confidence oozed from Dez, but a Terrier struck, its claw catching and ripping through Dez’s jeans. Blood immediately welled and darkened the pant leg. Their claws could cut through our skin? Oh, God...
My heart leaped into my throat as fear exploded into panic.
Dez laughed as he dropped to the ground in a crouch. “Is that really the best you can do? A scratch?”
The Terrier responded with a shriek, lashing out. The other two rose into the air, swooping down on Dez. He didn’t seem afraid. If anything, the half smile said he was quite enjoying himself, but I knew how quickly a battle could turn. One minor slip and it would be all over.
And here I was, cowering in the car.
My mother hadn’t shown any fear. She’d battled the demon, as ferocious as any male. She’d lost her life protecting my sister and me, and I wasn’t going to sit and watch the same thing happen to Dez or anyone.