What happens in Texas, stays in Texas. Except when demons are involved.
I was sitting on the sagging porch of the old farmhouse, sipping an ice–cold ginger ale, when a red pickup truck appeared around the last bend of the long, curving drive way. I stood, shielding my eyes against the late afternoon sun—noticing, as had become my habit, the gold glimmer of my wedding ring standing out in stark relief against the obsidian, mercury streaked tattoos that covered my entire left hand.
Dust kicked up behind the truck, but not much. The driver was taking a slow approach.
I hadn’t lived on this land in years. Maybe it was a nosy neighbor coming to visit. Or a social worker who had heard that a teenage boy was in residence and not attending school. Could be someone lost—but the driveway was al most three miles long and blocked by a heavy gate. A bit out of the way, just to ask directions.
I felt a tug against my tattooed skin. A persistent ripple that traveled like a small shock wave from my toenails to the base of my neck, as though an electrical pulse was moving through Zee and the boys.
I set down my drink. Against my neck, the tip of Dek’s tattooed tail thrummed, like the quiet warning of a rattle snake. When I flexed my fingers, the organic silver armor covering my right hand tingled. Everything, coming alive as that red truck rolled and rumbled down the driveway.
The driver parked in front of the barn, surrounded in a swirling cloud of pale, hot dust. I couldn’t see much behind the tinted windows, so I listened to the engine pop and groan as I stepped off the porch.
The door opened, and a foot dangled out. Fortunately, it was attached to a leg. I wasn’t always that lucky.
I saw a simple white sneaker with a thick sole, and an equally thick ankle that was so swollen the flesh seemed to sag over the top of the shoe. I walked sideways, peering into the truck to see what else that limb was attached to.
What I found was a demon having a heart attack.
That’s what it seemed like at first. The unfortunate host was a woman well over three hundred pounds, who wore a sleeveless blue sundress that clung to her round stomach and heavy breasts. Her arms were thick and wide, as was her soft neck, which was almost lost in her sagging jaw. She had pale skin—around her hands—but the rest of her was pink and red as a lobster, and dripping with sweat.
Soaked brown hair clung to her face, along with a thun derous aura that marked her as demon possessed. Some where, deep inside, a human soul still resided . . . but it was impossible to tell just how long it had been buried beneath that seat of darkness. Some demons, the young ones, clung with only a light touch, a whisper. Others dug in, latching onto the flesh, sliding into lives, and pulling every string.
Those clinging shadows rose and fell off the woman’s shoulders with each heaving breath, and she sat—half–in, half–out of her truck—with her eyes closed and mouth open, panting and clutching her chest.
It would be easy for me to exorcise the demon. Even a year ago, I would not have hesitated. Those gutter rats who regularly escaped the prison veil had no business possessing humans and feeding off their pain. Nothing had changed my opinion about that.
But I’d learned a thing or two about demons—and myself—that blurred the lines between good and evil. I could no longer cast stones. Not without asking questions first. Any demon looking for me was very desperate—or coerced—and that was bad news, in more ways than one.
So I waited, silent. Wishing I had gum to chew. The aftertaste of that ginger ale had gone sour, right along with my stomach. I hated this so much. All the possibilities of all the bad things this demon might tell me, crowding my head, making my pulse thicken.
The possessed woman finally caught her breath and opened her eyes to look at me.
She didn’t seem to know where to settle her gaze, which flitted above and around, and on me, with such rapidness it made me dizzy. Finally, she settled on my eyes, then danced down to the tattoos covering my arms: an unbroken tangle of obsidian muscle and scales, knotted, curling, shimmering with veins of mercury that caught the light—though not nearly as much as the glinting crimson eyes that always remained open and staring.
I’d found some of my mother’s old white tank tops in the closet and hadn’t seen much point to leaving them there—or hiding the boys. I had few, if any, secrets from the people in my life. Which was another dazzling departure from the way I had been raised.
“Boo,” I said to the possessed woman, and felt sort of bad when she flinched from me, like I’d hit her.
Silent, and with agonizing stiffness, she reached sideways into the passenger seat and dragged a red plastic bowling bag across her stomach. Her breathing roughened again, and sweat dripped off the ends of her thin hair.
“Take it,” she whispered. “Hurry.”
Licking a bad case of herpes sounded more appealing than taking a gift from a demon. Safer, too.
I did not move. “Why are you here?”
“Come on, it’s fragile.” Her demonic aura twitched and fluttered, tendrils of shadow flirting with escape. “Please. I was told to come.”
“Who told you?”
She flashed me a hard, frightened look. “A voice in a dream. I was ordered to give you something that belongs to my host.”
I frowned. A voice in a dream? Really?
Unfortunately, it sounded too strange to be a lie. And that demon was genuinely terrified.
I reached for the bowling bag. I wasn’t worried about its being a bomb. I’d survive a nuclear blast—or bullets, knives, fire. Sending me to the bottom of the ocean wouldn’t kill me, either. Not while the sun shone, somewhere above me.
The possessed woman snatched back her hand before I had a full grip on the oversized handle, and I almost dropped it—partially because it was unexpectedly heavy. The shape as it bumped my leg felt round and hard.
“This better not be a human head,” I muttered. She shuddered. “Close.”
I flashed her a hard look and unzipped the bowling bag. No hair or bone inside. No blood. The afternoon light gleamed off a round, smooth surface—clear as glass. I reached inside, bracing myself as the armor encasing much of my right hand and forearm began tingling again, like pins and needles.
Nothing happened, though. The armor quieted. I slid my hand under the cool, hard object—and lifted it from the bowling bag.
I stared, for a moment unsure what I was looking at. I saw depressions for eyes, a hard jaw and rows of teeth . . . but it was all wrong, and eerie.
Yes, there was a head in the bowling bag. A skull.
But it was carved from crystal. And it did not look human.
“Groovy,” I said. “But what the hell?”
The demon tore her gaze away, trembling. Moments later, I also started quivering—unable to help myself as a tiny tsu nami rolled over every inch of my skin. Zee stretched and rippled, as did the rest of the boys, all of them tugging, pull ing, struggling toward the crystal skull in my hand.
The truck’s engine roared. I jumped back as the vehicle jolted forward, spitting dust in my face. The driver’s side door was still open, swinging wildly, but the possessed woman had pulled her leg inside and was twisting at the steering wheel, her aura flaring wild and dark. I dropped the skull inside the bag, and ran after her.
Too slow, too late. The front bumper hit my knee as she accelerated past, but the boys deflected the impact. I tried to grab the door, but all I caught was air—and a glimpse of her determined, terrified expression.
I stopped running and watched the truck tear down the driveway in a choking cloud of dust. Bewildered, feeling stupid. Would that possessed woman have been able to pull off the same escape a year ago? Was I that sloppy?
Or am I getting too used to letting demons go?
I hated both possibilities. Might as well stick one foot in the grave. I was losing my edge.
That, or the edge had shifted sideways. Demonic pos session didn’t mean the same thing anymore. It didn’t feel like the same threat I’d always thought it to be—not now, not after being exposed to far more immediate, and terrible, dangers.
I had lived my life believing that I was supposed to kill demons—all demons.
But the truth was worse.
I was the very thing that needed to be feared most. My body, a prison for five of the most dangerous demons ever to exist.
Reaper Kings. Devourers of worlds. And I was their Queen.