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Authors: Laura Thalassa,Dan Rix

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BOOK: Blood and Sin (The Infernari Book 1)
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I could keep my oath
and
save my species.

My pride didn’t last a heartbeat. The way I’d tricked him felt upsettingly duplicitous. Upsettingly
human
.

Without another word, Asher turned and strode toward the convenience store.

“Five minutes, Lana,” he called over his shoulder. “I’m grabbing a hotdog, get what you want.”

He just . . . left me.

I glanced around, wondering if this was another ploy.

Likely.

It didn’t matter anyway. I’d made my decision.

As quick as I could, I returned to my original skin, running my hands through my hair and over my clothing, before heading toward the convenience store. I glanced at Asher’s car as I walked. I had to get back in the thing after this. And not just for a couple of hours, which was bad enough. Central America was a far distance from here. It would take days.

My stomach clenched just at the thought.

I pushed open the door and slipped inside the store, where Asher already was picking up supplies. As soon as he caught me staring, he gave me another one of his stern warning looks, daring me to put one toe out of line and suffer the repercussions.

I didn’t bother glaring back at him.

A human food store. It captivated me completely.

Slowly I walked down the first aisle, taking it all in. It wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with convenience stores. I traveled topside too many times for that. It was just that they never ceased to amaze me. I stretched my arms out, letting my fingers brush against all the pretty packages. This was how humans ate. They walked into a store, headed down a certain aisle, and grabbed exactly what they wanted.

The food was even
wrapped
.

And the flavors!

I began grabbing things, largely based on how striking the wrapper was, or how strange the item inside looked, or how brightly colored the food was. Soon I couldn’t hold everything I wanted. I dropped it on the ground, gaining the attention of the cashier, who watched me with narrowed eyes, and Asher, who just looked heavenward, shaking his head.

Ignoring them both, I went back to the front of the store and grabbed a plastic basket before returning to the aisle and dumping all my booty into it.

Moving onto the next aisle, I hesitated, catching sight of a large metal machine. My first instinct was to edge away, but I was too curious. Warily, I crept in closer and peered at it. A small window had been fitted to the metal front, and through it I could see some bright red liquid churning. Too bright to be blood. I read the label.

Slurpee
.

A picture showed a woman drinking this Slurpee.

I’d only grabbed things to eat. This would be my drink.

I took one of the cups stocked next to the machine. It took me a moment to figure out exactly how the metal device worked. Eventually I tried pulling down the lever in front of me. Instantly, bright red liquid dripped out of the machine, and I hurried to put my cup underneath it. My drink overflowed before I could figure out how to turn it off, and I spent several moments wiping the excess Slurpee off on a nearby rack of shirts.


Miss!

I licked the sticky red substance off my fingers.

It was
good
.

I capped the drink, grabbing one of the little red tubes—
straws
, I remembered the name an instant later—and stuck it in my drink. Then wiped the rest of the sticky substance coating my hands off on the shirt rack.


Miss, you can’t do that!

I turned, lifting the Slurpee to my lips and drawing a deep pull of it.

I eyed the man behind the counter, who looked a bit peeved, though his annoyance seemed to be evaporating as I watched.

My gaze moved to his bare arms. I could really use some more magic right about now. It would take an instant to hop over the barrier that separated us. My nails were sharp enough. I could drag them down his arms and get some blood flowing.

And then I would cull it.

I took a single step forward.

A heavy hand fell to the back of my neck. “Don’t even think about it,” Asher growled into my ear.

I started at his presence so close to me, and the fact that he knew my exact thoughts.

“You’re not a mindreader,” I said.

“It doesn’t take a mindreader to figure you demons out.”

He released me roughly, and I staggered back.

“Your five minutes are up.” His gaze landed on the Slurpee in my hand, then slid to the items in the basket at my feet.

“Jesus, Lana,” he said, scowling down at it, “do you want to buy the rest of the store while we’re at it?” He lifted the basket and began pawing through my items.

“Don’t touch them,” I said, pushing his hands away. He squashed something called a Snowball, much to my dismay.

“Can you even eat this?” he said, still poking through the items.

I began to frown. “You’re being mean again.”

He glanced up, his eyes catching on my lips. “I’m trying to fuc—I’m trying to help,” he said.

“I don’t need your help. And I want all of this.”

He gave a long-suffering sigh, then took the basket from me and headed to the front of the store, muttering under his breath.

I sipped my Slurpee some more, watching his backside as he walked away from me. He had a very nice backside.

“Stop eye-fucking me, Lana,” Asher said, not turning around.

Great Mother, what a waste of perfectly good flesh.

My excitement over
human food waned once we approached Asher’s car. I lowered the Slurpee from my lips and stopped short, remembering I had to get back in that metal deathtrap.

Asher didn’t seem to notice, circling around the driver’s side and throwing in the plastic bag he carried.

He slammed the door shut. Only then did he catch sight of me.

He nodded to the front seat. “Get in.”

I swallowed, the sweet drink souring in my mouth. Traveling in a car for days with the most infamous Infernari hunter in this world. Asher didn’t need to cage me to make me suffer. My situation was tormenting enough.

Just as Asher’s eyes got hard, I crept toward the door and reluctantly opened it, my throat tightening as I slid in. No other Infernarus could have possibly gotten themselves into this situation. It required a level of stupidity that I solely seemed to possess.

A moment later, Asher hoisted himself into the car, the vehicle rocking under his weight. He glanced over at me, then closed his eyes and shook his head, pressing his lips tightly together. I imagined that he was thinking similar thoughts.

I tapped my fingers anxiously on the surface in front of me. I searched for the name the natives called it.

Da-something-board.
Dartboard
?

Hmmm, no.

The engine roared to life, startling me out of my musings.

My Slurpee slipped from my hands as I clutched a handle near the door, splattering against the floor.

Asher cursed. “Tell me you did not just spill a goddamn Slurpee all over my upholstery.”

His words were lost on me. My chest rose and fell quickly as I braced myself. “Just get it over with,” I said.

He opened a compartment in front of me. Removing a gun, he grabbed the stack of napkins underneath and dropped them onto my lap. “Clean it,” he said.

I ignored him, my eyes peeled to the dark horizon as the car began to move.

Breathe in and out.

Asher took one look at me and cursed again. His hand fished around behind him, delving into one of the plastic bags. He looked over his shoulder at what he was doing. All the while the car rolled forward and I continued to practice inhaling and exhaling slowly.

Finally, Asher faced forward, dropping a small plastic container into my lap that held round pellets. “Eat one of those,” he said.

Watermelon Splash Gum
, the label read.

My first instinct was to toss the item out the window. It was Asher after all who gave it to me. But I picked out the item myself, and if the hunter wanted to hurt me, he had far more gruesome ways than forcing me to eat Watermelon Splash Gum.

I pried my hands away from the car’s frame long enough to pick away the plastic wrapper and open the container. Tentatively I took one of the small pellets and put it in my mouth. More sugar, and a flavor that tasted entirely foreign.

I chewed and chewed as Asher turned his attention back to driving. He turned back onto the long, lonely stretch of open road, and the car began to accelerate faster and faster. I closed the container and resumed gripping whatever I could.

“Your medicine’s not working,” I said, still chewing, and starting to panic. The Watermelon Splash Gum refused to break apart between my teeth. I finally gave up on it and swallowed it whole, getting a very uncomfortable sensation as the lump traveled down my throat.

“It’s gum, not medicine,” he said, not taking his eyes off the road. “The chewing helps with the nausea. And make sure you don’t swallow it.”

I gulped. “What . . . what happens if you swallow it?”

“And . . . she swallowed it,” he muttered, shaking his head.

“You didn’t tell me!” I cried, bolting upright. “Am I going to die?”

“Mmm . . .” his lips twitched, and I swear I heard him chuckle a little, “that’s doubtful.”

I wrapped a hand around my throat and stared at the gum container in horror, not getting the joke. “What’s the point of a food you don’t actually
eat?
Of all human inventions, this has to be the most useless.”

Asher pressed one of his fist to his mouth. “Can we just . . . can you just shut up? No more talking, demon. I prefer silence.”

Not talking was fine with me. I spent the next several minutes keeping my eyes trained on the horizon and evening my breathing. I also tried out another piece of gum, which wasn’t so bad once you got used to it.

The carsickness I was used to never came. Perhaps it was the gum. Perhaps it was not being trapped in a windowless cage like some animal, or perhaps I was just getting used to these metal beasts.

Now that my panic had subsided and my car sickness hadn’t set in, I was actually beginning to enjoy myself. My hair began to float up and around me, glowing blue, then violet. I pulled my feet onto the seat, only belatedly realizing my boots smeared the Slurpee onto the upholstery.

Eventually, I allowed my gaze to venture away from the horizon to a photo taped near the car’s digital clock. It was of a woman with blonde hair, blue eyes. She had a glorious smile—the kind that made you want to join in—and she held a small child with ruddy cheeks and equally bright blue eyes. My eyes slid to Asher. His mate?

Whatever I’d been thinking, whatever interest I found in the photo, vanished immediately at the sight of the hunter.

His eyes were glued to the road, the edges of them red.

Only now did I notice he’d been crying earlier.

Brad
. Asher’s comrade and friend. His brother. He hadn’t made it out of the fire.

It was hard to see any mercenary, human or demon, undone by sorrow.

Asher had lost a friend and saved an enemy’s life all at once. Hadn’t I seen the same thing as a medic on the battlefield before? The Infernari, with all their complicated oaths, often ran into this very situation.

“The gods have welcomed the great warrior Brad home,” I said quietly. “He is at peace.”

“Don’t feed me that bullshit,” Asher said.

I watched him for several seconds, my hair beginning to resettle with his somber mood, before I decided to let it go.

The road ahead of us was long. No need making it longer.

But it was Asher who broke the silence.

“Do you know why Brad died?”

“He died trying to save you, trying to save his brother, which is the most honorable way—”

“That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking why?”

“Because of the fire, because Azazel—”

“Yes, I agree, that’s
how
he died—no, tell me
why
, Lana.”

I hesitated, his icy calm scaring me. “Because of you, then? I don’t know. Because you got him involved when he was perfectly fine living his own life . . .” Seeing Asher’s lips begin to pucker, I trailed off. Best not to provoke him when he was like this. If he needed to express his grief as anger, fine.

“Brad died . . .” the words came out in a menacing whisper, “. . . because you culled his blood, and when you culled his blood, you cursed him. That’s why he died, Lana. That’s the
only
reason he died.”

At his accusation, my chest seemed to tighten into a knot.

“Do you understand that?” he asked.

I fidgeted in my seat, picking at my skin. “You imprisoned me,” I murmured. “You left me no choice. I didn’t curse him on purpose.”

“No, you didn’t . . . you never do it on purpose, do you?” He fixed me with a hateful stare now, and he bit out his next words. “When they culled my wife’s blood, you think they did it on purpose? . . . Nah, they just needed their fix, needed their next hit, just a couple of junkies out for a good time, little shits probably had no idea what became of her . . . See, it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter how cute and innocent you pretend to be, doesn’t matter if you use it to heal, or get yourself off, or whatever the hell else you want, because at the end the day, that’s what you are, and that’s what you always will be . . . a
demon
.”

Chapter 10

Asher

I was usually
good for long stretches of driving. I could get in an almost Zen-like state, and the miles would just fly by.

But not today. Not with Lana spilling food everywhere and chatting my ear off and having to pee every five seconds. Damn Slurpee.

The miles
inched
by.

I tapped my speedometer. Could have sworn it was broken and we were really crawling around fifteen miles per hour rather than the seventy it read out.

“I feel sick,” Lana moaned from next to me, clutching her stomach in the passenger seat.

I glanced over at her, at the pigsty that was her side of the car—food wrappers everywhere, half-eaten Hostess cupcakes discarded in the cupholders, crumbs mashed into the seats. My nose wrinkled.

“How old are you?” I asked, beginning to doubt my earlier assessment of early twenties.
Please tell me she’s not a teenager.

“Twenty-three. Did you poison me? I think I’m going to puke.”

“Swallow it. What is that in human years? Twelve? Thirteen?”


Twenty-three
,” she corrected, sitting up. “Humans and Infernari age at the same rate. Do I look like a twelve-year-old?”

“No, but you’re acting like one.”

“How old are
you
, Asher?”

“Clean up your mess, and I’ll talk to you.”

She opened the glove compartment to get to the napkins, and her gaze froze on the Glock. I didn’t have to be worried. She wouldn’t know how to operate a firearm. Even if she did, she wouldn’t try to kill with it.

She reached around the weapon, careful not to touch it.

“Pick it up,” I said.

Her eyes flicked to mine, fearful.

“The gun. Pick it up,” I ordered.

Because that’s the smart thing to do, eh, Asher?
Make the moody demon girl handle your gun.

“I’m not going to touch that vile thing,” she said.

I took my focus off the road long enough to look her straight in the eye. “And that’s why humans will always kill demons. You fear what you don’t understand. Pick it up.”

With a defiant look, she lifted the gun out, holding it like a dirty sock.

But just to be sure, I swiped the weapon out of her hands, ejected the magazine, and racked the slide to empty the bullet out of the chamber, swerving a little. The metallic click made her flinch. “There. No bullets.” I plopped the one that had been in the chamber in the ashtray. “You know how a gun works? Every time you pull the trigger, there’s an explosion that propels the bullet—”

She took the gun back from me and, closing one eye, peered down the barrel.

“Jesus . . .” I yanked her hand away from her face, swerving again. “
Never
look down the barrel of a gun.”

“But you took out the bullets. Is that bad luck?” Those big doe eyes again.

I sighed and rubbed my jaw. So many things wrong with this girl’s survival instincts. “First of all, I’m a
human
. You’re a demon. I want to kill you. That means you should never trust anything I say. Second of all, I could have made a mistake. If there was still a bullet in the chamber and the weapon fired . . .” I trailed off, seeing her blank look. “Never mind.”

“You’re Jame Asher. I thought you never made mistakes.”

“Yeah, well, I do. I’ve made about a hundred mistakes since I captured you.”

“Like showing me your gun?” She climbed onto her knees and pressed the barrel to my temple. “It must be so soulless to kill with the press of a button.”

I grabbed the gun and wrenched it away from her. “Arlright, you’re done. Sit back down and clean up your goddamned mess . . . and put your seatbelt on.” When she didn’t budge, I grabbed a wad of napkins and dumped them on her lap. “Here. Clean.”

She didn’t clean.

Instead, she pulled a crumpled packet out of the glove compartment—my application for a concealed weapons permit in West Virginia, which I still hadn’t submitted.

“Put that back.”

“So you’re twenty-eight,” she said, reading my birthday from the front page.

“A demon that can subtract.” I stuffed the packet back in the glove box and slammed it shut, now wishing it locked. “Whoop-de-doo.”

“I learned arithmetic before I came here, I’m not stupid. You take away the year you were born from the year it is now. It’s hard, but I learned how,” she said proudly.

“Kids learn that in second grade here. That means you have a second grade education.”

“Second grade, huh?” She seemed impressed with this and sat up straighter. “Is that a high grade? What grade are you at, Jame Asher?” She challenged me with an eyebrow raise.

Had to think about this one. “Sixteen,” I said finally, unable to mask my smirk.

“Grade
sixteen?
” Her her voice betrayed hurt. “How did you get to grade sixteen?”

“Six years of elementary school, two years of middle school, four years of high school, four years of college,” I listed off. “You think arithmetic is hard? Try multivariable calculus. You learn that in grade thirteen.”

Her violet eyes flashed crimson for a moment. “And I suppose you think you’re some kind of wise man? Because you got to grade sixteen?”

I flashed her a warning look.

“Your education is useless,” she said.

“I don’t disagree—”

“Do you know how to train a gargoyle? Do you know how to craft a bone shiv? Do you know how to weave a portal? Do you know how to cull blood and coax out magic? Do you know how to resurrect the dead? Do you know how to control your mind and body so your heart beats only once per day?” She folded her arms. “I didn’t
think
so.”

“And yet,” I said, “you’re the one eating Snowballs and drinking Slurpees and stuffing your face with candy like it’s Halloween . . . you second-grader.”

We made it four hundred miles—a measly six hour drive—before I couldn’t take being in the car with her anymore.

By then we’d left Virginia and crossed into Tennessee. Thirty minutes shy of Knoxville, I took an exit for the nearest town and pulled into an Econo Inn.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have money, I did—being a mercenary for demons for half a decade paid well, and I was still living off that. Yeah, funding my war against them with dirty money. I didn’t lose sleep over it.

But I wanted to keep a low profile.

So Econo Inn it would be.

I checked us in and unlocked a room reeking of mildew with a single queen bed and a pullout couch. Bruised and moldy from water damage, the ceiling peeled and sagged under its own weight. Long as it didn’t fall on me, I wasn’t complaining.

But it might fall on me.

Lana crinkled her nose at the smell of the place, her gaze also warily taking in the scenery.

“Ooh, this is nice.” Lana, ever the fucking optimist, ran her fingers along the moth-eaten bedspread.

“It’s not,” I said, sinking onto the mattress to unlace my shoes. “I thought you were some kind of princess? You guys don’t have linens?”

“Of course we have linens,” she said. “And skins and furs and rich tapestries, but the craftsman who wove this must have been an artist . . . and the design, accurate down to the individual thread . . . it must have taken years to accomplish.”

“It was woven by a machine,” I said, “in a factory, where they’re mass-produced as cheaply as possible and dozens are rolled out every minute.”

“Oh.” She frowned. It struck me how impressionable she was.

“This place is a dump,” I said, “but it’s got a bed, and it’s got a bathroom . . . so now you don’t have to ask me every time you have to piss.” I kicked off my shoes.

She saw what I was doing and took that as permission to step into the bathroom and lift one foot into the sink. Thinking that’s what we were doing now, she turned on the faucet and started scrubbing down her own boots, clotting the basin with mud and grime and remnants of her Slurpee while humming a strangely haunting tune. For a moment, I couldn’t help but stare at her, transfixed by the graceful, unselfconscious surety of her movements, the way her long, dark mane shimmered down her back, the ends of it fading out in smoky wisps. She was such a wild, savage creature. An exotic creature.

A beautiful creature.

It unnerved the heck out of me.

She peeked my way, and our eyes met—for once, not in hate—before she let her hair fall between us and went back to cleaning her boots, her scrubbing extra vigorous.

My jaw tightened.

Keep it together, Asher. She’s a demon.

Kneading my forehead, I swiped a flyer off the bedside table and ordered in some pizza and buffalo wings from a nearby place.

I’d encountered attractive female demons before, sure. Admittedly, none quite as distracting as Lana, but demons had a certain feline allure going for them. I wasn’t above noticing that. I’m human. But I never minded killing females before because they all stank of evil. Every last one of them.

It was Lana’s innocence that got to me.

It was her innocence I feared.

She’s a healer.
Yeah, that’s what Brad would have said. Healers rarely killed, so they never got that crazed glint in their eyes, they never lost their humanity.

Their
humanity.

Bad word choice. It was slip-ups like that that were going to cost me.

A demon has no humanity, it has no conscience, it has no soul. It is death and ash wrapped up in flesh. It isn’t truly
alive
in any real sense.

Lana. I didn’t like what she was doing to me. I needed to focus.

While I unfolded the map I’d bought from the convenience store to check our progress, she shut the door and—after some frantic clicking—managed to lock it. Then I heard her strip down, and it sounded for all the world like she was washing her jumpsuit in the sink.

I didn’t bother telling her about the laundromat next door.

But I was curious what she intended to change into while her stuff dried. She had no change of clothes and no underwear—at least, none that I had seen—just boots and one skintight leather jumpsuit. I should probably get her something else so she blended in better.

Nah.

A moment later, the hairdryer came on, answering my question. She continued to hum, just audible above the sound of her wet suit flopping on the counter as she fanned it with the hairdryer.

Poor girl. She really thought she had human living mastered.

“Where do I sleep?” she asked, emerging an hour later in a dry jumpsuit. Impressive.

I lounged on the bed with a piece of pizza and the map. Not looking up, I held out the cardboard pizza box. “Eat.”

She took a piece and sat crosslegged on the floor like a kid. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“There’s another bed.” I got up and wrestled open the pullout, unfolding it into a double bed.

Her mouth fell open, and her pizza slice dropped onto the carpet, cheese side down. “How did . . . how did you do that?”

“Does it matter?” I said.

She stared at it, rapt. “Do all couches do that?”

“Just the special ones,” I said. “This is where you’ll be sleeping. You happy?”

She swallowed. “What if it folds back into a couch while I’m on it?”

Huh.

It was a legitimate fear.

“Just don’t piss it off,” I said.

She eyed it nervously, then she peeled the pizza slice up from the rug, plucked off the lint, and raised it to her mouth.

“Lana, don’t eat—”

She took the bite.

“—that. Noo,” I groaned, cringing.

As she chewed, she gave me a weird look—like
I
was the crazy one.

Where she came from, they didn’t have herpes or HIV or cholera.

Food that fell on the ground was still food.

Maybe I was the crazy one.

“So how much longer until we get to America?” she asked, between bites.


Central
America.” I dropped down next to her and unfolded the map so she could see. “We’re already in America.”

Her eyebrows pinched together. “I thought we were in the United States.”

“Of
America
. Look, it’s right here—” I pointed out the US on the map. “We’re in Tennessee now, which means we’re about eighteen hours away from the Mexican border. That’s two days of driving.”

“And where’s the portal so we can go—so
I
can go home?” She leaned closer to see, and I felt her hair brush my shoulders.

My nostrils flared. “Not so close, okay? Please.”

She edged away, and I swear hurt flashed in her eyes.

“My guess is near some ruins or in a cave somewhere.” I peered sideways at her. “Where do you think it is, Lana?”

“I don’t know, Jame.” Her voice carried a hint of attitude, which I ignored.

“You know where it is. You’ve
known
where it is. You just need to get past the spell blocking your memory.” The spell that only allowed her to remember two of the portals at any one time.

“I don’t know how to. I don’t control that. The primus dominus does.”

“There must be some residue. When you delete a computer file, you’re just erasing the pointer to the data so the computer can’t find it anymore, but the data’s all still there. I’m guessing it’s the same with your memories.”

“My brain is not a machine.”

“No, your brain is far too irrational to be machine,” I bit back. I was being mean to her for no reason. A defense mechanism. Because I wanted to push her away. Prove to myself I still hated her.

“Ugh, it’s
your
heart that’s the machine.” Her violet eyes took on a predatory glint. “When I cut it open, Jame Asher, will I find gears and cogs and oil inside?”

She was seeing how far she could push me. There are few things I hate more than people testing my boundaries.

I moved too fast for her to react. My hand wrapped around her throat, pinning her to the bed. “Threaten me again,” I said slowly, moving my face inches from hers, “and I will burn you, and burn your portal, and burn your world, and burn every demon I find—man, woman, or child—until there is nothing of your species left but the ash stuck to the bottom of my boots.”

Her upper lip curled, and I half expected her to hiss. Instead, she stared mutinously back at me.

Several seconds passed, the two of us glaring at each other, before I released her. Warily she moved away from me, rubbing her neck.

It was my fault. I’d let her get too close, I’d lashed out.

“Go to sleep,” I growled, getting up to turn out the lights.

But the last thing I saw before the light winked out was the hurt in her wounded violet eyes.

And the last thing I felt before I fell asleep was a pang of guilt.

BOOK: Blood and Sin (The Infernari Book 1)
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